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The Rev. Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier is a priest associate and theologian-in-residence at St. John’s Church. Photo by Chris Smith
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The Rev. Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier talks with parishioners Martha Broughton (right) and Maureen Matson after a service at St. John’s Church. Photo by Chris Smith
With her slender, smoothly coiffed, all-together appearance, the Rev. Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier emits complete confidence, professional competence and dedication when speaking to a group about the themes in her latest book.
To read her biography from the 1960s onward is to imagine a life in overdrive. In two decades, Levy-Achtemeier has worked as a clinical psychologist, served as chief of the Behavioral Medicine Branch at the National Cancer Institute and taught, as an associate professor of psychiatry and medicine, at the University of Pittsburgh. She published her first book, Behavior and Cancer , in 1985. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1996, and today serves as a priest associate and theologian-in-residence at St. John's Church in Richmond. The dedication of Levy-Achtemeier's new book, Flourishing Life, Now and in the Time to Come — a note acknowledging her three husbands, past and present — points to a well-integrated life.
But her candor, during an interview, about personal life events and working through identity issues reveals a slower journey, with struggles that anyone who has searched for meaning can appreciate. Her life's path has taken her through professional shifts from medicine to government to academia and finally to the clergy.
Having married at age 20 in the late 1960s, she returned to college when her younger son was 6 months old and then became divorced after 11 years of marriage. Her husband had been supportive of her return to college; but "it was the 1960s," she says, "and we were children when we married. The marriage ended without enmity. We both remarried and have remained on good terms."
She was Catholic and had never lost a deep, religious longing, which — when she was a teenager — attracted her to a convent. "That obviously went by the wayside when I decided to get married," she says with a laugh. Her second marriage of 35 years, to psychology professor Leon Levy, who was a mentor and 18 years her senior, ended with his death from Alzheimer's disease two years ago.
"Leon was the first to suggest the ordained ministry to me when I had doubts about spending the rest of my life in academia," she says. "I actively responded to my deepest core values and felt a call to the priesthood." In her book, she writes of experiencing losses, especially with Levy's death and that of her father from melanoma. Those losses, she says, "confirmed a need to form from my life events a coherent whole."
Now married to Paul "Bud" Achtemeier, a Union Theological Seminary professor emeritus and well-known biblical scholar, she has another very supportive partner. She also doesn't overlook "the community of support that has supplied a big picture for me as a rock to stand on." Her latest book offers help and spiritual insight for people who might not have had such support.
"Writing and rewriting our life's story is a way of growing and transforming ourselves," she says. "Human beings are hard-wired to tell stories, and things happen whether you integrate them or not. The better stories are those you can integrate in a positive sense."
She points out, when asked, that rewriting one's life story isn't the same as the popular term "reinventing oneself," which she says "suggests stepping away from the core self and becoming somebody different. The ideal is to build upon the positive core you identify."
Matt Gaffney, who was on the search committee that called Levy-Achtemeier to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in 1997, says that after the committee's first meeting with her, "we were impressed by her intellect, compassion and organizational capabilities. We thought she could be a transformative choice for St. Mark's, which at the time suffered from a lack of direction and leadership. And, boy, did she deliver for us." With about 106 people at Sunday services when Levy came to St. Mark's, attendance had increased to 186 when she left in the fall of 2004.
Levy-Achtemeier had received a Lilly Foundation grant to help fund the beginning of research for her second book, Imagination and the Journey of Faith , at the University of Cambridge in England, in the summer of 2003. After that sabbatical and her return to St. Mark's, she found no time to continue work on the book and decided to leave full-time parish ministry the next year for writing.
As someone who believes she's "cooperated with God's plan" for her life, she says she found that "the writing of the book pulled me back into the orbit of my studies." Her book blends psychology, evolutionary neuroscience and theology — all very relevant to recent professional trends in treating the whole person.
"We make meaning," she says, "but life has meaning, according to the world's three great religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Without God, people often embrace art, music, literature and theater for meaning. I feel a full sense of meaning involves belief in transcendence — listening to God's call and engaging ourselves with his impingement upon our lives."
The Rev. Laura Inscoe, rector of St. John's, says the church's leaders "decided on the honorary term ‘theologian-in-residence' — used by a few other churches across the country — to reflect Sandi's scholarly and teaching roles in the church."
Karla Hunt, a St. John's member, says, "I cherish her friendship and wise counsel. Flourishing Life confirms my notion that having a passion for something makes life worth living. It also reiterates that you are what you eat/do/hang-out-with. Practices and principles are a circle in that each leads to the other. Your principles cause you to take up certain practices, and your practices lead you to adopt certain principles."