I recently took a quiet day; a day set aside from all of the usual demands of work to spend in focussed prayer and reflection. My choice of venue was rather unusual; I went back to the university campus I studied at as an undergraduate, and spent my time in and around the religious centre there. (It’s a particularly good set up, with Muslim prayer rooms, and a Christian chapel as well as a large non-faith specific space and other smaller rooms which can be used as needed for meditation, discussion or whatever). It was a space I spent a lot of time in during those years, and is deeply significant in my own personal geography of faith.
While I was there on my recent quiet day I spoke to one of the chaplains, who asked me whether I would mind putting into words something of what having a space like that had meant to me as a student. Here is what I wrote to her:
The religious centre was an important part of the fabric of my university experience. Lectures, tutorials, labs, libraries were all part of the learning I was doing for my Bachelor of Science; the campus centre and other social spaces gave me an opportunity to connect with the diversity of the university community and have my understanding of the world broadened. But it was in returning again and again to the chapel that I was able to integrate these important areas of learning with my faith as well.
I had relatively little opportunity to worship off-campus (needing to work crowded out going to church) but each day I could come to the chapel and find time for quiet, for prayer and reflection and opportunity to share and grow with other young people exploring faith.
Spaces and times like these ensure that the academic and social aspects of university are not separated from faith (a recipe for fundamentalism and immaturity) but that the teachings and practices of a religion challenge and are challenged by their social context, and ultimately that the student emerges a more mature, well-rounded person.
I came to university unsure of who I was or what I wanted to do with my life, and it was in a time of prayer in the chapel that I put it to God; “You made me, you know my strengths and my weaknesses, even better than I do; you know what I’m fit for; I offer it all to you, only tell me what I’m supposed to do!” In response, I understood that God was calling me to serve Him, the most profound experience of total acceptance I have ever known; and as a result today I am a priest in the Anglican church. I carry into that priesthood the experience of that time as a student, an understanding of the world shaped not just by the seminary but also by the secular university and all that I learned there. It is a very profound gift.
Today, even though I am no longer formally affiliated with the university I return regularly to this chapel as a place of quiet prayer when I wish to be away from my usual responsibilities and distractions, and I am grateful for this place of sanctuary in the midst of a busy life. I would want to encourage all members of the university community to recognize the potential of this small space in their midst, to explore it for themselves and to see it as a treasure held in keeping for those who come after them.