In all great stories, from ancient fairy tales to contemporary movies, the Hero’s journey [i] consists of leaving home, encountering the Other (which leads to a personal crisis), and the return home. The common thread throughout these narratives is the necessity of self-examination brought about through encounters with others different than themselves. A much-overlooked dimension of study abroad programs is the impact such a liminal experience has on the spiritual lives of students. For students who have a personal faith, there is an additional relationship, an important Other involved in the journey. That faith is often challenged and deepened through the study abroad experience.
For young adults, distance from home requires a choice to move from a confident yet static identity to one vulnerable to change. According to James Fowler who classifies stages of faith development, such disequilibrium is necessary for spiritual growth, moving young adults from a Synthetic-Conventional faith to an Individuative-Reflective faith. “Frequently the experience of ‘leaving home’—emotionally or physically, or both—precipitates the kind of examination of self, background, and life-guiding values that gives rise to [spiritual] stage transition at this point” (Fowler 1995), [ii] which highlights the importance of a semester abroad for personal development.
Distance from Home/ Incomplete Departures
Studying abroad has changed even in the last few years. It is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to separate from “back home.” In the two years I lived abroad as a young adult in the Seventies, I spoke to my parents only once by phone. The world of social networking and skyping has changed all that, a great benefit in many ways. But in its wake is the challenge to help young adults to be present to their new context; “One of the greatest stresses for me is not only doing all the things I’m doing here, but having to keep up daily with all my friends and family back home,” an overwhelmed student wailed. Liminality by its very nature is a straddling of two realities that must be juggled, but given accessibility issues, the necessary distance is often difficult to maintain. A way to aid students develop roots in their new communities is through the ancient practices of presence and purposeful living.
Sacred Presence, Sacred Purpose
The Gordon in Orvieto (Italy) semester has been carefully designed to maximize an alternative to contemporary American life, believing that a return to ancient patterns of living will have relevance to and resonate with young adults today. In addition to designing their curricular program based upon a Renaissance bottega model, they encourage a slower, simpler rhythm of life. They live in community in a convent, sharing meals at a local trattoria, participate in traditional liturgies throughout the week, and contribute as artists/makers to their Orvieto community. While internet is not eschewed completely, it is limited to two hours in the evening; the students I spoke to were very grateful not only for the access but for the limitation of access. Such a semester serves as a lifelong reminder that life does not have to be lived at a fragmented, frenetic pace. One of my Oxford students reflected: “Because the pace of my life has been much slower, I’ve had time to be at peace, to notice more of God’s creation, and to greater experience my life in Christ. I want this to continue in the U.S., but I will have to fight the temptation to join the fast-paced rat race.” Even for those of us who do not participate in such an intentional program as Gordon’s, we can help students learn to be present to their context through local service learning projects, through spoken words, and through modeling presence in whatever our own locale.
Further, for students with a faith worldview, the idea of presence can also deepen a sense of purpose. Traveling as an end in itself can lead to a sense of emptiness, of ticking off boxes of must-see tourist sites. Those guiding students can help develop a vision that sees the sacred in the people they encounter daily. “I’ve been reminded that people are not who they appear at first glance, nor are they single faceted … and see [times together] as an opportunity to meet God.” The ability to perceive apparent random meetings as divine appointments transforms the encounter into one of deeper significance, giving sacred value to the person you bumped into.
In brief, two movements have the potential to deepen one’s identity in God, a movement away from home wherein life can be reassessed, and a practicing presence in new contexts. Learn more in Part 2, which will publish next week.
Posted by Janine Paden Morgan (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary). Janine is chaplain and instructor in Bible, Ministry and Missions for Abilene Christian University’s ACU in Oxford program and contributing author of Transformations at the Edge of the World
[i] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973:386).
[ii] Fowler, James. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1995).