Good Friday People and Reflections on Sheila Cassidy

The wonderful poem titled Starting Over - Fighting Back by Sheila Cassidy at the end of this post, was initially posted by my friend Fr. John Predmore S.J. today at Ignatian Spirituality.

I remember reading her brilliant autobiographical book Audacity to Believe when I was in my early twenties. It brought home to me in a vivid way how an individual, can be unwittingly drawn into the suffering of people from a different culture and opened up to an immense struggle of  how to learn to wrestle with vast social and political needs in the face of huge injustice. It helped me to confront the awful and painful paradoxical truth that Christ asked us to face if we were to follow Him, that in losing life we may indeed find it again.

It made a profound impact and I still greatly admire and respect her work and life, so  after reading her poem this morning, at John's site, I decided to do a longer post on her.

Dr. Sheila Cassidy was born 1937 in Australia, trained in the UK as a doctor, is known for her work in the hospice movement, as a writer and as someone who, by publicising her own history of imprisonment and torture for treating an injured fugitive, drew attention to human rights abuse in Chile under the Pinochet regime in the 1970s. 

Pinochet's obituary  from the UK Guardian is here, a fascinating and chilling story of the abuse of power and the machinations of international politics, sadly mirrored since his demise by other dictators in several other countries. 
 Pinochet's extradition from the UK made history as it was the the first time a former head of state had faced arrest under International Human Rights Law, principally the Convention Against Torture that came into force in 1987.

 This is an article by Sheila from the UK Guardian in November 1998 arguing for his extradition, which did eventually occur in 2000.

Sheila Cassidy was inspired by Martin Luther King.The title of her first book came from the acceptance speech of Martin Luther King, now inscribed along with other memorable phrases in the new MLK memorial set up in Washington. 

Click here for more information and images from the memorial , especially relevant as America decide today who their President will be .

After a period of recovery from the physical and psychological effects of her ordeal during which she briefly became a nun, Cassidy continued to practise as a doctor. In 1982 she became Medical Director of the new St Luke's Hospice in Plymouth, not that far from me, a position which she held for 15 years. She then went on to set up a palliative care service for the Plymouth hospitals.

Cassidy has written a number of books on Christian subjects and has been involved with The Prison Phoenix Trust. 

I am sad to hear she no longer is a practicing Roman Catholic but she has written a book "Confessions of a Lapsed Catholic" to outline her reasons that caused her to withdraw her allegiance from the Roman Catholic Church, whilst still strongly retaining her Christian beliefs. She has a book of Lenten reflections waiting for publication.


She wrote an excellent book on the Spirituality of Caring.

For those of you who may not know about her  this 1994 article is a useful one on Sheila and her life and work.The extract below is taken from the 1994 article.

"Sheila Cassidy has written extensiveIy on suffering, which, she believes, has a meaning though she cannot define it. Her faith is in a God who is both transcendent and immanent, close at hand. Once you have encountered him, she believes, you cannot question the suffering he allows to befall you. 

This is an argument which she develops in the first chapter of her latest book, Light From the Dark Valley, largely based on a study of the book of Job.

She warns of the danger, in trying to wrest a spiritual meaning from suffering, of glorifying it, and thereby denying its awfulness. 'I myself did this for a number of years by trying to over-spiritualize my experience of torture. 

So convinced was I of my encounter with God in prison that I denied to myself and everyone else what a devastating experience it had been.' 

Years later, in coping with the psychological aftermath of the experience—the so-called post traumatic stress syndrome—she was able to acknowledge how wounded she had been. 


She talks of the need to maintain 'a paschal overview of suffering, holding in the same focus the awful reality of suffering and the mind-blowing truth that God is somehow in it'. 'So often terrible suffering is quite overpowering to the onlooker unless it is viewed in the light of the resurrection.'

She is no stranger to burn-out: what keeps her going when it all gets too much? 'I turn to other people. I have weekly psychotherapy. I have friends, I have family, I have my own coping strategies which are to do with personal space and creativity. I'm at my happiest when I'm writing or making things. That replenishes my stall as it were.'

Psychotherapy is important to Sheila Cassidy—she was separated from her parents for two years at the age of two because of the outbreak of war 'which has all kinds of repercussions in terms of one's personal security'. It also helps her relate to patients.

Being 'as knowledgable as I can about the way in which my mind and emotions work' is, for her, part of avoiding being 'led up the garden path by the various things that drive me'. 

To make sure that her life is on the right track, 'I pray, I try to open myself to God in a listening kind of way every day and quite a lot off and on throughout the day.' She feels that it is important, too, to test whether her life is being fruitful. And 'I try to be aware of where I'm wanted, where my gifts are needed.'

Perhaps the key to understanding what makes Sheila Cassidy continually reach out to all who suffer lies in the final words of the latest edition of Audacity to Believe: 'The blank cheque written in solitary confinement has been cashed to the full and I know deep in my heart that His love is better than life itself.'

The poem below is taken from Sheila Cassidy's book "Good Friday People"; one reviewers comments of it said:

 "I have struggled with individuals seeking to explain why the death of Jesus is important. I have not understood why Almighty God should demand the blood of an innocent man in order to let me off the penalty of my sins. Good Friday has always been a difficult day - when I am filled with sadness and non-comprehension of Christians who seem thrilled by the drama and suffering.

This book made sense. It has shown me the practical side of why the death of Jesus matters as much as the Resurrection.

Torture and judicial murder are only too common in the world in this and most ages. 

Sheila Cassidy has personal experience of suffering the former and at times feared that she would not survive. And some of those close to her did suffer death at the hands of tyrants. So she writes with authority and knowledge - she has been there; not to Jerusalem and Calvary, but to Chile and El Salvador.

It is easy to see the hand of God in a beautiful sunset or in the joy of a new born baby; but where was God in Auschwitz? Where is he on Death Row? 

This is where the Cross is significant - the Incarnate God has walked this way, has suffered and died. The victim is not alone nor abandoned."

And so we must begin to live again,
We of the damaged bodies
And assaulted mind.
Starting from scratch with the rubble of our lives
And picking up the dust
Of dreams once dreamt.

And we stand there, naked in our vulnerability,

Proud of starting over, fighting back,
But full of weak humility
At the awesomeness of the task.

We, without a future,

Safe, defined, delivered
Now salute you God.
Knowing that nothing is safe,
Secure, inviolable here.
Except you,
And even that eludes our minds at times.
And we hate you
As we love you,
And our anger is as strong

As our pain,
Our grief is deep as oceans,
And our need as great as mountains.

So, as we take our first few steps forward

into the abyss of the future,
We would pray for
Courage to become what we have not been before
And accept it,
And bravery to look deep within our souls to find
New ways.

We did not want it easy God,

But we did not contemplate
That it would be quite this hard,
This long, this lonely.

So, if we are to be turned inside out, and upside down,

With even our pockets shaken,
just to check what's rattling
And left behind,
We pray that you will keep faith with us,
And we with you,
Holding our hands as we weep,
Giving us strength to continue,
And showing us beacons
Along the way
To becoming new.

We are not fighting you God,

Even if it feels like it,
But we need your help and company,
As we struggle on.
Fighting back
And starting over.

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