Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
People are surprising. College students are even more surprising. Like young people everywhere, this is something they specialize in. You have to delight in being surprised to work successfully with them. But in all of the years that I have worked with teens and with college students, and it's been a long time now, there are times when even my capacity for surprise gets tested.
I work with the ministry of the Episcopal Church at Cornell University. During semesters I spend 4 or 5 days a month on campus. The ECC (Episcopal Church at Cornell) community is a smallish group - the Christian community on any campus like Cornell is a very small minority of the student body - but it is alive, vigorous, and a whole lot of fun to be with. It is composed of undergrads, graduate students, faculty, staff and people from the surrounding community, and has a very diverse membership with an even more diverse range of interests. But I had not expected that asceticism was among their interests.
I arrived on the Cornell campus on Ash Wednesday. I arrived in something of a flurry because of some dental problems: two crowns had fallen off my teeth and I had to consult with the dentist before I could leave West Park. So I arrived much later than usual; in fact, I arrived 5 minutes before the 5:00 pm Eucharist. Suzanne Guthrie, the Episcopal Chaplain, greeted me warmly as she always does. She was already vested for the service and said: "Get your habit on so you look like a real monk, and you can preach." Uh-oh. I often preach at that service, but I had not planned to preach last Wednesday. I didn't even know whether I was going to get there in time for it. So there I was, with 5 minutes to get dressed and to think of something to say.
So there wasn't much to say except what had been in my own heart and mind as I approached Lent this year. I decided to talk about what I was going to give up for Lent this year, and why, and about why giving something up for 40 days is a practice that continues to hold meaning for me. I described my process: I try to look for a part of my life in which I sense significant disorder, usually for something about which I might use the word "addiction". I usually decide to give up something not because I like it and think I should give up things I like. I don't even give stuff up because I feel guilty about it. I tend to decide to do without something because in my dealings with it I sense that I have lost some of my freedom. For an example, let's take one of everyone's favorite things to think about when the subject of giving up something for Lent arises - chocolate.
Periodically I run into the reality that my relationship to chocolate is not free at all. The chocolate is making the decisions, not me. And it is making bad decisions, even to the extent of affecting my health. (Yes, I know the perils of describing the process this way, but this is what it feels like). So I give it up for Lent, not just to give it up but to see what happens when I do. The feelings are often complicated and pretty unpleasant. I don't like feeling the depth of my "addiction" to this substance, I don't always like feeling all of the feelings that drive me to overeating in the first place, and I frequently don't like the memories and associations that come with feeling the feelings.
But if I honor the process I find that I learn more about myself. I learn what I am doing in my relationship with chocolate, which is significant because this relationship is usually conducted in a pretty unconscious sort of way. And not unfrequently I find that this exploration has increased my freedom. I come back to my relationship with chocolate not as a passive victim but as a participant. And this small increase in freddom affects other parts of my life including, most importantly, my prayer.
This is what I talked about when the time for the sermon came. I knew it wasn't going to be the best sermon I ever preached, and that its organization and delivery were going to be far from optimal. But the ECC community is a pretty loving and forgiving bunch, and they know me pretty well, and I figured they would be disposed to forgive my lack of polish on this Ash Wednesday.
Well, they quite surprised me, once again. What I had expected was wandering thoughts on their part, and all of the little signs that a preacher is used to that indicates that the congregation's attention is anywhere but on what you are saying. And I expected to be greeted warmly afterwards, as I always am. What happened was that there were, as far as I could tell, no wandering thoughts at all. No one that I could see in the unusually large congreation that day seemed to be looking anywhere but directly at me. They seemed, in fact, to be wrapped up in what I was telling them of my story. They seemed to have been captivated by the prospect of giving up chocolate for Lent. I was bowled over.
And afterwards I had several conversations about the sermon. There were requests for more details, for more explication of how the process works for me. Several people wanted to reflect on parts of their lives that they wanted to get in better order, and wanted to know how Lent could be part of that process. They were still talking to me about it two days later. This poor little effort of mine seemed to have engaged the people there in a way that much of my more polished work never has. Go figure. Should I give up preparing my homilies? Maybe I should just deepen my capacity for delighting in surprises.
And this is why I love my time at Cornell. I'm often challenged, and sometimes it can be exhileratring and sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but it's always fascinating. College students are surprising - I guess most people are surprising. Being involved in this surprise adds wonderful depth to my life and to my ministry.