“Every time I move to a new place, I’m asked by the locals, “How do you like living here?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, and for the longest time I didn’t know why. And then one day it dawned on me, I couldn’t answer the question because I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between one place and the next.”
So opens a reflection by (Fr.) Jonathan Mitchican (Anglican), who I believe has not previously blogged at Front Porch Republic, reminiscing about the days not long ago — and for a very, very long time before “not long ago” — when a Priest’s cassock identified his vocation and role in his community.
But what I lament isn’t so much the loss of the cassock itself as the loss of the whole cache of cultural symbols of which it was once a part.
Ironically, it’s the very quest for uniqueness, for freedom of expression and freedom from unnecessary constraint, that has lead to the tyranny of homogeneity that we experience today. I have no idea whether there’s a butcher or a doctor living in my town. Everyone wears the same thing. We all express ourselves the same way, in the same button down shirts and slacks bought off the rack at Sears. The fact that we happen to live in proximity to each other is simply coincidence. There’s no purpose to it.
The universal symbols are gone, replaced by the universality of brand names and box stores. In the process, that which is unique to each local expression of community has become obscured. I’ve lived in different parts of three different states. Every time I move to a new place, I’m asked by the locals, “How do you like living here?” I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, and for the longest time I didn’t know why. And then one day it dawned on me, I couldn’t answer the question because I couldn’t figure out what the difference was between one place and the next. I ate at the same chain restaurants and bought my clothing at the same strip malls everywhere I went. The fact that it was eight degrees colder in New Haven in the winter time than it had been in the suburbs of Baltimore was hardly enough to give me a real sense that there was something that separated the two.
We need symbols, not just brands. We need symbols that speak to our hearts and that communicate deep truths about who we are and how we live. We need to know that there are differences between us that go beyond whether or not we happen to prefer PCs over Macs or Cheerios over Corn Flakes. We need to learn again that there is such a thing as calling and vocation, that each of us can be called upon to serve our communities in a special way, not simply by consuming but by producing the goods that hold our communities together, whether or not those goods are tangible.
Then Steve Robinson at Pithless Thoughts bares his soul about his long desire to be a priest, how it was somewhat pathologically connected to his self-image, how it factored in one divorce, and all-in-all how good it is that it never happened despite his own and others’ efforts. He has found his true vocation elsewhere, though many people are benefited blessed by his avocation as an Orthodox podcaster and blogger.
You see, even in grade school I wanted to be a priest so I would be seen and regarded as “a priest”. For nearly 50 years the priesthood was a goal that would fulfill my self-perception … [A]s sure as I knew I was “called”, I also knew I wanted other people to know I was called. Someone once asked, “How do I know if the fire I have inside is from God?” It is whether you want other people to notice the fire. I wanted people to notice the fire. And a lot of people did.
Since becoming Orthodox, over the years laypeople, monks, abbotts and abbesses, priests and even bishops fed my delusion by trying to get me ordained. But I knew with a knowing deeper than my private lies to myself that it was my ego calling me, not God. In a dark place I knew that those who wished me the priesthood were responding to a well crafted facade, an illusion of piety, a chameleon-competence in putting on appearances and role playing. Construction work paid well, it is honorable, but the priesthood would give me a true identity, the robe would affirm to others my self perception as a “spiritual person” better than paint crusted jeans and a stained T-shirt.
So I came into Orthodoxy as a former divorced protestant minister. It is called a “canonical impediment” that some jurisdictions offer economia for and some don’t. On a “legalistic” level, a Bishop is well within his rights to relax the canon. On a spiritual level, I look at what it means to be the “husband of one wife” and to “rule one’s household well” as a qualification for the priesthood and I see the genius of the requirement. It is simply this: if I am not willing to give up the priesthood for the sake of the love for my wife, then how can I imagine that I will be able to love the Church and my spiritual family with maturity and with integrity and in truth?
I can relate to that. My high-school dream foundered mercifully early on the shoals of my inexplicable inability to gain even the most rudimentary competence on piano. I can sing. Give me a few months to strengthen my lip and drill a few rusty skills and I could play trumpet rather well again. I’ve got a good ear for what “fits” a vocal or trumpet improvisation. But without piano skills, a music major was out of the question, and with it my dream of becoming … well, never mind. Today, I’m embarrassed by people who do what I once dreamed of doing.
Soon I shall don my non-distinctive clothes and drive off to practice my true vocation, at which I’m a journeyman with occasional flashes of mastery, and which you’d never guess from my garb. Life is good.