The Outside Leg

When you show a horse in my discipline, the judges stand in the interior of the ring, so your "inside" leg, as we call it, is what they see best. That leg is controlled, the heel is down, the foot is angled, and your seat in the gaits looks effortless.

Looks effortless.

Because on the other side, the "outside" leg, the one the judges don't see as easily, that's where you're working. Yes, the leg and seat and heel are in good position, but that leg shifts subtly back to guide the horse. My heel may tilt inward, out of proper position, to let my horse know to speed up or slow down or refocus attention on me instead of the horse in front of her or the shiny thing over there. That is the leg that communicates best to the horse. It's active and working in a completely different way from my inside leg. The inside leg is calm and poised; the outside leg does the majority of the work. And it all should look effortless, controlled, and elegant when viewed as a whole.

Using legs in such completely different ways at the same time does not come naturally. It develops over years. Performing dual, almost paradoxical, tasks of calm and hard work within one self and soul is not easy. It is a learned behavior from practice and practice and failure and practice and "Oh, wow, I can do this!" and more practice. We as clergy realize that much of our public personas are all about calm and poise. The non-anxious presence among a community, as some call it. And yes, being the calm for those around us who are unsettled, upset, and raging is a great gift and ministry.

But authentic calm does not come without work.

Like that outside leg when riding a horse, the calm presence we bring to ourselves and communities comes with another part - a very important part that shifts and works and moves regularly.

We pastors, priests, ministers, chaplains, and members of the community of faith can deceive ourselves into thinking the calm public poise, the non-anxious presence, the ability to sit quietly, and the peaceful being are just there...without work and practice. And that they are the complete and total sum of our being.

And we will be wrong. The awareness and ability of our stillness, calm, and focused attention is only one part of our selves and souls. Most of the time, when we've done the work and practiced and failed and worked some more, we become adept at letting that be the part of our selves we share with those who are watching us, who are in need of help, even those who are judging us at that time.

But that outside leg is doing lots of work, behind the scenes, mostly away from the direct gaze of the public. Our self-care, our deep reflection, and our prayer life, among other things, allow us to speed up or slow down, allow us to guide and direct ourselves and others as needed. The peaceful calm is only able to be because of the hard work we have and are doing at the same time. One rarely comes without the other.

I wish I were surprised at the number of people who have given into the falsehood that life is about the appearance of calm and peace and that stillness and presence just happens. My experience is that the only way to have the deep calm that truly reflects out for the world to see and experience is to do lots and lots of work, often away from the eyes of the public.

So how do we work that outer leg? My experience with people, clergy and laity, who have that deep poise and peace, is that there is always - always - an outside leg working hard through spiritual direction, therapy, a deep and committed prayer life, meditation, regular physical exercise to care for the body as well as the mind, among the main disciplines. Yes, disciplines, because working that outer leg is rarely fun or effortless (hence, working). It is regular, not sporadic. And while it isn't secret, this work seems to be away from the public view. Maybe the privacy of the work removes the temptation of pride from our spiritual discipline.

The work of the outer leg is work of transformation. And, in turn, that transformation offers a stillness, a peace, and calm, and a beautiful acceptance to the community and people in which we live and minister, even when we need not to convey peace and stillness (chaos and grief are also part of transformation, but again, without that work of the outer leg, we can transmit those emotions, too, often as anger). As Richard Rohr says, "What we don't allow to be transformed, we transmit." So, if we think we can achieve peace, calm, and love by simply and only presenting that as our public persona without deep work behind the scenes, we are wrong. This is one reason I don't fully trust clergy who don't have a regular relationship with a spiritual director or therapist - too often, they transmit their angst, wounds, and destruction to others.

We must be willing to work, to shift, to tilt, actively to be working as God guides us. Our lives and ministry may then become an actual witness of peace and calm, instead of merely a thin appearance.


My classrooms are my ministries, and much of this resonates. As a history professor, I work hard at writing and honing my understanding so that my students get a seamless whole. As a sometime SCUBA instructor, I had to train my body so that my movements seem (and to a certain sense became) effortless. My taiji practice is the same; I had to work to achieve the balance required for meditation in motion. The job, it turns out, is not the work. What we do to get there is.
GraceCan said…
Well, I don't like the title of this page at all, but someone shared the article on Face Book, and I think it's wonderful. Why such an off-putting title for your page? I'm also an Episcopal priest, and I think the title, as well as the comment about celebrating with a slipping bra strap only shows us disrespect and makes it harder for women priests than it already is in some places. But then, I'm probably from a different generation than you are...

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