Sofonisba Anguissola: Renaissance Art and Therapy


The mental pictures, collages, and maps of Astra’s, Nancy’s, Allison’s, Norma’s, and Pat’s stories sit by my side now, along with an ample supply of blank canvasses and papers of different textures, waiting for the images that Clare’s life story will evoke in me.

She is a Sister of Mercy. Forty years old. Small. Dark brown eyes and dark brown, bobbed hair. Thick eyeglass lenses cover her eyes. She looks earthy. Grounded. Her head is ever so slightly tilted to the left side. She writes on the Intake Sheet that she is legally blind.


The shape of her oval face and the form of her soft and slightly rounded body contour remind me of a wonderful oil painting done by the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola—the one of Sofonisba sitting at her spinet with the haunting figure of her aging maidservant blending into the dark pigments. As with the aging maidservant, an older white-haired friend perhaps in her late 60’s sits today with Clare here in my office in the outer room.

She has an adagio tempo as she walks from the outer room to the Inner Room. She shows no hesitancy, but looks down as she walks.

She sits back in her chair and, with a steady voice, starts her story. At times the narrative is marked by variations in color and tone, but the dark pigments and tone of the Sofonisba oil painting is where I first place Clare on my Renaissance map. Without flinching and with an immediate inner dedication, she fingers each segment of her story slowly, as if it were a bead on her rosary.


“Let’s see. I have to fill you in. It’s now January. Well, in November I had some pain in my left breast. I called my doctor and she saw me right away. She examined me and found some swelling and thickening in my breast. She referred me to a surgeon who examined me and did a biopsy. They both thought the problem was benign. So I didn’t worry too much. Then—you won’t believe this: The biopsy came back positive. I have a malignancy.”


She pauses. The overpowering memory of the unexpected news sits before us like a dark, heavy, unopened package. “Then a mastectomy was scheduled for as soon as possible but the lab work showed that my estrogen levels were high, that’s normal, you probably know, for a premenopausal woman. Well, ovaries are the origin of this hormone, so I had to decide whether to do hormonal therapy or surgery. I decided to have my ovaries removed to control the cancer. So that’s what was done.” Another pause. “The good news is that after this, believe it or not, the cancer cells in my breast and under my arms disappeared on the x-ray. I try to share my life with people so my poor friends got it first-hand because they were right there in the room when the surgeon told me. You can imagine how they felt. I didn’t even cry with that one.”

I take over, hoping to give her a few moments of reprieve. “Well, you were still in a state of shock. Did you feel like you were sort of standing outside of the scene and observing what was happening? It’s difficult for the brain to register all of this at once. It’s all so overwhelming. Is that how you felt?”

I didnt even cry


“Is that it? It sounds like it. I hadn’t labeled it that, but now I have this bone scan coming up in the spring and I’m really scared.” She sighs. ” I don’t know if I have the resources to deal with that.” I make a side note: Prepare for bone scan in spring.

I pick up her need. “No one should have to deal with this alone. We all have to support each other through times like this,” I tell her.

Prepare for bone scan


She nods and pushes on. “Then last June my father died. I stayed at his house for six months and helped him until he died.” Another sigh. Another side note: Recent loss.

Recent loss—father


“And soon, I want to talk about my friend Marlene. She is unique, boisterous, active, energetic. She is prophetic and ten steps ahead of most people. She has a way of cutting through the muck of life. I miss her a lot. She’s working in Peru.” Another sigh heaps onto the other one. Side note: Another loss?

“So these are the issues. And this bone scan. I feel it could wipe me out, but I feel fortunate. I have my prayers, good energy, I think, and support from my community.” She pauses. “And I have a positive attitude.”

With a smile I hope is not ill-placed, I add, “I would call that the understatement of the day.”

Another loss—Marlene

Like Hildegard who lost her dear friend, Rikkarda

“Another thing. I have always kept a journal, but now everything has stopped. Nothing is flowing. My thoughts are frozen. Just frozen. Everything is frozen. This really worries me.”

“You mean, the inability right now to reflect and to examine the events of the day on paper?” I ask.

She nods. “Yes. That’s it. This is very unlike me.”

“Let’s back up a minute. If am I hearing you correctly, it is not so much that you fear the diagnosis of cancer. That is bad enough, the shock of it, but wondering whether you can draw out the resources from within yourself for this next part of your life?”

“Yes. I feel I’ll have to draw from some place that I haven’t tapped into before.”

“Does this thought feel fearful?”

“Very much so—and lonely.”

“Even in your community?”

She does a shift and fingers another bead. “Yes.”

She starts now with an intergenerational story of her mother and father’s origins and lifetime up until the time she was born. Early on, I understand that this woman sitting before me intends to give me the longer version of her life in order for me to understand the origins of her rootedness.

Journal—everything is frozen


“I want to tell you about my family,” she starts. “My story begins before I was born...I’m the youngest of nine. I have half brothers and half-sisters and a different father from them. I have a collective memory of my childhood in the context of my parents’ lives; it’s an unusual story. My mother was born in Canada. My mother’s mother died when she was 3. Her father remarried and moved to the States. My mother was a stepdaughter and worked like a horse. She married when she was 18. She had eight children but not a happy marriage. At 38, her husband committed suicide, but the family story was that it was a gun accident. The family was not supportive of her, and she had adolescent kids, so some of the children were put in French Catholic boarding schools and another baby was put in a foster home. My mother then went to New York for special nurse’s training.

Look up Teresa of Avila and her own family upheavals

“Two of my sisters entered the convent before my mother remarried my father. I was a change-of-life baby and my father was delighted. My mother was happy, but her capabilities for showing affection were sometimes limited. I grew up with four siblings; the rest of the people in the family go in and out of my life. When I was young, I thought if I even talked about my vision problem, gave voice to it, I would be like my father. So I tried not to say I had a problem seeing, because that would make it real.” Another sigh.

Father/daughter vision problems
“My oldest sister is also a nun and lives in a cloistered community,” she continues. Then laughing mischievously, Clare adds, “She doesn’t know what to make of me.” I hear now that she has the laughter of the father-wanted, change-of-life baby and the adult woman who challenges authority.

Oldest sister cloistered nun


Her voice falters now, holding back an inner grieving, mixed with joy. “My father had a Huck Finn existence. He had glaucoma when he was 18; that’s when he started losing his vision. He was left with shadow vision, but he still ran a farm with his brother. My father was a great storyteller. He would tell me about his loneliness, how he would go out to the barn and sense the warmth and aliveness of animals. In the growing season, he would go out to the fields and he told me about the wonderful sense the feel of rain gave him. As far back as I can remember, since I was very little, he told me these stories filled with deep emotion.”

Father: vision loss, storyteller


She continues to tell of her early years. “By seventh grade I had no vision in my left eye, and my right eye was not good. I went to Boston and had surgery for my left eye. Later my right eye was removed because the optic nerve was dead. About three years ago, I started experiencing more visual problems. They tell me I have a cataract now. I was extremely frustrated that there will be no surgery for my left eye.”

Right eye removed, left eye cataract

Without warning, she takes a tissue from the box near her, leans over and takes out her prosthetic right eye. Even though I am a licensed professional nurse, as well as a psychologist, I am not prepared for her sudden anatomical lesson. An early testing of me, no doubt!

The eye put back in its right place, we continue.

“How did you get by in school up until that time? What did you do?” I ask her.

She need her third eye


“What I did is I pretended that I could see.” She laughs. “As you might guess, I didn’t have much of a social life in high school. Somewhere in my senior year, I got in touch with my inner spirituality.

Survival skills—high school

“Since my vision was limited, I had to spend longer times reading and doing my homework. I asked myself why was all this happening to me. I started questioning many things at a much younger age than other children. Later, I think I used religious life as a way of standing on my own two feet and not dealing with male relationships, which were a pressure for me.”

“Yes, the social pressures of a bright, female child. How we ‘do’ being female.”

“However, for twenty years I have had just enough vision to get by as a normal person. About three years ago, my vision got worse, and I was told I had a cataract.”

Clare heaves another deeper sigh from the same underground stream.

Religious life and boys

“I thought about social work school after my father died in June, I went home to nurse him, but I wouldn’t admit I had a vision problem. Even though everyone else knew it, I couldn’t admit it. I researched the problem and found out there were services available to me and instead of feeling diminished, I felt freed. It was a revelation. Then through the Division of the Blind, after they met with me and assessed my skills, I got a job at the Center for Independent Living for differently abled people. I worked for two weeks and then discovered I had this cancer.”

In the middle of the darkness of her story Clare says to me, “Then, all of a sudden a light went on: ‘I’ve really got a problem here. I can’t deny it any longer.’”

“I’m glad for that light because it brought you here.”

Division of the Blind, Center for Independent Living


“Wait! I’m not done yet! They also told me I have to have cataract surgery soon to my left eye. It’s too much for me.”

Other faces of an extended family join my canvas and a gauze-like white sheet now hangs over it and obscures the tonal quality of Sofonisba Anguissola’s Renaissance map. A cloister, a farm, and the image of a bright female child studying alone slip under the white veil as well.

Upcoming cataract surgery


I understand that Clare and I are making an unspoken contract with each other and that she wants, no, maybe expects, me to be there from beginning to end. And amazingly, at the same time that she is telling me that she has cancer, she adds, “There’s a whole new dimension in me that I want to explore. But,” she falters, “I don’t know if I can handle the future alone. It’s a part of me that remains unknown.”

“So you need someone to journey with you?”

“Yes, I really do,” she tells me.

“I understand. We can do this future together. Create it, refashion it together. Thank you for letting me share this part of your journey with you. I think you’ve come to the right place.”

A whole new dimension


“Well, I know I have. I hear that you are a feminist. That’s why I’m here, you know.” She manages a grin.

Clare returns to one of her beads. “It was my niece who said, ‘You know I think you need a shrink.’ I was really surprised when she first said it, but then later that night, I thought, ‘My God, I think she’s right.’ So that’s what got me here, sort of. Besides,” she adds with a mischievous look, “I hear your husband is good with people, so I figured some of you must have rubbed off on him!” I am amused because most people would have reversed that description.

“I’d like to journey with you and see the world through your eyes,” I tell her.

“Well,” she laughs, “I’m not so sure about the wisdom of that!”

“Well, then, what about the person behind the eye’s lenses?”

“Touché,” Clare answers.

“How much can you see now and how do you need the light adjusted in the room?”

You’re a feminist


“I can see about at arm’s length but things generally look like a white sheet in front of my eyes.”

Together, we arrange our space so that her chair is closer to me and away from the glare of the lights from the south window. I understand that today we will be relying primarily on tactile and auditory modes of learning since we will not access through the usual visual bonding.

Vision: arm’s length


“From what you’ve just told me, I guess we can say right off that you are a survivor because you are taking responsibility for your life by coming here,” I tell Clare.

“That’s pretty clever, that way of wording it.”

“Well, what would you call it? How would you name it?”

Word: survivor

“Add scared. Maybe stubborn. A realist.”

“Well, scared, stubborn, realist, I think your words can easily sit side by side with mine. What do you think?”

“I’m willing to name it that for now.” Resisting a little, but willing to move ahead.

“Well, everything here is subject to change, but we can start with this working hypothesis and see if it’s useful to us.”

Words: scared, stubborn, realist


The mechanical timer interrupts us. The two hours have come and gone in an instant. We both feel the urgency of getting to know each other better and of doing as much as we can together before her next bone scan report. We agree that she will come in twice a week. We have a brief discussion of the economics of her therapy, and we negotiate a fee that she feels is fair to herself and her religious community.

And so begins our journey together.

The mechanical timer interrupts us



Today, the snow is so deep I can’t go out to the bird feeder beyond the Glass Room. No mountains. The stairs and the deck are all gone. Even a groundhog would have difficulty finding a way around the backyard. At the lakefront, there is no shoreline today, no hint of water or the life below. The Ethan Allen tour boat is frozen in for the winter.

Over time, I learn that as a “Mercy” Clare comes from a long tradition of female autonomy, unattached to men, an “unhusbanded” woman, vowed to virginity and poverty. She lives with a tradition in which each woman’s privacy is preserved at the same time that there is an intense and deep community spirit. She lives with two other Mercies in an apartment in a working-class neighborhood, living her vows to work with the struggles and suffering of the poor. She also regularly practices her day-prayer, work, quiet conversation, study, and community purpose.

Like her namesake, Clare of Assisi, the thirteenth century founding mother of Poor Clares, she participates in vows of chastity and voluntary poverty. And, like her predecessor, she practices the reciprocity of living out her life in the larger community, amongst the poor, sharing and understanding their lives.

In this session, I nudge the narrative forward. “What do you think draws people to you?” I ask her. Clare pauses for a while, holds her head down as if in prayer.

“I would say my ability to communicate well. My openness. My overall knowledge about things. My sense of fairness and justice.”

“Does all of that carry into your political work as well?”

In the manner of a true Socratic student, she responds, “Is there a difference between the two?”

Sisters of Mercy arrived in Vermont in 1874, beginning their service through the schools and visitation of the sick and poor. Through the years, they expanded their ministry to programs in education, spiritual development, parish ministry, hospitality for women with patients in the local hospital, social and educational services to a broad range of Vermonters, housing ministry and service through Local, Regional, and National Board membership. Some members serve outside Vermont in Social Justice Ministries.

I laugh. “I must think now, how often I may have juxtaposed a question in this way when no one has challenged the wisdom of my question!”

The personal is political

She sits quietly for a moment. “I’ve thought about my beginning goals. As I said the first time I came, I need to develop the inner resources to deal with whatever is ahead for me and, as part of this, I need someone to journey with me. Then, too, I need to be ready, or maybe I should say I need to find some inner peace—I’m not sure what resources I will need—and then what do I do with the rest of my life? My life feels so interrupted, and time feels so fractured now.”


She sighs, and her shoulders drop. “I need a change in job. I did work in campus ministry with undergraduate students at the university, and I have been active in helping women to integrate their lives into religious community life, but now, here I am stuck.”

“Can we back up? What do you mean ‘not sure’?”

Here I am stuck

She pauses and searches within herself. “There are spaces, gaps, unknowns, places I can’t name yet—and also some gaps in my knowledge. I’m in so much turmoil about this. It’s such a struggle. I like to be independent. Having to ask for help doesn’t come easily for me. Yet, I know I have my community. I need someone I can speak with, where I won’t have to re-explain or reinvent myself and where I won’t have to worry about taking care of everyone else’s reactions to my diagnosis.”

“A climate where you feel understood? For who you are and what you stand for? For what you believe in?”

“Yes, without having to explain myself again.”

“Whom have you done this with before?” I ask Clare.

“Well, myself and my community.”

“Has that been a struggle?”

“Very much so, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she admits.

“What is the ‘it’ here? Do you mean the experience and the process with your community? Your feminist consciousness as a woman religious?”

Places I can’t name yet

“Yes, but some of it has been very painful, especially with the patriarchal hierarchy and all the politics of power and control. It’s been mind-boggling. A few of us have been on this journey together and supported each other. These were hard times. Some women left the community.”

“Who has been in this struggle with you?”

The politics of power and control

“Well, Joyce, Marlene, Lucille, and Jan are still here.”

“I think I understand part of what you are saying because I have been going through my own process too. The Jewish religion has no historical tradition for women contemplatives, women who live, work, and pray together—although this is changing now.”

“Well, here I am!” she laughs. “Try me!”

“Thanks! So the old struggles are intermingled with this new struggle, having a diagnosis of cancer and it feels exhausting? Is that too strong a statement?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have said it that way, but that’s it, I guess,” Clare responds.

“I know. I went a little beyond what you said, to what I felt you said.”

“How do you feel that?”

Marlene, Lucille and Jan

“I think I hear the sounds in your silences,” I explain.

“That sounds mystical.”

The sounds in silences

It sounds it, but it may be quite scientific. Let’s save this ‘mystical’ part for another day, if it’s okay with you.”

“Sure, but I won’t let you forget it.”

“I’m not trying to dodge it, but I want to stay with hearing your needs and goals and not go on a side journey for now.”

Again the mechanical timer, of ordinary time, goes off.

An Existential Dilemma

Our work continues with an urgency today. Clare continues trying to understand and explain her existential dilemma.

Follow up on healing and sound

“I do not understand why God has given me more problems. Wasn’t my vision enough? Why is this happening? I thought the glaucoma and loss of eyesight was the big marker that I was being tested about. I feel that I am being tested all over again. I just don’t understand. How much can I take?”

“Are you trying to find the meaning to all of this? Or is it more about why me?”

Stubbornly, and with irritation, she digs in and blocks my intervention. “I—don’t—know—which.” Silence.

Why is this happening?

My response is out of sync. Too linear. I have lost her singular cadence. I must pull back.

I try again. “Let me try this, Clare.” She is patient with me. “Would it be something like this? Just when I thought I was starting something new, something to give me a new direction, I found that I have no plan, no vision, everything is blocked and fixed.”

“Yes, that’s it and it’s frightening,” Clare validates my understanding.

“Well, the first step is the naming of it, so that I can try to be in your reality.”

“I know. I understand,” she responds. We are in tune with each other again.

We sit in an Attuned Silence and then move forward together. Clare has invited me into her life. What can be more sacred? Will I be adequate to the task?

I lost her

She has had a lifetime of experience that not many 40-year-old women have had. A life of faith burnished with prayer. What can I possibly offer this dispirited Sister? This woman who believes that the sacred life is not only in the dark recesses of the church pew, or in the robes of the priests hearing confession, but is everywhere in community, omnipresent in each of us?

What can I offer her?


Where can I bring her that she has not already been in prayer and on her many spiritual retreats? If the end point of our work may be death, how will we measure a successful outcome of our work? If her health cannot be measured in terms of longevity, how shall we define good heath and healing? What is it that we are healing here? And is it only Clare?

At the same time that I experience the enormity of what she is dealing with, I must prepare myself to move forward with her. This evening I sit home reading, listening to tapes and pulling from within myself whatever concepts, images, and new knowledge might be of help to us both as we move forward together. God is especially welcomed in tonight.

What is healing?

Again I ask myself, what can I offer this contemplative woman committed to peace and social justice? A woman who has sitting side by side on her night table the Bible with its mysterious wisdom and a Kübler-Ross tape on the stages of grieving and dying? I turn to Jewish mysticism, Buddhism, the shamanic healing traditions, and the ancient sacred traditions of healing through music. After all, I am not the first healer in search of a vision. And I wonder what would Hildegard of Bingen do? Or Clare of Assisi, or Teresa of Avila? Three women I have been researching for Clare’s story.


I turn to the healing traditions

My intent here, as with Astra and Nancy, is to enlarge and expand the knowledge space within which we will work. It is not only a knowledge space, but a circle of space that holds the tone, color, nuance, and tempo of her spoken life story. It is the creation of a shared reality, when and if Clare chooses to join that place and engage with me in it. A space we can labor, play, and pray in together.

At our next session, I have some old and some new teachings on my mind. I start our dialogue with the results of my homework.


“Clare, I was reading last night that many peoples believe that human beings have more than one soul and that the souls can leave the body and wander around. The basic idea is that a person is not bounded inside the body. In one culture there is the soul which wanders and represents the person’s consciousness or personality, and there is the soul which stays behind to keep the body’s metabolism functioning. If the first of these souls does not return, the second will not long survive without it.

“And in the Inuit culture, people believe in the idea of a third soul, representing the person’s name, which is transmitted from one living holder to the next.”

“Are you trying to tell me something?”

I smile. “Only if the story means something to you, or is useful to you.”

Teaching story

I continue. “I also read that the Inuit people of Alaska believed that uttering a name created a mental reality. Objects and their names were equally important. A person’s name was part of her soul in that it symbolized her social existence and her relationship to the environment. It could also represent a person’s essence, what she would pass on to another person after death, in ancient Rome….”

A person’s name is part of her soul

Clare picks up the theme with a memory of her own. “You know, I remember a quiet summer morning in June when my mother brought me to the convent to ask for a miracle. An older Sister spoke with me.

“‘What is your name, child?’ she asked me.

“My name is Clare,” I said.

Mother asking for a miracle


“You have a beautiful name, child. Did you know it means ‘light’,” she asked me.

“The light that this Sister gave me has always traveled with me,” Clare reflects.

I join her name story with my name story. I tell her that, during the last days of writing my dissertation, I received a letter from my middle child, my daughter, with the following story from Sophie Drinker’s Music and Women: (1948)

“Clare” means light


“…we find Judith, with courage and craft, seducing and slaying Holofernes, captain of the invading Assyrians. On her return, and after the defeat of the enemy, all the women of Israel, in gratitude and thanksgiving, ran together to see Judith and bless her, and made a dance among them for her…and she went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women: and all the men of Israel followed in their armour with garlands, and with songs in their mouths…And Judith said, ‘Begin unto my God with timbrels, sing unto my Lord with cymbals: tune unto him a new psalm: exalt him and call upon his name.’”

“This story about my name has been a source of strength for me and combines a number of my own qualities.”

I continue with this general theme because I see that it is energizing us and moving the narrative forward.

“Clare, I have been thinking a great deal about wisdom. What is it? How do we acquire it? Did you know that in the shamanic traditions of healing, special powers are often expressed in terms of special sight? There has always been this idea that wisdom involves some kind of second or inner sight. In a number of cultures there has always been an association with blindness and having special gifts such as the gift of music or poetry.

“In the Inuit culture, words of songs are part of the environment, like snow, bones, or skin. They have a functional property that can be wrapped, carved, or put together just like the material of any other craft.”

I read an Inuit song to Clare from a book:

“Judith;” courage and music


I put some words together
I made a little song.
I took it home one evening
mysteriously wrapped…

We sit now in a more inclusive and richer silence. The silence of new possibilities.

“I really mourn the age at which this cancer has been diagnosed. I feel I am much too young.…

Click here for more on Clare of Assisi


I see with each visit that Clare has a practiced discipline of assessing her immediate environment. It is so subtle that I learn to ‘see’ as she gives me new information about the raw data of her life. Then my own attunement to the subtleties of her moving body improves. When she lifts a teacup to drink, I see her fingers glide slightly over the rim of the cup and into it. When she goes for a tissue on the little table, she uses her previously assessed calculations and knows the exact space between her body and the blue tissue box.

I am much too young

Later when we hug at the beginning of or after a session, or downtown on the street, I do not feel her measuring anything, but rather we experience a direct body knowing of each other. The sensation is akin to my own cellobodyknowing.

At the next session, Clare tells me, “You know those ideas of the Inuits and the additional souls. That part. I found it very enlarging. I had more images to play around with, more possibilities to consider. I enlarged the parameters of my world, but with my own Christianity still at the core.”

“I understand.” Good. I have received positive feedback about the value of my interventions on her core belief.

From early on in our therapeutic relationship, Clare and I worked almost immediately and with tenacity from that place of Inner Light that Clare required of me.

“The way I see it, you want to give spirit to what is already there,” I say to Clare.

Body Knowing

“Well, I don’t know that for sure. I’m not sure what is there and that’s what frightens me.”

“I remember an old Talmudic saying, ‘Go to the mountaintop and cry for a vision.’ How lost we all are without a vision and someone to take the journey with us. I want you to know that I can take the journey with you. You don’t have to be alone. And you know you’re in the right place. Do you see Athena over there, the Goddess of Wisdom? Did you know that she supposedly had the ability to cure eye diseases? And I think I read somewhere that Saint Clare cured eye diseases!”

Clare smiles and our mood slips into the playful.

I’m not sure what is there

“And in the other room there’s Hildegard’s books and music, Teresa’s instructions in personal prayer and Clare’s Rules for how to live in a community together. And then there’s Kassia.”

Revisit Hildegard (1098-1178) and Teresa (1515-1582), and Clare (1194-1253)


“Who’s Kassia?” she asks urgently.

Aha, I have aroused her interest. Good, but don’t forget the others. “She was a major composer and poet from the Medieval period. She wrote Byzantine sacred poems and chants. She was also involved in the secular-political life of her time, but she decided to lead a monastic life. She wrote a liturgical piece called ‘The Fallen Woman,’ which is supposed to be autobiographical. Oops. I have a tendency to get carried away with these wonderful women….”

“No. I love it.”

She reinforces my desire to tell a story, and I continue.

“By the way, you remind me somewhat of what I’ve read about Teresa. She was a woman with a healthy intellect, a good imagination and humor, and a practical wisdom. And she loved to write, and she had her struggles with her health as well. She couldn’t walk for two years. I think she was in her 40’s when she said that it took twenty years of a painful struggle before she could finally get a Jesuit priest to validate her visions.”

“But now we know better about who to get validation from, don’t we?” she quips.

You know, every morning I start the day with a cup of coffee and I speak with God. It is a very quiet time, a cleansing time, a state I love,” Clare tells me.

The tone of her voice, the sudden slowed-down tempo, the quality of movement inward, and her conversation with God bring me into one of my own altered states of consciousness, and an early childhood memory comes to me.

Review St. Teresa of Avila and prayer time


It is a very hot summer day in Greenwich Village. The tar on the sidewalks between the cement cracks feels soft and gummy on the soles of my new white shoes. My mother has taken me beyond the borders of the familiar fruit and vegetable push-carts of Bleecker Street. We walk along Sixth Avenue close to Eighth Street until we get to the smaller, more distant church farther up the avenue. Going from the light to the darkness is blinding. The interior of the church is cool, mysterious, safe, silent. My mother takes me down the center aisle past the holy water. Soft reds, beiges, dark greens, and blue forms emerge from the darkness. Suddenly, my father’s voice overtakes me: “Don’t touch the water. Don’t look at the statues. Don’t kneel down. Remember, you’re Jewish!” But I like the closeness here with my mother and the darkness and the mystery….

Flashback: mother story


Clare’s voice breaks through my reverie. “The big question for me has been how do I keep my reverence for our own traditions and the sacred in my life that goes beyond patriarchy? How do I recreate my life and find new paradigms for expression from some of the dogmatic ritual?”

“No small task.”

“I really mourn the age at which this cancer is diagnosed. I feel I am much too young.”

Finding new paradigms


“I understand. You know St. Teresa was your age when she started her order at a time when only men could do this and then only with approval from the Pope.”

“I guess I’m in good company!”

“Maybe we can follow Teresa’s path. By the way, Theresa was my mother’s name.

The woman who is legally blind says to me, “Yes, what I need is to see more deeply and with greater clarity.”


Over time I learn that Clare has an undergraduate degree in English, cum laude, and a Master’s degree in Religious Studies. She has been an elementary school teacher, a religious educator, a spiritual counselor, a Director of Novices, and a member of the Formation Team working with women coming into religious life. She has been active both in her religious community and in the larger community in peace and justice work, and she is a member of the local Disabilities Council.

Clare and I started on different paths. I, a musician, a nurse, a wife, a mother of three, later a psychologist and educator. Clare chose a different way, giving up the reproduction of family life and choosing a communal life instead.


Both of us have been profoundly affected by the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s movement of the late sixties. During my three pregnancies, I raged as I watched the McCarthy hearings in Washington D.C., saw the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, and prayed for Rosa Parks’ safety as she took her rightful seat on the bus. In October 1962, as I made breakfast for my three young children, and sent them off to school, Pope John XXII convened the Second Vatican Council and brought new hope and new possibilities to Clare and her community. By 1966, when my children were 11, 10, and 8, Clare and many of the Sisters had removed their restricting religious habits.

In the early days of our growing feminist consciousness, both Clare and I have had to work ourselves out of the various stories of Genesis:

The sixties: McCarthy hearings, bus boycotts, second Vatican Council


To the woman he said ‘I will multiply your pains in childbearing…Your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he will lord it over you.’ To the man he said, ‘Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life…With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return.’

(Genesis 3:16-19, Jerusalem Bible)

We struggle with our two traditions in which God is written about in patriarchal language and imagery. Clare has a wonderful memory and quotes a passage to me from Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion:

“God the Father loves you, and if you join the brotherhood and fellowship of all Christians you will become sons of God and brothers of Christ, who dies for all men.”

“Did you know there is an old prayer in Judaism, ‘Thank you God that I am not a woman’?” I ask Clare.

“No, but I’m sure you’ve changed that in some way.”

“Yes, I prefer this version:

‘Baruch atah Adonai, elohainu melech ha-olam, she-asani ishah.’

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who has made me a woman.”

My own genetic memory as an Italian Jew joins my internal narrative. Clare may not yet know at this point in our work, nor perhaps did Teresa, that Teresa’s paternal grandfather was a converso, a person of the Jewish faith who, during the Inquisition, converted to Christianity under pressure from the Spanish courts and the Catholic Church. Spain at that time had an obsession with pure blood lines and pure race. Many of these conversos continued to secretly practice Judaism in their homes, an extremely dangerous activity. Jews were required to wear special clothing which marked them as Jews. Some Spanish Jews fled to Italy.

The Bible and language


We discover that our literary histories merge as well. During the same period of history, we both read Mary Daly, Rosemarie Reuther, Charlene Spretnak, and Judith Plaskow.

Political analysis, a requirement of any democracy; the call to contemplation, reflection, and social action, a requirement of any feminist theology; and an egalitarian dialogue, a requirement of any feminist therapy, sit side by side now, strengthening us in our work together.

The Value of Therapy

In her own way, Clare has a habit at the end of each session that keeps me in a state of anticipation. She says, “Well, next time I want to talk about Peter and my early relationship with him,” or “When we were young and 18, in our community, we developed some physical attachments with each other. Who else was there to relate to in the convent?” or “The next time I see you, I’ll bring in another one of my favorite tapes.” Or “He invited me to dinner but who wants to eat with a bunch of priests?” or “Did you know that I have been dreaming circles and spirals?” or “Next time I want to tell you about Marlene. We both believe in ministry in reverse, what we can learn from people, not the reverse.” The storyteller’s daughter has her inquisitive therapist hooked!

The storyteller’s daughter


Surprisingly, early on in our work, Clare challenges me to give her a reason for staying with her therapy.

“Isn’t therapy a very self-centered thing?” she asks. “I believe in a community of people. I don’t think you can talk about an individual character, a core self, without a context of time and place.”

“Go on,” I urge her.


“Well, it feels to me that therapy is a kind of self-aggrandizement. I mean, aren’t we engaged in a selfish act here that only a few of us can really afford? Isn’t this a really self-centered thing I am doing here?”

“I’d like to answer you on a few levels,” I respond. “First of all, it is not uncommon for a woman to ask this at some point in her therapy. You get restless for change. Then there is this whole issue of entitlement to this time and life space. Am I being selfish? Shouldn’t I be taking care of others first? I think this is a real women’s issue about self-entitlement, being deserving of the time and services for ourselves.

Aren’t we engaged in a selfish act here?


“But just think about this. A therapist’s office is one of the few precious places where women come to talk about meaning in our lives. What does this all mean? How do I live out my human-ness? There are far too few places in the culture where a woman can find this kind of support and dialogue. On the other hand, I think you are really onto something about how we define the self. Our psychological theories are really limited. All the psychology maps I know of are too small. We are so much more complex than our theories. A long time ago there was a split between science and philosophy. Psychology went the science route and forgot about the human spirit. The field of transpersonal psychology is the only field where spiritual and psychological theories are combined.”

“Yes. We studied this science/philosophy split in our theology studies,” Clare reminds me.

“You know, you can say that we are talking about the individual woman, but your self is in your body, and—”

Small psychology maps
She quickly interrupts and challenges me, “But you have to understand the struggle for me here…you have to understand some things here. The origin of my question.”

Problems with “self”

And so begins the education of her Jewish therapist. The question about whether she is entitled to time for this “self,” whether there is even a personal self worth attending to, whether she should align herself with the “privileged” who can afford therapy is much more complex than I realized. Clare’s analysis and understandings would not be found in the psychological textbooks on self theories that sit on my crowded book shelves.

Educating the therapist

“I need to explain some things to you about my history,” she begins. “It’s important for you to understand about what pre-Vatican II and ‘formation’ did to the psyche. We women who joined our community all came with our personal histories. We came in as idealists with a sense of religious commitment. In our Catholic working class tradition, there were few ways a woman could be in the world. We had a choice of married life and childbearing, or a religious profession. If you think about religious commitment as change, then there was the idea of a higher justice and meaning to what you give your life to. And back then, there were not many factory jobs and the pay was very low.

“Our parents were French-Canadian and not political. There were no books, no going to an analyst, but love and relationships were very strong. Both Marlene and I attended bilingual Catholic schools. We were first or second generation women who could continue our education. We never thought of getting a loan, and we didn’t feel we could pay off loans, and our families didn’t want debts they couldn’t pay off. So that’s where we were.”

A higher justice


Her story spirals out as she continues enlarging my understandings. “By joining the community, we had a life of both dedication and education. And this opened up new avenues of resources for many women, but it took us a much longer time to get an education, usually eight to ten years to get our degrees. A lot of our education came through Trinity College, which our order started. And there was a work ethic—a communal respect for communal space—and the idea was to develop a communal psyche in a highly systematic and structured way. There was no private psyche.

No private psyche


“In the sixties, I’m sure you know this, there was a lot of individual freedom in the larger world. For us, that was not true. While women in the larger world were into drugs and sex with their newfound freedom, we were a closed, disciplined, authoritarian, and hierarchical structure that encapsulated the individual. Our egos and self-centeredness were definitely stifled. So, while our contemporaries were developing their individuality and placing Self at the center, we helped to maintain the status quo. Our personal gifts were not developed. They were labeled community gifts. Humility and pride were taught. Humility became a context in formation so that individual striving was not valued. So there is this real internal struggle now for me.”

“Can we get back to the self for a minute? You know, there is an old Talmudic saying that saving one person is equal to saving the universe,” I tell Clare. “What do you think of this? Of course, I am not negating anything you have just taught me.”

“That’s beautiful.” She sits quietly, reflecting on this.

“What about this time saving yourself? There is a difference between being occupied with yourself and preoccupied with yourself. Why shouldn’t we be occupied with our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas, and good questions? Why shouldn’t we attend to ourselves? In fact, if we don’t attend to this, we will be perennially preoccupied.”

“Again, it sounds so selfish,” Clare responds.

The sixties and religious community, humility and pride

“When is it selfish or self-absorption and when is it self-love? Is self-love bad? Sinful?”

“Sinful, perhaps. Unfamiliar to me would be closer.”

“Unfamiliar? Is a focused prayer selfish, self-centered?”

“That’s about God.”

“Yes, but you’ve initiated it.”

Is self-love bad?

“You know, Saint Teresa wrote beautifully about prayer.”

We sit now in a Challenging Silence.

Click here for more on Teresa of Avila


“To have courage for whatever comes in life—everything lies in that.”

—St. Teresa of Avila
(Spanish nun, mystic and writer,

Even though she lives in an apartment off the convent grounds, Clare invites me to visit the Mother House with her. The convent is a very large, rambling, red brick building in an old neighborhood. It has expansive grounds, a vegetable garden, a screened-in cupola, walking paths, and a beautiful white chapel in its center. On the second floor, a new addition connects it with the parochial school. There are a music room, laundry rooms, a dining room, and sleeping quarters for each Sister. The physical facility is massive, and strikingly silent. The noise of the outer world stops at the door. As we walk through the long, dark hallways, I see one Sister doing her laundry, another kneading dough for bread.

The Mother House
Clare continues to explain to me, “We follow a tradition that connects with women from the Middle Ages. The convent serves as a retreat for women from the larger world, a place of learning and a hostel for travelers. There are rooms for visiting guests, other Sisters visiting or passing through the community. We open our doors to families who need a place to stay while visiting sick relatives at the local medical center.”

While we are at the convent, she shares with me a copy of her vows:

“Each sister formulates her own expression of commitment, but includes in it the following statement of profession:

‘I, Clare, in the presence of community vow and promise to God, chastity, poverty, obedience, and the service of the poor, sick, and ignorant, according to the Constitutions of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.’”

We open our doors—look up Hildegard

The commitment reminds Clare of another community story, this time from the 1970s.

“The early seventies was a period of great solidarity for all of us in our community. In 1973 or ‘74, there was a lot of discussion about whether the federal government would pay for abortion. Sister Elizabeth Candon of our community, who was then Secretary of Human Resources in Vermont, announced that if the federal government wouldn’t kick in for abortion, then state funds would be used. Well, this stand brought the whole abortion issue and reproductive choices to the national level. Our community held the ground with Elizabeth Candon. We all supported our Sister’s right to speak in the public forum. The local bishop threatened excommunication, but, you see, for our community, abortion was not seen as a morality issue but as an issue about poor women’s lives. Our community stuck by our Sister. This event meant a great deal to us.”

As she ends her reflections on the energy and solidarity that historical period required of her and her Sisters, she guides me into the chapel. Two other Sisters sit in prayer close by.


When you wear no religious habit, what are the outer signs of an inner life? Communal rituals with other women are some of these markers.

The seventies

Clare is interested in rituals of the outer life that are markers not only of an inner life but of a political one. She has recently organized a group called Sarah’s Circle to develop rituals meaningful to herself and other women both in and out of her community. They meet regularly to pray and support each other. She invites me to the group, and I attend when I am able.

Markers of our inner life


I start the session today: “You know, I was thinking that both Jewish feminist theologians and Catholic feminist theologians try to uncover the lost stories of women through historiography. In Judaism, we honor oral traditions, for example, passed on from mother to daughter to granddaughter, and the creation of feminist myths and commentaries, and ritual invocations and connections with our ancestors. These are modes of remembering for us. This is what I experienced with you at Sarah’s Circle when we prayed together the other night and created our other ways.”

“Yes,” she says like a wise Shaman, “We have the same Vision.”

Judaism and Catholicism

“And now I have this Vision that what we are doing here, you and I, is creating another kind of oral and written tradition. This therapeutic record we are creating together is another mode of remembering.”

We are both stunned by this simple revelation. We experience the companionship of two women who come from different religious backgrounds and different life styles. We have gone beyond both.

A mode of remembering


We create here another community of spiritual friends. We share a vision with the Beguines of the Middle Ages and the Chinese marriage resisters of the Sung Dynasty, of which Janice Raymond has written extensively. Like them, we have a woman-willed and woman-defined independence. We are not helper and helpee. We are now the companions of equals.


I am almost late for today’s session. Betty and I have just returned from Carla’s Memorial Service at one of the local colleges. The shortness of life again tugs at me, as I prepare to work with Clare.

Write Janice Raymond

A few years earlier during her second therapy session, Carla had asked me to make two promises. Today, I was able to keep the first, for she was sure that the college where she had taught would someday have a Memorial Service for her. She wanted me to be there. The second promise, I could not keep. Carla, who knew early on that she had a terminal illness, very much wanted me to tell her story. But her story is one of the stories that will not be told for now, for I believe that it would be discredited not only by her medical diagnosis, but by her ex-husband in my profession who had tried to discredit our work.

I turn to the work at hand, but it is Carla’s story so filled with tenacity and courage that sustains me today as I work with Clare.

Carla’s story


Clare often sits in the outer room of my office with her “Walkwoman” and her packet of tapes in her pocket or on a table close by. Often when I greet Clare, I cannot tell whether she is listening to her music or praying unless I see the little black wire hanging down from her ears, for she has the same inner peace on her face with either activity.

Today she walks in saying, “You know, when I listen to music, I can almost see forever.”



“I have a Cris Williamson tape [Changer and the Changed] for you. It says what I want to say to you; the music does it better for me.” I put the tape into my large stereo with the volume up:

“Sometimes it take a rainy day just to let you know everything’s gonna be all right, all right.
I’ve been dreaming in the sun;
Won’t you wake me up someone?
I need a little peace of mind.
Wake me from this dream I’ve dreamed so many times;
I need a little peace of mind.
Oh I need a little peace of mind.
When you open up your life to living, all things come spilling on to you;
And you’re flowing like a river, the changer and the changed.
You got to spill some over, spill.”

Totally taken in by the words and music, we suddenly both jump up, embrace each other, and dance around the room, missing at best two measures of the music.

Chris Williamson


This day marks the beginning of many days when we dance and sing to music that either one of us has chosen. Hildegard, the medieval mystic, sits comfortably with Chris. All move into our space now and join us in healing.

Click here for more on Hildegard of Bingen

At the next session, Clare is uplifted.

Hildegard and Chris
Hildegard’s music


“Last week after we danced, when I went home I remembered one of the Psalms: Psalm 30:3, 11, and 12,” Clare tells me.

O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave:
thou hast kept me alive,
that I should not go down to the pit.
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth,
and girded me with gladness;
To the end that my glory
may sing praise to thee,
and not be silent.
O LORD my God,
I will give thanks unto thee for ever.

Psalms 30:3, 11 and 12

Then I add, “And I felt a little like Miriam leading the women with tambourines and dancing in thanksgiving after God separated the Red Sea!”


Miriam joins us


Tonight, at home, sitting alone in the darkness, I call forth all of the Muses. I summon up Miriam again and the other women percussionists and musicians from biblical Israel. In my mind’s eye I conjure up the ancient female iconography from the Egyptian tomb paintings with the inscriptions bearing the hieroglyphic names of women musicians.

I do not want to imitate some of the older women’s autobiographies in which there is a tendency to find beauty even in pain and to transform rage into spiritual acceptance. Nor do I want to negate Clare’s pain. I begin to understand that Clare and I, through women’s music, are sometimes practicing a modern-day form of an ancient lament ritual, like the ones women performed in classical Greece and the Byzantine empire. Limited in many ways from communal and civic activities, these women were permitted the public voice of mourning. With intense expressions of grief and lamentation, they sang and chanted for the entire community of mourners. They did it so well, however, and were so powerful a voice, that they were eventually banned from this practice. Perhaps our joined lament, practiced here together, can restore some of what our sisters were robbed of. Sorrow and grieving give way to creativity, and our co-investigation process continues.

Grief and lamentation

Grieving gives way to creativity


Joined Solitudes

As I work with Clare, I begin to notice that I eat more of my meals in silence. The simply-designed silver bracelet that I wear today also seems excessive to me.

Clare comes in, and after a hug, sits down and says softly, “You know what I experience here is a friendship. The strong image I have is of joined solitudes. I think there is great power in this, the coming together of two solitudes. That’s how I feel here working with you.”

“Thank you. And the same for me, too,” I tell her.

Joined solitudes

She continues, “You are a very spiritual person in the Jewish tradition. I find a tremendous respect for my Roman Catholicism here.” And then miraculously, uncannily, she anticipates a future ritual that we will have many years later. “I believe that together we have both gone beyond this. We have a new communion.”

We have a new communion


Today, it is my turn to bring in a tape I made for her from the book Les Guérillères, by Monique Wittig:

There was a time
when you were not a slave,
remember that.
You walked alone,
full of laughter,
you bathed bare-bellied.
You say you have lost
all recollection of it,
You say there are no words
to describe this time,
you say it does not exist.
But remember.
Make an effort to remember.
Or, failing that,

She loves it and keeps the tape for nighttime listening, next to Kübler-Ross and the Bible.

Monique Wittig

Clare has been reflecting on her life. “I’ve been thinking about what is my particular way. I need to be involved in the world. This has been isolating for me, lonely, frightening. A diagnosis of cancer separates you from the world. Everyone else is looking ahead, moving forward. The idea of life ending, a discrete period of time…” Her voice and thoughts drift off.

“That is our work here…finding Your Way.”

A blanket of inconclusive silence covers us. I lift the blanket to let more light in.

What is my way?


“Did you know that Buddhism and quantum physics share the belief and knowledge that when you break down matter there is light and energy? It is said that, at death, when a monk is in a state of pure awareness, she has a rainbow body. I personally wouldn’t mind de-materializing into a rainbow of light some day. Would you?” I ask Clare. She nods, and chooses not to speak.

“And did you know, there was a double-blind study in California. Of the four hundred patients of a cardiologist, half the patients were prayed for and half weren’t. The prayed-for ones did better in a number of measured lab tests. There is already scientific validation and information that prayer is healing.”

She pulls me up short. “I don’t need anyone to tell me that,” she says mischievously.

“That was naive of me. I forgot for a moment who I was talking with, but the question is what are the implications of this for your own healing?”

“I’m not sure yet.”


“Clare, last year I added some new bulbs in the garden.”

“What did you plant?”


“Crocuses, daffodils and tulips.”

“How long will they take to come up?”

“I expect that the crocuses will be ready in about six weeks and the others later.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“Maybe we can celebrate an early spring together.”

“I could use that.”

I dig deep, not only to plant flower bulbs but to share with her some of my own existential dilemmas. “When I can, I like to walk to the old cemetery a few miles south of my house. Sometimes as I stand there, I wonder what the difference is between being above the ground or under the ground and if the answer really matters. I feel that I almost know the community of people in that old cemetery, as if…”

The Woman Religious interrupts me. “Well, yes, I think it does matter.”

“In what way?”


“Because in your time here, you can help end other people’s suffering. That’s the purpose of our life here. We are given life so we may help others.” The woman raised in the meaning of Christ’s life sits affirmed in her answer to me and remembers again, today, what she has always known.


We are given life so we can help others

“Well,” Clare sits down with a big sigh, “the bone scan is positive for a spread. I have a spread to my bones.”

For days, I have been preparing for the emotional weight of this moment and how to take on with her the burden of the report of the CAT scan. In this one moment, I must come up with the courage and solemnity of the High Priest during the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur, who has the responsibility to take on the sins and burdens for all of the people as God is approached in prayer.

“I am truly sorry, Clare. It must feel so unreal to you, no pain, no outward sign of any problem.”

“That’s it. I am so stunned. I feel numb.”

“And so out of control.”

Bone scan positive for spread

“Totally. I really thought that my loss of vision was my burden from God, from which would come deeper understandings about other people’s suffering. I thought I was through with anything else, that this was the test of my life, and now this cancer. It feels so unfair. I’m too young.”

I’m too young to die

I think now of Teresa of Avilla who, in describing her experience of emotional pain, wrote, “I felt so much pain it was as if all of my bones were pulled asunder.” —Enduring Grace.

We sit for a while, two women caught in the Great Silence of Unfairness.


There are days when the rage, the sadness, the sense of unfairness and loss, and the isolation she feels overwhelm Clare.

Teresa’s illness

“I live in a world of small print. I have to have everything read. That’s a loss of privacy and it makes me angry. I am afraid of spilling things in public, or a light may be too bright behind a person and I can’t see. My fear is that if I make such a big deal out of things, I will be totally paralyzed. I actually have more problems with my vision than I do with my cancer. I feel like an angry child who wants someone to take her pain away.”

“You know, Clare, Hildegard was touched with the gift of ‘visio’ from the age of three on. She had unusual and painful perceptions combined with a clairvoyance. She was able to see hidden things without losing consciousness or ordinary perception, and ‘brightness so great her soul trembled.’”

Between two sessions, Clare calls anxiously, not sure she can deal with the immensity of what she is facing. I know this is not an easy call for her because she is so proud about her independence.

“Can you tell me? How do you handle the idea of your own death?” she asks me.

The call is difficult for me because I feel her pain and I must dig into my own experiences with death and loss, to join her where she is.

“By living. That’s the only answer that makes any sense to me.”

I continue, “There is a story about a student confessing to the Zen teacher her fear of dying, what to do about dying if you’re not prepared for it. The teacher laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about dying. We all succeed at that. It’s the living we’re not so successful at!’”

She presses me further. “What have your experiences with death been?”

Hildegard also had trouble with her vision.

I dig for an early story. “Well, I grew up in a five-story family apartment house directly across from a funeral parlor. It was rare to have a day in which there was not a funeral or wake taking place. As a young child of 8 or 9, I would often hang out of the kitchen window in summer and watch the events across the street as I would watch any other event from my window. Death was an everyday event in my life—just like the routines of eating, roller skating, going to school, playing my cello. It was a fact of life. People would come and go in either the front or side door in black dresses, black suits, black ties and black face veils. In and around the community were purple-ribboned flower wreaths hanging on the doorway of a building where someone had died. I had not yet experienced a loss through death. It was actually a comforting sight, the public ritual, the beauty and scent of the flowers, the presence of people all doing the same thing. Observing these events offered a solace of sorts.”

“What kind of solace?” she asks with her owl-like wisdom.

“Thanks, it’s a good question. Now that you ask, it gave some kind of comfort and order to my day.” But I carefully screen what I will and won’t tell her.

At the next session, Clare is still curious and wants more details. She leans forward with that attentive quality of the gifted woman I have come to know. “What kind of community was it?”

“Italian, Catholic working class. We were Italian Jews in a Catholic community.”

“That’s interesting.” She sits back now and stores the information.

We bond additionally now through our working class background. She makes no effort to offer me her own experiences with death, even though both her parents have died. And I do not take her questions to me as permission to question her. Still we move forward.


Teaching story: death

I am not unfamiliar with suffering. I have worked with people in homes and hospitals whom I have fed and held one moment, and who were in death in the next. During the tragic and evil forties, I worked with hospitalized young children just freed from the concentration camps. Children who had blue tattooed numbers on their forearms, and other scars of human evil design far less visible. However, for a therapist, working through a woman’s diagnosis of cancer, this is a different kind of journey. It is often a longer journey; the roads sometimes less marked.

It is not that I fear death since I have been working with Clare, it is the anticipatory loss that I struggle with. The getting close and the letting go and struggling with other accumulated losses in my own life.


The adult woman who is so proud of her self-earned independence now finds herself pulled into a whirlpool of emotions. Clare has lost her hard-earned sense of normality, her sense of being like everyone else, as capable as everyone else. Her needs now appear to be too demanding, too obvious, too draining on others. Sediments of dependency issues lain dormant for so long at the bottom of a deep pool reappear and suck her downward.

She pushes me for answers. “How can you take doing this work? Have you worked with other women who have cancer?”

“Yes, women in my office, and men, women and children in hospitals.”

“Well, what is it for you, this experience?”

“Well, simply put, I have learned over the years that as I work with the intent to help or heal others, I myself am helped. I become more than I am and more than I imagined I could be.

“Why did you ask? Do you know?” I ask her.

The Forties


“Well, sometimes I can’t bear myself.”

“The pain of it all? What do you mean?”

“I sometimes can’t bear myself,” she repeats.

“You mean like a burden. Would I experience you as a burden?”

“Yes. That’s it. I hate being dependent on anyone. My independence has always been so important to me.”

“So, how can I as a therapist bear a person who might be so dependent on me? Is that it?”

“Yes, but I don’t like admitting this to you.”

Sometimes I can’t bear myself


“I understand. The problem here is that we sit here stuck with two polarities, two words, dependent and independent, which limit a way we can think about this together. What about interdependent? The idea that as adult women we need each other? Is there a place for this word? Do you see what a new word does? The possibilities?”

She sits in silence, and then moves forward.

“I worked so hard with my vision problem to be like everyone else.”

“Sorry, but you aren’t! You are your own uniqueness, with your own mystery, and thank God for that. I am not trying to negate your thoughts and feelings here.”

She understands what I am trying to convey here. Much of her life has been in struggle with others. Now she is her own struggle, and she doesn’t like it at all.

Words: dependent and independent

She comes from a tradition of defiance and punishment, and she has the political stubbornness of Hildegard, who refused to dig up the body of a man whom she had buried on her convent grounds when the church authorities thought he was a non-believer. For this stance, Hildegard and her Sisters received an interdict from the hierarchy, a punishment by which the faithful are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts. Hildegard could no longer compose. She and her Sisters could not perform or engage in any liturgical music. Clare has a strong history to fall back on and I decide to bring Hildegard in with us again.

A Crisis of the Spirit

Clare and Hildegard

Clare—own rules of poverty

Hildegard—started own monastery

This week, Clare has another crisis of the spirit. She comes in tremendous pain and questions whether she herself isn’t the source of her own cancer. “Am I sick from my own misbehaviors? My own misdeeds? My own thoughts? The things I could have avoided? Did I produce this? Have I sinned in some way?”

“Well, I’m the wrong one to speak to about Christian sin or sin generally! I gave up the idea of blaming myself for many things a long time ago, and it was very curative for me.

Look up early church and

“What you are saying is a classic example of blaming the victim. If you are thinking that your thoughts and lifestyle produced your cancer, then there are some relevant questions that you’ve left out of the equation. What about the toxic environment we all live in? And how do we sort out the chemical toxins from the ‘thought toxins’ from our education, from the pop culture that has diminished or limited our definitions of ourselves? And where do you place the facts of your inherited genetic makeup in your sin theory? Didn’t you tell me early on that you were committed to self-examinations of your breasts and that you did this, excuse the pun, religiously?” Clare nods. “And didn’t your doctor check you regularly? It occurs to me that you don’t know that some cancers of the breast are very fast growing, so fast that they are often not picked up by mammogram, by self-exam, or the doctor’s exams.

Multiple toxicities

“In my own life, I don’t think much about sin but maybe more about forgiveness, forgiving myself and others, but it starts with forgiving oneself. In Judaism we focus more on communal sin. During the High Holy Days, we are reminded that any sins between people, we must straighten out with people, but the sins between yourself and God, you straighten out with God. I remember the exact day, it was just before Rosh Hashanah. I had gone on retreat alone and had stayed overnight at our remote cabin in the woods. After a whole day of prayer and reflection, I decided that my problem was focusing on my own sins or shortcomings. I realized that I needed to stop blaming myself, or focusing on everything I couldn’t change or giving attention to historical events in my life that were beyond my control. It was then that I gave up blaming myself. It was wonderfully freeing for me.”

“How did it affect you, that decision?” Clare asks.

Teaching story: forgiving myself

“Well, I left the cabin and went back home, and after I lit the Sabbath candles, I told my husband that we had to move so that I could return to school again after an eighteen-year absence. Up until then, I had put my children’s needs and my husband’s professional needs first, but that day I didn’t feel that I had to do any more penance.”

“Interesting,” she reflects.

“Did I go too far off for you?”

“Far from it.”


Clare comes in today feeling guilty, isolated, and confused.

“I’m getting into this guilt pattern, about what I’m not sure. And I feel I’m being perceived by others as a person who is always sick with something. I feel outside of things—isolated. I’m beginning to feel I’m buying into this script. I’ve begun to feel that’s who I am and I don’t like it.”

I question her further. “Are these feelings familiar to you? Does it feel like any other period of your life, this sense of being sick or different from others? Clare, are there any learned behaviors, old attitudes, old trapped ideas from the past that are limiting your movement forward? Behaviors or attitudes that have not been recently re-examined?”

I feel outside of things

Once she knows what I am looking for, she amazingly goes directly to the excavation site, and we are on a joint archaeological dig. “I do remember going through a stage in my life when I was ashamed of my father, that he was blind. I was 10 or 11 years old. I wouldn’t sit with him in church. I would go to another pew.”

“Why did the young child do this? What did you think would happen? Do you know?”

“Well, I didn’t want to feel different or strange, and I think maybe I thought I would get his blindness by association somehow.”

I support the young child. “Pretty typical thinking, Clare, for a young child.”

We sit in a long silence as she reflects with her left hand supporting her chin. Then she looks in my direction.

“What are you thinking?” I ask her.

“I wonder now whether I had the feeling that my own vision problems were a punishment. I had so many confused feelings at the time that they discovered the glaucoma.” Then, balancing herself, and giving herself the benefit of the doubt, she adds, “I guess I just feel really tired right now.”

“I can see why you would be with all of the chemotherapy and lab work going on, but I think you just did some important work. Allowing the memory in, painful as it seems, is hard work. There are often historical roots for our pain, but when we reexamine them, they lose some of their power and grip. Can you see that you reacted with the resources of a young child? Wanting to feel like your peers, not wanting to stand out. These are ordinary concerns of young children. Can you see that it would also bring out a fear, or pain of what being blind might feel like?”

As she sits reflecting on this, I hope that I have not pushed her too much.

“So you think that I might be projecting onto others what I felt as a child? That others might be seeing me as different and maybe wanting to stay away from me?”

10-11 years old

I add to the narrative. “Trying to appear normal was a survival mode for you then, and much later when you had your own eye surgery, you continued in the classroom to try to appear like everyone else. But the problem is that—”

She interrupts me, “The problem is it won’t work now, right?”

“Well, as adults, I think we can pull from other resources, a repertoire of new possibilities.”

Measured linear time again interrupts our dig.

Trying to appear normal



“I want to share something with you that has always been encouraging to me,” I begin. “Did you know that you have a new stomach lining every five days? Also, our fat cells are exchanged every three weeks. Our skin is new every five weeks. The liver takes about six weeks for new atoms to flow through it. Our skeleton is new every three months. I understand that ninety-eight percent of the total atoms in our bodies are replaced every year. However, the calcium in our bones takes a few years to replace itself.

“So you and I have many cells left to play with and many that are changing all the time, even with a diagnosis of cancer. It isn’t that we can necessarily change the pathology of the cancer cells but we have many other cells that sustain us. Let’s rely on these as well, imagine these as we plan for the future.”

She adds to the narrative. “I have heard of spontaneous remissions where there is a reversal of a tumor. Have you heard about this?”

“Yes.” I encourage her but with some reserve. “There are many cases that have been documented, but we are still far from understanding what this is all about. What is it that supports healing in these people? These cases don’t match our scientific paradigms so we don’t know where, as yet, to place them. Some healers believe that in certain stages of an illness the pathology is reversible, but in others it is not.”

We struggle together. We must search our way through this dilemma. Clare is stuck with a medical diagnosis foreign to her, now socially attached to her, which now defines her in a way she has never previously experienced. From her childhood, she knows struggle. However, that experience did not prepare her for the immensity of this new one. She sees death as an
enemy of life. Death is her ultimate fear, death as the bitter end—the final tragedy.


The pain of this problem is evident today. Her normally smooth and connected legato voice has a short, detached staccato quality. Her words are short semi-quavers in length: “I feel that I have so little time...Time and a future have been taken away from me. I feel I have been robbed of my time… Forty is…so young. I expected to do so much more…and I have always had a meaningful vocation. Now, suddenly I am without work and direction.”

I must draw from the deep well of my own compassion. “I understand and share your grief. I feel that same grief with you about your time. You feel put aside, left behind, denied the infinite lifetime that others appear to have. I understand this. I, myself, would have the same reactions you are having, the same grieving, the same rage and anger, the same questioning of God’s mercy and justice if I had a diagnosis of cancer.

“But let’s think about this grief and how it happens. I think this grief has to do with two things. First about time: Whether we think of time as linear and one directional, moving forward from the past, toward a future which is finite, or whether we think of time as boundless and infinite. In the latter, every experience would be complete in the very moment of the experience.”

I am without work and direction

Clare and I are somewhat stuck here with a problem, for every culture requires that a person have a coherent thread running through a life story. In our culture a sense of a self through time is our most basic form of coherence. A narrative is structured around the assumption that a temporal sequence is a relevant dimension of understanding. We must have some connection with the past, present, and future. This is who I am. This is where I am. This is how I got this way. This is where I am going.

A coherent life story


Clare’s life narrative feels like it has no place to go. She feels she is stuck and in pain in a Dead Space. Without a cultural future. Her cancer story places her outside the mainstream story.

I have so often asked the women I work with to be patient, to trust that time will make a positive difference in their lives. This will not work well for us however; it is not where the emphasis can be. Time will not change this diagnosis, and we are trapped in some unexamined concepts not only about time but about the diagnosis of cancer of the breast.

“Clare, we are all attached to life and most of us have an aversion to death. It is our ultimate fear. We all know we are going to die, but we don’t know when or how, so most of us don’t prepare. Perhaps it is impossible to prepare, but together, we must figure it all out. I know for sure that the way that you and I conceptualize life and death, health and illness, will make a difference. Whether we see health and illness as part of the whole of our lives, part of the same cycle, or whether we see health and illness, life and death, as opposite ends of a finite lifetime of some sort,” Not easy for me to say or a 40-year-old to hear.

“There are two ideas here. Let’s see, where am I with this? Oh, yes, I remember. It matters as we work together how we think about time, if we think about time as linear and one-directional and finite or if we think of our lifetime as infinite. In one, we would feel grief. In the other, every experience would be complete in the very moment of the experience. I don’t know if I have made myself as clear as I can be here. These are difficult concepts, and I struggle with you with all of this.”

Her left hand cups her chin, and her elbow is propped on the arm of her chair. She does not respond at first, but I know she is with me.

“I really need to reflect on this,” she sighs and disappears for a while in the inner sanctuary of her mind.

Ordinary Time segmented into today, tomorrow and yesterday, the kind of time we need to attend classes, keep appointments, catch a train or plane, interferes with our work.

Which story shall we make?

Clare’s sense of self through time has been cut short. Her story now is outside the major cultural narrative, whose implicit assumptions include that no one ever suffers, that everyone stays young and beautiful, that if you are a good enough citizen, you will have a long life.

For Clare, the diagnosis of cancer places her outside this narrative—the living, coherent Life Story. She is left with an incoherent, Sick or Dead Story.

How do I help Clare to accept the idea of death into the life cycle? It is my feeling that she needs to consider a larger context in order to accept the idea of her own death. Together we must construct a way to embed this new narrative into a larger and more meaningful one.

The False Story

“Well, as I see it, this diagnosis of cancer, we could call it this Sick Story, has taken you out of the culture’s main dominant narrative, which is The Living Story. We in the West act as if there is only one true Living Story, because we fear old age, illness, and dying, but that is only half a story. The Living Story is a cultural myth, which is not really how life is. You and I have a big job here, because in order to do this healing work, we have to go beyond that popular but limited narrative. This story is that we stay perennially youthful, and never have to think about people getting sick or dying.”

“I need to reflect on all this,” Clare responds, and turns inward to her God, who has his own story of dying young and suffering.


The knowledge that I have introduced is often very specific. I express it in such a way that Clare has the options to play with or construct this information into a pattern that has meaning for her. I do not know the usefulness of an intervention until Clare herself informs me of its value, or of how she has incorporated it into previous knowledge or life experiences. Today she informs me.

The Sick Story


“You know, I have been thinking about the Living Story and the Dead Story, and about how we conceptualize time. When I speak with God, I have entered a place of the mind that is very expansive, limitless. That time does not feel like Ordinary Time. It is different. It sounds like what you were talking about. Linear Time is useful but this other time that you suggest is a place I am already familiar with. So maybe I just need to be in that place more often as I go through all of this.”

The Eternal Now

As we work together, the thought surfaces that the therapy hour is not unlike the canonical hour. Although Clare is not living in a cloistered community, as her sister does, our therapy hours soon take on the mood of the Benedictine Hours of the Divine Office where prayerful chants call the monks and nuns into quiet retreat, out of chronological time, and into a very focused ‘now’ which moves us out of ordinary time as we all measure it and mark it. Like the canonical hour, we mark special hours in the day, but in the form of scheduled appointments. These thoughts surface perhaps because while working with Clare I have been deeply absorbed in the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen and Teresa of Avila, and find myself caught in the tempos and sounds of early monastic life.

I do not know how much of my additional readings about these three unusual women will end up in my work with Clare but they add a certain tonal quality and knowledge base to our work. I have been greatly enriched by their presence and contributions. If I do not use the readings with Clare, I know they will be saved and drawn on another map, for other women with whom I might work.


Again, at home, I ask myself more questions. How will the particular woman enter into her own healing? How do I gain access to this woman’s healing energies? I review my notes and readings on holistic health, imagery and healing, relaxation and meditation techniques. I decide it is time to introduce these concepts into our next few sessions.

Using a few of the major principles regarding holistic health, we talk about the unity and interdependence of mind, body, and spirit; the involvement of the spiritual domain in healing; the belief in the idea that energies surround all things and beings; a basic assumption that stress is a major contributor to illness; the importance of subjective evaluation and feelings and the value of a variety of healing systems.

After assessing whether we share a consensus that this new knowledge is part of Clare’s belief system and that what I have introduced is of value, we enter into an intensive period of study and practice. She learns quickly, and we enter a new phase in our work now. We start to work to support her gaining a greater sense of control regarding her health. Clare learns that through using her good mind she can change her physiology in certain ways. We discuss the importance of relaxation and stress reduction techniques. We spend time practicing breathing together, learning about the physiology of stress, and discussing how imagery can reduce anxiety, help with relaxation and give a person a sense of empowerment and control.


As a therapist, often I cannot see or name how great a particular day or week of work has been until many sessions later.

Today, Clare comes in, sits down and reflects for a few minutes without any conversation. This use of silence is something that is very common to Women Religious with whom I have worked. Silent reflection blessedly often receives equal time with talk.

We sit. I wait. Then she leads.

The daily round—Hours of the Divine Office in Benedictine monasticism of Hildegard’s time:
Matins: before sunrise
Lauds: at dawn
Prime: around 6 am
Terce: around 9 am (main Mass)
Sext: around noon
None: around 3 pm
Vespers: at sunset
Compline: directly before bed
(Voice of the Living Light, Hildegard of Bingen and Her World—Barbara Newman)

“You know your life can change in a second and you never know when it’s going to happen. Well, it’s happened.” She pauses in thought. “I feel now that I just can’t let this diagnosis and the medical events get to me this way. I realize now that my life can’t depend on the next doctor’s visit or the next x-ray report. If I approach it this way, it will totally do me in. Disempower me.”

“Yes, and what we are doing here is just the opposite of that.”

Life can change in a second


“I have to find a new equilibrium. A new way of balancing this.”

“Yes. And the fulcrum of that balance must come from where?”

We share a long contemplative silence.

“I guess I know the answer to that.”

From this day forward, Clare functions from this commitment to herself. She no longer lets the institution of medicine with its wonderful but powerful access to money and technological services determine the quality of her life.

Within a very short period of time, Clare starts to take more responsibility for her health. A friend gives her massage therapy. She meets regularly with a nutritionist and soon makes changes in her diet, and in addition to her prayers, talks, and arguments with God, she adds daily relaxation exercises.

What is Healing?

At the lake today, I see dozens of seagulls. My mind starts to organize their movements, but I remind myself to keep a soft eye. All categories go, and I can appreciate the scene in the immediate moment. Everything suddenly stands still, and I imagine I am in Genesis.

Clare has been listening to a tape I shared with her by Kübler-Ross on death and dying. “I like her idea that healing does not necessarily mean to become physically well or to be able to get up and walk around again, but it means achieving a kind of balance between the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions,” she tells me. Clare will heal now, whether or not her body heals.

I have to find a new equilibrium


Linear time, as Clare has previously conceptualized her Life Time and the theme of loss, seeps through our session today, and the frigid weather of self-doubt freezes the hour. However, at the end of our session, she surprises me and takes a Holly Near tape out of her jacket pocket and plays it.

I know the song well and have played it many times at home. But today I hear the words and the music with more clarity:

“One woman weaves a message
Singing the sounds of silence,
Another wheels her chair to the center of the stage,
Changing minds and attitudes
With eyes that hear and hands that see.
These women living, working- independently.
I look to you,
I look to you for courage in my life,
And I promise it’s not just foolish idolatry
that makes me gaze at you in wonder.
Healer of my pain, quiet in her fame,
Goddess keep me sane,
I look to you,
I look to you for courage in my life...
(The chorus lines for the song)
Oh,…there’s…something about the women,
There’s something…about the women
something about the women in my life.”

As we both secretly petition for help through our prayers and incantations, I ask myself, is our activity one of Kübler-Ross’ stages of accepting death, denial, and bargaining, or are we healing by making the music manifest throughout the universe? Is Clare’s gift of music an invocation of healing? What do we wisely name this activity? Over time, we remember what we have always known: Music gives expression to thoughts and emotions too deep for our rudimentary language. Holly has joined us now.


Holly Near

There are days when I misread Clare. Some days she is feeling stronger than I think. Other times she is more frightened than I realize. Some days I smell fear, but she says she is not afraid. One day I grope through the darkness, but she is already in the light. Most of the time we journey together, laughing about the maps we have secretly carved on small pieces of driftwood from the lake and the polished white stones with symbols that we have placed on our journey which can only be seen and understood by Wise Women under a waxing moon.

Words and music

One day I can find no words to settle in with her, so I put on a CD of Hildegard’s music instead and we hear “O Quam Mirabilis Est” and “Spiritui Sancto Honor Sit” floating from the Outer to the Inner Room.

She knows that I know what neither of us can say, and it is Hildegard from her medieval monastery who knew better than most: “When the words come, they are merely empty shells without the music. They live as they are sung, for the words are the body and the music the spirit.”

During my struggle to name myself in my early feminist consciousness days, I remember how much comfort I received from reading Audre Lorde’s work and from hearing her voice on the Feminist Radio Network. So, I have made Clare a tape of readings from Lorde’s book, Sister Outsider.

Today, the legendary black lesbian feminist poet’s printed words speak through a white woman’s electronically recorded voi
ce, to another Sister in pain.

All Hildegard’s music was written for the Divine Office

Clare leads the discussion. “Remember the part where at first Audre was told the growth in her breast was benign and then she says, ‘the agony of an involuntary reorganization of my entire life.’ But later she was told she had a malignancy, and she wanted to write about the transformation of silence in our lives. She speaks to me here, this part.” She fast forwards the tape, and we listen to Lorde’s words:

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength. I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

Audre Lorde

Your silence will not protect you

We both sit now, contemplating our very short lives.

Over time, Clare gains the courage through this Sister Outsider to move forward.

As Lorde writes,

“Sometimes we drug ourselves with dreams of new ideas. The head will save us. The brain alone will set us free. But there are no new ideas waiting in the wings to save us as women, as humans, there are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations, and recognitions from within ourselves—along with the renewed courage to try them out.”

Clare’s struggle requires that I further name and examine ideas about my own mortality. I must do this so that the space around her will resonate in a state of harmony and so that I can be a conduit for her own healing.

I spend another weekend listening to Buddhist tapes, reading the New Testament, revisiting the Psalms, walking and praying.


The next week, we examine the idea of human suffering. I lead. “You know, Clare, according to Buddhism, there are two levels of suffering, unavoidable suffering, that is, the suffering that is part of everyone’s life, such as birth, sickness, aging, and death, and the suffering that has to do with our attachment or aversion to things.”

“I understood the first part, but aversion and attachment to what?” Clare asks.

“Well, our attachment or aversion to things, that is, whether we are drawn or pulled away from certain ideas, certain concepts, certain people, certain relationships—the truths that we think are so eternal. For example, maybe I can be more specific here. In your own life, even as you are feeling so well with almost no symptoms and no pain, with hardly any warning, you are given this diagnosis of cancer. All of a sudden you have this sickness. That’s the raw data of your life. Then the questions start. What does all of this mean to my life? Why has this happened? What do I do now? Can I do this? These questions followed by the personal meanings that we place on this new experience are no small matter. So there are these unavoidable events in everyone’s life and then there are the meanings we place on them, whether they feel pleasant or unpleasant to us.”

Clare asks for clarification. “So, are you saying that what I say to myself about this event, this diagnosis of cancer, is what causes the pain?”

“Yes. Not the physical part of pain, but the other suffering. Buddhists believe that it is not the external stimuli that drive our lives but the activity of holding onto, grasping, or avoiding the constant associations and identifications that we fill our lives with, clusters of thoughts, false ideas. This is how our minds are conditioned to experience events. The funny thing is that there are many events in our lives that go unnoticed, unmarked. There is no crisis around the event, and thus no challenge.”

“What do you mean about challenge?” Clare asks.

“Well, there is no challenge to their meaning, about what the event personally means to us. What we learned from it. Some events cause us to stop and reconsider, re-examine our position in light of this new experience.

“In some situations, our usual ways of trying to solve the problem, whatever it is, don’t work. We are stuck, in pain, but we keep trying, repeating the old way, hoping it will give us relief. Like the diagnosis of cancer you now have. This is no small matter. So you feel this frightening sense of helplessness, hopelessness.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“Everyone fears death, you know. Me. You. This is not an easy task, thinking this through and living through it. We have to use our good minds.”

“And,” she reminds me, “our own hearts.”

We are in the large peaceful silence now, but there are two of us.


Two kinds of suffering

We are both drawn today to the scented candle, and the smell of frankincense flows around and through our breath. Our job is not to mistake intellectual knowledge for enlightenment. Together we must face the truth of the impermanence of life and stay with the task at hand. We practice using our free will, and with our quiet minds, we are open to the possibility of new insights.

Over time, Clare and I try all kinds of metaphoric excursions to convey a concept of time that might work: we grasp it, elongate it, expand it, crunch it, fanfold it, wrinkle it, wrap it. I find that I must set my Sofonisba Anguissola canvas aside now. My new mental map becomes chaotic, out of control. My flat surface no longer works, and my notes and sketches keep melting or falling off the edge of the canvas. I keep scrubbing out the surface every time I think I have found another metaphor, a larger concept or theory that will help us to extend time indefinitely.

I remember a state of consciousness that Virginia Woolf captured so well, and read it to Clare:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps
symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous
halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding
us from the beginning of consciousness to the
end. Let us record the atoms as they fall
upon the mind in the order in which they fall,
let us trace the pattern, however disconnected
and incoherent in appearance, which each sight
or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

Living with this diagnosis of cancer, we both must make the effort not to become attached to our “good results” but rather to work with an effortless effort. To stay with the task at hand with a highly focused attention.

One day I introduce to Clare the idea that sound creates structure.

“I’ve been thinking about the connection between music and healing, especially in view of how our work here sits in the music we sing and dance to, and in view of our love of music,” I tell Clare.

“In the ancient esoteric traditions is the belief that there are many levels of understanding inherent in every musical tone, and that the listener perceives the meaning according to her level of spiritual awareness. There is another idea that I also like, that sound influences the soul in two ways: one because of its musical structure, its aesthetic beauty, and the other because of its ability to soothe, that is, its spiritual meaning to a person or people.

“We also know that sounds have specific patterns and forms of their own,” I continue.

The woman of faith wants the scientific evidence from me. “How do you know this? Aren’t sound waves invisible?”

“Yes, but through the research of at least two scientists we now understand that sound waves have specific shapes and forms. A physicist, Ernst Chladni, by using a violin bow was able to vibrate metal plates on which were thrown grains of sand. He showed that the energy from sound formed distinct patterns. Then Hans Jenny, the other person, photographed images showing the effects of sound waves passing through powders, liquids and semi-solids. These wave energies created geometric patterns. As the frequency changed, the patterns broke up and then new patterns appeared with new arrangements of symmetry and beauty. Also the mathematical relationship between musical notes, scales, octaves, and harmonics appears repeatedly throughout nature.”

Following me closely, Clare ponders, “Is there evidence that vibrations do something at the cellular level in our bodies?”

“Well, as sound waves enter the body, sympathetic vibrations occur within the cells. The high water content in our body helps to conduct sound. The human body is like a finely tuned instrument. Every atom, molecule, and tissue and the organs of our body vibrate at different frequencies.”

Clare stops me. “I would say we aren’t like finely tuned instruments, but that we are finely tuned instruments. I wonder what happens during a full moon with the high and low tides within us.” She teases me.

The clinical therapist answers, “I think that would be interesting research! I wonder if anyone has done this under controlled studies. There is a field of science called chronobiology and...”

The woman who had to keep her body restricted and hidden in black robes and headgear before Vatican Two concludes, “I think the best research would be to get large groups of women together and ask them what they experience in their bodies under a full moon! They’ll tell you!” We both double up in the pain of laughter.

“Wonderful! What especially interests me as a therapist as well as a musician is the idea of acoustic resonance. For example, if you put two cellos together that have been finely tuned to each other, and then you pluck the string of one of the cellos and then you stop it with your finger, the same string on the other cello will begin to vibrate. You will hear a faint sound from that second cello as it vibrates. This is because the two strings, having been tuned together, have the same frequency of vibration. They are sympathetic to each other; they resonate to each other. From my experience as a therapist, I believe there is a tuning in here borne out of the desire that comes of the agreement to examine our lives and to heal together. I believe that this highly focused attention that we engage in sets off reverberations between us.”

“And then what?” asks Clare.

“Well, you tell me. What do you think?”

“This intrigues me, given my own love for music. I can go for this. I need to reflect on this.”

The woman contemplative slips into a Resonating Silence and our session is over.


Our own research!

The pain of laughter

Grounded now in this research and believing in it together, we know that our sessions reverberating with Hildegard’s hymns and prayers, Gregorian chants, and contemporary women’s music are healing us at many levels.

Feeling somewhat better, and empowered, Clare is noticing more in the office now.

Today I play a tape that I have played before of the Baroque Sinfonia in C on the stereo. But the minute she comes through the door, Clare asks, “Whose music is that?”

“Oh. That’s Marianne Martines. She was an Austrian composer from a family of Spanish origin; she was 26 when she wrote the piece, in the mid to late 1700s, I think.”

“It’s amazingly beautiful.”

“Guess what? I checked today and the crocuses have sprouted roots and are showing little tips of leaves.”

“They made it!”

“Maybe I can bring some in next week and we can share them, okay?”

“I can’t wait.”

An Emerging Vision

Hildegard’s musical notation—old manuscript from the 10th century. Notation with special signs called neumes.


It is six weeks later and the Inner Room is filled with flowers. We have had our early spring, so desperately needed, and Clare leaves with a basket of early flowers. They join the music to heal us now.


In our next session, Clare tells me, “I have been listening to the Psalms.”

“Listening?” I forget for a moment how often she ‘listens’ in order to ‘read.’

“Yes. I have some wonderful prayer tapes.”

It is her turn to teach again. “Did you know that almost half of the psalms in the Old Testament are psalms of lament that cry out in anger, hopelessness, despair?”

“No, I am not that familiar with the psalms. At least we know we are not alone!”


“You know as I work with you in this office, it becomes an Oratorium for me.”

“Oratorium? Latin?” I ask.

“Yes, it has become a place of prayer, a tabernacle, a place for private devotions. That’s how it feels to me.”

“You know, getting back to prayer. Non-doing is not doing nothing,” I remind Clare.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m trying to convey the idea of having the mind poised in an effortless activity.”

“Would it be similar to praying, being open to God—to just let God’s grace in?”

“Yes! That’s it! Exactly! You have said it closer to the experience of it, I think.”

“Can we practice that here together?” Clare asks me.

“That’s what we’re doing.”

“What is that wonderful aroma?” asks Clare. “It smells like pizza or something.”

“You’re almost right. I made us some lasagna and brought it in to share. Can you eat and talk or would you prefer to take it home?”

Word: Oratorium

The nave of a Benedictine cloister circa 1110.

“Are you kidding? What a choice! I’m really hungry. I had to rush to get here. I had an appointment with my social worker just before this. So this is wonderful. Do most therapists’ offices smell this way?”

“Maybe just the ones with Italian genes!”

“This feels like a celebration meal. And I’d like to say a blessing.”

As if it were a communal wafer at the mass, we eat lasagna to nourish the soul.


Lasagna and communion

"There is a time for penance and a time for partridge."
—Teresa of Avila

Only a few events will change or shorten my lake walk practice, but it is now fiddlehead season, which comes just before trillium season. I bundle up and head to my secret place a few miles from the office, in the now-accessible but wet and chilly woods. Nothing excites me as much as spotting the first little shoots of the young, tightly wound head of the ostrich fern. I creep under the wet spruce trees, grateful that my knee joints work well yet another spring. I pick only the hairless ferns with the curved stems—the fuzzy ones are much too bitter for our taste. I bring the treasures home in my brown paper bag and gently rub off the thin, but tough outer wrapping and leave them soaking. I am concerned about being late for the office. At the end of the day, I will wash them, boil them and season them with butter and lemon.

I get to my office with the joy and wetness of a woodland nymph and carry the scent of a forest creature. Nature sits with us as we work.

Although she occasionally uses a tissue to wipe her eye, Clare does not mourn or cry with the salt water flow from her eyes. I must learn to feel her mourning from clues less visible than the eye clues from which therapists are taught to “read” a person. I have to access an inner place, not inner in the sense of a hidden place within her body but a place not accessible to a camera, yet accessible to another vibratory human being.

As I work with Clare, she allows me to fine tune my own soul—my own instrument of knowledge, my own Clarebodyknowing—to a variety of frequencies. She is highly skilled at altering or adapting her voice according to the circumstances. Without being a musician, she has a knowledge about how to modulate her voice. She can vary the amplitude, frequency, phase, or intensity of a word in accordance with an inner signal from me and move harmoniously with me from one key to another.

The words she uses have nuances and subtleties that are highly developed. She can be ironic, humorous, wry, as she slips into a new set of ideas, or when she talks about oppression or liberation theology. Our relationship has a resonant quality that captures the ineffable.


It is six months into our work together. It is late afternoon on a summer day, and the shimmering luminosity of light creates a landscape of cool blues and warm golds on the lake.

While prayer and meditation may help to transcend loneliness and despair, reaching out to others amplifies both activities, and on this day a Vision emerges in me. The idea feels perfect to me, but before I propose it to Clare I must think it all through carefully. The plan would require Betty’s insights and help.

I meet with Betty. “What about Clare doing an internship with us? She is highly skilled and has many credentials. She has been a teacher, a spiritual counselor, a Director for Novices. She almost has the equivalent requirements for school counselors, if we include her previous studies and her experience. The internship would include a period of study and then I could supervise her.”

Betty searches her good memory. “Weren’t you teaching a graduate course in this at the university?”

“Yes. I did for a number of years. It was the one course required for certification of counselors in the schools. That’s why I feel she could do this. She is qualified in many ways.”

Betty starts a checklist in her head. “What about her vision?”

“Well, she’s already handled this in her previous education. She’s gotten through a graduate degree. She can find a reader to help her with the reading requirements. Some of the materials can be put on tape for her.

“Clare has previously used large reading machines from The Division for The Blind, the ones that magnify the printed word a hundred times. She’s told me that the machine slows her down too much. She uses a large pad set on an easel and writes with a thick black marker. She tells me that this method helps her make her thoughts more clear. The thick black marker gets through some of the white veil.”

Enter Betty

Betty pulls out her Academic Planner. “Well, I’m starting my courses in Transpersonal Psychology, and the new one I designed, The Modes of Inquiry. She can take my courses if she wants. The Transpersonal Psychology course would dovetail with her spiritual work. And the Modes course—”

“The one that I sat in on?”

“Yes. It’s a graduate-level course, and it focuses on the concepts and methods of those disciplines central to the helping professions, such as psychology, sociology, philosophy, and medicine, for example. It studies the kinds of questions that each di
scipline asks and the various frameworks which provide answers to different schools of thought.”

Transpersonal Psychology
Modes of Inquiry

“Great. I think we could do an assessment with her of her previous readings and skills and then design a program with her that would meet her needs. She would like to work with women, but I could not supervise that in my office. I could not provide her with the women. However, if I remember correctly, there is a Catholic elementary school in town that has no school counselor. She could use her interest in working with women through the families of the school children and the teachers. With that plan, I would be able to supervise her in my office. If the school has the children and families, I have enough space for her to do her internship with these families here. Then, later I can supervise her in the school itself.”

Betty supports the plan. “I’m for it. It can work. I’ll be happy to commit my time to it, too. It would be a pleasure to have her good mind in my classes. Let’s see if she wants to do this.”

“I think it’s what she’s been looking for, a way to challenge her mind, women to journey with, a vocation, and a continued life that has meaning to her.”


Contemplative therapy and knowledge moves into action now.

At our next session, the therapist’s Vision is received with hosannas.

“Do you really mean it?” Clare asks me.


“Won’t it be too much for you?”


“Can you really commit your time?”


Do assessment

“I may need help with transportation for Betty’s classes. Maybe Joanne can get me there,” she says.

I add, “Maybe she can take Betty’s classes with you. You can speak with Betty about this.”

I am somewhat concerned about moving ahead too rapidly. “Don’t you have to get the permission and consensus of your religious community first?

Transportation and Joanne

Clare nods. “I have to submit a plan of study, with time and cost projections, before they can make a decision. So I will have to do research first and then do a formal presentation.”

“You know, I have worked with other women who have changed jobs or careers. Sometimes there have been special funds because this internship would be a change in vocation for you. Do you think there are funds available from the Division for the Blind? Or Vocational Rehabilitation? I think it would be a legitimate request. Don’t you?

“I remember that social worker who has been very responsive to some of your past needs. Why don’t you speak with her? I can delay my fees for services until you see what’s feasible. What do you think?”

“I’d like to go for it. I’ll give her a call.”

“Why don’t you start by writing up a plan and then Betty and I can go over it with you, as a first step before you involve your community?”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

Plan of study

The room is charged with excitement. Possibilities! The Newer Vision has lifted the veil of the older optical vision.

Over the next few weeks, Betty, Clare, and I meet together and develop a plan of study. First we engage in an intensive period of assessing her professional skills, then writing up a plan of study, which includes a formal internship with me and an arrangement for consultation with me when she needs it. She will also audit classes with Betty at the university. Her plan of study is one that bridges the disciplines of health, education, psychology and women’s studies.

Newer Vision

I pick up another new canvas to sketch our journey. I start introducing and marking the new themes that will light the way for both of us. A large concept map starts evolving—pen and ink over a light purple wash, interlocking roads that criss-cross back and forth—avenues and streets of new inquiry and ideas. These become her plan of study—various modes of inquiry, the spiritual domains of therapy, feminist philosophies, liberatory pedagogy and women’s autobiographies.


Wonderful news! After its discernment process with her, Clare’s community approves a twelve-month educational plan. With the help of a particularly caring and competent social worker, the plan is also approved and paid for by the Division of the Blind and Vocational Rehabilitation. Our therapeutic healing work and her studies dovetail now, each nourishing the other. And her journey outward, to study and learn again, is also a journey inward for her.

Clare spends the next year in a period of intense study. The year is an exciting one for all. Clare is challenged and invigorated by the ideas the three of us have been discussing. In addition, she is out in the world again with other adult students. Her studies have meaning because of their application to real people whom she can serve. She has found a place where she can continue her service in community. At the same time that she studies, she continues to work on her meditation, prayer, visualization, nutrition, and exercise.

During her internship, Clare sees children and their families in my ample office space for a few months. After this period of time, she sets up her office at the Catholic elementary school. From this time on, she becomes happily self-supporting and makes a major contribution to the children and their families.


Running parallel to our formal therapy work, I continue to supervise Clare’s work at the elementary school. We either meet in my office or at the school or speak on the telephone.

During the entire time that we work together, she deals with decisions regarding her medical bills and how they will get paid, transportation from here to there, and where and with whom to live as her needs change.

She continues to work through her grief and the unfairness of it all. Given the nature of the egalitarian relationship we have woven together, there is no magic or mystique to our therapy process that interferes with our plan.


A miracle happens. The frozen pages of Clare’s journal are unstuck now. The familiar pen is picked up. Colored pencils and watercolors give color and space now, for what words and music cannot. Her journal entry today reads:

“Today I made a decision—or perhaps I articulated one which has been long in the making. I want to become a counselor. I want especially to work with women, and their families, to share their journeys as I share mine with them, to affirm their giftedness as I affirm mine. That is my goal. What I will have to do and how long it will take I do not know. What I do know is this: I will make my way and not simply let it be made for me. I will learn that feel of the stones, which lead me by unknown paths. I will stop to feel the sun on my face, to commune with the deep forest green of the trees, to experience the thorn pricks from unwanted obstacles and to accept the gifts washed upon the beach by troubled waters.

“In my ignorance of what lies ahead I open my arms wide to embrace this process, for it is at least as important as the goal, and might even change its shape many times. What a gifted moment, this!”

Letting Go

The frozen pages are unstuck


Clare is letting go now and accepting death, and in this manner she begins to live again. Like Astra and Nancy, she moves from self-pity, based on fear, to compassion that comes out of self-love. In this state of timelessness, we string moments of awareness together and we gain Universal Time.

With quiet minds, we have new insights, and we create more inclusive stories together. We find that we interact with the universe in ways that are profound and beyond our immediate understandings.

One symbolic gesture, writing in her journal again, is followed by another. Today Clare brings in a small white card for me on which she has written, “I will give her a white stone on which is inscribed a new name, to be known only by the one who receives it.”

Universal Time


Then she gets up from her chair and with both hands cupping mine, she drops a smooth, white oval-shaped stone into my palms. “This is your prayer stone. I picked it up at the lake when I was on retreat, and I prayed for you.”

The white smooth stone is new spiritual connection between us. I have experienced this with many other women I have worked with, and this connection may be a rock, a clam shell, a piece of driftwood with unusual worm markings. Whatever its form, it is an object deeply felt and honored by both of us. Such a connection opens up our hearts. This is what is meant, I believe, by a heartfelt gift.

The smooth white stone sits close to me now as I work with other women, and I tell them a Clare-Judith healing story, as the one I am telling you, the reader.

It is only much later while preparing her story for this web site that I look up the quote in Revelation 2:17. I discover that my revisionist friend Clare had changed the text. The original reads,

“To him that overcometh will I give to eat the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”


The prayer stone
“I have been thinking about the word empathy lately,” Clare reflects in one session. “The word empathy is used so often, but I’d like to hear how you would describe it.”

Word: empathy

I organize my thinking here, making a diagram in my head first. “Well, for example, let’s talk about when you first came in, about your diagnosis and your vision. In order to be empathic, I had to recall and re-feel my life experiences that might approximate what you were feeling. It is kind of a conscious arrival and departure from a place. I go to the place, collect the memory, maybe I should say feel the memory, and then come back to you. Also, what I collect, what’s in my memory station, is not only my own experience but the experiences of other women I have worked with who have had similar life situations to yours. It’s a form of attunement. I bring my mind into that felt place of my own original experience.”

I stop. “Go on,” she encourages me.

“With constant feedback from you, I find out how close I am to understanding your experience. For example, you came in with pain about loss, illness, death, isolation, lack of direction, wanting a new vision. These are all part of my own life experiences. So I can dip into my wellspring of experience and bring forth an image or a memory.” I scan my mental diagram again and something seems missing. “I was just thinking, maybe we should or I should call this empathy ‘collective attunement’.”

I continue. “The way I think of it is that I have many historical selves, or schemas, from which, as a therapist, I can draw forth knowledge. For example, there is Motherself, Friendself, Celloself, Wifeself. Each of these selves has a different kind of knowledge. The problem is that a woman’s knowledge has been split off from herself, from her own experience. Traditionally and historically, only certain men’s ‘knowledge’ was called ‘objective’ knowledge. As you know, our knowledge has been de-valued. We have to take back the knowledge that comes from our own experience as a legitimate area of knowledge, worthy of study.”

As in our earlier sessions, Clare again is back to the self. “I get uncomfortable again. Isn’t this self-examination of a life self-centered?”

“Well, that depends on the kinds of questions we ask and whether the questions and the process are liberatory. Can you make the connection with the questions and the consciousness-raising process you went through in your community? Was this self-centered?”

The “self” dilemma again

“Well, the focus was on social justice and serving the poor.”

“Well, aren’t you entitled to any of this for yourself? Can you see this process as a discernment process as well? Getting back to empathy. You must have studied empathy before.”

“Yes, I have, but the word takes on new meaning now. Do you think there is more to empathy? It sounds pretty cognitive about these various selves.”

I answer. “Yes and no. Sometimes I get too cognitive. Too linear. Knowledge is not only about thinking. We also learn through our emotions, our behaviors and, of course, through our entire bodies.

“It’s about a place we both arrive at together. And as we have just discussed, it’s not a one-woman journey. We heal together. Some of this can be taught, but some of it comes from the wisdom of a life well-examined.”

“Or from compassion and kindness,” this Sister of Mercy reminds me.


Social justice and personal justice

Today, the local newspaper has written an article about Clare and our work together. We are both generally pleased with the article. However, in typical fashion, Clare has done a political analysis of the photograph that was used. “Look at this. You are standing above me, official-like, with a pad and pen. I am sitting below you in this sort of passive space looking up. It not only doesn’t reflect the way we actually work together as equals, but in fact it suggests Another Way that was not Our Way.”

I try to approach the problem from a practical point of view. “Well, it reflects perhaps how people might think about a therapeutic relationship. Or we could say they were just trying to find a way to fit us both into the picture frame.”

“Yes, but that’s what often happens with the media. They place our bodies passively in space without thinking about what the picture transmits to other people. I know their intentions were good, but I think we must still challenge these things.”

“I don’t disagree with you. In fact, you’ve got me fired up.”

Our logic leads us. “Okay. Then let’s call them.”

“Before I forget, Betty is joining us next week for our discussion on epistemology, that is, in our search for knowledge, what questions can we ask, and where do we look for answers?”


Flashlights on Reality

Reframing the scene

Betty joins us at our session today at Clare’s request and takes the lead voice. “I read the article in the local paper last week about you and Judith besides what Judith has told me. All of your life you have been on a loving search for a light. Now you feel especially challenged by your diagnosis of cancer. Let’s take a look at a map showing three approaches to finding this light. By the way, please let me know if any of this is repetitive. I know that you have a graduate degree in Spiritual Counseling.

“In the history of philosophy, these three approaches represent a kind of flashlight on reality. The first is the focus on Other Worldly domains such as the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. Second is the focus on This Worldly domain, that knowledge is discovered through our senses or reasoning. The third approach is the focus on Human Experience as the source and validation of knowledge. In this approach, it is believed that all knowledge is relative and is constructed out of human experience. For example, some people believe that what is true is not necessarily Divine Truth or Scientific Truth but that which is constructed and organized by their own experience.

“Clare, can I use this large board to draw out some things? Judith said you can see somewhat if I use thick Magic Markers.”

“Yes. Actually, that’s what I use at home, too. There’s a white film over my eyes, but I can make them out. I can also retain a lot as you speak.” She laughs. “An old and useful habit of mine.”

“Yes. It’s called utilizing your good brain!”

Betty draws four thick, deep purple lines that represent the rays of a flashlight directed toward three sources. “From what Judith has told me, your individual experiences were devalued and de-emphasized in place of a Communal Self during your novitiate days of the late sixties. There could be no personal self during that period of your history. Is this a fair assessment?”

“Yes, right on.”

“In your life as a Woman Religious, you have been taught that absolute knowledge is received by revelation or other mystical means, which as you certainly know is a central thesis of Thomistic philosophy. In your education as a teacher and counselor, you have been taught that human growth and development are based on psychological theories, which claim to be scientific in origin. Now, what have you learned in feminist theology?

Flashlights on reality

Clare now teaches Betty. “We did an analysis of power. We examined our own roles and place in the church hierarchy and came to an awareness that as women we had something to contribute. First, should we be there and then on what basis? And in addition to the rituals of the male hierarchy of our church, for example, we wanted to create new ways of prayer. We didn’t want to change for change’s sake but for some fundamental beliefs that we brought into question. For example, now we have Sarah’s Circle. We meet with other women from both our community and the lay community and we create prayers together. It is a very beautiful experience.”

I come in. “I think when we were talking last week you called this an exploration into the divine mystery of the sacred.”

Clare nods. “Yes, I did.”

“Now it seems to me that one of your challenges at this point is to turn your flashlight inward as you search for your strength to make some meaning of this new diagnosis in terms of the whole of your life,” continues Betty.

“As a spiritual counselor and formation leader, you must certainly have asked the women with whom you have worked to explore and to validate their unique human experiences. For example, you might have asked the following questions. 'What do you remember about your early childhood? What thoughts and feelings did you have as a female child?' I’m sure that this personal exploration is going on in your therapy with Judith.”

Analysis of power

“Yes, but it’s not that simple. Turning inward may be a spiritual experience, not a self experience. The self may be the community. They meld. I had to rethink the sixties communal self because it left many of us women as transparent selves. Everything had to be re-examined with this new liberatory conversation. The church was Woman Blind and hierarchical and in many ways our community modeled that patriarchy. We had to re-examine it, revisit it. We lost a number of women in that process. They left the church because the change wasn’t fast enough, nor complete enough.”

I come in again. “It’s difficult not to get off track because of the complexity of all of this.”

“But there is so much relevance to it for our lives.” She sits on the edge of the chair. “I find myself moving—not the flashlights—but seeing the self and the spiritual merge as one.”

“What have we seen in the history of human awareness? Perhaps we do not see reality as much as we see the flashlights on our hands and hearts. The flashlights can be otherworldly, this worldly or inner worldly. These lights illuminate our journey to understand the nature of reality, truth, and value.”

“Do you mean we can learn to see ourselves seeing?”

The “self” problem yet again


“Exactly. Any theory is like a window, which may frame reality, but it also separates us from that reality. We who are teaching and learning must be aware of these limits as well as the grandeur of our beliefs and values.”

Clare continues the dialogue on her own terms. “How has the knowledge of the flashlights affected you personally, Betty? I ask this because it seems that you have given me a brief history of ideas. What about your own life?”

Framing reality

“The knowledge of the flashlights is also a history of my own intellectual development. This is my personal life as well. I had many years of studying science and mathematics, the other worldly flashlight. I also majored in the arts and the humanities where the esthetic interpretations of reality, truth, and value enriched my daily life and sensitivities. Later I became interested in comparative religions. I had the opportunity to attend the Harvard Divinity School after I received my doctorate degree, but my advisor wisely counseled me and told me I had enough knowledge given to me and that it was time to go forth and share it with others. He was right. So, to answer your question, my personal life choices are the choices I made out of my intellectual studies. I made choices based on the knowledge I gained. ”

The mechanical buzzer goes off, with no concern for our theories.

Dreams and Images

Bettys teaching story


One of the places that Clare goes to study and relax is her extended spiritual community. Joanne, a nurse who started and runs a hospice with her husband, lives thirty miles out of town. Clare shares a journal entry from one of those visits:

“When I go into the countryside, I experience the earth as a womb for my soul. The scent of the sweet, fresh air that envelops me, the large trees alive and dancing, the grounded feeling of the soil under my feet. Yesterday when I was there I thought for one moment that I heard the earth breathing. Every fear of mine evaporated into that sweet air.”



Today, we continue to discuss the importance of imagery in our work. “Imagery is one of the first recorded treatments for illness. Imagery, or visualization, can be thought of as an internal experience of a perceptual event without the actual outward stimuli. It is different from a precept which is evoked by an actual physical event,” I explain to Clare.

Her good mind hastens my lesson. “Are images only visual? I don’t think so.”

“Good question. That’s what most people assume, but no, you are right, they can involve the experience of hearing, smelling, or moving.”

“And,” she adds, with her head cocked to the left and her body pressing forward, “sometimes a person can taste a scent, or feel a color, or experience the vibration of music not yet written.” Thus enlarging her therapist’s perception.

Mental capacities like memory, perception, mental imagery, language and thought are rooted in complex underlying structures in the brain. Thus, an image held in the mind’s eye has, in fact, a solid physical basis.

“Clare, it would take a person of your gifts and experience to say that! Research has shown that a person’s belief system can alter images or the expectancy that a person holds regarding the state of her health. According to research and my own experiences in working with women, images cause profound physiological change. Images affect physical reactions directly and indirectly, and, in turn, are affected by those reactions.”

“I read somewhere that any diagnosis or treatment creates some kind of images in the patient’s mind, and that these images in and of themselves can turn the course of a disease,” Clare tells me.

“Well, I believe that statement, but I think it is more complex. That statement leaves out the role of our genetic predisposition, toxic environments, and the overwhelming ways that we women are particularly stressed in our daily lives. Stress is implicated as a major factor in both onset and exacerbation of all the auto-immune diseases.”

I continue, “According to newer research, a variety of techniques—specific images, positive feelings, suggestions, learning to respond to stressors in a relaxed way—have the potential for increasing the ability of the immune system itself under the direct control of the central nervous system, particularly those areas of the brain implicated in the transmission of the image to the body to assist healing. So practices like guided imagery, self-hypnosis, and biofeedback have been shown to influence immunology. Images have a direct effect on the body, not only on the musculo-skeletal system, but on the auto-immune or involuntary nervous system as well.

Images and healing


“I really believe that the experience of an illness is often very different from the medical labeling of it, the diagnostic labeling of it, because we are meaning-makers and we can decide on what basis we will experience that diagnosis. A lot of impressive research has been done in the area of psychoneuroimmunology….”

“New word for me,” Clare interjects.

“Well, that’s the study of the relationship between the brain, the endocrine systems, and the immune systems.

Word: psychoneuroimmunology

“At first, the autonomic nervous system was thought to be involuntary and beyond our conscious control. Now we know that is only partly true. The heart, liver, and spleen are all influenced by the autonomic nervous system and within reach of conscious determination.”


If you could see your body as it really is, you would never see it the same way twice....The skeleton that seems so solid was not there three months ago....The skin is new every month....The cells in the liver turn over very slowly, but new atoms still flow through them, like water in a river course....
Even within the brain...the content of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and so on is totally different today from a year ago.
—Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing

In another session, we talk about music because it is so much a part of our healing. I ask her, “Clare, did you know that in many of the ancient religious traditions there is the belief that all of the universe is held together by sound? In some of the Sanskrit writings is the idea of what is called ‘struck sound,’ which we can hear, and ‘unstruck sound,’ which we cannot hear. Unstruck sound is the center from which all struck sound comes. The basic idea is that we perceive sound only because there is an unmanifested state of absolute silence, the state from which all sound originates.

Struck and unstruck sound

“In these writings is the belief that we hear sound only because there is silence, and we experience silence because there is sound. In other words, sound is the source of silence and silence is the source of sound. In quartet playing, there is the experience of playing the silences. I have always valued the silence just before the musical sound I make on my cello. Each player in a quartet must play the silences.”

“Interesting,” Clare responds. “It sounds to me similar to what I experience in the silence of prayer, and then the words that come out of that silence, or the social action that comes out of that silence.”


Playing the silence—Music and Prayer

During this period of intense study and therapy, Clare has a sequence of powerful dreams and images. A qualitative shift in Clare is evident in and around her dreams, visualizations, and meditations and the manner in which she tells them. And like many shamans before us, we bring into the profane world the transformational powers of sacred time and space of the Dream World. Graced by a stronger faith, Clare, the Daughter of Light, dreams again. Her dreams present a rich poetics.

Communal healing exists in many areas of the world where the entire community participates in healing ceremnies, not just the person with the problem or illness

She begins with her first dream: “I am in a dark room. I can see objects suspended, floating in space, mobiles of sorts. After a while, I realize that it’s a room filled with different parts of a clock, disassembled, taken apart. It is very, very quiet. There is no sound—just these disassembled pieces, beautifully arranged in space. There is a Utopian, oceanic feeling to this room. On awakening, I realize that I have been in a room in which ordinary time has been suspended somehow. I am experiencing a kind of spaceless, timeless, Universal Time.”

Her second dream follows rapidly: “I am on a very old wooden sailing ship. The wood has a beautiful patina to it. I am alone. I am on a voyage alone. I can hear the creaking of the masts. I can hear the sails, even now. It is very, very quiet. I can just hear the sound of the boat going through the water. The sky is starry against a velvet-black cloth. I am on the edge of the ship, the right side of it, facing forward with my whole body stretched out, completely relaxed. It is an exquisite dream. I am clearly on a Beautiful Journey Alone.”

A third powerful experience occurs during a meditation: “I am meditating using visualization. All of a sudden I see two images: a head with all its veins and arteries. It is orange and red, an embryo head or maybe a fetal head. It just floats by me in the darkness. I ask myself, ‘Was that really what you just saw?’ I answer, ‘Yes, that was a new head and brain being nourished.‘ Then I see green cells, the kind some see in a biology class under the microscope, paramecia, I think. They are moving an
d alive. I can see liquid nutrition moving through them and nuclei—green living cells—just floating by. I think to myself, I am alive and well, so don’t worry.

Dream Sequence
“During another meditation, I visualized the numbers 3, 2, and 1. The numbers usually are colorful but just still. This time the numbers were on fire, but they weren’t burning. The edges had light, heat and energy but were not burning, not being consumed by the fire. Later I thought, ‘Is this what is happening to me? A new head, alive, pulsating? New ideas waiting to be born?’ There was the feeling of new life and growth within me. Now, awake, retelling it, I feel so nourished and replenished.”

“What do you make of the burning numbers?” I ask her.

“The numbers seemed to be about marking time somehow. That time, maybe my time, would not be consumed, but that there would be light and energy. I came out of this with a new energy for life.”

We sit in the Silence of Light and Energy.


Today I let the session stay abstract. Like the Impressionist artists, I let go of details, in favor of the form and patterns of shapes and colors embedded in her words. This plan works well with our activity as we move easily with the gesture toward receiving and responding to the divine while at the same time being fully engaged in both her therapy and her internship.

Clare shares another dream: “When I woke up today, I saw the whole world differently. I was flying above the land, over the trees. I was touching the bushes, the trees, and the flowers from above with my beautiful naked body. I was absolutely ecstatic in that awakening and in how I saw things. The view was exquisite, but more than that, something had happened to me. I had changed. I realized that my perception was qualitatively different. Everything was sharper, brighter, more vivid, more beautiful than I had ever experienced before.”


I was flying

Clare’s pain, rage, and sense of loss give way now. Finally, Redemption. The energy and spirit from which she has always lived and worked are with us again. The same impulse and revitalizing energy that brought her into the church, her spiritual calling, is back. Like her medieval Sisters, Clare has what writer Carol Flinders calls “the genius for inwardness,” and over time we both come to the understanding that the main sin, after all, may be our own impatience.

I have searched my notes and cannot tell exactly when I told her about my writing, what I was trying to do and why. I know though, that I gently placed my Vision about writing our work together in the middle of another one of her sad times. The idea called Clare to attention.

“There’s hope for me in this, you know. Maybe there is something here I can pass on to other women. That would mean a lot to me. Part of the circle, the spiraling outward, the connection. How are you thinking of doing this?”

“Well, in much the way we work together. I want to speak openly and honestly about what we say and do here, using our own w
ords—to make some record that is accessible to other women.”

Carol Flinders

“Like a case study?”

“No, more like a sacred text. A text fashioned out of our shared Vision.”

“What do you mean by a sacred text?”

“An ilumined record, a record which intimately and honestly describes the courage, fortitude, contributions and vision of the women with whom I have worked—an open text—inviting the reader to participate.”

When talking about her visual problems, we have started referring to her small vision and her big Vision, or her ordinary Vision and her other Vision, thus clarifying, without saying so, a huge difference between the limited sensory modes of our ordinary Vision and the wisdom of inner Vision.

“Big V, you mean?”

“Exactly, Big V, if I can do it.”

Case study or sacred text?

“Don’t worry. You can do it,” she assures me. “Just tell it like it is. All of it: the pain, the laughter, everything. I really want to think about this.” She settles back again into her soft chair, and I settle into mine.

“In one of our last sessions you mentioned that you have again done some reflective writing in your journal. I am interested in the idea that the healing work we do here comes about from the sharing of two life stories—yours and mine.”

“I have a feel for what you are saying, a sense of it, because of what I have already experienced here, but can you give me more specifics?” Clare asks.

Just tell it like it is

“Well, typically at professional meetings or in a professional article, the therapeutic process is focused on the woman who comes for help, what her signs and symptoms are, how the therapist decides on a diagnosis, which one, why. Then the therapist describes how she goes about changing or removing these symptoms. But I think this is a fictional story that professionals perpetuate for a variety of reasons. The more complete story, as I see it, is that the therapy occurs in a unique dyadic relationship, in which two women’s life stories, yours and mine, come together—at a particular historical point in our lives. It is never a one-woman story.

“The other important point that I want to make is that as soon as we are talking about two women speaking their lives to each other, then their words, the narrative they create together, become the focus—not the jargon and language of
the profession.

It is never one woman’s story

“I think you would enjoy this quote from Anais Nin: ‘When you make a world tolerable for yourself you make a world tolerable for others.’”

Clare moves to the edge of her seat. “This is very exciting! Wouldn’t it cause a small revolution? Shifting the power differential in therapy.”

“I hope so! At the very least it would give us back our own words!”

The revolutionary answers. “And our own process. No small item!”

Anais Nin

“I have been thinking about your writing. Did you know that in the Middle Ages each abbey or monastery often had its own scriptorium? This was a place where manuscripts were copied, decorated, and bound. You know this is one of the ways the monks and nuns made money for their various orders.

“Several women often worked on the same books. Sometimes the books were dictated, or sometimes an apprentice or student would first draw the lines for the printing and ornamentation that were to be done. These lines were called ‘guidelines.’ In a way, my therapy story is one of the guidelines for your book. This is a therapy place, but I now see it as a scriptorium, as well.”

“Wonderful, both the world, the imagery, and the task.”

The buzzer goes off, and we leave the hour satisfied with the strength of our own convictions.


Word: scriptorium

Vermonters have learned to preserve the golden moments of summer because of the brevity of the sun in our northern sky. Today at the lake, two mallards preen on a half-submerged rock at the lake. Seagulls fly against the backdrop of mountains. The Ethan Allen tour boat heads out on its 10 a.m. trip. As I scan the horizon, I am reminded of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “Renascence”:

“All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.”

Clare and I come from traditions that taught that if we struggle with something, meaning will yield itself to us. When rabbis found passages from biblical texts that were confusing or troublesome, they developed a tradition of questioning and finding answers, hidden truths placed in the texts. In Catholicism, God’s miracles, if carefully examined and understood, would be revealed in the revelation stories.

My writing has challenged Clare.

Edna St. Vincent Millay—1917

“You know, I have been thinking about your teaching stories and about Jesus’ miracle stories,” Clare tells me. “In the stories the miracle was the vehicle of the message. They were revelation stories. They were stories that restored a sense of wonder in the person who was listening. I don’t know if you know this, but Jesus’ miracles were signs. They contained teachings.”

Searching my mind, I answer, “No. I don’t know anything about this. Of course, it wasn’t in my Hebrew School education either!”

“I wonder why!” she laughs. “Well, these stories revealed God’s redemptive power at work in the everyday circumstances of daily life. The teachings were to invite people to participate. His tales invited people in for the possibility of personal transformation, but the stories did not require this of the people listening. Did you know that there are roughly twenty-five healing stories and twenty nature or cosmic miracles?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Jesus and miracles

“The point I want to make, and maybe it’s something I can leave for other women, is when you tell me a teaching story from your own life, you have never imposed them on me. Yet they have had a profound effect on me.”

“Well, my intent isn’t to impose them on anyone but to show you something of my own experience and see if it can be of any use. I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel.”

She moves forward with our dialogue. “But clearly you have chosen them with an intent. This is not ordinary conversation here.”

“That’s true. I believe that we all have life stories that can be of value to each other, learnings we can pass on. I try to flip through my own file of stories and look for one that might be of value, see if I have anything that will either match your experience or enlarge it in some way.”

“I think that’s worth passing on in your writing. I realize that this is something I do when I work with people. I draw from my own life experiences. I realize that this is what I did during my Formation work in my community.”

“Where else should we go, what other direction, if we are not to impose someone else’s Grand Theories on our own life experiences?”

We sit together in a wiser collaborative silence.

The Peru Trip

Maybe something I can leave

In the summer, amazingly, Clare goes on a long trip with Lucille to Peru to visit Marlene. During her first session after the trip, she describes a scene that I store in my full treasure chest of stories and life seen through Clare’s Vision. “In Lima, the peasant woman arrives in town with her infant child and her blanket. She goes and buys one lemon and then spreads her blanket out and stays in the town square until she sells the lemon and can buy food for her mother and child. She returns home with a few pesos so she can return the next day and buy another lemon and then sell the lemon and return home with food for her mother and her child. The cycle of poverty.”

I am lost for a while in the place of my own pain about the scene, but as usual Clare sheds light on it.

Peru trip and poverty

“But Marlene is working with the peasants in Peru. The people are very poor, and in addition there has been a drought. They are subsistence farmers without much food. The family capital is usually one sheep or a cow. Typically, a family sells its one cow or sheep and then they take the money and buy alpaca wool and the woman in the family knits one sweater.” The excited storyteller and social activist leans forward.

“A group of commercial buyers from the states were buying these sweaters but at a very low price. The family would sell one sweater to these buyers and make enough money to eat and then they would turn around and do the same thing over and over. The people were caught in that endless cycle of poverty, never getting ahead and isolated from the larger community of commerce. The food these people did have was coming through the churches from the United States but that also kept these people dependent on an outside source of help, which, of course, they needed.

“Marlene and some other Sisters started working with the women who were at first isolated from each other and from each other’s villages. They started with a process of reflection—reflecting on what the people were doing—going through a thinking process, like this: ‘You sell the cow. How much do you keep after you buy the alpaca? Then after you card it and spin it?’ Marlene broke down how much work goes into each sweater with a kilo of wool. She demonstrated to them that those hours of work and other activities involved to make one sweater were valuable. They got a sense of what their work was worth. Then they met with women from other communities. They had to learn how to set a standard for each sweater’s color, the quality of the work. They learned how to organize, run meetings, take minutes. They developed a sense of their own power, and their sense of isolation was undone. Eventually they learned how to use the local bank to take out loans and how to write checks. They became part of the commerce and economy of Lima. There were seventeen villages in which these women were isolated from each other. Now, they have formed this cooperative, and they work together.”

Clare sits back now, satisfied that she has told the story as it should be told.



“Amazing! You may know that Freire called that process ‘conscientizacao,’ a process of critical thinking in which the people were liberated by their own process of examining the ‘pictures’ of their own oppression.”

“Yes, I do,” answers Clare. She sighs, but this time out of a fullness. “I have so much respect for my friend. She’s right there with the people.”

“Yes. She helped them break their own silence.”

Clare’s good mind demands more of me. “You know, I’d like to study that with you.”

“Well, actually, it’s what we’ve been doing all along, but yes, we can do this together. Examine the process more deliberately. It’s what consciousness raising is all about.”

The air again is filled with excitement. The woman with her infant and the blanket and the lemon now have a place in my office and become a teaching story for other women.


Word: conscientizacao


 At our next session, we speak again about Peru. I bring in some of my work with Astra. “Another woman I have worked with called my attention to the word omphalos, or the central point,” I tell Clare. “It was the symbol, not actually a place, for the idea that we are all from the Great Goddess, and from our mother’s navel. We all start from this place, and the earth itself, or herself, the Great Goddess. A stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi is thought to mark the center of the earth. Are you familiar with the word?”

“No. I don’t know it.”

“Neither did I. The navel of the earth is a world-wide symbol of centering for cities and civilizations. The name Cuzco, the old capital of Peru, means navel.”


Word: omphalos


Clare sits thoughtfully for a moment but with a mischievous look on her face. “Have you seen the ceiling mural where God is giving life to Adam? I believe it is in the Sistine Chapel, and the painting is called The Creation.”

“Yes. I know which one you mean. What’s your point here?”

“Well. That may be the artist’s idea of creation, but did you notice that Adam has a navel from, we can all assume, his Mother!”

We both sit satisfied that our mothers, and our connections with them, have a place both in great art and in archeology.


Often, our gifts are talked out of us. Like most therapists, I have been educated and have educated graduate students, about the importance of making eye contact. I have trouble letting go of my practice of looking into people’s eyes when I work with Clare. It takes me a while to realize that I do not need to have eye contact with her because she does not see me or know me with her eyes, nor does she communicate with me this way. We clearly understand each other more at the level of spirit. My experience as a cellist teaches me more about attunement (which comes from the vibrational fields of people in harmony with each other) than the theories of psychology regarding attunement or body language. When we are in each other’s presence, our work feels more like what I remember from playing in a quartet or from the knowledge I gained when I held one of my children in my arms.


Letting go of looking into Clare’s eyes


It is two summers now after Clare’s first visit and it is Clare’s Graduation Day. We are celebrating in the Glass Room at my house overlooking the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain. The Glass Room still retains the energies from Astra’s incantations and celebration. The pear tree that didn’t bear fruit after my hysterectomy is laden with white blossoms and fills the room with sweetness and promise.

It is a very happy day for Clare, and as usual she orchestrates the event. She has invited the leaders from her religious community and some other close friends. She reviews her studies and her future plans for work with everyone. After her personal thank yous and expressing the blessings she felt, she shares her favorite songs, Amazing Grace, We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle, and some other healing feminist songs we laughed, cried, and danced with in my office. Betty and I speak about our joy in working and studying with Clare and about the tremendous task she has undertaken and accomplished.

That day lives on in my memory about the wonderful things that women can accomplish—when we put our good minds to it.


The Glass Room

After graduation, Clare takes the summer off for a few trips twenty miles north, to a retreat on the lake owned by her community. Here, she takes time for rest, quiet, early morning lake walks and contemplative prayer with God.

In late summer, she gets ready for her new job at the small parochial elementary school established by her Order. I help Clare set up her office space and a play area for working with children. I have plenty of toys I am not using from the days when I worked with young children. Clare will have adequate toys and creative materials for her work there.


Healing in nature

It is late autumn. The leaves have peaked and the weather plummets to the 40s over a two-day period. I take a walk along the lake shore just as the sun is rising above our horizon and experience that moment when the first rays of the pale yellow disk melt the thin frost, and a leaf releases itself from its stem and falls to the ground.

Running parallel to Clare’s therapy work with me, I continue to meet with her on a regular basis regarding her work at the school or to talk with her on the phone when she needs consultation. Do I think that the father did molest the second grader? Is the incident reportable? Should she make a home visit? Where can she find that Freire quote for a classroom teacher?

She loves the work that she does. She is skilled, able, intelligent and very patient most of the time, but injustice gets her fired up, calls her to action, and she is ready to use her sharp and thoughtful tongue. She is exactly where she wants to be, at the forefront of social action, and despite the pain that occasionally comes, she is living in the manner that she chose a long time ago.

Clare walks everywhere she can. She walks four miles a day, three days a week. She is proud to a fault. When she needs help, she expects those who care about her to be mind readers. Later, even on the coldest days of winter at ten below, she waits at the bus stop a block from my office. On the days that she must get a ride, she hopes that someone will offer to pick her up without her having to ask. She gets rides not only from women who are members of her religious community but also from women who are part of the larger community of spiritual women.

I remember Teresa of Avila’s struggles as I work with Clare. For the last fifteen years of [Teresa of Avila’s] life, she traveled almost continually, making as many foundations as she could, despite persistent health problems and snowballing opposition from both civic and ecclesiastic authorities....


At the lake, winter is here. The swollen belly and the full abundant reclining female forms in rust, ochre, orange, peach, and persimmon of Astra’s October mountains disappear now. Dark blues, black purples, and pale green shadows cover the seemingly barren, dormant forms. We experience subterranean darkness. Coldness. Mystery.

Life is not a series of sequential dates. I am not looking for a linear psychological consistency in Clare’s story. A woman’s life is made up of chosen events and revelations, moments in which her spirit shines through the narrative. Rather than recording a composite of her personality, or following the instructions and admonitions of the diagnostic code book on the shelves in the outer room that are supposed to tell me whether this woman sitting before me is presenting herself with a pattern of normality or deviancy, I have listened for these moments, remembered and marked, the chosen events she highlights that make up her narrative or life story. Clare’s therapeutic record thus becomes, as we had discussed earlier, an Illuminated Manuscript.

Soon we move away from words that can protect, separate, and imprison us from ourselves and each other into the realm of No Words. Old barriers and structures are dissolved. We become two communicating vessels. We go to a place where any theoretical division between us is imaginary. Clare and I feed each other’s minds and imaginations constantly. We are obedient to our moods and creative impulses—naturalness and spontaneity, impro
visation, free associations of images and ideas.


Today I pull from whatever sources I can find within me to continue our soul work. Audre Lorde has written, “I find that I must remember that the pain is not its own reason for being. It is part of living, and we mustn’t subject ourselves to pain as an end in itself. And the only kind of pain that is intolerable is pain that is wasteful, pain from which we do not learn.”

“I feel such a kinship with her writing,” Clare tells me.

She continues. “You know. It’s strange. There is a giving in me now, a release of a whole new dimension of myself which I haven’t experienced before.”

I sit, now, in the Wisdom of Her Light.

There are always impasses in therapy that remain a mystery. Moments that can never be recalled. Sometimes the most poignant moments are expressed as a blank space in my writing pad. This happens, I think, when it becomes too difficult to find the words that match what we have just experienced. As Clare and I discovered early in our journey together, music rebirths us in the unstruck sound of space.

I think now of Teresa describing what the soul did during prayer time when she explained in her autobiography how she heard God speak to her: “Since it cannot comprehend what it understands there is an understanding by not understanding.”


I pour some hot tea, and we settle in to work. Clare has a soliloquy today.

“I think you need a pep talk. Last time you said that even though you adjust your fees, and that some women do not pay for their therapy, you struggle with knowing that poor women don’t get to come to therapy often and that to work with the poor you would have to work where the people are — out there on their turf. You said that doing therapy with the poor would mean not doing therapy in this office, closing this office.”

“Yes, I remember our conversation. I continue to struggle with this.” I sit back in my chair ready for her usual wisdom.

“I was thinking that this problem of yours is not so different from the discernment process that many of us went through in our religious communities. We struggled as our feminist minds became clearer, sharper. As we did our own analysis of our own situation, we saw the effect of the hierarchy on our own lives, and on those of the people we served. As we examined the language, the liturgy, the customs and interpretations of the Church, it became more and more difficult to represent the church.

“But we had to think of this whole idea of who is the church? Who is this institution we represent that we are part of? What is our role? We had to do a more careful analysis of our role in this institution. If we were to leave then we are saying that our thinking and our voice don’t matter, and we give up the impact we can have on others. If we left we would no longer be with those we wanted to serve. We redefined for ourselves that the Church is the people, and that we could be a better influence inside the system and be in solidarity with the people in this new way.

Audre Lorde

“Now, I want to say to you, who does this institution belong to that you are part of? Is it only the managers and business people? I don’t think so. I think it belongs to all of us, the way the church does. I don’t think of my therapy now as a luxury. You and I are both working with these institutions but pushing the boundaries and staying where our own gifts are. There are few enough feminist therapists in this community. Somebody has to show them that therapy takes more than six sessions to do this work! I can tell you that women are not going to be bound or drugged anymore. Where would those of us who are feminists go when we need help? I came because of my cancer, but it was only because I heard that you were a feminist that I actually picked up the phone and called you.” She is all fired up now.

“So I think each of us needs to work from where our gifts are. I don’t think you should leave the institution but work within it and push the boundaries of it. No one ever said it would be easy.”

I reach out to her and hold both of her soft, warm hands. “Thank you. I needed to hear that today. I think I should be paying you for the hour.”

Therapy is not a luxury

With the experience of a savvy fundraiser, she says, “Send it to the Peace and Justice Center.” I do.


There is less and less division as Clare and I work together between the secular and the religious world, or any inner or outer world. We experience sudden moments of insight, revelation, and epiphany when a single bead of thought fingered many times before takes on a new texture and meaning.

“What do you experience when you pray in that space?” I ask Clare.

“A spaciousness. There is a falling away of something.”

“Your habitual self?”

Send it to the Peace and Justice Center


“Yes, my habitual self.” She pauses for awhile. “I have come to an understanding now. Do you remember our early talks about the self? What I was questioning? Well, I understand now that the self is nothing more than what you, I mean, what I already am, my own true nature—maybe my eternal self.”

“Yes. You were that all along, a perfect self when you arrived here.”

“I think if we had named ourselves human beings instead of this self, it would have been a better way for us to think about this. It seems to me that we got caught up in all those self theories of everyone else’s. I feel that using the word self has me standing outside of My Original Self, examining this Other Self that someone else has named.”

I agree. “Yes, as soon as we women think about attending to this self, nurturing Ourselves, just the idea of it sets something off in us. We have been educated and trained and often want to do for others. Others come first, as women Religious, as mothers and wives, and this attention to self immediately sets off tremendous guilt in Ourselves. Ourselves have been excluded from the equation. That’s exactly how we continue our own oppression, by not examining these broad concepts.”

“I wonder what the field of psychology would do without a self to theorize about?” Raising her index finger, Clare admonishes me, “Make sure you put that idea into my story! And don’t leave any of it out!”

I’d better do some work here.


Clare’s voice leads today. “Last time you mentioned to me that there is an Inuit custom that offers the angry person release by walking the emotion out of her or his system in a straight line across the landscape and then the point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the anger or rage.”

Self talk


“Yes. Lucy Lippard, the feminist art critic, wrote about that in one of her books.”

“Well, I didn’t fully realize about the extent of my rage until you acknowledged it to me. It’s interesting. I like the idea that I could speak the rage through some action without acknowledging it straight on, and since my search for meaningful rituals has been an important part of my life, I am attracted to the idea. Also, I like the idea that there is something both visceral and communal about this custom. I like the idea of taking action.”

“Perhaps we can think about doing this ritual together.”

“Well, I am not sure there would be enough land for me to walk on before I laid down my stick!”

“In Vermont, I think we can find the land. If you decide to do this, the journey will not be uneventful. You will find many markers already in place by other women before you.”

“I wonder what they look like? And if I can find them?”

The buzzer holds her questions.


Lucy Lippard

A few sessions later, Clare is ready for her walking anger trip. We talk about where this might occur and rule out the convent grounds because these are already filled with prayer markers, monuments, and gardens of a different sort. I suggest the same lake area where Astra’s cleansing ritual took place, and on a warm spring day we head down to the lake. Together, at her home, we have already painted and decorated her Walking Anger stick. Clare decides she wants to do the walk alone and I sit near the shore on one of the boulders watching her journey. It does not surprise me that at some point I lose sight of her! Later we walk along the shore and visit some of the other secret markers left by other women. We leave the lake satisfied that a personal journey has joined with communal journeys and that Clare has measured her own anger and marked it. We move forward now with a new energy and satisfaction of a job well performed.


The same day that Clare lies on the large, mobile CAT scan table for a repeat bone scan, we hear on the news that crowds of people from the extreme right are demonstrating against the First Feminist Conference in Jerusalem and the presence of a group of women praying at the Wall.

Another day Clare comes in for a session during the middle of a series of chemotherapy. She has learned on television about the Tower of Retreat that Carl Jung built for himself. It was the place where he went to create and think new ideas.

Ritual at the lake

“I wonder what his wife and children were doing while he was in his great tower?” she quips.

Therapy and real life expand and contract across time, and we always have decisions to make. There are days when any new data in the form of medical reports, x-rays, and blood chemistries is a burden for both of us, and days when Clare makes it clear that she prefers not to understand it all. She has earned the right to do this, yet she continues to make informed decisions about the various medical and surgical options available.

There are times when she has to make decisions regarding her vision; times when we weigh whether she should to go back to Boston for laser treatments; times when she has to change her living arrangements within her community to meet the changes in her physical needs.


Often when I sit with Clare in that Deep Silence where she comfortably goes and which I do not want to interrupt, I wonder about the thoughts and images she experiences there. Are they an escape from everything or is she simply taking refuge in her God or reflecting on one of her favorite Psalms? I try not to ask Clare too often about the specifics of these conversations with God, but I can often see the results of her prayers in her new energy and commitment.

In one of our many conversations about language, gender, and religious texts, and in the middle of another series of medical decisions, I remember saying to Clare, “I think it was Luther who said, ‘A woman is not fully master of herself.’”

Pain and humor
In the spirit of the moment, she adds, “So much for the wisdom of men and the Reformation!” We both double over with the sound and pain of our joined laughter. The pain and power of the cancer momentarily disappear.


Clare’s self-blame, discouragement, anger, and disappointment return at different times in our work together, similar to the time of her early visits immediately after the initial diagnosis of cancer was made. Especially now, as she deals with the physical side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation. But we both continue to give breath to her Life Story, and overtones of sadness are mixed with moments of wonderful humor.

I am reminded of Teresa’s many illnesses

Today Clare comes in after chemotherapy. “You know it’s really something. They call my discomfort and reactions to the chemotherapy the side-effects of the chemotherapy. Well,” she quips, “it’s not the side-effects, it’s the effects of it!”

And as she lives through the various treatments, she also lives through her doubts and fears about the reality of living with cancer and its recurrences.


Word: side-effects

Today, she comes in for a “tune-up” as she calls it, a return to do some healing work together. It is now almost eight years since our first formal therapy sessions. We have continued to see each other when she needs to consult with me, or we might collaborate on the phone, but some data does not have to be interpreted. Truth has a quality to it. She struggles this week with pain, fatigue, and medical decisions. There can be no more trivial activities. She must simplify life even further—to the bare essentials. Her right hip pain has lessened, but she tires in the course of a day and needs to attend to how she allocates her energy.

8 years later—tune-up

Like the teaching of all of the sacred traditions, Clare’s life is focused on disciplining her mind, tuning the quality of her attention—prayer, meditation and discernment—all Ancient Soul Work. She draws now from a part of herself that is nameless and spaceless, previously known to her in prayer. But we can turn to the lives of Clare or Teresa, and what they desired to hand down to us about prayer, and living in community.

We are engaged in an activity that is not about stitching and pasting our egos back together again. We have transcended to a place beyond all psychological theories.

“I get up at seven or eight,” she tells me. “I force myself to get out of bed to avoid climbing into a deep hole. I speak with God over breakfast. I watch TV and then shower. Then I start my relaxation and centering work. Lately, I have been visualizing my cancer cells as bubbles; I use a bright light to give them a real zap. And I see my eye as a hard ball. I breathe into it and make it softer and more pliable.

“But yesterday I tried what you said on the phone. I actually brought my eyes and my hip together within my visualization. I stopped having that terrible fight within me, you know, that I should have one but not the other, not two things together. The vision was enough, then the cancer. Now I discovered that they could be there together in me, in the same body. I can live with them both within me. It was an incredible feeling when this happened. Not fighting. Letting go.

Teresa, in describing what the soul did during prayer time, writes in her autobiography how she heard God speak to her, “Since it cannot comprehend what it understands there is an understanding by not understanding.”

“It was,” she pauses reflectively, “integrating would be the word, I think. I am not fighting now. It has taken so much energy fighting both. It is so much easier this way. I have come to some peace.”

I am relieved. “So, it was comforting?”

“Surprisingly so. I know that I was able to let go of something, some holding on, maybe to an idea or belief, and I feel different now.

Word: integrating

“I want you to know that I understand something now that I didn’t understand when I first came in, in that search for what I needed here. I understand that you have been a transitional person for me. I realize that on some level I knew that I could not continue my feminist work in the larger arena of my community and its extended communities. It is difficult work, analyzing the effects of hierarchical patterns of relating, the effects of oppression on the poor, and how to make the fundamental changes. I see now that I had to attend more to my own health needs, my own situation. By going through that process with you about what is the self. Isn’t it selfish to focus on the self?”

“I remember that very well, our struggle. Please go on,” I urge Clare.

“Well, I understand now my persistence and my insistence that you hear my communal experience with its philosophy of a communal self, rather than a personal self. It was a terrible struggle for me to let go of that and focus on my own needs. But you were a feminist and you were a person who understood her own struggle, so I knew I had someone to dialogue with me. Someone I could continue the journey with a different focus but with the collective experience still in place. It was so reassuring for me. Were you aware of this in your work with me?”

“Of my role as you named it just now?”

“Yes,” Clare answers.

“No. I hadn’t conceptualized it that way, but I supported your right to attend to your own life without thinking of it as selfish, or self-centered. This is how I learn from each woman as she explains more to me of her own process. Then I can use the concepts with other women — the idea of thinking of myself as a transitional person from here to there.”

“That’s why I am telling you. To pass it on to others. And it wasn’t only transiting from here to there. There was a qualitative shift in me, particularly after those series of dreams.”

“I have much respect for you, dear friend, and so much to learn from you,” I t
ell Clare.

You have been a transitional person

“Well, just don’t forget, you have to tell it like it is!” she reminds me like the teacher reminds the school child about homework to be done.


Clare heals in the silence of unworded sound, through community love and friendship, through music and dance, through communal prayer, through renewed purpose, and through the love of joined solitudes. Imagery and meditation, attention to her dreams, journal writing, readings, and tapes continue to be important sources of comfort and help Clare to maintain a quality of life that has meaning to her—service and identity with the disenfranchised.

Communal Healing

Tell it like it is

It is February, a year later, and I have received a letter from Joyce inviting me to a gathering in celebration of Clare’s life. None of us know that this will be our last February with Clare, but Clare, with her great wisdom, living within her own body knowledge, probably knows this.

The invitation reads:

“At Clare’s request, a celebration of Clare’s life by story telling, prayer, and sharing a meal. Would you bring something to share, like a prayer, a story or whatever, in your experiences and connections with Clare’s life? Hope you can come. Can you bring some cheese? We expect about ten people. Love, Joyce.”

We meet at Bethany House, a small house at the base of the convent grounds where three Mercies live. Some of Clare’s community of Women Religious are there, the women she has journeyed with in her religious life, her niece (I smile, remembering she is the one who told her aunt that she needed a shrink), and Joanne, the woman whose home Clare often visits and who so often inspirits her in friendship and prayer.

Tonight is Clare’s way of acknowledging that she is very sick, that she needs community help, and that she believes in community prayer for healing. In typical fashion, she has prepared something to say to each of us. She wants to tell us the ways in which we have connected with her. Clare has composed the whole service herself, but Laura guides us through one of the activities. She asks each of us to write something on a paper about what we need to do for our own healing. Then each of us burns our paper in the woodstove. After the communal healing ceremony, we all share a simple loaf of homemade bread and a tortellini soup.

I am glad to be here in this communal setting, and so happy for Clare that she is able to ask for what she truly needs, but the evening is difficult for me. I am aware that I am protecting myself. I do not want to feel my inevitable loss in advance of experiencing it.


Oral narcotic analgesics aren’t working now. Clare is no longer able to take them because of the terrible nausea she experiences. She agrees to an implantation of epidural catheter for the severe pain she has in her lower back. She decides to be admitted to the hospital for this procedure. She also makes the decision against hormonal treatment, another option open to her.

Clare’s celebration

This spring, reluctantly but wisely, and after deep reflection with her community of Sisters, Clare signs a Durable Power of Attorney and Living Will, appointing Sisters Joyce and Marlene as her agents. In addition, she makes clear what it is she wants for her care in the terminal stages of her illness when she enters the convent infirmary.

What Do You Need, Clare?

Living Will

It is December, nine years after our initial meeting. I head out of my house into the blizzardy late night after a brief talk with Clare on the phone.

“What do you need, Clare?”

“I need to say I love you,” is her whispered answer.

It is difficult to scrape the thick night ice off my windshield and get the crusted cover of snow off my van. The hair in my nostrils freezes. My fingertips are numb even before I turn on the ignition. The five-minute ride to the convent takes twenty minutes and seems endless. The road is one continuous sheet of black ice. The convent lights are a beacon as I drive onto the grounds. I spend a few minutes in the white chapel, centering myself. I have brought a few gifts for Clare, but when I go up to the infirmary, I realize that what I have brought from the material world is no longer of use here. Marlene, called back from Peru, is by her bedside. Clare is edematous and very pale, but Joyce and Joanne, who are doing most of the nursing care, are grateful that her skin hasn’t broken down. The primary colors of the afghan covering her stabilize me. Marlene gives me her chair. Holding Clare’s left hand with both my hands, I try to feel my way into our space as we have always done. Finally, I say, “Clare. It’s Judith.”

“I know. I know it’s you,” she says impatiently.

“Can you tell me what you are thinking?” My words sound so clinical and out of place, but I need to know.

9 years later

“Yes. I am thinking about being in my own reality now. I’m in my own reality,” and she lapses into a semi-sleep. In that brief fold of time, I realize with the greatest reluctance that I must begin the labor of letting go of my friend as I have helped her to do earlier. It is only much later after my own healing that I understand that what feels like such a chasm, such a loss, in real time is only a continuous, unending flow in soul time.

I’m in my own reality now

As we gather that late night in winter in the convent within our sadness, we all manage a laugh that neither God nor Clare has decided it will be a quick death! Then Joyce comes into the room with a communion wafer for Clare. I ask if Clare and I can have communion together. Clare, eyes closed, has heard me, nods, and opens her mouth to receive her half. Joyce breaks the sacred white wafer in half and brings it to our lips. In that sacred moment, the Catholic nun, the Jewish therapist, and the childhood memory of my mother that summer day in church become one.

This healing moment has sustained me for many months through the loss of a friend and a visionary.

Infirmary Journal Notes

A shared communion


The following notes are from the infirmary journal, written by Clare’s community of Sisters. A copy of this journal was at Clare’s final service.

“We thought (at 2:00 a.m.) that maybe Clare’s family would appreciate notes about this part of her journey. We could sign them, too.”

2:00-4:00 a.m., Wednesday, January 15

Clare is sleeping off and on. She has had some very alert times, too. I massaged her hands and read from Hildegard, one of her favorites. I asked Clare to blink if she would like the music to stay on...she blinked immediately.

4:00-6:00 a.m., January 15

I think again of Teresa’s struggles with her health, near death, and her identity and service with the suffering.

It is now my privilege to be with Clare and pray with her during this sacred time. We prayed the rosary, Glorious Mysteries, with me saying it in a loud whisper. Gave Clare some juice on the sponge swab. Beth later explained a more effective way so Clare could squeeze the juice. Clare has been awake off and on. For the past twenty minutes—and continuing—Clare has been very peaceful and quiet, having a restful sleep.

As I was sitting here and thinking about this journal, I suddenly realized—felt—how present all Clare’s family and friends are to her at this time. Even though it appears Clare and I are the only ones here, in actuality the room is overflowing!

May the Peace of Christ be with you, Clare, always, and with all of us who love you and all you have touched.

Sister Laura, 6:45 a.m.

Clare continues to rest comfortably. She had a long stretch (over one and one half hours) of quiet restfulness. When I would pray aloud (in a whisper), she would open her eyes in attentiveness and in communion. Beth brought her fresh water and juice—grape this time—and she had a little bit...seems to have had enough for now. I will be going over to the school shortly, but will carry Clare and her family, friends, intentions, and these grace-filled hours with me, giving thanks and praise to our God.

Sister Laura, 7:30 p.m.

I haven’t seen Clare since December 15 and today I saw a big change, still “hanging in there” and communicating with her eyes and hand grasp. As always, she’s a wonderful and attentive listener. We held hands, massaging Keri lotion. She seemed to enjoy the touching. We reminisced about days gone by and some good times together. I told her she was, as always, in my thoughts and prayers. God bless.

Sister Cheryl, Wednesday 10:20 p.m.

We are gathered together around Clare’s bed, Community and friends. She has weakened, but managed to communicate these words, “The Lord is helping me.” We affirmed Clare’s message and we continued to support Clare by speaking her name and praying the Psalms with her and keeping physical contact with her. She continues to bless us with her love and her presence. Peace, my friend!

Sister Gail, Thursday, January 16 6:00 a.m.

Teresa of Avila said, “The things of the soul must always be considered as plentiful, spacious and large.”

Clare is in a more restful place now. Many have kept vigil through the night. At 3:00 a.m., it looked as though she had decided to leave. But, being a woman of surprises, Clare stayed in form, and is still walking the road this morning. Beth has been wonderful through the night. Sister Hilda came in, stood by the bed, and touched Clare. Her feet are mottled and her breathing is irregular.

We continue to pray for Clare’s new birth. Clare relaxed last evening when Marlene spoke the word “Hope.” Clare nodded “Yes” and began to let go. Clare is very relaxed and unresponsive verbally when we turn and clean her. Beth would like to be called when Clare dies. Dear God, please be merciful to our sister Clare. Her journey has been one of truth, of struggle, and of love.


We prayed the inclusive Psalm 23, Good Shepherd. Clare listened, then I said I was going to pray Psalm 139. She gave a big sigh! She listened to music, her favorites, “Songs for Your Journey“, “Who has Touched the Sky“, and “Sing My Soul” (John Michael Talbot songs). Clare’s vision: Walk on with hope in your heart through the storm.

Sister Marlene

Clare’s breathing is much more shallow this morning. She does not seem to be aware. I pray she will be able to let go and receive new life. What a glorious life awaits her.

Sister Mary, Friday, January 17, 1992

Clare has morphine and an injection. Joanne is giving her a hand massage, and I have been giving her water on a swab stick. We have ocean sounds on the tape, a sound image Clare used to love. Gail, Joanne, and I are watching with her.

Sister Joyce, 1:45 p.m.

Sister Lucille and I (Dorothy) in with dear Sister Clare to wish her a peaceful journey to Our Lord who awaits her. May she remain in our hearts and memories always and be received hand in hand as all the Sisters who have gone before her help her along the way. We love you, Sister Clare. God grant her the greatest life hereafter.

Dorothy, 2:00 a.m. and through the night

Peggy came to sleep over and stayed up all night, as did Betty, Lindy, and the Sisters who signed up. Lucille, Gail, and I were up there off and on.

The night was fitful. Clare kept giving us false alarms, and I ran upstairs several times. Her fighting spirit dominated to the end.

When she died about 7:00 a.m., Lindy, Peggy, Margaret, Lucille, and I were with her. Her death was very quiet and peaceful...she just stopped breathing. Peggy and I prepared her body. A few of her friends stopped by. It was a very spiritual experience.

Sister Joyce

Community Post Script

Four years later, I open her thick, dark green folder and sit here, remembering her. A flood of multi-colored greeting cards, a newspaper clipping, a palm leaf, a white stone, the announcement of her graduation, and the invitation to her Memorial Service all fall into my lap. The salt water tears that I would never allow myself in my office, nor at the convent, nor at the funeral I did not go to, are here now.

Clare’s Rule (1253):

3. The door is to be well secured by two different iron locks, with bars and bolts, 4. so that, especially at night, it may be locked with two keys, one of which the portress is to have, the other the Abbess. 5. And during the day the door must not be left unguarded on any account, but should be firmly locked with one key.

7. Regarding the sisters who are ill, the Abbess is strictly bound to inquire with all solicitude by herself and through other sisters what [these sick sisters] may need both by way of counsel and of food and other necessities, and, according to the resources of the place, she is to provide for them charitable and kindly. 8. [This is to be done] because all are obliged to serve and provide for their sisters who are ill just as they would wish to be served themselves if they were suffering from any infirmity. 9. Each should make known her needs to the other with confidence. For if a mother loves and nourishes her daughter according to the flesh, how much more lovingly must a sister love and nourish her sister according to the Spirit!

6. The chaplain may not be permitted to enter the monastery without his companion. 7. And when they enter, they are to remain in an open place, in such a way that they can see each other always and be seen by others. 8. For the confession of the sick who cannot go to the parlor, for their Communion, for the Last Anointing and the Prayers for the Dying, they are allowed to enter the enclosure.


It takes more than one woman’s therapist to write the rich text of a woman’s life. For Clare’s life story it takes a community of women to remember and reflect on the meaning of her life. It is the same community of women with whom she shared that life. I have worked with each of these women in a number of different ways and in a number of different settings. Lucille started and directs a shelter for homeless men, women, and families. Marlene worked in Peru, and after Clare’s death, started a homeless shelter for women in her community. Jan has left the community and lives with her partner. Joanne, a nurse, spiritual friend, and homeopathic practitioner, leads a spiritual life in the lay community and has established a Hospice Program attached to her house.

At different times, for the preparation of Clare’s story, I met with Lucille, Marlene, Jan, and Joanne. These meetings provided an additional healing for all of us.

Community remembrance

In reminiscing about a trip in which she accompanied Clare to Boston for laser surgery for her cataract, Joanne remembered the joy Clare experienced after leaving the hospital, as amorphous forms and shapes began appearing as discrete objects—people, buildings, trees—as they walked around the city. Clare said, “You know, I feel like I am in the story straight from Mark 8:22:

“And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up and said, ‘I see men as trees, walking.’ After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly.”

Joanne tells me, “For about three years we met two times a year, for The Sacrament of Reconciliation. Those are the new words for Confession. We would light a candle and reflect on what was creating a gap between ourselves and God. We would pick something to read from scripture that had to do with what we were reflecting on and where we were with our own healing. Then we blessed each other with a prayer. You know, Clare was so understanding, so large in her belief. There was always room for a larger reflection in her presence. And you know, there is something very special and empowering about receiving God’s grace and forgiveness through a woman.”

It was only later in talking with Lucille about writing Clare’s story that I learn more about discernment.


Lucille explains. “Discernment is a decision-making process of trying to figure out or think about the community mission and one’s own gifts, and trying at the same time to figure out the will of God, but, then,” she smiles, “of course, how does one know God’s will? A person has gifts in certain areas and there are identified needs of the community, by this I mean not just our Mercy community, but the larger world community and the overall mission of the Mercies. We have a mission statement and our lives should be consistent with it. What are the needs of community and what can I bring to the situation? Where does it feel right that I be with this situation? In the end what am I at peace with? This is what discernment means to me and to most of us, I think.”

Lucille: discernment


I meet later with Marlene: “You have to understand novitiate life when we entered. All the novitiates sat at one table. When we had tea, Clare and I would have to take this huge, heavy container and go and serve tea to the older sisters at the other long table while their teacups were shaking. It was terrible, especially for Clare with her vision problem.” She looks off for a moment beyond me at the internal scene in her mind.

“In the early sixties, academic women impacted on religious life. We were running hospitals and teaching and we became very educated in science, but also we had theology and scripture. Science and education were changing in the larger society—people walking on the moon, and so forth. We were very privileged with our philosophy and theology classes. So that’s why religious life contributes to feminist theology.”

Marlene: the sixties

Marlene continues, “We were also blessed with Vatican II. It affected our thinking and our theory making. And we were affected by the Viet Nam War but we all had limited resources about what we could do. We didn’t listen to radio and TV but we were influenced by the monks’ writings. We were able to read about the politics of it all. By 1968, there was a whole bunch of women in our community with an education and an evolving critical consciousness.

Vatican II—1962

“So, in the late sixties, theology, scripture and philosophy came together—Viet Nam, issues of social justice and liberation theology. And then our Sisters coming out of Latin America started the dialogues about options for the poor. How do we work with the poor—systematically? That’s where Paulo Freire came in for me.”

“Yes. You mean his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed?” I ask.


“Yes. That’s it. All of these had tremendous impact on religious organizations. In 1968, Mary Daly was still in the church. She began to open up the analysis for examining church language and church liturgy. We read Daly’s The Church and the Second Sex, Christ and Plaskow’s Womenspirit Rising, then came Ruether’s Sexism and God Talk. These writings and philosophy were very formative to our thinking.”

“Yes. At that time, in addition to the books you just mentioned, I was reading On Being a Jewish Feminist, and Carol Christ’s Diving Deep and Surfacing,” I share with Marlene.

Mary Daly, Carol Christ, and Judith Plaskow, and Rosemary Radford Reuther

“Oh, and The Politics of Women’s Spirituality by Charlene Spretnak. And later came Womenguides: Readings Toward a Feminist Theology. Then there was Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s work on feminist hermeneutics, that is, a feminist interpretation of scripture, how our different experiences inform our spirituality, theology, and politics. We were looking at the power structure in our own lives and different models for relating. We were critiquing other images of God. And we looked at collegiality, the sharing of decision making, and our corporate stand as Mercies. In our community, we shifted to decision making by consensus from our previous top-down model and our prayer forms changed.

Charlene Spretnak and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza


“We experimented with liturgy and ritual, outside of the public forum. And of course, getting back to 1964 and Vatican II, the seeming absolutes in the church were then questioned. How do we as Sisters want to live our lives? The whole question of the relevancy of our lives. What does it mean to be a Sister of Mercy? What am I going to commit myself to? The how was the next step. There was a clear crisis of meaning in our communities.

“At that time I didn’t have the language and the critical analysis. I just had an intuitive understanding. That’s when communication problems began for me. It was a terrible time. I felt and was sometimes belittled and dismissed, not taken seriously and I lost my self-confidence. I didn’t have the context or mentors and I was responding intuitively—emotionally—because people didn’t understand what I was trying to articulate. Some people had a sense of my groping and of the few peers I had, three women actually left our community,” Marlene continues.

“But Clare was not in that mold. She had a reverence already for struggle. She knew what struggle was. She was articulate and bright and she could listen and articulate for me what I was trying to say. At this point I was shipped out and I was hanging on like a thread. Clare reverenced the struggle within me. I remember I said to her how can you take final vows? We had many hours of this kind of self-questioning and analysis.”

“But you decided to stay.”

“Yes. We felt there was so much to do within the church, our community, and the larger world, but it was a huge struggle for us.

“When I came back from Peru in 1986 we were dealing with the ERA issues then. There was vitality, excitement, but after that I lost the movement person in Clare. She was then having to maintain her health; that was primary for her. I was very concerned along with Lucille and Joyce and Jan (who left the community later) about how to support Clare. Was she getting what she needed? Would she ask? That’s why we met with you, if you remember. What does a primary relationship between women friends mean if it’s not sexual? What is our responsibility to each other? If anything happens to you, I’m responsible. That’s where the communal thing comes in for all of us. I’m responsible for you.

1986 ERA


“For Clare, I think, the big question was how do you reverence your own tradition? And how do you integrate a holistic mode, the sacred in your life that goes beyond patriarchy? Clare was working on imagery and the re-creation of her life. She was trying to find new paradigms for expression from dogmatic ritual. You were a strong and stable bridge for Clare, helping her to make the transition to a new vocation as a school counselor and finding a place for feminist theory and practice within that work. So, now I think you’ve got it all. Have you been able to pull the pieces together?”

“Yes, very much so. I have a much more expansive map of Clare’s thinking and activities before she came for therapy. It is more like a three-dimensional topographical map for me now.”

We sit in a long Reverent Silence for our struggle.

Clare blessedly had a few years in which she was relatively pain-free. It is only much later when I review Clare’s medical and surgical history for this writing that I am surprised at how many doctor’s appointments, x-rays, bone scans, chemotherapy, and other treatments she actually had and how many ongoing decisions she had to make over the years.

She had pain in her pelvis, right hip, and sacrum that varied in intensity over time. Sometimes the pain was tolerable, eased with simple analgesics, and sometimes not.

Later she had to have her right hip replaced when the hip was not able to survive the cancer cells that had replaced the bone cells.

Clare’s markers of life were not measured on the calendar by her appointments and the divisions of medicine. They were, at first, but she realized that this would do her in. She could not hang on the latest x-ray or lab report as a determinant of whether she would have a good hour, or day, or week.

There was so much disruption for her. I realize now that her life was not measured by these medical markers. She had another path, Another Way with different stations. What we did was balance medical probabilities and statistics with human possibilities. This was Clare’s living story.

It is bittersweet remembering my answer to one of Clare’s questions shortly before our formal work ended.

“I was wondering. Can we be friends outside of therapy when my healing is over?”

“Well, I think you know that I am a very private person. The way I think about this is if I stay your therapist you will always have a friend, but if I am your friend, I cannot be your therapist.”

I was so sure about my response to her then that I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Other women had asked me the same question. At the time of our conversation, my answer sounded so wise, so professional, so obvious.

Now upon reflection, I realize how wrong I was. My response was safe, clean, uncomplicated. My protected response was a mimicking of what had been taught to me, the words and jargon of the profession. In fact, it was not what I really believed or practiced. Not with Clare, nor with Astra, nor with Nancy and Alison. My early unexamined answer to Clare was reproducing a Way that was not Our Way.

If Clare had challenged me on that day in her usual way, if she had said spiritual sister or spiritual friend, I would have been required to think further about my original response, but I remember on that particular day she was tired and concerned about her own health. I believe I was unfair to this woman who was so practiced in social justice.

Only now, over time, and as a result of my own writing and after many conversations with other women do I understand more fully that our therapy is a woman-identified experience and rests on a continuum of female friendship. We are and must continue to be primary and central in each other’s lives, both in and out of my office.

Can we be friends outside of therapy?


In the process of writing Clare’s story, I found again the work of Mary Daly. She suggests a wonderful term, “be-friending.” She writes, “Be-Friending is the creation of a context/atmosphere in which acts/leaps of Metamorphosis can take place…” Daly continues, “I do not mean to suggest that every woman, or even every feminist, can ‘be a friend to’ or ‘be friends with’ every other woman.” She suggests that friendship may not be possible among all feminists but that we can all share in the activity of “Be-Friending.” Daly writes that, “Be-friending involves Weaving a context in which women can Realize our Self-transforming, metapatterning participation in Be-ing.” She then gives as an example Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex (1952), which created the knowledge and climate for women to start a dialogue with themselves and with other women. “Many such women, thus re-awakened, began to have conversations, take actions, write articles.”

This is a good example of how a therapist must think her way through these dilemmas, for the woman I am today is not the woman I was before I wrote about Clare, and Astra, and Nancy and Alison. And I know that I am not now the woman I am yet to be.

In the course of my work with Clare, I never shared the evocative memories of my mother that Clare’s first and subsequent visits stirred in me. I had not yet examined enough, nor worked through my own personal process enough, to do this. After I did, I was able to share this new Motherstory with other women.

Clare required of me to name more deeply what we do here and to name the other dimensions of Astra’s and Nancy’s stories that I may not have named, but we clearly experienced together.

I cannot imagine that Clare saw a light at death that was brighter than the light and vision she had on earth. In our work together, she had so much inner light that I forgot she had so little of the outer light with which to see.

Mary Daly

Word: befriending


Now, I find my own way to remember Clare. I send a yearly donation in memory of her to the convent, and I light a Yarzeit candle—a Jewish memorial candle—on the eve of her death.



Dear Barbara Newman,

I am currently working on a manuscript regarding my work with women. Can you tell me if Hildegard did her own art work or did she tell her visions to someone else and that person did the work? Thanks for your help.

Judith Fortune Koplewitz, Ph. D.

Dear Dr. Koplewitz,

It’s a good question, but we don’t really know who produced the illuminations to Hildegard’s manuscripts. The only one that might go back to her is the early Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript, which was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden in WWII; but fortunately a hand-painted, color facsimile exists, produced by Hildegard’s nuns in the late 1920s. The paintings in the original ms. (circa 1165?) may have been based on rough sketches made by Hildegard on was tablets which were used by medieval writers for their rough drafts. Another person trained in manuscript painting (a monk or perhaps a nun from Hildegard’s monastery) might then have done the actual execution of the miniatures. But this is only speculation. No contemporary suorce tells us anything about the production of the paintings, although they do say a great deal about the production of Hildegard’s writing. I would refer you to my edited volume, Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World (U. of California Press, 1988). In addition to my introductory essay, you’ll want to read the piece by Madeline Caviness on Hildegard as artist. This is as good an essay as I know on the question that interests you, and is written for the non-specialist. With all good wishes,

Barbara Newman
Professor of English and Religion
Northwestern University

Dear Carol Berkin,

I am a psychologist. White, 75 and live in Burlington, Vermont. I admire your work and have used some of your work from Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives in my own work. In addition I have seen/heard you on Cspan2 with a panel of other women scholars. I have been working on a manuscript describing my therapeutic work with three women using the women’s own words. I am conceiving the therapy record as a therapy text—to supplement or to replace the typical case study record. The guidance I am looking for from you has to do with needing some help in finding primary sources of therapy or psychiatric records from the Victorian or earlier period. I note your own references to the many ways we can learn about women’s lives in the past. court records and wills, letters, diaries , day books, poetry, petitions, newspaper ads, trials and court records, laws and statutes, material artifacts such as birthing stools and tombstones, medical books, midwives journals, sermons, obituaries, oral histories, folk legends, and myths, church baptismals and burial records, etc. I am familiar with descriptions in women’s literature of their own experiences and of course with Freud and his cronies writings but don’t know where I might look for the records themselves. Thank you for your help. It is 20 below here today!

Dear Judith,

Your project sounds very interesting. Unfortunately, my expertise is entirely in 17th and 18th century material— you need to contact someone who works in late 19th century history. Perhaps Regina Morantz Sanchez, who did a book called Science and Sympathy and covers Victorian era scientific thought on women in America. Or you might contact Judy Walkowitz who works in English women’s history.

I wish you good luck,

Carol Berkin

Dear Judith,

I have only last week been able to read through the proposal and chapter of “A Therapists Journal.” As I told you, my comments will of necessity be brief, so here you have them. Since you have read my work, you know that I am not very keen on therapy. I was pleasantly surprised by your work, especially the part of the text where Betty comes into the picture and helps put the personal in a wider context. And this relates to my suggestions for the book.

I think you are not only using women’s words in therapy as text, but you are also using a different kind of “therapeutic” context where you bring in a philosopher and a philosophical framework from which to work. In my opinion, you need to foreground this innovation much more in the proposal. It’s hardly mentioned there.

Also re the “big maps” theme, my suggestion is that it could be made even bigger in the sense that there is a whole social and political structure out there which impacts directly and indirectly on, in this case, Astra’s life. Although you focus on the more philosophical questions of society, nature and cosmos, this is done in a more individualistic way. For example, what’s happening in the world, especially to women, at the time that Astra is developing an altered state of consciousness and learning to live with the abuse in her home? What kind of abuse are women “learning to live with” in general at this point. Is there some relationship? And what’s the importance of even talking about this?

It seems to me that there is a real necessity to frame this even wider, especially in a work that has taken this “big map” framework on as a major theme.

Sorry my comments are brief, but these were my main impressions. I wish you well with the continued writing


Jan Raymond

Dear Judith:

I’m in Africa on business and won’t be back until September. I’ll try to get to your manuscript, but I warned you about my life, if you remember.


Dear Florence Howe,

I have had a few days off this weekend to think, after helping my associate Betty to recover from a small clot at the base of her brain, which left her suddenly without vision for a while. I would like to say that I understand that you are too busy. Life too short to pressure anyone, especially someone who has given so much to the larger community.

Thank you so much and stay well,



Clare’s Bibliography
(Manuscript page number. Work cited; page number of quotation, if applicable. See bibliography for full information on works cited.)


16. Drinker, Sophie. Music and Women; p. 133.

17. Quoted in Vitebsky, Piers. The Shaman; p.19.

22. Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion.

34. Wittig, Monique. Les Guérillères; p.89.

37. Flinders, Carol Lee. Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics. From pp. 155-190.

53-54. Near, Holly. “Something About the Women” (song) in Singing for Our Lives.

55. Hildegard of Bingen quoted in “Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen” (CD booklet). Hollywood, CA: Angel Records, 1994.

55-56. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider; pp. 40-41.

59. Woolf, Virginia. Quoted in Pope, Kenneth S., and Jerome L. Singer, eds. The Stream of Consciousness: Scientific Investigations into the Flow of Human Experience.

118-119. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

119. Daly, Mary. The Church and the Second Sex.

119. Christ, Carol P., and Judith Plaskow, eds. Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion.

119. Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology.

119. Heschel, Susannah. On Being a Jewish Feminist.

119. Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest.

119. Spretnak, Charlene, ed. The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement.

119. Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Womanguides: Readings Toward a Feminist Theology.

123. Daly, Mary. Quoted in Plaskow, Judith, and Carol P. Christ, eds. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality; pp. 199-200.




Photo Credits

The Sofonisba Anguissola painting is in the public domain worldwide due to the death of its author, or due to its date of publication. Thus, this reproduction of the work is also in the public domain. This applies to reproductions created in the United States (see Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.), in Germany, and in many other countries.

According to Cris Williamson’s official website, this photo may be used for promotional or educational purposes. Photo taken by Irene Young. Photo source:

The photo of Audre Lorde is a video still from:
The Edge of Each Other’s Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde  2002
Courtesy of producer Jennifer Abod.  

Jennifer Abod, with a Ph.D. in Intercultural Media Education and Women’s Studies, is an award winning feminist media producer and professor who was part of the dawning of the second wave of feminism in the U.S.  Visit her website at

“Something About the Women.” Words and music by Holly Near © 1978 Hereford Music (ASCAP).