My first class at Yale Divinity School met in a stifling basement room with two dozen of us crammed around a battered, old seminar table. We ran the gamut from a coat-and-tie, crew-cut evangelical to an ex-Catholic goth girl to me, an astonished Christian older than the teacher.
The enormous table left the professor, a burly, bearded, middle-aged African-American, scant room to stand at the old-fashioned chalkboard where, holding aloft a stub of chalk, he scoffed, “Yale University! And this is the best they can do?”
The class was “Looking on Darkness.” I knew from the title alone that, come hell or high water, I was going to take it, but I was already nervous about the way the word “ontological” kept cropping up in the professor’s opening monologue when he casually referred to someone I had never heard of as “of course the foremost hermeneutic phenomenologist.”
I almost bolted. I didn’t mind being outgunned in theology—that, after all, was what I was there to study—but to find myself skunked in vocabulary on the first day was demoralizing. By the end of class, I had compiled a list of seventeen words. I came reeling out panic-stricken, depressed, and resentful. But it wasn’t just because of the professor’s big vocabulary. It was because of the paper he assigned at the end of class.
“This paper,” the professor said, “will serve as a touchstone for your point of entry into this class. It is to be an account of a personal encounter with darkness. Two pages maximum. Due Monday. A personal experience of darkness.”
I exchanged a stunned glance with a guy across the table from me who looked about my son’s age. He shook his head, jerked his thumb over his shoulder, and mouthed, “I’m outta here.”
What have I gotten myself into? What am I doing here?
“You are here at the calling of the spirit of God,” the dean had proclaimed from the pulpit in Marquand Chapel in his orientation welcome. “You belong here. Let me repeat that: You belong here.”
His message now seemed about as credible as a fortune cookie’s. But, intimidated as I was, I refused to be scared off. I headed straight to the Yale Co-op (a Barnes & Noble cum Starbucks) for a double espresso and a Tenth Edition Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Had I known at the time about the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms I would have purchased it as well. I needed all the help I could get.
Really, though, it was the intimacy of the prayer with which the professor opened class that made me override my survival instinct to flee. His daunting erudition was disarmingly offset by the simple way he spoke from his heart to his God. Listening to the professor pray, I felt as if I were eavesdropping on someone talking to a God with whom he was on a first-name basis.
Students at Yale, undergrad and grad alike, have a week to sample courses before filing a final course of study. For some it becomes a shopping spree of dashing from class to class to seize a syllabus and size up the professor. The faculty hates the shopping period. Some professors devise winnowing techniques. But this professor’s lofty tone that first day was not a ruse. Nor was the topic of that paper.
I should have seen it coming. I ought to have realized that a course titled “Looking on Darkness” might not be purely academic, that it might make painful memories reverberate. Still, I had not expected to be required to write a personal essay—much less an intensely personal personal essay. How often, after all, are we required to tell a perfect stranger right off the bat about an intimate encounter with darkness?
There was a time when the paper assigned at the end of class that first day would have upset me because I would have thought I had nothing to write about. Throughout my childhood and especially during adolescence, I thought my life utterly bland and lacking. I wanted answers to burning questions I didn’t even know how to ask. I wanted to get beneath the lacquered beehives of ’50s hairdos to know what went on inside people’s heads. I knew in that inchoate way one knows uncertain things for certain that there was much more to life than anyone around me was letting on. I sensed there was a dark side, an underbelly, a something more, a real reality.
I wanted life to test me, to manhandle me. The rough of life was where I wanted to be, not the manicured fairways of my country-club upbringing. I longed for angst and in my callow shallowness plumbed what I thought were the depths. I yearned for some sturm und drang, envied those tested by tragedies, and cultivated emotion for its own sake.
The past five years, though, had provided me with a mother lode (oh ha!) of crises and sorrows. I’d had more than enough of what I used to call “real life” and plenty of material for my “Looking on Darkness” paper. But the one true subject for it was inescapable, even though divulging a mother’s anguish over a daughter’s suffering felt like a violation of privacy to gain admission to a course I wanted to take precisely because I hoped it might shed theological light on that darkness. That’s why I titled my paper Chashekah.