The most important thing, and that which will enable you and I to be disciples for a whole life, no matter one's own sense of inadequacy, alleged failures, or disappointment, is a sense, a familiarity with our own weakness and emptiness. But not just weakness and emptiness; weakness and emptiness as the great dignity of our humanity and the fount of grace in our lives and ministries.
A few observations and anecdotes to finish this series on emptiness.
First, contrast the training for ordained ministry current ordination candidates receive and that which I received. They are given opportunities to attain skills and competencies early in their ordained ministries that I did not. And I think the training now is busier and more intense. But because of the gaps in my training I had to rely on personal presence in a way that the newly ordained now might not. I am not advocating this as a desirable place for the newly ordained to find themselves in! But just to point out the potentially unrecognised danger competency brings.
The danger is a lack of depth covered over by competency. Those who train now are prepared for ministry in a much more productive manner than in the past, but the competencies can become the new bag of priestcraft tricks of the past. In the old days it was tempting for the priest to pull out his communion, or oil, or bible or prayer book, or mumble a prayer with his clerical collar on, and think this would suffice for real sacramental personal presence. A bag of tricks is not what priesthood is about, whether that bag of tricks is a prayer book, the sacrament, th Bible or a whole new range of competencies.
Second, I remember sitting in the Peterborough Rectory and looking at my books back in the mid-90s. I had just finished my PhD, and here I was up in the country with a PhD that nobody cared about or saw as useful, or even knew what it meant! There seemed no way to pursue that path of academia, to develop it, or if there was, it seemed like it would drag me from the task at hand. And the task at hand was to be the parish priest of Peterborough and the people in it. There seemed little overlap.
These three stories/observations speak to me about the great dignity of our humanity (its weakness and incompletion) and the dangers associated with that weakness. They also speak to me about what it means to be a baptised Christian (and subsumed within this common baptism, a priest): refracting back to the world, church, and all creation our common destiny grounded in our createdness and God’s grace. All three stories warn us of making our discipleship to our strengths. Relying on our strengths, rather than allowing strength to arise out of our weakness. For example, my radical pursuit of the gospel should have been the result of a letting go of those things I was formerly filling the emptiness with, but instead I refilled the emptiness with my pride. Or in the case of my PhD, it became something I could stand on and rely on (or its knowledge, or the differential between my knowledge and most other people’s knowledge), rather than something I could offer humbly in service to God, not knowing where that offer might lead. And in the case of priestly formation and competence, the danger of a mechanical and human generated application of a ‘bag of tricks’ bearing little resemblance to the true iconic value of discipleship.
I am not suggesting that we can’t be competent and increase competency, can’t have PhD’s, can’t operate in areas of ministry in which we are comfortable and capable, or radically pursue the gospel in our lives. But let us do so always from the perspective of the great dignity of humankind. (That is, our incompleteness waiting to be filled by God). The simple humility that flows from knowing our great dignity can ensure that our skills and competencies, the radical choices we can make, the achievements we accrue along the way, can become means of grace for others rather than condemnation of ourselves.