An Evening in Delft. May 30 2013

It is about six o’clock in the evening and I am in Delft visiting MoTiv, the chaplains at the Delft Technical University. Their offices and meeting rooms occupy the ground floor of a three story building in central Delft, owned by the Catholic Church and rented to MoTiv at low rates. Tonight there will be a dinner in the front room with the three MoTiv staff, half of the MoTiv Board and Trustees of the Catholic Van Mierlo Foundation. The MoTiv staff, Renske, Hans and Gunter are presenting the budget for their 2013 – 2014 program – about 28,000E.

When I arrive, it sounds like a party is going on in the back room. There are about forty people sitting in groups around tables playing a music trivia game. They are general staff of the university having a social evening with the psychological counsellors of the university and are using the MoTiv rooms for their purposes.

Anneke is a volunteer in the kitchen preparing the meal for us. She will receive a small payment but such entertaining is something she loves to do. Everything is very aesthetically pleasing in the front room and the three course meal turns out to be wonderful. You would think you were in a classy restaurant!

People start to arrive. There will be ten of us for dinner – the three MoTiv staff, three from the MoTiv board – Chris, a space engineer, Alexander, an architect and Jo, an engineer and go-between between Theophorus (a Catholic group supporting Gunther), MoTiv and the Bishop, and three trustees from the Catholic Van Mierlo Foundation – Maria, who is a former social worker and now administrator in Public Housing, Ton, a former Environmental Protection Scientist and Treasurer of the Foundation and Hans, a former Chemistry scientist and Chair of the Foundation.

There are hearty greetings as each arrives, drinks are served and after a silent grace we begin the meal. I am impressed by the quality and mix of retired and active academics around the table matched by the qualifications and experience of the MotTiv staff.  I think that their genuinely enthusiastic embrace of each other bodes well for a quality time together.

It falls to Gunther to chair the proceedings and he frames three areas for discussion – some sharing about MoTiv and it’s way of working, the plans and budget, and an open discussion to conclude – one for each course of the meal.

I am asked to say a little about myself. In my introduction I say that I am here to observe what I consider to be a chaplaincy at the global forefront in terms of its strategy and creativity in relating to today’s students. Hans commented later that he thought perhaps this comment might have made it difficult for the Foundation to ask critical questions of the proposed program and funding! It hadn’t occurred to me. But I was surprised, as I think the MoTiv staff also were , that when it came to the main course discussion, the Chair of the Foundation waved it away – the proposals were approved in a hand wave!

During a break between courses I had an intense discussion with Chris. He was on a real high because he and his students had just launched a satellite from South Africa. It is a very small one, one he described as an insect. This insight for smallness is a vital contribution to space technology. He and his students are planning to put a swarm of these on the other side of the moon, giving a clearer window into deep space.

He talked about the creative process of being a space engineer – a long way from the kind of linear thinking that often seems to pervade bureaucratic institutions like the church and universities. He refused to have his own office, preferring to be in a corner of the lab with his students. “That way, if I’m away, nothing stops – everything keeps going because we are a team.” For him, trust and loyalty are the two essentials – he mentioned these virtues three times in our conversation. Trust was also mentioned a number of times as being the essential foundation in the relationship of MoTiv with its sponsors.

I thought this was quite significant. MoTiv is experimental. The relationships between the diversity of partners would be unbearable if they were based on tight accountability and self-justifications. The fear of failure such a mindset produces would stifle its very purposes. To experiment and explore requires the courage to engage the imagination and not be bound by the safety zone. The spirit of innovation is risking venturing into the unknown.

It is also significant that such an approach has emerged from a technical university in which such dispositions are critical to innovation.

Chris was excited to be able to share his passion and the joy and excitement of his recent success with me. I reflected back to him that he had had a transcendent experience with this satellite launch. His eyes widened and he didn’t need to tell me that indeed it was a profound spiritual experience. And in the process of this conversation we had rehearsed much of what MoTiv stands for – an engagement about motivation, imagination, creativity and passion. Chris was well and truly alive and kicking!

As I think about it, the topic Gunther had set for us for the first course was probably hijacked by me! It was courtesy to ask me to say something about myself first of all as the guest. But then everybody else around the table needed to say something about themselves for my benefit. Yet, even so, on reflection, Gunther’s suggested theme was obliquely addressed in a free flowing conversation.

Later, Gunter and Hans commented to me what an extraordinary meeting it was – so relational with none of the expected struggles over points of contention. It concerned me that my presence may have sidelined any critical discussion. But the flow of discussion was wonderful.

So I console myself that perhaps my presence turned out to be a positive influence! And reminded me of the scientific quandary of how one might observe a system without the very act of observance affecting the system itself, so invalidating the experimental results.

Anyway, whether the meeting was atypical or not, I was impressed by the cohesiveness of the assembled body. They were all obviously on the same page.

My understanding of that page is this:

  1. Something is going on in the culture of younger people and we don’t quite know what it is.
  2. The symptoms of this “something” include a withdrawal from institutionalised religion, yet a clear yearning for authentic spirituality.
  3. An engagement with the students must now start with the students themselves rather than starting with a religious agenda from the churches – we must provoke a response to the innate spiritual experience of the students themselves. We must assume that the new spirituality is within the students themselves, even if seemingly hidden.
  4. This therefore means an approach that is invitational – opening spaces for engagement that are listening, non judgemental and supportive of the disclosed and non-disclosed inner life of the student. The chaplain accepts and comes to value his or her silence in such conversations – but not a passive silence, but one that is looking for what motivates. As Hans on the MoTiv staff said, “It is revealing what is already within the students”.

So my conversation with Chris about the high he was on because of the satellite launch was right on the money.

Jo also made some telling comments. “Globalization is in everything”. He was not just referring to the influx of international students but that global connectedness is now deeply embedded in university culture; changes, perpetual changes are now inherently woven into this culture. As the go-between with the Bishop, I suspect that for him, MoTiv is a vital experiment for the Church and that the Catholic commitment to this ecumenical venture is not only justified by the good but also in research for the sake of the Church’s future.

During the meal, Alexander had commented to me on my use of the word ‘space’ in the context of hospitality. At the end of the meal, as people were leaving, we made a bee-line toward each other. We discussed the connection between good architecture as creating spiritually enriching spaces and the notion of hospitality as making space. He invited me to visit him at the university next week and we agreed on a day when he was available. I slipped him a copy of my book and he immediately spotted the word ‘hospitality’ on the cover.

My long and affectionate friendship with my former neighbour, landscape architect Kevin Taylor was in my mind – and the funeral Sandy and I conducted for him in a packed Adelaide Town Hall following his untimely death in a car accident. I had been given access to Kevin’s personal diaries in the lead-up to the funeral. They were rich in spiritual insights. I feel the same connection with Alexander and I’m looking forward to next week.

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