A bishop's winding path

Last modified: 8/4/2012 12:00:00 AM
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It was in the last 20 seconds of the last game of Rob Hirschfeld's middle school football career when he went in for a tackle and came out with a broken neck.

He was 13 and the pain was so excruciating that even today, he can't find words to describe it. "I could feel pain in my shoulders, but I couldn't move," he said. "I had no strength, no ability to move my arms."

For Hirschfeld, who is now 51 and today will be consecrated the bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, the injury was as spiritually formative as it was physically debilitating.

He was a thoughtful kid, his family says - an acolyte at the local Episcopal church, a top student who stood up to bullies.

But the accident and long recovery shook his adolescent sense of invulnerability and left him feeling angry, hurt and abandoned by God, setting him on a path of rage and doubt so deep that he left the church he would eventually lead.

He spent several weeks in the hospital and then about three months in traction, immobilized, at his house.

Both his parents worked, his siblings were in school and his former teammates rarely visited.

Even if he wanted to watch TV, his family didn't have a remote control.

"I started having deep thoughts," he said, "and asking the big questions."

"Is there a God?"

"What is the purpose of life?'

He started reading the Beat poets - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg. As soon as he could use his hands again, he wrote poetry of his own, some

of it about "anger at the chaos of the world" - feelings he now calls angst.

Such doubts would follow him for almost a decade, until another November day when he made his peace with God on a river near Dartmouth College.

 A well of doubt

 

The oldest of three, Hirschfeld grew up in Cheshire, Conn. His father, Robert, was a salesman and his mother, Marie, worked in a test kitchen honing new recipes.

From the very beginning, his mother said, Rob was a "charmer."

"He was always very willing to pick up the toys at the end of the day. He followed directions. He remembered what he should do and what he shouldn't do," Marie, 74, said in an interview. "He was just a good little boy."

The family said grace and ate together every night, often trying the fancy recipes his mother was testing.

"Dinner was a hugely important ritual in our house," said Mike Hirschfeld, Rob's younger brother and rector of St. Paul's School in Concord.

"I just wanted a hamburger," Rob said.

Five years separate Mike and Rob; their sister Robin - "Binnie" - was in the middle. She adored both her brothers, but only a year separated her and Rob, and they were boon companions.

"She would, upon waking in the morning, say, 'Where's Robby? Where is he?' " Marie said. "And they were off and running for the day."

During his recuperation, Hirschfeld did have at least one regular visitor: Rowan Greer, a priest and professor at the Yale Divinity School who helped out at the local parish.

Greer, now retired and still living in New Haven, was utterly unflappable, even as the angry middle-schooler swore and, once he got use of his arms again, threw glasses of juice across the room.

Hirschfeld said the priest was an "adult presence that wasn't a parent" who nurtured his spiritual development for the rest of his life.

"He represented to me the most loving presence of God who could tolerate, and even invite, my anger, my frustration, my doubts, but not withdraw," Hirschfeld said of Greer. "And I think that's what God is. I think there's this enduring steadfast presence in spite of all the static and all the pain."

Hirschfeld couldn't play contact sports anymore and felt like an outsider at his own school. He was ahead of his classmates because of private tutoring during his recovery.

So he applied to a prep school in the next town over - Choate Rosemary Hall - without telling his parents until after he'd scheduled an interview.

He was admitted and joined the crew team.

Suddenly surrounded by what he calls "New York intellectual kids," his questions about the meaning of life weren't just tolerated, they were encouraged.

 The way back

 

Hirschfeld graduated high school in 1979 and headed to Dartmouth, where - now free of the prep school dress code - he wore ripped jeans and black turtlenecks and continued to row.

But by the time he was an upperclassman, he was just plain sick of himself.

"I was sort of fed up with making a point of being in despair all the time," he said, laughing.

It was at dusk on a cold November day, as he was sculling by himself, that he had a feeling of being "visited."

"It's sort of ineffable," he said. "I can't really describe it, except the feelings that accrued were of being surrounded and filled and buoyed up and embraced by some presence that wasn't me. And also hearing without words."

He took it as a call to return to the Episcopal church. He called, and then visited, Greer.

But there was a problem: He didn't feel comfortable with the church on campus. He said he was afraid he'd be sucked into a "pod" of preppy Episcopalians at Dartmouth.

"All those Christians, they all talked the same, and they all wore the same clothes, and they all prayed the same, and they all talked about Jesus in the same way," he said. "And that really frightened me."

So he went across the river to St. Barnabas, which he said is "a small carpenter Gothic wooden structure church with this little tracker organ and farmers and some college professors."

Similar worries afflict him now.

As he prepares to take responsibility for about 4,160 Episcopalians, he said he worries he'll be sucked in by the authority of his new office and lose touch with those who most need the love of God.

"This is not real," he said, gesturing to the comfortable and tasteful furnishings of the diocesan offices in Concord. "The real thing is going to be at the soup kitchen. That's where the reality is. . . . That's where Christ shows up, around a table where people are actually hungry."

 Feeling like a failure

 

Hirschfeld got married shortly after college, taught English at a prep school for a year or so and then enrolled at The General Theological Seminary in New York City.

His wife was diagnosed with lymphoma the week of orientation.

"We were just two young, feckless kids," he said. "We didn't know what hit us."

Within a year, his wife had lost her hair from chemotherapy, and he'd lost chunks of his own from stress.

She survived the cancer, but the marriage didn't. Within a year, they'd divorced and he left the seminary.

"I said, 'I just can't do this church stuff,' " he said.

Arthur Walmsley, the bishop of Connecticut to whom Hirschfeld reported, thought it was the right call.

"He needed to take a year off," said Walmsley, 84, now retired in Deering.

Hirschfeld got a job as a campus minister at the American Cathedral in Paris, France. Once again, he just needed to heal.

"Nobody in my family had ever been divorced," he said, exhaling.

He felt like a failure.

"I don't have a career. I don't have a path. I don't know what I'm doing," he remembered thinking.

He moved to Boston and became a banker.

 At Binnie's bedside

 

Really, he wanted to be in Boston because of Binnie.

She'd long suffered from what would eventually be diagnosed as lupus and had undergone three open heart surgeries by the time she was 25. She needed a new heart and spent so much time at Brigham and Women's Hospital it felt like she lived there.

Hirschfeld made sure she wasn't alone.

"He was with her every day," his mother said. "Every noon hour he came and had prayers with her."

Her donor heart finally arrived late one night from Maine, Marie said. The family would learn around dawn the next day that she would, indeed, survive.

"It was just beautiful," Marie said. "Absolutely beautiful."

Mike still says his sister was a "miracle in every way." Binnie would go on to marry, work at Dartmouth College and become one of the first women to have a child after a heart transplant.

But Rob, it turned out, was a total failure of a banker.

He worked in commercial lending. He was bored, couldn't picture himself working his way up the corporate ladder and couldn't stand asking clients for payments.

"If I didn't quit, I'm sure I would have been fired," he said.

He cashed in his retirement and went back to seminary.

 A priest's life

 

This time, Hirschfeld went to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He lived in a dorm. And he kept visiting Boston - to see Polly Ingraham, a teacher at Hyde Park High School he had started "courting" when he left the bank.

The couple married in September 1990. They now have three children, two in college and one in eighth grade.

Hirschfeld began his life as a priest at Christ Church in New Haven.

Connecticut may be a wealthy state, but there are cities there, including New Haven, marked by poverty. Hirschfeld displayed a "thirst for justice" to confront that, both Walmsley and Greer said.

"There were crazy people walking around the streets, and beggars," Greer said. Rob "was deeply concerned with what the church could do about all of that."

Since then, Hirschfeld has engaged in similar ministries at the University of Connecticut and Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, Mass.

He said that through his ministry and life, God has blessed him with good health and a loving family.

But to be blessed, Hirschfeld said, is to suffer. The two are intertwined, inextricable and inexplicable.

"When we bless somebody, we give them the sign of the cross," Hirschfeld said. "There's something about the co-mingling of suffering and passion and goodness and healing that is all woven together in my understanding of how God comes to us."

He doesn't have a "five-point plan" for the diocese, for which he'll take full responsibility in January when the current bishop, Gene Robinson, retires. Instead, he will spend a lot of time listening and praying.

He said he and Polly still haven't decided where to live yet - he doesn't start work full time until Labor Day, and they need to find a place that's a reasonable commute to both Concord and Fitchburg, Mass., where she teaches.

Mike Hirschfeld said St. Paul's School has traditionally had a strong relationship with the bishop of New Hampshire, and he looks forward to seeing even more of his brother now.

When he's consecrated today, Hirschfeld will receive a pectoral cross as a sign of his new authority. It has been designed, he said, in honor of his sister Binnie, whose heart gave out in 2004.

 In God's hands

 

Hirschfeld learned he was a finalist to replace Robinson on a trip to Costa Rica with his son.

That same day, he got onto a zip line in a rain forest. Before he took off, a cloud came in.

"All I could see was the cable disappearing about 10 feet ahead of me," he said. "I had no idea whether this thing was going to go off into a brick wall or whatever."

It struck him that the process he'd just started in New Hampshire was pretty similar.

"Wherever it leads, I've just got to depend on God's grace," Hirschfeld figured.

He took off into the cloud.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors.)'




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