(Photo of William Stringfellow from Wikipedia)
"I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God --as is everyone else--to the vocation of being human...Within the scope of the calling to be merely, but truly human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline, or employment, as such, is a vocation."
One of the books I've been reading lately is "A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow," edited by Bill Wylie Kellermann. My vicar, almost casually, asked me if I'd ever heard of Stringfellow. As a relative newbie to the Episcopal Church, I had not. She sort of dryly said, "Well, he was probably one of the most influential lay theologians in the modern history of the church, you ought to read him."
When I started Wiki'ing him, I realized I'd been had. She knew that I'd be absolutely captivated by this iconoclastic, yet very orthodox Anglo-Catholic persona. When I confronted her with that in an e-mail, she replied back, "I stand guilty as charged on all counts," followed by a smiling emoticon.
I've been reading this book "a tiny piece at a time" because I want to hear each of the short essays in the book in their entirety, each standing alone and not getting mixed up with each other.
The essay from where my quote today is from, made some things fall into my head like interlocking puzzle pieces.
Stringfellow was a Harvard trained lawyer, and also a graduate of the London School of Economics, who practiced law in Harlem and lived in a tenement. He could have had the pick of any plums in the world of high powered law practices. Yet that was the life he chose. He devoted his whole life to parts of what we now call "the social Gospel," and he lived out in the place where he was needed. He sort of mixed and matched with all the personalities on "the block" (the part of Harlem where he lived) without ever losing his own sense of self. He saw no higher calling than to live out our lives according to God's call for us as baptized individuals.
I guess you could say I "get" a lot of where he's coming from, since I am a person who lives far below my own means.
Stringfellow also acquired diabetes later in life, and this forced him to shift his priorities. He was a person who thrived on "living in the tension" and this life had taken its toll on him. In this sense, theology became a piece of his therapy.
Although disease didn't push me into a corner, middle age and a few psychic tensions, likewise, made me turn to theological blogging as therapy. I "got" that, too!
This has been an interesting time in my life (and yes, I do know the Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times.") In Feb. 2010, I began to start the ball rolling to the possibility that I was called to ordination by obtaining permission from our Bishop. I had no idea how big a ball it was and how slowly it rolls. As of today, my committee has still not been finalized, trained, or met. I have come to realize part of it was because my parish (and I) were all in a dozen "odd places." What started out as a giant frustration for me (in the world of healthcare, if I'd taken this long to start a process, I'd be castigated, frankly) I have come to realize has actually been for me "a period of formation."
"Formation" is not something we talk about much in the secular world. Our secular world is all about "goals." Formation is the process of letting something cook, like a stew, and letting the batch have its own unique flavor, with no expectation of what that flavor will be. I have come to realize that for me, part of this formation has been simply understanding how I've been called to be me, no matter what the outcome of this discernment and possible ordination process is. Had we plunged headalong in it, the stew would not have been as flavorful. We would have taken it off the stove too soon.
I've been captivated by Stringfellow and his ability to hear his own call at these various stages of his life. What I discover, by reading his first person accounts, is that no matter where we're called in the life of our church, one of the most grievous errors we can commit is to abandon our fundamental priesthood as one of the baptized. Oddly enough, the church can probably cause us to do that in a horrible way. Lay people can abandon their fundamental priesthood to please clergy as an authority figure. Ordained people can abandon their fundamental priesthood and hide behind the authority of their collar and the psychological power differential it can impose on the laity. Even bishops can hide behind their ecclesiastical authority to everyone under them on the ecclesiastical food chain.
I've come to realize that the paradox is that the institution we have created to worship God, should never become our God. This period of formation has taught me that in an odd way, I feel both lucky and blessed. Some of the most profound moments in my spiritual self have happened during worship or doing some of my tasks in the life of the church. Yet, at the same time, some of the worst psychological beatings I've received have also come within the sphere of the life of the church. I am in a strange but wonderful place. I have been given the gift of seeing the church as human--and just as I see the divinity of Jesus in his humanity, I realize I now see the divinity of institutional worship in the sphere of its humanity. I feel blessed that this gift was given to me, and I feel lucky that I was formed by this experience, not torn to shreds.
I believe this formation will continue, in some ways, for the rest of my life. May I be open and brave enough to sit in the tension of it.