Why I Wear My Cassock: My Great Anglo-Catholic Experiment

Disclaimer: This entry is a spiritual reflection on my own journey and not a statement of universal truth. In the immortal words of that infamous break-up line –  it’s me, not you. 🙂 

Over a year ago, I published a blog titled “Why I Wear My Anglican Collar… Sometimes” to explore what I saw as the importance of embodying the role of priesthood in the public sphere by being willing to be visually identified with the vocation of priesthood, and all the baggage it brings. Since then, I must admit that my clerical collar has been the launching point for many great conversations – like the one at Chipotle a few weeks ago when someone, who was having a particularly bad day, asked for my prayers because he identified me as a “pastor.” On the flip side, I’ve become increasingly aware that there are days when I want to be invisible and my collar seems to function as Lucy’s marquee from “Peanuts” – “Psychiatric Spiritual Help… The Doctor Priest is In.” I’ve been known to leave my office after a particularly long day, take my off collar in the car, and attempt to be invisible when stopping by the grocery story late at night. Maybe I’ll add that to my list of sins of which I need to be shriven.

SSPX1

But something happened a few months ago that caused me to revisit this theme, but from a slightly different angle. As the celebrant for a Sunday Mass, I found myself no longer “awed” by the experience and privilege of standing In Persona Chrsiti (In the person of Christ) at God’s altar. To be clear, I wasn’t looking for that “out of body experience” I had the first time I celebrated mass after my ordination to the Sacred Order of Priests 15 months ago; however, something was missing. For the first time since becoming an Episcopalian, I couldn’t get beyond the creatures of bread and wine and experience the sacrament as the physical presence of the Risen Christ. I’m not referring to the Aristotelian physics of transubstantiation. There are just some things I believe humans aren’t meant to understand; rather, we are invited to just say “wow… thank you.” The awesome mystery of the Blessed Sacrament saved my faith. Since that summer a few years ago when I wandered into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church ready to walk away from Christianity altogether and instead found refuge and solace in the Blessed Sacrament, I have been “awed” by that moment when “heaven and earth kiss each other” and we are invited into that moment of love, welcome, and presence in a way that I can scarce understand.

Until a few months ago.

The Eucharist became another “task,” something else “to do” on a Sunday morning as we priests, the “professionally religious,” engage the hundreds of people who come to Church looking for something – peace, joy, community, love, fulfillment, coffee.  It became a ritual in the worst sense – a habit that I was too familiar with. That Sunday morning when I stood before God’s altar, holding the bread and wine that still seemed to me to be just bread and just wine, I had a moment when I wanted to cry because despite my best effort, I had become too familiar with holy things.

One of seminary professors in Sewanee, Tennessee warned my class about this. She said that we are always to be on our guard against becoming “too familiar” with holy things. I heard her words then, but thought that this particular warning was meant for someone else – not me. After all, I came from an evangelical background that stressed the importance of a personal relationship to God (the world be damned). I am a mystic, someone, who like the great (and not so great) mystics of Christian history – St. Paul, St. Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman – stressed the transformational quality of unity and union with God and the reality of a visceral, spiritual and religious experience. Surely was immune to being too familiar with holy things.

That false story came crashing down a few months ago when I was holding that bread and wine, and rather than inviting the community forward to receive “the gifts of God for the people of God,” I simply wanted to weep.

I called my best friend, an Episcopal priest and postulant in the Order of the Holy Cross, and confessed to him that I felt that my relationship to God was broken. He heard me. We laughed. Probably cried. Then he gave me two assignments: 1) fast from the Eucharist. “If Holy Communion is the most intimate interaction we have with God, then you need to take a break from it. You’re taking it for granted,” he said. 2) Make my preparation for Holy Eucharist more intentional. Rather than thinking of it as preparing to step in front of an audience who have come waiting to see a “show,” I was invited to see myself as I really was – a “priest” who was preparing to stand before the altar of the Creator of Universe in the juncture between time and eternity, earth and heaven.

So among a list of prayers that I was invited to say in preparation for the celebration of mass (in English, not Latin), I also resurrected a practice that I had forsaken after I was ordained as a priest – wearing a cassock. My former priest-turned-bishop, the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright (10th Bishop of Atlanta) gave me his cassock after he was elected bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. After all, he got to wear the fancy purple one now. I treasured it as a gift – much like Elisha receiving the mantle from Elijah (1 Kings 19:19). I wore this cassock under my alb at both of my ordinations – diaconal and presbyteral. I wore it a few times as I was preparing for mass in my parish, but the practice fell by the wayside as the list of things “to do” before mass continued to grow, and before I knew what hit me “mass” itself was just another thing “to do.”

So a few weeks ago, I walked into the clergy vesting room, pulled my cassock off the hanger put it on. It seemed superfluous.

I washed my hands, put on an amice, then an alb, cincture, stole, a chasuble, and prayed every step of the way. I felt hot. I felt constricted and confined. I felt the weight of what was about to happen.

It struck me that in reducing preparation for Holy Communion to another “task,” and not an act of worship in and of itself, in donning a “cassock-alb” and cutting corners in readying myself for the Eucharist instead of being intentional and present in that moment, I was slowly allowing Holy Communion itself to become a task, and not the supreme act of worship – the community of God gathered around the mystery of the Risen Christ among us.

So for the past few weeks, I have chosen to wear my cassock, to enter the mystery of the Eucharist in a more intentional way. I have also chosen to keep it on after worship if I have to attend meetings (at church), or in the case of Ash Wednesday, if I have to walk to the neighborhood shops for “Ashes to Go.” It is important for my spirituality to embody the vocation of priesthood in a more intentional way than I have before and to remind myself, on days when phone calls and e-mails can take precedent over prayer and devotion, that I am not only a community organizer, an activist, a teacher or catechist, a friend, a spiritual guide, or a professional orator – I am a priest – a mere human being chosen by God and given the sacramental authority of the Church to lead the people of God out of the brokenness of their lives into the wholeness and holiness of God.

My great “Anglo-Catholic Experiment” was more than about wearing a cassock – it was about rediscovering the wonder and awe of my relationship to God, both the Creator of Universe and the lover of my deeply broken and wounded soul, and, through that experience, to lead my beloved flock towards a fuller expression of God’s infinite love for them – and for me. My great “Anglo-Catholic Experiment” has become my great “Anglo-Catholic Practice” as I stand vigil against the temptation to become too familiar with holy things.

I wear my cassock because it is my habit, my visual reminder of the vows that I took at my ordination and the community of priests who have taken that vow with me. I wear my cassock because it reminds me of lineage of priests who have come before me, everyone from Rob Wright to St. Mary the Virgin, and every man and woman in between, and my sacred duty and obligation to live into that vocation in such a way that someone sees in me the tearing of the veil between heaven and earth – that things “which were once cast down are indeed being raised up.”

Maybe it’s too much. Maybe I over think things. Maybe my language is too “catholic” for some. But “without a doubt I know, that I have been revived,” and I have fallen back in love with God in a very real way.

Keep the Faith, and Make it COLORFUL!
Marcus+

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9 thoughts on “Why I Wear My Cassock: My Great Anglo-Catholic Experiment

  1. Marcus+, thank you for the powerful reflection. At a similar moment that you faced the Holy Spirit guided me to pick up my prayer beads; all during the Mass I held the prayer beads with the Cross between two fingers and the beads around my wrist, I celebrated holding the beads as it grounded me in what was occurring. As you say “it’s me, not you” and this worked for me. Peace, Henry+

  2. Thank you for taking off the ‘mask’ of your struggles… I too, as a priest, come to see the bread and cup as chips and dips for a while, I sought out one of the profs at the Seminary in Austin and I asked if I should some how ‘force’ the issue with God over my lacking. She, in great wisdom said “NO!-just leave it alone, this period of time is preparing you to hear from God something that you would not hear in any other way…” I found this to be true and now, during those ‘dry’ periods, I become very excited about what God is doing in my life to allow me to hear THAT voice as I hear no other.
    P.S.-I am also a member of the Anglican Order of Preachers and have a full monastic habit, a modified Dominican habit, I think of my self a ‘grain of salt’ in a bland world. People will ask, but mostly if it’s Halloween!
    Peace~
    Fr. Travis Frank
    ACTS 20:24

    1. Thank you for your reflection, Fr. Travis. It’s great to share experiences and hear God speaking in a variety of ways.
      Pax,
      MGH+

  3. A most excelent reflection on the great mystery of Gods Sacramental presence that the deepth of sweetness contained within.

  4. We must be both a sign of contradiction and intimately available. We are called to embrace our selves and yet to strive for being more than that. Remember that Jesus is the Shepherd and we are but sheep dogs who must be vigilant for the sheep and for ourselves.

  5. As a layman – and an Anglo-Catholic I was moved to read of the problems that celebrating the Eucharist frequently can cause a priest.

  6. Dear Father,
    I very much enjoyed reading this piece. I have been an Anglican priest now for 26 years, currently in central London, UK. Although I have always worn a cassock on Sundays, the risk of becoming over-familiar with sacred things is always there. Thank you for sharing these words from your friend: “Rather than thinking of it as preparing to step in front of an audience who have come waiting to see a “show,” I was invited to see myself as I really was – a “priest” who was preparing to stand before the altar of the Creator of Universe in the juncture between time and eternity, earth and heaven” ,

    I pray for you in your priestly ministry and ask that you do the same for me the madness that is London!

    Fr Martin Poole SSC

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