Thomas J. Mullen Scholarship Application
An essay of not less than 1250 words in which the applicant reflects upon her or his personal spiritual formation during their time at ESR.
I came to Earlham School of Religion confused and skeptical. I admit this is probably out of the ordinary and I also admit that I wasn’t able to express these feelings at the time. Throughout my first year, specifically in classes like Spiritual Preparation for Ministry and Introduction to Theological Reflection, I came to understand that I carried more baggage from my first few years of Christianity then I realized. You see, I came to religion late. I joined a Christian church as a newlywed at the age of twenty-three having had no prior experience in the world of organized religion. So while attending and participating in a Christian church was a significant decision for me, the fact that it was a fundamentalist, non-denominational church had little significance. At the time, I wasn’t aware that there were thousands of varying churches I could have chosen from and instead joined one simply because it was close to my house—one that unfortunately didn’t believe women had much more to offer than serving their husbands and caring for children. Eight years later I am much more aware of the factors that drew me to that church and the factors that eventually convinced me it was time to leave. These elements are wrapped up in my personal history, of course, but they are not the subject of this essay and so I will move on. I raise them simply to highlight that it has been the first half of my seminary education that has helped me to understand them.
After leaving the fundamentalist church, moving back to the city of my birth, becoming a Quaker, graduating college, working with homeless women for two years, traveling through Europe for four months, and living in intentional community in inner-city Chicago, I decided to come to seminary. “Why seminary,” is a question new students are asked often, one I certainly struggled to answer. Yet now, after completing half my program, I’m confident I came to do the work I have been asked to do at seminary—to look deep and hard into myself, to take a realistic look at what I’m good at, what I’m not so good at and to figure out how best to be of use. Seminary, it seems to me, is a few years set apart to investigate and contemplate questions, some more answerable than others.
In Spiritual Preparation for Ministry I was asked to think about my spiritual life. How did I practice it, discuss it, understand it? Why and exactly how does religion matter? I began to think honestly about my relationship to the whole enterprise. These were questions which allowed me recognize the reality that part of me had come to seminary in order to give religion up altogether. I was in the middle of a spiritual crisis that made my first year of seminary difficult and sometimes painful. The spiritual friend I had been assigned in the class was going through her own—albeit very different—crisis and we began meeting weekly to look together at the unanswerable yet important questions. This friendship cemented my belief in the need for companionship along the rocky road of religion. I now meet with a local Spiritual Director once a month and have taken up a new spiritual friendship through correspondence with someone from my home Meeting.
In Introduction to Theological Reflection I was asked to read systematic, liberation and feminist theologies, among others. I was asked to read closely and understand what each theologian was trying to say and the implications of what they had put on paper. I could disagree with them, but not before I understood them. I read hard, argued hard and learned a lot. My identity as a pacifist, as an American and as a Quaker were challenged in the pages I was reading. I walked into that class already angry with Christianity, confused about my place within it, and unsure how to voice my concerns. By the end, however, I discovered theologians that not only seemed to share my apprehension, but also helped me better understand, explore and voice what troubled me. I wrote a paper about the problems that are created when salvation is based on the suffering and murder of one man. And I began to wonder, with a kind of excited openness, where this seminary adventure would lead me.
In Discernment of Calls and Gifts a miraculous thing happened. My skepticism and anger began to dissipate. I can’t name the exact moment it happened, but I slowly realized I wasn’t fighting with every author I was reading anymore. I started to understand that there isn’t a prescribed category I have to force myself into in order to participate in a life of faith. Under the advice of Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, I learned that it was o.k. to give myself permission to be an explorer on a journey without all the answers. I could step back and take stock of where I had been and recognize the answers that I did have. My first year of seminary taught me several things about myself and gave me the tools to understand what I needed to let go of and what I needed to foster. Now, half way through my second year I think of my first year as a painful, but necessary step in the formation of my spiritual life. Without all the work of my first year, I would never have been prepared for the eye-opening moment in Individual Spiritual Direction when I realized I was coming through a dark night experience, and that I was ready to begin the work of rebuilding everything that had been torn down.
So just what exactly am I building? It seems, I’m back to the questions I pondered in Spiritual Preparation for Ministry. How do I practice, discuss and understand my spiritual life? Why and how does religion matter to me? These are questions I still cannot yet fully answer, but I do have new ways of encountering them. And I have discovered one thing, religion does matter to me and I believe it matters to our world. I know that many of the ways it has been practiced throughout history have been dangerous and damaging, and I am well aware of the violence, sexism, slavery, etc., contained within the Bible. Now I have to decide what to do. How do I maintain traditions and remain faithful to stories that matter without continuing to cause harm through them? How can I remain faithful without whitewashing or denying the violent acts and words that have taken and continue to take place? How do I participate in something that so often oppresses and abuses as I try to stand against oppression and abuse of any kind? These are the questions I continue to wrestle with. These are the questions I continue to look deeply into. But even as I wrestle with them, I realize I have come to a place of commitment.
I desire a spiritual life and I am working hard to shape what that means in my daily actions. There are, of course, a few obvious goals—living life with simplicity, integrity, generosity and gratitude—that are often easier to discuss than practice. But there are even harder things such as understanding the notions of God and prayer. I have come to a place of contentment with the unknowable, however, and have chosen to seek divinity in simple things and to place value in whispered words, even if I don’t know whether or not they are heard. At this point, the very middle of my seminary study, I am hopeful of where I am being led and confident that more challenge awaits me.