“I always enjoy the challenge and opportunity to come at things a little differently,” says Reverend Bradford Clark ‘78, Rector of Ascension Memorial Church (AMC) in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Given the challenges of being a spiritual leader during a global pandemic, and subsequently having to minister from a distance, the Reverend has had plenty of practice of late. When it became clear that gathering to worship as a congregation would have to be suspended due to COVID-19, Clark began live streaming services twice per week. The bishops of the seven New England Episcopal dioceses were clear that they expected Clark to honor social distancing protocols for safety and health—no one in the building until July 1, at least. “Personally, a later target date works for me due to the list of restrictions we’ll have to put in place in order to have services on campus. It will be very stressful for us and our parish. No singing, no touching, no coffee hour, no communion received. And no opportunity for transcendence,” said Clark.
The concept of transcendence, that individuals can attain spiritual enlightenment by going beyond the “self” and what they can see, hear, taste, touch, or feel, comes up frequently in conversation with Reverend Clark. Transcendence can be hard to achieve without spiritual guidance and practice, even under the best of circumstances. “Worshipping and connecting in the same place, even in the same church pew, is important to many people. The comfort of routine and familiarity can help quiet the ‘monkey mind’ and make a person more relaxed and receptive to receiving information, and ultimately, spiritual transcendence,” said Clark.
For many among us, the unsettled routine caused by social distancing and lack of physical community can lead to a disconnect with spirituality and, often, a lack of purpose. And yet, says Clark, we have before us the unexpected gifts of unscheduled time and restricted movement. “This experience of quarantine feels akin to the monastic life of reflection and contemplation as a path to self-knowledge, and ultimately, transcendence. Without the usual structure of the day, I’ve had to stop and ask myself: What will I choose to do with my day? With my faith?”
Clark also realized that the lack of routine, combined with relative isolation, has provided an opportunity to examine our lives and contemplate the role of spirit in our daily being. He wonders whether such introspection and reflection in a time of unrest could fuel another great spiritual awakening, such as the country experienced in the mid 1700s and early 1800s, and references the scripture from Micah 6:8 from the Old Testament that tells us to “walk humbly with God” and appreciate how our lives grow in meaning and purpose by acting compassionately and justly for all.
“I find myself going back to that again and again,” said Clark. “My father was a Methodist minister in the 1960s and he was right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement. He and his peers prided themselves on being very action-oriented, and they went out ill-equipped to be effective. They ignored the idea of walking humbly with God, and their activism was too compartmentalized and not a part of daily life. They wanted to fix the problem and return to their comfortable lives.”
Over the past few months, many of us have had the chance to slow down to pay attention to what’s happening around us, to look beyond our comfortable lives. “Watching a man die for over eight minutes is hard to remove from your mind’s eye,” said Clark, in regard to the killing of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin. “Four hundred years (since the first slaves were brought as captives to the colonies in our country) is a long time for these issues to fester. I recently began reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and even in the first few pages, my world view was challenged. I thought back to my years as a student at GDA and acknowledged that the school catered to a privileged segment of society. We’re at a point in time when we have to do more; we all have a hand in this and play a part. The level of tolerance for the status quo has reached a breaking point. We must do more.”
Clark believes that COVID-19 and bearing witness to the horrors of racial injustice have, in effect, created a place and space for a reset on how we treat our fellow humans. “We are in this together and I believe that our social fabric is undergoing a renewal. Our current administration under President Trump has caused us to step up, to step forward, to look inward and look out for each other. If we want something to happen, it’s going to be from the ground up,” said Clark. “If we quiet our minds, go very deep and practice honest self-reflection, and walk humbly with God, we can achieve transcendence. And we can have another great awakening.” Spiritual writer Anne Lamott writes in her latest book (which happens to be on the Ascension Memorial Parish’s reading list), Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy: "Everything slows down when we listen...We end up looking into other people's eyes and see the desperation, or let them see ours. This connection slips past the armor like water past stones. Being slow and softened, even for a few minutes or seconds, gives sneaky grace the chance to enter."
The decision to become a clergyman came by surprise to Clark. Though his father was a minister, he grew up “at arm’s length from organized religion.” He had little interest in the church throughout most of his early years of life and schooling, yet felt passionate about pursuing, in a variety of ways, a spiritual life. “In many ways, GDA drew forth my best as a student, and my choice to serve a community of faith as a clergyman is an extension of my love of community as experienced at GDA,” recalls Clark. “I remember Steve Harrington being an influential mentor, coach, dormmaster, and a friend. He was a reliable, trustworthy presence in my life, believing in me and setting the bar high in order to bring forth my best,” he added.
After traveling the world in search of spiritual enlightenment, and pursuing a career in academia, he “all at once felt profoundly and inescapably called to live in a community of faith.” “I have found kindred souls here at AMC seeking to deepen their connection to that which is real and enduring and full of grace,” said Clark.
“To be trusting, to be open, and experience rapport with fellow people is the gateway to experiencing a greater reality,” added Clark. “It makes you available to life; your senses are acute and you will feel empathy, compassion, and you will feel the pain of those who suffer-- it becomes instinctual. When you witness an injustice, you feel others’ pain and act justly. But it takes practice, and a community that holds us accountable.”
Clark’s “community” still includes many former classmates and even current faculty at Govs. He can often be seen rooting our teams on from the sidelines, and he says that his connection to the Academy gives his life added ballast, orientation, and meaning. “Though it was perhaps lost on me as a student, the school’s motto, 'not for self, but for others' is how I have chosen to live my life as a person, a clergyman, and as an alumnus. I’m thankful for that.”