I went alone. Would bringing a friend along have made it less awkward? I’m not sure, but knowing my friends… well… yeah, I went alone.
It was a few weeks before I was to enter the Jesuit novitiate and I had to purchase a black clerical shirt – you know the one, the simple black shirt with the white plastic tab, the one that makes strangers call me “Father” even though I won’t be ordained a priest for years. They’re powerful things, those little black shirts. You can tell because they’re dreadfully overpriced and extraordinarily uncomfortable to wear.
I’m not sure if I wore sunglasses at the time, but do remember glancing around the parking lot – checking to see if anyone I knew was around – before stepping out of the car and ducking inside. The clerical goods supply store was on a nondescript street near the heart of Los Angeles, and as I entered the front door I felt as if I had wandered behind that XXX-Adults Only-XXX curtain in the video rental stores of my youth. A mix of sick, rubber-necking, curiosity and “you-don’t-belong-here” nervousness caused me to break into a sweat.
Immediately I was accosted by a flood of Jesus statues that looked to be addressing one another amidst a crowd of other popular saints. It was like a tent revival in the land of plaster and plastic. My mind started writing ledes for the scene: The Sermon on the Showroom Floor: “Blessed are the Lawn Ornaments.” One of the plastic Jesus’ seemed to make eye contact with me, making the moment more like a creepy surprise birthday-toga party thrown by all my ¾ sized friends. I hate surprises.
To the right of the birthday-party-Jesus’ I noticed the liturgical clothing section, so, in a pitiful attempt to avoid the inevitable, I turned left. Oh! Look over there. Books. Everyone reads books, right? I’ll go read some books. Now, I have a short attention span for most of the books you’ll find in a religious goods store. How many ways could there possibly be to pray the rosary? Why do most of these covers have a floral motif and a strapping blond Fabio-Jesus on them?
Unable to stomach it for long I put my head down, wiped the sweat from my head with the back of my hand, and wandered over to the black corner, the gothic-kindergarten corner with the cubby-holes filled with every size and style of clerical fashion. Comfort-weaves and Roomy-Toomies? Where the hell am I? Maybe if I pretend I’m in the musty catacombs of an old natural history museum or curio-shop nobody will mistake me for a customer… more like a voyeur of strange and extinct species. Wait a minute… Voyeur? Shit. This is getting worse. Then a voice interrupted my inner voyeur-logue.
“Can I help you?”
“Oh… ahem… well sure… no… just looking… well, yeah. Uh, I have a friend and well… he’s about my size and yeah you know…”
“Sir, do you need a clerical shirt?”
“Yes, um, I suppose I do. Yes.”
It’s a strange kind of shame. I know there are people who love to shop, who can try things on, looking at themselves in the mirror all day long. They even enjoy it. This is not me. I’m probably too self-conscious in general, but the business of that little black shirt, trying on that over-priced cotton-poly meaning-maker, well, that was even worse. There was an awkwardness about adopting a new identity in that shirt, one that was not fully chosen, not yet my own. A few months later my novice director hit it right on the nose when, on our very first night in the novitiate, he said that trying out religious life was like wearing a new suit that doesn’t quite fit. “It’ll rub you and you’ll rub it but eventually it becomes your own.”
We say that our clothes are an expression of our selves. And that’s true, but they’re also an offering. This is who I’m giving you today, they say. I’m giving you hipster. I’m giving you sporty. I’m giving you preppy. I’m sorry, but today I’m only able to give you half dressed and frumpy.
My clothes are not just about me. They are about my relationship with everyone out there. When I wear that black clerical shirt in public, when I pull that white tab across my throat, I am giving my self to them. The people I encounter then, they no longer see the me I’d like them to see – the one I manicure and project whenever I’m able. I lose control of that me. Instead they see “priest.” And what that means is something over which I have no control. They may see compassion, trustworthiness, even sanctity. They may see corruption, power, patriarchy, even pedophilia. I deserve neither the praise nor the critique, but, after I put on that shirt, none of that is my choice any longer.
I’ve worn that shirt in many different contexts since I walked sweating into that LA clerical goods store. It’s not quite as uncomfortable as it used to be. But whenever I wear it I am still sharing in something bigger than myself and, that kind of sharing can be a terrifying experience. Sure, I eventually get to introduce myself; maybe surprise them somehow; maybe I affirm what they already thought. Mostly, my experience has been, that people see what they need to see. Most often I’m exactly who they need me to be.
I think this happens with any personal disclosure. I’m a writer. I’m a hipstellectual. I’m a mother. I’m a freshman. I’m a… In all of these there is an initial risk of refusal, rejection. But then, out of the depths, comes the soft voice of encouragement… “Yeah, honey. I know. You’re a nervous wreck. Well, you’re going to need a shirt one way or another. So, let’s get you dressed and ready for the big show. Trust me. You look great. You’re gonna knock their socks off.”