In the last weeks of her life, Helen made several financial gifts. After hearing her speak about how much fun she was having, I asked her if she would be willing to share some of her story as a companion to her husband John’s interview. One week before she died, Helen talked with me over the phone with John by her side.
Helen: What is most powerful for me is what is happening in my life right now. I have had an inheritance since 1989 when my father died and I have struggled with it for over 20 years. I felt a lot of shame and guilt and failure because I was not able to give the money away or do what I wanted to do with it; what I felt God was calling me to do with it; or how I read the Gospel about what to do with it.
I felt like a fake or a failure. There were so many “shoulds.” For instance, I should know better what to do with it. I would look around and I would see people doing wonderful things with money, giving it away and investing, and I felt so stuck for decades.
The transformation that is happening now is that I realize that I had to live my life to know what to do with the money. I had to fall in love with really important things — institutions and activities that I became very passionate about — in order to know what to do with the money. It is pretty humbling because it has taken over twenty years for that to happen.
But what is happening right now is very transformational and full of a lot of spiritual energy. It is incredible.
The fact that I am dying and I am literally on my deathbed is providing tremendous energy to move forward with what I feel passionate about and what I have learned in my life is important. I am giving away about $750,000 while I am alive right now out of a living trust and having a lot of joy doing that – tremendous joy. One of my mantras from Tilden Edwards is “money is an icon and an energy of God that we are called to circulate with joy.”
I am giving $50,000 to the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for the last 12 years to explore creating a clinical program that I have been studying and working in in for the past 5 years. It is the best treatment for trauma and attachment disorders that I have ever seen. It is based on neuroscience and the brain and what we know about attachment and what we know about how disruptions in the attachment system in the brain profoundly affect people’s lives and create huge suffering. We now have very good treatments for that that are based on mindfulness and spiritual practices. The ability to say I want to give $50,000 to this hospital for this has created so much joy in me. And it has created so much joy in the people who are receiving it.
The CEO of the hospital and one of the executive vice presidents came over and were sitting by my hospice bed as we talk about this gift. They have told me this is the largest single gift that the hospital has ever received.
The hospital was founded in 1834 by a woman whose name was Anna Marsh. At that time, the mentally ill were chained up outside or auctioned off by the town of Brattleboro to get them off their hands. The Quakers in England created a movement called the Retreat Movement, which took the mentally ill out of the cities. It was a humanitarian reform movement for the mentally ill. There were seven hospitals that were founded in the US in the early 19th century and my hospital, the Brattleboro Retreat, was one of them. The CEO said that I was the second Anna Marsh. He said that they had been waiting 178 years for another Anna Marsh.
The personal part of this story is that my mother suffered psychiatric illness. When I was a little girl, she was treated at one of these hospitals. There is a personal connection that I have with my mother through this as well.
Rose: I was struck when you said that what is happening right now is full of spiritual energy. Are there other places where you are sensing that spiritual energy?
Helen: I can feel it when I talk to the people from the hospital. There is a beautiful picture of Jesus in my room painted by Rembrandt. He watches over every meeting going on in my hospice room at home right now. I am constantly looking over to him and saying, “You are my co-pilot. How are we doing?” It feels like there is tremendous grace in all of this. It feels full of light and grace filled. I can see it with other people in the room.
Another project that is underway is that I have provided funding to finish a chapel at the church where John and I have gone since 1988. It’s been our church home and like a lot of faith communities and faith journeys, there have been some wonderful things that have happened there and there have been some painful things that have happened there. In the last couple of years, it was mostly painful and challenging.
What has been transformational is that it became clear to me that I wanted to pay to have a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene at this church. The chapel will be called “The Chapel of Mary the First Apostle” because I want to bring Mary forward as the disciple and the apostle who truly got Jesus’ message of transformation and non-dualism that all is one.
What has been amazing is the joy that I have been able to sense giving money for this chapel. It feels like a miracle of reconciliation and redemption for me. And it feels the same way for the people who are receiving it. There is a tremendous amount of joy.
If you would have told me that this would happen…it is out of the blue, grace. The chapel will be very beautiful. It will have meditation cushions. It will be feminine. We have an amazing iconographer in our church who is going to make an icon of Mary Magdalene. It will be part of creating a Wisdom Christianity school at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, Vermont.
Another piece that has happened there is that I have a beautiful grand piano that was my grandmother’s. Five years ago I made an attempt to give it to the church and for some reason it was a painful experience. I am not sure what happened there. My grandmother was the church organist at the Episcopal church where I grew up. Her piano has now been placed in the sanctuary, is being played, and has been received with a lot of honor. And it sounds incredibly beautiful in there.
There is another gift that I am giving to my sister-in-law who works with an organization called 147 million orphans. She took on the ministry of building a medical clinic in the mountains in Haiti. I feel great joy in giving a lead gift of 10% to get that medical clinic underway.
Rose: Another amazing piece that I have witnessed is what has been happening in your relationship.
Helen: John, do you want to say anything about your experience over the last few weeks with all of this?
John: The hard work of our marriage came together a couple of years ago. With what is happening to Helen now, it has come to a profound and deep love and togetherness.
I have witnessed Helen trying to deal with her money for many years. I think she did a better job than she stated. She was constantly wrestling it. One of the great things we got from Harvest Time was being intimate with others in the same struggle. At one point, there was a whole session on actually marrying our money. In the last few weeks, we have married our money and in terms of our mission we are very aligned.
I see Helen’s life as an incredibly effective and rich experience of planting lots of seeds in the church and in her work, mental health. I feel like someone has put a jet pack on my back and I am seeing Helen’s seeds germinate, flower, bear fruit. I consider that a sacred, profound opportunity for me in the rest of my life. For me to continue her work and make sure that her resources and mine are directed to bring many of her seeds to fruition is a sacred work. There is divine guidance and energy spilling over into my life from Helen and I will carry it forward.
When you talk about transformation, when you understand that not too long ago I was not going to be giving more 25 cents to some organization, it is incredible.
Helen: If I can add to that, during the seven years that John and I had the privilege and honor to be held by Harvest Time, we have been able to be in the mess with all of the wounds around money that we have each had individually and as a couple. We have been able to be out there in the mess with our Harvest Time circle and we have been healed around our money. Our money is now married.
There was a lot of wounding, especially for John around money in his family. There were some very hurtful things that he did. I did not trust him at that time. We have now come to this place where I feel so at peace as I am dying that he is going to hold and disperse the money that will go out as a sacred trust. It gives me such peace of mind. I am so proud of him. He has grown so much. He is so passionate. To watch him take on my passion about these projects is again a gift of grace and transformation.
Rose: To go back to that Tilden Edwards piece that “money is an icon that we are called to circulate with joy,” what are you seeing about the nature of God that you can experience through money?
Helen: In our society we are so messed up about money. It has become an idol. To call it an icon means it is a portal for the energy and love of God to move into the world. I am not just holding that as an abstract idea. I am now sacramentally and fully incarnating that and I have that experience of how it is an energy of God that can circulate in the world.
I want to say one more thing which is how incredibly grateful I am and how profound my experience of life in community in Harvest Time has been. Harvest Time was the first place that affirmed me as a wisdom teacher. The quality of spiritual companionship that I have experienced there is pretty unique. I really cannot think of another place in my life where I have gotten that kind of profound encouragement and love so that we could go deeply into important matters.
Rose: As I am talking to you, the tears are flowing because it has been such a privilege for me to witness your movement individually, and as a couple. At Harvest Time, we talk about money and spiritual transformation. That is what I feel like I am witnessing in terms of the healing personally, in your marriage, and the joy of how money can circulate. It is a privilege to witness.
John: It is a true miracle.