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Honouring Peter Gilbert - a Giant Voice for Spirituality's Role in Compassionate Care

06/05/2014 15:21 BST | Updated 05/07/2014 10:59 BST

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Peter Gilbert engaged in interfaith dialogue - photo provided by Pavilion

When Rowan Williams uses the word "special" you take note. But when he mentions it three times in one sentence and prefaces it each time with the word "very" we're clearly being called to attention.

"This is a very special event to launch a very special book to celebrate a very special person", he explained.

Fresh from prompting an array of headlines about Britain being a post-Christian nation, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Lord Williams, was hosting the launch of a remarkable book in the House of Lords.

He was singing the praises of Crossing the River: The contribution of spirituality to humanity and its future.

As if to illustrate his reference to a post-Christian era, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, humanists and Christians mingled to honour the late Peter Gilbert, a Benedictine catholic so in demand that his emails would be signed off with a list of roles running to seven or eight lines.

"He was an optimist...who challenged us to see ourselves as agents of a change for the better", said Ben Bano, a social worker for 40 years and director of mental health charity Welcome me as I Am, who helped edit the book.

The change Gilbert sought was wider recognition and implementation of the role of spirituality in wellbeing, particularly in regard to mental health and social care. He was convinced that people who struggle need to be given the opportunity to engage with life's deeper questions. According to the book's lead editor Arthur Hawes, these include:

  • Who am I?
  • Where do I come from?
  • Where am I going?

His conviction that this mattered was by no means merely academic. Gilbert had an insider's view as a service user for his own mental health problems. His story is a marvel of responding constructively to depression through a spirituality firmly fixed in his Christian faith.

"Peter's depression became the gateway through which he was able to enter into the world of spirituality and discover its healing potential for his life and, by implication, for the lives of many people experiencing mental health issues", explains Professor John Swinton, one of the book's contributing authors.

In just such intimate references to Gilbert the book is undoubtedly a celebration of his multi-faceted life and work. Yet it is much more than a backward looking tribute. As the subtitle suggests, it's deeply concerned with spirituality's role in humanity's future.

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Book cover / Contributors and friends - photos provided by Pavilion

The book's 16 chapters are each authored by individuals whose lists of roles in service to others - especially in academia and healthcare - could give Peter Gilbert's a run for its money and who personally knew and worked with him. All had been challenged by Hawes to "take one word, phrase or picture he gave you and write about it in less than 3000 words".

They have risen to the challenge. Based on their own experience of spirituality, and research into its value, each one has written about the main areas of Gilbert's work: spirituality and mental health; spirituality and social care; spirituality and interfaith relations; and spirituality and leadership. The wide-ranging subjects include "Recovery and spirituality: how the church and healthcare can develop more faith - in each other"; "living and breathing spirituality in social work and social care"; and a perspective on "spirituality, Buddhism and psychological therapies".

According to publisher's Pavilion, the book aims "to encourage others to continue, develop and research the role of spirituality in the 21st century". Yet if the public want more spirituality in their care they are also going to need to advocate it.

To that end it would be great to see those who read the book expand beyond the target audience of "social workers and social work students, practitioners, commissioners, those working in faith communities, chaplaincy, pastoral care, psychologists and psychiatrists". If consumers of health and social care delve into these ideas and understand the difference spiritual care can make they will demand it, particularly in cases where modern medicine is proving inadequate to meet the need.

That was certainly where I found myself three decades ago, when spirituality first brought me a quick and permanent return to health which medication had failed to provide. In my case the spirituality which made the difference was a vivid, transcendent sense of the divine - a profoundly peaceful and joyful feeling of being unconditionally loved and of recognising others were, too. This, in turn, restored a sweet sense of mind and body being the servant, rather than the master, of my thoughts. The mental and physical freedom I experienced as a result inspired me to further explore the impact of spirituality on health, and I have looked to such means as my first choice in times of need ever since.

Crossing the River is a broad discussion. It doesn't outline any single approach to spirituality or spiritual care, but makes a strong case for a more universal awareness of it and access to it.

As Gilbert himself once put it: "Spirituality, in whatever form it takes, is a vital dimension of our humanity. As disillusionment with robotic and mechanistic forms of care has set in and our society has become more multifaceted and multicultural, spirituality is becoming of increasing importance in health and social care." (Spirituality and Mental Health, 2011)

Peter Gilbert clearly was "a very special person" and this book is a fitting way to celebrate and propagate a legacy that will only loom larger as the vital role of spirituality in health and social care is increasingly recognised.

Peter Gilbert died at the end of 2013 and all the royalties from Crossing the River will be donated to the Motor Neurone Disease Association.