Dear Ruth,

Nearly a year and a half ago, I wrote you a letter that I posted on this blog. The occasion then was your ordination as a deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. Today I write to you again, this time as you are ordained a priest.

By the time you read this letter, you will probably have opened a number of gifts and cards each offering love and encouragement for this journey upon which you have embarked. One of the gifts you will find is this icon Heather and I chose for you.

This is the icon we use when we are teaching our Introduction to Centering Prayer workshops. It serves as a sign of the invitation at the heart of Centering Prayer to awaken to the reality of the divine presence within. But this ancient depiction of Mary is also a perfect image of priesthood. We hope it will remind you of the true nature of this calling you have embraced today.

It may just be my somewhat lugubrious nature; other viewers will no doubt see something else when they look at Mary’s face here –  perhaps they will see pensiveness, gentleness, or deep mediation – but I see sadness. The sadness I sense in Mary reminds me of the unique calling of priesthood.

Priesthood is a sacrament of reality and reality is often difficult and painful.

A priest stands at the table of the Lord offering an invitation to see things most of us spend our lives seeking to avoid. When I stand as a priest breaking bread and blessing wine, I am sharing in a ritual of betrayal, denial, injustice, cruelty, violence, hatred, suffering, and death. I am not trying to fix anything, or put a rosy glow on the harsh realities of life. As I look out at those among whom I serve as a priest, I often see deep furrows of pain etched in their faces. Broken bread and poured out wine are signs of the sorrowful fissures that run through the human condition. Sometimes life hurts.

But, when I look at Mary in this icon, I see something more than just suffering. I see also that Mary is standing; she is standing straight, tall, elegant, solid, and serene. She seems steady, secure and unshakeable.

When I celebrate the Eucharist I seek to feel my feet on the ground. I try to stand still, grounded in this place and this time, feeling the weight of my body. I try not to fidget or give in to nerves or anxiety. I hope to be attentive to this moment, to avoid a wandering mind and to sense the deep presence that is embodied in this ancient ritual in which I share.

I am not the president of a corporation seeking to win approval for my annual report. I am not a lecturer attempting to convey information or convince students of my argument. I am not trying to do anything to anyone. I stand at the Lord’s Table as a wounded human being, sharing broken bread with other wounded human beings. If I can stand unwavering in the midst of the turmoil of life, perhaps those whose lives are ragged with pain may encounter something of the strength and security that Mary seems to embody in this icon.

She is not swayed by the sorrow written on her face. She is not overwhelmed. She bears the pain and stands planted in her place, confident in the divine presence in whom she trusts. This is the role of the priest, to stand in the storms of life, in the uncertainties, fears, doubts and conflicts we all confront holding the pain and brokenness and reminding us there is always a deeper reality.

At the centre of her being, Mary, bears the image of the divine presence. She is theotokos, “mother of God.”

Don’t be alarmed, but theotokos is the calling of priesthood. We are, like Mary, to be bearers of the divine, in order that we might point people to an awareness of their true identity.

Using a line from Augustine’s “Sermon #272”, some priests stand before the gathered community, hold up the blessed bread and wine and say,

Be what you see;
receive what you are.

A priest serves to call us back to an awareness of our true identity. Paul wrote in II Corinthians

we have this treasure in clay jars,
so that it may be made clear that
this extraordinary power belongs to God
and does not come from us. (II Corinthians 4:7)

Make no mistake about it Ruth, your ability to fulfill the priestly role to which you have committed yourself today has nothing to do with your human ability.

Your natural talents and gifts – which are many – will only get in the way of your priesthood if you take them too seriously or trust in their ability to make it possible for you to “get the job done”. You will not become the priest God has called you to be because of your great organizational skills, your scintillating preaching, or your profound pastoral presence. You will fulfill your priesthood to the degree that you acknowledge your own poverty (Luke 6:20) and stand with others in their poverty.

Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

The cracks are also how the light gets out. It is the cracks that make the priest.

This is why pain is important. It is the broken shards of life that scrape away the hard shell of ego and allow the treasure buried within to be seen. We trust the “treasure”, not the “clay jar.”

Mary had a painful path to follow. But her willingness to walk that via delorosa allowed divinity to be born into the world. Her willingness to embrace the path of her life allowed the light, beauty and truth of Christ to be manifest through her as they are through you as you bear the pain embodied in broken bread and poured out wine.

If you hope to fulfill this sacrificial vision of priesthood there are attitudes Mary seems to embody that will need to be part of your life. I will try to speak about these stances of priesthood in a continuation of this letter tomorrow and the next day.

God bless you.