I know I’m guilty of something, I just don’t know what it is.
When a car horn is blown or its lights flashed in my direction I look to see what I have done wrong and, usually, find nothing. When my name is called out in the street I look round expecting to be admonished but see a child being called back into the safety of his parents instead. When my boss asks to meet with me in private I walk into the room expecting to told off but leave having been encouraged. Perhaps it is down to the suspicion that my time of reckoning for all the times I have done something wrong and got away with it has arrived.
I often live with the assumption that I’ve done something wrong because I know I have. I know that there have been moments when I have failed to live as close to the model Christ showed us as a I could have.
Whatever our weaknesses are, wherever our guilt comes from, God is in the business of turning them into a strength. As a student I used the fact that I apparently looked guilty to my advantage. I signed up to become a Police ID Parade Model and became quite successful. I would wait with the others who vaguely met the physical profile of the suspect to see if I would be chosen for the line up. Each of us would project our guiltiest look in the hope that we would be chosen by the suspect and their solicitor, and get the £10 for being in the line up. We would continue with the charade as long as possible in the hope that it would extend the exercise beyond the hour and get the extra payments. Whilst many of my fellow models would leave to buy their next drug or alcohol fix with their wages I would melt into the city crowds to squirrel away my newly gained funds to pay my way through college.
My guilt for the sins I have committed, and even some of those I have not, drives me forward. My real and perceived guilt points me to the things I could do better, to the people I could treat better, to the God I could love better. But it can also be used to imprison me and turn my optimism into pessimism where doubts find it easier to take hold and where depression can feel like a stalker lurking in the shadows.
But whilst we can look for and cling to signs of hope to help us get through life, the more we have added to our plate the more we can struggle to clear it. And there is plenty from the turmoil across the world to the everyday pressures of life that can overwhelm us, discerning whether God’s call on my life is to be ordained is just one more. The years of introspection and interrogation from being on a journey of discernment road coupled with my wife’s redundancy and juggling fatherhood, work and ministry has taken it’s toll. It’s no wonder that I’m tired and find it difficult to find the energy to keep following the signs of my calling. In this state of weariness it is easy to be deflected from the path.
My DDO has a very different way of communicating from my previous ones, and truth be told I don’t know her enough to know if the silence that emanates from her office good, bad or benign. But carrying a sense that I have done something wrong, and that no news could well be bad news, steers me towards the negative. The silence that has existed since my meeting with one of my Bishops has therefore developed an ominous feeling to it.
The meeting had not been one I was looking forward to, not least because once again it meant delving into the painful lessons that came out of the first pass through the discernment process. What made this meeting worse was that the last time we met I had had to correct the fact that I was not the ordinand I had been introduced to him as. It became even more awkward for the two of us when I had to tell him that I had just been to a BAP and had not been recommended for ordination. Although I vividly remembered that encounter I didn’t expect him to. His opening question though was “remind me where we met before?”.
The meeting turned out to be the atypical rollercoaster: from the initial drop it picked up, had a big drop in the middle, picked up and left me laughing after the finale.
The big dipper was the question about what it means to be a priest. Initially I was pleased, I had done my homework and articulated the sacramental aspects of the role with confidence. What I had not comprehended was the unspoken question contained within, what it means to me for me to be a priest. It became so clear to me that I was not providing the answers he was looking forward that I raised the white flag. I knew I wasn’t communicating well and I told him.
Whilst his loving and constructive response was encouraging and gave me hope I was frustrated, I should have known better. I should have known what he had been actually been asking me but I had become too fixated on the dictionary definition that I had worked hard at getting my head around. Although I began to tell him what it did mean to me for me to be a priest it was too late, too much of our meeting had been wasted on confused inarticulation and the warning sign had been lit.
It came as a pleasant surprise that my bishop said that he wanted me to go to a second BAP. His request that I worked on the priestly question came not as an admonishment but an encouragement. He wanted me to succeed in communicating God’s call on my life and would be instructing my DDO with whom I would move forwards. It had been the opposite to our first meeting, that had been awkward and uncomfortable, this had been full of warmth, hope and a joint love of Christ. I left with him creating a scene from Father Ted in my mind as he directed traffic to enable me to go home, how I wished that he had been directing traffic with his staff whilst dressed in his Bishop’s Robes and Mitre!
But silence descended in the diocese.
The diocese were rather busy so the silence did not concern me, at first. But as the silence continued the ominous feeling grew and questions arose that the silence could not answer.
Just as the end of the year was in sight, so was the end of the discernment process. Both had been wearing me down but I only needed to keep going for a little bit longer to get over the finishing line and start the next race, whether that was training for ordination or not did and does not particularly matter (clearly it isn’t quite that simple). But the voice calling me like Sirens to give up and curl up in the comfort of the now and the known was whispering in my ear, and fighting with the stronger call to keep going.
The silence created by the limited contact and responses from my diocese has created a sense of concerned pessimism within me. It enhanced and magnified my frustration at failing to understand and answer the Bishop’s questions properly. I had messed up and done something wrong, my guilt was in place and the silence let it fester and feed on itself. Still, a light remained shining in the darkness from the majority of my meeting with the Bishop having been wonderful, and from having been warmly encouraged even in the frustrating parts. The light and the dark are fighting it out.
Just as I feel a sense of ominousness when my boss summons me to a meeting so do I ahead of my meeting with my DDO this week. The optimist in me points to the evidence that the end is in sight, that I will begin preparing for the second BAP that will bring closure and answer the question of ordination with a lasting and confident peace. The pessimist in me points to the doubts and suggests the end is too far away to be seen: that I will be working on the areas I want and need to focus on not in the build up to a BAP but in the build up to deciding when to apply to go to one.
The Sirens are calling me to give up without reaching the end and but God is calling me to keep walking forwards with and towards Him. The Sirens show a place of comfort and a place of relief but I know it is an illusion. What they offer is short term relief that will quickly be replaced with the discomfort of an incomplete quest with unanswered questions. To stay the course and reach the point where my quest can end with my questions tested and answered is where I will fine lasting comfort and relief. Now, perhaps more than ever on this journey, is the time to fix my eyes on God, to pray for and receive His strength to sustain me to the end. My next meeting will indicate just how close the end is.