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' (p. 11). Having reviewed Seeing Anew for Doctrine & Life in 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 counseling, psychotherapy and spiritual direction, together with her own gift for integrating mindfulness with spirituality in her personal journey, has given this a book a freshness and authenticity that shines through on each page. The book is divided into eighteen 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 forweeks 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 8 is pivotal. 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.' 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 l970s by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., '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' (p 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.' 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' (p. 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 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 (pp. 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. (p. 156)
In this same chapter, citing from Pádraig Daly's poem, 'The Lost 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, Cork, is indeed privileged to have such a gifted director of retreats and programmes.
– Carmel McCarthy R.S.M., Doctrine & Life, July/August 2014
Over recent years ‘mindfulness’, a concept derived from certain Eastern spiritual practices, has become very much the thing. In her new book Martina Lehane Sheehan, who is the director of retreats at Ennismore Retreat Centre down in Cork, attempts to enlighten the reader about what is involved and how they can benefit from it.
Some people are often worried about such imports from other cultures, seeing in such things as a genuflection to ‘pagan’ practices. But these are imported techniques rather than a form of devotion. As such, western Christians have a great deal to learn from them, especially in a society where silence and apartness seem to be almost lost qualities of life.
This is very much a practical book, rather than a meditative one. The reader is intended to do the meditating. Martina Sheehan is not doing the work. She merely an experienced guide. But along the line she focuses on the needs of the readers.
Her insights she has gained from working with the system is supported by many references to Christian meditative literature. It is their inwardness that is being developed not that of the author.
But what is striking about the book is the tone of warm supportiveness throughout. Towards the end she quotes a small boy advising another. “Just remember it will be ok in the end, and if it is not ok, it is not the end.” She catches an unconscious echo of Julian of Norwich of whom the boy could not have heard. But it is for such simple but profound wisdom that the book will be valued by readers.
– Peter Costello, The Irish Catholic, 20 March 2014
There has been a plethora of titles in recent years about mindfulness, its theory and practice. Martina Lehane Sheehan’s book is different. It makes for refreshing reading. The author rightly acknowledges that many people are searching for a way to integrate mindfulness with their spirituality and their faith, ‘to intuit the Divine whispers in the stillness’.
Martina tells us that every word of this book ‘was prompted and inspired in some way by the amazing people who grace my path each day’. Each encounter with person or event became, in Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s famous phrase, ‘a sacrament of the present moment’.
Bringing to her work a rich background in psychology and spirituality, Martina's writing will appeal to many readers because of its intelligent and insightful use the author has made of her wide personal reading in English poetry and in the Christian mystics. This is made even more user-friendly by the ending of each chapter ends with ‘A Moment for Mindfulness’, where the reader is invited into the present moment of presence to God and self. Martina claims, ‘You can build little windows for soul moments in your life’. Reading this book will help you do precisely this. I recommend it highly.
– Brendan Comerford SJ, Latest Space, (Sacred Space Newsletter) March 2014, no. 42
Martina Lehane Sheehan is director of retreats and programmes at Ennismore Retreat Centre, Cork. She has written this book in response to the experiences of people encountered through her work in counselling, psychotherapy and spiritual direction. Mindfulness asks us to pay attention through meditation to three elements of ourselves - our body, breathing and thoughts. This can lead us to become alert to what is happening in our lives so as to accept the reality of our difficult times alongside our happier experiences.
The book aims to combine mindfulness and spirituality in such a way as to enrich the faith we want to express throughout the ordinary daily routines. Using poetry, scripture and many references for further reading, each of the 18 chapters draws on reflections from real lives to support the topics being discussed. Essentially, this book guides the reader towards a union of the opposites in life and, writing from the clarity of a life lesson, the author describes our common experience of paradox: "pain and beauty, joy and sorrow co-existing, would be my companions for the rest of the journey, breath by breath, step by step, singing together, perfectly out of tune, 'Glory to God in the lowest" (p.44).
Each chapter offers a way to discover and then surrender the negative psychological patterns experienced by many and that prevent us being truly present in our experiences. The author suggests that when surrender is part of the meditative process it can lead to our transformation. The book can be dipped into or read through as a personal home retreat. Each topic ends with a guided meditation to help unpack the theme and what it might mean for the particular reader. Whispers in the Stillness is a helpful personal resource for those wanting spirituality and the daily round to be one.
– Kate Barrance, Reality Magazine, June 2014
In each chapter Martina Lehane Sheehan speaks straight from the heart, from her own life experiences. She shares with the reader insights into coping with the ups and downs of life and suggests ways of becoming more mindful and aware. To enter more deeply into this book on Mindfulness and Spiritual Awakening, Martina recommends using a journal. At the end of each chapter there is a heading "A Moment for Mindfulness". The closing blessing at the very end of each chapter brings the content of the chapter together. It guides us towards becoming more attentive to the present moment, more attentive to the psychological patterns and blocks that prevent us from being present – it demonstrates how we might surrender those blocks to a higher power. This emphasis is often a missing dimension in some popularized mindfulness practices, but when integrated can be a pathway to transformation. The image of clouds in the mind is often used in mindfulness – perhaps it could be said that mindfulness brings awareness of those clouds - psychology helps to roll them back, while spirituality invokes the sun. This book invites us to bask in the sun and listen to our own whispers in the stillness.
The primary aim of this book is to encourage us to spend time creating space to let the wellsprings of awareness and healing rise up from within. We could spend a lifetime wrestling with the question "who am I?” and yet we could glimpse it through one shaft of light; in an unexpected grace-filled moment. This one shining moment contains knowledge which gives us a new identity and reveals to us who we really are. However, to fully receive ad remember this treasure, we may have to "sell” something – we may have to relinquish other identities as well as the possessive activity of the mind – as illustrated by RS Thomas in the poem "Bright Field”.
– Infant Jesus Sisters