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."
"How do you describe the discernment process?"
"A really, really, really long job interview. I think it may be the longest in the world and one of the most challenging. I actually do think of it as a job interview, one that has theology and spirituality and community and relationships built into it as well as background checks and school records and academic preparation and physicals. They check your credit records. In New York, there's a 96-question exam that you fill out before you even start, so they get the basic information. This questionnaire has every kind of question in the entire world on it -- what your mother did, what your father did, what you studied in school, what your first job was, have you had sex yet, have you been married, do you have children, what do you think of them, what are their names, what have been their diseases. The discernment process is essentially a job interview conducted by the church community."
"And the process is different in every diocese."
"Yes. They're trying to standardize it, because studies show that it is dramatically different from one diocese to another. It was created to be different to allow for different ways bishops have of running a diocese. Because Episcopal bishops have very different congregations they're working with; they have different styles of administrating. So there is a point to the flexibility."
"What would go, for instance, in Dixie," I said, "would never..."
"...go up north," said Ms. Proctor. "And these differences are not about the church canons but about the society. The national church wants to standardize the process.
"I did interviews in Ohio and in Indiana, and in these places people are very comfortable talking about hearing voices, getting messages from God, which I was entirely intrigued by and then found that my father was pretty startled by it. This certainly is not his style, but it's obviously part of the religion of people around him. When I went to New York Episcopal churches and asked about hearing messages from God, people said to me, right out, 'If someone walks in here and talks about hearing God, I might send them to the shrink.'
"So there are different ways Episcopalians have of expressing the faith. It's not only different modes of expressing it but of experiencing it. If everyone around you is speaking in tongues, then that might be what comes to you as natural. If there were some mode of expression that was essentially religious, then that would mean every religious person experienced it, no matter where they lived. But instead, these different experiences and different expressions vary tremendously. My father, with all of his rationalism, would have been much better in the Northeast than he would have in Ohio. There's a very different discernment process, for instance, in New York than in Ohio, where my father is."
I said that I felt bad for Ms. Proctor's father, that his Ohio discernment committee turned him away and refused him the possibility of studying for the priesthood.
"I did too. I thought that was extremely sad. And apparently somewhat common. When I was speaking with people in the national church who develop the discernment process and monitor it and help different areas develop it, and I explained my father's process, they shook their head sympathetically and said, 'Sometimes, you know, it doesn't work. ' "
In her book, Ms. Proctor writes about "calling." I asked what "calling" meant to her.
"People have talked about it over the centuries; they've looked for different ways to express it, but I think of calling as the idea that you are doing something that you are inherently supposed to do."
"It's your gift?"
"Your mission. But, as I discuss in the book, I think that we wrestle with the core reasons behind decisions we make that are not explainable in pragmatic terms. When we think about whether to get married, whether to go to college, whether to change a job, we are thinking about calling or mission. These decisions are about 'want,' but 'want' that feels like need. We may need to be a fireman and save people's lives. We may need to try to stop a war or do what we think we can do to stop a war.
"'Calling' gets to some of those essential questions that, no matter who you are, even if you're a raging atheist, are questions about what you are meant to be doing. It's about drive. Calling is an ambiguous way of describing a specific feeling that has no explanation.
"When my father entered Catholic seminary as a child, there was never any discussion of whether or not he was called. It was assumed he was. Otherwise he wouldn't have darkened the bishop's door. And for Anglicans, calling wasn't considered important in the past. The second son often simply went to the Church. Men who were going to teach at universities had to take orders. You could take orders even if you were an atheist. It was about something else, and before that, even in Puritanism and Judaism, any kind of covenant religion, it's assumed that you're essentially called already. And it's just your job to serve."
"I felt," I said, "that writing this book was a way for you to be with your father again."
"Yes. I think it was. I had no idea how to write this book. I tried three or four ways. But somewhere in the middle I realized that I was essentially writing a love letter to my father. If I have a narrative voice, it's narrating to him. The project was for me to be with him, to learn more about him, to have this opportunity as a grownup to go back and meet my father again and in a deeper way.
"I never would have thought that there was a new way to know my father as an adult. I certainly never would have thought that his spiritual path would have been the way. I can't even put enough conditionals on it to explain how inconceivable the whole process was, but then when it happened, it was an amazing experience. I got to call him and have these conversations that meant something to him. We would talk for two hours. I'd call him with specific questions, like, 'Where was your grandmother born?' and never get to answer the question because we would talk for two hours about something else that had to do with the book that actually meant more.
"And so in every way it was about spending time with him, and in every way it was also about trying to figure out this discernment process in the Episcopal Church for him as well as alongside him. There's a part of me that wanted to figure it out as a gift to him.
"I don't come from religion. It's a new topic for me and perhaps one I may not come back to, although I loved having access to it. If I wanted to describe myself, I might say that I was trying to champion the idea that religion is something that all of us not only can talk about but should talk about and know more about, and the idea that it's limited somehow to either scholarly or first-person accounts, I think, is an idea that should be crumbled. Especially because it's such an important part of American political life today. I feel we should all figure out what it's about."