FIRST DAY IN SCHOOL
Turhan Tirana ‘57
With Dick Tracy lunch box in hand, Denise’s kiss and her admonition to be good, I headed off recently to the #1 train to 18th Street and then to the General Theological Seminary for the first of four days of orientation.
The seminary was founded nearly two centuries ago, in 1817, as the seminary of the Episcopal Church. Now there are several others, the largest of which is in Alexandria, Virginia. GTS, with 135 students, is the second largest. At alumni week last Spring, I asked a priest with a 1957 number next to his name the size then. It was about 200 but, of course, they were all men. Although GTS is generally respected for the academic quality of its faculty, its neighboring seminaries, Union in Manhattan and Yale may be more rigorous. Their doctoral programs are larger and their mission is not to train academics more than clergy. Academic jobs being increasingly difficult to obtain, their students probably are more competitive with each other. Union and Yale also are said to be less supportive of their students. They also are more ecumenical, more liberal and considerably larger. GTS students may take courses for credit at Union and a Jewish seminary in New York. GTS is known, too, for academic lectures offered to the public and conferences, one of which, on the subject of divisiveness, is to occur shortly. The Episcopal Church is facing an appalling schism, nominally over the ordination of an openly gay bishop but basically over change.
The campus consists of a city block in the low-key Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan between 9th and 10th Avenues and 20th and 21st Streets. When it was founded, the Hudson River was close to 10th Avenue. The architecture is mostly Gothic Revival from a century ago with four or five-story brick buildings with high chimneys, leaded windows, and slate roofs. Many rooms still have fire places, now bricked over but then the sole heating system. The campus looks a bit like two Princeton quads although it is more run-down. The oldest building, ivy-covered, dates from around 1840. The plumbing seems equally antiquated and the windows don’t all quite close. Nor can the outside doors be locked. A geothermal system for the entire seminary, with pipes burrowing down 1,500 feet of Manhattan granite, is in the process of construction, the largest such project in the Northeast. It will save the seminary $1 million or so annually in heating and cooling costs. Thus, the old blends with the new.
How I Got There
Although blessed with strong religious backgrounds, neither of my parents practiced religion. My father was raised a Muslim. He attended religious secondary school and learned the Koran by heart, presumably in Arabic. That must have been enough for him. However, his father, my grandfather, periodically visited a Bektashi monastery in the mountains of northern Albania, where as a young man he had collected taxes on horseback. Later, he financially supported the sect, a liberal branch of Islam. My mother’s father was an Episcopalian while her mother’s family was Jewish. The latter purportedly included rabbinical scholars. The Jewish branch enjoyed digs at the Episcopalian branch. In any event, neither side carried on its tradition.
Where I grew up, my friends were mostly Episcopalian. I attended church with them on occasion but never really got the hang of it. My first real taste of religion was at Andover, where chapel attendance was required every day but Saturday. On Sundays, I’d go to the Episcopalian church in town in the hopes of meeting Abbot girls and walking one back to the high iron gates of their academy. At Princeton, you’ll recall, chapel attendance was required on Sundays. However, neither affected me much.
My first wife was more serious. Wherever we lived, she sought out a Protestant church with a good preacher. We joined and attended regularly. In Old Greenwich, at the Congregational Church, I began asking questions and then for books to read. A couple of decades later, I even gave a series of lectures there on women mystics. Attendance was sparse but I loved the challenge, being neither a woman nor a mystic. That interest was inspired by a serious and proper medical doctor, an Anglican, older than we, whom I much respected. He chose to tell me, for reasons I don’t understand, of a conversation he’d had with Teresa of Avila in the chair next to the one in which I was sitting in his office.
I moved on to taking occasional courses. One, at an Episcopalian church in New York, covered the Book of Revelation. That, you’ll recall, is the last book of the New Testament to which the religious crazies go for justification for whatever they’re looking for. The Rev. Jim Jones was one. When, in the Kingdom of God in Guyana, he was about to be exposed for exploitation of various kinds, he induced his flock of a thousand or so lost souls to drink poisoned Kool Aid. They, and he, died. Religious militia in Montana and Texas have found cover for their antics in this same book.
In any event, the course was my first taste of Biblical exegesis, the peeling back of layers of meaning from a phrase or word to reach as best possible the original. This was academic detective work. I was entranced. The teacher, a woman, was a professor at General. That was the first time I’d heard of General. That was nine years ago. The idea of attending perked until, a year before I was to retire, I signed up for an evening course there, on mysticism in 14th century England, and then another on early Christian art (mostly poetry) and a third on Christian discernment. At first, I thought my interest in attending seminary was intellectual. I enjoyed theology but for reasons I wasn’t sure of. I knew I wanted to study. But then, why at a seminary? Plenty of other institutions offer opportunities to study. Recently, however, I accepted that I’d come there by way of what’s known to some as a calling from God, a concept that’s giving me difficulty now. This calling, presumably, is to do what I’m doing or to move on to something else I don’t know about, notwithstanding the discomfort and sometimes anxiety it’s causing me. If this, indeed, is what it is, others, including Abraham, Moses and Isaiah, were even more uncomfortable; none of them wanted to do what God wanted of them.
Was this to be like my first day at my first school, Dalton in New York? I was so shy, or perhaps invisible then, that when the pretty teacher missed me at cracker and juice time, I waited until I returned home to register my sadness at being neglected.
Sixty-seven years later, I’m somewhat more assertive, I believe. The aforementioned evening courses showed me that although the reading load is heavy and sometimes complex, I had no good reason to fear not being able to handle the academics; much of the curricula I found fascinating; the professors I’d met I admired, and the students I’d met, while eclectic and sometimes puzzling to me, I found attractive. Nonetheless, that day, I had a problem. My adrenaline shot up, my heart raced, my thoughts jumbled. Day One at Marine Corps boot camp in Parris Island, another sort of a school, was, by comparison, a breeze, a physical and disciplinary adventure to which I’d felt competent. This had no experiential equivalent. I was far out of my comfort range. “What am I doing here?” I asked myself. “This is not where I belong.”
In morning service in the chapel, I found myself insufficiently familiar with The Book of Common Prayer to follow the Anglican ritual. Everyone else flipped through the pages knowingly. I fumbled around. That would have been OK by itself, but then, in the next event, the Small Group Discussion, I listened to comments such as, “I’m totally committed to Jesus” and “Jesus is the center of my life; no other counts.” While I consider God regularly, I don’t freely think much about Jesus.
I had come to Christianity somewhat by default. My faith remains shaky. I was comfortable that day with neither the belief system of my classmates nor the liturgy. I came to sense that I was the weird one, not them.
In chapel, the dean made clear to us that the solitary purpose of the seminary was to train leaders, mostly ordained but also lay, for the church. That was not what I had signed onto, I thought. I just wanted to study. Applying for admission, I realized, appalled, was impetuous and an act of audacity. I was paying the price now; I had overreached my spiritual capacity to say nothing of willingness of adapt to such a culture. The prevalent culture dictates enjoying oneself at my age. I had retired just five months earlier, after 50 years of work; I belonged in my garden or a trout stream, even reading theology albeit on my own or maybe just auditing courses.
By the end of the day, I had calmed down a bit. Then a second panic occurred. I was to meet Denise at 6:30 for our weekly dance class, a 20-minute walk from the seminary. After meetings ended in mid-afternoon, I headed for safe territory, the library. However, the library closed at 5:30 (usually it’s open until 11). I heard the chapel chimes and decided I would attend Evensong, a half-hour celebration of mostly antiphonal chanting. I walked in, sat down where I thought I could make a surreptitious exit if need be. Too late, I realized that I was in for a full Mass. At the altar appeared my advisor, a lovely, tall, thin man with a beard, about my age. I’d seen him before in a blue blazer and slacks. Now he’d morphed into a figure of eminent authority. I was shocked. He wore a magnificent chasuble – beige with gold embossed on a light green cross covering the entire front and a gold, silk lining. He was to be the celebrant, assisted by student acolytes. I had forgotten, to my dismay, that he was a priest as well as professor. Another professor from last academic year, the wife of the celebrant, passed by me on her way to the back row, reserved for faculty, and smiled. Further closing the trap, the dean took the seat in the bench exactly behind me. There was nothing I could do but sit back and take in the ceremony as best I could. I decided that Denise and Benjamin, our instructor, would forgive me for being late.
The class numbers about 50. Seven already are ordained. The youngest is 24. I help bring the median age to somewhere in the late-40s. They come from a variety of professions, from male hospice nurse to two medical doctors and several lawyers. They come from all over the country. In addition, one, already mentioned, comes from Malawi and another from Haiti. Half are women. Most are candidates for a master’s of divinity and most of them are postulates for holy orders, or ordination. They’ve all been through a rigorous vetting process with their churches and then dioceses leading to a recommendation of acceptance by their bishop. Sometimes this can take years. Others are candidates for master’s degrees in three other fields. They are varied in look and background. I introduced myself to the three most different from me -- a young man with spiked hair and hardware in his face, a large African-American woman and the 24-year-old, a sweet-faced woman. “I’m an engineer and I had a good corporate job,” one said. “I was afraid to tell my wife of my calling. Finally, I did. She said, ‘I’ve been waiting six months for you to tell me this.” A woman from South Carolina, just turned 50, said her teenaged daughter’s reaction upon learning of her mother’s new direction was, “I don’t care. It doesn’t affect me.” Then when the woman reached the seminary, the daughter called and said she recognized how big the decision was for her mother and how wonderful.
Another: “I’ve known I was gay since I was five. I was in this bar and there was this big, beefy guy full of testosterone. I thought, ‘How in the world could I minister to him?’ Then I thought, I’d figure it out.” Many make financial sacrifices to attend, foregoing income and borrowing. Many of those in mid-life have cut their ties to other, presumably remunerative careers. None knows that ordination will follow and even if it does, they may not earn as much as they did before. Adding to the difficulty, a few even may not be certain that the ministry will be right for them, or they for it. On top of that, friends and family don’t always understand why they’re doing what they are.
Another sacrifice can be loneliness. Some, mothers as well as fathers, leave children at home to be cared for by a spouse. One in my class, an ordained priest from Malawi, said he missed his two small children who liked to hang on him and follow him about. He also missed his wife and his parish which he had left in the hands of a deacon albeit without any assurance that the deacon could keep the congregation together. Other seminarians bring their children with them. In my class are two single mothers with young daughters who already were running about as if the seminary was home which, in a way, it is. (The seminary provides day-care.) Some students bring their dogs and cats with them for company. One shaggy old black dog makes his home under a table in the lobby.
The week succeeded in providing every conceivable bit of information one would need from whom to call if the toilet floods to obtaining health insurance to joining the Chimers Guild if one wants to ring the chapel’s bells and doesn’t mind heights. The professor of church music instructed the class in the use of a half dozen song books as well as interpreting the musical notes. One session reviewed library resources (which include a quarter of a million books, some of them very old and rare) and electronic research procedures. The staff was introduced one-by-one, from grounds keepers to IT specialists (the chief has a Ph.D.) as was the faculty. The testing (blue books) and grading systems were reviewed. Parties are being held for the new class including a faculty tea and even, separately, for spouses and partners whom the seminary considers important to the success of its students. Coming up will be retreats for seminarians and, separately again, for spouses and partners. Another session will allow the class to hear seniors discuss the subjects of their masters’ degree theses.
The students on ordination tracks were urged to obtain psychotherapy if they hadn’t already had it, and were offered help in doing so. In addition, four spiritual directors, mostly from a nearby monastery and convent, will be available to every student once a month.
There are 15 faculty plus adjunct faculty. That’s a ratio of one professor for every nine students. Their credentials are excellent. Several have five degrees and one has eight. The faculty are accessible; unless they’re in meetings, they pick up their phones when they ring. The dean said their job was to provide all the help a student needs. They seem to do that.
Talks by faculty
All the talks came as quasi-sermons at the end of Day One 8 a.m. services.
One professor opened the subject with a reading from Winnie the Pooh in which Christopher tells a puzzled Pooh that he will be leaving for boarding school and they won’t be able to play together every day in the woods anymore. They’re both sad but it has to be.
Another opened with the section of John Bunyan’s 17th century The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which is to Come in which the allegorical Christian comes to two lions blocking his path. He doesn’t know whether they’re asleep or awake. His companions Timorous and Mistrust urge him to turn around. He’s tempted but doesn’t. That professor went on to say of the friends, family and things most had left behind, “Assuming we owned anything in the first place, disappointment is a gift. We hold up things and people and discover that enough will never be enough.” The dean asked rhetorically, “Where are you going?” and answered that none of us really knows. “God is in the midst of change but never makes sense to us in the present. . . We’re followers of Jesus. We’re going where he leads. It can be frightening and exciting. Some surprises will be filled with sorrow and some with joy but disappointments will continue as long as you live.” He spoke then of Abraham who, at God’s behest, wandered all over the Middle East, and of Moses who led the Israelites 40 years through the desert to the Promised Land but himself couldn’t enter.
The chaplain (a smart, attractive woman) read at another session a poem, the end of which is:
What a defilement of our calling it is to live the lesser life.
We may be frightened by the scope of such a calling,
But it is even more frightening to have stayed stuck.