Quiet space for retreat if the spirit takes you

February 2, 2007

Contemplative spaces are still new to many campuses but, as Charlie Fox reports, whether for religious reflection or time out from a heavy workload, people find them a breath of fresh air

It's 8 o'clock on a Friday morning and Edinburgh University's campus is as silent as the grave.

In a corner of George Square Gardens, a fenced pocket of urban greenery ringed by the handsome Georgian terraced buildings occupied by the university, four women stand in silence by a large paved labyrinth.

Slowly they follow the labyrinth's winding path until they reach its centre. They stop and stand motionless. Several minutes pass before they retrace their steps and leave the labyrinth.

The area, which was designed as a space for quiet reflection, meditation and prayer, is an imaginative take on a new trend in higher education whereby universities provide staff and students with nondenominational contemplative spaces.

These places, as opposed or in addition to prayer rooms, look to welcome people of every faith and background and provide some escape from the hectic pace of academic life.

Catriona Mackie, one of the women walking the Labyrinth in Edinburgh, is a researcher in the university's Gaelic faculty. As a Christian, she uses the space as a retreat for spiritual meditation and for peaceful thought when the stress of academic life becomes particularly burdensome. "It's more about honouring yourself by taking time out when you need to than about finding any particular spiritual meaning in it," Dr Mackie said.

"I do, in general, find that taking time to relax your mind is a very spiritual practice, but I'm sure not everyone would agree.

"I strongly support the idea of people of different faiths coming together to enjoy the Labyrinth and other such spaces, for a lot of reasons to do with understanding, compassion and a love of humanity and of the Earth. It can only be a good thing."

Mary Stack, a student counsellor at Edinburgh, said: "I walk the Labyrinth to focus my thoughts and calm my mind and body. Because I tend to hold my feelings inside, I find it soothing to take slow and thoughtful steps.

"For me, it is a sacred space where that internal life can be re-vitalised.

I really benefit from slowing down and letting go; I feel life is more in balance when I leave. I tend to visit the Labyrinth when things really get on top of me, but I would like this to be a regular discipline."

The Equality Challenge Unit recently published guidelines on how contemplative spaces should be managed. It reports that while requests for quiet rooms are not necessarily on the increase, where rooms are already provided it may be more appropriate to label them contemplative spaces rather than calling them "prayer" rooms, because that carries religious connotations.

"More universities are recognising that they have an interest in promoting good relations between staff and students," an ECU spokeswoman said. "If properly managed, contemplative spaces can promote cohesion on campus.

"Rooms should be open to those of all faiths and none, and not simply for religious prayer. The existing practice of providing 'prayer rooms' can leave non-religious people feeling excluded."

The question for many is whether this is a sign of increasing secularisation on campus or simply a move to promote co-operation between people of different faiths.

The Rev Di Williams, chaplain of Edinburgh University, established the Labyrinth as well as numerous quiet rooms on campus. She said universities must take account of growing internationalisation. "We cater for many more backgrounds than we did even ten years ago, and multi-faith provision is the only way to move forward."

Edinburgh is not alone in providing quiet zones and meeting places such as the Labyrinth.

Sheffield Hallam University is building a new multifaith facility, and Westminster University has been recognised as an example of good practice in its recognition of spiritual diversity.

Derby University has also established such a well-used centre, which operates as an independent interfaith meeting point for students, staff and city residents.

But, given the diverse mix of religions and traditions included in these provisions, management is not always an easy task.

Typically, facilities are used by groups ranging from Christians and Jews to Buddhists and atheists, as well as less "mainstream" traditions such as Druids and pagans. Although acceptance is promoted, it may not always be possible.

For example, the fact that Muslim students pray several times a day has, in some universities, presented difficulties in providing equal access.

Fehmeeda Riaz, human resources manager, equality and diversity, at Westminster University, where 50 per cent of students come from ethnic minorities, said: "Our multi-faith prayer room did not work.

"We found that Muslim students were most in need of on-campus facilities, but we did not want to alienate others. Now we have a Muslim prayer room on each campus, as well as a quiet contemplation room for people of all faiths and none."

On those occasions when the traditions of one faith are deemed intolerable by another, these tensions can escalate.

The Mexican Society at Edinburgh University recently asked to display skulls in recognition of the Day of the Dead, which left others feeling uncomfortable.

Similarly, the Palestinian Solidarity Society once hung a poster in the quiet room that, because of its separatist tone, was offensive to Jewish students.

The solution, according to the ECU, is to provide universal procedures that maintain respect across the board - in this case, a rule that all occupants of quiet rooms take all religious items with them when they leave.

"If you create a culture of openness, people from different traditions can meet across the boundary," Ms Williams said.

"They may never be in the same place spiritually but they can gain understanding from coming together. We have had pagan students on Christian retreats, to the great benefit of both groups."

But some academics have warned that this accommodation of difference should not morph into religious coercion.

John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St Andrews University, said: "Just as it would be inappropriate for an institution to use its sports facilities as a means of requiring people of different interests to mix, so it would be inappropriate to do it in the sphere of chaplaincy."

Still, on this Friday morning at Edinburgh, the spirit of peaceful coexistence seems to be alive and well.

'I LIKE TO SHARE THE QUIET'

Mary Dobbing is a lecturer and clinical tutor in traditional Chinese medicine acupuncture at the School of Integrated Health, Westminster University

"I am a part-time lecturer, which has its stresses and strains.

The chaplaincy offers weekly reflection groups held in the quiet room, which staff and students can attend.

"A few of us meet from different Christian backgrounds (Catholic, Anglican, Quaker), and we are led in reflection by one of the chaplains.

"I appreciate the opportunity for a spell of community worship in the middle of a busy working day. I am a Quaker and I value the faith in action aspect of participating in worship and contemplation with others from different churches in my workplace and with our work in mind.

"I hope that the spiritual connecting and sharing helps to ground me in my work and foster networks with others of faith in the university.

"Our quiet room is open all the time, but I use it when I know there will be others to share the quiet with."

CREATE A SPACE TO THINK

In establishing a shared contemplative space, the Equality Challenge Unit's report Employing People in Higher Education: Religion and Belief recommends that an institution ensure:

* Approach based on mutual trust and respect. Facilitators should make sure that there is an open, clear and constructive environment where people can express views without fear of negative repercussion

* Consultation based on effective communication, consultation and research into precise need to ensure that provisions are tailored to the specific institutional population

* Management based on impact assessment and constant monitoring. The progress of the facility should be reviewed regularly to enable adaptation and development as new challenges present themselves.

www.ecu.ac.uk

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