by Abby King-Kaiser
Finding the holy in the academic calendar
When I was in seminary, I loved how the liturgical calendar drew me into marking time as sacred, giving me holy rhythms to the ordinary, challenging me to seek God with intention in the rather ordinary passing of time.
I now live on a whole different calendar, one that is academic but feels no less holy.
Manresa, Xavier University’s orientation program, has its moments of feeling like a revival week, or a very intense Easter vigil. Finals weeks bring grief and resurrection and March Madness certainly feels like a festival.
Right now, we are wrapping up our high holy days of Senior Week and Commencement. Throughout the year, there is an ebb and flow of days of particular meaning to different groups, spring break for our very committed Alternative Breaks organization, Gala season for the Black Student Association, the African Students Association and the Student Organization of Latinos, and Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Unlike church services, or holidays that are celebrated at almost every church in town, these events feel public. Often they are a place to come and celebrate, to support your friends, to learn from them, or even to try something new. The rhythm of the ordinary time brings learning to your feet, outside of the classroom, week in and week out.
I love it. Easter is no longer the spiritual anchor for me that it once was, but I thrive, bloom and grow during Manresa. Christmas has become a season of rest, while April is full of the hustle, bustle, planning and meaning that Advent once was for me.
At Common Ground, our ecumenical Protestant worshipping community on campus, sometimes we get to honor the liturgical calendar. More often, we are not worshipping on the big Christian holy days since students are away. But, we are worshipping on Xavier’s holy days, and we are able to mark our academic time as sacred through our public worship. We connect to the wider campus through what we bring into worship, making it sacred by our time together.
This year, in the fall, we held a special service for Wellness Week, a week intended to lift up mental health challenges, raise awareness about suicide, and build our campus into a healthier community. With a grant, we were able to host Rev. Dr. Monica Coleman on campus to preach on depression and faith, and to lead some conversations with student leaders. These were public events, largely.
One of our largest worship services of the year, we read a litany and lit candles, praying for those love ones who had died by suicide, those who struggle with depression or anxiety, for our own mental health and for those who care for those of us who struggle—nurses, doctors, therapists, social workers. Moving and powerful, tears were shed, and we were fed at the table.
There were some immediate results from this service. I found two students caring for another in tears, more than an hour after worship, supporting her with their own experiences. Depression and anxiety were no longer unspeakable amongst us. I saw a spike in one-on-one conversations about these concerns. I suspect, not because our level of incidence went up, but because of ability to share and be vulnerable increased. I found pastoral space to healthily share my own experiences, providing increased liberation as I gave my shame over to God.
I did not really understand the significance of this worship until the end of this year, when I could look back on all the ways I have provided more pastoral support for those working through anxiety and depression than I have in any other year of my ministry.
The content of our worship matters. Worshiping together is the public space where we learn to work out our faith, where we can bring what is hardest—or we can be taught to leave it at home. When we follow along with our culture and keep certain concerns and sufferings private, not to be shared, lamented, prayed over in worship, then the church can reinforce shame that is not of God. Instead, when we bring the challenges of our lives into worship, we find God sitting with us in those places, and we welcome to community to sit with us too. We no longer have to suffer alone.
I know people who have left the church because of significant experiences of suffering in silence, despite feeling that the community was aware of their hurt. No one reached out. No one said anything. Often because no one knew what to say.
It might not be that our worship together says the right thing, addresses every sorrow, or provides healing for every tragedy. But, when we try, we are building communities where we live deeply together, in vulnerability, without shame, loving each other as Jesus loved us.
Looking back on the year, seeing this shift, I wonder what we might need to lift up, in a public way, in worship, next. What might be the stories that need told in your community? How might you lift up those voices in worship?
Abby King-Kaiser is the Assistant Director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for this call after a long sojourn in the Bay Area. She is a coffee snob, occasional painter and obsessive, though amateur, Instagrammer (@revabbykk).