Every few years or so, usually when I move, I find an old photocopied document entitled “Reflections on the Journey.” It is about ten pages long, stapled at the top left corner and now has a water stain on the front cover from resting on the top of a shelf underneath an air conditioning line that was prone to freeze up and then melt. It was produced in 1992 by the people of my home parish, St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Richmond Hill, as part of their Lenten journey in that year. Parishioners were invited to write and share reflections on how God had moved in their lives.
I have kept this little document since then and whenever it pops up I peruse it for a few moments, reading over some of the selections. These moments are usually filled with the requisite nostalgia as I see the names of many who have meant and continue to mean much to me on my own faith journey. The nostalgia deepens when I think of those who are now in heaven. The sentimentality of the nostalgia gives way, however, to a profound sense of gratefulness and thanksgiving when I begin to read the substance of those reflections. Some of the stories are quite simple, while others are deeply personal. All of them, though, bear witness to a profound reality, which is the presence of God in the life of the people of God. While the collection contains the thoughts of priests and theology students, it also contains the reflections of a broad selection of the whole people of God. Some of these people were deeply involved in the life of the parish when I was a young man, and while some of them articulately expressed their faith quite regularly, there are others for whom this must have been an exercise in vulnerability. It can be very difficult to talk about our faith, not because it is not important to us, but because it is very important to us. Our faith journey is at once about the most interior part of our lives and the same time about how we relate to the world. It shapes our identity personally and politically (I mean the latter in the true sense of our participation in the “polis” or society). I think that most of us are afraid that if we stumble in articulating our faith journey, not only do we feel that we have “let down the side”, but that maybe something core to our being has been unmasked as a fraud. Often, we have an inner confidence based on some experience of the divine, and yet we are afraid that if we articulate that experience, someone will assault it, and as a result assault us at our deepest level. Thus, many Christians buy into the modern notion that our religion should be a private thing and not for public consumption.
What occurs to me, though, as I re-read that old St. Mary’s booklet, is how much my faith journey is strengthened by hearing the stories of the faith journeys of other Christians, especially those who were people that were formative in my life as a young man. I don’t look upon these people as somehow crazy or deranged (as I am sure many of them felt they would be taken as the put pen to paper to share their stories), rather I am heartened and my own faith is enlivened. I think this is probably the reason why Christianity is a religion that revels in telling the stories of saints. The lives of our spiritual mothers and fathers are a testimony that we are not alone, much less victims of some sort of mass delusion, as we walk this pilgrimage of faith. And of course, although it might not seem the case as we read the stories of the great saints, all saints are flawed people. Indeed, most saints really are ordinary people. It is the presence of God in their lives, and in ours, which makes us all extraordinary.
The courage of those men and women in 1992 to share a small piece of their faith journey continues to resonate and inspire. Their risk of vulnerability has become to us a gift. As a priest, I am asked from time-to-time by outsiders the question that so few people in the church ever ask. “How did you know you wanted to be a priest?” Or, “When did you ‘get the call?’” I am sure other clergy have heard these questions. These are honest questions posed by people who are asking us to be vulnerable with our story. And even for a priest that is hard. It is hard because most of us never had that ‘lightning bolt’ moment. More importantly, it is hard because it is difficult for us to be vulnerable with our stories, too. The larger question for me, though, has always been less about being called to be a priest and more about sensing and believing in the presence of God in Christ in my life. Perhaps there are some stories there to share; stories that involve people in my life carrying the light of Christ, that illumined my path at key moments along my journey. To that end, in future posts I will endeavour to stir up the courage to share some of those moments, in the way that those courageous St. Mary’s parishioners did those many years ago, in the hope that it will begin a process of storytelling for all of us that holds before us the reality of God in our midst. I would love to hear your stories, too.
c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves