The spiritual life starts with questioning

My spiritual mentor, Sr. Arlene, shared those words with me over 10 years ago. At the time, I understood it to mean “faith starts with your questions”: Who or what is God? What Church doctrine do I accept and reject? Why? Do I need a religious structure to help me connect with the divine?

As the years have gone by, I continue to ask questions as a way to understand and develop my spirituality. After all, questioning is one of the things that academics do best. So, in many ways, the academic life aligns with the spiritual life and vice versa. As academics, we are prepared to engage in the spiritual life. It can lead to a spiritual academic life.

"Question Everything" by Jason Taellious (CC BY-SA 2.0)
“Question Everything” by Jason Taellious (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By questioning ourselves and having others question us, our faith and spirituality deepen. They become richer if we’re open to the challenges inherent in this work.

 


One of the challenges is being challenged

When I moved to my doctoral program 10 years ago, I expected people to be open, inclusive, and accepting of all backgrounds and contexts. In many ways, I experienced this openness—except when it came to my spirituality and faith. I learned that I had to be careful with whom I shared my spirituality.

On one of my first nights in town, I went out to a bar with my new graduate school colleagues. These colleagues were ahead of me in the program, and I looked forward to getting to know people who I’d be learning with and from. The conversation unfolded, and I mentioned that I was a progressive Catholic, thinking nothing of it. After all, it was a part of who I was.

Someone asked me: “Aren’t you smart enough to be atheist?”

People laughed, and the conversation shifted. But I was silenced. I didn’t know what to say. I felt out of place. I felt exposed. I felt shamed and ashamed for being who I was.


Dwelling in and with frustration

At that moment, I unconsciously closed off the faith and religious parts of my life. I can only now see this moment as the first time I entered the dark night of the soul, a time when my spiritual life did not make sense. Like I do when I have spiritual crises, I called Sr. Arlene. I was mad.

As the years went on, I grew furious at the contradictions I noticed developing around me. This same group of people that asked if I was smart enough to be atheist and laughed in response were open and inclusive in our graduate classes together. They engaged in feminist and participatory research methodologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies. I learned a lot from them about how to be an engaged researcher and an active learner.

Yet they shut me down within the first 20 minutes of meeting me. I struggled to understand why. I never discussed it publicly (until now). I feared, and in some ways still fear, being reprimanded, shamed, or made fun of for something that was and is deeply important to me.


Seeing frustration as an ally

This frustration fueled my spiritual development throughout my doctoral program. I committed to speaking with Sr. Arlene over the phone on a regular basis. She helped me develop a centering meditation practice. Through this practice, I felt led to become an associate of the School Sisters of St. Francis, the progressive group of women religious that ran the schools my brother and I attended.

As I worked with Sr. Arlene, I quietly searched for a Catholic church in the conservative small town where I was new. “Pro-life” banners adorned the Catholic churches down the street from my new apartment, and my qualms with the Church arose: “How can you judge people before they even enter your space?” Needless to say, I didn’t find a Catholic church that fit my emerging spiritual development, which was taking me away from religion and more towards a spiritual life.

So, I continued to work with Sr. Arlene and shared my spiritual struggles with trusted friends in my cohort and a few professors. I finally found a (non-Catholic) church community where I felt accepted. A few of the faculty members were members there, too. I felt home. I felt seen.

Yes, spirituality begins—and continues—with questioning. But as my graduate school colleague showed me, it doesn’t only begin with the questions we ask ourselves. It begins and grows with the questions other people and events ask of us, too.


Questions to ponder

  • What questions arise for you when you think about your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?
  • What questions have been major turning points in your faith, religious, and/or spiritual life?
  • Where, when, and with whom do you find spiritual nourishment?
  • What does “spiritual nourishment” mean to you?
  • Who has questioned you in the past regarding your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?
  • What emotions arise when you think of this person/these people?
  • How might have these emotions and people helped you deepen your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?

What is a spiritual academic life?

For years I felt like my spiritual life and academic life had to be parallel. They could not intersect, for reasons I will detail in future posts. My colleagues in my academic fields and sub-fields have echoed this feeling.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you’re an academic, you might be spiritual or religious or have a rich faith life—but we don’t talk about it. And if we do talk about it, we whisper about it, some people afraid of being “found out” as having a connection with something/someone/someones that we cannot see and that our academic training says we probably shouldn’t believe in. Academics have faith in what we can see, read, test, and write. We don’t necessarily have faith in what we feel and our own embodied knowledge.

But I do. And I know other academics out there do, too.


One definition of a spiritual academic life

For me, a spiritual academic life is a life that is informed and transformed by a connection with the divine, a meditative/prayer practice, and a commitment to diving deep into questioning and slowing down. It involves fellowship, community, and–perhaps most importantly–listening with intent to people and to the inner self.  For the first time in my career, I am starting to identify where and how my spirituality informs my teaching and research and vice versa.

Because how can it not?

In this career, like many others, we take work home with us. Our students, research participants, and the communities in which we engage dwell with us and us with them. And when we tune into our spiritual lives, these components come together. As much as might compartmentalize, which can be a good thing in some cases, I’m wondering how compartmentalization has shortchanged scholarship, teaching, and spiritual development.

Lots of events have led me to this question, and I’ll start with some of them here: how I identify.


How I identify

As scholarship has taught us, our identifications inform who we are, how we’re seen and treated, and how we interact with the world. So here are some of the ways I identify, some of which I will most likely write more about in future posts:

  • I am a straight, white, cis female who lives in my hometown of Milwaukee.
  • I teach at a Jesuit university.
  • I was raised Catholic and still identify as culturally Catholic, but I am not a practicing Catholic. Like many Catholics, I disagree with Church teaching and canon law. I struggle with identifying with a group whose members have abused (including but not limited to sexual abuse)  and inflicted much suffering on people.
  • I am a spiritual seeker who has developed a relationship with the divine by tuning into energy and cultivating a connection with people, animals, and the world around us.
  • I am a rhetorician of health and medicine who studies how healthcare providers use and learn rhetorical strategies in their workplace.
  • I do not—by choice—have children. It’s an important part of my identity because I feel like if I had children that I would include that in my identity.
  • I am following and cultivating a commitment to slowing down. In a time when events infuriate us and decisions need to be made yesterday, I am trying to stay rooted in reflection and pause before I act. I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying.

And on the topic of identification, here’s a distinction that has laid the foundation of my spiritual life most recently:


Spirituality does not (have to) equal religion and vice versa

At least not for me.

Through my years in spiritual direction, I have come to understand religion and spirituality as different things, although they might be the same thing for lots of people. Religion is an institutionalized practice guided by dogma and organized leadership. Spirituality is an individualized connection with the divine, which can mean God, Yahweh, Allah, Oneness, that is nourished in various ways: through prayer, meditation, artistic endeavors, fellowship.

If religion is what we do, spirituality is who we are.

Right now, my spiritual academic life is grounded in Franciscan and Ignatian spiritualities and my new endeavor into cosmology and spirituality. I have also worked quite a bit with the Enneagram, a transformative tool that has informed much of my thinking since I learned about it in 2002. These spiritualities and tool guide much of what I’ll be writing about in this space.


Why this blog exists

After a series of events that I’ll detail at a later point (because I can’t write all-of-the-things in one post, right?), I felt led to create a space where I could write about what a spiritual academic life can look like. I knew all too well that the writing I’ll do in this blog would ever be published—because we just don’t talk about how spiritual life informs teaching and research.

And maybe there’s good reason for not publishing it, but I’m not convinced that academia and spirituality are mutually exclusive. I’m curious to know who else out there might feel the same way.

I envision that the following blog entries will follow the format started here. I’ll begin with some personal reflection around a question I’ve been thinking about. Then, I’ll share some questions that you can consider if you want to move deeper into a spiritual academic life. I’m unsure of what will unfold, but I felt called to start this blog for quite some time now. I’m learning to honor and trust these calls, even though the end goal is often unknown.

If you’re an academic who is spiritual, or even if you’re not, welcome. Spirituality and religion are personal. If you, like me, are wrestling with questions and these areas of your life, I invite you to follow along and to spend a few moments pondering the questions I’ll end each post with.


Questions to ponder

  • Where are you on your spiritual journey? Are you religious, spiritual, both, neither?
  • What do those terms mean to you?
  • Have you separated your spiritual life from your academic life? Why? What would it look like if these lives interacted?
  • Has your faith/religion/spirituality informed your work and vice versa? How?
  • What’s calling you at a deeper level to answer these questions?
  • What questions or answers are you left with right now?