At the church where I worship most Sundays, I was sitting in front of a family with young children. In front of us was a regular altar on the same level as the pews, and then up two sets of stairs stood a high altar in the “choir” of the church. The decorations on that wall are golden, with what appears to be gold leaf all over a painting of Jesus as a baby, his mother, and two angels. There’s also a gold crown on that wall and many golden brass candlesticks.
All of this gold paraphernalia prompted the little girl behind me to ask her father, “Is that gold real?” I was kinda wondering the same thing. Many of the Episcopal churches on the East Coast have what we Westerners would consider elaborate appointments: multiple altars, lots of stained glass, friezes, statues, Gothic archways, brass altar rails, and so on. What would be considered “high church” in California is your average, everyday “broad” church in Connecticut and New York.
At a couple of my interviews for field education positions, I was asked whether I preferred a “high church” or “low church” liturgy. I actually like both and visit churches that practice a variety of liturgy styles, but I admit that even as a child, I was suspicious of ornate decorations and pageantry in church as they seemed far removed from the dusty, sandalled feet of Jesus. Anything that seemed “rich” felt un-Christian to me. Couldn’t that money be better spent on the poor?
But as I looked at the golden altar decorations at my church, which is considered “low church,” I noticed that I was attracted to the gold leaf, not merely for its artistry, but for its intention to cause a feeling of adoration in me. Whether it actually does that is less important to me than the fact that some artist, and the congregation that paid that artist, wanted to help me become closer to God. That’s love. (And being musical, I can say that great church music, which can be an expensive part of liturgy, definitely causes me to become closer to God.)
I have been meditating on gold, perhaps inappropriately, a lot the past few days because I was informed last week that, unless I planned to return fulltime to my teaching job in the fall, I must resign my tenured position at American River College and thus lose my guaranteed employment and medical benefits. Although I expected this to happen some day, I was still surprised when the moment actually came. And so now, after May 30 or so, I will have no steady employment, no guaranteed paycheck and benefits. There goes the gold.
Many people would consider it foolhardy to give up a tenured teaching position with good pay and great benefits in the current economic environment. So many people are struggling financially from unemployment or work furloughs that it feels wrong for me to walk away intentionally from a secure job. From the world’s point of view, it probably is foolhardy. I am single and need to support myself and my daughter. But instead of staying with a secure income, I am preparing for a vocation with few guarantees, at least as the vocation goes in the United States. I do not have a guaranteed job as a priest when I get out of school, nor do I receive financial assistance from the Church to pay for seminary. (I’m documenting my particular seminary experience here; some seminarians do receive assistance from their churches or dioceses, and a few dioceses do promise a church placement within the diocese when their seminarians graduate.)
To be faced with uncertainty about employment and basic survival doesn’t feel very golden, especially for someone who has supported herself financially for the past thirty years. And sure, from a spiritual point of view, it can be a good practice to remind oneself that there are no real guarantees in this world. Nevertheless, the situation has caused me to reflect upon what I truly cherish, what I really want. The answer is not guaranteed employment and a retirement pension, though those were very comforting while I had them. What I really want is to help others draw closer to God, and that vocation cannot happen in an English classroom at a California community college–at least not overtly. The only way I know how to do this is to pursue this religious vocation.
In my better moments, I trust that this vocation is the real gold.