Felipe Gutierrez Antinopai is from Chile and a new graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca. He reflects on his experience of entering a new culture, a new department, the emotions he experienced and what this means for his spiritual pilgrimage.
Starting new jobs, college, or new relationships can turn us into experiments on ourselves. During the beginnings and endings of each life stage, there is special attention to keeping a pace of life. We take refuge in things without noticing what our heart intends to embrace. Academic achievements, relationships, and material things are fine examples on which our confidence and life could rely. This happened in the middle of the first semester of my Ph.D.
Being in Ithaca, New York, a city known to be cosmopolitan and indeed an academic bubble, was pleasant during the first few weeks. I enjoyed extracurricular activities within the Natural Resources department, of which I am a part. Bar hopping along with new friends and sporting events sensitized me more to the English language and American culture. On the other side, academics were more challenging mainly because of the transition from Spanish to English. All of this triggered a certain self-absorption. I did not realize that all these habits were taking root in a body of emotions that increasingly gave an account of that homo incurvatus in se ipsum (“a person turned in upon oneself”). Moreover, the necessity to share with people of my culture and loved ones also became evident. Nostalgia created a feeling of emptiness that no prayer or sermon could fill. For this reason, for the first time, my aspirations were more of a practical nature: to network, to participate in Christian activities, and perform well academically. I was trying to live on auto-pilot.
I continued to believe and listen to podcasts with Christian messages from time to time. Why, then, should I go back to the basics of the gospel? As you might expect, what was bound to happen happened. A few days, without warning, I became aware of where I had placed my heart. Impotence and frustration flooded my heart, reacting even more with a mere will, without stopping to meditate or reflect on how the heart begins to embrace certain elements that, while harmless in themselves, become your main engine, or rather, a bargaining chip whose fuel is that will in exchange for stability and happiness. I was a prisoner of my habits. So it was that in those days on auto-pilot, I remembered that our fragile existence cannot rely on those daily-life gifts even if everything seems normal.
As researchers or as simple (in)dependent employees, isolation is part of our pilgrimage journey. Often I think erroneously that most conditions are static. Closed systems are part of controlled experimentation; believing that everything is under control is subtle but so determinant in how we spend our time and nurture our emotions and thoughts that they are mysterious dynamics and, worse, untamed. Paul warns us: â€œDo not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what the will of God is, â€˜Whatâ€™ is good and acceptable and perfectâ€ (Romans 12:2, ESV). And here I would like to emphasize that â€˜Whatâ€™. â€˜Whatâ€™ we live daily, what career to choose, how to get up, and how to respond to adverse situations, we will not find it explicitly in the Bible. Still, there is a warning in that â€˜What.â€™ It is the prayer that we can find in Psalm 139:23 â€œSearch me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughtsâ€ or in Job 34:32 â€œteach me what I do not see: if I have done iniquity, I will do it no moreâ€ referring to how in our inequity we do not realize that our individuality obscures the righteousness of God, something that is addressed by Justin Dillehay (n.d.), claiming that Elihuâ€™s words are confirmed in Godâ€™s speech in chapters 38-41.
Productivity and automation can be our allies but not if we fail to meditate on the condition of our hearts and to ask God to give us clarity of our inner desires. In doing so, we make our frailty and need for external help explicit. This is one of the qualities of Christianity: we cannot rely on ourselves. Do not trust in your heart, but trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your understanding (Proverbs 3:5). We do not know what tomorrow may bring, so let the daily routine not be tied to the earthly but be tied to the greatness of God (James 4:13-15), and thus know what is hidden in our hearts in the new chapters of our life. God will want you to progress but in His way, not based purely on what we plan, do, and expect.Â