Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.

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Daily Life

I’m still new here and I’m learning all sorts of details about *how things are done* at Mirfield, but what follows is a typical day so far:

6:45AM: Alarm goes off. It’s still dark, and I fumble my way through a quick morning routine before putting on the required attire for all services and most meals: a black cassock (basically a long black robe that buttons down the front) and matching scapular (think of it like an apron that drapes over your shoulders, covering your front and billowing out behind you like a little cape when you walk). Underneath, people just wear a regular shirt and dark pants, and black shoes and socks are a must. A belt around the outside of the cassock and I’m good to go. I grab a borrowed copy of the Church of England’s “Common Prayer: Daily Worship” book and head out the door by 7:15. I might encounter some other students along the way up to the church, but everyone remains silent, as there is no speaking on campus from 9:30PM until after breakfast the next morning.

7:30: Mattins. This is a morning prayer service in the College’s worship space that consists of a few psalms, a canticle, one scripture reading, and some prayers. We aren’t with the monks for this one; they are upstairs in the main portion of the church.

One of my favorite moments of the day is when the students begin mattins by singing “O Lord, open our lips/And our mouth shall proclaim your praise” in the most beautiful harmony.  Since we are otherwise observing silence, this is literally the first sound that anyone utters as the day begins. We use the same language to open morning prayer back home, too, but the resonance of the words is somehow heightened when they pierce the silent gloom of pre-dawn after not speaking all night.

8AM: Mass. This is a very simple Eucharistic (communion) service, officiated by one of the faculty priests, without any singing. It is optional for students to stay for this portion (mattins, described above, is required every day) but a good number do remain. After we receive communion and close the service, everyone departs for breakfast.

8:30(ish): Breakfast in the refectory (dining hall). I’ll talk more about the meals another time, but it is simple, tasty, and eaten in silence. Once you finish your food and leave the refectory, you may talk at leisure for the rest of the day.

11AM: Tea & coffee are offered in the refectory, and students pass through, chat, whatever.  Very casual.

12PM: There is an optional (for students) midday prayer service in the main church with the monks of the Community of the Resurrection.  It’s only about 15 minutes, and is mostly psalms, chanted in plainsong.

1PM: Lunch in the refectory. Students do not need to wear their cassock and scapular to lunch, though you may if you would like to do so. Lunch is simple, often a casserole or a soup, and everyone is chatting and socializing.

4PM: Tea and coffee are again set out in the refectory.  There are usually some scones or other treats, too. As you can see, you don’t go hungry here! Everyone jokes about the “Mirfield Stone”, which is something akin to the Freshman 15.

6PM: Evensong (sung evening prayer) with the monks in the main church.  We put our cassocks and scapulars back on for this one, and it is a required service. The monks are seated in a circle in the middle of the worship space, and we are in a circle around them. Visitors to the monastery are in separate seats. Evensong is, again, made up of a number of chanted psalms, a reading, silence, and other prayers. It is incredibly beautiful to hear the assembly join its voices together; the vaulted ceilings of the church create a sound that envelops you.

6:45ish: Immediately after evensong, the students head back to the refectory for dinner. It’s always lively and the food is hearty. We open and close with grace, so everyone remains at the table until the meal is completed.  Then we all go downstairs to the common room for coffee and tea and more conversation.

9:15PM: Compline. This is an optional, very brief, bedtime prayer service with the monks again in the main church. The lights are dim, there is a single candle lit in the middle of the seats, and a few psalms are chanted. This service ushers in the silence that will be kept by the entire community until the next morning.

And then the cycle repeats itself, day in and day out. And that agenda, of course, doesn’t include classes, meetings, personal prayer and study, and socializing–all of which is fit into the hours not spoken for above. It’s a rigorous schedule, and yet I have found the rhythm comforting, especially since I am so new and sometimes feeling lonely and overwhelmed. Even when you are feeling lost on the inside, there is always another moment of prayer or fellowship approaching, carrying you like a current down a stream. You are carried by the schedule, by the community, and by God, Who is ever present in the ebb and flow of the day.

First Impressions

I’ve intended to start a blog for a long time, at least since I was preparing to enter seminary a couple of years ago. For various reasons the practice never stuck. Like daily prayer, regular blogging is easily derailed by the petty anxieties of the present moment.

Now, though, I find myself thousands of miles from home (the western U.S.), adjusting to life in northern England for a semester at College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and I realized I owed it to myself (and anyone else with a passing interest) to document the experience. So here we are.

Mirfield is, in a word, singular. It is the only seminary in the entire Anglican Communion (the worldwide body of churches that includes, among many others, both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church) that is adjacent to and deeply intertwined with a monastic community. The students and the monks pray at multiple short services per day, sometimes together and sometimes separately, and an interdependent communal life is emphasized, required, and celebrated.

I came to Mirfield after a year and a half at my own seminary, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, because I was yearning for a deep spiritual formation that a monastic setting might provide.  In addition, I was drawn to Mirfield’s Anglo-Catholic traditions (more on that in another post, perhaps) and saw that aspect as a helpful counterpoint to my experiences in parishes back home.

There is much uncertainty that I am carrying with me on this journey to England, in nearly every aspect of my life. My hope is that this will be a space where I can 1) describe some of the interesting aspects of my time in England (and there are many already!) and 2) do some written spiritual reflection that illuminates my formation. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get in the habit of blogging and keep it up after I go home in June!

If you are reading this, whether we know each other in person or not, take away two things about me. First, I am a gay man who wrestled with the intersection of my faith and my sexual orientation for many years, and I am still discovering what it means to believe that God loves me exactly as I am. Second, studying for the priesthood has shown me that we never “get there” to a place where we are 100% sure of ourselves and rest in some doubtless bliss where faith is easy. There are no experts in holiness, only fellow travelers. I fret and struggle and mess up. All. The. Time. And yet somehow God doesn’t count me out. God hasn’t counted you out, either. Promise.

Next time I’ll describe some basics of daily life at Mirfield.  Thoughts or questions or prayer requests? Send me a note in the “About” page.

Peace, friends.

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A week ago, jet lagged from the flight to the UK.