Monday, August 31, 2009

Reader Query III

Perhaps of all these words "ministry" is the most odious. These days it often means that self-aggrandizing people become licensed to inflict their so-called gifts on long-suffering friends and associates, and persecuted strangers. When I see one of these people coming, I turn and run. Even when there are actual gifts, the giving is polluted by the self-consciousness of the giver, who is often eager, smug, patronizing, monomaniacal, obsessive.

"Ministers," especially lay ministers, tend to define themselves by their "ministry" and thus avoid any possibility of spiritual growth and maturity. They become clericalized, interposing yet another layer between themselves and God, the people and the sanctuary. Often they are certified by a self-certifying religious institution to lead liturgy or perform some other function. Who has not cringed as a "liturgical leader" gyrates in a corner, trying to get the embarrassed congregation to join in unsingable, trite, pious ditties, while an officious cleric smirks at the altar?

The certification process attracts the inadequate, the attention seekers, the inept. [1] Thus there are lay readers who make nonsense of the texts, eucharistic ministers who clutch the chalice as if each communicant is a potential thief. [2]

The clergy, of course, are the worst offenders in this regard. I was recently at a conference center that was hosting the faculty of a local seminary. The faculty members were rude to the administrative staff and arrogant with other guests. They clearly thought themselves—to use the inelegant phrase of a farmer who lived nearby—to be shit on a stick. I couldn't help but think of them as the fatuous fatties, for it was not only their egos that were inflated. They were pompous, loud, obnoxious and exclusive, all the more so after the many wine bottles were emptied. They took over the chapel for evening prayer, but woe betide you if you stuck your head inside the door in the hope of being allowed to pray with them.

Like most seminary faculty I have met, they treated everyone not in their group like idiots; they could hardly bear to bring themselves to be civil to anyone outside their little circle. They seemed never to have heard of ordinary life, much less the holiness of it (if indeed the word "holy" figured in their vocabulary), while they schmoozed each other behind their invisible wall.

They utterly ignored, and most certainly did not thank the dedicated people who were unobtrusively preparing and serving their food, making their beds, creating an atmosphere of welcome, peace and tolerance; it would be blasphemy to apply the word "ministry" to this wonderful and unobtrusive hospitality. Is there any wonder our seminaries are in financial trouble? Who would want to support such attitudes? And God knows when it comes to finding clergy for churches there is precious little to choose from; it is not hard to see why.

The ordination process is a perfect path for committing spiritual suicide, for creating an abyss between oneself and the human race. It guarantees adding so many layers of self-consciousness that self-knowledge, much less authentic spiritual growth, much less the ability to relate normally, much less creatively, with other human beings becomes impossible. A series of templates is imposed, each more ridiculous than the last. "Just be nice and priestly" is the usual response when one cleric asks another how to deal with a problem.

Clergy get training in all sorts of fantasy disciplines—fantasy in that the "problems" being addressed (often as an exercise in self-preservation and job security) have little to do with the reality of the human tragedy. As one traumatized seminary graduate said to me, "The only thing I learned there was how to lie." Clergy are engaged in a kind of performance art, which is becoming increasingly absurd in its irrelevance; they seem utterly oblivious to this fact. As William Johnston puts it in his autobiography, "Buddhists and Hindus teach meditation, Moslems teach prayer, and we teach catechism." [Mystical Journey: An Autobiography, Orbis Books, 2006, p. 14] No wonder the churches are dying.

Furthermore, those who insist on words such as "ministry" would like to convey the impression that only ministers have the key to life. Wisdom is least likely to be found in those who insist on their "ministry." Rather, they keep us from seeking wisdom where it hides—most often in people who are usually ignored; in people who wouldn't know how to begin to promote themselves; in people who suffer the horrific yet often mundane tragedies that are part of the fabric of life. Wisdom is more likely to be found during a walk in the woods, or overhearing a conversation in the mall; it can never, ever, be found, except perhaps negatively, in "blind guides." [Mt. 23:16-end]

Along with presumption, the basic problem with "ministry," as with all these words, is the element of self-consciousness. The gospel commands can be fulfilled only by self-forgetfulness, by putting on the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-11); by becoming human first. Action—or refraining from action (and the ability to discern which is appropriate)—must be a function of being. Our right hand should not know what our left hand is doing. People "make a difference" by who they are far more than by what they do. And if what we do does not issue from contemplation, then it is more often than not patronizing, exploitive and destructive.

"Ministry" kills generosity in those who have the most to give. The first and hardest lesson the institution teaches—if you can get someone's attention in the first place—is that it doesn't want your gifts unless you submit them to its sanitizing and domestication, which will destroy them, and you.

We need to get rid of the word "ministry" along with the assumptions that underlie it.


[1] The PhD has become meaningless. It is no longer recognition of meticulous research, original thinking and deep reflection. It is rather a certificate that the holder has added a brick of questionable coherence to the tottering edifice of what is often pseudo-scholarship; that the author of the thesis has cited the fashionable authors (even though the insight may have come from an unfashionable source), flattered all the right professors, osculated the requisite number of posteriors and paid hefty fees. A PhD is far too often a sign that the holder has acquired tunnel vision. Many PhD theses are so poorly written that they are unreadable; some take 100,000 words to say what could be expressed in a single sentence. Their subject matter is often so trivial that one weeps to think of the waste of resources used to produce them.

[2] I was once receiving communion in St Mary the Virgin in New York City, about to intinct, when the chalice-bearer literally snatched the host from my hand, insisting on dipping it herself and sticking it unsanitarily on my tongue. If I'd had my wits about me I would have said "keep it" and gone back to my pew.


Anonymous dFish said...

And DMin? I can't help from laughing. You don't have to publish this but I am trusting the Spirit leading me to your writings. I printed out The Psalm Singers small enough to insert into my Office to remind either how complacent I usually am in reciting those Psalms, or how holy the space is everytime I open my mouth with it.

9:04 am, September 01, 2009  
Blogger Don LaBranche said...

Getting ready to teach another year of Adult Sunday School so I was brought up short by your post, particularly the jarring quote about teaching "catechism". I'm not ordained or declared official by anybody. Our pastor asked me to do this and I said yes. Not sure what to do with what you have to say as I move forward into the year.

2:52 pm, September 01, 2009  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Don, I wish I knew what to tell you. In my view, it would be far more useful to introduce people to interior silence starting with simple meditation and then tie it in to sayings of the gospels, e.g., who loses life shall gain it.

Wish I could be more helpful. I am working on a book that might help but it won't be ready for a while.

5:48 am, September 02, 2009  
Anonymous dFish said...

There are so many "thoughts" running through me now as i ponder on your writings day and night, as if i couldn't turn my back at the plow. The invitation to solitude and silence becomes so irresistible and i guess in connection with Don's quandary, this goes beyond bookmarked cathechism to just that - AN INVITATION,a heightening of one's curiosity to "come and see".
The more i spend time with the invitation, the more i notice how narrower it gets even if the prophetic voice sometimes, mixed with Econian "bawdy humor". Silence is so simple as i "feel" it now and then, yet paradoxically demanding. Perhaps, the demand for stripping in the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers makes it quite rigorous.
I just watched recently Nouwen's reflection on the prodigal son, transcribed into a book Home Tonight, perhaps, the most profound Christian reflection of the gospel in relation to the journey into the "desert of the heart." The 2 sons, Nouwen muses, mirror the two typical human movements: the older son represents the one who "makes it in the world," proving himself; the image of individualism (as against the authenticity) that you hinted on. The younger son represents the inward movement, initially at the expense of moving away from the Center (i like this line of yours: "We move inwardly; this is our movement.").
Your writing essentially is a call towards this inward movement, at times, seething through the self-focused righteousness of the "older sons" among us, or in us. Is the inward movement really possible without going through first as if by initiation, the "older son syndrome"? Heroes in ancient myths like Homer, the disciples, and many prominent "prodigal sons" in history, seem to have gone through this stage, so that a little tolerance, of allowing the weeds in us or among us to grow side by side with the holy desire into the Great Silence, really is of a compassionate reaching out?

2:49 am, September 03, 2009  

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