The pursuit of spiritual growth during graduate school
Welcome back to part two of the reflection of my recent Ignatian Exercises program made possible through the Emerging Leaders grant through Campus Edge Fellowship and the Christian Reformed Church. This reflection zooms out from the Ignatian Exercises program that I have been participating in, and focuses more generally on the question of how to pursue spiritual growth during graduate school. I am just wrapping up my doctoral program at Michigan State University and am well aware of the multiple competing priorities for one’s time over the course of a graduate program: coursework, lab meetings, qualifying exams, mid-term exams, committee meetings, conference presentations, lab reports, proposals, defenses, grading, job hunts, emails, sleep, well, you get the picture. Life if very full, and the list of demands are seemingly relentless. Go, go, go. Push, push, push. Think, think, think. More, more, more. Do it all. How exactly is one to make space – in the head, heart, and agenda – for the pursuit of spiritual growth during this season of life? Well, that is a question that can be answered differently by each person. It is my aim to share my unique experience of this challenge and a few ways that afforded me the opportunity to develop spiritually.
The challenge: Failure
I am not sure about you, my dear reader, and what your relationship with failure has been throughout your graduate studies and life, but this F word haunts me. Specifically, when I consider how I was taught that my relationship with the Divine is my bounden duty, ultimate priority, and greatest calling in life, my apparent failure during graduate school has been a source of shame, disgust, and anger at myself for just not “having it all together.” Sure, I attended church most weeks, but actual intentional study, prayer, and practice of faith outside the church walls felt beyond my capacity. (Side note: this is my unique experience, and granted, there were other life events happening beyond the demands of graduate school that led me to feel overextended. Feel free to ask me about this in person.).
Despite the sense of failure on this front, when I reflect upon my spiritual journey of the past three years, I mark it as a largely pivotal season in which I engaged in prolonged, perennial spiritual conversations; actively sought out space and time for retreat and silence; and adopted a more grace-filled view of my available resources during the graduate school season. In essence, my sense of failure was sourced from my adolescent approach to doing spirituality. Events and people I encountered during graduate school have permitted me to redefine spiritual growth as neither success nor failure, but rather a slow, incremental, and nearly undetectable faith-building project. Below I will highlight a few invaluable bricks I received during the season of graduate school.
Spiritual conversations and friendships
I am so privileged to have come into contact with several brilliant and intentional individuals over the course of my graduate program. Some of these people shared the same faith background as I, and others were at various stages along their faith journey. At the near start of graduate school, my life circumstances forced me to verbalize my discomfort, questions, and shifts of faith with newfound friends and mentors. These dialogues were initially scary and threatening to my reputation, but I know that the honesty, suspension of judgment, and caring curiosity expressed among the individuals wove us together in a way that established robust relationships able to weather future conflicts and difficult conversations. I particularly valued hearing parts of others’ faith journeys and the questions they carry. All in all, relationships that honestly plumbed the depths of spiritual matters were new to me; I began to grasp how true high-impact relationships can offer one another accountability, challenge, guidance, and true integration of faith into real-life relationships.
A specific example I’d like to offer is how I have encountered Christ in the flesh through a few of these spiritual friendships (Note: Spiritual Friendship is the title of a book that will be reviewed on the CEF blog soon. It is highly recommended!). I encountered the following prayer by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) in the The Ignatian Adventure by Kevin O’Brien (2011) and immediately recognized how individuals have embodied Christ for me.
Christ Has No Body
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
It has been through these spiritual friends during graduate that I have encountered the eyes, ears, and hands of Christ. Despite the difficult demands on my head and heart during this season, Christ has showed up and made His love real life to me.
A bit more removed than face-to-face spiritual friendships have been a number of authors that have held my hand and heart throughout this season: Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love, Parker Palmer’s Let you life speak, and the podcast show On Being with Krista Tippet. I believe the Campus Edge Fellowship library has a number of these titles that individuals can borrow.
Retreat and silence
Since my return from abroad in 2014, I have had the opportunity to participate in a silent retreat at least twice per year. One of my former InterVarsity friends introduced me to the Hermitage, the Christian retreat center where the Ignatian Exercises program is based. I deeply cherish these 1 – 3 day opportunities to withdraw from my daily responsibilities and technology, breathe in the silence and natural beauty of the countryside, have no particular agenda or to-do list to complete, and simply rest, read, and reflect on the past, present, and future. Retreating at the Hermitage is particularly rejuvenating thanks to the healthy and hearty food (which is “God’s love, made edible”). It is prepared by the retreat center hosts, and many of the vegetables come right out of their on-site garden. Any guests that stay at the retreat center offer the other retreatants the “gift of silence,” meaning that no one speaks to one another during the meals or other times. This is a welcome relief to this introvert who, at times, must expend much emotional energy to carry on conversations with strangers. Retreats at the Hermitage are truly a retreat, a break, a slowing down, and an opening up to attend to the working of the still, small Spirit within.
Faith building project: Brick-by-brick
The graduate school season has been one of re-evaluation of a number of foundational life boulders, such as family, vocation / calling, and faith. In brief, I sensed the need to step away from the faith of my childhood and all of the black and white lines and prescriptions that accompanied it. There is no doubt that many questions still remain; nevertheless, there is a spiritual muscle that I desire to exercise, a desire to encounter the Divine apart from the familiar social club approach or musical outlet. One particularly helpful book throughout this process of deconstructing and reconstructing faith in this season is Escobar’s Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart. During this shifting season, I have found hope and comfort in the slow working nature of God. If faith is something that will be reliable and dependable, it must be built with care, attention, and patience. I will finish this reflection with a prayer that has been a guiding light over the course of the Ignatian Exercises.
Prayer of Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.