I can’t remember the context in which I first discovered it, but one of my favourite quotes about priesthood comes from the Roman Catholic ordination rite:
‘Know what you do. Imitate what you celebrate. And conform your life to the mystery of Christ’s cross’.
Ever since I went to Israel and Occupied Palestine last November, I have had a recurring nightmare. The specifics change, but the general theme remains the same.
I show up to Old Saint Paul’s to say the midday mass on Monday — or sometimes it’s the Sunday 8am service — in the Lady Chapel, always in the Lady Chapel. I expect, and prepare for, the usual handful of people, the regulars who are already patiently waiting and quietly praying when I arrive. I go into the clergy vestry, put on my alb and stole and chasuble and walk out into the nave.
People are milling about the church — tourists, or students, or homeless people, or refugees — people I don’t recognise. They stop me as I approach the chapel. ‘Is there a service on?’ they ask. I nod and welcome them. I start the mass. More people arrive. I panic a bit, send a regular into the sacristy to bring more bread and wine.
‘They’re hungry,’ I think to myself as I read the gospel.
‘They need food,’ I say to God as I lead the intercessions.
I offer the bread and wine: ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation. Through your goodness, we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made….’
‘You feed them,’ God says back.
‘But there’s not enough here.’ The chapel is overflowing by this time. It’s chaos. People don’t know what is happening, can’t follow how the service goes. Mumbled responses by the regular congregation are drowned out by the noise and chatter of the visitors. I face the altar, carry on. The panic rises.
And then, I look at the triptych, the painting of the Annunciation. I hear Mary’s ‘Yes’. I remember my vows, the words I said that reminded me I am not alone: ‘With the help of God, yes. I will.’
‘This is the Lamb of God. Blessed are those who are called to his supper.’ The chatter stops as I turn and raise the broken host for all to see.
And then the quiet. All I see are hands. Row after row of hands. When I’m bold enough, I look into the pleading, longing eyes, but mostly I see the empty hands.
‘There is not enough,’ I again say to God. ‘I can’t…..’
And then I wake, or the dream ends, and a feeling lingers into the next day that I have, if not failed in, then at least somehow missed the point of, my calling. I can still feel the crowds pressing in.
‘Imitate what you celebrate.’
The nightmares have stopped since I left Old St Paul’s and began my work with the Church of Scotland. But just now, as I dozed off on the plane to Tel Aviv, preparing for a three week period of language study and orientation and meetings, the memory of it reappeared.
It was less intense. A shadow of the initial panic. A hint of the disorientation.
The thing is, I celebrated all the time at OSP. Every day, multiple times a day some weeks. And maybe I imitated what I celebrated, but it was in other ways, less intentionally, with less awareness than I thought it might be when I was first ordained. By the grace of God, we do not know the good we do, after all. So maybe, though my hands felt just as empty as those reaching out to me, maybe by that same grace, a tiny morsel was given to nourish those whom I served.
Now. Now I haven’t celebrated in three weeks. I haven’t even been to church the past two Sundays. Or during the week, despite my best intentions at times. Though to be honest, I’ve felt a bit lost at the prospect of returning to church, as though I’m in between homes, as though the altar at which I am called to celebrate is elsewhere, and this in between time is a time of stillness and silence.
But the commands, ‘Imitate what you celebrate’ and ‘You feed them’ are echoing through my heart as I enter this next phase of my ministry. The strong verbs in those commands resonate throughout my body and make my hands restless.
The panic rises again.
And the plane descends, the noise of the engines drowning out the whisper: ‘With the help of God, I will’.