An invitation to be vulnerable

The mass shootings this weekend stirred in me something I haven’t written about yet: my uncle was murdered on March 1, 2018. My uncle was a landlord, and one of his tenants shot him with an illegal firearm. Every time there is a shooting, it brings up that day and the pain that followed.

Adding to these resurfaced memories: I’ve been called to jury duty tomorrow and Thursday in the same courthouse where my family and I attended the hearings for my uncle’s murderer. So, needless to say, these past few days have brought up a lot.

Specifically, the phrase “be strong” has stirred up quite a bit in me. It’s a phrase that doesn’t sit well with me since my uncle’s murder.

Often in the wake of gun violence, people use the phrase “be strong.” Yes, strength is important and needed—but so is vulnerability. What might it look like to encourage being vulnerable?

“Broken glass” by Jef Poskanzer CC BY 2.0

Strength and shock are not the same

During my uncle’s funeral, many people commented to me that “your family is so strong” or “you’re so strong right now.” Offering those phrases are ways that people showed their support and love, and sure, it was true. We were strong because we had to be.

You have to “be strong” to get up in the morning and go to work.

You have to “be strong” to support your cousins as they plan the funeral for their murdered father.

You have to “be strong” to attend court hearings.

You have to “be strong” to be in the same court room as your uncle’s murderer as he smirks at you and your relatives from behind bulletproof glass.

I realize now that most of these moments of strength were possible because I was in shock.

In the weeks and months that followed my uncle’s murder, I managed to teach the rest of that semester and meet publication deadlines due to shock coupled with my inner strength. But I experienced deep pain and vulnerability, both of which pervaded my daily life at times. (I still have difficult days; most recently the Fourth of July proved challenging because fireworks sure sound a lot like gun shots.)

I was brought to my knees by grief at the crime scene. I sobbed, doubled over in a parking lot across from my uncle’s apartment building, knowing that local news stations were watching me and my mom receive news from the homicide detective that the body found in the garage belonged to my uncle.

I’ve cried so hard on my living room floor that I couldn’t move. I just stared into the distance, moaning as tears ran down my face.

I’ve collapsed onto my kitchen floor in tears as my beloved old English sheepdog stood watch next to me as I wailed in pain.

I’ve been immobilized when I’ve caught myself reliving the events of March 1 and 2, 2018 and the moment when I went with a relative to identify my murdered uncle’s body.

I’ve wailed in the court room with my mom and my cousin as we listened to the prosecutor read the criminal complaint aloud, which contained details of the crime scene and the murderer’s confession (he was found not guilty due to mental illness, but that’s a story for another time).

That’s just a small snapshot of the pain and aftermath of just one story of gun violence.

Be honest, even if it means not being strong

The glorification of “being strong” and being resilient in the wake of trauma minimizes effects of trauma. Sometimes we don’t want to be strong. We don’t always need to be strong.

In some ways, when people say “be strong,” it threatens to cover the impact and horrendous everyday effects of violence.

The effects are real.

My family and I live them every day. I relive these events when I see a car similar to my uncle’s car. I relive them when I see my kitchen shelves that my uncle helped me hang.

I anticipate that I’ll relive the effects tomorrow when I walk back into the courthouse for jury duty, being forced to participate in a system that failed my family and so many others.

I also was annoyed with hearing “be strong” because being open to vulnerability, weakness, and pain takes incredible courage—and, dare I say, strength. I was and am able to address the pain because of the support of my family, friends, dog, colleagues, students, spiritual director, and therapist. In their own ways, they allowed me to be vulnerable and even weak, which has allowed me to grow.

So, I invite us to experience pain, vulnerability, weakness, agony, fear, despair, confusion, hopelessness,  uncertainty, anger, rage, and injustice, and to support other people as they experience it, too.

It all becomes fuel.

Questions to ponder

  • How can you support others to be vulnerable during difficult times?
  • How can you care for your own vulnerability?
  • What might vulnerability be fueling for you?
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Fear & failure

This month in my spiritual direction training program we told our sacred stories. These stories included the events, people, and experiences that form us and our spirituality. The program leaders gave us a few prompts, but the real instruction was this: “Life unfolds, one petal at a time, slowly. What is unfolding?

Pale Pink Peony Closeup
“Pale Pink Peony Closeup” by ksblack99 CC PDM 1.0

I began to pay attention to themes that unfolded in my daily life, and I thought back to my March blog post about listening. So I listened to what unfolded, and I was surprised by what I heard: fear and failure.

Paying attention to fear

In April, my friend and colleague, Rachel Bloom-Pojar, invited me to speak to her research methods graduate class. I spoke about and offered some reflections on fear and uncertainty in the writing research process. It felt good to have real, practical conversations about our discomfort. It felt honest and new. We don’t often talk about fear and failure in our graduate classes because, well, it’s uncomfortable.

Then, a few weeks later, fear popped back up during another workshop. I co-created and co-hosted a job search workshop for English majors with our career services center. We invited all majors to it, understanding that most students would benefit from thinking about life after college. But no one showed up. Not one student. And we tried to figure out why.

Sure, it was close to the end of the semester, and it was the first nice day of the spring season (which is a big deal in Milwaukee—the polar vortex was a thing that happened here six months ago). We thought students had other things to do.

But then we dug deeper. We realized that low or no attendance at these events is a pattern. My colleague wondered about the students’ “if-I-don’t-see-it-it-can’t-be-real” mentality: “If I don’t think about life after graduation, then it won’t happen.” Life after graduation at any level, 8th grade, high school, college, grad school, is scary. And then we mentioned the four-letter f-word: fear. Fear might have driven students to not attend a workshop.

Then, in May, I listened to a podcast that a dear friend and School Sister of St. Francis shared with me. The podcast hosts discussed how life isn’t a straight line, even though when we’re young, we think (and maybe hope) that life develops linearly. And it doesn’t. That makes life’s journey rich, although challenging, and to learn from the twists and turns, we have to identify and befriend our fears.

Fear, meet your old friend, Failure

We might not be ready to face our fears because we don’t talk about how to do it. We’re not trained how to do it. Perhaps our mentors are just as uncomfortable with fear and failure as we are.

For example, as academics, we see summer and all of the possibility that lies ahead. But as we know, we never finish everything on our to-do lists over summer. Lisa Meloncon offers advice on how to cope with that. One of the best pieces of advice she offers is to take your to-do list and cut it down by half. That’s a realistic approach to summer work because everything takes longer than you anticipate, life happens, etc. But cutting that list is a scary thing to do.

And doing that might feel like failure.

Failure and fear often go hand-in-hand. We’re afraid of failing, so we don’t take a risk or we don’t face our fear. We’re afraid of failing, so we keep our to-do lists loaded and overflowing, which is a great way to set ourselves up for failure.

Like the imposter, fear and failure are invitations. They want to be known and understood so we can get to the root of it.

Getting to the root

One of my favorite ways to better understand things that make me uncomfortable came from my spiritual director. At the end of each meeting, he offers a few suggestions for how I can connect more fully with the energy and events that are unfolding in my life. He’ll often suggest that I spend time thinking about what is at the root of things: What grounds your anger? What drives your grief? What is underneath your fear?

Autumn tree
“Autumn Tree” by RR_KRK CC PDM 1.0

Many things drive fear. It protects us from knowing ourselves and showing our true, vulnerable self to others. It tries to keep us safe. We stay in it to avoid being uncomfortable. We don’t want to make mistakes.   

One of my cousins reminds me, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Google attributes that quote to a few different people. But regardless of who said it, there is wisdom there.

Fear and failure are growing edges.

Fear are failure are invitations.

Fear and failure aren’t something to overcome. They are experiences to be understood so that we might learn from their wisdom.

Questions to ponder

  • How do you define fear?
  • How do you define failure?
  • How have people in your life modeled ways to cope with fear and failure?
  • Where do you experience fear or failure in your body?
  • What do you do when you experience fear or failure?
  • What is at the root of fear for you? Of failure?
  • What might fear or failure be inviting you to learn, to do, or to experience?
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Listening in order to listen

Think about the last time you listened to someone. I mean really, truly listened–not to respond, not to advise, not to fix. Only to listen.

Learning to listen

During the first two months of my spiritual guidance training, I’ve learned about listening in order to listen, not advise, act, or respond. Listening in order to listen is important, difficult, and awe-inspiring work.

Photo by Pexabay. "Compassion - Listening - Witnessing" by johnhain.

Last month we started to work in pairs with our fellow trainees. One person was the spiritual guide, and one person was the seeker. I was assigned to be the guide, and it was the first time I ever guided someone in a spiritual direction session. I was nervous and excited.

In training, we talked and we continue to learn about how to guide a session. And even though we’re just starting to practice our skills, I was concerned that I wouldn’t know what to do, what to ask, or how to respond.

Then I remembered the main goal of being a spiritual guide: Stay in the present and listen.

Listening involves noticing nuances and drawing on other academic skills

So, I started the session with my “seeker.” Despite my nerves and feeling like an imposter, I was surprised at how I drew on my teaching and research skills when I was serving as a spiritual guide.

I didn’t struggle to stay in the present, which I was worried about. I held my seeker’s story and noticed body language and energy. I picked up on nuances that I then raised up as questions for the seeker to ponder.

I do those same things when I work with students and research participants and when I analyze data.

At first, I thought my academic skills would work against me. After all, as academics, we’re trained to analyze, identify problems, and seek solutions. We’re trained to react and act. That’s the opposite of listening.

But much to my pleasant surprise, serving as a spiritual director was energizing and sort of familiar.

How often do we really listen?

As I reflected on that experience last month, I wondered how often we truly listen in our academic life. When I’m with students or research participants, I now catch myself thinking about what I’m going to say next.

So often we listen to react–and then we act without having listened.

I’m starting to catch myself, but like anything else, it takes practice and intention.

But I keep wondering: What would happen if we would listen to learn more? What if we listened to hold people’s stories? What if we listened to better understand? What if we listened to lift up? What if we listened to listen? How might our teaching and research change?

Questions to ponder

  • How do you listen as a teacher?
  • How do you listen as a researcher?
  • How do you listen as a colleague?
  • How do you listen as a reader?
  • How do you listen as a writer?
  • What would it look like to listen to listen in all of these roles?


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Seeing imposter syndrome as an invitation

Imposter syndrome” is a familiar phrase to academics. It’s feeling like you’ll be found out as a fake, you don’t belong, you’re not good enough, you’re not as knowledgeable as people think you are, and you don’t deserve success.

"The Imposter" by outdoorPDF. CC BY-NC 2.0.

“The Imposter” by outdoorPDK. CC BY-NC 2.0.

If you haven’t experienced imposter syndrome during your career, you know someone who has: a colleague, a student, an advisee, or a mentee.

The imposter’s lifecycle

Like many of my academic friends, I’ve struggled with feeling like an imposter. It’s a feeling that crept back up last semester. My first book came out, and I wrestled with the Imposter throughout the writing and publication process. Then, just as the Imposter backed off, it returned.

Last week, I was on a five-day silent retreat, and directly after retreat, I attended my first weekend of spiritual guidance training. Silent retreat is a time I cherish and look forward to, and I was excited to begin training.

But for some reason, the Imposter was waiting for me in the silence. With my spiritual director’s guidance, I learned that anger and fear fueled the Imposter. I worked with this realization throughout retreat, quieting the Imposter.

I left the retreat for the training program. When I arrived, one of the program directors welcomed me with joy and warmth. My body and spirit knew I needed to be there. My spirit felt alive and eager. But my mind said, “Bolt. Grab your stuff and run to your car. You don’t belong here.”

Trusting inner wisdom

I was shocked by what my mind said but consoled that my inner wisdom–my body and spirit–knew to stay. And that inner wisdom quieted the Imposter, which was quite vocal during this first weekend of training.

Usually my spiritual life is imposter free. My body feels calm and energized when I’m rooted in my spirituality and when I’m with people who live a rich spiritual life. In these settings, my shoulders drop, my face softens, and I ease back. I feel receptive instead of defensive, protected from the Imposter.

Befriending the imposter

Instead of fighting the Imposter, which was my go-to strategy, I befriended it. Using the Ignatian principle of imagination, I saw the Imposter as an invitation to a series of questions:

"Open Door" by Alexandre Gallier. CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Open Door” by Alexandre Gallier. CC BY-NC 2.0.

  • Are there moments in my academic life where the Imposter is absent?
  • What is the Imposter inviting me to learn about myself and about others?
  • Is the Imposter more present when I’m around certain people or in certain settings?

For example, social media puts my Imposter in overdrive. So, after my first five-day silent retreat in 2017, I shut down Instagram, took a 20-month hiatus from Twitter, and deactivated my Facebook account, which remains one of the best and healthiest decisions ever. I’ve only recently returned to Twitter, and even now, I spend less than 30 minutes a day on Twitter. If I spend more than 30 minutes a day on it, I feel my spirit sink due to hate-filled messages from both sides of the aisle.

The Imposter can be a teacher and a foe. If it takes over, it can take us away from our core self, casting doubt on our decisions that we know to be true. Alternatively, it can point us to things that really matter to us. If we’re worried about being wrong about something, there must be a drive behind that—but what that drive is takes time to figure out.

The Imposter is an invitation to delve more deeply into areas where we feel comfortable and confident and out of areas that make us feel, to be frank, terrible. If we become rooted in areas of our lives where we are confident and guided by our inner wisdom, perhaps that provides the necessary foundation for the Imposter to step aside.

Questions to ponder

  • Have you struggled with imposter syndrome?
  • What might the Imposter be inviting you to? To walk away from something? To walk into something else?
  • How does the Imposter manifest? How do you know when the Imposter is present?
  • Do certain people and settings amplify the Imposter’s voice?
  • Do certain people and settings quiet the Imposter’s voice? How might you spend more time in those spaces?
  • How might you befriend the Imposter?
  • What areas of your life is the Imposter absent from? What might it look like for you to reside in those areas more?
  • Do you amplify someone else’s Imposter? How might you work to build up that person or people instead?
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A new year, a new start: The start of spiritual director training

The end of the year and the advent season is often filled with much anticipation.

I anticipate big and good changes in 2019, although I’m not exactly sure how they’ll manifest. But it’s starting with one big, exciting change: I’m starting a two-year training program to become a spiritual director.

flight landscape nature sky

Photo by Pixabay on

When I’ve shared this news over the past few months, people have asked similar questions, and they’re the same questions that I’ve been working through as I anticipate starting this program.

In this blog post, I offer these questions and my best attempt at answering them, full-well knowing that these answers will continue to unfold.

What is spiritual direction?

Defining “spiritual direction” is like defining “rhetoric”: Everyone has their own definition of it based on their experiences, scholarship, teaching, etc.

My developing definition of “spiritual direction” includes these words:

  • listening
  • holding stories
  • discerning
  • companioning
  • wondering
  • encountering
  • connecting

Spiritual direction is also called “spiritual guidance” and “spiritual counseling,” and the program I’m in refers to it as “spiritual guidance.” Right now I refer to it as “spiritual direction” because that’s what I’m familiar with, but my use of terms might change as I start the program.

Spiritual direction is not counseling or therapy, but it can complement them.

Why are you becoming a spiritual director?

I wrote in my application to the program:

“For the past decade, I have been searching for ways to support people in ways they might not otherwise receive support.

In 2008, I started my PhD in rhetoric and composition, and the deeper I got into my coursework, the farther removed I felt from impacting people inside and outside of the academy. Something was stirring within me to develop skills that reached beyond the academy.

In response to this call, and after an internship with a volunteer EMS squad and a hospital, I earned my EMT-B certification to be able to help people wherever and whenever they might need it. Although I enjoyed my EMT training and PhD coursework and am grateful for my skills, I still found myself searching for ways to more fully support people.

Training in spiritual guidance allows guides to be fully present to those around them, in mind, body, and spirit, and I see this program as complementing the work I do as a professor. I have taught at the college level for 11 years, and one of my favorite parts of my job is meeting students where they are so I can support them and help them make connections among aspects of their life.”

What will you do with your training?

I’m not entirely sure yet, and not knowing is part of the fun and anticipation. Most immediately I see myself serving as a spiritual director on campus to students.

What do you earn at the end of it?

Some training programs are housed within graduate schools where trainees earn a graduate certificate or a masters degree. The two-year training program that I’m in is a certificate program.

Is the program grounded in a religious or faith tradition?

No, and that’s one reason I chose the program I’m starting.

"Heart of the Rho Ophiuchi /Antares regions" by Ram Viswanathan. CC BY-NC 2.0.

“Heart of the Rho Ophiuchi /Antares regions” by Ram Viswanathan. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Most of the masters and graduate programs are rooted in a religious tradition because they’re affiliated with a religious institution. For example, I considered Creighton’s and Loyola’s graduate programs, but I wanted an interfaith training. This training will complement my experience with and knowledge of Ignatian and Franciscan spirituality.

By receiving training in a different tradition, I can offer a more well-rounded approach to seekers, whom I currently envision to be students.

What will you learn?

As I understand it, my fellow trainees and I will learn the skills of spiritual direction. Each class focuses on a theme, like spirituality and sexuality, spirituality and grief, etc.

In addition to learning these skills, my fellow trainees and I will deepen our own spirituality and practice.

I anticipate that this blog might chronicle this journey.

When did you start thinking about becoming a director?

I first had the idea to pursue training in October 2017 when I was in the first few months of the Ignatian spiritual exercises. The exercises are a nine month journey in daily life to deepen prayer life and to know God. Although I encountered quite a few spiritual struggles during the nine months, this experience was transformative.

One of these transformative pieces was when I felt a call to pursue training in spiritual direction.  I sat with it and worked with it with my spiritual director over the next few months. The call didn’t go away. It deepened as the months went on. I looked into spiritual director training programs in the Midwest, ultimately deciding to apply to the one that fit with this call, my deepening spiritual life, and my schedule.

I applied for the training program in April 2018, had an interview in June 2018, and in fall 2018, I started to share the news.

I waited to share the news because, much to my surprise, fear stopped me.

Nerves, anxiety, and other fear-based roots

To be honest, I’ve been nervous, anxious, and afraid to make this news public. Even writing this post has been a bit nerve wracking.

I was afraid of what people in my academic circles would think. As I’ve shared before, when I first shared that I was spiritual with this circle, I was asked by a fellow academic in public, “Aren’t you smart enough to be an atheist?

Following that experience, I was worried that I’d be judged as lesser of a teacher and scholar because I believe in something that’s intangible and escapes language. I believe that there is a Loving Energy that connects all that was, is, and will be, and through that Oneness, we are called to care for one another and all of creation. That Energy has guided me through milestones in my life, including this one.

Looking ahead without fear and with anticipation

Thanks to deepening my spiritual practice, I’m learning to see that the judgements from others might be rooted in misunderstanding and, really, other people’s fears about the unknown.

Thanks to caring for my spirit (a phrase my friend Lea shared with me), I’m learning to identify moments of fear, what’s driving the fear, and how to release it. In turn, the truth emerges as and where it needs to. Trusting that process, though, is tough, but it can leads to moments of great anticipation and transformation.

I know at my core that being rooted in spirituality has strengthened my teaching and research. In fact, much of the last chapter of my current book emerged from conversations about mindfulness and the senses that I had during spiritual direction sessions.

So, that’s where I’m at and that’s what I’m looking forward to in 2019: to seeing where the training program leads and what unfolds. Whatever unfolds, it feels big. I anticipate great things ahead.

Questions to ponder

  • What are you anticipating in 2019?
  • What are you grateful for this year?
  • How do you care for your spirit?
  • Where is fearing holding you back?
  • What purpose might that fear serve?
  • What would happen if you released that fear?
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Where do you find joy?

I started a gratitude journal in October. Since starting it, I noticed that most of the things I’m grateful for also bring me joy. 

I really began to pay attention to joy and finding joy these past two weeks, which seemed appropriate being that it’s the Christmas season. Plus, it’s finals week in academic life, a time that is filled with activity and that isn’t usually synonymous with “joy.”

So, I asked my students, “Where do you find joy this time of year?” I have a column in the attendance sheet that students sign specifically for questions like that. I’ve been doing it for years, and it helps to build community in the classroom. 

My dog Dory doesn't wear her birthday hat. She eats it.

Students responses varied like they usually do to those questions. They made us laugh, nod in agreement, and ponder.

For them, joy included getting all As (I should have seen that one coming), going home for break, and googling “dogs wearing birthday hats.” I shared that my dog Dory doesn’t wear her birthday hat–she eats it. In doing so, she experiences joy and brings joy to all her birthday party guests who laugh in bemusement. 

But I digress.

These various responses made me wonder: What is joy, really?

Spirituality and joy go hand in hand

My spiritual mentor, Sr. Arlene, has told me on more than one occasion that Loving Energy (what I have come to call God) wants us to be happy and to be filled with joy. She even recommended the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu’s Book of Joy as further evidence that spirituality and joy go hand in hand. 

Then I thought about it. And her comment reminded me of a reflection I attended last week.

“Where you feel most alive”

I went to a luncheon reflection at my university’s Ignatian spirituality center for faculty and staff.  We reflected on the advent season and on the anticipation of Christmas. We first thought about what Christmas means to us and our traditions and how they’ve evolved over time. But that’s not the conversation that stuck with me.

We then reflected on how we each were a light in the world. That conversation brought forth stories of joy and gratitude.

As people shared how they saw themselves as lights in the world, my eye was drawn to a painting on the wall in our gathering space: “Whatever you are doing, that which makes you feel the most alive . . . that is where God is.” – St. Ignatius Loyola

Is joy also that which makes us feel most alive?

I paused. Is joy also that which makes us feel most alive? How do you know when you feel most alive? 

Finding joy in the final weeks of the semester

These questions are perhaps most important to ask ourselves during the end of the semester when we’re all–students, faculty, and staff–overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious. Those feelings might lead us to think we’re alive, but they can be just the opposite: draining, taxing, and depleting. 

These sentiments are solidified on social media and during hallway conversations. How many times have you seen, read, or said, “How many more papers do I have to grade?” “Let the grading marathon begin. Sigh.” 

But what if we found joy in these seemingly mundane, daunting, and perhaps even dreaded tasks?

How might that change our experience of these important workplace tasks?

We can find joy when we are immersed in these activities. We just have to look for it.

For example, I held one-on-one conferences with all of my students during the last week of classes. We discussed their final papers and final portfolios. As writing teachers reading this post know, days leading up to conferences can be exhausting. They involve reading drafts and commenting on drafts, and then talking about drafts in 15-, 20-, or 30-minute conferences.

I expected to be drained, taxed, and depleted that week. 

I experienced the opposite. 

I felt energized when working one-on-one with students. We discussed their papers and portfolios, but we also were able to talk about life outside of class. This part of the conversation was particularly important for my first-year students who were experiencing their first finals week and were struggling with energy management.

It turned out to be important for me, too, because it brought me joy. It brought me joy because of the connection and community we built during our time together. I looked forward to the next meeting, and although I was physically tired when that last conference started, my energy was renewed as the student and I discussed revision plans for the final portfolio.   

My point with this entry isn’t that everyone needs to conference with students. It’s that we might find joy during stressful times if we pay attention to where we feel most alive even when we’re at our most tired. 

And maybe that’s one way to think of joy: Doing the things and being with the people (and pets) that make us feel truly alive, energized, renewed, and connected with humanity.

Questions to ponder

  • What is joy for you?
  • Where, when, and how do you feel joyful? How do you know?
  • If you don’t feel joyful in certain areas of your life (work, home, etc.), what changes might you make to experience joy?
  • Do you feel joy in your spiritual life? How, where, and when?
  • How might you bring joy to others?
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Finding a spiritual home

I’ve been thinking about the idea of home lately.

It started when I was on silent retreat last month. During retreat, I read Toko-pa Turner‘s Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home. In it, she discusses what “home” means and ways to be at home with yourself.

"Affection Appreciation Art" by Carl Attard (CC)

“Affection Appreciation Art” by Carl Attard (CC)

She suggests that her readers keep a gratitude journal, so I started a journal on Sunday, October 28. Every night I list five things I’m grateful for that day. Looking back at the entries this past month, I’ve been surprised at how most of the things I’m grateful for relate to home:

  • My family and friends
  • My dog, Dory
  • My actual house
  • Clean, fresh sheets
  • My electrician who re-wired my basement so I could host more (and bigger) gatherings
  • Hosting Thanksgiving

But then, out of gratitude, another theme emerged: a spiritual home. So far this month, I’ve also been grateful for:

  • Quiet reflection alone
  • Perspective
  • Deep truths
  • Mary Magdalene
  • Ignatian principles of noticing and slowing down
  • The ability to receive and deeply trust somatic knowledge and embodied knowing

I thought about it a bit deeper. I realized that these gratitudes are part of the core of my spiritual self. Then I began to wonder, what is a spiritual home? Where is it? How is it? Why is it?

A first attempt at describing a spiritual home

A spiritual home is a space or practice in/through which you connect with yourself and the divine guides, angels, the Holy Spirit, God, or other divine beings. In many ways, it’s letting the mind step aside and listening to the inner self–to the body, to the heart, to the gut center. Just like a physical home, it needs a resident to nourish it.

In thinking about this concept, I’ve thought about what I need to remove from and welcome into my spiritual home. One thing I’ve detached from is attending mass. Although I actively attended church for decades, both Catholic and Episcopal churches, that ritual doesn’t feel like “home” anymore. I can’t just “be” during mass; I have to “do” in church. Church was always an active event when I was a kid, and even as a kid, I was frustrated that I couldn’t just sit and let my spirit connect. Maybe church will feel like home in the future, but it doesn’t right now.

So, what fits?

To date, the list includes quiet meditation, silent retreats, long walks and bike rides, and monthly meetings with my on-campus spiritual director (I’m fortunate to work at a university that has a spiritual center for faculty and staff).

St. Joseph Chapel at the School Sisters of St. Francis Motherhouse

St. Joseph Chapel at the School Sisters of St. Francis Motherhouse

I also meet regularly with my spiritual mentor and “third grandma,” Sr. Arlene. And, as an associate member of the School Sisters of St. Francis, I find solace in their historic chapel, which is filled with such good, positive, renewing energy.

These practices and people help me find my spiritual home. 

When I’m at home–physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually–my body rests and sinks into the moment. My shoulders relax. My face relaxes. I don’t feel the need to do–I can just be. I listen more. I talk less. When I do talk, I don’t feel nervous about saying something wrong or being judged. I trust that my inner self will guide me as needed. 

It’s taken years to learn how my body tells me when I’m home, and I’m definitely still working on it. As an academic, I very much struggle with shutting my mind off and tuning into my body, heart, and gut center. My mind makes me good at my job, but it strains my ability to listen to and be guided by somatic knowledge.

I guess that means I have to clean up that part of my house. But who knows what that new open space will welcome? Whatever it may be, I’ll be grateful.

Questions to ponder

  • What does “home” mean to you?
  • What is your spiritual home?
  • If you had to clean out your spiritual home, what would you remove? What would you add?
  • How often are you truly at home? How do you know?
  • Who makes you feel spiritually at home?
  • What rituals or traditions help bring you home?
  • If your spiritual home is a church, what makes that space similar to or different from a religious or faith home?



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The spiritual life starts with questioning

My spiritual mentor, Sr. Arlene, shared those words with me over 10 years ago. At the time, I understood it to mean “faith starts with your questions”: Who or what is God? What Church doctrine do I accept and reject? Why? Do I need a religious structure to help me connect with the divine?

As the years have gone by, I continue to ask questions as a way to understand and develop my spirituality. After all, questioning is one of the things that academics do best. So, in many ways, the academic life aligns with the spiritual life and vice versa. As academics, we are prepared to engage in the spiritual life. It can lead to a spiritual academic life.

"Question Everything" by Jason Taellious (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Question Everything” by Jason Taellious (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By questioning ourselves and having others question us, our faith and spirituality deepen. They become richer if we’re open to the challenges inherent in this work.

One of the challenges is being challenged

When I moved to my doctoral program 10 years ago, I expected people to be open, inclusive, and accepting of all backgrounds and contexts. In many ways, I experienced this openness—except when it came to my spirituality and faith. I learned that I had to be careful with whom I shared my spirituality.

On one of my first nights in town, I went out to a bar with my new graduate school colleagues. These colleagues were ahead of me in the program, and I looked forward to getting to know people who I’d be learning with and from. The conversation unfolded, and I mentioned that I was a progressive Catholic, thinking nothing of it. After all, it was a part of who I was.

Someone asked me: “Aren’t you smart enough to be atheist?”

People laughed, and the conversation shifted. But I was silenced. I didn’t know what to say. I felt out of place. I felt exposed. I felt shamed and ashamed for being who I was.

Dwelling in and with frustration

At that moment, I unconsciously closed off the faith and religious parts of my life. I can only now see this moment as the first time I entered the dark night of the soul, a time when my spiritual life did not make sense. Like I do when I have spiritual crises, I called Sr. Arlene. I was mad.

As the years went on, I grew furious at the contradictions I noticed developing around me. This same group of people that asked if I was smart enough to be atheist and laughed in response were open and inclusive in our graduate classes together. They engaged in feminist and participatory research methodologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies. I learned a lot from them about how to be an engaged researcher and an active learner.

Yet they shut me down within the first 20 minutes of meeting me. I struggled to understand why. I never discussed it publicly (until now). I feared, and in some ways still fear, being reprimanded, shamed, or made fun of for something that was and is deeply important to me.

Seeing frustration as an ally

This frustration fueled my spiritual development throughout my doctoral program. I committed to speaking with Sr. Arlene over the phone on a regular basis. She helped me develop a centering meditation practice. Through this practice, I felt led to become an associate of the School Sisters of St. Francis, the progressive group of women religious that ran the schools my brother and I attended.

As I worked with Sr. Arlene, I quietly searched for a Catholic church in the conservative small town where I was new. “Pro-life” banners adorned the Catholic churches down the street from my new apartment, and my qualms with the Church arose: “How can you judge people before they even enter your space?” Needless to say, I didn’t find a Catholic church that fit my emerging spiritual development, which was taking me away from religion and more towards a spiritual life.

So, I continued to work with Sr. Arlene and shared my spiritual struggles with trusted friends in my cohort and a few professors. I finally found a (non-Catholic) church community where I felt accepted. A few of the faculty members were members there, too. I felt home. I felt seen.

Yes, spirituality begins—and continues—with questioning. But as my graduate school colleague showed me, it doesn’t only begin with the questions we ask ourselves. It begins and grows with the questions other people and events ask of us, too.

Questions to ponder

  • What questions arise for you when you think about your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?
  • What questions have been major turning points in your faith, religious, and/or spiritual life?
  • Where, when, and with whom do you find spiritual nourishment?
  • What does “spiritual nourishment” mean to you?
  • Who has questioned you in the past regarding your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?
  • What emotions arise when you think of this person/these people?
  • How might have these emotions and people helped you deepen your faith, religion, and/or spirituality?
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What is a spiritual academic life?

For years I felt like my spiritual life and academic life had to be parallel. They could not intersect, for reasons I will detail in future posts. My colleagues in my academic fields and sub-fields have echoed this feeling.

Photo by Pixabay on

If you’re an academic, you might be spiritual or religious or have a rich faith life—but we don’t talk about it. And if we do talk about it, we whisper about it, some people afraid of being “found out” as having a connection with something/someone/someones that we cannot see and that our academic training says we probably shouldn’t believe in. Academics have faith in what we can see, read, test, and write. We don’t necessarily have faith in what we feel and our own embodied knowledge.

But I do. And I know other academics out there do, too.

One definition of a spiritual academic life

For me, a spiritual academic life is a life that is informed and transformed by a connection with the divine, a meditative/prayer practice, and a commitment to diving deep into questioning and slowing down. It involves fellowship, community, and–perhaps most importantly–listening with intent to people and to the inner self.  For the first time in my career, I am starting to identify where and how my spirituality informs my teaching and research and vice versa.

Because how can it not?

In this career, like many others, we take work home with us. Our students, research participants, and the communities in which we engage dwell with us and us with them. And when we tune into our spiritual lives, these components come together. As much as might compartmentalize, which can be a good thing in some cases, I’m wondering how compartmentalization has shortchanged scholarship, teaching, and spiritual development.

Lots of events have led me to this question, and I’ll start with some of them here: how I identify.

How I identify

As scholarship has taught us, our identifications inform who we are, how we’re seen and treated, and how we interact with the world. So here are some of the ways I identify, some of which I will most likely write more about in future posts:

  • I am a straight, white, cis female who lives in my hometown of Milwaukee.
  • I teach at a Jesuit university.
  • I was raised Catholic and still identify as culturally Catholic, but I am not a practicing Catholic. Like many Catholics, I disagree with Church teaching and canon law. I struggle with identifying with a group whose members have abused (including but not limited to sexual abuse)  and inflicted much suffering on people.
  • I am a spiritual seeker who has developed a relationship with the divine by tuning into energy and cultivating a connection with people, animals, and the world around us.
  • I am a rhetorician of health and medicine who studies how healthcare providers use and learn rhetorical strategies in their workplace.
  • I do not—by choice—have children. It’s an important part of my identity because I feel like if I had children that I would include that in my identity.
  • I am following and cultivating a commitment to slowing down. In a time when events infuriate us and decisions need to be made yesterday, I am trying to stay rooted in reflection and pause before I act. I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying.

And on the topic of identification, here’s a distinction that has laid the foundation of my spiritual life most recently:

Spirituality does not (have to) equal religion and vice versa

At least not for me.

Through my years in spiritual direction, I have come to understand religion and spirituality as different things, although they might be the same thing for lots of people. Religion is an institutionalized practice guided by dogma and organized leadership. Spirituality is an individualized connection with the divine, which can mean God, Yahweh, Allah, Oneness, that is nourished in various ways: through prayer, meditation, artistic endeavors, fellowship.

If religion is what we do, spirituality is who we are.

Right now, my spiritual academic life is grounded in Franciscan and Ignatian spiritualities and my new endeavor into cosmology and spirituality. I have also worked quite a bit with the Enneagram, a transformative tool that has informed much of my thinking since I learned about it in 2002. These spiritualities and tool guide much of what I’ll be writing about in this space.

Why this blog exists

After a series of events that I’ll detail at a later point (because I can’t write all-of-the-things in one post, right?), I felt led to create a space where I could write about what a spiritual academic life can look like. I knew all too well that the writing I’ll do in this blog would ever be published—because we just don’t talk about how spiritual life informs teaching and research.

And maybe there’s good reason for not publishing it, but I’m not convinced that academia and spirituality are mutually exclusive. I’m curious to know who else out there might feel the same way.

I envision that the following blog entries will follow the format started here. I’ll begin with some personal reflection around a question I’ve been thinking about. Then, I’ll share some questions that you can consider if you want to move deeper into a spiritual academic life. I’m unsure of what will unfold, but I felt called to start this blog for quite some time now. I’m learning to honor and trust these calls, even though the end goal is often unknown.

If you’re an academic who is spiritual, or even if you’re not, welcome. Spirituality and religion are personal. If you, like me, are wrestling with questions and these areas of your life, I invite you to follow along and to spend a few moments pondering the questions I’ll end each post with.

Questions to ponder

  • Where are you on your spiritual journey? Are you religious, spiritual, both, neither?
  • What do those terms mean to you?
  • Have you separated your spiritual life from your academic life? Why? What would it look like if these lives interacted?
  • Has your faith/religion/spirituality informed your work and vice versa? How?
  • What’s calling you at a deeper level to answer these questions?
  • What questions or answers are you left with right now?
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