‘My husband disintegrated before my eyes’
Being a clergy wife can be hugely rewarding – and challenging – but what happens if your husband has a crisis of faith? Andrea Beggs tells her story to
Waiting in the arrivals lounge of Dublin Airport one day in April 1997, Andrea Begg knew something was “terribly wrong” the moment her husband walked into view. As co-ordinator of Christian Aid Ireland, Michael often went on busy, tiring trips overseas and she was used to him looking tired as he came through the arrivals door. But the look on his face this time was not simply one of exhaustion.
“His whole face seemed different,” recalls Andrea. “He just looked in a daze and, when he came closer, I saw there was a look in his eyes as if he wasn’t really there.”
Over the coming days and weeks, any time Michael tried to explain what had happened during his recent trip to Rwanda, he would simply break down and cry, unable to describe to his wife the awful images – and smells - to which he had been subjected.
Five years living in Jamaica and numerous Christian Aid trips to places of extreme poverty, like Nicaragua, Thailand and Laos, had done nothing to prepare him for what he had just witnessed.
Sleep eluded him and Andrea would often wake up in the middle of the night to hear the sound of “angry bashing” coming from Michael’s office as he wrote about his horrific experiences. It was only when he showed her his writings that she began to have some insight into what he had experienced.
The image haunting him most was one of a skeleton-filled church at Ntamara where five thousand people, mostly women and children, had been massacred in the genocide three years previously. Michael had emerged from the church, spluttering from the stench of death, and asking, “Where is God?”
Consumed by “utter despair”, all he remembers of the flight home is a steady flow of tears streaming down his face and the fear that somebody would ask him what was wrong.
“I had seen life in the raw in many places, but on this occasion I was completely emptied,” he says. “Something terrible happened inside me. I felt God had died - that the faith that had sustained me for so long was shredded. Without doubt, my heart was broken. And I came home with a mixture of anger and compassion, and a deep sense of loss.”
It was difficult for Andrea to know what to do to comfort her husband. It would have been easiest if he had just “snapped out of it”, but not once did she feel tempted to tell him to pull himself together.
“I couldn’t say anything,” says Andrea. “Words were meaningless. All I could do was simply be there and hold him. It was a shock, seeing him as he was, because he had always been such a strong person, in faith as well as everything else. And now here he was, clinging on with his fingertips, a sobbing wreck of a man.
“It was very, very hard for me to understand what was going on. He was so emotionally disturbed he couldn’t find the words to speak. He cocooned himself away and the only way I could get a notion of what he’d experienced was through reading his poetry.”
As weeks and months passed by, Andrea found herself wondering if Michael would be a changed man forever. Incredibly, four years would pass before she would hear him laugh again, so traumatised was he by his experiences. And, ten years on, she says he is a far more serious man now than he was before he went to Rwanda.
Being a clergy wife can be challenging at the best of times, but watching your husband struggling with his faith must have been a hugely isolating experience. Andrea felt she couldn’t share her concerns with the local church community, but she did find tremendous strength in her faith.
“My faith is a trusting faith,” she says. “I’ve always been able to say, ‘OK Lord, I’m not able to handle this’ and believe he would take over. I’ve always been given the knowledge, the strength or the understanding to be able to deal with things when they happen. I’ve never been let down.
“I’m immediately able to let things go, like a surrendering almost. That has been the most enlightening experience in my whole life. I’m quite an organised person and I like to plan everything to the very last detail but now, if a crisis arises, I don’t panic. I’ve learned to pray, ‘Whatever is to be, will be’. Now, whatever happens, I just go along with it.”
Michael’s work with Christian Aid ceased in 2000 and, during his subsequent period of unemployment, he started reading about Celtic spirituality and visiting nearby ancient Celtic sites. Gradually he found his faith rekindled, albeit in a different form than before. He developed a strong sense, as did Celtic Christians, that “the divine presence is in all situations and in everybody everywhere”.
He says, “The question I ask now is not if God is in a particular situation, but how can I discern his presence. The Celts weren’t intellectual – they were very much concerned with experience - and Celtic spirituality is about sensing it and discovering it in other people.
“Faith is not about words. It’s about being in tune with God and affirming his presence. But in the West we are so bound up in getting the words right. I remember an old Methodist preacher once saying, ‘When God was lost for words God became flesh’. We can get so hung up on words that we miss The Word, we miss the truth.”
While exploring Celtic spirituality, Michael studied for a degree in counselling and psychotherapy, which he now practises from his home. Meanwhile, Andrea continued to run their attractive Co Kildare home as a B&B.
Finding that many of their guests described their home as “a healing place”, in 2001 the Beggs decided to start offering week-long Celtic pilgrimages. These include visits to Celtic high crosses, holy wells and the sixth century church of St Kevin in the spectacular glacial valley of Glendalough. These have proved popular and have attracted a wide variety of pilgrims, many of whom have gone through a period of crisis themselves – bereavement, unemployment, marriage breakdown or a crisis of faith.
The Beggs are just the people to minister to them. “To see Michael disintegrate before my very eyes and change into a man I didn’t recognise because of his terrible experiences in Rwanda has taken me deeper,” says Andrea. “I can’t ever feel like he’s felt, but I have more of an understanding of what it is to be in the depths – in the real darkness. We’ve had some fantastic people stay with us and we just feel so blessed. It’s very fulfilling work.”
“The Rwanda experience changed both of us,” agrees Michael. “And it helped us to tune into other people and to help them embrace the darkness and to see it as a time for painful growth. We see ourselves now as spiritual midwives, which is something all of us need to be. We need to help each other blossom.”
The Beggs’ website is www.celticretreat.com.
It is love that endures
For anyone tyrying to help someone facing a crisis, Michael Begg shares what he found most helpful
Remember, it is not faith that endures - it is love
Be there for your loved one
Allow your love to be without conditions- non judgmental
Respect your loved one’s positiion
Hold your loved one emotionally and physically
Don’t be afraid of touch. It says more than words
When you feel alone, lost, because your loved one is ‘in another world’, remember that shared experience will bring you closer
Pray for but not with him/her
You don’t need to tell your loved one that you are praying for them- it can seem patronising
Don’t worry too much - loss of faith is not the worst thing that can happen. Loss of love is the ultimate
Do not harass
Do not try to use ‘clever’ arguments to persuade your loved one to change their attitude
Recognise that loving and respecting yourself is more important than pretending to believe something you no longer believe
Remember there are no words for the most profound experiences in life ( grief, loss, fear).
It is said that when God was lost for words the word became flesh
Remember people are not argued into belief. They are loved into a faith relationship
When I returned from Rwanda, where I met survivors and visited genocide sites, I gradually realised that all that had sustained and inspired me in my ministry had drained away. There was an emptiness. Something had died in me. I did not kill that something. It died. At the time I said, “God has died”, and certainly the God I had believed in had died. I was bereft.
There were words, prayers, images I could no longer use with integrity. There were paths I could no longer walk .The ‘map’ I had used for my pilgrimage was now unreadable, useless. I was lost. I was dying.
The last thing I wanted was some ‘pious’ Christian coming to give me advice.
When I stopped searching for answers and allowed myself to “Be still’’, I began to see again and discover that there was no path ahead that I had to tread. In truth, I found that the path was made by walking.
In such a lonely, lonely experience, the love and presence of my loved one sustained me. Faith and hope had gone. Love remained.