STANDING STILL:

SPIRITUALITY AND SENSE

 

 

 

 

By Julie Leibrich

M.A.Hons (Eng), B.A.Hons (Psych), Ph.D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to Betty Munnoch (1927-2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part II of a two-part invited presentation at the National Conference on Spirituality and Mental Health Melbourne, 29 &30 March 2004.  Part I is called Making Space: Spirituality And Mental Health.

 

Contact:

Julie Leibrich, PO Box 2015,

Raumati Beach, New Zealand.


OUTLINE OF THE TALK

 

 

INTRODUCTION. 3

WORDS LIKE MIND BODY AND SPIRIT. 3

SPIRITUALITY AND HEALTH. 4

BEING HOME. 4

Beginnings 5

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. 5

Extract From ‘The Starling’ 6

The Lesson. 6

FALL DOWN AND GET UP. 8

Neurology Ward. 9

SPIRITUAL LIFE AND ILLNESS. 10

SPIRITUAL ILLNESS? 12

SPIRITUAL JOURNEY? 13

SENSE OF STILLNESS. 14

In The Ice Age 14

NEED TO RETREAT. 15

Southern Star 17

A TIME OF TEACHERS. 17

COMFORT OF DAILY PRACTICE. 19

The Place Of No Shadows 19

Chance Meeting At An Airport 20

Tide Table 22

INTEGRATION. 22

All I Know. 23

 

 


INTRODUCTION

 

Yesterday I said that personal stories are precious, a way we relate to each other, share our insights and invite connection.  So today, I want to tell you the story about my own experiences of spirituality over the last three years.  How important it has been for me to stand still.

 

First, I want to review the main points of yesterday’s talk, which as you know, I originally wrote for the World Congress on Mental Health in Vancouver in 2001.  Fortunately, when invited to this conference, I found that I still agreed with myself enough to give that talk again!   Three years on, though, I see some things much less clearly, others more sharply.

 

WORDS LIKE MIND BODY AND SPIRIT

 

Words like mind, body, and spirit chase me around all the time. To say nothing of soul!   Sometimes I chase them. 

 

One of the quirkiest categorisations of the mind-body-soul triangle occurred in the 17th century.  At that time, epilepsy was seen as a spiritual malady, the curse of the gods.  (Previously, in Ancient Greece it was seen as a divine blessing).  Then in 1664 a remarkable thing happened.  Thomas Willis, in his Cerebri Anatome, proposed that there were two souls - a ‘body soul’ and an ‘immortal soul’.   He said that the ‘body soul’ was in the brain and in one clean cut he snatched memory and intellect from the palms of priests and put them into the pockets of doctors. 

 

When we are trying to define things, we tend to categorise for ease of understanding, description and control.  But categories can become things in their own right – we reify them.  Then, they can inhabit our experience and inhibit our understanding.  We can define ourselves out of the picture.

 

I experience my mind as part of my body.  Accordingly, the distinction between mental and physical illness makes no sense to me, other than as a convenient but limiting categorisation. I experience my spirit as a separate entity, which inhabits and encompasses my body.  I do not distinguish between spirit and soul.

 


SPIRITUALITY AND HEALTH[1]

 

To restate the main points of yesterday’s lecture with those things in mind (so to speak!):

 

Ø     Spirituality is a personal experience - I experience it as the space within my heart.  The space where I find meaning.  It is being home. 

Ø     Religion is an interpretation of spirituality.

Ø     Health is a sense of being whole.

Ø     Illness can produce insight, capacity for compassion, and a stronger sense of self. 

Ø     Spirituality is crucial to healing.

Ø     Healing is about connection, not control. When we can relate our own experiences of vulnerability with each other, then we can help each other heal.

Ø     We are all weak.  We are all strong.  We are all wounded.  We are all healers. 

Ø     In a world, which values being perfect, it is difficult to acknowledge vulnerability.  Yet being vulnerable is being human. 

Ø     Things which impede healing are a scientific model which says something only exists if we can measure it, false notions of perfection, blaming the patient, social exclusion and personal prejudices. 

Ø     In some areas of life, we need to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, wait for wisdom to find us, and allow insight to be the teacher.

 

BEING HOME

 

Years ago, a friend of mine called Ailsa took a day’s leave simply so she could enjoy the experience of getting up at the usual time, getting the bus to work, staying on when it got to her usual stop, and going home.

 

When I resigned as a Mental Health Commissioner, I was worn out, burnt out and close to down and out!  In the four years I did that job, I moved from optimism to scepticism to cynicism.  It became impossible for me to do the work that needed to be done.  There were many reasons – my diminishing health, lack of support, and the inherent nature of bureaucracy – a word I can’t even spell without consulting the dictionary.   But the heart of the matter was that I felt my spirit was being crushed.


The relief of giving up the struggle was enormous. I felt like I stepped off the third floor window ledge but didn’t plunge to the ground.  I was flying.   On the train home that night, I felt a distinct presence on my right shoulder and heard a voice inside saying that I had done the right thing and I would be all right. Another strange thing happened.  Someone came to my door to tell me they had had a dream about me.  They had been given a message for me that everything would be all right.  Crazy?  Maybe.  Helpful?  Definitely.

 

There were many practical insecurities to face, but my plan was to live simply, give myself as much time and space as I needed, and focus on silence, stillness and solitude.  I wanted to know more about my spiritual world.  I felt it was a new beginning.

 

Beginnings[2]

 

A fresh page in the book

the hope of morning in your hand

clean sheets, new year

windows after rain.

 

We carry the dead within

the ghosts of might-have-been

those lost connections

with our self.

 

Beginnings take the edge off pain.

The comfort of one moment

when time’s a child

and we are born again.

 

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE

 

Over the past three years, I have seen more clearly how my early experiences of religion have shaped my expression of spirituality. 

 

I was brought up in a Jewish neighbourhood, attended a Methodist Sunday school, and went to a Protestant school where Catholicism was despised.  I used to visit a Catholic church secretly to light candles. I believed in spirits and ghosts because I saw them.


Extract From ‘The Starling’[3]

 

Not long after that, I started to see the spirits.

 

I’d see the paupers floating above the church, in the trees, watching me.  And when we went inside to light a candle, a ghost would make it flicker.

 

Whenever I stayed at Auntie’s, I could hear breathing in the oak trees at night.  I even saw the White Lady herself.  Auntie had told me about her.  But I’d never seen her till now.

 

That's when I started to cross myself. 

 

By Christmas, the ghosts were everywhere.  They called down to me from the grime on the factory walls and winked up at me from the River Irwell.  They even began to follow me to school, biting my heels as I ran.

 

I couldn’t stop crossing myself.  

 

The Lesson[4]

 

Mr Small is very tall

He goes to church on Sundays

He prays to God to give him strength

To whack the kids on Mondays. 

              School Chant

 

At the end of Our Father, before

the distribution of the cod liver oil

I trace a cross upon my chest

north south east west. 

 

Mr Small, Being Tall, Sees It All. 

 

‘Julie! Come out to the front!’

I hold my breath.  Those who are

now spectators settle back.  ‘We'll have

none of this Catlicker nonsense, do you hear?’


My Heart Conceals My Fear. 

 

I am a nun in white, tending the sick

on a distant hill, far from this Proddidog school. 

Fingering my beads while cherubs smile

and float around my face. 

 

Mary Mary Quite Contrary, Mother Of Grace. 

 

‘Betsy or Bert?’ he asks.  I whisper ‘Betsy.’

Ash may smart, but birch will only bruise. 

He flexes the thicker cane.  I spread my palm. 

It's as well to learn at the age of eight:

 

You Can Choose Your Pain If  Not Your Fate.

 

As a teenager, I sang in various church choirs because my brother earned extra cash as a schoolboy playing the organ.   Wherever he went, I went.  So my experiences expanded to Unitarian and Presbyterian churches.  As a teenager, I was confirmed in the Anglican church but simultaneously discovered pantheism when I discovered Wordsworth.

 

My mother’s parents were Catholic. We think her mother’s family, further back, were Jewish.  All my life I have had a deep feeling of connection with Judaism.  My father’s parents were Anglican and his mother refused to come to my first wedding because I married a Catholic. 

 

For many years I did not talk about religion or belong to any religious group, although I occasionally attended various places of worship.  I made a sort of policy decision in my late teens that I would not discuss my spiritual life with other people.  And that I would stop asking questions about the meaning of life because it was too depressing.  I could not find satisfactory answers.  I did not realize then that the answers create the questions. Asking questions is proof enough of meaning.

 

My knowledge of religion so far, is haphazard and more or less limited to Christian and Jewish religion, with small scurries into Eastern ideas.  I love old places of worship, incense, hymns, and chanting of psalms.  I sometimes think that to be really at home religiously, I would have to travel back in time.


All my life I have had strange experiences to do with spirituality but I have never been able to interpret them with any one religion.  Sometimes they have been linked to specific places – St Columba’s church on Iona, a Maori healing ground, The Isle of Tiree, places of standing stones, a Jewish community, a monastery.  Other times they have been linked to being nowhere - that is to say being   now   here. 

 

FALL DOWN AND GET UP

 

Over the past three years, I have been blessed in many ways.  The biggest changes for me have been a great slowing down – from astronomical to geological time, an overwhelming longing and need for a reduction in outside stimulation.  I have had the chance to stand still and look around me and within me. 

 

I have found that I am secure after all, in all sorts of ways, and my life is much happier.  There is more love in it, more creativity, less stress, more ease. I have a greater sense of living my life in a way that is somehow truer to my self.  That, for me, is at the heart of my developing spiritual life and it brings ease.  Yet there is still dis-ease.  I still experience mood swings and I struggle to accept the multiple sclerosis that has fundamentally altered my everyday life. 

 

There is a story of a monk who was asked what went on at the monastery.  “We fall down and get up, we fall down and get up, we fall down and get up.[5] 

 

When I am depressed, meaning, presence, appreciation, love and acceptance go out of the window. And as for thinking that there is nothing to be ashamed of in being ill, well!  I have to deal with shame every time I am depressed – because shame is one of the symptoms. And that’s why I sometimes resort to sham. I switch from:

 

o       Feeling that my life has meaning to feeling that it doesn’t

o       Being present to fearing tomorrow or regretting the past

o       Appreciating what I have to dwelling on what I don’t

o       Accepting to expecting.

o       Loving to hating


 

Meaning, Presence, Appreciation, Love, and Acceptance. At times, these states do not come easily to me.  Maybe that is why I get depressed?  Maybe the depression causes me to be like that? Maybe being like that is the depression!

 

Such analysis is pointless.  Why is not the right question. Or at least, not for me.  A better question is how.  How can I survive?  How can I reconstruct myself to a positive state again?  This is the place I start from time and again.  

 

I suspect many people feel the way I do, but it’s hard to say those things about ourselves.  I am constantly surprised by how much other people seem to know and by how sure they are of themselves.  Are they pretending? As I have said, we live in a society that does not encourage us to express our vulnerability. 

 

It doesn’t look like I am ever going to be the tranquil, confident person I’d like to be, but I am beginning to accept that limitations are not failures.[6]  We all have limitations – it is the nature of being human.

 

As for the MS, there is a bone marrow deep fatigue about MS.  One friend wryly but acutely commented that maybe I long to stand still because I am just so tired!  The most disabling symptoms for me are cognitive. I have been going through what I would call “My Deconstruction Period”. 

 

Things deconstruct almost of their own accord, - memory, perception, concentration, and verbal communication.  When I am tired, conversation is just too difficult and I avoid people rather than struggle with it. I crave silence because it is a balm and gives my brain a chance to rest.  Written language has been unimpaired but is much slower now.  All this is frightening and isolating. But as my dear friend Betty used to say during her final illness, “I’m winning when I’m conscious!” 

 

Neurology Ward[7]

 

The inner self is inside out

And sense has gone to dinner.

My brain’s left home,

My heart’s on fire,

My soul is getting thinner.


 

I try to get my head together,

Try to make it go

But it’s dead on the left

And lost on the right

Drowning itself in snow.

 

I cannot hear

Yet hear loud clangs.

Can hardly see a blur.

The only thing between me

And a cat is a thicker layer of fur.

 

I turn around on one pin’s head

And try to count the angels

But they’re at tea.

I can only see a strange face

In the angles.

 

Some say the future’s in the sky,

The past is in the sea.

Well, where am I

And who are you?

How can we just be?

 

I take in time,

Time takes me in,

We court, we wed, we sever.

In between there are no words

which mean forever.

 

Sometimes, I am able to view some of my experiences as almost mystical. As if I see everything in it smallest part – the units of creation connected.   I am pushed, taken, carried into seeing things in new ways where the reconstruction has a deeper meaning.

 

SPIRITUAL LIFE AND ILLNESS

 

Can we experience a rich spiritual life and have an illness? 

Can we experience no spiritual life and not have an illness? 


My answer to the first question is a resounding yes.  My answer to the second is that I do not yet understand what people mean when they say they have no spiritual life.  I am tempted to think it is an absence of consciousness.  But I don’t know.  I will write a further talk if I find out!

 

Integrating my spirit and body makes me whole, healthy.  But this does not mean that I will not have illness. I think we can be fundamentally healthy, whole, as a human being, yet still have an illness.

 

Major determinants of illness lie in our bodies - genetic predisposition, biochemistry, neurobiology[8] and our human context – environment, upbringing, society, and life experience. 

 

Mood swings are related to my brain chemistry in such a direct way that my mood can change, when nothing in my life changes.  And the right drug can alter my experience.  Many years ago I was force-fed drugs in hospital greatly to my detriment.  Then for years I would not take any at all, again to my detriment.  My position now is one of pragmatism.

 

My spiritual life can bring relief from symptoms and also personal growth.  Drugs bring relief from symptoms but may impede personal growth. However, sometimes, drugs are what I need.  Without them, I am barely able to survive, let alone make substantial personal change. 

 

Many years ago I attempted to commit suicide.  I have only ever made one attempt.  It was intended. I failed.  If I look back at the moment now, I remember the absolutely certainty that there was no hope and no comfort. I reserve the right to return to that decision should I ever need but a more healthy position for me is to keep alive a sense of comfort. 

 

A spiritual life makes it easier to say that I am not the illness; the illness is not my essential self.  It does not necessarily prevent illnesses, nor cure it, nor treat it, but it can comfort and that makes illness more bearable.  Comfort is the giving of strength.  Comfort is healing. This takes practice. The practice of faith. 

 

As I write the talk, I keep trying to come to some truth. It is as if I want to be able to say this is this and that is that and I sure of it.  That I am steady as she goes. But that’s not how things are.  I am a mood swinger.  My life is hardly ever at the mid point. 


When I look back at my journals to write this talk, although I can see a developing faith and a practice of spirituality that is utterly central to me now, I am still beset by appalling depression at times, and huge self-doubt.  The difference is this.  I might still doubt me but I don’t doubt God.  That is where the comfort comes from.

 Journal 9/03/04

 

SPIRITUAL ILLNESS?

 

The core of many illnesses we call “mental illnesses” is disconnection, unreality and meaninglessness.   Either the world is unreal or we are unreal.[9]  Maybe both.  We enter the realm of illusion, even delusion.  Not being.

 

The core of spirituality is connection, reality and meaning.  We enter the realm of illumination and connection with the source of life.  Being[10].  

 

It is easy to see how some people believe that illness is caused by spiritual defects – an absence of compassion, persistence of resentment, and so on[11].  Some even argue that what we call “mental illness” should really be called “spiritual illness”[12].

 

I not only find that proposition unhelpful, I find it abhorrent.  Maybe I’m being defensive?  Maybe I’m just afraid that my own spiritual life isn’t up to scratch? Maybe I’m not on good enough terms with God? I will take that risk.

 

The view that illness demonstrates a dis-ease of spirit, and that the patient is to be blamed for a demon, is a throwback in time.  Sadly, it is also quite trendy.   Both a fundamentalist chaplain and a new age healer suggested there must be “something not quite right” in a family because their one-year-old son was dying of leukemia[13]. 

 

Spiritual guidance and nurturing can be wonderful, when they are requested, but the idea of judging and diagnosing someone else’s spiritual life is presumptuous and offensive. Perhaps the spirit police will follow the body police. Spiritual Sanatoriums with devotional triage and intravenous holy water. Astral monitors, sanctity readings, piety rates.  And no patient rites. 

 


After the publication of my talk “Making Space; Spirituality and Mental Health” I had many letters from people who made some personal connection with what I had said.  I also saw from these letters, how some people fear taking the risk of talking about their spiritual experiences precisely because they fear “diagnosis”.

 

 “Spirituality is another area that is potentially dangerous to talk about.  Most dramatically, it can be used to diagnose someone as mentally ill and have all the tragic consequences of that befall one.  It can also be dangerous to talk about it in the "scientific" mental health realm because of loss of credibility.  I am vulnerable on both counts so don't really emphasize it that much.  I do include it at a level that is not likely to give me trouble, but not more.  It is so important, however, that
you and the others talking about it are doing what you are doing.  Thank you.”

 

Our spiritual lives are the most precious and private part of us.  Intimacy is by invitation only.  Otherwise it is invasion.  Thomas Merton said it beautifully:

 

A person is a person insofar as each has a secret and is a solitude of their own that cannot be communicated to anyone else. I will love that which most makes them a person: the secrecy, the hidden-ness, the solitude of their own individual being, which God alone can penetrate and understand. A love that breaks into the spiritual privacy of another in order to lay open all their secrets and besiege their solitude with importunity, does not love them:  it seeks to destroy what is best in them, and what is most intimately theirs.

Thomas Merton[14]

 

SPIRITUAL JOURNEY?

 

A spiritual journey.  I know that the idea of a sacred journey is at the heart of most religious traditions, but at this time in my life, that metaphor doesn’t work for me.

 

A journey sounds too positive, active, and directive.  As if there were a target, a destination.  I don’t know where I am going, I haven’t got a ticket and I’ve no idea what platform I’m supposed to be on.  I don’t feel like I’m on a journey.  It’s more like an amble, a wandering.    Actually, it’s more like standing still.  I pause to stare at the scenery again and again until I can make out the shape of it and sometimes, the finer details.  I stand and watch the clouds and stars sail by, discover they are going in circles until I realize that I don’t mind, and then circles begins to spiral.


Sometimes I just wait for time to go by.  Sometimes I want time to wait for me.  I just want to stand still.  Find the still point.  Be stable[15]. I am not stagnating.  Not at all.  I’m open to change, but stable.

 

SENSE OF STILLNESS

 

At heart, I am a hermit. Stillness, silence, and solitude are the conditions, for me, for sensing the space within my heart.  Sense is a wonderful word. Sense means feeling, sense means awareness, sense means meaning. That is a theme of my entire life, and over the last three years has become its absolute focus.  I long for those conditions with such intensity, that longing underlies almost everything I do.

 

Yet I am convinced that the society in which I live sees these states as vices – indications of being a social misfit. And we become open to criticism of being withdrawn, selfish, and antisocial.  Or people see it as a “phase” you are going through and find it very difficult to accept that it is a state of being. They also assume it’s because you are ill or depressed.  What astonishes me is that people hardly ever see it positively.

 

In The Ice Age

 

Before words melted brains

we stood on the edge of silence.

Only the sound of snow dissolving.

No way to express what we saw.

In the absence of words

ideas danced lightly.

 

What were we waiting for?

The dawn of this new age

where we travel backwards

in the rush to know.

Flee silence like the edge of death.

Hollow to hear. Too cold.

 

Breathing in light restores our heart.

It is braver to stand still

and be counted than count

to let words find us

than forever be searching

for meaning.

 

It is psychically very noisy for me around other people.  I pick up other people’s feelings and moods.  I get if you like, “sensitive” interference. I have known this since I was a child.   It is both a burden and a gift. The best description I have ever found of this state of being was in a letter that John Keats wrote to his friend Richard Woodhouse in 1818, when he was dying of consumption.

 

When I am in a room with people, if I ever am free from speculating on the creations of my own brain, then, not myself goes home to myself, but the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me, so that I am in a very little time annihilated.[16]

 

That is one of the reasons I need solitude and silence.  I need to protect myself. I can also become very internally driven and pressed to do things.  Finding the still point is crucial for me.

 

My longing for silence, stillness and solitude has led to me to several places of retreat.

 

NEED TO RETREAT

My first retreat happened by chance, in a Jewish community in Manchester, where I had gone to look after my mother for a few weeks. 

 

For the first two weeks I was there, she was in hospital and I stayed alone in her flat in a sheltered housing complex for elderly people.  I visited the synagogue and was in a Jewish community at Passover.  I made a long bus journey every day to visit my mother.  Suddenly I had numerous Jewish mothers wanting to take care of me while I was taking care of mine.   The remarkable feature of this experience was that despite being quite interactive with others I had a sense of a complete peaceful retreat. 

 

I have been trying to work out why.  There was some sense of "hardly anyone knew where I was".   The state of being anonymous, unobserved.  The state of being able to extend our boundaries as far as we can.  To  "stretch out" spiritually.  Maybe that is why mystics went out into the desert - for a kind of "spiritual stretch"?


While there I saw a healer, a visiting Rabbi from Israel.  Afterwards I had a mystical experience more intense than any I have known.  I think such experiences are deeply personal and sacred.  And even if I wanted to, I could not describe it in words.  

 

Do not dwell in the words; let the words dwell in you.  Dissolve in you.

The Rebbe

 

About two years ago, I began attending Quaker Meetings for Worship.  I found them by chance and began to experience shared silence, which I had not known before.  Later, a Quaker retreat was offered at exactly the time I needed it.  It was based around silence and wordless expression through art[17].   Once again, I felt that things found me when I stopped searching.

 

A couple of years ago, I began visiting a Cistercian abbey. 

 

Why have I come here?  To be still and to listen.  To rest.  To step off the treadmill for a while and be amongst others yet be safely alone…. To meet you more honestly, closely, fearlessly.

Journal 12/9/02

 

It is a wonderfully welcoming place.  Each time I go to the Abbey it is different.  But always healing. 

 

There is a powerful presence in this place - something palpable.  There is a sense of protection and truth there, wise monks to talk with, and a freedom to just be.   The offices give the day shape and meaning.  When I am there I can join in that religious expression of spirituality as a means of connecting with my own. 

 

There is also a strange bookcase there.  A sort of divine bookcase that seems to know exactly what book you need as you walk past it.  Each time I have gone, the book “that I most need to read in the world but have never heard of” seems to fall into my hands.

 

I think about it when I am not there - I write things in my journal like “the monastery will be covered in snow today.”  I take great pleasure in growing cuttings from the garden there so I could have something of it in my own. Such simple things tell me what it means to me. 


A Cistercian Abbey is a School of Love. 

 

Southern Star[18]

 

A row of Trappist monks

open a door on light,

 

the chant in the trees,

a boundless view.  You.

 

The shape of the day curves

on itself, like a wheel.

 

All I do is step on the rim

carried from morning to night.

 

A TIME OF TEACHERS

 

Three years ago, preparing for that Vancouver talk, I was researching the writings of a French Jewish psychiatrist called Henri Baruk. There was only one English translation of his work. 

 

Amazingly, it turned out to be written by a childhood friend whom I had lost contact with fifty years ago.  We spoke on the phone that night and he sent me a book the next day.  He introduced me to the Rebbe.

 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the head of the Lubavitcher movement for over forty years. [19]  He was one of the world’s greatest religious scholars, a much-loved leader and teacher, a sage and visionary of the highest order.  He died ten years ago, aged ninety-two. 

 

The central point of the Rebbe’s teaching was that life is meaningful.  He said that we can never be happy unless we nourish our soul as well as our body. He taught that love is the transcendence of the soul over the body.

 

“Love is the single most necessary component in human life.  It is both giving and receiving; it allows us to experience another person and lets that person experience us.  Love is the origin and foundation of all human interaction. To live a meaningful life, we must learn more about love and how to bring it into our life.”

The Rebbe


The Rebbe believed that our soul directly reflects our connection to G-d. That we can and must merge our body and soul to give focus and meaning to all we do.  We should acknowledge the conflict between our souls and our bodies and see them as separate entities, but strive to integrate them.  For this, we need to “allow the soul to yearn.” 

 

Listen when your soul yearns for better nourishment. Listen to your inner voice.  Trust it.

The Rebbe

 

What is so comforting and therefore so healing about reading the Rebbe’s work is that whenever I do, I do not doubt there is meaning in my life.

 

Thomas Merton was a Cistercian monk who spent much of his life as a hermit but communicated with the world through his writings.  He had a way of making the mysterious world of a contemplative order accessible to ordinary people while still preserving its mystery.  He was a poet, a photographer, and a consummate writer.  He died in 1968, aged 53. 

 

What is so comforting and therefore so healing about reading Merton is that he shows himself. He sees himself clearly and he lets me see.

 

He says  “above all, don’t be worried about the pace, about what is happening or not happening, about what seems to be going on on the surface.”  He also knew about human frailty and saw love as “the resetting of a body of broken bones”.

 

I first came across the mediaeval mystics many years ago when I was studying mediaeval English at Edinburgh.  I have a deep fondness for that period and a fascination for paradox.  So it is unsurprising that they are part of my “re – membering” now. 

 

I find the Cloud of Unknowing[20] a deeply moving book.  And that’s the clue for me as to why I stand still.  Because then, I am moved.

 

When I enter the world of unknowing, I understand that what matters is to see that I am, rather than who I am or why I am.  When I see that I am, the other things follow.


 

o       By disintegration I integrate.

o       By detachment I connect.

o       By letting go I am held.

o       In constraint I find freedom.

o       In nothingness I find everything.

o       In space I see shape.

 

COMFORT OF DAILY PRACTICE

 

Over the past three years I have come to value a daily practice of faith.  I know now that I do have to practice it.  Also the importance of order in my life.  We do not have a chaos of monks!  The activities that make up the order of my day in this way are

 

o       Prayer and morning pages

o       Noticing and appreciating

o       Meditation

o       Walking

o       Writing poetry.

 

These daily practices connect me to my life force, they balance me, and they help me to stand still, to be stable.  They comfort me. They make be stronger. Comfort – from Latin con (intensive) and fortis (strong).

 

I began daily meditations a year or so ago.  Sometimes I think the meditation becomes contemplation but I have a lot to learn about this.

 

The Place Of No Shadows[21]

 

I like being here

somewhere between

my eyes and the horizon.

 

Above the derelict church

I see a fine line of cloud

ethereal.

 

Closer, the rust that clings

onto life while ancient

bell towers crumble.


Closer, a window

where someone has pressed

his face, too eager for dawn.

 

Closer, I see that I see beyond

the glass, the wall

the church, the dusk.

 

This is the place of no shadows

no sound, where you do

not feel alone.

 

I slip here from time to time

without meaning to - into the arms

of this old familiar love.

 

Meditation helps me feel more detached, therefore more connected.  Detachment helps me stop expecting things of the world, of other people.  One thing I am learning, and not easily, is to stop expecting things and to accept what is.  Accepting, not expecting things of other people.  Unconditional love. Yet not accepting behaviour which harms me. Loving myself. I find these things very hard. The changes are very small, very slow. But they are happening.

 

Chance Meeting At An Airport[22]

 

It doesn’t matter how long it takes

the old Sikh says as he stirs his lentil soup.

 

I gaze at his turban longing to know if he cuts

his hair but instead ask the meaning of life.

Fate he says, adding salt to my wound.

 

What is the cornerstone? Submission.

The highest point on the roof? Forgiveness.

The purpose? To comfort.  Only to comfort.

 

I glance sideways, looking for the audience

of cross-legged pupils sitting at their master’s feet.

I want to continue the lesson.

 

I ask him his name and he smiles.


In a way walking is also a kind of meditation for me.  It is not only good for my body but good for my spirit and integrates the two.  It also gives me more time when I can listen to the universe.

 

What is prayer to me?  When I am talking to, listening to God.  When I am.  Just am. 

 

I don’t find verbal prayer easy so I write.  Many books about writing suggest the idea of writing a few pages each morning – spontaneously and without a critic present.[23]  Some have a more spiritual agenda. It is like talking to someone – maybe yourself, maybe a friend, for me, God.

 

At some point in the morning pages, I write a thank you letter – a list of ten things that I noticed and was grateful for the day before.

 

I sound a bit like Pollyanna. Once or twice when I have mentioned this to people I get strange reactions – “Grateful?  That’s a strange word.”  “Can you always find ten things to say?” I remember a period when I was really ill and my list actually read, “Bed” ten times.  But I was still grateful! 

 

Paying attention to the given moment is one of the hardest things in the world for me. I am easily distracted; easily head off into the past or future.  Paying attention is my way to live in the present. For me, that is an art I have to practice all the time. To focus on the small things of life.  See the remarkable in the ordinary. 

 

Through prayer, I discover what I already have. After a while, this can become a state of grace.

 

"If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,'
 that would suffice."

 

Meister Eckhart, 1260-1328
 13th-Century Dominican Mystic

 

I write to God.  Do I think God writes back to me?  I suppose I do. 


 

Tide Table

 

How do we know the tide will turn?

 

We learn by rote. 

Suns rise.  Moons set. Tides turn. 

 

We breathe, we love, we eat

we live, we die.

 

It is benignly predictable.

 

All we have to do is notice.

 

Language frees us but it restricts us.  Sometimes I think that if we had wordless days – you know, like they have no diet days – then we would communicate so much more deeply.  Maybe touch fingertips or stand a bit closer to each other to brush spirits.  We wouldn’t stumble over nouns or get squashed by adjectives or trampled into the dust by verbs. 

 

Over the past three years I have been changing my relationship with language.  I keep thinking I should give up writing.  I began to paint instead because it is wordless.  But words still follow me round, even when I am asleep. 

 

It is as if they want to remind me that, despite the limitations of language and despite my longing for silence, writing, especially poetry, is my most creative experience. A relation point between my spirit and body, my self and others.  

 

Poetry is a marker of who I am, where I am and how I am, but most importantly, it is a marker that I am. 

 

INTEGRATION

 

At the start of today’s talk I said that definition can create categories that define us out of the picture.  Our logical selves have a predisposition to separate, sort, order, and categorise.


As I am putting the finishing touches to this talk, I see that I have done exactly that. Separated, sorted and ordered certain reasons – categories of explanation – for why I need to stand still.  Spiritual needs, depression, multiple sclerosis, my “sensitive” nature, the writing of poetry.  But these features of my life are really just part of a whole. And standing still is a healthy (whole) response, at every level of my being, at this time in my life. It is not explanation that matters, but integration. 

 

We relate when we relate our stories. My experience is not yours, nor yours mine, yet we can still connect. Some of you may be seeking, I am being found.  Some of you may be journeying, I am standing still.  It is not definition that matters, but experience. 

 

All I Know[24]

 

There is no journey I can pinpoint

from there to here.

No ‘I took this road and not another’.

 

I no longer wait for awakening.

It happens every day.

In the sun on the back of rain.

 

We are all in a waiting room

locked in by yesterday

where the blind man still sees scarlet

 

the deaf man dances a jig.

There is no good grief, no bad world

only love.

 

 

 

 

++++++++
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

 

 

I’d like to thank the monks at Southern Star Abbey for the warmth of their welcome, especially Fr. Niko Verkley, Br. Mike Clark, Br Tony and Christine Ash for their wise counsel; my mother and others residents of Carmel Court for giving me such a meaningful time; Friends at the Kapiti Society of Friends Meeting, for our shared silence; to Barry Lent for leading me to the Rebbe, and to Tralee Sugrue and Elaine Youngs for their knowledge and practice of healing.

 

Thank you to Kate Loewenthal for publishing the Mary Hemingway Rees Memorial Lecture and Jim Gottstein for putting it on the Alaska Mental Health Consumer Website's (http://akmhcweb.org/recovery/rec.htm) and to the people who, as a consequence, have written to me to share their own spiritual experiences.

 

My thanks to Ann Goodwin, Geoffrey Daw, Nina Mariette, Margaret Thompson and Oliver Riddell for reading a draft of this talk and for their valuable feedback.  Additional thanks to Ann for our regular discussions about spiritual matters and to Nina for our regular meetings about creativity and self. I am also grateful to other friends for valuable insights, including Tessa Thompson, Syd Moore, John Brophy, David Guerin, Julia Buck, Doug Harvie, Robert Miller, June Read, Viola Palmer, Christine Beddoe, Dianne Cooper, Christine Lenk, and Glenda Fawkes.  Lastly, my love and gratitude to Betty Munnoch, who died at Christmas 2002, for being my golden friend and mentor for so many years. 

 



[1] Making Space: Spirituality And Mental Health, Julie Leibrich, - A Keynote Address at the National Conference on Spirituality and Mental Health Melbourne, 29 &30 March 2004. That address was a shortened version of the Mary Hemingway Rees Memorial Lecture given at the World Assembly for Mental Health, Vancouver, July 2001, and which was first published in Mental Health, Religion and Culture, Vol 5, Issue 2 2002.

[2] Beginnings, Julie Leibrich, First Wellington International Poetry Festival Anthology, HeadworX: Wellington, 2003

[3] The Starling.  Julie Leibrich, Published on CD, read by Shirley Dixon, Winning Entries from The Commonwealth Foundation Short Story Competition 2001-2002.  Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. London, England.

[4] From a poem sequence called A Little Learning, Julie Leibrich, first published in Printout, 11, Auckland, 1996.  Also The Paper Road, a collection of poems by Julie Leibrich ,  Steele Roberts Inc, Wellington, 1998.

[5] Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, Esther de Wall, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2001.

[6] Brother Mike at Southern Star Abbey opened my eyes to this distinction in a way that I had not seen before.

[7] The Land Below the Waves, A collection of poems by  Julie Leibrich, Steele Roberts Inc, Wellington. Scheduled for release, August, 2004.

[8] The Emerging Mind: The BBC Reith Lectures. V Ramachandran, Profile Books: London, 2003.  See Ch 5. for a discussion of neurological measures of mental illness.

[9] Ramachandran op cit

[10] reality – from Latin – to be.

[11] For instance, the early teaching of Jay Adams. See The Nature of Man and Mental Illness, Andrew A White, Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine, Spring 1991.

[12] Amongst them, Carl Jung.

[13] Prayer of the Heart and Mental Health, William T Ryan.  An article on www.alaska.net

[14] No Man Is An Island, Thomas Merton, Harcourt, Brace and Co: New York, 1955, pp244-4.

[15] Stability from Latin stabulum, from stare (to stand) 

[16] Poetry and Prose of John Keats, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922.

[17] Appleseed Workshop, Quaker Settlement, Feb 15-17 2002. Run by Chris Cook and Brenda Heales.

[18] See Endnote 5

[19] See Towards A Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Adapted by Simon Jacobson, William Morrow and Company Inc. New York: 1995. See also, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth.  365 Meditations from the wisdom of the Rebbe. Compiled and interpreted by Tzvi Freeman, Class One Press, 1996.

[20] The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by William Johnston, New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1996

[21] The Place of No Shadows, Julie Leibrich, Kalimat, 13, 2003.

[22] See Endnote 5.

[23] See  Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande, London: Macmillan, 1983. (original edition, 1934). Also The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, London: Souvenir Press, 1994.

[24] All I Know, Julie Leibrich, First Wellington International Poetry Festival Anthology, HeadworX: Wellington, 2003