As my ordination was looming nearer, and I was chatting with my friend M—- about my desire to make better sense of ordination as a sacrament, he strongly recommended Countryman’s book. I began to read it before my pre-ordination retreat, but hardly had much time to spend with it, before or since. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it was the focus of my retreat this past week.
Countryman’s book is genius, absolute and stunning genius. It’s dense and far from an easy read, but is profoundly rewarding. He begins by defining “priest” as “any person who lives in the dangerous, exhilarating, life-giving borderlands of human existence, where the everyday experience of life opens up to reveal glimpses of the HOLY—-and not only lives there, but comes to the aid of others who are living there” (xi). To gloss this idea slightly, allow me to recast it: a priest is someone who has been aware in some way of the presence of the ONE WHO IS and then makes an effort to help others into their own experiences of the TRANSCENDENT. (The small-cap thing, which I'm not learning how to do in html, is Countryman’s stylistic habit, and makes a certain amount of sense in context: you, reading only this blog entry, must simply live with me using it in this entry.) What is fascinating about this definition is the unavoidable conclusion that we are, simply by being human, priests at some moments in our lives. Those with a priestly identity are those more attuned to living in the “borderland” in which we can encounter GOD, and who make a conscious effort to help others attune their own livings of life to be attentive to the presence of the HIDDEN REALITY. The other conclusion we can draw is that religion, in its variety of forms, is a stylized effort to try to mediate and re-present the ULTIMATE to those who participate in the rites and faiths tied to the practice of religion. Ordained priests at their best and most honest then are a sacramental representation of our inherent human priesthood. OK: simpler still, priesthood is about seeking and sharing the experience of TRUTH in our lives, and about remembering that this is the important focal point for how we live out our own lives.
The book is brilliant. The footnotes are engaging, and have provided for me a number of interesting things to read (though I recommend reading the book once, ignoring the footnotes, and then reading it again with the footnotes, so as not to bog down in the asides and interesting ideas: not sources so much as other thoughts with which Countryman is in conversation). I would recommend it highly to those interested in thinking about vocation, about how we encounter and share our encounters of the HOLY, and about the meaning of vocation itself. I will leave you with a sample of quotations from the book which may pique your interest further.
“I cannot say too often that the priesthood of the whole people is the fundamental priesthood. Even for the ordained minister, Christian priesthood still means primarily one’s exercise of the priesthood shared with the whole people. The ordained priesthood is a sacramental service offered not so much to the whole people (which would imply a stance over and against the laity) as in and for that prior and more universal ministry.” (109)
“The great tool of priesthood is not any specific knowledge—whether of the Bible or history or theology or newer disciplines such as pastoral counselling or church growth. Any or all of these are of potential value, but the great tool of priesthood is a priestly life, a priestly self. And such a self, as we have been saying, grows and matures by the fact of our living, attentively and in communion with other priests, on the border of the HOLY. It occurs in conversation with GOD and with one another.” (152)
“The Bible, church history, the traditions of intellectual theology, the ethical reflections of past and present, the liturgical tradition—all these interact with one another and, above all, with our lived experience of GRACE, to create the present and future of our faith.” (155)
“Jesus’ living out of the fundamental human priesthood serves to focus and guide our living out of it in our own time and place. But it will never be enough if we try merely to copy what Jesus did. Instead, we pray that what we learn from Jesus will shape us so that we can live responsibly and generously, in our own day and place, as Jesus did in his.” (77)