Catherine McCann is curator of Shekina Sculpture Garden in Wicklow. She is a retired physiotherapist and formerly a nun. Her latest book is 'Spirituality and the Senses: Living Life to the Full'.
Q. Tell us something about your background
A. I studied Theology in Rome during the Second Vatican Council and I have a Master's Degree in Theology. Later I completed a Doctorate based on the experience of visitors to the Shekina Sculpture Garden.
I am now 86 and I was brought up in a Castle set in 18 acres in the middle of Dublin 4, which is now part of the Royal Dublin Society. My parents were John and Madeline McCann. My grandparents built a Poor Clare convent, which their daughter joined. Both my parents had siblings who were priests, so "religion" was seen as part of everyday life.
I went to a Holy Child convent in England for my secondary education. The three years after I left school were stressful, and I finally decided to be a nurse. Then my father died and my former home at Simmonscourt, and its lavish lifestyle, ended.
After much interior bewilderment I decided to enter the Religious Sisters of Charity, being drawn to this Congregation and taking a Fourth Vow - "Service of the Poor." Following my Profession I was sent to train as a physiotherapist, a service which was new at the time. I loved it, and practiced it until my early 60s.
Q. What were the important steps in your career?
A. Two significant happenings occurred in my 30s. I was chosen to study Theology in Rome, during the last two sessions of Vatican II. This enrichment transformed my faith life, for which I remain deeply grateful. After spending a year in the USA, I received another gift - a friendship started with Charlie O'Connor SJ. We both enriched each other's lives, and shared our faith with people in various ways, including taking 50 groups to the Holy Land and establishing a prayer group.
Q. What was a turning point?
A. After living happily for 25 years as a religious, I made a 30-day Ignatian Retreat and heard a voice saying "Come Out". I did just that. While easily finding a job as a physiotherapist, I soon started looking for a home and found a cottage in Wicklow. This has become known as Shekina Sculpture Garden, containing 20 works by modern Irish artists, and is open to the public. Having talked to many visitors about the experience of the Garden, they told me that they found it "a place of personal enrichment." A major even in the history of the Garden was the visit in 2017 of President Higgins to mark the State's 22-year ownership of the property. Last year we had 600 visitors.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith or a knowing doubt about faith?
A. Never, nor have I been angry with God. After my retirement, I did a Master's Degree on the question of faith, titled "The Role of Conversion in Coming to Christian Faith". Some years later I did a doctorate titled "Exploring Personal Experiences in a Garden in the Light of the Sacred". I also started giving workshops for family carers on the theme of "Positive Ageing". This led to writing books on social care and other issues, including my trip to India where I went to experience aspects of Hindu faith, and stayed in Ashrams. That was in my 80th year.
Q. You put great spiritual emphasis on the senses
A. I do. Unfortunately, 2020 has been a year of turmoil and profound sadness for the whole human family. How will we get over it? A gentle yet effective way of easing our distress, and available to all, could be to turn more consciously and more frequently to a keener use of our five senses, and the riches they constantly offer us. Everyone can benefit by focusing daily on one or more of the senses, even if only for a short period. Ideally it should become a daily practice.
Q. Have you ever felt ashamed of your own Church?
A. No, I have not felt ashamed, but I am often deeply saddened at the poverty of the understanding of the riches it has to offer.
Q. Are you afraid to die?
A. I am not afraid of death, instead I feel ready to go. Certainly, hell-fire is not part of my awareness.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and faiths?
A. I respect other people's faiths, but I am saddened by the rift that is appearing within the Catholic Church, especially in America. I am deeply appreciative of all that Pope Francis has done, and is trying to do. Reading the weekly Tablet periodical is an essential part of my diet.
Q. Why do you think people are turning away from organised religion?
A. This can be due to people, and sometimes clergy, over-focusing on rules and regulations rather than developing a personal relationship with God, Jesus, the Spirit as gifted to us through familiarity with the Gospels.
Q. What is your favourite book, film and music?
A. Favourite book is the Bible. I was never a great film-goer, so nothing stands out. I love the music of Beethoven, Mozart and others, and also Opera.
Q. Where do you feel close to God?
A. This could be anywhere, but more likely if beauty and light are evident.
Q. What message do you want for your tombstone, if there is one?
A. I will be cremated, and I hope to have a spot for my ashes in the Shekina Sculpture Garden. No words will be needed.
Q. Any major regrets?
Catherine McCann's book Spirituality and the Senses: Living Life to the Full, £4.50, or at www.messenger.ie