When I met my late husband Robin Daniels, the central focus of his life was working on a book which had the working title The Desire for Holiness. Every day he could be seen at a table in the brasserie of Dolphin Square, Pimlico, leaning over a pile of papers. It was almost a religious ritual, based on the belief, shared by many writers, that if you are faithful to your muse, she will be faithful to you.
Robin was a Jungian analyst (a psychotherapist) and I had met him at a day, led by him, entitled 'The Poet's Eye'. He was helping us to recall our peak experiences, those moments when the veil between Heaven and Earth seems a little thinner. For one person this was the birth of a newborn grandchild, for another it was the experience of an orchestra playing in perfect harmony.
In the book Robin extends his theme into encouraging us to see more clearly the divine touch on very ordinary experiences, and helps us to perceive God's hand shaping even the circumstances and relationships we find challenging.
Robin had opened that retreat day with the words “All time is God's time”. I had been struck by his presence. Most people did not speak like this. Here was someone who saw things in a different way, who moved at a slower pace, who had a certain gravitas about him. I wanted to know more about how he thought and lived his life. And so began a friendship.
I gradually found myself falling in love with him, and two years later he proposed.
We had a very happy marriage. It wasn't that we did exciting things, but rather that Robin made ordinary things like finding a good dentist, or finding ripe Margerie seedling plums, or hanging pictures on the wall a cause for celebration.
He was quite a simple person, tending to see the best in others. He was appreciative of small things. He loved music, art and poetry, and had a refined and sensitive aesthetic. His epitaph bears the words 'Robin Listened'.
By listening he drew out the eloquence and insights of others. He encouraged and affirmed them in their gifts. He helped me and others to listen to the rich messages of the unconscious, and our emotional and instinctive life and intuitions. He did little things with love, such as turning the outside light on for me when I came home late. A solitary by nature and profession, he was spacious and sparing about social contacts. Those he did have he savoured.
He led an immensely disciplined life. I never heard him gossiping or backbiting or showing indiscretion. He ate one proper meal a day and avoided caffeine, sugar (except in hot chocolate), processed foods, saturated fats and alcohol. He suffered a lot, and I think he offered it up to God for the salvation of souls. He didn't take anaesthetics when he went to the dentist, and endured nine wedge fractures of the spine through osteoporosis without stopping work or taking a single painkiller. And he didn't tell anyone this but me. He was a grateful person, always thanking God.
He continued to work on the book, and another book Cardus Celebrant of Beauty, published in 2009. He had previously authored books of conversations with Yehudi Menuhin and Anglican Archbishop Donald Coggan. However he remained relatively unknown, and his main lifework had yet to find a publisher.
Then in 2012, after just six years of marriage, Robin contracted bronchopneumonia and died. It was very sudden, signalled only by shadow on the lung a year before, and ongoing problems with bone marrow suppression, borderline anaemia and shortness of breath.
Anyone who has lost a spouse will understand what an unbelievable shock this is. At the very moment you feel the greatest anxiety you have known, the one person you would turn to for comfort and reassurance is no longer there. I went through the full range of emotions from numbness to false optimism, forgetfulness, grief, regret, guilt, and longing.
I tried to avoid the pain by filling myself up with training, trips and work. And the book sat on the hearth as something I knew I had to release before I could move on, but somehow could not quite face. I knew I was in possession of a treasure too good to keep to myself.
After a couple of years I decided to begin the task in earnest. Editing the book and getting it down to a size that a publisher would consider was a huge job. I added subheadings, broke down some of the longer chapters, removed some repetitions, moved some things into more logical places, and deleted some quotes which would have entailed excessive copyright fees. It was a beautiful experience, because it was contact with the mind and voice of the man I loved (and still love). I became acquainted with aspects of his thought, and his approach to prayer that he had not even shared with me. (He was a very private person, who spoke little about himself).
Most spouses are not left with a literary legacy of this sort. There may, however, be another project they can take on in their spouse's memory, perhaps furthering a cause close to the person's heart, and I believe that doing this can be an important part of the healing process. I know of one sculptor who sculpted his wife after she died, and another person who sponsored medical students in Africa in his wife's memory.
The greatest joy I have known since losing Robin was when a publishing contract arrived on the evening of Robin's third anniversary Mass. Other wonderful gifts followed, such as Sister Wendy Beckett agreeing to write the foreword, and endorsements by Bishop Brian Noble, Canon John Udris, Fr Vincent O'Hara OCD and Roy Godwin.
The joy was only tempered by not being able to share it with Robin. However these graces have made me think he is praying for this joint project. It has felt like giving birth to his child. It is very much Robin's book. All the writing is his, but the editing, promoting and launching have been a way of doing something for him that he can no longer do for himself.
The book has a new title, which Robin chose before he died. It is called The Virgin Eye: Towards a Contemplative View of Life. It begins with a searching look at the problems we all face, namely managing change, stress and our chronically rushed pace of life. Robin makes a case for slowing down, having a richer inner life and prioritising our relationship with God through prayer. Robin argues that we need to give due attention to God, to self-awareness and serving others. These three elements need to be in balance if we are to grow. There are additional chapters on marriage, chastity (for the married and the celibate), decisions and mindfulness.
Mindfulness, which Robin had both studied informally and practised for decades, simply means being fully attentive to your experience, in the present moment. It also describes an attitude of detached noticing that frees us from judging, boxing and categorising and is more open to appreciating what is.
It's gained some caché in recent years due to its adoption (from Buddhist roots) by secular psychology, and research showing that it alleviates the effects of stress and other problems. However, Christianity has its own very ancient version, which is called 'recollection', explored more fully by Brother Lawrence in his The Practice of the Presence of God and de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The desert fathers saw their attentive weaving of baskets as an act of prayer. St Teresa of Avila famously remarked ‘God is in the pots and the pans’.
The distinctive variant in our faith is that we are mindful of – we remember – God. Robin encourages us to seek His presence in everything, and whether we are clearing our in-tray or doing the washing up, we should do it as an offering to God, saying ‘This is for Thee’. Constant remembrance of God leads to an attitude of thanksgiving and praise. It is easy to see that this is not only giving God his due, it also uplifts and elevates our entire experience, filling it with a richness and joy (an attitude I observed in Robin).
My main job now is to make people aware of the book and then to trust that it will have a life of its own. Perhaps once this is done the challenge will be to enjoy a continuing bond with him when there is not a work to do that is so explicitly linked to his memory. A person lives on through their words, ideas and influence. I want to try to incarnate the qualities of the man I love, but it won't be easy because he set the standard high.
One challenge will be to bear to feel the loss when the busyness which accompanies a project of this nature has passed. I hope others can learn from this book so that Robin's life will have a fruitfulness beyond the people he encountered while he was alive.
The Virgin Eye: Toward a Contemplative View of Life by Robin Daniels is published by Instant Apostle.