My sister, Allison Schaefer, is a sophomore at Brown University. Right now she’s taking a writing course in creative non-fiction, and she wrote her final paper on her faith journey in college. I’m going to begin with a passage that she wrote just last week:
It’s 5:27 pm. There are only two other people at the service—neither of them students. Today is the last day of “Spring Weekend,” Brown’s annual three-day concert extravaganza which features rappers and rockers, dazed and confused students, and dangerous levels of intoxication, amidst a general splattering of chaos. The silence of the small chapel is interrupted by music blaring out of a fraternity window across the street. The two other attendees, older gentlemen, exchange irritated glances.
Spring weekend is not over, I think. People are still partying—still having fun. Why am I spending my Sunday evening at Church when I could be out with my friends? There are four of us in the chapel, while thousands of students are tanning, dancing, and singing out on the green. Why am I here?
Father Blake glides in, wearing his long, black cassock. As he begins the service, I open to page 62 in the prayer book.
It only takes a few seconds for these thoughts to leave my head. The gentle rhythm of the opening prayer spoken in unison, the aroma of fresh candles burning before me, the rainbow pallet of colors shining through the stained glass window all cause me to understand why I came to Church at 5:30 on that day.
These words could not be more timely. Just yesterday, many of us in this room were similarly enjoying the debaucherous excess of Spring Fling just outside these doors. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose, as Allie did, between evening prayer and bacchanalian frenzy.
What struck me most about Allie’s words was not this timely coincidence, however, or the way she’s grown into such an eloquent and expressive writer. It was the eerily parallel experiences we’ve had with faith in college. We grew up in Wilton, CT and regularly attended services at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church with our parents, who are seated here today. Faith, to us, was not an ecstatic emotional experience, but a weekly routine. Allie put it much better than I possibly could, so I’ll quote her again:
Going to Church had been like visiting a distant relative. I went when protocol required it. I was polite, gracious, and attentive. I went through the motions, but didn’t understand the movement. I recited the words, but didn’t know whom I was talking to.
Like Allie, when I came to college as a freshman, going to Church was a comfortable routine that, for reasons I couldn’t articulate, felt good to do. I lived in Farnam Hall, just across Old Campus, and when I heard the organ music start playing at 5 pm every Sunday, I would wrap up whatever I had been working on and amble across the green to Dwight Chapel.
Attending services at ECY was comforting, and it added structure to my week—dedicated time for solemnity and reflection. But at the same time, I struggled with my identity as a Christian. At such a highly intellectual, secular place like Yale, many people don’t openly discuss their faith. Atheists and agnostics enjoy a sort of intellectual satisfaction—or perhaps intellectual conceit—that people of faith don’t, and I’ll admit I was embarrassed to discuss my faith with people who I worried would consider me unintellectual. Even to myself, I was unsettled by my inability to rationalize my Christian beliefs. God, in fact, is easy to rationalize—someone had to invent the laws of physics. Christ is more difficult—how can I accommodate the Immaculate Conception or the Resurrection with my understanding of the universe as an orderly place, governed by strict rules without exception. And I’m not a deist, satisfied with an understanding of God as a disinterested, divine clockmaker. I’m a Christian, and I want to be a Christian. Like Allie, I could go through the motions, but I could not understand the movement. And I found this immensely frustrating.
Gradually, however, I came to realize that I had been thinking about this in entirely the wrong way. People here are really intelligent—often too smart for our own good—and we’re used to being able to figure things out. Not until I began to shed this intellectual vanity—the assumption that I could somehow figure Christ out—could I ever hope to be satisfied with my Christian identity.
Just as Allie found meaning in the scent of the candles and the light shining through the stained glass, I’ve finally started to feel Christ’s presence in the world in sublime, ineffable ways. When the choir sings the Anthem at the Offertory, when the organ plays the closing voluntary, when the Congregation reads aloud the ancient words of the Nicene Creed—this is when I feel the Holy Spirit. I shut my eyes, empty my mind of thoughts, and feel the presence of God.
I will never be able to rationalize Christ. Nor should I even try. All I can do is take comfort in the knowledge that Christ is peace; Christ is love; Christ is life.