I still hang on to several pairs of jeans in my closet that do not fit me anymore. I should say I have gained too much weight to fit into my old jeans. However, I cling to the illusion that someday I will learn how to take better care of myself. This is the self-talk that keeps those perfectly good jeans hanging out of my sight. I do not want to admit that they need to be given away to people who need them today, to survive the cold springtime of Portland, Oregon.
The longer I minister among people who live outside or who suffer beyond my imagining with diseases of the mind, I realize my sickness of clinging to clothing that does not fit me anymore. I have yet to fully comprehend that it is not only the clothing that does not fit me anymore, but my view of who I am as a person and as a priest that has changed ministering among our society’s fragile, vulnerable and physically naked.
I evaluate the contents of my closet every Saturday evening as I unlock the chapel door on our urban corner in downtown Portland, Oregon. I open the steel doors and Irene is always waiting there to enter. She carries with her in a wire cart the contents of her entire closet. All the clothing she owns from her single-room-occupancy apartment is wadded up in the shopping cart and in several bags she carries on her shoulder. She tells me she brings her belongings to Mass because she fears someone will break into her apartment and steal everything. She lives in great fear that her second-hand clothing will become another hand-me-down to a thief.
I do not know if the thief is coming. However, she provides for me serious reflection about what I carry with me, not only the clothing on my back but the attitudes, values and lived reality of my priesthood. She stands every Saturday as a reminder that I do not own my possessions. I am not what I wear. My true identity comes from my real nakedness, the intentions of my heart and life.
Several years ago after welcoming Irene into the chapel and helping her carry her clothing to her pew, I entered the sacristy to vest for Mass. I opened the closet in the sacristy and reached for my alb that is twenty-eight years old. The familiar beige cloth comforted me and reminded me of these many years of liturgical prayer. I have clothed myself with the same alb to bury strangers and family members. I have worn the alb to witness the commitments of hundreds of couples and to receive the heartfelt confessions of strangers. The dark stains on the sleeves reveal the illnesses of people who have been anointed with holy oil. It smells of sweat and aftershave. I have stood at the altar in dozens of churches amidst varieties of circumstances. Holding the garment next to my body, I realized how I have been changed, not from what I wear, but from the many people who have challenged me, taught me, and shown me how to become a real person beneath the alb of prayer.
I reached for the green chasuble that the parish owns. I stopped, held the garment, and realized for the first time in all my years of priesthood that I was wearing someone else’s clothing. I am also a person of poverty. Not only did I realize I did not possess the garment, but I understood that the garment would never be fully owned by any person. This garment belongs to everyone. This garment has been handed down for centuries, not as a sign of separateness, but as a witness that nothing belongs to us. At that moment, I felt profound joy and relief that I have not physically grown out of the clothes I wear to celebrate the Eucharist.
Now, every time I reach for a colorful chasuble, I am reminded of all who are naked, those who wait in lines and have to ask for the basics of life. I bring to mind the grueling fact that so many people in our country of privilege have to ask someone else for clean underwear. Everyone in church leadership should witness the humble faces of people who have to ask another person for such personal items. These people’s humility and courage would teach us all how to relate to the entire worshipping assembly.
My liturgical vesture calls me to prayer by showing me that so many people own only the clothing on their backs and another person first owned that clothing. These vestments tells me not to claim false power, or find privilege in leading prayer, or get caught in the trap of how some people want to treat me with privilege.
I wear a stole for liturgical prayer that calls me first to stand emotionally and spiritually naked in moments of quiet, personal prayer. I must be ready to acknowledge the source of my life in God before I can lead other people to the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. I must know firsthand that the piece of cloth around my neck does not provide for me places of honor. I cannot place burdens on people that I would not carry myself. The longer I wear the stole, the more I see it as a means of self-stripping, letting go of so much that separates me from real people. The stole calls me to prayer so I may become more honest in my life as a priest and as leader of the Eucharist.
The stole, a yoke around my neck, speaks to me now in ways it never has before. I live a life of advantage, education and benefit. The yoke that I carry around my neck must be connected to the suffering of people who wait in line, not only for the Eucharist, but also for every daily meal. The heaviness of that simple piece of material around my shoulders must connect me emotionally to people’s suffering. I must join my prayer to people locked in the chains of prison. I must begin to feel the weight of unemployment on the shoulders of a single mother and her little girl. I must hear the story of people and feel their lost dreams of education and a solid future in this downturned economy.
Before I was ordained a priest, my mother hand sewed two chasubles for me. Her gift to me was the joy of dressing me as a priest as she had dressed me as an infant. I remember purchasing the white light-wool material, the thread and the decorative banding. My mother figured the cost of each chasuble was $9.00. I certainly did not realize the true value of those liturgical garments at the time, the handmade vestments for Eucharist sewn by my mother.
I wore both chasubles for years being reminded that ordination is so deeply rooted in the garments of baptism. Every time I put on one of the vestments over my head and on to my body, I am reminded of how my parents clothed me for many years. The vestment shows me again that I will never really out grow my baptismal garments that have called me into a life of service.
I draped one of the chasubles over my mother’s casket when I celebrated her funeral. The funeral director tucked it into her coffin before burying her. I had to let it go. In some ways I had to grow out of the garment and into another phase of life. I needed to leave it with her as a reminder of her years of love and care for me. I knew it really did not belong to me, but to her support and encouragement for my ministry.
I connect my Eucharistic vesture to many moments of ministry and to many ways our bodies are covered with gowns of suffering. I see my vesture calling me into service when I encounter an elderly man wearing a hospital gown just coming out of surgery. Finding our bodies in someone else’s clothing no matter how new or clean is always difficult. Wearing such garments is difficult for patients when the material does not completely cover the naked body. These strange gowns are always associated with body pain, loss and bland hospital food. When I see someone in a hospital gown, I pray for them when I cover my own body in the garment of love and sacrifice at the altar.
I pray for newborns in diapers, the garments that create fathers out of ordinary husbands. I connect my prayer with the clean white handkerchief I give to the young woman on the streetcar because her nose is bleeding and she has enough trouble navigating her mental illness. I associate my vestments of service with the white bandages the medics use to stop the bleeding of a man too drunk to stand up near our chapel door. In all these moments I see in my heart the white cloth that was tossed aside in the empty tomb on that morning when the disciples could not find the dead body of Jesus. The living Christ, the Spirit of God, connects me to that garment first worn by someone else.
I recently noticed a runaway teen and his girlfriend sleeping on bench near the river in downtown Portland. As I walked by I noticed the young man wearing a T-shirt that read, “The University of Notre Dame.” By seeing his tattered, baggy pants, and large over-sized shirt I realized that his clothes were obviously first worn by someone else. They both looked as if they had been living on the streets for years. I wondered if my religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, knows where the clothing from Notre Dame goes after the football games have ended and the students have gone home. I would have ignored this youth before realizing that I also wear clothing that once belonged to someone else.
I was ordained at the University of Notre Dame but I have deepened my formation into the Gospel by entering the mystery of people’s suffering. The T-shirt was just a T-shirt to the lad on the bench. It covered his body. The shirt looked stained with vomit from over drinking alcohol. He did not wear the shirt to prove an affiliation as a football fan or an alumnus of the school, but for sheer survival. I saw the shirt and immediately connected it with the vestments that call me into working for justice and to care for people like the youth on the park bench.
I risk being spiritually naked in front of people at the altar every day. The ancient vestments protect me from the holy fire that stirs on the altar, the Real Presence of God. This fire creates community from suffering, pain and longing. At the altar of God there are no distinctions of rich and poor, we are human beings longing to experience our real identities in Christ Jesus. The vesture is a sign of our common lives clothing us in the dying and rising of Christ. The liturgical clothing becomes our baptismal dying to human power and rising to the real presence within us of God’s healing and saving life.
Even after all these years of priesthood, I am still growing into the clothing that has been passed down to me for centuries. These hand-me-downs teach me not to get stuck in my human ego and false concerns. My vestments clothe me in overwhelming humility. Vesture is not a liturgical carapace, but a connection to our lives of human poverty. The vesture hanging in the sacristy shows me the connection I have daily to people living in poverty and who have no choice as to always wear someone else’s clothing.
I will be buried in a chasuble. I will wear someone else’s clothing for all eternity. However, my ill fitting jeans may still be hanging in the closest waiting for someone else to benefit from my inability to let them go.