I have a unique privilege this year as classes start at Xavier: seeing students begin and end. Tonight and for every Thursday for the first 3 weeks of the semester, on behalf of our staff, I’m welcoming 60-70 first-year students into our Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice through a program called eXploreCFJ – to talk to them about community: What community has looked like for them, what it means to us in the CFJ, and how they might begin to create community for themselves over the next four years. But three days ago, I gathered in the same space with 17 juniors and seniors for an interest session for a CFJ program called Contemplatives in Action (CIA). These upper-class students all have one thing in common: in the course of their own journey of building community at Xavier, they each have encountered profound questions about themselves and the world, questions that they cannot shake or ignore or answer easily. And so we will come together for CIA every Monday at 4pm this year to dive deeply into them, resisting trite answers and risking the vulnerability that comes with wading attentively into liminal space: the experience of being in the unknown, being in between things, passing from one phase of life into another.
I have been reflecting all week about how SIMILAR and how DIFFERENT the conversations with the 70 first-years in eXploreCFJ and the conversations in CIA with the 17 juniors and seniors will be. The longer I reflect, though, the more I am convinced that the conversations will have more similarities than differences and it all has to do with that liminal space. It all has to do with that experience to which we all can relate no matter how old or seasoned or wise or young we may be. Liminal space comes around more often than we realize in our lives, it comes when something old inside of us passes away, but before something new has begun. For the 70 first-years, they will be facing similar profound existential questions over the coming weeks and months at Xavier. They will no longer be surrounded by the same people from high school, with whom they started to forge one version of their identity. Now they will face the tall task of forming who they are in a new place with new freedom, but with also with new risks and new temptations. They each will have a choice between settling for easy answers or going out courageously into the frontiers of their lives. If they choose to set out into those frontiers, they (like the 17 juniors and seniors, like all of us no matter what stage of life we’re in) will need support and tools along the way.
Liminal spaces, if we are to become the best versions of ourselves, must be attended to carefully. One gift of the Jesuit/Ignatian tradition can help us here. We talk all the time around the CFJ about this Ignatian, never-ending, 3-part cycle of encountering our lives: Be attentive, Be reflective, Be loving. As the 70 first-years and as the 17 juniors and seniors and as we all encounter spaces in our lives when old ways of being are dying and the new ways of being are not yet clear, we have an opportunity to slow down and pay attention to the movements of our hearts, to pay attention to the people and communities around us. And as we name and listen to what we feel most deeply, what we hear from the lives of those close to us, as well as the lives of those we don’t readily notice… we then can reflect on the implications, the meaning, the invitation presented to us. And then we act, we choose, we forge new ways, we love ourselves, our families, our friends, our strangers, our enemies with a risky tenacity that we have never known previously.
But we cannot make this journey alone. So although the context of the 70 first-years’ questions differ from the context of the 17 older students’ questions, which both may differ from my own life’s questions about fatherhood and marriage and leadership and living simply – the essence of our struggles and questions and the need for supportive community amidst it all remains the same. So if you are setting out into the frontier of your 1st year of college, search for authentic community. If you’re facing the end of your college life in a short while, search for authentic community. And if you’re seeking greater meaning as you turn whatever corner of your life’s journey, search for authentic community. A group of individuals with whom we can admit that we do not have all of life’s answers and on whom we can lean when the liminal space feels scary, or daunting, or overwhelming, that kind of authentic community is actually part of the pathway through which we become that best version of ourselves. So set out into those frontiers. Pay attention and stay alert. Reflect and make meaning. Choose love. Always choose love. And don’t go alone this year.
Greg Carpinello serves as the Director of the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. He and his family live in the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood of Cincinnati, a place where they are continuously seeking and finding authentic community.