“Ah, look at all the lonely people,” the band sang in the old song. “Where do they all come from?” This question hums with haunted melody, as the song searches out the lonely lives of a priest, his congregant and the church they both serve. Why is it that those who give their days to a vocation charged with the enjoyment, love and glory of God remain so vulnerable to the loneliness and isolation that any human being can feel? Anton Chekhov’s short story, The Bishop, helps us. Without spoiling the story, I’d like to tell you why. (more…)
Whenever I read and read again, this novel by the French Catholic, George Bernanos, I am reminded that God’s presence and activity is not dependent upon the entrances or the exits that we pastors make. He remains when we leave. He was already there when we arrived. Ours is a vocation of listening and waiting in order to detect the holy ground that exists within whatever moment we enter and with whomever we find ourselves.
The pastoral life is shown in this book with all of its humanity. Loneliness, money, faith struggles, prayer, and difficult people all find their way into our hearts and minds through this compelling narrative. Within this terrain, this formation in listening does not come easy to us. “I began chattering at random as I usually do when I feel uneasy. There are silences which draw you out–fascinate you, till you long to throw in any words, anything to break them” (89). Sometimes, we listen and listen again waiting because no answer or insight comes yet–tempted every moment to choose instead “the chatter of a madman with his shadow” rather than wait for God (104).
The Comfort We Bring
This everywhere grace insists that we learn from God to see others not as we want them to be and not as they should be, but as they are. “Don’t think in abstractions, see men as they are” (67). Throughout this novel, the pastor must learn by grace to see himself as he is too, not in abstraction.
To see us as we are, everywhere surrounded by God, we learn to choose denial less and less when we enter the life of another human being. “A priest can’t shrink from sores any more than a doctor. He must be able to look at pus and wounds and gangrene. All the wounds of the soul . . .” (151). Why? Because the everywhere gracious God does not wince, squint or squirm at such things in His love for sinners. Though we are not Him, His grace invites us to a vocation in which we learn truly if not gradually to say: “My life is first and foremost a cure of souls, I have no right to remain ignorant of cares–on the whole quite legitimate–which loom so large in the lives of my parishioners” (34).
Their cares after all are ours. For we too, in our pastoral garb, are human after all who look with those we serve to the grace of God. We too can say, “Therein lies my whole strength, the strength of children and weaklings” (59). We too come to recognize “how vulnerable we are before mankind and life itself” (73). “How little we know what a human life really is–even our own” (87). But God knows us truly. God sees us as we are without pretense, injustice or lack of gracious empathy.
So, we pastors learn to speak to the atheist not only what we’ve been taught but what we in our own souls are coming by grace through fits and start to own for ourselves and to declare, “There is no peace save in Jesus” (83).
We learn to say to those we serve, that we “don’t look for forgetfulness in prayer, but strength” (268).
Grace is Everywhere
We get to enter the broken lives of others with our own broken lenses and from the comfort we have received we give it. And sometimes someone writes us a letter to describe what happened in their lives because of us (when we ourselves had felt our inadequacy and our awkwardness so keenly). “Hope!” they write to us. “I’d held it dead in my arms, on a windy, desolate, horrible evening in March! I’d felt the last breath of hope on my cheeks, on a spot which I know. Yet now I hope again! This hope is really all my very own, nobody else’s: no more what philosophers call “hope” than the word “love” is like being loved. This hope is the flesh of my flesh. I cannot express it. I should have to speak as a little child. I wanted you to know all this tonight. I had to tell you . . . I’m saying it under my breath as I write–and it seems to express miraculously, ineffably, the peace you’ve given me” (175).
We too have come to speak such words from our own hearts. Human, with bouts of loneliness, suffering, faith struggle and mistake-making, we too see His love lift us up, fuel our longing and hallow His name. “Grace is everywhere,” we say.