Mindfulness, therapy and the Church
I sent out a tweet last week asking to interview someone who'd found mindfulness useful for coping with depression. Mary got in touch and told me her story, which was fascinating. I thought I'd share it for this week's newsletter.
Mary is a 25-year-old ordinand-vicar, who uses mindfulness to cope with the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that developed after a car crash last year.
She tells me she had a sense of a vocation to be a vicar from the age of 19. ‘But I really didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t on my agenda.’ Instead, she studied physics at St Andrews and then trained to be a teacher at Cambridge. The priest of her college insisted she think about her vocation, and gave her a book by Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today. ‘There wasn’t any mention of women priests in it.’
Finally, after three years of wrestling with her soul, she decided to give her life to God. ‘I was scared of doing it. I was giving up a good job and decent salary. My parents are still getting used to it. They think I’m a bit mad. It’s making a big statement. It’s not what most people do. It’s hard these days to be and do what you believe in - there’s always someone to knock you and mock you. Is it acceptable to be a Christian these days, to give your life to God?’
She went through the ‘discernment process’ by which the Church of England decides if you’re suitable to be a priest. This involved a 48-hour ‘residential interview’ (‘a bit like the Big Brother house’) in which you are interviewed by three different people, observed as you interact with your fellow wannabe-priests, and asked to fill in a ‘personal inventory’ with questions like ‘what would you have on your headstone?’
She passed the process, and won a place at a seminary college at Oxford for her priest-training. One week before she was due to begin the training, the car crash happened.
Angry at God
She was driving down an A-road into Harrowgate, when she had a head-on collision with another car. Her car was then hit again, and spent spinning across the A-road. She was rushed to hospital for surgery.
She says: ‘I thought I was going to die. And I wasn’t scared, I was annoyed. I was annoyed at all I had been through to commit myself to God, and now it was all going to be over before I had even begun.’
She was operated on for a perforated bowel and intestine. She spent the first two weeks of her ordination course recovering in hospital. ‘I wanted to be dead for quite a long time, in a way I felt rejected by God because He clearly didn't want me in Heaven with Him! It felt like I was being tested, in fact the whole year feels a bit like a test, a bit like Job.’
She says: 'When I was in hospital I went to chapel, which was empty, and I shouted at Him and questioned what on earth was going on. I then broke down in tears and could feel His presence and I knew I had to stay close, because He was all I had to get through the next phase. Initially, and I suppose for a few months I could not really engage with worship services, which was awful, because they and the Eucharist were what had sustained me through previous difficulties. God felt rather far away, so I had to stay close and wait, regardless of how I felt.'
Then, in her first term, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged, like a bruise swelling. ‘I’d get flashbacks of the impact. I was very anxious, nervous a lot of the time. Any loud noise, I got palpitations. It led to me having very low self-esteem. I couldn’t really see beyond each day. My short-term memory was damaged - people would tell me their name and I’d forget it straight away. I felt hugely guilty, but couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought it would take less time to get better. My self-talk was like ‘come on, pull yourself together, you shouldn’t feel like this.’ It was like I had a noisy devil on one shoulder and a very quiet angel on the other. It seemed like an on-going torture.'
Mindfulness for depression
In January this year, she went to see a university counsellor, Dr Ruth Collins, who prescribed her anti-depressants, and also suggested she try mindfulness-CBT. She gave her a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-written by Mark Williams, the founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
Williams, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest, is one of the developers of mindfulness-CBT, and has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of British society - another of his books, Mindfulness, has been in the top 20 of Amazon for the last three years, selling thousands of copies a week.
His Oxford Mindfulness Centre has brought mindfulness into the heart of psychotherapy and healthcare, and also into public policy (there’s now an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness), business, schools and higher education - in fact, Ruth Collins spoke at a conference on mindfulness in HE this week, arguing that university students should be offered free introductory courses.
Oxford already provides such free courses, and Mary went along to one earlier this year. ‘I was the only person there who said they had depression, so I wondered if it would work. But I found it interesting. We started with a counting exercise - you sit and count to ten breaths. Some could only get to 2 or 3 and they’d get distracted, but I could go further.’
She developed a daily practice, meditating for 10-30 minutes each day, sometimes counting the breath, sometimes doing a ‘body-scan’. She says: ‘It’s been very helpful with the depression. For one thing, I realized how important the body is to the mind. I realized how much tenseness was inside me, and I try to breathe through it. I’m now more aware of the signals from the body to the head. When things get stressful and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of feeling bad, I try to go back into myself and keep saying ‘breathe, here and now’, and accept what I’m feeling, and try to deal with it or just support myself.’
She thinks this will ultimately make her a better priest: ‘I’m very good at looking after others, not so good at looking after myself. I now try to be kind to myself and say that it’s OK to be where I am. Mindfulness is something in the tool-box to support myself when I stop taking the anti-depressants in a few weeks.’
Mindfulness and the Christian way
How does she reconcile a Buddhist practice with her Christian vocation? ‘I’m quite flexible, I believe in using and learning from other traditions. I enjoy reading the Tao Te Ching, for example. I don’t see any conflict between mindfulness and Christianity - it also has the idea of the connection between the soul and breath [they’re the same word in Greek - pneuma].’
‘And of course there is a long contemplative tradition in Christianity - Jesus did go off to the mountains on his own, then the Desert Fathers developed forms of meditation, and St Ignatius and the Jesuits created a strong contemplative practice.’
There’s also the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus visits their house, and Martha busies herself with the preparations, while complaining that her sister sits at Jesus’ feet, absorbed in adoration. Jesus replies: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ This verse has been taken by Christian contemplatives as a justification for the contemplative life versus the active life of ‘good works’. Still, it's only one verse - not much of a foundation for a contemplative tradition.
Jesus has many more mystical sayings in the Gospel of St Thomas but, alas, that was excluded from the New Testament canon. Since then, the idea of bringing your mind and heart into union with God was often seen as heretically Gnostic or Platonic - and still is by some Christians.
I put it to Mary that contemplatives, monks and mystics always seem on the periphery of Christianity, suspected, cast out, and sometimes killed - much like the Sufis in Islam. There’s more of a mainstream contemplative tradition in the Orthodox Church, but even there it’s been controversial - witness the bitter fight in the 14th-century Byzantine church over whether the ‘hesychast prayer’ technique was heretical or not. And the Protestant church seems particularly lacking in contemplative traditions and practices, beyond poets like George Herbert, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, forging their lonely furrow.
‘Yes, perhaps it’s not mainstream. The Church of Scotland is more Protestant than the C of E, and I’ve never witnessed any sort of meditation there. But perhaps it’s becoming more mainstream. Lucy Winkett [vicar of St James Piccadilly] is a big one for contemplative prayer, for example - she did a month-long Jesuit silent retreat. Even the Queen spoke of contemplative prayer in her Christmas message this year.’
Would Mary go on a mindfulness retreat? ‘I’d love to - there’s one in Snowdonia I want to go to.’ Would she say a prayer to the Buddha? ‘Well, no, I’d say a prayer to God. Like St Paul said, it’s what’s in your heart that counts, not the outer rituals.’
In two years, she finishes the ordination and becomes a curate in a church in her diocese. She says: 'What am I most looking forward to about being a priest? Being able to try and reach out to people, to live the Gospel through my actions and allow God to work through me in ways I won't understand. Also, being there for people at some of their most difficult times, and the most joyous. I would hope to promote a greater sense of the need for spirituality of some sort (preferably Christian...!) What am I dreading? Paper work, red tape and bureaucracy! They will be the things that will prevent me from my ministry I fear...so I will just have to work hard to limit the impact.'
Good luck Mary! We think you will be a brilliant priest.