A Particular Grace by Michael Ford

The words of the American poet Robert Frost, memorialized on a plaque at Key West in Florida, say it all for a British man who is helping to heal a troubled world with his Humanity through Grace foundation.

Dr. Brendan Cook, a theologian, and his wife, Jackie, a trained intensive care nurse, are devout Catholics with two grown-up sons. But the couple had difficult and painful family upbringings that have propelled them along a “road less traveled” to help others overcome the psychological and spiritual effects of childhood trauma.

In the shadow of the Benedictine monastery of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, the couple have set up a home and guesthouse inspired by the ministry of hospitality in the Rule of St. Benedict. Aware of their own need of healing as well, they welcome people referred to them for specialized respite care. But unlike the official health and social care bodies that send them, their approach is holistic, focusing on care of the soul.

Brendan believes he has received “a particular grace” for the work. The ministry, he says, has emerged in contradiction to a culture in which so-called secular values have replaced the tenets of the Christian faith. But he draws parallels, as well as strength, from the sixth-century times of St. Benedict. The first half of the abbot’s life saw relative prosperity, peace, and equitable government. But that all abruptly came to an end when, in his last 15 years, he had to face plague, environmental disaster, war, destruction, and hardship, which devastated people’s health and well-being.

“So, with St. Benedict in mind, in these alienating days of the 21st century, our aim is to promote the health and well-being of the whole person—with spiritual needs at the heart—and this is already bearing fruit beyond ourselves,” says Brendan. “We believe we can deliver a more personalized and relationship-based approach to caring for our guests than any health or social service. We find this produces a more therapeutic environment and culture that welcomes hearts and souls as well as bodies and minds.”

The Humanity through Grace project, steeped in prayer, the sacraments, study, and therapy, involves critical reflection on what it is like to grow up in “a politically and morally corrupt society,” scarred by the pain of dysfunctional family life and broken relationships, all the while aware of the toxic effects this can have on health and well-being.

The guests come for short stay so their host families (who normally look after them) can have a break. They live with their hosts because their parents and own families are unable to care for them, or because they can’t live independently.  

One guest was a young man in his early 20s. Behavioral problems made him direct and blunt in his struggle to establish relationships. “He kept playing heavy metal music videos which contained unsavory images, bad language, and references to the devil,” Brendan recalled. “He said he loved Satan, and he even bought copies of the satanic bible to read. He said he used to leave them around his mother’s house to wind her up because she was a Christian. He was clearly trying to do the same with us because it was evident in our home that we were strong Catholics. He would stay up all night in his room, watching TV and playing computer games, and not surface until late in the afternoon.”

Gradually, after taking time to listen and engage with him at all levels of his being, Brendan discovered the man was, in fact, a thoughtful person with a genuine interest in politics and religion. He began to open up about his personal life, becoming less confrontational and demanding. “On his second visit, we saw a marked change. He stopped playing heavy metal music and looked for opportunities to discuss topics with us in a more open and civilized manner. He also started discussing intimate personal health concerns with Jackie, and now lets her give him a hug when he leaves. He also started getting out of bed earlier.” 

Brendan believes his calling—to heal and be healed—has arisen directly out of the wounds and failings of his own family circumstances.

The outcome of an unwanted teenage pregnancy, Brendan told me that family members on both sides arranged for his mother to go out of town to give birth in a home for unmarried mothers and to offer him up for adoption. But she changed her mind after her son was born. It was, however, a situation doomed to failure, compounded by the hidden wounds of childhood abuse that his mother had borne all her life. As a result, she later suffered severe bouts of depressive mental illness and was admitted to hospital on several occasions.

Nonetheless, she did her best to create a happy and stable home environment, working at nights so the family could move to a more pleasant area of town and bring up a second child. But Brendan’s father was rarely there, and when he was, he would slip out and leave his son alone in the house after dark as he tried to make his name as the lead singer and guitarist in a band. When Brendan was 11, he left to live with another woman. Later, financial difficulties forced the family to move into social housing.

Then, unknown to Brendan, his mother became a Catholic after discovering the Good Shepherd Church. Brendan had been aware of her interest in religion, but when a book on St. Francis of Assisi appeared in the house, he “picked this curiosity up and began reading.” He went on: “I instantly felt at home with this character and his church. Up until then, every environment I’d inhabited, including home and family, had been very secular and irreligious.”

While reading about St. Francis at the age of 18, Brendan remembered two previous experiences which he described as “a direct awareness of God’s existence, followed later by infused knowledge that Jesus was his son. [I saw these] finally found expression in St. Francis.”

Brendan sensed he had found a spiritual home and direction in life, taking it upon himself to become a Catholic as well. At the same time, he felt, like St. Francis, a strong sense of calling to do God’s will, and the Franciscans seemed the obvious route to work out his vocation. But with his mother’s deteriorating mental health, explorations had to be put on hold as he nursed a more pressing vocation as her caregiver, which caused immense strain and frustration.

Conscious of the pressure Brendan was under, a Catholic friend happened to spot an advertisement about vocations with the Jericho Benedictines who looked after people on the margins in Scotland. He wrote a letter asking if they could do something for a young man he was concerned about. This led to Brendan meeting the founder, Fr. James Ferguson, and discussing his home situation on a spiritual level.

Eventually, Brendan joined the order, among whom he lived and worked for nearly four years. Without her elder son, his mother struggled to cope, so Fr. James placed her in an assisted living facility, where she stayed until her death at the age of 58.

Brendan told me that his experience of those problematic years found perfect expression in The Scream by Edvard Munch, the Norwegian artist who created an iconic image symbolizing the anxiety of the human condition.

“In the ordinary scheme of things, the inner wounds inflicted by my upbringing made my prospects in life look very poor indeed. The same had been true for Jackie and many other people who find themselves psycho-spiritually screaming on the inside. We both left school with rudimentary reading and writing skills and no qualifications, a common consequence of dysfunctional homes and broken families.”

As he settled into a new way of life, Brendan learned how Fr. James had adopted the Rule of St. Benedict to add a structure to the work that the Jericho Benedictines had begun in Greenock near Glasgow, providing hostels for alcoholics.

Brendan—who later became a mental health support worker and gained a doctor of philosophy degree (on an aspect of Christian mysticism)—believes that “a particular grace” has been at work in his life, directing him along an independent path in the spirit of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled, the title taken from Frost’s famous poem.

Embedded in a “certain knowledge of the reality of God and of the devil,” his journey has been at odds with “the mentality of secular society in which I had grown up.” Catholicism provided him a faith, the Jericho Benedictines a stabilizing psycho-spiritual foundation, university an education as a mature student, and marriage a family base, experiences that have enabled grace to build on need.

“We are finding that our story, rooted in the need for grace and healing, is very much the story of our guests as well. The time with us is giving them an opportunity to express and meet their own psycho-spiritual requirements which we think health and social care departments largely overlook. This means the causes of their problems, diseases, and addictions lie hidden and untreated.

“Our home and guesthouse represent a path through life, offering an alternative to the secular route many feel compelled to travel, one which we believe can have a detrimental effect on health and well-being.”

One guest, a man in his fifties with learning difficulties, told the couple he was an alcoholic and smoked marijuana every day. Brendan and Jackie were empathetic because of their own backgrounds and could recognize the redemptive value of his suffering, enabling them to meet him on his own level and, in the spirit of Dorothy Day, treat him as Christ.

“We made him feel at ease throughout his time with us. This allowed him to feel comfortable with his unique brokenness, not to feel shame and hide it away. We said we had no difficulty with him whatsoever so long as he agreed to a few ground rules: that we never witnessed anything illegal, and never saw him smoking marijuana, on our property. With this approach, he soon settled and didn’t want to leave,” Brendan says.

For Brendan Cook, the arduous journey along the road less traveled can be traced to his discovery of St. Francis and becoming a Catholic. Now, offering Christ-like hospitality in the service of evangelization, he sees the ministry evolving directly from words of the prophet Jeremiah: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, and ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’”

Brendan points out that his organization’s modus operandi offers a safe harbor from the waves of secularism and darker forces inundating the world, a place of refuge that is health-giving for body, mind, and soul. “Just as Jesus met me where I was when I first became a Catholic, and stayed with me, so our hospitality begins each day meeting guests where they are, both listening to and sharing in their stories. We are always aware that we are standing on holy ground.” ♦

Michael Ford may be contacted at hermitagewithin@gmail.com. 

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