Last night, walking back to my room (I stay in a seminary dorm three nights a week), I asked a gentleman I ran into who all the visitors on campus were. Board meeting. And so I asked a bit about him, and he asked about me and, upon discovering that I am in my last year, questioned me, "Is it tough?"
I looked at him in confusion. What does he mean? I wondered. Is what tough? School? How could school possibly be tough, in the context of living? School is . . . this week, anyway, something of a distraction. It's fine, I said. As he walked away it finally dawned on me that he wanted to hear that our program is a challenging one. Oh. How would I know? I do it, it works out . . . .
I have been working, off and on all day, on the mammoth outline I have been creating for my Church and Sacraments class. I love that class; the professor is brillant ~ quietly and modestly so ~ and his construction of the course is a work of art. As I sift through my notes, I notice the rather stark divide that emerged over the term in our discussion section. There are those who long for a church in which the lines are clearly drawn, in which authority is clear and tradition is immutable. There are those who long to fling open the doors and see barriers crumble. (And there are those who have remained silent.) I think that we all see the pros and cons of each viewpoint, but I think that we are also all settling into something of what will be our ministerial identity.
I worry a bit, about this C&S exam that I am preparing for. While I was out walking today, when I should have been reviewing some of the material in my mind, this is what I was thinking about instead:
I feel brain damaged. I feel as though my brain has suffered a major contusion that will not heal. If you took some kind of scan of my actual, physical brain, there would be a large and permanent dent in one side. I forget things: words, sequences, trains of thought, entire conversations. I forget pretty much everything I study or read within a matter of minutes. (It is rather astonishing that I remember my own opinions.) This past week-end a major conference concerning an issue I care about occurred practically on my doorstep, and I did not go to one single event, because I have to guard my energy so carefully. It has slowly seeped into my consciousness that a year from now I will no longer have the luxury of an academic respite; I need to decide something about what's next. But I can't think about that, because I have to think about now.
And yet, I have to acknowledge: it seems that with one side of my brain sadly dented, the other is unfolding a new space. If I remember (ha!) what little I know about brain development, I think it would be fair to say that this new space consists of very dense gray matter. It is jammed with what I have learned about suicide, about grief, about survival, about listening, about things that matter when none of the usual does anymore. It is packed with a kind of courage I had no idea existed. It is filled with the things that a very few people have had the grace and love to share with me, things which may be of use to others someday (much as I might wish that not be the case). And it has developed an astonishing capacity to promote silence in the context of encounters with unbelievably stupid statements aimed my way.
About a year ago, I made my first foray back into the work to which I have been called. I spent an hour each day for a week with a young lady making a retreat; she was participating in a college program and I was her spiritual director. Each day she spent a bit of time in contemplation, and then we talked together about her prayer and her life. I would get up about about 3:00 in the afternoon, shower and dress and drive to our meeting place, listen and talk to her, drive home, and crawl into bed, conpletely depleted and usually in tears.
A week or two ago, I found myself, over the course of a few days, in three major conversational and email exhanges about suicide and its survivors -- all in the course of my usual day. Other people in the computer lab are reading Facebook, working on papers, listening to music ~ and I am writing about suicide in between working on my own papers. A year ago, one such conversation would have sent me to bed for hours. Now ~ they are almost an expected part of my routine.
So. I don't know whether school is tough, and I don't have a clue as to whether I will remember what Calvin had to say about preaching or Bonhoeffer about community a week from now, when it will count toward a grade. But I do know a tiny bit about how to listen to someone who is groping for both words and connection, something I wish I had known more about fourteen months ago. I have done some learning that has been very tough indeed. Not much of it in class, though.