General Terms and Conditions

Reports and musings from a seminarian at General Theological Seminary, New York City.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Life of Antony

Tonight I give you a little glimpse into the esoteric world of an Episcopal seminarian.

One of my classes this semester is "History and Theology of the Early Church: Patristics Survey." This is a subject I must confess I have thought little about to this point in my life. Growing up as a Methodist, I don't remember hearing much about the early Church fathers - it seemed distant and exotic just to think about our 18th century Anglican roots! And even when I became an Episcopalian there was little discussion of this period of ecclesiastical history. So it is all new territory for me.

This week I have been reading "The Life of Antony" written by Athanasius, an Egyptian bishop and disciple of this early Christian hermit and monk. According to my studies, this biography of Antony (c. 251-356 AD) presents the earliest information we have on the monastic life. In the narrative, Antony wrestles with demons throughout his formation as a monk (which takes 35 years!) Here is a typical passage:

“But the devil, who hates and envies what is good, could not endure to see such a resolution in a youth [Antony], but endeavored to carry out against him what he had been wont to effect against others. First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labor of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time. In a word he raised in his mind a great dust of debate, wishing to debar him from his settled purpose. But…the enemy saw himself to be too weak for Antony’s determination, and…was conquered by the other’s firmness, overthrown by his great faith and falling through his constant prayers…”

What does it all mean? Well, that is the three-page paper I had to write tonight. The assignment was, "Papers should articulate a thesis about the subject of 'Demons in the Life of St. Antony.'" I guess it goes without saying that I have been sweating this one.

Interestingly, when I sat down and began to writing, a thesis did emerge. I believe that, as one of the first treatises on the monastic life, the devils personify the temptations to abandon this hard life that come to most who try to live a cloistered existence. Through the story of Antony's wrestling with demons, Athanasius addresses the obstacles that a young hermit may encounter, and provides a model for overcoming them.

I did manage to write exactly three pages on this subject. Don't know if I got it right, but it turned out to be much more interesting than I suspected. We'll see if the professor agrees!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Come, my Way

Today is the feast day of George Herbert in the Anglican Communion. This great English poet of the early 17th century is probably as popular today as he has ever been. Here is a short biography from Wikipedia:

"George Herbert (April 3, 1593 – March 1, 1633) was a Welsh poet, orator and a priest. Being born into an artistic and wealthy family, he received a good education which led on to him holding prominent positions at Cambridge University and Parliament. In his late thirties he gave up his secular ambitions and took holy orders in the Church of England, spending the rest of his life as a rector in Bemerton, near Salisbury. Throughout his life he wrote religious poems characterized by a precision of language, a metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits that was favored by the metaphysical school of poets."

We had a real Herbertfest in our Eucharist today, singing a couple of his great hymn texts (#403, "Let all the world in every corner sing," set to Hampton's "MacDougall," and #382, "King of Glory," set to a favorite tune around here, namely "General Seminary") and even hearing a sermon that compared his work to Bob Dylan and Appalachian fiddling.

But the Herbert poem that I feel most drawn to is one titled "The Call." It is a supreme example of that precise language and imagery referred to above. It is #487 in our hymnal:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife;
such a life as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such as strength as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Reading the Gospels

I have several interesting classes this semester, but I think I am most enjoying New Testament, where we are studying the three synoptic gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are called "synoptic" because they share so much of the same information. Like most readers of the gospels, I have never thought much about the differences between these three books. Sure, I knew that the Wisemen appeared only in Matthew, and the Shepherds only in Luke, and that Mark didn't even mention Jesus' birth. But I never realized how very different these books really are.

I have been amazed to learn of the writers' different perspectives. Today we discussed Luke, and how he is focused on the journey to Jerusalem. Last week it was about Matthew's idea that we find God in high places. It is fascinating to see how ideas like these (and many, many more) are borne out in the narratives. And, without a doubt, these ideas help bring the text alive! How exciting (and what a privilege) to study these things.

Of course, it can also be stressful. We have a midterm on Wednesday - we need to be able to identify which gospel key passages come from, and also answer short essay questions about major themes, etc. I have a lot of studying to do before I am ready to tackle that test - but there is time. Deep breaths...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Prayer

My heart is filled with sadness tonight.

I just received a call from someone to whom I am very close telling me that his relationship of over 20 years is floundering. I was very surprised, since I had no idea that this was even a possibility. Even after talking to him, I don't really have any idea what caused the two of them to fall into trouble, or what the future might bring. Perhaps he doesn't know the answer to these questions either.

But that is not important right now. I think what is needed now is to listen to both of them, and to let them know, over and over, that I love them. And I think prayer is needed, too.

Tonight I pray this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 831):

O merciful Father, who has taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve your children: Look with pity upon the sorrows of your servants for whom our prayers are offered. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance upon them, and give them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


I have a LOT of homework to do this weekend. So what have I done? Very little. I find myself doing almost anything to avoid writing my philosophy paper ("Compare and Contrast the Concept of the Good for Plato and Aristotle"), studying for my New Testament mid-term (content and major themes of the synoptic gospels), or doing reading for class next week (New Testament, Old Testament, Philosophy, Early Church History).

Sometimes it is very hard to get motivated to study. Even though what we are working on is interesting, it is also difficult - often mind-blowing. After a long week, I just want to sleep -- or watch TV -- or read ANYTHING that is non-religious.

I know I will get the work done - eventually. But I don't think it's going to happen tonight...

Friday, February 23, 2007

Jake and Chloe: Au Revoir

As many of you know, my partner will be moving to New York to join me here at General in a few weeks. Because we will live together in this small apartment, we had to make the hard decision that there is just not enough room for me, Partner, the dog Franklin, AND two cats (with accompanying litter box). So we had to find a home for Jake, our 22 lb.+ tabby cat, and Chloe, his slimmer tortoise shell companion.

Fortunately my niece was delighted to adopt them. She lives in Austin, where she will get married in April to another good and giving soul. They are meeting Partner in Memphis this weekend for the hand-off of our sweet kitties.

I am very sad that Jake and Chloe will not be in the house when I return to Indy in a few weeks to help with the move. They are both fairly quiet (although Chloe has become a bit more vocal in the last year), but they were always a delightful presence in the house. I know that Franklin will miss them both. Jake has always been a buddy (after all, they pretty much match, pound for pound!) and Chloe has been the eternal prey - Franklin loves to try to catch her, although he would not know what to do with her if he did! In any event, I expect that the next week will be confusing and depressing for him, as he wonders where his companions have gone. Don is taking him along on the trip, especially to provide companionship for the lonely ride home.

We adopted these two cats in early 1999, less than a year before we left Washington, DC. They were a little over a year old, and we were their third owners. They joined our other cat, Glenda, who we had to put to sleep this past January at the age of 18 years (RIP, you cranky thing you). Glenda took to Jake almost immediately (I think he might have sparked a memory of her littermate Ziggy, who we had to put to sleep in the mid-90s), but she and Chloe were archrivals. Still, we were a family, to which Franklin the Scotty was added in March 2000.

I am pleased that we provided a stable home for Jake and Chloe for so many years. And I am SO glad that they will still be in the family - although sadly many, many miles away. At least we'll get to hear about how they're doing, and maybe see a picture or two.

For so many of us who do not have children, our pets are a close substitute. My father, who was never terribly sentimental about animals, has even come around to understanding how important they are to us, often asking after their health. It is a little hard for me to imagine that they will no longer be part of our lives.

Farewell, dear friends. I hope that I will get another chance to nuzzle you, and to whisper in your ears how much you mean to me. Until then, thank you for the pleasure and unconditional love you have given me.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Thank God it's Thursday!

We have classes Monday through Thursday, with Friday off. I believe this is because of the fact that during one's last two years (the middler and senior years) one has a field placement, and so is essentially in school that day too.

As a result, Thursdays always feel like Fridays used to. I am always SO glad it is here, and I usually have trouble convincing myself to get any work done on a Thursday night. I really need to get something done tonight, though -- there is far too much looming in the next week to slough off too much.

Today's most interesting class was "Philosophical Foundations for Theology." After we discussed our readings in the area of Aristotle's ethical vision, the professor asked the women in the class a question following up on a comment made a few weeks ago about the masculine orientation of the Platonic material we were reading. He asked if they felt similarly put off by Aristotle. The response from the women in the class (who outnumber the men, by the way) was mixed. Some continued to feel put off by the material; others saw this as a non-issue.

I thought it was fascinating to listen to such widely-diverging points of view on this subject. I feel that, as a gay man, I can in some ways relate to the "reinterpretation" many women must do to relate to these classical readings. But I also know that the hurdle they must get over is much, much higher than the one I have to cross -- whereas women were known to these writers, if only as inferior beings, homosexuality was not even conceived of as a construct. It's hard to be offended by a bias against something that is not even comprehended by the writer.

Maybe this relates to the current state of affairs in the Anglican Communion. Many of those who so want to condemn homosexuality have absolutely no concept of a committed, caring relationship between two people of the same sex. Unlike our American brothers and sisters, I think African Anglicans cannot comprehend this possibility. Does that ignorance excuse their hurtful response? Maybe, I think.

But likewise, if the American bishops agree to deny the sacred relationships that we as gay people have, when they know us and know that those relationships have integrity, they will be guilty of a greater sin against the gospel than those whose culture does not yet understand this particular complexity of human interaction.

So, as one blog writer said, we in the Episcopal Church have been handed something akin to "Sophie's Choice" between members of our church and the Communion - which love do we abandon?

Once again, I would not want to be in the Presiding Bishop's shoes...

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Remember You are Dust

As Lent begins I have made a commitment to myself to write in this blog again as a seasonal discipline. I have noticed lately that I have more to say than I did last semester when I got b(l)ogged down. I'm really back, and I pray that I will keep this discipline.

It is Ash Wednesday, and it has already been a remarkable day. I started with morning prayer at 8:00 this morning. After our usual service, the Dean gave one of three meditations for the morning, helping us to hold this day holy.

At the 11:45 Eucharist I was the precentor, leading the singing. It is always an honor to help lead services in our beautiful Chapel of the Good Shepherd. I had a bobble or two, but overall it went well.

After lunch I went with two other seminarians to Trinity Church, Wall Street. We imposed ashes for an hour and a half to a continuous stream of people. It was a remarkable and moving thing to do.

Imagine: Into the church from the busy intersection of Broadway and Wall Street in downtown Manhattan came a countless stream of people, all looking for something. They came to us at the front of the church, and dipping a finger in the inky-black ashes, we made crosses on their foreheads, saying those powerful and humbling words: "Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The line of people was amazing to witness: every color; every age; short, tall; wide and skinny -- all coming to be reminded of their mortality. There were cooks, businessmen, mothers, construction workers, firemen, policemen, tourists, and school kids. Each stepped forward to receive the mark of the cross and to have those words whispered in their ear: "Remember..."

What struck me most? First, what an intimate experience it was. As I placed ashes on each forehead, my hand rested lightly on their heads, and I was struck by how vulnerable people were willing to make themselves to me. I worked hard to make eye contact with each person, and to never allow the words to be rote, but to try to express their meaning to each person who stood before me. I had a smile on my face for the entire hour and a half (which FLEW by).

I also found myself a bit dumbstruck by the first person who said to me, "Thank you, Father." Of course there were many Roman Catholics in the crowd, and this was a natural thing for them to say. But for me it was profound. Even though I have not yet been given that title, I got a glimpse of what it might feel like - both the honor and the awesome responsibility. All I can say is "Wow!"

Finally, what a privilege it was to undertake this task in that church. I could not forget that only a little more than five years ago this holy site was covered in ash -- 9/11 brought to this place a literal reminder of the profound words of this day. But still the church stands - as does God's promise to us of everlasting life beyond our death. And so in years to come, as I recall my standing before that grand altar and being a reminder of God's action in all our lives, I think I will remember it as one of the first and most important experiences of my priesthood. Thanks be to God!