Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Balance, Boundaries, Black Holes

I said I wasn't "inspired" to write about seminary. Perhaps one should make that claim after the year has begun.

The year has gotten off to a roaring start, much more than in previous years. The main word of the year seems to be "homilies," with three of them already written, critiqued, rewritten, and delivered within the first month of classes. In between all this, we've just taken a trip down to Miami, Florida, to see about a possible parish placement following this year. We're not really at liberty to talk about parishes, names, etc. at this point--really, things are in flux, and we spent most of the trip as "flies on the wall," being present in talks while things moved forward--but when you put travel on top of family involvement, all the reading seminary entails, daily services, community service (I'm working in the bookstore this year), and trying to work in regular exercise, the struggle to pray regularly has already mounted up...and fallen. And the offense was mounted again...aaaaaand failed. And again...aaaaand failed.

So, yeah. Object lesson in continued attempts at consistency achieved.

I've heard from several priests that seminary life repeatedly gives you more than you can handle so that you know what to cut. This attempt at striking a balance in life through daily, weekly, seasonal, annual, and multiple-year cycles, routines, and rhythms is crucial, not only to managing parish life, but controlling and managing yourself so that you can be the kind of man who can lead, who can hold things together because he is himself together, who can act (instead of react) when personality conflicts (in church or home) rear their heads, because he's aware of his own, internal reactions and impulses and aware of boundaries. We've actually been reading Boundaries (by Cloud and Townsend) in Pastoral Theology; this is a re-read for me, since our priest used the book with us in our premarital counseling, to great effect. Not only is the need for developing a sense of "where I end and you begin" is crucial to establishing a sense of personal identity, but also about a healthy way of dealing with people in any setting, You can attach when you need to, detach at the end of the day, and retain some sense of who you are and allow (and help) others to be who they are and have to be.

Thick skin; soft heart; steady pace.

There's also that "black holes" bit in the subject...all the talk about boundaries, about those with toxic personalities, about maintaining a robust Christian identity...all this reminded me of a conversation I had with two of the faculty priests here shortly before being ordained. We had just gone through a "liturgical try-out" to see if I had certain things down, and things had gone well. Then the mood shifted from a professors-student relationship to a much more person-to-person, mentor-disciple tone; in particular, one of them asked a question that took me aback:

"What can you expect from your people?"

Several thoughts flashed through my mind--Does he want the 'spiritual' answer? A jaded one? Should I be practical and technical and give a parish-administrator-type answer? Finally, I just said the only thing I thought was realistic:

"Flak?"

The priest smiled. "Absolutely. You are going to be responsible, not only for bearing their sins, their troubles, the struggles that they want you to help them with, but also with the attacks, the hostility, the ad hominem attacks against you and your family. You have to have a kind of black hole that all of that can go into and...not that you have to repress these things or act as if they didn't happen, but that you'll be able to internalize it, crunch it down, so that you'll be able to continue to function."

He went on to say how pastoral life also has great, amazing joys to it, rewards that aren't seen in any other vocation. But the need to emphasize that this is not going to be an "I'll be nice to you; you'll be nice to me" situation (which he said was probably the number one misunderstanding recent seminary graduates had upon arriving at their first parish placement) has stayed with me and underscored the need for regular prayer life and Scripture reading, regular time with the family (which entails screening calls and setting appointments for non-emergencies) and regular exercise and a consciously healthy diet (which, I have to brag on her, my wife has taken to the next level as of late!).

Please continue to keep us in your prayers. My starting up of a "Bible in a Year" plan has almost gotten around to Psalm 31/32 (where I left off from the psalms); I hope to pick up with those posts this week.

5 comments:

Juliana said...

Keep on keeping on, is what I say. You are preparing for a great service, and we (your possible future parishioners) thank you for it!

RE: prayer life, I just read this excellent article that you might like:

http://www.ncregister.com/blog/simcha-fisher/the-innocence-of-god

Mimi said...

Your answer made me laugh. You will be a wonderful priest.

Darlene said...

"Boundaries?" Why a book by an evangelical Protestant? Are there no decent Orthodox writers addressing this subject?

Dn. David said...

Juliana and Mimi -
Thanks for the compliments. Y'all are sweet.

Darlene -
While one can find lots of things in, say, the Desert Fathers about "minding your own business," the Fathers don't really talk a lot about what happens when *you* don't have the filters necessary to keep other people from running your life.

And really, the question *could* be asked, "Why bother with the out-of-context Bible quotes at all?" If those were taken out, this would read largely like any self-help book out there, and is mostly just a book of observations regarding how people fail to say "no," and what's led up to that. Not much different to how St. Basil simply observed the physical world and classified it in more or less a scientific, non-metaphysical manner (what we might today call "secular," though he wouldn't, I'm sure).

I find that a good book regarding thought life (though not specifically related to boundaries) is Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, a group of quotes by Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica. Just in case you're interested.

rusmeister said...

Welcome to the club on consistency.

If it weren't for CS Lewis and GK Chesterton, I might've given up some time ago. As it is, I have to say with the apostle Peter, "Where can we go? You have the words of eternal life!"