Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Most Difficult Word

Hollywood would have you believe that the most difficult word is "love," as in "I love you." There are myriad romantic comedies and romantic tragedies that support that notion. Lovers and love objects of both the male and female orientation joust with commitment and win, draw or lose. But the Hollywood pundits are wrong. The most difficult word is "Yes."

I was reading recently about Contemplative Prayer Praxis, which focuses on the Welcoming Prayer, through which one acknowledges one's own feelings and physical sensations and actively lets go of them to provide space for welcoming in the spiritual presence of the divine. That welcoming in is about tuning one's life into a consent process, to, in effect, saying "Yes" to the divine presence in one's entire being. Unfortunately for the prayer practitioner, intending to say "Yes" and even actually saying "Yes" don't necessarily make it so. There are no guarantees as to when one will experience the presence of the divine despite the certainty that the divine is always present and with us.

This morning I attended the annual ordination of transitional deacons to the priesthood, and the words of the ordination service and the message of the sermon dovetailed with my recent reflections on consenting to the presence of God. The vows taken by the ordinand are promises of obedience and of practice -- to obey the bishop and any others in authority over the priest, and to pray regularly, study scripture, lead by word and example, and pastor God's people, in church and in private out of the sight of the congregation and the bishop. The ordination vows are a rule of life.

For the particular priest ordained today, hers was a fifteen plus, years long process of getting to "Yes." She had to say "Yes" repeatedly, from the earliest inkling of a call to the priesthood, through the daily challenges of marriage and motherhood, the interruptions of careers and household moves, to changes in the ordination process that brought her back to square one on more than one occasion throughout those fifteen plus years. It must have felt like a test to her, to be within reach of the goal of ordination and yet having to get to "Yes" again and again. The truism that each one's walk is individual and unique holds true in the ordination process as it does in other arenas of our lives.

As a layperson who hasn't been called to ordination, I am amazed that so many people persevere and actually make it through the process. It is especially amazing when one weighs the cost-benefit ratios associated with education and potential earnings as a clergyperson, not that those are the only factors in answering a call to ordination.

I wonder what it is that we are expecting the ordinands to prove and to whom. Surely God knows the hearts and minds of those the Spirit has imbued with priestly gifts and inspired with a call to ordination. So, it can't be God to whom proof must be presented. Rather than go through the roll call of the discernment committees and different levels of churchpersons to whom the candidate must answer, let me just stipulate that the number is larger than a few and smaller than an army.

No doubt you have asked and been asked, "No, really, do you mean it," when you have answered "Yes, I can," or "Yes, I will," on numerous occasions for commitments as mundane as consenting to drive someone to the airport an hour away or agreeing to take someone else's work shift on a holiday weekend. There is something about "Yes" that gives us pause. We can't quite believe the intent behind the word, the commitment to see the task or promise through, whether it's someone else's promise or our own commitment.

When the question is a really big commitment, like "Will you marry me" or "Should we buy this house," the ways in which we communicate "No, really, do you mean it" get quite creative. There is a part of us that doesn't want to ruin the moment, to rain on the parade and create doubt in the other person who has just said "Yes" to such a life-changing query. And yet, deep down inside - now, be honest - there's a niggling doubt that wonders "Does he really want to marry me" or "What if we don't like our neighbors" that remains hidden and unspoken.

The preacher this morning began his sermon with an autobiographical bit about scouting at the beginning of WWII and the preparation of our hearts as a place of homecoming for ourselves and for the indwelling of the divine spirit. The daily practice of living with hearts wide open prepares a place for "Yes" to be nurtured and to grow. Our hearts become the home field to which our doubts return - "No, really, do you mean it" - to rest and root and get owned and loved into a stronger "Yes, I can," "Yes, I will," and finally, at long last, "Yes, I'm sure."

Ultimately, our hearts are the practice field, to which we go to learn how to throw the ball, "Will you," catch the ball, "Yes, I can," and watch the game, "I'm so afraid," "Can he do it," "Will I want to." The heart is a muscle, always pumping and flexing, always working, never stopping, or we die. Our figurative hearts, the seat of our souls, must also be exercised, worked, never stopping, or we can't get to "Yes, I will." Because "Yes" is the hardest word.

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