With the sounds of crunching snow and distant howls as my only company, I made my way down the moonlit road towards the abbey. As I entered the building and removed my jacket, a nearby monk offered me a high-five. “It’s twelve below zero out there, and you’re wearing a T-shirt? Alright!” he exclaimed. As part of a group project centered on learning how to meditate and “listen in silence,” my first Winter Term project at Oberlin culminated in a three-day silent retreat at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. Besides being high-fived by monks--and witnessing a conveyer belt scene reminiscent of a certain I Love Lucy episode--the time spent with my partners in this journey, almost entirely without speaking, rewarded each of us with a special bond that was fittingly beyond words.
Yet, I found it difficult to continue the shared experience of this month for very long. What I longed for the most was the sense of connection I had felt with such a diverse group of people, all united around a shared experience of introspection. Fortunately, at Oberlin, diversity and community tend to go hand-in-hand. It is all just about finding (or even creating) the space where you can find the right balance for yourself. While I attempted, alongside my peers from the monastery, to create spaces for spiritual community, the pressures (as well as joys) of college life soon ended our silent experiments after a few months.
And while it would take me several more years to find such a spiritual community again--in the meantime, I journeyed down more individualistic avenues--I was not disappointed when I did. Turning to the Office of the Chaplains, I explored the Newman Catholic group to see if it could live up to the high standards my Trappist friends had left me expecting. From the very first, I was immediately welcomed into the community for who I was and not for what I could offer or be shaped into. Debbie, the wonderful campus minister, possessed a desire for student input balanced with an understanding of the divergent views and desires of the group she managed. Now, the stereotype of the typical Catholic group is much like that of the Catholic Church itself--a monolithic group of zealots with a shared vision. Yet, when I cautiously joined the Catholic community on campus, I discovered that it was exactly the type of diverse community I was looking for. People of all religious stripes were there: converts, lifelong devotees, Anglicans, and even spiritual hobos such as myself. Students, faculty, and staff from all over the world would come together each week in a shared faith, but it was more than simply praying together. At the various events, from weekly after-Mass dinners to trips to see the Indians play, I found a true community existed between both the fire-and-brimstone devotees and the “Jesus-was-the-first-socialist” types (and all shades in between and beyond).
In the final months of my time as a student, I found myself once again in an unusual retreat environment. Under the gaze of some nuclear cooling towers--haunting the distant edge of Lake Erie--I sat reflecting upon the divine with other students. These students, whose lives and interests varied so drastically from my own, I would never have met outside this space; yet, here we were forming an enduring connection that continues to transcend even our harshest political and theological disagreements.