Old Rules

I was married in the summer of 1977, long before the age of instantaneous communication offered by email, text, and cell phone. As my wife was born and raised in England, her transition to the eastern seaboard of the United States wasn’t an easy one. Everything seemed unfamiliar in the early days of our marriage – television, newspapers, shopping, food – each of these things provides some kind of touchpoint for familiarity and all were foreign. She was literally a stranger in a strange land. Shortly after our arrival, most things seemed exciting and there was a sense of adventure in discovering the new and unfamiliar. But after the novelty of her new surroundings wore slightly, a grinding reality set in – this wasn’t a vacation or a hiatus in her day to day life. This new and unfamiliar place with its strange sounding accents and foreign appearance, this place with no established friends or family contacts was now home. Lonely took on a new meaning.

I didn’t help matters much. As a parish priest serving a congregation on the outskirts of New York City, my work week was characterized by ten to twelve hour days and every-weekend commitments. What little time I had off (I tried to take one day a week) was frequently stolen by funerals, emergency hospitalizations of parishioners, and mandatory Diocesan and Deanery meetings.

So I wasn’t home much of the time. To compound matters, we could only afford one automobile and I disappeared with it 50-60 hours per week. Public transportation was sporadic and complex, so my wife spent most of her days in the house and the area in immediate walking distance of our front door.

Could it have been any worse? Well, yes. We lived in a church Rectory – a house owned by the parish that sat immediately adjacent to the Church. There are a couple of things that are true about church housing. First, you reside in it, you don’t own it, so you have no sense of its being yours. If you want to make changes, perform renovations, or do major decorating, you need to get permission from a committee of folks who are invested in maintaining their sense of ownership of the property. But even worse, since you live in their house next to their church, most parishioners feel they have 24/7 access to your door as well as the absolute right to observe how you are treating their property. Knocks at the door come at all hours of the day and night with “I was just in the area”s and “Can you give him a message for me?”s. Since churches are aid stations for the poor and needy, people who are looking for financial or emotional assistance often feel free to go directly to the Rectory if there’s no one in the Church Office, and all sorts of folks show up at the door with a hand out. All too often, in the world of ordained ministry, a house is not a home, it’s a bus station.

When I did show up at the end of a long day, my wife was understandably frantic for some connection with someone she knew and trusted.  She intuitively knew that I needed some down time as soon as I returned home to recharge the batteries that had been depleted in the course of my day. But, she also expected some attention, and quite rightly so. On occasion, I would disappear into the basement to get a screwdriver or tinker with a project. When I would emerge from the workshop, she would find me and ask, “Where did you go?” and I knew that she was feeling a little abandoned.

So I tried to allay her distress before it began. I’d frequently say to her, “Honey, I’m just going to be in the bathroom for five minutes.” It seemed to work. My willingness to provide a verbal locator indicated to here not only my position in the house, but my emotional commitment to addressing her need for connection.

My wife and I have been married for 36 years (as of this writing). Our life, our location, and our housing situation has changed completely from those first days in parish ministry. About five years ago, I said to her “Honey, I’m just going to be in the bathroom for five minutes,” as I had done for the past three decades. She looked at me and, laughing, said, “You know, you don’t have to tell me that anymore. Frankly, I don’t care where you are!”

The rules had changed, but I was still working under old rules. I’ve come to believe that much of the distress we experience in life (personally, locally, and globally) can be connected to the maintenance and observation of old rules.