I was thinking about writing the third part in ‘The Journey of Freedom,’ but as I thought about what I wanted to write, so much of it came back to one person. A nun. Her name is not Sister Mary Clarence unfortunately (I used to pull Judah’s onesies ‘til they stopped over his wee head and say, “Sister Mary Clarence, is that you?” It was the BEST game), but her name is Sister Marie (pronounced Ma-rie). I met her in 2012 when she became my counselling supervisor in Christchurch. She was roughly 70, always wore a woolly cardy, and was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met.
I don’t know about you, but I have always found nuns absolutely fascinating. I feel like I have so many questions about the monastic life, especially regarding habits…like, are they super uncomfy?!. I never really got to ask Sister Marie these questions, not because I think she would’ve minded, but because she was such a consummate professional, and we were there to talk about me, not her.
The order she belongs to is one that is specifically devoted to serving the poor in the local community. She started her professional career as a teacher, and then re-trained as a counsellor in transactional analysis. She worked out of the Salvation Army in the lowest socio-economic suburb in the city and would ask between $5-$20 an hour as a donation. One of the things that I loved about her, is that in order to preserve people’s dignity, she would hand her clients a plain brown envelope to put their donation in; no-one ever need feel embarrassed if they could only afford $5.
It was Sister Marie that helped me get a handle on anxiety. I had experienced several episodes that were like constant mild panic attacks that would last for sometimes weeks at a stretch. My breathing was shallow, I felt dizzy, and unable to come down off the edge. It was horrible. Sister Marie helped me to understand that anxiety was the culmination of years of feelings that I had not allowed to be felt; left to their own devices, they banded together and took my attention by force. She taught me that if I stopped pushing anxiety away, and instead, stopped and listened to what it was trying to say, it would no longer need to arrest my daily life.
Sister Marie also taught me that in order to face the terrifying abyss of inner pain, I only needed to tip-toe up to the therapeutic window, take a peek, and tiptoe away again. With a trusted guide, the trips to the therapeutic window became less scary, and eventually, the carnage I witnessed became less and less alarming, and I could begin to make peace with it.
One of the biggest lessons I learnt from Sister Marie was one of her favourite mantras, “The only way through the pain, is through the pain.” It carried weight when she said it; the weight of someone who is qualified to say such a thing because they speak from experience. She told me that when she started her counselling training, she committed thoroughly to working through her own issues, aware that she could only lead people as far as she herself was willing to go.
But more than what she taught me, it was who she was that left such an impression. Up until that time, any notable moments on my healing journey were reasonably dramatic…punctuated by loads of emotion and quite instant tangible results. The journey I took with Sister Marie wasn’t like that. It was slow, and steady, and peaceful. Much like Sister Marie herself. I have never met anyone more grounded, secure and unflappable. She was very kind, but I also got the impression that she could be faced with the scariest, meanest person in the world, and not back down an inch. It was as if through a lifetime of silence, liturgy, devotion and surrender, she had discovered who she was and what she was called to do. There were no qualms, no ‘what ifs’, and no striving to climb the ladders of success, self-promotion or chasing ‘something out there’. She was completely settled within herself.
Those many mornings spent in her sparse, yet cosy, office were a game-changer for me. Sister Marie, in her humility, groundedness, kindness, and honesty, allowed me to see that the while the flash-bang of emotional healing is wonderful and a such a gift, the long-game of quiet, consistent plodding in a healthy direction is just as necessary. I want to be like Sister Marie when I grow up.