Spiritual Lives in this Threshold Moment
University Chaplain guides Trinity community in nurturing our spiritual health
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Parker Chapel serves as the home of campus ministry and is open to students of all faiths.

This is a holy season. Christians are in the midst of celebrating Holy Week progressing towards Easter Sunday. The Jewish community began celebrating Passover on Wednesday and Muslims are beginning to make preparations for Ramadan which starts in two weeks’ time.  And yet, much like the end of our semester, this season of ritual, gathering, remembering, fasting, and celebrating, is going to look different, be different, feel different in ways it never has before. 

For this is also an incredibly hard season. A transitional time. A liminal space. A moment between what came before and what comes next. Our current circumstances, distancing, isolating—these won’t last forever, and there is grace in that. But we also find ourselves in the midst of this period of transition and uncertainty, standing at a threshold. In his book To Bless the Space Between Us poet John O’ Donohue offers this beautiful reflection on thresholds: 

“At any time you can ask yourself: At which threshold am I now standing? At this time in my life, what am I leaving? Where am I about to enter?... A threshold is not simply a boundary, but it is a frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up. At this threshold, a great complexity of emotion comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossings were always clothed in ritual.”

And so as we encounter this season on uncertainty, and as we postpone some our University rituals like graduation, I’d like to invite us to consider what it might mean to live in this threshold moment, transitioning from the ways things were, to the way things might be, and how we might think about nurturing our spiritual health in the midst of it all.

To that end, I want to offer some simple practices, rituals, and ways of being that can be invitational reminders of who we are, and who we want to be as both individuals and collectively in the season that lies ahead.

Front view of Parker Chapel from the plaza

Lament and grieve

There is a lot that we have lost, some of it known, much of it not. And while there is no “one size fits all” approach to grieving through an individual and communal loss like this one there are some key things we can all do. 

  1. The first is recognizing and naming that which we have lost, and that for which you might be grieving. 
  2. The second is giving yourself permission to grieve, to be sad, to acknowledge the loss, and be honest with yourself and others on how you are actually doing.
  3. The third is to recognize that the worst grief is someone’s own, and that we won’t gain much in judging how other people might be responding to their grief.

In a number of spiritual traditions the act of communal grieving, of living in the tension of facing despair without all the answers, is the practice of lament. Or as theologian NT Wright would say, “Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer.” The book of Psalms is filled with examples of this, of prayers lifted to God in frustration, uncertainty, and despair. And instead of shunning these expressions, it centers them as part of what it means to belong to the spiritual tradition.  

There have been some great articles on this recently: first on grief in the Harvard Business Reviewenduring grief in the Washington Post, and on grieving by our own Dr. Reams on Trinity’s website. Secondly, there was a good article on lament in the Christian tradition in Time magazine

Root yourself

Wendell Berry, in his beautiful poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” invites us to consider where we might find still water (and peace) in the midst of our despair. The invitation is to find ways to root ourselves, to return to our center if just for a moment, when everything seems to be just too much. And while this looks different for everyone, some possibilities might be:

  1. Breathing and being present to the current moment. Finding that small place of sanctuary in your room, yard, or nearby park that you can retreat to. 
  2. Praying as you are able, silently, through song, in readings or poems, through ancestors or the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before. Remembering the long view of history, the rhythms, and cycles of nature, the invisible threads that connect us all. 
  3. Connecting with a person or community of people, if even virtually, that allows you to be your authentic self, to share deeply, and be known fully, to be inspired. For some, this might be a faith community gathering virtually, for others it might that trusted confidant who calls you back to your true self. 

Rediscover or create ritual

So much of how we live our lives has been disrupted, from our space, to where we are living, to how we navigate the world, and how we move throughout our days. This change, while not welcome, opens up the possibility for us to consider what the new patterns of our days and places will look like, and what rituals might we want to rediscover or create anew. For some, this could include:

  1. A morning practice: Such as morning pages, going for a walking meditation or prayer walk through the neighborhood, or sitting with a cup of coffee and a favorite sacred text or poem and taking time to be still.
  2. Creating: Give shape to beauty, make art, discover, imagine, engage your hopes and fears. Write, paint, sing, dance, cross-stitch, doodle, plant, grow.
  3. Celebrating: Birthdays, Passover, Easter, Iftars, Eid none of our celebrations may be the same in this season, and yet there is power in these holy times and joyful moments. You can also make up a reason to celebrate, from something small to something silly.
  4. An evening practice: Maybe its an evening gratitude practice, such as Carrie Newcomer offers in her poem “Three Gratitudes” or maybe it’s exploring an Ignatian Examen, or a prayer that you offer at the close of every day.

Look for and act with compassion

One of the most famous quotes that tends to circulate in uncertain times is one from Mr. Rogers which ends with the line, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” This simple phrase can serve as a beautiful reminder to us to both look for and be the people who are helping. The simple act of noticing, of becoming aware of the ways in which people are acting with compassion all around us can buoy our spirits. In small ways and big ways people are finding their thing, and giving in the ways they know how. And while our capacity—physically, mentally, or spiritually—may be limited, and we should have grace with ourselves in that, our noticing the works of love and compassion happening all around us can plant the seeds for us to practice compassion. Be it practicing small acts of kindness for our families, our friends, or our remote classmates, or be it putting our time, talent, or treasure to use in meeting the needs of others, we can, when we are ready, add our light to the growing number pushing back against the darkness.

Hope

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmon Tutu offers this reflection “Hope is quite different from optimism… Hope is different in that it is based not on the ephemerality of feelings but on the firm ground of conviction. I believe with a steadfast faith that there can never be a situation that is utterly, totally hopeless. Hope is deeper… To choose hope is to step firmly forward into the howling wind, baring one’s self to the elements, knowing that, in time, the storm will pass.” 

And so friends, this storm too will pass. There will be much to grieve and other storms will come, but may we trust in the future that we can create together and our power to endure and persist, to live fully into the future that awaits.

This article is part of a series aimed to help students, faculty, and staff manage distance learning, working, and living during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more information and resources, visit gotu.us/covid19.

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