Jed’s First Sermon as a Seminarian in Cardiff
“Hey, Father Tref.” Jed looked up from the books and papers before him, even as he straightened his shoulders gingerly and released his death grip on his hair. “Yes. I have to preach my first sermon in three days, and everything I’ve put down on paper so far is utter crap. How the hell do you do this every single week?”
“Ah well.” Trefain Crothers put a pair of mugs down and dropped into the comfiest armchair, stretching his legs out with a sigh. “I’ve got forty years on you. Bit more practical experience to draw on, is it? Duw, but my knees are killing me after that last hill.” He sipped, put the cup aside and held out his hand. Jed gathered up his papers and handed them over. The priest skimmed over them, flipping pages.
“You’re trying too hard,” he said, handing them back.
‘Is that all you have to say?”
“Pretty much, aye.” He wiggled his toes in his sandals. “It’s a sermon, not a doctoral dissertation, bachgen. No one’s expecting – or wanting – proof of deep intellectual prowess on your part, particularly with your face to distract them, so don’t kill yourself trying.”
“Thanks ever so.” Jed poked at his laptop, muttering. Trefain laughed.
“All I’m saying,” he said. “It that you have a gift for identifying with people. They respond to you, and you to them, on that inherently empathic level that goes far beyond words. St. Francis didn’t bother with all this truck, did he?” He waved a hand. “He just went out and said what was on his mind and in his heart, in simple, straightforward language. He didn’t bother with rough drafts or commentaries, or what people would think of him while he was speaking to them, for that matter. He just repeated what God was saying to him, delighting in the fact and the message, and people, unsurprisingly, responded to that, and delighted in return.”
“I can’t just get up there and wing it!”
“No,” Tref admitted. “That’s not a good idea. But this doesn’t constitute a better one.” He hefted himself up with a grunt. “Or a particularly effective one, from the look of things. And given that… Why don’t you put it all aside, take yourself for a walk, and ask the Almighty what He wants you to say, instead of trying to put words in His mouth?”
Jed blinked at him. “Is that what you do?” he asked. “When you’re stuck?’
“It’s what I do, period. Though I like to bike while we’re consulting, rather than walk.”
He wandered out. Jed watched him go thoughtfully. Uncertainty on his methods aside, there was no denying that Trefain Crothers preached a wonderful sermon… Even as he turned back to his work, Llyr Madison came through the front door, unwinding his scarf.
“How goes the battle, cariad?” he asked.
“Horribly,” Jed admitted, then… “Brother Llyr?”
“Yes, Brother Jedediah?”
“Have you ever seen Father Tref writing a sermon? I mean, actually physically writing a sermon? I have noticed that he never uses notes, but I just thought that meant he memorized what he had put on paper earlier.”
“No,” Llyr said. “I don’t think so? I’ve seen him looking up a quote or two now and again, but that’s all. He says that people come to church to listen to what God has to say, not to listen to a priest read his opinions on the matter.”
“Ah.” He looked down at his laptop, then suddenly and decisively moved to log out, without saving his work. Llyr watched him even as he gathered up his books, put them in a neat stack, and shoved his various paraphernalia in his bag.
“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked in his gentle way. “To help?”
“Pray,” Jed said, as he got to his feet, and kissed the other man on the cheek. “That my eyes and ears be opened to that which He has to teach me, my brother. This week specifically, and always, for that matter.”
“I’ll make a point of it.” The light eyes smiled at him. Jed dropped his bag and wrapped him up for a long moment. Llyr put his arms around him unhesitatingly, coat, scarf and all, and held him close.
“You’re going to be a fine, fine priest one day,” he said. “Don’t be afraid, Jedediah. He will always be with you, and He’s already told me that He’s booked this Sunday in specially in any case.”
“He has, has He?” Jed couldn’t help but laugh.
“Mm.” Llyr pulled back slightly in his arms and twinkled at him. “Front row centre. Really front row centre, in fact, right up on the altar by the pulpit.”
“You’re the best, you know that?” He hugged him again impulsively. “Here, why don’t you take your things off, and I’ll take mine upstairs and put the kettle on for you. I’ve been instructed to go for a walk, so I can’t stay, but I’ll make you a cuppa first, to warm you.”
“Thank you.” Llyr patted his cheek. “You’re such a dear, you really are.”
Jed blushed, and headed for the stairs.
“You alright, boy bach?” The voice sounded in the darkness, rough with sleep. Jed opened his eyes. The man at the door examined him, tucked back as he was in the far corner of his bed, arms wrapped around his knees and breviary opened at his bare feet amid the tangle of blankets.
“I got up to piss, and thought I’d check in on you.” Gryf Frost said. “I thought I might find you awake, and sure enough, here you are.” He came in, patting the dogs and sitting on the desk chair. “What can I help you with?”
“I don’t know that you can.” Jed tilted his head back against the wall. “I don’t know that anyone can, besides God, that is.”
“We are talking on your sermon, is it?”
“Yes,” Jed said. “And no.” He closed his eyes again. The priest waited. He let out a small sigh.
“I’m not going to get to work the missions, am I?” he said. “I mean… Ever.”
“I don’t know, Jedediah,” Gryf Frost said quietly. “I truly don’t. I’d be lying though, if I said that it looked likely. Your family considered… I’d be lying again if I told you that I’d personally recommend it. I’m afraid that risking a perfectly good human being to whom I have responsibility wouldn’t sit well with me in terms of the moral imperative. In any instance.”
“Do you understand?”
“Yes.” The eyes opened. “I do. And I’m sorry for the fact, I truly am… But it’s alright. Like Father Tybont said, the world’s one big mission, really. Every person’s a mission, every soul, no matter where they are.”
Gryf reached out and rubbed his knee.
“I’m that fond of you,” he said. “Did you know that, boy bach? We all are.”
“Father Gryf? Why haven’t you asked to see my drafts for my sermon?”
“What, and ruin my own surprise?”
“Seriously. There are going to be a ton of people there. I mean, a serious ton, from London even, and the reporters, like you said, and… Shouldn’t you be sure that I’m not going to disgrace you? Or St. Justinian’s?”
“If I thought you would disgrace me, I never would have assigned you this in the first place.”
“Were you told to?” Jed asked directly. “To assign me?”
“No,” Gryf said. “I had to fight for you, as a matter of fact. Father Provincial enjoys the heaven and hell out of you, but you are only a first year seminarian. He wasn’t sure you could handle it.”
“I told him that you have a God-given gift,” the priest said. “One that I wouldn’t stifle in any novice or seminarian under my care, no matter his age or inexperience. Your background has absolutely nothing to do with anything there, and to let it cripple you… Well. That’s not just an insult and a waste, but the act of a coward. I may be many things, boy bach, but God willing, there will be no one in my life after I am gone who will be able to look back and call me that.”
“You didn’t actually say that to him, did you?”
“Yes. I did.”
Jed put his face in his hands.
“I really am just an ordinary guy, you know?” he said, muffled.
“Yes, you are,” Gryf said. “And that’s exactly what makes you so extraordinary.” He got to his feet and leaned down to kiss his charge. “You’re going to be fantastic. I know it.”
The priest laughed. “Maybe a little,” he said, and turned slightly, even as the toilet across the hall flushed. “Tybont?”
“Frost? What is it; is he sick? Oh, for heaven’s sake.” The old man appeared in the door. “Aren’t you asleep yet, boy?”
“That’s a rhetorical question, right?”
“Shut up.” He stumped over. “Move your ass, Frost. Here. Lie down, you.”
Jed lay down obediently. Tybont put the breviary aside, tugged the blankets around him, then most unexpectedly, sat beside him, stroking his cheek with a stubby, awkward hand.
“You worry too much,” he said. “You really do. Do you really think I’d let you up there if I thought there was any chance that you would disgrace me?”
“You haven’t even asked to see what I’ve got for the table there! None of you have!”
“Some people would see that as indicative of trust and confidence.”
“I don’t want you to trust me. I want you to tell me I’m not going to screw up.”
Tybont rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to screw up,” he said.
“How can you be sure?”
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you? You won’t screw up because, your knack aside, I’m telling you not to. No screwing up, Silverman, hear me, under orders of obedience.”
“Oh. Well then,” the young man said ironically. “Since you put it that way…”
“I do. Now go to sleep!” He got slowly to his feet, Gryf standing with a wide grin and helping him. Jed sighed and closed his eyes. Even as they left the room…
“What is it now?”
“What are you going to do to me if I do screw up?”
“Order you to get back up there and do it again till you get it right, what do you think? Every single Sunday for the rest of your life.” He stumped off down the hall. Gryf chuckled and followed, half-closing the door behind him.
“Don’t you puke,” Tybont ordered, even as he adjusted the young man’s capuche and hood. “Don’t you dare puke, or I’ll turn you over my bloody knee.” He glanced in the small mirror and adjusted his vestments. Jed just collapsed in a chair and moaned. Dewi poked his head into the vestry, eyes wide.
“It’s full,” he reported in awe. “I mean, really full. There isn’t a seat left in the place!”
“And isn’t it wonderful?” Gryf strode in, his own vestments flowing about him even as he grinned widely and waved to the altar boys. He clapped Jed on the shoulder. “Keep your breakfast down there, boy bach. That’s an order, is it?”
“Full,” Jed moaned. “And my family isn’t even here to beef out the bleachers! Well, aside from Robin and the Mawrs, but still. Oh my sweet Jesus, what are You thinking?”
“I don’t know what He’s thinking, but I’m thinking that if you do a good job today, we’re going to have a decent-sized congregation again in no time,” Tref said as he entered. “What’s our policy on cameras this morning, Gryf?”
“Same as always. If we see a flash go off, they’ll see the toe of my sandal aimed up their asses. The boy bach might be the major draw today, but this is still a Holy Mass.” He glanced over his shoulder, then turned and hunkered down to take Jed’s hands.
“Breathe, little brother,” he said. “We know you’re frightened, but you have what it takes – namely our Lord and Savior at your back. And the world won’t end if you freeze, either.”
“He’s not going to freeze,” Tybont said firmly. He turned away from checking his vestments and too, came over, putting a rough arm around the broad shoulders. “He’s the best damned speaker I’ve seen in fifty five years as a priest, in either the secular or religious context, and that’s just technique.”
“Will you stop being so nice to me?” Jed wailed. “It weirds me out!”
“He’s always been nice to you,” Huw said. “Now he’s just going senile, so it shows. The Archbishop of Cardiff just got here, Father Gryf; were we actually expecting him?”
“The… What? Oh my God.” Jed buried his face in his hands. “Holy St. Jude, if ever there was an impossible situation, this is it. I can’t do this. Get me out of this, and I’ll give over all my inherited riches, any and all expressions of my active sexuality, and live a life sworn completely to His most perfect Will, I swear.”
“Forget it,” Tybont said. “He’s sitting in the front row, waiting for us to get a move on. St. Jude, that is.” He peered out. “Huh. I guess all the extra asses will save on polishing the pews this week at the very least, even if none of them do come out afterwards. That’s something.” Even as he spoke, the organ intoned the first deep and joyous notes of the prelude… Gryf waved everyone over.
“Our Lord be with you all,” he said. “As we celebrate this, His day, in His Name and for His Glory…”
“Aye-aye.” Gryf patted the tousled head the last of the gathered urchins. “And that concludes our lesson for the day. Back to your parents now, and remember, this is our Brother Jedediah’s first time up front and he’s likely a bit nervous, so no whining if he pukes on you.” He nodded to Jed as the children giggled and scattered, making his way back to the side bench where sat the other priests, friars, and the altar boys. Jed wiped his hands nervously on his habit. Tybont chewed his lip savagely. Dewi winked, and Huw gave him a discreet thumbs up. Opposite, seated at the organ, Llyr smiled reassuringly. Even as he did so, Jed got to his feet, wiped his hands again, then, chin lifted and shoulders back, strode swiftly down the aisle to the back of the church and flung the doors wide open. A brilliant rush of cold wind swept throughout, and a flash of bright winter sunlight; the rows of candles flickered and blew out, and there was quiet again as the doors shut, leaving only the abrupt, chilly memory… Shivering bodies and faces turned, shocked and startled, as Jed strode back up to the front, brown habit billowing around his bare, sandaled feet, mounted the pulpit and turned to face the congregation.
“A sudden gust of wind,” he said, his voice ringing out. “A flash of brilliant sunlight off of a distant cloud… The complacent flame gone in a breath – and suddenly, you’re awake. Awake, and waiting, sitting on the edge of your chairs… And listening.” He leaned forward, hands braced on the pulpit, face alight and intent. “Listening for the extraordinary. For something new: something to report back to whomever will hear. For a message, and perhaps… Perhaps…A chance to be the messenger. To be, just for a moment… Someone extraordinary yourselves.” He lifted his chin and tossed his bright shaggy hair back, flinging his arms wide. “Well, here it is. The extraordinary is here. Every moment of every day it is here, and has been since time began. Waiting, just as you are now, on the edge of its chair for each of us to wake up and look around, to listen, and to understand that in truth there is no such thing, and never has been any such thing, as anything ordinary born under the sun.”
Gryfydd Frost’s smile began to grow, warm and wide. Jedediah Silverman lowered his arms and looked around.
“Christmas is over,” he said. “Epiphany has come and gone. All there is now is to count the days of the season of Ordinary Time till season of Lent, and after that, Easter. Even as we try to process that though: as we deal with our post-seasonal letdown and the winter blues, our credit card bills and the dry, dirty salt that seems not to cake not only the streets, but our very souls this time of year… It’s hard to avoid the trap of embracing not only the lie of the ordinary, but of the rejection of the concept of the extraordinary at all.”
He paused for a moment, to collect himself, but just for a moment. No one moved.
“There once was a man,” Jed said in his clear deep voice. “A priest, living amongst other priests. And the priest and his fellows were so afraid of the unrelentingly beautiful mortal ‘distractions’ that surround us all every moment of our lives that they spent their days walking about staring at their shoes in order to avoid the sight and smell and sounds of those things that they thought would distract them from the appropriate worship of an immortal God. In the end, all it did to this particular priest was to put him through hell. Every moment he lived through, every breath he took, was an agony. Such was his agony that he could not even bring himself to face our Lord through the celebration of the Mass, for fear of disappointing Him in his weakness and his desire to rejoice in the things of the world which that Lord had made for him – for all of us – to marvel and wonder at. When finally he broke, and he did break, for he was not only a priest, but a poet, and as such, a predestined and hopeless cause there…” He grinned as a ripple of laughter ran through the church. “He completely went off his nut, to the point where he was not only writing the most gorgeous psalms of praise in various and approved literary forms, but inventing entire new literary forms, and words yet, in order to express that which he’d learned could never be repressed. This priest’s name was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he is now widely renowned as one of the greatest poets of the last, or indeed any, century.”
He leaned forward slightly, crossing his arms on the edge of the pulpit
“Eight hundred years ago,” he said, even as he looked about, meeting the eyes of congregant after congregant. “There lived another man – a man who believed that the best way to find and to approach God was to open your eyes and look around you. Every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every scrap of cloud, every grain of sand, he believed, was a vessel for the glory of God. He gave over a pile of money for the privilege of that belief, and a lucrative career, and a lot of his mates to boot, never mind gaining a reputation as more than a bit of a nutter amongst those who knew him, as well those who didn’t…” He smiled again, wryly, as the laugh rose again. “But there it was. The idea – the very idea –that the people of the earth would allow themselves to be imprisoned by their belief in the ordinary, their belief that they were ordinary, that God could, or would, create anything that wasn’t meant to stand out … offended him so much that he founded an entire religious order and way of life to accommodate his theory. That man’s name was Francis; he was born in a little town named Assisi, and… Well. We all know where that led, don’t we?”
Everyone listened, spellbound.
“Gerard Manley Hopkins,” Jed continued. “Knew in his soul that to accept the concept of the ordinary is to reject God. His community’s insistence that he blind and deafen himself to the details of the mortal world around him in order to facilitate his spiritual goals nearly destroyed him. He knew, he knew, as St. Francis did, that there is, in fact, no such thing as an ‘ordinary thing’, that there is no moment that can be properly filed as ‘ordinary time’, and that if God did, in fact, create mankind in His image, and the things of this world from the visions filling His most perfect Mind, that even the smallest things of the world must, perforce, be as extraordinary as He is Himself. Everything… Everyone… And that includes you, each and every one of you … Falls into that category.”
He unfolded his arms, straightening and looking around, his eyes calm and clear and blue as the summer sky.
“Wake up,” he said in his deep, resonant young voice. “Look around. Listen. Every moment granted us is a distinct and precious gift, and every person around you equally so. Every one of those moments that you spend slogging through the streets, staring at your shoes and cursing the salt, is a literal rejection of God. Every person you pass by that you fail to acknowlege, even in your own mind, as a brother or sister on this extraordinary journey through the extraordinary world granted us by our extraordinary Creator, is an opportunity for communion lost. There is not enough time for it all, to worship it all, as it so richly deserves… But you must try. We all must try, in thanks and gratitude, and in wonder, and yes, in joy.”
He reached in his pocket, and retrieved a small book.
“The world is charged,” he read. “With the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil…Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?” Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
He put the book back and reached for another.
“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” St. Francis of Assisi.”
He put the book back, tucked his hands in his sleeves and looked around.
“We come here to church,” Jedediah Silverman said. “To celebrate Christ, and the gifts that He granted us, and that He continues to grant us in reminder, through the repeated miracle of His offering of His very Body and Blood. The fact is though… Is that when we walk out that door and back to our daily lives, we don’t walk away from those miracles and whatever peace and sense of communion we may or may not hope to find here. We walk back into the gust of wind, into the sudden and brilliant burst of light – the familiar wind, the familiar burst of light: so familiar, in fact, that we rarely ever see them, past the point, for what they truly are – manifestations of the omnipresent Divine. We walk back to the extraordinary places, and things, and people, that truly, we never left. We carry those things everywhere with us, by His awesome grace and through His awesome generosity, as they are in us. And in the meantime, and around our feet, yes, are scattered the credit card bills and the caked pools of filthy salt, and the seasonal dark shadows that seem to overwhelm everything, particularly our moods, in this supposedly ordinary season… And at times, they seem often to have the ability to drag us down to the level of the defeatist lie. But even as we struggle, when you are struggling… Remember this.” He straightened his shoulders again and stood very tall. “Our shoes… or sandals, as the case may be… really aren’t as interesting as all that. They’re simply meant to carry us as we walk, preach, and rejoice in the message of the given, and the gifted, moment. To carry us even as our Lord carries us, and as He will continue to do so, come what may, past all time and eternity. Amen.”
He bowed his head, even as he stepped quietly down from the pulpit. Gryf reached out to touch his hand, even as he made his way back up. Even as the young man seated himself, suddenly breathless and dry-mouthed, heart racing in the silence, Huw grabbed his hand and squeezed hard, even as Dewi seized the other in both of his.
“Amazing,” he whispered fiercely. “Bloody amazing, Jedediah!”
Across the sacristy, at the organ, Llyr sat with his head bent, eyes closed. His face looked extraordinarily tranquil. Samuel sat behind him in the designated canine side pew, his own eyes far away as he scratched random ears in the doggy pile at his feet. Jed licked his lips and glanced nervously at Tybont. The old man’s face was expressionless, but he caught the look and nodded once, brusquely.
“Diolch yn fawr, Brother Jedediah,” Gryf Frost said quietly. “Brother Llyr, if you would? The third hymn can be found on page one forty six of the New Catholic Hymnal, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Please rise as you are able, and join us in song…”
And a song to go with it!