“There was a monk who, when he lived in the world, worked as an acrobat in the circus. At some point he decided to become a monk, but never seemed to find his niche in the monastery. He couldn’t cook like some of the fathers. He couldn’t chant, paint icons, or do carpentry. He felt as thought he had no particular talent to offer to the Lord. The only thing he had ever been good at in his life was acrobatics.
So one evening while praying in the church with the other fathers, he decided–in his simplicity–to offer to God the only talent he felt he had to offer. He waited for all the fathers to leave the church and hid in a shadowed corner where he was not seen by the monk who looked after the church.
Once the ecclesiarch left the church and locked the door, the monk came out from his hiding place and went into the altar. He lifted his eyes to Christ hanging on the cross and said, ‘I want to offer you my only talent.’ […] At this he started flipping, and jumping, and twirling. He did a whole acrobatic routine, just as he did in the circus. At the end he fell down, covered in sweat and panting, ‘I’m sorry, Lord, this is all I have to offer you,’ he said.
This went on for days, weeks. Every night he hid and every night he offered to the Lord what he felt was the only talent he possessed.”
From The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery by Matushka Constantina Palmer (based on a story told to her by a nun, Sr. Sarah).
It occured to me recently that I’ve been a folklorist longer than most things in my life. 16 years ago, I took my first course in the field, and we were told to call ourselves folklorists, even if we were novices. 6 years ago, Diane Goldstein, a former professor of mine who is a leading specialist in applied folklore, told a crowd of us at the American Folklore Society meeting to “do good work, and call yourself a folklorist.” She was telling us that we had no need to hide our hard work, our vocational identity, or the field that has long shaped our work.
There are many times where I have had to remind myself of Diane’s call to us. In college, I constantly doubted my future in my own field of study, and started looking at all kinds of other ways to branch out.
I thought about social work.
Getting a teaching license.
Becoming a narrative psychologist.
And I’ve thought about seminary so much in my life. During my undergraduate years, I highly considered going to divinity school to do an M.Div. in peace/justice studies. In my master’s years, I thought about intercultural mission studies at another seminary. And in my post-chrismation doctoral work, I used the thought of applying to Orthodox seminary as motivation to finish my degree and start working. I became, in a sense, a “seminary fanboy,” basing my working life and dreams around the hope of someday being called to a place like St. Tikhon’s.
Last year, I watched a film titled Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig (director of Lady Bird and the upcoming adaptation of Little Women). Frances is an aspiring modern dancer who, for all practical purposes, is not cutting it as a dancer, and she is struggling deeply with affording rent, keeping her priorities organized, and holding onto a dream of living with her roommate in Brooklyn. Her roommate moves, her dance classes aren’t reliable income, and she gets to the point of becoming an RA and event server at her alma mater. Eventually, however, she accepts a position as the office manager for her dance studio, finds an apartment on her own, and begins doing choreography for others instead. Frances’ dream morphs. She finds her way through her dream unraveling, only to see it in a different light.
I was interviewed for an upcoming episode of We Are Orthodoxy, and in doing the interview with Christian Gonzalez, it occured to me that what I was able to give, in that taping, was my story. A part of my story of Orthodoxy is common: I’m a young adult convert from Protestantism who became Orthodox in the South, and I wanted to- like many eager male converts- dive in to an ascetical challenge that was far beyond my reach. That challenge, to me, also included a dream of becoming ordained. And as I went further into my walk of faith, that dream unraveled before my eyes, only to reveal the realization that- like you may see in my interview with Christian- my experience in the past and present is the best I can give to anyone.
For a long time, I thought that experience wasn’t enough to make a difference. I fell into a trap of feeling like I needed to have a title behind it, or to abandon the way I make a living to go to seminary. I thought that my lay life was never going to light a candle to clerical life, and that I had no business focusing on it; I mistakenly thought all of my work had to be focused on preparing for seminary.
A recent anecdote from The Ascetic Experience, based on writings from Daniel Opperwall, stated the following:
We often conceive of worldly life as merely a kind of default existence that anyone who is not specially called to monasticism or ordination simply ends up leading. We assume that it is only the monk, nun or priest who has a special call, while the married woman, for instance, has merely been passed by.
However, we must not allow ourselves to approach it merely in these terms. Instead, every one of us should, indeed must, treat lay life as a calling just the way we think of monasticism and ordination. We must sit down with ourselves and with God in prayer to discern if life in the world really is what we are meant for, and if we discover that it is, we must treat this call with the same seriousness with which we would treat a call to a hermit’s life in the desert. We are not lay people simply because we happen not to be monks or priests. We are lay people because God wills that we lead a life seeking our salvation through the world.
Throughout the last year, I have learned- through a lot of struggle and disappointment with my ridiculousness- to see that my lay life is no default. It’s not a default to work as a nurse, a sandwich maker, or a plumber. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his text about the Old Testament book of Numbers, states that the jobs of road builder and composer are equally important, but some working lives are physically risky, while others are risky to the soul.
From St. Patrick, my patron saint, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to not have that risk, and there is sometimes a sense of temporary comfort in leaving what has happened behind. Yet sometimes you are able to do your best work when returning to the very place you strived to flee. So with that in mind, I’ve had to say in prayer, “Lord, I know that I have had my ideas about how I think I should serve you. But you’ve been opening doors for me for my entire life. You led me into cultural work when I thought I wanted to be a doctor. You led me to Kentucky when I really wanted to stay in Estonia, and then to Newfoundland when I had dreamed of staying in Kentucky. You’ve revealed so many paths to your creations. And You do so on a daily basis, even when that’s all I have, and even when I wish I had more to give.”
I have to remember that my work, as it is, is what I have to offer.
It is all I have to offer.
And that’s completely okay.