In Pursuit of the Shimmering Thread

Sharon M.K. Kugler

I am frequently asked what a typical day is like as a university chaplain, and usually my answer is simple: “There is no typical day in the life of a chaplain.” This work is completely unpredictable, and that is just one of the many reasons why I love it. Yet there are those occasional days that stand out because of the extraordinary moments that unfold, days when one’s hopes and imagination swell, and deep gratitude is the gift tenderly acknowledged before sleep.

Such a day in February started out with my morning routine: wake, coffee, pray, email. I anticipated a jam-packed schedule. Nevertheless by mid-morning came the first extraordinary moment, while I hosted my Chaplain’s Office colleagues for our monthly “Chaplains Chat.” Over lattes, chai, or hot chocolate, Senior Associate Chaplain Ian Oliver, Associate Chaplain Candice Provey, Coordinator for Muslim Life Omer Bajwa, Hindu Life Advisor Asha Shipman, and Assistant Chaplain Maytal Saltiel and I take an hour to be together in a spirit of appreciation for our work and for one another. This gathering does not concern itself with the administrative details of our programs or services. This gathering quenches a thirst.

Sighs and Laughter

We are quite honest in these meetings. We ask vexing questions, we explore one another’s thoughts about campus climate, about our chaotic presidential season, and we sigh deeply about the brokenness of our world. We also laugh a great deal as we check in with one another. We are Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant, and we share a deeply heartfelt connection to each other, which proves to me every day the role that love plays in the work of chaplaincy. On this particular morning we were all quite weary. February was taking its toll on each of us, yet there seemed to be a shimmering thread of light making its way through our circle as we swapped stories, insights, and worries. What is this shimmering thread?

Immediately after “Chaplains Chat” we were on to the next extraordinary thing. A group of students and administrators from Yale-NUS, the liberal arts college established in Singapore in collaboration with Yale, paid a visit to our office in an effort to learn more about the Yale chaplaincy, see some of our sacred spaces, and discuss issues they find challenging in Singapore. Heavy on their minds was the task of getting groups from diverse backgrounds and identities to work together and appreciate difference. Since the notion of a formalized chaplain’s office per se does not quite translate to Singaporean mores in higher education, it was exciting to try and figure out a common language. As I watched my staff explain our programs and their respective jobs, I saw that shimmering thread again. It reveals itself as an expression of innate love for this work and bears witness to what is possible when our religious differences do not block our commitment to a relationship with one another.

Another question often comes my way: “How do you remain rooted in your own particular religious tradition while working with or advocating on behalf of another?” This used to throw me when I first started doing interfaith work. It felt daunting to make it clear that the goal is not syncretism – a common misconception – but rather the creation of channels for deeper knowledge, understanding, respect, and wherever possible, true appreciation. Now I reply, “A person can be rooted in a religious tradition without drowning in it.” From there, I believe, the conversation can move to the very heart of their thoughts or concerns. Interfaith work is less about comparing theologies and more about creating spaces for a sacred encounter with each other.

Feasting on Faith

Toward the end of that same day, it was time for “Feasting on Faith in February.” This was a new event aiming to be a lighthearted attempt to engage the broader Yale community around religious literacy using food, music, spoken word, dancing, singing, and crafts. We took over a beautifully spacious room in the gym where the enormous windows let in bright natural light from three directions. We set up tables for the food. There were trifold boards with vivid descriptions of many world religions and spiritual communities as well as information about rituals and practices. In one corner, children and adults were making rangoli designs with richly colored fresh flower petals. In another section, people were making mala or prayer beads.

It was a stunning thing to see. Visitors lingered over the food, or intently studied the trifolds. Others engaged in the dancing. It was an amazing two hours of “pluralism realized and celebrated” on neutral ground. That shimmering thread was weaving its way in and out and all around: People opened their hearts and minds to the possibility that there is so much more that connects us than separates us. There is more to enjoy about one another than we could have ever imagined.

In the 21st century, pluralism realized and celebrated is not easy to create. It is not without its troubling edges. At our event, I am sure some felt uncomfortable reading about another religious community for fear of being disloyal to their own. This is a common occurrence. There were likely those who felt mystified by unfamiliar symbols or sounds. This is the messiness of interfaith work. Frequently, much is left unspoken or unasked out of fear of offending or seeming ignorant. At such gatherings as Feasting on Faith we try to get past those hurdles to offer something that feels open, low-key, authentically respectful – and welcoming to all. We want people to experience that shimmering thread.

The Grace to Keep Going

The state of the world today – and our way of learning about it – is challenged by an overload of information. It is extremely difficult to process all that is happening on any given day. We are, after all, humans, not machines. We feel things, we ache at the loss of life from the senseless acts of violence that have become part of our daily consumption of news. These times call for a kind of spiritual gumption – to keep going, to nudge continually at hope, to trust that we will get to a place of peace both within and among ourselves.

Even though I identify as Catholic, my own spiritual gumption is fed by the truly loving relationships that I have formed with people from many different faith communities. God is so much bigger than any one group can possibly imagine, much less exclusively possess.

In our well-meaning attempts to be committed people of faith, we must avoid creating the God that picks us – just us – over another. Our task is to stay out of God’s way. It demands much humility. We must look from side to side, be in messy relationship with one another, do our work, and nurture this world we all share. God is not a human creation. We are God’s own human creation and we were made so to love one another. That shimmering thread gives us but a passing glimpse of what is possible if we let difference inspire rather than separate.

Sharon M.K. Kugler became Yale’s seventh university chaplain in 2007. She has worked more than two decades in interfaith collaboration, pastoral and social ministry, and higher education. She is a lecturer at YDS and contributed to the 2013 book College & University Chaplaincy in the 21st Century: A Multifaith Look at the Practice of Ministry on Campuses across America (SkyLight Paths). Her masters thesis at Georgetown University, “The Limits and Possibilities of Building a Religiously Plural Community,” was used by the US Department of Defense Office of the Chief of Chaplains as a training tool for military chaplains.