By Gordon Nary
Gordon: When did you join St. Pius V Parish?
Elizabeth-Anne: I think it was 2003 when the Pastor Emeritus, Rev. Chuck Dahm, O.P., invited me to help integrate the children from the Religious Education program into the Sunday English liturgy. I was “between parishes” at the time and welcomed the opportunity to use my ministerial gifts in a new setting – and to find a new place to worship! I had been very involved in my previous parish for about 19 years, but there was a change in leadership and I “shook the dust from my sandals”….
Gordon: What has kept you at St. Pius V?
Elizabeth-Anne: I love the people, the community spirit, the aliveness, the music…. It is a friendly community with a commitment to social justice and to the neighborhood. With my British accent, I am obviously an “outsider” in many ways, especially as I live in downtown Chicago rather than in Pilsen. However, the Latin culture reminds me of my Maltese roots and I feel very welcome there. I especially love working with the children and helping them experience a “hands on” approach to the Sunday readings that can include skits, dialogues, personal sharing and my most recent acquisition, a brilliantly colored Macaw puppet I have named Signor Ricardo Rodriguez. At times, so many children want to participate that you can barely see the altar!
Gordon: You are an exceptionally multitalented talented person and have expertise in so many subjects. So let's start with your theological studies. You earned a PhD in Theology from The University of Malta. Why did your chose this university to continue your theology studies and what special insights did you gain from your studies there?
Elizabeth-Anne: In the first place, The University of Malta, Europe, was my Alma Mater – I had studied English & Linguistics there as an undergraduate at a time when only Catholic seminarians studied Theology. Given my doctoral research interests – a Christology of Holy Foolishness—the University of Malta was the perfect choice. My dissertation was a daring venture: others had written on Holy Foolishness, but few, if any, had been bold enough to apply the archetype of the Holy Fool to the gospel Jesus. At the University of Malta, I was privileged to study with the late Rev. Peter Serracino Inglott, S.J., Rector Emeritus, who was internationally renowned for his eclectic philosophical interests, especially clowning/comedy and spirituality. My two other mentors were the late Ewert Cousins (Fordham) who had been my D. Min. advisor, and Marie-Henry Keane, O.P. (Blackfriars, Oxford). My academic support team offered me the best of three worlds, and I was fortunate enough to receive several grants from DePaul University, where I was employed at the time, which covered travel to Malta and Oxford, England, as well as to the various locations in the States where I could connect with Ewert.
In the British system, there is typically no course work involved in a PhD program; this meant that I could continue to teach and minister at DePaul while dedicating myself to research. This period of study ended up being one of the most enriching, formational times in my life; I think I’m the only person I know who actually enjoyed writing a dissertation! When I graduated in 1999, I was the first woman in 400 years to earn a graduate degree in Theology from the University of Malta and held the first PhD in Theology the school had ever awarded. I have to say that it was with great pride that I received my diploma wearing the traditional biretta, followed by clergy graduates who had been awarded the STL. That same year, Sheed & Ward published an abridged version of my 400+ page dissertation under the title, Jesus the Holy Fool.
Gordon: I especially admire your talent as an author and your many books addressing spiritual perspectives. several of which are on our list of books for which we are seeking reviews with some under Elizabeth-Anne Vanek. One of the more recent is Preaching & Teaching LAUDATO SI': On Care for Our Common Home. Why is this encyclical so necessary for the future of our planet? Elizabeth-Anne:
The genius of Laudato Si’ is that it is addressed to all people, everywhere, and that it holds everyone accountable not only for the cataclysmic environmental disaster facing our planet but also for finding solutions. Truly “catholic” in the broadest sense of the word, the document is global in scope, calling each of us to recognize our common humanity and also our interconnectedness with all creation. It turns upside down the western view that creation should be exploited or treated as a commodity, urging us to recover the sense of the sacred that is still so precious to primal peoples. There’s a great deal of passion behind the encyclical: basically, it warns us that we cannot continue our present course of action without bringing about our own destruction; at the same time, it encourages us to move beyond narrow vested interests into a collaboration that benefits all living beings and the Earth itself. Ultimately, Laudato Si’ is hope-filled and this is what I endeavored to communicate in my commentary, Preaching & Teaching Laudato Si’.
Gordon: You also lecture on this topic. How can parishes and other organizations contact you for a presentation?
Elizabeth-Anne: The best way to reach me is usually by email or through one of my websites (firstname.lastname@example.org and www.elizabethannestewart.com) If invited, I will find a way to be available, even if dates and times require some negotiating. In January, for example, I was delighted to speak to The Society for Christian Doctrine in Malta – that took coordinating!
Gordon: Some your books also include poetry. In you opinion, how does poetry enhance spiritual understanding?
Elizabeth-Anne: My first three books were actually collections of poetry: Frost and Fire (1985) and Extraordinary Time (1988),first published by Life Enrichment Publications, Ohio, and later published as a single volume, Leaning into Light. Woman Dreamer (Bristol Banner Books, 1989) was my doctoral project for my Doctor of Ministry degree at the Graduate Theological Foundation, Indiana. The beauty of poetry is that it can express or hint at the ineffable – at that which is impossible to articulate, especially mystical experience. For me, poetry, like music, is the language of the Spirit; it takes the listener/reader into an experience of paradox and mystery, touching the depths of the soul. Poets, in fact, serve a priestly, prophetic role and can lead society into a higher form of consciousness, awakening conscience in the process.
Gordon: You teach writing at Chicago Writing Coach. Is there a specific curriculum or are classes custom designed for each student?
Elizabeth-Anne: The Chicago Writing Coach is my writing/editing/tutoring business. In most cases, I work with individuals to coach them with specific projects—fine tuning a collection of poetry, developing ideas for books and dissertations, assisting international students with ESL issues, helping clergy develop homilies, developing web content.… I also work with groups of various sizes providing such services as faculty enrichment workshops, creative writing strategies, business writing seminars, public speaking courses…..Though I only developed my website a few years ago, these are services I have offered since grad school at DePaul when I edited classified documents for the U.S.D.A., training auditors in basic writing skills. Years ago, I also offered writing coaching through The Writer’s Desk, a Beverly-based center for creative writing that I founded in 1978. Though in some situations I merely edit someone else’s manuscript, most of my clients are looking for coaching – that is, I can help them develop a plan of action and hold them accountable to deadlines, while providing support and motivation. As a board–certified Life Coach and as a trained spiritual director, this is the aspect of my work that I enjoy the most.
Elizabeth-Anne: Like many colleges and universities, both Roosevelt University and Columbia College have struggled with enrollment issues, and this means there have been major cut backs in terms of what courses are available for adjuncts. My favorite course at Columbia has always been Mysticism East and West, an experiential course in which we examine the nature of mystical experience, experimenting with forms of meditation and centering—for example, the practice of mindfulness, lectio divina, chant, drumming circles, the creation of mandalas, the use of icons and so forth. The class I teach the most often is Exploring the Goddess, another experiential course focusing on manifestations of the Divine Feminine in archaeology, psychology, the arts, world religions, culture and personal experience;
At Roosevelt, I teach English: 1) Writing Social Justice, a course focusing on how to write on social justice issues; my emphasis has been the environment; 2) College Writing and Research: an introductory course in approaches to research; my emphasis has recently been on the food industry and the health hazards it presents to consumers and the environment; 3) Introduction to College Writing. a basic college writing course designed for first year students and also for the school’s ESL population.
Gordon: What do you enjoy most about teaching? Elizabeth-Anne:
I enjoy sharing my passion for life with people of all ages, especially younger generations. Teaching allows me to be mentor and guide, as well as to be part of a learning community in which I am learning alongside my students; it also gives me the opportunity to share core values with students who are still trying to discover their place in the cosmos. Here is an excerpt from my Teaching Philosophy Statement::
“Empowering students and moving them beyond “I can’t” has always been the hallmark of both my teaching and ministry, so much so that DePaul’s Alpha Lambda Delta National Honors Society named me as “Faculty of the Year” in 2000.
Even before “experiential learning” became a cliché, I was providing “hands-on,” sensory-based activities for my students; before “diversity training” became a mandate, I exposed my students to texts which focused on racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism and anti-Semitism; years before the English speaking world caught onto the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire, I insisted on student-centered learning, creating a safe environment in which my students could explore their deepest thoughts, sharing what was appropriate with their peers. My students are motivated and engaged with their studies; together we form a circle of learning in which all are expert critical thinkers. My task, as I see it, is to facilitate, encourage, and stay informed. A hand-written message from Mother Teresa, faithfully carried from Calcutta by a former student, hangs on my study wall: “Liz, Teach for the glory of God.” And that’s what I endeavor to do….”
Gordon: You are a popular motivational speaker. Could you provide our readers with an example of some of the types of organizations at which you have presented?
Elizabeth-Anne: Every type of organization imaginable— from parishes to a military base in Italy; from retreat houses to Assisted Living facilities; from professional groups such as the Association of Christian Therapists to women’s groups; from dioceses to universities; from arts organizations to public schools. Here is a partial list, though some of the organizations (like Mundelein College which is now part of Loyola University) may have merged and been re-named in the process:
MOTIVATIONAL SEMINARS FOR FACULTIES OF CHICAGO-AREA EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS: These have included: Illinois Job Corps. Chicago Board of Education, DePaul University. Express-Ways Children’s Museum, Robert Morris College, USDA Office of Audit Educational Division, St Gregory High School, Morgan Park Academy, Lutheran School of Theology and Lane Technical College Prep High School School
MOTIVATIONAL SEMINARS FOR THOSE IN THE HEALING PROFESSIONS: These have included: Resurrection Health Care System IL; Polonsky Rehabilitation Center, Duluth, MN; Illinois Nurses Association, Chicago, IL; National Association of Christian Therapists, Fort Mitchell, KY; Mercy Hospital, Chicago, IL; Little Company of Mary Hospital, Oak Lawn, IL; Wellness Center, Arlington Heights, IL; C.G. Jung Institute, Evanston, IL; North Shore Senior Center, Skokie, IL RETREATS & MOTIVATIONAL SEMINARS FOR FAITH COMMUNITIES: These have included: Catholic Community of Aviano Air Force Base, ITALY; Parliament of the World’s Religions, Cape Town, SOUTH AFRICA and Barcelona, SPAIN; Daughters of Charity, Evansville, IN; Congregation of St. Agnes, Fond du Lac, WI; Benedictine Conference Centre, Cullman, AL; Contemplative Outreach, Birmingham, AL; Franciscan Retreat House, Tampa, FL; Pallotti Center, Elkhorn, WI; The Benedictine Spirituality Center, Richardton, ND; Gethsemani Abbey , KY; St Charles Center, Romeoville, IL; Center for Development in Ministry, Mundelein, IL; St. Mary’s Church, Kenosha, WI; St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, MN; The St. Charles Center Diocese of St. Charles, LA; Queen’s Retreat House, Saskatoon, CANADA; Holy Rosary Catholic Community. New Holstein, WI; Kordes Enrichment Center, Ferdinand, IN; Warrenville Cenacle, Warrenville, IL; Lutheran School of Theology, Mundelein College, Chicago, IL; Diaconate, Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Morgan Park Baptist Church, Chicago, IL; Young Adult Ministry Office, Archdiocese of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Carmelite Spirituality Center, Chicago, IL; Diocese of Bismarck ND; Archdiocese of Milwaukee, WI; University of Malta, MALTA; Diocese of Superior, WI; Diocese of Joliet, IL; Diocese of Lafayette, LA; Our Lady of the Mountains, Sierra Vista, AZ…
Gordon: You are an Adjunct Faculty, Life Coaching at The Institute for Life Coach Training and are a Board-Certified Life Coach. Please explain the training necessary to be a Board Certified Life Coach.
Elizabeth-Anne: Explaining the credentialing process is rather complicated as there are different tracks; in my case, I had accrued countless hours of spiritual direction experience after graduating from the Claret Center, Chicago, in 1989, as well as experience with pastoral counseling/crisis intervention as a university minister at DePaul; years ago, I had also founded a training and formation program for spiritual directors in the Archdiocese of Chicago and this, too, added to my accrued hours of coaching/teaching coaching. Though I did not go through any formal coach preparation program, I was sponsored by ILCT and sat the credentialing exam (http://www.cce-global.org/Credentialing/BCC/Requirements). At ILCT, I specialize in teaching tele-courses in spiritual coaching that I myself designed: The Art of Sacred Listening; Creating Sacred Context; and Imagery and Healing for Life Coaches.
There is, of course, a difference between coaching and spiritual direction and you can see my video on this topic on my website.(http://www.elizabeth-annestewart.com/life-coaching.html)
Gordon: All religions including Roman Catholicism are facing a declining membership and a loss of members who believe in the value of religion- especially among the young, In your opinion, what are some of the factors contributing to this loss and what can our parishes and each of us do to halt and hopefully reverse this trend?
Elizabeth-Anne: Scandal, disillusionment, double-standards, rigidity and lack of imagination are the main reasons that we have lost three generations of “true believers” – Gen X, the Millennials and Gen Z. In my chapter on ecclesiology in Jesus the Holy Fool, I summed up the situation this way:
“Unless we can offer today’s youth a compelling model of church, they will want no part of Roman Catholicism’s future. At a time when the institutional church seems to have lost its ‘salt’ and its leavening power, the model of church as Holy Fool could offer a key to revival. By demonstrating what it means to place integrity before safety, the church, like the medieval jester, would invite today’s youth to examine their own values. By manifesting passion instead of repressing it, the church would invite its members to join in the merry dance of love and justice … By taking itself less seriously, the church would have more to say about “who belongs” than about who should remain outside the fold. Moreover, to a generation that largely finds Sunday liturgy ‘boring,’ the church as Holy Fool would seek to offer liturgical experiences which engage hearts and imaginations” (229).
When all is said and done, we must summon the Holy Spirit back into an institution that is becoming creakingly irrelevant; if not, we will continue to see an exodus of the faithful……
Gordon: Thank you for taking time for this inspiring interview. You have provided all of us with important insights into our Christian faith and our shared responsibilities on how to advance and evangelize our faith.