Helen Butlin-Battler

I grew up in Desborough, in Northamptonshire, in England's Midlands. My parents raised my three sisters and me in the Anglican church, and their own journey through life, grounded always in their faith, formed my profound sense of the sacred in life. They have shown me by example an authentic spiritual journey – a river that flows through a life, giving ground and source to meaning, purpose in chaos, and hope in despair – and that our beliefs should evolve and transform through life. They have taught me too about the heartline of love and prayer and for almost a quarter-century have stayed deeply connected with me despite geographical distance.

My spiritual journey evolved when our theatre group in Toronto met with Henri Nouwen, a contemplative Catholic priest. He wrote about the “broken and lonely heart” – the focus of Jean Vanier's l’Arche communities, with their emphasis on silence and contemplative prayer. He lived in Toronto's l’Arche Daybreak, where I went after leaving the theatre to heal burnout. The residents – young adults with profound mental and physical challenges – embodied presence and called me to authenticity. One young woman, for example, would walk away if she sensed you were not really present; another would not give you her radiant smile if she didn’t think you were worth your salt. My months there humbled me.

I went on to the master of divinity program at a Jesuit seminary at the University of Toronto. Some feisty religious sisters there challenged me to listen to the voices of women in theology, which transformed my spiritual life once again. They encouraged me with my thesis on how women's experiences could have enriched language about the Christian deity. To my great surprise, I received the highest marks from all three examiners, one of them the president of the Toronto School of Theology! At that time, my path became about integrating the ‘spiritual’ with the ‘human,’ two almost-separate realms in Western society.

Priesthood was out for me – I hadn’t vowed to obey my husband, and I certainly wasn’t going to vow to obey a bishop! – so I became a chaplain. I worked at St. Michael's and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, in trauma intensive care and cardiac intensive care. This immersion into human suffering was life altering. I would see teens dying from car accidents – and comforting their parents. Or parents who were dying – and aiding their spouses and children. In the depths of the night I was called in to baptize newborns who were not making it into life and to support their families. One day I received eleven pages to eleven deaths in a row. I had to grapple with the effects of suffering on our human existence in very concrete ways and ask what on earth spirituality had to do with it all. Death and suffering became my teachers and have taught me over the years how to truly embrace life and really live.

I had married and given birth to two children when we moved out of Toronto to London, Ontario. I began working part time at the London Regional Cancer Program. Balancing a professional life with a family posed a profoundly difficult challenge. I felt an enormous sense of failure at not being a supermom. Two rounds of post-partum depression and distance from my family pushed me into my own descent into darkness.

From the crucible of this descent, I made the very painful decision to end my marriage of ten years and became a single parent. I gave up half the time with my children for their and their father's sake. I was living into our new life and grieving in the gaping hole when they were away. This ‘black hole’ became my spiritual practice. My parents’ grounding turned me towards an innate trust in ‘something.’ I discovered I too still had a trust ‘in life’ and that at the heart of life flows a river of wisdom that guides us through the darkness.

During my hard times, I leaned on some extraordinary sources of support. The land of Hawaii has the most extraordinary healing offerings, and there I recovered from the pain of the divorce. Back in London, local native friends – Asayenes, Kilder Clan (Dan Smoke) and Asayenes Kwe, Bear Clan (Mary Lou Smoke) – gave me the teachings of their people with huge love and generosity. Our full moon ceremonies were a monthly medicine seeping into my bones; the earth is indeed a mother and teacher and what a gift that has been to my children and me and the many other people who over the years have gathered around the sacred fire to offer their struggles and prayers.

My Jungian analyst, Douglas Cann, proved a profoundly wise guide during my deep descent and taught me that our dreams support and nourish us wisely. Pretty much all that I could offer to Jen and Rob came from the unshakeable trust-in-life that I could touch into during my sessions with Douglas. Carl Jung recognized death and resurrection as an archetypal force at the centre of the human psyche and human experience and that it shapes our dreams. To find its meaning for us, we must dive into our suffering and grapple, as Jacob did with the Angel of God, for the ‘blessing,’ or the gold, from the experience.

Whom one prays to can become quite irrelevant when one is facing death, as Jen and Rob discovered. The real journey of faith then begins in prayer, it seems to me, when one searches, wrestles, weeps, struggles, and crawls through the experience, crying out, “I will not give up, there has to be a way through this.” This is the reality that Jen and Rob's story unfolds. It is a journey of the most heartbreaking ‘faith’ and the most hope-filling encounter with ‘life’ in its loving wisdom or grace. Stripped bare by tragedy, we begin the journey into the heart of life in utter darkness of heart and mind. What we discover is deeply personal, and one person's story can provide only hope for another, not an answer, because there is none, only a way. This way we can discover only moment by moment, breadcrumb by breadcrumb, as we trek through the forest of life.

Liz White, founder of the Psychodrama Institute in Canada, a true wisewoman elder, has guided me through the griefs and celebrations of each stage in my journey. Lucinda Vardey opened me to the notion of the divine feminine, pulled me under her wing during my seminary days, and taught me, in her spiritual life retreats, to teach experiential process from the gestalt basis.

Looking at and listening to my own soul pain through dreams, dialogue, meditation, journalling, and all manner of inwardly nourishing activities, plus having the lifeline of skilled, healing relationships, allowed me to survive my descent. I'm not sure we can get through such a journey intact without the loving and wise guide who has one foot in ‘trust-in-life’ when we do not. Through all these relationships, I have forged my own integrative approach to life and living. It has been a long and slow journey of healing.

We providers of clinical interfaith spiritual care have to be authentic but also spiritually ‘multilingual,’ and I respect each person's perspective and paradigm deeply. The word ‘god’ is not often in my personal vocabulary; for me, there is no longer any separation between ‘god’ and anything else, just the all-encompassing force we call ‘life’ in all its transcendent experiences and its great, vast, and wise depths.

In the London Regional Cancer Program, I found that this terrible disease could be a potent catalyst for transformation, and all of this prepared me for my remarkable journey with Jen and Rob. When Grace called me in August 2009 to meet with them, I was in the midst of this reintegration of my life and emerging into a surprising sense of wholeness. I had listened to many courageous individuals who had picked their way through the shattering impact of cancer and discovered their unique and unbreakable wholeness within it. I thus found I was able to meet Jen and Rob with my own bone-deep discovery that in the depths of our psyche and life lies a wisdom that is compassionate, supportive, nurturing, and always weaving life into the situations that seem to shatter us. I came to a profound trust in the process that can happen in the depths of despair. This was the only gift I had to offer them, and I hoped very much that it might be enough.