Guest Speaker Dr. Cecile Brennan on Rabbi Nosanchuk’s Studies in Spiritual Wellness & Counseling

These remarks were shared at the Aug. 23 Shabbat Service by Dr. Cecile Brennan, former chair of the Department of Counseling at John Carroll University.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

Pilgrimage of the Heart

Let me begin by thanking Rabbi Rob for inviting me to speak with you this evening.  I also want to thank all of you for being present as we spend a few moments acknowledging the work the Rabbi has done.

Coming as I do from John Carroll, I need to send a special hello to your temple member Dr. Sally Wertheim.  Dr. Wertheim was the first female dean at the University, serving as dean of the graduate school.  In addition, she was an acting Academic Vice- President. During her long career at John Carroll she was an invaluable contributor as both a faculty member, an administrator, and an esteemed colleague revered for her wisdom and kindness. We remember her contributions to John Carroll and miss her presence on campus.

Before I present the document that acknowledges the work done by Rabbi Rob, let us take a moment to put his accomplishment into perspective. To do that, I would like to focus on a concept familiar to those who engage in spiritual/religious practice.

The concept I am referring to is really the two intertwined concepts—of the pilgrim and the pilgrimage.

Now, before you think “Wait, the Rabbi didn’t go to Jerusalem—he just went to John Carroll” –let me expand the meaning of the words pilgrim and pilgrimage and hopefully you will come to understand why these terms are so pertinent to Rob’s time at John Carroll.

Let me begin by asking who is the person who elects to become a pilgrim?  What drives someone to engage in a pilgrimage?  While there is no single reason, a dominant theme is the desire to gain insight— to grow and learn in a way that enhances the real self of the learner— and prepares the learner/pilgrim to share that understanding with others.

This was clearly part of Rabbi Rob’s motivation in journeying to John Carroll’s program in Spiritual Wellness & Counseling.

Motivated by a desire to deepen his understanding of human psychology, and of the skills needed by someone whose goal is to assist others with life’s challenges, he was willing to move outside his comfort zone in order to engage a process of study and self-reflection.

Entering the classroom with a spirit of openness and humility, he was in those moments just a student—or to follow my metaphor—just a pilgrim — who had come to learn and grow in order to serve a higher purpose.

I should mention that not all students are on a pilgrimage, some are just, in their own minds, jumping through hoops, checking off another box.

What makes someone a pilgrim is the attitude brought to learning—Rob brought the attitude of a pilgrim—open and grounded in the desire to be a servant to others, well aware that a higher power is at work.

In the spirit of the pilgrimage-where the pilgrim encounters trials and struggles—the Rabbi moved through the specific trials of the student: papers that needed completed, tests that needed to be taken, deadlines that needed to be met.

While this might not sound that difficult, perhaps even trivial, I challenge the adults in this room who have not been in school for a while to consider whether they would subject themselves to student status.

For me, and I know for many of his fellow students, the commitment to learning, the dedication to being the most fully prepared professional he could be, was impressive and motivated many of his colleagues to engage with a greater seriousness of purpose and to open their minds to challenging ideas and even upsetting insights.

This outward pilgrimage to a classroom at John Carroll was coupled with an inward pilgrimage.

The curriculum the Rabbi studied was intentionally structured to require self-reflection and encounters with what is often referred to as the “other.”

Clergy people studied psychology, counselors studied religious traditions, those coming from a religious perspective encountered colleagues who believe only in what can be empirically validated.

Creating such a mix was intentional—the goal was to create a tension that encouraged students to question themselves—to sift through and examine their beliefs and practices—to become in the words of one of our texts “Reflective Practitioners.”

This level of reflection can be uncomfortable.  Being confronted with one’s personal, ethical and even moral shortcomings causes many to erect a Star Wars defense shield.  This was not the case with Rabbi Rob.  Rob willingly worked to connect these new insights with his practice as a Rabbi.  He confronted uncomfortable insights with a determination to learn from them.

In engaging in this process, Rabbi Rob was demonstrating the heart of his faith.

In the words of the famed Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel —“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk brought his pilgrimage of the heart to John Carroll-

For that WE are grateful, I am grateful.  I hope what he learned there serves him well and allows him to serve you well.

Now before we end, I want to let him know that he is not off the hook just because the classes are completed—a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher puts it this way:

“Better not to begin (the path of the pilgrim). Once you begin, better to finish it. So, you better not step onto the spiritual path unless you must. Once you have stepped foot on the path, you have really done it, you cannot step back. There is no way of escaping.”

The inward journey of the pilgrim continues—learning continues, challenges persist, dark nights can engulf, and joy can arise.

And now is our time for joy as we celebrate an accomplishment.  Let me present this symbol of accomplishment to my former student, my current dearest friend and your Rabbi, Robert Nosanchuk.