Form Over Substance?

I’ve been noticing pictures of clergy and spiritual teachers of every stripe on Facebook lately, especially those who have smaller or less tradition contexts in which they do what they do. I’ve noticed their carefully posed portraits dressed in the traditional garments of their traditions, holding some sort of holy book or holy object, looking serene and pretending that the camera just happened to stumble upon them as they were praying, meditating, or being reflective in some private place. I’ve been pondering what a load of bullshit most of it is.

To be sure there are those in every tradition for who such pictures would not be nonsensical, full-time monks who wear their religious habits all the time such as Thomas Keating, Brother David, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the late Mother Theresa, and a host of others. For these people being photographed in the clothing they wear every day is perfectly natural. For the posers and pretenders, however, wearing habits and robes is not their daily wear and so in their pictures they seem to be trying very hard to look like something they are not. To be sure, most newly ordained clergy need to spend some time in their clergy wear learning how to live into their new identity. When I travel on Church business, I most often wear a clergy shirt as a sign of radical availability and witness, even after all these years – but I don’t put one on to go to the grocery store, and unless someone is taking pictures of me functioning liturgically I don’t pose for pictures in vestments at all – seldom even in just a clergy shirt. The reason is simple: although I am ordained, I am most definitely not a traditional clergy person so I find it rather inauthentic to pose for photographs that imply I am something I other than who I am.

The truth is that eighty percent of Americans are turned off by church as usual – and so am I. If I want to reach these people and address their needs, approaching them while dressed like a Fulton Sheen wannabe isn’t going to help me reach them. What’s more, since I identify as an interspiritual priest, there really isn’t a single garment that defines my spirituality. Perhaps if I took several different garments from several different traditions, cut them each into four or five pieces and then randomly selected pieces from each of them, sewing them together to form one garment I would have a representative (if not presentable) robe to wear. That seems an awful lot like silliness to me.

To be sure, there are times when every spiritual teacher or preacher comes across a situation they are not entirely comfortable with – no matter how long they have been teachers or preachers. We can chose to hide behind the facade of our costumes and perpetuate the dissatisfaction people have with religious figures by spewing trite phrases and pat answers, in the process fooling nobody but ourselves. On the other hand, we might resort to the honorable practice of authenticity no matter the garments we wear, admitting we don’t have all the answers but pledging to seek them out together. I believe it’s the latter teacher who displays their authenticity, no matter what they are wearing.


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