(Book Excerpt 1) Pressing out the Pure Honey by Frances Guerin

I had closed a door on Catholicism many years ago and to repair the damage, embarked on reading the feminist writers and “New Age” teachers and met many eastern teachers to find relief from a deep darkness, a black dog that haunted by life. The return to the Christian tradition proved to be a profound revelation that I documented, and then as time went on, revealed the nature of the darkness as stark visions of abuse at the hands of a hospital chaplain when I was a student nurse, and an impact of witnessing an enraged nun, who was teaching us the Catholic catechism in preparation for our first confession, beating a boy with a cane in a frenzy, which drove into me a terror of hell and damnation that I was mute and lost for the next 4 years.

This constitutes an experience that is described as “Religious duress, a unique kind of threat and constraint involuntarily experienced by some members of the Roman Catholic Church as a result of religious indoctrination and training. Fear, awe and respect for the clergy foster the development and actualization of religious duress. This phenomenon can seriously impede a person’s capacity to accurately perceive and evaluate abusive actions perpetrated on them by clergy. This constraint poses an impediment to emotional and spiritual development. Internalized religious duress confuses and psychologically overwhelms such individuals and renders them incapable of absorbing their sexual trauma. The consequent feelings of numbness and immobility distort the perception of reality. It then becomes impossible for the individual to act in a manner that would protect and promote their emotional growth and spiritual well being.” (Marianne Benkert, M.D., D.L.F.A.P.A. Thomas P. Doyle, M.A., J.C.D., C.A.D.C. November, 27, 2008)

This blending of experiences is a natural evolution of the dialogue between different spiritual traditions and this book is an offering to that evolution, expressed in painting and ceramics of Christian and alchemical symbolism and poetic notes from the Insight circle of dharma teachers, Subhana Barzaghi, Christopher Titmus and Radha Nicholson. (Above from Introduction)

 


Anneliese is seated at a piano; she looks at me and asks, “When are you going start on your art?”

Renunciation is not giving up on the things of the world, but the understanding that the things of the world go away.

That which remains after renunciation is what is free. What then prevents me from being free? Identification with the “I” that wants to be free is very subtle. The “I” is never free

If there is no identification with self

Then the state is neither free nor bound We are both free and unfree. There is a direct experience of life

That sees the conditionality of freedom. Through states of expansion and contraction maintain moment to moment awareness and inquire: What is my particular way of being stuck?

Which of the aggregates am I identified with, body, feeling or mind states? [1]

Part of the initial appeal of the property was a kookaburra sitting on a low branch near the front door. The house was a two storey mud brick and timber dwelling with soaring ceilings, and there were stables that could be turned into a studio. It was only later the awareness dawned that this was a vast forest, enclosing everything in its presence.

There was no horizon line, only the verticality of trees pointing the way to sun, moon and stars. The forest as elemental archetype, along with the sea and sky, is one of the foundations of the earth arising in the ancient past. It is an ‘intimate immensity’ that was sacred from ancient times when the gods came to dwell in the woods. The deep forest was also known as the quiet earth because of “its immense silence curdled in thirty leagues of green”.[2] Forests have a timeless quality due to the vast time frame it takes to grow. Mosses, fungi and wild orchids are small delights arising in the dampness of winter. Most mornings the chorus of birds herald sunrise in the forest. Kookaburras, ducks, magpies and the cockatoos, and eagles, tawny frogmouths and the slim solitary grey heron are here in abundance fishing for frogs and tadpoles in the dam. Sometimes birds hop into the house and I catch them in my hands to help them find the way out. Occasionally I find a precious bird dead from flying into the glass of the windows. They didn’t know it was anything other than air. Kangaroos graze the grass just outside the window, allowing me to gaze upon their gentle eyes and soft faces. I learned by trial and error that kangaroos eat roses and that sulphur-crested cockatoos wantonly destroy golden daffodils. The garden has to survive without watering during summer. At first I was hosing everything daily but would then run out of water for the house. Then catching any small amount of rainfall became a priority; leaves have to be cleared from gutters, and leaks repaired with silicone before pumping water from dam or tank. Attending to drains and pipes showed me the way water flows and how it is contained. In hidden away corners of the forest are mineral springs, clothed in green moss and rust coloured stonework from the minerals. People come to Daylesford from all over Victoria to take the waters and to have natural health treatments. Great care was taken by the builders of the town during the gold rush, setting the pumps from the springs in the middle of small stone circles reminiscent of the veneration of the holy wells of Ireland and Britain. This underground river became the metaphor for the extraordinary spiritual journey that unfolded as archetypal contents surfaced from the artesian basin of the unconscious.

In times of drought everything thirsts in the forest, becoming brittle and threatening to explode into flame if struck by lightning in the heat of a summer thunderstorm. Any hint of smoke in the air sends tremors of fear through the village. On the other hand, more than once rain poured down the hill flooding the studio and making the roads impassable. This too reflected a state of too much anger and too much sorrow.

When the family home was sold, I didn’t go with my brother and sisters to lay claim on the treasures. Instead I collected tools that had been overlooked, a chainsaw, drills and sanders, wrenches, metal cutters and screwdrivers, and set about learning how to use them. I had recently heard Joan Kirner speaking at a book launch about a woman needing a good set of metaphoric power tools in public life. I had asked myself a very sobering question: how am I going to maintain a house without a man?

I set about learning about plumbing and how to fell trees that could fall on the house and with the power outages I learned to live in the dark. These practical tasks gave me something tangible to do besides grieve. There were old family photographs in our father’s briefcase, strange haunting images of a ruined house without a roof, a thin woman with a grimace for a smile, and letters from unknown relatives in Ireland.

In the long solitary days in the forest I set about converting the stables into a studio, chanting mantras to keep focus from falling off ladders or cutting myself with dangerous tools. The eight stables were constructed of heavy wooden panels at the bottom and steel fencing at the top, which I gingerly removed by walking structures off their fittings. I climbed over the roof to wash out straw that held the smells of horses. There was sadness in the place, maybe mine, or the sadness of the horses and their previous owners. Then one day as I walked through the forest my eye was drawn to something in the leaf litter. It was a flint, an indigenous artefact which declared the absent presence, a people, undervalued, despised, extinguished in a deliberate act of genocide on settlement by Hepburn and his brigands.

As the studio began to take shape I hung artwork up on the walls, paintings that were the connecting threads of a life full of broken connections, and frequent changes of address. I blocked up the draughty gaps in the studio. Friends came and insulated the roof and put carpet on the floor. Then I invited everyone I knew for a party and we danced to a group of Irish musicians.

Some months later the previous owner came to visit. She was a prison officer at Langi Kal Kal for serious sex offenders. She told me that the golden pine trees that lined the driveway had been planted by the prisoners in her care. It seemed ominous as if I were drawn into a whirlpool of a dark dance. The golden pines hadn’t grown because of the competition from the tall eucalypts. I dug each one up and replanted them. Years later I cut them down, burnt them and made the sculptural works in this book.

Following the visit by the previous owner, the female prison officer, I began to consider the two spaces of house and studio as a symbol for the split in my being. In the studio the inarticulate parts, the powerless dark fearful parts, the driven, one could find expression and in the house, the part that keeps it together could live.

The forest is refuge, making art is refuge, meditation is refuge, and spiritual direction became a refuge. Refuge in the Triple Gem of Buddha, dharma and sangha has been important for thirty years as I lived life with a sense of fracture from early Catholic conditioning with only days, sometimes moments, of everyday happiness and wellness.

 

To be continued.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Frances Guerin.

Notes:

[1] The words in italics are from notes taken at various Buddhist retreats and represent a small window into fundamental principles of the teachings.

[2] Bachelard 1964, p.186.

 

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