Susan Pitchford


Susan Pitchford makes a good pitch for leading a spiritual life of poverty and joy — without having to go broke or laughing all the way to bankruptcy.

The author and sociologist’s approach to spiritually requires emptying yourself instead of your pockets, which she will explain during a daylong retreat, titled “Francis and Clare of Assisi: A Spirituality of Poverty and Joy,” from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 28 at the Franciscan Spirituality Center at 920 Market St. in La Crosse.

However, Pitchford, a senior sociology lecturer at the University of Washington in Seattle, doesn’t believe that one size fits all, saying, “Most staged spiritualties are retrospective, such as this worked for me, so it should work with you.”

Describing St. Francis, she said, “Here was a man who not just enjoyed poverty, but he was in love with it,” she said.

Pitchford, an Anglican who is a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, cited the common image of Francis dancing while playing a violin, similar to Viterbo University’s 9-foot bronze sculpture of the saint standing on a crescent of the moon and holding a sun disk in his hand.

People who accept the invitation should “buckle up,” she advises, although personally, “I still find the classic way of spiritual life to be useful — purgation, illumination and union.”

At the same time, she said, “I don’t want to skip past material poverty. There is a special place in God’s heart for people who live in poverty.”

In the stage of purgation — cleansing — “you realize you’re not in control. We have to come to the end of ourselves. … Most of us have the idea that we’ve got this. We don’t. It takes a lot to get out of ourselves,” she said.

Pitchford acknowledged that she has traveled a circuitous route — from the Anglican denomination in which she was raised to lack of faith and back to Anglicanism, as a member of the Third Order of St. Francis to boot.

“I was gone from the church for 10 years, being lost in my mid-20s because of bad behaviors I saw,” the 58-year-old Pitchford said. “The Roman Catholic Church does not have a monopoly on that.”

Drawn back to the Eucharist in her mid-30s, Pitchford said, “I was praying and things just started happening.”

Catholicism and Anglicanism are spiritual cousins, and Pitchford described herself as having a foot in both camps, leaning more toward the Catholic one.

During her search for a spiritual path, Pitchford looked into Benedectine spirituality but dropped that idea as soon as she was told that Benedictines are orderly.

Told that Franciscans are “out there,” she concluded, “That’s for me.”

All the same, Pitchford said she found St. Clare’s peace and serenity elusive, explaining, “For years, I’ve had the desire to be serene. … But my life is not very serene-making.”

Indeed, she has flung herself in many directions, including as a sociologist, focusing on issues involving human suffering both in the U.S. and abroad. In the spirituality sphere, she has written “The Sacred Gaze: Contemplation and the Healing of the Self,” “God in the Dark: Suffering and Desire in the Spiritual Life, and “Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone.”

Between teaching, research, lecturing, giving retreats and writing, “I’m chronically overextended. I have come to realize that I don’t have a very serene life,” she said.

“I’m making peace with my life by making peace with my personality,” said Pitchford, a wife and mother who describes herself as a “contemplative in the marketplace.”

Pitchford has one goal for those who attend the FSC retreat: “I hope they take away a sense of their belovedness. Spiritual poverty is so close to belovedness — God’s great love for us.”

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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