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Behind the Bruin: Dr. Judy Skeen on being one with nature

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

Seven acres of land, home to a dog and four horses and covered with trees. This is Dr. Judy Skeen’s personal sanctuary.

In a time when staying busy and being a workaholic is normal, Skeen chooses a different route. Outside of her teaching role in Belmont’s College of Theology and Christian Ministry, she finds herself in the isolation of the Tennessee countryside, where being surrounded by nature has helped make her a better person and a better Christian.

“Nature can restore us spiritually. Us caring for nature is service to God — service to our creator,” says Skeen.

Her relationship with nature and spirituality isn’t something that formed overnight. It took years of soul-searching and a move across the country for Skeen to realize how therapeutic it is to be surrounded by creation.

For the first 40 years of her life, Skeen did what is normally expected of Christians.

“During those years, I was finding traditional resources for God: attending church, doing quiet time, reading scripture. I was still doing it, because I knew I was supposed to, but it was leaving me cold,” she says.

As she got older, especially when she began studying to receive her doctorate from the Southern Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, Skeen realized these resources weren’t enough to bring her out of the depression and fear of failure she was facing.

She tried talking to pastors, but their advice left her in the same spot as before.

“The traditional resources weren’t going deep enough for the human pain that I was experiencing and seeing around me. So, I went looking elsewhere.”

“Elsewhere” turned out to be Montana.

Moving to Montana in 1996 gave Skeen the opportunity to experience the restorative powers of nature for the first time. But she had to develop that gratitude on her own; in the past, her religious upbringing had taught Skeen that humans were the most important part of creation and everything else came second. But roaming around Big Sky Country helped her realize something greater.

“I learned how to fly fish. And I fished for a while, but I was catching and releasing and after a while, that seemed stupid. Why am I putting a hook in these fish mouths when I’m not going to keep them or eat them? Why don’t I just stand here and enjoy the river?” Skeen says.

So that’s exactly what she did.

Skeen learned how crucial nature was to her spirituality and personal growth, and he refused to lose that aspect of herself when she moved back to Tennessee and began teaching Belmont in 1998.

In 2012, Skeen moved out to Franklin and now lives 35 minutes away from campus on a plot of land that supports her need to be spiritually restored through nature. Though the commute is long, Skeen says it’s more important for her to protect the solace she has found in nature.

“It has never yet occurred to me in eight years of driving back and forth to dislike any part of it,” says Skeen. “I mean, sometimes it’s hard to go in.”

Moving to the country allowed Skeen to have space for her four horses — Stormy, Petra, Mellie and Jackson. These horses have taught her more about herself and what it means to be a person of good character.

“They see right through our stuff,” Skeen says of her horses. “If I were out here angry, they wouldn’t know what I was angry about, but they would know that I was dangerous because I was angry. I desperately wanted to become a good human around horses, and that meant I had to get a whole lot clearer inside myself.”

As soon as Skeen opens the gate to the pasture where the horses roam, they come running to her. Stormy, or Stormy Boy, as she calls him, comes running first since they have been together the longest. She compliments his handsome copper coat, and he moves a little closer to her, striving to receive all of her affection before the other horses.

“It’s funny how being with another species has helped me to be more human, a better human,” says Skeen as she brushes out his long coat.

In order to become the person she wanted to be, Skeen had to face her struggle with depression and her fear of failure. Doing so helped her to be a more trustworthy person not only for her horses but for other people as well.

Just as her horses have helped Skeen find peace and develop trust in herself, being among the trees on her land is a daily reminder of her own resilience.

“I think about what trees survive and what they put up with over time,” says Skeen. “If we can learn anything from being in the company of trees, it’s about how to stand in the middle of a storm. It’s about how to take the heat and the drought.”

For Skeen, trees have become almost as important to her spirituality as her horses. They remind her to stay grounded, and that she is capable of withstanding whatever comes her way.

“A tree has a lifespan, and it’s not meant to live forever. And when it dies, if it’s left to fall where it dies, everything in it will feed everything else that comes up in the ground after that,” says Skeen. “We struggle so much with living and dying, needing legacy and all that. There’s a way that nature doesn’t struggle with some of what we struggle with.”

Skeen has even found a way to incorporate trees into her teaching. In her Spiritual Formation class, she requires students to pick a tree and sit with it for a few minutes every day. It’s meant to be a time of self-reflection, a time for students to check in with their mind, heart and soul.

“There’s something about sitting with a tree I think that, at least for me, slows me down. It makes me see more carefully,” Skeen says.

This ability to see things more carefully and clearly has enabled her to be good to those she cares about, including her friend Brad Dunn.

After 30 years of friendship, Dunn has walked through many stages of life with Skeen.

“She’s a very thoughtful person and is a very thought-provoking person,” says Dunn. “She’s not afraid to do the work in friendships. She’ll not only provide encouragement and support, but also challenge you and hold you accountable.”

For Dunn, she’s like part of the family.

“My wife and Judy are very good friends. I have three sons, and they all know Judy,” says Dunn. “My dog probably loves her the most out of all of us.”

Debbie Maxwell, a friend of over 15 years, has also been able to grow with Skeen, especially spiritually.

“Judy lives her faith through her life, through her interactions with people, her interactions with animals,” says Maxwell.

“I think that nature just completes Judy.”

Surrounding herself with nature has healed Skeen spiritually and mentally in ways that traditional Christian practices could not. Since discovering the restorative powers of creation, Skeen has become more in tune with herself and with the world around her — even things as small as the way the grass looks.

“Today it looks different than it did yesterday. You know, it’s a little greener out there in patches, and there’s a little more clover. So there is that daily reminder of renewal.”

PHOTO: Skeen and one of her horses, Stormy. Belmont Vision / Isaac Wetzel.

This article was written by Alexandra Lanz.

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