The clouds which had covered the city like a heavy, grey blanket all morning were beginning to dissipate by the time I arrived at Arthur’s office for our weekly chat. These Monday afternoon meetings were becoming a new routine and, in some respects, the high point of my week.
The little bell above the front entrance announced my arrival as I stepped into the foyer, and I expected the door to Arthur’s office, which was only a few steps down the hall on the right, to swing open in welcoming response. It did not, and as I approached, I could hear Arthur’s voice through the door.
“Well, it is certainly your decision to make,” I heard him say as I opened the door and stepped inside.
With the phone at his ear, he motioned for me to come in and then pointed to one of the arm chairs in front of his desk. I removed my hat and coat, hung them on a hall tree which had appeared since our last meeting, and took a seat where Arthur had indicated.
“No, no, I understand completely,” he said to the person on the other end of the call. “Perhaps it will work out at a later date. Yes, that will be fine. And thank you for calling.” There was a brief pause.
“And you have a good day as well,” he said, then touched the small screen on the front of his cell phone to disconnect the call and laid the device on his desk.
“Good to see you,” he said to me, smiling wanly. “I hope you brought some sunshine with you. My mood is about as grey as the sky.”
“I hope that wasn’t bad news,” I said, pointing to the phone.
“Well, it wasn’t good news,” he replied. “But it’s okay. Say, are you up for a little walk?”
It was clear he wanted to change the subject.
“Sure,” I said. “Want to go to the coffee shop?”
“If you don’t mind,” he said. “I like the atmosphere there. It always cheers me up. There’s something about the smell of coffee, the sound of the espresso machine, the buzz of twenty different conversations. Always makes me feel good.”
“Lead the way,” I said, as we gathered our coats and headed for the door.
I could tell that Arthur’s mind was still on that phone call. I also sensed that I should not pry into the matter further, so we walked together in silence. That was one thing I really liked about Arthur. In his presence, unlike with so many others, I felt no obligation to make small talk.
Arthur had once told me a story which came back to me as we walked along. The abbot in charge of a small monastery was showing some visitors around the buildings and grounds, which the brothers maintained with loving care. As the group was about to leave, one of them addressed the abbot.
“Is it true that the members of this order never speak?” she asked. “I’ve heard that they have all taken a vow of silence.”
“It’s not that we have taken a vow not to speak,” the abbot replied. “It’s that we have agreed not to speak unless we can improve upon the silence.”
I remember thinking, when Arthur first told me that story, that he had clearly taken its message to heart and had embraced its moral as his personal credo. As we walked the three blocks from his office to the coffee shop, we both apparently concluded that nothing we could say would improve on the silence.
We soon arrived at the shop, and as we entered, I knew that Arthur was right. The smell of coffee fresh from the roasting oven, the well-worn floor boards and coffee-stained table tops, the relaxed ambiance and the familiar staff all combined to provide a sense of comfort and security, if only temporarily. I knew why Arthur loved this place and why he wanted to come here today.
We ordered our drinks then took them to a small table in the corner. Arthur still had said very little. He was clearly preoccupied, and I began to wonder if today’s encounter would yield any substantive conversation at all. Then he spoke.
“It was a cancellation,” he said.
“I beg your pardon.”
“The phone call,” he went on. “It was a cancellation. I was scheduled to speak at a conference geared to young people exploring the possibility of vocational ministry. In July. In Philadelphia. But they called to cancel.”
“I see. And did they say why?” I asked.
“That’s just it,” he said. “The woman who called said they had heard that I had resigned my Orders and was not serving as a priest at present. She asked if the church plant was developing. I told her not yet. She said they had invited me as an evangelical Anglican priest who had made a denominational change late in life and was now involved in planting a church in a university community. Since that was not really an accurate description of my current situation, the planners had decided that I no longer fit the profile for speakers at this conference.
“She asked me what I was doing these days, and I told her I was ‘involuntarily retired’.”
We both smiled.
“Then I said I was doing some writing, mainly my blog. She told me the sponsors really preferred that the conference speakers be involved in active ministry. Or, as she put it, ‘They really want our speakers to be doing something.’
“So I thanked her for calling, and that’s that,” he said. Then he sighed deeply.
I knew a conversation like that was particularly painful for Arthur. Although he is a gifted communicator, effective as both a speaker and writer, it had taken years for him to start sharing his thoughts through his blog.
“It seems like I would be clamoring for attention,” he often told me, in response to my encouragement for him to undertake a ministry of writing. “All my life I have gone places and done things because I have been invited. Every job I’ve ever had was one that sought me out. I never filled out a job application. Heck, until four years ago, I had never even written a résumé.
“Every time I stood up to preach, every time I stood in front of a class, I did it with the assurance that I was there because somebody recognized my call and my gifts and had invited me to serve in that role. Every time I officiated at a wedding or preached a funeral or visited a patient in the hospital, I did it with the sense that I was fulfilling a call—not just a generic call, but a specific call by a specific group of people to a specific situation.
“Until five years ago, I had more work to do than I could handle, more opportunities than I could take advantage of, more invitations than I could possibly accept. Then everything changed. At age fifty-eight I was unemployed and apparently unemployable.
“The invitations dried up. I prepared for Anglican Holy Orders with full expectation that securing credentials would lead to opportunities for ministry. It never happened.
“For a long time, the idea of starting a blog seemed like a desperation tactic. It was like I would be saying, ‘Hey, look at me. I’m still here. I still have something to say. Read me, read me!’
“Eventually, as you know, I was able to work through all of that. It finally dawned on me that the people who were encouraging me to write were, in a way, extending an invitation and providing an opportunity.
“A wise friend asked me if I felt that every blogger was simply clamoring for attention, or were there some who had something meaningful to say. When I told him that I knew there were some who were performing a helpful service out of wholesome motives, he asked why I couldn’t be one of those.
“So that’s what I tried to do. I decided that all I have to offer God right now is my words, but if He wants to use my words to accomplish His purposes, then I would put them at His disposal.
“And then I get this call today, dis-inviting me from a commitment which I was really looking forward to. And to add insult to injury, the reason I am being deleted from the program is that I’m not doing anything at the moment. All my life I have been responding to opportunities. Now it seems I am reduced to pleading for somebody to give me an opportunity to serve.”
I don’t know why, but I did something very uncharacteristic of me. I reached across the table and patted the back of Arthur’s hand. I knew there was nothing I could say that would improve upon my silence, but maybe a simple gesture would assure him that I understood what he was saying, even if I didn’t have any counsel to offer.
“I think I’d like to walk back to the office, if you don’t mind,” Arthur said. “All of a sudden the noise and the activity in here are something of a sensory overload. I need some peace and quiet.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I assured him.
We got up from the table, slipped back into our hats and coats, and headed out into the pedestrian traffic along the busy thoroughfare. About half a block from the coffee shop, Arthur stopped cold on the sidewalk and looked at me with an expression that mingled pain and despair. Then he turned away from me and stepped into the entryway of a storefront which had been sitting empty for months.
I heard him begin to weep. Not the self-conscious sniffling of someone watching a scene in a movie where the heroine dies after a long illness, but the gut-wrenching groaning that swells up from the deepest core of someone who has been carrying an intense, pent-up grief and finally could not bear to hold it inside any longer.
I remembered that kind of weeping, to which I myself surrendered on several occasions over the long, agonizing months of my mother’s terminal illness. I knew that once the emotional dam gave way, the surge of feelings and the torrent of tears simply could not be contained. I silently prayed that Arthur’s tears would bring some release from the inner pain which was obviously far more profound than I had imagined.
After what seemed like several minutes, the sobbing subsided, and Arthur leaned against the storefront door as though he needed the support to keep from collapsing. I could see the involuntary spasms that accompany the final phases of a deep, cathartic cry.
By now, I felt it was okay for me to intrude on the moment, so I walked over to Arthur, who was still facing away from me, and laid my hand on his shoulder.
“I know, Arthur,” I said. “I know.”