Newness of Life: How I Gave Up the Waders and Learned to Love the Water

Easter morning. The sanctuary is full. The trumpet fanfare happens right on cue and the lilies – in addition to making my nose itch – are beautiful. Streamers hang from the ceiling and flowers have taken the place of the black sash on the cross. The congregation is preparing for communion as the newly baptized slip back into their seats, self-consciously aware of their wet hair.

I am standing in the hallway behind the sanctuary, fully clothed and completely wet. The waders have failed me again.

I should explain, especially for you sprinklers and baptizers of infants. In my tradition, we practice believer’s baptism by full immersion, which means, in lay terms, that we dunk older kids and adults all the way under the water. Often, this happens in the middle of Sunday worship when the presiding minister needs to conduct the baptism and then continue the rest of the service.

So, somewhere along the way, we started wearing waders. Picture giant rubber fishing boots, with suspenders, and a drawstring at the chest. They look every bit as ridiculous as they sound. But once you put the white robe over top and step into the baptistery, the congregation can’t tell what you’re wearing. In theory, they enable one to quickly move from leading worship, to the baptistery, and back again, without the hassle of getting wet and changing clothes.

Not so for me.

The waders at my church, which have been hanging in the back closet since, oh, 1962, are several sizes too big for me, built for a much taller and bigger person – a man, no doubt.  My stocking feet slide around in the rubber boots as I trudge up the steps to the baptistery. An older male pastor tells me he usually just steps into his, leaving his shoes on and everything; these waders were definitely not made for women’s heels.

(The waders are only one of the tools of the trade through which I feel the weight of years of male pastors bearing down on me. Another big one is my lapel mike: I finally started wearing my robe at our informal service because there was nowhere to clip the battery pack when I wore a dress, and I refused to rig it up with duct tape, reality-TV style.)

So the waders don’t work for me. The water is too deep, or the drawstring isn’t tight enough, or they just plain don’t fit. When I lean over with the young woman being baptized, my arm braced on her back to help her back up, the water rushes right over those suspenders and down into the toes of those too-big boots, soaking my top, my skirt, and well, everything else.

And now I need to be back in the sanctuary in a matter of minutes to sing the closing hymn and offer the benediction. I strip off my damp pantyhose and put my robe back on, over my wet clothes. When I sit down, I can feel the dampness of my skirt soaking through the lining and into the outer fabric my robe. I think a few words that are not particularly appropriate for a clergy person on Easter morning.

“Can you tell I’m all wet?” I whisper to our worship team leader, who has been helping mop up drips on the floor. She stands behind me and tilts her head. I walk a few steps and turn, as if I’m modeling a new dress. “No, I think it’s okay,” she says, and I’m pretty sure she’s lying. “Can you just hold your hymnal behind you?”

I can’t quite see how that will be less conspicuous than a damp spot on the back of my robe, but I nod, because it’s time to go. I make it through the last hymn and muster up some enthusiasm for a few last alleluias, praying that the choir, standing behind me, is thinking more about the resurrection than my derriere.

As I process out in front of one of our (male) elders, and then stand strategically with my back to the wall and greet the Easter crowd, I decide, for good, that I’m done with the waders.

Baptism is ineffable, mysterious. A sacrament, a means of grace, a holy moment, an entry into the body of Christ, the family of God. It’s hard to describe what happens there, so it’s no surprise that when I talk to kids about baptism, they are mostly interested in the water. It’s symbolic, I tell them, it represents dying and rising with Christ. Yes, they say, but will the water be cold? They want to know how the water gets in there (a faithful deacon), and how deep it will be (just deep enough) and whether they’ll have time to blow dry their hair afterwards (no).

We need water to live, to drink, cook, clean. The waters of baptism remind us of the first breath of creation, when the wind from God swept over the face of the deep. The water reminds us of John standing in the Jordan, of Jesus rising from the waters with the dove descending overhead.

Of course, the over-sized bathtub at the front of our sanctuary is a far cry from the waters of the Jordan River. Some traditions make a point of going outside, to a lake, a river, the ocean, to do their dunking. I happen to like standing in the water in the middle of the congregation, in that space where the community gathers for worship and is sent out to work in the world, with the church family looking on and offering up their love and prayers.

Most people only step into those waters once in a lifetime. It occurs to me, in my wet clothes on Easter morning, that it is a gift, an honor, to accompany people in that moment. In a way, the waders set up a barrier between me and the water, implying that I can slip in and out, unaffected by this holy moment, unmoved by the Spirit that hovers over those waters, untouched by the challenge of the congregation to the newly baptized: Walk in the newness of life. When they come up out of the water, a little bit awed and just slightly out of breath, maybe I ought to be breathless, too. Maybe I ought to be wet.

A few weeks after Easter, I step into the baptistery again, barefoot this time, with a change of clothes waiting for me in the hall. I reach out to take the hand of a fourth-grader who has decided that she’s ready to enter, fully and completely, the body of Christ. She steps down, and the water embraces both of us. It is pure grace.




Looking Over My Shoulder


When I was in seminary, and ordination loomed ahead, we, the young soon-to-be-clergy women, often discussed what to wear underneath our cassocks. I guess we were scared. I guess we saw our whole future ahead of us as very respectable members of society, and we were panicking. In any case, we discussed underwear. Black lace? Our even more daring, something red? After all, ordination to the priesthood has a lot to do with the Spirit…

The day came. I can’t remember what I wore underneath all that black. Probably something comfortable. Somehow it didn’t matter once I
was there. That day was full of grace, full of friendship and joy.

The questions came afterward. Or rather, my need to be young, my need to be me came afterward. Read more

When I Grow Up

What did you want to be when you grow up?

I don’t know about you all, but I was certain that I was going to be an agricultural veterinarian. I was going to specialize in Equine Care, and spend my days travelling to horse farms and stables caring for the these large, stately animals and the people who loved them.

But somewhere along the way, church caught me. It hooked me by the mind and the heart, and I found myself incapable of surrender. Church felt important—it oriented me outside of myself and towards justice, righteousness, and making the world a better place. My previous dreams simply couldn’t compete with the larger, big-picture worldview of God in Christ. Suddenly I was planning my future ministry, dreaming of ordination and robes and preaching and teaching, wondering if getting arrested is the sort of thing that a really committed pastor would do for the cause of justice, thinking about environmental ethics and the poor and multicultural church, and fantasizing about a Godly Play Classroom of my own.

Fast forward a few years, and these days I am not so sure. Sometimes I cannot imagine doing anything other than what I am doing in this very moment, serving a small suburban church near a big city. When we serve our neighbors, when I preach the Gospel, when I catch the neighborhood kids singing church songs at the playground and playing “baptism” with their dolls, I am caught again.

But other days, the days filled with long meetings, marked by congregational conflict and uncertainty, the days when we are fighting over carpet colors or worried that we don’t have enough money to feed the poor and help the helpless, the days when my church sucks the life out of me with endless meetings and neediness, … Those days I find myself returning to the same question: what on earth I was thinking?

I know I am not alone. Read more

All of the Fun, None of the Work?

“All of the fun, none of the work.”

It’s the phrase I frequently hear from clergy when I tell them that I’m an Associate Rector. It’s the “truth-in-jest” description of associate clergy. You don’t have the highest level of responsibility and the buck doesn’t stop with you, so you don’t have to deal with the majority of the “work” or “business” of the church: personnel, conflict, roof repairs, fund raising, etc. I used to make this joke myself and laugh along with it, as if to say, “I know how good I have it – my job is the easy one!” I played along with the jab that being an associate pastor is like riding a bike with training wheels, a learning position where one prepares oneself to be able to handle the real responsibility of the “grown-up world” of ministry.

But you know what? This joke represents a highly problematic and diseased vision of church leadership, and I both resent and reject it. The claim that being an associate is “all of the fun, none of the work,” implies that a senior clergyperson does all of the work (and, perhaps, has none of the fun). It is “work” that one is supposed to aspire to do as one grows into positions of greater responsibility and scope  – and this “work” is generally non-pastoral. That is to say, it has little to do with the spiritual formation, nurture, and empowerment of the flock of Christians in one’s care. It’s all the stuff you “didn’t learn in seminary”- hiring and firing personnel, budgetary decisions, fund raising, reviewing proposals for roof repairs, approving the layout of the annual giving brochure. In contrast, associate clergy tend to have responsibilities that lean toward pastoral care, worship, outreach, advocacy, and Christian education – in other words, areas clergy are trained for in seminary. The unfortunate and unspoken belief this reveals begs a disturbing question: Does that mean that, deep down, churches (and the clergy who lead them) don’t view pastoral work as real work?

Many would immediately argue that “all of the fun, none of the work” simply means that associate clergy don’t bear the burden of the responsibility that falls on senior clergy, and this is mostly due to the hierarchical nature of the senior/associate clergy relationship. Indeed, many associate clergy would report that the majority of weddings, funerals, baptisms, and preaching falls on the senior clergy. Yet most associate clergy would probably also report being responsible for many areas that senior clergy don’t touch at all: youth ministry, Christian education, family ministry, outreach and advocacy.

This brings to light two major problems:

1)  Education, youth, advocacy, outreach, and pastoral care are often treated as too unimportant for the senior clergyperson to handle. Whenever “all of the fun, none of the work” means ministry to youth, families, the sick and homebound, the bereft, and those on the margins, it speaks volumes about how little the church values those people.

2) It falsely links specific skill sets with levels of importance in church leadership and administration. Overseeing Sunday School and Christian Education? The associate clergy, or a layperson with some sort of seminary or religious training, can do that. Clerical matters, like sacramental and pastoral ministry (weddings, funerals, baptisms, hospital visits, etc.)? Associates can do some of that. But when it comes to the real heavy lifting? Balancing budgets, hiring personnel, and running the business – well, that’s for the grown-ups. That’s for the senior clergy. Read more

A Prayer for the End of Nursing

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

After Mother and Child, lithograph by Pablo Picasso (1905); charcoal drawing by Austin Shelley (1999)

O Lord, you have searched me
and known me.

You knew the moment when that sweet baby skin
first touched my chest
when that sweet little mouth
gaped like a fish
when that shocking moment of connection was made:
Mother. Child. One.
You knew.

You knew the struggles, and the pain.
The mostly sleepless nights
The one- (two-) (three-) (three-thirty-) a.m. wake-up calls.
The disconcerting, disorientating, barely-functioning
And still
the sweet baby skin and the gaping little mouth
the instant peace and the murmuring suckling.
You knew.

Read more

Permission to Hear the Call

7986847327_c4d79a6ec5_kWhen I was applying to Princeton Theological Seminary, one of the questions on the application asked the name of the church that was supporting me. I remember writing down the name of my Roman Catholic Church and adding, in small letters, “This is the church where I attend. They do not support me for ordination.” I was applying to Princeton because that was where my favorite college professor attended. He was the person who kindled my passion for Biblical studies. I decided that if this school would produce someone like him, it must be a pretty good place. He wrote me a recommendation, as did another college religion professor, my political science advisor, and the Lutheran campus minister. They were all men, and all but one of them were pastors. I had never known a female pastor and would not get to know one until my first year at seminary.

All of these male pastors, two of whom were my professors, were inspirations to me. I was mesmerized by their intelligence and moved by their compassion. They carefully encouraged me without ever recommending that I leave the Roman Catholic Church. I do not recall them ever mentioning seminary to me, and if they had, I certainly would not have taken them seriously. I was Roman Catholic. Not only that, I was a proud Roman Catholic. This is not to say that I approved of all the things that the Roman Catholic Church stood for, but I still believed that was where I belonged.

Read more

Generation to Generation

MomsPicI’ve always been a birth geek. I loved the experience of being pregnant with my son. His birth (at home, without drugs; with the baby’s father, two midwives, and my mother present) was the most intense and painful experience of my life; I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even before becoming a mother myself, I sought out birth stories: fictional and nonfictional, in books, magazines, online and in person. I gravitated toward raw, no-holds-barred narratives of women experiencing this unique and profound transformation into mothers. (I am, of course, aware that there are other ways to become a mother besides giving birth!) “Natural” or medicated, vaginal or surgical, long or short, fulfilling or traumatic – I read and absorbed them all, marveling at the variety of women’s experiences and emotions.

A few years ago, I began to feel that perhaps I was called to do something about this preoccupation. Amid some personal and vocational turmoil elsewhere in my life, I began to feel the push to seek out training as a birth doula – a professional pregnancy, labor and birth support person. (Amusingly, “doula,” the Greek word for “female slave” or “female servant” is found a number of times in the New Testament.)

I hesitantly mentioned the idea to a few female clergy colleagues in my diocese, and the women with whom I shared this inchoate desire unanimously encouraged me to go for it. Looking back, I see the work of the Holy Spirit in those conversations, along with a powerful example of sisterhood and female spirituality, even though several of the colleagues had not themselves borne children.

I suspect that even as becoming a mother through childbirth first sparked my interest in doing birth work myself, my experience of attending to the movement of the Spirit in vocational discernment enabled me to hear and follow the Spirit’s call to this other path when it came.

I have now gone through training as a doula with DONA International and I have attended one birth. I was profoundly humbled by the laboring mother’s strength, by the love between her and her partner and their child, and by the sheer incredible process of birth. In that labor and delivery room, I felt as powerful a sense of calling, of being in the right place doing the right work at the right time, as I felt the first time I celebrated the Eucharist as a priest. Building a doula practice takes time. It is certainly not as drawn-out and stressful as the pastoral search process, but it does involve a lot of work. I have become part of an emerging statewide doula network, and I am hoping soon to have attended enough births to be formally certified.

Doulas are not medical professionals; we do not diagnose, treat, prescribe, or administer any kind of medical care. Our job is to provide physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother, her partner, and anyone else present for her in the birth process. In any given birth, a doula might be found rubbing the laboring woman’s shoulders, fetching her water, vocalizing with her, repeating phrases to center and encourage her, discussing the possible implication of decisions about her care, reminding her partner to eat a sandwich, keeping her mother out of the labor room, or taking pictures on her phone. It might turn out, though, that the best way the doula can support the laboring couple is to sit silently in the corner of the room, simply bearing witness and holding the space.

Doula work is most profoundly a ministry of presence, and it has taught me much about the nature of both ministry and presence. It is well documented that simply having the continuous presence of a trained support person at a birth, even if she doesn’t “do” anything in particular, improves outcomes measurably, and increases women’s satisfaction with their birth experiences.

Couples choose doulas for all kinds of reasons, and though the relationship is shorter and more focused than that of pastor and parishioner, a good fit is just as important. I hope that one thing my prospective clients understand from our conversations is that I am simply in awe of birth and honored to be part of their experience of that sacred moment, however they understand it.

Talking to expectant moms before they give birth, attending and supporting them in the physical and emotional crucible of labor, and reflecting together on the experience afterward, is deeply satisfying work for me. It calls on many of the same skills as crisis pastoral care, but allows me to walk more closely with expectant couples through the huge transition into parenthood than most pastors are generally able to do. Since I was already used to many elements of the work – being in hospitals, being part of pivotal moments in people’s lives, and being on call 24/7, not to mention the absolute necessity of boundaries and self-care – those aspects of doula work have not come as the shock they do to some new doulas.

Doula work as a formal profession is only about a generation old, and in many ways it is finally coming of age. One way in which the doula ethos is being extended into other areas of life is in the new concept of “death doulas.” (It was recently covered in the New York Times, so it must be true…) Death doulas work in hospitals or through hospices, being present at the end of life, as birth doulas are present at the beginning. Having attended births as a doula and deaths as a pastor, I can bear witness that the same energy – and it is an astonishingly powerful one – is present in both a room where someone is dying and a room where someone is being born.

Each one of us must pass these two thresholds, birth and death. As mothers, we usher the newborn into the world; as pastors, we are privileged to be present and bear witness as souls and bodies are born into larger life. For me, as a doula, to bring these three vocations together and have the honor of being present for birth and for death, is a great and unexpected gift.

The Jesus Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Young Clergy Woman

Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer. –Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Opening Credits

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

The author’s desk, with companions Buffy and Jesus

At first glance, the life of a the Slayer is pretty different from the life of a young clergy woman. The Slayer is in high school, for one thing, while we have graduate degrees. She fights vampires and demons, we lead Bible studies, write sermons, visit shut-ins and attend committee meetings. And while the cross is central to Buffy’s life and to ours, the cross she wears on a silver chain around her neck serves purely as a talisman; it has nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with its function as a weapon against vampires and their ilk.

There’s something about Buffy and her –verse, though, that rings true to this calling as a young clergy woman. There’s some reason (beyond simple escapism) that I keep coming back to this story and these characters. When I feel helpless and ineffectual, overwhelmed and heartbroken by the needs I can’t meet and the problems I can’t solve, I find strength and comfort in Buffy. When I am frustrated and enervated by lengthy meetings that have accomplished nothing in particular, when I am filled with despair that the institution through which I intend to serve God is becoming increasingly irrelevant and out of touch, I find inspiration in Buffy. When I feel the loneliness of holding in confidence the heavy burdens others have shared with me, when I can speak to no one of the holy moments that have left me teary and trembling, I find companionship in Buffy.

Buffy taught me about what it means to have a calling. In the opening episodes of the series, we see Buffy resisting her call. The television series begins with Buffy relocating to a new town and starting a new school, hoping to turn over a new leaf and escape the supernatural happenings that plagued her previous life. As soon as she enters the school library, she is greeted with a dusty volume of demon lore and a new Watcher (mentor) eager to hone her evil-fighting skills. Like the reluctant prophet Jonah, Buffy longs to escape an inescapable call. Her Slayer identity can’t be escaped; she cannot remove it, flee from it, or ignore it. Like many young clergy women, she wishes she could choose an easier and more normal life. Like many of us, she finds that her calling has chosen her, but that she can choose how best to live into that calling.

As Buffy embraces her identity as the Slayer, we see that a calling by itself is powerful, but not always sufficient. As the Slayer, Buffy has natural gifts and abilities, but she becomes more capable as she hones her skills through study, training, practice, and mentorship. So it is with a calling to ministry: we hear the call, we find in ourselves the natural gifts that will help us to serve the church, but that isn’t the end. We have to steward those gifts carefully, building them up through ongoing education and collegial relationships, nurturing them through prayer and self-reflection.

As Buffy grows into her calling, it changes her in ways we young clergy women might recognize. We see how saving the world every week builds her confidence. We see how constantly confronting evil, death, and pain burdens her with more than her share of sorrow. We see her growing hubris as she discovers the power and the responsibility of her calling as “one girl in all the world” who can do what she can do.

But she can’t do it alone, despite what she might sometimes think. For all its rhetoric about “only one Slayer,” it is telling that Buffy is an ensemble show. Buffy’s calling is unique, certainly, but she needs all kinds of support in her work as the Slayer. She turns to her friends and mentors for research and logistical support, for encouragement and advice, for comfort and for laughter, and to check her ego. Her calling is unique, but that doesn’t mean she’s called to be a “lone wolf.” She—like of all of us—needs a community in order to do her work well and faithfully.

I first encountered Buffy as I was discerning my call to ministry and preparing to apply to seminary. I count it as God’s grace that this story found me at that moment, offering images of another young woman finding her way on an unusual path. As Buffy resisted and accepted her call, grew into her role, learned to be both Slayer and daughter, sister, friend, she modeled for me how I might start to live into the call I felt in my own life. She, too, walked a path that the world thought was not appropriate for a young woman, and she walked it for some of the reasons that I did, and with some of the same wonder and trepidation. We have our differences, of course: Buffy’s job is to save the world; I believe that the world has been saved, and not by me. But ever since those early days of discernment, Buffy has been one of my companions on this sometimes-lonely road. This story has continued to nourish me, to teach me about vocation, about sin and evil, about repentance and reconciliation, about grief, and so much more.

The first time I watched the series ending, I was less than impressed. [SPOILER-ISH WARNING] In that final episode, Buffy finds a way to share her power, to stop being “one girl in all the world,” and to instead become one Slayer among a great multitude of Slayers. I was initially disappointed at Buffy’s loss of uniqueness. Her calling seemed somehow diminished because it was no longer hers alone. But as I’ve grown into my vocation, refining my own understanding of what it means to be an ordained minister, my perspective has shifted. Now, when I watch that last episode, I see echoes of the verse that has become my own mission statement as a pastor:

“Equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” -Ephesians 4:12-13

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holiday Drama Edition

Dear Askie,

9698410745_3d45d2389f_zMy daughter is a Pastor and I am so upset that she won’t come home for Christmas. We had wonderful family Christmases but now she’s always missing. She takes off at other times so why can’t she take off for one Christmas! She cares more about her congregation than her family! She knows we can’t afford to fly there so why can’t she come home? I’m so upset that we have to spend another Christmas without her. Daughter, I need you to come home! How can we convince her that we love her and we want to spend Christmas Day with her home?

Sad unhappy Christmas mother


Dear Sad Mom,

Oh, I get it. I really do. You didn’t sign up for this strange and wonderful life your daughter has chosen. You have not made any vows to the church. We young clergy women know that it isn’t always fair how our pastoral vocations impact our loved ones, from missing holidays with our extended families to spending too many evenings away from our kids to seldom being able to go away for the weekend with our spouses. Sharing your daughter with her congregation is really hard… and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like sharing. It feels like her congregation gets first dibs on her time and attention, and you get the meager leftovers. Big hugs for you.

If it’s any consolation, you are not the only sad mom out there… and your daughter is probably kind of bummed, as well. Clergy of all ages, genders, and religions sometimes lament the ways our callings change our holiday rituals. It is an indescribable blessing to lead a congregation through a Christmas Eve service, to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, to break bread and light candles, to proclaim that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Yet many of us feel some loss, too. We regret that we can’t make it home to far-away family, that our children are hanging up stockings without us, that helping others celebrate this holy night often means rushing around attending to logistics when we’d rather be drinking in the stories and songs we love most.

Getting down to brass tacks, though, sad mom, the answer is: no, your daughter can’t come home for Christmas. It’s just the nature of our work… Broadway stars have to work Friday and Saturday nights, tax preparers have to work long hours in March and April, pyrotechnicians have to work on Independence Day, and pastors have to work on Christmas and Easter. If you’re a church-goer yourself, try thinking about it from that perspective – what would it be like for you if your pastor was away for some of the most important services of the year? There are some pastors who might be able to get home for Christmas (maybe by leaving right after their last service and traveling through the night… not exactly a recipe for a holly-jolly day!), but it sounds like your daughter isn’t so fortunate as to be able to make it work.

So what’s a sad Christmas mom to do?

I’ve got good news for you, Christmas mom: you get to create some new traditions. Talk with your daughter (and maybe other family members) and come up with a plan that will help you all celebrate the holidays together in a way that makes sense for your particular lives. Maybe you can choose another day to be your family’s holiday celebration… Christmastide has twelve days, you know! Maybe your daughter could visit for New Year’s, or maybe you’d like to hold an annual family “Christmas in July.” Maybe you could start a tradition of Skyping together on Christmas morning. Maybe you could – at least once – visit your daughter for Christmas. Attending her church for Christmas services might be moving for all of you. (Please don’t expect her to prepare an elaborate meal on top of everything else, though. Order in, or follow Askie’s lead and make some Christmas fajitas! The red and green peppers are very festive.)

It’s sad to say goodbye to our old Christmas traditions, but this is a great opportunity for you to re-think your routines. How do you want to spend Christmas? Visiting with other family members or friends? Seeing a movie? Volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? There are lots of options, so find a way of celebrating that works well for your family.

Will your daughter ever be home for Christmas again? She might be! Not this year, but there might be a Christmas when she is on sabbatical or maternity leave. There might be a Christmas when she is between calls. She might transition to a different kind of ministry that isn’t so demanding around the holidays. She might be called to a church that’s closer to home. Or maybe not.

My hope for you, Christmas mom, is that you will find a tradition that brings you closer to your family and to God. My hope is that you find a way to celebrate both the birth of Christ and your daughter’s calling to Christ’s church, with all the joy and difficulty that entails. And most of all, Christmas mom, I hope you have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

Holiday blessings,


How Dorothy L. Sayers Made Me an Anglican

Dorothy L. Sayers“So long as the Church continues to teach the [humanity] of God and to celebrate the sacraments of the Eucharist and of marriage, no living man should dare to say that matter and the body are not sacred to her. She must insist strongly that the whole material universe is an expression and incarnation of the creative energy of God.”

Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?”

Although I am an American, this month, I passed my 10-year mark living in Canada. Certainly, much has happened in my life in a decade. (Producing a tiny human being for one!) But the biggest shock in that time was stepping off the path toward an academic career and discovering a vocation in the church. As I ponder that transition, I realize it would not be a stretch to say that I might not be a priest today—or even an Anglican—if I had never encountered the work of Dorothy L. Sayers. Ok, that’s probably not fair. I am quite confident the Holy Spirit would have found some other way to get through my thick skull. Yet Sayers’ reflections on the creative mind of God and the drama inherent to the Christian story salvaged my faith at a particularly vulnerable time in my life.

These days, if anyone is familiar with the work of Dorothy Sayers at all, they know her through the adventures of her aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. I have never been much of a murder mystery fan, but I am enough of an academic nerd to appreciate a series in which the protagonist finally convinces the love of his life to marry him by proposing to her in Latin, thereby signaling their intellectual equality. Not bad for the 1940s! But Sayers was far more than a mystery writer. She was among the first women to graduate from Oxford (in 1915), as well as a close associate of the famous Inklings literary group. Being barred from academic pursuits, Sayers earned her keep writing copy for an advertisement firm for several years—a forerunner of Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen. This afforded her a keener eye for cultural commentary than her male colleagues, like C.S. Lewis.

At the time when I first encountered her work, I was entering the second year of my PhD program, and honestly, I was feeling a bit burned out. I was also ripe for spiritual renewal, after moving away from the Baptist  faith tradition of my childhood, which had never been the right place for me. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up a copy of Sayers’ essays compiled under the title Letters to a Diminished Church.

Sayers spoke to me in a way no Christian writer had before. Yes, she is unapologetic in her defense of Christian doctrine, but not out of reactionary “defensiveness.” As she often says, “the dogma is the drama”—the “terrifying drama of which God is both victim and hero.” Her essays introduced me to the passion and the joy of the Christian story. Through her words, I met a God who is first and foremost a creator, and specifically, the creator that came and inhabited his own creation. I encountered a valuing of God’s material world that made me finally able to embrace the activity of God in the church’s sacramental life. Not to mention, the woman is just able to have fun with her faith. How can you not love someone who titles a collection of essays The Whimsical Christian?

It was particularly in Sayers’ reflections on the sacraments that I found what I can only describe as the missing link in my spiritual journey up to that point. I had never resonated with an expression of Christianity that seem so resistant to any physical elements of faith. When I read her words about the sacraments (quoted at the top), it was as if a light went on in my head. Of course God can work through material elements like bread, wine, and water! Of course our bodies are as redeemable as our souls! Our belief in the Incarnation must have ramifications for how we value all of creation. Not long after, I found myself sitting in the rector’s office discussing not just confirmation, but also ordination.

In the near decade that has passed since then, Sayers has been a faithful guide on my spiritual journey. I return to her when I need to be reminded of the joy I take in my faith. The more I learn of Sayers’ life, the more I find her an inspiring Christian witness. I appreciate her struggle to be taken seriously as a scholar. She had a son out of wedlock in her youth, whom she kept hidden from even her closest family, until she adopted him later in life. Sayers remains an example of humility and strength that encapsulates the Christian life at its best.

We might be a bit behind the ideal season for summer reading. But if you find a moment, pick up a copy of Gaudy Night (the finest of the Peter Wimsey mysteries), Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or her exploration of the creative activity of the Trinity in The Mind of the Maker. Dorothy L. Sayers may be an obscure spiritual foremother, but she is one well worth getting to know.