Sacred Artist Interview: Trish Bruxvoort Colligan

I first met Trish through blogging almost two years ago and discovered her amazing gift of music.  I love music I can use on retreats and in prayer experiences and hers is beautiful and very accessible.  Every time I play one of her songs at a gathering, everyone wants to know the name of the artist. 

She records some music solo and some with her husband Richard, their website is River’s Voice and you can listen to samples of songs there.  Just a few of my favorites for use in retreat settings (if you visit the website click on the album title):

  • “Into the Dark” from Behold
  • “Welcome to this Circle” and “Be (Still and Know That I Am God)” from Unfolding
  • “God Delights in Me” from Showings

Trish is also the director of Spirations Institute for Interspiritual Formation which offers a program of formation for women in what she calls Story Midwifery, a wonderful way of thinking about the art of spiritual direction.

I was delighted that Trish was willing to participate in this series of interviews and responded so generously with her reflections:

Are you rooted in a particular faith tradition?

Growing up, my family home was very firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. We were the culmination of a long line of Dutch Christian Reformed farmers who stanchly and quietly lived out their conservative faith, politics, and family roles. I can’t ever remember not knowing about God, which is precisely the gift my parents and grandparents felt compelled to bestow. Daily prayers and Bible reading around the supper table were family fixtures, as was never-fail Sunday morning church attendance. Money was tight, but my father worked two jobs to afford us private Christian day school.

When my family moved from a community steeped in the Dutch Christian Reformed tradition to another strongly influenced by German Lutheranism, we joined an ALC (now ELCA) church with much dispute from the extended family. While it may sound odd to some, joining the Lutheran church freed my family up. We had found grace. Instead of hearing the Ten Commandments read every Sunday morning, we heard about the wideness of God’s love from pastors who mixed into community life rather than dominating from outside. Perhaps most startling of all: women could be pastors!

In middle school and high school, my struggle with and treatment for anorexia eventually lead to placement in foster care. While hospitalized in this time I experienced my first meditation class. I found the body-mind-spirit interconnection equally shocking and captivating and it became a strong theme in my recovery. I’d long been a lover of people and their stories and in time I began to seek out other religious traditions and spiritual expressions. My own experience of the holy soon seemed too big to fit into the faith of my childhood; I entered a season of deep questioning and dark night, and emerged into a whole new understanding of God-in-All. You could say that my current understanding of God is deeply embodied, and flows from a compassionate, contemplative heart. It’s centered in my most nourishing experience of God as Story Midwife of us all. We are God’s most sacred stories, and like an ever-present midwife, God midwifes herself through us. So in each new moment, God is being born. In you. In me. In our relationships and creations. Mine is also an interspiritual way of moving in the world, and I embrace the wisdom present in all faith traditions, often integrating strands into my own spirituality. Though I worked on the periphery of the church for years, I had mostly wiggled myself out of Christianity feeling shut out and unable to find what I longed for. However, the last few years have found me again connected to an ELCA community, where I’ve been taken aback and delighted at my own misconceptions of “the church.”

What is your primary art medium?

Music. Writing, performing, and recording – all of which are quite unique in their expressions, even as they are linked. These days I find I am most drawn to creating simple and singable – yet rich and interesting – songs and chants for circles of people. Often these songs draw on the words, images, or stories of various spiritual traditions or practices, and are accompanied by simple movements or dance. The communities often drawn to these pieces are groups of women.

How do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?

At its best, I think the marriage of spirituality and creativity brings the potential for awe; liminal moments for pause, wonder, breath, and further conception. Whether experienced by the artist alone or also by outside participants – and whether the response evoked manifests in a flash of anger, floods of adoration, uncovered memory, the curious, sputtering mixture of bewilderment, or a well of grief found – such expression holds in it the potent, quivering seeds of life itself.

My first song uncurled itself in my mind while I pulled and cut weeds from Iowa soybean fields planted and tended by my grandfather. Called “walking beans,” it’s a rather monotonous, sweaty job for a 10 year old girl (or anyone!), and I needed something to keep my mind occupied. I liked music, but had never considered it a true friend. That I would choose to write music while working the soil seems nothing short of miraculous to me today. That my first song was one of God’s love for me seems equally astonishing – and prophetic – given the “un-rootedness” of my early years. There I was, and there song found me, in the hazy field: feet on black soil; skin aching from yesterday’s mid-day sun; hands blistered and dirty from grabbing and chopping down the weeds that did not belong with my grandfather’s beans. Though nothing in me would or could have named that experience “holy,” it was. I only knew my excitement at creating a song! I’d never known anyone who had written a song before, and I felt instantly special. Perhaps for a 10-year-old, that is all the holy that is needed.

Looking back, I see how my initial song birthing set the tone for how music would come to befriend, heal, and nurture me. Music has been my most faithful inner companion in my own “weeding” and nurturing of my soil.

What role does spiritual practice have in your art-making?

It was during my dark night experience that I recognized music as a spiritual practice. While wrestling with my beliefs and what I thought the God of my childhood expected of me, I think I had the notion that I had to get out of the way so God could show up. I thought prayer was something I did first in order to ready myself for God’s presence. But in that desolate, map-less season, song became the only way I could pray, and song carried me into emergence. Knowing healing and loving presence in those creative moments, I began to trust that song itself was a holy medium for me.

These days I find creative process is really the culmination of all my spiritual practices. I meditate, create ritual, make love with my husband, enjoy poetry, cook without recipes, have soulful conversation, take baths, hike the woods, snuggle naked with my dog, and play within created imaginary worlds with my 6-year old son, Sam. All of it is spiritual practice. All of it is fodder for song – making it, singing it, recording and performing it. The song, in turn, is like water for my life – for my spiritual practice – and so it cycles again. Perhaps on paper it can be separated. But in the living it out, it’s really all just one continual movement.

Roseanne Cash says about her own songwriting, “I’ve always found that songs can be postcards from your future.” Over and over this has been my experience. If I’m paying attention, I might just catch wind of some deep part of myself – which might also be named God – singing me into a new place. Sometimes the songwriting process is even more mysterious after the song has been around awhile. I can look back years ago to when a song was written and wonder, “How did I know that? How could I have possibly understood the significance of those words back then?” It’s too mysterious for me to try to clamp down with words. It’s just Mystery.

What sparked your spiritual journey?

These days, everything sparks my spiritual journey! It’s likely always been true, I’m just awake to it now.

Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your creative work?

No. In fact, I often feel that my creative works lead the way. They create me, and each song process is always different. When a song gets moving in me, however, I’d best get myself to a piano or grab a guitar – or at the very least pull out my little digital recorder. If I don’t work with it pretty quickly it will dissipate.

Without fail, a good poem will well up within me and begin to follow me around. If I really give myself to it, a song can be born in days or even moments. And by ‘moments,’ I literally mean ‘moments.’ These are often my favorites among my own pieces. My body remembers the ease and agility with which a song emerges and that’s as much part of the piece as the finished work itself. Sometimes, but rarely, I wrestle over the long haul with lyrics and music to get the “right” fit. While some songwriters I know do this and love this, I often lose interest and move on. There are a few unfinished pieces from way back, however, that I can’t let go of. I sometimes wonder what will become of them.

How does your art-making shape your image of God?

In songwriting I get to experience first hand the co-creative process of “God made flesh”, or “Holy made song” or “Sacredness given voice.”

With studio work in particular, my favorite approach is to come to each song with a minimum of production ideas. I like to get intimate with the piece and ask, “What does this song want? What is it asking for?” Perhaps it is the same with God as a holy songstress in communion with her compositions. “What is this life-song asking for?” God might say. “How would he like to be sung in the world? What instruments (i.e., gifts, expressions, attributes, characteristics) does she resonate with? How might these extend beauty into her life and the lives around her?”

If I were to go with the God as Story Midwife image for a bit, and bring my song-art processes into it, I would say that God is midwifing me into greater me-ness. And I would say that I am also midwifing God into greater God-ness in the world. This means God and I are very similar in our being-ness, our becoming, our creating. Every opportunity to engage with this energy, then, is a holy opportunity to co-create with the Sacred. I can’t imagine a more beautiful gift.

*****

I feel such a kinship with Trish and know that I will meet her one day in person, in the meantime, such a gift to read her words and listen to what resonates deeply within me in this moment.  I love the image of “Sacredness given voice” and God as “holy songstress.”  Trish’s very organic process for creativity also speaks to me in profound ways — “I often feel that my creative works lead the way. They create me, and each song process is always different” and then follows by asking of her music: “What does this song want? What is it asking for?” I often hold the image of “following the thread” in my own work and am going to be holding her questions in my heart as I contemplate how to live into them more deeply with my own writing and art.

Make sure to go visit her website River’s Voice with all of the wonderful musical possibilities to be found there. 

(middle and bottom photos are of Trish and Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan)

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