When Imperfection Is Perfect

I recently returned from my uncle’s funeral, at which his longtime companion Betsy said to me, “Sometimes I read your blog.”

“Wow,” I said. “I haven’t written there for a while.”

“I know,” she said. “I still read it.”

I pondered what might have stopped the flow. I knew I had been hesitant to write much once I began work as a parish priest because I did not wish to reflect unintentionally some church member’s story in a way that would bother them. So there was that.

It has also been true that so much of a parish priest’s life is communication: listening to others, speaking to others, fostering communication between others, reading and writing emails and tweets and posts. And praying to God a lot. I mean a LOT.  With all those words flowing, perhaps I needed a rest from even more words.

And then I read Patti Smith’s account of her tribute to Bob Dylan at the Nobel Awards Ceremony. While singing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” a Dylan song she knew extremely well and had rehearsed perfectly, she became overwhelmed and simply couldn’t produce the words in the middle of the performance. (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony?mbid=amp). She stopped, apologized, and eventually was able to continue.

She recounts her embarrassment at the mistake and the silence, even as she notes that one of the lines of the song is, “And I’ll know my song well before I start singing.” She was surprised the next day when many people congratulated her for what she considered an imperfect performance. They felt that her rendering of the song was a mirror of their own struggles, of the vulnerable beauty of imperfect humanity. In some ways, it was perfect that she was rendered speechless while singing, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

A far less dramatic, but similar, thing happened to me while praying the Eucharistic Prayer after baptizing a young church member. During my seminary years, I had the difficult experience of baptizing nine dying or deceased newborns while working as a hospital chaplain. Now, I greatly enjoy baptizing healthy children and adults. Blessing the water. Pouring the water over their heads. Anointing them and telling them they are marked as Christ’s own forever. It is simply magical. There is no greater church high for me except for Easter.

And yet, when I went to the altar to pray the prayer I have said many times now, the prayer I waited decades to pray, I found myself overcome by the very simple narrative, the story of our imperfection and God’s willingness to love us and be with us anyway and deliver us from darkness.

Partway through that prayer, I found myself unable to go on for a minute. It wasn’t a long time, but it was a silence that carried the weight of the story of our human predicament and the great relief of God’s grace. And it rendered me mute for a minute. In general, the  middle of a Eucharistic Prayer is not considered a good time to be overcome and rendered mute. It would be considered… an imperfection.

I think that’s where the words go sometimes. They are in that silent place that recognizes a hard rain’s a-gonna fall, and sometimes we just have to hush and listen.

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