On Becoming Divine:
Within Theological School, and Without
I HAVE NEVER BEEN smote on the head, or anywhere else, for that matter, with religious conviction. Yet, after years of milking cows, traveling, graduate study in poetry, teaching college writing, shoveling horse manure, and stints as a researcher and writer, I found myself applying to theological schools. This despite the fact that I can’t even say the word prayer out loud, much less the J-word (Jesus, that would be).
Theological school, I envision, will be a land of all wonderful things: love, justice, kindness, vegetarians, feminists, environmentalists. And it will also be a land of integrity and clarity, where all my agonizing over whether I am following the right path, being the right person, doing the right work, will fall away.
Or, on the other hand, I can imagine theological school as bludgeon: Religious truth! Righteousness! Judgment! Fervor! Faith! Foaming at the mouth!
I shove the last idea aside, and after a busy spring of agonizing, applications, and campus visits, I settle on Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. I select Drew for four reasons. One, because the admissions booklet says on the cover: “As for all that does not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” Thinking is good.
Two, a full tuition merit scholarship and living stipend. Money is good.
Three, when I come to visit the campus, the chapel has clear glass windows: I can see the sky and trees. Sky and trees are good.
Four, when my car breaks down, the admissions staff turns over heaven, earth and northern New Jersey to convince a garage to fix it that afternoon, so that I can return to my job on time the next morning. Then the admissions director takes me to his house, feeds me, and drives me to the garage, after hours, when my car is ready. Helpful people are very, very good.
At home again, in my pre-seminary summer panic, I read any Bible I can find. I didn’t grow up going to church much, but I do remember the story of Moses in the rushes, Jacob’s coat, Jesus and all that fish and bread. Plus I vaguely recall taking the Bible as Literature in college.
However, I do not remember ever hearing about the concubine, the one who was cut in twelve pieces and the pieces sent throughout the country, by men seeking revenge on one another. But there it is, right there in Judges. I do not like this story at all.
Nor do I remember Jesus cursing the fig tree. Jesus, of all people. Now wait just a minute, I think. Wait just a minute, you. Fig trees are good.
Two months later I come to Drew in my fixed-up car for the fall semester grateful, and I also come scared.
All during first-week orientation, I alternately cry on a rock outdoors by myself and try not to cry during meetings, worship services, and getting-to-know-each-other games. There are many people here, a great diversity of people, some of whom are friendly, and who look as alarmed at this churchy situation as I do.
I consider packing up my clothes, poetry books, hiking shoes, and all; but during that same week I also discover the arboretum on campus, where turtles sun on logs in the ponds, and mallards and wood ducks rear their young. I decide to stay a little longer, maybe through my first class.
It approaches. I go armed with my notebook, pen, and car keys, in case I need to quickly drive away from this horrible event.
My first teacher appears, in my first class in my first classroom in theological school. She begins the morning with a poem. A poem about turtles.
I am astonished. Aren’t we supposed to be piously praying? Earnestly endeavoring to save the world? Practicing saying Jesus out loud?
Apparently not. Apparently we are supposed to be reading poetry. About turtles.
But perhaps this teacher is a renegade, a radical, soon to be kicked out of church and seminary alike.
In my second class, my second teacher comes in with a vase full of flowers and a whole book of poetry. I do not know whether to float off my seat or put my head down on my desk in despair. How can I resist this?
Before I know it, here I am, a farm girl down to my roots, who is afraid of the city, this city, any city, riding in a van with six other seminary students and two teachers around the notorious streets of Newark.
This is pastoral formation, and I am not at all sure I want to be pastorally formed, anywhere, but especially not here in the middle of Newark. But the Newark section of the course is the only one taught by women, and I am holding grimly to the idea that if I want to be a woman in religious work, then I have to be with women in religious work.
This is a sensible idea, on some level, except that it leads me to Newark, and I am scared again, scared in the van, scared in the homeless shelter, scared in the residence for ex-cons living with HIV. I am even scared in the Catholic church, where the priest tells us the chapel is dedicated to women wanting a child. Feminist alarms go off in my head.
“Wonderful,” says another student, another woman, and I think twice. Maybe it is wonderful? Could it be wonderful?
One of my teachers is herself a priest (Episcopal, need I say?) in a beleaguered section of Newark. She is like a whole Episcopal service in her own right—her bright, colorful vestments are the banners of the church, her bracelets and earrings jingle like tiny bells, her perfume floats around her like incense. This lovely woman takes us to her church and tells us about her first act in ministry: to remove the barbed wire from the top of the fence around the churchyard.
Wow, I think. She is brave. I know barbed wire, better than I’d like to, from fixing fence, from doctoring the slashed teat of a milk cow that’s jumped a fence. Barbed wire is fierce; it must have been up there around that church for a reason. Yet she took it down.
Later that day the bright jingling priest takes us to her house, in Newark, right there in Newark, and we eat and sing by candlelight together, right there in Newark. Even in my state of high anxiety I do not fail to notice in this woman priest’s house a framed print of some kind of wolf-woman howling some kind of feminist howl. Howling right there in Newark.
Wow, I think again. People live here. Some people even choose to live here maybe. They might even like it.
Biblical studies: my teacher looks like a patriarch. Gracious, yes; soft-spoken, yes; operating a PowerPoint system with glee, yes; but a patriarch. I feel myself resisting. I look out the windows of the classroom. There are many beautiful trees on this campus, and I think I may go sit under one very soon.
Then the patriarch announces that early Christianity is a cult.
The vast majority of the class draws back in their collective seats. I, however, perk up.
“In a strictly anthropological sense, of course,” he says, “but still a cult.”
This provokes lively discussion. Except for me. I am thinking, You see? You see? It is a cult. It is a cult. I knew it! Let’s go out to the nice trees instead.
That same day, my two pastoral formation teachers lead a chapel service on the campus. They give communion. I am appalled. What are they doing to us, this wonderful turtle poem woman, this wonderful bright jingling priest? But wait, I want to cry, it’s a cult! And I thought you were feminist-vegetarian-environmentalists like me!
I confront one of the teachers afterwards. She is appalled by my state of appalled-ness.
“What did you think we were giving you?” she says in a whisper.
All that body and blood, I might answer. What was all that about? Was it the concubine, maybe? You know, the one who was cut in pieces and the pieces sent throughout the land? I read about this, I read this in the Bible.
Is that what you wanted me to swallow? I might say.
But I say nothing. I go out to the woods and cry.
I write a single poem that first semester, a poem of intense dislocation and almost unbearable joy. Its title is “Somehow I Become a Fish.” I attach it, unsigned, to the last paper for the last class of pastoral formation. My turtle poem teacher asks to meet with me after class.
“Is it yours?” she says.
“It’s beautiful,” she says. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
I tell her what I’m thinking, about how I can’t stand it here, how I don’t know what to do about it, about my writing, about anything.
“Why did you come to seminary? What made you think you wanted to come?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Because there are different standards. It’s not all about money. It’s not all about advantage. If the standard is love, then at least there’s something to be accountable to that’s good, there’s integrity necessary in everything you’re doing if what you want to do is this love.”
“Isn’t it interesting,” she says slowly, looking at my poem, “that you’ve come to a place that specializes in calling?”
She smiles at me. She puts my poem in my hand.
In my second semester, the spring semester, I discover two saving things: a hollow in the campus woods, a sort of bowl of trees, with the sky far above. There is a tall maple in the middle. It is my crying tree. I can look up at the sky, sit down on the ground. I can cry, every day if I want to, on my walk in the woods.
I feel like crying, I do cry, after a daily dose, a bellyful, a bellyache-full of biblical hermeneutics, post-Pauline discourses, metaphysical deconstructions, triumphalist patriarchal imperialist critiques, hierarchical dualisms, fundamentalist revisionist interpretations, mutualistic models of liberation theologies. To say nothing of the weekly communion services in the chapel, which also causeth me to gnash my teeth and weep under my tree.
The other wonderful thing that comes in the spring isn’t a thing at all. It’s two people, my Religion and the Social Process teachers. One is a Quaker, who knows about silence, and begins class with it. She is also an environmentalist. She says, “I’m an activist; I don’t use a lot of big words.” Ahhh. I breathe deeply.
But her small words are more than just a relief. What she has to say is what I want to learn, is one of the reasons I came to theological school: to find out if all these religious people care as much about the natural world as I do.
Here at least is one religious person who does care, and who cares not apart from human beings but with them. It is the first time I clearly see the links between environmental and social justice: those toxic waste sites are right in the middle of the poorest communities. Those rainforests aren’t the only things being bulldozed; people’s homes are. Their entire lives are.
My Quaker teacher also nurses her new baby in her office, a mutualistic model herself: a woman who loves the natural world, who loves people, a religious woman, an intellectual woman, an activist woman, a mothering woman.
The other teacher of the class, a Catholic man, with a voice as deep and resonant as a well, a bell, endears himself to me for eternity by his gentle request to the students: “If you have an easy word, we are happy for it, and I ask you to please remember those who don’t. Part of our work here is to give those who don’t have an easy word a space in which to speak.”
I do not have an easy word; I have small words, hard words, shy words, afraid words, angry words, resistant words. I feel myself relax in this man’s presence. And then I feel myself go suddenly alert, the way a person goes alert when she finds something she has wanted a long time, not knowing all that time what exactly it was she was searching for.
My voice-of-a-deep-well teacher is using small words too: “Not only,” he is saying. As in, I am this, but not only: “I am a Christian, but not only.” Astonishing. He says further, “I am a Catholic, but not only.”
Doors swing open, bells ring, oh resonant, oh deep bells! I am a vegetarian-feminist-environmentalist! But not only! I can be other things too!
Yes, I think. I can do this. I can do it. I can be in seminary.
This is the year of the church internship, when aspiring ministers aspire right in a church, with real people, instead of in a lecture hall, with students pretending to be people. My ministering aspirations are very, very low.
“Would you like to transfer from the master of divinity program to the master of theological studies program instead?” says the internship supervisor kindly. “There’s no church internship requirement, and you’re still eligible for the same classes. It’s more for people who don’t plan to be ordained. And it’s a two-year program, not the three years of the MDiv.”
“No,” my head sinks lower. My friend who is still sensibly teaching college writing while he earns his sensible PhD in literature keeps emailing me: “Are you divine yet?” If I transferred programs he’d have to ask: “Are you theological yet?” It just doesn’t have the same flair.
I have to do this internship. I have to fling myself into the gaping maw of the church. I have to stand up and say something, somewhere, sometime, to somebody. I have to do it, because I have never done it, and because if I don’t, my small words might become so small they disappear entirely. But I can’t think of anyplace I can stand to do it.
My bright jingling priest teacher laughs. “Oh, when I was in theological school I couldn’t even make a decision about where to get my hair cut. Why don’t you do your internship at Redeemer?”
Church of the Redeemer, the next town over, is a wild Episcopalian (Episcopagan, some say fondly) church that has an inclusive language service, as in, “Our father, our mother, who art in heaven,” as well as an AIDS chapel, a soup kitchen, and a manse turned to housing for people living with AIDS. The church celebrates or commemorates GLBT Sunday, Women’s Journeys Sunday, Holocaust Sunday, Absalom Jones Sunday (for the first African-American Episcopal priest).
I had been to Redeemer once, the year before, when a feminist lesbian theologian was giving the sermon. The service was during the “Creation Season,” a season this church proclaimed as part of the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Creation. “We praise you, O God, for this universe! Its wondrous beauty so rich and diverse!” the choir had hollered in antiphon (it was singing, but very vigorous).
I mull this idea of Redeemer over. I could skip “We praise you, O God,” and come in at “this universe, its wondrous beauty so rich and diverse!” I’d be willing to holler that out loud. I go to Redeemer to talk to the priest. There is a sign on his office door: “If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” This feels like risk. This could very well be a mistake. I introduce myself, saying as much.
“That’s all right,” he says, “I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the church. It drives me crazy.”
He seems to be quite an irreverent man, also an enthusiastic, irrepressible man, willing to take on just about anybody as an intern. He bounces out of his chair. “I’ll show you around,” he says. “When can you start?”
I am in the maw. I go to every gathering at Redeemer, having never gone to anything churchy: adult education classes, Sunday school, two worship services a week, board meetings, committee meetings, soup kitchen servings, coffee hour (which is the dreadful church equivalent to cocktail hour). “Just go once,” says the irreverent, irrepressible man, who is also now my supervising minister. “You’ll hate it,” he adds cheerfully. He is right.
My first sermon, coming far too soon, is to the select crowd at the eight am service. I feel entirely out of my body. I shake while reading the scripture of the day out loud. I make my joke: about how nervous I am about talking to real live people as opposed to seminary students. People laugh.
I keep talking. At last my sermon ends, with a line I love: “You are real people.”
My turtle poem teacher, who is there especially to hear my first sermon, comes up to me afterward. “That was a real blessing you gave us all at the end,” she says. “Did you know that?”
My irreverent irrepressible supervising minister is nodding vigorously. “I’m jealous of the pulpit,” he says. “But I’d let you preach again, anytime.” I do not find this particularly inviting.
“Well, how about coffee hour then?” He takes my arm, grinning.
Year two also brings more required courses. Church history: blech, was my reaction. However, systematic theology, which I imagined as more of a strangling sound (gakk, ullp, gakk) turned out to be vases of flowers, books of poetry, and a whole lot of spinning-shining-flying-leaping-dancing God-talk. Spinning and Flying Theology is a much more appealing course title than Systematic Theology, in my opinion. Perhaps I will suggest this to the spinning and flying seminary committee.
Maybe church history will be less dull, or repulsive, than I expect, too. At least it is taught by my hip, liberal, well-dressed, wonderful advisor, with whom I am in love, and who, when I say, “I must take this elective class, Religion and the Earth, no matter what the requirements are,” answers firmly, “Yes, you must. Let’s start from there.”
In the required church history course there are the dates and names and places; there are the creeds and controversies. I prick up my ears at the latter. Church controversies? Is there such a thing? I am very interested in church controversies.
My hip, stylish advisor and history teacher is also looking very alert. She is saying, more or less, that what we take as gospel now was a passionate disagreement hundreds of years ago. And both sides claimed they were Christians. But one side won. Does that mean the losing side weren’t Christians?
I wait for her answer. She doesn’t give one. Slowly it seeps into my brain: who decides what being Christian means? Who decides? Do I?
Oh. Ah. Oh. I hear you, my teacher: a person can resist, disagree, and still be in the church. Here is a little more possibility. I can be in seminary, but not only, and I can be in the church, but not only. I can disagree with it, and still be in it.
At Redeemer I am asked to help serve communion. One would think this would put me in a great moral, philosophical, theological, feminist and other-ist quandary. However, I am only obsessed with spilling the wine.
“Don’t worry,” says my irreverent, irrepressible supervising minister. “What’s the worst thing that could happen? You spill the wine?”
I am gripping the silver cup. I smile beatifically, or perhaps it is blankly, at the people who approach. They give me lingering, significant looks. I smile. Finally one woman will not stop the look. What is the matter with this woman?
It suddenly occurs to me that I am supposed to be saying something. What is it? Blessings on you, you lovely woman? Here’s the wine, drink up? It’s a cult?
“The blood of Christ,” I hear my neighboring server say.
“The blood of Christ,” I repeat. Before I can add “Are you sure you want it? The blood of Christ?” the woman nods, significantly, and sips.
I do not spill the wine.
I have been at Redeemer for almost six months. I’ve preached, taught an adult education class, helped with the Sunday school, offered communion, co-presided over a blessing of the animals service. Ol’ irreverent irrepressible gives me the task of lining up people for the reading at the Good Friday service.
I groan a little. “That’s the worst thing for me,” I say. “That kind of last minute, spur of the moment, hey, won’t you do something for me kind of thing.”
“I know it,” the man says gleefully. “You’ll do fine.”
I station myself at the door forty minutes ahead of time. I ask the first person who comes in. He looks doubtful. “I don’t think so. Another time maybe.”
I am defeated. I look longingly at the people who are coming in with the simple task of setting up tables. I bravely ask another person. “Oh, sure,” he says. “Who do you want me to be?” Then another man says yes too.
Suddenly I panic, realizing I’ve got two white men speaking. I am not being inclusive! I am being imperialistic-colonial-triumphalist-patriarchal and possibly even metaphysical and hermeneutical!
By now there are several people bustling around. I leave my doorway station, saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I am sorry,” in my head as I walk over to the only woman of color there.
“I’ll be glad to,” she says, smiling. Oh, I am blessed.
I have one more Good Friday role to fill. Here comes a fellow in the door that I know a little bit. He is white, but he’s nice and short. And he’s generally a willing sort.
“I guess,” he answers. “Who do I have to be?”
“Jesus is the only one left,” I say apologetically.
“Oh, shit,” he says. “Oh, all right.”
After Easter, I take a few days off from disagreeing with the school and the church to visit my family. The man who everyone loves in my internship church has been getting sicker and sicker all year. I do not know him; this man dies when I am away.
I am glad I am away, that I do not have to be part of this service, this enormous communal grief. He is a good man, a complicated man, but I do not know him. He has died of AIDS.
But when I come back to church and to seminary, in the chapel at school there is a service for people who have died from AIDS, not this man particularly, but many many other people: the dead people’s names are written on tags attached to pink carnations that are handed to us as we enter. I do not want to be there, but I am there: I take my flower up when the name is called, lay it on the altar. At the end of the service the minister invites us to take a flower back again from the altar, to take it home, to live with it.
To live with it. I am wishing this minister would say something else. I do not know the something else I am wishing this minister would say.
But then another thing happens here in this service. It is some coincidence, yes? The flower I pick out of that mass of pink carnations on the altar is the same flower, bearing the same name that I was given when I first walked in the door.
The internship is over. Ahhh. The required courses are over. Ahhh. Hebrew is over, Greek is over, Introduction to Educational Ministry is over. Also, since I am not denominationally or otherwise committed, I have escaped the class on Methodist history in this historically Methodist-affiliated seminary. Ahhh.
Now I get to take Christianity and Anthropology, where we study snake-catching charismatics and Rastafarians, among other things. Now I get Christianity and Ecology; now I get Liturgy and the Arts; now I get Writing Gay and Lesbian Lives.
And now my hip, stylish advisor and history teacher, despite being one of the teachers of the latter, says, with concern, “I’m not sure whether these courses are completely preparing you for ministry in the church.”
I laugh. She may be right. But I am certain that they are preparing me for something, something good.
In Liturgy and the Arts, we read novels, dance, eat, recite by heart. For the final session, each student presents a work of her or his own to the class. We inhabit the whole of seminary hall, from basement to classroom to chapel to attic. In the basement kitchen one student makes kimchi for us, using his mother’s traditional Korean recipe. In the chapel a student plays the harp; another sings; a third tells a story.
Then we ascend to the attic, where another classmate has cleared a space big enough for the ten of us. It is a little space; we sit on the floor, the boxes piled high around us. Sunlight comes dusty through one high window. My classmate has made an altar here, in that light, among all that we store from the past. She invites each of us to place something on the altar. It is an invitation to forgiveness, for some; it is entering into the blessing, the sacred, for others.
In my hand I am holding a tiny statue, from my grandmother, one of my two churchgoing grandmothers. The statue is of a girl, arms flung high and wide, in that entire, open, unselfconscious joy in body and life and spirit that shines in a girl coming into her own. My grandmother loved that statue; I love it.
“You are my beloved,” my classmate in the attic says softly. “With you I am well pleased.”
I am holding the holy in my hand, daughter of God in my hand. Daughter of god, daughter of goddess, daughter of earth sky joy hope faith life love. When I place her on the altar she trembles, but the altar is steady, for it is made of rocks, wood, blood, sorrow, bone, light.
Back in the chapel I give a little pep talk about including poetry in church services; I read a bunch of poems I love by various writers, from Gerard Manley Hopkins to Mary Oliver. Then I take a deep breath. Hidden among my papers is one of my own poems.
For the first time in my life, I read a poem of my own out loud, to a roomful of people. A chapelful of people. My body, my words, my self. In the chapel. It is the fish poem, the poem of dislocation, of joy.
Holy work. Embodied. My work.
In my third year at the theological school I also find myself holding an entire service in the chapel. It is Earth Day, naturally. There are poems about trees, a story about trees being planted by congregations on denuded land in Zimbabwe. I am wearing bright vestments embroidered with leaves: they are the vestments of my Liturgy and the Arts teacher. She has also loaned me a leaf-etched ceramic chalice and paten. I fill them with real leaves I gather from the woods, from my hollow and crying tree, from the arboretum where the ducks swim and turtles sun.
It seems necessary that there also be scripture:
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
In the chapel I ask everyone to get up from their seats and walk to the windows and look out at the sky and trees. Oh, clap your hands! I want to cry out. You, me, all of us! Trees!
That spring I graduate, and the apple and cherry trees bloom and clap on campus walkways, and my sensible teaching-college-writing-while-he-gets-his-PhD-in-literature friend sends me his email: So, are you divine yet?
Well, yes, I might answer. Or: Well, yes, I already was. Or: Well, yes, I am always. And becoming.
Or: Well, yes. And you too.
I graduate from theological school, and a funny thing happens. People think I know things. They ask me the words to “Amazing Grace.” They ask me why some church historical thing or other happened. “Controversy,” I answer. “It’s all about controversy. And heresy. Lots of heresy. Disagreement. Rebellion, even.”
And that summer, while I am quietly harvesting organic tomatoes completely non-theologically with an environmental-type friend, the friend asks me for a Bible.
Oh gheesh, I think. It’s not that I haven’t got plenty of Bibles. People throw them in your direction when you’re in theological school: hey, I’ve been trying to get rid of this thing for years! But do I want to be throwing them in someone else’s direction? And what would I say exactly? It’s a cult, but gosh there’s a beautiful resurrection scene where Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener? And there’s some lovely poetry about trees?
Or, instead: it’s a cult, and don’t forget to read the part where Jesus curses the fig tree?
I do give my friend a Bible. I refrain from wrapping it in a brown paper bag. She asks me for suggestions, where to start.
“Some of the gospel stuff is pretty nice,” I mutter. “Jesus spits on his hands and heals people.”
She gives me an odd look, and stuffs the Bible in her basket of vegetables to take home.
After seminary, people also think I can do things: my sister asks me to perform her wedding ceremony. So all right, it isn’t in a church; it’s on a barge, on the Erie Canal. But I do it. It is good and right.
Then my friend who is dying of cancer asks me to lead her funeral service. I am so terrified by this that I realize I must do it. A poem comes to me. I send it to my dying friend. She says, “Read it at my service, please.” When she dies, I do.
This service isn’t in a church, either; it is in a funeral home. But it is good, too. It is right. It is holy.
In the end, I do not become an ordained minister. Neither do I imagine that I will ever find myself at peace with the complexity, difficulty, and luminosity of the Christian church. But I have come to a truer, more fruitful engagement with religion, with my work of writing, and with the world, complete with all its non-vegetarian non-feminist non-environmentalists. I have become less afraid, more willing, more open. I have become myself, or more myself; and I have come to know that this in itself is good. And right. And holy.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.