This summer, New Dublin welcomed our first ever seminary intern. He has challenged us, I think, to be self-reflective by his presence. The following reflection is born of my musings about my vocation.
No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word across the barren azure pass to God,
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts its wings for better speed.
Frederick Godard Tuckerman
“No more thy meaning seek” calls to my mind Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of the scholastic theologians, who nonetheless wanted to burn his entire life’s work because of one, brief glimpse of God.
And so, “leaving straining thought and stammering word” reminds me of Ecclesiastes (“all is vanity”), but there’s more here. I hear a call to action. Like a bird in flight, pastors must go to people where they are, physically and spiritually. According to William Sloane Coffin, “The leap of faith [is] not a leap of thought, but rather one of action.”
If one takes this charge seriously, parishioners will begin to trust, and then, they will regularly call. I used to joke that some of my members contacted me before the ambulance; I now realize that they call me when the ambulance cannot help.
This is what I take to mean by “shooting the void in silence.” When a parishioner is on the other end of the line, I am not invited to fix the problem but rather live into the consequences with the person. It may be a miscarriage; it may be a stage four cancer diagnosis; it may be about a nephew who lost his home in a tornado. I am powerless to combat such tragedies, and this helplessness is the most difficult part of my vocation. It keeps me up at night when people are willing to trust me with what keeps them up at night.
Christian Wiman wrote, “Courage . . . inheres in the ability to realize that there is nothing singular in your own sufferings.” I believe this implies a connection between people: one of sacred trust. In forming such courageous relationships, we point to something greater, something beyond ourselves, something like the “pass to God.”
Keep in mind this is not a false hope that promises to “fix” problems. Rather we embody trust with the people we are called to minister. By taking seriously the pain of the present, we can begin a transition to another place in the connectedness of our relationship, through our bonds of trust, by our best attempt at faithfulness. This is more, but also less – “a bird that shuts its wings for better speed.”
I write out of my experience as a pastor, but I have a hunch that such “bird talk” about vocation applies to many people who seek to faithfully fly.