The Pews in the North Transept: A Remembrance

The following post appeared Friday, December 3rd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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photo credit: Lara Shine

There were a couple of pews in the north transept of the chapel. They were set perpendicular to the main body of pews and a bit apart from the others. Only one corner of these pews had a view of the altar, while the whitewashed wall that marked the beginning of the chancel blocked those sitting in the rest from witnessing the consecration of Holy Communion. A set of upperclassmen always sat in those sideways pews. If we had been in high school rather than seminary, they would have been the aloof, cool kids who wore t-shirts adorned with the names of bands you had never heard of and who only participated in school-spirit building events ironically.

It wasn’t until the second semester of my first year that I decided to try to sit in one of those pews, too. Some vestige of high school social dynamics must have awakened in me to prompt me to sit there: I would be cool and aloof by association if I planted myself in one of those sideways pews. I finally stocked up enough courage to try, and, much to my surprise, the upperclassmen had no problem with me sitting in close proximity to them. Apparently, they were cool and aloof enough to allow my greenness and exuberance for chapel services to invade their territory. At least, that’s what I thought at first. It turns out that those upperclassmen were just nice, welcoming Episcopalians with perhaps more than their share of the liturgical equivalent of gallows humor.

They ushered me, a lowly first year seminarian, into their pews. Pretty soon, I was the upperclassman sharing the pew with new folks starting their turn in the never-ending three-year cycle of Episcopal seminary. From that pew in the corner, I participated in several hundred worship services, mostly Morning Prayer and Eucharist, with an ordination thrown in here and there.

I remember one Tuesday morning during Lent when we hunkered down in those pews for another epic recitation of the Great Litany. Much to the joy of our attention spans, however, the student who was leading the Litany didn’t realize that only a small portion of it appears in the Hymnal 1982. Needless to say, we got out of chapel much earlier than we expected that morning.

I remember a sermon delivered by a beloved Old Testament professor, who had recently become the proud father of a beautiful little girl adopted from China. He preached about how his daughter toddled along next to him as he mowed the lawn, all the while pushing a plastic lawnmower of her own. We are like my little girl, he said. God allows us to push the lawnmower, but really God does the work.

I remember my only sermon in the chapel’s pulpit – five minutes on Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. I had seen the pulpit shake and sway when particularly rotund and fiery preachers tested its structural integrity. I had no such worry, being neither very heavy nor very fiery.

I remember the first time I stood up behind the chapel’s altar, the table that I could barely see from my chosen pew. I stood there in that place of mystery, while my liturgics practicum professor led us through how to celebrate the Eucharist. Never do something with only one hand, he said. Pray with the authentic voice that God gave you. If you have glasses, make sure the book is at the right height. His practical advice took away none of the mystery; rather, it gave me the ability to share the mystery with others. Still, on the day of my first Eucharist, I was so flustered that I couldn’t tell which cruet held the wine and which held the water.

I remember being proud of my own austerity when I eschewed the kneeler cushions, thus proving I had no idea what the concept of kneeling was all about. I remember putting on my crisp new cassock and surplice for my first Sunday in the choir. I remember playing the guitar at Evening Prayer. I remember practicing baptism on a cabbage patch kid.

Mostly, though, I remember the air in the chapel. It was heavy air, full of stained glass light and the comforting residue of the prayers of thousands of students who came before. That air hit me the first time I entered the chapel as a prospective student on a chilly January morning in 2005. I breathed in the substance of the holy, communal life that the seminary desired for each student – the life made up of words and bread and wine and water and song and, yes, mistakes. For three years, I added the breath of my prayers to that airy substance. And from that pew in the corner, I sat and knelt and stood, while God continually breathed life into me, making me the person God yearned for me to become.

A month ago, the chapel burned down. A friend called me about forty-five minutes after the blaze began to tell me the sad, shocking news. I’ve seen pictures of the charred, unstable structure that still remains. I’ve seen the news stories online. I’ve read the Facebook comments of dozens of seminary friends, who each changed their profile pictures to an image of the east wall of the chapel – the wall that famously read: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” All of these things tell me that the chapel is gone. But I don’t think that reality will truly hit me until I visit the holy hill of the Virginia Theological Seminary and see for myself the place where the conflagration released the residue of all those prayers into the sky.

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