Disruption and Inspiration

Cara Ellen Modisett, St. John’s communications director for the past two years, has left Roanoke to begin studies at Virginia Theological Seminary as a postulant for priesthood in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Here’s a report at the end of her first month of school.

I’m on an Amtrak train heading north, back to school after a short Labor Day weekend visit home with family. It feels in some ways as if it’s been years since I left Roanoke at the beginning of August – my first month at Virginia Theological Seminary has been intense. We’ve spent the first few weeks in daily classes on theology and formation, intercultural competency and liturgy, registering for fall classes and learning how to download readings and upload papers to the digital learning platform. I moved into my dorm – a little room on the third floor of one of the older buildings. I’ve been calling it a poet’s garret and just discovered its other (affectionate) nickname, the cloisters.

Cloisters or not, seminary is all about community, and the first-year students have gotten to know each other very quickly. There are almost 60 of us – a large incoming class for VTS – most of us M.Div. (heading toward ordination) but some of us in programs including M.A. and Anglican studies. The incoming class covers a wide range of geography, professional backgrounds and ages, which is wonderful – students from places including Alaska, Florida, Wisconsin, Tanzania, Russia, Liberia and Kenya. Four are married couples (both spouses students, with children). We have backgrounds in fields including psychology, law, social work, education, physical therapy and nursing. Some of us are already ordained as deacons or priests. Some of us are Baptist, Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventist. Some of us were in college mere months ago – others of us (myself included) haven’t taken a midterm exam (much less lived in a dorm) in years. We eat together, worship together, take classes together with dedicated, moving, funny and pedagogically outstanding professors.

This year VTS has named “disruption” as a theme for our work, and it fits. We are all in various states of disruption – selling homes, moving families, leaving families, leaving countries, jobs, leaping into new schedules and different anxieties, but also into new friendships and deeper inspirations. My family, including my husband Phil and cat Lillie, are in Roanoke, Blacksburg and Harrisonburg (where my parents live) – not too far away, but I am not able to see my sister, niece and nephew several times a week as I have been the last few years. The school itself is in disruption – some of the academic buildings and the refectory (dining hall) are under renovations, so we’re eating meals in what we’re calling the “wedding tent.”

The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia is well represented – William Yagel, from Trinity, Arrington; Samson Mamour, from St. James, Roanoke, and me (my sending church is St. Elizabeth’s, Roanoke, where I was music director for most of the last 10 years except my two years in Memphis). We’ve “adopted” Grace Casola, most recently youth minister at College Lutheran in Salem, who is at VTS through the Lutheran synod (and whom I first met at St. John’s when she came to give blood at one of our Red Cross blood drives).

I was especially proud to be a postulant from our diocese a few weeks ago when I was part of more than 100 people who participated in a memorial and march in Alexandria around the anniversary of 400 years of slavery in America. The event was part of a series of events down the valley, following the Slave Trail of Tears, and was a partnership between DIOSWVA and Virginia Theological Seminary. It was wonderful to see faces from home – the Reverends Mark Furlow, Melissa Hays-Smith and Richard Fife, along with Jenny Fife. The event itself was powerful and heartbreaking (see media coverage on it from the Washington Post and Episcopal News Service).

Fall classes begin on Tuesday, and I’ll be taking Old Testament, New Testament, church history and Hebrew, as well as choir and an icons and spirituality class with our retiring music professor, Dr. William Roberts. I first met him in Memphis when Sandy Webb brought him to Church of the Holy Communion for an arts festival we created, and I’m glad to be able to learn from him before he finishes his tenure at VTS.

I’m looking forward to these next three years, disruption and all. I’m particularly intrigued by this past month’s introduction to practical theology – studying how theology is practiced in community, by community, for community. I’m also excited about the ways that I hope to expand my work and interest in liturgy, especially nontraditional liturgy and ways of incorporating the arts into liturgy

I’ll be doing a work-study with VTS’ Lifelong Learning department, working in both communications and formation, areas where I have some experience as well as lots more to learn. Next summer, I will be somewhere in the country doing my CPE (Clinic Pastoral Education – essentially, chaplaincy training) and during my second and possibly third years I’ll be in “contextual ministry” – field placement in a parish somewhere in the northern Virginia/D.C. area.

It’s good to watch St. John’s doings from afar. Many thanks to you, the staff, clergy and congregation, for the ways you inspired me in story, formation, music and worship. I loved being able to extend my long musical friendship with St. John’s over the course of an additional two years “behind the scenes” with the staff, especially in this exciting time of growth and change. I’ve loved being a part of our newsletter and website redesigns, growing our social media, finding new ways to tell our stories, co-mentoring EfM, visiting our mission work in far Appalachia, working with our inspired stewardship and capital campaign folks, developing and teaching and co-teaching classes and contributing to programming and worship.

I’ll be blogging through the upcoming seasons at CaraEllenModisett.com and you can find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Peace and prayers with you.

Photos below: The Steinway piano in the VTS chapel (one of my favorite places); from the DIOSWVA/VTS march commemorating slavery in the U.S.; rare books collection at VTS; coffee in the welcome center; books on my desk.