Friday, January 27, 2017

Br. Roy Parker’s 50th Anniversary of Ordination

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Sr. Janet Ruffing, RSM, Ph.D.
Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle -  Wednesday  January 25,2017 

Jubilee’s are a time of renewal, celebration and joyful gratitude for a life lived faithfully in response to God’s continual interior presence to one in both monastic life and priestly ordination. No life is without challenge, and at times, great suffering. Vocational responses once made must be continually renewed, re-chosen, and responded to in each present moment as our lives unfold.

When we look back over 50 years, we gain a perspective we do not have along the way. For Roy, these two vocations, which many experience as distinctly different--monastic life and presbyteral ordination have always been intimately connected and mutually enhancing to one another.  Over time, he gradually realized that his monastic vocation included this particular service to the monastic community and the church at large as he matured in his monastic life.     

In preparation for this sermon, I sat down with Roy who so often a man of few words, and in one sitting, shared with me his vocation story from being an engineering major at MIT in response to considerable parental pressure to his final vows in Holy Cross and subsequent ordination to the priesthood which we celebrate today.  Hearing his story over this sweep of time was such a gift of sharing his life in God and in community that I was really happy that I had accepted his invitation to preach today. And it seemed to both of us that much of his story may be unknown to a number of the current members of Holy Cross, so he gave me permission to weave it into my remarks.

Our first reading from Acts is one of two accounts of Paul’s “seeing the light” and falling from his horse” on the road from Damascus.  Today’s text is Paul’s court defense of his life and ministry before King Agrippa, the highest Roman ruler outside of the jurisdiction of Jerusalem where the Pharisees and High Priest were demanding he be put to death. Paul, a Roman citizen has appealed his religious case to a more favorable Roman jurisdiction, having appealed all the way to Caesar. Giving this speech in chains, his very life and continued ministry depends on the outcome of his appeal.  While he fails to convince Festus of the truth of Jesus and Christianity, nonetheless, his courage, wisdom, and rhetorical skill save him from a planned ambush were his case to have been returned to Jerusalem, and he continues to Rome in chains. Agrippa is knowledgeable about Jewish customs and theology and easily recognizes that Paul has committed no punishable crime according to Roman law.  There is no horse in this account, only blinding light, apparently causing all of them to fall to the ground whether on horseback or not.

When I asked Roy about his vocation story, immediately, he said, “I can tell you my equivalent of falling off my horse.”  He described his faith journey while still at MIT. Around 1955, he discovered Anglo-Catholicism at Church of the Advent in Boston and was taken with its practices.  While sitting in his apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay, writing his senior thesis, he as yet, had no clear vocational idea.  He had an ordo calendar on the wall, which had a photograph of the three sacred ministers at Eucharist, priest, deacon, and subdeacon. Looking up at the calendar, he wondered if that is what he should be doing?  Simultaneously, he was struck lightly on the back of his head, accompanied by a strange, warm feeling.  Perhaps, “a sign” that he was on to something.  He said he was startled, but peaceful, grateful for the sense of direction, despite his feeling of inadequacy about his stutter which plagued him for years.

A year later, while working for Pratt-Whitney as a tool designer and sharing an apartment with his sister Charlotte in West Hartford, he came to Holy Cross for a retreat. Still seeing no clear way forward, in the context of the monastic community, he thought, “If I give myself to God in a religious community, the community would direct me through this confusion.” And so he entered Holy Cross in 1958 on Epiphany as a postulant despite his speech impediment.  Clarity did not come soon or easily. And although he realized much later he could have told Father Whittemore the whole story of his sense of call and what seemed like an insurmountable impediment, he left Holy Cross without an explanation. At that time, he did not understand the underlying psychological issue behind the speech impediment which prevented him from seeing his way clear to follow this vocation. 

It’s a bit hard to keep Paul’s story and Roy’s on a parallel track among this set of particulars. Both are clearly illuminated by an unexpected and unexplainable faith reality, but Roy remained hesitant compared to Paul’s confident boldness.  Yet both were deeply immersed in calls unfolding over time that irrevocably changed both of their lives and their roles in the church.

Shortly after leaving Holy Cross, Roy went to the Cowley Fathers, similar to but different from Holy Cross and began seminary at EDS. While at Cowley, he experienced another graced “breakthrough” in relationship to his anxiety about his speech impediment as diaconal ordination approached. He described an awareness of experiencing a radical sense of his interiority existing in God, and that he had to trust this sense of call he found deep within this faith reality. And he was ordained to the diaconate right on schedule. 

Yet as priesthood ordination loomed ahead of him, he felt certain he was called, but was still concerned about his public speaking and delayed that ceremony until he felt more confident he could manage what would be required of him.  This time, though, he talked with John Coburn who knew the prior at Holy Cross, having been one of Fr. Whittemore’s directees.  Roy had matured to the point where he believed Coburn enough to go forward with his ordination shortly after that. This feast of the conversion of St. Paul was the closest appropriate feast to his decision to proceed to ordination that fit Bishop Anson Stokes and the SSE community’s calendars, also falling on a Wednesday that year. Lloyd Patterson who preached his ordination sermon reframed Roy’s delayed ordination as having much impressed other EDS students because of the care he had taken in this discernment.  By this time, Roy had learned some different strategies of dealing with his speech difficulties and presided at his first Eucharist without a stutter. He became able from the depth of his sense of being grasped by God, to remind himself to whom he belongs in this priestly ministry before and while presiding.

In Matthew’s Gospel for today, the envisioned challenges to evangelical ministry are primarily presented as external ones, like sheep in the midst of wolves—persecution, public trials, betrayal unto death, and family rejection.  And certainly, Paul experienced all of these, but so too, did many first generation Christians as well as later ones.  Yet, even here, “Matthew comforts such disciples with the promise “when they turn you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit speaks in you.” 
In order to embrace his priestly vocation, Roy learned to trust in this grace and overcame his anxiety around speaking as well as earnestly working through some of the psychological issues which had created the stutter, in the first place. If we stay within Paul’s story, it might have been more like, “my grace is sufficient for you,” when Paul prayed to God to take from him the thorn in his flesh and in the Gospel, “do not be anxious about how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given you at that time, for the Spirit speaks in you.”

While at EDS, Roy excelled in his studies, learned the Biblical languages, and enjoyed his theological and scriptural studies. This all gave him a solid basis for his preaching.  But his faith journey had yet more challenges awaiting him.  A couple of years after ordination, Roy went to Japan for 3 years where he basically studied the language and served the Episcopal community at the nearby military base.  There he began to feel that his life was somewhat “bigger” than his life in Japan.  And he went through another crisis about how and where he was to exercise his presbyteral ministry. 
He learned through John Colburn again, that Holy Cross had begun a path of renewal of monastic life, paying more attention to the full humanity of its members on the journey. And so a short while after leaving Cowley, he entered Holy Cross in 1972 and made vows in Holy Cross, in 1976.

As he grew and deepened in his vocation to priesthood within and at the service of the monastic community, he also developed a variety of what one might call the monastic arts. He has long been a cantor both for the chanting of the office and for the Eucharist. In this context, priesthood serves the community. He appreciated Christian Swain’s presiding when on special occasions he would extemporize on the Eucharist Prayer.

During his Berkeley years at CDSP in the ecumenical community experiment of Camoldoli and Holy Cross brothers, and his studies at JSTB, he discovered fresh possibilities around liturgical styles, expanded his sense of creativity as allowed within the prayers, and increased his confidence to use his creative, literary gifts in the service of both the liturgy itself as well as in his preaching.

For him preaching is a spiritual process, in which he invests research, time, prayer, and reliance on inspiration. Yes, “what you are to say will be given to you” often happens alongside the careful preparation that elicits a fresh response to the word of God.  It was also at that time, that Roy became a bread baker and a very gifted calligrapher, displaying artistic gifts of a different sort than his earlier work as a draftsman.

It was in Berkeley that we met as I began my Doctoral Studies and became friends.  In many smaller, more intimate liturgies we shared in retreat settings and other small group gatherings, Roy’s spontaneous prayers, emerge from some deep place within his heart and soul in exquisitely beautiful language that never ceases to amaze and touch me. And many people beyond the Holy Cross Community are attracted to his deeply spiritual qualities which manifest so easily and deeply in these contexts beyond the Holy Cross Community.

He concelebrated at my silver jubilee at Fordham, and nine years later he anointed my Dad when he was dying in California and preached a beautiful homily at his wake, and he presided at my Mom’s Mass of Burial three years later. So many have experienced grace through his priestly ministry-- the Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and WestPark Holy Cross Communities, the students and faculty at CDSP, others in his ISW class at JSTB in those Berkeley years, the guests in the two retreat houses as well as the quiet days he has led in local communities in all those areas.  For a few years, he also served as a Chaplain at Manhattan Plaza in New York City in a challenging aids ministry while living in the Absalom Jones Community in Harlem.

Reflecting on and celebrating Roy’s 50 years of priesthood today, I believe it impels each one of us to a similar deep fidelity to our own particular vocations and the particular grace upon which we rely in times of struggle, uncertainty, and challenge right along with the inner joy and gratitude that accompanies all of our graced lives. We rejoice with you today, Roy!  Happy Jubilee!

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