First Days in St. A's
September 19, 2022
Hello from St. Andrews! It's so good to be back and to return to the blog. The past week-and-a-half has been full of travel, errands, meetings, worship services, and other events of settling in. I wanted to publish this post sooner, but (as you shall see) I have been incredibly busy (and also sick. Boo.).
Before the Beginning
While I don't encourage complaining on the internet, I would be remiss if I didn't let you in on the absolute garbage fire that was my summer. Plenty of terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad things transpired, but we'll focus on the troubles that were relevant to my time in St. Andrews.
My main source of stress this summer was the looming threat of homelessness. The University accepted more students this year than they had rooms to give, and there are restrictions on HMO (houses in multiple occupation) licenses in Fife, which adds up to a pretty bad housing squeeze. I had applied for tenancy and been rejected at 8 or 9 properties by the middle of August, when a letting agency reached out and offered to help find a property. Thankfully, I'm renting a lovely house with a great flatmate, but the search is going to give me gray hairs later in life.
Mom and Stephen dropping me off in Nashville
The other main obstacle to an on-time arrival in Scotland was my visa. A UK student visa application starts with something called a CAS number, and I was not given mine until the third week of July. Mom and I had to travel to Atlanta for a biometrics appointment, where I was told the visa could take anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks to process. Was there any way I could have it expedited (I asked the nice lady at the visa application center)? No (she responded immediately). After two weeks of sitting, waiting, biting my fingernails, and trying not to panic, my visa and passport were returned to me in plenty of time.
A couple more hiccups occurred shortly before leaving. I had booked my taxi from Glasgow to St. Andrews with Tim, who drove Mom and Stephen when they came to visit last fall. The night before my departure, Tim sent me an email:
Things could have gone south quite quickly. There is no flight arriving in Glasgow on Thursday the 8th, only on Friday the 9th. Do you want me to arrange transport for Friday?"
Say sike right now.
I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I trust my ability to read a calendar. I asked Tim to double check, and the Google flight tracker was displaying the departure date for my flight, not the arrival date. My plane would indeed be landing in Glasgow on the 8th, as I had predicted. Crisis averted.
I flew out of Nashville on September 7, then enjoyed a cheeky 6-hour layover in Toronto (much of which was spent in a line to clear Canadian customs) and flew to Glasgow. My flight to Scotland was pretty uneventful, but not exactly luxurious. The in-flight meals were a bit sparse, and the entertainment system wasn't working. Without any movies to watch, I did manage to sleep for about an hour, keep my eyes closed for another hour, listen to some music on my phone, and watch the green isles of western Scotland fly past during our descent.
After arriving in St. Andrews on September 8, I spent the afternoon moving into my flat, which was a smooth process overall, despite my incredible jet lag. I lived in a university residence hall last year, so moving into private accommodation presented a new set of culture shocks: it took me 2 days to figure out how to lock and unlock the front door (you have to lift up on the handle!), and I had to make my own baby carrots from the full-sized, unpeeled ones in the grocery store. The house itself brought a few other surprises: the washing machine is in the kitchen, and the dryer is in the detached garage, the whole house is carpeted, including the kitchen and the bathroom, and in my case, "furnished" does not mean "includes linens." I spent a good chunk of the afternoon hunting down sheets, pillows, a duvet, and towels, and hauling them across town on the bus.
Flying over West Scotland
My bedroom. I think it's pretty cute. :)
Having settled in, procured bedding, figured out the lock, and gotten used to the carpeted bathroom, I'm really enjoying the house. It's cozy but not too small, and there's a lovely back garden and a view of a sprawling hill out my bedroom window. I've met one cat and one dog that live in the neighborhood, and I saw two deer on the hill yesterday afternoon. The house is a bit further away from town than I would prefer, but it's not too far to walk, and we're close to a bus stop as well. Given the housing market in St. Andrews, I'm grateful not to be living in Dundee or under a bridge.
After returning from the grocery store on Thursday evening, I sat down to eat some dinner and opened my laptop, when I saw the news that Queen Elizabeth had passed away. There is never a good time for an event as sad as this, but I admit that I'm glad to have been in the UK during the period of national mourning.
The response to Her Late Majesty's death has been both more and less that what I expected. It is impossible to go out in public without being reminded of her passing, but people are not as bereaved as I expected they might be. I was also expecting more closures and cancellations, but most things have gone on according to plan, with the exception of the day of Elizabeth's death and the day of her funeral. Overall, it seems that people are still in shock about her passing, myself included. Queen Elizabeth was such a familiar figure for so many years that it seemed like she would live forever.
The Sunday after her death, we sang the national anthem at church. It was so strange to sing "God save the King" and replace the female pronouns with male ones. This morning (Monday), I went to Younger Hall to watch the state funeral with other students and members of the community, which was a memorable experience.
St. Mary's College Opening
On the Friday before classes started, members of the School of Divinity were invited to attend an opening worship service and an opening lecture. At the opening service, one of my professors spoke briefly about the Old Testament reading from Exodus 19: "And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up." He ventured the assumption that all of us had received freshers' week advice from lots of people: Stay calm. It's okay to be nervous. Here is where you can go for help. Put yourself out there. Make friends with your classmates. It's all going to be ok. Don't be afraid. All this advice is well and good, but he volunteered his own piece of advice especially for divinity students: be afraid. The object of our study is too holy and marvelous to be dealt with flippantly. Moses must have been afraid when God called him to His presence on Mount Sinai, and so should we be afraid, who have been called to pursue God through academic study.
However, Moses' fear is not a paralyzing anxiety that prevents him from following God's call. Moses approaches the mountain and draws near "to the thick darkness" where God is. Like Moses, we can expect to be afraid and can expect to be confused, even as we pursue what we know is a good and worthwhile calling in "the thick darkness" where God dwells.
"But Ellen," you say, "doesn't perfect love cast out fear?" Yes it does, as the speaker reminded us. However, the perfect love that casts out fear is not our love. Our love for God can never be perfect; we are finite beings, not to mention fallen and sinful. The perfect love that casts out fear is God's love for us. Even as we approach Him with fear, probing the thick darkness, we can rest in God's love, knowing that He has grace enough for our failings and wants us to know and love Him.
The opening service was followed by an opening lecture, where another of my professors discussed the value of divinity among subjects in the modern university. His lecture, entitled "Everything or Nothing: Why we Need Divinity in the Modern University," argued that either divinity is the most important and practical subject in the university catalogue or the most ephemeral and worthless. After pointing out that Thomas Aquinas defined divinity as that which "concerns God and all things in relation to God," the speaker transitioned into a secondary argument concerning the moral status of the fetus from a Christological perspective.
I do not have the space here to recap this argument, just to show how it supported his main argument that divinity is of immense practical value among academic subjects. Abstract theological claims (like the hypostatic union of Christ, the virgin birth, etc.) have impact on concrete issues (such as abortion, IVF, stem cell research, etc.). Divinity does, in fact, "concern all things in relation to God" and touches on matters of incredible moral and existential importance. It is, therefore, not the impractical and irrelevant subject so many cast it to be, but a vital member of the university and society as a whole.
St. Salvator's Chapel, with the Union Flag flying at half-mast
The Sunday night before classes started, the Celtic Society put on a Freshers' Ceilidh. It was such fun to reconnect with several friends and make several new ones while enjoying familiar ceilidh dances. There were a few dances that were new to me, one of which involved couples promenading around the floor, scrambling to make new sets of 3 couples. It was hilariously chaotic, kind of like that version of tag where people make a "blob" and run around together.
I had a fantastic time, but I completely forgot how exhausting ceilidh dancing is. I was soaking wet by the time I got home, half from walking through a drizzle, the other half from sweating for over 2 hours straight.
The following Tuesday was my first day of classes! I'm sure there will be a lot to write about classes going forward, so I'll give a brief introduction to what I'm taking this semester.
Reconciliation: Human and Divine deals with ideas and doctrines related to reconciliation (duh), mainly different theories of soteriology (doctrine of salvation). It also touches on related doctrines, such as creation, theodicy, and ecclesiology.
I'm also taking a class on Gregory of Nazianzus, which will deal a lot with Trinitarian theology and pneumatology (doctrines about the Holy Spirit). This module on Gregory will also serve as an introduction to patristic theology in general.
After my first class finished on Tuesday afternoon, I treated myself to a scoop of cookie dough ice cream from Janettas. It was delightful.
The Plague (not Covid)
The following Tuesday was also when I noticed that I had a bit of a scratchy throat, a sure sign of freshers' flu. Did you know it takes four weeks of taking vitamin D supplements for the body to reach levels high enough to fight infections? I do now, because my first thought when I took my temperature and recorded a fever was, "but I just started taking vitamin D!" I was down with a fever, aches, and chills on Wednesday and Thursday, then couldn't breathe through my nose on Saturday. I'm now almost fully recovered, and I recommend you start taking vitamin D right now.
Thankfully, my fever broke just in time for me to volunteer at Toastie Bar on Friday night. Toastie Bar is a weekly event put on by the St. Andrews Christian Union, where folks enjoying a night out can purchase a toastie for only 50 pence, take a break somewhere warm and safe, and ask questions about Christianity if they have them. Sporting a bright red Toastie Bar t-shirt, I spent the evening delivering toasties from the kitchen to customers. It was a ton of fun, but I got home at four in the morning, so this will have to be an occasional activity. One volunteer was tasked with advertising Toastie Bar outside the students' union while dressed as a toastie, so I have a goal in mind for the year: I want to wear the toastie costume at least once.
The Usual Stuff
Some parts of my routine haven't changed since last year, so if you've read the blog before, here's what you were probably expecting. On Sunday mornings, I've been going to church; I'm back at the high-church Scottish Episcopal congregation I attended last fall, and I've reconnected with several people and met several new friends. I've also volunteered to bake for the Agape (coffee hour) after church (and for the St. Mary's College society, so I'm already over-committed dessert-wise).
Finally, on Sunday evening, I attended the first Scottish Country Dance class of the year. It was such fun to get back into dancing, and to be somewhat competent this time! I'm already looking forward to Sunday nights for the rest of the year.