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Collegeville, Part 1

A month ago, I had to amazing opportunity to attend a weeklong writer’s workshop for poets at a place called The Collegeville Institute on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN. I can’t believe a month has gone by already. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

I applied way back before Christmas after hearing about Collegeville from a couple of bloggers I read. By the time I got my acceptance email in early spring, I was unsure if Collegeville was the right place for me. After all, it was a Christian ecumenical institute. At that point, I’d lost my desire to break into the spiritual/Christian writer/blogger world, I’d given up on my spiritual memoir, and any poems I wrote about God/spirituality were full of cynicism. In fact, I was wondering if I was even a Christian at all anymore.

What would Collegeville be like? Would it be full of people who said, “Praise the Lord!” after ever other sentence? Would they accept a faith wrestler like me? Would they hate my poems? Would I belong?

Long story short: I belonged. 

For the first time in a long time, I felt like I belonged in a group of spiritual people. 

It was a unique bunch: There was a woman in training to be an Episcopal priest, a Benedictine monk, a Catholic nun, and couple of Mennonites, a few Catholics, and a self-described pagan. So yes, lots of religious people there, but it didn’t feel like a “religious” experience. It didn’t feel like a coming together to praise God without question, or a place to act like you have it all together.

It felt like a place to be broken. A place to be honest. A place where any type of mask or image could fall away, and you could be your whole, real self. 

Poetry does that. Poetry is a safe place to explore the tough stuff of life: grief, disappointment, fear, rage, faith, doubt, broken hearts. Poetry is where we re-live the most painful or joyous moments in our lives. Poetry is where we wrestle with the hardest questions humans face: Why do we suffer? How do we love? What can save us? Poetry is also how we connect to each other.

At Collegeville, we entered that space of tender human connection together. I received kindness and understanding from the other writers there. I watched them value, respect, and love each other. It was a pretty incredible group of people. (And no one said “Praise the Lord!” eighty times a day.) Someone wrote about her parents’ deaths. Someone wrote about wanting to know his father. Someone wrote a poem of rage toward another person. Someone wrote about the death of a baby. Someone wrote letters about life for his young sons. People cried. I cried. Every time someone cried, our leader, poet Michael Dennis Browne, said, “Tears are a sign of strength.” 

One day Michael asked us to write about faith. We left our names off our pieces and put them in a box. Then each person drew a sheet of paper out of the box (not their own paper) and read it aloud. Can you believe that pretty much every single essay about faith included doubt and pain? I just sat there, weeping, thinking: I am not alone. I am not alone. I am not alone. 

I began to see that writing, for me at least, is a spiritual act. At it’s core, it’s an act of belief: Believing that my history and views are worth examining, are worth fleshing out into words. Believing that my words have meaning. Believing that the deep conflicting thoughts and feelings within humans are worth exploring and trying to capture in words. Believing that the world is open to me, and it is full of beauty. 

As a writing workshop, Collegeville was awesome. I got a ton of great feedback on my poems, and Michael Dennis Browne was an extraordinary teacher. I had time in the mornings to walk and write, and the afternoons and evenings were spent workshopping and fellowshipping with the team.

But Collegeville was far more than a writing workshop. Collegeville touched my spirit deeply. Collegeville made me feel something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Collegeville made me hungry for something. God? Spirituality? Meaning? I can’t say.

I still struggle with a lot of Christian dogmas. I still question God’s existence and, if he exists, whether or not he intervenes in our world. I wonder if prayer matters or works. I still think Adam and Eve is a myth and I wonder if we even need to be saved. I still think Jesus’ life is just as important to us as his death. I haven’t found the answers to any questions I had before Collegeville, and I haven’t stopped questioning.

But what Collegeville gave me was the hope that I can be a spiritual person. That I can wonder if God is real and at the same time think I’ve found him in walk through the woods. That I can sit in the tension and the paradoxes and know that it’s okay. That I can find a place to fit. That no matter how many teachings I reject or question, I can be accepted by people of God. 

3 comments

  1. Mari says:

    Hi Karissa,
    About Adam and Eve: on Ancient Faith blog Departing Horeb there is a interesting blog post called “How Should Orthodox Christians Appropriate Secular Knowledge?”. (you need to read the comments to get to the part about Adam and Eve.) I thought you might like it. I have to admit I did not get all of it, but found it interesting nevertheless :)

  2. Mary Van Denend says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Karissa. You describe our group with loving attention and accuracy. It’s always a risk to enter into an intense workshop with new people. Thank you for choosing to come anyway. I’m glad you felt welcomed and able to share from the core of who you are. Did you ever check out Abbey of the Arts? You would find many kindred spirits there as well. Peace and all good to you, Karissa.

    Mary

  3. Joanne Corey says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am glad you were in such good company in Collegeville. I believe that nearly all spiritually aware adults have doubts and struggles; it is a huge help when people can share those experiences so they know they are not alone, as you share so beautifully here.

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