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.

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