Book Review: Whispers in the Stillness

Mindfulness and Spiritual Awakening

Book Review 2

by Martina Lehane Sheehan
Published by Veritas Dublin 2014
ISBN 978 1 84730 555 8
Reviewed by Professor Carmel McCarthy, MRIA

Martina Lehane Sheehan is director of retreats and programmes at Ennismore Retreat Centre, Cork. An accredited psychotherapist and accredited spiritual director, she regularly facilitates retreats and workshops on matters of spirituality and personal development. Martina is donating her royalty on this book to Chernobyl Children International.

In her introduction to Whispers in the Stillness, Martina Lehane Sheehan explains how this second book came about as a response to requests from readers of her previous book, Seeing Anew: Awakening to life’s lessons (Veritas, 2012). Since this earlier publication already contained an implicit integration of mindfulness with spirituality, the author describes how the focus of her new book is to “develop that relationship further” (11). Having reviewed Seeing Anew (McCarthy, 2012) it is with great pleasure that I now offer some comments on Whispers in the Stillness, and begin by saying that she has succeeded admirably in her chief objective of further developing the relationship between mindfulness and spirituality.

The author’s experience in accompanying and listening to others on retreats, as well as in counselling, psychotherapy and spiritual direction, together with her own gift for integrating mindfulness with spirituality in her personal journey, has given this book a freshness and authenticity that shines through on each page. The book is divided into 18 chapters, each one self-contained, and based on a judicious mixture of personal stories, reflections on life experiences, apt citations from the Bible and the writings of other religious traditions. She also cites from a wide variety of authors and poets to anchor the main content in each unit, and ends with suggestions for related reflective exercises and prayer.

As its author rightly points out, it doesn’t matter where you begin engaging with the contents of this book. The chapters are deceptively short – short in words but long with regard to the depth of meaning and mindfulness that can be fruitfully engaged with for weeks on end. This is not a book to hurry through. In fact it could be counterproductive to go beyond one chapter at a time, since this might not allow sufficient space to really engage with the content of each unit. Many of the stories chosen to illustrate the focus of the individual units are taken from the author’s own experience. With disarming honesty, she illustrates the key points being made in many cases with examples from her own struggles to integrate mindfulness with spirituality, thereby enhancing the credibility of her reflections.

For this reviewer, Chapter Eight is a pivotal chapter. Entitled ‘Contemplation and mindfulness: Similar yet different’, it describes how “[m]odern consciousness seems to be…discovering that we dwell in some larger mystery which also dwells in us” (78). Distinguishing between the concepts of mindfulness and Christian contemplative prayer, she gives special attention to the tradition of centering prayer as developed in the early 1970s by Thomas Keating. “Centering prayer is a prayer of silence”, she observes, which “takes us beyond images, thoughts and mental constructs, presupposing that some of our concepts about God can actually get in the way of experiencing God” (79). This form of prayer challenges us not to become complacent, assuming that we already know all that there is, thereby leaving little room for “mystery or space for a new knowing” (80). Illustrating how contemplative prayer carries with it the intention to rest in God’s healing presence, she cites a striking poem of R. S. Thomas, But the silence in the mind (84).

Another attractive feature of this book lies in the way in which users are challenged to grow in mindfulness. I have chosen the word users mindfully, because this is not a book to be read in one sitting. Rather, it is one that should be allowed to speak and inspire, and for it to do this, its users must make space to really listen to it and allow its suggestions to make an impact on their lives. In this context, Chapter 15, ‘From fear to faith: The soul’s way’, is striking for its blend of humour and mindfulness (147-157). Her experience of an “angel with studs” on the train from Rome to Florence provides a springboard for reflection on “the Spirit all around us”. She asks:

Maybe these messengers are all around us, maybe we do not need to go looking for them; maybe they are sitting at our tables, working at the checkout, sweeping the street, driving buses, reaching for our hand, touching our shoulders, and, when necessary, kicking us in the shin (156).

In this same chapter, citing from Pádraig Daly’s poem, The last dreamers, she echoes his question, “Will we settle for ‘dogged loyalty’ instead of the ecstasy”? As in the case of Seeing anew, this book will be treasured by those who use it as its author intends. The Retreat Centre in Ennismore, Co. Cork, is indeed privileged to have such a gifted director of retreats and programmes.

This review first appeared in Doctrine & Life, 64(4), 2014, and is reprinted here with permission of the editor (www.dominicanpublications.com).

References:
McCarthy, C. (2012). Review of Seeing anew. Doctrine & Life, 62(10), 60-61.