Do You Hear What I Hear? Religious Calling, the Priesthood, and My Father. Viking, 2005; 304 pages; $25.95.
FROM THE DUST JACKET: At the first revelation that her father, a sixtyish university professor, wants to become an Episcopal priest, Minna Proctor is flummoxed. She neither encourages nor disparages him because she simply doesn't know what it means. Brought up primarily by her mother in a household without any religious expression or guidance, Proctor was surprised to learn that her unconventionally charming, intellectual father had a religious life, and what's more, a higher calling. When he is summarily turned away, Proctor delves into the Byzantine discernment process that rejected her father from the priesthood and the pivotal notion of calling. Based on lengthy conversations with her father, interviews with clergy and religious scholars, and readings of classic faith narratives from Augustine to Simone Weil, Do You Hear What I Hear? is an exploration of a very human phenomenon in the light of cultural shifts over the last three decades.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
Publishers Weekly: Proctor uses the occasion of her divorced father's revelations about his religious odyssey to explore the history, theology, and politics of Christian vocation from the perspective of a nonbelieving daughter. In addition to allowing the reader into the richness of an ongoing dialogue with her father, Proctor offers wide-ranging research and interviews with participants in the process used in the Episcopal Church to discern whether candidates are called to ordained ministry.
The Tallahassee Democrat: Discernment may be one of the most coveted of spiritual gifts. But those blessed with glimpses into the heart of God do not always have it easy. Abuse of power or self-doubt is inevitable. Proctor narrows discernment to this question: "Who exactly has the power to decide whether a person has been called to sserve God -- that person himself, a discernment committee, a bishop? Who rightfully should have the final say when someone wants to devote himself to pastoring?"
The New Yorker: Cosmopolitan and secular, Proctor discovers a wistful envy of her father's faith and a touching indignation when his proffered service is turned down: "I don't think I believe in a God who sends psychic messages through bureaucratic processes."
The Village Voice: Proctor weaves together candid commentary from an assortment of priests, nuns, and theologians, who make the discernment process sound like it's one part religious experience, one part corporate job interview, and one part audition for The Real World. In previous eras, the field was a lot easier to crack; as Proctor points out, in Emily Brontë novels, second sons who didn't inherit the family fortune became priests by default. And in his Catholic high school, Proctor's father recalls seeing recruitment pamphlets with the slogan "Are you prepared to answer the call?" But nowadays, the screening process includes "letters of recommendation, psychiatric and psychological assessments, criminal record checks, standardized tests, as well as a series of interviews."
Newsday: Proctor is an intrepid reporter, interviewing thoughtful priests, nuns, and rabbis. She's also an avid reader, and she weaves in the work of St. Augustine, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton, and other religious writers. Mixed into this scholarly memoir is the author's determination to unravel the twists of the 45-phase ordination process established by the Episcopal Church. In Do You Hear What I Hear? the author examines historical examples of calling, citing Paul's experience as one of the more spectacular -- he was struck blind on his way to Damascus to persecute Christians. During her writing, Proctor encountered nothing so dramatic as loss of sight. "I didn't convert. I didn't find God."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Minna Proctor, essayist, magazine editor, and award-winning translator, was born in 1971, in Oberlin, Ohio. Her mother, a composer, and her father, a music theorist, taught, at the time of Ms. Proctor's birth, in the music department at Oberlin College.
"We moved often," Ms. Proctor said on the afternoon that we talked. "I was an academic brat. We went from Oberlin to Hartford, Connecticut, to Austin, Texas. And then my mother moved to Wellesley, and my father was still at UT Austin and then went on to Columbus, Ohio. My sister and I stayed with my mother in Wellesley. I was nine when they divorced.
"I went to college at Wellesley. I got a degree in Italian with a minor in English and moved to Italy for several years. I came back to New York and went to Columbia and got an M.F.A. in fiction."
Ms. Proctor's writing has appeared in Bookforum, The Nation, Aperture, and The New York Observer. She is executive editor of Colors magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. This is her first book.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: "Is that you on the cover?" I asked Ms. Proctor. The young woman who graces the cover is exceptionally pretty.
"Yes, it is. I'm actually not as embarrassed about the cover as I thought I would be, because the picture is very natural looking. I was worried that it was going to be silly."
I had read Ms. Proctor's book, in part, because as an Episcopalian, I was interested in what my church now calls "the discernment process." When I was young, nothing like this process existed in the Episcopal Church. As an Episcopal priest friend of mine said, "You just went to your priest and said, 'I'd like to be a priest,' and they sent you to the bishop and you said to him, 'I'd like to be a priest.' And he said, 'Well, here are the seminaries we think you could go to.' And then, once you finished your B.A. off you went to seminary."
I told this to Ms. Proctor, who said, "It's changed a lot in a short time. The Episcopal Church has, in its own words, developed 'the gold standard of the discernment process,' or, more specifically, expert evaluation of candidates for the priesthood.
"It's a way that people in the congregation get to be part of a process that concerns them, and it goes to the heart of the idea that this is a call from the congregation. It's not a bureaucratic process. In the best version of the discernment process it is a community effort that leads a parish to think about what they bring to the church, what they want to bring to their religion. In the worst-case scenario it doesn't work like that."