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A candle for each person who participated in the HDS Winter Retreat. By Chris Alburger

A candle lit for each person who participated in the HDS Winter Retreat. Photo by Chris Alburger

It was not even half past two in the morning when my alarm went off. I had barely enough time to get ready to attend the 3:30 a.m. vigil at St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery located in Spencer, MA. I was there with a group of students from HDS on a 2-day silent retreat. This was part of a weeklong immersive Buddhist-Christian retreat offered by the divinity school as a J-term course, “Comparative Monasticisms.” Earlier in the week, we had spent some time at the New England Buddhist Vihara (a Sanskrit word that means “monastery”) and at the Empty Bell, a Buddhist-Christian retreat center in Northampton.

I dragged myself to church bleary-eyed, exhausted because of insufficient sleep the previous night. Then the bells started tolling inside the darkened church, and the monks opened their lips to sing a tune of praise to the divine. As I soaked in the melody in the midst of the great and holy silence, all the negative thoughts in my mind and body seemed irrelevant. In retrospect, this experience—sleep-deprivation and exhaustion followed by moments of bliss and great calm—seems characteristic of my time at HDS thus far.

When I accepted HDS’ offer of admission, I knew that I was setting myself up for two years of very demanding intellectual work. However, I wasn’t able to anticipate – especially because I was away from academia from two years and changing disciplines – quite how much work it would be. After years of working on problem sets and statistical analysis and programming as an undergraduate, I was here to devote myself to what I loved: the grammars of Sanskrit and Latin, the philosophical and literary texts of ancient India, and comparative mysticism amongst other areas of research interest.

My time at HDS has taught me that love of learning does not always win against a rebelling and tired body. Nor does it necessarily make tedious work like learning seemingly endless grammatical paradigms enjoyable. I have come to accept that mastering Sanskrit will require years of arduous labor and that there are no shortcuts in this process.

But I’m grateful for many moments of calm and reverence here, like the one of attending the early morning vigil at the Trappist monastery. That moment late last semester when I heard strains from the Gītagovinda—a 12th century Sanskrit poem celebrating the love of the divine beings Radha and Krishna that has consumed my heart since I encountered it over four years ago—and I was actually able to appreciate the words of the poem in its original language. Those moments when I pick up the Bhagavad-gītā and I’m able to read and understand some beloved verses. That moment in the Buddhist vihara when I joined the monks in chanting in Pali and was surprised by how much of the meaning I was able to access based on my knowledge of Sanskrit. Indeed for this very moment of reflection, which has made me realize that HDS has given me so much, both on an intellectual and spiritual level. That makes everything worthwhile.

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