Confessions of a Fake Priest
“There is a certain glibness – a certain tongue-in-cheekness- about the way I use the word “fake” with regard to my priesthood. And I intend it that way. Not as a joke. Not as a throwaway line. And not as a clever repartee designed to sidestep my own accountability . . . but it’s the word I choose, and I have not been able to find one better to describe this terrible and shocking notion that continues to hold me in its grip, that I have no business here.”
Such candor is the hallmark of Confessions of a Fake Priest, the story of Caroline Fairless’s unlikely path to ordination, her moments of disillusion and despair, and, ultimately, her rebirth into a new understanding of priesthood. In this book you will share a journey that begins with an ending, and ends with a beginning, a journey that is never over. It is a journey with a companion who convinces you that it’s okay to doubt, okay to be afraid, okay to take great risks to find answers. This memoir serves as a tapestry, weaving together the strands of reflection and experience in a tale of a rich and complex search for authenticity.
(From the Preface) I call myself a fake priest. I know now, because a friend explained it for me, that there’s a real name for what I’ve got. It’s called the “Imposter Syndrome.” You’re not capable of doing what you’re doing. Not old enough, not grown-up enough, not gifted enough, and certainly not called. The Imposter Syndrome.
Years later, I am utterly convinced that this stage of growth is critical to the discovery of our own inner knowing, our own inner authority, however we name it. The Center for Courage and Renewal, a non-profit grounded in the teachings and writings of Parker Palmer, names it our inner teacher. Truthfully, the writing of this book didn’t propel me into anything absolute, but I consider it an invaluable and essential step in the process. I still carry the seeds of imposter, and I am grateful for them. I believe they encourage me in the direction of honesty.
1999 Times of Plenty
I have a talent I haven’t yet shared with you. I can tell from the state of my filing cabinets – gray ones seem to work the best – the health and vigor of my spirit, and it’s just the opposite of what you might expect. You’d think that a bulging file cabinet, [papers spilling out over the tops of drawers, files so think and crammed you couldn’t possibly add another sheet of paper would be the sign of health and life and vitality. Not so.
When my filing cabinets are fat with drawers that don’t quite shut for all the papers stuffed inside, I know that my spirit is anxious. When it’s a skinny scrawny thing, I know that I am a wealthy woman.
Most of the writers I know keep “idea” filed. Some are thematic; others contain bits of dialogue, imagined or overheard, clever repartee, snatches of dreams.
Most preachers I know do the same thing.
I keep files like that. At times, they are marvelously think and rich with possibility.
But the reason my files are so hefty in those times is this: I never spend anything. I only collect. And my internal chatter will sound like this:
“Oh, that’s a good conversational exchange that would work here.”
“But if I use it now, then I won’t be able to use it again.”
Or even more revealing, “If I use it now, I’ll use it up,” when clearly the thing I am afraid of using up is myself: my imagination, my heart, my mind.
So I become, at times, a writer who can’t write, a preacher who can’t preach, a prophet who can’t prophesy, for fear of using myself up.
My Holy Family Church filing cabinets grew fat. Several years passed before I even noticed.
Hoarding is a creeping sickness. And in the case of my files, it masks itself as something else. My Holy Family files grew fat because I had forgotten to spend.
Did you ever read the story of Bartholomew and his hats? Bartholomew was probably seven, or thereabouts, when the queen came to visit his little village, and he joined his family and the rest of the villagers to line the street in a gesture of welcome for their beloved monarch.
The excitement intensified. The clatter of wheels of the queen’s carriage could be heard on the cobblestones long before she rounded the corner into the village square. Closer and closer. And there she was.
The women and girls of the village curtsied; the men and boys removed their hats and bowed. Including Bartholomew. But when Bartholomew removed his hat with what he hoped was an appropriate flourish, another hat appeared in its place.
Bartholomew removed that one as well, and another appeared.
And another. And another.
I don’t remember if Bartholomew ever managed to remove the last of his hats. I imagine he did. Stories of that kind usually have happy endings. But that’s not the part of this story that I carry with me.
I carry – and God knows I carry it falteringly and inconsistently and altogether imperfectly – a fragile spirit of generosity. The more you give away, the more can and does come back.
The children of Holy Family Church have taught me this: they have expressed this to me not only in their overwhelming capacity to love, but also in their artwork.
For example, a “Before and After” diptych, drawn by a four-year-old, features two people approaching each other, and one heart, hovering over their heads, growing bigger. The caption reads, “The more you give, the bigger your heart gets.” For me, it’s been a learning thing, not my natural bent. The children have taught me.
Like Bartholomew and his hats, if I make use of an exchange or an idea, another appears in its place. Even several others. There is no shortage of good ideas, not anywhere.
But as is often the case with things learned in times of wealth, they are usually the first to go, when times become lean.
Now I find myself in a period of waiting. And here’s what I know about waiting. Everything is up for renegotiation. What’s true in a time of plenty, becomes suspect in the dry times. Extravagant is one of the first words to exit my vocabulary. Generosity is another. Trust. Out! Out!
And the words to replace them are the old familiars: scarcity, fear, withdrawal, stock up. My svelte gray filing cabinets are getting fatter. Day by day they are taking up more space.
I fly in the face of everything I know.
Except this one thing, of course. When I hoard and collect my ideas and clever bits of wisdom, I become frightened and anxious.
And still, I do it.
I cling hard, and with such a tight grip. I pray to relinquish my hold.