Under the Eucalyptus Tree: Exploring the Dynamics of Contemplative Pause, Theological Reflection and Discernment with College Students
Ongoing practices of contemplative pause and theological reflection inform the process of discernment as young adults search for answers to questions large and small within their college careers while deepening their understanding of Christian discipleship. As they intersect with one another, I suggest that the permutation of all three disciplines within the practice of campus ministry reaps the richest outcomes with young adults who long to respond to the call of Christian vocation.
Practicing Contemplative Pause with College Students
The practice of contemplative pause with college students requires the process of assisting them to find ways to remove themselves from everyday distractions to pay attention to their inner life. Life within noisy residence halls mirrors a post-modern society, in which the contemplative moment “is under siege in contemporary society, where life is shaped by the unexamined demands of an economy running on digital and brittle time.”1 Gathering young adults into a hiatus of spiritual imagination and insight into their lives prompted my action toward a more profound experience in the practice of spirituality, one that would open another avenue for God’s initiative to actualize among these young adults, energizing their faith within a context of gift and revelation. The outcome resulted in a program called Under the Eucalyptus TreeTM, issued in five movements,2 offering students who elected to attend the program the opportunity to integrate their own experiences, images and insights within their everyday lives, deepening their own spirituality and give them a time to pause, reflect, imagine and create their own practice of pause within a demanding and often toxic society. The five movements include silence, (guided) meditation and/or the practice of Focusing,3 extracting an image and reconstructing the image, working from of an interior divergence or questioning which surfaces in the movement of guided meditation,4 and sharing the experience with one another, creating a conversation of what Parks defines as James Loder’s model of a ‘context of rapport’5 within a trusted community and sustained within the circle of friends who gather together in the quest for God’s activity in their lives. At times, students will remain to continue their inquiry into the experience, to deepen it with more reflection and prayer.
Practicing Theological Reflection with College Students
Theological reflection is the discipline of exploring individual and corporate experience with the wisdom of a religious heritage. The conversation is a genuine dialogue that seeks to hear from our own beliefs, actions, and perspectives, as well as those of the tradition. It respects the integrity of both.6 Young adults yearn to explore, identify, and clarify their Christian vocational call as they serve the college community now and what they feel called to in their professional lives after they graduate. As these students help to shape and create a community of Christian faith and service among their peers, an important aspect of their longing locates itself in a visceral longing to seek and find God’s path within meaningful lives of service. Identifying and responding to the call of Christian vocation prods these young sojourners, who search for ways to articulate and make meaning of new insights and wisdom gained on the journey. The question What am I passionate about? often foreshadows the desire for service in some students. For others, the service itself may create the paradigm shift within their process. In either case, metanoia occurs, and a vocational call erupts from the well of desire that lies deep within their souls. Theological reflection creates a framework that “draws upon the lived experience of those doing the reflection, correlates this experience with the sources of the Christian tradition and draws out practical implications for Christian living.”7 This movement toward insight8 affords young adults an opportunity to articulate the interior acumen that may otherwise remain undisclosed when life presents new challenges and students confront their places of certitude and self-assurance. Indeed, the challenges often act as the impetus for theological reflection. Prefaced by the practice of contemplative pause, young adults enter a stage of profound inquiry that initiates a thirst for truth and for new language about their own experiences that precipitates a change of praxis in how they live their own reality. Movement toward insight informs young adults that exclusive standpoints of certitude and self-assurance, so common in this age group, “do not empower reflective, committed, compassionate lives,”9 leaving young adults blind and deaf to the power of the Christian story and to content of the experience. As their reflection regarding their own experiences deepens and becomes more authentic, the desire to search for fresh sources of wisdom within their own faith tradition holds potential answers to the questions that this exploratory period presents. Learning to pay attention to what the heart speaks is the first step for young adults as they explore new terrain within theological reflection, hopefully leading them to a change of understanding of the world and their place in it as their desire to answer questions about the meaning, purpose and value of their lives, holding great promise for their present as well as their future.
Practicing Discernment with College Students
Discernment is the intentional practice by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.10 College students who practice contemplative pause and theological reflection cultivate an inner reflective disposition, which prepares them for the inevitable single question amalgamated from all the others as a result of their praxis: Now what?11 When young adults arrive at the axis of their interior and exterior experiences, they want to sift through the collective rubble of conflicting postmodern ‘essentials,’ which endorse market values that oppose the movement of the Spirit of God which pull them away from their centeredness. The English word “discernment” finds its origin in the Latin word discernere, “to separate” or “to distinguish” or “to sift through.” This process of going deeper to draws upon one’s whole person and requires attention to one’s reflective disposition. Margaret Benefiel tells us: It includes and transcends intellectual analysis. It includes and transcends emotional intelligence. It is the bringing together of all of one’s faculties within the larger context of the transcendent. In spiritual discernment, one learns to distinguish the real from the illusory, the wheat from the chaff. Through being deeply spiritually grounded, the discerner cuts through the usual distractions and attachments that obscure accurate perception, and seeks to see reality clearly.12 I believe that a serious challenge, which young adults encounter in what I call the “Now What?” process of decision-making, may be found in the philosophy of critical thinking. Academic communities pride themselves on their mission to shape students into critical thinkers. This analytical process facilitates a solid conclusion, reconciling proof and common sense. The goal of critical thinking is to gain knowledge. To gain knowledge, one must think. One learns poorly if one thinks poorly. To learn well, one must think well. Within the concept of critical thinking, all content must be intellectually constructed if one intends to learn. Critical thinking leaves little or no room for the practice of discernment, which, by its nature, draws upon the activity of God within the movements of the Spirit working within the whole person. The tension between the process of discernment and the process of critical thinking actualizes a dilemma experienced by college students, one which creates a deep and divisive dichotomy of theory and practice for young adults who become heavily immersed in the culture of collegiate life and abstract reasoning, particularly if their pursuit of a baccalaureate degree preludes other steps in their academic careers. David White suggests that postmodern commercial culture “generally shapes youth as consumers, alienating them from their hearts, minds, souls, and bodies,”13 and postmodern commercial and political cultures “have alienated young people from the wisdom of their communities and from their intrinsic gifts for God’s reign.”14 I propose that academia contributes to this impasse through its prostelization of critical thinking, which can become as isolating and objectifying as any market place medium. White tells us that in modern times, “truth became identified with isolated, objective, or dead “facts,” an association that treated the world as an object to be dissected and manipulated knowledge as sheer curiosity and control and distanced us from one another and creation,”15 and “requires integration within the individual, or between one’s heart, mind, soul and body.”16 Searching for God’s voice within the mix of daily listening, reflecting, remembering and acting17 requires participation in struggle, joy, need, despair and hope of the world. Students who live only in their heads may find that they ‘don’t have time’ to become involved in service work, participate in a retreat, sing in a choir, or take an alternative service trip during semester breaks. Yet, something within calls to them, that which cannot be denied, despite what a conflicting post-modern culture may deem necessary. “Sadness may point to educational systems and the limitations they represent for young people who yearn to engage their gifts in the healing of the world.”18 In my experience, the best outcomes of discernment within the “Now What?” stage of young adults transpire with those students who dared to engage with the world outside of the classroom, inviting “the mind into relationship with the heart, soul and body,”19 garnering truth which cannot be learned from a book or a lecture, but through events which find young adults interacting with the world not as “an objectified system of empirical objects in logical connection with each other, but an organic body of personal relations and responses, a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.”20 In short, young adults come to know themselves through the manifestation of the living God who loves, heals and saves through their relationships and experiences. “Truth becomes deeply ingrained in our bones, not remaining an abstract idea. It instead develops into a dynamic relationship between our hearts, minds, souls, bodies, and the world around us as we move ever beyond ourselves toward greater relatedness and truth.”21 In addition, those students who practice the art of contemplative pause, along with the learned language of theological reflection and its movements into praxis, discover that as they begin the process of discernment to discover the “Now What?” of their lives, they stand on the brink to perceive something concealed. The specifics of the will of God very often hide at first. Although God will not be second guessed, we depend on God’s promise to “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you.”22 A student recently shared, “ I feel as though I’m standing on one side of the door without a doorknob and God is on the other side. If can just learn how to open that door, I know I’ll find out what I’m supposed to do with my life.” Such astute perception on the part of a twenty-one year old leaves me humbled and delighted.
1. Parks, Sharon Daloz. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000, 115.
2. Ibid, 109. These five movements find their interpretation in Parks’ development of the work of James Loder, exploring five movements within the act of imagination.
3. For a brief but enlightening read on Focusing, see Saunders, Nancy. “Focusing on the Light: A Modest Proposal.” Friends Journal: Quaker Thought and Life Today, (January
4. Parks’ analysis of conscious conflict addresses this fourth movement as an essential piece within the practice of contemplative pause and the development of young adult faith. Conflicts and questions which surface during contemplative pause “must be allowed, felt, and made fully conscious,” clarified and “tolerated with openness to a
solution – no matter how remote it seems,” and “held with a sense of hope.” Parks, 109-110.
5. Parks, 111-112.
6. Killen, Patricia O’Connell and de Beer, John. The Art of Theological Reflection. New York: Crossroad, 1999. Introduction, viii.
7. Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: HarperCollins, 1993
8. The Art of Theological Reflection
10 Rogers, Frank Jr., “Discernment.” Practicing Our Faith. Ed. Bass, Dorothy C. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1997,107. Although the Whiteheads and Killen and de Beer indicate practical outcomes of theological reflection more as a prompting to action if participants are willing, Thomas Groome insists that the whole intent of theological reflection shapes praxis, though he broadly defines praxis as cognitive, affective or behavioral action.
11. Benefiel, Margaret, Soul at Work. New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2005, 54.
12. White, David. Practicing Discernment With Youth. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005, 80.
13. Ibid., 80. Admittedly, there exists a community of scholars who, while encouraging critical thinking with their students, reside within a practicum of deep reflection and compassion within their own pedagogy. They are truly invested in the wellness and wholeness of their students. My issue does not lie with these scholars who teach with the heart as well as the mind, but of those who objectify their students as thinkers only, and eliminating any peripheral experience, which may contribute to the language of scholarship within a college classroom setting.
14. Ibid., 83.
15. Ibid., 83.
16. David White’s four movements of discernment intersect with Killen and de Beer’s four-step movements of theological reflection: Listening: Loving God with your heart = Focus on a aspect of your experience; Understanding: Loving God with your mind = Feelings lead to an image; Remembering/ Dreaming: Loving God with your soul = Wisdom within a religious tradition; Acting: Loving God with your strength = Now What? Allowing the insight to inform praxis. In my experience with shared theological reflection and practice of discernment, I find that although similarities exist between each, beginners in the practice of spirituality will appropriate the language of theological reflection with greater ease than that of the language of discernment, which presumes a religious setting for participants. Although theological reflection is a learned language, the paradigm provided by Killen and de Beer allows for other settings other than religious, and affords greater facility with participants.
17. Ibid., 83.
18. Ibid., 83.
19. Palmer, Parker. To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993, 14.
20. White, 83.
21. Matthew 7:7
22. Matthew 7:7