Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Thursday, September 12, 2013

STUFF 2013 ontology

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seemed a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past couple years.  What follows is an essay on the topic of "Ontology," written for the Spring 2013 Issue of Immerse Journal.  If I understood the lengthy contract correctly, I do have permission to reprint my own words.  :-)

On Ontology -- Fr. George Baum

So, I know the word “ontology” has a long history in philosophy classrooms and so forth, but in my little neck of the woods, as an Episcopal priest, it is generally connected to Ordination.  And there, the connection has to do with “ontological change.”  My classmates and I always kind of had a knowing wink when we used the phrase, “ontological change,” because even though everyone always assured us that this is what happens when a Bishop lays hands on you, well . . . come on, right?  I mean, can my actual essence be changed because some person in a pointy hat and lovely chasuble holds his or her hands over my head?  Really?

Well, three years in, I find myself saying, “Yep.  That’s exactly what happened.”

But let me back up a minute . . . When I was in seminary in New York, it used to drive my wife and me crazy when my classmates would speak of getting “a job” when they left seminary.  Having grown up Lutheran, in my case, the word they were reaching for was “call,” and “job” was certainly no synonym, in my estimation.  All that talk of looking for jobs made me question their call, to be honest.  Lay people looked for jobs; priests looked for calls.  But, oh, silly, silly me . . .

One cold December day three years ago, I lay on the cold stone floor of a cathedral, awaiting my ontological change, and wondering if I would actually feel such a thing taking place.  Face-down, my fellow deacon friend and I lay there listening to the Litany of the Saints, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I thought of all the friends and relatives who would view this moment as insane and incomprehensible.  What was this 45 year old musician doing with his life?  Throwing it all away to chase after some call to a parish that might or might not work out?  And especially throwing it away without actually having a call to a parish at the time?

Ah, and there’s the distinction!  Because as it turned out, the call was to the priesthood.  The parish really was the job.  I was changed on that December morning, though I felt exactly the same as when I processed into the sanctuary--albeit, a little colder after the floor thing.  Because on that day, God set me aside, for some reason; on that day, God changed me into something else; on that day, God declared me to be a priest in Christ’s Church, and I was changed forever.

And then we move the clock forward three years, and my contract as Priest in Charge comes to an end.  Turns out, it really was a job, for a person who was called to the priesthood.  I am still a priest, certainly, but I am a priest without a job.  Even if I never stand behind an altar again in my life, I am still a priest.  I have forever been set aside for a specific purpose: the priesthood. 

A few months ago, I was working through all these distinctions, trying to figure out if I’d made a mistake ever going to seminary in the first place.  My job was ending, and it seemed like bad judgment, in hindsight, to have gone through all this for a simple three-year stint in some blue-collar town.  One evening, I sat in an airport bar waiting for my flight, dressed in “civilian” clothes . . . not the least bit priesty looking.  A Marine on his way home from Afghanistan sat down next to me and started pouring out his heart to me, describing how he’d been spiritually damaged during his time overseas.  Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he sits down next to me, and begins something of a confession.  A lengthy, profanity-laced, frightening confession. 

And, for me, that was finally the moment when I realized the permanency of my call to the priesthood.  It wasn’t in all the things that come with the job, the occasional baptism, the weekly privilege of presiding at the Eucharist, and the daily struggles of parish work.  My actual calling was to be a priest, everywhere and every day.  And I am one, and always will be, no matter what may happen as far as my employment goes.  Sometimes, it turns out, a person is just set aside for service, and that calling can be worked out anywhere, no matter what one does for a living.  No matter where one is sitting, waiting for a flight.

Ontologically, I have been changed.  But when it comes to my job, well, I still play in a band.  And I may never work in a church again.  For the foreseeable future, I am a priest without an altar.  Technically, I suppose, I am kind of like the sacrament sitting in the tabernacle in a church sanctuary: Changed by God into something else, and waiting to be a blessing to someone, somewhere, sometime.  Set aside for some purpose that is unclear to me (and apparently unclear to the Church, for the present).

That sounds almost sacrilegious in some ways, until I consider this:  In the Eucharistic Prayer, when the priest extends his or her hands over the bread and wine during the epiclesis, it is intended to mirror the Bishop’s hands extended over the head of one being Confirmed or Ordained.  We are calling down the Spirit of God to make a change in the thing that sits before us, whether human, fruit, or wheat-based.  We call down the Spirit of God to make an ontological change.  And over the course of my life, I have been shown that ontological change is not only real, it is also forever.

You cannot become unbaptized, just as I cannot become un-ordained.  The changes of God are forever, and it is only our own small-thinking that prevents us from seeing those changes as being eternal.  We want to connect change to function, claiming that what we see with our eyes is what matters.  But God changes things ontologically against our better judgment, whether that’s Balaam’s donkey, or a priest who plays in a band.  God’s purposes are often beyond our knowing, and that’s why some donkeys end up pounding the piano for a living, in order to pay off all those seminary loans.  And in some small way, that makes the music even better to me.

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.


  1. Ah well said. And a blessing to me - your seminary pal and fellow ontologically altered priest, who has wandered the Pacific Northwest Wilderness for three years serving at a myriad of altars, without a "home" until my present 8 month "job" of temporary, interim, assistant, priest. which runs out January 1. Whether the world has a place for us or not, I am persuaded that God does, and that it is somehow unalterably true that we are "...priests in the order of Melchizadek, forever."

  2. George Baum, the Wisdom of God was having a good day when she called you to this ministry. Your words are a reminder and an inspiration. Thank you.