Thursday, September 08, 2011

Struggle and Gift

Several months ago a friend and I were discussing some of the difficulties that seem to come along with being lay members of a parish staff. One of these difficulties is our inability to reveal our personal struggles in faith. For the most part, it is inappropriate for us to discuss our own struggles with the people we serve and it can be very awkward to discuss them with the priests for whom we work.

When the parish where you work is also the parish where you are a parishioner (as it was for me) you have a dual dilemma because your priest is also your boss. You can't burden the parishioners with your problems since you are there to serve them so you have to go about your work as though your spiritual and personal lives are well ordered. To discuss these things with your priest also crosses a priest/boss boundary which can be very awkward.

In my new job/ministry all of the above has become far more complicated and I have struggled to find out how to make it work. Both of my bosses are also my priests and I now have a complicated relationship with every priest in a 50 mile radius.

My bosses have taught me a great deal without even realizing it. A few days ago, one of my bosses (I'll call him boss 1) told me about a struggle that he was having with prayer. He was battling through it, but in the end didn't seem to be getting ahead. He was so human and so matter of fact about it that it made me stop and wonder what I was so afraid of. Here he was revealing his struggles to me and the only thing I could offer him was support and friendship while at the same time I battled with the idea of revealing my own struggles and sins to him in Confession where he could offer me absolution and God's grace.

Not everyone saw it that way, though. A coworker heard what he said, and after he left the room, she declared that she would never go to him for advice on prayer or the spiritual life. She thought it was scandalous and as far as she was concerned he was not as "holy as he pretended to be". Let me note here that Father never said he had stopped praying!

A few days later my other boss (boss 2) and I went to an evening Mass and dinner at another parish. It had been a very long and frustrating day for both of us and I wanted nothing more than to go home and relax. His yawning in the sacristy pretty much gave away his exhaustion. Still, whether we wanted to be there or not, we had an obligation to keep.

The Mass was beautiful and it is followed by a very nice dinner filled with delicious food, great conversation, lots of fun and our hosts were so gracious and caring. As we were leaving boss 2 said, "You know, they were so happy that we came. They think I gave them a great gift by coming to say Mass and visit with them during dinner, but I got a gift too. I came in here tired and frustrated, but I'm leaving happy, relaxed and so overtired that I'll never sleep tonight. None of them realize the gift they gave me". I knew exactly what he meant because I was leaving with the same feeling. We went because we had to, but in the end we stayed because we wanted to. In fact, we had so much fun that were among the last to leave.

So, what did I get out of this? Well, a whole bunch of things, but at least 3 in particular stand out.

1) Going through the motions when you aren't feeling it gets you to the other side so you can do it for real. We aren't going to feel like praying, going to Mass, or any number of things, but that doesn't mean you give up. (Ok, so this isn't new to me, but it is nice to be reminded).

2) Knowing my priest struggles with the same stuff that I do is a real comfort because I know he will understand and maybe even have better advice because of it. I don't have to pretend to have my spiritual life in order because he is well aware of his own faults and feels free enough to reveal them to me. (Yeah, I knew that too, I just have never had a priest speak to me so candidly about his own spiritual life. It was a real comfort).

3) Life is a two way street. The priest who struggles can help me with my struggles and might even help himself as he helps me. Knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things and in talking to me, he is also talking to himself. (Again, not groundbreaking stuff here, but stuff we can easily forget. We can have an effect on our priests too and often what we are given can help him as much as it can help us).

The average parishioner doesn't have to worry about any of this, but being on a parish staff changes everything. You wouldn't bare your soul to your boss in the secular world and you really shouldn't in the ecclesial world either, but I know he won't look down at me when we are in the same boat. Anyway, maybe I can be an occasion of grace for him. ;-)

Now, if I can only come to grips with my own humanity.