“Step outside with me a minute.”
Aiden Davies looked up from tracing patterns in the Oriental rug. The priest gestured to the patio door. Davies stood up, smoothed his jacket, and walked outside.
Twenty-four hours earlier, he had boarded a plane in Nashville. The irony that it was Halloween weekend had not escaped him. He was flying to West Virginia to attend a meeting, at which no costume or mask would be tolerated. The Commission on Ministry awaited: in the space of a four hour meeting, they would form a recommendation for the Bishop as to whether Davies should be allowed to remain on the path to priesthood. This was another hurdle, a big one, in the overarching plan that he had only recently begun to cherish in his heart. He arrived at the motel and passed an uneasy night, a product of nerves and an unfamiliar bed. He had convinced himself that sleep was hopeless when…
…Davies was in the chambers of the Supreme Court…the bench was impossibly high…the faceless members of the Commission peered down at him…the bench was a rock wall…he checked his belay and started climbing…halfway up a door appeared…he walked through, the door shut behind him, and he heard the bolt slide home…the cell had two piles of old, grimy hay and a slit of a window high out of reach…a man in a ragged smock sat in the corner… “I can’t do it, Charles,” he said… “Who is Charles?” Davies asked…he looked down and saw his hands trussed with the climbing rope…he was on a cart in the midst of a screaming crowd…the same man caught his eye, turned, and walked away… “Mr. Carton,” Davies cried, “It’s supposed to be you.”…the sun glinted off something metal…
…Davies sat up, knuckled his eyes, and grabbed the bedside clock. 5:00am. The dream was gone. The meeting was in three hours. He got up, paced the room, attempted a few incoherent prayers. He showered, dressed, and ate cereal from a plastic disposable tub at the continental breakfast. At 7:30, he arrived at the retreat center. Horses watched him from behind a whitewashed fence. The mountains rose in the distance. As the fog lifted, the gray morning gave way to all the colors of autumn. This place is too beautiful a setting for defeat, Davies thought.
He walked through the open front door and stood in the hallway. He took a couple of deep breaths, smelled coffee, followed the scent down the hall, and poked his head through a doorway. There they were – no Supreme Court dais or headsman, just a dozen and a half folks, some in black clergy shirts and collars, others in suits or dresses, all with coffee. “Aiden, welcome,” said a woman near the door.
He recognized her from his stint as a camp counselor during the previous summer. “Hello,” he said, and his eyes swept the room. He knew almost half the group on sight. So that’s why the Bishop wanted me to spend the summer at Camp Madison. A tall, goatee-ed priest stood up and shook Davies’s hand. “Here’s the drill,” he said, “We have here both the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee. We’ll split into four groups, and you and the other three aspirants will have an hour with each group. Got it?”
“Yessir,” said Davies. The priest looked as his watch. “Okay, well, I’ll see you in a few hours. Don’t forget to breathe. There’s really no reason to be concerned.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Davies tried to turn his grimace into a smile. Careful, you idiot: you’re not shooting the breeze after a campfire. But before he could gauge the priest’s reaction, the woman who first greeted Davies said, “You’ll be staying in here, dear.”
She patted the seat next to hers, and he sat down. The other three groups filed out of the room, leaving a small band clustered near Davies. “Will you open with prayer, please,” said the woman. Is this part of the test? He looked at the eager faces around him. Obviously, yes. “Sure…uh…Let us pray,” stalled Davies. “Heavenly Father, please be with us today as we…as they…as the Commission on Committees…I mean, the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee attempt to discern your will. Thank you for bringing us all here safely; in your Son’s name. Amen.”
“Amen,” they echoed. C-minus, if you’re lucky. “Let’s start with your family. You’re father’s a priest in this diocese,” said a man to Davies’s left.
Davies waited for a question, but the man seemed to be finished. “Yes, he is. He’s actually on the Standing Committee, but my cousin’s getting married today, so he’s in Georgia right now.”
“Do you see yourself as following in his footsteps?”
“I guess you could put it that way,” Davies said, “but I tend to think that we’re both following in Jesus’ footsteps. At least, I hope so. It’s not the family business or anything. I was deadset against priesthood until I got to college. Then I was able to be my own person, and I realized that my proximity to dad sheltered me from a call of my own.”
He looked around, but no one was clamoring to ask a question: “There was a time at my internship in Texas,” Davies continued, “when I was preaching and I realized halfway through the sermon that I was just channeling my dad. Then I dropped the microphone, stooped to pick it up, and I was me. It was a pretty cool moment.”
The questioner broke in, “I want to caution you, son. Try not to talk about your father too much today. We want to hear about you.” Well, then why did you ask a question about him? “Uh…yessir,” Davies said instead.
The hour came to a close quicker than he thought possible. The welcoming woman pointed him to his next meeting. He was ready to pray this time. Solid B. The hour passed and he moved on to his third meeting. He expected to pray again, but no invitation came. Instead, another priest he had met at camp waited for him to sit down and then said, “So. You’re 21.”
It was a statement with a tinge of accusation. Davies took a quick breath and chambered a verse bullet about not being despised because of your youth. But just as he was about to fire Paul at the ornery priest, something stopped him. Do you realize you’ve been grading your own prayers? Give it up already. What will be will be. “Yes, I am,” said Davies.
“That’s awfully young.” The hour ticked uncomfortably by. Finally, Davies rose, expecting to see a pool of his own sweat on the chair. At least I didn’t talk about dad. He moved on to his last meeting. Once again, they asked him to pray. “Gracious God,” he began, “thank you for these people who have answered the challenge to discern who you are calling to be ordained in your church. Grant them wisdom and courage; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
I’ve never prayed this much out loud in my whole life. Davies smiled. The goatee-ed priest led the questioning, and before Davies knew it, the morning was over. He sat with the three other aspirants as the joint-committee deliberated. The minutes stretched into an hour, and Davies found himself tracing patterns in the Oriental rug.
“Step outside with me a minute.”
Davies looked up and saw the goatee-ed priest gesturing him to the patio door. He stood up, heart thumping like it used to when a fly ball was hit to him in centerfield. They walked out on the porch, and he half expected to see a guillotine among the wicker chairs, but last night’s dream was just a dream. The priest put his hand on Davies’s shoulder. “Before I say anything else,” he said. Oh God, help me. Oh God oh God oh God (…there it is…A-plus…) Oh GOD. “I want you to know that it is our recommendation that you be approved for postulancy.”
Davies barely heard the rest of the speech. The affirmation was just another piece of the plan, and his head was ten years in the future: I’ve finished seminary and gotten married to my girlfriend – I know we’ve only been together six weeks, but she’s The One. I’ve been called to a large church in a suburb of big city. Our son’s starting Tee Ball next spring, and our daughter is putting everything in her mouth. Our black lab likes to catch Frisbees. It’s perfect.
Of course, most of that never happened. But those are different tales.