I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
—Mary Oliver, Lead
Just two weeks after hearing the good news about Facilitator Preparation program coming to Australia – and hurrying home to tell my wife, our lives were turned upside down when Amanda was diagnosed with an inoperable grade III brain tumour. In less than six months, my wife of 21 years was dead.
The fact that today I can write those words so baldly and also speak positively about a future full of hope is due in no small part to the inner work that I have done – shaped by my experiences of Courage & Renewal.
In 2010, I got the opportunity to attend a couple of Courage & Renewal retreats with Janet Smith in Australia. I’d attended a Courage To Teach® retreat several years earlier and for four or five years I had been using many of the principles and practices of C&R through my work running retreats for teachers in Catholic schools in Brisbane, Queensland.
After the Courage to Lead® retreat in 2010, I was convinced that I wanted to become a facilitator of C&R retreats and started exploring what would be involved to undertake the Facilitator Preparation Program in the U.S. – no easy thing from Australia! When I attended another retreat in August I was delighted to discover that there were plans afoot to offer a Preparation Program in Australia. That’s when I travelled home to excitedly tell my wife, Amanda, that I might be able to undertake the program in Australia.
My experience of some of the touchstones of Courage work proved invaluable in navigating the journey of death, loss and grief:
- the challenge to be present as fully as possible;
- the challenge to speak truth to one another in the most demanding of circumstances;
- turning to wonder in the face of despair;
- giving and receiving welcome to and from those who shared the journey; and,
- accepting that no fixing or saving was possible, instead attempting to welcome and listen to one another’s soul.
I’d like to say that I was acutely aware of and attentive to these touchstones throughout the months of Amanda’s decline and death, but the truth is, it is only in later reflection that I’ve come to recognise how evident they were and how instinctively I had drawn on their wisdom.
Fortunately, I proceeded with my application for the Facilitator Preparation Program and was accepted into the first cohort of facilitators to be prepared outside the United States. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my friends in that cohort who, over the course of the program, helped me find my voice – not so much about Amanda’s death, but about who I was and who I was becoming as a result.
In the course of the Preparation Program, I rediscovered – and truly understood, perhaps for the first time – Parker Palmer’s words about what it means to have our heart broken. Parker describes two ways of understanding the experience: the first, imaging the heart as shattered and scattered; the second, imaging the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.
This image of the heart broken open to new capacity has become a defining metaphor for me in the last couple of years. It became cemented in place when, on the FPP retreat, we used the Mary Oliver poem, Lead, and I heard the words, I tell you this to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world. Maintaining a heart broken open has been my inner work since Amanda’s death.
Part of that work has been living with the sometimes seductive temptation of descending into despair and self-pity yet holding that at bay with a deep-seated hope and determination to shape my future, rather than being shaped by my past. My experiences of Courage and Renewal retreats and now, as a Courage & Renewal Facilitator, have given me the tools and the language to navigate my own journey and assist others seeking to live with a heart broken open.
Greg Sunter is an Education Officer with Catholic Education in Brisbane, Australia, running retreats and developing resources for teachers. He is a Courage & Renewal Facilitator and as the Director of WholeHearted Enterprises – www.WholeHearted.com.au – offers a variety of Courage & Renewal retreat programs.