I am in the back seat of the minivan, approaching the Twin Cities. Returning to the Cities and to campus at the end of summer, I am ready to begin my Senior year. It is unclear to me whether I am a seminarian or a lay student; I clearly remember leaving seminary formation previously, but options for both were discussed, and for a while it seemed I was en route to the new (in 1999) “apartment-style” residence for Juniors and Seniors that looms just behind the seminary building on the north edge of the campus. We actually move my belongings into one of these apartments, and I have some sort of conversation with one of my new roommates over the refrigerator door in our shared kitchenette.
But, inevitably, I find myself, duffel in hand, walking around the corner and up to the familiar entrance, complete with the weathered Smith & Hawken park bench. New seminarians are filing in — I am once again amazed at how young they are — and the rector is standing there, welcoming them and grinning like an middle-aged accountant on speed. He seems pleased, perhaps even a little smug to see me coming back. I also sense a whiff of suspicion, as if he can tell somehow that I am not entirely sincere in my stated purpose, and he will be watching me.
I head upstairs, where I discover that the residence floors have been transformed. All the rooms have been gutted out, and the space on either side of the long hall is now divided into fairly tiny cells; there is room for a small wooden writing desk and a low bed on the floor next to it, the bed itself so small as to necessitate sleeping in the fœtal position. There are no walls or doors to these cubicles; the cells are separated from each other by light screens, and sheer flimsy curtains cover the openings onto the hall. Seeing these newly-monastic living conditions, I think better of this venture, and slip off down the fire stairs and walk back to the life of a lay student.
I am familiar with the concept of the recurring dream; it is a useful and often-engaging literary device, and occasionally makes a meaningful feature in the biography of real persons (Tolkien, for instance, had a recurring dream image of a land destroyed by a monstrous wave that found its way deep into his created mythology). But I do not associate them with real people that I know. I certainly don’t have them myself.
Except that I do. It was only upon awaking from the latest manifestation of this nocturnal odyssey that I made the connection to previous dreams, and became aware that there have been quite a few of them over the past few years. In these dreams, with varying minor details, I attempt to return to the seminary I left nearly seven years ago.
Why do I continually dream of returning to seminary? Not just to the life in general, but to that particular institution? I will start by opining that I do not believe this is an unconscious manifestation of a lingering belief that I made the wrong decision in leaving the path to the priesthood. Happily married, I remain in peaceful certainty regarding at least that aspect of my vocational journey. But it does seem that I have some unfinished business there.
A very interesting aspect to me is that in these dreams it is not my younger self trying to pick up where I left off, trying out an alternative history of me in which I carry on. Rather, it is my current self that is seeking to gain re-entry into the institution under more or less false pretences. Usually I am married, a fact I keep to myself. It is not that I want to be a priest in these dreams; I simply want to be a seminarian again for a while.
Also, I think I am intrigued, even fascinated, by how dramatically this particular institution changed almost overnight under new leadership, a change that was just beginning to manifest when I politely showed myself to the door. From the distant glimpses I get of what life is like there now, I do not recognise any resemblance to the place I called my home, my community, my world for nearly four years, and this is true in the dreams I have as well. In the dreams, however, I am trying to infiltrate this new place, to examine it from the inside, an impossibility in real life, even did I desire to attempt it.
In the years I was a seminarian, my ideological foundation swung in one direction while the climate of the seminary institution swung even faster in the opposite. After I left, our respective ideological momentum has continued to carry me and the seminary milieu even further apart. I suppose that I can understandably entertain some latent desire to reconnect with the institution that did so much for me (and to me) and try to understand how it got from where I left it to where it is now, and perhaps in the process also shed some light on how this poor soul got from where he was when he walked into that building to the man he was when he walked out into the cold world again, and so on to the man he is still becoming today.