INTERVIEW FOR LIFE & WORK: SEPTEMBER 2005

THE EDITORIALLY INDEPENDENT MAGAZINE OF THE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

Catherine Lucas tells Lorna Hill how she overcame the guilt of the death of her mother and her spiritual journey to recovery as an interfaith minister and counsellor.

TWO women stood chatting and sipping tea in the afternoon sun. “Do you think Catherine realises?” asked one. “I don’t know,” the other woman replied. “I think she is still in shock.” Catherine, who was 17 at the time, admits that she wanted to scream at them both. “Do I realise? Do any of you realise? Do any of you have the faintest idea what a nightmare this is?” she wanted to shout.

The women were two guests at her mother’s funeral. She had died a few days before in a tragic car accident. Catherine was behind the wheel of the car and her mother was giving her a driving lesson. It was a hot day and as she tugged at the jumper over her shoulders, she took her eyes off the road for a second. Suddenly her mother screamed and grabbed the wheel. The car landed in a ditch in an explosion of noise and then there was silence. “I knew immediately that she was dead,” says Catherine. “If she had been alive she would have been screaming and her silence was more awful than her screams could ever have been.” She adds: “In a matter of moments my world shattered. My mother was dead and I was left to deal with the wreckage and I had absolutely no idea how to do that.”

The youngest of three children, Catherine was raised on the Isle of Wight. Her mother, who was affectionately known as Tate, was 56 at the time of the accident and Catherine was just on the cusp of really getting to know her mother well as an individual and a person rather than just a parent. The grief and sense of loss and guilt she felt after the accident was immense. But Catherine buried her feelings. She didn’t think she had any right to grieve because of what had happened.

Within just days of the accident she was enrolled on a cookery course in London and discovered she could function on autopilot. The pain that she felt was pushed away. As her life went on – she went to university then had a successful career as a television producer – this pain continued to fester under the surface until she discovered that it was possible to heal.

Her road to recovery has been long and at times incredibly arduous. Yet Catherine carries no bitterness about the accident and the loss of her mother. “My Mum’s accident was a catalyst because I was hurting so badly I had no choice but to embark on a journey of healing.”

Over time this journey turned out to be a spiritual journey driven by Catherine’s longing for unconditional love and a longing in her soul for love and truth and wholeness. “This longing was the pull towards spirit and the mystery we often refer to as God – the invisible, ineffable realm of pure being which is the source of all life.” But she adds: “I didn’t realise for the longest time that I was on a spiritual journey because the ideas I was taught about God as a child put me off so much.”

Although Catherine was raised as an atheist, as a child she attended a Church of England school and went to chapel every day and church on Sunday. “It completely put me off religion,” she says. “The idea that God was an old bearded man in the sky was reinforced. For me the truth of God transcends all religions. Religion is a way of trying to describe and articulate the presence of God, which is ultimately beyond all words and concepts and spiritual practices are ways of trying to connect with that ineffable presence. There’s a tremendous amount of wisdom and beauty and value in all religions but there’s also a lot of rubbish. As a teenager I was very aware of the rubbish I was being forced to believe in and I just thought, ‘No this is not for me’. I think that happens to a huge amount of people and unfortunately a lot of people never go back and question it.”

Catherine worked in television as a documentary producer before she moved to America for eight years. During her time there she spent much of it in Oregon which had a profound impact on her – particularly because of her love of nature and the spiritual comfort she could draw from it. It was while in Oregon that she had one of her most significant connections with God. “I remember sitting by a river in the Cascade Mountains and in my own funny way I surrendered to God and said, ‘Okay, show me the way…' At the time I had no idea what I was doing because I didn’t have a spiritual understanding then at all.” She adds: “I just had the feeling of a higher power that was trying to guide me and I finally decided to let it. It was really quite frightening because it meant giving up control of my life on an ego level. Later I discovered that surrendering to God, so that we can become a channel for God's love, is a key part of many religions. But it is quite an alien concept in our society where we all live from a very individual point of view and seek to find happiness through success at work or through money or accumulating possessions or bigger houses. What I have found is that the deepest level of joy and satisfaction actually comes through being of service and through seeking the greater good. So although the idea of 'Thy will be done' sounds like giving up your own happiness or making sacrifices, the opposite is true. It’s through that path of surrender that you come into deeper and deeper levels of joy and happiness and fulfilment that have nothing to do with possessions or money or any of that.”

Indeed all these experiences helped her with her recovery until she eventually reached a point where she felt she wanted to share her experiences with others. This, she says, was the motivating factor behind her new book, Carry Me Home, which took six years to write.

“I have learnt that it is possible to heal and that you don't have to live your life in pain, no matter what has happened and I wanted to share that with as many people as possible. But the spiritual side of my journey is also incredibly important to me because it is about a deeper level of healing and the feeling of coming home to the truth of who we really are - to the boundless presence of love and joy and peace that is God. This presence is like a diamond hidden within all us and we can all learn to connect with it. When I discovered it I'd felt as if I been given the most extraordinary, precious treasure that you can possibly imagine and I wanted want everyone to share it,” she says.

Catherine, who is now 40, is now based in London and as well as writing about spiritual matters is a trained spiritual counsellor and interfaith minister after having studied at The Interfaith Seminary. The first year of the course was spent studying world religions which gave her a genuine understanding of differing faiths. When asked how she feels about the ways in which religions are used to incite acts of violence and terrorism she replies: “The great danger of religion is that it can be used to create peace and love or to justify violence and hatred. ‘A religion is only as perfect as the people who practice it,’ pointed out Amar Hegedus, an Imam who came as a guest speaker to teach us about Islam. ‘If it is practiced by ignorant and violent people, then no matter what their faith, it will lead to ignorance and violence’.

I think that’s really true. It isn’t that Islam is a religion of violence. There is tremendous wisdom and beauty in Islam. But there are a lot of very hurt and angry people in the world who use their religion to justify their actions. It is a reminder to all of us to live from the true spirit of our faith - from love, compassion and forgiveness - rather than get caught up in our own anger and judgement.”

Through her work she has also noticed a real openness in people to spiritual matters and explains: “There’s been such a shift away from religion in British culture, but at the same time people are still longing for purpose and meaning in their lives, which is creating an openness to spirituality. There’s a big difference to me between spirituality and religion. Religion is organized around a particular set of principles and ideas that you are taught to believe in. Whereas I think spirituality encourages people to find their own personal connection with God in the way that feels most right and natural for them. But either way, we face the same invitation and challenge, which is to learn to live our lives with deeper and deeper levels of love and compassion.”

She is now at peace with herself and with the support of her family has been able to move forward. She held a recent reading from her book on the Isle of Wight which she describes as “very moving”. She adds: “People are so pleased for me that I’ve finally come to terms with the accident and found a way to be happy.”

Now, she says, when she thinks of her mother she feels really grateful to her for everything. “I feel grateful to her for giving me life, for being my mum, for all that we shared together and in a strange way even for her death because it has taught me so much, though it’s not that I don’t wish she was alive.

Coming to peace with it has enabled me to accept the gift in it rather than being trapped in the pain and shock and horror of it all. I feel a tremendous amount of love for her and a real sense of her presence in the spirit still in my life.”