You know how “Fight Club” has these rules? Well, as I’ve come to learn, priests also have similar rules among themselves. Rule Number One: Do not wear clerics on an airplane. Rule Number Two: DO NOT WEAR CLERICS ON AN AIRPLANE.
Why is this you may ask? Well, the best explanation I can give is a story I heard about a fellow Paulist. This particular Paulist very much sees his priesthood as a responsibility to be as complete a representative of a loving God as he can possibly be. He takes this sense of identity very, very seriously and strives with all of his might to fulfill this divine mission. But—because he is a human being, just like everyone else—he acknowledges that he sometimes falls short of this awesome responsibility. So, as an act of penance to the God he feels that he has occasionally let down… he wears clerics on an airplane.
Because as most of us know, it’s always a roll of the dice sitting down next to someone on an airplane. The particular person you might sit next to might be chatty. And if you’re not in a chatty mood, it’s bound to be a very long few hours. You may think that just leaving on your headphones will save you, but there is always that moment in the flight when all electronic devices must be turned off so even feigning total musical involvement might not save you from a talkative passenger. But even if you happen to be open to conversation, there is still no guarantee that the person sitting next to you will be the “engaging” kind of chatty or the “hide all sharp objects for the next three hours of my life” kind of chatty.
You may ask how that is different from any other person? Well, that’s a fair point. But as someone who has simply confessed to being a seminarian while traveling across country, let me tell you that the topic of religion is rarely a neutral topic… especially when one happens to be a public representative of the topic thereof. Last year I was attending a neighborhood party while visiting my sister; after ninety minutes of being permitted to be “just a regular guy,” an older woman who happened to be of a different denomination asked me what I did. When I told her that I was a Catholic seminarian, she eventually slipped in the comment “Well in MY denomination we put OUR focus on the Bible.” The amount of energy it took to NOT respond, “Well in MY denomination, we just focus on finishing our beer” was pretty tremendous.
I would just like to highlight that this encounter described did NOT take place 30,000 feet in the air in an enclosed environment.
If the flight is in its last thirty minutes, I sometimes consider…. CONSIDER… fully answering the question of what I do for a living. And I know what some of you are thinking: “What if the person you’re sitting next to NEEDS a priest at that particular moment?” Again, that’s a fair point… but it has been my experience that overall the response to such a personal share has involved more commentary than revelation of personal need.
That being said, I have been pleasantly surprised at times; both in and out of the air, I have had times when sharing my current occupation has led to interesting conversation that was more of a mutual exchange. And it has been having those experiences, both inside of an airplane as well as out, that have allowed me to more easily move into the deeper side of this pool known as religious life. And while my feet can still touch the bottom, it’s not as intimidating as it once was to make it to the other side of the pool. Yet I still take comfort in the fact that most priests I know still occasionally need inner tubes as well to stay in the deep end, in the form of not wearing clerics on a plane.
A few weeks after attending that neighborhood party, my sister e-mailed me saying that she had recently gone to another neighborhood party. At that party, she met someone and they started talking. When the conversation eventually came around to occupational pursuits, my sister freely shared about her career in advertising. The gentleman, on the other hand, was being a bit cagey in his responses. Because my sister can have a dogged nature when the situation calls for it, she was eventually able to get out of him that he was the CEO of a major cosmetic company. So my sister told me that the encounter reminded her of my shyness in sharing my current occupation, that those with other job titles sometimes experience the same hesitations. Fair point.