by Carolyn Goddard
Nashville, Tennesee, USA
The first time I entered St. Bernard’s Convent, it was through the back door. I was teaching at St. Bernard’s High School; the two buildings faced opposite directions. Students and faculty made the short walk from the back of the school to the back door of the much older convent to go to chapel. I don’t remember much about the chapel. What sticks in my mind is the feel of the thick, dark wooden handrails as we mounted the stairs to the chapel. Hundreds of students over decades of years had worn the wood to smoothness.
Over a decade later in my own life, I was entering the now defunct convent through the front door and feeling that smoothness again as I mounted the stairs. The Sisters of Mercy had sold the convent to a real estate developer and used the proceeds to build an old nuns’ home out by the airport. Various businesses now occupied the rooms off the grand, wide hallways in this relic of a building. I was there to see a therapist.
My husband and I had first gone to therapy during a particularly bumpy patch in our marriage. This time, I was coming alone, opting to see a female therapist. I suppose it was natural that I would compare Dr. Dick Fisher’s tasteful office with Dr. Tish Sanders’ space. In his waiting room, a comfortable love seat and cushioned chairs enclosed a coffee table covered with recent copies of Psychology Today. Over the tidy desk in his actual office various diplomas were hung. My husband and I had sat on a modern couch, facing Dr Fisher in his leather chair. Having climbed the wide stairwell with its ever-so-smooth, wooden handrail and found the door to Dr. Sanders’ office, I was dismayed by the so-called waiting room – two unattractive, uncomfortable utilitarian chairs sat in the hallway, apparently guarding a tiny, ratty table with a well-thumbed copy of The Readers’ Digest (perhaps left by the nuns?) and flyers for various 12-Step meetings.
My dismay was temporarily alleviated when Dr. Sanders opened the door and smiled at me. She was short, a tad on the plump side and exuded a welcoming presence. I followed her over the threshold into a surprisingly large room. Surely not one of nun’s bedrooms, it had more the look of an old fashion sitting room. Yet only two things gave that impression – the size of the room and the antique couch with its claw legs toward which I was directed. Carefully repositioning many of the colorful throw pills, I curled myself into the far corner. Dr. Sanders naturally sat across from me in what appeared to be a Lazy Boy Recliner. To her right was a tall easel holding newsprint and colorful Sharpies on the little ledge that protruded out. To her left was another tiny, ratty table (the twin of the one in the hall?) with multicolored index cards, a drinking glass full of various pens and a stained coffee mug. Behind her, a very untidy desk slumped under the weight of stacks of papers, magazines, books, framed photographs of various people. The low bookshelf that ran from her desk toward her recliner was stuffed with more books and papers. The few I could make out included sex manuals, novels, and nature guides. My sense of dismay returned.
Yet moments later, I was well into earnestly relating the narrative that had prompted me to return to therapy – whatever it was. Tish listened attentively, nodded appropriately and eventually asked the question I had come to associate with therapy – “And how did that make you feel?” The question, even after years of therapy with Dr. Fisher, still put me off a bit. It always took me a moment to identify the predominant feeling from within the cement-gray mixture of emotions I tended to register. I answered her question, opened my mouth to return to my narrative – when she interrupted me again. “And where do you feel that feeling in your body?”
This was a new one! What an annoying question! Where in my body – I had no idea. Yet I wanted to be respectful; I look interiorly. After a few seconds, I pointed to my left ribcage. She smiled gently. Sensing my response was satisfactory, I returned to the narrative I so longed to recount. Toward the end of the session, Tish picked up the top index card, a pink one, and wrote on it. I thought perhaps she was making a note on something insightful I had said. But no – she handed me the index card after we set a date for our next meeting. It read “What would you have to let go of to see this situation in a new light?”
“Where do you feel that feeling in your body? What would you have to let go of to see this situation in a new light?” Two questions I have come to cherish – for they give me something to hold on to as I move toward a more embodied, freer life. Trish died not too long after that session. I wish I had had more time with her. Mostly I feel grateful for her interrupting my narrative, offering me a way out of my well-worn story – and I feel that feeling as a warmth in my abdomen. She prompted me to incarnate – to be aware of feeling and flesh and to live within that awareness. A holy woman, sitting in a sacred space, pink-carded me into a space where I found a truer self, Divine Indwelling and a beautifully messy spaciousness.
For more information on the Welcoming Prayer, an embodied, incarnational practice, please go here.