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In this article, written for the June 2017 edition of Catholic Today, the monthly newspaper of the archdiocese of Birmingham, Sister Liz Shaw describes how she lives her vocation as a
Sister of La Retraite through her work as a Dance Movement Therapist…

The world, and religious life, has changed so much since I entered the Sisters of La Retraite in 1981 when I was 26 years old. Having worked in London as a secretary/PA in a steelwork association for six years, I felt drawn to a deeper expression of having God in my life, and liked how La Retraite helped anyone draw closer to God through prayer. This was perhaps something I could contribute to? I had no idea that in 2017 I would be writing as a qualified dance-movement psychotherapist (DMP) working for a small, independent charity, Dance Voice, in Bristol – the only therapy and education centre for DMP in the country!

What on earth is the connection between a religious sister in a French Congregation over 340 years old and founded to give the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to women, and a dance-movement psychotherapist leaping around with groups of adults with learning disability or poor mental health and supporting trainees on their 3-year Masters programme? The simple answer is “living my current mission”.

This may be rather a high ‘leap’ to make, but all things are possible with God. At our last General Chapter, the Sisters of La Retraite affirmed that “our forms of apostolic life have evolved, using the apostolic gifts of each sister in loving service of the world”; and that “God invites us to love this world and to live God’s loving attention to each person”. My work as a DMP for the past 25 years or so is testimony to adapting to the needs of an ever-changing world. Who and where is God today? Jesus was /is among the people of His time; disciples using and developing skills and gifts accordingly – that’s me. Of course, other things happened between my entering the Congregation and training as a DMP in the mid-90’s

During formation and after final profession, I lived and worked in our retreat houses, but always enjoyed very physical means of relating to others and God. Then, whilst in Bristol, I was introduced to a Catholic woman, Marie Ware, who later founded Dance Voice Therapy Centre and with whom I volunteered for a while in the large psychiatric hospitals on the outskirts of Bristol. It was a few more years before DMP developed for me

La Retraite retreats have always included creative ways of praying, and I also trained in massage to help people bring their physical as well as spiritual and psychological selves into their prayer. After all, the whole of us is known and loved by God, the whole of us is sacred. Can we accept and love the whole of ourselves, too? Not easy, maybe not even wanted …. Is there a rejected or wounded part of us that needs God’s healing touch? Jung referred to the journey towards Individuation, or coming to know and live from our centre, our True Self. I would say it’s the place where God dwells within or is the centre of one’s identity with its dark and light, its opposites, its strengths and frailties. God is there. Can I go there too?

This drew me closer to my own therapy path and then accompanying others on theirs. With a love of dance and physical expression, I trained at the University of Hertfordshire as a DMP and began to work part-time at Dance Voice as well as in our retreat house in Bristol.

My sense of the Spiritual Exercises is one of seeking wholeness and self-acceptance in order to offer freely one’s whole self in God’s service or to choose God’s way. As a created being, we function as a single entity; to use the well-known phrase: Mind-Body-Spirit. One part affects the other, and Paul’s Letters are littered with references to our psycho-spiritual-physical reality. In fact, watching Jesus in the Gospels, dancing the Psalms, imagining Biblical scenes and simply positioning yourself in prayer all incorporate Mind-Body-Spirit/Soul before God.

And so I come to my work as a DMP and a religious of La Retraite.

As I write, Dance Voice has just done its annual Show of dance. One night only! A public performance to which all client groups, staff and trainees are prepared to share with others a witness of and testimony to the power of DMP. We have groups of people with a huge range of learning needs, physical abilities and mental health issues. During the evening, we showcased 16 dances that reflected the creativity and relationship between therapists and clients, culminating in an open invitation to the audience to come up on stage and join us for a closing dance – usually a wildly exciting moment for everyone.

I can’t tell you how often the audience members declare they have been ‘blown away’ by seeing the joy on clients’ faces, spontaneous dances between clients and therapists, prepared moves by clients with other clients, the skills and the vast effort that’s gone into costumes, ideas, meetings, rehearsals, and so on.

The Show is reflective of relationships that develop in weekly sessions during the year where we use props to explore space, connect with each other, express ourselves freely; where all is acceptable without comparison and there is no right or wrong way of moving. Creativity and uniqueness abound. Above all, we use our very selves, our own bodies and direct touch, where possible, with no intermediary so that there is tangible experience of closeness, honesty, depth. For me, that says something about God’s presence to each of us and the silence of the healing process.

To perhaps look deeply into another’s eyes, with no words, and feel ‘acceptance of other’ is an extraordinary thing which may be one way of valuing another person’s existence at that moment and creates an unspoken link which, to me, is in effect “deep calls to deep”. Equally, one has to be quick should a fist or leg come your way unexpectedly! Intuition and experience certainly count for a lot when working with unpredictability, but in time I have seen behaviours calm and transform in many clients as they discover creative ways of being.

Of course, there are times when we sit, listen and share verbally on our dance and maybe gain some hope and personal understanding. It is a joy when clients exchange and support one another, and my role is simply to hold the space and be there. This can remind me of silent prayer when no words are needed, just being there. Then, there are other times that are tense, like walking on egg-shells, uncertain of response, which can have strong and uncertain outcomes. These seem sad and/or scary to me because a person is in such distress and almost bursting out of their skin or withdrawing into another world. These can put me in touch with feeling powerless: I cannot wave a magic wand and make things better. But we continue to walk the path of therapy through a ‘valley of darkness’ for our Shepherd never deserts us.

So, whether it be tiny, fingertips touching, or vigorous leaping and funky moves, rapid intervention before something escalates or sitting silently waiting for something to begin … each person is unique, has potential, is loved, has greater life within than can possibly be imagined and is a gift to the world. I celebrate this spectrum of humanity on which we all have our place, and to quote a current Robbie Williams song “I love my life”.

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