Our current series, “Encounters with God,” consists of essays written by several participants in the summer 2015 writing workshop, Apart & Yet A Part. Last week M. Sophia Newman wrote about ecology and faith in “A Wild Strawberry Patch.” Today Jamie Howison shares a story of ten voices who helped him hear God’s call on his life. Stay tuned for three more essays, to be published in the coming weeks.
In the world in which I grew up, the existence of God was never in doubt. In my family and my church, God simply was. With our daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, classroom Bible readings, and annual Christmas nativity pageant, even my public elementary school reinforced that assumption. “You are not to use ‘X-mas’ as an abbreviation for ‘Christmas’,” our grade five teacher cautioned us. “It crosses the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas’.”
In the church of my adolescence people occasionally spoke of having heard God’s voice, yet for the most part God was to be encountered through the study of scripture. This was a church of long, expository sermons, in which the preacher would work through texts line by line while congregation members followed along in Bibles and took careful notes. I recall one of the pastors visiting with our youth group and telling us that the study of scripture must be undertaken with great care. We were not to flip the Bible open at random expecting some direct message from God, because discerning the will of God required deep and sustained study. With his eyes sparkling, he told us the joke about the person who closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and set his finger down on the page. Opening his eyes, he read, “He cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.” (Mt 27:5, KJV) Not knowing what to make of that, the man again closed his eyes, opened his Bible, and pointed to another verse: “Then said Jesus unto him, ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’” (Lk 10:37, KJV) We thought it was hilarious, though one earnest group member later admitted he’d been mildly offended. God, it seemed, regularly drew his finger to just the right verse…
While God’s existence was never really in question for me, God’s relevance most certainly was. Even as a teenager I wanted a faith that mattered, one that bore some kind of real fruit. At sixteen, I found myself with part-time employment at an old-style institutional home for boys, where my job meant throwing baseballs, playing games, and generally helping the more senior staff keep a dozen little boys happily occupied. The Roman Catholic Sisters of Providence ran the home, and their work gave me a glimpse of a faith expression I’d never seen before. My supervisor was a spitfire of a nun named Sister Rita, whose love for those kids was palpable. She’d been working in the home for some forty years, but there was no sign of her losing heart or hope. You know those stereotypes of the repressed and rigid nun walking the aisles of her classroom with a ruler in hand, ready to punish even the smallest infraction? Sister Rita was anything but that. She was funny, feisty, and filled with mischief, and while she certainly had a no-nonsense streak in her, it was born of her deep love for those little boys and the team of young men she’d hired to work with them.
After just a few days of work, I had made two decisions: I was going to devote my life to working with troubled kids, and I was going to do it as an expression of my faith. Over my two years of working alongside Sister Rita, those convictions only deepened. They deepened again when another staff member introduced me to St Francis of Assisi, whose story turned my world upside down. The same person then convinced me I needed to read Hugo’s Les Misérables, and I found myself completely undone by the character of Bishop Myriel, whose mercy to Jean Valjean struck me as a vivid enactment of grace. If Sister Rita and St Francis and Bishop Myriel could live the gospel, then so would I.
Though it broke my heart when the place closed—its institutional character having been deemed out of date—I was ready to launch. I entered the University of Winnipeg planning to major in psychology, and at the same time landed a part-time job working with adolescents. Still inspired by the Franciscan vision, I increasingly found myself called to recognize the face of Christ in the faces of those kids. I’d moved on from the church of my youth, but hadn’t managed to find a place I could really call my own, a place that made room for all of these insights and ideas and experiences that were shaping me in such remarkable ways. With some hesitation I began attending an Anglican parish in downtown Winnipeg, where a friend was serving a field placement as a theological student. At first I found its processions, boys’ choir, sung liturgy, and solemn tone all a bit too formal, but in time it began to feel familiar, almost like a home I hadn’t realized I even had. I decided I needed to find out what this church really believed, in large part so that I could be sure it had room for my experiences and my questions. It did. The parish priest quite happily engaged me in long and searching conversations, at the end of which he’d send me off to read fiction. He somehow knew that this rather earnest young man needed to have his imagination broken wide open.
So there I was, midway through my psychology degree, loving my work, and settled in what felt like a church home. My longing for a faith that would bear fruit seemed to have been satisfied, and looking back on the years since I’d first met Sister Rita, I could see how, step-by-step, I’d been led to this good place I was in.
It was a bitterly cold December afternoon, and I was dropping off one of those teenagers at his group home. As he climbed out of the car, he turned around and asked what I was doing that evening. I was surprised he even bothered to ask, and I struggled to find the right answer, because as it happened I was going to the ordination liturgy for the friend who’d first introduced me to the Anglican Church. “I’m going to a church service [pause] where a friend of mine [pause] is being made a minister.”
“Oh,” he said, and then just before he slammed the car door, he looked at me and said, “That’s what you’re going to be, too.” Oh no, I’m not, I thought as I watched him bound up the sidewalk to his group home. I’m going to spend my life working with the likes of you.
That Sunday at church, an elderly woman came up to me, took my hand in hers, and asked if I’d ever considered going into the ministry. No, no, I told her. No, my plan is to work with youth and children. A week or two later, I was sitting in the university cafeteria having coffee with an acquaintance from one of my classes, when out of nowhere he asked if I’d ever considered the priesthood. No, I hadn’t really considered that, I replied, wondering aloud what had prompted him to ask. “Oh, I know that you go to church, and I was just wondering.” Really.
It kept going like that. One person after another asked the question: a colleague from work, someone else from the church, a person who served with me on a youth ministry committee, another acquaintance from university. One after another, and always out of nowhere. Over the course of four months, ten different people asked me the question, and while my answer was pretty much the same every time—no, I’m going to work with troubled kids—it was getting harder to ignore. What if? No…
Early that spring, I received a call from the chaplain at the local youth detention center, an Oblate priest for whom I had enormous respect. He wanted to know if I had time to meet him for coffee and to chat a bit about some new ideas for his chapel program, which I was more than game to do. We sat down in his office and he began to share some of his ideas and plans, and then without warning, the conversation completely shifted. “Jamie,” he asked. “Have you ever had the experience of ten different people all saying the same thing to you, maybe even something you aren’t sure you want to hear?” My heart began to pound.
“Uh, yeah, yeah, uh yes, I have.” I could barely get the words out of my mouth.
“I believe,” he said, “that is one of the ways that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our day.”
I was stunned—too stunned to ask why he was telling me this, and far too stunned to tell him about my ten people. The strangest thing, though, was that right away he was back to talking about his chapel plans. It felt as if, for just that moment, there had been some strange breech inserted into the conversation, as if everything shifted sideways for maybe thirty seconds and then shifted back again, and he didn’t seem at all aware of it.
As I walked to my car, I decided that I needed to talk to my parish priest about all of this. As soon as I got home, I called him at the church, and with some real hesitation I told him that I thought I needed to talk with him about ordained ministry.
“I was wondering when you were going to call,” he replied. “When can we meet?” Two years later, I was on my way to theological college.
Sometime during my first year of theological studies, I was sitting with a group of classmates in the cafeteria discussing how each of us had come to pursue this path. After I had finished telling my story, a priest and doctoral student who had joined our conversation pushed back his chair from the table, looked at me and said, “Don’t ever lose sight of that experience, Jamie. It may be the only one you get.”
On that count, he’s been right. As soon as I had told my parish priest that I needed to talk to him about ordination, all of those promptings and curious questions just stopped. Whenever I told someone I was heading toward theological education they tended to be very supportive, though occasionally rather mystified that anyone would make such a decision. But the experience of having people just come out and ask me about my vocational path—those “cold calls”—came to an absolute stop. It was as if the Spirit had determined that once my thick head and ambivalent heart had been penetrated, I needed to take up this vocational call and simply walk with it. I’d later learn that such is often the way; that it is not uncommon that a jaw-dropping gift epiphany be followed by a long—sometimes life-long—path of simple and steady obedience.
I am still challenged and inspired by the likes of St Francis and Sister Rita. Novels continue to open my imagination and speak to me of the presence of the Holy, as does music. But I’ve not forgotten my own story—my ten voices, to which that chaplain added his own crucial eleventh—and from time to time I find myself retelling it. In such stories and lives and moments of beauty and longing, God’s oftentimes-elusive presence is made known.