One morning last month, our pastor and his wife heard the birds in a live oak tree outside the kitchen window raising Cain. There was a big snake climbing the tree to raid the birds’ nests. That was the second snake sighting of the spring. The next day, they saw yet another snake in the rectory’s yard, but this one was actually a relief: it was a non-venomous king snake, beloved because they hate rattlesnakes and keep them away.
As if that weren’t enough, the pastor and his family came home from a shopping trip the other night to find that a possum had invaded their chicken coop and killed two roosters. That was traumatic for their children, but it was just another day in the life of a mission church in rural south Louisiana.
I grew up in this part of the country, and though I never have learned to live peaceably with snakes, I am not surprised by their presence. Nor by predatory possums, or coyotes, a pack of which ran through the rectory yard this past winter, chasing a deer. Welcome to bayou country.
It’s hard for me to imagine how hard this must be for our pastor and his family, who only two years ago were living in the Pacific Northwest, their lifelong home, safe and secure in the bosom of a large and loving congregation. Now, they live in a country parsonage, besieged by toothsome varmints, subtropical swelter, and doughty Southerners who hold grudges as tightly as we grip our hunting rifles.
They came, though, because they believe God called them. There was a time in my life when I wondered if I had a vocation to the priesthood. Very quickly I realized that I love people too little and comfort too much to accept the life of serving a congregation, much less starting one from scratch – and in a place I would not have chosen to live.
In a 1958 letter collected in her posthumous book The Habit Of Being, the late Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor cautioned a friend not to judge the clergy harshly.
“It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday,” she wrote. “It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.”
That’s powerful stuff. It becomes even more so when you consider the sacrifice that the pastor’s family makes for his vocation of service. A Protestant clergyman I know, long retired, said to me once that looking back on his service to the church, he has concluded that the Catholics have the right idea in restricting clergy to the unmarried. The suffering his pastorate put his wife and children through are too great, he now believes.
My wife and I have three demanding children – by the way, is there anyone who has undemanding children? – and often feel we are doing well simply to keep our heads above water minding our family’s life. To be a spiritual father to a congregation while being a father to my kids? Hard to fathom where a man gets that kind of strength. It comes, of course, from love of God. Where else? On Easter evening, we watched the 2010 French film, Of Gods And Men, based on the true story of a group of Catholic monks living in Algeria in a time of civil war. Muslim extremists ordered them to leave the country, or face the consequences. But the monks decided they had to stay to serve God and suffer with the ordinary Muslim people they cared for, no matter what.
Seven of them were later kidnapped and found beheaded. After their deaths, a final testament by the abbot, Father Christian de Chergé, was discovered. He had written it in case the terrorists killed him and his religious brother. It read, in part:
For this life given up, totally mine and totally theirs, I thank God who seems to have wished it entirely for the sake of that joy in everything and in spite of everything. In this "thank you," which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my brothers and sisters and their families—the hundred-fold granted as was promised!
And you also, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, for you also I wish this "thank you"—and this “adieu” to commend you to the God whose face I see in yours.
Father Christian thanked in advance the unknown terrorist who killed him, for he, a priest-monk, had long ago relinquished his life to the service of God and His people.
Sitting with me watching the film was a friend soon to be ordained to the priesthood, and set to serve as a missionary in a violent part of the world, where Christians have been killed for their faith. I thought: these saintly French monks, who gave their lives to serve God’s people in Algeria, aren’t just figures from history books or characters in a movie. Their kind is sitting in the chair right next to me. He seems like the most ordinary man in the world, but he has in his heart so much love and faith that he is willing to do go halfway around the planet to serve where he is called.