There are not many things I believe a priest must do. But there is one practice of priesthood which for me has proved to be non-negotiable.  It is the practice that has enabled me to prosper in priesthood for nearly four decades.

The icon of Mary that Heather and I gave you yesterday is traditionally known as The Virgin Mary Orans. “Orans” is a word borrowed from Medieval Latin; it means “prayer”. Mary is standing in an attitude of prayer.

To be a priest, before anything else, is to be a person of prayer. This is your first calling as a priest. You cannot embody or affirm in others that which you do not acknowledge within yourself. If you are going to serve as a reminder of our true identity as bearers of the divine, you must daily connect with an awareness of that divine presence at the heart of your own being.

I do not know what prayer practice will inform your priesthood. I am not concerned with method merely with faithful practice. In the past twenty years, my prayer life has been guided by the advice of the anonymous author of the 14th century English classic The Cloud of Unknowing. This small volume offers a compelling vision of the disciplines of silence and surrender that are the heart of my prayer life.

But, after 73 chapters of urging upon the reader the practice of silent surrendered prayer, the author of The Cloud, concludes,

Should it seem that the way of prayer I have described in this book is unsuited to you spiritually or temperamentally, feel perfectly free to leave it aside and with wise counsel seek another in full confidence.

I love the humility and wisdom of this instruction. The author understands that he may not know what is the best way of prayer for everyone. But he urges the reader to continue searching for the path that works in their life.

This is a powerful vision for your priesthood. Do not seek to find the “right” way to be a priest. Do not try to conform to some prescription or pattern of what some person or book may tell you is the path of the priest. Find your way. Find the practice of priesthood that feels authentic and genuine for your life.

We thrash around so much looking for the winning way to do church or to be in ministry. But the world does  not need to be “won” to anything. The world needs to be confronted with a deep compelling vision of authentic living. As a priest you are called to be a genuine person, not a power person, or a successful person, just a real person. This is something you can do.

It is not the form of prayer or the form of priesthood that matters; what is important is establishing the practice that enables you to be the person you truly are. Who you are is the key to what you will do. If you get the who right, the what will follow.

Mary’s gesture in this icon sums up the heart of the path to being an authentic human being. Her stance is a stance of openness. She is available to receive whatever may come.

Before anything else, prayer is intended to enable the central act of Christian faith which bookends the story of Jesus’ life. In Luke’s Gospel, the story opens with Mary saying to the angel Gabriel,

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

Then at the end of Luke’s account, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, prays,

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ (Luke 22:43 )

Prayer is practice in the art of surrender. The purpose of priesthood is the practice of letting go. I seek in my priesthood to lay down my agendas, to let go as much as possible of my needs, wants, desires and demands.

The church does not exist to fulfill my agenda, or serve my needs, or to satisfy my ego. The church exists to enable heart opening to an awareness of divine presence. The church exists to encourage people to surrender to that divine power and light that are our true nature and our deepest identity.

To be a priest is to model, like Mary, the glad art of surrender.

There are few ditches worth dying in. The list of things that must get done or the precise way they must get done is actually pretty short. The mechanics of church life, the measurable/quantifiables of our community will rise and fall according to mysterious forces we neither control nor can predict. Our task is to let go of our need for things to be a certain way and embody the true strength that emerges out of surrender. The strength I see in Mary is not the strength of being able to impose her will on the events or circumstances of life. She embodies the strength of humility and trust that are at the heart of her willing abandon to the power of love.

I will never perform priesthood perfectly. I fail more times than I can begin to imagine. Even today, after all these years, much of the time I have very little idea what I am really doing. But, if I allow my failures to do their work and embrace my poverty, these two gifts have the power to open me to that deep place of light that is the truth of Christ’s presence in my life and in all of creation.

Jesus said,

Blessed are the poor (Luke 620),

not because there is some inherent virtue in poverty, but because our poverty summons us to acknowledge our need. All life is a gift. We depend for each breath on the presence and grace of Christ.

Ruth, this divine power has brought you to the place where yesterday you stood in front of a group of people gave yourself to a life of service to God. You committed yourself, not to a profession, but to a life, a life that seeks to serve as an instrument of grace and a sign of presence. This presence can be trusted.