Finding His Path

Like many of our students, Nicky Gutierrez’s path to Seminary was paved by Google. During his final semester at Capital University (Columbus, Ohio), he was discerning his next steps when a search for “creative writing + religion” hit on the Bethany website and the description of the Master of Arts in Theopoetics and Writing program. Up until then, Gutierrez had been planning to enter an MFA program in creative writing, even though those programs would not draw directly on his interests in religion and theology. Bethany immediately felt like a fit.

“I thought, ‘why wasn’t I considering this all along?’” he recalls, noting that Bethany’s program brings his creative and scholarly interests together in a way that many graduate programs would not. The MATW program allows students to develop their writing through workshop-style classes along with courses focused on connecting the arts with faith and theology. It has proven an excellent choice for Gutierrez.

“It was divine providence,” he says.

As a double major in creative writing and religious studies at Capital, he earned the Adelaide Hinkle Undergraduate Prize in Creative Writing and the Outstanding Religion Thesis Award. His religion research paper explored religious pilgrimage, a topic that remains one of his enduring interests. 

The summer after his sophomore year, he used an undergraduate research grant to walk 115 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, which encompasses several routes in Spain, France, and Portugal. His thesis drew on his research into that pilgrimage, as well as the Kumano Kodo, a pilgrimage in the mountains of Japan that takes participants to Shinto and Buddhist sites, and the paper included interviews with pilgrims who had completed both journeys. He studied the demographics of those who had completed these pilgrimages, eventually presenting his research at the Twelfth International Conference on Religion & Spirituality in Society in Cordoba, Spain.

While studying at Bethany, Gutierrez took another pilgrimage — visiting holy and contested sites in Israel and Palestine including the Temple Mount, the Wailing Wall, and the River Jordan. He is interested in taking additional journeys of spiritual significance and studying the metaphors that others have used to describe their pilgrimages. As a Roman Catholic, he has Rome and some locations in Ireland on his list of future journeys.

Gutierrez is simultaneously exploring the theopoetic potential of the haiku form. This work also builds on work he completed as an undergraduate. He developed a particular penchant for haiku and the related forms of haibun (which pairs a brief prose passage with the condensed form of the haiku) and senryu (which is structurally similar to haiku, but treats human nature ironically or satirically). His published poems in these forms have appeared in such journals and anthologies as Akitsu Quarterly, Modern Haiku, AMP Digital Magazine, Cold Moon Journal, Ohio Haiku Anthology, and many others. In all, Gutierrez says he has written enough haiku to fill multiple chapbooks.

These multiple modes of inquiry and exploration focus on beauty and the divine, which Gutierrez believes are at the heart of theopoetics, and provide a forward-looking approach to faith.

“As society becomes more secular, theologians need to focus on the connections between culture and the divine,” he says.“ We need to look at the intersections between religion and literature, film, and art. Studying views of art and society can provide an entry point for people who do not consider themselves religious to enter into conversations about big questions.”

Gutierrez plans to remain focused on these questions and exploring possible answers to bethe heart of his Bethany experience.

“I am still a little surprised this program exists,” he admits. “There are not a lot of graduate programs where students are encouraged to both examine the ways that religion intersects with literature, art, and culture, and also to improve their skills as creative artists.”

Professors and students at Bethany have encouraged Gutierrez to continue writing poetry and to keep developing his scholarship.

“I have had the chance to dip my toes into academia,” he says. “The professors here have been willing to help and support me, encouraging me to present my work at conferences, and talking with me about my next steps.”

After he graduates from Bethany this spring, Gutierrez plans to pursue a doctorate with an interdisciplinary focus, studying religion and literature, en route to an academic career.

“Bethany faculty and students have been so nice and encouraging,” he says. “Everyone here is rooting for me, but also pushing me to do better.”

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 of Wonder & Word magazine.