Rapid deterioration in my mental and physical health during my undergraduate degree meant I became desperate and sought help. I approached two welfare tutors: a Presbyterian woman who is terrified of Catholicism (guardian angel) and an Anglican priest (good shepherd) who was scared to talk to me about religion and spirituality, for fear of inadvertently contradicting Catholic doctrine. It may seem an odd choice for an ill Catholic but God does indeed work in mysterious ways. Together we undertook an incredible spiritual journey that involved much contemplation and religious (self-) discovery. To truly love, serve and look after someone: that is an act of contemplation itself.
The more I interacted with my guardian angel, the more apparent it became to me that she had been given many difficult crosses to bear. She was directing some medieval mystery plays about the birth of Christ; the next term, she would do Passion plays from the same play cycle. I took on small acting roles in the first set of plays and ran around helping her out, in the hope that she would learn to like me. (I failed to realise she already did.) She in turn became increasingly motherly and caring towards me. It developed over time into unthinking, instinctive agape: in other words, it was a complacent, loving gaze.
The act of watching these stories come alive in rehearsals was extraordinary and I began to comprehend bits of the Bible better. I realised why we say “Hail Mary, full of grace” and the joy and power of the Magnificat. Outside the play rehearsals, my understanding of Mary’s fear and strength was heightened through a gradual awakening to the love of my guardian angel. I saw how God approached her and asked her whether she would accept an adult psychotic as a daughter, as it was His will… and that being a gracious, obedient person, she had accepted; this in spite of the risks to her wellbeing (evil voices ordered me to kill her at one point) and reputation. Whilst praying to Mary in Lourdes and asking Her what had passed between us, She showed me that She had petitioned God to give me extra support for what came ahead, through His gracious gift of a human/angelic representation of my Divine Mother. In plays about the pain of childlessness and women receiving children in miraculous contexts, God gave the two of us to one another.
Watching the horrifically-graphic crucifixion scenes from Jesus of Nazareth as a small child had left me with terrible Catholic guilt about real-life human representations of the Crucified Christ (I’m fine with crucifixes). I knew that the upcoming Passion plays could trigger something. I was torn between fear of a “live crucifixion” and a desire to look after and help my guardian angel. I looked to God for guidance and asked for a sign, to tell me the right thing to do. In time I became overwhelmed by a strong conviction that I should help; I later felt God asking me to look after the guardian angel for Him, until further notice. So I chose to be involved and do the plays.
I had expected the Catholic guilt to rear its ugly head but I was not prepared for how awful the experience was. I became increasingly agoraphobic, suicidal, scared of people and during the week of the play performances, unable to really eat or sleep. There weren’t many rehearsals were something psychotic didn’t happen to me and it was a frightening time for me, the guardian angel and the good shepherd. We closed ranks to look after each other. I refused to be involved in the crucifixion scene and warned the guardian angel that I would have to blast my iTunes into my ears, as I wouldn’t be able to cope with the noise of the hammering nails.
Despite my pain, I was moved by a force bigger than and beyond myself to be able to achieve all this. In the end I was the one actually in charge of the hammering of the nails! The only people who agreed with me doing these plays were the guardian angel and good shepherd: everyone else thought I was too ill. For the first time in my life, I genuinely didn’t care what anyone else thought and dropped everything to be by my guardian angel’s side and create a loving and safe space in which to unfold her spiritual insights through the plays. I followed her around and did everything she asked; I did not leave her in dark times; I partially relieved her of this huge burden she had, and looked after my mother figure. I thought little of it and was shocked and confused when the good shepherd told me it was a selfless act. On thinking of it, I realised that this was what true Christian charity is perhaps all about.
Afterwards, I realised that the real Gospel story had not been what was acted out on the stage, but instead all that had happened behind the scenes. I had sacrificed a lot and left my friends to follow someone I saw God in, like the disciples leaving their boats to follow Christ. On Good Friday 2010, I was blessed with the understanding that God never asks mankind to crucify itself for Him and so it’s OK that I would be too afraid to. In the Passion story, humans are asked to serve one another; do things in memory of Him; watch one hour; carry the Cross and look after the mother figure. I realised I had done all that and that through being so ill and so vulnerable, God opened up an opportunity for me to get to know Him better, away from the distractions of uni work; this no doubt would have prevented me from partaking this incredible journey, had I not been so ill. This newfound joy and love in contemplation and the understanding that to contemplate is to love, has changed my life forever and no doubt for the better.