Prophets Speak for God, Priests Become One with God

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

2nd Sunday of Advent —  December 6, 2020

You may be aware that the Prophet Isaiah was, along with being a prophet, a priest.  His call was dual – the prophet speaking for God and the priest becoming one with God.  This morning’s first reading begins with the priest Isaiah speaking a message of union.

It is a familiar Advent message:

“Comfort my people, console them.

Speak tenderly to the people.

They have received enough punishment

and it is coming to an end.”  (Isaiah 40:1)

Isaiah, the priest, reassures the people of their union with God.  It is the priestly thing to do.  Thursday of this week, December 10, is the 52nd Anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, who was, among other things, a priest of God.  While there are many tragic losses about his dying too young, one that impacts today’s message from the priest Isaiah is Merton’s own view of being a priest.

Merton began in 1949 with a pretty standard, ritualistic understanding of priesthood.  But by 1968 there were glimmers that he had already developed an inclusive view approaching the awareness that we all are priests.  So, I thought I would take a closer look at that view with you this morning.

In his essay, The White Pebble, Thomas Merton gave us his early reflection on priesthood.  Written within a year of his ordination it is quite understandably a portrait of first fervor in his “new state” in life.  Also, as it was 1950, his late Tridentine, pre-Vatican II view is not only understandable but revelatory in the solitary and metaphysical (of a certain school) reality that it presents.  As we used to say in the trade, the new Ordinand wrote (italics mine):

“Ordination impresses upon the soul an indelible character which identifies a man with Christ as priest and victim…. The priest holds in his hands (It’s 2020 don’t we all?) the judge and Savior of men.  He speaks five words (Again, 2020 don’t we all?) and the Life of the world is present on the altar before him.  He holds between his fingers the Heart that is throbbing in the deepest center of all the hearts of the saints; he holds God Himself in his hands!”

Now, apart from acknowledging the exclusively male terminology which unfortunately all too often was Merton’s wont, I repeat these words first because, having been an ordinand myself, I have a sense of the meaning and implications that underlie focusing on the priest’s hands, also of the thought of holding God.  Second, because these words give us that transforming sense of how far we have come from those late-Tridentine and pre-Vatican II days.

Let’s start with identifying the self-interest that is involved when a clerical caste system ossifies through power.  The earlier-named indelible character that was sprung from a now mostly debunked metaphysics was nonetheless recast to permit “special handling” of a special box called ontological difference and set the Priest apart from us mere humans.

I have shared often that even in the post-Vatican II year of 1974, my ordination year, the structure of priest-making retained remnants of the old ways.  Probably the greatest shock to my sense of my own mere humanness came in my first year at my first parish.  People, and I mean no disrespect here, actually believed that I had all the answers (not the ones on how to run a parish, but all those theological and ethical ones.)  How could it be, I asked myself, that in May I was a 4th year Theology student – with all the probing and criticism by my professors calling into question the levels of my knowledge and intelligence – and yet, having been ordained in June, by August be the answer-man for so many parishioners?  The tried-and-true answer to that question used to be, “Preach what the Church preaches – no more, no less.”  Is this how an ontologically altered person functions, by becoming an automaton?

Here, too, I mean not to disparage.  But when they put a pre-dieu (that’s an old-time kneeler for you young’uns) in front of me at the reception following my First Mass so that people would kneel before me for a blessing, and some would kiss my hands as an expression of piety and for the indulgence that resulted from doing so, how better did the clerical system reinforce the sanctity of the hands, the separateness of the priest?

Second, on how far we have come.  For comparison sake, let me add to Merton’s 1950 vision of holding the “throbbing Heart that beats in the center of all the saints,” his vision in 1958 at 4th & Walnut Streets, Louisville, Kentucky, when he was overwhelmed with a sense and feeling of love for all people, all creation – a sense of God present in all.  Let me just point out the distance, not the geographical one, between 4th & Walnut and the altar on which he spoke words to make God present.  What a difference between 1950 & 1958.

In 2018, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Merton’s death the New Yorker magazine commissioned Alan Jacobs to write an article for its Dec. 28 issue.  He titled it, “The Modern Monkhood of Thomas Merton.”  In it he points out:  “Throughout the second half of the nineteen-fifties Merton had come to believe that his monastic isolation had made him inattentive to the evils of the world.”  Does this coming to belief also make you, as it does me, wonder about how his view on priesthood would have fully developed, oh, let’s say by 2000, let alone 2020?  Maybe a germ of the change he would undergo lies in The White Pebble as he reflects on what was a dilemma for him, namely that the sacrament makes him what he called a “public property” and yet he was a contemplative monk involved completely in God.

Now consider our practice of Eucharist in our Mary of Magdala Community.  The 1950 Merton wrote about the priest (himself) holding “in his hands the judge and Savior of (all.)”  Well, we do that now.  The 1950 Merton spoke “five words and the Life of the world is present.”  Well, we do that now.  Our 2020 Eucharist celebrates the wholeness of the priesthood (1 Peter 2:5; Exodus 19:6) wherein we are all priests.

Here’s what I think.  When the 2 unnamed disciples returned from the road to Emmaus back to Jerusalem to report they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, why do you suppose they were able to do that?  I believe they were present at that first Holy Thursday meal when Jesus broke the bread the same as he did with them along that Emmaus road.  And they recognized him both times.  By their presence and their sharing in the meal it seems clear to me that Jesus directed the whole community to “Do this in memory of me.”  Speaking the “five words” was not specific to the Twelve, one of whom couldn’t leave the meal fast enough to betray Jesus.

So, we all hold in our hands the One who commands us to share.  And we say “five words” together (formerly, hoc est enim corpus meum – for this is my body) that are part of the Eucharist moment that concludes with the Doxology – the entire prayer of which celebrates with glory and praise the living Word among us.   Let the people say, “Amen!”  We are Christ.  We are priests of Christ at 4th & Walnut and all the world over.

Catholica.com, based in Australia (catholica.com.au), had an article in 2009 by Patrick Collins about Merton’s views on priesthood.  It’s a solid presentation on the “Higher” view as in the 1950 reflection cited here, as well as moving beyond this pietistic view by the end of the fifties.  It is a more inclusive, creation based view that Merton came to.  Collins reminds us of Merton’s connection and correspondence with his former novice Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet and minister of government for Nicaragua (for which John Paul II defrocked him).  Merton wrote of Cardenal,

“No priest and no poet is really mature until he is everybody.  To not do so causes disquiet, an uncomfortable existence.  This discomfort is not necessary for those who identify themselves completely with a Church (like the ordinary priest) or a party (like the Communists.)

In this age of “all doing it” we have abandoned notions of indelible character and have taken on the role of everybody in it together.  Those who gather in this spirit form church, the priesthood of the faithful – not the solitary priest saying Mass at a side chapel and certainly not the individual who is ordained into a functionary elite.  It’s this gathering into which the priest and poet is everybody and everybody is or can be priest.

In an insight of a certain prescience Merton affirms and sets the challenge for one who would be priest.  This one with personal commitment and abandonment becomes Christ who loves and is made to suffer for that love, who engages in kenosis – the complete giving of self in praise of Christ who calls priests to the Christ-Life.  This brings to mind Maggie Ross’s Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity.  I don’t have the page number but the quote is seared into my consciousness.  Ross writes:  “There are those who are ordained who may be clergy and may have office but who are not priests.”  Maybe they’re the ones who still believe in indelible character.

In 1968, the year of his death, Merton wrote to a priest, one Father D. who had his fill of institution, of administration, of bishops.  Thomas advised him, “See your priesthood not as a role or office but as just part of your own life and your own relations to other persons.”

So, in this Advent Season of the Promise of comfort and new light I say, “Be priest and Christ will come to stay!”

A Prayer   (JR)

A lonely, separated, and isolated time calls for searching,

calls for being everybody, calls for standing against violence.

The throbbing heart beating in the center of all does not beat

once for all.  This is not sacrifice.  This is not atonement.

This is love.  This is gift.  This is everybody.

Beloved Parent, we give ourselves to Christ who gives himself as your

Creating Word to all.

This is not illusion.  This is the Way.

Amen.

 

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