The "big shot" lawyer, as Charles W.B. Fels described himself, was at the top of his game.

He handled high-stakes criminal cases that grabbed headlines in eastern Tennessee. He showed up on Court TV and toured the country giving lectures. He owned a big spread in Sequoia Hills, Knoxville's most elegant address. Other lawyers were beginning to see him as a player on the national scene.

One day during a West Coast lecture series, Fels was riding an elevator to his hotel room, savoring the golden panorama of the spreading metropolis against the foothills of Southern California's mountains -- until the sight that filled his eyes also filled him with disgust.

There, planted on a hilltop in Riverside, the place legend says California's orange groves were born, stood a gigantic concrete cross.

"Who put that damn thing there?'" Fels recalled saying aloud. He sneered at this, this arrogant imposition on the landscape, this man-made desecration of nature's beauty. For three days, each time he rode the elevator to his room, he gaped at the giant cross and grew angry -- so angry, in fact, that he rented a car to inspect the thing for himself. Driving up to Mount Rubidoux, he planted himself at the base of the 45-foot-high Father Serra Cross and gave it a shove.

To his amazement, the cross moved.

"Something, physically, happened," Fels said, retelling the story as if he still cannot believe he really believes it. "I went back to Knoxville, very shaken."

Something spiritual happened to Fels that day, too. The strange encounter with the Father Serra Cross led him back to the Episcopal Church after 40 years of absence. Stranger still: At the age of 59, Fels put aside his law practice and enrolled in a seminary this fall to become a minister.

"I heard a voice inside my head say, 'I have to be ordained,' " Fels said. "It scared me to death."

Many of Fels's classmates at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria have had similar experiences -- some epiphany that led them to the church. Most of the seminarians at the school are older and have embarked on second careers in the church after successful careers in medicine, law, business or public service, said Marla Huseman, a spokeswoman for the school.

This year alone, the seminary's rolls include five lawyers, several doctors, a dentist, several newspaper editors, a former Marine, a Microsoft executive, a physicist, a real estate agent and an executive sous chef. Many more had careers already oriented to serving others: teachers, social workers and lay ministers. Other years, generals, actors, artists and even a former Montgomery County executive attended.

"This has been a phenomenon that's very common in seminaries, not just ours, for the last 25 years or so," said the Very Rev. Martha J. Horne, dean and president of the seminary. About 250 students are enrolled in the seminary's classes this year, including the three-year master's in divinity program, which leads to ordination, and the two-year master's degree program, which does not.

The students' day starts with mandatory chapel services at 8:30 a.m. The other must-do, besides class, is attend lunch in a sunny cafeteria where, on a recent fall day, students in cassocks mingled by the salad bar with students in blue jeans.

As students once again, they find themselves revisiting routines forgotten after 20 or 30 years. They dash for class, cram for finals and sit transfixed as the blinding complexities of Hebrew or Greek dance elusively across the pages in front of them. They sweat over the wording of sermons that will be delivered and critiqued by classmates. At night, they stew under the unforgiving glare of indoor lighting at the Bishop Payne Memorial Library.

Beavering away at term papers and sermons, the elder students also practice the knack of weaving quotidian memories and dramatic events of a lifetime -- a father's come-to-dinner whistle, losing a child in a department store, a miracle triple play at Camden Yards or a parent's death -- into a message that might resonate with the faithful.

Of course, the story of second beginnings is as fresh as the first day of class, and it's as old as St. Paul.

But once upon a time, exemplary young people -- read: young men -- were often tapped by the ministers of their churches and guided toward the seminary. Those acolytes were seen as likely candidates to hear "The Call," that sense of mission bestowed by God, and they were urged to heed it, even if The Call sometimes came with a certain amount of amplification supplied from the pulpit or parents.

These days, of all segments of people enrolled in any program at an American seminary in 2001, the largest is those ages 40 to 49, according to statistics from the Association of Theological Schools.

Students and faculty say it is partly a backlash against the materialism of our times. Many reach a pinnacle in their professional lives but hunger for something that is more meaningful spiritually, Horne said. Others, having raised families and achieved financial stability, feel they can now turn to something they had always wanted to do but could not afford. Some have just burned out.

"For many folks, they really were channeled into law school or business school or something that was considered to be financially secure and perceived to be a success," Horne said. "And then people get to a certain point -- sometimes after 20 or 30 years -- where they've reached a level of professional success but they don't feel the kind of satisfaction that they hoped to find."

Would-be ministers first hear the call to duty from within, but church elders must confirm that the summons is genuine. The process, known as discernment, requires vetting by the rector of a candidate's home parish, a committee on the ministry and the bishop of their local Episcopal diocese. If the bishop approves, the home parish may sponsor the candidate by providing some or all of the tuition at the seminary. The Virginia Theological Seminary, a fixture in Alexandria's West End since 1823, charges $12,600 a year for tuition, room and board for residential students.

"If you don't get through the parish process, you don't come," said Charles "Chuck" Hatfield. Hatfield, 50, a second-year student known as a "middler," worked as a director of circulation and distribution at the Roanoke Times and other newspapers before he entered the seminary. A parishioner of Grace Episcopal Church in Radford, he had always been close to the church, but his wish to be ordained took everyone by surprise, including his late father.

" 'Are you crazy?' " Hatfield recalled his very devout father saying. "It wasn't hostile. It was more like, 'Do you know how old you are?' I remember my own rector saying to me, 'Chuck, are you sure you want to do this?' "

Some, looking back over the years, now see omens that showed the way to the seminary: an emotional encounter with a friend in need, or a passing remark -- 'You'd make a good priest' -- that now seem prophetic. Many grew up in religiously observant families. Others, led to the church in a personal crisis, started on a path toward hoping to share the way out with others.

John "J.T." Frazier, his red Bible resting beside his cafeteria lunch, spent 30 years greasing the engines of war for the U.S. Marine Corps before entering the seminary.

A master gunnery sergeant, he rose to the top ranks of enlisted men in aviation maintenance, working on the air frames of AV-8s, Broncos and OV-10s and serving at bases here and in the Persian Gulf, Europe and Asia. A native of Nashville, he traveled around the world six times.

His deeply religious life rose from the wreckage of his first marriage. After 12 years and four children together, he said, the woman who had once been his high school sweetheart wanted to call it quits. Depressed and dissatisfied with the bar-stool wisdom of his Marine buddies, Frazier found solace in the church. Now remarried for 22 years and the father of three more children, Frazier eagerly raises his hand in an Old Testament class, practically shouting to make his opinions heard, and explained over lunch why he is here.

"There are so many people who don't know Christ, and I see God using me as an instrument, using me to get people to know Jesus Christ," said Frazier, 54. "I have a sense of giving back, because I have such a sense of being blessed. It's about being a shepherd."

Haunted -- that's how Fels described it. At the height of his successful career as a criminal defense lawyer, Fels was shadowed by a feeling of nothingness, as if there was a hole in the middle of his life. Once he figured out that God was missing, the church drew him in.

"It was like the fast part of the Mississippi River. It got faster and faster," he said.

Not long ago, the current deposited him in a Hebrew class with associate professor Stephen L. Cook. A map, showing the flight of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, stood in the corner.

The class began with a prayer. Then, one by one, each of the students -- some draped in cassocks, one in a ball cap with "NYPD" stitched across the front -- took turns translating the scratch-like marks of the ancient language into words. Then phrases. Then complete sentences. A children's story emerged: "The Little Camel That Could."

Fels chuckled easily as he talked, as if standing outside himself and feeling slightly bemused at the course his new life has taken. The place may not be as competitive as law school, he said, but it is as demanding.

After picking up a bachelor's degree from Stanford University and master's and law degrees from Vanderbilt University, Fels rose in his field to become a partner with the Knoxville firm of Ritchie, Fels & Dillard. Over the years, he served as an assistant district attorney in Knoxville, an assistant U.S. attorney, and as a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He lectured at the FBI Academy in Quantico and opined for Court TV on topics such as the parole hearing for Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassin, James Earl Ray.

Yet Fels was booted out of the church as an unruly 5-year-old.

"I was told I could come back when I learned to behave. I did not come back for 41 years," he said. "I was angry. I hated this stuff. I didn't want them. They didn't want me."

So for much of his life, he kept going and never looked back. He married, raised two children, divorced. Then came much soul-searching, punctuated by experiences that he describes as mystical. The climax came in the middle of a sleepless night of Ash Wednesday on his 55th birthday, with a vision of blinding light after praying for guidance.

The next day, as if by ESP, a friend called to tell him of her odd vision that same night: She saw Fels as a priest on Ash Wednesday. As a seasoned trial lawyer, he knew some would find his experiences hard to believe.

"Can you imagine how fun it would be to cross-examine someone who says, 'I see lights. I have visions. My friends see visions?' I would have loved to cross-examine someone like that," he said.

After years of soul-searching and work in the church, Fels decided to become a minister. The Knoxville mansion he once called home has been replaced by a dormitory room. Instead of working on legal briefs, he is writing term papers, parsing Hebrew and practicing sermons.

He still must go to trial for a client whose case has been put off until summer, but he plans to graduate in 2005.

"I think those of us who come in later, by virtue of what we left, are paying silent tribute to the depth and meaning of the life that is available within this religious community," Fels said.

At right, the main administrative building of the Virginia Theological Seminary, and the main academic building, far right, are home to 250 students, many of whom are professionals pursuing a second career. This year the rolls include lawyers, doctors, a dentist, newspaper editors, a former Marine, a Microsoft executive, a physicist and an executive sous chef.Charles "Chuck" Hatfield, 50, a second-year student known as a "middler," worked at the Roanoke Times and other newspapers before he entered the Virginia Theological Seminary.Charles W.B. Fels, a former criminal lawyer in Tennessee, says seminary may not be as competitive as law school, but it is as demanding. Students attend mandatory services and practice sermons.