Many thanks to Dr Terry Biddington, University of Westminster, for contributing this really encouraging blog about the work they are doing in supporting students to explore their spiritual lives, whatever their beliefs. A brilliant example of contemplative community.
Some years ago a conversation began here about setting up an interfaith community of students and staff who would meet together, to think about what it might look and feel like, to live and work together and address some of the stereotypical thinking that exists between, and about, the great faiths of the world. Now, several years, later a new community has been launched: a Student Contemplative Community.
During Freshers’ week the university’s Dean of Spiritual Life sent out a call: “tell us about your spiritual self! With free pizza and the coolest jazz music!”
The result was 70 students – mostly Atheists and Humanists- who wanted to talk about what made them tick spiritually. While we were surprised by the take-up, and the sheer energy in the room, this needs to be set against the background of a student survey the previous year that indicated a significant number of students were choosing Winchester because of our stated interest in valuing spirituality: whatever form it took.
A large number of these students expressed interest in meeting together to share silence, contemplate, meditate – and be together. Without preconditions. A kind of contemplative community was imagined. So a second call went out:
As of today we have a small but growing community of students – Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, “Spiritual Seeker,” Agnostic, Kabbalist – who meet together twice a week. Monday mornings for breakfast together, followed by 30 minutes’ silence and Friday mid-morning for a further 30 minutes. The group is now usually student-led, though we have set up the community with staff involvement too. There are five mentors – Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Christian and Pagan – whose job is to ensure no one perspective dominates the group and also to share personal stories, practices and advice.
The students have now decided to add Wednesday afternoons into the life of the group, with volunteering with a local homeless project alternating with input from the mentors and other visitors. Everyone values the importance of connecting meditation with social justice.
Last weekend we enjoyed the gift of a free retreat in the New Forest: home-cooking, shared silence, deep conversation and long walks with fresh country air. We plan to visit a Buddhist monastery together in this coming autumn. We are immensely grateful to the generosity of a friend of the University who is funding our work.
The icing on the cake? Since ‘spirituality’ is one of the University’s values (along with ‘individuals matter’ and ‘compassion’) the senior management has offered the former Principal’s house as a base for a residential student contemplative community within the next few years.
This work is but part of the contemplative pedagogy work currently emerging –burgeoning!- at Winchester. Academics, professional support staff, and of course the students, are coming together in unexpected, creative and breath-taking ways to explore what spirituality means: for each other personally, as something for the classroom, and for shaping new approaches to teaching and learning and curriculum design.
We look forward to sharing with and learning from others in the Contemplative Pedagogy Network!
Dr Terry Biddington
Dean of Spiritual Life, University of Winchester, Terry.firstname.lastname@example.org