Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Cassocks and Mission

"Wrap yourself up in your cassock and go forth..."

Recently a friend gave me this advice when we were discussing some of the challenges that come with parish leadership. I found it a delightful phrase—particularly, because it shows how very well the person knows my own curiosities and eccentricities. But I also have a hunch there is deep wisdom in it.

One of those beautiful practical pieces of Benedict's rule is "Chapter 55: On the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren." Though it is tempting to quote it in total, I'll just give a few lines:
Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the nature of the place in which they dwell and its climate; for in cold regions more will be needed, and in warm regions less. This is to be taken into consideration, therefore, by the Abbot...
The monks should not complain about the color or the coarseness of any of these things, but be content with what can be foundin the district where they live and can be purchased cheaply.The Abbot shall see to the size of the garments, that they be not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper fit.
Benedict goes on, indicating the importance of returning old clothes once new ones are received so that the old clothes do not go to waste but can be given to the poor. Two tunics seemed sufficient to Benedict because one could always be worn while the other was being washed. He also writes that when monks go on a journey they should be given cowls and tunics that are "somewhat better that what they usually wear," giving the clothes back upon return.

For a rather short rule this might seem like a lot of writing about something as eminently practical (and seemingly simple to deal with) as clothing. And perhaps it is... but I doubt that's the case.

I've noticed in the Episcopal Church that one of the several ways in which clergy display their maturity and spiritual depth is by eschewing silly things like special clothing and titles. "My baptism is enough for me," they say. Or, when talking about, say, how one cares for and wears standard clerical clothing, they say that these are the concerns of seminarians and new clergy. It is seminarians and new clergy who seem to obsess over whether one should wear clericals to this function or if "non-church" dress would be more appropriate. We more mature clergy don't bother with silly conversations about such trivialities.

In case you can't tell, I find that attitude condescending, at best, and hopelessly gnostic, at worst. After all, one of the first things you are taught in seminary is the great importance of the incarnational nature of our faith. We are not like the gnostics who believed matter was evil and spirit was good. We believe matter matters. Any introduction to Anglicanism that is worth its salt will tell you that our faith historically has never followed other traditions who believe that the earthy things of this world—things like food, drink, and clothing—are wicked or unimportant. Rather, our faith is always a lived faith, one that you can touch and taste and smell and see...

And it's rather clear, to me at least, that clothing does actually matter a great deal. Our society spends billions of dollars convincing us not only of the fact that clothing matters, but also that the wares they are selling are the ones we should buy if we really want to be hip and trendy. What we wear demonstrates whether or not we "get it."

And like it is with most things in society, this worldly idea is not entirely wrong.

What we wear does matter... but for entirely different reasons.

What we wear can reveal the respect we show for others and for ourselves. What we choose to wear conveys a message—that is inevitable. The question is, what sort of message will we convey.

And so this young priest chooses almost always to wear the same thing: a simple black suit and "tonsure" style clergy collar during the week. A cassock on Sundays and anytime I am in the church teaching or working in the Nave. And though I may be a bit biased, I don't believe this is because I'm obsessed with clothes. Rather, it's because I care about what kind of message I'm communicating.

I'm hopeful that I communicate a message of simplicity. I hope that by striving to avoid ill-fitting or thread-bare clothes I also communicate a level of respect for my profession and a level of respect for those with whom I spend time. And when I wrap myself up in my cassock and go forth," it is because I believe that simplicity, reverence, and a sense of tradition are found within that simple black robe.

Benedict believed clothes were important. He believed they should be simple and reflect the way of life to which the person had subscribed. I think he's right on that.

But, if I'm honest, there's another reason for my own style of dress. When I wrap myself in my cassock, I'm doing so with the hope that I'm also wrapping myself in those who have gone before me. I'm hoping I wrap myself with the prayers and identities of the various colleagues and spiritual leaders who I have had throughout my life. When I wrap myself in my cassock, I'm reminding myself that when I walk out the door of this office, when I step into any situation as a priest, I do not do this alone. I do it wrapped in the disciplines and personalities and gifts of all the priests who have been a part of my life.

And so I hope I don't step out as "just Jared." I hope that I step out as a person who is keenly aware that my own gifts, skills, and talents will always be inadequate. But if I step into the tradition, if I fold myself into the life of my colleagues, if I wrap myself with what I've gleaned from those who have inspired me, I might have enough strength for this. I might at least have enough strength for today.

"Wrap yourself up in your cassock and go forth..."

Will do, my friend. Will do. 

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