Home' Aurora : Aurora August 2012 Contents 10
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle www.mn.catholic.org.au
WHEN MARY'S NAME comes up in
conversation, it's usually followed
by someone relating an instance
of her support during an experience of loss
or grief. "She was amazing," they'll say. "I
don't know how I would have survived
without her." Perhaps what I and many
others admire about Mary is her gentleness
and skill in accompanying people during
their distress; her ability and willingness to
create opportunities to talk about difficult
and often taboo topics; her fun-loving
personality and humour; the calm inner
peace she exudes.
Mary's life has been a series of choices
and experiences: some carefully discerned,
some occurring when "life's pragmatism
reveals something else to us. When
somebody asks me where I hope to be in
five years, I usually laugh," she admits. "I'm
not a goal setter or a planner. I live more
organically, I think."
Mary's ability to "live organically" means
that she has been open to following
some lesser known and understood
paths and embracing some of the many
opportunities that have come to her in the
"in between places".
She spent two years living in community
with the Ursuline Order of Religious Sisters
and contemplated joining them. "It was an
amazing time for me, of growth and deep
spiritual nurturing. My Novice Director
said to me, 'This is about you finding your
truth.' I consider this to be one of the most
formative times of my life; also coming to
the freedom to leave and to know that to
have stayed would have been to insulate
myself from life. The real challenge for me
was to step back into life.
"Not long after leaving the Ursulines I
was at Mass and there was an older
priest preaching. I was feeling pretty
vulnerable and he said, 'If God really
wants you, God will get you.' I remember
feeling overwhelmed with emotion and
having to leave the church, because the
message I heard from him was that God
didn't want me. I knew that wasn't the
truth, that my leaving the Ursulines was a
discerned decision that was very much my
truth. I knew I was very much loved by the
Ursulines in that decision."
Soon after this, Mary began a degree in
theology. "I had a deep love for my faith
and an enquiring mind. The degree was
very enriching, informing so many of my
future choices and directions."
Mary says she had a "pivotal experience"
while visiting a friend in Queensland. "My
friend had to go off to work and her mother
was staying with her as it was not long
since my friend's father had died. My friend
left her Mum and me on the porch, bidding
farewell. Her mother started talking about
the death of her husband. When my friend
came back about four hours later, we were
still there. I remember my friend's mother
saying, 'If someone can be with the dying,
they need to be with them, because
very few people can do it.' Later,
when I found myself in Pastoral
Care that conversation loomed
back and I thought, 'Yes
Mary, you can be there, so it's
important for you to be there'."
An important chapter in Mary's
life began when, almost at the end
of her theology degree, she enrolled in
Clinical Pastoral Education with what
she laughingly describes as the "impure
motivation" of graduating sooner.
Teaching had always been Mary's first
love. However, having completed her
study, lived and worked with homeless
women and gained pastoral experience in
two Melbourne hospitals, "I found myself
looking out the window as much as the
kids were. It was time to let that go and
see what emerged for me." She resigned
from teaching to work in pastoral care.
Somewhat ironically, a life-changing
experience occurred on the border of
two Australian states and between two
chapters in Mary's life. After some years
in Melbourne, Mary felt an urge to "put
on a backpack and travel. Perhaps if I'd
been braver I might have travelled around."
Instead, however, Mary went to Chicago to
begin her Masters in Spirituality. She had
also desired a partner and marriage but,
"as this is something you can't control, I
decided to head off to Chicago."
Before leaving, Mary decided to visit
friends on the south coast of NSW. "When
I got to the border of Victoria and NSW, I
stopped the car. I was really upset and
felt I couldn't cross the border. What was I
doing leaving Melbourne, which I had come
to love so much, and stepping out into the
unknown? Was I doing the right thing going
Eventually Mary got back in the car, crossed
the border and arrived at her friends' place.
That night Mary and her friends were joined
by Jack Downey, a school friend of Mary's
host. "We discovered we had lived around
the corner from each other in Fitzroy and
knew some of the same people."
In 1995 Mary went to Chicago but she and
Jack stayed in touch through letters and
tapes. "It was a lovely gentle way to
get to know each other."
Mary and Jack married in May
1997. "The whole thing has
been a great gift. Jack snuck
up behind me. I couldn't have
planned it better myself."
On a deeper level, perhaps what
draws people to Mary is her comfort with
the mysteries of life and death and her
living out of the "incomprehensibility of
God", a phrase by a feminist theologian
she was introduced to during her studies. "I
need to hold this as absolutely central, the
foundation of my work every day."
Through her sense of being able to 'hold'
this and other paradoxes, Mary reminds us
there is more to life.
"One of the critical learnings in pastoral care
is not being afraid of your own vulnerability.
If you're self aware you can carry your own
vulnerability into your encounters." Mary
emphasises the importance of ensuring
you are well supported and able to
recognise your own needs and limitations.
"If you're able to hold your own vulnerability
and honour it, and not be afraid of listening
to others from that place, it's probably the
most powerful gift you've got: vulnerability
meeting vulnerability. That's where our
compassion and our ability to empathise
Mary has worked in most areas of the
Mater: Surgery, Emergency, Intensive Care
and Coronary Care. She is currently based
in Palliative Care, supporting patients and
their families who are in the Hospice or who
live within a 20 kilometre range.
"My job involves being attentive to the
emotional needs and spiritual care of
people in the Hospice, or in Palliative
Care, who are dying. When you're talking
with people who are unwell or their family
members, acknowledging what's happening
for them emotionally is a very empathic
thing to do. It's critical in building rapport,
establishing a relationship with someone. It
invites them to explore things.
"It's also a way of enabling the person to
become quite present to what they're
saying, and present to that moment, right
here, right now. That's when the spiritual
domain will start to emerge.
"If we're using a spiritual frame of reference
when we're listening to someone," Mary
explains, "we're picking up the significance
of this experience and the impact it's
having in their life and the way it may be
disrupting their meaning system, and also
what resources are there: what tremendous
resilience or courage or strength
might be there that you can help them
acknowledge and use.
"In palliative care I'm very aware of my role
in preparing people for their dying; in living
the paradox 'am I living or am I dying?' And
what does life mean when you're dying?
"I'm also very aware of solitude," Mary
continues, "the reality of it, the movement
into it. The dying move into a different
place, an interior place, where day to day
concerns and realities do not occupy their
mental space, their heart space, their
spiritual space. They are somewhere else."
Again, perhaps paradoxically, Mary thinks
"hope is one of the gifts of my work and
how I live my life. It's our Christian belief
that life will never die. People's capacity
to live their dying is so extraordinary, as is
their capacity to share it. Considering death
frightens most of us, people do it with
such grace and courage. The human spirit
By CATHERINE MAHONY
Accompanying people during death, dying, loss and grief is central to the work and life of Mary Ringstad, Manager of Calvary Mater Newcastle's Pastoral Care Department. Many people would
find this confronting, but Mary learned a long time ago, 'If someone can be with the dying, they need to be with them, because very few people can do it.'
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