A few weeks ago, I was asked to think about a moment in which I felt connected to the infinite. I was in class (Introduction to Philosophy of Religion) and we were reading Schleiermacher, a thinker who defines religious experience as any moment that includes a feeling of connection to the infinite. I started to sift through my memories of the last few years, but to my surprise, the moments that felt truest in answering this question, the moments where I felt most connected to something larger than myself, went farther back to my adolescent experiences at Jewish day school and summer camp. I thought particularly of a weekly tradition in sleep-away camp where the entire community sat in a circle by the lake on Saturday evenings, singing Hebrew hymns as the sun set and the Sabbath came to a close. I don’t think I have ever felt so spiritually whole as I did in those moments.
I realize now that I hadn’t spoken about these experiences in years, maybe not since I first came to Wesleyan. Even describing the experience above felt strange to do; I found myself wondering, is “spiritual wholeness” something that readers of this article often consider or vocalize? Part of this feeling of strangeness is likely due to the fact that it’s nearly impossible to express spirituality in words, but the larger problem seems to be that in our day-to-day college lives, we don’t often try to talk about these things. The fact that I was first reminded of my spiritual experiences in a class got me thinking: How is it possible that these experiences that were so formative to my upbringing have been absent from my conversations with peers on campus, except for in an academic setting?
In thinking about my conversations with friends about my Jewish upbringing, I realize that I mainly talk about it in terms of the educational content, such as what I learned about Biblical interpretation or the Hebrew language; I don’t often talk about the role that spirituality played in my life growing up. This topic is usually reserved for those more serious conversations about identity that tend to come up late at night while studying with friends, often spurred on by something in my reading for the next day’s class. Even those conversations are more based in the intellectualizing of spirituality, though, as opposed to simply describing spiritual experiences or moments.
It’s not that I don’t feel comfortable talking about the role that spirituality has played in my life. It’s more about the fact that spirituality just isn’t something that comes up in day-to-day conversation on a college campus. My experiences at Jewish day school and camp were just the opposite; as religious institutions, these places operated with the interest of spiritual and emotional growth always in mind, and it was normal to talk and think about the ways that we each felt connected to something bigger than ourselves. It wasn’t necessarily about the religious context of these experiences; of course, most of the ways of connecting that these places focused on were religious, but what’s more interesting to me is the idea that the basic concept of connecting to something beyond the physical was a daily priority of these communities. Is this focus on spiritual growth a model that can possibly be transferred into the secular college setting?
At first glance, this seems rather unlikely. At an intellectually charged place like Wesleyan, it makes sense that critical thinking is our instinctive approach to any and all questions. Sometimes the value that we place on intellectualizing all problems that come our way can mean forgetting the role that spirituality likely plays in many of our lives. The term “spirituality” may bring with it certain connotations, such as experiences of divine revelation or passionate prayer. But while these types of moments are certainly spiritual, spirituality doesn’t always have to relate to religion or to any other particular institution. My own experiences in religious institutions were consistently meaningful in a spiritual way despite the ebb and flow of my personal religious identity; no matter where my level of faith in God was at a given moment, these experiences consistently allowed me to feel connected to my community and to the values that mattered to me most.
One of the most wonderful parts of bringing my religious background with me to Wesleyan has been my ability to learn just how many parts of life can be just as spiritual as the ones that I experienced in the religious context: nature, a beautiful line of poetry, an intellectual conversation with a friend. But it seems to me that we’re often hesitant to characterize these experiences as truly spiritual. We don’t always feel comfortable acknowledging what makes us feel connected, be it to our true selves, to each other, or to the world at large.
I don’t believe that we need to talk about spirituality in order to make it meaningful: Sometimes these moments are better kept private. But the problem seems to be that we don’t value our spiritual growth to the same extent as we do our academic, social, or extracurricular growth. The fact that we don’t talk about our goals for spiritual growth in the same way as we talk about our extracurricular or academic pursuits means that we might not be valuing our spiritual growth as much as we ought to. We don’t always make time in the day for that thing that makes us feel connected, whatever it might be. Be it because we’re worried that this thing is not acceptable in our community or among our peers, or simply because we don’t have the time, we tend to make the choice to put other priorities first.
Taking a moment to appreciate a beautiful tree or to meditate in the morning isn’t a waste of time, and it shouldn’t be considered as a choice that runs counter to critical thinking or to practical obligations. It’s not a luxury to feel connected; this is something that we are all entitled to as human beings, and we should never feel ashamed of seeking these moments of spirituality out or sharing them with each other, no matter where or how we find them.
Fattal is a member of the Class of 2017.