Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Fragrance of Roses

This uncanny experience occurred in the early 1990’s when I was about 40 years old and working as a psychotherapist at an outpatient clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was in session with a somewhat atypical client, an elderly woman of Italian descent who had courageously sought help late in life for problems stemming from sexual abuse and harassment which she had experienced in her youth. I say that she was “atypical” because it was unusual for me to have someone significantly older than myself as a client. This was to be a one-time screening interview for a women’s group that a colleague and I were putting together. Although I had been trained in a therapeutic orientation that was dismissive of religion and things “irrational” in general, I had recently had exposure to the transformative power of 12-step programs, and was now asking clients routinely about their religious or spiritual experience as part of the intake process.

I sat in the sparsely furnished office opposite this tall, dignified elder with neatly permed salt-and-pepper hair and began to talk to her about her beliefs. She revealed herself to be a devout Catholic, particularly devoted to the practice of praying to Saint Teresa—that is, Saint Teresa of Lisieux, also known as “the Little Flower”, not to be confused with Saint Teresa of Ávila. My client said, “They say that you can tell when Saint Teresa has been present because she leaves behind her in the air the fragrance of roses.” No sooner had these words left her lips than I was overwhelmed by a scent of roses so intense that it was as if someone had backed up a dump-truck full of rose petals to the office door and unloaded them into the room. In addition, the air between my client and myself was charged with a vibrant, deeply pleasurable energy that seemed to shimmer before my eyes like the “heat waves” that rise from hot asphalt in the summer. I was dumbfounded; terrified, really, and didn’t know what to do. My client continued to talk as if unaware of what I was experiencing, so I tried to maintain my composure and carry on with the session without remarking on what had occurred. The unusual sensations lingered for about a half an hour or so, and then gradually faded.

What happened? My personal religious upbringing was Protestant, in an intellectually-oriented family that was quite openly biased against Catholicism. I had never until that day heard of “the Little Flower” and knew nothing whatsoever about saints or mysticisim. My initial interpretation of what took place was that the strength of my client’s faith was such that she had somehow “channeled” to me something of her own religious experience. I still feel that this is a valid way of making sense of it, though surely only one facet of an event which is ultimately inexplicable.

What happened to me that day contributed to a process of growth which has led me to a greater awareness of the spiritual in my own life and the lives of those I endeavor to help. I now know who the two Saint Teresas are, and read about the lives of Saints on an almost daily basis. I recently came across a definition of “grace” as “the undeserved and unearned favor and love of God.” I will be grateful as long as I live for this exceptional encounter with a woman who unknowingly transmitted a gift of healing to her therapist.

- Emily P. Murphey
Montpelier, VT

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