In the garden of the spirit


Everyone is sexual - children, teenagers, men, women, the elderly and even priests and nuns, believes Catherine McCann, a 64-year-old secular priestess, physiotherapist and counsellor. "We cannot not be sexual, whether we're single people, professed celibates or widows. Sexuality is the energy for relationships. A woman coming into the menopause is as sexual as she ever was - probably more so. I love to see people's sexuality mature over the years and I think that our sexuality should continue to thrive well into the 80s. To be comfortable with our sexuality whether we are with same-sex friends or opposite-sex friends is an important part of being human."

Whether talking about children or adults, she distinguishes between sexuality and genitality. Children have sexuality, although they obviously should not be engaged in genitality, she stresses. And adults can have fulfilling sexual relationships without genitality. Greater intimacy is often possible without genital sex. After all, she points out, it may be far less challenging to undress your body before your lover, than to undress your heart. Sexuality is a good starting point to get to know Catherine McCann's life and work as a theologian and secular priestess. In her view, our health - physical, psychological and spiritual - is inextricably bound to our sexuality and to stifle one aspect is to stunt the other.

McCann's own intimate, sexual relationships over the years happened to have been with married men and with a priest, her current partner. These relationships have been sexual, but not genital, and while she would have liked to have children, her ministry is so fulfilling that she does not regret being single and childless.

She is devoted to her own, unique ministry on the frontier of the Catholic church, where she practises a philosophy described by Dr Michael Kearney, consultant in palliative medicine, as creating "a sacred space" where healing can happen. In her third and latest book, Time- out in Shekina: the Value of Symbols in our Search for Meaning, she addresses issues such as relationships, personal growth, health, motherhood, ageing, fulfilling retirement and death.

"I am there to share Jesus's message, which is that our challenge is to live our human lives fully to the end. And I think that in order to be a full human being you have to contribute to the society," she says.

To talk about Jesus and sexuality in the same breath - and in a positive, life-enhancing way at that - is a radical message for many Catholics who have been made cynical by the oppressive and destructive attitude to sexuality which parts of the Catholic church have shown over the past decade. Revelations about paedophile priests and the hypocrisy of those who profess one mode of moral behaviour, while practising another, has made sex a confusing topic for some Catholics. The state of the Catholic church is one reason why being called to the ministry while being excluded from the priesthood doesn't concern McCann, who has an MA in theology. She doesn't measure spiritual power in terms of institutional power.

McCann's unconventional life began in Ballsbridge, Dublin, where she grew up as one of five children in the second family of widower John McCann, a Northerner, and his second wife, Madeleine de Laubenque, a French woman who grew up in India. Catherine was sent to boarding school with the Sisters of Charity in England and felt the "calling" which eventually led to her becoming a secular priestess. At the age of 21, Catherine joined the Sisters of Charity who trained her as a physiotherapist. Working in Dublin hospitals, she was "bowled over" by the willingness of her patients to open up to her in their physical pain and vulnerability. "They formed me and made me who I am today," she says now. In 1971, at the age of 37, she was suddenly "called to leave" the Sisters of Charity while on a retreat weekend. She went on to train as a psychological counsellor, following her passion for a greater understanding of the human condition.

She retired at 60 and that led her to yet another stage of her life, her current ministry. She does not feel a part of the formal Catholic church as it exists today, preferring to see herself as a Christian with Catholic roots. Instead of belonging to a parish, she has created her own spiritual centre through her publishing house and her garden at Glenmalure, Co Wicklow, which has been described as "an open-air church".

Some call it "the peace garden" and others "the prayer garden", phrases which suggest a place which encourages introspection. In place of stained glass windows and crucifixes, there are sensual, evocative sculptures intended as symbols of human sexuality and spiritual growth by Imogen Stuart, Fred Conlan, Alexander Sokolov, Noel Scullion, Michael Casey and others.

RTE, TnaG and the BBC have visited Glenmalure to make programmes about McCann's gifts as a garden designer, but to her the garden is nothing more than "an enormous gift which I am meant to share with others".

She tends the garden with her life partner, a Catholic priest. They do not live together: at one stage this priest considered leaving the priesthood to set up home with Catherine, but they decided that they would be unhappy being unable to continue their respective ministries in the discreet way that they have developed.

The garden's spiritual dimension has a profound effect on those who visit. McCann works with inner city children and recently a confirmation class visited the garden. Afterwards, the daughter of a woman who is dying of AIDS said of the visit, "we loved each other when we were there". Creating a space in which children and adults can discover their own spirituality is Catherine's McCann's mission. It may also be a glimpse of the church of the future, where people take responsibility for their own spirituality and develop their own rituals.

Communicating through the media, in McCann's view, is the modern equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. Her new book is published by her own company, Eleona Books, which she founded after parting company with the Irish company which published her previous books. (Eleona is a place in the Holy Land where Jesus preached his most intimate sermons to his closest disciples.) The book is a highly evolved theological document, intended as a kind of workbook for the spiritual journeyman or woman. On a more accessible, practical level, McCann helps friends and family celebrate milestones through non-Eucharistic rituals, encouraging them to speak freely of their feelings during the ritual so that their emotions become one with the prayers. "We need rituals to mark the passing of an exam, a 50th birthday, the arrival of a new baby and we need to create these rituals ourselves," she believes. "The Eucharist has become the be all and the end all.

People may find it hard to see that there could be a wedding without a Mass, that God's blessing can be there. Where there's love, God can be present," she asserts.

She also holds "Time-Out" days for women all over the country, in which they can explore their spirituality and sexuality, and she holds workshops for the over-50s on making the most of the "third age", based on her book, Falling in Love with Life. In it, she writes that "we cannot become truly integrated if we live solely from the head or at the level of feelings or, alternatively, if we over `spiritualise' all aspects of living, or become too body-centred. In other words, when there is an over-concentration of energy on one, two or even three areas at the expense of the fourth, then well-being, fulfilment, and an integrated self will be diminished in some way."

Catherine McCann's message of a healthy sexuality and a personalised spirituality is appealing in these health-conscious times when for many of us, a health crisis is the first spiritual crisis we ever experience. Her accessible, secular reinterpretation of traditional Christian spirituality may be just the kind of holistic approach that many disaffected Catholics are longing for.

Time-out in Shekina: The Value of Symbols in our Search for Meaning is published by Eleona Books (01-2838711) and is widely distributed.