In another life, I was the Pastoral Business Manager for four Roman Catholic churches. Not unlike other institutions that required fiscal responsibility, my position consisted of writing budgets for spending and programs, paying bills, and hiring and firing staff. I didn’t hire the priests, however. I always said that task was left to a higher power. But even churches have to plan to pay the electric bill and everyone needed health insurance. It was like running four little companies, and I loved it. It made me closer to the parishioners who were once just friends and neighbors; now I was also a confidant and advisor. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
Even though my position was not liturgical in nature and I wasn’t required to proselytize, it was inevitable conversations with parishioners and other lay religious would often go in that direction. More often than not I would have to stop someone who would begin innocuously chatting about the weather but before I knew it would be confessing something and looking for absolution. I quickly learned to say “Hold on, you need to talk with Father Somebody”, and led them by the hand to continue the conversation with him.
I was a good listener, but even I knew my limitations.
My co-workers and I frequently all ate lunch together and had weekly meetings around a giant dining room table in the rectory. The parish priest, the office manager, the liturgical planner, the funeral planner, the grounds keeper, the rectory housekeeper and I all sat at the same table; there was no hierarchy here. We were a family of the faithful and shared what we had learned from our parishioners; who was in the hospital, who was getting married, who desperately needed a place to live and who was hungry, both literally and spiritually.
So it came as no surprise to anyone when the subject of what to say when we came upon the ‘low hanging fruit’ of our congregations; those who were questioning their faith and needed reassurance, or simply needed prayer.
Spontaneous prayer is something I struggled with on a daily basis; it was not how I was raised in the ‘old’ church, praying aloud and seemingly off the top of my head. The most I had prayer aloud was at the dinner table with my children, in hurried, monotone succession and without any thought as to what I was actually reciting – “Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Let’s eat.
It wasn’t until left the Church many years later that I began to understand what prayer was and what it really meant. Praying is talking to God, whether it be pleading, singing, thanking or adoring. Watching the majestic sunrises and sunsets at the Great Ontario, day after day, year after year, brought me a new found appreciation of what it really means to be spiritual.
My life is vastly different than it was at that time, nearly twenty years now past. I am astounded this time has passed so quickly and had to double check the numbers. But it is true, a testament to the fact that I can pray out loud and loudly at the drop of a hat, with meaning and with conviction.
These days I pray in fruit orchards. Surrounded by apples trees, peaches and plum trees, the aroma of sweetness and fruit is both comforting and overwhelming. My Dear Heart teaches me how to pick them.
“Here sweetheart” he instructs while he pushes a ladder closer to a branch. “Like this.” His big, grizzled hands show me how to twist or merely pull the stone fruits as he stands atop a tall, metal ladder. His skin is tan from years of farming and picking, and his teeth are white against them as he smiles at me while grabbing two to three red plums at a time while tossing them in a basket held below.
The orchard is bursting with the Lord’s bounty and I never really appreciated the work and care that went into the management of a farm. Not unlike the low hanging fruit of my congregations of the past, I am assigned the literal task of picking the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the orchards.
After a few days go by, I am able to pick from the highest of the trees, stretching and standing on tip toe on 12 foot metal ladders, without fear of falling. My prayers are filled with the appreciation and thankfulness to have made it to this chapter of my life, yet another new journey the Lord has set forth to me.
Life with another man who, along with me, knows the value of faithfulness, hard work and commitment, inspires me every day. Smiling at me as he looked down with a prized, red plum that had been out of my reach in his hand, he said simply the words I know now were meant for me only and a message from the Lord himself.
“The harder the reach is, the sweeter the fruit will be, as it is the closest to the sun. Never stop reaching.”