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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023

Columns

The Spaces We Hold

A Leap Into Faith

The South Transept Window in Memorial Hall commemorates the forces that motivated Union soldiers in the Civil War. Inscribed in the stained glass in Latin is the phrase “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name may there be glory.”
The South Transept Window in Memorial Hall commemorates the forces that motivated Union soldiers in the Civil War. Inscribed in the stained glass in Latin is the phrase “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name may there be glory.” By Ellie H. Ashby
By Ellie H. Ashby, Crimson Opinion Writer
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

Space, as a concept, is religious in nature.

Space and architecture adhere to and reflect cosmic law. Grand architecture emphasizes the splendor of something unexplainable.

This manifests in two ways: the physical — the concrete-and-brick structures religion is housed within — and the non-physical — conversational crevices religion is permitted to fill. These contrasting spaces form a dialectic: Physical spaces guide our academic conversations and our spiritual sense of belonging; at the same time, we use that guidance to admire or demand changes to our spaces.

Harvard is peppered with religious spaces, and Harvard is fraught with the space of religious discourse.

My freshman year, I learned of the importance of space through its absence. During 2020 and 2021 — the Covid-19 years — Annenberg was a space we could not eat in, Widener a space we could not study in. Every space was defined by what we were not allowed to do in it. Trying to find your place, your space, within an entirely virtual campus only revealed the sacredness of that unassuming little word.

On Harvard’s campus, our understanding of space constructs and orients our way of life, often in radical and fascinating ways. The ideas we come into contact with and the habits we exercise are a product of the spaces we inhabit. Within Harvard’s walls, students assimilate, protest, and evolve.

Religious spaces are no different.

Courtney B. Lamberth, director of studies in the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard, said that “space for religious practice is foundational and fundamental.”

“How space is understood and utilized and held in practice varies tremendously across traditions,” she added.

Daryush D. Mehta, a representative of the Zoroastrian Association at Harvard, highlights the historical importance of space in his faith.

“Space is important,” he said. “I think back to how Zoroastrians in Iran and in Persia did not have buildings, but created the space with the pots and pans that they ate with.”

Space is also central to the Catholic faith. William T. Kelly, the pastor of St. Paul’s Parish in Cambridge, summarized the importance of space in Christian history, which shares emphases with Jewish, Greek, and Roman temples.

“There’s this sense of, ‘Where does the presence of God reside?’” Kelly questioned. “In the Catholic tradition, churches at the very, very beginning of the Church would have taken place in people’s homes,” he said. Those home churches were where God was present.

St. Paul’s Parish itself is a stunning space, its high ceilings, intricate stonework, and detailed altar reflecting the cosmic grandeur of the God it was built for.

“We know a lot of people historically, but also locally, who have become Catholic because of the beauty of Jesus, because of the beauty of the church here,” he added.

The senses — taste, smell, sound, sight, touch — play a vital role in bringing aspects of the faith to life, according to Kelly.

“We have a really strong sense of anything that’s tactile, anything visual,” he said.

Sahaj Singh ’23 reflected on the role of space within his faith, Sikhism.

“What I think is interesting about the Sikh religion center — which is known as a Gurdwara — is that it’s actually meant to be an interfaith center,” he said. “Essentially, its initial role in South Asia was to be a free clinic and free kitchen.”

Shruthi Kumar ’24, a believer of Hinduism, expressed her love for her religion’s temples.

“That physical space is usually one that’s very grandeur. It has a lot of space, has a lot of people coming through,” she said. “There’s a great pride that you take in changing the clothes of all the idols that are in the temple, adorning them with jewels, donating to the temple in order to keep it going.”

The space of the temple also provides a landscape for reflection — the tying of the physical with the non-physical — a space for mediation, according to Kumar.

Space reflects cultural values of the past while simultaneously influencing present dispositions. At Harvard, in the state where the Mayflower landed, we bring our former walks of life into dialogue with an environment that is historically Protestant.

Remnants of Harvard’s Christian past color the campus. A statue of Harvard’s namesake, John Harvard, a Puritan minister, sits squarely in the Yard. Memorial Hall is inscribed with the Latin words for “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name may there be glory.” Memorial Church is an interdenominational Protestant space, part of a larger interfaith network.

University Lutheran Church on Winthrop Street. Old Cambridge Baptist Church. First Parish in Cambridge. Inscribed on the side of Emerson Hall: “What is man that thou art mindful of him.”

Spatial residue of Protestantism evokes various reactions on Harvard’s campus.

“There are certainly plenty of churches around Harvard, just like any other town,” Shira Z. Hoffer ’25, a Jewish student, said. She’s a campus tour guide and when she gives tours, Memorial Church regularly sticks out.

“I always feel funny,” she said. “I think Memorial Church does amazing things. But it is kind of funny that we have a church right in the middle of our campus that plays a role in day-to-day life at Harvard.”

For Kumar, Memorial Church summons a sense of longing for something lost. Some Hindu practices, according to her, involve chanting prayers or mantras with a community, and she is worried she may forget some of her prayers because she doesn’t get the chance to practice them as regularly.

“When I walk through the Yard and see Memorial Church right there, it always brings up a feeling of, ‘I wish there was a Hindu temple within walking distance of campus,’” she said.

For many, Memorial Church and other spaces like it do not pose an inherent problem; rather, they are a reminder of space that does not exist.

Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein said “there could potentially be more space devoted to” religion on campus.

Mehta echoed Epstein’s sentiments as he reflected on trying to find spaces on campus for his own religious gatherings.

“Mem Church happened to have an opening,” he said. “I have no problem being in Mem Church… But a multifaith center would be very important at Harvard, as a message and physical presence.”

Those who have space cherish it. Those without space long for it. But for both, space is not the end all be all, but rather one instance of the feeling of belonging.

“In times when I feel like I need my community and to not be that minority,” said Hoffer, “I feel like Hillel is that fallback, which is really important and powerful.”

But people who are not fully represented in Harvard’s physical landscape, which spans Protestant structures, Harvard Hillel, and the Harvard Catholic Center, have to make religious spaces for themselves, whether expressly physical or not.

For Imaan Mirza ’25, placing the Muslim prayer space in Canaday basement means that prayer is a much more mobile practice for her.

“I was in Barker the other day for my History and Literature tutorial,” she said. “I just whipped out my prayer mat and prayed in front of people.”

Mirza is conflicted about this: On the one hand, she sees it as a beautiful thing, perhaps because Harvard has provided an environment where praying in many spaces feels comfortable, but on the other hand, it reminds her of what she does not have access to.

“Ideally, there would be a designated space in every Harvard affiliated building for me to pray. It’s too out of the way to go to Smith. It’s too out of the way to go to the basement of Canaday,” she said. “I’m driven by necessity to pray in front of people, which can be a little odd sometimes.”

When both Muslim and Hindu prayer spaces are hidden in Canaday’s basement, some students feel like religious inclusion is not prioritized at Harvard.

“I think the key to anything related to DEI is this feeling of belonging,” Kumar said. “And feeling is something that is very present in religion that we aren’t good at acknowledging in other spaces.”

For this reason, she said, religious diversity necessarily brings religious belonging into the conversation, which is something “any DEI initiative should include.”

Lamberth, the director of studies in the Committee on the Study of Religion, echoed this. “Religious diversity is the last aspect of diversity to really come into the discussion about inclusivity and diversity and belonging.”

Even within The Crimson, our Diversity and Inclusivity Committee does not focus on religious diversity relative to other facets of identity, like gender and sexuality or race and ethnicity.

An example of this greater need for religion to factor into conversations on diversity and inclusion is the use of the word “chaplain” to describe the various religious and faith leaders on campus.

The word choice of chaplain felt distant to Kumar. While she "intellectually" agreed with its definition, she did not personally relate to the vocabulary, nor did it inspire her to reach out to Harvard’s Hindu chaplain.

“It’s not something I’m going to naturally feel belonging towards,” she said.

Metha also reflected on the word: “The word chaplain is not used in Zoroastrianism. The concept is a little bit different.”

Though a single column is not nearly sufficient to tackle every aspect of religious space at Harvard, I hope to show the dialectic relationship between physical and intellectual space, both of which are tethered to the narratives of individuals on campus.

Physical space indicates what we institutionally value, which is then reproduced in the rhetoric we use and the initiatives we choose to emphasize. The institutional value Harvard places upon its Protestant heritage is evident: in Memorial Hall, in Memorial Church, in the placement of Hindu and Muslim spaces.

The spaces we hold — physical and non-physical — form, and potentially reform, each other. We must acknowledge the spaces that are already present, while also recognizing the absence of adequately representative space for some.

What space do you, and those around you, hold?

Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.

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South Transept Window in Memorial Hall