In high school, I worked weekends and summers in a climatology lab at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, an outpost of Columbia University perched high atop the Palisades cliffs overlooking the Hudson. It was a great gig. One of my primary responsibilities was mapping cloud cover over the Arctic – which sounds a whole lot fancier than it was. Mostly I colored, tapping into my very best kindergarten skill of staying inside the lines.
When it came time for college, I felt a call to ministry, but also wanted to explore in more depth the world of science in which I had been involved. So I decided I would major in religion, and minor in geology. Rock of Ages and rocks. It made sense at the time.
I enrolled in Geology 101, and at the end of the term, we went on a field trip, exploring interesting geological formations throughout Pennsylvania. Now, I have never been particularly fond of heights, nor of falling, so this was a challenging expedition for me. On the last day, we found ourselves trekking up a fairly steep hillside, and then descending a rather precipitous slope on the other side, covered with loose shale.
When the group returned to the bus, the professor began to take role call. Panarotti? Panarotti? Has anyone seen Panarotti?
Well, at that moment, Panarotti was frozen in terror on the aforementioned slippery slope, clinging for dear life onto a sapling, unable to make my way down. What I was able to make was one firm decision: a geology minor definitely was not in my future. Because it really doesn’t matter how much you learn up on the mountain, if you can’t make your way down to share it.
I did manage to achieve that undergraduate degree in religion, though, and then, thirty years later, a Master of Divinity. And curiously, I find that the same lesson learned on that Pennsylvania hillside is equally applicable when it comes to ministry. I cherished every minute of esoteric learning in divinity school, the chance to love the Lord with all my mind. I’m proud that our denomination requires the study of biblical languages (despite the fact that learning Hebrew nearly pushed me, and my instructor, to the brink of insanity). But, for the most part, those are mountaintop dialects, not spoken by many in the flatland. More often than not, actual ministry calls you off of those peaks, and into the deepest and darkest valleys of peoples’ lives. It calls you out of your head, and into your heart and gut, your hands and feet. And you find yourself scrambling across many a scree-covered slope.
My seminary education took me four years. It’s clear that my training for ministry has barely begun.
The Rev. Luanne Panarotti serves as pastor of Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY. She has one husband, two kids, one dog, five cats and one really messy house.