If the faithful find themselves feeling awkward about their place in these modern times, it's little wonder. Both the Old and New Testaments include admonitions to "be separate." Today, as long ago, followers wrestle with the implications of what, if taken seriously, can only be an odd existence: in the world, but not of the world.
On the one hand, the separatists emphasize the promised life to come. The most zealous of their number merely (or barely) tolerate existence in this world. They have voluntarily relinquished their temporal citizenship. The dispossession of earthly goods, the denial or punishment of physical appetites, and even removing oneself from society to live as a hermit have all been regarded as appropriate responses to the cosmic displacement of the faithful.
On the other hand, the activists choose to focus on transforming the present world. Their most zealous members work to ensure that society reflects the ideals, even the morality, of the faithful. If the separatists are expatriates, having forsaken their temporal home, activists are motivated by a sense of dual citizenship; they are energized by their belief that God's kingdom to come has already commenced, the old world transubstantiated into the new.
Wherever believers find themselves on the continuum between these two camps, one ironic reality must yet be noted. Whether one is more or less in, or more or less of the world, that world, for the most part, couldn't care less. This much, it seems, has not changed much over the millenniums: Society is still very secular, and it generally views the believer with either skepticism or utter indifference.
"The Close: A Young Woman's First Year at Seminary" is, in part, the story of one person's participation in the age-old struggle with what it means to be a person of faith in a faithless world. Chloe Breyer, preparing for priesthood in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, recounts her first-year experiences at New York City's General Theological Seminary by taking the reader along on multiple, simultaneous journeys, both in and out of the classroom.
Glimpses, and even whole chunks, of what she's learning in her theology and Bible courses, Greek lessons, developing friendships with other students, and even apartment life with her new husband, Greg, combine to form a delightful tale of personal and spiritual growth. From the anticipation of Advent to Easter's glory and beyond, Breyer frames her experiences within the liturgical seasons of the church year.
Central to this articulate work is that unique architectural element from which the book borrows its title. "The Close" is the seminary's enclosed courtyard, surrounded by academic buildings and filled with abundant trees, flagstone paths, and, most important, tranquillity.
At General, the Close is literally a sanctuary, a safe haven from the gray and noise of the city that surrounds it. The term is synonymous with the seminary itself, and life on the Close is life in a world apart. To this cloistered retreat comes Breyer, fresh from her diocesan discernment process. Bright, well educated, raised in a liberal home, Breyer brings with her an activist's convictions and the idealistic determination and talent to get things done. Significantly, she comes from
a largely secular family, with a Jewish father. What motivation she brings to this place is truly her own, a calling in the most spiritual, and sacred, sense.
Breyer's heart is filled with a vision of the church that can make a difference. But even more than that, she is looking for that radical transformation for which each convert yearns. After all, what is the priesthood, if not an extraordinary life commitment?
Seminary graduates among her readers likely will not be surprised at the disillusionment and soul-searching that results. Caught between separatism and activism, Breyer's sometimes horrified, often amusing, description of the realities of seminary is filled with both revelation and deeper introspection. Her questions echo those of faithful seminarians across the centuries: "What difference does it make if I can translate the equivalent of 'run, Spot, run' in koine Greek?" "Why should the world care what a 'sacristan' is - or does?" "Whose soul is saved by my knowing the relative minor of a musical major key?"
Ultimately, Breyer finds important answers to her questions in the same way other religious people have found enlightenment historically - not by withdrawing from the world, surely, but not by social activism, either.
Through intentional acts of servanthood and the resulting openness to what she's being taught, Breyer discovers that much of her struggle results not from a faulty system so much as her own unrealistic expectations, both of herself, and of the church.
The Rev. Richard Wehrs serves as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, Minn.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society