Writing conversation: Ireland and John Main

Writing Conversation:

I first set foot in Ireland when my husband, Neil, was asked to write the biography of John Main, a Benedictine monk, one of the most colourful and memorable people we had ever met.

Working on that book, In The Stillness Dancing, was , I think, one of the happiest times of Neil’s entire life, combining his interest in spirituality and his love of writing.

Douglas Main, as he was christened, had grown up in London where his father was working on the new transatlantic cable. As a young member of the British Foreign Service, he was stationed in Malaya, where he met a Hindu Swami. This man was a statesman, founder of an orphanage for the four great religions of Malaya. He insisted each child keep his or her own religion. After the Japanese war, when he carried food to the exhausted railway workers, he chaired the first inter-faith conference in that part of the world. From him, Douglas learned an ancient tradition of prayer, using a mantra or prayer word.

Much later, as a Benedictine headmaster at a school in Washington DC, John Main, as he now was, rediscovered this same form of meditation in the Christian tradition, hidden away in some of the old writings.

In the early 70s Bishop Leonard Crowley of Montreal had asked Father John to create a monastery in the city. A ‘safe space’ for English-speaking Montrealers, at a time of tensions within the province with thousands of English-speaking Quebeckers leaving the province for other parts of Canada.

Neil heard about the new monastery through a friend, and dragged me kicking and screaming to an old house on Vendôme avenue, where we sat on creaky sofas rescued from the Salvation Army. I had never met a monk before and was not sure if I wanted to just now, when I was enjoying the social life of the media world Neil inhabited.

That first evening, when I heard John Main speak, I knew I was hearing the same authenticity I had experienced as a child with my grandmother. Lydia Orford Fleming was the daughter of an anglo-irishman James Orford, who bought two acres of land on Parliament street in what is now known as Cabbagetown in Toronto.

Lydia invited other Canadian families to join her in funding medical services for women in India. She dragged her two protesting youngest daughters, Agnes and Evelyn with her on a long sea-voyage to India, along with her glamorous daughter in law, Helen Hyde Fleming.


Agnes and Dr. Evelyn Fleming on either side of Lydia Orford Fleming; Helen Hyde Fleming (Lloyd Fleming’s wife) in India.

Aunt Evelyn is clearly scowling: this was not my idea, you can see her thinking. She had been enjoying a glamorous social life in London, England, as a young surgeon, graduate of Edinburgh University. She had been received at court with three feathers in her hair and a long lace train, on the arm of a handsome Middle east diplomat, whose name was Jamal. The hot clime of India triggered a painful attack of her Rheumatoid arthritis.

Then one day in London, England, she was walking down Hyde Park from her beloved Dorchester Hotel when a warm feeling like ten valiums came over her and she knew she was going back to India as a doctor. She consulted a specialist in California, went on a diet, cutting her sugar intake by half and returned to India for 25 years, with occasional furloughs home.

In India, aunt Ev trained a whole staff of Indian nurses. I grew up with a radiant photo of Aunt Ev, a young nurse in her sari and a beaming 10 year old girl standing between them on crutches, with one leg cut off at the knee.  She had been left for dead by her distraught family as had a little boy, whom Aunt Ev had found by the roadside – an unrecognisable bundle.

Aunt Ev was one of the first woman to graduate in Medicine in Canada. In India she studied eye medicine under Sir Henry Holland, sewed up a man attacked by a tiger, and drove fearlessly in the Himalayas to find survivors after an earthquake.

To be continued

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