Human Being

Day 4 (Sheila Cassidy)

I'll talk about the time I was in prison tonight, and about when I came home tomorrow.

I think I'm becoming famous for a new theology - the theology of rainbows? How many times do they appear in the bible? 4 times: first in the Noah story, which is about God's covenant; then in the obscure book Ezekiel when he was walking alongside the river he had a vision with a great rainbow surrounding the throne of God; this happened at the time he was called to be a prophet, so they are a sign of calling as well as covenant; then in Revelation 1 -- a bit like a disco! Again around the throne -- so they are a sign of the revelation of God; then in one of the Wisdom books -- how the beauty of God is made manifest. But I want you to see them as a sign of covenant, calling, and revelation.

Have you heard of Oscar Romero, who went from right-wing to a prophet who was eventually shot? There is no doubt he was called as a prophet to speak for those who have no voice. Think about the nature of call... one of the ways to understand this is to look at some of the call stories in scriptures: look at Abraham, for example; a real man from Ur (Iraq) -- his call into the unknown: ``Leave your people and go to a land I will show you''. In fact all of us are called into the unknown -- we do not know what will happen.

Then look at the call of Moses. Remember he was a murderer who had to flee the police into the desert. He saw the burning bush, and God spoke to him from the bush; and he said he was a stutterer, and God said You go... God calls the unsuitable, because God likes to work through people in a sense that makes his work manifest.. I was a non-political student who ended up as a prophet for South America.

Another thing is they don't all go willingly.. people protest, for example Jeremiah 18, ``You have seduced me...'' he was very unwilling -- one is drawn on to do things by the fire in one's belly, because it seems right.

Let's begin... with one's parents, where one is so much the child of one's parents... I was the daughter of an air force officer and a very nice artistic lady; I was born just before war broke out; I was sent to Nanny and looked after by Nanny and Cook. I was my father's last chance to be clever; we went to Australia on a farm; I wanted to be a dress designer; then I fell madly in love with the family doctor and decided to be a doctor instread.. you can see what a deeply spiritual call it was -- God calls us in all sorts of ways. Then a terrible thing happened in my last year at school -- religious life was really flourishing in the 50s... in that last year they had a vocation retreat... I had this terrible sense that God was calling me to the religious life ... I cannot tell you how such it distressed me! But I had a deep sense of being called to God's exclusive service...I talked with many friends but not my family, they would have been too upset; I went into medicine at Sidney and Oxford; there I nearly joined the Dominicans. Then I fell madly in love with a fellow medical student, but he married an heiress and I had a broken heart; I decided to be a plastic surgeon. I became a friend with a South American surgeon, called Consuela -- she was a marxist... she got me to read.. she told me about the rest of the world, my family really had thought ``Wogs begin at Calais''.

I learnt the facts of life the hard way -- about the arms trade for example. I listened with one ear and to medicine with the other... I got fed up with religion and stopped going to church. In 1971 Consuela went back to Chile, when Allende was elected. It was a country with a massive wealth gap -- 11% had no toilet, open fires, wine cheaper than milk, malnutrition rife; you cannot explain it to those who have not been there. I decided to follow her for a couple of years to get hospital experience.. off I went, hardly any Spanish, unprepared. After a while I learnt enough Spanish to work there; they wouldn't accept my degree and I had to do another. The pattern of medicine is very different in third world countries, for example with sore throats not treated there is a a big reserve of streptococcus; many young people had valvular heart disease; women dying of septic abortions (induced with bacteria on a stick of parsley); I got my degree, and just after that there was a military coup -- there was a build-up as the wealthy people were frightened of the socialist government... I certainly wouldn't have liked 10 people in my flat! On one hand there was the movement to change Chile, to get rid of the poverty and the malnutrition, and on the other side there were the people opposed to it; behind the middle class was US money -- it is well documented that they put a lot of money into destabilising socialist regimes... they paid the lorry drivers to go on strike so there would be shortages, the whole country would grind to a halt. It was amazing how you adjust to that kind of experience. The coup came in september 73; at 11 a.m. it came on the radio that the military had taken over the running of the country - I was in the market when people just ran, saw the planes come over and bomb the houses of parliament. There was curfew, enforced by an unlit helicopter... you would hear shots -- it was very scary to live in a country like that and not know what was going on. Eventually we found that people had been imprisoned in sports stadia -- there is a counter-insurgency school in Panama, and brazilian tortures came to help to extract information -- you could trust no-one.

Then little by little things went back to normal. Then in March Consuela died (she was an alcoholic). The funeral brought me back to the practice of my faith in a very natural sort of way. A couple of weeks after her funeral I met some American priests and started to become aware of a very different kind of church from the one I had abandoned -- all the pious crap becomes swept away -- I remember going for lunch with them, and being sent to get a chair from his room, and saw just a pair of shabby jeans on the back of the door and a shirt on the bed, and that was all -- it was a shock to find someone of my own sort living so sparsely, living among the people, hiding those on the run; I saw the church as it should be for he first time in my life -- I know I wanted to be part of the church that fought for the oppressed, although I didn't see myself as being that kind of person.

Then I went to Liverpool as my father was ill, and people in my house -- friends of Consuela's -- were arrested -- and I was told it was not safe to go back. It was a shock to go back to an affluent country -- I was very sad and wept at a very English Christmas dinner, and I just knew I wanted to go back. Then my friends were released and I decided to go back, to throw my lot in with the church. By then my priest friends has been expelled and I worked in a shanty-town hospital. Then I wondered, horror of horrors, of whether the vocation thing was coming back in a very different way; then I went and made an 8-day retreat with a Jesuit in complete silence and try to listen to what God was saying. He seemed to be saying to give things up, and I resisted but then lay on a pile of leaves and said OK damn you -- I saw it as writing a blank cheque to God. I was preparing to enter a convent then I was asked whether I would treat a man on the run by a Jesuit, ad I went to the house of some Americans; there were three people, a revolutionary Gutierrez; his wife whose baby had been lost on the run, and a woman the head of the underground. I treated him for a bullet in his leg.

A week later I was arrested; they broke into the house and shot the maids dead - last rites with cooking oil! I was picked up, blindfolded and driven off. It is very difficult to explain what it was like -- the sense of disbelief, that it must be a terrible mistake. Then we crossed a bridge and went through some iron gates, and I was hustled into a small room and told to take off my clothes and I said don't be silly and I said my father is a vice marshal there'll be a fuss, and they said our image on the outside is so bad we don't mind. I was made to strip and tied to an iron bedstead and tortured with electric shocks to find where I had treated this guy -- he was meant to be the most wanted revolutionary -- and I made a story in the first session about a big white house with black gates; they took me to find it and I had to admit I'd been lying. And one said it would be easier if we killed you know. And they stripped me again and this time it was nastier it was difficult to think between the shocks. And I told them toward the end of the night who the people were and they stopped and tied me in a room for three days... we heard torture in the next room. I Was moved to a place of solitary confinement; I had my eyes taped down and was told to stand there; I heard a van rev up and come toward me and thought they were going to run me over but they didn't. I Was taken to solitary confinement; first I prayed for release, but then i found another way -- to say to God do with me what you want -- it is not easy -- and went back to the blank check -- absurd conversations with God -- ``But you said it wa blank cheque!'' and after a long struggle -- peeing in a jam jar because I had cystitis as i was tortured there -- I was able to hand the cheque over and not snatch it back -- and I have not taken it back since.

I have had deep peace --- not on the surface, when it comes to bad habits, you name it I do it -- but deep down I have had peace.

So after 3 weeks in solitary I was take to a women's detention camp. That was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life -- I've never met such generosity, gentleness, and love. They were mostly university students - middle class - who had met up with reality and decided they wanted to make their country better. They had all been tortured, most worse than I. One had been imprisoned in a water tower with her legs tied up for 3 months -- others tortured in front of their husbands and children -- many people had disappeared, lovers, husbands, mothers. We never knew what had happened -- tortured till they died? There was a randomness about it, not just the main revolutionaries were killed but little people too. You could not tell how the authorities would respond to an action.

So I was there for 5 weeks.. it greatly improved my Spanish! They loved poetry. I think I knew the truth of a poem about freedom -- those in prison were freer than their imprisoners -- I had no resentment against those who held me - forgiveness is a gift from God, there have been other people I've hated and not forgiven.

Then I was released because of pressure from the British authorities, I was becoming too hot to handle. Had they known how articulate I was I probably would have never been released -- when someone is assassinated there is a big stink but they are dead. But I'll talk about that tomorrow.

Questions, day 4

Q: It came from your talk that you have no room for pious nonsense -- what do you think of the ``Back to Basics'' campaign?

A: I'm not sure what the government is up to. In the Gospels if you go back to basics you go back to the prophets -- dealing not with sexual ethics but with justice.

Q: Is the liberation theology movement very active in Chile? Did you come across it?

A: I always found it very difficult to find what liberation theology was until a monk at ampleforth told me it is liberation of theology for the people. There are small groups of ordinary poor people who reflect on what the gospel means -- the Old Testament is very alive in the South American communities. The priests and nuns I was invovled with were more into direct social action than theoretical theology.

Q: You said how difficult it was to come back for Christmas -- what is it like now you're back long-term?

A:I have been becoming very degenerate -- it is ``reverse cultural shock'' -- I see people have very different problems -- people's cup of suffering can be filled wherever they are. You have to get used to it, otherwise you stay miserable. Now I am unable to be poor, I am into bears, clothes etc.

Q: Do you feel that your own inners wound have been healed and so you can heal others, or are you working on your own healing at the same time?

A:I think I am more healed than I was -- I went back to Chile in November and that was a very healing experience. I think it's only because I've been ill and foolish that I can understand as a doctor.

Q: How much could you see God in Chile at the time?

A: I think one always sees God in your own life in hindsight -- reviewing one's salvation history. I think at the time I was into seeing God in my neighbours, although now I think it is important to love your neighbours anyway without projecting God onto them.

Q: Was it worth it, and could chile return to that state?

A: For me it was worth it; I denied the horror of what had happened to me for a long time, which was probably a bad idea. I don't dare to say whether it was worth it for the Chilean people -- I think it has done damage for them. I think it is unlikely to happen again -- people are now very aware, on both sides that they must move gently towards democracy.

Q: You said when you came back for Christmas you were angry with God for calling you -- do you still feel that?

A: I've mostly been thanking him. It's mostly in recent years I've realized how blessed I've been. Life is always a series of ups and downs, but you must try to learn to appreciate them all.

Q: I was in Argentina at the time -- it was very similar to Chile -- what was the attitude in Chile of people toward Argentina?

A: my knowledge of Spanish was not good enough to tell -- I think it was mostly preoccupied with its own situation.

Q: in Argentina, we pushed it under the carpet.

A: It was easy just not to believe what was going on.

Q: what was it like in the shanty-town clinic you worked in, and what were the cultural values there?

A: It was like a garden shed; I was actually extremely comfortable with the people -- I found little cultural barriers; a lot of fear was translated into physical complaints. I was working with people who hadn't eaten since the day before yesterday -- I can't keep going without a sandwich in the morning -- it was humiliating without to an utter degree.

Q: LIke you I was attracted to the dominican habit; [laughter -- it is a Dominican friar asking] Can you tell me how you come to recognize a calling?

A: I think I would mention being gifted for things -- I think we are gifted for a certain calling by our actual gifts, intelligence, gift for community life. I think you're not called to something if you're miserable all the time -- you can be called if you're not keen on it at first. If you think you are called, you pray, you listen, you take wise counsel.

Q: Your experiences called you to reflect on human nature -- we talk about sin an evil etc -- what did you learn about human nature?

A: I think I would talk more about woundedness than about sin -- even the torturers who are very sick people. i would be hard-pressed to write people off as wicked -- what they do is wicked; there is a degree of wickedness but there is a massive degree of woundedness.

Q: So you see people as victims of things beyond their control?

A: Not entirely be beyond their control. But I'm not a theologian.

Q: Is God left-wing?

A: I think God cares passionately about justice; if it's left-wing to care about justice, to feed the hungry, then God is left-wing.

Q: Why are you so nice to people ?

A: I've never met my torturers. My forgiveness of them is from God. Intellectually I think they were very wounded people. I believe the capacity to inflict pain is in all of us.

Q: You said you left your family behind -- you didn't like things about them -- to go to Chile -- did you change your attitude to them when you came back?

A: I think you mustn't confuse my outspokenness with being derogatory. I was never estranged except perhaps from my father. I think this frustration is common among peple coming back from the third world.

Q: Did your family talk to you about it?

A: They were not really capable of understanding. The British don't like to talk about nasty things.

Q: The spiritual discipline of praying -- did that help when you were in solitary confinement?

A: Yes, immensely. I used to pray for half an hour every morning at Oxford, although I lapsed for those 10 years. I went to a big monastery every 6 days when at the hospital -- having lost my faith before, I was afraid of losing it again. In prison I saw myself like a priest -- I would say a Mass, to offer bread and water on behalf of the other people in the prison. I had a great sense of union with the monastic orders praying for us around the clock. There is so much to be grateful for -- sparrows, the end of torture (there is nothing like stopping being tortured for producing thankfulness!), a blanket. Gratefulness at the heart of prayer is true!

Q: Have you had the opportunity to meet any of the hostages which came out of Lebanon?

A:I haven't; I've had correspondence with Brian Keenan; a moving letter about meeting God in prison; A poem by Irina Ratushinskaya about surviving in prison.

Q: You said there religion worked very well. It seems we have to have terrible conflict for religion to work well.

A: I think we get too hung up on liturgy. Re-arranging a cathedral but not converting it to be a doss house -- I think there is enough suffering here. God says (Isaiah, I think): ``I am pissed off to the eyeballs with your rosaries and novenas etc.!''

Q: What do you say those who are bitter?

A: They are entitled to be bitter, but it does not help them?

Q: Do you want to go back?

A: No, I think there are many people better qualified than I to help with the poor people -- I think I have qualities that are more useful here. It is only recently that emotionally and legally I could go back. I think my useful gift is writing.

Q: Do your books sell in chile?

A: They haven't yet been translated into Spanish. Now it could be published, but there is very little money.

Q: You were infected by meeting very committed people - are you still meeting them?

A: Yes, but I'm not talking with them much. I think the people who travel light are those who want to travel light.

Q: [an australian catholic priest] It is catholic countries that are prone to dictatorship -- is there something in the way the faith was practiced or was the faith collaborating, or is it the will of God?

A: You did have a controlled trial in Ireland, don't you? I suppose the patrons were in league with the church, and idea was there that people were given their status and it would all be alright in heaven.

Q: how can we preserve this sense of human values outside the extremes of poverty and suffering?

A: I think throw your lot in with the deprived in your won patch -- a common fault is to ignore the deprived in your own street. If you work with all those groups you will keep your own humanity.

Q: How would you keep a balance between being alone with God and being out working with people -- is the balance continually changing?

A: I think the degree of aloneness you need is probably more to do with your personality type (Myers-Briggs etc). I am very introvert, whatever I may seem like and the way I pray is a very silent way -- pray as you can and not as you can't -- in order for prayer to overflow into driving walking etc you do have to have some amount of ``waste of time'' prayers not hours but maybe 30, 45 minutes.

Q: What about the question of evil? Scott Peck said it was militant ignorance, Solzhenitsyn said he could smell it like death? Where does evil come in?

A: I don't believe in the devil -- I don't know where evil comes in. I think the ``smell of it'' was just emotion. I don't really believe it is a force -- people are wounded and act in an evil way. I think the human mind is infinitely complex.

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Last modified: Thu Dec 16 14:53:28 GMT 2004