Senior searches for meaning in spiritual memoirs
“Meaning of life questions have always fascinated me,” says Stephen Metcalf ’14, a behavioral neuroscience major. The senior from Ashland, Ky. has spent his final year at Centre studying the autobiographies of prominent figures in major religious and philosophical traditions.
“Reading the authors’ own accounts of their lives and their journeys toward purpose was inspiring,” says Metcalf, who carried out his research as one of seven John C. Young (JCY) Scholars.
The JCY program, currently in its 25th year, is named for Centre’s fourth president and provides funding and course credit for seniors to pursue independent research.
Most JCY scholars choose to pursue research in their major fields, but for Metcalf the program was a chance to make the most of the liberal arts experience Centre provides.
“The John C. Young Program has been a wonderful opportunity for me to explore topics in which I have been interested for quite some time,” says Metcalf. “I chose to do a project in religion even though I am a BNS major and math minor.”
Metcalf’s project is titled “On the Search for Meaning: An Analysis of Major Themes in Spiritual Memoirs and Autobiographies.” His interest in the topic was sparked in part by two trips abroad.
The first of these was to a monastery in Taiwan, where he participated in a Buddhist immersion program in the summer before his junior year. While there, says Metcalf, “I could not help but reflect on my life, and I gained so much by experiencing a different culture and way of being in the world.”
The second influential trip was a semester abroad at Christ Church, a college in the University of Oxford where Metcalf studied metaphysics and existentialism.
“Over the course of the term I examined identity, the existence of God, skepticism, perspectivism, objectivity and subjectivity, and Heidegger’s existentialism,” he says. “These two experiences led to many more questions worth pursuing and heavily influenced the development of my John C. Young project.”
Each JCY scholar is mentored by a Centre faculty member. Lee Jefferson, assistant professor of religion, oversaw Metcalf’s project.
“The Young program is a great opportunity for students and something that makes Centre unique,” says Jefferson. “It supports independent study and allows students to fully immerse themselves in a project.”
Metcalf examined a total of 13 autobiographies by Buddhist, Christian, Existentialist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim authors as varied as the Dalai Lama, Malcolm X and Thomas Merton. His project culminated in a trip to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist community near Bardstown, Ky. that was home to Merton in the mid-20th century.
“I interviewed and then had dinner with a monk, who was incredibly gracious with his time,” says Metcalf. “Thomas Merton was this monk’s novice master, so I was able to hear insights about Merton from someone who had direct experience for several years with him.”
Metcalf isolated 14 themes found across the memoirs he studied and presented his findings at the John C. Young symposium on April 26, where he also provided a comparison of the Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and the Catholic Abbey of Gethsemani.
Next year’s John C. Young Scholars were named earlier in April, and Metcalf advises the 2014-15 class and future applicants to begin preparations for their project as early as possible. As rewarding as his experience has been, he says, “the John C. Young is not a walk in the park. It takes dedication to complete a yearlong project during one’s senior year.”
by Laurie Pierce