“I would love to live like a river flows…” a conversation with Rev. Nicole Uzans

9. Jūl, 2024

Nicole Uzans with her mother Lynn Uzans. photo from personal archive

Nicole Uzans is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada and currently serves in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Since 2000, the lead pastors of St. John’s congregation have been women, and Nicole continues this tradition. She is also a second-generation priest in her family. Nicole is an artist, writer, and talented storyteller, with a significant focus on the contemplative path in her life.

Nicole’s father’s family roots are in Latvia, and her lineage is connected to the well-known “Mitten Jette” – Jette Užāne, who knitted beautifully intricate mittens and was a sensitive observer of life and people, as evidenced by her diaries. Each pair of Jette’s mittens held a special story, event, or person. Nicole carries a touch of Jette’s creativity and poetic spirit, as well as the serene beauty of the Latvian landscape, and continues to nurture these qualities across the ocean.

Nicole: In some ways I am embarrassed to not know my family tree better, but this is connection (with Jette Užāne) – Jette is the sister of my godmother Velta. I remember growing up hearing about Jette, seeing books, and of course seeing mittens, and the tiny, miniature mittens on birch bark. I remember hearing how Jette would sit, and not even look – her fingers would be flying and suddenly there would be a pair of mittens. It was only years later that I realized what a national treasure she is in Latvia. From where I was, the knitting connection is interesting. I remember a story that during Soviet era, my godmother would try to send packages over of good Western things over to Latvia. Some of the things were practical. She would send good yarn, but she could not send balls of yarn, so she would knit them into these giant skirts, and she knew that if they got through the postal office, then at the other end somebody could unravel the skirts and make beautiful things.

When I was in Latvia, in 2017 I went to Jette’s burial place. That was poignant, because that would also be the place my godmother was going to be buried and since then she has been repatriated there. 

My father had one sister, they left Latvia when my father was just three years old and by way of Sweden they settled in Canada. My grandfather died long before I was born, so there was just a small family unit here, with some associations with other relatives. Most of the extended family from Latvia did not have children, so it really was a small group of people who I saw as being quite old and little out of touch, but with lots of history.  Many stories did not get told, but I remember one very special moment.  

My mother died last June and one of the things I inherited from her is a journal book. She was ordained in 1990ies in the Anglican Church in Canada. When she retired in 2012, she went back through her journals and her notes to look at her path to ordination and she transcribed important moments, insights, and stories from that time in the late 1980 and early 1990ies when she was discerning her vocation. Interestingly, the last entry that she had transcribed was from Easter Sunday of 1993. I was fifteen then. That was the first time that we had heard Velta tell the story of her escape from Latvia. She was seventeen when she left Latvia, and she was on a Red Cross ship and out in the sea they were bombed by the Russians. Their ship went down within an hour. I so clearly remember her talking about how as the ship was going down, people would have to climb down one ladder and there was a rescue ship that was there, and they then had to climb up the ladder onto the rescue ship, and she being 17, she just leapt from one ladder to the other. That was the kind of courage and the hutzpah she had. But the other thing that I remember so clearly from her story was that she remembers looking down from the deck of the rescue ship and seeing a woman carrying a baby up that ladder, and she lost her grip and the baby plunged into the sea. I remember my godmother saying that she herself did not cry at that. Even when I was fifteen it struck me that there was something so important about telling this deeply buried story. For my godmother, that voyage was like a baptism. She was given new life, but so much was taken away before that could begin. For my mother, the experience of sharing a sacred story at the table was part of her priestly discernment. She went on to become a brilliant storyteller in her preaching and a priest who truly welcomed everyone at the table. She knew that stories connect us and share emotional truth that otherwise, we would not have the language or expression for. 

I did not expect, when I was young to be ordained a priest in the church. I had no interest in that. I started off my young adult life to be an artist and a poet and a writer, and an adventurer and I have been all of those things. There came a series of transitions that through the arts I was drawn more and more to work with other people which doesn’t always happens with arts. Sometimes it goes the other way around. Sharing in creative process with others turned out to be a great light to me. Through a series of opportunities and occasions, they had a spiritual component to them. Art connecting to prayer or connecting to healing gradually drew me closer to the church.

I was around the age of thirty and I thought I have got to stop piecing things together and have something a little more substantial. I asked the question of the church – can it be a place of creativity for me? Because I really did not know that. I had some internship opportunities with the church and was surprised to find that I could be myself in a fairly traditional church. And since I was ordained (10 years ago), I found, there are opportunities in the work to be creative and to be in touch with life, and to be in touch with the individual lives of the people and that I find endlessly creative.

Daughter and mother – Rev. Nicole Uzans and Rev. Lynn Uzans. photo from personal archive

What is the creative outlet these days, is preaching a form of art, is this your artistic writing experience or do you continue to write creatively otherwise?

Nicole: Preaching is my main writing outlet these days. I know there are many preachers who preach without notes, and every now and again, I will do that, but I really appreciate the whole spiritual process of preaching. It begins with preparation – simply dwelling with the scriptures amid other things that are happening.  And then there is the hard work of sitting down to write something and because I have a sense of language, I do enjoy the poetic way of how words can play off each other or simply the way I say something will carry a new meaning. Even as I am writing, I am listening, because I do not always have it in my head that I know what I want to say. It is more like an abstract painting – always responding to what is happening there in front of me. Always trusting that if there is a little impulse, then let me write that out and see where it takes me. That is a very creative process. 

Then there is the being with the people as I proclaim, and engaging in a kind of multisensory way through that unspoken connection of eye contact and the electricity that happens between people’s bodies. The other part of the process that I have come to appreciate is often that the sermon will speak to me on a Sunday afternoon. After everyone has gone home and I have had my lunch, I will often go out for a walk or ride my bike and I will replay parts of what I have said and that is when I do some of my deepest listening. That prepares me to begin the whole process again with the next week’s readings.  I love that spiritual process and I love that is a requirement of my work in the church right now, it is a real gift to me, and it is a profound way of connecting with other people.

The way you describe it, it really sounds like crafting a sermon is your own spiritual practice, something that is very organic and meaningful for you. What is the wisdom you can share with us?

Nicole: I do not have a method that I follow every week, but usually in my preparation, I retell the biblical story in my own words. I may include that retelling in the sermon because some stories are so familiar that we do not hear them anymore.  Some are so strange that we do not know what they might say to us.  But stories are meant to be experienced, whether with wonder, delight, confusion, disgust, or other feelings. So, I try to let the stories speak.

When I was younger, I never felt like I understood scripture well enough to explain it. I made the mistake of thinking I had to have an entire theology worked out before I could say anything. Now, I trust that telling is more important than explaining because God is the primary storyteller. So, I offer a few thoughts and images to engage peoples’ imagination and personal discernment. And I keep a willingness to be surprised. When people tell me, oh, that was a great sermon today, my follow up question has become – what did you hear? What I have learned is that I can never predict what people have heard. There is what I thought I might have said, but I never know what someone has picked up on and how that is connected with their life. Those conversations have helped me to relax as a preacher. I am not solely responsible; I am somewhere in the conversation with God and the people who are here around me. 

You mentioned the connection between the big stories and our lives and stories. What are the big stories in your life these days that are speaking into your life?

Nicole: In this moment it is still the Easter season and in my morning devotions I am slowly reading through the book of Acts and revisiting those stories of the early Church. What stands out for me is that it was never easy, and that God was always willing to work with difficult people. Those two things seem very useful to me in working in the church and simply living with other people. It feels like life is pretty hard right now for many people and we can feel disappointed by that, so it helps to have that bigger story, of the profound and beautiful, and God inspired community for whom nothing was ever easy, yet wonderful things happened, people were brought together in unlikely combinations.

One of the little phrases in my own life that I have been holding on has been – I can do anything, but I cannot do everything. Something about that sense of limits I see reflected also in the scriptures, that the early Church there was a surprising power and enthusiasm, and there were also moments of very clear direction- now you are going there! And on the way they went to adventures yet unknown with companions who were at times fearsome. These were not people who were directed simply by individual choice and not directed towards things that were simple or kind, but perhaps in telling the stories back to one another they came to see more and more – that something very good is unfolding through all of this, and that gives me hope in this moment when there is not a lot of hopefulness or cohesion in our communities, or our nations or between our nations. Sometimes the small surprises they may have a bigger meaning than we know.

Ordination to diaconate by bishop Sue Moxley, 2013. photo from personal archive

We spoke about your mother being a wonderful storyteller, how has she inspired you and shaped your way of being a priest? You had the chance to observe her, hear her, see how she preached and served? Did she write her sermons of was she someone who had in her heart, a conviction that the Spirit is with her and off she went?

Nicole: That is the difference between us! She would very rarely write the whole sermon out. She would have notes in front of her. Preaching is not an easy thing to do, and I can remember her on Saturday nights sitting at her desk and saying: “I just need a story!” And she could go to bed only when she finally had something that she felt – I can hang on to that and I will have something to say tomorrow. 

I have a Buddhist friend who when he heard that my mother is also a priest, he said: “You have a lineage!” And that is so beautiful to me. It has come to me even more since she died, but even before that, it is like Elijah and Elisha. The inheritance can feel oversized and for years when my mother and I would show up at church events people would say: “Oh, you’re Lynn’s daughter!” And as she moved towards retirement and took more of a supporting role, she was thrilled the first time it happened when we were at a gathering together and someone said: “Oh, you’re Nicole’s mother!”

There was a beautiful handing over that happened while she was still alive. Our relationship also took different forms over the years. I was in university and being a young adult when she was most active in church ministry, but we reconnected, and it was a surprise to her when I started feeling a pull towards a priestly vocation. It became a real point of connection between us, sometimes almost too much. I learned to be careful when I would ask for her opinion or her advice because she could be very influential whether consciously or unconsciously. We both worked with that, and by the end of her life we could both very honestly say that we had become deep spiritual friends.

One of the aspects that I introduced her to is the importance of the physical body and our spiritual life. That was not something she was particularly attuned to or comfortable with, but she could see that manifesting in how I live my life, and she learned a lot from that. Over the years she learned to be a mentor in a gentler way.

I remember one Sunday in a sermon talking about no matter what age we are, we might look up to other people and think, I want to be like so and so, when I grow up. We were talking about that, and my mother was there that Sunday and then we went out for lunch, and we talked about it. Who do you want to be when you grow up? And she said, “I want to be like Nicole Uzans when I grow up.” And that felt to me like wow, we have come full circle; we have both been an inspiration to each other.

As I hold on to the lineage, I realize that it isn’t just that we take something that was important to someone else and we keep it going – that not it at all, but that there is an influence that weaves back and forth between people across generations, and whether it happens in a family or it happens in the family of God, it can be so beautiful.

I think in my mother’s generation there were certain battles that needed to be fought. She was, in at least one place, the first ordained woman in leadership there. She had some important prophetic and administrative work to do there.

The Church needs profound spiritual formation within itself. Where it seems to be most vibrant is where people are alive with God and in the Anglican Church that has not always been something that people have expressed as important, even in our spiritual and religious life. But that is what I see drawing people to the Church – the sense that it truly is a living place of spiritual connection with God, with self and with others. And if that is not there, then there is really no reason to associate with a Church.

What do you think are the requirements for a ‘living place’ like that to be and to happen? What are the aspects of living theology that people and the Church needs to explore deeper?

Nicole: I think one of the elements is to have leadership that is praying with the community. Sometimes in my training I heard mentors and teachers say that they cannot really pray during the Sunday liturgy, they are too much in the leadership role for that to be their worship as well. That stayed with me because that is not my experience. If the leader is not able to worship, in what is happening, people will pick up on that and the leader will be disengaged from the community.

I really do believe that we can be one worshiping community. It requires grace from individuals. It may mean that there are parts of the liturgy, parts of the year, parts of the hymnal that do not really work for me personally, but part of my identity is communal, and worship is not an act of self-expression, it is a practice of belonging and becoming.

Again, for me, it is an artistic process, I cannot allow it to be just by the book, I need to be more in the moment than that. I feel that even if I am working alone at crafting a liturgy, I am also working in a community – it is those who have prayed these prayers, those who have written them, they are also in the room with me. It is very important that the leaders find nourishment in the worship they are preparing and sharing with others.

It surprises that some generations of church goers tend to leave church inside the church building and then they go out and the rest of their life is somehow separate from that. And speaking as a leader, some of my most important ministry is in being a normal human being out in the town. Being able to really be with one another, even in different costumes, people can see me when I am out in my rain gear going for a hike. Or those poignant moments when I can see people in a hospital shirt, and their families in jogging suits and baseball caps around the hospital bed. Being really real with the people and connecting that to our spiritual community – that is a particularly important element.

What we are doing right now in Wolfville, and there has been a good history with that, is connecting with community groups in ways that support those groups more than they support the church. That is one of the pathways to relevance and to spiritual deepening. Not always needing people to come to the church to be part of things, but that we can find ways to support and celebrate the things that are going on, where we can see the imprint of God already, long before church people showed up. Here in this community that is around the foundation of a hospice – that is very sacred work by nature. That is not how the health department would phrase it, but I can see that immediately. Another example is – we have a community oven here, it is an outdoor, wood fired pizza oven, where people gather to cook and eat together. That has become my favorite place to be in Wolfville, because I see all of those sacred stories reflected there, and it becomes very easy to show up in those places and we’ve started to build strong connections between those organizations, so the church is now supporting the community oven in ways that nourish.

One of my greatest delights in parish ministry is to sit down with others in study groups and discussion opportunities. A recent example of that is, I was offering teaching on communion and Eucharist as nourishing the community of Jesus. We had a group of ten people. I started off by saying, you know the topic, but put that aside for a moment. Offer a story of a time when you gathered for a really good meal, not because of the recipes or the menu, but a story of a really good meal with others. We went around the circle and you could see people getting more and more into storytelling because each story was so personally significant, and hearing form others would spark other memories and associations, and by the end of that we had this wonderful collection of stories all of which reflected some of what it means to be in communion. Those opportunities for each person to be the storyteller, those are so important in the spiritual formation of the community and of each person in it.

I hope that in my offering of an example of someone saying something about Scriptures and about life, week by week, on a Sunday morning, I am modelling for others how they also can talk about sacred things. That is one of the key goals in my preaching, it is to help people to speak about holy things. I do not really care if people go away with more information, I would be so excited if they went away feeling more able to talk with others about holy things. That is a great danger we face right now, that people have not felt comfortable talking with others about their faith. Even though it is profoundly important to them, their own family may not know that or understand that, and what that connection is. And we know that those closest to us are sometimes the ones who most powerfully communicate the faith to us. I am a living example of that, it is not for nothing that my mother and I have this lineage. I know that it can shape our lives when others communicate their faith to us. I do want to give people tools and an example of how that can happen in a natural, conversational, down to earth way. 

Playing chess. photo from personal archive

Can you share something about the spiritual practice of pilgrimages?

Nicole: I remember a friend of mine describing being out on a trail and he had about 20km ahead in that day’s walk, and the person he was walking with asked him a question and my friend’s first reaction was – well, that is a long story! And then he paused and realized, I have time to tell a long story, and they could walk together for an hour and take their time going through a story, and how that struck each one of them.

So many people are nervous about public speaking, but when you are walking shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart, you are both facing in the same way, sometimes the words flow more freely and just as your feet on a pilgrimage trail will take you places you haven’t been before, the words shared together can do that. You can find yourself saying – I don’t know why I am telling this with you or I have never told anyone this before, and as a leader of pilgrimage walks, sometimes at the end of the day, I would see people walking into the dining room and something about the look on their face let me know that they had shared something profound out on the trail.

Back in 2014 someone from AST (Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS) was trying out something they called Camino Nova Scotia. It was to be a 10 day walk on an old, abandoned railway; accommodation was organized at local churches, and I immediately signed up.

It was a good walk and in the years that followed I started to work with that professor and soon started to lead pilgrim walks of my own. They were five days long and were here in NS. The people who would walk those most often were people at a point of transition in their lives. Something had really changed – they left a job, an important person had died, they were retiring, these moments when identity was really shifting, and people needed to walk to understand – who am I now? That was a real commonality that I saw between people. It is a combination of people who really want to be alone and are willing to learn from others as they go along. When we would start off, usually the first thing to come out was “I need to have some time on my own”. And by the end of the walk people said that the most memorable and significant part of their journey was the community that they had made with other people.

Certainly, in North America we have a long tradition and a mystique of people taking solo trips off into the wilderness and it has its place, but pilgrimage is something different, it is traveling with others and usually traveling a route that thousands of people have traveled before and still finding something that is uniquely our own in that collective experience. It is those combinations that are so profound when it comes to pilgrimage.

I resisted going on the Camino de Santiago for years, I thought – everybody goes to Spain, I am not going to Spain, but then it was an interesting moment in 2019, I had been working in a small parish. It was five small churches in tiny little communities in Northern NS and I started to sense that I was becoming more and more negative, and that God was encouraging me to step away from formal ministry which surprised me but seemed very true and faithful. When I left that ministry the first thing I did I walked 800km across the North of Spain and I discovered that those things that I had just described happened – it was a journey that was profoundly my own and was shaped by other people in ways I could not have expected.

Nicole speaking to a group of young clergy at a gathering in Montreal. photo from personal archive

We often use the metaphor of life being a pilgrimage or life being a journey, what you think about that? How do you experience life? 

Nicole: I am going to shift the metaphor from the journey to the river. This is just a line from John O’Donohue: “I would love to live like a river flows, Carried by the surprise by its own unfolding.”

That is my metaphor for a life. The water is always moving, so a river says something about a journey. But how do rivers come to be where they are? Often, they will find the path of least resistance. Why do they take those twists and turns? It is because that way was opened before them. A river is a part landscape, and nourishing all around it, yet also being constantly in movement, so the river can always be surprised by itself. That gives me a sense of vibrancy about my own life, but also a sense of purpose.

A journey metaphor can feel very individual, that this is just me and my backpack and I am going off on my own, but a river is a steady part of the landscape, nourishing everything around it while also being in constant motion.I would love to live like a river flows carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.

Perhaps there is something I haven’t asked yet, and you feel you would like to share?

Nicole: One of the things I have not spoken of explicitly is the importance of the contemplative way. In my own life and in the life of the Church. The contemplative way is hard to define. When I say that, I am referring to is a stance of listening to God in all things, listening deep from within, listening for the still small voice of God. Walking patiently with ourselves and others. And not needing to force or will our way forward.

As I discovered my own companions in a contemplative way of spirituality, I have felt myself more and more reassured as a person and as a priest. It is very easy to get carried away by worries and anxieties about the state of things, it is very easy to become boastful of willful, if I get too intellectual or too political, or caught up in activism, so the aspects of contemplative awareness and contemplative prayer have saved my ministry over and over again.

When I talk about what I see people seeking as they gravitate towards the Church or other spiritual community, I think there is something deeply attractive about a non-anxious stillness and a growing trust in the goodness that keeps the world turning. Learning to trust God deeply has ironically led me into a very active ministry, but I can only do that if I stay grounded through my connections with other contemplatives, through my own prayer practices, and through times of getting away – whether it is through pilgrimage or other instances. 

It is important to be with people who listen from the Spirit, who listen for God, for the sake of that other person and rather than responding quickly to allow the person to speak for a few minutes and then be held in silence before anyone makes any response. That alone is a different practice from the debates and discussions in ‘church land.’ Those opportunities to be deeply listened to are rare, and in such listening, inevitably certain themes and threads will emerge that will unite people and it becomes an experience of an attention to God and to the ways that God is moving not just in each life but also between our lives. There are many people who encounter contemplative community, and they finally feel at home, they finally feel that they are not anxious or alien in what they are doing, but that this is promise to connection that comes through acknowledging God through one another. At this point I would not want to live any differently, why would I?