Part 3-A in a multi installment series for Lent.
Partners on Your New Path – What mentors or fellow travelers helped light and shape your new path?
I’m going to break this reflection into two parts, mentors and fellow travelers. Today, the mentors on my spiritual journey. The mentors I discuss fall into the categories of Mom, Professors, Clergy, and Spiritual Directors.
Mom -My mom was my first spiritual mentor and the fellow traveler I have been with the longest. The older I get, the more I look back on my life and realize that my spirituality is a direct gift from my mom. Her insistence on God and prayer and love as the core of spirituality- and for her they are very much the same thing – and an open heart and mind regarding the practice of religion have shaped me in ways I am still discovering. It’s because of her example that my faith life never really changed direction in order to reject ideas so much as a life-long learning and growing experience in terms of the heart. She has shared the entire journey, especially the journey of the spirit. Most of us love our parents and our children, but when you also really truly like them as people, it’s an exponential blessing.
The Professors – I had two professors as an undergraduate that had an immeasurable influence on my character and my spirit. Harry Semerjian, a music professor and Maria Mercedes Jaramillo, a Spanish professor. Neither were in my major department of English and neither were particularly religious, although I believe that Harry once told me his name means “Resurrection” in Armenian. My dad was a professor at the college I attended and I still appreciate the fact that both of these mentors knew my dad well, especially Harry, but both always treated me as my own person, not Lou’s son. Harry and Maria Mercedes each had a gentle affect and a fierce soul. Both exhibited great integrity. The way they dealt with students was no different than the way they treated their peers in the faculty. They were both direct, kind, compassionate, and big hearted. I learned more from them about things outside the subject matter of class than I ever learned from them in class – and I learned quite a bit from them in class!
One memory of Harry is from the year I was a teaching assistant for him in his basic music theory class. He began the first class of the semester speaking entirely in Armenian for about 45 minutes in order to make the point that music is its own language and in many ways you need to learn it like a language. Surprisingly, only two students walked out before he began speaking English with five minutes left in class. I love creative ways to teach and creative elements in worship and this one event sparked an awareness in me that its important to find creative ways to help people “get it.”
One memory of Maria Mercedes was a class in which she was talking about the destruction of the rain forests in her native Columbia. One young conservative in the class, said that it’s just progress. Maria Mercedes never let this type of comment go unchallenged. She explained the impact of clear cutting rainforest, how parts of it where native peoples lived was marked “uninhabited” on official Colombian government maps, how the U.S. government’s war on drugs was actually a sham and the U.S. was purposefully importing drugs into poor city neighborhoods. It was a litany of the most atrocious environmental and political crime and corruption of the late 1980s. One student was near tears and challenged, “is this all actually true?” I was one of a few classmates that reinforced what Maria had said and added some brief comments of our own. When the conversation died down the student who questioned the veracity of Maria’s litany began to cry softly. Maria Mercedes’ face softened and she looked at the student and said, “Don’t cry. Crying doesn’t help. If crying would help, I would cry all the time. We must do something.” Tuve clases con María Mercedes durante cuatro años y esa fue la mejor lección – Hacer algo! Don’t just weep at the state of the world – do something! Or as my Unitarian Universalism would teach me – Love the Hell out of it – Deeds not Creeds – Justice is what Love looks like in Action!
The Clergy – Upon reflection, there are two clergy people who truly formed me by their example as pastors, Father Rich Lewandowski and Rev. Dr. Susan Suchocki Brown.
Father Rich, as all the students called him, was the pastor at the Catholic Church’s Newman Center on the campus of Fitchburg State College while I was a student there. Following my college depression, he really helped me find a place back in the Catholicism I was raised in, a place that allowed me to be Catholic and at the same dissent from church teaching. I think this experience taught me that no faith community is perfect and our place in the community shouldn’t be limited by disagreements with it. A lesson I have found I need in the Unitarian Universalist community as much as I needed in the Catholic community. Even though Father Rich submitted my name to a diocesan program to recruit new priests which I turned down, he also wrote a recommendation for me to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Rev. Dr. Susan Suckocki-Brown was the (now retired) minister at the first Unitarian Universalist church I attended, in my hometown of Leominster, MA. Her immediate welcome and her pastoral counseling were priceless gifts as I transitioned away from a Catholic community where I was very much accepted and loved in spite of all my disagreements with it. Her support and guidance helped me discover my calling to ministry and encouraged me to pursue it. She provided guidance along the way of the ordination process and I was ordained in the Leominster church. She still checks in with me anytime she hears something big is going on in my life. She was a major support to me when my father died. She was not only the church’s pastor, but in many ways the City of Leominster’s pastor as well. She was a Fire Chaplain and at the center of interfaith work and social justice work in many areas in my hometown. When I step back, I realize I have tried to model my congregational ministry after her more than anyone else.
The Spiritual Directors – I studied to be a spiritual director in a three year program called Heart Paths. The program’s founder, and at the time I studied, also its director and lead teacher, The Rev. Dr. Bob Gardenhire III had a way of seeming like Yoda and your best friend at the same time. His personal wealth of experience as a licensed marriage and family therapist, pastor, and spiritual director gave him a seemingly limitless library of personal experience that gave him real world examples he tied to concepts and techniques. I also learned from him in a way that lodged deep in my heart that caring for people’s souls is as a serious a business as there is. Yes, this seems like an obvious realization for a minister, but it was Bob’s presence, teaching, manner, and example that helped me internalize it in a way I hadn’t before.
My two spiritual directors in this program were Rev. Brian Hardesty-Crouch (1st year) , and Rev. Lee Self (2nd and 3rd year). Their companionship as my spiritual director allowed me to synthesize many aspects of my life. I’d been in therapy, I’d had spiritual directors, I’d had depression, I’d had many life experiences, but it wasn’t until journeying with Brian and Lee that I felt the light and shadows of who I am come into that integrated acceptance of my whole self as a spiritual being. This is what Unitarian Universalists would call the dignity and worth of all people. I think I first came to accept this about myself during these three years of spiritual direction. My overriding memory of Brian and one of his great spiritual lessons for me was how to just hold space. I spent quite a number of my first sessions with him just crying. And he let me. And held that space open and God entered into that space and embraced me. My greatest gift from Lee was how I came to see my life (and each and every life) as a sacred story. The simple question, “So what’s been going on?” has never been so powerful. Just telling my spiritual director about what’s happened lately opened the gate to seeing the divine in many more places in my life than I would have otherwise.