Reflections on Applying to HDS: Surrender

Post by Patrick Downes, MDiv ‘23 

Editor’s Note: For students who have been out of school for a few years or are well into their careers, applying to divinity school can be an especially difficult decision. Here is a piece from one of our current MDiv students, Patrick Downes, about his experience deciding to apply to HDS. For a more directed approach to the application process, including a suggested timeline, please see this earlier post from July 2020. 

Forest Park in Queens // Photo Courtesy of Patrick Downes

What becomes of a person who flees a call to vocation, flees the Divine, forever fights and retreats? For me, it felt like an endless winter, an overexposure to cold. I wrestled in snow and ice. The moment I turned in my application to HDS, a moment when my acceptance seemed remote, turned into a moment of quiet. I had stopped fighting, for a little while, with God, and began to suffer less. The discernment that became my statement of purpose, my application, belongs to a surrender. 

Last November, fifty-years-old, I attended the Theological Education Day at HDS, or how it is currently known, Open House for Prospective Students.  I walked from my hotel in Back Bay to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, three miles more or less. I chanced the unfamiliar roads, feeling out Cambridge on a weekday morning. I wanted to think and prepare my heart, to cross the Charles on foot. Walking is for me a form of devotion, a time for attentiveness and witness. To attend the day was to advance toward vocation, to situate myself within a scholarly community that embraces exploration of devotion and the future of religion. 

Later that morning, as part of the campus exploration, I found my way to Dr. Dan McKanan’s office. He welcomed me to a conversation he was having with another prospective applicant. Given the chance to introduce myself, I lurched. 

“I’m a Quaker,” I said. “I’ve made furniture and sold novels. I would come, I think, for chaplaincy and pastoral care. Somehow, landscape architecture and design, educational psychology, and literature all dovetail—.” 

I broke off. I didn’t get to mention my job at Trader Joe’s, shelving jars and building ziggurats of apples. I never asked my question: Is there a place for me here? 

Whether he knew it or not, Dr. McKanan was watching a stranger in melt. He asked my question for me, and answered it. 

I left with his yes. 

Photo of Author // Courtesy of Patrick Downes

For some, to give ourselves permission to apply to this divinity school, MDiv or MTS, or to any divinity school, proves a profound spiritual or moral or intellectual challenge. The pain that may have come from resisting what has always thrummed and sung inside of us may have collapsed us on occasion, brought us low. We may have become accustomed to doubting what we hear, doubting always ourselves. We worry we’re not good enough yet to pursue, flawed as we are, a goal that feels so lofty. 

But here we are, pushing toward surrender. What does that surrender look like? 

It looks like every surrender: a relinquishing; a sorrow; a cessation, at least for a little while, of war. 

To apply to HDS, to write the statement of purpose—those thousand words—to find a writing sample, perhaps especially for those who have been away from the academy the better part of their adult lives, who feel closer to retirement than the college quad, is to commit to a giving way, at least within ourselves. Accepted or not, choosing to attend or not, the courage and clarity, hard won, we bring to bear in our application may offer a fresh, tender peace. 

We know if we do choose in favor of the application, and, if accepted, the degree, we will let ourselves in for sustained work. We will pursue what calls us out. We will, at last, surrender. 

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