Human Being

Day 5 (Sheila Cassidy)

The subject of this mission has been about mbeing human, and what I'm going to do tonight is to take you behind the satge and show you an actor without the greasepaint -- we wear quite a lot to protect ourselves. I do this because its useful to show that human beings actually exist behind people who write books, give lectures and so on. So I am going to show you the truth of what I try to talk about.

We got to the stage where having been tortured and imprisoned in Chile I was told I could go. It was quite dramatic -- the day before I thought I was giong to be released I was interviewed by the head of the prison camp, Gladys Diaz who had been imprisoned in a cage in a water-tower (she was an important journalist); she asked what I was going to do when I got home -- I said the British ambassador had said to have a holiday; she looked at me and said ``If ever I despise catholics, you have made me despise them even more''; this came as a nasty shock and I realized all the women in the camp were relying on me to speak out. There were rumours of staging a mock breakout as an excuse to kill many prisoners. So, very shaken I realized I had to take this message back to England. I'm actually quite a shy person and had never done any public speaking, and had been totally apolitical.

The day I was about to go they wrote a message for me to give a woman I was to meet on the plane, on a silk strip sewn into my jeans, and wrote poetry on the hem of my jeans: ``Gringa you came from a forgiven land, you were forced to join our common lot...''; a description of the barrenness of prison, a place where no birds sing... ``go home and enjoy your life but know that we want you to come back.'' The next day we were all called to attention and I was singled out and told to come -- I was very excited and pleased. I was taken downstairs into a cellar, and thought they were going to kill me now -- it is difficult to tell of the fear --- I was searched and driven off. We arrived at the airport, there was a large crowd of friends and I was saluted and went off.

If I thought I was free I was mistaken - you don't escape persectution as easily as that; for example at Buenos Aires I could walk round the plane but not go into the terminal. So the tentacles of the South American secret police reach a very long way. The same happened at Rio; even in Madrid they didn't feel it wss safe to let me away from the plane. At London I faced a crowd of reporters; i felt then that if they didn't have a machine gun I wasn't afraid. Then at home there were more; I Went to Mass and gave a press conference to the OK papers; then took a contract with the Mirror for my story. Then I went to Geneva and gave testimony for the UN; and at Paris; and so began 18 months of human rights activism. I did not seek to give talks but accepted most of the ones that were offered; in House of Commons, universities, seminaries; abroad also (I remembered the static shocks!) and was rung by Nelson Gutierrez who wanted not to thank me but to find my betrayer to shoot them.

Whether in danger or not, what matters is how afraid you are. I became more afraid -- of being re-arrested by the secret police. And it wasn't a false fear -- there were assassinations far from Chile. If I Was somewhere new, in a taxi, and it went down a side-street, I thought something would happen.

Then the fear begun to show itself in insomnia and fear in public speaking. It was round about then that I started to have trouble sleeping, and this increased over 10 or 15 years. It was very hard to do with the work I was doing.

I came back in 75, in 76 I did human rights work and wrote my first book - i kept hiding it and thought the secret police had taken it! Then I realized the time was coming when my bluff was being called over joining the religious life. So I went to the Society of the Sacred Heart; they said I'd have to give up lecturing for three months. I went to Ampleforth after that to give a lecture and to edit my book -- it was too heavy -- a psychologist was there -- I thought I had fallen in love with God and with the monastic life - the idea I had had in Chile was that women should be able to live monastic life in the same way as men, unlike in this country; I mentioned this to the monks, they were interested and I stayed a Ampleforth for a year and it was wonderful and I had lessons in scripture and monastic spirituality and held court for young women who wanted to be monks not nuns -- called nunks in the trade . I entered a novitiate; it was not the same as living with the men and I was very deeply unhappy and used to lie on the floor of the chapel at night and cry and the novice mistress would trip up over me and get cross. I was determined to stick it out for 2 years; then in 1980 the British government decided to restore diplomatic relations with Chile; I was contacted secretly and wrote to the government. I got a very nasty letter saying ``You marxist whore''; I was called into the office and told ``Your world is about to collapse;'' I was told the government no longer believed I was tortured; I was told if you want to go public to defend yourself you must leave; I thought I was called to the convent and stayed but had a conflict because of the Chilean people and I got an ulcer and was told I ought to leave -- it is difficult for Great Mother Foundresses in embryo to be thrown out. So I decided to be a hermit - everyone knows they are holier than monks and nons -- then got a caravan in Devon and used to go into town to the Oxfam shop.... and in six weeks I ran out of money... my family did not think it was a good idea. Then i decided to be G.P. locum but I didn't know the right things so I went back into medicine as a hospital locum; the very first day I knew I had come home -- I could run and whistle in the corridors -- and knew I was unsuited for the religious life. Then I was offered the directorship of a small hospice that grew; I found I had a gift for working with dying people -- because I had been afraid in prison I knew what to say to dying people; and I knew I had a gift for lecturing and therein lies my downfall -- I have been giving about 50 lectures a year; half my employees were happy with this and half thought I should stay at home, and I was exposed to a conflict.

Also from time to time I became very depressed and sat by windows and thought of throwing myself out, but I was never depressed enough to plan to do it; but I was no doubt no stranger to psychiatric illness. So I began to have some therapy; I mentioned I had been sent away by my parents when the war broke out -- and in therapy I found that children to whom this happens assume they have been rejected and are worthless; there has been a lot of research about how this leaves scarring on people... it is interesting to reflect that some of my success in lecturing has come from my longing for affirmation; but although powerful this is not as powerful as the affirmation of people who love you for being who you are.

I think nothing is simple and pure, and that our motives are mixed; join the club.

In therapy I learnt a lot including that I had a fear of authority figures -- I have never got on well with my bosses. I learnt about the effects of childhood deprivation.

So as the years went by I found it harder to lecture about Chile - I found I Was getting sick and frightened and was advised to stop doing human rights work; it is hard to say I'm too frightened to accept patronage of amnesty groups etc in case they came to kill me.

Then in 1992 the BBC asked me to go back to Chile. I was exhilarated and frightened; but I knew it was my only chance and there were demons I had to lay to rest. I became very depressed and had to have special therapy to prepare me. I found that I had separated the feeling from the memory; eventually I managed to collect it all together. Then I went there; I stayed with the Columban Fathers where I had been arrested. Then we went to the prison, now a borstal -- no access -- then to the torture centre, now covered in South American graffiti -- very moving -- it was that more than anything that made me realize that the period of oppression in Chile was over -- they could paint this and not have it whitewashed over -- Chile is finally free -- and I was able to have party with the girls I was imprisoned with. And that was finally the end of a chapter.

And now I have left the hospice and work in a hospital.

So what have I learnt from this? I have learnt that the hand of God has been present in my life, even in the hard times. There have been times of joy as well as bitterness. One is called to listen to God, and one is called into a relationship; one thing that has happened to me is that my faith which was like a corset on the outside has moved inside like a skeleton -- it has become truly real in the sense that I believe that God is real, God cares for me, and that after death we move into life.

I will finish by sharing with you two sorts of visions, which came on retreat; first when I Was given two scirptures, Isaiah 55: ``O come to the water those who are thirsty...'' (I always cut out the bit about not spending on what doesn't do you any good!) and John 4 -- the samaritan lady; he says ``If only you knew what God is offering -- a water that will become a spring bubbling up inside you''. Then in the night I woke up and what struck me was the urgency of these pasages -- beseeching ``Come to the water; If only you knew!'' We often think of God as father but not as lover, besotted God who longs for us to come -- a powerless God who doesn't make us do things, as if he is in a wheelchair saying ``Go and tell them ow much I love them...'' He tells that to you and me, and perhaps that is what mission discipleship is about.

And the other vision is a very curious one. In therapy I used to paint boats representing me and shadowy sharks in the water representing the fear of being recaptured or assassinated; and I thought I had to confront this and drew the whale engulfing the boat; then the blackness in the belly of the whale, and I suppose for me the whale signifies death; and I was terrified, feeling that I was chained in this black space; then it seemed to get lighter and there was phoshporescence in the water in the floor of the case and that the chain was pulsating -- it was a sort of umbilical cord that was joining me to this whale, to the heart of God; I suppose the things we think are chaining us, are actually joining us to the heart of the eternal God.

Questions, day 5

Q: Could you say about the how the way you pray has changed?

A: Pray as you can and not as you can't -- I was perhaps proud that I could pray wordlessly -- superior! -- in the dark (chaos of bears and clothes) for half an hour or more -- it is a good way to pray; after a spirituality weekend (I sat crosslegged for 2 days) I can't do that any more. Now I sit by the window with my bears and look at God, and it feels OK, it is quite a childlike prayer. I think what is important is actually the discipline of doing it -- if you think you are too busy you are fooling yourself-- if you don't do it the sort of overflow prayer while you driving along fades away!

Q: How do you cope when you realize that you can't do a great deal to change things that you know need changing?

A: I'm sort of resigned to it; but one can do a lot to change things where you can fight hard; for example I have changed a lot in the care of the dying in Plymouth; and I have quite a historical sense of ``Wars come and wars go,'' and you can do what you can for those near you. I think the main problem is with my lifestyle; I vowed I would have no property... but it was gradually eroded and I never looked back and now have persian carpets, bears etc .. but I am happy and I don't think I Was born to travel light.

Q: Have you met up with people from similar situations like Richard Wurmbrandt?

A: In fact just the people I was in prison with but I found it hard to talk about it, so I haven't sought people out.

Q: How would you advise anyone who feels slightly persecuted by your fellow Christians to handle the situation and avoid feeling hatred?

A: I think I'd find the nicest fellow Christians and ask them why. In fact I don't feel persectued by my fellow Christians, but by my employers... you should buy a bear.. you can buy one from me!

Q: You talk about how you relate to God -- how has it affected how you relate with people?

A: I think it makes it harder -- it is easier with people who don't know I've been in jail.

Q: You have experience of two particulr areas of suffering -- do you have to cut yourself off from other forms of suffering?

A: I think that not because of my experience but because of the work I do, I care about other things but I don't do any other kinds of good works; I'm getting more protective of myself, of claiming what I need -- it is a kind of humility to claim what you need to survive -- it is being human as God made us?

Q: So do you think it is good to concentrate on one thing?

A: I think we need to work where our gifts are concentrated -- I think you should go where you want to go, not where you think you ought to go. I tried to go where I thought I ought, and have ended up doing something I enjoy. I think very dedicated people make the mistake of forgetting they need time out.

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