Hi everyone! I’m K.C. McConnell, a current MTS student as well as a Graduate Assistant in the Office of Admissions here at HDS. Coming to graduate school, I never imagined that I would be able to participate in student-run clubs and organizations. I thought that most students in graduate school woke up, went to class, went home, and did not interact with their fellow classmates outside of informal gatherings. At HDS, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only does our school have dozens of student organizations, but many of our organizations are extremely active in life around campus.
As we near the end of another semester, I find myself reflecting on my first finals week experience and I realize that it captured well an ethos that I want to live out throughout my time at HDS: having fun is integral to academic survival.
I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it.
As finals week loomed large in early December, I had one crazy goal: I wanted not just to survive finals week, I wanted to enjoy it. That seemed impossible given that I had eight papers covering about sixty-five pages of writing all due in a two week time period. Yet, I had this hunch that I actually wouldn’t survive if I didn’t enjoy it. So, I set out to figure out how to make finals week, in a sense, fun.
I had two strategies to make this happen. First, I wanted finals week to strengthen my newly formed HDS friendships. I know myself well: I go crazy without some sort of social interaction. I get lonely without people. When I am lonely, I am unproductive. So, I made a point to recruit people to study with me. I found that in quiet libraries surrounded by friends, writing was easier. I was inspired when I saw people next to me making diligent progress. We supported one another without distracting one another. When I needed a break, I went on walks with a friend instead of taking a solo “break” via distractions on the internet.
. . . having fun is integral to academic survival.
It worked perfectly. While I usually studied with only one or two friends, at one point we organized a Div School takeover of a block of desks in Lamont Library. In that intense environment, everyone working on their respective papers, working through stress and exhaustion together, and reviewing drafts for one another, it felt like we were all in it together. It was awesome. And, I indeed felt closer to my friends at the end of finals week than I had when we began.
My next goal was to not only dive into the content of my papers, but to explore the connections between them, to enjoy how they played off one another. As I wrote, I decided to work four of them together to explore a common theme. Pursuing one theme repeatedly — in this case, ritual — helped me deepen my enthusiasm and sense of academic adventure in a way that was, indeed, fun.
For one class, I got to analyze the idea of ritual in an academic context. I examined Professor Amy Hollywood’s thesis that ritual, through referencing an original concept that remains unchanged but repeated in changing contexts, can create a space for self-becoming. For another, I got to look at ritual through the lens of a novel about a rabbi, tracking her spiritual becoming through her relationship to Jewish ritual. I then had the opportunity to look at my own life, reflecting on how Christian ritual has become an important part of my life at HDS, deepening my fragile Christian faith as I continue to wrestle with Christian theology. Lastly, I got to tie all this together looking at how the vessel of ritual has held my own spiritual evolution in a way that mirrors how community ritual holds community change.
Going deeply into a concept, looking at it from different angles, within different frameworks, I was able to follow one long and exciting path, instead of spreading myself thin jumping from one topic to another. I felt like a detective working through different parts of a really tough case, following different leads toward a final resolution. I had fun.
Finals week highlighted how I want to spend the next two-and-a-half years: surrounded by my peers who can push, challenge, and support me as I work hard to enjoy myself on this surprisingly fun academic journey.
Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
I remember the first time someone told me I was going to hell (apart from the times in elementary school when my teachers were just fed up with my wisecracking in class). I was an undergrad.
“No way! I can’t go to hell. I believe in Jesus.”
But my antagonists were convinced that I didn’t believe in the right Jesus. “You believe in a false god. Not the one that comes through this church.” By “this church” they meant their particular denomination, and in many ways they were right: I didn’t believe in the Jesus that they interpreted in their weekly Sunday gatherings. I believed in a Jesus and a Christianity that were broader and more nuanced and more inclusive. How could they reduce a whole Jesus movement to their own particular denomination? What do you call this? Some would label it extremism. I might reach that same conclusion, but I typically imagine an extremist tying me to a chair, locking me up in a room, and forcing me to watch their religious propaganda—like Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel were indoctrinated with Disney Films in Addam’s Family Values. Thank god that didn’t happen! Fundamentally, I believe my interlocutors felt an unease with something different. They were uncomfortable.
How to be “comfortable.”
Most of my free-spirited liberal friends would say, “Life is a balance.” I agree, wholeheartedly. However, is the balancing act ever comfortable? Think about it. When the Wild Coyote is chasing the Road Runner down a tightrope, does it ever look pleasant for the Coyote? Does it look easy for a gymnast to perform on a balance beam?
I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.
I’ve given much thought to this idea of comfort, especially as it relates to balance, and I’ve come to believe that comfortableness is not a human quality. We are always susceptible to forces beyond our control and encroached by evil even in places of peace. Our bodies are degenerative. Our families, traditions, and legacies fade or are replaced, and only a few of us are lucky enough to see three generations. Being human is uncomfortable. Being human is being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
In my time at Harvard Divinity School, I have often been uncomfortable. In the beginning, I thought I would get used to the different personalities, cultures, customs, views, and people, but that never happened. In fact, I became more uncomfortable as time progressed. I often found myself in sweaty situations where all I could do was fake a smile, and the only place I was able to decompress was in a small, one-window bedroom. In these moments of decompression, I realized something: I was making a home.
Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing.
Homes take different forms. There are the physical spaces we often think of as home. Some find home in a religious tradition. But for me, home is dynamic and ever changing. It is an uncomfortable place filled with different views, people, cultures, and traditions. I don’t think of a brick-layered building, but a sculptor carving away at a block of stone. It may be incomplete, but always, in a sense, progressing. Not a progression that requires a triumphant end, but one that astonishes you with every new development.
My home is in others’ homes. It may sound bizarre. It may sound like conformity, compromise, or masquerading. But what would it be like to reimagine home? We often think of home as a refuge—a place like no other. This presumes that we are autonomous individuals, each traveling our own path, each in need of a home that consists of seclusion and apartness. In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.
In a complex, yet still divided world, I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of the value of encounter.
When I first came to HDS, I was tempted to avoid encounters with the different cultures, worldviews, and religions because of unfamiliarity and unease, but after a period of time I grew aware of something happening to me. Disagreements challenged me. Cultures informed me. Traditions awakened me. This development became a consistent reminder that I am a sculpture and the world—my new community—is the sculptor.
I have found that my home is no longer an individual estate or a place of seclusion, but that my home is in others’ homes. It is not the place I retreat to in order to avoid seeing coworkers, tough situations, major events, crisis, and people. It’s the meeting place where the worlds of many become one: everyone unique and yet somehow familiar, collaborating, exchanging, and growing. Home has become a place constantly transformed by the world and life. Not a retreat, but a place of engagement.
What does it mean to pursue the study of religion at a place that isn’t aligned with a particular religious tradition? What does it look like when you engage in this study with students from six continents and more than 35 different religious traditions—plus some who have no particular religious affiliation at all? Seasons of Light, our annual multireligious celebration, is part of the answer. The order of celebration for Seasons of Light situates the celebration in the context of our community:
As the nights lengthen and the darkness grows in the Northern Hemisphere, the Great Wheel of the calendar turns once again, catching us up in its low descent. Together we inhabit the promise of holy darkness and anticipate the light’s return. Many religious traditions honor this sacred interplay of day and night in their respective holy days and seasons; most also observe periods of fasting and feasting, often coinciding with a region’s agricultural rhythms of seedtime and harvest. Tonight, we gather to honor the mystery of the swelling darkness around us by kindling the flames of several traditions represented in the HDS community.
Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.
I’d been looking forward to this celebration for weeks. One of my favorite parts of studying at HDS has been the infusion of that study with a sense of sacred purpose. I came to HDS from a small school in southern Maryland where I was awakened to some of the deeper questions that we attempt to answer with the study of literature. Here, I’ve been able to join that concern for literature with an exploration of religion and culture in an attempt to reach for the divine: that ineffable extraordinary which has sparked our imaginations and given shape to our aspirations from the very beginning.
Doing all this in a space that’s at once deeply concerned with religion and religious practice, yet not itself religious, means asking a whole series of fascinating questions—questions that echo throughout the field of religious studies. Can we study religion from within a religious practice or identity? Must we attempt to get “outside” of religion to view it objectively? Is that objectivity even possible? If we feel passionately about religion, how do we express that passion?
Walking into Andover Chapel last week provided some of those answers. Students, staff, and faculty had been gathered in Rockefeller Café before the ceremony for our last Community Tea. Mixing and mingling around tables filled with all kinds of delectable treats, we took a moment from the hustle and bustle of the end of the semester to simply be with each other. To catch up, trade stories, commiserate over the interminable stream of papers, and to share in that measure of comfort that comes from knowing that we’re in it together.
It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with.
Afterward, in the Chapel, the warmth we felt in the Café was manifest in the candles flickering at the entrance. In the middle of the chapel stood a simple altar with the symbols of the many faith traditions represented here at HDS: a seated Buddha, a hanukkiya, the Ikh Omkar of the Sikh tradition, Unitarian Universalism’s flaming chalice, an Advent wreath, and many more. As we gathered, students from each of these traditions made their way to the table to light the candles of their respective faiths. As I watched my fellow students light their candles, I turned to my order of celebration to read about the signs and symbols that I didn’t recognize. It’s one thing to read about different traditions, but it’s another to have them made tangible: here was a symbol of faith, being illuminated by my classmate whom I’d spent the semester learning and talking and eating with. In this moment, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and the Johrei tradition were not abstractions or exotic “others,” but the embodied faiths of people with whom I share a common community. There was the Advent wreath of my Christian faith alongside the Yule Log of Paganism, the Villakku/Diya of Hinduism, and the Arabic Plaque of Islam.
As the evening proceeded, we sang songs, listened to readings from different traditions, and students and faculty from different traditions performed anthems, chants, and music from their respective faiths. Singing the Hebrew of “Hineh mah tov” in the round brought tears to my eyes: “Hineh mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad!” Behold what a good and joyful thing it is, when people live together in unity.
We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not.
Here’s the thing about HDS, the study of religion, and our nonsectarian space: One of the things we understand here is that there’s no “outside” space from which we can observe and report on religion “objectively.” We approach this study of the sacred each from our own various locations and identities, sometimes shaped by a religious conviction of our own, sometimes not. In her address “Where We Do Stand,” Janet Gyatso, our Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, invites us to consider “Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s insistence that we must be friends with the people whose religions we study, we must come to know, as he says, ‘those qualities of the believer’s life that can only be known in that personal two-way relationship known as friendship.’” This leads us toward the “ability to abide with other people’s religion—not just to study it but also to inculcate ourselves in a common space so as to inhabit the questions of religion together.”
This is what we do here at HDS. This is the beauty and the magic of Seasons of Light: that it allows us to inhabit the questions of religion together, as friends.
What does a day in the life of an HDS student look like? Here’s the play-by-play of one Tuesday in October.
6:00am: Grad school has confirmed that I’m an early riser who needs his morning “me” time, and today is no exception. I roll out of bed, make some coffee, sit down at my kitchen table, and do some pleasure reading over my breakfast.
7:00am: I head out the door into the unusually warm fall air. I live in Somerville, about a 25-minute walk from Harvard, and my apartment sits on top of Prospect Hill, which offers one of the best views of downtown Boston. Prospect Hill also sports a stone “citadel,” which marks a number of historical events, including the spot where it’s said the original American flag was first flown. I take a second to appreciate the fall foliage and the sun glinting off the city’s skyline before heading down the hill.
7:25am: I arrive at Lamont Library in Harvard Yard. Most buildings are closed this early, but Lamont is open 24 hours during the week. At this hour, the place is deserted besides the cleaning staff and a few undergrads slouched in armchairs after an all-nighter. It’s quiet and calm, the ideal place for me to get some reading done during the day’s early hours.
8:40am: I leave Lamont and head right across the Yard to Memorial Church for Morning Prayers. Morning Prayers is one of those Harvard traditions that has been going on for centuries. The service is held Monday through Saturday for 15 minutes in a small chapel in the rear of Memorial Church that includes angelic singing from the Harvard University Choir and a short address from a member of the Harvard community. I love Morning Prayers because, though there’s a general Christian spirit in the liturgy, you never know what you’re gonna get with the sermon; they run the gamut from religious to vaguely religious to not at all religious, and the speakers include those from a range of faith traditions—or none—and from all the different schools and offices across campus. Overall, it’s a pleasant balance between consistency and surprise. Today’s speaker is Professor Michelle Sanchez from the Div School, who gives a reflection on the role of habits and her church community over the past tumultuous year.
9:00am: I cross the Yard again for my Spanish class. As an MDiv, I have to complete three semesters of language. I completed two over the summer thanks to the Summer Language Program and cross registered for an advanced Spanish language and culture class being taught through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It’s a tough class, and it’s a lesson in humility to be in a classroom of undergrads who all grasp the material easier than me. This week we’re finishing up our reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold in Spanish. ¡Qué bueno!
10:00am: Two of my fellow HDS students have Arabic in the same building at same time that I have Spanish, so we meet up outside after class and stroll together over towards the Div School campus. Today, we decide to stop at Velozo’s food truck outside Div Hall, so my pal can grab one of Dean’s famous red-velvet cookies.
10:20am: I don’t have any more class today, but I have plenty of work to do. I find an open table in the lounge in Div Hall, and take out a pile of books from my backpack.
12:30pm: After two solid hours of reading, I head outside to eat lunch and enjoy the unusually warm fall weather.
1:00pm: I head to the second floor of Div Hall to the Office of Admissions where I have a work study job as an office assistant. I really enjoy the convenience of working on campus and enjoy getting to know people I wouldn’t otherwise see. We’re gearing up for Diversity and Explorations and Theological Education Day in November, so it’s a busy day in the office.
Overall, it’s a pleasant balance between consistency and surprise.
4:00pm: I walk from Divinity Hall to Andover Hall for Community Tea, a weekly HDS tradition when the whole community comes together to share relax and socialize over food. I stuff my face with falafel, beef skewers and rice (rule #8 of grad school life: if there’s free food, I must eat as much as possible), and catch up with a group of fellow first years.
5:00pm: I backtrack to Divinity Hall and walk up to Divinity Chapel for Hear and Now. Hear and Now groups are small, interreligious support groups that meet weekly throughout the academic year. They’re less about growing in your particular faith tradition and more about sharing your story and spiritual growth and listening to your peers. I’ve grown quite close to the other two members of my group and I cherish our weekly meetings. Today, we spend half of the hour checking-in and for the other half another students leads us in the some very basic meditation.
6:00pm: I still have plenty of work tonight, so I stroll over the Harvard-Andover Library, where I end up for a few hours most days to study. I’ve come to love the odd leather and wood, reclining chairs on the second floor, and post up there. Dinner is yesterday’s pasta eaten discretely from a Tupperware. Leftovers have also become an integral part of my grad school life.
9:00pm: The flip side of being an early riser is that my brain stops functioning at about 8:00pm. I struggle on for an hour longer, but eventually close the books for the night. I run into one of my classmates on the way out who also lives in Somerville, and we stroll home together. I end up idling on the sidewalk outside his apartment so we can finish our debate about our readings from Introduction to Ministry Studies. We both geek out over Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
9:45pm: Home sweet home. My roommate is watching The X-Files. (He’s currently working his way through all nine seasons—it’s been an interesting few weeks.) To reward myself for a productive day, I plop myself on the couch for the remainder of the episode.
10:45: After looking over my schedule tomorrow and making the next day’s lunch, I lay down in bed to do some pleasure reading before turning in. But I barely make it three pages before my head is already nodding. I toss the book aside, flip out the light, and quickly fall asleep.
It is the first day of orientation at Harvard Divinity School. I am sitting under this little canopy at one of those generic plastic pop-up tables drinking free coffee and eating a free bagel. (Even before you hear about religious pluralism and the commitment to social change and the historic
function of the Divinity School as a site of training learned ministers, you learn that HDS is going to give you free food. Lots of it.) But then you do start learning about that other stuff, and it begins with the people whom you encounter. My new classmates – these previously unaccounted for entities with whom I will be spending the next two years – start sitting down next to me.
That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the ‘prospective student’ brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.
First there’s someone who’s Jewish but wants to study Hinduism. Next is an ordained Buddhist minister who grew up in an evangelical Christian context. A self-avowed atheist humanist who’s pursuing a Master of Divinity (a degree that, until quite recently, was offered only to those pursuing Christian ministry). A secularist who identifies as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and wants to pursue interfaith chaplaincy. A Muslim who’s interested in the complexities of Islamic scholarship in a western academic context. A wholly nonreligious person who’s interested in the ways that methodologies in religious studies can be brought to bear upon the study of literature. The list goes on. That’s just the way it is here. It turns out that what all the “prospective student” brochures told us was actually true: no two people are interested in the same thing, and HDS is a place where we not only embrace that diversity but actively encourage everyone to go wild with their education and make it their own.
At this particular moment, the only thing that unites us is that we’ve made it, and now that we’re finally here, we’re all totally freaking out. There’s not one among us who wasn’t, by around mid-March, compulsively refreshing their emails to see if we had gotten in. We went through the ecstasy of receiving our admissions letters, the discernment of whether to accept, the ordeal of finding an apartment in the area, and the bittersweet task of leaving behind wherever it was we were coming from. Now we’re all sitting around these little pop-up plastic tables, drinking our free coffee, meeting each other for the first time, and each and every one of us has this look on our faces that says: “Oh crap. I’m actually at Harvard.”
The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do.
Of course, this doesn’t last too long. Orientation has to start, and we begin to channel that rush of nervous energy into actually doing stuff. There are speakers, degree panels, breakout sessions. We meet our advisers and start selecting our classes. Some of us have existential crises and possibly a minor breakdown about what it is that we’re actually studying here [cough, me, cough]. But slowly, gently, we begin to glimpse a vision of ourselves as students at HDS, and we like what we see, so we keep going. Step by step.
At the time of this writing, it’s been a month since orientation. I’m going over some of my notes I took during one of the sundry information sessions, and one line in particular stands out to me. I was sitting in a session facilitated by Dudley Rose,professor, coordinator of the M.Div. program here, and local legend. In speaking of some of the elements of HDS’s degree requirements, he cracked a wry smile and said, “Sometimes we want this to be a sort of unsettling disorientation for you.” An unsettling disorientation. Nice. I couldn’t help but think that, in fact, that’s exactly what we were all going through at just that moment. The whole irony in calling those first few days our “Orientation” is that they weren’t really orienting us in any particular direction at all. HDS, we are coming to learn, wants to give us the boat and the paddle and some sketched maps, send us out into the vast oceans of religious scholarship and ministry, and say: “find your own way.”
That’s why HDS is awesome. The promise of HDS is located in precisely this unsettling disorientation, this project of continually asking us to discover and re-discover who we are and what we want to do. Over and over, I hear my fellow students saying the same thing: “I came here expecting to do one thing, but now that I’m here, I’m realizing that actually what I want to do is….” That’s okay. That’s actually what we came here for. You don’t come to a non-religiously affiliated, multifaith, endlessly diverse divinity school because you’re looking to learn more of the same. You come here because you know, perhaps in some pre-rational intuitive kind of way, that you’ll encounter difference here, and that difference will have something to teach you. Orientation, it turns out, is the first step on a disorienting, uncertain, and (for that reason) revelatory path that’s taking us directions we’d never thought we’d go, and transforming us into people we never knew we could become.
Recently, as a graduate assistant in the Office of Admissions, I was fielding questions in a virtual chatroom from prospective HDS applicants. Most of the questions were the typical ones you’d expect: What degrees are offered at HDS? Is HDS affiliated with a particular denomination? How does financial aid work? Some were a little more specific: What’s field education and why is it required for all MDivs? Can you tell me more about the Boston Theological Institute? What’s campus life like at HDS?
But there was one question I hadn’t been expecting: Keith, could you tell us what you like the most about HDS?
For context, I am a first year MDiv, this was only my second week of class, and my time at HDS thus far had been a blur. My days consisted of rushing out the door each day for morning prayer at Memorial Church, followed by an advanced Spanish course I was cross-registered in at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and then off to my other classes on Religious Pluralism or Ministry Studies or Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion, followed by discussion sections, my Hear and Now interfaith group, late nights in the comfy chairs on the second floor of Andover-Harvard Library chipping away at my mountain of reading, and finally my bike ride home, where I would collapse in an exhausted, but happy, heap on my bed, wake up the next morning, and do it all over again.
I loved my classes, the worship services, my readings—all of it. But I hadn’t had much time yet to process it all. And upon reflection I realized that my favorite part of HDS thus far was the in-between time, the few gaps in my schedule, because it was during those times that I had started to build friendships with my classmates. During a break, I’d mosey outside to the quad, inevitably bump into someone, and strike up a conversation: about Boston, or our classes, or specific readings. Just the night before, I had ended up sitting in the grass with two classmates completely geeking out over some obscure philosophy text. On another occasion, a conversation about various Christian practices led to a group of us attending a local church service that weekend.
My classmates fascinate me. They come from all walks of life, from all over the US and the world, from an array of religious traditions, all with deep-seated convictions. From them I’ve already learned about Zen Buddhist monasticism, interpretative approaches to Nietzsche, Latin American Liberation Theology, and Greek Orthodox contemplative practices, not to mention the best bars in the Cambridge, books that change lives, and life hacks for poor graduate students (tip #1: shop at market basket). I’ve quickly realized that though HDS offers leading scholars, top-notch academics, unimaginable opportunities, and access to University-wide resources, its greatest resource may be the students who study here. I look forward to learning from as many as I can, one impromptu conversation at a time.
Working for Student Life as a Graduate Assistant has a lot of perks. My office is right near the candy bowl and upstairs from the coffee and tea room; I also get to be one of the first ones to know about upcoming programs. However, my favorite part of working for the Office of Student Life is helping to plan and attending Community Tea every Tuesday at 4pm. Community Tea is a 30-year-old tradition. Each week a different office or organization hosts, and as part of my job I get to work with them to plan their tea.
Over the entire course of my first year at HDS, I would say that the Multireligious Service of Thanksgiving was the event that captured HDS in a nutshell. Yes, the invocations, readings, and benedictions from varied religious and spiritual traditions contributed to that feel of HDS—a reading from the Lotus Sutra followed immediately by one from the Qur’an, a benediction from the Humanist tradition followed by a prayer by Thomas Merton. HDS is a place where people of multiple traditions not only exist alongside each other, but also interact with one another on a regular basis. But those varied readings alone were not what made the service seem exquisitely HDS. It was also many other, perhaps less obvious things—like the streamers. Continue reading
I have only one memory from my Presbyterian confirmation class. It is an image of my sweet mother – also the pastor of the church – exhorting a room full of sixth graders: “Grace is a gift that you get, but that you do not deserve! YOU. DO. NOT. DESERVE. IT.” This was the takeaway lesson, meant to sink in and frame every moment of our lives.
I have been asked to reflect about what it means to me to be the 2014 HDS Commencement speaker, and I feel like the ten-year-old trying to understand reformed theology. Being the graduation speaker is a gift that I do not deserve. Continue reading