I am currently participating in a cohort of people practicing Ignatian Retreat. We recently came upon the section on consolation or desolation: in other words, are your moods and interactions with people leading you to God or away from God? It’s like the Holy Grail cards in the awesome board game “Shadows Over Camelot.” Sidebar: I love that game because the players either all win or all lose. The competition isn’t between players but between the group of players and the game itself. Ignatius warns against making decisions in the midst of desolation and to be cautious making decisions in consolation. Basically, he advises a lot of discernment. Discernment takes time.
There is this crazy series of events that has happened in the last few months and I am trying to wrap my spirit around whether these events are providential or mere coincidence. Is this God’s leading or a carrot to distract me? Here’s how it went down:
From the time I was a kid, I’ve wanted a doctorate. I love research and learning, can’t get enough of it. I just didn’t know in which field. That pesky detail prevented me from seeking one for a long time. Eventually, I entered a PhD program in a very conservative theological seminary, thinking that a PhD in church music would be perfect for me and my calling (for the time and circumstances, it was). Divorce got me suspended from that conservative school (which is whole story in and of itself, and explains a LOT of why and how I became much more progressive; nothing gives you empathy and compassion for the outcast and oppressed quite like being one of them). It took me a number of years to get my life back and figure out what to do with it after this change in circumstances. Art was a big part of my recovery. That is, recovering art in my life – and art for its own sake, and not just as a tool for some other agenda (like evangelism or worship services, for example).
I began the ordination process in the UMC intending to be an elder. As an associate pastor, I was tasked with developing a program. I wad told, “not Sunday mornings, not children. An arts program for adults. Go.” I was given a ton of latitude and it was the best time of my life in terms of discovering the new direction for my calling: art meditation, cultural theological engagement classes, building community around building an enormous model train layout for Christmastime, etc. Basically, all the things you now see on my website and in my classes and retreats. Through a series of circumstances, it became obvious that it was time to change my ordination track from elder (those who run churches) to deacon (those who do specific bridge ministries, usually outside of the church or taking the church outside of itself into the larger world) so that I could focus on this skill set and passion God had given me for the arts. As a free agent, I was picked up by the most fabulous organization: the Missional Wisdom Foundation, who experiments with and teaches about alternative forms of Christian community.
One day in the office, I was working on curriculum for an icon class, when I came across a picture of the baptism of Jesus with a unicorn on the riverbank. One of my colleagues joked with me that I would not be able to find a unicorn on the ark. I smirked. Challenge accepted. Following a trail of unicorns (which is originally a goat-like creature), I discovered all kinds of things, among which is that in the King James version of the bible, because it was translated from Latin and the Latin for one-horned animal (re: rhinoceros – is uni-corn, which means ‘one-horn’ as opposed to bi-corn or ‘two-horn’) is translated in that version as unicorn, so the one-horned animal was technically on the ark according to that. But that is inconsequential.
Obviously, I came across the stories about narwhals and trips to India where these one-horn animals are found and combing descriptions of the two animals makes for this legend of an illusive animal that is rare and has magical properties if you grind its horn to powder. Of course, to catch the elusive unicorn, for which I found many many illuminated manuscripts (and even a unicorn cookbook wth illustrations!!) you must have a pure and maidenly virgin sit quietly in the forest and when the unicorn senses her purity, it will come and fall asleep in her lap, at which time the gallant knight can stab it with a spear (as illustrated in the manuscripts; they are rather violent). Then I came across an icon of the Virgin Mary with a unicorn on her lap, and I was all WHAT!!??! But further research revealed the link between the unicorn legend and the Christ: magical creatures mistreated and coming to violent ends (and I’ve been to the cloisters at the MET a bazillion times to see the unicorn tapestries – why did I not make that connection sooner??). I began a hunt for churches with unicorns and came across the Church of the Transfiguration on Cape Cod, an ecumenical monastery that focuses on the Arts and has the most gorgeous mosaics, frescoes and statuary (not to mention stained glass windows, sword hilts, more tapestries, etc). Photos of my unicorn finds all over the world are now a running joke in the office. That church has an enormous Tree of Life mosaic, which includes: a unicorn. I had to see this in person.
Conveniently, my brother had invited us to his wedding in CT and I had a colleague who owns a cabin on the Cape. While we were at the church, we conversed with the docent and the gift shop cashier and she mentioned this Art and Theology Symposium that was coming up in October. What great timing, right? So we signed up for the symposium. I discovered that the church tended to subjugate art to its tool function and it soured me a bit on the experience, but explaining why would take a larger amount of verbiage than is appropriate here. There was this one presentation by Dr Sokolove of the Wesley Seminary in Washington DC which was just fabulous and totally in line with the kind of work that I do in my own ministry. I was glad to meet her and I thought that was the end of the story.
Shortly after, in my year-end evaluation, my supervisors asked me to stop talking about a doctorate and come up with a formal plan to accomplish it. After a few weeks of busy-ness, I had this niggling feeling that deadlines were looming. I did some investigation into various programs, and then it occurred to me to look up Wesley Seminary. When I did, the first thing that popped up was a notice that the deadline for application to the DMin in Arts & Theology (headed by Dr Sokolove) had been extended until the following day. I had a few hours to get all my materials in. Looking at the course titles for this cohort (which would begin in January 2018), it sounded like the perfect program for me, but I don’t like to make decisions hastily. I called the admissions office and was granted an extension for the recommendations and transcripts if I could my personal paperwork in within a day.
So I ask myself: is this coincidence or providential? I thought chasing the unicorn was only taking me to discover that beautiful church on the Cape. Maybe to that Symposium to meet a few people. Now I’m thinking maybe to that degree program. One thing leads to another… where does it go from here? Perhaps it doesn’t matter much about the specifics, the one thing I have in my own control is to engage my curiosity, keep following and see what happens.