Monday, June 5, 2017


Late one evening years ago, not the scriptural forty years but well more than thirty, the bell rang at our rectory door. In our old 1900 rectory, it was one of the old fashioned doorbells that you twist to ring. When we arrived, the original one was worn out, but a parishioner had found and brought us a new one, which I'd installed. The hour was late, Saturday night after eleven o’clock. I’m in bed asleep by then, but our bishop was there for the weekend, staying overnight in the rectory with us for his annual visitation (visitation is not an infestation of demons but the pious sounding word we call the bishop’s official visit), and we probably were conversing about my list of confirmands for the next morning, and a change he'd requested in liturgy. 

Anyway, the doorbell rang, I excused myself and went to the door. Swaying there was a sodden drunk, asking to speak with me. I stepped outside and sat down on the porch steps with him. He wanted me to counsel him about his drinking. After about ten minutes, in response to his rambling, I told him that I would be happy to meet with him, daytime hours, and him coming back sober, not drunk. He was annoyed, but agreed and went away. I never saw him again. He may not have remembered ever having rung my doorbell, but he never returned. In a week or so I gave up expecting him.

In my sermon the following Sunday, not the next day, which was bishop’s sermon, but the next following Sunday, I told the congregation about that knock at the door and about the many and varied services we offer, ministries we provided in our little town, especially to help strangers and other needy people not members of our church. We did a lot of things, all of which involved me personally in time, love, commitment. And I told them about the Saturday night drunk, sitting on the rectory steps with him, listening patiently to his inebriated rambling, seeing that it would be useless to try and reason with him, that he wouldn’t remember the next day anyway, but that I'd treated him with kindness, declined to continue the conversation after about ten minutes, and invited him to return, during daylight hours, sober. I don’t recall what the sermon was about, what my scripture touchstone was, or how I worked the midnight drunk into it. I just remember the instance that in my conscience became "turning the drunk stranger away."

We don’t usually receive any feedback on a sermon, maybe a word or two at the door going out of church, "good sermon, Father," or "you really gave us something to think about," but generally nothing more. It was the same this Sunday, except that one parishioner, a young idealist whom I dearly loved, upbraided me round and sound for sending the man away without having met his needs. Late in her teens, she was too young ever to have tried reasoning with a drunk, and there was little or no point in my arguing with her that there would have been nothing served, including God, nothing accomplished; that the man was inebriated and wouldn’t have remembered the conversation. That I was involved with the bishop. That I was tired and sleepy, it was a late night hour, no time to be knocking on doors. There was no point. She was incensed, and I cared too much about her and her family to let it be an issue. We never got to the point of resolution. It was more than three decades ago, maybe three and a half. I pray that she eventually got over her anger at me. I don’t know.

It soon occurred to me that, though the first, this would not be my only priestly encounter with alcoholic persons. In fact, there were several there in my own congregation, including a person I cared about and dealt with almost daily in parish administration. Not long after that, I made a reservation with the Society of St. John Evangelist, a monastery adjoining Harvard on the Charles River in Boston, for a long weekend retreat at a session on ministry with alcoholics. 

Although mostly blessings, there are trials in ordained ministry. One such is being confronted by a sodden drunk who is all mouth, incompetent of reason, of rationality, and confronts to argue. If the drunk is hostile, it can be threatening, startling, unnerving, scary. One can't reason with a drunk, one can only stand one's ground, be patient and move on, perhaps in future avoid. At eighty-one, I thank God that I’m mostly beyond that age and stage of life, ministry and service. Not entirely, but mostly, ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω. Am I still patient enough to deal caringly, lovingly? I’m no longer sure. I can feel my smile becoming a grimace, my thick red lips going thin white. But I’ve been studying a bit, the Order of Saint Francis, the Third Order, which includes Anglicans, wondering what I can learn and what’s for me at this advanced age. Their alternate Christian theology as I understand it appeals to me, but a chief Franciscan aim is to cheerfully face any scorn or persecution that comes along in ministry. Aging, I've lost a bit of that, I have a ways to go back in maturity. When tired, I can barely muster tolerance and patience, much less cheer, please don't ring my bell. Pray for me. 

ὁ ἀναγινώσκων νοείτω


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