Students at Culver Academies took a day off from classes to reflect on ways they express their spiritualty and to celebrate the importance of the spirit component of the school’s mind, spirit, body whole person education mission.
“It’s ingenious how Culver has placed spirit right in the middle of mind, spirit, body because the spirit is the connector between the mind and the body,” the Rev. Sam Boys, Ph.D., director of spiritual life at Culver Academies told students at an all-school meeting on Monday, Jan. 29.
Boys told the students the second annual Spirit Day at Culver was an opportunity for them to reflect on how they experience and express their spiritual lives. Students went to a variety of sessions where they learned about the many ways people express their spirituality, from weekly services to music and art to disciplines like yoga, tai chi and journaling, to observing and appreciating nature.
“We have extraordinary diversity when it comes to spirituality. We all have our own definition of what it means to be spiritual, what spirituality means to us. This is a day to celebrate this diversity and a day to find our unity as one Culver with many different spiritual expressions,” he said.
The day kicked off with an hourlong all-school meeting the night before in Eppley Auditorium that included meditation, students talking about spirituality in athletics and nature, students of Hindu and Jewish faith each quizzed their classmates to see how much they know about those religions, and dance and musical performances, highlighted with students, standing and waving glow sticks as the “Praise Band” played during the finale.
On Monday, the students were allowed to sleep in before attending a 9 a.m. all-school meeting at Eppley where two alumni told students about their spiritual journeys.
Mia Tiwana ’19 described how she risked severe punishment and was disowned by her family in Saudi Arabia after she decided to convert from Islam to Christianity.
She was from a wealthy, traditional Muslim family in Saudi Arabia where her mother taught women about the Quran. She said she started questioning her religion as a young teen when she was told what clothes she could wear, she was given an earlier curfew than her brothers, she had to wash the dishes while her brothers did not, and her parents started talking about an arranged marriage.
She began learning about feminism and that led to her questioning her religion. She decided to try to learn more about Christianity. But she said that wasn’t allowed in Saudi Arabia because conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy. An inner voice told her to keep searching.
She said she thought her interest in Christianity would last “30 seconds” because she thought she would quickly debunk the religion.
“The short story is, I never got around to debunking it, and here I am as a Christian,” she said.
She said that at age 13, after her parents discovered she was reading biblical verses, they took her for a drive and confronted her. Her father gave her a choice either return to being a good Muslim girl or face the consequences.
“Right then and there, I proclaimed that I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and the son of God and that he died for our sins and was resurrected,” she said.
Her parents disowned her, but eventually took her back into their home. They couldn’t understand why she had converted to being Roman Catholic and why she was so happy.
“Students of Culver Academies, there is nothing as fulfilling and sustaining as when you are at peace with your conscience, even if every external circumstance in your life is difficult,” she said.
She said she applied to Culver and made a deal with her parents that if they let her enroll, she wouldn’t tell anyone in Saudi Arabia she had converted. She started at Culver as a junior in 2017.
“The freedom to pursue the truth, that is what you have here at Culver,” she said. “That’s what I found here at Culver. People here allowed me to pursue and inquire about the truth with all of my heart,” she said. “It was such a gift to be at Culver, to be minor, to be a woman and still be taken very seriously for my beliefs.”
She said Oct. 21, 2018, when she was baptized and confirmed on the same day, is the best day of her life. She received her First Communion the next day. She said her roommates taught her how to pray the rosary.
“Without the support of Culver staff and my peers I would never have had the dream of pursuing truth and pursuing God with all my heart,” she said.
She said she arrived at Culver feeling lost but graduated confident in her future.
“As I left Culver through the Arch, I knew that I belonged to something so special. A place that had given me the freedom to know and appreciate my own values,” she said.
Tiwana graduated from the University of Notre Dame last May after majoring in political science and theology and works as program manager for its law school’s Religious Liberty Initiative.
Rune Kirby ’16, a captain of the Culver prep hockey team that was the national runner-up, told students how he found his spirituality while attending a yoga class taught by Boys in Steinbrenner Gym. He said he had inflexible hips and was self-conscious about whether he was doing it right until he decided to “just buy in.”
“For the first time in my life, I connected with my breath. I connected to myself. Almost a trance halfway between falling asleep and staying awake I envisioned for the first time in my life and was introduced to at that time to what I could only recognize or understand to be my soul or my spirit,” he said.
He said it was in the forefront of his brain, just above his eyes. He called that his “spiritual awakening.” He said it left him with more questions than answers. But he said he knew it was something he needed to seek and listen to.
He said it was “a rich and meaningful experience” and led him to start meeting with Boys to learn more and soon discovered his spirituality.
“I connected deeply, intimately, authentically with myself, those that I shared this space with and the space that is this Culver bubble itself,” he said.
Kirby, who graduated from Tufts University in 2022 and is now working on his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Spiritual Mind Body Institute, challenged students to take ownership of what spirituality means to them.
“Make it matter and make it have meaning to you. That is my challenge to you,” he said.
Here are some stories about the dozens of diverse sessions students had the opportunity to attend during the Day of Spirit:
A History of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
By Bowen Xiao
Humanities senior instructor Rebecca Hodges led students into the complex origin of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
While brought up in a Protestant family, she lived in the Middle East for two years, uncovering the origins of Judaism and Islam for her Ph.D. degree. She planned this session to share her unique understanding of the similarities and differences between these three religions.
Interestingly, some Jewish and Islamic students signed up for this session to learn this issue from a different perspective. The students were first directed to match some terms regarding each religion to the definitions in group work. Then, they were asked to share the terms in front of the whole class and put them on the whiteboard to create a massive timeline.
Throughout the exercise, many students realized how these religions share the same important figures but with different interpretations. These small distinctions eventually led to major conflicts in history. The comparisons among the three religions enabled students to reflect upon their beliefs and to view the other beliefs with open-mindedness.
At Culver, Unitarian Universalist service comprises the Hindu, Buddhist, and Meditative Freewriting services. Unitarian Universalists believe in a combination of many faith backgrounds and often celebrate holidays from many different religions.
By Ravi D. Gaba
Hindu service welcomed guests with the goal of exposing them to the faith in a simple and understandable way. The service began with a slideshow presentation detailing the origins of Hinduism and its establishment as the oldest major religion in the world. Presenters Prajna Tamanna and Ravi Gaba detailed the importance of shrines, idols, readings and scriptures, slokas, and celebrations such as Diwali and Holi, to the Hindu tradition. The Hindu religion is quite foreign to many considering its ancient nature and its distinct differences from other belief systems. The small session allowed those in attendance to ask as many questions as necessary to understand the complexity of Hindu beliefs.
After the presentation, Ravi, Prajna, and Anjali Gaba, engaged the audience in a reading of the Bhagavad Gita, an essential Hindu text. The passage that was chosen described the nature of God and the path to heaven through righteous and good deeds. The scripture described how commitment to God and a commitment to doing the good would allow the believer to have eternal life in heaven. This idea is one common to many different religions outside of Hinduism, allowing listeners to tie parallels back to their own faith tradition. A discussion of the text followed the reading, allowing listeners to engage with the presenters and provide their own feedback regarding the text and the message they took from it. Although there was much to learn, the audience felt they had absorbed the basics and had a newfound understanding of the ancient tradition.
By McQueen Huang
“Let’s start our service with a Metta meditation,” said senior Natalia Somma Tang, the co-leader of the Buddhist service. “May I be peaceful and light in my body and in my mind. … May all beings not fall into the state of indifference or be caught in the extremes of attachment or aversion.” Michael Ma and Tang discussed the practices and notions of Buddhism, including the eightfold path and the four noble truths. The participants shared their initiatives of attending the Buddhist service, with some having family members who are Buddhist and others interested in the religion, and most expressed their surprise to find Buddhism a philosophical ideology rather than a religion of worshipping.
By Xiaolan Wang
The Labyrinth Walking service was designed to cultivate a sense of gratitude and a focused mindset among students. Although many of us in this session expected an obstacle maze, in reality, the unicursal labyrinth we faced had only one path in and the same path back out. There were no dead ends, but no shortcuts either.
The session began with a ritual to “open” the labyrinth. Four volunteer students ceremoniously lit candles representing the four elements: earth, air, fire and water, each corresponding to emotional health associated with melancholy, sanguinity, choler and phlegm. The number four is a magical number that relates to the Christian and Celtic festivals of the Cycle of the Year dance, and it is symbolic of Native Americans’ medicine wheel, which embodies the four directions.
The deliberate design of the labyrinth encouraged a slow, contemplative pace as participants trod barefoot. This meditative walk encourages silent reflection, particularly on the theme of gratitude. Each student followed the person in front, which helped us focus by making us fit in with the rhythm and keep our distance. This experience served as a reminder of the importance of gratitude and the value of taking a moment to slow down and reflect amid our busy lives.
By Sophia Frazee
Journaling was my first session of the day and the most exciting. We were each provided with a lined notebook (that we got to choose the color of!) and a set of colored pencils. After a talk from humanities fellow Danielle Davis on the different types and purposes of journaling, she left us to our own devices with what we wanted to do with our journal.
I decided to spend the majority of the time writing on some of the prompts Davis gave us to help get us started, but I saw that many decided to be more artistic and add colors and doodles that related to their answer.
I didn’t feel anything as I was writing, but I noticed I felt calmer as I was leaving the session. I learned that journaling is a way to express and process your thoughts around specific events and it’s much easier to make sense of those thoughts when you see them in front of you, on paper. I always thought journaling was just a diary for older people – which it kind of is –but it goes beyond just containing personal accounts of what you did that day. Journaling is a way to manage stress and track your progress and growth. If journaling is an option for next year’s annual Day of Spirit, I look forward to the possibility of participating in it again.
Coexistence of Faith and Science
By McQueen Huang
Science instructor Patrick Mulkerin wrote down the two questions: “Is science anti-religion?” and “Is religion anti-science?”
Students remained silent, running the two ideas through their thoughts and trying to gather information to develop an accurate statement.
As the awkward silence grew, Mulkerin raised a second question: “Can science prove that a god doesn’t exist?”
After a moment, he answered: “No.”
Science is capable of proving facts about the world, including the results of a chemical reaction, the structure of a cell, and Isaac Newton’s laws of physics. However, according to Mulkerin, matters in this universe cooperate perfectly with the world that we saw to exist, and it is hard to not consider the possibility of an ultimate designer behind the scenes.
Mulkerin described himself as a devoted Christian before developing a deep interest in science in high school and college, where he gradually became an atheist and discarded his previous beliefs. However, Mulkerin learned about the specific constants that are involved in physics, such as the universal gravitational constant and the attraction force of a single electron, and attempted but failed to disprove the existence of a supernatural being. “It is too hubristic to say that one can disprove another,” Mulkerin said.
Music of Taylor Swift: Seeing the Sacred in the Secular
By Rae Brennan
To conclude my Day of Spirit, my final session was “Taylor Swift, Seeing the Sacred in the Secular.” Which, to be honest, I saw on my schedule and had no idea what that meant.
Upon arriving, calm accompaniment of Taylor’s music was playing while humanities assistant instructor Clara Lee, humanities senior instructor Michelle Fuentes, Ph.D., and science instructor Jessica DeNapoli, Ph.D., invited us to take off our coats and shoes.
The first thing we did was do some breathing work together to get us all comfortable. After that, we “shook it out” while music videos of Taylor played, and we had to shake and dance through the whole song. Vulnerability was definitely a necessity for this exercise as all of us seemed dissonant at first. The CMA cadets in my session made the shake it out portion a lot more enjoyable. They were confident in themselves within the space and led us all to be more comfortable with each other. We shook it out to four songs and then started some karaoke. Everyone got a chance to shine and have their Eras Tour moment. To conclude the session, we sat in groups and made our own friendship bracelets, which multiple people traded with one another.
The session was super fun and was a great last session. Lots of us left the session still humming our favorite songs and showing off our bracelets.
Origins of the Universe
By Shannon Li
In the session Origin of the Universe, led by Mehdi Meziane, Ph.D., students were able to explore the scientific principles and evolutionary theories about the comic beginning.
The session introduced the Big Bang theory, then delved into the different scientists who made assumptions about the universe. Examples related to our daily lives were given for students to better understand the concepts of the universe’s structure. Additionally, physics was brought into the discussion between the students and Meziane, which led to a detailed analysis of the formulas. The lecture given was inspiring for students, and gave them a foundation to unravel the truth of the origin of the universe.
The lecture by Meziane was a mind-expanding journey that not only gave me a wide perspective on cosmic theories but also allowed me to reflect on the existence of the universe itself. Exploring the formation of the Big Bang theory and the unit of energy involved in time was incredibly rewarding.
Meziane explained in a detailed manner connecting to real life examples, which made me realize the interconnection between things and the complexity of our world. This session ignited the curiosity within me for the mystery of the universe and left me with a new perspective to appreciate the cosmic beauty.
Making your phone a better friend
By Andrew Chen
Humanities master instructor Jen Cerny talked to students about how to make their phone work for you, not the other way around.
Revolving around the phone trial conducted last year that shaped this year’s Culver phone policy, this class discussed the benefits and downsides of phone usage. It gave realistic and implementable solutions to phone overuse, such as turning on the grayscale in settings that turns everything to black and white. Research shows that helps reduce the time people spend looking at their smartphones.
I signed up for this class because I often feel like my phone takes more from my life than it contributes. But like many of my fellow students, I can’t let go of my phone completely. I found our discussions about what causes us to pick up our phones and how we feel while endlessly scrolling very interesting. We realized that it was the relief we felt while scrolling, not happiness, and we discussed why this could be.
Participants left this class with new knowledge and tips about controlling phone usage and many resources, such as a copy of last year’s phone trial results.
Nature Spirituality, Walk in the Woods
By Bowen Xiao
“I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.”
By Robert Frost, the ending of his poem “Birches”
Walking in the woods seemed an extravagant activity in the wild winter of Indiana. Luckily, on the Day of Spirit, the weather was mild as the students could enjoy nature amid a frigid season and busy term. As humanities instructor Shalena Eaton and horsemanship instructor Anthony Strange led the students through the woods into the town, students remained silent and listened to nature with peace and calmness in mind.
Upon reaching the amphitheater next to the Culver Visitor Center, students sat down and meditated. By focusing on breaths in the coldness, I was able to feel how nature surrounded and shrouded my presence. Then, Eaton read aloud the famous poem “Birches” by Robert Frost as I reflected upon my interactions with Mother Nature. I walked back with a fresh mind and purified spirit.
Making a Hajj
As I entered the classroom and glanced at the massive word "Hajj" on the presentation, I wondered: “What is it?”
I took a seat, opened a notebook, and tried to learn anything interesting about Islam cultural traditions. Mathematics instructor Nur Islam and humanities senior instructor Ghada Al Abbadi were positioned at the front of the classroom.
One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is a five-day ritual that is performed mainly at Mecca during the final month of the lunar calendar each year. Ten religious actions comprise the Hajj, such as Ihram, Tawaf, Sa'ey between Safa and Marwa, standing atop Mount Ararat, stoning the devil, spending the night in Muzdalifai, and slaughtering sheep, ending Ihram, returning to the wall of devil, and returning to Kaaba. After hearing the introduction, I was engrossed in the brief film scenery and diverse Hajj activities.
By Jessica Tong
Dog therapy, one of the most sought-after events during Day of Spirit, introduced students to several therapy dogs that often visit schools and nursing homes and are known for their abilities in providing comfort and support, especially to those who deal with challenges of mental issues, physical disabilities and other challenges.
In many ways, the companionship dogs provide are deeply loving, healing and promote calmness and connection. At the event, most students sat in circles around the dogs, petting and interacting with them while making conversations with their handlers. Most students were given treats to feed the dogs and tennis balls to play fetch and catch as well. Overall, the presence of these gentle and loving dogs certainly brightened everyone’s mood.
Personally, dog therapy was the activity I was looking forward to the most during the Day of Spirit. Interacting with these furry animals was truly heartwarming, but moreover, the unwavering love and enthusiasm they provided was openly inspiring. especially knowing the joy and comfort they bring into people’s lives as therapy dogs. Through the entire experience, I’ve come to appreciate the bond shared between humans and dogs even more.
By Xiaolan Wang
Students in The Book of Joy (Cultivating Joy) service had a chance to explore the concept of “joy” with Emily Uebler, Ph.D. This session, inspired by the book “The Book of Joy” written by the Buddhist Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, aimed to answer the challenging question: How do we find joy in the face of suffering?
We kicked off the session with a small group discussion about the distinctions between happiness and joy. It turns out that, unlike happiness, joy is a state of being that requires one to seek actively.
“A life without suffering, frustrations, and problems does not exist,” Uebler said. “Since we can’t control negative happenings, we must practice our response to them. Qualities of the mind and heart offer us better options rather than dwelling on obstacles.”
Although our 45-minute session barely scratched the surface of the 400-page book, we talked about one crucial pillar of joy – perspective. If we look at an issue from multiple angles, then we can reduce worry and anxiety. Try to focus on the positive and transform apparent setbacks into opportunities.
As the session concluded, Uebler shared with us the documentary version of “The Book of Joy” called “Mission: Joy - Finding Happiness in Troubled Times.” This was an inspiring service for me, and Jacqueline Carrillo, Ph.D., who also attended, expressed: "These ideas are empowering and inspire me to take responsibility for the way in which I choose to experience life."
Breathe, Connect, Reflect, Working with Clay
By Albert Lu
Clay isn’t often thought of as a spiritual tool. But in “Breathe, Connect, Reflect – Working With Clay,” led by senior fine arts instructor Diana Westphal, students explored using the pliable material as a medium for spiritual self-expression.
Students chose between a clay slab and ball and were encouraged to mold and carve out a sculpture or tablet expressing a meaningful memory. Afterward, students’ pieces (such as a dog, a sitting person, a cosmic brownie, and a Wienermobile) were placed in a display case next to Crisp Room 106, where they will be showcased until they dry. Then, they will be recycled to be used in another piece of art. The infinitely reusable nature of clay, until being fired, prompts us to reflect on our own spirituality.
Cooking as Spirituality
By Sophia Frazee
“Cooking as Spirituality” involved making two different types of pizzas, sweet and savory, from the same crust and base ingredients. I was a part of the sweet pizza group. Our first step was to make the icing. Although it was just mixing sugar, cream cheese and a touch of vanilla extract, we somehow managed to break the plastic bowl we made the icing in. Other than that, everything went well and we covered our pizza with plenty of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and banana slices.
When both groups were finished, we cut up the pizzas so that everyone could at least have one slice of each. World Language and Culture master instructor Cory Barnes prompted us to be mindful with each bite we took and its taste. Although I prefer sweet over savory, the other group’s pizza was just as wonderful in its own way. The sauce, also made from cream cheese but with a touch of sour cream and ranch, made the pizza and paired well with the cheese, pepper, and other vegetable toppings.
This session, although too short to actually cook anything, showed how your state of mind is reflected in what you make and that the food we eat connects us with the world around us.
By Nwanma Udokwu
The floor was cleared of its usual chairs, making it a dance floor. David Weirich, a senior instructor of instrumental music and the associate director of bands, introduced the activity, American Rumba, and instructed our group to split into leaders and followers. Soon he taught us the mantra we would use the whole time, “Slow Quick-Quick.” The group repeated this, and our feet followed.
When we first paired up, it was difficult to move in sync without stepping on each other. Personally, I had to watch my partner and my feet to know we were doing it correctly. But as we continued to dance, we mastered the moves. Furthermore, Weirich demonstrated hard moves: an underarm turn and fifth position breaks. It was not easy to always control my feet, yet whenever I stumbled over my partner, I just laughed, and we simply continued to dance. Together we muttered “Slow Quick-Quick.”
Rumba was a wonderful break in my day to move and get lost in the music. At the end of the session, Weirich explained that for him ballroom dancing was a hobby which allowed him to have time away from his work and enjoy himself. This sentiment made something click in my brain. In a spiritual sense, Rumba is a celebration of movement and rhythm where you can forget about your burdens and just dance.
Sermons in Stone
By Albert Lu
Do you know the meanings of the symbols on the chapel roof? Have you been to the top of the steeple?
“Sermons in Stone,” led by Culver historian Jeff Kenney, toured students around the Memorial Chapel, starting first with a lecture comparing Protestant and Catholic church designs and then exploring the nooks and crannies of the 73-year-old building.
Attendees learned about Culver graduates who died in war and whose names are engraved in the chapel walls. We then climbed steep stairs up the belltower to see the bell-ringing mechanism and the chapel carillon (a keyboard instrument using bells for its sound).
Though the tour was only 45-minutes long, students were left with a greater appreciation for the history, depth and secrets behind our Memorial Chapel.
By Samuel Shi
Tai chi, a traditional Chinese movement and breathing practice based on dialectical concepts in Confucian and Daoist philosophy, integrates the theology of yin-yang (evil and good) and the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and Earth) within. It is believed that in the process of performing Tai Chi, one can achieve a balance between strength and agility, externality and internality through harnessing the amorphous “chi”, or energy encircling them.
Because tai chi offers multiple benefits, such as cultivating temperament, strengthening the body, and the practice of martial arts, it is prevalent among various groups and peoples. Here at Culver, during the Spirit Day session, students learned about numerous basic tai chi movements, and experienced the arts in inhaling the “essence” of nature and exhaling the coarseness of the human body.
After an approximate 45 minutes practice, various students expressed how it is “refreshening” and “soothing.” Leon Li said that tai chi is like “boxing while being asleep.”