Have one hard cry, if the tears will come. Then stanch the grief, by whatever legal means. Next find your way to be somebody else, the next viable you—a stripped-down whole other clear-eyed person, realistic as a sawed-off shotgun and thankful for air, not to speak of the human kindness you’ll meet if you get normal luck. Your mate, your children, your friends at work—anyone who knew or loved you in your old life—will be hard at work in the fierce endeavor to revive your old self, the self they recall with love or respect. Their motives are frequently admirable, and at times that effort counts for a lot—they prove that you’re valued and wanted at least—but again their care is often a brake on the way you must go. At the crucial juncture, when you turn toward the future, they’ll likely have little help to offer; and it’s no fault of theirs (they were trained like you, in inertia). More likely they’ll stall you in the effort to learn who you need to be now and how to be him or her by tomorrow or Monday at the latest. Yet if you don’t discover that next appropriate incarnation of who you must be, and then become that person at a stiff trot, you’ll be no good whatever again to the ruins of your old self nor to any friend or mate who’s standing beside you in hopes of a hint that you’re feeling better this instant and are glad of company. (from Reynolds Price’s “A Whole New Life”)
It has been nearly four years since I went on leave from the church. That phrase is not entirely exact as Sundays you’ll still find me in church uncomfortable playing the part of a parishioner. You must understand how lonely it is to sit in a pew. I’m surrounded by a congregation of people quite accomplished in their ability to create sanctuary. Yet, I stare at the pulpit tormented by the short distance between it and my “assigned” seat. Tormented by the realization that I have spent more of my life behind a pulpit than in front of one. I find my now casual Sunday attire ill-fitting and I miss the roominess of robes and the subtle weight of a stole. Damn it all, it is such a short distance. Distance isn’t always measured in lengths and there appears to be no metric that I can use to express the spiritual spans and psychological parsecs between me and that pulpit. How can such a short distance appear so far away? Theo, I know you understand metaphoric metrics. I would welcome the company of any brother or sister who knows the roominess of robes and the subtle weight of stoles.
Now, it is not all bad. I don’t miss those unexpected late night calls that on occasion frustrated my already feeble attempts to sleep. I don’t miss meetings. And I don’t miss how my anxiety once consumed every waking minute as if my life was lived under a perpetually dangling sword of Damocles. I don’t miss meetings. And don’t get me started on how relieving it is to not worry about the geometrically amazing capacity of some sheep for triangulation. Did I mention I don’t miss meetings? Well, I don’t miss the Sisyphean grind of ad nauseam meetings. I rather enjoy “free time.” And all the better now that I have learned how not to feel guilty for having it. I joked, a nice way of saying I lied, about not missing meetings. It is a half-truth, you were often at such meetings. I miss them. I miss you.
My depression afforded me a vantage point from where I marveled at the grace and integrity—the sheer skill—with which you stride through the minutiae of the day-to-day and manage to still be sacramental, liturgical, homiletical and, most certainly, pastoral. Theo your gifts are amazing and I’m aware of the effort that it takes to offer such gifts. Gifts. Theo I need a confessor and it is not for absolution, but for understanding. There are just some things that I can’t explain to my satisfaction to a therapist. Theo, you know what I’m talking about, right?
The very quotable Cornell West said, “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.” I consider West’s words the best description of what I wanted for my ministry. First, I grew to hate myself. In time, I added my ministry. And finally, the people I was called to serve. Since I could not embody West’s prerequisites it was time for me to step away in the practice of Wesley’s “do no harm.” My depression made pastoring appear to be an increasingly withdrawn, disengaged exercise in resource management, branding, and public relations driven less and less by the care of souls and lacking an urgency to offer a prophetic witness. I missed breaking bread, blessing wine, and baptizing both babies and believers. I missed how those moments once felt holy, but now perfunctory. I missed how I no longer expected to encounter the G-d who is an embraceable mystery in worship. And, I hated how the side-effects of my medication made preaching “coming up with something to say,” but no longer my running breathless from an empty tomb. I worried about how much of my time in ministry was little more than providing well-meaning weekly distractions where my efforts mattered little in impacting the world. (I was ordained to the ministries of word, sacrament, service, and order. Order had or I had allowed it to consume too much of my time.) At my nadir I thought that I could either be a Christian or a pastor, but I could no longer faithfully do both. Theo…you know where I am at and you are where I want to be. Theo a flock has come and eaten all the breadcrumbs that I had hoped would mark the way back and, well, there are just too many paths.
At times, Theo, I get so angry with myself. I burned out despite following all the rules and recommendations. I was an active member of a small clergy group. I busied myself each day with a rosary. I took my medication. I went to counseling. I fought hard to maintain boundaries. I took personal time. I kept a weekly sabbath. And I still got sick. How did it happen?
Theo there is something I don’t understand, I feel this pressing need to apologize, but to who and for what? I don’t know. I think of kids and teens I cared for in the past and keep thinking I have failed them by not being a faithful witness and example. But, Theo, I know that the line, if there is one, to confront me is small. I know that no one is out “there” waiting to confront my perceived failure. What is all the more maddening is that I know it is—just that—a perception! At other times I think of other people and I worry that someone might wrongly assume that my sickness was in some roundabout way their fault. Though that fear is less frequent.
I do miss you Theo. I miss the connectedness and corporality that is the antithesis of depression’s isolation, self-imposed or otherwise. It was necessary and therapeutic for me to live in seclusion. The world got altogether too big, too loud, and too scary for me. The world is now smaller. It is quieter. The isolation scares me more than the world outside its borders. I have tried to write this letter so many times. It was a thorn in my side that pricked me from my weekly to-do-list. I am aware that I have many friends and I just need to call them. Theo I just feel like I’m unclean. I know such a thought is nonsense, but it persists. I put-off writing for so long that I don’t know what to say or how to start a conversation. I’m afraid I will stumble over my words. I just don’t know another way to say it, I don’t want to be alone any longer. I have had the support of medical professionals, family, close friends, but I miss you Theo.
P.S. We could meet for a cigar. I’ll burn one for both of us. I am a giver, what can I say?