The Whole Way Home
Reflections of a Seminarian

by Daniel Green

In 1992 I was living in the Tassajara Zen Buddhist monastery in the Santa Lucia Mountains, between Salinas and Big Sur. I was doing well there. It was a rigorously disciplined life, but simple, in a ruggedly beautiful and tranquil wilderness setting. I was enjoying my study of Buddhist scriptures and having what seemed to me to be profound meditative experiences. I was recognized as an up-and-coming leader in the community.

Not that there weren’t problems—there were a couple of women who were interested in me. I was living a life of celibacy, but I wasn’t exactly discouraging either of them. I also felt that I wasn’t contributing much to the needs of the larger world. But the real problem was that it wasn’t home.

I had been raised by a Christian father and a mother who, though not un-Christian, was more of a nature mystic (an Eco-feminist, really, only the term hadn’t been coined yet). I was never baptized, and stopped going to church at about the age of 12. Shortly after that I began taking a genuine interest in Eastern religion as well as Native American shamanism and other veins of religious experience and culture. I think I came out of my childhood with a deep affective connection with Jesus and the Christian tradition, particularly as expressed in music and art, and as solidarity with the oppressed and victims of violence. But I was not able to make sense of it intellectually, and I found church observance corny and stiff. In Buddha dharma, Zen meditation, and intentional community life I was able to reclaim my devotion to religious ideals while leaving behind the baggage of American Christian culture.

Or so it seemed at first, but the more years I spent at the Zen Center, the clearer it became to me that we had brought most of that baggage with us, and for me that was a blessing. It enabled me to accept the responsibility of my own social and cultural inheritance in a different way. I didn’t repent of my critique of Western civilization, but maybe I grasped more fully the significance of the biblical image of the “birth pangs” of the kingdom of heaven. I began to see how this incredible storm of passion that has been loosed on the world by Christianity, which has been so idealistic and creative and at the same time so diabolically misguided and destructive, might ultimately be redemptive. I also recognized the possibility that of all the dynamics that power this magnificent and grotesque enterprise, only one is capable of carrying us through to the other side of hell. This possibility didn’t come to me as an intellectual insight, however—I pieced that together later. It came to me as a dream, a dream of crucifixion.

Now it’s one thing to acknowledge Jesus as Savior—it’s another to walk the way of the cross. It’s one thing to accept a profound truth about yourself, to finally reach that point where you admit “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m gay,” or “This job or this career or this marriage isn’t right for me”—it’s another thing to find your way home from there.

It took me ten years to get from acknowledging “I’m a Christian” to starting at seminary. I had to do a lot of things first. I had to figure out what to do about those two women, for example, and manage a farm through a time of transition. I had to go back to school and complete my bachelor’s degree, and go into business for myself, and find a church and get baptized and confirmed. And all the while I was studying and reflecting on the gospel of Jesus Christ and trying to understand what my responsibility toward it is.

I left the monastery at Tassajara in October 1992 and then spent another 18 months at Green Gulch, the monastery’s farm, managing the organic farming operation, before finally leaving in May 1994.

In time I came to accept that my gifts and inclination are such that I had to consider a life of ordained ministry in the Christian Church. That led to a whole new set of tasks and challenges—meetings with rectors and congregational vocations committees and a bishop; batteries of psychological tests and countless essays; and heart-to-heart conversations with friends, family, and with Meg, the woman I married last summer. Meg, obviously, has her own questions and concerns about this life.

All of this constitutes the outward, formal aspects of what we call “vocational discernment,” and it has been a success in the sense that I have been accepted as a postulant for holy orders, and made a good start on my seminary education. I have the sense that I’m on the right path. But the deeper work of discernment has to be a testing of the spirits, my own and that of the church, and that work is never really done.

The Wisdom of God sustains and patterns all things. Why then do we need a Bible, Jesus, gathering on Sunday? Why do I need to be there? To me the answer to these questions can never be final or self-evident. But after a lifetime of struggling with them, I still think they matter enough to keep asking them, and not only of myself.

I’ve come to know that vocational discernment isn’t primarily a recognition of one’s suitability to an institutional function. There are a variety of ministries in the church: teaching, preaching, working with youth, serving as chaplain to elders or the sick and the dying. There are many different kinds of parish communities, from large, wealthy suburban churches with multiple clergy to small rural and inner-city churches struggling to survive, and each of them is living out its mission in its own unique way. Some people may come into seminary with a clearly defined vision of where and how they want to minister. I, on the other hand, reckon I’ll know it when I see it.

I also know that, for me, vocational discernment isn’t primarily about solving a problem. Many people see an uncertain future for our church. The average age of clergy and laity continues to inch upward, and younger singles and families are staying away in great numbers. Many members of society at large reject all religion or embrace it in unfamiliar forms—exotic faiths from other cultures or a non-denominational Christianity that offers spectacle and self-help in place of community and self-transcendence. As a church leader-in-training, I suppose I ought to have a clear vision and sense of purpose about how to reverse these symptoms of decline and be a catalyst for growth and institutional renewal. But I don’t.

More and more I see discernment as a matter of acknowledging a need and a gift. It’s not a personal need, or not that only, though it is at the heart of what it means to be a person. Neither is it a personal gift. I mean the need for wholeness, which is itself a gift. The Bible still matters, Jesus still matters, the Episcopal Church still matters, because they are fundamentally about wholeness, and I need that more than anything else. If you don’t mind my saying it, so do you. And what is that? It is the presence of the holy in all the painful parts of the Bible, in all the partiality and failed promise of Christian history, in the institutional squareness and triviality of church, the awkwardness and absurdity of being Daniel Green. Wholeness doesn’t put the sacred at some far remove, in some special place holier than this, some special private moment, some ecstatic pinnacle. Neither does it rest in careless immanence, as if there were no such thing as transcendence, no higher love, no demonic tyrant, no communion of the saints.

The need for wholeness is a need for communion, and a need for common prayer. It means “I don’t know exactly what this faith means for you, what shape it is making in your life, but I am willing to share a table with you, and pray for your joys and wants, and ask the same in return.” It means we do so conscious of our own limitations, our ignorance, our capacity for bigotry and violence, and at the same time conscious of our power—not of greatness, nor even of goodness, but of wholeness, which is the power of the simple truth. I’m learning this truth in seminary—perhaps even in my courses, since a classroom is a kind of community, and so is a book. But mainly I’m learning it as I learned it at St. Gregory’s and at Zen Center before that; in marriage, friendship, and social life; in work and politics; in worship and prayer; and in the struggle to open myself fully to trusting God.

It was Robert Frost who said, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” I think this captures the essence of discernment; indeed, it is the Christian mystery in a nutshell. God came to the world in Jesus saying, “This is my home. Let me in.” We ignored him or tried to manipulate him and eventually killed him to try to make him go away—but even that didn’t work. When we confess Jesus as our savior, it’s a way of saying, “OK, God—you win. You live here.” When we join the church it means we decide we might as well set up housekeeping together, and serve cookies, in case God wants in. And some of us play bishop, some play priest, and some play deacon. Some sing in the choir. Some wash the dishes and some mind the children, some count the money and some feed the hungry.

Belonging somewhere doesn’t only mean that you agree to play along, it also means, “Make room for me—I’m here too.” This sometimes creates real problems. It’s not perfect; it never will be. After all, it’s home.

Daniel Green is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of California, attending seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. He has been a member of St. Gregory's since 1997. A farmer and gardener for many years, and a student of meditation in the Zen Buddhist and Christian traditions, he lives with his wife, Meg, a psychotherapist, in Berkeley.


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