The Spiritual Power of Study
A student walking through the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. Photo by Joel Haskell
By Stephanie Paulsell
When I talk about our MDiv program in contexts outside of Harvard Divinity School, the question I am most often asked is: What kind of spiritual formation can HDS possibly offer to students from so many religious traditions? At the heart of this question is a conviction I share, the conviction that anyone preparing for ministry—no matter what form that ministry takes—needs to cultivate a life grounded in contemplative practices that open space for ongoing growth, continual change, permanent quest, practices which help ministers live and work on the threshold between their interior lives and the life of the world all around them.
Ministry is some of the most human work that there is, and all ministers need practices that help us deepen our humanity so that when we meet others at moments of birth and death, crisis and joy, we have something deep and rich to offer. Ministers need to know and engage the spiritual practices of their communities, to draw on the wisdom that has been passed down through centuries in distinctive forms. In a context of religious diversity, my colleagues and I are often asked, how do you provide formation in such practices for everyone?
There are many ways that spiritual formation happens here, from the great work—both visible and hidden—of our chaplain and our denominational counselors to the spiritual formation that happens in field education sites and at the intersection of those sites with the students’ lives at HDS.
I’d like to talk a little, though, about the spiritual formation we do in common here, even amid the diversity of belief and practice. . . .
One of the pitfalls of our multireligious environment is that the diversity among religious traditions often obscures the diversity within religious traditions. This is not always a bad thing. Christians who might feel at odds with one another in a more homogeneously Christian environment might feel more connected to one another in a place like this, where they will all—Pentecostals and Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike—be seen as “the Christians.” But of course there’s much more diversity among us than the categories “Buddhist,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” and so on can express. . . . We have many students who belong to more than one tradition. And many others who belong to none.
But all of us, no matter our creed or lack of one, are here to study: we read, we write, we learn new languages, we make ourselves available to new ideas. I recently heard our alumnus, Casper ter Kuile, who led the group of “religious nones” when he was a student at HDS, say that his ministry was to help millennials have confidence in their spiritual practices . . . and to think more deeply about them and do them with even greater attention: reading novels and poetry, sharing meals with others, protesting injustice, working for change. We’ve tried to do something similar in the MDiv program: to help our students see the work that they will do here at HDS, the work they will all do, as a set of spiritual practices.
Reading and writing—the most basic elements of an HDS education—have long histories in nearly all of our religious traditions as spiritual practices. The spiritual formation that comes with making oneself present to language and ideas that are not our own, that comes with being absorbed in something that is not us, that comes with struggling and struggling to find the words to say what we most want to say, that comes with occasionally placing one word next to another and finding that a door has sprung open to give us a sense of how things might be otherwise is there for all of us who spend our days reading and writing. We should have confidence in the spiritual power of these practices.
Stephanie Paulsell is Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies.