Lux et Veritas (Aleithia Burgess, Saint Hilda's '12)

“We live in the description of a place and not in the place itself.” 

–Wallace Stevens

When you commit to a year of service, something you hear again and again is that you will be challenged to step out of your ‘comfort zone’, something that sounds very noble and worthy, especially to young people. But it is impossible to know how this idea will manifest itself in your own experience until you actually engage it in daily life. For me, my current struggle stems from an unexpected source.

When I first heard about the Saint Hilda’s House program, I knew nothing about the city of New Haven, except that it was home to Yale. Saint Hilda’s itself is not a part of Yale, but there are definite associations. I live in the rectory of Christ Church, located just across the street from the edge of campus; we interns attend the mid-week worship service and dinner at Berkeley (the Episcopal seminary at Yale Divinity School); we participate in spiritual direction groups sponsored by YDS; and many of the Christ Church parishioners are Yale students, professors or alumni. There were a number of factors that influenced my decision to come here, but I must admit that I found the idea of living in proximity to such a vibrant center of intellect and culture immensely appealing.

My first evening here, several of us were sitting and chatting around the dining table. In the course of our discussion, it came up that I had done a masters degree in Scotland. Someone asked what I had studied.

“Early Modern history of the British Isles,” I admitted with the sheepish expression of an academic who knows how little interest ‘normal’ people take in her subject. “My thesis compared political ideologies in England and Scotland before the Union of 1707. But I wouldn’t want to bore you.”

“It wouldn’t bore me,” said the guy sitting next to me. I learned later he was a Yale College graduate who had taken several classes on political theory.

“You’ll love that about Christ Church,” Fr. Robert chimed in. “There’s no shortage of parishioners who are happy to spend hours discussing the most obscure topics!”

Then, to my delight, I learned that my daily work commute would cut right through the heart of the Yale campus. Its sprawling stone structures, many of them Neo-Gothic in style, are among the most impressive examples of American architecture that I have seen. (Though it’s a bit of a let down to find out that many of them weren’t constructed until the 1930s.) I also found out that the intern who was interested in my thesis was going to be my coworker. As a Yale grad, he would be full of facts and stories that would make the idealized institution become a ‘real’ place. It seemed like a dream come true.

It was, at first. But soon I began to realize that beyond an initial sense of wonder and delight, there were other emotions: discontent, resentment and, above all, insecurity. The truth was, I didn’t want merely to be close to Yale. I wanted to be a part of Yale itself.

For a number of years, I had one clear goal in life: to earn a PhD, preferably from an elite university, and become a college professor. One of my most favorite professors had done his PhD at Yale, and I wanted so much to be like him. Naturally, when I applied to graduate schools, Yale was one of my choices. I didn’t get in. In my mind, I know that my rejection shouldn’t reflect on me personally. Graduate programs in the humanities are brutally competitive: for the 20 students that Yale accepts every year for the PhD in history, upwards of 400 apply. I always knew it was a long shot.

Even so, it is one thing to receive a rejection e-mail (they don’t send real letters anymore) from an ivory tower that one has never actually seen; and something else entirely to walk past that tower every day and know that I cannot enter. Sometimes I am jealous of the students I see, because they appear to be enjoying the life that was denied to me. Sometimes I am resentful of my coworker, because I have a self-imposed (and unnecessary) compulsion to prove myself as an intellectual equal. Sometimes— often— I am frustrated with myself for not being ‘good enough’ (whatever that means).

And then I think how self-centered I am!  I have become so entangled in personal reflection—‘refraction’ is probably a better word—that I fail to perceive the place where I actually am and the things I am supposed to do.  I did not come to New Haven to prove how smart I am, or to have others stroke my ego. No, I came for precisely the opposite reason: that by giving of my time and talent to others, I might better understand what it is to be a very member of the Body of Christ. I am reminded of John the Baptist’s statement, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, ESV). My identity does not lie in how others see me, or how I want them to see me, or even in how I see myself; but in how God sees me, and so in living my life in a way that brings honor and glory to Him.

I could approach this from another angle entirely. Rather than wonder about what I have missed by not attending Yale, I could consider what I may have been spared. Would being in this environment have cultivated my pride, pretension and arrogance? Not because I think that Yale inherently fosters such negative characteristics (indeed, I have little evidence to suppose so), but because I know myself and my own tendencies. Perhaps I would have learned to rely on my own strength, rather than to fall upon the mercy of God. But enough speculation. I must be mindful of where and what is, now.

This year is going to be an exercise in humility. For that, I am grateful.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”—John 3:21 (ESV)


10 Years after, reflections of 9/11 (James Shire, Saint Hilda's '12)

For a time, there was a sense of national unity, a coming together in our common grief. But even in the first few days of the attack, the voices of wrath began to emerge

The wheel of time turns, all things begin, and all things end. To the end of the beginning we return, and when we look back, what have we learned.

What lessons have we learned, are we better for it?

Fr Williams from St Paul's Chapel at Ground ZeroWhen 9/11 happened, I was staying home ill. Early in the morning, I received a phone call from my Dad, he was in Hawai’i on a business trip (this was when I was still living in California) he asked to speak to my Mom, and when I told him she was still asleep, he told me to wake her up. I awoke my Mother, handed her the phone, and began to walk away. She snapped awake with the news that had happened. For the rest of the day, the television was on with news about the coverage of the attacks, the fall of the Twin Towers, the attack at the Pentagon, and Flight 93. These events have now been scarred into the National consciousness. For America, the world would be a different place.

A time for mourning, a time of sorrow, and a time to grieve.

For a time, there was a sense of national unity, a coming together in our common grief. But even in the first few days of the attack, the voices of wrath began to emerge:

“The nation has been invaded by a fanatical, murderous cult. And we welcome them. We are so good and so pure we would never engage in discriminatory racial or ‘religious’ profiling. People who want our country destroyed live here, work for our airlines, and are submitted to the exact same airport shakedown as a lumberman from Idaho. This would be like having the Wehrmacht immigrate to America and work for our airlines during World War II. Except the Wehrmacht was not so bloodthirsty…Airports scrupulously apply the same laughably ineffective airport harassment to Suzy Chapstick as to Muslim hijackers. It is preposterous to assume every passenger is a potential crazed homicidal maniac. We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.”

When this was uttered on September 13, 2001, few knew the implications of such a statement. Soon after, we went to war, first in Afghanistan, and then Iraq. The Afghan war expanded into Pakistan, we have bombed Yemen, and there has been seemingly unending rumors of the possibility of war with Iran. We set up prisons for “enemy combatants” in Guantanamo Bay and in Europe, and we shipped other “enemy combatants” to other countries to be interrogated with “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Muslims in America have had violence done against them. All the while, people on various points of the political spectrum invoke 9/11 in some way or another to justify a policy.

The violence began.

Often I have heard that we are a Christian Nation. What does that mean? Do we forgive others, give help to the poor, comfort the lonely, visit prisoners, feeding the hungry, and loving one another. A Christian Nation ought to be a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s realm. But we actually do very little of that, for ourselves, and for each other. It doesn’t happen at the local, state, or national level either. Can we love our enemies, can we forgive the wrong wrought on us, can we pray for those who hurt us, can we love one another, can we recognize that each person is a child of God, can we see someone who isn’t like us and behold them as our brother and sister, can we work towards justice and peace without dropping a single bomb, firing a bullet, or using violence, and can we make Heaven a place on Earth and usher in a new creation? If we do this, then we can move forward into the future knowing that the memory of those who have died, not only on 9/11 but all those who have died in response to it, friend and foe alike, has not been tarnished by wrath and fear. Someone far wiser than I said this:

“Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them. The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If someone has no mercy towards another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.” (Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:7)

Let us be united in love, and move forth in forgiveness. Let us remember our sorrows, our pain, and our loss, and use those memories to fulfill the highest call possible, forgiveness and reconciliation. Can we love our enemies as ourselves? Can we love one another? All of this is truly possible if we forgive others.




An Experience at Compline (Sarah Raven, Saint Hilda's '12)

So I cried not only out of an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, but out of sadness for the people of New Haven unaware that in the midst of all the sirens and cacophony of the city; available to all, is a few minutes of ethereal ecstasy.

It was Sunday evening when I walked into Christ Church, weary from a full day of services, a full day of recitation and participation at various sites around New Haven. I also had a full week of talking, e-mailing, more talking, Facebook posting, and even more talking. I tend to be a rather social person. Suddenly, in that sacred space I was forced to stop talking and to listen.

The candles were ablaze all around the sanctuary, and I sat in nervous silence as the incense rose to the ceiling. Then voices of “angels” burst out into melodic harmonies and descants. It was difficult for me to believe that only four women were singing that evening. The robust sound helped by the natural acoustics of Christ Church would make one believe that an entire choir was singing.

At first my mind was still running on full steam, thinking about the events of the week, and thinking about future plans and events. Somewhere between the Gothic hymns, the flickering candles at the altar, and the smoke from the frankincense dancing around the flames, I found a deep peace. Tears began to roll down my cheeks as I realized that this space for meditation and reflection was missing in my life.

Other people do not even have the privilege to take time out of their busy week for such beauty and wonder. So I cried not only out of an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, but out of sadness for the people of New Haven unaware that in the midst of all the sirens and cacophony of the city; available to all, is a few minutes of ethereal ecstasy.

After it was over I desperately wished to stay in the sanctuary and not to return to the harsh realities of the concrete jungle. Someone had asked me if I was able to “follow” the service. I had not, and I was so very thankful for this fact.

Instead of standing up and sitting down, anticipating sacred invocations, reciting creeds from memory, I was actively engaged in another type of worship. I was a vessel being filled by song, by darkness, and by the still quiet voice of God found in smoke, in fire, in music, and in silence.

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