Weird things seminarians (and priests) do…

I would be remiss, dear reader, if I did not tell you about some of the weird behind-the-scenes things that seminarians do. This is not going to be an exposé of the dark, seamy underside of seminarian life. If there is such a thing, I haven’t gotten wind of it. Instead, I thought I’d reveal the odd parts of the vocation that must seem weird to non-seminarian, non-priest types, but seem perfectly normal (or at least necessary) for seminarians.

Wear long, hot, heavy dresses with strange names on summer days

The ultimate layering: a cope on top of cassock, alb, and stole. This woman is going to be HOT.

I know you’ve seen them in movies, but have you worn them? These things are thick! And hot! On the layer next to the skin, we wear either a black cassock (Anglo-Catholic), or clericals (the shirt with ordained person’s collar and pants or skirt) or just street clothes. If you’re of the Anglo-Catholic ilk, you then put a surplice (the shorter white covering over black cassocks in the movies) or a long white alb over the cassock. If you’re wearing street-variety clericals, you instead put a cassock-alb over the clothes. The cassock-alb is a white robe that covers the whole body. So that’s at least two full layers of clothing already. It’s three layers if you started with the black cassock, because you have to wear something under that black cassock. And then, if one is a priest and the celebrant, one wears a heavy, often brocaded, chasuble–the brightly colored over-the-head robe that looks like a cape.

It is somewhat laughable that the companies selling cassocks, albs, etc. call some of their products “tropical weight,” promising that the seminarian or priest will feel cool in it in hot climates. That might be true if one were wearing it alone, but one never does. So… we sweat. Pardon me: we perspire. I have to admit that the layering was nice during the winter in Connecticut, but I have seen many priests turning bright red under vestments on hot days….

Practice aiming clouds of smoke at people

Every once in a while, a seminarian or priest is called upon to be a thurifer and swing a thurible, the metal container with holes that contains burning incense, in such a manner as to make clouds of incense go in certain directions. One time, I walked in on my supervising priest on Easter morning as he was reading a book about services. This surprised me, as I figured he had the Easter service down by now. So I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “Reviewing. I don’t use incense that often, and I want to get it right for the people to whom it matters.” There is a certain ballet to the way one “censes” the altar, the servants at the altar, the people in the church, the altar itself, the book containing the Gospels, and so on. While it may not matter to the vast majority of people how this happens (or even that it happen), it matters to some, and so we try to get it right for them.

Fling water at people’s faces without fear of reprisal

Water fight!

I admit that I cannot wait for the day when I get to dip a branch of juniper or hyssop in a bucket of water and then fling it at people as I walk down the aisle of church. Priests bless people by sprinkling water on them, and we have given it a special name: to “asperge.” Yeah, right. I call it “water  fight without fear of reprisal.” No, seriously. This ritual has ancient echoes from the Books of Numbers and Ezekiel, in which God instructs a clean man to sprinkle water upon people with a hyssop branch to purify them. But you have to admit that it is weird to fling water at people’s faces in church (while they bow and cross themselves). Is it any wonder that summer church fairs often feature the priest in a dunking booth? It’s payback time.

Sleep in infusion labs

Or wherever it is deserted in a hospital. Priests (and some seminarians) hang around hospitals a lot for crisis calls and get to know the quiet, hidden places to go, hopefully places with comfortable furniture. In addition, priests spend a lot of time waiting in hospitals–for a parishioner’s surgical procedure to end, for someone to be free for a visit, or for a family to decide what they want to do about final prayers, for example. Last night, while working as a chaplain, I was paged at 4:30 a.m. to return to the bedside of a woman I had seen earlier that evening, with a large family gathered to grieve and pray when she decided to turn off life support. At 4:30, I was told that the patient had died, and the family had requested my return for “last rites.” But when I arrived at 4:45, there were no family members present. The nurse said, “They should get here soon.”

So I hung out at a cheery cafeteria table and read psalms to kill time. At 5:20, I went back and asked, “Any sign of the family?” Nope. So …. feeling pretty sleepy, I went to find a comfortable place near the patient’s room. What better place than the chemotherapy infusion lab? It looks out over a beautiful outdoor healing garden. It was sunrise, so I tucked myself into a small loveseat partially hidden behind a beautiful tropical fish tank and fell asleep with the early sun on my face. That was a little weird, but amazingly peaceful. It was even weirder to be awakened by a man in a rear-revealing hospital gown, walking up and down the hall with his infusion pole. I imagine he was looking for a little early morning peace and quiet, just as I was, and wanted to see the sun rise. We both looked politely away from the other’s intimate moment.

Hold back tears

Holding back tears is a necessary job skill for priests, at least while on the job. And seminarians get plenty of practice at this if they allow themselves it. The fact is, priests are often called in during the more difficult, tragic moments of life, and it’s their job to lead prayers of lament and thanksgiving, to bless and to bury, to baptize and absolve. A lot of these moments are heartbreaking or a bizarre mix of celebratory and sad that yank hard at the tearmakers, but we really try to avoid crying ourselves because it is distracting to those who have asked us to lead prayer. They need us to perform a function, often at a unique, memorable moment of their lives. We need to step out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work.

But God knows we are human. Yesterday, while on call as a chaplain at the hospital, I was called to baptize a baby girl who had died in utero at 36 weeks. I think the hardest labor in the world is the labor of a mother who knows her baby has died and who has to be induced to give birth to her dead child.

I have baptized or blessed dying or deceased babies many times now, so I hoped that I would be able to breathe deeply, tend to the grieving parents’ needs, baptize the baby, and exit the room without blubbering. But that is very hard when the room is full of grieving relatives, clutching the baby and crying. I thought I would hold it in, but then a short sob just slipped out of me while I was preparing to baptize the baby, and I thought, “Not a good start.” So I stopped and looked around at the family, breathing deeply and allowing myself to look upon their grief and honor it. I prayed aloud for them first and waited until I could speak with an unwavering voice. And then I baptized the baby, pronouncing beautiful words as clearly and strongly and faithfully as I could as the family wept quietly.

Of course, it’s not wise to hold back tears forever. I never know when they will surface. It can take months. But this morning, only two hours after my shift at the hospital ended, I was at church, and… there was a baptism–of a beautiful, healthy, rosy-cheeked baby girl. And in the pew in front of me, there was a beautiful, healthy baby boy grinning at me from his infant car seat. And at the altar during Communion, there were many healthy, eager, bouncy children clinging to the altar.

I cried the whole ten-minute drive home from church. Weird? Not to seminarians.

5 Thoughts

  1. Janine: Thank you for sharing your recent chaplain experiences. I often wonder out you all hold up so well as we grieve and are so lost at a given moment. God surely give you the means and strength.

    I do so enjoy your sharing with us what you do. It surely gives men some insight that I should also be strong for those around me.

    God Bless and Keep you!


  2. Dear Janine,

    I really do look forward to reading your blogs every so often. I have it as one of my favorites and peek if you have posted anything new. You are so AMAZING. I have always wondered why certain things are certain things and how Priets do it.

    Thanks again for a good read

    Loves, Mihoa

  3. The thurifer in the photo is Matthew. He is censing the people, not practicing. I know this because I took the picture at Christ Church New Haven, CT.

    How did you get this photo? It’s not yours to take without asking.

    1. Dear Stephen,
      I worshipped occasionally at Christ Church New Haven while a seminarian at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. The photo was posted on Christ Church’s web site, and I copied it to my blog with the understanding that, since the blog’s purpose was to educate others about the life of a seminarian, my use of the photograph was permitted under the fair use clause of copyright. (I used to teach college English and was trained that such use was permissible for educational purposes only.)
      However, I have no wish to offend you or to use what is not mine to use, so I have removed the photograph. Please give my best to Father Cobb and Father Hendrickson!

      1. My apologies if I sounded alarmed. I had no idea who you were or where you got the photo.

        Since it is on the church website it’s permissable to use it. Feel free to repost it.

        Steve Harris

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