It’s Friday night, or should I say Saturday morning. Near the end of a long night of duty, one of your residents knocks on the door. They plop down and begin some small talk, but you sense there is something deeper going on. Finally, the question comes, “Do you think there is a God?” You sense there is more to this question than the philosophical, late night conversation topic that normally comes up in the wee hours of residence hall discussions. Many thoughts start going through your mind all of a sudden. Do I believe in God? Am I allowed to talk about this with a student? I am not the same religion, what could I tell them?
The topic of religion had been a taboo topic on college campuses for quite awhile, but in recent years, a new awareness and acceptance has developed for the spirituality of students amongst student life professionals. How do you, as a Resident Assistant approach the topic of religion and spirituality? Whether you are at a state school, private four-year institution, or sectarian related institution, the topic of religion and spirituality is unavoidable.
Like any topic that we might be unfamiliar with, this topic often induces sweaty palms and anxiety. I would offer that we all have a spiritual dimension, whether we have identified it or not. We seek to answer the questions of who we are, where did we come from, and where are we going? I have found that the most useful approach in discussing issues of spirituality, especially with a person I am not necessarily familiar with, is to approach the interaction as a cross-cultural experience. Whether we are in a simple discussion that focuses around issues of faith and religion, or find ourselves with a student facing an inner conflict, we must first seek to understand what is the foundation they are working from.
The heart of a person’s spirituality can be found in their stories. All expressions of religion and spirituality use stories. Each person draws from their experiences, shaping who they are, regardless of their denominational or faith background. The only way to find out what those stories are is to allow them to be told. To actively seek them out. We understand their stories because they often connect and parallel our own stories.
Issues of religion and spirituality are one layer of a person’s social, personal, and cultural development. You will find it helpful to have gained some clarity about your own experience and level of spiritual development. What are your stories? Have you been hurt by issues of religion? Do you find the idea of God hard to swallow? Have you been raised in the church and can’t understand someone not acknowledging God. Whatever, it is important that you are in touch with your own experiences so that you can avoid imposing those experiences upon your resident. Avoid talking about your own similar experience, especially if it is going to be followed by words of wisdom. You are not qualified for pastoral counseling. Remember, most people just want to think out loud for a bit.
The techniques of a counseling session are not much different than those used to engage in the topic of spirituality with an individual. Active listening is the first key essential. The questions that are asked are those that help the individual to articulate what they are trying to say, or expresses what they believe. The role of a RA is not to solve the problem, or direct the person in one way or another. The role of the residence life staff is to provide a safe space for each individual, regardless of their background. Issues of spirituality and religion get at the core of who a person often is. It is affected by belief, tradition, culture, and most importantly, family. All these influence, especially family must be delicately considered.
All religious traditions have methods and techniques to assist in the development of an individual’s spirituality. St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits of the Catholic Church offers what is called “the Examen” that is exercised on a daily basis. It is very similar to some of the techniques used by the Buddhist tradition. There are three steps taken daily. Regardless of your background, the examen is an exercise that can be modified and embraced by anyone in light of his or her own experience. The first step for Ignatius would be to ask for God’s presence. You might also seek to experience the calm of your surroundings, or to seek a state of peaceful reflection. The second step involves reflecting upon where in the day you experienced God’s presence and grace that day. You may simply just seek to remember when in the day you experienced a moment of joy or peace. The final step would be to reflect how you worked against God in your treatment of others and yourself that day. You would then either seek God’s forgiveness, or reflect on how you might modify your behavior in the future. Again, you might just reflect upon whom you might have harmed that day with a word or a deed. This is but one means in which a person might seek to explore their experiences on a daily basis.
It is important to also remember that we all have limitations. There are many resources that are available to a staff to assist in facilitating the spiritual development of your students. Check with your campus ministry office or your counseling center for some guidance. Just as you should read a book before you recommend it to someone, you should know who it is that you are referring someone to, or have good references. These are issues that get at the core of an individual. The wrong person or the wrong message could affect an individual for a long time afterward.
Spirituality is an integral part of a person’s development. You, as a representative of residence life, are in a prime position of responsibility on the front line. It is a place that stretches one, but the rewards of being a part of a person’s positive development are the pay-off for many late nights of residence hall duty.
Submitted by James Puglisi, Pastoral Minister, All Saints High School