August 8, 2014

What I'd say to an incoming seminary student

iCarly, incoming junior-class Factotum in Prof. Schneebly's Introduction to the Prophetic Literature

Welcome! This is gonna be great. Specifically, hard-great. Hard, but great. Probably.

Well, anyway, welcome. Have you found the coffee machine and the good coffee yet? (The bad coffee is always front and center. If you have to, chip in with some of your new buddies and get some good coffee, and be generous about it with others even if you're normally cheap.)

Have you learned enough about this hallowed space to have picked out your super-quiet study spots? Maybe think about that, too. Walk around and look. There's a reading hidey-hole somewhere around here with your name on it that no one else knows about.

You've probably been catching up on the excellent blogs about What I Should Have Read Before Seminary. That's all pretty good advice. I wouldn't become obsessed by it at this point, though. (But do look in your prayer book and make friends with rubrics.) I'd just take the time to get accustomed to your surroundings. Locate your classmates and get to know them as fast as you can. Have coffee in the morning and share late-afternoon beers and long dinners together, and do that starting right now. Sit and breathe in the same room, strange and simple as that sounds. And start looking after each other's kids. You're going to be together -- in mind and spirit if not in person -- for a very long time. At the very least, it's going to be three years of extremely tight quarters.

Perhaps rather than worry about too much reading, it'd be better to invest in a good coffee-maker and sit down with a book or two of poetry over the next week before things really get going in earnest and you find yourself at the bookstore anyway. A friend gave me W.S. Merwin's The Pupil just before I graduated -- good stuff but three years behind schedule.
Here late into September
I can sit with the windows
of the stone room swung open
to the plum branches still green
above the two fields bare now
fresh-plowed under the walnuts
and watch the screen of ash trees
and the river below them ....
[Or just stare at this photo of e e cummings and try to get under his skin.]

So, you'll know this, too, already, but this is a human institution. Profoundly human. No great shock there. Part of what that means, though, is that even though this is a place that trains people for work in ministry according to the principle of "I must become less so that God can become more," there's still going to be a lot of self-credentialing and jockeying for position. This partly due to the natural mechanics of how dioceses/synods/uplines-in-general choose, prepare, review, and then necessarily re-choose candidates for ordination. Partly it's just what it means to go to grad school. A sense of competition is perhaps unfairly (perhaps not unfairly) built in to it. Folks want to know if you can swim before throwing you in the deep water. It doesn't feel like it in the moment, but they're showing you a great mercy on the front end.

But what that self-credentialing means is that your class will become its own sort of caste system. And it won't take long for seasoned eyes to see it forming itself, a caste hardening-up like a cast. Unless you have folks transfer in and out of your class, or other major life-events, it'll be pretty well calcified by the end of your first semester. This will be strange indeed for you, because you will no doubt have been informed by a self-presenting sense of justice inherent in the teachings of Jesus that you've been hearing about and, in your own way, working for, for years -- or at least trying to work out for yourself. You'll find it strange that in one sense someone is throwing Saul Alinsky at you from across the room, and you're hearing about sometimes you have to throw your body on the whole bloody machine to make it stop whole, this crazy system, this whole empire gone wrong, and in another sense (a different sense altogether yet simultaneous to the first) you're being asked to take your place in a line, be evaluated against a host of factors only partially explained, and be good, be helpful, be vocal but not annoying, not shake things up overly.

What does this caste look like? Well, for a lot of us, it has had to do with who talks in class and who doesn't, and who talks with the people who either talk in class or don't. That probably seems like a crazy and random distinction, doesn't it? I can't explain it myself.

So if you feel you have something to contribute but you can't figure out how to break in, you need to try anyway, dadgummit, even and especially if it isn't the most brilliant thing you've ever said. Because for one thing an honest, half-formed thought/question is an awesome way into a deeper conversation. And because for another, even though you feel you've completely bought in to this experience (and you no doubt have), participation means a lot. (It means a lot, just for example, to your bishop.) Your more perceptive instructors will have created clever mechanisms to get people to share what they know and ask about what they don't; but even the best of such mechanisms can never be 100% equal or totally collaborative. Your professors' methodologies cannot replace your own demonstrated interest; neither should they. This experience is, to a large degree, what you make it, so make it good.

Now, then. You're going to need some serious outlet, and no, studying can't be your "hobby." Free time is not given; it is what you reserve, now, for yourself and your family and your soul. It's the place where the unconscious mind has a chance to chew over what your conscious mind has been hoarding so it can make what you know 100x better and allow greater clarity when you have to put it into speech. Ideally a habit like this will involve things that are small enough to fit in a knapsack or the back of your car. Because you're going to be living in 535 square feet for the next three years, and how much of that are you willing to give to your 16-foot-long touring-grade sea kayak kit?

Last thing for the moment. If you have brought someone else along for the ride, or left him or her behind to tend farm and family, DON'T FORGET ABOUT THIS PERSON. You have both sacrificed for you to be here, but you're the one who's going to get all the attention, and that's just dumb. This person is the most cherished ingredient in the alchemy of your sanity while you are in seminary. Determine now to be in consistent touch with this person, this lifeline, whomever it may be, whom you desperately love. Reach out throughout the day. Keep the connection solid and unbreakable if you can. The sacrament of your union was sealed before you set foot on campus; it preceded the sacrament of ordination. No one can force this priority onto you, but you'd better choose it for yourself.

Also, you're never too busy or too cool for chapel.

Okay. So that's what was on my mind. You already have somewhere you need to be, I know, in about five minutes. Know where all the bathrooms are? The library? Your adviser's office? Great!

Be an oak branch over the next few years, wouldja? Be supple and malleable so you can be truly formed; yet grow in the fulness of the knowledge of who and what you are. Have a clear sense of your self; know your limits, and test them. And God will be with you.

See ya 'round.


Ann said...

Glad I did not go to an Episcopal seminary if this is the norm.

Anne Tanner said...

And I wish I had gone, if this is the norm.

Scoop said...

Thanks for this. Our mutual friend Jen sent me here. The countdown to orientation has begun, and even though I am attending a UCC seminary, there is a cohort of Episcopalians there, so that is comforting.

Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Excellent and pretty spot-on, though I didn't really experience things as a "caste system" as such. There were, however, some natural leaders and other natural scholars in our class. Also, chapel is more valuable than you can possibly imagine.

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...

Thanks for the feedback so far, friends.

A word or two about the term caste, which I see has perhaps a stronger air of deliberative provocation about it than originally calculated:

My experience (you can't un-have an experience; nor should you disown it) was that of a few excellent academic performers and a few struggling academic performers, with a vast middleground where it was easy to get lost or behind and start to founder. (Where I might have fallen on that spectrum is my own business.) This is typical for any learning situation. But it IS a kind of stratification. Where it goes wonky is in thinking that By golly this is a seminary, we're all in this side-by-side, and we all rise or fall together, which is just destined not to be as true as it sounds, even if it sounds great.

What is not intended or should be construed through that word is that the seminary system itself somehow only supports those who show the highest degree promise through performance. Indeed, as any good seminary should, the folks at my school worked hard to demonstrate equal treatment. You have to do this, and they did it exceedingly well.

For the record, I am just gobsmacked in love with the seminary where I received my training. I wouldn't change a single experience for all the tea in China (as difficult and strange as those experiences may have been at the time), and I am thrilled with that school's current leaders, administrators, staff, and professors. It's a privilege to be associated with it.

Jean Mornard said...

I LOVE this! I wish I had read it before I went to seminary, although I'm sure most of it (except the coffee) would have gone right over my head at the time. Absolutely spot on - especially the caste system! Thanks!