Tuesdays with Saint Matthias

Today is the feast of Saint Matthias. The one and only connection I have to him is that, every Tuesday, I preside over three short liturgies in St. Matthias Chapel on the campus of a local school. Those three liturgies are the extent of my formal responsibilities as chaplain. The school was originally founded by an early Episcopal bishop as a religious boarding school for girls, and is now a formally independent co-ed day school, but has retained the tradition of weekly chapel services.IMG_0815

It’s a somewhat unusual arrangement. The school has no formal relationship to the Episcopal Church, and religious identity or education are not part of its mission or self-understanding. And yet, every Tuesday, the entire student body processes into St. Matthias, says a few prayers, sings a few hymns, reads a short passage from the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, and hears a brief homily from me.

The school is religiously diverse. There are Christians of every imaginable variation, as well as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and religiously unaffiliated students and families. Given this diversity, I do my best to select scripture readings and craft homilies that focus on universal or widely shared beliefs and values, while being clear about my own beliefs as a Christian priest, since that is all I can authentically claim to be.

I don’t know why the school’s founders and early leaders chose the name St. Matthias for the chapel. It’s not a common name for churches, and there is very little in the Bible about him. Mostly what we know is that he was chosen by the original apostles to take the place of Judas after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension because he had accompanied them “during the whole time the Lord Jesus had lived among us” (Acts 1:21). His main qualification, then, seems to be that he was persistent in showing up with and for Jesus.

If that’s the case, then St. Matthias seems like a perfect name for the chapel, given its current role in the life of the school. Mostly, what I do on Tuesdays is simply try to show up with and for the community in the best way I can. Because I’m only on campus for a few hours every week, I never quite know how, if at all, chapel affects anyone. Many of the students seem deeply engaged, many others seem to politely tolerate it, and a few bear the unmistakable look that the old religious guy is wasting their time.

But the thing is, regardless of how any of it is received, I really love being there. In fact, I really love them. Being the chaplain has given me a small glimpse into the inner workings of a school, and I’m in awe of how demanding the life of such a community can be, and the level of passion and commitment the faculty and staff bring to their craft. I see the ingenious way a lower school teacher can balance the nurture young kids demand while pushing them toward excellence and expecting them to bring their very best selves to the classroom each day. I see the high school teacher whose “I’m this close to losing it” tone with a group of unruly seniors provides only a thin veil for his deep affection for them, even when they are at their worst. I see the middle school teacher who walks slowly smiling through the halls, unphased even as a swarm of seventh-graders buzzes around her.

The work that happens there every day is what I can only describe as holy. Not everyone at the school would use that language, but it’s what I come back to over and over. It represents human beings at their very best, sacrificially offering their highest efforts for the sake of a higher good: forming the next generation of adults who will steward and care for the world and its people. I’m not sure there is much I can add to that with a few, twenty-minute chapel services each week, but I’m grateful for the chance to keep showing up.

It’s oft-repeated among clergy that ninety-percent of ministry is just showing up. From what I can tell, that’s the whole basis for St. Matthias’ apostleship: he just showed up to be with and for Jesus. I hope that the school community will keep inviting me to show up to be with and for them. I hope that, if nothing else, I can bless the holy work they all do teaching and learning. Most of all, I hope that all of them will know that, in the face of how fast things move and how hard it can all be, they are loved, they are more valuable than they can imagine, not because of how good they are (though they are certainly that), but simply because of the holy endeavor they are offering themselves to.

Those few hours with St. Matthias every Tuesday have served to reshape my imagination about much of what I’m doing leading a cathedral the rest of the week. Whatever else I may or may not bring, the most valuable thing I can do is to show up, to be with and for the people who make their home there, to pronounce God’s blessing on their joys and struggles, to remind them they are, more than anything, beloved of God, accompanying them, like Matthias, as best I can during the whole time I’m given to live among them.

 

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Working the Beads

A few years ago, I received an unexpected gift from an old friend. The package contained a short note written on a card, and a simple rosary he had made for me. The note described how, a few years before, he had started praying the rosary, and it had become an important spiritual practice for him. 

After he made the rosary, he told me that he had prayed a novena for me using it. We haven’t talked a lot in recent years, and we don’t know all the details of each other’s lives, but he said he felt the church was a better place because I was out there somewhere ministering in it, and he was glad to be connected with me through this simple tool for prayer. It was one of the most moving gifts and letters I have ever received.

I had never prayed the rosary before, but I was so touched by the gesture, I decided to give it a try. In the few years since, it has made a profound difference in my life, and deepend my relationship with Jesus. 

I was skeptical at first. Like most Episcopalians, my Marian piety could be described as agnostic and half-formed at best. I gladly acknowledge her importance in the scheme of salvation, but don’t feel entirely comfortable with asking for her intercession, and feel far less comfortable with popular Roman Catholic acclamations like “Queen of Heaven,” and devotion to various apparitions of Mary. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how easy the rosary prayers came to me, and how quickly the practice began to nourish my spirit. 

We meet God most fully in silence, which modern life keeps in short supply. The constant pings and pulls for out attention, the never ending stack of demands at both the office and at home, and my naturally anxious and fidgety disposition all make the stillness where we most fully encounter God difficult for me to find. The repetitive prayers of the rosary, and the feel of working the beads through my fingers, provides a rudder for my mind and body that steers my spirit into a deep and silent stillness. While I often begin the prayers in distraction, somewhere in the midst of praying through them I’m drawn into a deep calm, and by the end I’m usually simply sitting with a God who is beyond my capacity to understand or imagine, contemplating the depths and mystery of that God’s great and endless love. As those periods of stillness compound on each other day by day, I’m able to carry more and more of that stillness into my living, meeting life, and the people God gives to me, simply as they come, as a gift to be received and cherished, instead of the next thing to be managed, or checked off the list. 

And for all my Protestant squeamishness about praying to or with Mary, the prayers have, it turns out, drawn me deeper into the person of Jesus. What the rosary calls the “mysteries” of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection allow me to spend extended periods of time contemplating, imagining, wondering about, and simply sitting with the person Jesus, bringing key moments of scripture into direct conversation with whatever neurosis, demands, griefs, or longings I’m carrying day by day. Praying the rosary has helped make Jesus more present and more real as a companion and source of strength for my moment to moment living. 

Following my friend’s example, I also often pray the rosary for a specific person or situation I’ve been asked to pray for. But more often, I simply take a few moments to offer to God all the people in my life, known and unknown, remembered or forgotten, who have some particular need to know God’s healing and grace. I don’t pray nearly as often as I should, and I’m not nearly as conscientious as I should be about praying for the people who I’ve said I would, or who have asked me to. In praying the rosary day by day, I’m trusting God to remember all those I’ve said I would remember but haven’t, and all those I love and care for whose struggles I don’t know. Praying the rosary is one more way of simply offering all I am, and all the people I either love deeply or know only casually, over to God’s loving kindness. 

Like any prayer, there are times when praying the rosary is deeply moving and profound, and times when it is simply rote, or when I’m too distracted to notice which. Ultimately, prayer doesn’t come down to what we feel about it in any given moment. Prayer, like faithful living generally, is simply about showing up, offering our whole selves—our joys and sorrows, our loved ones and those who vex us, our doubts and our hopes, our cynicism and weariness, our jealousies and generosities, our living and our dying—over fully to the God who made us, who calls us by name, who cares for us, and who longs to draw near to us, and to call us beloved, until the whole creation is made new.