Where most of the teachers are commuters, living in quite different circumstances in most respects from the students and their parents, there is a great barrier to the empathy between teacher and student and parent that is so essential to education. Where children are aware, along with their parents, that they are segregated from the rest of the city, even in their schools, and see that their schools are far inferior to the schools provided for the rest of society, they are apt to conclude…that they are not welcome or wanted in American society.
– My People Is The Enemy, William Stringfellow
I was wanted. I was welcome. But over the course of my life I came to clearly see that my falling into my own success came only through the privilege that was accorded me if I gave lip service to a biased system that was welcomed those who never examined the underpinnings of it bias and bigotry. And certainly if one did not give lip service, then you bore the consequences of alienation and were not welcome. The church, aligned as it is with the corporate models of excellence participates in this ruse.
At my 30th high school reunion I was asked in all seriousness, How in the world did you ever get a doctorate?
Where I grew up everyone understood very well that education equals social mobility. That if one works hard enough they can get a really great job, which will provide really great pay. And there is no doubt that it works that way in the church as well. How did I get my doctorate? I simply waltzed through one open door after another, arose to the challenge, and step after step found myself in a doctoral program. But eventually I came to realize that the educational system is far from equal, and far from unbiased. And it was not the educational system itself that provided me with that insight, instead it was a soft-spoken, pensive, jowly Jesuit priest sitting across his desk from me in his office who locked up the brakes on my academic ascent.
I only had to use the word spirituality a time or two in the seminary I had attended years earlier to realize that this word was not welcome in that institution or that denomination. What was welcome there was theological rationalism and churchly political connections. So I remained a closet contemplative, reading ever backwards in the history of the church, to find practical guidance and intuitive solace. However, I eventually came to realize that mentors for my contemplative identity were available, and that I could intuitively recognize them by their spiritual countenance. The term used in relationship to them was that of spiritual director. There was no such thing in Protestant Christianity at the time and so I ended up going to Catholic priests who were so gifted. And so it should come as no surprise that I too came to desire being such a resource within my own spiritual community. And so looking to add other certificates to my steadily growing list of letters that I could write both before and after my signature I wound up in Fr. Bill’s office in Cambridge, MA one day asking to be enrolled in training as a spiritual director in an age when no one in Protestant Christianity had even heard of such a thing.
Making my request known Bill quietly asked about my life’s history. We talked for some time. And then there was a long silence…a really long silence. Each of this dear man’s eyes went off in a different direction, so you were never sure of when he was looking at you or not. Turning his face directly toward me, neither eye was seemingly looking at me, and he softly, haltingly asked, So Craig, has anyone ever asked you to be their spiritual director? I was stunned. Well, no, I replied, my religious tradition does not recognize this ministry. Myriad objections to his question came to my mind. You see, he went on, that and that alone is what qualifies you to be a spiritual director in the history of the church. It’s evident that you are a very bright man, but to be considered for training here at the Center, someone has had to ask you. But no one had. My world was rocked. I left his office despondent, but enrolled there as a directee with a Catholic laywoman from Ireland who was herself in training there. She was a great director for me.
That was a watershed experience for me. Up until that experience I had blindly followed the path of privilege that had been opened to me. Coming from a wealthy community I had grown up among teachers who were skilled, a broad curriculum, massive libraries, and comfortable facilities. My wellbeing had been well looked after. And as stated already, education meant mobility…hard work meant jobs and money. But now all of that meant nothing. And as heartbroken as I was a kernel of truth sprouted and began to grow. God is no respecter of persons. And I either had to fully face my own history and identity, or fall in line with the mad, deceptive parade going on in society and the church.
It took a while.
By 1999 I was serving a four church Methodist charge in the West. And that spring the district superintendent met with me as a part of his annual review. At that meeting he stated how please they were with me. You’ve caught the bishops’s eye, he said, and I want to guarantee you of two things. The first is that you will soon me moved to large church in the city. And further, if you play your cards right you could have a million dollars in your retirement account by the time you finish serving us. These were his actual words. Meant to be flattering by him, I was then at the point of seeing clearly that I faced nothing but running a gauntlet if I continued in that direction. Education was a whore, a beast, a ruse, especially when it came to Protestant Christianity. I had allowed myself to be seduced. I returned home from that meeting and visited with my wife that it was time to leave formal church ministry for good.
St. Paul is clear. If you are going to be Christ’s disciple then you have to fully die to yourself. There is no doubt that western Christianity is syncretistic. But rather than sharing the stage of people’s lives with other religions – Buddhism, animism, etc. – it is shaped and moulded by class, and capitalism, and privilege…of which education serves as formal inculcation allowing people to turn a blind eye toward their false self. By not dying to themselves people build a persona that is untrue…so false in fact that even God does not recognize them…done in the name of Christ…fully alienated from him.
Fr. William Connelly, SJ, died in 2013. A pioneer in our modern understanding of spiritual direction, he is one of the few who have most assuredly forged my life. I took a course from him a year after the encounter I describe earlier. He was one of the best teachers I ever studied under. A simple, direct reading of our experiences and our intuition led me – led us – to where my wife and I live and work right now, raising food and weaving blankets for those who have less access to what god created as their rights, simply because they were born. And the irony is that I knew that I should be doing this even as a teenager.
So we arise today and head out to the field, deeply anguished by chronic pain, and having been sorely led astray by narcissists…seduced by all the privilege that education had to offer us. But ultimately in the end we know that we are doing what we should be doing and that in spite of setbacks everything will be okay.