The Life of Ursula Fleming
The Eckhart Society was founded in 1987 by Ursula Fleming whose main work was in teaching a revolutionary method of pain therapy and who found in the teachings of Eckhart the theoretical basis for her work.
Ursula Fleming was a remarkable person whose strong personality touched the lives of thousands of men and women. Born in 1930 the daughter of parents who were Doctors and Catholics, from a very early age she possessed a great musical talent, winning her first piano festival prize aged eight. She planned to become a concert pianist but at nineteen nervous tension and lack of confidence led her to abandon this.
It was a meeting with Gertrude Heller, then developing new ways of treating chronic and acute pain, that decided Ursula to train in this new therapy. At this time there was no recognized school in this discipline, so she spent four gruelling years on the wards and in the lecture rooms at the Crichton Royal Infirmary working with Gertrude Heller under the guidance of Dr Willi Mayer-Gross, Director of Clinical Research there.
At the age of fifteen her Father died. Following this event she gave up her Catholic religion and started looking for her own answers to questions about life and death. In 1951 she met Marco Pallis, musician, author, mountaineer and a Buddhist. As she says in her book The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing:
I asked him how it could be possible to be reasonably intelligent and also a Christian when no one seemed to admit that there were questions to ask. I was always told to go home and say my prayers and to pray for faith particularly. In fact my faith, except in the reality of God’s existence, was gone, not of my own volition but from lack of understanding. (Fleming, 1995 p. xvii)
Marco Pallis told her ‘Go back to the religion of your birth. Go to the Sacraments. Read Eckhart’ (Ibid.) She did this and when she encountered difficulties with understanding what Eckhart wrote he told her ‘Don’t try to understand him. Just go on reading him’ (Ibid.). She acted as he suggested and later wrote ‘Now every time I read again what I have read before I understand a little better’ (Ibid.).
Ursula spent her life teaching people how they could reach a state of peace and calm even in the most terrible circumstances by learning to control the bodily tensions caused by rejection rather than quiet acceptance of those ills of life which cannot be avoided. The pain therapy she taught consisted of training people to come into the reality of the present moment, doing away with their habitual fantasies about the past and future thus becoming aware of the body and getting rid of all its tensions. In this state one is receptive and concentrated so that any activity engaged in will be performed with relaxed concentration and therefore improved.
This state is very like the state of detachment which Meister Eckhart tells us is requisite for union with God. Ursula drew on Eckhart’s teaching a great deal in her work helping to ease the pain of very seriously ill patients. Anyone who would like to know more about Ursula’s pain control method should read her book Grasping the Nettle (Fleming, 1990) which may be purchased from the Eckhart Society.
This method of controlling one’s wandering thoughts can be beneficial for anyone, especially those under stress as Ursula showed when she worked with the Dominicans. Her first contact was with the Dominicans at Blackfriars in Oxford and this resulted in her long working friendship with Father Conrad Pepler. She gave classes at Blackfriars and later at Spode House, the Dominican conference house at Rugeley, Staffordshire (now sadly closed), where Father Conrad was the Warden. This led on to her teaching the Dominicans in Ireland.
Spirituality and Practicality
Spirituality and Practicality were the two preoccupations of Ursula’s life. On the one hand the active life of a woman with a family to bring up, who worked untiringly with people who were ill, unhappy or in pain (most of all with the dying). On the other hand, a spiritual life concerned with the search for truth in which Eckhart was her great support.
Marco Pallis continually pressed on her the need to get the condemnation of Eckhart’s writings revoked for this had led many to shun him over the previous six hundred years. In 1980 Ursula persuaded the Dominican, Simon Tugwell OP, to put a petition to the General Chapter meeting of the Dominicans asking the Sacred Congregation for the Faith to examine the possibility of issuing an official declaration of the orthodoxy of Meister Eckhart. This gained great support among the Dominicans and in 1983 an Eckhart Commission was set up to examine this question. The subsequent events following this are recorded on the Eckhart The Man page here.
Father Bede Griffith, a Benedictine monk who founded an Ashram in south India, wrote to Ursula when she was petitioning for the rehabilitation of Eckhart,
I am deeply interested in the project of the orthodoxy of Meister Eckhart. I think that it is a matter of extreme importance for the good name of the Catholic Church among both Christians and people of other religious traditions, especially Hindus, for whom he is the model of the supreme mystic.
Eckhart is regarded by those of many faiths other than Christianity as one with whom they can find common ground and whose teachings could be the basis of much better understanding between the different religions. A number of books have been written about Eckhart by thinkers from these other faiths.