It had been a week unusually filled with calls to ministry. My priest husband and I were feeling especially fulfilled, though also chafing with the dryness of our experience in the institutional church. Much of our service had been commanded through default. Because canonical presence was not forthcoming, we were called to supply the lack. Thankfully, both of us had long since dismissed any sense of being second best and were thus empowered to focus solely on need and response.
In the mysterious way of God’s coincidences, we “happened” to be reflecting on the oddity of our mutual and individual calls when the phone rang. It was a journalist with the local paper. Our names had been suggested to her as subjects for a special edition that featured unusual retirement couples. She was calling to ask if we would consider being interviewed. Her deadline was imminent, so our answer needed to be immediate.
Without hesitation, my heart said “Yes.” However, the words were yet to be spoken. I looked over at my husband and saw fear casting its shadow over his face. My head now engaged the heartfelt magnanimity of the unspoken “Yes’—and I, too, paused for a moment. Only seconds passed, but they seemed like hours. In fact, all the years of our life together passed before me.
I pondered the providential nature of her phoning us at this particular moment in time. Was this God calling in the night of our closeted, silent service? Were we being asked to come forward publicly and announce our presence among the people of God? Up to now, we both had gone somewhat merrily on our way. Ministry was being done, separately and together, in various venues—but always undercover or cloaked with innuendo. Afraid of incurring the wrath of the powers that be, we had continued in pseudo-anonymity, always leaving us—and them—with loopholes for explanation or escape. It was a comfortable conflict, if not a comforting one.
This time we faced a crucial choice—to proceed blindly into faith or retreat cowardly at the sight of fear. The reporter patiently awaited our reply.
Seeking a moment of consultation, I covered the phone’s mouthpiece and told my husband that I thought we should accept. Reluctantly, he agreed. The die was cast—but the struggle was ongoing. No sooner had I set the date for our interview than trembles of anguish began.
For nearly 16 years, our ministry as a priest-couple had endured the slings and arrows of institutional fate. Benevolent pastors accepted, even requested, our service. Legalists ignored, denied, and denounced it. Despite the vagaries of this existence, we had managed to continue on a somewhat even keel because our choices were safe ones. We gave prudent consideration to any negative consequences. If speaking out was indicated, we did it among those who would take no steps to silence us. Always, we used the rationale that this was the way of charity. Really, we were seeking to save our own skin! Left ajar, the door of our ministerial closet allowed easy entry and exit—without ever being completely opened or totally closed! Safeguarded, our vulnerability protected from harm, we had never engaged in the ongoing struggle between faith and fear.
It may sound dramatic, but there is no overstatement in my acknowledgement that we wavered between brave proclamation and frightened disclaimer. Both of us felt the prophetic call to be ourselves, while not wishing to suffer both the agony and ecstasy of authenticity. We wanted to speak out—and, simultaneously, were afraid to say too much.
Too soon the day of reckoning arrived. Almost despite ourselves, we answered questions that peeled away layers of life. Revelation was happening with scarce effort. The story spilled out—an inspirited flow that released years of burdened silence. I am reluctant to say that I can detect God’s will in events and experiences as they occur. This time I was nearly sure of divine intervention.
I could feel the impelling force of God’s loving touch in the animation enlivening three people whose intense and attentive conversation sparked laughter and recalled sorrow. Questions tumbled into responses, giving birth to additional queries. All that was shared was pondered in the heart. At one point, the interviewer was so caught up in the story that she ceased recording our remarks! If the gospel is a good news story, we gospeled together that afternoon.
We had done it! At least momentarily, we had engaged with faith and successfully fought destructive fear. Freedom reigned with its lightness of spirit. However, our story was not yet in print. Although its negative consequences—if any—were not faced for the time being, we still awakened to niggling doubts. “What ifs” pursued us, permeating the air and dampening our enthusiasm. What if the pastor reads the article and becomes upset with us? What if his upset is severe enough for him to take action, ejecting us from the congregation? What if parishioners seek our dismissal, quoting law instead of love? What if the interviewer interprets our words wrongly and quotes inaccurately?
No matter how spontaneous our faith response, fear’s forcefulness continues to erode confidence and demand light in the darkness . . . light by which to see clearly a defined path to travel. Fear says that we cannot go to a place we are unable to see. Faith asks that we enter those tenebrous shadows, trusting that God will illumine the way as we go. Fear emphasizes pain and underlines vulnerability—often to the point of personal paralysis. Faith promises presence, support, and encouragement but does not deny the pain involved in commitment. Faith is the cane carried to prohibit our pilgrimage from being a crippling journey.
Staff in hand, my husband and I continue on the path of life. Slightly trembling but steadily treading we go. Stumbling over obstacles and skinning our knees as we fall and rise to each grace-filled occasion, we are en route—and on a mission. Ours is a discipleship experienced in darkness and celebrated in light, life, and love. More than likely, we will continue to be frightened by the cost of faithfulness. Ours will be an ongoing struggle to open wide the doors of faith. In the midst of our enslaving fear we believe we will find the God who seeks only to set us free.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of scriptural meditations), lead volunteer chaplain at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.