A Staff Lenten Reflection
By: Ed Keithly
“He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed . . . When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’” (Luke 22:39-41, 45-46)
Last Saturday night, I joined the community gathered for the diocesan discernment retreat at Richmond Hill. The retreat is the first step in the formal discernment process for those discerning a call to the priesthood, diaconate or lay professionalism in the Church.
I began the session by asking folks to share what was bringing them joy in their lives, saying, “I think all good discernment is about hard won joy, and if your discernment isn’t propelled by joy then something’s probably not right.” I could feel the energy in the room lift as each shared their story – stories of gardening, of rekindled love for the Episcopal Church, of cats, of service.
Then I gave an opening spiel about the scary and exciting times the Church and its leadership face. I drew from Bishop Curry and Lauren Winner on the Church becoming a place for disciples rather than a ritual-oriented social club: “We are in the midst of the tables being overturned in the temple of the institutional Church. “ The community nodded along, a few eyes even lit up. Hopefully because they realized this retreat isn’t “Scared Straight, Would-Be Clergy Edition,” as they may have been told it would be, but about providing space for seekers to discern their place in the Church. During my spiel folks laughed, mmhmm-ed, grew more comfortable in their seats, and I felt the trust building.
Then, as Pat Wingo, canon to the ordinary, began his portion of our presentation/conversation, my mind wandered back to the events of that morning.
* * *
Saturday morning, I woke to a text from one of my best friends telling me his father died a few hours before. He asked if I could come to his apartment. I rushed over and spent the morning with my friend, when the shock and grief were still naked, fresh and bewildering, before driving him out to be with his family.
I started with a more detailed draft of what happened that morning and the profound ways that both my friend and his father affected me, but it’s too raw, and not my story to tell, at least not now or not in this way. Instead, I will just say this: His father was a prince of a man who raised a son who is also every bit a prince, in the similar but distinct ways of fathers and sons. Both committed/commit their days to their vocation of forming young minds. I miss his father and mourn for my friend.
* * *
At the retreat, as my mind wandered towards the raw grief from earlier that day, I lost sight of the message of new hope and a renewed, if scary, vision of Christ’s Church. I gave technical answers to heartfelt questions—questions asked in the unavoidable anticipation and anxiety that comes with the prospect of asking the Church you love, “May I be your priest?” or “May I be your deacon?” and not knowing what the answer will be.
I thought about sharing with the community what had happened earlier that day, and asking for their prayers for the family and for me. But I didn’t. I feared that my voice would quaver, or that I might be oversharing, or that it was unprofessional.
Instead, like the disciples at Gethsemane, when I was called to pray I slept instead, just with my eyes open and my mouth moving.
The great hope of our discernment process is that seekers, through prayer, conversation and spiritual practice, will come to know in their own hearts the specific way their community, the Church, the Holy Spirit, is calling them to service, calling them to address the pain of our hurting world. We encourage that seekers approach the question with joy, honest doubt, and vulnerability. So why couldn’t I offer up my own vulnerability?
So, “Why are you sleeping?”
Instead I talked about tuition costs, our high standards for formation, the sometimes treacherous landscape of employment possibilities. All important information for a seeker discerning her place in the Church, but in my refusal to acknowledge my own pain, to let them pray for me, I hit mostly on the “scary” but not so much on the “exciting” possibilities ahead.
I realize now how silly it was to lean on “professionalism.” If my profession is the Church, then my profession is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ (BCP 855). To share the pain of my grief for my friend and his family, would have worked towards uniting me to the retreatants in their anxiety and uncertainty.
My friend’s father could have chosen any profession – doctor, lawyer, businessman – but instead chose vocation; he chose to teach for almost three decades. The men and women sitting before me at the retreat were at an earlier point in that same vocational trajectory. While they don’t yet know how that vocation will be expressed, they’re pressed forward into this vulnerable place because something in them tells them they can’t live with business as usual.
But my guilt for guilt’s sake is no use to anyone. The Gospels are rife with instances of the Apostles screwing things up—misunderstanding Jesus (entire sections of Mark could be summed up as “I love you, but you’re an idiot”); wanting to build forts and live on the Mount of Transfiguration forever. During the Passion, as they reach the time of trial, things only get worse: they sleep when they should pray, they cut off a slave’s ear, they deny Jesus, they stand with the men who mean to kill Him.
If that’s how Christ’s closest friends and followers treated Him in His time of trial, what hope is there for us? Jesus’ followers failed time and time again, in ways large and small. Like them, rather than looking death and grief in the eyes, I slept—the rawness and vulnerability was too much to bear, to witness, to profess.
But our hope, theirs and mine, comes in the Resurrection: Through Christ’s love for the disciples and for all humankind, they were not condemned to their dark night of the soul. They were redeemed by the Resurrection and devoted their lives to spreading His Gospel.
Because I slept, I failed to find unity with the group of 12 women and men gathered at the discernment retreat, who came looking for their particular path towards devoting their lives to spreading the Gospel. But I seek that unity with them now, and anyone walking the path of discernment. I will try to stay awake, to keep vigil with my friend through the grief and uncertainty, and I share that vulnerability with those 12 so we might be brothers and sisters in our uncertainty.
There will likely be times on the journey that none of us feels strong enough to keep awake, that we are too afraid of what lies ahead or what we might hear in our prayers. Even now, from my vantage point in Gethsemane, I have doubts about God’s place in this tragedy. I doubt that a new day will come. But, whether or not we doze, we know that Jesus keeps vigil. There will be disappointment on the road of discipleship. During our time in the wilderness, in the darkness, it will be hard to know what the new day will look like, to believe it will come at all. But we walk with an Incarnate God that searches and suffers with us, a God who will be with us when we reach our next destination and realize it was nothing like we’d imagined, and possibly heartbreaking, but it will be beautiful all the same.