Returning to Seminary


Last month an old friend from my seminary days called me up and said he was driving out east to the divinity school we graduated from to attend a forum the school was holding on “citizenship and faith.” He wondered if I wanted to join him for the overnight event. It fit into my schedule so I said sure. I hadn’t been back there for any kind of formal event at all in the 25 years since my graduation, but the opportunity to spend time with my friend was compelling. The three years I spent there weren’t especially happy ones — hence the avoidance of the place. Once again, the passage of time was evident. We happened upon professors who when we were there were at the peak of their intellectual powers and quite intimidating; now they seemed fragile, clinging to the school to provide some order and certainty to their life as they edged off into the sunset.

The forum contained a range of speakers with impressive credentials, deans of seminaries and former ambassadors and the like, which was an aspect of the school that is so different from the world I now live in with ordinary folk bearing few credentials in which to boast. I enjoyed the banter of ideas and managed to feel content within myself despite the modesty of the resume I have achieved since my departure from the place: 25 years of parish ministry.

Gary Hart, the one time frontrunner presidential candidate was one of the speakers, having graduated from the school fifteen years before myself. As I assume most people do, I remembered Gary Hart for his ignominious departure from the campaign, when pictures surfaced that seemed to confirm rumors of his “womanizing.” He seemed like a smart guy who was ahead of the curve on important issues that we now struggle with in our nation today, but the thing that struck me most was that he was there in the company of his wife of over 50 years. Gary Hart’s lasting public image is one of “womanizer”, when in fact his life has been characterized more deeply by a marriage that has endured, indeed, seemingly prospered over time. People are generally far more complex than our public images let on.

Also in attendance at the forum, not as a speaker, but simply as observer, was a woman Episcopal priest who graduated from the same school and who has written several books that I’ve read — books of sermons, seminary lectures, memoirs. I love her writing, and have been blessed by it. I felt an obligation to go up to her and thank her for her writing, but was inhibited by my native shyness. I finally found her standing alone in the book store at the end of the event. She was buying several books that she awkwardly carried in her hands, apparently in a hurry to make a meeting at which her presence was expected. I quickly introduced myself, told her how much I appreciated her writing. She was polite, but obviously rushed, and I felt like I was intruding, so after making my brief prepared speech, I quickly retreated. I was struck in the experience by the peculiarity of a writer’s life in relation to her audience. In some sense I feel like I know this woman quite well, having spent many hours with her words, some of which were quite personal, (though of course, as with Gary Hart and his public persona, what is revealed in her writing is only a small piece of who she truly is.) She, on the other hand, knows practically nothing of me. It’s like having a friend from whom you’ve gotten comfort and inspiration, except this friend doesn’t know you from Adam.

I did, however, greatly enjoy the company of my real friend, whom I have known for over a quarter of a century, and who shares with me the ordinary challenges that are ours as pastors of small congregations. It is good to have friends who knew you then, know you yet, and will hopefully know you when you edge off into the sunset.