This guest post was written by Monica Evans, a seminary student, writer, thinker, public servant, theologian, feminist, dreamfisher, and community builder. I found it fitting that this post happened to fall on a Sunday (when I had the ABC idea I didn’t know which days each topic would fall). I also wanted to let you know Monica’s alternate title ides – Staying Sane When the World is Crazy or 10 lessons I’ve learn during my first Semester of Seminary.
I have just finished my first semester in seminary. Seminary, also known as Theology or Divinity school, is graduate school for people studying religion. So far, it has been an amazingly wild ride! The admissions folks said that seminary is a transformative experience, and they were not exaggerating. I’m so glad that Elysa is allowing me to share some of what I have learned and experienced.
I entered seminary unsure about my future career goals and plans. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to learn about God. This semester, I’ve read Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Jewish sacred texts and I’ve found things that I like about them all. I’ve found God in them all. Regardless of your faith (or lack of faith) I believe we all can learn something meaningful from the world’s spiritual beliefs and contemplative practices.
When Elysa told me that she needed an “S” post, my mind immediately turned sanity, or rather, insanity and how being grounded in a spiritual practice has helped me to keep the insanity at bay. Over the past few months, I’ve had my fair share of “is this real or have I finally lost it?” moments. Thankfully, I spend my days in a school that trains spiritual teachers, pastors, and counselors, and I can count on someone to reel me back it.
In this post, I will be sharing the insights I’ve received through engaging the spiritual and religious texts, interacting with my classmates and professors, and from participating in religious services. However, please know that I am not trying to convert you to Christianity or to any other religious system. I do not assume that you believe in God in the same way that I do, or that you believe in God at all. My only hope for you is that you finish this post with a few new ways to feel centered, refreshed and closer to the meaning of life. Welcome to my Top 10 List of Ways to Stay Sane in a World Filled with Insanity or the Top 10 Ways to Feel Closer to the Divine. I hope you enjoy.
1. Do not underestimate the power of your innate ability—
One of the first papers I was asked to write for school was on the role of the Bible in faith communities. When I got the prompt, I FREAKED OUT. I thought, isn’t that something I should consider AFTER I have a few classes under my belt and I know what all this stuff is about? Apparently not. I had to think critically and create an argument based on what I actually thought about God, the Bible and Christianity. Being forced to consider and convey my personal theology early in the semester (based solely on what was in my noggin) was a liberating experience and one that has given me the courage to speak forcefully and persuasively about Christians, the Bible and the Church. Even when I’m the minority report, I feel good about my beliefs.
2. Be intentional—
I watched a movie about a group of monks who spend 18+ hours a day in prayer. And no they didn’t spend all day sitting on their butts in the lotus position. They prayed when they walked down the street. They prayed while they watered and weeded their garden. They prayed what they prepared and ate dinner. Every action they did was a practice of prayer because they were conscious of every action and considered God with every action. Do you ever zone out and not remember how you got from one place to another. When you get home in the evening, can you recall how you spent your day? Could you tell me why you made the decisions you made? Can you describe any of the people you passed on the street/in the park/at the grocery? Did you, even once, consider someone’s regard other than your own? Did you notice the trees/clouds/barking dogs/stray cat/blooming flowers? Did you ever consider what makes the sun rise every day or how your body continues to function? The world is an amazingly complex place; try not to rush through it unaware of your place in the design.
3. Create a practice—
Seminary students often complain that the vigor of graduate school leaves no time for spiritual practice. Since my pre-seminary spiritual practice was pretty non-existent, I did not know I had a need to be filled. That was, until I attended my first chapel service. I did not understand all the ritual and pomp surrounding the chapel service; I didn’t know the words or the melody to the hymns that were sung. Every day for the first week of school I attended a Chapel service. Before I realized it, Chapel attendance had become my spiritual practice. It is my time to sit and reflect quietly. I haven’t missed a service. Now that Chapel services have ended for the semester, and I’ve had papers and final exams to contend with, I have struggled to maintain my sense of balance and calm. I have had to improvise my spiritual practice at home, through quiet time, reading a sacred text or listening to music. You don’t need a hymn, monastic chanting or some new age-y muzac to help quiet your mind. Just play something that’s going to take you to your happy place. Sometimes Hendrix works for me, sometimes Bilal, Portishead, or Norah Jones works. The other day, I think I mediated to Nine Inch Nails’ Creep. I just let the music wash over me, and focus on my breathing.
I was out on a date a little while ago, and I realized that everything that I am excited to talk about involves school in some way. Then I went to a couple of parties with my classmates and realized that all the conversations that were buzzing around me were about seminary. Then I looked at Facebook and realized that a bunch of the statuses in my news feed were about seminary or God or my Old Testament class. And I panicked. After I calmed down, I realized that I needed to take time weekly to do something that had nothing to do with school. While I’m immensely thankful that I’ve found my passion, I think it’s a good idea to step back every once in a while and see what else is happening in the world. For me that means reading for fun, working on my novel, watching movies, blogging and bar-hopping with my friends. You know what? My grades got better, I’m more energized and relaxed, and I have a lot more to talk about on my dates.
5. Open Up—
Early in the semester, I faced a very emotional personal trauma that led me to question a lot of my decisions. During that time, there were days when I didn’t even know if I belonged in seminary. Even though I loved my classes and got along well with my classmates, I struggled to feel comfortable because so much of my world had suddenly gone topsy-turvy. On a whim, I attended a mental health question and answer session for young seminarians, and found myself telling the crowd how overwhelmed I felt. After I spoke, several students expressed similar concerns. All of us felt lost and confused by the experiences of life in seminary. At the end of the session we all connected and brainstormed ways to support each other. Sometimes it just takes the voices of one or two people asking for help to encourage other people to express their own concerns.
6. Be flexible (and open-minded)—
I didn’t come to seminary with a solid career plan, but there were a few common paths for seminarians than I just KNEW I did not want to do. Whenever someone mentioned the word “ministry”, I ran in the other direction. Mid-semester I found myself sitting in a lecture listening to a dynamic professor talk about finding one’s ministerial voice. A few days later I was in a chapel service where the speaker talked about story-telling as ministry. Sometime after that, I heard another professor talk about ministry in terms of social work, teaching, and coaching. Then I had a trusted classmate and colleague tell me that I was not able to see myself in certain roles because I had never seen someone I could relate to in those roles. I realized that I had a very narrow idea of how ministry looked. I thought I knew what ministry was, but in actuality, it was so much more. I just had to be open-minded enough to consider it.
7. Remember that no one has all the answers (there is likely more than one right answer, anyway)—
This semester I’ve critically considered the Torah, the Qur’an, mystical love poetry, Christian hymns, Hindu myths and Buddhist sutras. In them, I have found meaning and love and truth that has enhanced my spiritual journey and my life. One of the most meaningful and practical doctrines that I have learned has been on the Buddhist concept of suffering and the 8-fold path. So much of Buddhist practice centers on doing right. The Dalai Lama, on his last trip to Emory said that he doesn’t want Americans to be good Buddhists; he wants them to use Buddhism to be the best whatever they already are. And I agree with him. I think everyone should incorporate the Buddhist eight-fold path into whatever spiritual practice they already have. Does my reverence for Buddhist practice deny the good that exists in Christianity or any other religious practice? No. I simply believe that there are bunches of ways to enlightenment/heaven/nirvana/paradise.
8. Have Gratitude and a little compassion—
I have read a lot of blogs about gratitude. I used to think it was all crap. Yes, I knew I should be grateful for the good that I have in my life, but I often could not see past the bad. This semester I’ve volunteered as a chaplain in a homeless shelter. Let me just say there is nothing like having a kindergartener cry on your shoulder because she just wants her family to have a home to convince you that your life doesn’t suck as bad as you thought. One of the best ways to show gratitude is to pay it forward. Donate (time, money, food, clothes) to a charity, make friends with a homeless person, or just smile at the next grumpy person you see. Allow the light inside of you to make the lives of others brighter.
9. Remember that you have everything you need—
You may not LITERALLY, RIGHT NOW have everything you need, but within you within you lies the strength, courage, and resourcefulness to overcome the hardships of life, even when those hardships seem insurmountable. In October, I lost a couple of things that were precious to me. For a while, my world was shattered. Because classes (and bills) kept coming, I had to continue going to work and school. Every morning through the pain, I showed up and did what I needed to do to survive. Did I do it alone? Absolutely not. I depended heavily on my friends, family and classmates. But that experience taught me that I’m stronger that I thought. Sometimes you have to smile through the pain because you know it won’t last forever.
10. Know that the Universe gives as good as it gets—
The sacred texts of Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism all teach care of the earth and all its inhabitants. At the core of each tradition is a respect and reverence for the created world in which we live and all the creatures which whom we share earth. Humanity, unfortunately has forgotten these tenets, and we treat the earth and the creatures like crap. The Torah (Old Testament) says that the earth will spit out humanity when it gets too evil. When I think of all the trash by the side of the road, massive oil spills, corporate farming practices, systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia, puppy farms, greed, and greenhouse gas outputs, I think we are about 10 seconds from Earth kicking us all to the curb! But it doesn’t have to be that way. I sincerely believe that we can mitigate the damage we’ve done to Mother Earth, but we have to start, like, right now. It is the responsibility of every one of us to be good stewards of the earth. And honestly, there are few things that feel better than being a part of nature.
View the other posts in the Top 10 in 2010 Series.