I’ve been drafting this one for about 4 months. It’s a chronicle of the “side effects” experienced over the course of my first semester of seminary – those unexpected, sometimes humorous, sometimes meaningful things that start happening and keep happening whether you like it or not.
So, if you ever start seminary, maybe watch out for the following:
1. Humility. (Actually, this one often starts as impostor syndrome or self-doubt. But, by the time symptoms 7 and 8 set in, this can manifest as humility.) As early as orientation, I would look at the course catalog and think: I can’t possibly learn even 1% of the things taught here. I used to think I was smart, used to be accustomed to friends looking to me as something of a miniature “expert” on religious matters. Now, the thought of expertise – the thought of “mastering divinity” as my Master of Divinity degree implies I’m doing – makes me laugh. Now, I marvel at the expanse of theology, biblical studies, ethics, history, languages, spirituality, and pastoral care that exists and suppose I’m the smallest speck compared to that expanse. Now, I think maybe it would be smart to be humble about how little of the expanse I will actually “master” (even while working to master what meager portion I can).
2. Anger. By this, I mean a sometimes-righteous, sometimes-raging anger at the way churches, communities, and individuals have engaged narrowly and unjustly (often in the name of religion) throughout the world and throughout history with issues of gender, sexuality, race, poverty, abuse, mental illness, disabilities, politics, war, slavery, mass incarceration, biblical interpretation (clobber verses, anyone?), missiology (crusades, anyone?), and more. Yes, those are all topics I have crossed paths with just in my first semester – nay, first month – of seminary. Yes, it can be overwhelming. This quotation gives me hope:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” – St. Augustine
3. Questions. Why? What for? What does that word mean? Better yet, what does that word mean in Greek? My favorite is when I bump into a friend and they say “Hey, quick question: What do Episcopalians believe about Eucharist?” In most of life, these are not “quick questions.” In seminary, apparently these are normal.
4. The inability to answer questions simply. I increasingly hear questions in gray rather than black-and-white, thinking quickly of at least two ways to approach the question (maybe an Old Covenant approach and New Covenant approach, Protestant approach and Catholic approach, literal and metaphorical, critical and devotional). I don’t even mean to, but I’m getting trained to. For instance, a few weeks into the semester, a friend asked casually “How’s life?” I contemplated his query for a second and said, “Hmm how’s life? That’s a deep question. Can we clarify our definition of the meaning and scope of the term ‘life’? Do we mean my life right now or life in general?”
5. The inability to listen to religious music in the same way ever again. I hear songs on Christian radio or in worship services and little sirens go off in my head screaming of patriarchal language, out-of-context biblical references, or downright heresy.
6. Speaking in tongues. By this, I mean using Greek, Hebrew, and Latin right and left (but, yes, if you also wind up speaking in tongues in other ways I suppose I can analyze the history, theology, and spirituality of that). I’m not even taking a biblical language this semester, and I wrote a paper including terms like imago dei, facere quod in se est, oikonomia, kenosis, and epectasy as if that was perfectly normal.
7. Prayer. For me, every day begins with morning prayer with the Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies. Most days close with evening prayer. Most classes open with prayer – whether moments of silence, psalms, prayers of the saints, or the prayers of Professor Smith. During finals, I stopped in the hall to pray with an anxious friend one day, and then my housemate and I stopped in a parking lot to talk and pray with a homeless woman another day.
“Study that does not finally result in prayer is a dishonesty for us.” – St. Benedict
8. Friendship. Truly, when dealing with all the above side effects, I couldn’t possibly do it alone. The people with whom I’ve been studying, praying, conversing, and eating become inherently connected to me and I to them. It is beautiful.
“We are incomplete in ourselves. We want to share our lives with others both to expand our hearts and to receive help because of our smallness of heart.” – St. Thomas Aquinas