I’m staring out of my frosted kitchen window right now, gazing at the white-coated garden that has been rendered Siberian after last night’s heavy snowfall. And while drinking in the wintry scene, I’m remembering another freezing February day, all of four decades ago and a thousand miles away from where I am now, as I sit here sipping my coffee, gazing, remembering …
Exactly 42 years ago yesterday, on February 6th 1978, I went on a retreat with my Catholic girls’ school to the Benedictine monastery of Ampleforth in North Yorkshire. I was young then, so very young, my mind and emotions steeped in that typically adolescent way of over-thinking and over-feeling things. One day on top of the world, the next agonising over that very same world: how was it possible for such horrible things to happen in it? I’d just finished reading a book about the Second World War and couldn’t get my head around the concept of human suffering; of the intense physical anguish that random people are unlucky enough to fall victim to. Agony. Torture. Pain beyond human endurance.
When we arrived at Ampleforth Abbey on that nippy February afternoon, we did not yet know that there was a very special woman who happened to be staying at the monastery at the same time as our school trip. A woman who had been in the news headlines just a couple of years earlier, when she’d been released from a notorious prison in Chile, upon the intervention of the English government. She was a victim of torture under the Pinochet regime. It was as if her presence at Ampleforth, at the very same time that I myself was there, was some sort of message from the elusive God I wasn’t sure I believed in.
Let me take a quick step backwards. In 1975, a thirty-something British doctor by the name of Sheila Cassidy was working in Chile, giving medical support to poor people in need. She felt it was the right place for her, that she had found her calling. During her time there, the Allende government was overthrown and the brutal Pinochet regime took over. Then one evening a priest called her, begging her to give medical assistance to a political opponent who had been shot and was on the run. Sheila felt uneasy at first; however, remembering her vocational calling and her hypocratic oath, she agreed to help. In consequence, later that same night she was arrested, kept in custody without trial, and tortured by the secret police in order to extract information about her leftist revolutionary patient and his contacts.
But back to February 1978.
After assembling in the common room of the Grange guest house, our supervisory nun informed us that there was a special guest who was also staying at the monastery, and who was undertaking a self-motivated retreat for an indefinite period of time. When we learned that the special guest was no other than Dr Sheila Cassidy, our excitement was palpable. And when we were told that Dr Cassidy had agreed to break her silence in order to give us a talk about her experiences in Chile, we were truly humbled, yet at the same time over-brimming with an uneasy, almost guilty sense of anticipation. Would we be able to cope with her talk? How much would she reveal? How many gory details? Or maybe no details at all, which would in some ways be worse – making our frail young minds conjecture what terrible things had happened to her?
And so, late in the afternoon on the first day of our retreat – a chilly, overcast day heavy with snow clouds – Sheila entered the common room at the Grange, where we were all gathered. She was wearing a headscarf that tucked in most of her hair (which made some of us wonder if it was to cover up any scars), and had a smooth, unassuming face that creased into a modest smile more frequently than we would have expected. After greeting us, she asked us to accompany her to the meditation room in the attic. So up three flights of stairs we all trooped, and stepped in silence into the low-ceilinged room with wooden beams and small, latticed windows that looked out onto the whitewashed fields and forested horizon beyond the monastery. We sat ourselves on the floor in a large circle, with Sheila in the middle of us, sitting Indian style. She lit a candle, which was to provide the only shiver of light over the next few hours, as the winter sky darkened and night fell upon us.
To this day I remember Sheila Cassidy as a calm, softly spoken woman who talked about her ordeal with dignity and something weightier than sadness, but not as heavy as despair. Sometimes she paused mid-sentence, closing her eyes, breathing deeply, then opening them again to continue on her mission to reveal to us the ability of the human mind and body to survive amid the greatest adversity; to travel the long and brave road to healing, to share the story of human strength and fortitude, of how much we are capable of enduring. I know that a lot of her message was about faith, how her strong beliefs had helped her; but I was mainly fascinated by this astounding ability as a species we have to survive unimaginable horrors. How would I have coped, I found myself wondering, as I’m sure every girl present must have also wondered, had it been me?
And yes, Sheila did give details of her ordeal.
How would I have coped if I were ordered to strip naked, and was then strapped to a table, with leering, brutish men all around, one of whom inserted electrodes into that most private part of the female body? A part of the body that should give rise to outpourings of pleasure, not screams of pain, not humiliation, not horror; a part that is the essence of where we all come from, including the torturers themselves. How would any of us on that retreat back in 1978 have survived?
Sheila Cassidy survived. When she returned to England, she spoke out against torture, campaigned for human rights. Still healing, or trying to heal, she went to Ampleforth Abbey, where she lived in retreat for eighteen months, rebuilding her body, her mind, her life. She went on to write books about her experience, about depression, about struggling with faith. One of her books is ironically called Made for Laughter. A remarkable woman.
Later that same night, after all of us had retired to our separate rooms at the Grange, I got undressed, turned out the light, opened my window wide, and leaned out. It was a freezing night and my exposed face prickled in the cold. But I’d developed a bad headache during the course of the evening and needed fresh air. I also needed to clear my thoughts, my fears, my morbid contemplation of how random life is – why did such horrors happen to some people and not to others? Was God selective? Or maybe He wasn’t there at all.
And then, through the milky-dark distance, my eyes slowly began to focus on a human form that was making its way up the hill from the illuminated outline of the monastery. It was one of the monks, I gradually realised, as the form grew in stature and clarity as it neared the Grange. Transfixed, I continued to stare at it; no, at him – at the young, black-robed Benedictine monk who was now approaching the main door, one floor below me.
Just as I was wondering whether I should quickly close my window in case he noticed me, he stopped, looked up, and smiled. Caught off guard, I nervously smiled back, and then withdrew. It was a moment that changed my life.
I would never be quite the same again after that retreat. I would never forget Sheila Cassidy, or the young monk who became a lifelong friend, or my four-day sojourn at Ampleforth. I was destined to return to the monastery again and again over the next forty years. And on each visit I would say a silent prayer to the God whose existence I still doubted, but who I would nonetheless ask to intervene, begging Him to help all victims of suffering, just as that priest had begged Sheila all those years ago, condemning her, in turn, to be the next victim. And yet she survived. Not just with her life, but with her human spirit.
I know what she’d say to me now, if she were here. We can all do more than merely learn how to survive. We can all learn how to live.