From beach to altar: Reflections on 20 years as a priest

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"God is doing a new thing in the church at this time. Rebuilding it, I think, from the ground up. And, as a priest, I have the opportunity, the joy, and—yes—the struggle of being right in the thick of it." Photo: Elisabeth Beattie

Canon David Harrison expected to mark the 20th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood on the beach. As luck, pandemic and God would have it, he found himself at the altar—thinking about the joy and struggle of his call.

I thought I’d be on a beach. I ended up at an altar.

March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day, marked the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood by Bishop Douglas Blackwell in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Port Hope. That Sunday afternoon we stepped outside Lent for a few hours to mark the ordination of the Rev. Ronald Kydd, a former Pentecostal pastor and teacher, and me. A year ago, as the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate was approaching, my mother asked me if I planned to “do something” to mark this anniversary. I said no. As significant as that day was (and it was—the odd feeling of donning the collar, the sensation of the bishop’s hands on my head, adopting the title “the Reverend”), my calling was not to be a deacon but to be a priest, and so I intended to wait until March 2020 to mark the occasion.

Canon David Harrison

Except when March rolled around, my wife and I had planned a week’s get-away. Unfortunately, it was the only free week in March we could both get away, and it was a casualty of timing that I would be on a beach in Cuba when the anniversary came and not able to celebrate the Eucharist.  But as the day of our planned departure got closer, it became increasingly evident that we weren’t going anywhere and, two days before our flight, we cancelled. Disappointed as I was, an upside of COVID-19 preempting our trip was the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist on the anniversary of my ordination. By this time, public worship had been suspended. But when two or three are gathered together—a small group of Mary Lou (my wife), Johanna (our curate), Elisabeth (our parish administrator), Christian (a warden and server) and Edith (our altar guild leader) were all in the building and joined me in a simple celebration of the eucharist marking St. Joseph’s Day, complete with new rituals for social distancing.

For the last decade, I have served a parish in which the mass (as we call it) is celebrated every day of the year except for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In a typical week I celebrate mass between four and six times. By my rough calculation, over 20 years of priesthood, I have celebrated the Eucharist probably as many as 4,000 times, perhaps more. Sometimes it is a deeply moving experience and sometimes, frankly, I’m just going through the motions and thinking more about the to-do list ahead of me or the tricky emails I need to respond to. Although there are times I get frustrated with myself if I’m not “all there,” I’m comforted by the established theological doctrine ex opere operato (Latin for “from the work performed”) which assures me and, what’s more, the church, that the efficacy of the sacraments come not from the worthiness or lack thereof of the minister, but from the sacraments themselves. In other words, from God.

This particular time I celebrated the Eucharist was like many of the rest of them, although occurring on an important anniversary for me. But it was also unlike any of the rest of them because it came in those beginning days of what we now know will be a long period where the church will be unable to gather physically to worship and partake of the sacraments. We had just had one Sunday with no masses but we didn’t, even then, understand that there would be no Holy Week in person, no Easter Day, and most likely no gatherings until far into Ordinary Time. But even then I had a glimmer—well, more than a glimmer, really—of deep gratitude for being called to be a priest in Christ’s church. And, what’s more, to have been called to be a priest in Christ’s church at this unprecedented time for anyone alive.

Somehow part of me came to think that the true sign of “success” as a priest is to become a bishop. It was easy to set it all to one side for a time. But eventually there came a time for me when people started to ask me if I wanted to be a bishop. (The correct answer is always “No. Not at all.”)

I don’t recall a time when I didn’t want to be a priest. My maternal grandfather was a priest, and so I had a strong role model. He died when I was 10 and, by then, I was immersed in the life of St. James’ Cathedral in Toronto as a choirboy, a duty which obligated me to be at the cathedral Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school, Friday nights, and all day Sunday. It consumed my life, and it consumed my imagination. I played at being a priest when I was a kid (just ask my younger brother, who was always relegated to being the “assistant priest”.) And at the cathedral, first as a choirboy, and then as an organ student, server and sub-deacon, I found my calling through the liturgy and music of the church. I had a decade-long detour through the public service in the Government of Ontario, but at the age of 33 was ordained a priest. In one of my recurring dreams, I’m back in my office in the Mowat Block at Bay and Wellesley in downtown Toronto trying to figure out how to finish my Master of Divinity degree so I can be ordained. When I wake up there is always a sense of relief. Relief to have been called to the awesome ministry of priesthood.

When I’m speaking with theological students about calling, we talk about how calling in the church is a three-way conversation. As individuals we can feel a strong sense of calling. But that is never enough. The church must also discern a calling in a person. And, of course, there is the third and most important partner in the conversation: God. It is God who calls us to our ministries, first and primarily as baptized people and then, for some, to “ordered” ministry—to particular functions within the church as deacon, priest or bishop.

Canon David Harrison celebrates the Eucharist on the 20th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Photo: Mary Lou Harrison

And this is where my reflections on 20 years of priesthood become difficult and painful—to think about, and also to write about. I always felt a calling to be a priest. I would not make a very good deacon. But soon after ordination I also started to feel called (or so I thought) someday to be a bishop. I can recall two specific incidents which bred this in me. The first was actually before I was ordained. The parish where I had done my full-time internship was saying goodbye and they had, kindly, given me funds to purchase my first cassock. And a retired bishop who was an associate at the parish quipped, out loud, “what colour?” I heard it, and I didn’t forget it. And then when I was leaving my curacy in Port Hope, a dear parishioner wrote a poem about me and inscribed it carefully on a scroll. And it was read at the farewell reception. I have it somewhere in a box in my basement. And I can still recall the last rhyming line: “And when he is a bishop, we’ll say we knew him when.”

In the early days of ordination, these things stick. At least they did for me. Somehow part of me came to think that the true sign of “success” as a priest is to become a bishop. It was easy to set it all to one side for a time. But eventually there came a time for me when people started to ask me if I wanted to be a bishop. (The correct answer is always “No. Not at all.”) And then there was an episcopal election for a suffragan bishop, and someone asked me if I would accept nomination. It was easy to say no then, for I had only been in my parish a few years and felt myself, at 46, to be too young. But just a few years later it happened again. And I said yes. Three times I said yes to being nominated. Three times the church said no. Three times I was hurt, for all of the spiritual exercises of telling oneself it isn’t about me, that vocation must be mutually discerned, that God chooses—all of that, present as it was, still had to go head-to-head with my human ego, thin skin, frailty and disappointment. And digging myself out of that mire proved to be no small task.

But gradually my confidence in my vocation has come back into focus. To a place where I could, once again, give God thanks for the privilege and joy of being a priest. And even for the hardship. I recall when it began to turn. It was a Friday in June. The feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, in fact. It was my day off, and I was reading a book which was an interview with Pope Francis about the sacrament of reconciliation. And then I moved onto ironing and ironed my alb. And something said to me “why not take it over to the church now and hang it up in the vestry?” (I live next door in the rectory.) And so I did. It was about 6:30 in the evening, and the folks who had attended the 6 p.m. mass were leaving. I walked through the church and saw a man sitting in the pews. Looking a bit down and out. Not someone I recognized. And to my surprise (since I was wearing shorts and a golf shirt) he said, “Are you a priest?” “Why yes, I am.” “Would you hear my confession?” And so I did. Purple stole over my casual Friday clothes. I hope that man was helped by the sacrament. I know I was changed as I came, in a powerful way, to see again that being a priest is to be given the awesome privilege of being invited into the lives of real people. At birth. At death. At marriage. At crisis. At illness. In times of distress and joy. What’s more, being a priest is the vocation of helping usher God’s presence into the lives of real people. In all of those circumstances. And more.

The word “priest” is a somewhat mushy word. It is the English translation of two different ideas. The first is the Greek word hiereus, which means priest in the sense of someone who offers sacrifices on behalf of the people of God and who becomes a kind of intermediary or bridge between God and people. It isn’t a uniquely Christian word but, rather, one used by many ancient religions. The second is the Greek word presbuteros, which is the New Testament word sometimes translated as “presbyter” or “elder”, meaning the one who leads a congregation of people. Being a priest encapsulates both ideas. We do preside, or help to preside, over a congregation of followers of Jesus. And that brings it with all of the challenges that leading any organization entails. But we are also called to a particular role of drawing the faithful closer to God through the sacraments, through proclaiming and breaking open the Word of God, and through teaching and immersion in the promises of baptism.

Maybe that is why I love being a priest now more than I ever have. Because priests are “in the thick of it.” We are in the thick of human reality, with its beauty and its ugliness.

And so I found myself at the altar as I marked 20 years as a priest. And somehow the small band who joined me was just right. A priest’s family both reaps the benefits and pays the price of priestly calling. Mine has, and Mary Lou’s presence there reminded me of that. Johanna, our curate, new in her vocation and so gifted, helped me recall where I once was, and also the joy I have found in accompanying dozens of theological students and the newly ordained in their formation. Elisabeth, parishioner and administrator, without whose skills and dedication my role as leader would be so diminished. Christian and Edith, faithful servants of the sanctuary, joining me and the other clergy of the parish in the daily rounds of sacramental life.

But there was something about the strangeness of the moment that made me the more grateful for this time, in which physical gathering to partake in the sacraments has become impossible. It has brought into sharp relief for me that, as priests, we are in the centre of people’s lives. I think about the parishioners who live alone and are grateful for a phone call. I think about seeing other members of the parish reach out to one another with new and even deeper love. I hear the reflections of those who are edified by the videos of liturgies we are able to produce and who tell me that this time has made them realize how important their faith and their faith community is to them. I think of the births and deaths which have happened in my parish since this began. I see our community reaching out to establish new forms of partnership and service. God is doing a new thing in the church at this time. Rebuilding it, I think, from the ground up. And, as a priest, I have the opportunity, the joy, and—yes—the struggle of being right in the thick of it.

Maybe that is why I love being a priest now more than I ever have. Because priests are “in the thick of it.” We are in the thick of human reality, with its beauty and its ugliness. We are in the thick of all of the blessings and sufferings of life. We are embedded in Christian communities which are, of course, far from perfect, and yet somehow infused with the reality of God’s love, grace and redemption. We don’t dabble in these things; we live in them. Day by day. Moment by moment. Year by year.

Yes, as the old army recruitment posters used to say: “There’s no life like it.” I still hope to get to that beach when this is all said and done. But I thank God I found myself at an altar on March 19—to be reminded of the awesome privilege God has afforded me.

Thanks be to God!

The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

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David Harrison

4 COMMENTS

  1. What a beautifully written article.
    Compelling, insightful and deeply moving.

    There is a naked honesty in its description of the writer’s personal calling to be a priest vs. the professional ambition to rise higher in the church hierarchy which I also find refreshing. It must have been painful to be nominated three times yet told ‘no’ every time. That kind of thing wounds a person’s faith in him/herself and perhaps even a little bit in faith itself.

    To rediscover the fullness of one’s love for serving God and ministering to congregants in priesthood after those disappointing experiences — and to share that journey with us the readers — must have been a challenge for the writer, but it should be required reading for all priests and church leaders. Having worked with leaders in other sectors, I even see the article’s relevance to professionals outside the church.

    We so rarely see such articles that come from a priest’s own soul — honest about the mundane, as well as the pain, the joy, and the reasons why they continue to serve. Thanks to David Harrison for having pulled back the curtain and trusted that his testimony as written here will inspire and bless others. It will.

  2. We all walk the path of vocation and often the twigs and stones on the path teach us about nature and natural paces and moving over the ground that adds branches and cause us to watch our steps. As a three time turn down for a Deacons role, I have never lost sight of the horizon not the ground under my feet, to guide the path of Pioneer Mission focus. Like your former Priest Jim Tiller would say the path is one you see not worry about . Happy Anniversary from myself.

  3. Congratulations on your 20th anniversary. You are a wonderful priest…my father certainly knew it! Much love to you and yours…

  4. What a powerful witness and testimony written from the heart of a wonderful Priest. Congratulations on you 20th Anniversary and don’t be surprised what God has in store for your future Ministry! Love and virtual hugs to you and the family.

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