What Am I to Learn?

About halfway along my 9-day, 2,596-mile drive across the country, I stopped in a small, artsy town about 7,500 feet up in the northern Colorado Rockies. While there,  a dark haired forty-something coffee shop clerk with a grounded, robust presence that matched his solid barrel-shape, struck up a conversation. Where was I headed? Why was I moving to California? When I told him I was going to Berkeley to start seminary, he gave a response that was becoming familiar.

“Reea-lly?” he said, raising his eyebrows, taking me in. “That’s very interesting.”  And then he spilled out his own spiritual journey: the Catholic upbringing, the drifting away from church, the deep effect his time fighting in Desert Storm had on him, his return to church when he got back, and how “Two sermons in, I just had to apologize to the priest. This just isn’t working for me.” And how he drifted away again, seemingly left dangling and still wandering in his longings. He poured out difficulties and questions he had with church and Christianity - a jumble of things apparently really needing to be said.

There was a lot stirring in him, and I listened with interest and empathy. He seemed energized by the simple opportunity to be seen and heard.   

“Stop by if you’re ever in Estes Park again! Good luck - I think you’ll do great!” he called out as I left the shop.

Back on the road, I found myself thinking about one of his comments in particular: “And then, this thing where the Catholic church wants priests’ training to be 3 years, a Master’s program? I mean what do they have to learn, anyway? That’s just ridiculous!” 

I didn’t interrupt his stream of thoughts to ask him more about that, nor to mention that my seminary program was a 3-year Master’s program. But his words struck me because they came in the context of my own recent thinking of how MUCH I have to learn!

Just academically, there are so many offerings at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) where I was headed, as well as at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), the inter-religious consortium there of seminaries and graduate theology schools, including CDSP. There are requisite and elective courses in Theology, Church History, Old and New Testament, Liturgy, Pastoral Care, Ministry, Greek, Hebrew, Liturgical Music and more; there are dozens of classes available to CDSP seminarians from anywhere at the GTU - interfaith offerings at schools of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, many Christian denominations, a Women and Religion Studies program - on and on and on. In addition, there’s required practicum work in chaplaincy settings like hospitals or prisons, a required immersion experience in a culture other than one’s own, and extended field work in local parishes. There’s also a Spiritual Formation aspect solidly structured into the 3 years and central to the ordination track. In contrast to what my fellow pilgrim in the coffee shop said, to me 3 years seems very short!

During the first morning of our week-long orientation, Andrew Hybil, the Dean of Students, spoke of the profound changes that he experienced himself during seminary, and has seen in others. He told us: “You will be transformed here. When you walk across the altar at graduation in 3 years, you will not be the same person that you are now.”  Randal Gardner, the Dean of Chapel at CDSP who also oversees the Spiritual Formation program, candidly described some of his own journey in seminary. He told us that at the beginning, he gave himself permission to not believe in God any more by the end. These 2 reflections were particularly meaningful and comforting to me as I stewed in my own wonderings about all there is to learn, all my doubts and questions, and in the awareness of the profound changes that are possible.

What do I need to learn to serve God and others as a priest? Can I do it??  How am I and my belief system being called to change? Where do I cling to the old and grasp for control and sureness?

Regarding these and many more questions, I feel both excitement and fear! Many things have come up in the opening weeks to comfort and encourage, but two things have been particularly humbling and helpful in pointing me to self-forgetting, receptivity, and paying attention. The first is from Isaiah.   

Thus says the LORD
   who makes a way in the sea
   a path in the mighty waters,

Do not remember the former things
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth,
               do you not perceive it?

                                                       Isaiah 43: 16, 18-19

The second is a prayer read to us at the beginning of class by our Old Testament professor from the book Spiritual Modalities by William FitzGerald.

Living Spirits of Earth
Mother and Father of us all
You who hold us in Your breath
You who bathe us in Your waters
Who feed us with Your fruits
Guardian of where we are going
of who we are becoming
Cradle of our days
and coffin of our nights
You who carry us folded in Your arms
Sailing silently among the stars,
Hear our prayers.                               

Amen. This journey begins. Now for the next 3 years, I’m officially called a student, though I’ve been one all along. May I pay attention!