The Nearness of God

The Nearness of God

by Julia Gatta


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What distinguishes Christian ministry from other helping professions? While many books tell clergy how to run a capital campaign, handle conflict, and lead a vestry, this book helps pastors, chaplains, and lay professionals appreciate the spiritual depth of their calling and reminds them that Christian ministry is Christs ministry working through them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819223180
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/28/2010
Pages: 141
Sales rank: 1,001,649
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Julia Gatta is Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology at the School of Theology at Sewanee. Her previous books include The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice and, with Martin L. Smith, Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions. She is a spiritual director, retreat conductor, and Episcopal priest who served for 25 years in the Diocese of Connecticut. She holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School and doctoral degree in medieval studies from Cornell.

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By Julia Gatta

Morehouse Publishing

Copyright © 2010 Julia Gatta
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8192-2318-0

Chapter One


Vocation in Community

"I believe I am so called." (The Ordination of a Priest, BCP 531)

WITH THESE WORDS, the candidate for ordination sums up years of discernment. Our examination before the bishop seems at first to be a rather solitary moment, where we take our life in our hands and declare our own faith about our vocation: "I believe I am so called." We say it is a "call"—not a job or even a profession. Even in the case of the ordination of a bishop—where the fact of election might well be reckoned a call by God and the church—the candidate is still asked, "Are you persuaded that God has called you to the office of bishop?" (BCP 517). At no point in the ordination liturgy can we let "the process" speak for itself. Those about to be ordained, having weighed both interior and exterior evidence of God's call, must articulate the discernment that has emerged as an act of faith. Yet as we stand before the ordaining bishop, we realize that we are not alone and never will be, really. The community of faith stands all around us: the community that fostered and probed this calling, the community that tested and helped us articulate our sense of vocation, the community in which we will exercise the ministry of Christ for the rest of our lives. So even as we believe this calling ultimately comes from God, we know that the church also must confirm and speak the call to us: "Do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church?" A vocation to holy orders is developed and examined by the church, and the grace of holy orders is conferred in the setting in which the church is most fully and charismatically the church—the Holy Eucharist.

The dynamic of grace at work in all the sacraments is strikingly evident in the sacrament of orders. It involves an epiclesis—a prayer calling upon the Holy Spirit. Since the late Middle Ages in the West, the rite of ordination has included singing the Veni Creator Spiritus. Charles Simeon, writing in the early nineteenth century about the ordination liturgy, pondered the significance of both the silent invocation of the Spirit just prior to the act of ordination and the singing of "a hymn which in beauty of composition and spirituality of import cannot easily be surpassed.... In this devout hymn the agency of the Holy Spirit, as the one source of light and peace and holiness is fully acknowledged, and earnestly sought as the necessary means of forming pastors after God's heart."

The silence, the hymn, and the prayers of ordination all call upon the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the rite of ordination itself is situated within the eucharistic liturgy, the very place where the church finds herself on the frontiers of the age to come. The gathered liturgical community is part of the eschatological community, for the blessing of the Holy Eucharist comes to us not just from the remembered past of the Lord's Supper but also from the future promise of the Supper of the Lamb. At an ordination, we receive the charismata the ascended Lord showers upon the church: "The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph. 4:11–12).

We know that ordination is not conferred for our personal benefit or to satisfy our personal wishes. Without a doubt, its grace can be wonderfully redemptive for those who receive it, but it is ultimately given for the sake of others—bestowed, as St. Paul would remind us, "for the common good." Just as our initial sense of a call to orders had to be discerned within the community of faith, so we find that as we exercise that call, we are drawn more fully into the koinonia—the communion—of the church. We work out our salvation, we practice our ministries, within the warp and woof of church life, wherever we find ourselves.

But just where do we find ourselves? Typically, clergy move from cure to cure, serving several congregations over the course of their lives. In some denominations, fairly rapid turnover is required by church policy. In the Episcopal Church, the priest, with at least the tacit approval of the bishop, is usually the one who initiates a change of position. According to some statistics, the average cure these days is about seven years, which is not very long. How does the uprooting of lives that frequent relocation entails affect our rhetoric of "community," and even more seriously, our capacity to receive God's grace within particular communities?

To be sure, there are some transitions that are natural and predictable. The newly ordained curate or the more seasoned associate becomes ready to take on the broader task of rector and so leaves after a few years. Everybody expects this development to occur, and while there will be some feelings of loss, there will also be a sense of fulfillment and joy. So, too, in the case of those whose first few cures prepared them to accept wider responsibility in the church: senior pastor of a larger congregation, dean of a cathedral, seminary teacher or administrator, or bishop. And then there are those cases in which priest and parish are so ill-suited to each other in every way that their continued pastoral relationship is downright destructive. It is time to move.

But not so fast. Sometimes priest and parish need to grow into a more mature love for each other, coming to accept that the other party is not one's ideal priest or dream parish. God may have something better in mind for us than our composite portrait of the "truly committed" church. Decades ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against unleashing the ruinous power of idealism gone awry. Those who approach communities of faith demanding, even inwardly, that they conform to one's "wish dream" become, in the long run, the "destroyer" of that community. In recent years, some pastoral theologians have urged clergy to take to heart the witness of longer pastorates, tenures that embody God's faithfulness to us more convincingly. Longer pastorates challenge the sort of theological fantasies clergy are apt to entertain about Christian community. They shape us spiritually as well as the congregations we serve by forcing us to deal, patiently and respectfully, with people whose views and desires for the church are different from our own. Longer pastorates keep us from running away from people we may find irritating or problems we cannot easily solve. Above all, they testify to the truth that Christ, rather than congruence of personality or outlook, is the foundation of the church.

* * *

The Need for Stability

The highly mobile society that characterizes the United States today holds particular challenges for the church. Few professionals live and work in the towns or cities in which they grew up. For many American adults and their children, the extended family has ceased to be part of their natural community; grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are visited, at most, a few times a year. Job mobility makes and unmakes friendships. In this situation, the church can serve as a built-in community for people whose jobs have caused them to be uprooted; the desire for social connection may not be the highest motivation for joining a particular church community, but it is real. Yet the freedom we experience in mobility comes at a high emotional and social cost, and some contend that the price is too high. At any rate, should clergy simply reflect this cultural trend or challenge it by a more grounded life?

Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry is one of the most eloquent voices today urging commitment to a particular locale. Berry reminds us that love does not exist as a disembodied idea: "Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, 'the least of these my brethren.'" Berry's own dogged devotion to farming a parcel of land near the place where he grew up, and farming it organically, in a way that respects the discrete limitations of that tract of earth, witnesses to the means by which love becomes incarnate. Incarnation is always particular.

Lack of geographical rootedness bespeaks a more systemic problem: our restlessness and desire to have it all. The unwillingness of our affluent society to exercise prudent self-limitation has brought about an environmental crisis that is, in some respects at least, already beyond repair. We need to cultivate the Benedictine virtue of stability: the resolve to stay with this place, this parish, to burrow into its graced possibilities over the long haul. For it is only in our particular circumstances that grace is ever to be found. Reflecting on stability as a trait of character as much as an external boundary, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom has observed: "You find stability at the moment when you discover that God is everywhere, that you do not need to seek him elsewhere.... If you cannot find him here you will not find Him anywhere else."

Stability does not imply a retreat into parochialism, shrinking the church to the scale of the local congregation; rather, it reminds us that the local community in which we find ourselves does matter, and matters crucially. Embracing the whole begins with a loving embrace of our actual community: the community of the natural elements of soil, landscape, and other animals; the community of our neighborhood; and the community of our faith. True universality is found in specific communities of faith—so long as these communities remain open, at least in principle, to incorporate "all sorts and conditions" of human beings. For this reason, Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas situates the local church, in the full ecclesial meaning of the term, in the diocese. By privileging geography over the human accidents of age, race, or social class, the diocese stands the best chance of being a truly catholic reality.

* * *

Settling In, Settling Down

My thinking about the intersection between natural communities and catholicity has been shaped by a year of living and working in Africa. For an academic term, my husband and I taught at a small, impoverished Anglican seminary in the Transkei—at that time one of the black "homelands" in the apartheid system of South Africa. At St. Bede's, we were quickly incorporated into an intense community in which everyone, students and faculty alike, lived, worked, prayed, and took meals together. We then spent a full academic year in West Africa, where my husband taught at the University of Dakar on a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship. From time to time, we would leave the city to visit remote villages in the countryside with some Peace Corps friends. Here we witnessed human community as people had lived it for millennia. It was easy to feel some romantic nostalgia for the natural society our ancestors had enjoyed but was now utterly removed from our contemporary western experience. In the closely knit family bonds and predetermined roles of those societies, it was hard to imagine anyone suffering an identity crisis much less existential angst. Life just went on, in remarkable harmony with the rhythms of nature, as it always had, full of joy and sorrow.

Despite the evident poverty, it was hard not to feel at least a twinge of envy until eventually honesty set in: Would I really want this life, I asked myself, even if I were free to choose it? No, I would not. I realized that I treasured the freedom of the post-Enlightenment West of which I was a cultural product. I would not want to spend my working hours pounding millet with the village women, even if the price I pay for that freedom is living in a society that sometimes seems united by nothing more than our common agreement to let each of us go our separate ways.

But do we have to choose, even theoretically, between the secure but, for us, stifling community of tribal society, and the alienated individualism of the West? I think not. We can exercise our freedom precisely by placing limits on it for the sake of community and for a more integrated life. This, of course, is what marriage or monastic vows entail: the voluntary relinquishing of some measure of freedom—including mobility—for the sake of a common life. Could we extend this commitment to our natural or church communities for a similar reason: to choose depth of relationship rather than a wide but superficial variety of geographical, social, or ecclesial settings?

Even though our vocation does not lie in the literal cultivation of the land, as it does for Wendell Berry, most of us need to settle down somewhere and choose to settle in. Christian community is lived in face-to-face relationships over the long haul, not in the seductive chat-rooms of the web or even in the stimulating but transitory communities of conferences, retreats, or sabbatical years. Authentic community requires shared history—and that is not something that happens overnight. As Robert Bellah noted in his celebrated Habits of the Heart, "Where history and hope are forgotten and community means only the gathering of the similar, community degenerates into lifestyle enclave." There is no staying power in lifestyle enclaves, and so we move in and out of them with a kind of promiscuity. When over the years we have not borne one another's burdens and shared each other's joys, what loss is there in leaving when the opportunity presents itself for career advancement or the chance arises to live in a more attractive part of the country?

My own quest for community took on a sharper edge when I returned from Africa. While we realized that we could never replicate the natural community of the African village or the all-encompassing seminary community of St. Bede's, we hoped to find something that would approximate, within our limited circumstances, that sense of belonging within the household of faith. And so, after a national job search, we ended up in the same corner of rural, eastern Connecticut where we had already lived for almost twenty years. I took a position as part-time vicar of a little country parish. We moved into the vicarage next to the church and began our experiment in Christian community.

It was not always smooth sailing. In fact, three years into that life I was so disappointed, my dreams for the parish so utterly crushed, my feelings so hurt by groundless suspicions and foolish misunderstandings, that I began to make plans to leave. I would have moved on had not unexpected financial troubles forced me to stay put. Even a half-time salary was better than the non-stipendiary work I had been contemplating. Having resigned myself to working for the paycheck, I decided that I might as well make the best of it. It occurred to me that I might try to love my parishioners as they actually were, not as I hoped they might be.

And then, strange to say, things began to change. An elderly parishioner remarked to me, about a month after what I had thought was an entirely interior shift, "You seem to be more at peace." For reasons I cannot wholly explain, the atmosphere of our life together began to soften. When parishioners realized that I was not leaving and, in the end, did not even want to go, trust emerged. About seven or eight years into that call—just about the time, statistically, that clergy are apt to move—a still more profound level of trust evolved, somewhat instinctively, on both sides. We could take risks and make mistakes and still believe in each other's goodwill and forgiveness. Most of the time we simply got on with living the Christian life together. Sometimes I found out what was going on among my parishioners, but not always. Occasionally I witnessed breathtakingly generous, but often quiet and hidden, acts of mutual care within the parish, combined with a high degree of sensitive responsibility to the community at large. All of it was grounded in a deeply prayed-through Sunday eucharist, which people openly affirmed was the very center of their lives. Luther was surely right when he declared that the church is the church when the word of God is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. The rest flows from there. You really don't need much to make it work—except grace, of course.


Excerpted from THE NEARNESS OF GOD by Julia Gatta Copyright © 2010 by Julia Gatta. Excerpted by permission of Morehouse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Called Together: Vocation in Community....................1
2. The Supper of the Lamb: Celebrating the Holy Eucharist....................30
3. Serving the Word: Prayer for Preaching....................57
4. Shepherding the Flock: Pastoral Care in the Congregation....................87
5. Defying and Defining Limits: Temptation in Ministry....................115

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