2017-07-12
The Close: A Young Woman's First Year at Seminary
By Chloe Breyer
Basic, 256 pp.

The quadrangle, also known as the close, at General Theological Seminary is one of the few oases in New York City. Nestled in the lower west side of Manhattan, General, with its neo-gothic structures and its carefully tended lawn, offers a cool respite from the surrounding chaos of the crowded and energetic city. A legion of caretakers and groundskeepers, it seems, spends its days tut-tutting over the buildings and the landscaping, placing tidy little signs admonishing students and all others not to trespass on the grass and, please, by all means, if you would be so kind, pick up after your pets. Aside from the architectural atrocity of the library, the close at General looks like a medieval English churchyard.

Which, of course, is precisely the point. General is an Episcopal seminary that tilts toward the high-church, or Anglo-Catholic, end of the denomination's spectrum, that stripe of Anglicanism that relishes serene, liturgical worship and retains a high view of the sacraments. That circumstance, on the face of it, makes General something of an anomaly at the turn of the 21st century, especially amid frenetic bustle of the city outside of the close.

This is the tension that Chloe Breyer explores in her memoir, which chronicles her first year as a divinity student at General. Fresh from a honeymoon in Alaska, Breyer and her husband move into seminary housing and she 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's basement lounge, which, apparently, is called Seabury's Bottom. (Samuel Seabury was the first Episcopal bishop in America.) More important, we witness Breyer's maturation over the year as she tries to reconcile the relatively harmonious life at General with the dissonance just beyond its cloistered gates.

Despite the seminary's emphasis on daily Evensong, for instance, the author learns the importance of spontaneous prayer at venues other than the chapel. "As I discover, making a thought-offering of my fears and anxieties about the 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," she writes. "I am more confident now that God will accept them all--thanksgiving and obsessive thoughts alike."

The author's best insights--not to mention her best writing--occur in her Lenten chapter, where she skillfully juxtaposes Jesus' temptation in the wilderness with her own forays around Manhattan. Just as Satan tries to seduce Jesus with offers of power and influence, so too Breyer finds herself tempted by the possibilities of wealth and prestige. She envies her Harvard classmates who had opted for law school or business school while she chose seminary. She visits Morningside Heights and begins coveting the cachet of a Ph.D. in religion from Columbia University. "The desire for academic accolades was familiar to me," she confesses, "but this craving became palpable during Lent."

Breyer stays the course, concluding her year with an internship at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (adjacent to Columbia) and a clinical pastoral education assignment at Bellevue Hospital, where she encounters an assortment of characters and challenges that would test the mettle--and dissolve the idealism--of any seminary student. The author survives, and though the narrative ends at Bellevue the reader has little doubt that Breyer will persevere in her studies and emerge as a very good priest indeed.

As a writer, Breyer lacks the seasoned wisdom of Frederick Buechner, the earthy mysticism of Kathleen Norris, and the incomparable wit of Anne Lamott. "The Close" suggests, however, that her career both as a priest and as a writer are off to a promising start.

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