As a learning community, we follow rhythms through the year that help us serve God and neighbor. Together, we steward practices that have grown and developed throughout our history. Our seasonal events and rituals guide us to gather, remember, and celebrate. These collective rhythms shape us deeply, and have formed us as a community that values memory and storytelling. And so, as we enter into the month of November and continue in our 25th year as a school, we are looking forward to Thanksgiving Vespers. We pause here to reflect and share some of the story behind this annual event.
In many liturgical churches, Vespers has been established over time as an evening prayer service, the name originating from the Latin word for “evening”. At The Seattle School, seasonal “Vespers” services have taken on unique significance within our student body. Organized by student leaders, “Vespers has moved beyond its traditional liturgical meaning into a gathering with the intent of preparing our hearts and spirits to rest in a season where rest may feel hard to come by,” explains faculty member Dr. Kj Swanson, MDiv 2010, who was a student at The Seattle School (then Mars Hill Graduate School) in early years of the school’s Thanksgiving Vespers’ evolution.
From origins in student-led worship services in the school’s early years of orientation retreat weekends to campus services during Residency weekends, The Seattle School Vespers traditions span more than a decade. Vespers has been stewarded by the Office of Students & Alumni (OSA) and Student Leadership teams, primarily through the Sacred Space realm of Student Leadership, with continued focus on the themes of rest, renewal, and worship. Through seasonal Vespers services and other spiritual rhythms throughout the year, Sacred Space embodies their mission of inviting The Seattle School community to rest, wrestle, and play, in relationship with God, ourselves, and one another.
With its mid-November timing, Thanksgiving Vespers is an opportunity to gather before our community takes a pause for the Thanksgiving holiday, to take in nourishment, and to share encouragement with one another. This Vespers service recognizes how winter holidays can be challenging, especially for students working to metabolize and integrate new understandings of themselves and their relationships gained through coursework and community.
“Thanksgiving can be a complicated time for folks who may have been tapping into some new ideas that are wonderfully disruptive, but also the [holiday] time[s] of gathering with families in a dedicated way can bring up complexities and tensions even with the warmth and excitement,” says Dr. Kj.
Manager of Student Life Programs, Becca Shirley, MDiv 2013, seeks to care for students at this challenging time and to honor the formative work they are engaging: “There is a desire to pause and provide space to commune together and nourish and nurture people spiritually, to acknowledge how far they have traveled, before returning home to be with families.”
We also recognize the painful history of Thanksgiving in particular as a holiday rooted in colonialism. Part of our Vespers practice is to honor the communities who stewarded the land on which we gather, long before Europeans arrived. Some years, staff or students with indigenous heritage have also shared prayers from their own cultures and traditions.
Through the years, Vesper services have taken different shapes while continuing themes of rest, renewal, and nourishment. The first Thanksgiving Vespers was a liturgical service constructed from responses the student body provided, sharing supportive songs, texts, scriptures, poems, and music. Faculty have contributed blessings for students. And consistently these services have centered on being kind to our bodies, with sacramental eating as a worship activity while participants pass the mic around the room to share words of gratitude.
Recent changes have challenged Sacred Space and OSA to consider how to hold and continue to steward our community rhythms. Due to the pandemic, Vespers in 2020 and 2021 transitioned to an online service with music and poetry shared through screens. In 2021, The Seattle School also began offering low-residency programs, so Sacred Space and OSA have been re-imagining and designing Vespers to be inclusive for students distributed across the country and around the world. For on-campus participants, planning a variety of foods to accommodate and nourish everyone’s needs is a way that we seek to embody Christ’s hospitality and love. This year, Sacred Space Facilitator Torie Pilkington and their team have chosen to host two different events: one online and one on-campus to optimize each type of gathering for all participants.
Through the years past, and through the years to come Vespers services will continue to hold space for rest and reflection, inviting people into refreshing connection and grounding with God, ourselves, and one another.
RSVP here to attend either the online or in-person 2022 Thanksgiving Vespers.