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LIVING ON THE BORDER of the Holy
Renewing the Priesthood of All
By L. WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1999 L. William Countryman
All rights reserved.
The Priesthood of Humanity
It might appear, at first sight, as if a book about the life of the church ought to begin with the church itself or, at least, with what is distinctive to the Christian tradition—with Jesus, perhaps, or the Bible. But we can never truly understand what is distinctively Christian without placing it in the broader context of human existence itself. The gospel was not spoken (and cannot be spoken) in a timeless or abstract way. It is always spoken to specific people, who hear it with human ears and human minds. The news GOD speaks to human beings can only be good news if it addresses and affirms our humanness, the very humanness with which GOD first endowed us in creation. There is no contradiction between gospel and creation. The gospel takes what is already intrinsic to us and fills and enhances and clarifies it. We cannot explore the life of the church, then, or the meaning of priesthood in and for the church without, at the same time, exploring the meaning of priesthood to us as human beings.
The first thing to say in our exploration of priesthood, then, is that priesthood is a fundamental and inescapable part of being human. All human beings, knowingly or not, minister as priests to one another. All of us, knowingly or not, receive priestly ministrations from one another. This is the first thing to say about priesthood because it is the most basic. Because it is basic, it is also fundamental and therefore useful. Unless we begin here, we are not likely to understand the confusions, uncertainties, and opportunities we have been encountering in the life of the church itself in recent years. We shall be in danger, in fact, of creating makeshift solutions to half-understood problems, easy answers to misleading questions, and temporary bandages for institutions that need to be healed from the ground up.
What, then, is priestly ministry? It is the ministry that introduces us to arcana—hidden things, secrets. In one sense, priestly ministry is the most ordinary thing imaginable. All our lives, we are repeatedly in the position of finding, revealing, explaining, and teaching—or, conversely, of being led, taught, and illuminated. Everyone is the priest of a mystery that someone else does not know: how to construct a budget, how to maneuver through the politics of the workplace, how to roast a turkey, how to win the affections of the girl or boy to whom one is attracted. The experience is so common that much of the time we do not notice it at all. We are all constantly serving others as priests of mysteries known to us and not to them. And we are constantly being served by those who know what we do not.
Some human work is priestly in a very obvious way: teaching, parenting, mentoring, coaching, the performing arts, the arts of statecraft. These make use of what we know to sustain human life or to initiate the young into adulthood or to hand on our cultural traditions. Other tasks involve a voyage into the unknown in order to bring back news for priestly use. Prayer is like this—the prayer of quiet listening and reflection. Scientific research is a journey into the unknown. So is the work of creative artists and all serious thinkers. But even in the most daily of our daily routines, the process of priestly service never ceases. It belongs to the very fabric of ordinary human interactions. We are constantly standing alongside someone else, giving or receiving some new understanding of the world before us, whether through direct interchange or through the more remote means of communication made possible by technology. To be human means to be engaged in priestly discourse—the unveiling of secrets.
These secrets are not, for the most part, kept hidden on purpose or as a way of excluding ordinary folk. Deliberately held secrets—the secrets of governments, of corporations, of cliques—are usually trivial in the long run. We keep such secrets mainly in order to present ourselves to the world as "insiders," and we reveal them for the same purpose or because they will gain us some immediate advantage. This kind of secrecy has little to do with priesthood. Insofar as it is priestly, it tends to manifest a malformed and misleading priesthood. A fascination with being an insider actually impedes the ministry of true priesthood, which is as much about revealing as about finding.
The deepest arcana are secret because they are hard to know, hard to reveal, hard to learn. They can be known only by experiencing them. Anything that can be fully conveyed in language, without remainder, is probably not of ultimate importance. The truly human knowledge is that which is obtained through living. If experience is passed on through language, the language is at most a map, a directional sign, a helpful guide to the experience itself. These arcana are secret, then, because they concern dimensions of human experience where language fails (or, often, where language multiplies to the point of becoming useless). Some things are known only through our direct involvement. You cannot know what it is to be in love until it happens to you. You cannot know what it is to stand, unprotected, in GOD'S presence until you are there.
The deepest arcana take us beyond the realm of everyday things. There are secrets that are sufficiently rare, sufficiently difficult to grasp in our experience, that we barely have language to talk about them. When we speak of "the HOLY," for example, we have no way of being sure that all of us mean the same thing. All we can do is pay attention to one another, listen for the implications of what the other person is saying, and try to match the other's words with our own experience to see if they overlap. Some things—many things, actually—are secret by their very nature. They can be revealed only indirectly and partially. When our language about such things puts on an appearance of solidity and complete specificity, like that of words used for common daily objects, the language misleads us. It is when we stand in the very presence of this HOLY that cannot be clearly or simply expressed that we most truly recognize our priesthood for what it is.
This priesthood belongs to everyone. Every human being has some access to arcana that is given to no one else—at least, not in quite the same way. Every human being has a unique privilege of encounter with these arcana and therefore a unique priesthood. Everyone has a vocation leading them into a deeper acquaintance with GOD and so bringing them home to our true humanity in GOD'S presence. Grounded in this experience, we find our priestly interactions flowering and bearing fruit in often unexpected ways.
"But wait!" someone may say. "Isn't this making it all too easy? Hasn't priesthood always been difficult? Haven't the religions taught us that priesthood is remote and inaccessible to the ordinary person, that only the privileged few can know what is hidden and show it to the many? Isn't GOD revealed only to the elect? Isn't this remote GOD to be known only through the long study of scripture and theology, of halakah and midrash, or through ascetic renunciation and mystical contemplation?" Without denying that such pursuits have their legitimate uses and that one may grow in wisdom and discernment with their help, we must still answer "No."
The encounter with the HIDDEN is a kind of fault line running through the middle of our lives; no one can escape its presence. The HIDDEN forms a border country that turns out to be, paradoxically, our native land. We all live with it, on it, in terms of it. We all have our unique experience of it. It is as near as breathing. The HIDDEN is inescapable. We can ignore it, with varying degrees of success, but it does not go away. It is part of who we as human beings are. This is where every priesthood begins.
The hidden reality of which I speak has many names. It may be called God, the Divine, the Holy, the Numinous. It may equally be called Reality, Love, Truth, Meaning, Wisdom, Life, Direction, Wholeness, Home. No one can make a complete list. Not one of these names will ever be entirely adequate by itself. If we use one to the exclusion of the others, our language may even become misleading. We cannot name the Hidden Reality in the way we name the objects of daily existence. If we attempt to do so, we create a fundamental error in apprehension. If we take "God" as a term pointing to something that coexists, on an equivalent level of reality, with "universe," "cat," "coin," "loaf of bread," or "daisy," then God is reduced to being one thing among many. But the God who stands at the inmost depths of the arcana is not one among many. This God is both different from all else and yet deeply involved in all else. God is, in the language of the early Christian scriptures, ho ón, "the one who is." Apart from God, nothing. In and with God, everything.
God is deeply implicated in our lives, in every place and moment of human experience. Yet this presence of God does not mean that God is an object we can control, something to which we have access at will. The Holy retains its freedom; it can be absent even in its presence. The Hidden Truth is equally near and equally far, equally hidden and equally revealed, equally accessible and equally removed from each of us. There is no way to get control of God, to make God remain accessible or perceptible or close, and thereby to turn the Holy to our particular use. Quite the contrary, we recognize the Hidden, when we encounter it, because of its absolute priority over us in time, in being, in power, in creativity, in height and depth, in beauty, in grace. Encountering it, we both fear and love: fear because we see that we are so small and have so little control, love because it is the source of being, of life, of all good.
Despite our ancient human longing to pin GOD down, we cannot even confine the Holy in a shrine or a rite, to wait there on our bidding. We should like to tie the Divine to some particular place or time so that, knowing its precise location, we could avoid it when we wish and summon it on our own terms, by our own choice. If we could do so, however, we would only succeed in removing the HOLY from where it really lives, deep inside all our experience, at the origin of all that exists. Ultimately, pinning God down is a futile and wrongheaded exercise. Religious shrines and rites have a substantial value, but it is not the value of guaranteeing our access to the arcana on which all priesthood rests. That access is always and only a gift—indeed, a self-giving—of God that may come upon us anywhere in our lives in the world. The most we can do is try to pay attention.
It can be helpful to imagine our human encounter with the Holy as life in a border country. It is a country in which, at privileged moments of access, we find ourselves looking over from the everyday world into another, into a world that undergirds the everyday world, limits it, defines it, gives it coherence and meaning, drives it. Yet this hidden world is not another world, but the familiar world discovered afresh. It is the everyday world seen at new depth, with new comprehension. It is like discovering that the small part of the iceberg we are familiar with is buoyed up by a much larger mass of ice beneath the surface. In the border country one discovers connections, roots, limits, meaning. To live there for a while is like having veils pulled away. In the long run we find that the border country is in fact the place we have always lived, but it is seen in a new and clearer light.
It may take an exceptional moment or event to pull the veils back for us. But, paradoxically, such a moment reveals that the border between the everyday and hidden worlds is found everywhere, even in the most ordinary moments of life. The poet Fredegond Shove could speak of such a moment as a "transformation." And yet, the moment was not remote or alien:
No iceberg floating at the pole; no mark
Of glittering, perfect consciousness, nor dark
And mystic root of riddles; ...
not at all strange,
Not set beyond the common, human range;
Possible in the steep, quotidian stream,
Possible in a dream....
Some "peak experience," unexpected and disruptive, may be necessary to wake us up, but it is far from being the only moment when we live on the border with the HOLY. Once awakened, we begin to see the Transcendent in the ordinary and to recognize that the dullest circumstances may be unexpectedly shot through with fire.
The discoveries we make in the arcane border country focus around two things: finitude and connections. These, after all, are the two most basic conditions of human existence. We are finite—bounded and limited in many ways, most obviously by the ultimate boundary we call death, but also by any number of other factors external and internal to us. We are limited by the existence of other human beings, by space and time, by culture and history, by education or its lack, by disease. We are also bounded by the limits of our abilities, by the strength or weakness of our bodies or our intellects or our souls, by the difficulty we find in doing what we believe to be right, by our struggle for and against truthfulness, by sickness, by death.
In the borderlands, we become inescapably aware of our own smallness and incompleteness. In the half-awake world of everyday life, we may encounter the bounded quality of our lives only as isolated moments of guilt or fear or as that moral anxiety (often quite secularized and deprived of its real meaning) that pervades modern middle-class Western culture. In the border country, these moments of incompleteness or uncertainty prove to be aspects of something larger, grounded in the single reality of finitude as a fundamental defining fact of human existence. Our presence here is not always pleasant, but it is truthful and therefore strengthening.
Equally fundamental to our existence is the fact of connection. However narrowly our finite boundaries are drawn about us, no one can in fact be human in isolation. Human existence is always social, even for the hermit. It is social not only in relation to other human beings, but in relation to the entire world in which we live and to the arcane Reality which undergirds it. To be human means to be in interaction with other beings. If one is deprived of the usual opportunities for communication, one will resort to whatever can be found—to remembered encounters, to the hope of being restored to one's friends and family, to imagined companionship, or to communion with the world of nature or of spirits. In the borderlands, this need for connection is revealed as something more than a string of isolated needs and solutions. It is a basic, defining fact of our humanness.
The border country, therefore, is a place of intense vitality. It does not draw us away from the everyday world as much as it plunges us deeper into a reality of which the everyday world is the surface. It is a country of intense experience, not always pleasant. We may experience fear and dread, anger and desire in their full power. We are likely to encounter our own smallness and the limitations of our power in a way that proves, for a time at least, frightening. But we may also experience the love that binds heaven and earth together, which pervades and unites all things. We may find a kind of joy that can only be described, in the language of absurdity, as ecstasy, ekstasis, an emerging from and standing outside oneself. We may experience a peace that is not absence of distress but rather an intense, intimate, and fertile connection with oneself and one's world. Of such are the arcana made.
No human being has, in principle, any better or surer access to this arcane border country than any other person. We all live equally near it, indeed within it, though perhaps without being aware of it. One person, through some accident of temperament or history, may become more attentive than another and may therefore come to be recognized as someone who knows the secrets and who can minister out of them; but this does not deny the priestly ministry of others. Indeed, without some ability to experience the secrets ourselves, we could not learn them from others. The secrets are never taught, in the sense that one can be taught, say, the names of plants. They are only experienced. But they require interpretation. There is always a process by which we begin to understand our experience and come to grips with it, and this process works best with the advice and support of those who know the arcana better than we do.
Even the best priest needs the service of others as priests. However long you live in the border country and however familiar you become with it, you will never pass beyond all need for priestly ministration from others. Since we are, by nature, finite beings, each of us limited by space and time, none of us will ever experience directly more than one life's worth of God, of Truth, of Reality. What each of us comes to know are fragments of something immeasurably larger than we can grasp. My neighbor knows other fragments, which may well be the ones that make sense of my own. Therefore, I must turn to my neighbor in search of understanding, in search of the priestly ministries that can flow from that person's experience. And my neighbor will need to turn to others, too—perhaps to me.
Excerpted from LIVING ON THE BORDER of the Holy by L. WILLIAM COUNTRYMAN. Copyright © 1999 L. William Countryman. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
I. Rediscovering Priesthood
1. The Priesthood of Humanity
2. The Priesthood of Religion
3. The Priesthood of Christ
4. The Priesthood of the Christian People
II. Priesthood and the Church
5. The Two Priesthoods in the Church
6. Problems about Priesthood
7. An Ordained Ministry in and for the Fundamental Priesthood
III. Priestly Spirituality
8. Being Priests
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fresh look at how we connect with higher power through our everyday life.
Living on the edge of the Holy spells it out, being a Christian entails more than attending Church on Sunday. His message is well thought out and his book is easy to read. A warning, being a Christian as Countryman describes requires us to get out side out comfort zone, and to exert physical and mental effort. That being said the rewards are breath taking.