Basic, 256 pp.
The quadrangle, also known as the close, at General Theological Seminary isone of the few oases in New York City. Nestled in the lower west side ofManhattan, General, with its neo-gothic structures and its carefully tendedlawn, offers a cool respite from the surrounding chaos of the crowded andenergetic city. A legion of caretakers and groundskeepers, it seems, spendsits days tut-tutting over the buildings and the landscaping, placing tidylittle signs admonishing students and all others not to trespass on thegrass and, please, by all means, if you would be so kind, pick up afteryourpets. Aside from the architectural atrocity of the library, the close atGeneral looks like a medieval English churchyard.
Which, of course, is precisely the point. General is an Episcopal seminarythat tilts toward the high-church, or Anglo-Catholic, end of thedenomination's spectrum, that stripe of Anglicanism that relishes serene,liturgical worship and retains a high view of the sacraments. That circumstance, on the face ofit, makes Generalsomething of an anomaly at the turn of the 21st century, especially amidfrenetic bustle of the city outside of the close.
This is the tension that Chloe Breyer explores in her memoir, whichchronicles her first year as a divinity student at General. Fresh from ahoneymoon in Alaska, Breyer and her husband move into seminary housing andshe begins her coursework.
Breyer organizes her memoir according to the liturgical year:Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Within this rubric,we sit in on church history courses,parse Greek verbs, and participate in student discussions at the seminary'sbasement lounge, which, apparently, is called Seabury's Bottom. (SamuelSeabury was the first Episcopal bishop in America.) More important, wewitness Breyer's maturation over the year as she tries to reconcile therelatively harmonious life at General with the dissonance just beyond itscloistered gates.
Despite the seminary's emphasis on daily Evensong, for instance, the authorlearns the importance of spontaneous prayer at venues other than thechapel."As I discover, making a thought-offering of my fears and anxieties aboutthe future is something I can do anytime, any place--on my morning jog,climbing the stairs in my apartment building, even on the way to class,"shewrites. "I am more confident now that God will accept themall--thanksgivingand obsessive thoughts alike."
The author's best insights--not to mention her best writing--occur in herLenten chapter, where she skillfully juxtaposes Jesus' temptation in thewilderness with her own forays around Manhattan. Just as Satan tries toseduce Jesus with offers of power and influence, so too Breyer findsherselftempted by the possibilities of wealth and prestige. She envies her Harvardclassmates who had opted for law school or business school while she choseseminary. She visits Morningside Heights and begins coveting the cachet ofaPh.D. in religion from Columbia University. "The desire for academicaccolades was familiar to me," she confesses, "but this craving becamepalpable during Lent."
Breyer stays the course, concluding her year with an internship at theCathedral of St. John the Divine (adjacent to Columbia) and a clinicalpastoral education assignment at Bellevue Hospital, where she encounters anassortment of characters and challenges that would test the mettle--anddissolve the idealism--of any seminary student. Theauthor survives, and thoughthe narrative ends at Bellevue the reader has little doubt that Breyer willpersevere in her studies and emerge as a very good priest indeed.
As a writer, Breyer lacks the seasoned wisdom of Frederick Buechner, theearthy mysticism of Kathleen Norris, and the incomparable wit of AnneLamott. "The Close" suggests, however, that her career both as a priest andas a writer are off to a promising start.