Castles Burning

This is an essay about the first time I heard Neil Young’s “Live at Massey Hall”. It was on the back patio of my older brother’s house the summer after my first year of seminary.

But before I talk about that, I want to fast forward a year later, same place, same brother.

The night before I was ordained to the diaconate I stayed at my brother’s house. I was nervous about the next step I was about to take in life. To be ordained a deacon is a big deal – in a sense there’s no turning back. It wasn’t inevitable, but the signposts seemed to show that I was on the way to eventually being ordained a priest, which meant a life of service to a parish, to the church, to navigating the waters which I’m still realizing the depth and weight of (I was ordained a priest a year later).

Now, so far, five years into ordained service, I can say that I wouldn’t turn back and don’t regret the decision to press on, to show up the next morning at my ordination. But my brother spoke a word to me the night before that has stuck with me and, in many ways, been a word I have returned to in those times when doubt or, maybe a better word would be loss of focus happens – those moments when I ask “wait, what am I doing here?” (and those certainly do happen).

This is what he said to me:

“You know, Joey, you can still join the Peace Corps”

It’s hard to put into words what those words meant then, and mean now to me. I don’t have any plans to join the Peace Corps, and when I hear stories about what it takes to do that I don’t know if I would have what it takes to do the incredible work they do. But that word, at that moment has been a constant reminder to me of some very important things that have kept me sane in the midst of a vocation that can push one’s sanity.

There is a something I have learned in my brief experience as a priest – and that’s the fact that I cannot think for a minute it is mine to own. The minute it becomes ‘my priesthood’- something that is intrinsically necessary for my worth or value – then it has become an idol. I was not ontologically changed into a priest at my ordination. I am fulfilling a role. To be a priest is to serve and fulfill a calling by God affirmed and only given reality by the collective ‘amen’ – first of those who saw and encouraged that calling, of the wife and kids who were willing to pack up everything and move across the country to find out what it meant. It is the ‘axios’ of the Bishop and clergy and faithful there in attendance at the ordination. It is the continual collective amen said together in the parish, gathered as the Body of Christ, offering the collective prayers and worship in the eucharistic assembly that gives any meaning or purpose to ‘my priesthood’. My role is just that – a role I’ve accepted among the people of God, not separate or above, but among. And a role not owed to me and not even guaranteed to be forever.

I could still join the Peace Corps and be serving Christ no less. But I’ve been called to the priesthood, for some reason. I still sometimes don’t know why. So I try to trust in those around me who keep telling me its right.

One of those people is my older brother. He’s also one of the few people who I absolutely cannot BS, and this is important. There are a handful of people like this in my life. My brother became one, sometime around the time my dad got sick with cancer, or, maybe the seeds were there before that, when I first went to college and he offered, with complete sincerity to help with anything…anything I might need. I didn’t know what that meant completely as a young 18 year old heading to college. But I realized it fully as an older, 32 year old coming back from my first semester at seminary.

This is where Neil comes in.

Seminary is fire. Its a necessary fire, but its fire. Fire that can burn or purify, and usually does a little of both. I once heard a saying that a first year seminarian wants to save the world, a second year seminarian wants to save the church, and a third year seminarian wants to save his soul. I had a new priest tell me before I went to seminary that you have to be really called and dedicated to come out the other side with even your faith intact. I had others simply respond with ‘why would you want to go and do that?!’

If the first saying holds true, then the night I showed up at my brother’s house, tired and worn from the road and a year of seminary, I was past saving the world and moving on to saving the church. I certainly had been introduced to much to much of the ‘human’ part of serving the church. It was actually a really difficult time in our particular jurisdiction. There was a great deal of administrative turmoil, scandal, and confusion. Being at seminary during these years was like being in the middle of the storm. It took all of the idealism and zeal one almost has to have to even think of pursuing a vocation in the church and turned it upside down. I questioned everything, and even consider packing it up and heading back home.

My brother gave me the best gift a brother could give. We sat on his patio, had a few beers and listened to Neil Young. It was the first time I had heard Neil’s “Live at Massey Hall” record. I hope it’s not sacrilegious to say so, but it was like healing oil to my soul. We mostly sat in silence and just listened.

“Don’t let it bring you down, its only castles burning. Find someone who’s turning and you will come around.”

Its only castles burning. It reminded me of words that one of monks at seminary offered me. At a moment of distress, he somehow knew, pulled me aside and said:

“Joel, it’s about loving people… you’ll be tempted to be pulled into a lot of crazy stuff… don’t lose focus.. it’s about loving people…don’t lose that!”

It’s about loving people.

The other stuff is just castles burning – idols and nonsense and politics to distract and turn this all into something it’s not meant to be.

Find someone who’s turning and you will come around.

I surely keep trying. Lord have mercy.

Thanks, bro. Love you.