Advice for Clergy (and the rest of us)

Did you know that October has been designated “Clergy Appreciation Month” by the good people at Hallmark Cards?  It was news to me.Young_Woman_Writing_Calligraphy_MET_TR_103_3_2012_Strm1

So, in honor of all the clergy who are a part of our lives, I offer some insights and advice from Sei Shonagon, an 11th century Japanese noblewoman living in the imperial court near modern day Kyoto.  She is, perhaps, an unlikely source of guidance.  But her wisdom is timeless.

Sei’s masterpiece, The Pillow Book, is replete with trenchant and tart observations and guidance that hold up remarkably well nearly 1,000 years after her book was written.

Among her gems:

It breaks my heart to think of parents sending a beloved son/daughter into the priesthood.  Poor priests, they’re not the unfeeling lumps of wood that people take them for.

As a preacher’s kid, this one has particular resonance for me.  I can well remember the pain caused by unthinking judgments passed upon my father and family.  

And yet, Sei herself is quick to offer her own critiques.  She has clear and well-articulated views on how priests should present themselves:

A priest who gives a sermon should be handsome.  After all, you’re most aware of the profundity of their teaching if you’re gazing at their face as they speak.  If your eye drifts elsewhere you tend to forget what you’ve just heard, so an unattractive face has the effect of making you feel quite sinful.

How often do we focus on the superficial when assessing our clergy?  I’m guilty of it quite a bit.  Here Sei holds a priest responsible for one’s own wandering mind and feelings.  That’s an easy trap to fall into.  Avoid it.

Sei is also incisive in her critique of priestly rank and its importance to adherents of the faith.  She has no time for it.

As for priests, what’s so wonderful in going about bearing this or that priestly title? Even an attractive priest who performs the sutras magnificently isn’t really taken seriously by the ladies/gentlemen who make a fuss over them.  Still, nothing can compare to the extraordinary awe and reverence given to someone who’s become Bishop or Archbishop—it’s as though the Buddha himself has appeared on earth!

In the Episcopal Church we can be guilty of this.  We are sometimes very focused on the role of bishops.  Indeed, “episcopal” means “of a bishop.”  In other words, we are a “church of bishops.”  I’m not sure there are many bishops who believe that today, never mind the rest of us.  Indeed we list the laity as the first order of ministry in our catechism.

Sei also understands the power of the pastoral role of clergy.  She lists among those “Things that give you confidence—healing incantations performed with a large number of accompanying priests, when you’re ill.”  Her appreciation for the clergy’s presence in the intimate and damaged corners of our lives is heartfelt.  We should all be grateful to the clergy who love and care for us.

It turns out Sei has quite a bit of good advice not just for priests, but for the rest of us well.

Perhaps she should be taught in our seminaries?

Special thanks to the writer Jeff Chu ( who reintroduced me to Sei Shonagon this summer at the Kenyon Institute, over 30 years after I first read her as an undergraduate.  Like all great authors, she speaks to us through the ages.

As an aside, her recommendations apply equally to male and female priests.  However, writing as she did a millennium ago, she uses the male pronoun.  I’ve altered some of these passages to make them more gender inclusive.  These quotes are taken from a translation of The Pillow Book by Meredith McKinney.

Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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