Priests are often hard pressed to describe exactly what it is that we do. A teacher helps us to gain knowledge about a particular subject, a psychologist helps us solve problems by fostering self-knowledge, a doctor cures illnesses by prescribing a course of treatment. While the role of the priest partakes of elements of all of these other professions, I’ve come to believe that these are really quite peripheral matters.
The role of the priest is to confess what we cannot know, to forgive what can’t be undone, and to bear witness to suffering that cannot be cured. In other words, the priest is a person who is willing to be useless for the sake of others. To be a priest is to be willing to walk alongside others as they travel beyond the limits of the human into the Mystery. In so doing, we try to communicate something of the trustworthiness of the Mystery, and the consolation – even healing – experienced in surrender to the Mystery.
The priest is not an expert. She is someone who points beyond herself – beyond all expertise – to the Mystery of God. All that the priest can offer is this embrace of vulnerability, of uselessness, of simply being here and now. At most, we can hedge this vulnerability round with honor and look upon those we serve with soft eyes, reflecting back to them the image of God revealed there.
Wendell Berry expresses this beautifully in the character of the Rev. Williams Milby, as seen through the eyes of his wife, Laura.
As the knowledge of this depth of suffering grew upon her, Laura understood, as she had not before, the gravity of her husband’s calling, for she saw that it was to this suffering that he was called. As he sank inevitably into it or as it rose inevitably out of its depth, its quietness and darkness, to meet him, she saw not only the gravity of his calling but its authenticity. For Williams Milby had the gift of comforting. He carried with him, not by his will, it seemed, but by the purest gift, the very presence of comfort. And yet even as it was a comfort to others, it could be a bafflement and a burden to him. His calling, and the respect accorded to it, admitted him into the presence of troubles he could not mend . . . It was plain to him – and Laura knew this – that he was always hopelessly in debt to his own ministry, for he could not give all that he wanted and longed to give. He was needed, even so, and what he had to give, and more, was continually asked of him. People were glad to see him coming. They called him to come. They were glad to have him around when they did not need him, just for the assurance that he would be at hand when they did need him.
What is more, the claim upon the priest is not limited to the members of the congregation, to the Church. In fact, were it so limited, it would diminish her capacity to point beyond herself to the Mystery, for the Mystery far transcends the Church. Laura comes to understand this, though not always readily.
And when, having done all he could do to help a family through a quarrel or an illness or a death, performing services he was not paid for and could not have been paid for, he might never hear from them again, let alone see their faces for the courtesy of one Sunday among his hearers. Laura felt herself wounded with sorrow for him and anger at them for their ingratitude.
“It’s not right!” She cried to him once, breaking for that once into his silence about it. “It’s just not right!”
“No. It’s not right,” he said quietly, and he gave her his smile with which he sought to quiet her. “But it’s all right.”
A priest will spend hours with a couple in premarital counseling, never to hear from them again after the wedding. She will baptize many babies whose parents will never trouble with church on a Sunday morning thereafter. She will hold the hands of many a lonely, or frightened, or dying person, known to her alone and never to her credit. “But it’s all right.”
Priests walk alongside those whose tragedy and whose joy (Berry forgets this part) demands a witness. It is just too big not to be shared. It is just too awful or too wonderful to be contained by anything less than the Mystery that transcends and comprehends us all. And so, we call the priest. Not to teach us, or solve our problems, or cure us, but to accompany us over the edge into the abyss, into the Mystery. And, in so doing, to hint at the image of God within us that makes us – all of us – so worthy of such lavish attention.
A priest is someone whose gift it is to remind us, always and everywhere, “It’s all right” – not by their words, which quickly devolve into cliché – but by their presence. By their very uselessness, they are made usable for God.