Auckland Dio girls getting on with life.
The picture for girls In Aotearoa-New Zealand is bleak. Statistics show that 1 in every 4 teenage girls has some form of eating disorder, and 10% of adolescent girls show signs of anorexia nervosa. Further, adolescent girls are twice as likely as boys to show serious depressive symptoms, indicating that adolescence is confusing and troubling for many girls.
At Diocesan School, spirituality is a vital ingredient in the health and well-being of our girls. Personal spirituality is reflected in the values and ideals we hold, our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here, the meaning and purpose we see in our lives, and our connectedness to each other, to the world around us, and to God. Each person’s spirituality is a unique expression of values and identity.
To know oneself takes time. For many teenage girls this process of finding a self happens through subjective reflection. To build an identity that is authentic and comfortable, girls often adopt facades: they take in all of the demands that society makes on them, along with models of the people they respect, and they put together an identity.
This time of inner processing and reflection is obvious in the different year levels at chapel services. Year 11 and 12 students often are withdrawn and reserved – not disinterested, but taking it all in and processing it inwardly. For most students this process seems complete early in Year 13 when they are again as responsive and enthusiastic as in younger years.
The facades that girls adopt during development of identity are usually nothing like their true selves, which they hide until they are ready to be seen by the world.
Part of the role of a chaplain in a girls’ school is to stand alongside the girls as they journey through this process, to respect the process and allow the girls to find themselves. It’s a privilege to present a Christian worldview and values to girls who are in the midst of developing identities.
For adolescent girls, one of the most important aspects of spirituality is relationship. Recent neurological research has shown that the female brain is different from the male brain. The amygdala – a small almond-shaped group of neurons deep within the medial temporal lobes – processes memory and emotional reaction. Studies show that in 80% of females, the amygdala is larger, more sensitive and much more active than in male brains.
Most females use their amygdala in all aspects of thinking; they feel emotion more frequently than males and view the world with both the rational and emotional parts of the brain simultaneously. If the lives of teenage girls seem more dramatic and emotional than boys, that’s because they are wired to be! Every aspect of life has emotional content for most females.
Connection and relationship are what girls look for, and they need to know they are cared for before anything a teacher or chaplain says will impact on their development. Most adults have been looked at by a teenage girl as though we come from outer space. That ‘who do you think you are?’ look is a clear indicator of lack of relationship. It’s a lot easier to build meaningful relationships with the girls in parishes than it is with 1580 girls en masse in a school setting!
This desire for relationship has a significant impact on the image of God that many adolescent girls can relate to. An all-powerful, distant, transcendent God holds little attraction, and is often dismissed as irrelevant. An image of God that is personal and meaningful to the everyday lives of girls is far more attractive.
A large number of the girls who attend Diocesan School are completely un-churched. When they enter the school at Year 7 or Year 9 they’re likely to know very little about Christianity or the person of Jesus, and yet many are already developing a broad and inclusive spirituality. They are able to see the benefits of all religions that promote love and integrity.
In the religious studies programme at Diocesan we cover a broad spectrum of topics from Year 7 to 13. We look at all the major world religions, their teachings and traditions, as well as philosophical and ethical issues such as war and pacifism, bioethics, environmental ethics, arguments for the existence of God, ultimate questions of life, and racism.
The girls themselves are able to acknowledge and respect difference and diversity while having the opportunity to integrate what they learn into their self identity. It’s important for them to think for themselves, to own their beliefs and understandings, and to have space to find their own spirituality. Religious belief is only one aspect of spirituality.
Senior students are often quite scathing about traditional religious belief and practice. They are quick to see the inconsistency, hypocrisy and power play that go on within institutionalised religion. Some girls take issue with the ways in which different groups of Christians speak and act towards each other, the attitude of ‘the church’ to abortion and homosexuality, the church’s lack of voice on child abuse, AIDS and poverty, the way the church has treated women in the past, and the incongruence between what ordinary Christians say they believe and the way they actually behave.
Male-dominated traditions are a particular turn-off for girls, and some are astonished and angry to learn that the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t have women priests.
Inconsistency and incongruence are real barriers to the institutional church for many adolescent girls. As chaplains we have frequent conversations about congruence to ensure that we’re not creating barriers by being incongruent ourselves. We aim for a transparent congruence that acknowledges we all fall short of the mark but are able to reflect on that and move on. Self-awareness is vital when working with adolescents!
One aspect of that striving is, of course, admitting that we don’t have all the answers. The girls want to know what we think about ethical issues and about God. They want to share their own thoughts and feelings about the big questions of life: origin, design, morality, theology, duty and destiny. They want to know what has gone wrong with the world and how they can be part of a solution to the problem. They also want to know what they should be doing now and what lies in the future.
At Diocesan School we emphasise the importance of being a community of spiritual people who care and walk alongside each other as we become more fully who we are each created to be – a community that learns together, shares sacred moments together, worships together, laughs together, and explores life together. And in that sharing in community we ought, as an Anglican school, to be engaging with the traditions of our church and incorporating them into the spirituality of our school, and hopefully of the girls.
The question is how to make Christianity appealing to these spiritual seekers. We try to find places where our Anglican tradition intersects with the girls’ spirituality. Going through the motions of ritual without a heart connection is unsatisfactory; we need to make faith in God intrinsic.
According to spiritual writer David Tacey, it’s is no longer enough for young people just to hear about wisdom through external sources. Girls especially need to feel wisdom arising from their own hearts, and to see truth emerging from their own experience. Tacey suggests that tradition is not about remaining in the groove of what has been – rather, it’s about the creative re-shaping of the original spirit. What does our Anglican heritage mean for the spirituality of our young women? In what ways can a creative reshaping of our tradition inform the shaping of identity that girls go through as adolescents? These are questions we wrestle with daily.
Our aim is that the girls will become as literate spiritually as they are intellectually, socially and emotionally. We want them to have a broad but solid basis for the decisions they will face when they leave school and journey through life – decisions about relationships, careers, families, and social issues. That is, we want our girls to engage in life in abundance, using their hearts and minds.
1 http://www.eatingdisorders.co.nz. Accessed 30/8/07
2 http://www.spirituality.ucla.edu/about/spirituality.html. Accessed 30/8/07
3 JoAnn Deak, Girls will be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters. (New York: Hyperion, 2002), 43.
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