Lecturer illuminates ‘living’ as an art of literary and spiritual practices

There is one question that I am plagued by continually as a religion studies student. The first is: “Wait, but you’re not religious?” Posed, in my experience, to most religion studies students at one point or another (there are literally dozens of us!), that statement houses an odd bundle of implications.

Foremost among these implications is the idea that religion and spiritual studies are somehow foreign to academic settings––or foreign to students in general. Religion studies isn’t the study of something locked away behind shrouds of expertise and knowledge, it’s the study of what many people simply live through. An event happening on campus aims to blur this boundary between capital-R “Religious” living and living in general.

It isn’t enough to just be a person anymore, nor even just a student, but we also have to be religious students or at least students of something. I think that this type of labeling is extremely hurtful to communities such as Vassar, as they set up antagonistic relationships between sects of campus as well as setting up religion as something that only provides negatives for the world at large. People in general aren’t exactly allowed to go throughout their days without attaching themselves to a label at one point or another.

The event happening on Feb. 22 at 7 p.m., “The Art of Living,” aims to illuminate how the act of living has many facets to it. It will be kicked off with a talk given by Harvard Divinity Professor Stephanie Paulsell, followed by a workshop of practices performed by faculty members from Vassar and beyond. While it does not have any religious affiliation, this event does aim to display how our very own community members strive to live around a center. This center comes in the form of the idea of “practice.” As event organizer Elizabeth Aeschlimann describes it, “Everything that we do, from eating, to studying, to talking with friends, is an opportunity to practice.”  

This event aims to showcase how these practices can manifest within one’s life, and how community members employ this idea of practice. Professor Paulsell’s focus is the intersection between academic work and the lives we live; between intellectual work and spiritual practice, and between study and practices. Professor Paulstell is currently researching the religious elements of the works of the great Virginia Woolf.

Paulsell is also an ordained minister and a prolific writer. These labels should be an indication to Paulsell’s field of interest. When writing on Virginia Woolf, Paulsell finds devotion not to be a dogmatically defined field of practice, but is instead a devotion to the “unknowable more, to the ‘infinite possibilities . . . furled’ in human beings and in human experience.”

Paulstell’s subject, Virginia Woolf, should give us all pause to consider just how loaded terms like “religion” and “devotion” are in today’s day and age. Woolf was a scathing critic of Christianity and described herself as an atheist. However, for ordained minister Paulsell to claim that Woolf is devoted to her own religion isn’t an act of appropriation by Christians, but is an appreciation of just how universal the meanings behind religion really are.

For the sake of consistency though, I must reiterate: this event is not a religious event. However, there is a sentiment strung throughout our lives and communities that is spoken of most succinctly in “religious” contexts. Or, put more anecdotally, we all have theological questions pecking at our brains––we’re just trained, as Americans, to be scared of applied philosophy. Put more simply, theological questions are not questions locked away behind confounding intellects: they are questions that are intrinsic to being human.

Director of Spiritual and Religious Life Samuel Speers is another organizer for the event. I asked Speers what this idea of “practices” meant and how it related to living on campus. Speers, in his answer, described practices as being a way of experiencing life more fully. He added that these practices are not a dogmatic act, but are personal acts that help one to maintain a meaningful sense of experience.

Referring to the second part of this event, he mentioned, “These workshops, led by our own faculty, reveal there’s a cohort of practitioners on campus now with experience in simple daily practices they have found for experiencing time’s fullness beyond our constant sense of not having enough of it.”  

This workshop section of the event trades out Virginia Woolf for Harry Potter and community members from Vassar and beyond. The workshop that follows Paulsell’s lecture is a multi-part event that features a number of speakers. The workshop moves through five different thematic elements that help to illuminate how to live more devotedly. The five themes are Moving, presented by Carolyn Palmer; Contemplation, presented by Paul Kane; Reading, presented by Vanessa Zoltan; Writing, presented by Akta Kaushal and Activism, presented by Shane Slattery-Quintanilla.

Slattery-Quintanilla is a member of Nomadique, a cooperative committed to social justice, along with teaching in the Film and Media Studies Departments at Vassar. Writing about the goals of his workshop, he stated, “In this workshop we will explore ways of fostering meaningful communities around shared political and artistic goals, and we will reflect on the ways these goals can meaningfully intersect.”

Professor of Political Science Akta Kaushal is conducting a workshop that seeks to address the ways in which sacred texts and speech affect our lives. Through writing exercises and dialogues, she hopes to address the ways we make sense of our lives through “scriptural” means, and how the idea of relating to a scripture is much more prevalent in our modern lives than we might think at first.

Vanessa Zoltan, along with being an accomplished academic and Divinity School graduate, is a co-host of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” Her workshop will perform a Jewish reading practice (Pardes) as a group on a sentence from the “Harry Potter” series and see what relevant material it contains.

Paul Kane, who teaches in the English and Environmental Studies Departments, will be directing a workshop that will explore the “faculty of attention.” It will employ practices that attune one to their quiet inner spaces along with practices of physical and spatial centering.

Finally, Carolyn Palmer is a developmental psychologist who teaches in the Psychological Sciences Department. Her workshop seeks to illuminate how habitual and non-habitual movements help to “unravel tensions and reclaim function.”

The workshop will take place in the Villard Room, and food and drinks will be available. This event is not a religious one because it’s trying to distance itself from religion, or because there are a plethora of beliefs on display in this event, but because religion as most Americans would define it doesn’t exist.

We often find educational establishments terrified of hosting religious events due to the looming specter of that religion becoming attached to an institution that they have claimed as secular. This mindset has grown to the point that religious association tends to be avoided in a great deal of discourses nowadays. However, I think it’s important to realize that we shouldn’t strive to remove religiously informed practices, but rather, should consider how labelling things as having religious leans can be a hurtful practice.

While this event is called the “Art of Living,” the “Arts” element of the lecture goes deeper than simply a fancy title.  There is a very concrete thread running through this event and that is the thread of literature. I would even go as far as to abstract this one step further and just label it as “language,” but that might stray too far from the arts. Whatever the case, there is a very tangible connection between the words that we use to make sense of our life, and the ways in which we live our lives informed by these words. This event hopes to illuminate this connection.    

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