(1 Sept 2017): I wrote this reflection for my work at the Chapel in college. In my senior year, I worked with the four other senior Chaplain’s Associates to create a Senior Service on May 28, 2017. The end contains my most coherent thoughts to date regarding what my goals are for community after Carleton and throughout life.
My freshman year, as I was complaining to a senior Chaplain’s Associate about God being too complicated and life being too hard to understand, she patiently explained to me that a common myth is that people who are religious have it all figured out. But the truth, she said, is that religious people are in a perpetual state of confusion because we try to fit God into everything, and when something doesn’t make sense, we either have to change our conception of God, or we have to change our conception of reality. You can take your pick, but either way might put you in days of existential crisis.
Of course, such a blanket statement about “religious” people may not be universally true, but for me, it really was, and still is, very true. People who know me can attest to my spaciness, and it’s often because I’m confused about life, and thus about God, too. The Chapel at Carleton is incredible because it institutionally imbeds a community to bear witness to this confusion, to bear witness to each other’s existence, and ultimately to be in it together. To be clear, such a community often operates and exists outside of the physical walls of the chapel, and it certainly includes people from faith traditions and not. What follows is just a few examples of what this community has done for me.
8th week of my winter term freshman year, as the seniors in the room all remember well, tragedy struck Carleton. As a new Baha’i, I was focused on a principle tenant of the faith: service to humanity. Thus, my response to tragedy was to keep volunteering as much as possible. I was able to be of service to my frisbee team, setting up group counseling sessions and coordinating between the Chapel and the various teams. And, of course, I continued volunteering at the various schools in the area. All together, I was volunteering significantly MORE after the tragedy than before: It was the thing I knew how to do. I also, slowly, stopped praying, finding the words about how “good” God was, or how “merciful” God was, totally untrue and empty.
It was then that a dear friend of mine showed me some of her prayers from her faith tradition. Her prayers, too, discussed the “goodness” of God, but she explained to me her interpretations of them: Sometimes God’s goodness may not be seen as good to us, and that’s okay. She also shared openly about how prayer doesn’t always feel “right,” and that’s okay, too. For her, God was less about being “good” and more about God’s being itself. Through my conversations with her, my conception of God was broadening and deepening. I certainly didn’t have an answer, but whatever formulation of an answer I did have was beginning to fit into my life better.
Later on that year, another friend of mine requested to go out for coffee with me. I arrived at Blue Monday, nervous to have to talk one-on-one with an intimidatingly intelligent (though wonderful) senior. Just as I sat down with my hot chocolate, he immediately provoked me: “You say you want to live your life in service,” he said, “and yet you are not well enough to actually be of service to anyone. Isn’t it a rather narrow view to think of service as ‘volunteering as much as you can’? Do you attend to your own needs, and might that attendance allow you to be of better service?”
Around a similar time, another friend shared with me the story of Lazarus’ death, and in particular, Jesus’ response: Jesus wept. He reminded me that in tragedy, sometimes what must be done is simply to weep.
Slowly, in these conversations, I realized that “service to humanity” can take different forms for different people and at different times. Sometimes, all I can do is weep, and even that response can be of service.
That summer, I recognized the power of grieving. And it seemed that the universe conspired to allow for collective grief for the unjust treatment of black bodies. In July, we saw Eric Garner pinned to the ground of a NYC sidewalk, pleading “I can’t breath.” In August, we saw John Crawford being shot in a Walmart holding a toy gun. Four days later, we saw Michael Brown’s body left in the streets of Ferguson for four hours. It was these events that laid the scene to start my sophomore year.
I was incapacitated. Yes, there was so much more injustice than what I just described, and yes, the injustice had been going on for much longer than the summer before my sophomore year. And yet, in that moment, although I was largely unable to process these events in a productive manner, I was able to sit with another Chaplain’s Associate and feel that pain, and know that the pain was not only ours, but was also part of community bigger than us.
There was something about just Being Human: feeling the pain, and knowing that you were not alone in the pain. The IFSA service that year was entitled Being Human, and in it, I read Rumi’s “A Community of the Spirit”:
There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
and being the noise.
Drink all your passion
and be a disgrace.
In short, allowing myself to experience the full, messy humanness of life is a simultaneously courageous and humble act that brings me closer to God—and I think it allows me to be of greater service to humanity.
What’s more, a community that normalizes elevated conversations about God, about justice, about our role in all of it, and a community that bears witness to our confusion, is what makes my relationship with God possible. While such a community does not require a wonderful Chaplain, a group of Chaplain’s Associates that never hesitate to be confused together, or a 100-year-old building that also happens to be the perfect place to play sardines, I can say with certainty that the Chapel at Carleton has made cultivating such a community immeasurably easier.
How I will cultivate such a community when I leave Carleton is certainly a question that requires a bearing witness, but luckily, we still have a couple more weeks here to be messy together, which I hope will serve as an ultimate reminder that we really are, throughout our life, in the messy and in the confusion together.