Written by June Boyce-Tillman, Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018
Writing a commentary to the autobiography of Professor and Reverend June Boyce-Tillman is an honor as well as an incredible challenge. My interests in reading and listening to her lessons started two years ago when I was at the Durham University for a spirituality congress and there, I had the task to create a dialogue between narrative medicine and spirituality coming out from patients’ stories. There I met June: For me, coming from a Mediterranean background, with my classic and scientific studies, but above all my agnostic gaze at religion and at church, this was an earthquake. June appeared to my eyes as the oddest priest I could ever imagine: she talks about shamanism, Buddhism, Pagan religion, with such a terrific immense love for universe, the Earth, the Cosmos, the Sky, the Animals, and with such a profound belief that God is present everywhere that I was stunned. In her book, her autobiography, all of this is alive. To me, as a reader, it looks like she never had a serious problem of faith in God: since she was a child she has always believed in angels and she wanted to become a theologian and eventually a priest. However, in her own way, she participated in all her life in the interfaith meeting, always trying to learn both the similarities and diversities within the other beliefs. They created together “Space for Peace” , and this attention to peace, despite all the sad events in her life, with her mother who did not want her career, a husband who probably could not stand her intelligence and creativity, episodes of abuse, all narrated in a very peculiar way with a twilight zone, and a near death experience, is always there. Her mystic driving force is so strong that she wants to share her stories, reflections, thoughts, hope, with the other human beings, perhaps not as lucky in terms of faith as she was. From her writings, God is not male or female, so no gender has to be attributed to The Creator. Boyce-Tillman tells in her quite iconic genre some “machismo” facts still happening in Anglican churches, despite the achievement of having reached the role of becoming a priest.
Music had and has the possibility to overcome the differences in languages and to plant the seeds of this concept of peace and wellbeing. She is a composer and musician and writes hymns to be sung by congregations. I went through the reading of her hymns and poems and they reminded me of Emily Dickinson:
“It was as is the great ferns had grown longer end greener,
It was as if the greening power all the Earth was everywhere…
It was as if the garden enclosed me and held me safe…
It was as if nothing mattered but this one moment of divine promise.”
This is her very complex personality: if on one hand, she reminds us of the Great Emily, embedded in nature and God, here we do have a priest who wears the clerical collar every day. In the London underground she has a Chance Encounter with a woman and again let’s read her verses:
“I was wearing my clerical collar only because of the jury service.
It drew me to her. can I speak to you?
She said as stepped off the train.
We sat on the underground seat:
Out came the story:
Generosity, betrayed, debts, courts.
The trains rumbled by and I used it as the basis of the prayer,
a Prayer about Darkness, tunnels opening into sunlight.
My hands touched her forehead in a blessing and we parted.
“I was going to throw myself under the next train” she said
as she disappeared up the escalator.
Thank you, God, for the collar.”
And here, Emily Dickinson is far away, here we are on the road, in the living and kicking London; nature is far away, and we are embedded in our contemporaneous society.
This book “Freedom Song: Faith, Abuse, Music and Spirituality: A Lived Experience of Celebration” is a chance to learn methods, beliefs, actions for building and living both in a nice awareness on a path alone, as well as the community level. I strongly recommend the reading of this book for women to have a deeply inspiring model and to men so that they can expand their array of reflections women’s thoughts conditions and spirituality in the dignity difference:
Between the God end the Goddess and the mosque end the synagogue …
The shaman and the cleric, the hysteric and choleric.
In the fractured rapture in the hole in the soul…
The contradiction of or meets the Paradox of and.
When Professor Boyce-Tillman writes about “Resurrection”, she explains that it is a creative act. I think that we scholars of narrative medicine have been always insisting on the main coping factor the patients should use together with their carers: creativity to face the new life and liminality which is given by the broken balance between well-being and health. In an illness, we could define this creativity as an “act of resurrection”, the best therapy, for God Believers and not Believers. It is mainly in the realm of creativity that we can find, after having crossed a desperate pain and discomfort in chaos, a place where in the end, there is the image of a peaceful lake. Here, each one of us can have an individual Vision of our possible resurrection, even considering our tremendous limitations given by our bodies, our minds, and our cultures.