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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Ah, the French! Always so fatalistic. And, often so right!

It was author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”) who coined the epigram "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose". It has become a modern proverb of sorts, meaning, roughly, "The more things change, the more they stay the same".

That's been my experience, thus far, of returning to the campus of The Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA after graduating almost twenty-five years ago.

Much has changed - and much is just about the same.

I should note that I am in what is probably the fairly unique position of being both an alum of Lesley University (it was College then) as well as EDS. That's important to know because EDS and Lesley are now partners in an educational enterprise, sharing a library and classrooms as well as student residences (formerly called 'dorms').

In the very near future, they will also be sharing educational programs, so one might be able to graduate with a double Master's Degree - say, an MDiv and a Masters in Psychology or Social Work.

I really believe this is the way of the future for ordained and lay ministry in the institutional church.

Needless to say, I'm a big fan of this collaborative arrangement. Even so, I must admit to stopping in my tracks the first time I saw the green "Lesley University" signs on the stately brown stone buildings of Winthrop and Lawrence Halls.

The Refectory, where seminarians always gathered to discuss theology or church history or wail over the impossibility of learning Greek while eating meals prepared with 20 year old men in mind - meat, potatoes, vegetables - is now "The Brattle Cafe".

I should give thanks that it's not "The Cafeteria". I know. I know. We Episcopalians are a persnickety lot about things like "undercroft", and "narthex" and "sacristy".

Just work with me, here.

A huge salad bar is now the centerpiece of the room.  In front of that, by the cash registers, is a hot buffet. Yesterday's offerings included chicken caccatori, eggplant parmesan, sauteed vegetables, brown rice and garlic bread.

A new feature is a chef with a hot plate and a wok who took up his station over to the right of the kitchen and stir-fried up a mean garlic chicken and broccoli with a light cream sauce, served over penne pasta. Lord have mercy, it was good!

The kitchen area still houses the coffee and tea (all fair trade, of course) as well as cereals, breads, bagels, fruit, and dessert.

A surprising number of Lesley kids were eating cereal for lunch. At first I thought it was because it might be less expensive, but then I remembered that my own kids, when they were that age, would eat a bowl of cereal as sort of an appetizer - before they really started to eat a meal. Or, they'd have a few bowls as their actual meal.

I watched one young woman eat a bowl of what looked like Lucky Charms while she sipped a few glasses of soda and munched on three pieces of garlic bread and then had a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies.

I couldn't help but think that her parents must have been, at that very moment, at a job they really don't want to do but need the money to pay her tuition and were comforting themselves that at least they were able to afford the "meal plan" so their daughter could eat well while at school.

Her parents may be surprised to know that she's cut her hair - well, shaved it, actually, on both sides - but she's left an interesting long curl at both ears. It's purple now - her hair - but just on top.

Not to worry. It will all grow out by the time she's home in June. Or, not. I did hear her say to a friend that she planned to ace the bio lab on Friday.

All is well.

It has ever been thus.

Having young, undergraduate students around EDS is a HUGE change, however. They are loud and giggly - as students that age have always been - but they have just never hallowed the sacred grounds of the campus, much less in the library and hallways and classrooms of The Episcopal Divinity School.

Yesterday morning, one young female student took a glass of water and went outside as we all watched her through the glass walls. She waited for the wind to blow and then threw the water into the air. It came down in snow. Honest to God!

We all applauded her efforts. Emboldened, she then disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an egg and a paper plate. She went back outdoors, cracked the egg open onto the plate and then returned as we timed the event.

In exactly 19 minutes and 48 seconds, she returned with the egg frozen solid on the plate. The room roared its approval as we collectively sent up a lament about the frigid temperatures that have beset the Boston/Cambridge area these past few days.

Suddenly, it felt warmer in that room - warmer than I had ever remembered it.

Did I mention that I love these kids?

Which is part of what hasn't changed. I mean, this is still a center of learning. Of intellectual curiosity. Of education. We are a 'divinity school' - a place of theological education - not just a 'seminiary'.

This is not a 'factory' which produces clergy who are carefully schooled in what to say and how to move in carefully choreographed liturgical dance steps - although, if you want that sort of thing, it's also available.

It's a unique place where clergy and laity are educated to think. To be intellectually curious about God and the people of God. And, once they have carefully learned what the voices of the academy and church tradition have had to say about any given subject, to question and challenges those assumption.

Everyone here - at EDS and Lesley - is here for the same thing - we just go about it differently and pursue different paths on the same journey.

Those who are passionately pursuing a path toward God through Jesus are still very passionate about that pursuit. It's just that there are a lot more people here, now, and not all of them are passionate about the same thing.

Which means that one can not automatically assume, when one meets a fellow student in the Refectory at the Brattle Cafe that the person is not a seminarian. Neither can one assume that said seminarian is an Episcopalian.

There are people from the broad spectrum of religious experience who are "seriously considering" becoming a member of The Episcopal Church, but haven't been "officially" confirmed or received. Others have become members of the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), which also has a partnership with EDS.

Back in the day, the only question one might ask is, "What is your sponsoring congregation/diocese?" because no one was allowed into the MDiv program unless you were a postulant for Holy Orders.

Not so much any more. It's a bit more complicated here, now.

Which, I like, actually.

A lot.

It's such a wonderful opportunity to learn about someone else's journey and . . . and. . . AND, for them to learn about yours.

In fact, this is more like the "real world" where these seminarians - those who will become empowered members of the laity as well as those who will be ordained - will apply what they have learned here.

If you haven't noticed, the "real world" is very diverse - and getting more and more so every day. I think EDS is preparing its students for real ministry in the real world (Hey, I think that's a pretty catchy tag line, don't you think?)

That's called "Evangelism," folks. That hasn't changed. There's just more of an opportunity for it, now.

Oh, and one other thing has changed which provides unexpected challenges.

There are women who identify as men - but who are obviously (or, perhaps, not so obviously) women - and men who identify as women - but who are obviously (or, perhaps, not so obviously) men - and other people who are, well, trying to figure out the whole androgyny thing.

The challenge comes when talking with someone whose name is a bit gender-ambiguous who looks like what my mother would describe as a 'handsome woman' but refers to herself in the male pronoun, and expects that you, of course, will, as well.

It's a bit like looking at an orange and saying "pear". Or looking at the color red and saying "blue." I do well, one to one, but when a third or fourth person joins the conversation and I hear myself say, "Well she - er, I mean HE, was just saying . . . .". Well, it's a bit awkward.

I'll get the hang of it.

What I love is the way I am challenged to think - or reconsider - my assumptions about gender - especially the politics of gender and how that all connects at the crossroads of sexuality and spirituality.

I think the Trans/Queer community is helping this discussion and leading us to new insights in ways we couldn't have imagined without this element now being an honest part of the conversation.

One person said to me that s/he felt it was a vocational calling to be a Queer/Trans person - that this was a call from God to help fellow Christians understand what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "... no longer male nor female...." but "alive in Christ".

If we take that seriously, how do we live that out in community? How do we live that out in the world which is still rigidly structured around traditional - ancient, actually - understandings of what it means to be male or female.

How can we be faithful to being 'alive in Christ' and bring ourselves and others closer to the vision of the Realm of God when the the dominant (though dying) social paradigm is patriarchy and heterosexism?

I'm learning new ways of being with others in Christian community - which is exactly what I was learning 28 years ago when I first arrived on this campus.

As the French say, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".

It's really quite wonderful, all this change and yet being the same.

In fact, it may really be the only way to live fully in this life as we prepare ourselves to return home, one day, to Eternity.

As the kids here say, "Peace out, girl scout!"

And, "Rock on!"


Mary Beth said...

I just love following your adventure.

And I used to always tell people that when I grew up I wanted to be "happy." INFP much?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, Mary Beth, I hope you continue to enjoy my "Great Cambridge Adventure" because there will be more entries. Indeed, I plan to post my required reflections on the Christology and Spirituality courses. Indeed, Pui Lan has suggested that, if we don't already have a blog that we start one and, beginning Feb 1, post our reflections on our reading and class discussion there.

How cool is that?

Revmao said...

Thanks so much for challenging and inspiring us by reflecting on your adventures there. Keep it comin'. It's a vicarious delight. I'm sure the walls of The Refectory, ooops, Brattle Cafe, delight in the ongoing life and learning happening within.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mary Anne- I was thinking of starting a separate blog, but I think I'm going to keep this one and just add my reflections.

My latest fixation for meditation is about parson as person. The public practice of ministry. It's a fascinating thought.

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