College religious services help students find peace in hectic weeks

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling somewhat unfulfilled lately. Life at the College often feels like a crazy race to the finish line – filled with papers, lab reports, sports, committees and hanging out with friends whenever you have the time. Rinse, wash, repeat. We spend so much time being busy that I think many of us forget to be happy. So I decided to spend part of my weekend exploring different religious services at the College to see if I could get back a sense of balance, gratitude and connection.


I should preface this with my own religious background: Although I attended Jewish day school for 13 years, I decided that I didn’t believe in God when I was in eighth grade. Since then, I’ve only attended synagogue for family functions and my connection to Judaism has mostly been that of intellectual curiosity. I feel most spiritually connected when I’m outside, enjoying an ocean breeze back home in San Diego or going on a walk through Hopkins Forest. So here’s my disclaimer: My impressions of Shabbat at the Jewish Religious Center (JRC), Catholic mass in Thompson Chapel and the Williams Meditation Society are probably biased but are not meant to offend. I only want to express that no matter what your religious affiliation, the religious communities at the College are all welcoming and offer different kinds of spiritual connection.

I first went to Shabbat services on Friday night. Although I’ve attended Shabbat dinner before, I had never been to the service beforehand, which is less well attended. I sat down in the JRC’s synagogue with familiar faces and new ones, flipping through the siddur (prayer book) to sing the Hebrew songs. The tunes and words were mostly familiar to me, so I added my voice to the chorus of Hebrew singing.

As we concluded the service, people started trickling in for Shabbat dinner. After singing Shalom Aleichem, a prayer that welcomes in the angels that accompany the Sabbath, and the blessings over the wine and challah, we sat down to dinner. I sat down next to Rachel Hagler ’13, who had spent the past two days preparing a delicious Tunisian-inspired meal of chickpea stew over bread, spicy carrot and raisin salad, Tunisian rice and salmon. I asked Hagler what she liked best about the Jewish community at the College. “I think it’s interesting that there are lots of different levels of observance in the Jewish community here,” she replied. “Normally that wouldn’t be the case – you have different synagogues for Reform, Orthodox and so on. But here, everyone comes together regardless of how observant they are, and it’s really fun and welcoming.”

On Sunday, I went to the Williams College Mass. It was definitely less familiar to me than Shabbat services had been, but still beautiful. My only familiarity with Catholicism is from my study of art history, so it was nice to get a closer look at a Catholic mass. Thompson Chapel itself is a stunning place to hold a service: The stained glass windows, the ceremonial altarpiece and the beautiful architecture are an important part of how mass allows one to feel uplifted and connected to God. The piano music and the choral singing that accompanied the hymns were both pleasant. The prayers, I noticed, were strikingly similar to the ones I had sung on Friday evening. Although they were in English and prayed to Jesus as well as God, they asked for many of the same things: peace, redemption and God’s love.

Father Gary Caster, the Catholic chaplain at the College, took an active role in leading services. He preached two stories from the Bible: the story of the woman who the prophet Elijah visits and performs the miracle of keeping her supplied with food despite the famine and the story of the poor woman that Jesus observes in the temple, who only gives a small amount of money but sacrifices a large amount of her livelihood. They were inspiring stories and he explained them well, talking about the importance of compassion, self-sacrifice and God’s love.

I was unfortunately unable to attend the Meditation Society’s meeting on Sunday, but I did get to talk to Sam O’Donnell ’15, co-coordinator of the Meditation Society. A usual Sunday meeting of the Meditation Society includes half an hour of meditating and half an hour of drinking tea and discussing everyone’s different experiences while meditating. O’Donnell described some of the different kinds of meditation that the group does: “The simplest kind of meditation is just focusing on breathing,” he said. “But one of my favorites is a loving-kindness meditation called metta,” O’Donnell said. “With metta, you focus your meditation on different people. You start by thinking about someone you care about, then focus on someone that you have trouble caring about and then on someone you have neutral feelings about. You then focus the loving-kindness on yourself and finish by thinking about everyone. It leaves you feeling much happier and connected.”

I also asked O’Donnell why he started meditating. “I found that meditation was the perfect way to relax and settle down my mind,” he explained. “Obviously it takes practice, but it’s one of the best tools I’ve found to make your mind as effective as it can be.”

The College is undoubtedly a secular community, but I think there’s something worthwhile about having the new and different experience of attending a service of a religion of which you are not a member. I came out of last weekend feeling uplifted and more connected to the community at the College, with renewed energy to start the week ahead.


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