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0 Comments | Sep 09, 2018

Those Who Speak, Ch. 2 – Reflection

November 4, 1962

 

DSC_0990Right around the time the steeple was being raised into position atop the as yet unnamed new church outside Wellington, Connecticut, a young man christened Cyrus Chamberlain (after a long departed maternal grandfather) sat fidgeting and less than attentive in the back row of a seminary classroom three hundred or so miles away in western upstate New York, listening to (or, more accurately, in attendance at) a lecture being delivered with ironic torpor on the role of fervor in spiritual messages to sedentary audiences. The course was a historic survey of canonical rhetoric and the mid-term paper was due in four days, a paper that Cyrus and his classmates had ostensibly been researching and writing for the past six weeks. Cyrus’s father had, though, observed, as far back as high school, that classes with these sorts of long-term projects were ill suited to his son’s temperament, as Cyrus had a tendency to, as the old man pithily put it, slide into home. Absent his father’s creative dialog, it was simply that the boy was given to waiting until the last possible moment to get started on such assignments, said assignments usually completed through the expedient of two or three consecutive all-nighters. His topic—Plato’s Phaedrus and its Influences on the Sermons of Martin Luther King—had been approved a month and a half ago for the fifteen-page paper, but little had taken place since then. It was going to be a long four days.

“…at which point in the dialog Socrates observes, ‘For the fact is, as we said ourselves at the beginning of this discussion that one who intends to be 
an able rhetorician has no need to know the truth about the things that
 are just or good or yet about the people who are such either by nature or upbringing.’”

Professor Owen Gray paused, drew a heavy breath, then paced, as was his wont, to the other side of the classroom stage whence he had only just come.

“Almost sounds as though the seminal Greek orator of his day—or perhaps any day—is arguing that truth need play no part in the crafting of rhetoric. He goes on to suggest that, ‘No one will ever possess the art of speaking, to the extent that any human being can, unless he acquires the ability to enumerate the sorts of characters to be found in any audience, to divide everything according to its kinds, and to grasp each single thing firmly by means of one form.’”

Gray paused once more, then turned to face the room, its sixteen seminarians displaying varying degrees of attentiveness to his oratory, ranging from rapt to incidental.

“Is it actually possible the great Socrates is advocating for manipulating one’s speech techniques based on a reading of the people in the audience and what is most likely to resonate with them, as opposed to caring about the honest truth?”

He scanned the room for an opinion, a raised hand. There were no obvious takers, plenty of avoided eye contact. It was a Friday afternoon and an exceptionally mild day for early November in upstate New York. Notwithstanding the fact that these were graduate seminary students, working their way to eventual ordination in the Baptist faith, they were also human beings possessed of normal human yearnings, notably in this moment the desire to ease into what seemed likely to be the last nice weekend before winter took a firm hold on their campus and their lives.

“Mister Chamberlain,” Gray said, turning in Cyrus’s direction, “surely you can illuminate us on this seeming conundrum. Seeing as how your midterm paper deals with Phaedrus, and since said paper is due in just four day’s time, I feel safe in assuming you’re by now more familiar than the rest of us with Socrates’ thoughts on this trenchant matter of truth and rhetoric.”

A few silent uncomfortable seconds ticked away during which Gray and everyone else in the classroom stared in Cyrus’s direction awaiting whatever philosophical insight he might have to offer.

“Mister Chamberlain?” Gray repeated at last. “Are you with us?”

“Yes … yes, of course,” Cyrus responded from out of his reverie, only now realizing that he had been called upon, yet having no idea what he had been called upon to do or say. “I wonder, sir, if you might perhaps rephrase the question.” It was the best he could muster in the moment.

“No worries, Mister Chamberlain. You may feel free to go about your business. Perhaps … Miss Foster has a thought to offer,” he said abruptly, turning in her direction. And she did—a poignant and well-thought-out response that had Gray nodding approvingly as he simultaneously cast an eye in Cyrus’s direction once more. And then just to ensure that his point had been made, he stepped to the lectern, lifted a pen, and made a quick note. The only thing missing was a rueful shake of his head and Cyrus couldn’t even swear that this affect was totally absent.

Damn it, he thought, as he watched the discussion continue on around him, feeling suddenly detached and adrift. Except that it wasn’t really all that sudden. The thing of it was, Cyrus was smart. He knew it. He parents had known it. And his teachers over the years had damn well known it, the ones who had let him graduate high school a year early, then college in three years as well. The sponsorship committee at his church had seen it immediately and its members had practically fallen over one another to endorse his admittance to Holy Cross. And so what if the smartest guy in the classroom engaged in a bit of daydreaming from time to time. Just his luck Gray would choose that moment to call on him. Never one to await the proffered hand, he’d been calling on students the entire semester, had made it clear on the first day that he would do so.

“Ten percent of your grade for this seminar will derive from,” he talked that way all the time—derive from—“your participation in class.”

But had it been just bad luck? Or could a tenured professor at a well-regarded if not quite top-tier divinity school be so cruel as to purposefully scan the room before asking a question, seeking out the least engaged of his students? Just how anal, Cyrus wondered, was Gray’s scheme for determining the ten percent? A fixed number of calls per student per semester? Kept track of in a detailed grid there on the podium? A plus or minus sign next to the name, perhaps a dash indicating a mediocre response. He had been called upon once before, two weeks earlier—something about the hermeneutic influence of Genesis on the teachings of Augustine, or other such minutia. And really—really—what did any of this have to do with preaching the holy gospel to a room full of people? Surely none of his future parishioners had ever heard of these things. What were the odds of the word hermeneutic coming up in a future sermon? Zero—that’s what. Was he ever likely to work in a quote from Phaedrus? Unlikely. After all, most of it was about old Greek philosophers having sex with young boys—not exactly acceptable fodder for your typical rural Baptist audience.

Cyrus was within a semester and a half of graduating from the four-year Master of Divinity program at Holy Cross Baptist Academy—the evangelical practicum in the formal vernacular of the program syllabus. Once he had his Masters degree, he had essentially two options: stay on for an additional year of specialization in any of a dozen or so post-graduate programs that Holy Cross offered, or take his new credential out into the world and pursue ordination and the service that went with it. By the coming spring, it was going to be time for Cyrus to begin making some important decisions. In this moment, though, as he walked out of Gray’s classroom, he couldn’t help but reflect on his past.

How had he come here in the first place? Seminary, for God’s sake. He’d grown up in a godless home in western Massachusetts, where the only instances of words like God or Jesus he had ever heard had been curses uttered, usually by his father, who regarded religion—every religion—as a form of mass delusion. His mother, born of a strict Midwestern Methodist family, was more given to faith, but had seen its last vestiges stripped away years ago by the strength of her husband’s overpowering atheism. When the time had come to consider the ecumenical future of Cyrus and his sister, it hadn’t really been much of a discussion.

“Do what you like,” he had said, “but don’t look to me to reinforce any of the claptrap they’re bound to bring home with them.”

So the three had gone off and on to the nearby Baptist church, but it hadn’t lasted more than a couple of years, what with the constant derision at home and the unpredictable availability of the one family car due to Cyrus’s father’s frequent weekend working hours. By the time Cyrus was eight and his sister six, their church-going days were behind them aside from the occasional Christmas and Easter thereafter.

It was only in college, years later, that Cyrus had returned to the proverbial fold. Halfway through his freshman year at Dartmouth, he had met Marie and been instantly smitten. She was attracted to Cyrus as well, but there was a catch. Her father was a Baptist minister at a church just south of Cleveland and there was no chance on God’s earth (her words) of her dating, much less marrying, a non-God-fearing man. And while she was pleased to hear that he had spent some time, and been baptized, in his youth at a Baptist church in Massachusetts, she was less pleased to learn that he hadn’t been since he was eight years old. For Marie this was a serious impediment to their burgeoning relationship. For Cyrus, it was a problem easily solved; he simply began attending church with her on Sundays.

Months into his first year at college, Cyrus had yet to choose a major. But he had taken quickly and seriously to the theological concepts and insights he was hearing at the weekly church services. He had long pondered what he regarded as the big questions—his place in the universe, his reason for being, what happens after death. Absent any plausible alternative structure, the idea of doing what the church pastor did every Sunday seemed an interesting possibility. Heaven knew such a path would thrill his longsuffering mother, almost as much as it would irritate his father, ever the skeptic. And while the relationship with the girlfriend in the end had not worked out, the fascination with religion as an intellectual endeavor remained, so much so that by the end of his freshman year, Cyrus was a declared Religious History major.

Before he could blink, another year and a half had gone by and he was midway through junior year.

“And have you thought much about what you mean to do next—once you’ve graduated?” His college advisor had been nothing if not candid about the options that a BA in Religious History afforded a young man in the real world of job ads and professional interviews.

“It’s not as though you’re going to find a lot of ads out there for history majors.” It had been halfway through his junior year and he had been advancing rapidly enough to make early graduation a very real possibility, all well and good in itself except that it accelerated as well the decision about what came next.

“Seems to me you’ve got a couple of good serious options that your BA would work well with—continuing on in grad school for a Ph.D. or shooting maybe for law school. Have you thought at all about teaching?”

“Actually, sir, there’s another option I’ve been thinking pretty hard about,” Cyrus had replied. “I’ve had some conversations with the pastor of my church about being sponsored for seminary.”

“Well, Cyrus,” the advisor had replied, “I confess you’ve caught me a bit by surprise. It’s an intriguing path to be sure, but I had no idea you were … ” he leaned back in his chair for a second, collecting his thoughts, at a momentary loss for words. “So you’re saying that you feel a … uh … a calling to the ministry? That’s really…” He recalls the advisor’s discomfort like the conversation was yesterday. And because he never explicitly addressed it with the advisor—a man you know only as well as you can know someone you talk with for an hour or two each semester—he had come away uncertain whether the man’s obvious discomfort with Cyrus’s revelation was because of his lack of experience at discussing seminary in general, or perhaps because he was, in fact, all too familiar with the rigors of divinity school and he perceived in Cyrus something that gave him pause about the likelihood of success or even sincerity.

But it was true that by now Cyrus had been an active member of Trinity Baptist Church in Hanover, a mile or so south of the Dartmouth campus, for over a year. He had in that time become good friends with Senior Pastor Brandon Leyton and had broached with him the subject of a possible divinity school sponsorship, a prospect that Leyton had warmed to with seeming ease, based partly on Cyrus apparent enthusiasm and partly on his affiliation with, and decent if not exemplary academic performance thus far at, Dartmouth. The pastor had explained to him the challenging gauntlet of sponsorships, committee meetings, internships, and other requirements as laid down by the Leadership Commission of the American Baptist Churches Council. And, of course, there was the not-inconsequential matter of potentially being called to serve in virtually any spot on the globe following his graduation.

“Just so you know, sir,” Cyrus had finally spoken up before leaving his advisor’s office that day so long ago, “this is by no means a done deal yet. But I wanted you to know it’s an option I’m seriously considering.” Later, walking across campus, it occurred to him to wonder why he had offered that caveat to his advisor. For by then his attendance at Holy Cross was, in fact, almost certainly a done deal. He had taken and done exceptionally well on his entrance exams and been assured of sponsorship by Pastor Leyton. All that remained was receipt of the acceptance letter, which, as things had transpired, arrived only three weeks later. He would never speak again with his college advisor.

Now here he was, midway through his fifth of eight semesters at Holy Cross and champing at the bit to take his place at the pulpit, to stand before his own congregation. Issues of spirituality aside, he greatly enjoyed public speaking and was widely acknowledged as being very good at it. He had been a debate team captain at Dartmouth, and had even found and joined a local Toastmasters club shortly after arriving at divinity school. There had been a gauntlet of psychological evaluations to surmount during his first year, but Cyrus was astute enough to deduce the right things to say and to say them at the right times. He needed only to make it through this third year and to do well on next summer’s internship, its destination as yet unknown but almost certain to be some third-world dustbowl where he would be obliged to spend more time digging wells or repairing shacks than actually preaching to anyone. But it was a necessary part of the process.

Lost once more in daydream as he walked slowly across the center of campus, Cyrus was brought back to reality by the ringing of his cell phone. It was in the bottom of his backpack, and by the time he’d fished it out, the call had gone to voicemail. Just as well, he thought, I don’t really feel like talking. The gravity of Gray’s pending midterm paper was finally beginning to sink in, helped along by the unfortunate result of his having been called upon in class, and he dropped to a spot beneath a sprawling maple tree and extracted his only-slightly-read paperback copy of Phaedrus. No sooner had he settled into a comfortable position between a pair of large tree roots when the cell phone emitted the double beep signifying that whoever had just called had left him a voicemail message. He extracted the phone once more, touched the voicemail retrieval icon, and put the phone to his ear.

“Mister Chamberlain, this is Dean Pinkerton. I’m calling to request a bit of your time, say, fifteen minutes at your earliest convenience. I’ll be in my office for the remainder of the afternoon, probably until at least six. I’d very much like to chat today if you can arrange it. Thanks, talk with you soon.”

Harold Pinkerton was Dean of Students at the seminary, someone Cyrus had had occasion to speak with only three or four times in his two-plus years on the Holy Cross campus. Damn. Nothing good can come of that, Cyrus thought, turning back to Plato. The dean of students doesn’t invite you to his office to tell you what a great job you’re doing. It was barely two o’clock, plenty of time to squeeze in a few pages of Plato before answering the summons.

 

“Mister Chamberlain, thanks so much for stopping by. Please … have a seat,” Pinkerton said, gesturing toward one of the pair of heavy oak chairs before his immense desk. The dean had greeted Cyrus at the door to his office and offered a perfunctory handshake before retaking his own seat behind the desk. The intensely thick burgundy carpet muffled, in an oddly ominous way, the faintest trace of noise as Cyrus moved to his proffered seat. Pinkerton paused for what seemed quite a long moment, steepling his fingers, collecting his thoughts, calculating their delivery.

“Mister Chamberlain…” he began. “You and I are both members of a school of divinity, and as such I think it goes without saying that among our various personal characteristics must prominently feature honesty and candor, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I … uh … cannot imagine how anyone could disagree with that, sir.” What a dreadfully formal way to begin a conversation, Cyrus thought, but then, I have no earthly idea why I’m here, do I?

Pinkerton paused an additional moment to flip open a thin manila folder that was lying on his desk blotter. Cyrus involuntarily stretched his neck as subtly as he could manage in a futile attempt to catch a glimpse. Glancing down for a quick moment, the dean continued. “This is a difficult topic to discuss, but before I get into the details, I will encourage you to bear in mind, by way of context, that here at Holy Cross we regard our mission as comprising two principal responsibilities, these being the professional education and welfare of our students, and the perpetuation of God’s message to the world beyond our doors.”

“I totally understand, Dean Pinkerton,” Cyrus responded, noting a tightening of his stomach muscles, a reaction he knew well to be his body’s involuntary response to the onset of stress. “If anything, I might be tempted to reverse the priority of those two objectives.”

“Quite so, Mister Chamberlain. Quite so indeed. In fact, it’s reassuring to hear you put it in just those terms. It will go some way toward helping you understand the difficult decision that the board of student affairs has arrived at concerning your … status here at Holy Cross.”

The phrase ‘your status here at Holy Cross’ elicited a further tightening of Cyrus’s stomach muscles.

“Tell me if you would, Mister Chamberlain, as best you can recollect it, about your calling to the ministry.”

Though this struck Cyrus as an incongruous thing to be asking a third-year graduate seminary student, he nonetheless felt himself more than able to provide a satisfactory response. He cleared his throat.

“Well, sir, it’s quite simple really. I have, since my college days, felt the distinct urge—an inexorably growing urge in fact—to share with others the truth of God’s message. And while it’s certainly reasonable that I might have done so on an individual basis while pursuing a more secular career path, I came to conclude, after much discussion with Pastor Leyton and subsequent reflection, that the pulpit was the place that offered the opportunity to impact the greatest number, particularly given that I’ve had some success at public speaking since my days at Dartmouth.”

Pinkerton appeared to consider this response.

“All very understandable, very reasonable,” he replied. “If I recall your admittance essay correctly,” he glanced for a moment to the pages on the desk, “you stated that faith was a …” he touched his finger lightly to his tongue and turned a page, “yes, a … uh … notably absent element of much of your upbringing, due to what you described as an incongruity of belief between your parents.”

“That’s right, sir. To be frank, my father was an unapologetic lifelong atheist and he did all he could to thwart my mother’s efforts to raise us in the faith. She was a Methodist, but my father, I’m afraid, regarded all religions with equal contempt. ”

“Yes, it’s unfortunate, most unfortunate,” Pinkerton said. “And yet, here you are, Mister Chamberlain, just three odd semesters from completing a formal program of ecumenical education. One imagines your parents will have rather different reactions to your graduation.”

“Let’s just say my mother will be quite proud, and leave it at that,” Cyrus said. It almost felt as though Pinkerton had relaxed into a state of banter, such that Cyrus felt the tenseness in his abdomen relax slightly.

“And remind me just what it was that drew you back into the faith in more recent years.”

“In all candor, sir, it was a girlfriend at Dartmouth. Her father was a pastor in the Midwest and they were quite … encouraging of my attendance at her church there in Hanover,”

“I see,” Pinkerton replied. “Forgive me if this strikes you as perhaps an indelicate question, but would it be fair to describe your return to the church, in the early going, as having been motivated by … other than Godly reasons?”

Again the stomach tenseness as Cyrus perceived the potential trap that Pinkerton appeared to be setting.

“I take your point, sir, and I’d be less than truthful if I denied that the initial force that compelled me to her church was the desire to … please a friend. But surely, sir, the journey to faith has many paths. Seems to me the heart of the matter is having arrived at the right place regardless of the path taken to get there.”

“Many paths indeed, Mister Chamberlain.” The dean again touched his finger to his tongue, again turned a page in what was surely Cyrus’s dossier. “Let me ask you a rather different question. Tell me how you regard the academic program here at Holy Cross. Specifically, what role do you envision your formal studies having in a future ministry?”

And so at last they had come to it. This wasn’t a conversation about Cyrus’s motivations or his calling. This was about academic performance, which was, after all, the primary remit of the dean of students. And this wasn’t Cyrus’s first time sitting in this office, in this chair, having some version of the conversation that was almost certainly about to ensue. The school required that students maintain at least a B average, and Cyrus had been hovering dangerously close to that measure since the midpoint of his second year. It had been observed by more than one professor and by Pinkerton himself in an earlier conversation that anything less than stellar academic performance on Cyrus’s part was regarded as incongruous given his cum laude performance at Dartmouth.

“Sir,” it occurred to Cyrus that in this moment he really needed to choose his words carefully, though he couldn’t help but wonder if it was really going to matter. “I do believe that a solid theological foundation is necessary in order to succeed in a ministry. I am, though, also of the view that the most important ingredient in witnessing to others and ultimately bringing them to God’s grace is possessing the very highest level of personal fervor and commitment. To the extent that my grades may be somewhat less than stellar, I’m convinced that my fervor will more than compensate.”

“Cyrus,” Pinkerton replied (was the transition to the first name about to make things worse or better?), “while I cannot disagree with your assessment of the importance of fervor in spreading God’s message, it cannot be news to you that success at Holy Cross—indeed at any divinity school—must be a well-balanced combination of not only fervor for the pulpit but also fervor for one’s studies.”

“Dean Pinkerton, I certainly understand the need for that balance, and I can assure you that—”

“Mister Chamberlain, I’m afraid I’m going to have to come to the gist of why I asked you here today, and I can only hope that you come away with a positive view on what is doubtless going to sound rather negative at first blush. The student board has recommended—and I am in agreement with their assessment—that you take an academic leave of absence for the coming several months, with eligibility to return next fall to resume your studies. During that time, it is our sincere hope—indeed our requirement—that you pursue some very serious reflection on your reasons for being here at Holy Cross, and that you return next September with a renewed commitment, not only to your faith and to the ministry, but also to the academic pursuits that we believe will best equip you to succeed in that ministry.”

The tightness in Cyrus’s stomach returned with such speed and severity that it caused an involuntary groan. He sat back in his chair, crossed his arms tightly across his chest, and turned his gaze to the ceiling of the office. Perfect dark-oak timbers in an old-English cross-hatch pattern he’d utterly failed to notice in his previous visits to Pinkerton’s office.

“So you’re throwing me out,” Cyrus replied, regretting the words and their tone the moment he’d said it.

“By now means,” Pinkerton replied without hesitation. “We have, in fact, had many students take time off from their studies for a variety of reasons, and the great majority eventually return and complete their studies. In my estimation, most are the better for having done so. As I said at the outset, you should regard this as an opportunity—an opportunity to reflect on your life, your faith, and how you can best meld these to the betterment of your future and of God’s work.”

With that, Pinkerton stopped and sat for a moment, as though expecting some sort of confirmation on Cyrus’s part that he would regard these events in the same positive way that Pinkerton was exhorting him to do. But Cyrus only sat, continuing to stare at the ceiling in stunned silence.

“I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling an appointment for you with the bursar’s office so that they can review all of the salient details of this arrangement with you.”

Pinkerton rose to indicate that the conversation was concluded. Cyrus rose as well and turned for the office door. Pinkerton came from around the desk and placed what he imagined was a reassuring hand on Cyrus’s shoulder.

“You only watch, Mister Chamberlain,” he said as he guided Cyrus to the door and reached for the knob, “watch and see if this doesn’t all turn out for the best.”

 

It was all Cyrus could do to wait until he was outside the building before exhaling hard and punching the nearest tree as hard as he could manage.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” he shouted with enough volume to attract the stares of at least half a dozen nearby students. And though he only struck the tree the one time, he did so with enough verve to break two fingers. From his office window, Pinkerton looked down on the scene and offered only a faint rueful shake of his head before returning to his desk and awaiting his next meeting.

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