Volume 18 Number 3
A Hand on Her Shoulder
01 June 2005

Stan Hazell meets a nonagenarian whose latest book is a surprise hit in Britain's prisons.

Retired Classics teacher Norah Cook is pretty much housebound these days. But her mind, in her nineties, is as sharp as ever and her heart embraces a needy world. These faculties have made her one of the driving forces behind an inspirational book which can be found on the shelves of most prison libraries in Britain.

The book, A Hand on my Shoulder*, co-written by Norah Cook and Vera Frampton, contains 26 accounts from ten countries of people's experiences of how God communicates with them today. It was produced at the request of a school chaplain who regularly faced questions from pupils along the lines of: 'How far is God known?' and 'How far is God knowable?'.

The two authors gathered stories from around the world. They took their title from the story of a Russian dissident facing a life and death decision, who experienced 'an unseen hand on his shoulder' which seemed to bring an answer.

In another chapter, a Japanese man who contracted leprosy as a boy tells how he found a faith as a result of the care he received at a leprosy colony. He went on to inspire and help others and to write faith-building poetry. One of the poems shows his awareness of God:

I do not fear to tread the road
I cannot see.
Because the hand of One who loves
Is leading me.

The book offers a wide range of experiences of how God can communicate with people. A man opened his Sunday newspaper to read about a missing girl and her distraught parents. He set out to find her and was 'drawn' to a shop doorway in London. The girl turned up and he was able to reunite her with her parents.

A drug addict describes finding an answer to her addiction and rebuilding her relationship with her father. An army driver, lost with his comrades in the desert during World War Two, won the respect and thanks of his commanding officer when a safe haven was found following his prayers.

Since A Hand on my Shoulder was first published in 1995, it has been placed in many schools in Britain and abroad. Staff have found it an invaluable resource for discussion and reflection among their students.

'Young people these days have so much on their minds and so many issues in life to face,' says Norah Cook. 'I have been fascinated by the response of many of them to questions about things like the right way to live, world peace, the environment and family relationships.'

But it is not only in schools that the book has found a readership. Mrs Cook regularly sends it to prisons- often at the request of the chaplains. Over a thousand copies have so far found their way beyond the walls of Britain's penal institutions. Every week more of them are despatched from her home in Bristol.

She has the help of Andy, by his own admission 'a former tearaway', who keeps a check on supplies, packs the books and sends them off. He says Mrs Cook's support helped him to find purpose in life: she describes him as a 'constant source of encouragement and support'.

A steady flow of enthusiastic and grateful responses from prison officers, chaplains and inmates come back in return. One wrote: 'A Hand on my Shoulder is a breath of fresh air. Thank you.' The chaplain asked for another 20 copies. A prisoner at another jail described the book as 'enlightening, opening to the reader private chambers of communication with the "still small voice of calm" '. Groups of inmates used the book as part of a discussion group led by one of them.

Another chaplain wrote requesting extra copies: 'The stories you quote will resonate with the life experiences of our prison population. I am placing a copy in the prison library and demand for it is heavy.' A North of England prison officer wrote to praise the book's 'easy-to-read style which prisoners will find attractive' and added, 'Its stories are ones of encouragement to which they will relate'.

Norah Cook's convictions spring from a journey of discovery which started in 1933, when, just after leaving university, she met the Oxford Group (now known as Initiatives of Change). There were conflicts in her life but, sitting alone in a carriage on a train journey, she says she felt them 'just fall away'.

She became a teacher and began to put her beliefs into practice in the world of education. She relates these experiences in another of her publications, We're all looking for something. In it she points out that teenagers are vulnerable, in spite of their apparent poise. 'A death in the family, a broken marriage or a quarrel between parents can throw some of them off-balance emotionally. Unless teachers have the insight and caring to pull them through such times, they can drift out of reach of either their teachers or parents.'

It has not, she admits, 'all been a bed of roses'. There have been lessons to learn, difficulties in her own family to face, mistakes that needed to be recitified, and a traumatic departure from one school after the head teacher took exception to the interest some of the pupils were taking in her ideas. But, she says, these lessons in life have helped her understanding of the problems of others.

She describes her late husband, Ron Cook, as 'a constant strength'. She still keeps up friendships-mostly by phone and letter these days-with a variety of people whose lives have become different after finding out more about the quiet faith that directs her life.

One of these people, now in her sixties, first met Norah Cook 40 years ago. She had a drink problem, which she eventually overcame with Mrs Cook's support, and is now a deeply committed Catholic. She helped her son, who also had problems with alcohol, to find a faith too. Now she has become a spiritual help to Mrs Cook in her turn.

When a girl pupil broke down in tears over the break-up of her parents' marriage Mrs Cook told her that she had found that God could speak to her about difficult situations. 'Perhaps he might speak to you,' she said. She heard nothing for about six weeks but then the girl told her she had had the thought to be honest with her parents about something in her life she'd been hiding. The parents were so struck by her honesty that they decided to put their own lives in order. They didn't get divorced after all.

'The need for healing in the family is central to what I believe,' says Norah Cook. 'But I am convinced that nothing in the world will change unless there is a change in people.' In the meantime there are more books to be parcelled up and sent off as the requests from prison chaplains continue to arrive.

* 'A Hand on My Shoulder',by Norah Cook
and Vera Frampton, New Cherwell Press,
1995, ISBN 1-900312-00-X.