This book review appeared in 'Eisteach' which is the members journal of the Irish Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy.
Eisteach Volume 16 Issue 1 Spring 2016
Title: In Gratitude: The Story of a Gift-Filled Life
Author: Catherine McCann
Published: 2015 ISBN: 978-1-909895-76-8
Reviewed by: Anne Doyle MIACP
At the time of writing this book, the author Catherine McCann is in her eightieth year. This is her autobiography, interwoven with reflections on her inner journey and the themes of service, friendship, lifelong growth, and gratitude for her faith as a consistent source of strength in her life. She also provides some fascinating insights into two very different worlds. One is that of a large family home in the suburbs of Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s, with indoor and outdoor staff where ‘everyone involved was somehow making the enterprise work’. The second is the world of the religious congregation of the Irish Sisters of Charity, from the 1950s to the 1970s. In telling her story, the author shares the ‘opportunities that were open to me and the gifted life I have experienced’. She describes the doors that appeared to open before her at different stages of her life, and the learning and growth she gained through those experiences. She was open to these opportunities for growth, and so continued her life of service to God and to humanity in her individual way. I found myself feeling curious to find out what she was going to do next, as no endeavour seemed beyond her. The author shares how learning through experience helped prepare her for later challenges. For example, her experience of boarding school life in her teens seems to have helped prepare her for life in the institution of the Sisters of Charity. An example of her attitude of positivity and perseverance comes when she bought her cottage in Wicklow shortly after leaving formal religious life. She notes in retrospect it was fortunate she had not realised the amount of repair work needed, as she may have been daunted. However she embraced the work and it turned out she was very happy there and created a place of retreat and reflection that still remains open for the public (p. 117).
What a life this attitude of openness led her to – including formal religious life as a nun, training as a physiotherapist, participating in establishing a new medical rehabilitation centre in Dublin, studying theology in Rome for three years, starting a prayer group that still runs to this day, running annual/bi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land, buying the house in Wicklow that would become Shekina (a place of retreat and reflection), writing books, giving workshops, graduating with a PhD, travelling, living the gifts of love and friendship. The author addresses one of my concerns when she writes that rather than narrating her life story in a linear way, she instead recalls particular incidents and their significance for her personal and spiritual development. I found this slightly disjointed narrative style was in danger of detracting from the story of her quietly extraordinary life. However, it is also the very ordinary conversational way the author relates her story that transmits a sense of her quiet courage and simple attitude of always engaging with life, never becoming passive or idle. It is also relevant that her autobiography is as much about her spiritual journey through life as about her year-on-year chronological history. While in the introduction the author writes she does not know who this book is for, by the final pages she is clear that ‘I hope that those who choose to read this book will be alerted to valuing their own story with whatever ups and downs it contains’. She describes how religious faith has given her a sense of richness and security in life. One reason for telling her story was to share this experience and her belief that this depth and security can be available to all. I was moved by this depiction of one woman’s life – that includes love in many forms, and which it seems clear to me is a life lived to the best of her capacity, standards and ethics, sustained by her faith. There is a beautiful arc to the story of Catherine McCann’s life from growing up in a place steeped in centuries of religious lives, as the family home place was previously home to religious orders for centuries, to entering her eighties still active in her life of service. Throughout it all she has reached so many people and been herself enriched by her experiences and her enjoyment of life. This is an inspiring life story, plainly told. I recommend this book to anyone wondering how to find a sense of purpose for their life, or wondering if they can dare take an opportunity in their life to create meaning