Tentmakers in the 21st Century
by The Reverend Canon John W. Kilgore, M.D.
First published in the April 3, 2016 edition of The Living Church (http://www.livingchurch.org/). Thank you to the The Living Church for giving the Trinity Times permission to republish.
At 6:30 a.m. I walk into the changing room, dressed in special clothes for the occasion, all the same color: black. There is a collar around my neck: white. I place the amice on my head, wrap my outer clothes with a white alb, undergarments essentially, and cincture. I kiss the stole, and then drape it over my neck. I don the chasuble covering front and back, all one piece. We, the team, say our special recitation: “Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great high priest, as you were present with your disciples in the breaking of the bread.” I approach the table, where my hands are washed and held high in orans posture, elbows down hands up and out. I approach the table, body to be broken with a fracture and blood to flow. And healing begins.
At 8:45 a.m. I walk into the changing room, dressed in special clothes for the occasion, all the same color: green. I place a lead collar around my neck to cover the thyroid gland, and don a lead apron, all one piece, no breaks to let x-rays penetrate to my organs. I enter the room, “the lab,” where we the team do our special recitation: patient name confirmed, consent obtained, correct procedure and op site, type of anesthesia, all the checklist items to ascertain that everything is in order and it is safe to begin. Then I cover my head and mouth, and walk to the sink to wash my hands with special water, purified. I approach the table with my arms in the air, elbows together and down, hands apart, pointed up, and slightly apart at angle to keep the clean up and the less clean running down. I am then clothed with another special garment, all of one piece, that envelops me front and back, and sterile gloves. I approach the table, break the body with a scalpel, and blood flows. And healing begins.
People ask, “How can you be both cardiac surgeon and priest?”
“Both are callings, both, when very well done, are quite similar,” I reply. “I couldn’t do anything else.”
After 20 years working on hearts, I had no idea of the similarities, of the “allusions,”of the parallel manual acts, until I was at the altar saying Mass, then sprinting to the hospital to perform a cardiac catheterization or to implant a
cardiac pacemaker. And one day, I realized I had just performed the same ritual twice in two different settings, in sequence. And they were both profound.
The effect of both was equal. Both require education, training, skill, and calling. Both help God’s people in times of great need.
When Bishop Hays Rockwell granted me postulancy in 1999, he told me that medicine was a calling, a skill, godly, and a talent not to be discarded. He told me I was to begin theological studies to be a priest.
“But how will I do both?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but you will find a way,” he said with an affirming twinkle in his eye.
The studies were a whole new form of education. Philosophy and theology and history and liturgics were so different from chemistry and physics and anatomy and physiology. It required remedial work for a scientist to put substance behind terms such as Socratic, epistemology, the economy of salvation.
But as the two vocations blended day by day, and as my medical practice grew rather than diminished (“I want my father/mother/brother to be consulted by you because you are a
priest,” I heard more than once from hospital staff), the similarities became clearer.
Meeting people at fragile, vulnerable, and tender times in their lives is indeed holy work, whether at the operating table or at the altar. Listening to fears before surgery and hearing
confessions are both meeting people when they are most in need of God, most considering their need of God and of each other, most vulnerable and able to receive God’s healing. The conversations with God’s people at tender times are blessedly analogous: holding a hand, staring deeply into the eyes of one facing a life juncture.
It is a privilege to be allowed into such sacred spaces in the lives of God’s children. I have thanked God daily for this privilege in the years since I have been ordained. Now, as the medical work winds down after three decades and the priestly work accelerates, I pause to consider how truly seamless these two vocations are, and how seamless all of our vocations
are in the light of our Christian calling.
We are all called to our tasks of daily work. We are all called to holy tasks. For some of us, our vocations are separated. For some of us, our vocations are blended. Sometimes one vocation supports the ability to do the other. Paul of Tarsus worked as a tentmaker to support himself in his ministry of evangelization around the Mediterranean basin. Worldly work and ministry need not be separated. We are all called to godly work, to caring for God’s children.
In this post-Christian age the world is changing and fewer parishes are able to support a full-time priest. More tentmakers are emerging. Almost every month I hear of another
priest/physician in the Church, Episcopal and otherwise. I hear of a lawyer, an oceanographer, an engineer, or other professional who is also a priest. It seems time for the
Church, for the Episcopal Church especially, to take another look at tentmakers and how their ministry may augment our call to care for God’s children in need. New ways of delivering ministry for struggling parishes might become apparent, and effective use of diverse talents might result. It seems time for all Christians to consider how our vocations can support our call to serve in the world. They are not really separated. After all, as Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings undergoing a spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings undergoing a human experience.” And we are not, I submit, workers in the world engaging in Christian enterprise, but rather Christians engaging in work in the
What are the similarities in your vocation and your Christian enterprise? How do they blur and intersect? And how are they on a spectrum and interwoven? If God is in everything, and we are in the image of God, aren’t our vocations and our discipleship one and the same? How do we live into that most fully and live our lives at the Table, not only tentmakers but all of us? And what might that mean for the mission of the Church?
The Rev. John Kilgore has served a
bivocational ministry in a Roman
Catholic health-care system as an
invasive cardiologist and as a nonstipendiary
canon at Christ Church
Cathedral, both in St. Louis.