Professing Faith: 10 lessons learned in 40 years of ministry

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)
Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is professor emeritus of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy Photo)

As I sit in my lair writing this, I stare at my crucifix on the wall and ponder the calendar. By the time this article gets to actual print, your author will be 65 years old, which is one of those sobering landmarks in one’s personal history. Dealing with retirement plans, a new will, organization of personal papers, and the Social Security Administration unite to remind me that the clock is ticking.

Your author tries to avoid writing about his personal religious views in this column, but those who can see my photograph in this paper can easily identify them. This year will mark 40 years since my Anglican ordination and 16th since my Roman one. Believe me, time flies quickly when you don’t know what you’re doing. But in these years of public ministry and teaching yours truly has learned a few things, mostly the hard way.

1) If you love someone, you should tell them so, unless there is some moral or legal reason not to. When one is young, sharing the message that you are fond of someone is terrifying in the short term, but not telling them is a tragedy worth a drama on the ancient Greek stage. When we are older with children, relatives and spouses, one should do the same. Everyone needs reassurance, and the day will come when you can no longer speak to them face to face.

2) Courtesy is a sign of faith and blessing. Verbal abuse is a mark of the evil one. Let me draw to your attention the “Divine Comedy” of Dante Alighieri, which was completed in 1320 A.D. It is a long poem which is in essence a tour of the afterlife. If you have not read it, you should do so. In the first part, the “Inferno,” where we meet the damned, we note that both the devils and damned treat each other with extraordinary rudeness and vulgarity. In the second part, the “Purgatory,” we see the rehabilitation of saints, in which they often encourage one another on their path to holiness. In the final part, the “Paradise” we see the souls of the redeemed who act with wonderfully good manners. There they speak not only to praise God but also one another. St. Francis sings a poem in honor of the Dominicans, while St. Dominic sings one in praise of the Franciscans. Dante’s point is an important one, that courtesy is a sign of grace.

3) The young must be constantly encouraged. It is easy to forget at my age the deep frustration the child and adolescent face as they enter into life. Things that would not bother me, can bother the young intensely, and so words of praise can help them stay on the right track. In the year 1965, Mrs. Lorenzo, my second grade teacher at Adams Elementary in Corvallis, Oregon, remarked on how well my reading was coming along. I still remember that. When a pretty girl sitting behind me in the darkest pits of 10th grade smiled at me sweetly, I almost melted to the ground on the spot. When one has a face like I did, one so covered with acne that I qualified as an honorary pizza, one gets very few pretty smiles. Children very rarely get maimed by a kind word.

4) The only prayers worth saying are the sincere ones, and sincerity can be hard to drum up without some silence in the soul. In 167 A.D., the Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote with wisdom when he said, “When the Athenians pray, they say ‘Rain O Zeus, upon the fields of Athens.’ Prayers should be made that simple or not at all.”

5) Give food and water to the homeless you see on life’s path. If you speak to them, ask their name. A clean T-shirt or fresh pair of socks would make their day. Jesus of Nazareth once said, “Truly I tell you that whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)  I hope you do not think these words were an allegory or theological puzzle of some kind. Sometimes that book about him needs to be taken literally.

6) Read as many good books as you can.

7) Treat custodians, waitresses and manual laborers with the same dignity that you would show to the president or the king. Many of them will have a higher place in heaven than you and most of them will be a lot higher up than the political leaders. You may need their prayers one day.

8) This is for young people. Young men, when you are at a wedding or festival occasion, ask one of the elderly ladies to dance with you. What? Are you afraid they will make a pass at you? Young women: A great many men are a lot less interested in your physical beauty than you might imagine. Some of them are shockingly easy to please, so do not waste your time comparing yourself with others.

9) God is merciful but He is not mocked. You can fool most people and you can easily fool me, but you cannot fool Him. When you betray someone, withhold their money, shun someone, strike someone or cheat on them, God sees it and will one day hold you to account, if not in this life then in the next. Back to Dante for a moment. In Canto 19 of the “Inferno,” the poet hears of the corrupt Pope Boniface VIII, and sees the place reserved for him in hell. Yet Boniface was still alive when the Inferno was supposed to be taking place. The poet learns that the pope’s evil is so great it will never be repented and even though living, is already damned. Dante’s point is not that sins cannot be forgiven, but rather that mortals cannot fool God.

10) A large number of people are smarter than me. The same applies to you. Our knowledge on this Earth is extremely limited and so prudence suggests a healthy respect for human fallibility, and that many times other people will know the right answer better than I. Taking ourselves too seriously is an act of pride, the sin which made angels fall.