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Saints to Lean On

Saints to Lean On: Spiritual Companions for Illness and Disability
by Janice McGrane, SSJ
Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2006
167 pages
Reviewed by Ellen Stratton, MDiv

Spiritual directors listen to the stories of women and men who bear physical pain, emotional brokenness, and spiritual longing during turbulent times. How good it is then to find companions for whom illness and disability have not led to bitterness but rather to genuine holiness. “God uses the wounds we all bear,” the author writes, “the soul scars of being human, as sources of grace and transformation” (p. 55).  Janice McGrane, SSJ, a spiritual director who has lived for many years with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, displays an intimate knowledge and a profound command of her subject. Saints to Lean On has an authority based on personal experience while it is infused with the humility of one who knows that these stories have within their “shell of pain and struggle the seeds of sanctity” (p. ix). McGrane believes that the often mysterious gift of God is the grace that empowers and helps persons grow through all forms of adversity.

The saints whose stories are told span centuries and varied circumstances. From the history of Christian spirituality the well known figures of Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Genoa, and Ignatius Loyola are presented as companions in serious illness, care giving to others and temporary disability. The chapters on lesser known saints such as Matt Talbot and Caryll Houselander from the twentieth century are especially powerful as they speak to particular places of contemporary suffering in alcoholism and mental illness. The search for meaning in a life held captive to addiction or confused by mental illness is one of the most anguished battles of human existence, which makes the witness to hope embodied in their lives such powerful testimonies. As both a spiritual director and a mother of a grown child with dual diagnosis I read these chapters with intense interest and found helpful information and spiritual consolation.

Matt Talbot’s life is an example of the destruction the disease of alcoholism can wreck upon the one addicted as well as their loved ones. McGrane describes his recovery using familiar twelve step markers, even though he lived a good fifty years prior to the beginning of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. As a companion in prayer Talbot is an encouragement to persons in recovery and the ones who love them, of the abundance of grace in times of great darkness.
Caryll Houselander, a British laywoman, is a companion in mental illness. Born in 1901 she wrote poems and books as well as being an accomplished artist. Most noted among her published writing are the letters to her numerous correspondents in which she sympathizes with the emotional upheavals of depression. In a mystical experience of the oneness of all creatures, much like that of Thomas Merton on the street corner in Louisville, Kentucky, USA, Houselander was riding in a crowded underground train car “in which all sorts of people jostled together, when quite suddenly I saw with my mind, but as vividly as a wonderful picture, Christ in them all” (p. 98).

McGrane notes that this epiphany greatly intensified her already-present tendency to be drawn to those people who lived on the fringes of life. Houselander wrote to a spiritual friend, “Remember…that it is at the sore place, and only there, that our healing begins: and that whenever healing does begin at a sore which you have had the courage and love to expose, there, in that sore spot, the healing of the whole world begins” (p. 105). Quotes like this one, which McGrane has carefully selected for their spiritual inspiration throughout the book, refer the reader back to the original sources for more information about these women and men of courage and conviction, all of which are included in her extensive bibliography.

Biographies of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Sister Thea Bowman, and Father Pedro Arrupe round out the final chapters as companions in cancer, joy filled suffering, and stroke, and they also represent more recent times. While the book is written from a Christian perspective, the saints in these pages are companions for people of all faith traditions and cultural backgrounds who seek meaning in the midst of suffering. It is a valuable resource for spiritual directors because it brings to life people who witness to the courage, compassion, and resilience of the human spirit.

Ellen Stratton, MDiv, is a spiritual director at The Middleton Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA. Her article Place as Prayer appeared previously in Presence journal.

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