The Quirky Conscience: Encountering the Divine

A student takes up residence in front of Parrish

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I have often heard it said that Swarthmore is a very secular campus. I would agree with that statement insofar as the most prevalent attitude towards religion here seems to be one of disinterest. In some cases though far from all, this disinterest gives way to active condemnation. Of course, there is also a vibrant and reportedly growing religious contingent. Still, all in all, I doubt it would be fair to describe Swarthmore as a whole as a very religiously inclined campus.

Yet, for all the talk of secularism and even anti-religious sentiment at Swarthmore, I have always had an odd little feeling I must confess: Swarthmore is such a God-filled place. I know that statement sounds supercessionist. I do not mean to co-opt other people’s reality by “filling it with my god.” If you want no part of it, I completely respect that sentiment. But just as you may perceive that particular bend in an often overlooked tree as inexplicably moving or find its flowers especially fragrant, I can’t help but feel God’s presence in a very special way when I am at Swarthmore, and my life here is enriched by it.

I’m sure if we talked about it, we might be able to draw out some similarities between my encounters of the divine and other people’s secularly framed experiences. If I believe in God and you don’t and we both look at a waterfall, I may have a “God moment” while you have an equally personally meaningful experience to which you do not wish to affix any religious or even spiritual words. Perhaps much of what we feel may even be the same – it would be an interesting experiment to take on. So just what would be “godly” about it to me?

I’ll hazard a few words about “the God feeling” and my experiences of the divine. In every day life, I encounter God mostly in places of natural beauty or moments of transcendence. I feel God at work when I think about the underlying structure of things or when I witness evidence of unity or harmony around me. The very thought of God fills me with wonder and I tend to think of God as the source of all wonder, so I feel my God sense tingling whenever I feel awestruck, from the classroom to social situations and beyond. I also encounter God in other people, in acts of love or kindness, and in particularly “providential” words or occurrences. I am convinced of God’s existence anew when I get the sense that all things exist for a purpose, and that these purposes converge towards one, greater order. God is what makes things feel complete to me, and my encounter with God extends far outside of church.

For me, my spirituality is almost like another sense. It is yet another channel through which I receive and process information about the world. It is a lens through which I see the world. I have no absolute certainty that the picture I see is accurate, but it somehow seems to make sense of the world around me in a whole new way and fills me with this giddy feeling that I am a piece in a gigantic and elaborate picture and that all of the pieces fit together, even if I can’t quite see how just yet.

I expected to be challenged in my faith when I came to college.  Under the surface of diverse backgrounds, we find a diversity of values. You can’t tell people’s values (or most interesting things about them) just by looking at them; rather, values slowly emerge through repeated conversations and interactions. This kind of diversity is very enriching, but it is not “easy” by any means, and it often calls us to reconsider our own values. Then there is also the issue of constancy: I, for one, am not the person I was when I first came to Swarthmore as a bright-eyed freshman. In my time here, I have taken many classes and had myriad discussions that have caused me to question my outlook on life. Most importantly, I have had to make a host of new decisions that have prompted me to re-conceptualize my relationship to the divine and the kind of moral consequences that derive from it.

As typical as such a journey may seem, I do believe that many of my spiritual challenges, while perhaps not unique to Swarthmore, have been brought on in a particularly strong way by the kind of intellectual and social atmosphere at Swarthmore. For example, on countless occasions, I have been asked to defend my faith in the context of a rigorous intellectual lifestyle, particularly one supposed to be predicated on reason. People have questioned my status as a “liberal” on account of my religious beliefs and have scoffed at the more “conservative” of my views. I have also been personally attacked for my affiliation with the Catholic Church, an institution a number of people perceive as having perpetuated repression and inequalities throughout history.

I would be lying if I said it has been easy to live out my faith here. However, I must also acknowledge how much I have learned from these challenges. In a place full of people with similar religious backgrounds, I may have been able to just go through the motions of religion without too much thought or variation. At Swarthmore, on the other hand, I have felt consistently accountable for my choice to continue practicing religion. I have learned to explain what I believe more effectively and I have been invited to re-examine those things I couldn’t quite explain. In a way, Swarthmore has really shaken my Catholic identity, but in another sense, it has helped it to grow deeper, more open-minded, and more genuine. It has also helped me develop a healthy dose of humility and uncertainty about my presumed relationship to truth.

I don’t pretend that my approach to religion and spirituality is the only one or even the right one. I recognize that there are many different ways to see the world. Still, through thick and thin, and despite moments of doubt or despair, this way is one that feels very deeply satisfying to me. My religious identity is not a walk in the park every (or any!) day, and there are aspects of it that regularly stump, confuse, or upset me, but on the whole, it is a vibrant part of who I am and how I function, and I wouldn’t want to give it up.


  1. Thank you for sharing the beautiful moments in your life. Religion and reason do not always co-exist harmoniously but I’m glad that both are such important aspects of your identity.

  2. Have you ever talked to that lady with the visor who’s always around McCabe and the center of campus? She once told me about the Celtic concept of “thin places,” where the boundary between this world and the divine is especially thin. Needless to say, she believes Swarthmore to be a thin place.

    She also said that she loves being around McCabe, because “everyone is alone, but we’re alone together.” She’s a wise one.

    • Dearest “on that note,”

      While studying at the seminary, I discovered two deep human longings: (1) to be known, understood, and loved as we are, and (2) to believe that our lives have meaning, hence, the potential to contribute to the Greater Good. These longings may remain dormant within us until a companion along the way takes the time to offer us loving kindness and compassion, to touch our lives through words, deeds, and/or Presence, to remember us. Your words, full of Grace, touched my heart with tenderness, reminding me of that long-ago discovery and bringing to mind a familiar question of late, “What greater gift is there than this?”

      When a friend informed me of the link to “Encounter with the Divine” and your response, I exclaimed prior to visiting the link, “Oh, how I love the students!” These words I neglected to say to you when we met, yet, they are as true for me as my belief that Swarthmore is a “thin place” and as real to me as my “love [of] being around McCabe” – the monastery-like library enclosing us so that we may be contemplative alone, together. When I walk on that Holy Ground and stand in the midst of (in awe of) “the Swatties,” I have a sense that I have come home and that Joy is my lot in life. I remember the words of the Jesuit priest, poet, military chaplain, philosopher, and paleontologist (1881-1955), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

      In closing, precious one, I leave with you those words along with my heart-felt gratitude for your Presence and for your remembrance of me.

      “Just trust Life:
      Life will bring you high,
      if only you are careful in selecting,
      in the maze of events, those influences of those paths
      which can bring you each time
      a little more upward.
      Life has to be discovered
      and built step by step:
      a great charm,
      if only one is convinced
      (by faith and experience)
      that the world is going somewhere.”

      “The future is more beautiful than all the pasts.”

      “A fresh kind of life is starting.”

      (from Meditations with Teilhard de Chardin, a centering book by Blanch Gallagher, Foreword by Jean Houston, 1988, Beat & Company, pages 142 – 144))

      the lady with the visor

  3. This is a wonderful article! I always struggle with what my spiritual beliefs actually are, and that struggle combined with the largely secular nature of Swat’s student body has made it doubly eye-opening. Write more!

  4. This is absolutely lovely and so true. At Swat, religion is constantly challenged, and I’ve found that these challenges have caused me to question and transform my own belief into something that I can feel proud to discuss with others. Through courses, activities, and discussions about belief with the incredible students, faculty, and staff here, I feel like I find out more to love about (and more ways to talk about) God and religion in general every day. Thank you so much for this column. You’re writing thoughts that resonate with many Swatties but that we often don’t feel comfortable expressing.

  5. Dearest “Quirky Conscience,”

    Blessed was I to receive an e-mail from a friend in Cornell Library and a friend in the Religion Department providing a link to your article, “Encounter with the Divine.” Little did I know of the blessing awaiting me.

    After a seemingly long time on the spiritual path of life, I am in awe of the Beauty of your words and the eloquence and tenderness with which you describe your journey. For the first time in my life, I felt as if I walked on the Road to Emmaus, listening to you speak. I shared your Joys. I understood your challenges. I felt the comfort and consolation of walking with a friend. Then, hours (days) later, after Lectio Divina moved deeply within me, the lesson(s) from your written words came: The “Encounter” is unitive, bringing together in our Presence both the Divine and “the vibrant part” of ourselves (our Essence); the Holy Within and the Holy Beyond are inseparable; and, when the Divine comes seeking in form or formlessness, all I need do is stand still (be still) and respond, “Here I am.” (“Hinine.”)

    In closing, dear one, I leave with you my deepest gratitude and the words of the 20th century Trappist monk, spiritual writer, and activist, Thomas Merton. It seems to me that while the two of you use different words, you speak the same language.

    “It is not easy to try and say what I know I cannot say. I do really have the feeling that you have seen something most precious–and most available too. The reality that is present to us and in us: Call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma . . . or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything that is hidden in the ground of Love for which there can be no explanations. I suppose what makes me most glad is that we recognize each other in this metaphysical space of silence and happiness, and get some sense, for a moment, that we are ‘full of paradise without knowing it.'” (from Thomas Merton – A Book of Hours edited by Kathleen Deignan with forward by James Finley illustrations by John Giuliana – page 11)

    “the lady with the visor”

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