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SPIRITUALITY WITH FEW WORDS
written by Stuart
December 2004

musings on the life of the spirit (and "spiritual direction") more that 4 years after Beryl's stroke


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website updated on 18 September 2016

In mid-2000, just before the final session of her spiritual direction training programme, my wife Beryl suffered a stroke. She had begun work with several clients and these arrangements had to be cancelled. Her main short-term and long-term disabilities have been aphasia (speech difficulty, primarily the variable loss of words) together with inability to read and write. One of her clients said it didn't matter if she couldn't speak properly — it was sufficient for her to listen. Although this was kindly meant — and seriously — it didn't seem practical and in the early days it was beyond her even to consider the idea.

Beryl had enjoyed the discussions about various traditions of spirituality covered in the training course. She had for many years been well in tune with contemplative spirituality, and so the idea of quiet musing (one of her words) was both familiar and welcome. However the loss of the ability to read has been a major change to her life and an obstruction to what we could call her spiritual input.

During the Master's degree in feminist theology which she completed about three years before the stroke Beryl had encountered the writings of Roberta Bondi. One of the most poignant events over the past few years followed the death of an old friend following which Beryl wanted to send a card to his widow. She pointed out on the page of one of Roberta Bondi's books the words which she wanted to send — even though she couldn't read them out or say them. The special poignancy of the episode was that the title of the book was Memories of God. Much of Beryl's spiritual life (for want of a better expression) now depends on memory, and I am inclined to think that this principle applies to me too, perhaps to many others also. She has fundamental memories of the scriptures, especially the Psalms (assisted by earlier familiarity with Jim Cotter's excellent modern paraphrases). Music is another powerful memory, with the distinction between 'sacred' and 'secular' of little importance.

Music for meditation has become important (to both of us). We have come to know and love Margaret Rizza's music through a Christian Meditation group we joined and which Beryl has attended enthusiastically. We have both come to perceive the enormous wordiness of regular church services, and both come to feel some regret for how often we ourselves contributed in the past to the volume of words in that context (although we did lead a silent retreat 20 years ago — the pattern is lengthy). I have gone down the path of joining The Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) with its largely silent worship, but Beryl prefers to 'muse' (her word) alone.

Much of the musing has taken place in our living room overlooking the sea. The beauty and movement and changing light of the waves and the moonlight and the sun and the clouds seem full of meaning and comfort and challenge to her and thus to me. Before the stroke Beryl's view of the Spirit was often expressed in terms of the sea — the albatross riding the waves, the 'bright wings' of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and also his 'heaven haven'. She has been listening recently to TS Eliot reading The Four Quartets, poetry being quite different from trying to listen to novels (or talks or even sermons — which she never liked doing) in terms of listening for a short time, and musing — always musing.

She chose the end of East Coker including
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise
as her thoughts to send to friends this Christmas with the cards which she can no longer write herself.

Without doubt I have learnt from Beryl and from her experiences, and others have been touched, both inside the traditional church and outside. Hers is not a conscious 'witness' and until writing this piece I would never have thought of describing her contact with others in terms of 'spiritual direction' but this seems an important insight and goes right back to the client I mentioned in my first paragraph above. I began with the idea in my mind of Beryl herself possibly being supported as a 'client' — still an important idea — but the life of the spirit is apparently more profound than that.