Outside the square
Edwina Gatelely came to NZ recently at the invitation of the Adult Education Trust. Cathy Harrison interviewed her after she had completed a one day presentation in Christchurch and a week’s retreat at Hamner Springs.
Author: Cathy Harrison is an educator who specialises in working with young people.
Edwina Gateley is an internationally acclaimed spiritual writer, a poet, an artist and a retreat director. Many people consider her to be a contemporary prophet, a muse or modern day mystic. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the Mystery gets in,” wrote Edwina some years before similar lyrics in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem became popular. But she doesn’t fit into the boxes that people make for one another. She never did.
She tells of the excitement of the mid-1960s, when she was inspired by the movement of the Holy Spirit bursting through the Second Vatican Council, opening the doors to provide dynamic opportunities for laity. She was in her mid-twenties, on fire with love of God, and since her teens she had felt a call from God to be a missionary, a call that later grew into her dream of establishing the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM).
Edwina took her call to mission to the bishop who responded “Well now my dear, that’s wonderful, what congregation do you want to join? We have our boxes for you. If you want to be a missionary you must be a sister. You must fit into a box!” Back she went to God who said to her, “I am the God of the back door. I am God who creeps around the edges, looking for cracks and weak spots so that the Spirit can move in and transform, even though we set up our great walls, even though we close our front doors.” She went back to the bishop, offering to be a volunteer. The bishop could cope with that and she was sent to Africa.
But Africa turned her upside down. She took her notion of a male, western, white, British God into the bush and the villages and discovered that God was already waiting for her when she got there. God was in the people and the banana plantations, in poverty and simplicity. A big God, much bigger than the God she had been taught about. God was loose, everywhere. Edwina didn’t know what to do with this big God when she returned to England. How could this big God fit into the local church?
Conscious of God’s call deep within, she drafted a plan for the VMM to enable lay people to meet another side of God somewhere else before returning to England and continuing the work of transformation.
Eventually she showed her plan to the then Cardinal John Heenan in London. At the end of the interview he said, “‘I give you no permission to start any kind of Lay Missionary Movement in this country. It’s premature.’ What? After 2000 years the laity is not ready to be involved in Mission?” So Edwina went back to Africa. It took until 1969, but Edwina’s VMM was finally begun. It has prepared and sent hundreds of lay people from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe as volunteer missionaries to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Before he died, another Cardinal, Basil Hume, told Edwina that “the VMM was the best thing that had happened in the Catholic Church in the last hundred years.”
A few years on, with an inspiring VMM operating, God called Edwina to move on and consider new directions. After a three-month retreat in the Sahara Desert in Algeria, North Africa, she found herself travelling to the United States, where she studied theology. Then, inspired by mystical dialogue with Teresa of Avila, Edwina spent nine months in prayer and solitude in a caravan in Illinois. Here she awaited clarity in relation to her next ministry. The call came from the streets of Chicago where her new community would include prostitutes, homeless, winos and drug dealers. By 1983 Genesis House became a reality where Edwina could provide safety and hospitality to women in prostitution wishing to make a new start. This continued until 2006. Edwina is still involved with the VMM and with women in recovery from prostitution.
An exquisite communicator, Edwina is in tune with her own story and equally, her message. There is nothing abstract, no rhetoric, just pure Gospel narrative about Christ alive in the margins today. The God whom Edwina knows so intimately lives very close, deep within her. She explains that God lives and calls three inches from her belly button. This is the God who is in touch with her feelings and instincts. God is very real for her, not God as often presented from the head, as rational, intellectual, separate or far away but the God who lives deep within us.
What is the Spirit saying to the Churches in our time?
“If we are looking for leadership, guidance, spiritual direction from within the institution we are looking in the wrong direction. We need to look at a different group of people — the myriad of faithful Christians who are gathering to mend the broken world, trying to be faithful.
“The Spirit is speaking wherever we are listening. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we listening in the right places?’ ”
“The future church will embrace women’s ordination and the gay community; it will be inclusive and its focus will be peace and justice, the poor, the homeless, those living on the margins of society and the healing of our world.”
How do we recognise holiness in our world today?
Holiness is about being in touch with one’s inner dignity, beauty and potential and being conscious that every human person has these qualities. They are simply untapped and therefore undeveloped.
Jesus was conscious that he was of God and in God. It made all the difference. When we recognise that in ourselves it leads to a great awe and humility, which lead us to honour our brothers and sisters. We are all called to be family. It is not just about blood relation. It is a matter of being family by the very fact that we are made in the image of God. Whether I know you or not, we are connected. This understanding rises above and beyond all class, economic status or race and places the human heart and soul in the centre of the faith experience.
There’s a strong movement in the Western world (at least) towards spirituality in its broad sense. How does this link to radical action. What’s the connection and what’s the tension?
“Radical action?—?the Spirit of God has broken loose from a great cathedral and is roaming in the market place! (see Wisdom 6).
“Creation itself is one great sacrament?—?the Spirit of Wisdom is not confined to any space. There are thousands of sacraments, not just seven. They are all around us.
“No amount of sin or evil can repress the Spirit of God who embraces all. But we make God small! We minimise the Divine Presence with our small minds, limited vision, codes and canons. Our changeless invitation is to call forth the Realm of God on earth and we have access to the grace of God to actually make this happen!
“Of course, there are political and moral choices to be made. If we spent a fraction of what we spend on war on real human needs we could provide food, education, water and sanitation for everybody. The invitation is never withdrawn. God never gives up on the human race’s potential for redemption.”
Edwina is full of hope and radical faith. She explains that we must tap into our wills; we must not feel helpless or give way to despair.
Where is hope finding concrete expression amidst economic recession and national and international violence?
Her answer is that we can find hope in the words and ideas of the prophets and mystics. Edwina explains that one of the roles of the prophet and the mystic is to offer hope. By nature the mystics live on the margin of society and culture and see more deeply. They are infused with a different consciousness. They do not create their visions; these come from their sense of God. They frequently find God present at the centre of a disaster. But to understand prophets and mystics we require a great faith.
“It’s time to speak out, to declare that God lives in the chaos and from within that chaos God invites us to hope and new life if we change our ways and actually begin to care for one another. When we are in continual denial, when we are accepting of things as they are, there’s a silencing of the mystic and the prophet. We don’t want to change. But when the system collapses the prophet and mystic might be heard. At that time we realise that the Spirit continues to speak: ‘I am with you. I have never abandoned you.’
“We are in a liminal time, a time between the old and what was, and the new that must come. It is a time requiring great trust in the essential goodness and potential of the human spirit. We CAN move forward into a healthier and happier existence; we are capable and gifted. What is necessary is moral and political will and that may come about only when we are desperate and there is so much chaos and pain that we HAVE to move forward in new ways.
“I believe this time is now. And those who have eyes to see will see.
“All this is part of our biblical story.”
Edwina doesn’t fit into any of the boxes people made for her. In any case, she says, “God breaks through the boxes that we or others want to fit us into.”