From the Rector
And Now, Why the Black
In last week’s article I wrote about why I wear a black shirt and a white collar when out and about as a priest of All Souls Parish. In conversation with several folks this past week, I heard about your own experiences with a priest’s uniform, from train trips in Northern Ireland to the intensity of a room full of priests in black shirts. This spawned some curiosity about another element of this discussion about what priests wear namely, “Why the black?”
First off, the color of the shirt that a clergy person wears (deacon or priest, as bishops most often wear purple) can vary. I’ve seen other clergy wear light blue, tan, grey, white with red stripes, Hawaiian prints, really most anything. But for me, just black. One reason is very simple: a uniform is uniform when it is uniform.
Part of the reason that I wear a black shirt with a white collar is that for better and for worse it signifies the role that I am undertaking in that time and place as a priest. It is recognizable in a way that a police officer’s uniform or a judge’s uniform is. When you see that uniform, there is often a certain sense of expectation and cultural understanding that comes with it. And my sense is that every step away from uniformity obscures the recognition of that role.
Ok, so it is important to be uniform. But why black? There are several origins to this and like much in our tradition, it involves practicality, changes over time and accrued meaning. Our earliest understanding of clergy attire goes at least to the 6th century and along the way there seem to be persistent questions: whether there should be any clerical dress, what is or is not appropriate, and how much of a requirement there should be.
By the 7th century there was an expectation that clergy should be known as such by their dress and by the 12th century in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox the black cassock, or vestis talaris, became the norm. The question of whether or not to stand out really came as part of the Protestant Reformation, and for that reason continues to be a question in Christian traditions formed or reformed by that movement. And while Hawaiian prints hadn’t yet made an appearance in the centuries leading up the 20th, there are several councils that curtailed the size of buttons, the colors of trim, and, later, inordinately tight hose. It seems that for centuries priests have been trying to differentiate and accessorize.
In the intervening time a tremendous amount of theology has been imputed to the color of the attire and to the style of the clothing, but black seems to be chosen for a couple of reasons. One is that it is unadorned. For those with a calling to service, this character is important. And another is that it represents a certain solemnity. Because of its association with mortality, wearing black can be a powerful visual statement. My guess is that this these are two of the reasons that some clergy are uneasy wearing black now.
But how did we get to the place we are now, with black shirts and white collars? This is a disputed space. Roman Catholics claim that the white collar came from a 17th century Italian usage and some Presbyterians claim that it was the Rev. George MacLeod that invented the collar. But Janet Mayo, in her book, History of Ecclesiastical Dress, claims that this practice actually began in the late 19th century with Anglicans, who were moving away from cassocks as street dress. They kept the black to be consistent with the visual understanding but moved to the more contemporary style of breeches or pants and coats, then used the turned down white collar to simulate what was worn under a cassock. So what we have now is a classic Anglican approach: continuance of tradition while attempting to translate it into a new culture and setting.
All this said, the reason that I wear black actually has to do with why a more well-known Man in Black, Johnny Cash, did as well. In his song, the Man in Black, Cash sang this,
Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me…
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men…
This came clear for me as a young priest when visiting a teenage parishioner in a psych ward. She was hospitalized because she had taken actions attempting to end her life. And when I arrived she was frightened. Frightened of what she had done, frightened of what could have happened, frightened of what might happened. And frightened for where she was. And for some reason, when I entered that space, the black shirt that I was wearing seemed to be right. Because without using words, I was telling her that I was unafraid to walk with her in the darkness that surrounded her. I had been there and she was not going to be alone.
There are myriad times and places when this sense of being willing to walk with those in darkness is the path that a priest walks with others. Many priests do this without the uniform, faithfully and well. I choose to wear the black shirt and white collar as a reminder, that whether in this space at Cedar and Spruce or anywhere else that my day finds me, that this is a path that I have been called to walk wherever it may go. And that the cloth I wear will be a sign to others that wherever they are, I will walk it with them.
My Journey to the Stephen Ministry
The decision to become a Stephen Minister was a relatively easy one for me. I was able to experience first-hand the positive difference a Stephen Minister could make after one was assigned to me five years ago during a dark time in my life.
My Stephen Minister met with me every week for about an hour and mainly listened while showing great empathy and compassion. His caring presence gave me immediate solace and helped me not feel alone in my struggles. My Stephen Minister didn’t try to give me advice, paint a rosy picture, or fix the dark place I was in, nor did he put any expectations or judgments on how I should carry on with my life. He mainly just let me be myself, with the faith that I would find my way through. I sensed that in some intangible but vital way, God was present and being reflected in the light shown to me by my Stephen Minister.
Through meeting with a Stephen Minister for almost a year, I realized more and more that although I’d probably always carry a wound inside, another part of me had weathered a very difficult time in my life. I felt strong enough to move forward. I also felt heartened and inspired by the path I shared with my Stephen Minister and the model he showed me in how we help each other in community. I began to see that I wanted to give back to the community with a similar kindness that was shown to me. I thus felt delighted and honored, then, with the mutual discernment of Stephen Leaders, to commit to the Stephen Ministry myself, hoping that if I could reflect even a fraction of what my Stephen Minister gave to me, I could make a positive difference for others.
Although the thought of participating in a four-month, 50-hour Stephen Ministry training course initially sounded daunting, I quickly found the experience an integral part of my life. Plus, I developed a ready sense of fellowship and shared mission with my fellow trainees, Stephen Leaders, and other Stephen Ministers. Further, I developed my skill in being present and caring for others to a level I never had before.
For the last three-plus years, it has been a humble privilege to give back and share the journey with others going through a tough time in their lives. While I’m glad to give back a part of what was given to me, I have continued to feel the gift of the Stephen Ministry by sharing the path with someone else.
I encourage others to give deep thought to becoming a Stephen Minister, or to request one if going through a rough patch. I think it’s one of the most rewarding ministries at All Souls.
The Big Gain
One Great Day of Giving for Campus Ministry
Episcopal campus ministry changes lives, and your contribution anytime before — or on Big Game day — is a win for everyone. On or before the day of the game (Saturday, November 22) simply go to www.universitychapelberkeley.org or elcm.stanford.edu/canterbury and click on the donate button. Results will be tracked throughout the day and regular updates will be made. After the game the winning campus ministry and the winning congregation will be announced, and the name of the campus ministry that raises the most money will be engraved on The Acts (a plaque with a large Book of Acts mounted on it) along with the name of the congregation that raises the most money total. Ten percent of all funds raised will also benefit campus ministry at San Francisco State University. There will be a Tailgate Party at University Chapel Berkeley, 2425 College Avenue, on the day of the game beginning two hours before kickoff. Drop by to celebrate. Contact Tom Poynor, Cal chaplain, email@example.com for more information.
New Books to Check Out
Looking for a new book to sink your teeth into? Here are three possibilities that are sure to invite a wild combination of thoughtful reflection, laughter, and solace for your soul.
Once in the West, by Christian Wiman
Wiman is a poet and a professor of literature and religion at Yale Divinity School. In addition to poetry, he also penned a wonderful reflection on his experience of coming face to face with death. His new book, Once in the West, offers a collection of poetry that once again runs the gamut of human experience. Our own Tess Taylor offered this reflection on the book in a recent review for NPR:
To be sure, there’s a lot of ugly sadness in these poems – cheerless men or, as he says, cancer on a slow boil in the bones of a woman who sleeps five feet from the widescreen. But there’s also a raw bareback grabbing at joy.
Even in the grittiest spots, Wiman has got a knack for sounding metaphysical. Like the percolator described in one poem, these verses hold and withhold. They speak to the need – as Wiman puts it – to befriend one’s own loneliness, to make of the ache of inwardness something – music, maybe. And they speak to the improbable places we’re unaccountably called to love. For what does the chigger-bit and muddy-buttocked body of a former lover teach us about how to live? Can it be tragedy, asks Wiman in one poem. But here, there’s such fervent prayer to exist – to know. In that raw hunger, we feel the redemption too.
Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani
Disquiet Time is a new devotional, released just a few weeks ago. But may not be quite what you’re imagining. Explain the editors about the book,
Many of us grew up with Our Daily Bread, Day By Day, and other devotional books that were designed to help us navigate our daily (of course) “quiet time” of reading, study, and prayerful reflection on the Bible.
Disquiet Time takes its cue from those venerable, traditional devotionals in format and appearance, but with a twist. Each chapter will feature a scripture passage or verse chosen by the contributor, who will write a reflection about why this part of the Bible most excites, comforts, disturbs, frustrates, or soothes him or her.
The idea is not necessarily to be irreverent, but rather to acknowledge the parts of the Bible that confound and fascinate us. Our aim is to create a book with all of the humor of a satire or parody but none of the snark or vitriol.
Disquiet Time is a safe space for our contributing writers to explore honestly and reflect on biblical passages that affect them, for better or for worse, in indelible ways. And our hope is that readers will find that same safety and permission to take a swing at the Bible themselves.
Wondering who might be among the faithful scoundrels who contributed to the book? In addition to some particularly well-known authors like Brian McClaren and Eugene Peterson, you’ll also find the wisdom of, Tripp Hudgins, our resident sonic theologian and musical trickster, and the Rev. Jay Johnson, Episcopal priest and professor at Pacific School of Religion.
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott’s newest collection of essays will be released on November 10. While the publishers have kept mum about the content of this new book, if history is any indicator it will be well worth your time to check it out. Lamott is remarkable in her ability to name messy, often embarrassing truth and help us to see God in the midst of it. Religion News Service writer Jonathan Merritt prodded Lamott for more information on the book, saying “A TV preacher might promise tips for “spiritual breakthroughs” or big moments of transformation. Instead you focus on “small victories.” Why do you think people want or need something small?” She responded that “Small is how blessings, healing, progress and increase occur. Not on the fantasy, magic wand realm of televangelists. In my experience, all you ever need is a little bit of this or that—a spritz of spiritual WD-40, five minutes of someone’s time—for there to be a significant shift in perception. Which is what most miracles look like.” You can read more of her reflections on the new collection online here.
Coming Up at All Souls
Continuing the Feast 11/16 at 12:30
We invite you to bring a potluck dish to share with the community as we “continue the feast” with each other after church services on Sunday. Please join us as we share in the theme “Test Driving Your Thanksgiving Treats!” Festivities will be happening in the parish hall.
Trailheads this Sunday 11/16 (occasional hiking group, all are welcome)
We will be taking a walk through the Berkeley Hills after Continuing the Feast on Sunday. Eat first, then walk it off! Please join us! We’ll meet in the courtyard around 1:15 pm.
Loaves & Fishes Saturday 11/22
This ministry provides informal opportunities for the people to gather in small groups around a shared meal. Hosts open their homes and provide a main course and others are asked to bring a contribution. The November 22nd meal is 6:00 pm at the home of Tess Taylor & Taylor Schreiner in El Cerrito. Please RSVP to Caroline McCall here.
Phoenixes (Twenties and Thirties Group) Work Day 11/22
Have you experienced the Encroaching Bamboo Forest in the parking lot? This is your chance to fight back! Have you seen places around the All Souls campus that could use some love? Then come and give some love! We will be meeting on Saturday, November 22 from 9-11am at All Souls to do some volunteer work on the grounds. Wear clothes than can get dirty, and consider bringing a hat, water bottle, sunscreen and a snack (either for yourself or to share). Emily Hertz will be the coordinator the day with some initial planning by the Rev. Liz Tichenor, and Linden Rayton.
One exciting thing we will probably be doing is planting some new plants- specifically, native CA wildlife-friendly plants. As we increasingly live in a drought state, it has become more important to plant flora acclimated to the rainfall here. And, as more development removes habitat for vulnerable animals like songbirds, butterflies and native bees (they don’t sting and they’re cute!), we can rectify this by making our urban habitat attractive to people and wildlife. So if you plan to attend, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org