Where the Spiritual and Scholarly Meet

March 13, 2015
Matthew Potts
HDS professor Matthew Potts / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Matthew L. Potts has a really long commute to work.

Since 2013, when he was appointed Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, Potts has been driving over 75 miles from Falmouth, Massachusetts—where he lives with his family and serves as the priest of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church—to Cambridge to teach courses on "The Sacramental Imagination," "Sacrifice and Atonement," and "Preaching in Public."

"Sometimes I wonder why I do it," Potts shared during a recent talk to HDS students as part of this year’s "In Conversation" series.

Since its inception in 2004, "In Conversation" has offered a space for faculty members to share their intellectual and spiritual autobiographies with the HDS community.

"The series was inspired by the hunger in all sectors of our community to have substantive conversations with our faculty about how their interior commitments find expression, challenge, and sustenance in the many aspects of their public lives," said HDS director of Religious and Spiritual Life Kerry Maloney.

For Potts, MDiv '08, the decision to be a priest and a professor is related to what he feels is his most central spiritual practice: loving the finite.

"What grounds me spiritually is giving my heart completely to things that are finite. That’s why I'm in Falmouth," he said.

Potts unpacked this reasoning through a series of personal stories, beginning with one from the same morning of his talk.

Before arriving to the HDS campus that day, Potts stopped at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to visit a 90-year-old parishioner from Falmouth. Potts smiled remembering how he and his daughter had gone to her 90th birthday party a few months ago. But in the time since, she has become gravely ill.  

"This is not easy for me," Potts explained. "It’s hard to go to MGH. It’s a discipline and a practice, like prayer."

It's a practice that Potts has been cultivating throughout his life.

Potts grew up in Michigan. Although he was raised in the Episcopal Church, he felt multireligious because of his mother’s Japanese Buddhist heritage.

He recalled how his religious world made sense, but something changed during his senior year of college at the University of Notre Dame.

"I started asking not what God was doing for me, but what he was asking of me."

This question followed Potts after graduating when he was commissioned as a naval officer. He was stationed in Tokyo on the USS Vincennes, the guided missile cruiser that, in 1988, shot down an Iran Airbus A300 civilian airliner killing the 290 passengers and crew on board.

"It was hard to be on that ship," he remembers.

Not long after he arrived in Tokyo, Potts applied for Conscientious Objector Status.

"I was the officer responsible for giving the order to fire. I didn’t think I could do that."

It took over a year for the Secretary of the Navy to approve Potts’s request, and when he did, it came with a hefty price tag. The Navy had paid for Potts's education at Notre Dame. Now, he would have to pay it back.

This, Potts says, was one of the first times in his life he had to realize and embrace uncertainty.

"Before then, I did what good boys do. I loved my mom, went to church, went to Notre Dame, and joined the Navy."

Potts may not have been in the Navy anymore, but he still loved his mom and went to church. He even went back to Notre Dame to work in the admissions office. Later, he began a PhD in English, but then left to pursue ministry studies at HDS.

This led to the next story Potts says was crucial in developing his personal theology.

As part of his master of divinity degree, Potts did an international summer field education placement at a nonprofit for HIV/AIDS awareness in Lesotho, Africa. For the most part, Potts looks back on the experience fondly. He remembers seeing lots of "fat and happy babies," who were thriving despite being HIV positive.

The day before he left, a woman came to Potts’s field placement with a three-week-old infant that was shockingly emaciated. Potts was handed the child and asked to hold her throughout the night.

"I remember counting her breaths—attending to her breaths and saying, 'I would give everything I have for you to live.' "

In the morning, Potts had to hand the child to a coworker so he could catch his plane back to Boston. Not long afterward, he received a call that the infant had died after doctors in a nearby hospital refused to treat her.

Potts was furious and devastated, but later he came to an enlightening, if disheartening, realization.  

"I realized that within the social politics of Lesotho, if a white man had taken her to the hospital, she would have been treated. I said I would give up everything for her to live, but I wasn’t even willing to miss my bus to the airport that day."

He has picture of the infant girl on his desk at HDS as a reminder of this formative experience.

On a snowy night years later, Potts held his first child in his arms.

"I felt my whole heart empty out into this child who was so vulnerable," he says.

In his relationships with his family, his parishioners, and his students, Potts continually rededicates himself to the spiritual practice of loving the finite.

After Potts had finished sharing his autobiography, a student asked how he sustains this practice, which can be overwhelming at times.

Potts responded that, while the work can be exhausting, he finds that "there's also something restorative in it. It's sort of like parenting. You're constantly depleted and overtired, but it's your greatest source of joy and inspiration, too." 

He went back to the story of his visit to the 90-year-old parishioner at MGH. When he went to visit her that morning, there were pictures of his children in her hospital room. It wasn’t easy to be there, but Potts says that in giving his time and presence to her, he was also receiving something he needed.

—Erica Long

The "In Conversation" series continues with a talk from HDS professor Karen King, April 14, at noon, in the CSWR Common Room.