Thinking Toward God

The many voices of Shove

by Anna Wermuth; photo courtesy of Special Collections

Somewhere near Crestone, CO there is a hexagonal room containing a hexagonal skylight, a Steinway grand piano and several paintings resembling photos of galactic infinities, their colorful dots blurring into one another like the burning edges of stars. In September 2015, the room hosted me and a six-sided circle of my peers to discuss existentialism. In early November, I was back again, improvising sustained chords in the key of F on the smooth Steinway. A few others were trying their hands at several portable percussion instruments: xylophones, vibraphones, wood blocks, a rain stick. The lights were low, and the night wind howled through the ventilation system as we played. We were facilitated by visitor and musician Peter May, whose only instruction was that we let the music grow and die as organically as possible. Many rounds took place, to give airtime to any of the 40 students and four Shove Chapel staff who wanted to produce freeform sound in the dark. I was the first to take advantage of the piano (my instrument of choice). As I crescendoed and decrescendoed across the arc of the music piece, the keys barely visible beneath my fingers, I thought of nothing but the notes that reverberated through the room, seeming to echo in the massive Sangre de Cristo range just beyond. 

This activity was the beginning of my exposure to spiritual life programming at Colorado College. There is certainly a tip-toeing around the idea of the spirit on campus, given that CC is a widely secular liberal arts institution. 

Shove Chapel was built in 1930, and mandatory chapel was a weekly occurrence until 1956, when it was eliminated by student petition. Since then, the Shove leadership has gradually adapted to the complex spiritual needs of the Colorado College community. There is now a vast range of traditional religious offerings—Catholic Mass, weekly Tibetan Buddhist meditation, celebration of Hindu holidays, Shabbat dinner every Friday—along with non-traditional programming that allows room for wandering, like the annual Baca block break retreat to Crestone’s various spiritual communities. As the student and faculty bodies diversify in almost every way imaginable, so does the notion of spiritual exploration. 

Kate Holbrook has witnessed much of that change in the last 11 years. For one thing, Holbrook noticed that students seem to be both busier and more anxious than they were when she started. As chaplain, her job is to counsel those grappling with difficulty—including grief, identity and the demands of a rigorous college experience—and to foster community around spirituality. For six-and-a-half years she has practiced Qi Gong, an ancient heart-centered meditation which teaches that the body’s electromagnetic fields can be cultivated for calmness and grounding. She now leads an adjunct on the practice. 

“I think of my spirituality as a living conversation, not simply an intellectual exercise. For the record, I never imagined I would come back to academia,” said the UC Berkeley graduate, munching on sunflower seeds as she spoke to me in her sea foam-colored office in the back of the chapel. “It felt so disembodied to me. Then I realized I could change it by bringing people together in community.” She believes the focus of a scholarly environment such as CC is not idleness, nor contemplation, nor even self-reflection. There is hardly any time for it, and Holbrook certainly felt the same way when she was in college, even without the restrictions of the Block Plan. She now seeks to encourage students to incorporate their academic learning into a kind of personal knowing that cannot be clearly defined.

The Chaplain’s Office is listed as a confidential support resource, along with the Counseling Center and Wellness Resource Center (WRC). Heather Horton, Director of the WRC, is a decade-long colleague of Holbrook. Horton sees their work as closely related. “In the rest of the world, most ideas about wellness include ones of spiritual wellness. The Chaplain’s Office encourages people to engage in self-care, which is often minimized by human beings in our society.” 

It wouldn’t be a stretch to assert that productivity is emphasized over wellness in our meritocratic culture. Young people feel those high standards intensely. “Especially on college campuses, we become overextended and we focus on busyness rather than just being,” Horton noted. This point becomes particularly applicable to those who are heavily-involved in the community, while also earning an education. Many students have a desire to affect social change, leaving less room for personal health.     

“There are a billion community service opportunities, and as humans we cannot be involved in all of them. If we tried, we’d be doing a disservice to ourselves and to others,” Horton noted. “Activism is something that can be very draining, so we must make sure that we’re involved in work that really feeds us.”  

I asked Holbrook if she has witnessed a change in wellness for the people she’s engaged with as chaplain. “There is stability, strength and comfort to be found in spirituality, and I’ve seen it be very beneficial for students to find a way to, sort of, come home to themselves, and then connect to something outside of themselves,” she said. “I also know that it isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay.  For some people, it is very difficult to sit down and think about spirituality and religion, because it might mean they have to reckon with disparity or grief. Ultimately, it can be empowering or disempowering.” 

Kobi Chumash, Coordinator of Jewish Life, reiterated that Chaplain’s Office programs are wholly optional. We spoke over coffee and eggs at Wooglin’s one morning. In addition to overseeing the campus Hillel chapter, which is part of an international organization for Jewish college students, Chumash is a professor of Hebrew.

“The philosophy behind it is inclusion. We encourage students who have nothing to do with Judaism to come and join—no questions, no judgement—and I think everyone is very welcoming.” 

When Adele Moss (‘14) first arrived at Colorado College, she felt a need to share all of herself, including her Jewish upbringing. It took her some time to find the space to do so, but once she did, she became an intern for the Chaplain’s Office. Now, a few years after graduating, she is its official Program Coordinator, with her own office in the back of the Interfaith House. She shared with me part of her story:

 “When I started college, I was dealing with big questions around loss, death and God. It was a very internal process for a while. Then, I noticed that older students involved with Shove seemed to have the language to talk about deep, important things that were quiet and unshared within me. There was something that was drawing me into it. I was swept up into something outside myself, and I decided to go along for the ride.” 

I asked about her relationship with the Chaplain’s Office staff, who were once simply mentors, but are now colleagues, too. “Kate is particularly gifted at protecting the tenuous state of students’ spiritual life within the academic world,” she said. “That’s the beauty of an interfaith chaplaincy: it creates a community that is united, despite differences.” Moss stressed how important it was that she was able to talk openly about her Jewish background, especially with Chumash and others in Hillel. “Students can become grounded in where they came from, and thereby become part of a larger global knowledge.” 

Chumash is the only person within the Chaplain’s Office who solely coordinates activities for a single major religion. I asked what it’s like to be in his position, serving the approximately eight percent of the student body who identify as Jewish. “It changes every year. It changes from the people that are involved. There is the basic stuff, and on top of the basics is the way we’ll make changes. I will come to a program even if there are only three kids at once that want to do something. It’s not about the numbers.”

An essential component of Spiritual and Religious Life on this campus is the close-knit community. Shove Council, a lunchtime discussion held every Wednesday in Sacred Grounds, is often some combination of several dozen familiar faces. Many have said that Shove Council is a welcoming, blissfully non-committal environment, and that their attendance allows them to be vulnerable, thoughtful and authentic among their peers. The philosophical conversation topics—for example: what it means to be healthy, whether a person is more than their experiences—are chosen by the Spiral Fellows, a group of student interns for the Chaplain’s Office. One of them is Lykkefry Bonde (‘17), a philosophy major. I asked her how she became involved with spiritual life, and what her participation has meant to her.  

“My first year was very difficult… I was feeling really down and I was about to drop out of CC when Jaden Hawkinson [Religion major, Class of 2015] came up to me and invited me on the spiritual retreat [to Baca]. For the first time, I felt like I was with people I could relate to. Shove provided the intimate listening and friendship that I was craving, and I was seen as a person rather than just ‘that cool Danish freshman.’ If the rest of campus is a turbulent sea, then Shove is like an island.” 

The aforementioned Jaden H. recently described Shove as a “mystery school nestled within the institution,” supplying a kind of education that “has proved to be the most lasting and influential as I navigate the world.”

While the Chaplain’s Office serves students in monumental ways, it is also frequently utilized by faculty members. One of them is the well-liked and often-interviewed David Gardiner, Religion professor and practicing Buddhist. As a scholar, he analyzes religion and spirituality critically, and as a human, he acknowledges that there is “wisdom in the body... Training the mind always happens in a body. It’s called embodied cognition. We can’t know anything without our bodies. Your heart—which is mostly nerve tissue—knows things, your gut knows things. The vital organs in the torso have just as much control over your emotions as your brain does.” 

Gardiner has some creative ideas for how we might apply the concept of the body’s wisdom to our advanced intellectual learning. “We need to have a model of learning here that is somehow more holistic. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean ‘spiritual.’ I mean, pausing for a few minutes after reading a text or poem, letting it sink in, you know? There is so much that goes on beneath the threshold of language. The mind can only be at rest if the body pulls out of its ordinary, structured purpose of doing and is simply still.” 

He and Holbrook are in the early stages of collaborating on a new program called Contemplative Learning and Integrative Practice, which will aim to weave some amount of stillness into our courses that are marked by the overwhelmingly fast pace of the Block Plan. The hope is that students will see some benefit to slowing down and reflecting on what they know apart from the reasoning tendencies of their minds. 

Another current Spiral Fellow, David Melone (’17), voiced with great articulation his insight on the character of Spiritual and Religious Life in a primarily academic environment. 

“Paradoxically, Shove exists without definition. In fact, it is a natural counter-reaction to structure. At the same time, I don’t think it’s punk or rebellious because that would require a certain kind of aggression. But there is no intrinsic set of rules or ideas for what is ‘proper’ spirituality.” 

Melone and I spoke at the bench that skirts the edge of the Labyrinth, a walkable, circular maze of grey brick north of the chapel. “There is agency involved. You ask yourself: ‘When do I start this? When does it become who I am?’ Instead of waiting, you go after it. Throughout the whole process you have to talk to others. You can think as far as you want toward God, but if you don’t share it with anyone, it won’t be very fruitful.”  

Collective spirituality came up again and again. Noticing that diversity enriches interfaith dialogue and uplifts the campus and local communities, I became curious about the cause-and-effect relationship between students’ wellness and the community’s wellness. Horton summarized it:

 “It’s next to impossible to be a well individual in a community that is unwell,” she said. “We are interestingly situated in that we’re located in Colorado Springs, which for most people has a particular worldview associated with it. There’s almost a pride in the secularism that students tend to claim hold of, creating some stigma around spirituality on this campus,” she said. “Anything that silences us is problematic. The ethics of how we interact with one another inform our ideas of meaning and purpose, in terms of being connected to something bigger than the self. The Chaplain’s Office has facility in engaging in those conversations, connecting ethics with people’s personal values.”  

Besides providing a venue for international spiritual leaders and speakers in the 1980s and ‘90s, Shove also provides the recently discontinued yet wildly successful CC Soup Kitchen, weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings and open meditation sessions. The chapel can be viewed as an architectural representation of nonconformity and change. While it may have been built for strictly Christian services, it has adapted to the increasingly critical minds that pass through it. 

For many, the open chamber prompts quiet contemplation on the nature of reality itself and how we might make meaning out of it, or opt out altogether. Throughout time, human beings have chosen to come together and uplift one another as a survival mechanism, as much as they’ve chosen to make enemies through dogma and violence. The CC Spiritual and Religious Life Office inspires participants to consider themselves humble in the grand scheme, and yet considerate of their own tangible impact on all of life. In that way, it is anything but separate from, or oppositional to, a predominantly academic atmosphere. The interconnectedness of knowledge spiritual and secular is worth careful attention as we stumble along from birth to death. 

 I consider myself a skeptical scientist, and I think that science and spirituality need not conflict with one another indefinitely. My skepticism can sometimes interfere with how I process information, but my love of discovery, observable truths and the limitless potential to re-prove or disprove those truths is exactly what informs my sense of awe for the world. As Holbrook so brilliantly stated, there is possibility in spirituality, to “embrace what’s life-giving,” to “live our ethics,” to “love ourselves more deeply.” It can bring belonging, clarity, less stress and more hope—along with the challenge of facing the darkest parts of ourselves. We may never be able to verify the existence of the spirit, or explain in empirical terms what happens to our bodies and minds when we contemplate deeply, but perhaps for that very reason, it is worth exploring.