Your word is truth
I was prepared to lead an institution that felt much more solid than it was. This brings both sadness and strength.
It’s the bells I always remember.
Technically, the carillon: bells played by hand in the chapel tower by a guild of students and other musicians. They called us to pray every evening at the General Theological Seminary.
Coming home through New York City streets, I could hear them blocks away, above the usual symphony of city sounds. I wondered if other New Yorkers noticed them, wondered what they were, took them for granted. To me, they felt personal – a gentle summons to put down my work and my errands and come worship.
For three years I lived in this community – ‘the close’ it’s called, and for good reason. Not just because it literally means the grounds around a cathedral or chapel. It also meant that we lived, worked, studied, ate, socialized and prayed together on one city block: students, faculty, staff, and for the most part, all our families and pets.
My own dog, the amazing Larry Bob (she was a Southern girl, so she had two boys’ names), would lean out the open window of my third floor dorm and yelp her greeting as I raced by to make it to Evensong in time. I’m sure not all of my neighbors were fond of this routine, as I know that living with the needs, rhythms, and quirks of a couple hundred other people was challenging for me.
Sometimes I didn’t make it into Evensong, the most beautiful worship service in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, chanted expertly by all. Music was one of our core subjects, studied and practiced by each student, regardless of talent or even interest. To be a priest is to know what music means to worship.
And though I mostly got to the chapel in time to slip into my pew, sometimes I stopped and sat outside instead, just listening to the hymns drift through the high windows, slanted open, highlighted by golden candlelight. It filled me with joy.
‘Formation’ is the term we use for preparation for priestly ministry.
That’s what most of us were doing there at General. There were other types of students studying there, too, but the ethos was the making of priests. We came in as ‘postulants’, requesting that the church admit us to this order, and we left as ‘candidates’, deemed fit for the role.
In between were a lot of tears, joys, late nights, coffee, and quite frankly, much more drinking than is considered healthy. The Chinese restaurant across the street from the close that offered both a cheap buffet and free (but awful) wine on the table kept me going more often than I want to remember. It’s gone now. Lots of things are gone now.
The whole way of formation at General – living together in a community both cloistered from and in the very midst of the world around us – has been gone for years. Challenging finances and other issues made it necessary to sell off more and more of the property. As of this year, General is gone, too – merging with another seminary. It still exists in name, but the formation experience that I had there – and thousands before and after me – is no longer available anywhere in the Episcopal Church. I don’t think it’s available anywhere at all.
Church written in stone.
These Latin words are written in gold lettering, carved into the walls of the chapel:
Accipe Spiritum Sanctum in officium et opus Sacerdotis in Ecclesia Dei, per impositionem manuum nostrarum jam tibi commissum. Quorum remiseris peccata, remittuntur eis: et quorum retinueris, retenta sunt. Esto etiam fidelis verbi Dei, et sanctorum ejus Sacramentorum Dispensator: In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.Receive the Holy Ghost for the Office and Work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the Imposition of our hands. Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins thou dost retain, they are retained. And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God, and of his holy Sacraments; In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
They are said by the bishop when consecrating a priest. Translation (from the English 1662 Book of Common Prayer):
Everyone had their own seat at chapel. Not that they are assigned – except the faculty sat on the uppermost rows – but that, like in churches everywhere, we each tended to gravitate towards a particular spot during worship.
My seat was in the third row, on the pulpit side, on the end, closer to the door than the altar. It was directly across from the word ‘ecclesia’ – church.
From this seat I meditated frequently on the solidity of this particular word and its concept. Unmovable, unshakable, written in stone.
As I spent my years being formed for the priesthood, one thing I never remotely questioned was the certainty of the institution.
Even though I served a church in New York City for three years after I was ordained, I’ve only been back to my alma mater a handful of times since I graduated in 1999.
The last time I was there, much of the property had been sold, and students and faculty no longer lived a cloistered life in the middle of the city. There wasn’t even a cloister anymore: one row of buildings had been turned into luxury condos, and another was replaced with a fancy hotel, where I was staying for a conference.
I checked in, paid $6 for a cup of coffee, and remarked to the young man at the counter that I used to live here. ‘Things change,’ he shrugged, clearly unimpressed. The whole exchange nearly brought me to tears.
Sermo tuus veritas est.
‘Your word is truth.’ It’s the General Seminary motto.
I know that what I learned and how I lived while I was there has seeped into my bones and my soul, helping me to bear the truth of God’s Word and God’s love into the world through sacrament and Scripture and tradition. Some things will never change.
But it’s hard not to grieve for what has.
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Beautiful. We are incredibly blessed to have had the experience we had in the era of GTS’s life that we did, and you describe it so recognizably. I’m sure many will resonate with these poignant words. I know I do. They are a gift.
thank you. As you know, it was a nearly indescribably unique experience to be there. I’m so grateful, overall.
I believe my very small cohort in a very small seminary are the last who experienced anything close to the experience you had 21 years before we graduated. I grieve for what was because it had such an impact on me and my sense of call.
I know that grief. I have so much hope for the future of church, but there is also so much we’ve lost.
Well, I was Thurifer at Calvary/St. George’s for 35 years. Usually went to 3 Easter Vigils, St. Thomas, Seminary and then St. Peter’s at 11 PM until 2 AM with a feast afterwards.
That Benedictine community formed me. In many ways it was the best time of my life. It wasn’t just “school” but something much larger. It grieves me that we no longer have such a place and that theological education has been reduced to classes and exams. Even though there are some residential places, this type no longer exists. I don’t know if that is a sign of the times, or simply a huge mistake. I am convinced, though, that leadership, or lack thereof, was the cause of this.
Thank you for your reflections. Well done.
thank you. Even though I’m a very tech-friendly priest, I still mourn the embodied religious community. I know there are wonderful monasteries and convents – though they’re struggling, too! but you’re right that formation becomes so much more when we’re sharing it within the rhythm of life together.