Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About SMUS Chapel (Part 2)

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Last week I wrote my first in a series of blogs on SMUS Chapel about the overall basics of Chapel itself – What is Chapel?; Why does the school have a reverend? – that you can read here. This week I’m delving into the Chapel service that students participate in on a weekly basis and answering questions around what we do and why we do it.

The Ins and Outs of SMUS Chapel

What does a standard Chapel look like?

At the Junior School, we open with a few words to set the theme. After a student lights the candle and leads us in taking three breaths, a question is posed and the students silently consider their response. Usually, several of the students offer thoughts and there are times when everyone shares with their elbow partner. We then join in a song that’s accessible even to our youngest. Once the message or story is shared, we again take three collective breaths and close our time.

At the Middle and Senior Schools, many of the patterns are the same. We set the theme, take some breaths, pose a question, and hold a period of silence for reflection. The theme might focus on an event within the school, an experience of a student, or an international issue. Next, we share the day’s Words of Wisdom, which are followed by a piece of music offered by a student. The message takes any number of forms from a single speaker to a series of individuals, often involving images and clips. We close by singing together before taking our closing breaths and departing.

Why do we take three breaths at the beginning and end of Chapel?

It’s not because we don’t know how to breathe. Taking three collective breaths allows us to slow down together and ground ourselves in the moment. I know it sounds odd – but it works. Some students take the practice with them, using it to settle themselves before exams, speeches and tough conversations.

Why is there silence after the question?

Most gatherings begin with a question related to the day’s theme. The silence that follows is a 40-second opportunity to pull out our initial thoughts. It’s good to figure out what we think before hearing from others as we’re more likely to listen critically, discern what’s true and integrate the good stuff. Articulating our own thoughts also prevents us from absorbing someone else’s words like a brainless sponge. Chapel is anti-sponge.

Why do we sing together?

One of the ways we express unity is by joining together in song. We’re good at it. From Kindergarten to Grade 8, every student participates in Choir as part of their education. Some continue the pursuit all the way through Senior School. Our school musicals consume most of our community. In other words, when music is a part of nearly everyone’s life, singing in Chapel is a natural extension.

Why do you tell stories during Chapel?

Although messages often take the form of TED-style talks at the Middle and Senior School levels, all three schools hear wisdom stories. Far from being childish, these stories speak to the deeper questions of human experience, as expressed by cultures across the world and throughout time. They open a whole different angle of exploration, meeting us at our own individual levels while inviting us to ask questions about ourselves and our world.

Why isn’t Chapel optional for some students?

By its very definition, Chapel is a whole community event. If members were able to absent themselves on a whim, it would become something different and arguably lesser. Of course, if a student feels morally opposed to the concept of Chapel, a separate program can be arranged, covering the same themes. Basically, the program is not optional, but its form can be.

Why aren’t students allowed cellphones in Chapel?

Chapel is a matter of people and place. Phones get in the way because they shift our focus to other people and other places. By setting aside our phones, Chapel offers an opportunity to disconnect for half an hour. Some students love this. Other students struggle. We all power down so that the moment is possible for those who enjoy it.

Is there praying in Chapel?

No prayers are spoken in Chapel. We share ‘Words of Wisdom’ which capture the essential moral teachings of different faiths and philosophical traditions, none of which are directed towards a deity. The only communal prayers shared on campus are at events unrelated to the Chapel: the Remembrance Day Ceremony, the Christ Church Carol Service, the Closing Ceremonies, and major Community Dinners.

Is SMUS Chapel like going to a church/synagogue/mosque/temple?

It depends. If your place of worship is values focused with lots of questioning and lively participation, then yes, you might find some similarities. On the other hand, if your place of worship is all about set answers and beliefs, then no, Chapel is absolutely nothing like it. Most significantly, Chapel does not assume that everyone shares or should share a particular belief system.

How is Boarders’ Chapel different from weekly Chapel?

More than half of the Boarders’ Chapels are led by the Boarding Houses. These gatherings tend to be more personal, less structured, and a bit longer with more student-generated music and clips. Because the whole Boarding community attends, ranging from babes-in-arms to old hands, there’s a different feel to these evening gatherings.

What are the Pillars for?

When we examined how we were developing students and staff as leaders, we realized that we hadn’t identified the qualities we hoped to engender. After talks, surveys, and discussions that involved all grades, staff, and alumni, we settled upon four: Service, Honesty, Respect, and Courage. We refer to them whenever we reflect on leadership within our community.

In Part 3 of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About SMUS Chapel, I’ll answer questions about the benefits and takeaways of Chapel. Again, if you have any questions about SMUS Chapel you’d like answers to, please email me.

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