By Ajung Sojwal
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35
One of the lessons I have had to learn as priest and pastor to a church is the one about the priesthood of being a sacred symbol for the people. I am still not sure if I have quite gotten over this yet; maybe, I am not meant to get over this, ever. In a liturgical church like ours, everything I wear, all the moves I make, and every line I proclaim on a Sunday morning in the sanctuary are carefully choreographed to hopefully draw the people into a space and time open to the possibility of an encounter with God. One would imagine that I should be used to the ceremony of it all by now. But, as I don on the heavily embroidered chasuble to stand at the altar and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, I am surprised, yet again, by how heavy and big the vestment feels on my small frame. I tell myself, that when the oversized vestment was made and bought, the Church never envisioned someone like me to come along and wear it.
Often, an odd mixture of deep joy and fear washes over me as I see the expectant gestures of the people, kneeling, standing and making the sign of the cross, around the Lord’s Table, with their palms wide open. For a split second, as I peer into the eyes of the one who receives “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven” from my hands, I know I have the complete trust and vulnerability of another human being in a way that she can never be elsewhere. In that mystery called the Holy Communion — when weary human beings get to reconcile with the Divine, and I, momentarily become the symbol of God’s unconditional grace — I realize that I need to gather every human impulse within me to take control of that holiness and retreat to a place far from it all.
I believe any self-regulation for the Christian must emerge from a place of solitude with God. The thin place where we can freely acknowledge that we have not enough fig leaves to cover ourselves as God comes asking, “Where are you?” Priesthood is a lonely place to be and there are plenty of opportunities to fill that loneliness with people-pleasing programs, Christian paraphernalia and yet another coffee with a parishioner or a committee. If I allow my deep human loneliness to be pacified with the symbols that I unwittingly become for my parishioners I would be lost. So, at the end of every Sunday, I know I need to find that deserted place.
Mondays come with a hint of pink in the sky, and I prepare myself.
When the last of the lot is gone out the door,
I secure the windows shut to the city sounds
invading my being even fifteen floors up.
As if for an illicit relationship, I pull the blinds down;
And there in the darkened room,
my place on the couch with my Lord I find.
There I settle to calm my soul,
There I dare to silence my thoughts,
There I shed all the symbols I take on.
And, in that place of solitude You speak,
probing words that unmasks my unadorned spirit.
The Rev. Ajung Sojwal is an Episcopal priest based in the Diocese of New York. Originally from the state of Nagaland, India. Currently, she lives in New York City with her husband and one of their daughters.