Much is made of the fact that the ancient Israelites, once freed from their enslavement in Egypt, wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching Canaan. Forty years? Big deal. I have been waiting even longer for what I believe God intended for me.
It is big news among people interested in religion that the Pope has just named a former Episcopal bishop, a married man, to be the U.S. leader of Episcopalians in the U.S. who wish to join the Catholic Church while retaining some of their married clergy and some of their cherished liturgies (the language used at church services). The (very few) people leaving the church object to, among other things, the ordination of women and openly gay clergy in committed relationships.
When the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., Katharine Jefferts Schori, was asked about a similar pronouncement in England in 2009, she said, “The road between Rome and England is well travelled,” by which she means that Roman Catholics have been becoming Anglicans/Episcopalians, and vice versa, since the English Reformation.
Indeed, I have travelled that road myself, leaving the Roman Catholic Church and joyfully embracing the Episcopal Church and with it, my vocation to the priesthood. I felt reborn in 2003 when that happened.
It has been over forty years since I first experienced this priestly vocation. Like many other people called to the priesthood, I played priest when I was a child, saying the Eucharistic prayer with outstretched hands in front of my sisters’ full-length mirrors and making communion wafers out of white bread to give to my siblings and neighbors. My father found this disconcerting. That was when I was 8.
When I was 10, I wanted very badly to be an altar server but was told only boys could do it. For weeks after I was denied this opportunity, I kept looking at the priest behind the altar at church and thinking, “I want to be up there.” I asked why I couldn’t, and the answer was that only men could be priests because Jesus chose male disciples.
When I was 15, a Jesuit priest saying a Mass for my catechism class asked who wanted to be altar servers, and my friend and I, both girls, raised our hands. He said, “Come on up!” and he showed us what to do. I was ecstatic, but incredibly frustrated that that night would be my only opportunity.
When I was 17, I took a vocational assessment during my senior year of high school, and the results said that I was vocationally suited to be a priest, editorial cartoonist, or writer.
When I was 23, I kept reading the vocational brochures for the priesthood in the narthex of the Roman Catholic church I attended while I was in graduate school the first time. I looked at those smiling faces of young men in collars, and I could not figure out why I kept looking at the brochures. The brochures asked, “Do you feel called?” and I kept thinking, “Yes.” But called to what?
When I was 24, I researched religious orders, not knowing why I was doing this. I was a married Catholic woman, so no religious orders were possible. Instead, I served churches as a choir member, cantor, and choir director.
At 28, pregnant with my child, I took a vocation and values seminar through my Catholic church and found that my overarching vocation was The Word. I asked the (Episcopal!) priest leading the seminar what that meant, and he said, “Teaching, writing, speaking, studying–learning and conveying the Gospel.”
By 29, I was divorced, the single mother of an infant girl, and life became a matter of survival and doing what the world would pay me enough to do so that my daughter could have a safe home and a good education. But I always felt that I had missed some boat, and I felt spiritually lost and unfulfilled in the Catholic Church. I drifted in and out of church, wanting to give my daughter a spiritual upbringing but feeling somehow erased–invisible.
By my late 30s, I started exploring nondenominational Christian churches and just didn’t find a fit. Fortunately for me, after I had resumed attending a Catholic Church in El Dorado Hills, I kept driving by a sign advertising an Episcopal church being built nearby, and finally, in the summer of 2003, I went to it for the first time.
And during that one service, when I realized that I was in a church that did ordain women, that cherished the Eucharist and a liturgy full of Scripture, that deeply honored tradition but sought to interpret the Gospel within its contemporary contexts, I was set free. I no longer felt weird for playing priest, or reading vocational brochures supposedly meant for men, or feeling inexplicably but powerfully drawn to the altar and the consecration that happens there.
I acknowledged this vocation. And now, it is the eve of the 4-day General Ordination Examination, and I find myself waiting again. I have been thinking a lot about this long wait–waiting for me to figure it out, waiting for my daughter to grow up, waiting for the church approval processes to move along. It has been over forty years of waiting, and that’s longer than the Israelites waited. It has created a paradoxical combination of both patience and urgency in me. There is an element of NOW in vocation, as my last spiritual director in California once told me. And he is definitely right about that. There is also an element of waiting in any religious work because the fact is, we are working toward a future not our own, as Archbishop Oscar Romero said.
But this waiting is very hard at times, and sometimes just plain wrong, as liberation theologian James Cone has pointed out. To tell people who have been denied justice to wait for it, perhaps when Jesus comes again, is to endorse the injustice that is oppressing them.
So I have waited and waited and waited for over 40 years, trying to be useful at whatever I am given to do at any given moment. But I am waiting like the prophet in the cave, fierce and poised, ready to spring into action when I get the word. There is work to do.
Turn, O LORD! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
This Taize version of “Wait for the Lord” says it all… at a very, very, very slow tempo: