Saved by spirituals and the God of small things….

It can be an incredible gift to know what one is meant to do in life, what one needs to do to get there, and where one can accomplish it. But it also can be difficult to leave one’s home, one’s job, one’s family, one’s friends, one’s piano…. Am I successfully obscuring how the past few weeks have been by using the universal pronoun “one”?

I thought not. A number of California friends have asked why I haven’t posted anything to this blog for a while, and there are several reasons: a lot was happening, and I also feel ambivalent about blogs, especially for priests and seminarians. However, I can appreciate that people back home want to know what seminary is like, or want to stay in touch.

I came back to a whirlwind in New Haven: a new semester, CPE applications and interviews, internship applications (for church field placements next year), new classes to take, new classes to teach, financial aid applications for my daughter… and Haiti. It has been very difficult to read the news accounts, to follow the letters from Episcopal Church officials in Haiti (which is the largest Episcopal diocese), and to grieve from afar, feeling powerless to do much more than send a few dollars to relief agencies. In addition, it feels silly to be troubled by small personal matters swirling around in one’s life when the people of Haiti are suffering a far more devastating loss all at once.

It is a good thing that tragedies far away touch us and spur us to prayer and action, but it is a hard thing, too. Similarly, it is a good thing that hospital deaths and traumas and code blues and beeper calls at 2 a.m. spur us to acts of compassion for our fellow human beings–but it is a hard thing, too.

A California priest who is a Facebook friend of mine posted on my page, “Take care of yourself,” and that’s when I realized that I was not taking care of myself because it felt selfish to take care of myself when there were far more serious problems happening far away. And so I learned again that we can’t effectively minister to others unless we minister to ourselves as well. During my CPE interviews, I was asked, “What do you do for self-care?”, a question frequently asked of seminarians and ministers. So I rattled off the things I do–or used to do. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t really doing those things (such as running, going to movies with friends, and so on) much.

Marquand Chapel (at a student panel during my visit to Yale in April, 2009)

One important form of self-care for me is to go to various services here, especially Morning Prayer at the Berkeley House (Episcopal seminary) and Marquand Chapel, which is an ecumenical, all-YDS service every day at 10:30 a.m. On Wednesday mornings, the Marquand Chapel does a sung Morning Prayer (about 5 songs, two readings, and a blessing). They teach us a new set of songs according to some tradition, and we do that sung service for 5 or 6 weeks. To my delight, I walked into Marquand Chapel about 4 weeks ago to discover African-American Morning Prayer with several spirituals and gospel music. Thank God. The first time I attended this service, I was grieving several losses, and the music was painful, but in subsequent weeks, these spirituals started to revive me. It is one of the painful ironies so typical of Christianity that these spirituals were inspired by the oppression of Christian slaveholders, but that now their beauty is healing and inspiring to worshippers at a institution of the privileged.

The other thing that helped was to enjoy the small moments of encounters with others, whether they were with fellow seminarians, Yale employees, or people in my neighborhood. In seminary, people rush around a lot, from class to service to meeting to job to family to friends. My best moments happened when someone else and I stopped, sat down, and had a brief chat about more than the weather. I also started chatting with the woman who waits at the bus stop behind my apartment. I walk past her on the daily morning dog walk, and we finally introduced ourselves. It turns out that she works at Yale’s Sterling Library, the main undergraduate library. I never SEE my neighbors at my apartment complex, much less meet them, so it was nice to encounter someone in the neighborhood at last. (Of course, they are short talks because it’s usually about 15 degrees in the morning.)

Small moments are what hospital chaplaincy are about as well: brief encounters during serious, often traumatic moments in someone else’s life. It is a privilege to be beside people during these moments of their lives and to call upon the God of small moments on their behalf.

Here is part of the lyrics from one of the African-American spirituals sung at morning prayer at Yale Divinity School:

Over my head, I hear music in the air.
Over my head, I hear music in the air.
Over my head, I hear music in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.

And when I’m feeling lonely, I hear singing in the air.
When I’m feeling lonely, I hear singing in the air.
And when I’m feeling lonely, I hear singing in the air.
There must be a God somewhere.

–“Over My Head,” African-American spiritual, arr. John Bell

3 Thoughts

  1. Thank you, Janine!

    It is good to be able to learn about how the seminarian goes about her day and all.

    Haiti has been on my mind quite a bit, too. I look at myself and then at them and just can’t even comprehend what it must be like there. WE really forget just how fortunate we are and what God DOES provide for us that we take all to much for granted.

    I know you have to be busy and have lots to learn and study. by the grace of God you will indeed go on!

    God Bless!

  2. Thanks, Ken. My ambivalence about blogs is not about the time to takes to write them, but rather what the writer’s intent is. They can, at times, seem narcissistic to me. Most of the work of God goes on very quietly and anonymously. But I have to say that it is helpful for me, when people email to ask how seminary is going, to point them to the blog.

    I’m so glad to hear that Haiti is on your heart, too. It’s on the hearts of nearly everyone, I think. I read the New York Times online, and they are covering it quite extensively, as is the Episcopal Church. I am working with other student groups and my own Episcopal Peace Fellowship to organize a YDS-wide “Fast for Haiti. Fast for Peace” (as in the end to war) this Lent.

  3. Thank you Janine

    I appreciate you time and It is all very interesting to me. Yes, Haiti is constantly on my mind. It is so hard to imagine such severe poverty!

    God Bless!

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