I am on a plane. I have done some of my best writing on planes: no one knows me or speaks to me, the roar of the engine provides a continuo that swallows the cries of fretful babies, the high-pitched yips of little dogs -- incredibly, there are two little dogs on this flight. I should have brought my Great Dane, a lady muttered as we waited to board.
I travel so seldom now, in comparison with my former life. I used to make about thirty trips a year. In those days my suitcase was never unpacked; it stood at the ready in a corner of the bedroom, the clear plastic bag inside it permanently stocked with duplicates of all my beauty potions. Those were my itinerant evangelist days: I would parachute into some faraway town, meet the church folks there and spend an entire day talking with them about who God might be, what God might be doing, what the life that contains this life might be like. In no time at all, I would come to love them-- not with the steady love that comes of years and years spent together, but with that breathtaking simpatico, that flush of sudden understanding that can join near-strangers in an unexpected intimacy that is one of life's greatest delights. Then I would get back on the plane and leave.
I imagined myself living in every place I visited. I picked out houses and churches, favorite restaurants and shops. I imagined the dependable ways in which love would grow if we settled down together, those good people and I, if decades were to pass in one another's company. I would become an old timer, eventually -- never a native, but an old timer, a custodian with others of corporate memory. Most of them I never saw again, but many I have: I've made repeat visits, or they have turned up in New York, or we've found ourselves in the same cathedral or at the same conference. The Internet keeps us in touch easily, and then one day there again are again, in the flesh. Small world, they will say. Yes, I say, and smaller church.
I cannot imagine not being part of this far-flung community of the faithful. The many homecomings I have enjoyed are now so integral to who I am that I cannot picture myself unconnected with the people and places I have embraced and which have embraced me. The church everywhere, its feasts and fasts, its music, sometimes glorious and sometimes a little south of that. The beauties of its sanctuaries, the steady presence of its crisply ironed altar linens, the gleam of its polished silver, the hush of a roomful of people in silent prayer together, even its annoying strictures and gossipy ways -- I love it all. I will die in its arms.
At present, I live in the embrace of one congregation, knowing the deeper love familiarity brings. Old sayings aren't always true: familiarity doesn't breed contempt. Not at all. It deepens love. A thousand tentacles of love join heart after heart after heart in a matrix too dense ever to untangle, which is why a retired rector needs to make himself or herself scarce after leaving -- it would be impossible not to turn to each other. You know each other too well.
All of this I said to my congregation on Sunday. My borrowed congregation -- they are not really mine. I am there only for a season, another year or so. Together we will become so strong and wonderful that the happy priest who comes to serve with them at last will be walking into a congregation ready to receive and embrace that priest once more -- as they have done for 150 years.
Clergy come and go. You're either saying hello or good-bye in this business, always. Maybe that's true of everyone, eventually, but it is so regularly true of us.