Reviving ritual gathering

For the first two-thirds of Williams’ history, students attended mandatory daily chapel services led by a rotating roster of faculty members. Now we have Storytime, a Sunday evening service where one student, faculty or staff member each week tells a tale to the gathered masses assembled on couches and chairs upstairs in Paresky. You may quibble with the comparison: Storytime certainly is not mandatory; various religious services remain important to many students; whatever Paresky is, it’s not a chapel. All true points. But what Storytime shares with Williams’ daily chapel services of yore is the extent to which they are vitally communal events. While Shabbat meals and the weekly Feast dinner do rope in folk from across the College community and are, thereby, not merely Jewish or Christian events, respectively, their identities nevertheless remain essentially Jewish or Christian, and only secondarily Williams-ish, Williams-ian.

Storytime, on the other hand, is a weekly meditation on and exploration of the Williams community, as such. Like religious worship, the activity is done because it seems to those who attend, and even many who do not, to be intrinsically good.

For a moment, turn your gaze back to those old-time-y daily chapel services. When the services were finally abolished in 1935, a Record article announcing the change explained that “for over 25 years various groups on the campus have carried on the struggle for the abolition of chapel,” while another article from the same issue celebrated the end of one of the “relics of the Middle Ages.” This second article also expresses, however, a hope that, newly stripped of its coerciveness, “Daily chapel can now become the institution which it always should be, an opportunity for quiet meditation and a brief harmonious retreat.”

What our peer from the past did not address in his article, however, is the significance of communal meetings for the richness of that interwoven complex of social, psychological and spiritual life. In 1935 Williams was a much smaller community with a fraternity system that, for some, produced miniature Williams-es that satisfied some of the aforementioned needs of communal life. Today, with the average student’s social network spanning a fragmented and heterogeneous collection of extracurriculars and Skype contact lists, the notion of “Williams in miniature” becomes harder to imagine, much less live. The entry is intended as precisely such a microcosm. Sunday entry snacks seem to me to represent yet another of the weak – which is not to say unimportant – echoes of our once mandatory College chapel.

Yet Storytime more precisely mimics chapel by attempting a ritual connection between students of all years and faculty and staff of all kinds. Like chapel, Storytime is for reflection – group reflection, and specifically a Williams reflection upon itself, its members and its meanings. This, in my opinion, is what mandatory chapel eventually failed to be.

In ending mandatory chapel attendance, Williams ridded itself of a religiously insular institution by which many students of non-Protestant belief were, to varying extents, oppressed and marginalized. But the College also ridded itself of an institution that had become, according to the 1935 Record, merely an “alarm clock” and an “ancient educational eyesore,” alienating, rather than unifying, to the bulk of the College body.

Now, in 2009, I attend a college where, as a senior, I have met probably a tenth of campus and have desperately little realistic sense of the concerns, opinions, desires or beliefs of students and faculty. The ethos of Storytime is a sense that communal co-presence and discussion is a self-evidently, and essentially, communal good. If this ethos is also that of the College – rather than merely a piece of admission publication rhetoric – then we must face the reality of our present communal lack and the need for action.

Two questions appear like reasonable places to start a move toward action. First, what common communal needs – social, psychological, spiritual – are not filled by our current microcosmic model of teams, entries, and groups? Second, are we opposed, as a community, to compulsory expressions of that community, even if that expression goes little farther, self-evidently, than something like, “Here we are as a community”?

Do we agree on this? Why, then, is Storytime, or ritual communal discussion and practice of some sort, not mandatory and definitive of our community? Are we, as a community, too embarrassed by, protective of or fearful of our differences to begin to explore them, as well as our commonalities, as one body? Do we think it is too late to start?

Matthew Furlong ’10 is an English, philosophy and sociology major from Amesbury, Mass.

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