As a 42-year-old-stay-at-home-dad-priest-without-a-parish-with-two-Harvard-degrees, I’ve been thinking about downward mobility. I learned the term in my 20s reading Henri Nouwen and New Monastic books about a discipleship path for white middle-class folks like myself. I understood it to mean that after being guided up the class ladder by private schools, summer camps, and universities, the Spirit pulls some Christians back down the ladder to share their resources and work with the poor. At that age I found myself drawn to ministry and working with people with disabilities at the same time that my college friends were drawn to medical school and Wall Street. The concept assured me that I wasn’t crazy; I was just an upper middle-class Christian on a well-trodden path. But the climb down has been slower and harder than I expected. I thought by now I’d be a committed New Monastic or living in a L’Arche community like Henri Nouwen. Instead, I feel like I’m stuck on a middle rung. What’s happened and how do I keep moving?
It turns out that downward mobility is more technically complicated than going down a ladder. It’s like starting to go down a ladder until you realize you’ve got one hand tied to an upper rung and you won’t get anywhere until you free the knot. Wait, there is another remnant of a pension with that company from that job? What is this hunk of marble with a metal bird on top of it from my deceased grandmother? What is an REIT in this stock gift and what do I do with it? Ah shit, I have to pay legal fees and gift taxes and arrange meetings with lawyers just to hand over my share of an inheritance to my brothers?
After being guided up the class ladder … the Spirit pulls some Christians back down to share their resources and work with the poor.
It’s also been more emotionally complicated than I expected, just as climbing down a boat ladder on a hot day to swim and cool off in a shark-inhabited sea is more complicated than climbing down a step ladder. Desire, fear, safety, and self-doubt were all stirring when I awoke recently at 2 am interrogating myself over cashing out of the stock market despite the advice of my father’s financial planner. I was simultaneously recalling a conversation with the grocery store clerk that afternoon and how she was putting 1,000 mg of caffeine in her bottle of water to stay awake because it was her second 12-hour shift in two days and the store was overrun with leaf peepers and she had a nasal infection so she couldn’t sleep except for a few hours in her recliner. Why didn’t you offer the clerk money or at least a ride? What if your son ends up in her situation? Why the heck didn’t you go to medical school and do something useful? What kind of loser can’t provide for his family the same way his parents provided for him? Do you think your son will forgive you?
I’m afraid that God won’t let me rest at serving the poor without being poorer myself.
I’ve been thinking about downward mobility because I expected to live out the call in a specific way. I thought I knew what the bottom rung of the ladder would be for me: buying land adjacent to my deceased grandmother’s farm which we are now renting, caring for people with disabilities, caring for immediate and extended family, serving small churches in the rural diocese, and sticking around a neighborhood long enough to be useful and die in the home I had built. Then this summer all the complexities of subdividing and buying land and the associated “family baggage” came crashing through the front door like a 50-pound runaway roller bag. Now all I know is that I can’t see the bottom rung and I’m afraid that God won’t let me rest at serving the poor without being poorer myself.
Ever since I’ve been trying to take the advice which I’d give someone else in my situation. Connect with people whom you respect and friends of your soul. Go to confession; get rigorously honest with yourself and another human being. Practice what you teach about Ignatian discernment: walk your talk; practice what you teach. Recall what has guided you this far: the blind man in the wheelchair at the back of the church who belted out all the hymns a few words behind and got wheeled up to the Communion table and gnashed his teeth on the chalice; the October wind in Vermont that made your body and the Quaking Aspens quiver; folks at the adult daycare program who sang happy birthday to your wife when she was a stranger crashing their Thanksgiving lunch and you saw something hard break open in her that nothing else could crack.
Following the advice has been helpful, but even more helpful has been discovering that when I can’t sleep at 2 am I can lie down on the wood floor of our living room beneath a weighted blanket and let the wide old pine boards cradle me. I can rest in the words of the psalms – leave rage alone, do not be envious when some become rich, take delight in the Lord and he shall give you your heart’s desire. I can give thanks for runaway roller bags of family baggage and losing my way because it’s hard to know your heart’s desire if it hasn’t ever been broken open. I’m not at the bottom rung but I’m already supported. I can rest where I am.