I’m going back to seminary come February.
The truth is that I never technically left seminary; I took a much-needed semester off.
My marriage fell apart during the last couple of weeks of classes this past summer, an unforeseen disaster which resulted in me failing all three of the classes I was taking at the time. What has been by all accounts a tragic situation has turned into an opportunity for growth, honesty, and healing for both me and Jodie. Perhaps in another life things could have turned out differently. But the future isn’t bleak; it’s simply far different than either of us had anticipated. I haven’t publicized the attendant circumstances of the divorce because they’re of no concern to most people; those who need to know do.
That said, it makes sense that I re-enter seminary at this juncture. I stand at a peculiar precipice; the path that has led me here has meandered through many and manifold forests–some of confusion, some of despair, some of amnesia, some of hope. The path of priestly formation as a seminarian has given shape and meaning to my personal life, and likewise my personal life has given shape and meaning to my formation as the two spheres of existence intertwine and unfold in a cat’s-cradle of joys, disappointments, hurts, and triumphs.
And having had everything stripped away from me has jettisoned me into the realization that I am naught but what I am in Christ. In August I was a gutted fish, still alive and gasping for air as my entrails were being removed by the fishermen of circumstance. But the hesed of God came through in the form of remarkable friends and unyielding family, loving clergy and saintly prayers, shared meals and shared tears. There has not been a day since August that I have not felt the quickening grace of God in some way. And here I am six months later, more mentally sound, emotionally stable, physically healthy, and spiritually enlivened than I have felt since before leaving my parents’ house for college. I’m losing weight and eating well. I’m getting off of my antidepressants. I’m on the mend.
What have I learned, then?
First, I’ve learned that the grace of God far exceeds anything that can be conceptualized from a barebones reading of Scripture or a reductionist systematic theology that seeks to encapsulate and codify the mystery of the resurrection within a particular theological framework. That’s all well and good, but where the resurrectional rubber meets the road is in the real, visceral power of life that it gives to those who are grievously injured in soul and spirit. Theophoric grace and joy erupt in the places we least expect them–in the concerned hug of a dear friend, in the common courtesy of a stranger. That grace erupts even moreso in the places we should expect them, particularly when we’re raw and can taste the electric flavor of divinity: the Eucharist, the stories of the saints, the words of consolation from clergy, the prayers of the people–all scintillating with the hair-raising energy of the divine. We practice resurrection at each moment.
Second, I’ve learned that the walk with God is not one fraught with clear answers and the happy-clappy platitudes of the popular pseudo-Christianity of mainstream evangelical culture. When I was entering seminary as a naïve 20-year-old fresh out of undergrad, I believed, mistakenly, that seminary formation was simply about learning the Bible well enough to exposit it with the authority and decisiveness to get people to give mental assent to its teaching. How wrong was I! Seminary formation is a crash course in the pointy bits of life–the constant exposure to new ideas and the precipitous shattering of your preconceived notions of the Christian life become fertile ground for having your worldview radically changed–and the bizarre part is, I’ve only recently realized just how drastic those paradigm shifts are. The gospel of Christ extends far beyond our wildest dreams, and to limit one’s faith to a particular inculturated expression of American evangelicalism (such as I learned at my undergrad institution) and demand that every other Christian conform to that worldview is to remain content with atrophy at best.
Third, I’ve learned the value of honesty. Living a life that is bearing false witness to our identities is no way to go about the work of Christ. And so I’ve learned the value of calling myself on the carpet when I’m not being honest: “Nathaniel! Be honest about not ‘having it all together,’ whatever that means! Be honest about your brokenness! Be honest about not having all the answers! Be honest about being mad or upset or hurt or disconsolate! Be honest about your frustrations with the status quo!” To be a priest isn’t to be perfect, it’s to be honest before God and the people God has put under your care.
I’ve learned much more than this, and I’m still learning.