It has been fifty years since I graduated from Yale Divinity School. Twenty-five years before that I was baptized and brought into the Church. For twenty of those years I was reared as a Midwest, middle class Methodist. I was confirmed, knew the creeds and various parts of the Bible. The sacraments were unfamiliar to me. I had no idea what liturgy was. I was blessed with having heard great church music: Handel, Wesley, Bach, etc. Within me there was a longing for God and a sense of reverence about His creation. The doctrines of the incarnation, resurrection, expiation of sins, etc. were abstractions, which seemed to explain things that were obvious, and were intellectually irrelevant. At age seventeen I decided to pursue the ministry. (My minister told me that he would approve that, but that my brother was a far more talented individual!)
YDS was considered by many to be the finest of seminaries. So I went to Yale College in order to prepare for YDS. My education at Yale College was rigorous. I was in the Directed Studies program and read Kant, Thomas, Whitehead, etc. As an English major, I was exposed to the classic repertoire. (After my senior comps, I was told by a professor that he was surprised that I did well!)
Since the greatest preachers and theologians came to Battelle Chapel, I turned out every Sunday to listen to them. The choir was excellent and the music touched my heart. During my junior year I attended a communion service in Harkness Chapel that was lead by Doug Cook, the Methodist chaplain. I was blown away by the Prayer of Humble Access. “We do not presume to come to this thy table….”Afterwards I asked Doug where that prayer came from, and he said it was originally from the Book of Common Prayer. At that moment I decided to go for the original and switch from a knock off. I decided to join the Episcopal Church. That same year I was the designated driver for my roommates and met my to-be wife, Faye, at Connecticut College. During both my junior and senior years I took a number of elective courses from Prof. Bill Christian. He insisted upon rigorous thinking. It was for him that I translated Calvin’s Institutes from the French and wrote a paper on “Humanist Elements in Calvin’s Doctrine of Man.”
So I entered YDS with an intuitive, “Methodist” sense, a Yale Christian agnostic stance and a respect for rigorous theological rationality. After my first year at the quad, I was asked to work as a chaplain’s assistant at Dwight Hall on the undergraduate campus where I lived and worked for the next three years. My goal was to become a professor of religion in a college and/or a chaplain. I started the Yale clothing drive, which I’m told still exists, and spent a lot of time eating with undergraduates. At seminary Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were the big names. In my senior year I sided with Schleiermacher over against Barth. I took Greek and Hebrew and became convinced that you could not do philosophic theology unless you had a strong grounding in Biblical theology. So I decided to pursue a doctorate in Bible. I was told by a professor that I showed no signs of being capable of doing graduate work!
However, I wanted to learn and went off to the University of Chicago and started work on a doctorate in Bible. To qualify for the doctoral program, you had to pass comprehensives in the MDiv. Program at Chicago. So I essentially repeated my MDiv. Education. The work of Mircea Eliade and others in the history of religions impressed me. I also read seven languages: English, French, German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Coptic. I translated all of the Old Testament from Hebrew, all of the New Testament from Greek, and three Coptic gospels. My doctoral thesis had to do with patterns of language in the early Christian writings. I was into my seventh year at Chicago when my father had a heart attack, and asked me to come home to Stamford, CT and take over the family business (an employment/ placement agency). I felt that I could not turn my back on my family and then step into a pulpit. So I bagged the academic world and entered the business world in 1968.
For twenty years I placed engineers, physicists and chemists all over the country. I worked with every major defense contractor and specialized in ceramic engineering and industrial design. At one point I had seven employees (who did secretarial and accounting placements). I weathered four recessions and immense competition. My wife taught in Darien and we reared two sons. I buried my father-in-law, my mother, my father and my sister-in-law. The pressure was intense. To handle that intensity, I decided to pray. So every workday at noon, I walked over to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Stamford and sat and prayed for twenty minutes. It got me through terribly tough years. My wife and I attended St. Andrew’s on Sundays but did not get involved in the life of the parish. When asked by chirpy Christians what I did for the church, I would reply, “I pay its bills.”
One day in 1988, I said to the rector that I regretted coming back to Connecticut and wished I had stayed working on my doctorate. He said, “Go and talk to the bishop and get reinstated in the ordination process.” That evening, when I came home from work, I told my wife what the rector had said. Faye was working at the sink, and without turning around said, “Well, it’s about time!” I was stunned. So I talked to the bishop, who put me in the process, read for my canonicals and jumped through all of the obstacles that five committees could come up with. I joined St. Luke’s in Darien because my children were going to school in the town. Then I worked for a year and a half at St. Mark’s in New Canaan. I also enrolled in the CPE course at Stamford Hospital and spent a year and a half in that. Everyone in my ordinands’ training group got a job before I did. It did not bother me because I knew how the placement processes work. In February of 1990 I was hired by the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stamford and remained there as the associate rector for eighteen years. My portfolio was pastoral care.
I had a ton of academic preparation and of business experience. Now I had to focus on the lives of my parishioners and those in the community. Remembering Bill Christian, I started with a basic question. What am I? I am a priest. What is the role of a priest? It is to do the offices of the Church: celebrate the Eucharist, preach, baptize, prepare for confirmation, marry, hear confession, give absolution, and bury. All other actions are within the context of the offices of the Church. I came to embrace the liturgy of the Church and to allow it to do much of the work of worship. My preaching was exegetical and narrative. Each sermon had a concrete observation from life and from my fifty years of experience and the twenty years I spent “in the wilderness.” My website is filled with short stories, homilies and sermons that explore the human condition, the nature of man and how the Gospel illuminates who we are and who were are to become. When I retired in 2008 from St. John’s I had completed the most wonderful and happiest years of my life. Upon retirement, I returned to St. Andrew’s where I am a “Mass priest.” I celebrate Mass every day at noon. Each day I stand before the altar and offer up the pain and prayers of my people and present the sacrifice and love of God in Christ Jesus.
For twenty years I have gone to the hospital everyday (over 3,000 hospital calls), performed 60 weddings and 500 funerals. I have been present at the time of birth and at the time of death. Every day I have seen small miracles: one more day of sobriety for someone, the forgiveness of a hurt by some else, repentance, a second chance for a second change. Over and over I have seen the presence of God’s grace through Jesus Christ quietly acting in the world. I have learned that we know God through our aesthetic and intuitive gifts as well as through our intellectual and rational abilities. I speak to and minister to a world that is often on the fringe of the Church: the doctor, the nurse, the addicted, the ex-prisoner, the unemployed, the professor, the scholar, the despairing and the hopeful. Yes, there are traces of Wesley, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Eliade and Clinical Pastoral Education in my background. There are also traces of interviewing, counseling, investing and entrepreneurial risk taking in my background. Yale gave me a great foundation. Chicago gave me a strong Biblical foundation and a broader perspective. Business gave me a view of ordinary life. My family gave me a view of humor and trust. God gave me the grace, love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Everyday I come to God’s altar and pray, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” BCPp. 337. –Fr. Gage- YDS class of 1961 reunion essay.
To read my sermons and homilies, visit http://www.fathergage.com.