Tag Archives: religion

How We All Live To Let Our Lives Speak

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by Jess Klaphaak ’04

In recent years, I have come to be a rather active member of the Quaker meeting here in Copenhagen. Every Sunday I sit with Ulla and Mogens, both are over 90 years old, who lived through World War II and took part in the Danish resistance against the Nazis. It is quite an experience to listen to their stories of vandalizing fighter jets and sewing dresses from fallen parachutes to hide the evidence of soldiers escaping from battle. We have about ten regular members and at 30, I am the youngest of our little group by about three decades.

At the beginning of July, my family and I went to the Scandinavian Yearly Meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden. There were over 120 participants from Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The three of us went as the only participants from Denmark. One afternoon, I sat with the executive secretary of FWCC-EMES and we had a-one-on one conversation about the challenges that face all Quaker communities across Europe. I voiced my concern that our biggest challenge in Denmark is building community, getting people to stay and take on responsibility and that I personally struggle with a feeling of hopelessness for our community that has recently been affecting my motivation and drive.

Being a Quaker and going to Yearly Meeting and other Quaker retreats was such a big part of my childhood and teenage years, and subsequently my adult life, that it is difficult to witness the community that always seemed to sail so smoothly, struggle so hard to keep afloat. Here in Copenhagen, I often feel like I am alone on the mast of a sinking ship. What should I do? Should I jump into the lifeboat of mindfulness or Buddhism or should I climb down and repair the holes myself? For now, I choose to patch the holes. Quakerism offers something more than mindfulness and obviously something different from Buddhism.

As a whole, my experience in Gothenburg left me with the sense that we are all delicately connected—a connection that exists because we, as Quakers, reach out beyond ourselves to actively create community. Perhaps Quakers are particularly good at this because, in my opinion, a true sense of community is formed when we answer that of God in others.

Community is by definition something bigger than one’s self. It is a network of connections to which we belong. Even though un-programmed meetings face dwindling membership across the planet, the few who stick around often accomplish great things through service efforts and lobbying activities. Silence is merely a tool we use to listen to our inner Light, but it is what we do with the messages we receive that defines us, both as individuals and as a group. When a group of over 120 active and engaged Quakers meet, in spite of cultural and language barriers, it is impossible not to feel how we all live to let our lives speak.

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The Things I Learned in the Silence

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by Shanti Lerner ’15

This post originally appeared here and was shared with permission.

The things I learned in the silence.

The attack on OSU last Monday definitely reiterated the idea that silence is important. During the event of the attack, I was sitting in a dance room that was under lockdown at the North Recreation Center with 50 other students. No one in the room was speaking to each other but I knew we were all experiencing the same emotions. Everyone was quiet, curious, and afraid. When the shelter was lifted I felt a sudden wave of emotions hit me. I realized that although I was not directly affected, I was definitely affected emotionally. I’ve seen stuff like this happen all the time on TV, but I never imagined I would be part of something like it in real life.  Days after the event, I was expecting many of the people I knew to be talking about it, however, I have yet to hear anything. I still wonder why it seems like the issue has been swept under the rug. Perhaps people are in shock, maybe they don’t have time to think about it, or they simply just want to move on from it. But I know that just because no one is discussing it doesn’t mean people aren’t thinking about it, which reminds me of the first place I learned about the value of silence.

Not so long ago, I was at a place called George School. For three years of my high school career, I attended a Quaker boarding school in Newtown, Pennsylvania. No, Quaker is not the same as Amish. The Quakers or the “Society of Friends” are historically members of the Christian religious sect but have more liberal understandings of Christianity. The Society of Friends is united in the belief that there is that of God in every person. Quakers don’t attend church, don’t read bibles, they avoid creeds, and hierarchical structures. However, they do attend meeting for worship.

Meeting for worship entails people coming together in a meeting house or any space and sitting in silence from 40 minutes to an hour. Usually, meeting for worship is set up in such a way that all people are facing the center of the room. During meeting for worship, if a person feels moved by the silence then one can share their feelings or thoughts to the people in the meeting house. I had to attend meeting for worship twice a week for three years. I wasn’t allowed to look at my phone, speak to the person next to me, or even fall asleep. It was just me and my thoughts. It’s almost like meditating except if someone in the room speaks and I resonate, there’s chance I can speak and share.

In my three years at George School I probably only spoke in meeting a countable number of times and every time I did it felt scary.  It was frightening to stand up and share my feelings, my thoughts, and my opinion on issues. But when my heart was beating fast and I was getting nervous I knew that’s when I had to speak. I had to break my silence and have the courage to set whatever it was that was in my head FREE. Once I did, it always felt amazing. I never felt judged because I knew for a fact that everyone was experiencing the same thing as me, people had feelings, problems, they were thinking, imagining, but were also frightened by the idea of standing up to speak in a vulnerable state.

I will admit that there were days where I dreaded going and it wasn’t until after high school that I realized the value of that silence. In my busy school schedule now, how I wish I had that chance to be able to go to meeting for worship and just relax and think to myself without any distractions. 40 minutes of silence may seem hard in this day and age but I think being able to just take a step back from whatever is going on in our lives is an important practice to maintain. It’s good for calming yourself, thinking, breathing, and forming an opinion. With all the technology and the constant interaction with people, we tend to forget to be holistically present with ourselves and our environment. While I was patiently waiting for the shelter to be lifted I felt like I was in meeting for worship again. The silence took me a step back from what was going on and it allowed me to realize that I was affected by this attack too and everyone I was with at the time.

Often times, people tend not to voice out their opinions on serious events to avoid conflict. Although I’ve been feeling bothered by the fact that a lot of people aren’t voicing out the magnitude of what happened or simply how they are feeling, I know all of this is happening in the silence. Which I realized is not a bad thing. Just like how it felt to speak in meeting for worship, its hard to voice out about an event like the attack that had just happened. But at the same time, its OKAY to just be silent and think about it and how its affecting you, your friends, and the greater community. Sometimes we need silence to be able to realize some things. But, if by chance your heart starts pounding fast, you get a little nervous, and you get the courage to speak out loud, go ahead. Breaking the silence might give you a feeling of relief.

Shanti invites readers to connect with her via email.

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Religion or Religions Department?

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by Tom Hoopes ’83 Head of Religions Department, Assistant Dean, Coach

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asked this famous rhetorical question, and school children for generations have used it as a foil for considering the power and meaning of words and names.

It is a question that we in the Religions Department recently considered in a searching, deliberate process. You may have noticed in the previous sentence that I said “religions,” with an “s” rather than “religion.” If so, good catch. You might be wondering, “what’s the difference?” I am so glad you asked! Allow me to tell a story…

Some years ago I found myself in a hospital bed, having experienced a grave illness which was not diagnosed at first. (They not-so-jokingly called me “the House patient,” referring to Dr. House on TV, who takes the presumably unsolvable cases.) I felt deep, abiding gratitude for the care I was receiving from myriad professionals, including many doctors and nurses as well as the people who took my temperature and blood pressure and changed my IV tubes, the people who brought me food and those who changed my bedding. I was there for two weeks, so people came and went with regularity.

People were consistently friendly to me, and engaged me in light conversation. I decided this was the perfect opportunity for an experiment! Usually the question would come up, “what do you do?” I noticed a pattern emerging. If I said, “I teach religion,” they would politely acknowledge my response, and then gently change the subject or fairly quickly find a way to end the conversation and get on with their work and out the door. By contrast, if I answered with, “I teach world religions,” the response, almost uniformly, sought deeper engagement. People would say, “oh, that sounds interesting, tell me more” or “World Religions was my favorite subject in college” or, “which religions?” The variety of their responses was as diverse as the people.

Given that this was a large, urban hospital, I encountered a full gamut of skin tones and people visibly presenting as members of at least four different religious denominations known to me (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu), and numerous more discovered upon further conversation.

“What is going on here?” I thought to myself. Recognizing my vulnerability to confirmation bias and selection bias, I did my best to control these in the few days I had remaining in the hospital. Upon my discharge, I have continued this experiment in multiple venues for the last several years, with complete strangers at baseball games, weddings, shopping malls, parties, and anywhere else I may go. My results in the hospital have been replicated with extraordinary fidelity.

What I have determined is that the statement, “I teach religion” was consistently getting interpreted as a statement of my efforts to promote one doctrine or dogma at the exclusion of others, and many people find it to be a conversation stopper.

So do I. And so does George School. Our work in the Religions Department is to create a safe, stimulating and open context for students from all backgrounds to try and make sense of the dizzying array of knowledge claims they encounter on a regular basis in their lives. Learning about some of the major religious traditions of the world—including their symbols, practices, rituals and representations of the divine—is a wonderful portal into the discipline of becoming a world citizen. Alongside the rest of a George School education, courses in the Religions Department help our students to learn about their world and themselves, thereby equipping them to let their lives speak in ways that engage other people.

We do not “teach religion”—we do not teach what to believe, nor the right (or wrong) way to think. Rather, we teach the beliefs and practices of many religions, and we invite critical inquiry, so that students learn to appreciate and value the wisdom traditions that have come down to us through the ages, while reconciling them with their own experiences and family traditions. I have yet to have a student in class that did not learn a substantial amount about their own family’s spiritual and religious traditions; and in most cases the experience has deepened their appreciation for those traditions. Indeed, I would claim that most of the students at George School who identify as religiously faithful see me and the other members of the Religions Department as strong allies for their journey. May that continue to be so.

When we gathered to consider possible alternate names for our department, we considered a variety of options which are visible at other high schools that include, Religious Studies; Religious Thought; Contemplative Studies; Religious Life; Quaker Studies; and various combinations of each of these. While each of these has compelling justifications, as a team we were able to reach unity in support of “Religions,” because it had the greatest virtue of accuracy and inclusiveness for almost all of our courses. This includes Theory of Knowledge, which can be taught as a cut-and-dry philosophy course, but at its best it is fundamentally aligned with the Quaker mission of George School, to seek truth and to invite students to let their lives speak. While that may not be “religion,” per se, it is certainly congruent with the overall mission of the Religions Department.

Going forward, the Religions Department looks forward to the Quaker discipline of continuing revelation. In the last several years, we have begun to offer the following courses: Religions of the African Diaspora, Feminist Theology, and Spirituality and Sustainability. I am considering augmenting my current Peace Studies class to create one more explicitly focused on spirit-led non-violent direct action. A fundamental precept of Quakerism is the importance of staying open to new Light, and keeping the dialogue going. If you have ideas for courses that you think might be offered through the Religions Department, or other thoughts about this blog post, I look forward to hearing from you.

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Reflecting on Mindfulness

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Pictured here with Greg Snyder, the center’s director and founder of the Awake Youth Program, which has brought mindfulness practice into Brooklyn public schools, are Daniel ’15, Winston ’15, Adrian ’15, and George School Religion Teacher Michael LoStracco. Our students received formal zazen instruction and then sat two periods of zazen with the sangha (practice community) there.

 

by Adrian ’15

Before I came to George School, I never fully understood what the word “meditation” meant, and I had never even come across the word “mindfulness.” I had a preconceived idea that meditation is the act of sitting on the floor cross-legged and never knew the purpose of it. Little did I know, I hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface as to what mindfulness and meditation really meant. Continue reading

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