Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Thoughts on love and loneliness in preparation for Valentine's Day

Written on Wednesday, February 07, 2007 


Carol Anderson, the rector at my church, was one of the first women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest in the late 1970's. She is an imposing figure - an intellectual giant who is regarded as one of the world's foremost authorities on theology. Carol is a dear friend of mine and while I love and admire her, I have to admit I am still a teeny bit intimidated by her. While she's preaching she can be very warm and spiritual, but her one-on-one conversational style is brusque and direct, and you immediately sense that you'd better say what you mean quickly and get the heck out of her face because she's very busy saving the world. Woe be unto ye who try to push Carol around. You'll get a razor-sharp rebuttal straight from her genius-level I.Q. and you'll walk away with a red, smarting ego. 

Carol knows all this about herself, and she even says that her first boss, the head priest at a small parish in New York City, told her she should be a preacher and not a pastoral care specialist because of her harsh interpersonal style. He said, "I don't know how to put this nicely but - you interrupt people. You don't listen. You dismiss people before they're finished talking. You are completely unsuited to dispense pastoral care. Please switch to preaching." Apparently that was excellent advice because now, twenty years later, Carol's sermons pack in thousands everywhere she speaks and she has a staff of priests with gentle demeanors who do the pastoral counseling for her while she's cracking the whip and setting up homeless kitchens and disaster relief programs.

Just recently, though, I got a glimpse behind Carol's granite exterior when she told a story from her early career. She had just started working at a church in Manhattan, she said, when she received a phone call from a staff member at her former parish. "Do you remember Tony?" the caller asked. Yes, of course she remembered Tony. He and his wife had entertained Carol many times in their home for dinner. They attended church regularly and Tony was a struggling but sober alcoholic. "Well, I hate to be the one to break the news," the caller continued, "but Tony committed suicide yesterday. He jumped from a 15-story window." Carol was deeply shaken. Tony was a friend. He was very sweet man who, when she looked down at him sitting in the pew as she preached on Sundays, had gazed up at her like a baby bird yearning to receive her wisdom. She felt like she had failed him. The most heartbreaking thing of all was Tony's suicide note. It said only: "I'm sorry. I just couldn't make the connections."

That's what life is all about, isn't it? Connections. So many people never find those connections. They can be married for decades, raise children, have friends, live rich and full lives on the exterior and yet still be profoundly lonely because they feel they've never been truly understood by another human being. Some people, myself included, feel they are just too odd or sensitive to be understood. Others feel empty and isolated and they never realize it's because they put up walls and push away the people who reach out to them. 

When Carol heard Tony's words she decided to dedicate her career to helping people reach across the vast, lonely spaces of life and make the connections. She said "I realized I was never going to save anybody's life by teaching some stupid class in church liturgy." Her studies and her sermons became geared towards more personal, psychological issues and her charitable programs focused on bringing people together, teaching them to reciprocate great kindness, and healing their hearts and lives at a deep level.

These days Carol leads a parish where people feel nurtured, comforted and sheltered from a broken world. Where her pastoral skills lacked, her preaching and leadership skills have accomplished far more than she ever imagined. 

It was many years before Carol could tell the story of Tony's suicide without breaking down into sobs. She still chokes up when she tells of it now. At one point, though, she felt strong enough to preach a sermon about him. After the sermon a man walked up to her and said, "I know you're not going to believe this, but I am Tony's son and - I can't make the connections either."

He'd never been to this church where Carol preached about his father before in his life, but he was suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and decided on a whim to stop in to church and see if he might find some wisdom. Carol and he were stunned at the coincidence. After they stared at each other in shock for a few moments, Carol said "I'd like to help you. Will you let me?" and she did. 

Of all the complicated laws, commandments and directives listed in the Bible, only one is a commandment directly from God and not garbled by the minds and hands of man - Jesus looked humanity squarely in the eye and said "A new commandment I give you: Love one another as I have loved you." 

He wasn't talking about romantic love. Our culture would have us think that's the only kind of love there is. He was talking about the kind of love we often miss - the love of all the regular people in our lives. It's those little connections - to your children, your parents, your coworkers and friends, or to the homeless person who's accepting your help, that are the fabric of heaven.



Carol was one of the priests profiled in this 2004 article in TIME magazine on women clergy. Her profile is on page 3 of it:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1101040628-655431,00.html