You Just Don’t Do That

You Just Don’t Do That

It was early February. I had just begun the second semester of my first year at The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, working on a master’s degree in violin performance. It was a two-year program, for which I had been awarded a full scholarship. I had known since junior high that I wanted to be a violinist. My fiancé, B, had finished the first week of classes for the second semester of his first year at Harvard Divinity School (the smallest of all Harvard’s graduate schools). I had agreed to marry him only a couple of weeks earlier. (Read his story of our tortuous courtship here.) B loved me without reserve: he had even made 500-mile road trips to attend my junior recital (Samuel Barber’s violin concerto) as well as my senior recital (Max Bruch’s first violin concerto), each time over a single weekend. It had taken awhile, but I had come to love him deeply.

Our primary indulgence so far as nonscholastic activities went was membership in the Divinity School’s madrigal singers—directed by the wife of Helmut Koester, a professor of New Testament at the Divinity School. He played violin, and Gisela was a pianist. When they learned that I was a violinist, they began inviting me to their home in Concord every few weeks for dinner, after which we played Handel duets for two violins and piano. They invited B also—after all, he was the one with a car! He just sat and listened. Eventually I felt that I had actually become friends with Professor Koester and Gisela and their four young children.

On this Friday, the end of the first week of the second semester, B and I had finished dinner and were preparing to go to the madrigal singers’ rehearsal. We met every Friday, rotating among the homes of various students. On this particular evening we were to meet at the apartment of R, a senior at the Divinity School. Because we didn’t need to leave for another half hour or so, B and I decided to pray together, as we often did.

Shortly after we began praying, a strange thought inserted itself into my consciousness and refused to leave. It was a command from God.

It was absurd. It would upend my life. It would require that I totally, permanently give up my life’s goals—goals I had pursued tirelessly and passionately for many years. It would require supernatural intervention on many, many levels. I shook my head forcefully, as if to make the thoughts leak out somehow. I asked the Holy Spirit to take the thoughts away if they were not from God (I assumed they were not); but if by some miracle they were from God, to make them ever more strong in my mind. They began to loom even larger. I offered the same prayer over and over: “Lord, if this is not you, remove these distressing ideas from me! Make them disappear! But if by some tiny chance this is you, then speak ever more loudly. I want you! I want to do your will, no matter what that is!”

Each time I offered that prayer, the message not only did not go away—it became more forceful, eventually to the point where it felt like a divine weight whose immensity and beauty would crush me to the floor. I could not avoid it. I could not run from it.

Finally, I could fight it no longer. I sat up, looked at B, and said, “I believe God just told me that I need to transfer to Harvard Divinity School. For this semester.”

B just stared at me. After all, what does one say to a (crazy?) person who says she is on a divine mission to attend Harvard, one of the most competitive schools in the world, right now, even though the semester was already a week old?

The bright side was that it would be self-validating. If it was God (and I was still highly skeptical), then God would be able to override all the obvious obstacles. If it was not God, I would be told to get lost.

B and I discussed my supposed revelation for a few minutes. Not surprisingly, he was even more skeptical than I was. But we had to leave for madrigal singers. We agreed that I should ask Professor Koester about how I could get admitted to the Divinity School immediately. B told me—only halfway joking, I suspect—that I should wait till he was on the other side of the room, pretending that he didn’t know me, before I talked with the professor.

After our rehearsal, I approached Professor Koester. He was, by the way, the only Harvard faculty member that I knew or had even met. Trembling with anxiety as well as profound embarrassment, I told him what I wanted, that is, to transfer right now, not to wait till next semester. For what I assume are obvious reasons, I mentioned nothing about God’s telling me to do this—that would have freaked him out.

To my surprise, Professor Koester did not laugh in my face. He said, “I assume you know that I am head of the Admissions Committee?”

My eyes bulged out a little bit. No, I had had no idea!

He also mentioned that R—at whose apartment we were meeting and who was one of only three students at the Divinity School (other than B) whom I had gotten to know—was the sole student on the Admissions Committee. A little more eye bulging on my part.

He thought a minute and said, “The Admissions Committee has been meeting daily to consider applicants for admission next fall. We’re nearly finished going through all the applications. I suppose we could consider you for a special status, not in a degree program, but we could change that into a degree track if you do well this semester. But you would need to begin attending classes this coming Monday, even before we’re able to consider you. And you’ll need to get your application and your college transcript and appropriate letters of recommendation to us by Wednesday, before the Committee disbands. And also, of course, your transcript from last semester at the Conservatory.”

I don’t remember any of the subsequent conversation. I only remember thinking that maybe, just maybe, this crazy idea really was from the Holy Spirit!? After all, that was not the response I expected!

On Saturday morning I called several professors from my undergraduate days from whom I had taken courses in Bible (I attended a Christian college—Harding University, as it is now known—where we were required to take Bible every semester); after I explained the exigent situation, they all agreed to write letters immediately and get them in the mail that afternoon. And on Monday morning I called the registrar at Harding, who agreed to overnight my transcript to Harvard.

But by then the entire operation seemed hopeless.

Over the weekend, the Boston area got two feet of snow. Eastern Massachusetts was immobilized. There was no mail delivery into or out of the area. The recommendation letters would not arrive in time. Nor would my college transcript.

On Monday I called Professor Koester, who had said they must have all of my material by Wednesday (because the Admissions Committee would have finished its job and would be dismissed after that). He said, “Well, I guess we might be able to evaluate you on the basis of the recommendation letters that were sent to the Conservatory for your violin program, and maybe the Conservatory would share with us your college transcript that was sent to them. But you would have to ask B to get over to Boston to retrieve those documents, since it would be totally against protocol for you to even touch them.”

B agreed to help. I don’t remember how he got to the Conservatory in Boston. I’m guessing that maybe he used the subway, since most of the track between Harvard Square and downtown Boston was underground and maybe it hadn’t stopped running as all the above-ground sections had done. Anyway, I called the Conservatory. They kindly agreed to put a copy of my Harding and Conservatory transcripts, as well as xerox copies of my recommendation letters to the Conservatory, in sealed envelopes and to give them to B, who was able to get there before closing time on Monday.

By noon on Tuesday, the Admissions Committee had my filled-out application, copies of my undergraduate and first-semester Conservatory transcripts, and copies of letters that undergraduate teachers had written recommending me for a graduate degree in violin. I was told it would be a few days before I heard anything from the Committee. In the meantime, I had perused the School’s course catalog to find classes that appealed to me, and had started attending classes—the second week after the semester had begun.

I don’t remember when I heard the news. It probably was around a week later. I had been admitted as a “special student”! If I did well in my classes, they would transition me smoothly into the three-year M.Div. (Master of Divinity) program—the same one that B was in.

I did quite well academically. I took extra classes, as well as research courses over the summer, with the result that I graduated in two and one-half years. I even received one of two Hopkins Share honor scholarships for my final year—awarded to the top two students as judged by their academic records. After receiving my M.Div., with a major in New Testament, I remained at Harvard for a Master of Theology (Th.M.) program, also in New Testament.

It was all God’s doing. I asked Harvard University to enroll me for a semester that was already a week old, when they were simultaneously accepting or rejecting future applicants for the following September.

You just don’t do that!

And you especially don’t do that without a single recommendation for the program you’re entering (remember, the only recommendation letters they had for evaluating me focused on what a good musician I was!) But I did it, solely because God told me to do it. And he did it all.


Postscript from B:

The following has no profound spiritual message, but it’s a great story involving E and Professor Koester, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

During her final year at Harvard, E took an advanced seminar on “The Religions of Roman Hellenism.” A small group of graduate students met for three hours each week, discussing readings assigned by Professor Koester, the course’s adviser. Without exception, E came home after each class despairing of her ability to succeed in any way. She rarely contributed anything to the discussions, because more often than not she didn’t even understand them. The other students were immeasurably more knowledgeable than she was; they were so very erudite and well-read, and most of what they said went right over her head!

There was a final exam at the end of the semester. I’m not certain about this, but that exam may have been the sole basis of a grade for the course. E came home despairing about how she did on the final, just as she had despaired about understanding class discussions.

A few days later, E ran across Professor Koester on campus. He stopped to chat, and congratulated her on doing so well on the final—she had made the highest grade in the class!

“But I don’t understand!” she almost wailed. “In class discussions, I rarely even understood what the other students were talking about!”

“Neither did I,” Professor Koester responded.