Reflections on Priestly Formation: Listen Up!
The Catholic Altar Boy, 1922, Appleton, Wisconsin
Bishop - Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God's grace, both for yourself and for others, offering all your labors to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?
Ordinand - I will.
~ Book of Common Prayer: Ordination of a Priest - The Examination (pg. 532)
Are You Listening?
"Walk into that room with a spirit of curiosity. Listen openly, and God will show up in ways that you might not expect." This was a piece of advice that I received from a seasoned Roman Catholic priest/chaplain just before being sent off to a hospital room during my Clinical Pastoral Education this past summer. As I walked down the hallway, I could see the door of the room was shut and the window blinds were pulled so as to obscure any opportunity for me to peek inside. As I double-checked my referral sheet to assure myself that I had arrived at the right room, I felt my anxiety begin to rise. I tried to play it cool. I gently pushed my clipboard into the slot beside the doctor's medical notes about the patient. Then, I reached out to touch the cold metal door handle and enter the room. As I began to put pressure on the door handle, a nurse at the center welcome station called out, "Don't sweat it, hun! Trust me, he would appreciate a visit from Jesus today."
As I reflect on being formed for the priesthood in seminary, I cannot help but think of this experience. I remember the conversation with the patient rather vaguely in comparison to the words that both the Roman priest and the nurse shared with me before I entered the room. On the one hand, this could simply be an indication of how high my anxiety remained as I talked with an old man who was in the hospital because of kidney failure. On the other hand, however, I believe that God confronted me with an area of my life which needed some formation: my relationship with Jesus Christ in prayer.
When I was at seminary my first year, I don't believe I realized how much I needed to say my prayers until I didn't have the luxury of daily chapel services. During the school semester, it was just as easy as getting up in the morning, riding my bike to the Chapel of the Apostles, marking my BCP with the correct Psalm and Canticles, and just entering into the community's worship of Almighty God. When I landed in CPE, I was confronted with the reality that I was going to need to be highly disciplined and committed to "persevering in prayer."
But, if I am honest, I had much difficulty in remaining steadfast in prayer with God through the first several weeks of CPE. Getting up at 5:00 a.m. to commute to the hospital did not make saying the Daily Office easy, and I fell out of practice quickly. As my prayer practice floundered, so did my patience, mercy, and grace in my conversations with patients. My hospital visits became a to-do checklist rather than an encounter with another human being.
My change in attitude was definitely noticed by my site supervisor, the Roman priest (thanks be to God). After I talked about my struggles openly in his office, he calmly leaned back in his chair and asked, "Tell me: what does Jesus say to you when you pray?"
As I struggled to find an answer, I had the biggest realization of my entire CPE experience:
I wasn't listening when I was praying.
"Prayer is a two-way street. You speak to God and God speaks to you." That seems to be a common way of describing prayer, and these sayings certainly have their benefits. But I came face to face with another reality of prayer in my CPE experience: if I am speaking to God, that means that God is listening to me. And thanks be to God that He is patient, because He's probably been telling me to shut up for a good long while now. I just wasn't listening when He was trying to speak.
If prayer necessarily means that I must listen, then gracious Lord, had I been doing prayer wrong. At the prompting of my caring site supervisor, I realized that not only had I not been listening to God, I had not been listening to His people either! In the same way that I had been talking over God, I had been talking over the people to whom He had sent me to be a minister. It was as if the scales of blindness had fallen from my eyes and I could see my mistakes with a clear perspective.
The Priest as Listener
But priestly formation also has to do with how well we listen to God's people. Thus, Jesus's commandment "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself"(Matt. 22:39) calls us to also listen to our neighbors: "What are my neighbor's needs? What can I do for my neighbor? What injustice does my neighbor need for me to speak about in God's name? What are my neighbor's cries for help that I need to raise to God in prayer?" The priest of God must stand in the power of God to denounce the clear and present evils of racism, brutality, misogyny, discrimination, and all the powers that assault God's people in our contemporary age. And the only way that priests can begin to make this difference is if we first listen to their cries. To turn a deaf ear to the needs that we see is to turn a deaf ear to Jesus: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me." (Matt. 25:45)
Yet, there is profound joy in realizing that priests share in Christ's holy work as our great high priest. As leaders within God's holy Church, priests take part in the very ministry of Christ by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus both in the right administration of the Holy Word and in His Sacraments. As priests take up the terrible pains of the world on their cross, so also will they be raised up by the joys and victories of Christ's resurrection. And though priests be stressed by woe and strife, even still they press on in the Church's eschatological hope of the ultimate restoration of our world in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I must be a good listener to God, because He is the way, the truth, and the life.
I must be a good listener to all people, because they are forever imprinted and formed in the Imago Dei, the very "image of God," and I am to bring the Gospel of Jesus to them for the salvation of our souls.
And, most assuredly, I must continue to persevere in prayer. Because it is in prayer that I not only speak to God, but God also speaks to me...
...so hopefully I will remember to listen!
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them...then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
~ Mark 9:2-3,7-8 (NRSV)