Knowledge of God and of Ourselves

We are delighted to be coming to the end of a significant, three-year grant project serving the U. C. Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union student communities, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment and friends of New College Berkeley, and to be on the verge of a new three-year season of well-supported ministry directed toward students!

The grants have enabled us to offer group spiritual direction, led by excellent spiritual directors, to undergraduate and graduate students. As far as we know, this is a pioneering work of spiritual formation with university students. We’re grateful for the experience, wisdom, enthusiasm, and capacity for improvisation that our spiritual directors have brought to this ministry, and they are Jill Boyce, Katarina Stenstedt, Naisa Wong, and Daeseop Yi. I, too, have led a spiritual direction group with law students at the university, and doing so has been invigorating for us all!

Students come into the spiritual direction meetings as they are, a number of them running late, and all of them trailing the concerns and responsibilities of their full lives. The group meeting usually begins with easy conversation and snacks (snacks were one of our experiments during the three years experiments, and they make a great difference with the undergraduates who are usually hungry). Directors open the two-hour meeting with Scripture and lectio divina prayer. The biggest block of time is spent in the Ignatian Prayer of Examen, in which each student reflects on where he/she has experienced God’s grace, or not experienced it, in the time since the group last got together.

A Cal student who has been in a spiritual direction group for the three years of the grant wrote:

I felt very privileged, actually, to have such personal and individualized attention. The setting was intimate and comfortable. [The spiritual director] was able to teach us by relating spiritual practices to our unique backgrounds and experiences as students at UC Berkeley. We met once a month for a couple of hours, read through and reflected on a text that [the director] would bring, and then took turns sharing with the group what came to our minds, or what impressions we received from the Spirit. Then we would have another time of quiet to see what bubbled up, share again, and give others the chance to reflect back to the person who shared what they heard or appreciated about their sharing. We practiced being still, quiet, and at peace in our own minds. We also practiced contemplative prayer, and discussed finding a secret, sacred place with God amidst our busy and hectic schedules. Thanks to spiritual direction… I have grown in my prayer life and personal relationship with God, and found more time during my week to have one-on-one time with God, in prayer, in reflection, or simply being in His presence. I'm very thankful for [the director] and for New College Berkeley for the one of a kind experience.

One director said that a student came to the monthly meeting even though she had an important exam the next day. After the direction time she exclaimed, “This is my refreshment.” Another student wrote: “This group is kind of like going to get an oil change, but for your spiritual engine. Oil change is sometimes put off for too long, but a consistent habit can truly extend your engine’s life; and in this case SD extends my spiritual engine life.” 

Expressing the sentiments of many of the students, one person wrote:

This spiritual direction group has been a place to listen to God, reflect on what He’s been teaching me, hear what’s happening in my [companions’] lives, pray for them, and be prayed for and encouraged by them. It’s been a place to escape the bustle and pressures of campus and slow down, sit, talk, pray, reflect, and get a bigger picture…. This year has been very difficult for me spiritually and emotionally, so group spiritual direction has been helpful for me to hear from God and my [companions] in Christ.

A surprise to us last year was the degree to which students wish to learn how to pray laments. This year one of our spiritual directors working with undergraduates said that the students “cling to angst.” Today’s culture for those launching into adulthood is perhaps more difficult than it’s been for a number of years. Economically, students face the prospect of not being able to achieve their parents’ lifestyle. Culturally, there are fewer clear paths to settled adulthood. The students we work with are Christians, and they live in a culture that in many ways disrespects Christian choices. Our spiritual directors are being creative in their care for the students, and work collaboratively with other mentors and caregivers in the students’ lives.

In this ministry we have seen how the Holy Spirit reaches out to young, pressured students in the circus of their lives. They come together in spiritual direction, and they notice what’s deepest in themselves and in the hearts of their companions. In doing so, they discover God with them. 

Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God. Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. (John Calvin, Institutes)