The oratory was not in this building when I was a student here-- that space is now a student apartment. So now students gather for centering prayer or sit alone before the reserved sacrament in a small room on the second floor of the seminary's oldest building. Probably it was a student apartment in the 19th century -- because what goes around does come around, if you live long enough.
This seminary was founded in 1817, making it the oldest theological seminary in the worldwide Anglican Communion -- the age of ecumenical politeness had yet to dawn in the 19th century, and anything called a "seminary" would have seemed to most Anglicans to be much too close to Rome for their comfort. Prospective clergy either "read for orders" privately, under the supervision of a bishop, or took themselves off across the sea to a college in England.
In a month or so, it will have been 30 years since I graduated. On Friday, I am to give a talk about what it was like here then, and what it was like to be a woman priest in the early years.
I am preparing my talk. I seldom speak of those days, and I am finding it a challenge-- it is hard to know where to begin. I have been content to let the years unfurl, one by one by one, and to let them speak for themselves. Which is something they mostly do without words.
Or do they? Maybe these thirty years have been nothing BUT words -- words spoken, words written, words sung, words heard in utter confidence, words swallowed. Words taken back. Words proclaimed. Unwelcome words. Words that pierced my heart, that pierce it even now, years later, when I bring them to mind.
Here in the oratory, it has been more about silence than about words. Or has it? Here the inner journey if silence assisted by the repetition of one holy word has drawn many souls into contemplation of the still point that is our God. And here the journey of spiritual direction takes place, sacred conversation between two people whose hope is to gain a closer walk with God. In my day, we said our practice Masses here, foretastes of what our lives would be like in a few short months. To us, they were thrilling beyond words. I remember pretending that it was no big deal, really, embarrassed at how big a deal it was.
You see the problem with my talk: everything I might say about my vocation, the only one about which I can speak with any authority, is as false as it is true. It has been about silence and about words. I have been by turns both effective and useless. The church is both magnificent and tawdry. My intentions have been both sterling and base. The church and I: we have been a confusing pair.
We students sensed the awesomeness of our calling before we lived it, before we could possibly know what it really was. Of course -- all human vocation is like that. You don't know what it's going to be like until you do it. The risk we take -- each of us -- in becoming who we are meant to be, is enormous.
"Long Ago, But Not So Far Away:What It Was Like Back in the Day" is the catchy title of Barbara's talk for General Seminary's St. Blandina Society, to be delivered at the Desmond Tutu Center of General Theological Seminary, 175 Ninth Avenue in New York City this Friday, April 9, at noon. The seminary's number is 212.243.5150.
Would you like to see the seminary? Visit www.gts.edi.
Do you know about St. Blandina? For a quick introduction,
Parental discretion advised.
And don't forget the Noisy Day with Barbara and Ana Hernandez on Saturday at Holy Trinity in New York City. Email Deacon J to reserve a place at firstname.lastname@example.org