Margaret Jennings talks to a scholar who has opened her sculpture garden to the public as a place to rest and reflect Tuning into our senses as we age
The perspective on life by Co Wicklow-based Catherine McCann, author of the newly released book Love Life: A Holistic Understanding of Ageing is an inspiring one.
“We need to become challenged right to the end of our lives, I think, not to become passive as human beings and to be interesting people hopefully, as well.”
She is a woman well equipped with such credentials herself, as she heads towards her 84th birthday.
The book is an update of one she wrote in 1996 when she was holding workshops countrywide on the subject of ageing positively. However, with an additional 22 years of life’s journey now behind her, Catherine is even more qualified on the theme having walked the talk, so to speak.
Love Life is full of practical and compassionate advice about the ageing process and how to negotiate the pitfalls, but in particular about how we need to stay open and adaptable as the years build up.
Catherine herself seems to have done just that so far. She answered ‘the call’ to enter the Sisters of Charity religious order at 21 and “loved the life there” but left 25 years later. “I did one of those Ignatian retreats and after that, I had another call — to come out, so when the retreat ended I did just that and left,” she tells Feelgood.
“I didn’t leave because of the lifestyle and what it offered me. I just felt I was being called to something new, something different. It wasn’t a question of faith; the Catholic Church is still important to me.”
During that time she had been sent to Rome to study theology but also trained as a physiotherapist. When she left she got a job straightaway as a physio with the health services and also worked as a counsellor and spiritual director including giving the positive ageing workshops.
However, she also bought a cottage and one-acre plot at Glenmalure in Co Wicklow which she gradually began to develop herself. Then at the age of 62, she again took another route: she retired from work and did a masters degree in theology and then a doctorate in her early 70s.
The doctorate was inspired by her plot: at this stage it was called Shekina Sculpture Gardens, a well-established scenic spot where the public was invited to experience tranquillity, so she decided to do a thesis on what her visitors were experiencing.
She invited the State to take over Shekina Sculpture Garden 20 years ago and it’s now owned by the National Parks and Wildlife section of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
However, Catherine lives there and still gets great pleasure in tending its upkeep:
“I look after it most of the time and I get a bit of help cutting the big trees and shrubs but mostly I maintain it myself doing the routine stuff like the weekly grass cut and trimming the shrubs.
“Physically that’s good for me and of course I’m always challenged by the people who come and delighted when they go away happy, fulfilled, or with a bigger smile on their face. I had 700 visitors last summer. I greet them all and give them a few words and send them off to be reflective on their own; I encourage them to get out of their head and get into their senses.”
It’s important for us to get into our senses more, as we age — even as they themselves diminish — says Catherine. We have said goodbye to the busy-ness of those middle years and now we have the time to tune in — no matter what our health status.
Now, she says: “The senses are not spoken about often enough in healthcare for our sense of wellbeing. Our senses can be such a positive element really.
“When we taste for instance, the inner equivalent is relishing life itself. Seeing is related to insight. Touching relates to inner touch, being sensitive.
“Hearing is listening to what’s coming up inside ourselves which is very important and I find in the garden people do begin to do this as the whole beauty of the place lends itself to it. Smelling is what it evokes, like picking up atmosphere in a situation, that intangible reality that is quite important and affects us a lot, but we don’t name it, or note it maybe.”
Catherine has obviously listened to her own inner senses as she has journeyed through life. And if she would impart one last piece of advice what would that be?
“It’s to keep that ‘alive-inside’ person, who we are, flourishing, right until the day we die. That would be my hope for myself and for everybody else.”
Love Life: A Holistic Understanding of Ageing, by Catherine McCann, €12.99, published by Currach Press.