The SKS is a nonprofit organization that encourages students to explore their spirituality through regular meetings and discussions, spiritual retreats, and other community activities. The SKS has chapters at UNC, N.C. State, and Duke University. August Turak is the founder of SKS.
It seemed like a typical first meeting of a new year for the Self Knowledge Symposium. A room full of college students rigidly looking around at each other uncomfortably, nobody willing to be the first one to speak up. So as I often do, I started around the room asking each person why he or she had come. As the first student shyly told me he was "curious," I winced. I knew from experience that I was now in for a string of "curious" replies owing to the human tendency to seize on a pattern. It always mildly amuses me to watch so many self-proclaimed non-conformists so quickly line up behind a "safe" answer to the gentlest question I can ask.
And so it went until I was fully half way around the room. And then I came to him. He was a healthy, well-built guy, and I could see that he was five years older than the rest. As soon as he began speaking, the atmosphere of the room shifted. He spoke softly, barely audible for a man his size. There was a seriousness, a directness about him. He looked me straight in the eye and never wavered.
"Up to a year ago, I was the maintenance manager for a large plant that made ice cream. I'm from a small town out in the country and this plant is the biggest business around. I liked the job. For a kid with no college education the money was great, and I had a lot of responsibility. With this job, a girlfriend, and a new car, I thought I had it made. Then, late one Friday night, I was going over everything one last time before the weekend. Everyone else had gone home, and I was anxious to leave myself. I went into the freezer to check the stock when the door behind me swung shut and locked. The light went out. Just like that. I was trapped in a freezer at forty below zero in jeans and a T-shirt and no one around for miles. I was certain I was dead."
He stopped speaking. Seconds slipped away, and he said nothing. He no longer was looking at me; his eyes seemed to have found a spot on the wall behind me, and I knew he was back there in that freezer-alone.
"I panicked. The door was locked, there was no one around, and even if there had been, the noise from the compressors would've drowned out my screams. And still I threw myself at the door screaming and beating at it. I was so cold that I broke every bone in both hands and felt nothing."
A faint smile came to his lips. "You know, I always thought I was religious. I went to church on Sunday, said my prayers, went to Bible study-you know, that sort of thing. But when I was in that freezer, there was only one thing going on in my head. A voice just kept screaming, 'Oh my God! I'm dying I'm dying I'm dying and I don't know if there is a God. I don't know what's going to happen to me when I die.' This one thought was so intense that I don't remember anything else until I found myself outside the freezer crumpled up on the floor, sobbing. Now you'd think that since I was in charge of maintenance I'd have known that a safety door had been installed the day before. But I didn't. And I don't know to this day how I found it in the dark, or how I opened it, but I did and I'm alive."
"I was in the hospital for five days and off work for six weeks. When I came back to work, I walked into my boss's office and quit. I left my home and my girlfriend, and I spent the next year just wandering around the country-camping out mostly. And then I signed up for college because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Because I still don't know the answer to that last, intense thought. All I do know is that I will spend the rest of my life trying to find out."
As he finished his story the mood filled the room so thickly it was visible. And for the better part of an hour one of those minor miracles I live for occurred. Thirty people who didn't know each other sat together in silence, each with his own thoughts, and not one feeling the slightest inclination to break the spell or even move. And when the spell lifted, the meeting was over, and wordlessly everyone walked out into the world.
Thomas Merton, the famous author, Trappist monk, and mystic said: "Dread means that we cannot any longer hope in ourselves, in our wisdom, our virtue, our fidelity. We see too clearly that all that is 'ours' is nothing and can completely fail us."
To be spiritual is to acknowledge that dread is an essential part of the spiritual quest. Aspiration is the heady inspiration that draws us to seek God, but dread is that scary feeling at the pit of our stomach that drives us to seek God. Dread is that sinking feeling that says that nothing can satisfy you but God and yet you can't with certainty say there is a God. To be spiritual is to be at home with dread. To be spiritual is to search for God like an entrepreneur with two mortgages, maxed out credit cards, and a bunch of former friends who think you're nuts. To be spiritual is to live life each day like the boy dying in the freezer and wanting God with his whole heart and his whole soul-searching for Truth as if your hair were on fire.
I never saw the boy in the freezer again. But I will never forget him, and I sometimes pray for him. And yet I don't really worry about him. Pascal once said of God: "You would not seek Me if you had not found Me." And I know in my heart that a hunger as deep as his will not-cannot-be denied. I am often asked why I founded the Self Knowledge Symposium. The answer is simple. I founded the SKS for him. I founded the SKS for that boy in all of us, still trapped in a freezer, alone, searching for God.