By Maria Liu Wong
Coming out of the fog of an intense push to finish my dissertation in the midst of the holiday season in December – while juggling full-time work and family life raising three little ones – I was close to being totally burnt out and needing a serious break. A month later, in a session with my spiritual director, I looked back at that time as a gift, where I learned an important lesson of gratitude, in a journey and process that was surprisingly life-altering and life-giving.
Gratitude is an important practice to engage in throughout trials and triumphs, to sustain one’s spiritual growth and life. While my priority at the time was to “get done” – as it is said, “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” – I found that I did not get to the finish line quite like many of my classmates or colleagues. They found their rhythm, writing for two hours every morning at 5 am or staying late at work or in the library for three hours each night.
My writing was done in starts and spurts, in my bedroom just before prepping dinner, in the living room on the sofa just before one of my little ones emerged early in the morning, or in my hotel room in between conference presentations. Close to the end, my three-year-old daughter reported to me she was working on “finishing chapter 3” while my six-year-old asked about all the projects we would do when I was “finished with my paper.” A mix of guilt and drive to be done filled my days; yet I also found myself inspired and encouraged by the actual content of what I was writing.
I had spent the past three years or so travelling across North America and over to Africa and Asia to collect stories. I wanted to know about the lives and leadership practices of women who were faculty and/or administrators in seminaries, divinity schools and theological institutions. By God’s grace, I managed to secure funding and found my way into the homes, offices and classrooms of thirteen women who were all grappling with what was – and how they were following – the calling on their lives. And by God’s grace, I had the opportunity to spend six months in a collaborative inquiry with four of them digging deeper into a common pursuit of wisdom in a life lived well.
I heard stories of perseverance and determination, bearing fruit out of the muck of difficult circumstances. I heard moments of leaning on essential supports — mentors, friends, family, colleagues, and indeed God — to press on. I heard cost and sacrifice as well as resilience and resistance, and in so many ways, these women together told a rich story of hope and faith.
So, I ended a crazy and eventful season of my life with much gratitude — to have been a part of these women’s lives for even a season, having made new friends and “kindred spirits,” and to have had the opportunity to share these important stories with others through my writing. Deeply humbled, I made it to the end of a five-and-a-half year journey not alone, but with friends, colleagues and family who pressed on with me. With gratitude, I look back on a season where I was formed for the “now” and for the future.
Even as the demands of motherhood, work, and errands, held off until now, crowd back into my day, I am thankful for the gift of a journey that was well-traveled with lessons not lost on me. It is a privilege to join the ranks of women leaders in theological education, where my voice resonates with theirs, not afraid to name the injustices that persist, and pressing on with a vision to make the future right for our children and generations that follow. And in this new season, where I am being “made and remade” in a variety of other ways, I am encouraged by a prayer written many years ago by a twelfth-century theologian and philosopher, Saint Anselm of Canterbury. May it also give you encouragement and hope in your journey.
A Prayer from Saint Anselm of Canterbury
O my God teach my heart where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you…
You are my God and you are my All and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
You have bestowed on me all the good things I possess,
Still I do not know you…
I have not yet done that for which I was made….
Teach me to seek you…
I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire, let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you, let me love you when I find you.
Maria Liu Wong serves as Dean of City Seminary of New York in Harlem, NYC. She also leads a women’s fellowship group and volunteers in the children’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown. She recently successfully defended her dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University, and will graduate this spring. She lives in the Lower East Side with her husband and three energetic little New Yorkers, volunteers on the School Leadership Team at her younger son’s school, and enjoys creating ways to make time and space for students, faculty (and herself!) to learn from and with each other.