A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Love Song

I first entered the main building of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in April of 1997 as a newly minted postulant and prospective student, through those heavy wooden doors just off the parking lot. What I discovered wasn’t modern and institutional; it didn’t look like a school or university, even though it was situated on a Big Ten campus. It looked, and felt, like a place where religious community flourished. It even smelled right. I may not have been sure what I sought when I entered that building, but my gut (and isn’t that where the Holy Spirit resides, after all?) told me I belonged here.

The mechanics of enrollment and planning for a vastly different life followed. My husband was prepared to make tremendous professional sacrifices to I could pursue my calling. Through it all I never doubted that call, and I never doubted that I belonged at Seabury.
Places sometimes take hold of us. The setting, people, situations, and experiences all combine to create a deep sense of what Kathleen Norris calls “spiritual geography”. Seabury became that for me.
There was the chapel, the place where we gathered as many as three or four times daily to immerse ourselves in the Daily Office or celebrate Eucharist. It was the place where many of us first led worship, officiating at Morning Prayer or Evensong or gathering in the late evening, praying Compline by candlelight. We greeted Jesus’ resurrection at the Great Vigil of Easter. Babies born to seminarians were baptized here. When our all-too-human words and actions offended, it was often here that we were reconciled to God and one another.
The chapel was central, but the community was more than that. We held family/community evening Eucharists weekly, usually in Seabury Lounge. At one of these I witnessed my son, only eight years old, turn and give the Body of Christ to the bishop-elect of New York, then-Dean Mark Sisk. (Does anything like that ever happen in a parish?) We groused about the food in the Refectory, and about the living conditions in the student apartments. We learned from an exceptionally gifted faculty, who treated us as colleagues. We studied in the library and in the basement room known affectionately (?) as “Purgatory”. I held my classmate’s baby son while he preached in the parking lot at “Mass on the Asphalt”. Living “on the block” was a particular gift to my family, especially my young son and daughter. For years they had heard their parents talk about the importance of tolerating and accepting human diversity; at Seabury it was incarnate and they, and we, learned to embrace it. Life in that community wasn’t painless, and it wasn’t perfect. But it was right.
Several years ago Seabury made the very difficult decision to cease its residential M.Div. program, thus ending nearly 150 years of a time-honored and very specific system of theological education. The trustees advised most of the remaining faculty and staff that their jobs would soon end, and agreed to sell the property to Northwestern University and lease it back for use. Seabury would be “what’s next” in a seminary. Grief among graduates manifested itself in anger with the board. How could future Episcopal clergy possibly function and minister in the Church without a traditional seminary education?
Last Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, the staff, faculty, trustees and many graduates of Seabury gathered for an extended liturgy that began with a leave-taking of the old chapel as the seminary made a journey from the physical space it had called home for so many decades and, going home by another way, moved into a new space in Chicago near O'Hare Airport: smaller, less burdensome financially, and much more accessible for both clergy and laity seeking a new kind of theological and spiritual formation for the missional Church we must all reclaim if we are to continue to spread and live into the Good News. Here in this new space the liturgy continued, dedicating it as a center for prayer, formation, and communal life right smack in the middle of the marketplace where cross the crowded ways of life. The Church in the world – not painless, not perfect, but right.

I’m proud to be an alumna of a seminary that took such a courageous step, and that continues to model faithful risk-taking. The memories that I and my fellow alumni/ae treasure, the formation we received will always be with us, and no one can take them away. But I would never be so presumptuous as to suggest that future leaders of the church want, or even need, those same experiences. We are waking up to a new and necessary reality, and Seabury is in the vanguard. The One who makes all things new is clearly at work, and I can’t wait to see what’s next! 

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