On our recent Juniors Abroad trips one our primary focal points was centered on “experiencing the sacred.” I have to admit, I have specific images, patterns and even forms in mind when I think of the “sacred.” For me, sacred space and objects were designed to enhance one’s experience with God – to take one closer to what C. S. Lewis called, “Joy.” In the secular materialistic age we find ourselves in there is little room for reflection, pondering, wandering or considering something beyond the physical and material experience we have every day. We fill our days with work, visits to the internet, television, music, malls and other things. In one sense, our lives are full and primarily focused on what we perceive to be our own needs and desires. For much of the human past, the “sacred” called a person outside themselves to consider greater purpose and meaning.
While we walked around London I took notice of the ways that “religion” and “sacred” were being redefined by our Western culture. One of the most interesting images was of a skeleton “praying” at the home of Religion Clothing. Once you went inside the store you discovered that each clothing piece had some religious motif – a cross, a skeleton praying, another image of religious expression. I was not sure what the company intended to convey, and its workers actually had no idea. Another was at the home of a coffee company branded “Sacred.” The image associated with the brand is a large angel, wings raised, holding a cup of coffee as if it were praying. Both marketing pieces use religious images to identify their product with transcendence – “heavenly” coffee, perhaps!
Wendell Berry, in his essay “The Loss of the University,” lamented that Western educational systems and the culture more broadly is losing its ability to speak with a common experience or common tongue. We have lost our ability to understand our own past and its contribution to the present. Words or phrases are constantly being redefined in light of postmodern use and experience – terms like “sacred” and “religious.”
“In order to be concerned for the thing being made (the person or student), in order even to know what it is making, the university as a whole must speak the same language as all of its students and all of its graduates. There must, in other words, be a common tongue. Without a common tongue, a university not only loses concern for the thing being made, it loses its own unity . . . As an institution it no longer knows where it is, and therefore it cannot know either its responsibilities to its place or the effects of its irresponsibility.” – Wendell Berry
At George Fox we are focused on maintaining a “common tongue” in our community. We certainly want students to develop professional skills and to be well-prepared in a variety of disciplines. Like Wendell Berry, though, we believe that the students were made by God to be more than persons who make money and consume things; they were “made” to bring God’s mercy and grace to the communities they serve. Therefore the rhythm of worship, scriptural reading and spiritual growth are central to the people being “made” at George Fox.
I was quite encouraged on our Juniors Abroad trip by our students. As we moved from city to city in Ireland and England, many took the opportunity to visit nature reserves, walk in grand parks (pictured at right is a bird in Hyde Park) and take special notice of the world God has made. We worshiped and read. We visited museums and art galleries. Very rarely did we hang out in malls or in shopping centers.
About midway through our trip I happened to get food poisoning and became quite ill. It was quite unpleasant, and I thought I had hid it pretty well (although I have to admit, it is hard to hide throwing up on a plane!). At a low point one of the students came up to me and presented me with a “get well” card; almost everyone had signed it. It was perhaps a small gesture but deeply meaningful to me at the time. The words were very encouraging! One of the students wrote, “Feel better soon, we love your laughter and miss it.” I did not get physically better immediately, but I certainly felt better. My students had created a “sacred” moment for me.
As the trip came to a close and I reflected in particular on the card, I was quite proud of our students. They had gained much more than information and knowledge at George Fox. They were growing in love and wisdom and were being formed in a way that would make them known as caring leaders wherever they decided to serve.