In 2005, while attending the School of the Americas protest in Fort Benning, Georgia, I browsed the stalls of the vendors. A woman from Latin America operated one stall, full of crafts and hand-woven cloth. Among her wares was a rich purple stole. It bore images of Jesus in the desert and women at a well and was draped on a hanger.
The scene triggered something. I had to have it. I moved as if in a dream. My heart beat louder while I wrote my credit card number on a piece of yellow paper. I paid eighty dollars I would have done better to save.
I went back to my friends. I showed them my grocery bag, warily removing the purple stole from it as though authorities would be more concerned about this than about the demonstration. Teasingly, my friends made me try it on. They liked how it looked and told me I would be a Jesuit one day.
Catholic guilt overtook me. I could not keep the stole. Stoles were sacred clothes. They were for sacred men. Sacred words had been said over these men by other men who had been authorized to say them. I did not feel God looking over my shoulder. But I definitely felt Pope Benedict looking over my shoulder.
The next morning before breakfast, I chased down an Irish Jesuit who had made the trip with me. I gave him the stole as a surprise gift. I made him promise he would wear it during Advent. I have no idea if he did. I never saw him again.
My stole-buying impulse lay dormant for several years. Then, after I started volunteering for CTA, a colleague of mine attended the June 2011 meeting of the American Catholic Council in Detroit. At their closing liturgy, all the attendees wore red stoles. These stoles symbolized the priesthood of all the faithful.
My colleague gave me his stole after he returned to Chicago. I took it eagerly. It glowed with more than the sum of its cheap red felt. Something within me woke up.
A few months later, the annual CTA conference convened in Milwaukee. Like the SOA protest, the conference has vendors. While browsing the stalls, I found the exact same stole I had seen years before in Georgia: purple, Jesus in the desert, women at a well.
Again I paid eighty dollars. Again I tried on the stole. I did so alone, in my hotel room in front of the full-length mirror. This time, I had no feeling that I should look up some priest who was more ontologically-changed than I was and give it to him. Rather, in owning and wearing the stole, I felt a kind of power. It was not the power ascribed to a priest, but the power of a baptized person who has grown up.
Next year, at the CTA conference in Louisville, I bought two more. These stoles were green and white. I now had all the liturgical colors. It seemed personally important, indeed right and just, to have a complete set.
At the Louisville airport on the way home, I sat at a table with some CTA members, drinking from my ubiquitous Starbucks cup. I confessed my purchases in a quiet voice, as if relating a naughty secret. One woman looked at me. She nodded sagely.
“You know,” she said, “the first time I saw you, I said to myself, this kid—and no offense, I know you’re not really a kid, but you’re a lot younger than I am—I said, this kid is gonna be a priest.”
Well…no. As things stand, I will not be a priest. As if celibacy were not enough, there is obedience, and I grow mouthier and mouthier as the years go by.
But I have come to realize that my irresistible urge to maintain a private reserve of vestments is, in fact, a priestly act. Priests are mediators between the seen and the unseen, and my purchases mediate between the seen and the unseen. What I am doing is giving myself symbols of hope. This is my personal, ritualized way to invest in that day when all those who are called—women, LGBTQ folks, married people, and mouthy rebels like me—can be full ministers in the “regular” church.
Until then, I have three stoles that sit in my dresser drawer, and one I keep on display, tastefully draped over my futon. Right now it is that purple one, because it is Advent again.
* “Vested interests.” See what I did there? Thanks to theologian Greg Hillis, from whom I claimed the title when he tweeted on May 12: “I have the perfect title for a book about the history of liturgical vestments: ‘Vested Interests’. It’s yours if you want it. #YoureWelcome”