I believe in reincarnation. At least professionally I do. Career wise I have been reborn three times. My first incarnation was in the education field as a Montessori schoolteacher. My second incarnation was in the business world as a Systems Development Manager. And my third is an ecclesiastical calling as a parish priest. Three times seems to be a charm or maybe just good karma. I am now into my 27th year as a parish priest.
For those of you who may not know, the priestly vocation is one of the last generalist professions around. We are according to the Book of Common Prayer supposed to “share in the renewal of the world as pastor, priest and teacher.” Pretty heady stuff on a cosmic level. But down here on earth, we get to work with people of all ages and at every stage of the faith. We get to celebrate life’s greatest joys and to be present at life’s greatest sorrows. And we change hats. We change hats a lot. Pastor, priest, and teacher are just three of them.
There is also administrator, supervisor, coach, cheerleader, truth teller, tear dryer, master of ceremonies, volunteer coordinator, choreographer, confessor, bartender, party planner, mediator, crisis counselor, shepherd, building manager, parking lot attendant, babysitter, coffee maker, janitor, plumber, secretary, editor, publisher, facilitator, fundraiser, community organizer, liturgist, preacher, chaplain, wedding coordinator, funeral director and bandleader.
Give me a little more time and I can think of some more.
Bandleader is really the best metaphor for what a parish priest does. The priest doesn’t make the music, the parishioners do. But the priest makes sure the music gets made. And to be a good bandleader — with God’s help — you sometimes have to do a little bit of all of the above.
On a day to day basis, this calling can be head-spinning-hectic. But I can also honestly tell you it is never boring. Sundays come round and round but no two days are ever alike. And I get bored very easily.
So, thirty years ago, in my second incarnation, as a Systems Development Manager, I called my staff into a meeting to announce my departure. But before I tell you about the meeting, let me tell you a little bit about my second profession. I worked for Freddie Mac in the IT department, back when IT meant mainframes and COBOL and Fortran and JCL (and no, I will not explain these terms, you can Google them.) My team of a dozen programmers supported the financial systems of this Secondary Mortgage Giant. General Ledger. Budget. Payroll. And I was their bandleader — Joani who didn’t even balance her own checkbook.
So, I called a meeting of my dozen disciples. All of them nerdy, techie wizards. I told them how gratified I was to have been their manager. I applauded all their hard work and thanked them for all they had taught me. But it was time for me to go. I would be leaving at the end of summer to start seminary in the fall. Most of my staff, knowing of my churchy involvement, congratulated me and wished me well. But Julie, the newest member of my staff was silent. Perplexed she paused for a moment. And then she asked me this question
“Joani, do you hear voices?” A bit taken aback, I too paused and then I answered her. “No, Julie, I don’t hear voices. Do you?”
Paintings of Joan by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882), Albert Lynch (1903), Sir John Everett Millais (1865), along with WWI poster & 15th c. medieval miniature.
Now my namesake, of course, is Joan of Arc. In fact, a WWI poster of Joan of Arc hangs on the wall behind my desk in my Emmanuel office. Mounted on a white stallion, banner furling, sword drawn, Joan is beautifully decked out in shining armor. The poster boasts basically saying: “Joan of Arc saved her country, so can you.” Well, Uncle Sam, eat your heart out. Who better to lead the charge than the Maid of Orleans.
The Maid of Orleans who heard voices.
Joan heard voices — the voices of angels, the voices of saints, the voice of God. At least that is what she proclaimed. And these voices led her at the tender age of 17 to leave her tiny village. So Joan followed the voices all the way to the court of the defeated Dauphin. And there in King Charles’ court she proclaimed herself a soldier and the savior of his kingdom. The voices gave her the guts to demand an army and a desperate king agreed.
Led by voices, saintly and angelic, Joan did win a glorious battle or two. The glory quickly faded. Captured by the English, Joan was abandoned on the battlefield and crowned a heretic. And we all know what happens to heretics.
Burned at the stake.
Now the truth be told all of us hear voices. We all have voices in our heads prodding, reminding, encouraging, calming, chastising, urging — lots of voices clamoring for our attention. And it’s a spiritual matter, discerning these voices. Which ones should we pay attention to? Which ones are on our side? Which ones are making any sense? Discerning voices is something all of us do just about all of the time.
The only problem is when the voices seem not your own. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices — St Margaret and St Catherine and the Archangel Michael. She said this is not me talking, I take my orders straight from God. And in the Middle Ages only crazy people heard voices. In the Middle Ages only the possessed heard voices. Crazy, possessed heretics were burned in the Middle Ages.
So it was a very long time, centuries in fact, before a reluctant church placed a halo on Joan’s head. In fact, Joan was not canonized in the Roman Catholic Church until 1920. And she was only added to Holy Women, Holy Men, the Episcopal calendar of saints, just a dozen years ago.
It’s dangerous to tell people you hear voices.
But now thirty years on, I need to change my answer to Julie’s question from a “no” to a a qualified “yes”. Yes, I have heard voices not my own. Tuned into the universe, riding wave after wave of manic bliss I have been convinced that God has important things to tell me. There is no booming voice from heaven. It’s more like God and I are on the same page. Lit up inside — as if by fireflies –my fingers fly like lightning on my keyboard. The Creator of the Cosmos, I believe, inspires my every word.
One summer I wrote twelve sermons in ten days. Brilliant. Profound. Quotable. Publishable. For twelve Sundays, I pulled them out one at a time before climbing into the pulpit. Some of them were damn good indeed. Some of them not so much.😊
The bipolar brain does not walk in straight lines. The bipolar brain, at its manic best, zigzags and spirals. This brain is like a blender on max combining the most unusual things in the most unusual ways. “Touched with fire” bipolar folks have quite a history of being marvelously creative. Kay Redfied Jamison’s fabulous book “Touched with Fire” is a veritable who’s who of poets, sculptors, writers, painters, musicians — all of a manic-depressive temperament.
Where would all the art galleries and concert halls be if all this madness had been medicated away?
So yes, Julie, I have heard voices. Sometimes the voices are my own. Sometimes not. Sometimes maybe the voices of saints and angels. Sometimes maybe — I dare say — even the voice of God. The wisdom, of course, is learning to discern the difference.
The voice of God is an Easter Voice, breathing life.
Through Peter “a good deed was done and now that man is standing before you in good health,” by the Voice, “of Jesus of Nazareth raised from the dead.” (Acts 4: 9-10)
The Voice in Psalm 23 sings: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.”
And the Good Shepherd: “I know my own and my own know me, I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep… I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” (John 10:14-16)
Now this Voice, at first listen, it may sound crazy; it may sound foolish, but it speaks the truth. You will recognize the Voice by its fruits, from the goodness from which it comes.
The Voice rings out from the back porch, like a Mother calling her children home for dinner. Likewise, this Voice of conscience, like a Father, calls us on the carpet from time to time. Calls us on the carpet when our lives get out of hand. Like a brother, like a friend, a lover of souls, this Voice counsels, encourages, inspires, and consoles.
An honest Voice, tender and merciful, calling us to embrace our own calling whatever it may be. Calling us to greener pastures and a greater good – to cultivate hope and healing in this broken and hurting, wild and wonderful world.
So, let us pray.
Grant, O Gracious Lord, that in the days and weeks ahead, in our work and in our play, in our wakefulness and in our sleep, that we may listen for your Voice and follow wherever it may lead — the Voice of the Shepherd, the Voice of Jesus, the very Voice of God. Amen.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog