Well, one year down and two more to go! Back in the Fall of 2012, I started my three-year track at the Candler School of Theology. This past May officially concluded my first year, and I thought I’d offer some form of reflection on this very intensive process. Hopefully, after each year I’ll be able to remember to look back and reflect, to see just what this formation process is like. Honestly, being in the midst of the proverbial trees, it’s hard to see any semblance of the actual forest.
So, after one year, what in God’s name have I learned?
Who knew that for $15.00, it came with a sunroof?
Lesson 1. A $15.00 backpack from Tuesday Morning (even if it was originally $40.00), is in no way suited for the stresses of a seminarian’s academic workload. I thought this little guy was great when I found it. Even had a padded slot for a laptop. On the back of it, it even advertises in graphically striking letters “Expandable.” Little did I know that it expanded by giving up its stitching like an Episcopalian gives up guilt for Lent. All the same, this little guy made it to the very end of the year; albeit, with an added sunroof.
Like my little backpack, I came to seminary with a $15.00 view of parochial work. I’m an academic at heart, and an introvert to boot, so parish work has never been a huge draw for me. While I know I could do it well, it’s not necessarily something that excited me. Thankfully the Anglican Studies program at Candler outstrips all the other Episcopal Seminaries in its parochial formation. Whereas the other seminaries require parish assignments for a year at most (many, far less than that), Candler requires it for all three years. And so, every Sunday morning, I make my 30 to 45 minute pilgrimage up to Forsyth County to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit.
Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit
This little parish is nestled in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. Literally, the backdrop for this church, which, sadly, doesn’t show up in this picture, is a verdant mountain scape that peeks out of the mist in the Fall and early Spring. The air up there actually smells sweet right after it rains. A far cry from the asphalt smell we have in the city.
I assist with the youth in the mornings and evenings, and help out with the liturgy during worship. I spend my time chatting with the older parishioners about gardening and grandchildren. After service, I usually head down to the Irish pub. There you’ll find, sitting around the bar, me in habit reading with a Guiness, the Harley bikers and their old ladies, and the old men that don’t want to go home to their old ladies. It’s a curious mix, but I think that’s what heaven’s going to look like. The fist Sunday of every month, I get to take the young adults to the pub where we sit and talk about everything from family life to the best mixed drinks to Church history.
At the end of this first year, I’ve found that my $15.00 view of parochial life has been spilt open. My view expanded when I didn’t even think it would. I’ve grown fond of them, and I think the same came be said for them of me. When I was away for one Sunday the other week, I was surprised to find a space in my heart that was comforted to be back the next Sunday. I discovered a space of longing had developed there that I wasn’t even aware of.
I still don’t know if full-time parish life will be my calling, or if the Church will even be able to sustain it down the road, but I have to be honest with myself - the idea is certainly growing on me.
Lesson 2. Back at the parish, I help teach the youth and am continually surprised by what they come up with. For starters, I’ve been specifically asked on two occasions now to explain the Trinity. And while many of my fellow classmates looked on with glassy eyes as Dr. Reynolds drew up Peter Lombard’s Medieval diagram of the Trinitarian relationship, these kids sat there and wrestled the hell out of it when I offered it to them. Sure it doesn’t make sense, but that didn’t stop them from engaging it. Think you can get it? Well here you go:
Lombard’s Trinity. If you’re mind doesn’t break at least a little bit with this, you’re probably not reading it right.
During the contemplative services that I’ve led with them, we’ve discussed the literary nature of Judas. We’ve talked about the contradictions within Scripture (like the two versions of creation in Genesis). They have asked about the history of the Church and it’s liturgy. And these rambunctious kids have even sat in perfect silence to simply experience God.
What I’ve learned here that I would pass along to any priest and pastor I know, is that there is no need to down play what you teach your youth. Seriously, they can handle it, and often better than the adults in the parish. Let them try on some of the big ideas. Having small bodies does not mean that they have small minds. And don’t be afraid or threatened when their faith manages to go beyond yours.
Lesson 3. Before I started seminary, some people told me that I needed to be careful, because at seminary I would “lose my Jesus.” I thought they were being facetious, or figurative at best, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t right. Being a monk, I wear a habit to school. And with my habit, hanging off my cincture, is my rosary. Well, I came home one day to find that Jesus had done climbed off the cross! So somewhere, wandering around Candler and Emory University, there is a little silver Jesus, with his arms outstretched like he’s just waiting for a big hug.
Empty crosses aside, I know what they meant when they warned me about losing my Jesus. Granted, that hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen to some of my classmates. For those that are brought up in Churches with literal views of the Bible; or Churches that teach Christian history as though Jesus lived and died, the Apostles did some evangelising, then their Church came into existence after a conspicuous 1,500 to 1,800 year black hole in history; or Churches that have no experience of historical liturgy; then finding out that there is a whole lot more than the simple story that they were told in Sunday School can be a bit unsettling.
For me, I was introduced to Biblical criticism before I was in High School, and it didn’t dash my faith. I was reading Church history and comparative religion before I was out of High School, and it didn’t make me give up on my own faith. But to see some of my classmates encounter Biblical criticism for the first time as grown adults, the fear and anxiety they have to work through is terribly painful.
On the other hand, to see a cradle Baptist respond with awe upon hearing the Orthodox tone of the Trisagion, chanted solo before a service in Lent, shows me that deep in our hearts, we are not all that far apart.
I feel like I’ve been in the academic side of seminary most of my life. But for some this is very new. And this is what I’ve learned, similar to the lesson above: we have to start introducing our parishioners to the full breadth of our Churches’ histories and theology from an early age. This isn’t a lesson about what we know, but about the faith that we form, starting when we are young.
We will always encounter questions. This issue at hand is how does our faith respond to them? Faith has to be adaptable enough to wrap itself around questions, not be shattered by them. Granted, I may be a bit biased in this, being a contemplative, in that we find God in the questions, not the answers. But whether you’re a monk or just a Sunday Christian, if your faith is built up solely on a single interpretation, if that interpretation is ever challenged, what happens to all your faith? If we know that there will always be questions in life, and that there may not always be answers, then shouldn’t we learn how to build our faith around questioning instead of clinging to those precarious answers? If we could encourage our youth to do that today, then the Church that they will create tomorrow will be beyond our imagining, and it will be amazing.
With the biggies out of the way, here’s a bullet list of the other lessons I picked up during the year:
4. If ever given the chance to meet him in person, I would still slap St. Augustine in the face for some of the theology that he gave to the Church. ( A point that my colleague, the Rev. Lee Curtis, and I will happily continue to disagree upon.)
5. The same goes for John Calvin.
6. The history of the Eastern half of the Church is not a footnote, and our seminaries would do well to actually teach it rather than discarding it as soon as it no longer influences “what led to the Reformation.”
7. Mystery is an important word when learning and explaining theology.
8. Eucharistic theology should always be explained with “mystery.”
9. Charles Hodge was a git.
10. Karl Barth can kiss my mystical and natural theological butt.
11. After being out of school for nine years, I can still knock out a four page paper in two to three hours.
12. Single malt scotch helps write four-page papers. (Turns out there’s actually some proof to this pudding)
13. Jesus loves me, this I know, because of coffee…especially before 8:00 AM classes.
14. It’s actually fun making a priest flinch while doing an around the world with a thurible.
15. If I have to attend worship with liturgical dancing, then they can put up with incense.
16. Karen Stephenson Slappey may very well be the greatest saint for all us sinners by the time we reach the end of the road.
17. It is possible to have full-time employment, full-time school, and all day Sunday parish placement, and still make good grades. I would not recommend it for anyone.
18. If statistics have proven that parishes specifically want and do better with well-educated priests, then the Church (and here I mean the Episcopal Church), needs to step up the way other denominations have done and truly invest in the seminarians that we are forming to be priests.
And lastly, 19. If the Church is going to need bi-vocational priests in the future, then our seminaries (and I don’t just mean Candler), have a lot of re-imagining to do to make that possible. This is going to be a major shift from the model that the vast majority of seminaries use today, and have been using for ages. For the Church’s sake, regardless of denomination, this is something that has to be figured out, and figured out very soon.
Oh, and one more: 20. The glottle stop (‘) is far too underappreciated and unrecognized when reading Latinized Hebrew names in the Bible.