The Holy Spirit blows where she wills, upsetting old patterns and blowing life into old adages we wear as badges, like “Careful what you wish for…you might just get it.” Such has been the case in my life. When the first note of a priestly calling began to ring in my heart at the age of 24 years old, I was an NYU Grad Student living in Brooklyn. The single note resounded to the core of my being and wishing to be a priest more than anything, I entered the discernment process.
Discernment requires copious research and reflection…so I read many books about the vocation; I talked to countless priests about it; and I imagined and dreamed about how becoming a priest would meet all of my desires both for service and identity. I would be something—complete with a title, a uniform and role.
So as I began the discernment process with the requisite internship at a neighboring parish, and endured a barrage of psychological testing, all seemed to fall into place. I even found a job working for the Episcopal Church Center (aka 815) while I waited to go to seminary. When the time came for the interviews with “the powers that be”, all went well, and I was granted postulancy and seminary loomed on the near horizon, I thought I had it made. I delayed going to seminary because I was learning so much working on the staff of the Presiding Bishop.
And that’s when things started to go sideways. I was young in the ways of the world and didn’t realize how power is wielded. It never occurred to me that the Bishop might not be the one calling the shots. Unfortunately, as it turned out the Bishop was terribly sick and falling completely under the sway of alcoholism. And although to my eyes it looked like he was in charge, it was his Canon who ran the diocese. And so instead of listening to the suggestions of the Bishop, I should have paid more attention to the woman behind the ‘episcopal’ screen. I didn’t and for that I was given an opportunity for correction.
My permission to go to seminary was revoked and I was quasi-kicked out the ordination process. I had no status, but as my obedience still being observed, I was still being told where I should go to church and I was required to spend Saturdays doing local theology and bible classes at a local school of theology. I’ll spare you the retelling of the anguish I experienced during this three-year period—of my scheming to find a new diocese and bishop, of my decision to nearly give up on becoming a priest and the sorted dealings through which the “powers that be” finally sent me off to seminary.
The discernment time at seminary became one of intentional formation and I grew as a one-day priest in training. And at yet, as I finished seminary and the time for ordination approached—some 8 years after the desire to be a priest emerged in my heart—the notion that I should “Be careful what you wish for” finally struck home. Throughout all of this time, I had expected becoming a priest to feel magical. And while the day was very affirming…and my wish was finally fulfilled, being a priest didn’t make me feel any different. I was still me. No extra-significant sense of calling, no special illumination from the Holy Spirit.
You see, once we arrive at the wished-for reality and it almost never ends up being not for what we hoped. As so, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to here and NOW.
That is precisely what I learned after my ordination…I realized how many years I had fretted and worried, schemed and agonized. In the end, very little of it really mattered. It only served to distract me from the really priestly work that all of us are called to participate in. The truth is that God is not really interested in our wishes for significant and pronounced service—God simply wants us to open our eyes to the need around us NOW and to serve: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. “
Actually, this was the lesson I learned on the day of my ordination. You see a new bishop had been elected and when he arrived at the church, he found me changing my then three-year-old son’s VERY poopy diaper. We were chatting and getting to know one another as I worked. It was when I wrapped up the diaper, that I realized, much to my horror, that the bishop was standing between me and the trashcan. He must have seen the panicked look on my face and without missing a bit. He silently coaxed me into handing him the diaper and he quickly deposited it in the trash—without missing a beat in the conversation.
It was this simple act that truly taught me what it means to be a priest…what it means to be truly human. If you want to be great, you must serve. Whatever journey we are on…whatever “wish” we are working to make reality, let us practice true discernment and listen for the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Luke Fodor is rector of St. Luke’s Church, Jamestown, NY.