Adventures in Seminary: An Orientation to Identity

We’re all a mess of contradictions, really.

When I was younger, there used to be a series of public service ads aimed at keeping kids on the straight and narrow that always ended with the phrase “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up.’ ” I never really liked those ads. They were always so harsh to look at, shot in hues of gray and murky blue and involving people running from police officers or collapsing randomly.

But those ads did two things for me: first, they gave me an inordinate fear of police officers and narcolepsy. Second, they introduced me to the notion that you are destined to become that to which you are least likely to aspire. I mean, let’s face it. Nobody ever says, “I want to be an insurance salesman when I grow up,” but it happens anyway. And some insurance salesmen are quite happy with their lives.

We’re all called to different things in this world. Some of us are called to be doctors or lawyers or teachers or politicians or architects or elephant trainers or postal workers. Or, as the case may be for me, some of us are called to be priests.

I never in a million years would have imagined that I would find myself on this path.

Well, I guess that’s not entirely true; I always knew on some level. Even as a child, I was fascinated by clergy and felt drawn to the lives they lead. Kids in my childhood summer camp would play-act at weddings, and I would inevitably volunteer to be the priest, studiously donning whatever clerical garb substitute I could find lying around and then admonishing the groom to take the bride to be his “awful wedded wife.”

Still, I have to admit that I never saw the ministry as a career option. Hell, I didn’t even consider myself a Christian for most of my teen years. I was fairly certain I’d be a novelist or a professor of political science. That’s if the whole rock star thing didn’t work out. My absolute backup was going to be coffee shop owner. Yet here I am, following the path towards ordination in the Episcopal Church by pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Yale University’s Divinity School.

“Well,” I said as I sat at the picnic table with a bunch of my fellow first-year students, “Here we all are at Yale.” I said it mostly to convince myself. It was halfway through the first day of orientation, and I’d already seen enough to make my head spin. I’d met about a billion people (that’s a rounded estimate), and my mind was slowly dissolving into silly putty. Everyone I met was different, but basically each conversation went as follows:

THEM: Where you from?

ME: Maryland. How about you?

THEM: Chutzpah. It’s a little known village on the south side of the planet Neptune. Have you ever heard of it?

ME: [Insert whatever stereotype I happen to know about Neptune here.]

THEM: Well, yes, many of us do have 15 arms, but that’s not really true for everyone. So you’re from Maryland, eh? Lots of crabs there?

ME: Yes, we’re infested with them. Our state legislature is actually made up entirely of shellfish. The Speaker of the House of Delegates is a barnacle.

THEM: Great, great. So, what program are you in?

ME: M Div. [That's how all the cool kids say "Master of Divinity." Sounds a little less like you're an action figure if you say it that way.]

THEM: Oh, are you on the ordination track?

ME: Yes.

THEM: Great. Me too. What’s your denomination?

ME: Twenties and fifties, sequentially if possible. But yeah, I’m an Episcopalian. How about you?

THEM: I’m a Satanist. Wanna see my temple of Baal?

ME: Maybe later …

And so it would go, over and over again, ad nauseum, to the point that I just wanted to print up response sheets and hand them out like a Hare Krishna at the mall.

So as I sat with my picnic table companions, I vowed to myself that I would steer the conversation in a completely different direction. I would come up with something completely witty and original to say.

And while I was working on that, someone said, “So where’s everyone from?”

So much for small talk. Cut straight to the blundering stereotypes, s’il vous plaĆ®t.

“I’m from Wisconsin.”

“Oh, I hear they have a lot of cheese there.”

“I’m from Canada.”

“Oh, from Canada, eh? Did you have yourself some bacon and some free healthcare this morning?”

“So is this strange for you guys?” I interjected. “I mean, being here. Doing this.”

I realized somewhere during the previous exchange that all of us at the table were younger folks, probably all in our 20s. It’s rare these days, in any religion, to be considering ministry as the next step out of college. In the MTV party generation, declaring one’s intention to follow a religious calling is tantamount to declaring that one only smokes crack recreationally at parties. While technically possible, it is practically unheard of.

And yet here we were: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and God knows what else, all sitting around a table with that exact intention in mind. But no one seemed to have a crack pipe, so we talked about our callings instead.

“My friends all started acting different around me when I told them what I wanted to do with my life,” said Katyana, an ELCA Lutheran. “They keep trying not to swear and asking if it’s still okay to go to the bar with me.”

Heads nodded all around. Other stories emerged. “It’s almost embarrassing to tell people,” one woman said, “because of the stigmas attached.”

And she was absolutely right. The words “I’m becoming a clergyperson” just don’t fit in the contemporary lexicon. At least, not without a lot of baggage.

Fast forward two weeks. I’m on the porch at the Berkley Center after Morning Prayer. The Berkley Center is the hub of life and worship for Anglican/Episcopalian students on campus. So, naturally, I was chatting with another Lutheran, a second-year student named Chris who is working in supervised ministry in a parish across the street from my apartment.

“I’m not sure where to begin with this sermon,” he says. “I mean, I’m with Jesus on all the social stuff, no problem. Blessed are the poor and the peacemakers and so forth, okay. But then Jesus starts talking about if your eye offends you, gouge it out, and if your hand offends you, cut it off. And I just want to say, ‘What the fuck is up with that, Jesus?’”

There’s an audible pause in the conversation. Chris looks at me sheepishly, trying to assess whether or not he’s offended my delicate sensibilities.

“Yeah,” I say, “That Jesus, he’s one crazy cracker sometimes.”

Chris smiles. Crisis averted.

It’s easy to see why he felt uncertain about saying something off-color and even slightly blasphemous to me. I mean, from all manner of previous conversation I’m sure I seemed to be every bit the off-the-deep-end, no-good, bleeding-heart, say-anything liberal that I am. But you never can be certain who you will encounter in a seminary. And even as liberal Christian seminarians, we still carry our own prejudices about what kind of people go into the very field that we are pursuing.

I struggle with the question of identity these days. Not because I’m concerned about what the world might think of me (anyone who has seen my wardrobe most assuredly knows that I am not). It’s also not because of any uncertainty on my part about this strange mix of attributes that make up who I am.

I am a rapper and a vegetarian and a registered Green and a Christian in formation for the priesthood. These are all true and all in concert with one another. But what drives the struggle for me these days, and perhaps for some of my fellow young seminarians as well, is the notion that somehow I should be different.

All of these pieces of me should be in conflict. I should be more pious or more ascetic or more something. I should fit the mold of a clergyman that I’ve been presented with since birth. I should have said, “I want to be a priest when I grow up,” or else I have no business being here, and the cop is going to catch me any second and tell me that my real life’s ambition is to be a pool cleaner in Newark.

And yet I am who and what I am. I have no desire to change those parts of myself that seem incongruent with my calling. God called me to this new life, not because of something that I should be but because of something that I am. My only choice is to surrender my ego and follow that path, to grow into the person I have the potential of being, warts and all.

So here I am, accepting my call and diving into a world unlike any I’ve ever known. I’m excited and very gratified to be here. I just wish my graduate program wasn’t so much longer than everyone else’s. I mean, three years for a master’s degree? What the fuck is up with that, Jesus?

Article © 2003 by Jonathan Ratican