Could spiritual practices help young adults struggling with violence?
My daughters were in early elementary school 15 years ago, when the mass shooting at Virginia Tech took place 70 miles down the road from our home. I was midway through reading “Bridge to Terabithia” to a class of second graders when this then-unusual form of violence ripped through their young imaginations.
The school’s guidance counselor and I used Katherine Paterson’s novel about a child dealing with tragedy to help the students — several of whom knew some of the Tech victims personally. We talked about their experiences of grief, loss and fear in the aftermath of that tragedy.
The unusual has now become commonplace: mass violence leaves young and old alike grieving almost weekly in our nation. But it is young people — those now in their 20s and those coming along behind them — whose coming-of-age is marked by the commonplace reality of mass violence.
It’s important to find civic and political cures for these forms of violence and to provide for the emergency mental health needs of young adults today. But I wonder: Could we also look upstream, to prevent problems and maintain the mental health of our young before crises hit?
This first generation to come of age in the spiritual-but-not-religious era is not without spiritual practices; the internet supplies plenty. But young people are often without communities of support, companions on the way to engaging in practices that build resilience.
Companions remind us of the value of spiritual practices. They help us create new ones, and they help us stay engaged in meaningful forms of soul care that are also the deepest forms of self-care.
The brain research of Lisa J. Miller and others shows that spiritual practices mitigate the severity, duration and negative outcomes of depression. The work of spiritual healers, movement chaplains, campus ministers and other seekers who are finding a path forward can provide deep wells of sustenance to those struggling.
Recently, I commented that the bridges to these wells of sustenance are broken. A friend who founded a campus ministry corrected me; they’re not just broken, he said: “It’s as if someone poured oil in the chasm and lit it on fire.” We no longer expect young people to come back to the institutions that once stewarded spiritual practices.
It is my hunch that soulful practices that acknowledge anxiety, restore calm and remind weary travelers that they are not alone might be radically helpful, if not curative, if made more visible and accessible to young people these days.
These wonderings led me to create Our Own Deep Wells: Bringing Soulful Practices to Campus, an initiative set to launch in Virginia early this year. This learning platform will help collegiate life professionals — such as those who train resident assistants and those who assist in first-gen retention — to integrate diverse soulful practices into their group facilitation.
Drawing on the expertise of young leaders, scholars and practitioners across the country, this initiative seeks to build on the success of the mindfulness movement, creating more access to diverse spiritual practices that create mental health-friendly cultures on college campuses.
It grows out of conversations I’ve had over the past year with people working on the front lines of the mental health crisis on college campuses. One talk at a time, I reached out to friends who work with college-age students to ask, “What’s helping?”
Tasha Gillum, the coordinator of the Bonner Leader Program at the University of Lynchburg, shared a practice I told her about with her students the first time they gathered after the shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs.
The practice is called “rainbow basking,” and it involves centering oneself in the dancing light of a rainbow — created by a prism in one’s home or scouted out in the stained glass of a chapel or church sanctuary.
After sharing this practice, Gillum asked her students what practices help them rally when they feel depressed. What helps them maintain their equilibrium, grieve or simply get through the end of another stressful semester?
Their list was long, creative, playful and heartening:
Gifting others; splurging on others; complimenting others; writing notes of gratitude; spending time with others over meals, with or without conversation; going for a drive with all four windows down and music blaring; going for a drive to look at nice houses; shopping; feeding myself; meditating; praying; listening to mood-based playlists; taking a long hot shower with music playing; binging crime documentaries, “Grey’s Anatomy” or videos of veterans coming home; people-watching; napping; petting puppies; hobbies; art and crafts; talking with a trusted friend; time in nature; walks at sunset; having a daily schedule; writing in a planner; journaling feelings; breathwork; silence; cooking; baking cakes; stress cleaning; yoga; lifting weights; running; coloring; crying; crying while watching animal videos; lying on the ground to get grounded; and stargazing.
Making the list is in and of itself a practice of deep self-care. Reminding ourselves and one another of resources — even those that seem trivial or self-indulgent — may create a breadcrumb trail back to hope-mustering practices.
Binge-watching or shopping may not qualify as a soulful practice to you, but one young adult said that curling up in bed to watch Netflix was a way of honoring her introvert self by saying no to multiple competing invitations.
Alone, any one of these acts may or may not fit the classic definition of a spiritual practice. But I am inclined to define “soulful practice” broadly and to invite young adults to imagine: What elevates a simple act of self-care to soul care? Or better yet, what excavates it, allowing it to draw us down, to settle us in body and soul? What emboldens or reminds us to make a soulful practice part of our routine, a daily ritual or a weekly one, alone or shared with a friend or larger community of friends?
In the days after the shooting of four football players and another student at the University of Virginia, I reached out to Karen Wright Marsh, the executive director of Theological Horizons, a Christian campus ministry there. Visiting over a cup of tea, we talked about the vigils there.
Sadly, college-age students are well-versed in what to do in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Candlelight prayer services and roadside memorials are second nature. U.Va.’s iconic Beta Bridge — typically showcasing declarations of love and birthdays — was within hours painted with the jersey numbers of the slain and adorned with photos, flowers and offerings to the departed.
While this generation of young people knows well practices for the immediate aftermath of crises, helping them find resources for the longer haul of healing — and the healing of our culture of violence — requires gentle exploration.
“We are turning to candlelight, quiet togetherness, the reading of the Advent scriptures,” Marsh said. “I don’t ask, ‘How are you’ but reach for deeper questions like, ‘Have you seen something wonderful today?’ or, ‘What got you out of bed this morning?’”
Marsh is a historian of Christian practices. Her first book, “Vintage Saints and Sinners,” winsomely illuminates the lives of 25 historical figures who guided communities through difficult times. Her second book, “Wake Up to Wonder: 22 Invitations to Amazement in the Everyday,” comes out this year and similarly explores voices from the past who hold offerings for today.
It is no surprise that she would look backward to find a way forward. “There is power in turning toward stories of other violent and grievous times, to hear the witness of people who held fast, who asked our questions, from whom we can borrow faith,” Marsh said. “Our tragedies are sadly a part of the human experience; we are not alone. We are part of a bigger story.”
As I continue to talk with friends who work on college campuses across the nation, the list of practices that help us find a place within the bigger story grows long. Rainbow basking emerged freshly and powerfully for me; I offer it below in hopes that it might bring solace or comfort to you or your community. Try it alone, or better yet, invite a friend to do it with you.
I can’t wait to see what practices emerge next from the deep wells of our shared traditions, mixed with the urgency of our times and the creativity of our collective wisdom.
Find a rainbow — in a college chapel, a local church, a sanctuary repurposed as a pub, or create a rainbow of your own with a prism and free sunlight.
Situate yourself within the rainbow.
Let the rainbow dance on one part of your body.
Take seven deep breaths, eyes closed or open, one for each day of creation.
Take one more deep breath, for all the young lives we lose each day.
Feel the power of the rainbow dancing on you.
Give thanks for your body, just as it is or as it is becoming.
Give thanks for your sensuality, how you delight in touch, smell, taste, sound.
Imagine the rainbow affirming and blessing you.
Lift up in your imagination loved ones or friends who struggle to find safety, affirmation or self-acceptance because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Imagine the rainbow affirming and blessing them.
Lift up those who have died because of gender oppression.
Lift up those who struggle from depression or anxiety.
Welcome any feelings that arise, knowing they will ebb and flow.
If you are alone, hug yourself.
If you are not alone, hug yourself, and offer a hug to someone else.
Bask in this rainbow as long as you wish.
When you are ready, go on with your day.
If you are hurting, find a safe person to reach out to.*
* The SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), TTY 1-800-487-4889, is a confidential, free, 24-hour, 365-day-a-year information service in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.
While this generation of young people know well practices for the immediate aftermath of crises, helping them find resources for the longer haul of healing — and the healing of our culture of violence — requires gentle exploration.
A team of people keeps me healthy in ministry. Spiritual director, colleague group, friends inside and outside the church, therapist — each of these companions plays a part.
But it had been a while since I had a mentor.
In my 40s, having been ordained for several years, I became that person less experienced colleagues sought out for guidance on navigating the ordination process and leading a parish. I knew how “the system” worked. I had witnessed enough conflicts, made enough mistakes, midwifed enough new ministries to feel qualified in offering encouragement, coaching and timely cautions.
Then about a year ago, I found myself in my 50s, contemplating what I expect to be my final decade of active, full-time ministry. Newly vaccinated against COVID-19, aware that it was impossible to predict all the ways this pandemic would reshape the church, and seeing glimmers of hope in coalitions forming to seek justice and offer mutual aid, I knew I needed a different kind of companion. I needed someone to help me navigate the new landscape. Someone less invested in shoring up what had been and more open to imagining what could be than was the tendency for “experienced” people like me.
I needed a mentor. Specifically, a mentor younger than myself.
What is sometimes called “reverse mentoring” has been around the business world since the 1990s. First introduced so that younger workers could bring older executives up to speed on the internet, the practice is now valued for less technical reasons. Younger mentors are now sought out for their perspectives and insights, not just their technical expertise.
That was the case for me. I wasn’t looking to be coached on optimizing social media or setting up breakout rooms on Zoom. I wanted a conversation partner to help me imagine sustainable ways to pastor and encourage disciples of Jesus at a time when the relationships at the heart of the church, wounded by pandemic separations, were more precious than ever.
My mentor, Caleb, is a person I mentored about a decade ago, before he was ordained. We both like to wonder out loud; we are fond of asking, “Why?” “What if …?” and even, “Why not?”
In addition to being separated by a generation in age, we have enough differences in gender expression, ethnicity and class background that our perspectives vary in fruitful ways.
We live close enough that it’s easy to meet once a month for coffee, although we’ve used Zoom when inclement weather and COVID restrictions have required it. Usually, I have something in mind I want to discuss; often, I’ll start thinking about a topic a week or so before we meet.
Sometimes I ask about his ministry with young adults. Learning what they’re doing is instructive for me as the interim priest-in-charge of a medium-sized parish of mostly older adults. Like our 20-something friends, we’re also facing a new stage of life.
Caleb emphasizes practices, like teaching mindfulness and contemplative prayer, rather than institutionalized “programs” that may not be sustainable. And he consciously sets aside time for his ministry partners to ask open-ended questions about faith, the Christian tradition, and how Jesus and the communion of saints can be their daily companions.
My parishioners are just as hungry as his to reconnect with God and each other; if they weren’t pondering deep and challenging questions before the spring of 2020, they certainly are now. So my mentor reminds me to open up spaces to pray together and to offer our grief, hopes and questions to God and each other.
He also reminds me to make time for fellowship, simply to enjoy each other’s company. A remark Caleb made early in our relationship, “Consider the lilies,” has become a refrain for me. It’s a reminder not to let anxiety dominate my ministry but to rest and trust in God, who creates beauty and delights in it.
We know that our arrangement is still relatively unusual. As Caleb has said, “It is often our culture’s approach (especially in the church and government) to presume that the world belongs to those who have accumulated the most of something, whether degrees, dollars or years of experience” — and further, to presume that these same people have “all the best insights regarding how to be in that world.” In subverting these assumptions, we believe we’re being faithful.
Caleb has reminded me that “overturning unhelpful cultural norms in the pursuit of Christ’s community and wisdom” is actually a part of our faith. Having entered adulthood during the Great Recession, he learned early that the quest for material security can be pointless and that our relationships are often our greatest wealth. Jesus teaches the same thing, and we keep having to relearn the lesson.
Our conversations move me to question assumptions. When I tell him my parish is aging — as are many churches — my mentor reminds me that a congregation filled with people in their 50s and older can be dynamic and that local retirement communities are a mission field.
When I share my congregation’s desire to incorporate younger adults, he asks how far they’re willing to go to be in community with 20- and 30-somethings. Is anyone talking about helping younger siblings in Christ retire their student debt?
If we typically think of a mentor as someone who helps you learn a system, mine does the opposite. He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.
That our relationship isn’t focused on him has brought my mentor some unexpected benefits. “Exploring the questions and concerns of a person with a longer career than me,” he has said, “gives me a fuller picture of what it means for a person to be in that stage of life and vocation.”
Engaging in conversations where we’re both vulnerable is more valuable for him than receiving whatever pieces of advice I think to dole out. Our conversations bless us both, in ways we hoped for and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. That sounds like the Holy Spirit on the move; that sounds like church.
He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.