When I was a girl, my atheist parents casually asked me if I wanted to attend religious training like most of the other kids in my provincial town. I quickly said no, but never revealed the flaky eight-year-old’s logic behind my decision: Hebrew school conflicted with ABC Afterschool Specials. Like me, Minna Proctor always believed that faith was optional. “I formulated the impression that I was meant to choose my religion as an adult,” she writes in Do You Hear What I Hear? Her Jewish mother and Catholic father, both academics, had brought her up in a secular way. So when her dad tells her that he wants to become an Episcopal priest, she is flabbergasted, not to mention totally unequipped to understand his decision: “I could say that my father set me on a path to godlessness—and then abandoned me there.”
A nonbeliever stranded in a faith-based land, Proctor embarks on an intellectual journey through the world of priestdom. Combining serious historical and theological research with a very personal narrative, she trails her father through the “discernment” process, a complicated, 45-step system used by the church to screen potential priests. But at only the third phase, Proctor’s father is rebuffed, told that he needs to “work on the articulation of his calling.” A writer, translator, and magazine editor, Proctor is fascinated by these words that stand at the passageway of an unfathomable process: What is a calling, exactly, and how does one go about expressing something that is beyond words?
Proctor weaves together candid commentary from an assortment of priests, nuns, and theologians, who make the process sound like it’s one part religious experience, one part corporate job interview, and one part audition for The Real World. For instance, her dad’s emotional reserve means that he is “unable (or unwilling) to personalize his religious experience or make a story out of it,” leaving the initial discernment panel cold. And as Proctor discovers, the church isn’t just interested in what the aspirant feels or needs—it looks for someone who will serve its best interests, who has not just the spiritual chops and mental health but also the academic skills and financial resources to make it through seminary. In previous eras, the field was a lot easier to crack; as Proctor points out, in Emily Brontë novels, second sons who didn’t inherit the family fortune became priests by default. And in his Catholic high school, Proctor’s father recalls seeing recruitment pamphlets with the slogan “Are you prepared to answer the call?” But nowadays, the screening process includes “letters of recommendation, psychiatric and psychological assessments, criminal record checks, standardized tests, as well as a series of interviews.”
Do You Hear What I Hear? wavers wildly between personal memoir and academic text, delving more seriously into the topic of religious calling than Proctor’s initial pages lead one to expect. Rather than dunking our heads in holy water, she yanks us into deep waters, sometimes overloading the reader with too much dense, not-fully-digested research. Yet Proctor keeps the book lively by marinating it in her own confusion and (sometimes) resentment. After her parents divorced, Proctor’s father moved away to start a new life and a new family. He now admits that he sees the ’60s and ’70s—her childhood—as his darkest days. Carried along by the counterculture, he “lost sight of his values” and became “untrue to himself.” Now he has returned to the religious roots of his youth, raising his second batch of children in the church. It dawns on a horrified Proctor that “the stumbling block along my father’s new path” is in fact herself and her sister, “living remnants of a former Daddy.” Daddy shines through as an endearing, imperfect man who wears generic reading glasses from Kmart and has a sciatic hip that makes him lean—”a pose that for many years I mistook as an affect of teaching, the sort of passive swagger of someone who knows more than you do.” Proctor steps lightly and respectfully around his religious beliefs, rarely subjecting them to concerted assault. But she does allow some raw sentiment to bleed through. Recounting her sister’s bitter critique that if her father really “wanted to take care of people, he should take care of us first,” Proctor wonders if that’s why the discernment committee turned him down. Perhaps they sensed “or even [had] been told by God, that my father had a whole other family who felt neglected. Maybe they knew what I only suspected, which was that he was trying to make amends in the wrong place.” Of course, Proctor quickly reins in this line of speculation; it’s way too far out for a secular soul like her. “Upon reflection,” she writes coolly, “I don’t think I believe in a God who sends psychic messages through bureaucratic processes.”