Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.