by Susan Pigott
As many of you know, I just returned from an exile, of sorts—an exile called “seminary.” To be sure, my experience in Austin at Seminary of the Southwest wasn’t exactly a horrible exile—certainly nothing akin to the Exile of the Jews in Babylon. But it was an exile from my husband, my kitties, my home, my Heavenly Rest family and friends, and my comfortable life.
When I left Abilene over one year ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. Would I fit in? Would I be the oldest person there? Could I handle the homesickness? Would anyone want to be my friend? I was as insecure as a college freshman, and I was scared. Although I knew one person at the seminary (our own dear Ashley Colley), I figured she wouldn’t want me following her around like a heart-sick puppy. I was going to have to make new friends, and, to do that, I would have to move past my natural introversion and put myself “out there.”
The initial challenge came at a retreat at Mo Ranch near Kerrville. All the “Middlers” (second-year students) and “DASers” (Diploma in Anglican Studies students) attended this retreat. I asked if I could carpool with someone and wound up riding with a woman named Celeste. Like me, she was a DAS student. Like me, she was in her fifties, living apart from her husband while attending seminary. Like me, she had red hair and lots of opinions. We hit it off immediately, and I made a friend!
I met many other students, and we developed bonds, coming together gradually as a community. By the time classes began, we knew each other’s names, and, as we struggled to adjust to seminary life, work-study duties, and emotional and spiritual challenges, we supported one another.
During my nine-month exile, I found a beautiful community of companions. In our last semester together, we watched each person bloom into their future vocations as deacons and priests. We cheered as each one preached their senior sermon. We encouraged one another as we practiced leading liturgies as “pretend priests,” voices quavering and hands trembling as we led The Great Thanksgiving and lifted the elements heavenwards for the very first time. At the end of each service, we could all say, “You are going to be a wonderful priest!” and we meant it. The friendships forged in the crucible of seminary burned away any sense of being in exile. We built a new community there and it sustained us.
All of us experience exile. Sometimes, it is about location, such as moving to a new place or getting a new job. But exile also occurs in the midst of broken or fraught relationships, and we find ourselves navigating a foreign landscape all alone. Exile can happen when we are unsure of our future, paddling through the whirlpool of the present, getting nowhere. Exile can be spiritual, mental, or physical, and it is lonely. That’s why, when we enter exile, we need friends, because exile can be endured, even eliminated, in community.