Sophomore year in high school became a pivotal time in my spiritual development. For some reason, I had a bit of free time before each English class. The classroom was located at the end of a hall with a large window overlooking the Market-Frankford El that took people from outside of Philadelphia into center city. I soon found myself standing, staring, and reflecting on the world beyond that window every day.
Something shifted within me as this habit developed. Standing by the window, day after day, I realized I was part of something greater than myself. I also felt a sense of my greater self, my I which was beyond what I did, what I possessed, or what I accomplished. I met the image of God within me.
Each day at that window, I prayed to God. No words, no set prayers, no collects. I felt God. I later came to realize that in gazing out the window, I was really gazing inward.
What I didn’t realize as a high school sophomore, was that this gazing became an act of contemplation. An act that gave me a sense of freedom even though I felt trapped between the law of my religion and the desire of pleasing my friends. Perhaps this internal pull of checking the boxes of doctrine while living a teenage life of wild abandonment created within me an existential crisis. I’d ask myself while standing at the window, “What is the purpose of my life?” or “What is my place in this world?” Sadly, at that time, there was no one I could go to who would help me unpack these questions.
However, each day I found myself standing at the window, watching cars traverse north and south on Erie Avenue and the El carrying people east and west in and out of the city. I felt a mystery unfold before my eyes. Somehow watching the day-to-day rat race brought me a sense of peace because I realized I didn’t have to join it. Even though I could be in the thick of it, I didn’t have to live a life that was simply transactional or an endless loop of repetition. I discovered my identity wasn’t found in grades, weekend exploits, failure on the athletic field, community service activities, or the Ten Commandments.
At that window, I came to understand that I was more than the sum of those things. I felt transcendent. I also experienced the transcendent reality of God; God who was not limited by theology or liturgy. I felt God was present within me. For the first time in my life, I felt God was a personal friend. I felt no judgment or indictment. I felt no sense of shame as I stood in the light of that window. I instead felt “a peace that surpasses all understanding.” I felt true love.
That year, the Season of Lent proved to be different because I saw it through eyes of love—God’s love. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel that I had to prove my worthiness of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I now understood Lent as an opportunity to become closer to God, to see Jesus in a new light. I saw Jesus not as the judge of the living and the dead, but the healer of humankind. I simply felt the Holy Spirit breathe new life into me, a life that was worthy simply because God the Father created it.
The Lent of my sophomore year was an inspired Lent. Instead of giving something up that year—which previously created a false sense of control over my salvation and in an odd way gave me spiritual bragging rights—I decided to takesomething up. I wanted to continue this inward journey, but traveling quietly without calling attention to myself. I decided to attend our daily Eucharist services which aligned with each lunch period. The service was short, but allowed time to center myself before walking into the crowded, cluttered cafeteria. Even among the hundreds of boisterous students bustling and hustling in the lunch line, I felt peace. I felt God was with me not only at the window, but also here in the thick of life.
I realized my spiritual life depended not so much on what I do but on what God does. I pray this season of Lent offers us the same opportunity. Perhaps, as parents, we can provide our children with contemplative experiences such as nature walks or strolls by bodies of water. These moments of contemplation can provide us and our children an opportunity to meet God not only within the world, but within ourselves. If you are looking for resources to nurture the spirituality of children in your care, I recommend two books by Lisa Murray, a professor in the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University: The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life and The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving.
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