Holding the Center: A Reflection on Priesthood
Fr. Phil Hooper SMMS
Fr. Phil is Curate at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN, USA; he was ordained to the priesthood in 2019 and became a member of the Sodality this year on Pentecost.
Priests hold the center.
This thought occurred to me not long ago after waking from a particularly vivid dream. In it, I was speaking with a group of strangers when one of them suddenly turned to me and asked, “what is it, exactly, that you do?”
Before I could answer, I was jolted awake. Something about the inquiry, common as it is, startled my dreaming mind, and I was left to stare for a while at the shadows on the ceiling, pondering what I would have said.
I am a priest, of course. But what is it, exactly, that priests do? In our discernment and formation process we spend a lot of time debating ontological and functional responses to this question, often picking one side of the supposedly bright line between being and doing. I confess, though, that since my ordination last year I have continued to struggle with a cogent articulation of the priestly condition, in part because it feels subject to the complexities of relationship and circumstance.
“I am a priest,” I tell people, in the coffee shop or in the waiting room, and I watch as the words bloom like an inkblot test across their field of vision; whatever “priest” means to them becomes both who I am and what I do in that moment. A trusted figure? A threatening charlatan? A curious anachronism? So much seems dependent upon the story into which I enter. Sometimes I am cast as the holy emissary, or the villain; other times I am the fool. But surely my priestly identity is something more than a chimera or a receptacle f0r others’ lingering phantasms?
Other professions might experience this ambiguity, too, but priests, I would argue, are somewhat unique in the extent to which “what we do” can feel beyond the scope of clear and unequivocal explanation. Yes, we follow Jesus, as all the baptized are called to do. And yes, we preach and preside and teach and administer and counsel in our various ways, but what are we doing in all of that? Beyond simply being a sort of “professional Christian,” what is the direction, the telos, of this grab-bag of activities that makes up a priestly life?
And then, as I drifted back to sleep, the words unspooled in my mind, like a ribbon: you hold the center.
Priests hold the center.
Since that time, I have held this phrase on my tongue, rolling it around like a piece of hard candy, testing its edges and crevices. Holding the center? Where did that come from? What does it even mean?
But as I have sat with it in recent days, the idea has not left me, and in fact I have found some comfort and clarity in it. Going about a day of ministry, “holding the center” feels like an apt summary of my attempts, and moreover it feels like a necessary and urgent task at present. Perhaps this is because the world feels so de-centered lately: the systems and institutions we’ve looked to for stability are showing their vulnerabilities, and certain assumptions about the trajectories of human progress are being undermined by a flood of damning evidence.
In this I am reminded of W.B. Yeats’ “Second Coming,” his brooding contemplation of a disintegrating world in aftermath of the First World War:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
I understand Yeats, but I must take issue with a portion of this. Not the inescapable reality that things fall apart, as they surely tend to do, but the accompanying claim that the center, as conceived, is also doomed to fracture. Because the center which I seek, and of which I speak, as a priest is not constrained by the parameters of degradation. It is not a mere concentration of creaturely power, subject to inevitable diffusion over time. The center I know, the one I proclaim, will always hold, because it is found in something “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.” And holding that center, that message of an unchangeable truth—a message which runs counter to the frantic narrative of contemporary life—is what I am tasked with doing, wherever I might find myself, however it might be rejected or received.
To do this, I must begin by naming the Center, with a capital C, for Who and what it is. The Center, of course, is God; it is the emergent Kingdom wherein God reigns. It is the truth about love and power revealed to us in Jesus through the eternal generosity of the Holy Spirit. The Center is that dynamic Trinitarian nexus which creates, sustains, and redeems all things, seen and unseen. It is that which retains itself when everything else, every illusion and conceit, falls away.
And by claiming that God is indeed at the Center, to the exclusion of all else, those of us who are called priests spend our days countering the narrative of meaninglessness that haunts the collective nightmare of humanity: the shrill laughter of cruelty and decadence, the looming threat of the eternal void, the seeming futility of love in the face of death. Taking our stance against these lies of the Evil One, we tell anyone who will listen that the Center we know will most definitely hold, that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And while it is the vocation of every Christian to counter chaos with the good news of God’s loving intentionality, the priest is set apart to do this at all times, forever, on behalf of those brought into their path by profession or circumstance. We hold the Center so that we might guide others in doing the same. Empowered by the grace of our ordination, we spend our lives as treasure-seekers, gathering in the particularities of the world’s pain and joy and longing; prayerfully sifting through these things for flashes of the Divine radiance embedded within; and then offering up these precious fragments for the enrichment of those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
This is a humbe, unglamorous task, and although we are speaking of centrality, our path paradoxically moves us away from those earthly centers of power and privilege, out to the peripheries where the true Center is found. Priests are not gatekeepers of Paradise, but we have indeed been called to plant ourselves at its gateway, to peer through its bars, to pass our days “waiting for God,” as Simone Weil said, and to see what might be discerned in His proximity. Like Lazarus the beggar, priests are alms-seekers at this gate, reaching out for the bread of heaven, not to satiate ourselves alone, but to strengthen our companions, to offer up a morsel for the bottomless hunger of the world—and to remind the world that it is in this place, this Center, that all may be truly fed.
And so I have pondered, what does it look like to do all of this—to hold the Center—in my daily life and work? And how does my participation in the Sodality support such a life? How do we, as priests, gather crumbs from under the table of this meagre moment and fashion them into a feast?
A few considerations:
Holding the Center is a Liturgical Act
In the Eucharistic liturgy, priests literally hold the Center—the body and blood of the Incarnate Son of God. This beating, bleeding Sacred Heart is the propulsive love-force at the core of creation, and we have been entrusted with the sacred act of preaching its power, of consecrating its tangible presence, of breaking it open, and of feeding the Body with the Body. As a priest of the Sodality comitted to Eucharistic adoration and, when possible, daily Mass, I am not simply engaging in pious discipline for my own benefit; I am returning, as a pilgrim, back to the temple of Holy Wisdom, “the ocean of Light which is the Trinity,” the place where we are closest, in this life, to those heavenly gates of the Kingdom. The more often I abide there, viewing and holding the Center and letting it enfold me, the more ably I am equipped to speak of it with others.
Holding the Center is a Missional Act
The Center of which we speak is generative, life-giving; God is permanently creative and outwardly dynamic. Thus, to speak of mission is to speak of the movement of the Word through time and space, and the ways in which we are caught up in it. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more beautifully expressed than in the Magnificat, where our Blessed Mother proclaims that her soul magnifies the Lord—that she is an emissary of the liberating, redemptive, justice-seeking Divine force that crackles like a lightning bolt through the gloom of history. Thus as a Sodalist in deep relationship with Mary as teacher and guide, and as a
“priest of the Magnificat,” I take on her words as my own missional lodestar, in hope of calling myself and the rest of the Church back to our original mission, back to the spirating Center wherein we live and love as the continued embodiment of God’s promises in Christ.
Holding the Center is a Prayerful Act
Prayer is fundamental to priestly life because it is the school of the heart, the practice of attending to that Center where God abides. The more I pray, the more I perceive what it means to hold fast to what is true. Prayer is the daily bread of our faith, and as with any source of nourishment, it must be consistently received in order to give life. Thus the Divine Office, which I commit to as a Sodalist, becomes the language of my heart’s satiety, and it is a language I can, in turn, teach to others. Like our Eucharistic devotion and our Marian missionality, a commitment to prayer is a vessel of priestly service; it is a mode of speaking, yes, but also of listening—listening at that heavenly gate where we pilgrim-priests seek a blessing on behalf of the world. Within the dialectical exchange between the voice of humanity and the Word of God, in our prayer we offer ourselves as intermediaries, as instruments played by the wind of the Spirit, standing as close to the Center as grace allows, the intentions of our hearts worn smooth and translucent by a thousand Amens.
Holding the Center is a Communal Act
Priestly life is not a solitary endeavor, but the isolation of our circumstances and the pervasive cultural archetype of the rugged individualist leads some to feel otherwise. I am often alone, and have at times been tempted by the seductive illusion that I can stride towards the Center on my own for a private audience with God. That road, though, is full of traps, mostly of my own devising. Only in relationship, in community, can I traverse the landscape safely. As Sodalists, though dispersed, we aim to embrace this communal vision: one of support, friendship, and mutual accountability. Through our committments to prayer, study, and engagement with one another, we practice the same relationality by which we understand God’s Trinitarian life. We are not a club or a professional society; we are a body within the Body, a life system, allowing ourselves to be moved and changed by one another. We offer up a measure of vulnerability so that our hearts stay attentive and tender, like the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary by whose rhythms we are guided. And, again, we do this not simply for ourselves, but so that we can offer it to others. Thus when we are asked what life looks like in this Center which we hold and proclaim, we can say joyfully, with some confidence, “it looks like the blessed entaglement of community; it looks like togetherness. It looks something like these brothers and sisters of mine.”
Having said all of this, there is still so much more I might say, and ultimately all my words feel inadequate to express the sublime joy and the dizzying intensity of this life. Some might question whether all of this talk about a Center is really necessary. Hasn’t the Christian tradition given us enough vocabulary already?
But for whatever reason, this phrase, inspired by that troubled dream of mine, has helped me frame the disparate parts of my daily efforts into a cohesive vision, reminding me that each fragment of what I do as a priest, and each fragment of what I am—the pastoral conversations, the liturgies, the silent prayer of the heart—is oriented somewhere true, somewhere fixed, returning to the Center from whence I am called.
In Sacrament, in mission, in prayer, and in community, in the midst of the unraveling of the ages, I am seeking that Center, I am holding it in my unworthy hands, and I am making it known to others—proclaiming that here is a place where God waits for each of us, here is where things don’t fall apart, here is where we are known fully as Christ’s own beloved.
I will never do it perfectly, and only by the grace of God, but it is, indeed, what I do. It’s what each of us does, we who have been called. We hold the Center.