- Kathleen Henderson Staudt
- I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
Mourning Cathedral College
(Also on Episcopal Cafe)
By Kathleen Staudt
Like many people I have felt great sadness at the news that the Washington National Cathedral will be “suspending” programs at the Cathedral College beginning March 31, and until further notice. Sad, certainly, about beloved staff members who will be laid off. Two programs that I’m involved in with Esther de Waal, are still a “go” for the month of February – “Approaching God Through Poetry” from February 2-6, and a weekend conference on “Faith, Art and Poetry in a Post-Christian Age” February 27-1. I wouldn’t ordinarily “plug” these except that I think people may not realize that the conferences being offered before March 31 are still a go this year, and may offer a last chance for awhile (we hope not forever) to be in this very special place. But the closing of the College feels to me a bit like a death in the family – and it has me reflecting on what the place has meant to my own spiritual growth over the years.
The College has been a part of my inner spiritual landscape for many years. I first visited there on a Saturday in June, perhaps in 1995 or 1996, for a Quiet Day in honor of Evelyn Underhill, a yearly event that we have held at the College whenever we could reserve the space. We met in the book-lined library, with its black chairs and red cushions, worn but homey rugs, and those high casement windows, facing out on the “garth” at the center of the place, and the thick stone walls that turn out to be soaked with prayers. Especially as we shared communal silence, I was aware that this was sacred space. If you have been there when there aren’t many people around, you may know that feeling—walking into the foyer of the place, one experiences a resonant silence, and a sense of being at home.
I went often to the College for quiet during the years when my two children were attending Cathedral schools, working, with permission, as a kind of always-unofficial “fellow” on various writing projects. I would go there after teaching and before a late-evening carpool pickup, or in the early morning after dropping off my chorister for rehearsal, and spend a few hours in the gentle half-light coming in the windows from the garth, finding a creative energy in the awareness that this was a place where many people have come to find focus, to do one thing for awhile and refresh their ministry.
And over the years I’ve been involved in various programs, mostly locally directed, in the College. I remember gathering in the chapel one year at the end of an Evelyn Underhill day, in a violent thunderstorm, the rain beating on the roof, as we celebrated Eucharist with then-program director Fred Schmidt presiding, and experiencing the white linen, the candle-light, and the gathered community as a kind of stronghold. I remember a retreat for MTS students from Virginia seminary, held in the white-paneled, light-filled lounge, where we began to share stories of how we had experienced God’s call to discipleship, and found ourselves in tears of amazement at the affirmation and welcome that we were able to provide one another – a group of laity called to ministry in the world, in a place so often used for the nurture of clergy. We truly sensed the liveliness and vigor of the Holy Spirit working among us that day. And it wasn’t the first time I’d met Her there.
And I remember two years of regular meetings, in the shabby but lived-in seminar room, with a lively group of gifted spiritual companions, dreaming up together a new educational program on “The Art of Spiritual Companionship” – now in its second run at the Cathedral in 2008-9. I don’t know what will happen to this program, but the fellowship of those planning meetings, in that little room beside the chapel with its worn upholstered chairs and heavy wooden furniture, was charged and fruitful time.
Last year, I worked with Esther de Waal and Bonnie Thornton leading a week long program on “Approaching God through Poetry” with a lively group of more than 30 participants who were in residence for the week. All week we took in and shared the spiritual power of shared imagination, and of the beauty of the place, the silvery bronze light of February in Washington reflecting off the stone cloister around the garth, and illuminating our gatherings. Anyone who has been to the College for some time in residence can appreciate the fellowship that came in gathering for (very good) meals in the refectory, with high-vaulted gothic ceilings and portraits of previous wardens gazing down – and many will remember special insights that come out of those conversations, with a group of people who have stepped out of the swirl of life for a few days, into the sheltered calm of these massive stone walls. Upstairs where overnight guests stay, the rabbit warren of hallways and rooms gives a sense of secret blessings hidden away, and invites withdrawal into solitude with God. It is obvious, if you look closely, how huge the burden of deferred maintenance must be for this quirky old building. There have been leaks and peeling paint and cold radiators here and there for years. Still, living among those prayed-in corners and for a weekend retreat a few years ago taught me a lot about solitude with God – and in learning there I felt myself sustained by the prayers of generations.
At a plenary session during our poetry week last year, Esther de Waal and then-warden Howard Anderson were making connections between the sense of place that flows through Celtic tradition and the reverence for land and locality in Native American tradition. Alluding to our own indigenous tradition, and speaking of the College, Howard affirmed that “an Underground River flows beneath this place.” I have felt that energy, too, gathering with others or coming alone for prayer, learning and reflection, in the “thin place” that the Cathedral College has become for me. I have no inside information on the future, though clearly there are huge financial challenges. I’m told that there are task forces gathering to consider both the Cathedral’s vision for education and the future of the buildings, and I pray for their work. Yet even if the College must be closed soon (hard as that still is for me to imagine), I believe that the Underground River keeps flowing. You can’t stop it. It carries the wellspring of spiritual energy that has brought so many to the College for so many years. And I pray that we will see it springing up again, and bringing renewed life to this beloved and prayed-in place.