I grew up studying ballet in an old abandoned barn on the grounds of the former Mill Hill Brothers’ monastery in upstate New York. The barn was nestled against a mass of ancient pine trees, which kept the studio in a perpetual state of Christmas.
My favorite time to enter the dance studio was Saturday morning in mid-winter. My body would be swaddled within layers of fresh cotton tights and tattered knit leggings. The floor board heaters slowly cranked back to life with a metallic gust of hot air as other dancers arrived to de-thaw. We’d stretch our bodies out along the smooth marley floor, flaring our limbs like the tendrils of some aquatic creature, while others remained cocooned in a sleepy fog. The fumes of lemon-scented floor cleaner hovered around us, gently mixing with the cool earthy air of our beloved barn turned ballet studio.
On the opposite end of the year, when the heat of the afternoon made the sweaty leather soles of our dance shoes stick to the marley, my mind would drift as I tracked the ladybugs clustered in the window sills, counting down the minutes until our tired bodies could escape behind the barn to pick wild raspberries on our lunch break.
There was something magical about that rustic space with its scent of damp oak and knotty wood ceiling beams hovering overhead. What was once a storehouse for bales of hay and resting workhorses had become home to another kind of physical labor. The warn leather reigns and horseshoes were now replaced with satin ribbons and pink canvas slippers. Small framed pictures of Russian ballet dancers hung unevenly wherever an old nail was found. I imagined heavy saddle bags draped over the metal hooks where a double ballet barre was now securely bolted at elbow height. Two rows of wooden dowels spread across the walls of the studio, beckoning our slumped bodies off the icy floor and into first position - hips open and toes pointed out, like racehorses primed at the gate.
A few oddly placed pews could be found around the studio and dressing room, having been salvaged from the adjacent chapel, once a small house of prayer for the faithful farmers who worked and lived on the land. The chapel itself would later become a second ballet studio, raised up on cinder-block stilts yet still maintaining its pitched roof and arched windows.
Not unlike a church pew, the barre contains you, molds you, and restricts you - nailed to the wall, always waiting for you to return after you’ve lost your balance. As each ballet class began, I would find myself grasping the smooth wooden surface, knuckles turned white as my palms absorbed hints of varnish. As my shoulders reached alignment over my torso and pelvis, my body locating its inner compass, I slowly released my greasy palms from their stubborn grip. Aware that I would soon return to a state of utter dependence, I reveled in those early moments of freedom, my neck lengthening as my arms prepared for our first por de bras. As I inhaled deeply from the base of my stomach, my nostrils soaked up the chilled morning air, cherishing that glorious moment between stillness and movement, form and freedom.
At the end of each dance class there is a time of closure called révérence or reverence, in which the dancers offer several simple movements in unison: a bow of the shoulders and torso, an open arm, a lift and nod of the head, a unified gesture of gratitude. It is an opportunity to re-calibrate our breathing and return our bodies to a calm resting state, following the intense physical exertion of the class. It is a process of integrating what our bodies have undergone and allowing the work to seep deeply into our core. It is also a profoundly spiritual moment, an act of reverence toward the gift of movement, the gift of expression, the gift of community.
Derived from the Latin revereri and its root ver, to see or take notice, reverence means to stand in awe and consider with great intention or devotion. It is this quality of reverence that has continually drawn me to the practice of ritual. From the comfort of the repetitive movements of my childhood dance education to the mystery of lighting beeswax candlesticks along the wintry streets of Romania, ritual has become a life-long practice not just for me personally but a central part of my work with others.
Perhaps my early career aspirations of becoming an obstetrician or an architect were glimpses of the kind of bridge-building work that has defined my life for the past two decades - a kind of spiritual midwifery that involves journeying with others through important life experiences, both in grief and celebration. I’ve done this work in a variety of spaces, offering restorative dance therapy for survivors of sexual abuse in central Peru, counseling homeless women as they reclaim their voice and agency, and serving as an ordained Protestant clergy for ten years, where I developed meaningful ritual practices for all walks of life, both religious and non-religious.
I’m not surprised that I became a Presbyterian minister, even if I have now outgrown its organizational and theological structures. It's unapologetic intellectualism and progressive social activism convinced me that it was more than just my grandmother’s church. My grandmother’s non-practicing German Lutheran mother and Irish Catholic father divvied up their children’s religious upbringing, with my grandmother and her sisters going to the local Presbyterian church with a neighbor and their brother adopting their father’s Catholic faith. This haphazard religious lineage is a reminder that our spiritual paths are just as much influenced by our familial and socio-cultural surroundings as they are by our own existential questions and curiosities.
My religious path was never one of piety and doctrine, but an ongoing attraction to communal ritual, contemplative spirituality, relational practice, and transcendent living in a busy and complex world. When I entered the ministry, it wasn’t for the pastoral role, the robe or even strong religious leanings. Instead, I saw it as a possible if not well-structured path that would help me foster a deeper path of reverence, a more defined container for my own sense of awe, rooted in those childhood experiences of creative movement and awareness of the holy.
When I was in my mid-20’s I decided it was time to come to terms with my discomfort with the word "religion," feeling perhaps that my own spiritual path would at some point overlap with my loosely-Presbyterian upbringing. I was in the midst of a soul quest that involved several solo wanderings around the hidden corners of Europe, thanks to a steady paycheck as a policy analyst with the New York State Senate. In between policy briefings and late-night budget negotiations, I would creep away to the legislative library or light a candle in the darkened cloisters of a nearby old Episcopal church, collecting meaningful moments like wildflowers in an unattended field.
During this time, I sat down with the pastor of my home church who demystified the word religion by stating it simply means “to bind back.” The words continued to roll around in my head as I read tattered books on Thomas Merton and the desert mystics from his theological library, and fifty-cent hardcover books on Jungian psychological from the dusty shelves of my favorite used book store. This period of exploration eventually led to a year of volunteer work in Peru, journeying with survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence, followed by similar work at women’s homeless shelter in my hometown of Schenectady, NY, and later to Louisville Seminary where I continued to explore the expansiveness of reverence amid the confines of religion.
I don’t regret being a pastor. This vocation offered me some of the most breathtakingly beautiful moments of connection with others and our common pursuit of wholeness and holiness. In fact, it is my love and gratitude toward the work itself that made it so heartbreaking when I decided it was time to leave. But in reflecting upon my ten years in pastoral leadership, the work was never my entirety. I never looked to the church or my role as a pastor to validate my own identity or sense of purpose. There has always been a deeper sense of knowing.
While my own journey beyond the Christian religion and the confines of Protestant church culture has indeed involved moments of tearful grief and disappointment, I always knew that the notion of “church” did not define my own deeply-felt spirituality. Thankfully, this conscious desire to dissociate my spiritual identity from the religious institution has enabled my departure to feel more edifying, as I gaze upon this period as a chapter along a continually evolving landscape.
I am exceedingly grateful for the new path that has emerged and the travelers upon it, as I return to the roots of reverence, a path grounded in embodied spirituality and meaningful living.
If you'd like to join me on a similar path of depth and discovery, click below for more details on my coaching practice and pathways for ritual.