Spiritual Answers for Hard Questions

Dear Dr. Cassini, 

I am having trouble with God. I am born and raised Episcopalian by my mom, my dad isn’t a very strong believer. I don’t understand. My mom is growing frustrated with me because I am losing my connection with God. I don’t know what to believe anymore. I hear the Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, and they all generally tell the same story of God with different stories. What I mean is the Bible and their forms of Bibles are, to me, metaphors. Many Christians believe these metaphors are told by Jesus to teach the word of God, but how does God have a word if all of his stories are metaphors, or are they true. I have come to deal with this problem with you as I know you have a strong belief in God. I went to my old reverend, and she just told me “You Just have to have faith.” I am hoping for a stronger answer from you.

Thank you for reading this it means a lot,
9th Grade Student

Wow! An email I did not expect during COVID. This communication began an exchange between this student and me that would stretch on for at least another three years. Understanding that spirituality is not separate from life, but part of being human, is an essential conversation for our schools. Often we try to create boxes of learning, not realizing that everything is connected—our minds, bodies, and spirit. 

Our school emphasizes creating safe spaces to have these discussions. The advisory program is part of the daily schedule. The monthly Mosaic program is an inclusivity curriculum that is integrated into the advisory program in grades 6 through 12, which has the purpose of raising awareness pertaining to diversity and inclusivity. The goal of Mosaic is to promote the holistic safety of each individual in our educational community through a series of age-appropriate lesson plans. The discussions and reflections upon these topics aim to promote a deeper understanding of the multiple dimensions of human diversity and so foster a culture of respect, empathy, and inclusivity in our school community with the aim of launching global citizens. Additionally, weekly chapels and voluntary morning Holy Eucharist all provide places to explore how we live as spiritual beings. Students are also required to take two semester-long classes in the department of Religious Studies and Philosophy. 

“Scripture, tradition, and reason” are often referred to as the basis of our Episcopal heritage. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, prefers the concept of “experience” over “reason.” Hopefully, people use reason and experience together to make wise choices. These three parts of our Anglican way of life are essential to our daily practices. Incidentally, today’s brain research reinforces our priorities. We can’t separate our brains from our actions; they are responsible for everything we do in our life. Without our brains, we would not exist. And yet, science is confounded by consciousness. How does it work? Why are we conscious? We encounter others through our consciousness. Our brains are incredible gifts of life. Interestingly, according to research, our brains love imagination, storytelling, empathy, and making connections with ideas and each other. One of our teachers went to high school with the now associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justice Jackson wrote advice to our students on life and how important it is to make good choices. Their friendship reveals the power of human connection. Our sacred task is to engage with each other. 

By emphasizing our sacred time together in daily or weekly chapel, telling stories from sacred scriptures, and reaching out to each other with dignity and respect, we engage our brains in a variety of ways. Our brains are fed when the neurons connect. Our goal is to balance the whole brain with the entire person with mind, body, and spirit engaged. 

Endeavoring to live in the present moment, our schools also are grounded in trying to understand the complicated past and yet prepare for an uncertain future. How we wrestle with our own bias and our privilege is an ongoing self-check of how we encounter each other and the world. Our school has many families that escaped authoritarian dictatorships. Having our students from Venezuela share their transition from a dangerous homeland to a very different and free society in Miami provokes empathy for people displaced. Stories reveal each individual’s personal journey and how it connects to our community. In chapel, two faculty members shared their immigration odysseys from Cuba to the United States—one documented, the other undocumented. Another faculty member shared his oil painting of images from his experience of escape. Many of the students shared that their families, especially grandparents, also had weathered escaping scary places and how their lives have been transformed. 

As faithful communities, our schools recognize the importance of the developmental aspects of a person’s spiritual journey, individually and communally. Existential questions arise and we work together to face the unknown in safe spaces such as advisory and chapel. Our love for each person’s uniqueness as well as our ability to accomplish the good leads our communities to unexpected and meaningful experiences. During one Mosaic advisory meeting, one of our alumni who has a brother on the autism spectrum, brought a service program to school that educates about autism. His personal experience with neurodivergence informed his peers about encountering people from a variety of backgrounds. 

Another important aspect of our spiritual lives is engaging with the wider community. Service-learning opportunities provide essential time to engage with communities outside our schools. By teaching empathy, altruism, compassion, and emotional intelligence, our schools value people by recognizing we are all made in the image of the Divine (Genesis 1:27). Several of our students participate in an outside community service group called The Friendship Circle. Its mission is “to provide friendship and acceptance to individuals who have special needs, provide respite to their families, and empower teenagers.” Students have shared that working with this program has been life-changing for them in unexpected ways. Understanding that students with challenges are also made in the image of the Divine reveals the practice of empathy and compassion. One student shared that her friend showed her that kindness and openness are more available to people who live with challenges. 

In the school community, healthy dialogue is an essential aspect of day-to-day spirituality. Having somewhere to confer with people who may or may not differ in opinion is incredibly valuable to finding peace within this space. Being open to change and inviting others to join us in a deeper sense of the divine is our goal. We are able to seek and search, alone and together, this manifold and glorious world in which we live.

Let me not look away, O God, from any truth I should see. Even if it is difficult, let me face the reality in which I live. I do not want to live inside a cosseted dream, imagining I am the one who is always right, or believing only what I want to hear. Help me to see the world through other eyes, to listen to voices distant and different, to educate myself to the feelings of those with whom I think I have nothing in common. Break the shell of my indifference. Draw me out of my prejudices and show me Your wide variety. Let me not look away. Amen.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston

The Rev. Mary Ellen Cassini, D.Min. is chaplain at Palmer Trinity School in Miami, FL.