1st YEAR AT SEMINARY
“Now, you leave that Bible in the car!”
This comes straight from Denise, a serious, practicing Roman Catholic who has attended Mass virtually every week of her life. A surprise? An irony? Yes to both. The person she married was sympathetic to the religious urge but more skeptical than not. Could she ever have imagined that 16 years later, he’d be lugging about a heavy study Bible?
The remark was an indication of her frustration; she was fed up with his studying all the time. And not only that – his anxiety was wearing on her. Remember, until recently, she routinely worked up to midnight or sometimes later at least six days a week, not without anxiety.
For several weeks, I was awakening at 4 a.m., panicked that I was not understanding the likes of the doctrine of atonement or the doctrine of creation, or the deity of God, or just what Origin, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Barth or Niebuhr had to say about this or that, and, mostly, that I wouldn’t have the time to figure it out.
“What does it matter what kind of grade you get?” Denise asked me. “You’re learning; that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” I’m struggling to answer why it matters. I don’t know. I struggled with studies at Andover and Princeton but not like this. Someone suggested that with age, one sets the bar higher.
One midterm, I received a C+ on an exam. Moreover, that grade put me in the lower quartile of the class. I went into profound shock. I knew I’d done poorly, but my prior grades had lulled me into a sense that my learning skills were pretty good.
In my class of 50 are two Ivy Leaguers, two doctors, one former university professor and a half-dozen lawyers. Nonetheless, most of the others have graduated from places I’ve never even heard of. Why the discrepancy? It may be because they know Scripture far better than I do. They also may have a better sense of theological issues. “I’m a cradle Episcopalian,” one woman remarked. “I’ve been listening to these passages all my life.” I’d been listening to them a long time, too, but evidently I wasn’t paying the same attention.
Nonetheless, most of the others are far from coasting. The anxiety is palpable. “I’m studying 16 hours a day,” another woman said. “I’m behind on everything. But I just can’t do any more. ” Most of the others also take more courses than I do, too. At the beginning of the year, another classmate said, “I just have to get used to the idea that I won’t be able to do all the work, as much as I’d like to.” Of course, that adds to the stress.
Earlier, beginning to read the principal text for one course, I came across a passage that set my heart racing. It was fundamentalist and Jesus-centered, just what I was not. If not only this course but the entire seminary curriculum was to be like this, I didn’t belong there. My plan for my post-retirement future was wrecked. I’d need to drop out. And I didn’t want to.
The professor answered the phone on the second ring. “Take as much time as you need,” he told me, sensing my panic. He convinced me that I’d read the passage in the wrong context; the writer was writing about others, not stating his own belief. “You’ll see; he’s quite liberal,” the professor said. The professor was correct.
Once I asked the professor for help. He said, “Yes, could we meet after chapel?” That meant I had to attend chapel to know when the service was over. Chapel that time consisted, I found out, of a full Mass. And lo and behold, my professor, an authority figure in the classroom, morphed into a beautifully-gowned priest, an authority in the church, a double-whammy. (Since, I’ve come to know him as a human being, and to like him.)
Stress notwithstanding, I’m loving what I’m doing. What I’m learning seems more important than anything else. Moreover, I want to learn more. For example, I’d like to learn ancient Hebrew and 1st century Greek.
In one class, a student asked how important it was to know Hebrew. The professor explained that she and most of the others in the class would be ministering the Word of God. Wouldn’t understanding it in the language it was originally conveyed be important? He went on to say, “I’ve had a personal revelation. If you don’t know Hebrew, you’ll get to heaven. But once you’re there, you won’t know what they’re saying.”
Another professor made an analogy to the Eskimos vocabulary of 10 words for white. The Greeks had a dozen for sheep. In the case at hand, the word “sheep” in our English Bibles was written originally something like, “frisky little lamb.” (Lamb can be a symbol of Jesus, and sheep for God’s people.)
I’m learning current research methodology, including how to use library software, new since my study days a half century ago. And I’m learning graduate academic writing. A sampling of the titles of my papers over the year: Ecclesiology and Eschatology: Two Views; Jonah: a Reluctant Calling; A Response to Some Questions Relating to 1 Corinthians 15:42-49 and The Trinity and the Biblical Narrative.
Words such as hypotasis, pneumatic, hermaneutics, soteriology and ontology are becoming part of my vocabulary. That’s scary; this isn’t me, I think.
I’m enjoying my fellow students. They’re virtually all kind, compassionate, empathetic and themselves loving. They’re also dead serious. Most have made serious sacrifices to be there, including taking on debt to pay tuition, room and board, and have left families elsewhere. In their ministries, they know they’ll not be paid much.
Others bring their families. The seminary maintains an apartment building on 20th street for them. A noisy corner of the close is a playground. One classmate bore a child right before exams.
The same attributes could describe not only faculty and administration but also grounds keepers and janitors. As he mops floors, one joyfully sings. “This little light of mine, let it shine, let it shine.” (The light, of course, is the Holy Spirit.) If given a chance, he’ll give an impromptu sermon as good as you’d hear from some pulpits.
Once in the adjacent conference center, an attendant in the elevator asked me how I was. I was grumpy, in the process of cramming my head full of stuff for an exam. I grumbled, “I’m O.K.” Then I asked how he was. His reply, brightly: “I’m blessed.”
Now that Denise has sold her co-op, we’re spending a couple of nights a week at the same conference center cum hotel. Denise’s office is a pleasant 20-minute walk away. The edifice is called the Bishop Tutu Center. It’s an imposing red brick, four storied neo-Gothic structure with slate roof and, in the public areas, leaded, stained-glass windows. We get the student rate which is a small fraction of the market rate.
The campus, called the close, is an entire city block in the quaint, now trendy Chelsea neighborhood. It’s between 9th and 10th Avenues and 20th and 21st Streets. It’s been designated National Historic site. The seminary was founded almost 200 years ago when the Hudson River covered what’s now 10th Avenue. Now it’s a bit like two Princeton quads albeit more down-at-the-heels. Old trees shade it in summer. Flower beds are tended lovingly. Resident dogs, one of which one has to step over upon entering the administration building, are not allowed near them.
Another benefit is a spiritual director. This is an ancient tradition, going back to the 4th century desert fathers, designed especially to keep those such as monks and mystics who have placed themselves in spiritually and otherwise unorthodox situations, from losing their minds and, in the Middle Ages, from straying too far from the authority of the church (in which case, they could be executed). Until recently, the likes of me would never receive such attention. My spiritual director is a monk from a monastery up the Hudson. He is not just a monastic brother but also a father. He’s ordained. He’s also a Ph.D. from Union/Columbia. He’s my opposite in several respects but I feel privileged. I must be the most perplexing of any charge he’s had. Here’s one epiphany to which he led me. I told him I felt more affinity to Islam than to Christianity, not because I knew or liked anything about Islam, but because my paternal grandfather was a devout follower and a financial backer of the liberal Bektashi sect in northern Albania. That religious practice was where I was meant to feel most comfortable, I thought. My Christian upbringing, I’d told him, was not even negligible; it was zero. Thus, I sensed, Christianity was an alien tradition. His answer: “It’s just symbols. You and your grandfather worship different symbols. But you worship the same God. You’re right with him.” I felt he’d lifted a big burden from me.
Another benefit: My student discount will get me into at least one museum for $2 where the cost for seniors is $5. That’s the Rubin, a fine place on 17th Street which displays art of the Himalayas, all of which, incidentally, is religious.
Still another benefit, albeit an intangible one but probably the most valuable of all: I know enough now to know that there’s little I can know. The nature of God as well as the significance of existence are simply unintelligible. That’s a hard lesson but it, too, has lifted another burden from me. With such an understanding, the parameters of the quest are narrowed, and the quest becomes more manageable.
Graduation occurs in the chapel, the big red-brick bell tower of which is modeled after one in Magdalene College in Oxford. Faculty are glorious in their Episcopal ecclesial robes. Some of the liturgy dates from monastic offices in the Middle Ages. Latin is spoken on occasion. A four-piece brass ensemble complements the big organ, played by a Ph.D. The assembly (graduates and guests) chant antiphonally to each other across the aisle (the benches face the aisle). The graduates are escorted one-by-one to the altar where they kneel on a cushion while the dean hands them their diplomas. If I finish, years hence, I may be there, too, one of them. I’d probably be the oldest graduate ever.
In the meantime, the question of right equilibrium between studies and the rest of life will be ever-present. I have two papers to write this summer. And Denise, while basically approving, remains edgy about how all this affects my disposition and, accordingly, our life together.
Turhan Tirana '57
June 7, 2008
 Footnotes almost double the number of pages, and weight.
 Generally, $40-60 thousand