Today is the feast of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and the anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I'm filled with a real sense of gratitude for my vocation and feel blessed indeed. It is a privilege to be able to do what I love in a place that I love, a privilege that too few people on the planet get to enjoy.
This anniversary date has put me in mind of the nature of priesthood. What is it exactly that I do and how do I do it? I wrote yesterday about imagining the priest as a mirror in the center of Christian community. Today I want to reflect a bit about how such mirroring "works."
Fundamental to sacramental ministry - mirroring back to people their own reflection of the image of God - is the discipline of seeing people and situations "whole." It is a contemplative discipline to learn to see people as they are in themselves, rather than how we want or need them to be for us. My tendency, perhaps the human tendency, is to either idealize or demonize people. We edit them down to serve our own projections, fantasies, and fears. We only see the parts of them the reinforce the image of them that we desire. Learning to see people whole is about intentionally getting to the point where "the honeymoon is over," the point where we can see them warts (or gifts) and all.
The practice of this discipline requires listening to people and observing them as they tell their own stories and enact them over time. One of the wonderful things about priesthood is being able to see people over an extended period in a variety of "real life" roles and contexts, as well as in the practice for "real life" that we call the liturgy. With some amount of attention on our part, people will begin to reveal themselves to us, and the Christ within them.
The contemplative discipline of "seeing people whole" also requires the practice of meditation. I must be attentive to God as well as to people, so that I can come to recognize that which is of God in them. Meditation is about putting aside my ego, my preoccupations and intentions, turning everything over to God so that I can simply be with and in God as I am. In that practice of "turning over" and "paying attention," I gradually become free of my need to heal, correct, control, or manipulate other people, to make them in my image, so that I can see them as the image of God.
I suspect that other priests find other ways, suited to their own temperament and personality, to practice what I call the contemplative discipline of seeing people whole. Thankfully, the efficacy of sacramental ministry doesn't depend upon my practicing this discipline perfectly or even well. God makes use of whomever God chooses, quite apart from our abilities and qualifications. The Body of Christ, the mystery of the presence of God, is manifest by the gathering of the assembly, and not simply by the actions of its presider. I do believe, however, that practicing this discipline is vital to my capacity to "get out of the way" so that God's image within people can be reflected back to them more clearly.