The borrowing of symbols and places

The repeated graphic on these pages is a mosaic band common in Venetian cathedrals from the 11th through 17th centuries. Influenced by Islamic patterns, it also evokes those of other traditions, especially the knotwork found in the art of Gaelic and many indigenous cultures, representing life and unity; and the three-pronged fleur-de-lis used by French royalty, representing the holy trinity or the unity of heart, mind and body. The graphic serves as a reminder that historically, many different belief systems have deemed the same places holy, and the same symbols appropriate modes of expression.

For example, some symbols and places important to Christianity have a source in the goddess-based, pagan religion once practiced throughout Europe. Many Christian cathedrals were built on pilgrimage sites that were, prior to Christianity, sacred to the goddess. Chartres cathedral in France was built on the site that was once the Druids' sanctuary, a sacred wood where, carved in the trunk of a pear tree, had been the image of the goddess with an infant on her knees, believed to have been made by Druids before the birth of Christ.

Labyrinths or more properly, mazes, which are the symbol of the earth and the goddess and represent the soul's journey into the center of the uterine underworld, are found in at least 20 cathedrals throughout Europe. At Chartres, a pavement maze called the "Road of Jerusalem" is 666 feet long. Six-hundred sixty-six was the sacred number of Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty. In Christianity it became a demonic one.

Before becoming Mary's symbol, the open red rose was the classical flower of Venus/Aphrodite and Eros, the muses and Dionysus. It represented not only mature sexuality but a link between the human and the divine. A tiled rose is at the center of the Chartres labyrinth, and is the same dimension as its stained-glass rose window, found in so many other cathedrals.

Sectarian constraints or freedom to follow the "inner light"?

The Mawrter tendency to question everything-inside the classroom and out-may not have been full blown from the start; the academic model of the lecture system, with no class discussion or student-professor conferences, continued into the 1900s. Certainly by the 1960s, scientific method and Socratic method had met up with the student movement's rally to "question authority."

In her 1956 history of Bryn Mawr, What Makes a College, Cornelia Meigs '07 A.B. '08 wrote that contrary to general opinion, the nourishment of religious life there has been "the subject of of more earnest thought and private consultation, of less public discussion and pronouncement, than any other aspect..."

Joseph Taylor expressed in his will the wish that the spirit and usages of the Society of Friends should prevail as much as possible at Bryn Mawr. But Quakers believe in the individual's complete freedom to follow the Inner Light, and the first board of trustees refused to prescribe compulsory religious study or attendance at religious meetings. Religious teachings had a place in the department of philosophy, and in later years other departments offered courses in history of religion, scripture and biblical archaeology.

Although a devoted Quaker, first President James Rhoads declined to have a branch of or official connection with the Haverford Meeting. Doris "Do" Hastings Darnell '39 made the distinction that "At Haverford, weekly meeting was enforced. I think you lose the effect of sitting in silence, waiting to see what will come to your mind, if you are made to go. ... Nothing was imposed on us. ... We were people free to be and search for what we wanted. That was M. Carey Thomas' goal."

Rhoads instead held Wednesday gatherings somewhat modeled on the Quaker pattern. He continued to give lectures during his retirement, but after his death the program broadened under various combinations of College and student leadership, Christian and nonsectarian. By the 1950s, a student Chapel Committee brought in speakers for Sunday evening services in Goodhart and arranged conferences on religious topics, including demonstrations of a Mass and a Seder.

In her biography of M.Carey Thomas, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz argues that she had lost her religious faith by the time she returned from her studies in Europe and remained a Quaker outwardly in order to achieve and maintain her position at Bryn Mawr. As a young dean, Thomas persuaded trustees to open the College to the best qualified students and faculty, not solely Quakers.

After becoming president, Thomas fought a backlash from a number of conservative trustees determined to reestablish a sectarian school. She refused their demand, on religious grounds, that she omit Shakespeare and other Elizabethan plays from her lectures, from the library and police students' rooms for privately owned books. She gave short chapel talks that had no religious message and did not discourage the student rituals that became Bryn Mawr traditions. Horowitz quotes a March 1904 letter from Thomas to Mary Garrett reporting that trustee Edward J. Bettle, Jr. and his daughter were enraged by the singing of the College hymn, "Pallas Athena" at a Chapel lecture: "They said it was irreverent and pagan and a hymn to a heathen goddess, sung like a benediction standing."

That same year, Bryn Mawr imported for its first little May Day Magdalen College's Hymnus Eucharisticus to be sung from Rockefeller Tower. Thomas did not publicly acknowledge the purely religious nature of this hymn to the Holy Trinity, itself a relatively late addition to Magdalen's secular concert at sunrise on May Day. In her 1915 May Day chapel address, she emphasized the pagan origins of May Day and recalled the planning of Rockefeller Tower so that students could "follow the custom of Magdalen College, Oxford, and sing to the sunů" Did she intend the hymn as a sop or a snub?

Religion versus spirituality

"A lot of intellectual people are very wary of what any particular religion might do to impede the intellect. That we may have with us for a very long time, and maybe even should have with us, because if you value intellectual freedom, I would say religions' track record is mixed at best. In the Christian tradition, spirituality has for centuries been largely something akin to the effect on the soul that religious practice is thought to have. But Wittgenstein had a good point when he said words get their meaning from their use. In our society today, religion and spirituality often are used somewhat separately. What people are trying to do when they talk about spirituality is to talk about their sense of connectedness with a whole much larger than themselves, a greater unity of some kind. That unity is thought to go between various people, between people and nature, sometimes a sort of divine (though not always), and also it goes backward and forward in history, the sense of connectedness to previous generations and perhaps to generations to come. People want to be able to talk about these things without having to use the forms that they've learned from particular religious traditions. They usually don't want to be confined to a particular tradition and its particular teachings. -Sandy Dixon '76

To people who see religious institutions as narrow or oppressive, as dictating to them what they should believe, spirituality is distinct from religion. Spirituality is an inner freedom to explore and express feeling. -The Rev. Judith Meyer '70

Every human being has a spiritual, transcendent dimension. There's no human being who would admit that simply having food serves all the cravings of the human being. Human beings are created with an infinite capacity for love. That's why materialism never really satisfies. Someone gets married and says, all I want is a little apartment, love is enough. And a short time after that they want a single home, and then they want a bigger single home. That's not bad, it's simply a manifestation that the human heart has an infinite capacity for love. And the only thing that will ever satisfy an infinite desire is an infinite good: God. St. Augustine says that our hearts will always be restless until we rest in God. We'll always have a wanting of something more than we've got. Are we spiritual beings? Absolutely. Religion is simply a means for connecting that desire for transcendence with the object of transcendence. Religion is the vehicle, the instrument, the means. The word religion itself is from Latin and means "to relink." So we're relinking this human person with the object of our desire, which would be God. And hopefully the reason that a person chooses a particular denomination is because he or she perceives that that denomination provides the best means of being linked with the object of desire. Many young people have a desire for something transcendent, but they're not sure what the means to that connection is and might feel they can find it on their own. But we're part of a community. It's much easier in this journey to work as part of a community to find God, than to try and do that on your own. -The Rev. John Ames

Spirituality is what comes first. Religion is spirituality institutionalized. It's when you lose the spirit -Jeanne-Rachel Salomon '00

Religion is stereotyped as an organization in a superstructure that's imposed from the outside. Spirituality is stereotyped as your own inner journey. What I strive to do in my ministry is to bring the two together, to declutter as much as possible the organizational do's and don'ts in order to help people arrive at their own authentic relationship with God. The infighting, the politics of organized religion, the damage that some religions do to people emotionally and psychologically-that's what makes people say that they don't want to have anything to do with religion. Sometimes it's easy to say, I don't want to have anything to do with religion, instead of recognizing that every human organization has its faults and its good points. That's what I used to say. But then I realized I couldn't do it on my own. I needed community. I needed some avenue that had some recognizable parameters to it: the regularity of worship, receiving the Eucharist, the regularity of scripture readings and that kind of rhythm of life that helped keep me on track with my own spirituality. -The Rev. Winifred Allen-Faiella '73

Often religion is seen as what you inherit, and you may be trying to figure out how to carry on with it within a certain tradition. Spirituality may not come from any particular tradition that you were born with or chose to affiliate yourself with; it may just be your own exploration, within organized religion or outside of it. What people might fail to realize is that spirituality can really inform religion, and that religious life is not devoid of spirituality. One very acceptable way of expressing religious life is through your own spirituality, and what your tradition may offer you in that respect. -Rabbi Marsha Pik-Nathan

Spirituality indicates a relationship that you have with a higher power, whether you want to call it God or Mother nature or whatever. Religion tends to be the social side of that, in that it gives society laws and a framework to improve society for everybody. Spirituality without religion doesn't provide any unity between people. People need some commonality to go on. What religion does is provide that framework. Freedom is important, but absolute freedom is not beneficial to anybody. Religion gives you freedom to be the best person that you can be. People who work within a framework have a greater understanding. -Felicia Munion '00

The exclusive distinction between religion and spirituality is too often political, a means of distinguishing the socially acceptable from the not. In this culture which seeks to avoid at all costs the conventional, the prescribed, the imposition of a morality that is anything but relative, "organized religion" has become a bitterly loaded term. Its rejection has led to the quest for a secular spiritualism, a spirituality liberated from the so-called social injustice/cultural irrelevance of absolute truth in favor of the tyranny of independence, the personal. "I am a spiritual person" is a politically correct, even vogue, affirmation, but declaring "I am a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew" (I select these three because the more obscure, the more less western, perhaps, a faith seems to be, the more authentically "spiritual" it is perceived as) leaves one prone to assumptions of mechanism, legalism, collectivism rather than privacy, inheritance rather than choice. I challenge the artificiality of that distinction in the context of what I would call true religion: pious (jargon, but more accurate than "religious") behavior motivated by a living faith that grows out of a transcendent knowledge of one's object of worship on an intensely personal level. Spirituality is that point at which religion is accountable to and directly informed by the presence of God, at which religion becomes relationship and the worshiper communicates with the object of worship. -Kristin Henry '01

To move from being spiritual to being religious, you go from saying, my spirituality is my own to saying my spirituality is more than my own, it's something I share with a community of people that came before me in history. It's a claiming of traditions and beliefs that have been passed down. When you say you're religious you're saying you belong to a community; you claim its beliefs as your own, and I have a responsibility to that community. - Beth Stroud '91

cover icon Return to Winter 2000 highlights