March 13, 2007

Ed. note: The following post (with the accompanying title “Dreams and Nightmares”) was originally composed this past Saturday morning shortly after I awoke. It was written with the intent of being posted later that day – as I typically do with all my posts. (Just soze you know, I typically write in the morning, then review and proof-read, then post later in the day.) The “religious experience” behind this whole series of posts took place just a short while thereafter, so it’s interesting (at least to me, anyways!) to see where my thoughts were at that particular place in time.

Saturday, 9:30 AM.

Have you ever had this happen? You wake up after having a particular dream and find your thoughts immersed in places and times you thought you had pretty much forgotten about a long time ago – even when that particular dream had nothing to do with it?

It happened to me just this morning. I don’t recall what the dream was even about – thoughts of being in Pittsburgh (a place I’ve never been, BTW) and Las Vegas at the same time (?) come to mind – but slowly awakening while taking my morning constitutional, I found my thoughts drifting back nearly a decade ago to June, 1998 and experiencing once again all the vivid memories and sensations of attending a 2-week program in ministry and church congregation development at Sewanee (an Episcopal Church seminary at the University of the South).

How different things were back then, and how different I was back then. I was then three years removed from that moment in time when I heard, as distinctly and clearly as if He were speaking in my ear, God’s call to the priesthood. It was a moment of spiritual awakening, of revelation, of coming home – the kind of moment when you finally realize and understand the whole purpose, essence, and meaning of your existence. To say that was a life-changing event would simply not do it justice.

It all came back so clearly to me again what life was like in those days. I was devouring every book on classic Christianity, and Anglican and Catholic spirituality and tradition; works by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Michael Ramsey (his “The Gospel and the Catholic Church” remains a must-have on the Anglican tradition), and great mystics and theologians like St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich began to overwhelm our tiny bookcases. I was full of ‘piss and vinegar’, as they say, back then – unafraid to take bold steps or think outside the box when it came to ministry and pursuing different aspects of the Christian experience. Invited to go on Cursillo? Work to establish a lay ministry group involving four other Episcopal churches in the area to further unique and cooperative forms of ministry (my friend Dona and I christened it “The Five Churches”)? Immerse myself in the Methodist church down the street to the extent where I was given the reigns over their food pantry ministry, preach in the pulpit, and lead Bible study whenever the pastor took vacation? Monastic retreats at Holy Cross Monastery and the Society of St. John The Evangelist in place of vacations? All undertaken without hesitation. These were bold and exciting times – I was living in and being led by the spirit, and, looking back, truly did believe the world was my oyster.

And not even being turned down for ordination by my Episcopal diocese at that time (Eastern Massachusetts) – their reason being, BTW, I was told bluntly, that they had enough white, male, heterosexual, and happily married priests – could derail the train. Accepting an invite from a priest in the Diocese of Kentucky to pursue ordination there, we relocated to Louisville in 1998 and I immersed myself in every kind of parish and diocesan activity he thought, being my sponsor, would help advance my knowledge and experience and, more importantly, get me noticed in the Diocese.

Needing to satisfy my growing hunger for serious theological study, I enrolled at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary – on my own dime – and started splitting my days between working as a IT consultant at UPS and attending classes, often staying up ’til the wee small hours studying and writing paper after paper. I was excelling in my studies and able to hold my own with my Presbyterian classmates, but burning the candle at both ends in order to do so. If I was slowly getting fried both mentally and physically in the process, it was all still fine; I loved the whole experience, and felt there was nothing I couldn’t do or overcome.

Heck, I was so committed and dialed-in in those days, nothing could distract the passion and total commitment I felt towards my calling. I mean, it was a calling, right? I even committed to taking an accellerated course in Biblical Greek, fully aware that my meeting with the Bishop and the diocese’s standing committee (the final hurdle before being formally accepted into the ordination process for the priesthood) was scheduled the night before my final. And even when my friend Diane (a priest in the diocese) cautioned that I shouldn’t put all my faith and trust in the Bishop, the process, or those with whom I was working most closely, or when, suddenly and mysteriously, my sponsoring priest seemed to distance himself from me in the days prior to my meeting with the bishop and the committee, at no time did a warning flag resonate in my brain.

Of course, as Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry was wont to say, a man’s got to know his limitations, and when I appeared before the committee, sleep deprived, my head full of Greek tenses and the assorted nouns and verbs I had memorized from a pile of flash cards 8″ tall, jabbering incohesive and incomplete thoughts, well, it all came crashing down. I aced my final the next morning, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best, and I crashed and burned in the days and weeks that followed.

Ten years later, all that’s left – besides a lingering interest in the spiritual life and the goings-on with the Episcopal Church – are a bunch of what ifs:

* What if that meeting with the Bishop and the committee hadn’t coincided with my Greek final?

* What if I had heeded the warnings of my friend Diane and raised them with my sponsoring priest?

* What if, after being turned down in Kentucky, I had accepted the invitation of the Dean at Louisville Presbyterian to remain in school and pursue my Master’s degree in Divinity as a Presbyterian?

* What if I had stayed in Massachusetts that first or second time and gave the ordination process another go-round in Western MA, or another surrounding diocese?

Phew! I’m wide awake now, for sure. Yikes! These are thoughts, I think, best left to drift back to whatever place they came from, along with the memories that triggered them. Best for everyone, I think. For there’s coffee to be made, rabbits to be fed, and new day here in Gilbert, Arizona, circa 2007, to embrace in all of its own unique glory.

Well that was the post. Looking back, I find it a pretty accurate portrayal of both my journey and my thoughts about that journey at that point in time. In the next installment, I’ll try to decribe in detail the actual “religious experience” that took place approximately one hour later.

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