By Dr. Elizabeth Drescher, Santa Clara University
Santa Clara University’s campus, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, is hardwired for providing opportunities to find God in all things.
This is not an accident.
There is an intentionality in the campus' landscape, which invites honoring the whole person, and countless sites of engagement, with the spiritual, the sacred, and the holy.
This academic year, students in my Exploring Living Religions class have been invited to be “field researchers” of the local religious landscape, both on campus and off. The class was informed by research showing that young adults today engage in learning by focusing on experience. What does something feel like? How does it relate to my own personal relationships?
This led us to ask: What does it mean for religion to be practiced by the whole person? Living religion is less focused on the kind of philosophical, theological, or other more cognitive understandings of religion that students are used to exploring. Instead, it starts with the senses: What does one feel in this place of worship? How does the physical character of the space itself invite certain felt experiences? What makes a location holy or spiritual to you? What is intentionally or unintentionally conveyed in a space of spirituality?
As part of that focus, we invite students to visit spiritual, religious or sacred spaces—defined very broadly—and to highlight their own experiences and observations as the centerpiece of learning about what religion is, and what it does in the world today.
One of the first places we visit is the Mission Santa Clara de Asis Church on campus. Students are asked, “What does the space do to prepare you to be spiritual or reverent, or engaged with your own spiritual experience? How does it direct you toward participation in the Body of Christ?”
Students notice that before they even enter the Mission, they must step up from the ordinary ground-level experience. They have to elevate themselves physically in order to participate. And there's a big, wide door, which lets anybody in. It's heavy and takes a little bit of effort to open. But then you go in, and the building itself begins to shape your behavior.
There’s a theology of the built space that’s teaching you something through your body without you really actively thinking about it. There are architectural features that draw the eye toward the ceilings or toward the altar. Students consider the way that people are invited to sit together in a space that makes everybody equal, and to look forward to the altar, to the image of Christ, or to the ceiling that reflects an image of heaven.
Students also notice immediately upon entering that the ambiance is dim. It's cool inside, which tends to hush people. It calms the body. Students are generally really amazed at what that transition does within the body. You don't walk into the Mission Church and start talking loudly. You ease into an environment it presents to you for quiet reverence. All of this is part of what the space itself is teaching the body to “know” about religion in general, and Catholicism in particular.
After the visit, some students talk about how they could go back to their dorm rooms and create that same sense of calm. One student went back and reorganized his dorm room so that he could walk in and— without encountering any obstacles— sit at his desk, where he had a Bible that his grandfather had given him. It really mattered to have that direct pathway, where he could just come, put his hand on that Bible, and be connected to his family and their shared religious tradition.
The campus itself is an invitation to that kind of exploration. I send students out to find spaces on their own, including those that seem to them to be sites of the spiritual, however they define that. Many cite the Ignatius Fountain, or the benches in front of the Holy Family Statue, or the Mission Garden. Those are iconic sites that extend that feeling of valuing and shaping the spirituality of the whole person within the broader landscape of the campus.
But for other students, it's things like the Ricard Observatory, named for Jesuit meteorologist Rev. Jerome Ricard, S.J. It’s there where they say they feel most fully human and connected with others, in maybe more cosmic, science-related ways. Some students talk about the Learning Commons as a sacred space. As one student put it, "That's really where I feel like I encounter my fullest self, and [where] I prepare myself to serve the world."
Another former student, who identifies as an Atheist, told me that the St. Clare Garden was a space that allowed him to find his center and be calm even in the midst of people walking around nearby. He said it was where he engaged in his prayer practice—which he described as one of engaging hope, engaging his better self, what he wants for his life and the world, and for the benefit of other people. That for him was “prayer,” and this was a space that encouraged that.
If you think about it, that's what the original Mission project was—at least on a spiritual level. Santa Clara itself has a complex history as a landscape of spiritual transformation. There are, of course, complicated and difficult parts of that story. But in its most faithful, its most positive, the Mission experience was recognizing the sacred in an unfamiliar landscape and culture.
For the missionaries who came to Santa Clara, it was an evangelization that valued God in every person, and in every place—a recognition that the native people of California, whom the missionaries encountered, were also the people of God, and that they needed to be in relationship with them. These relationships were not unproblematic, and students explore this history in the class. But it's powerful for students to see their whole experience at Santa Clara as a spiritually infused opportunity for learning. They find their own spiritual authority to breathe into those spaces, to claim them, and to question them for deeper stories of lived religion.
Elizabeth Drescher, Ph.D. is an adjunct associate professor in Religious Studies at Santa Clara University, where she also serves as director of the Living Religions Collaborative.