John Hill shares his journey

I have been pondering as to what to share. You have stories; you have experiences as rich as or even richer than mine.

“The Motorcycle Diaries”, a film currently showing in Sydney, is the template I want to work with. It was Che Guevara’s journey around a continent. It started with a call to adventure and it became the hero’s journey. In being human we are all heroes. The film was about a bike, two persons, road accidents, arguments, injury, being penniless, hunger, sadness, exposure to injustice, spontaneous generosity, romance and death—life itself. The story of Che is also our story. That is why metaphor is so delicate and sacred.

“You enter the forest at the darkest point where there is no path. Where there is a path it belongs to someone else.” Life is the quest we all make for the absolute and we seem to spend our lives unravelling the mystery of who we are in relation to the world. And it is precisely here that we encounter the paradox of life itself. If we are real there is that compelling need to identify with the oppressed; those pushed to the margins. The need comes from a faith we were born into. It is a faith that if taken seriously exposes our fears. It is in moving from certainty and security to a leap into the darkness that we run the risk of failure. Yet it is when we are able to take this risk that we are invited to seek genuine salvation.

I am a product of my own experience. We are all products of our own experience. It is not always easy to acknowledge this. If we do not then we can allow ourselves to be prisoners of that same experience. If we become prisoners then we remain in Plato’s cave and never seek to escape.

I was born in Sydney at the beginning of the 2nd World War to a balanced Catholic mother and a Catholic but anti-clerical irregular Catholic father. I was the youngest of 3 siblings by 6 years. We were not wealthy but at the same time we were not poor. We had enough of what was needed to live with dignity. We grew up in Cremorne. My parents voted for the Menzies Government. I only attended Catholic schools-Loreto Convent, Kirribilli, OLSH Bowral and St. Aloysius College. Family, Church, School, Friends and Location were my focus within the bigger world of politics, economy and popular culture.

My father was crippled with Rheumatoid Arthritis. He had been a wonderful sportsman in his day, representing the State in cycling and rowing. He became severely handicapped with arthritis just prior to my birth. He was much older than my mother and he was 54 when I was born. I feel that I can say that I had a reasonably happy childhood, secure in the knowledge that I was loved. My father died when I was 13. I realized only years later the incredible impact his death had on me. It seems that persons who have suffered traumatic losses in childhood can be particularly vulnerable to depression as adults. The loss of a parent between the ages of 10-14 is seen as devastating. From my own experience as a counsellor adolescents are unable to understand death or to express grief as adults do, and they often carry with them throughout life a sense of unresolved or incomplete mourning. His death was the first death that I had experienced. I was there the whole time. He had been nursed by my mother at home. He had bladder cancer. After the funeral I was fearful of going back to school and kept on putting it off for days, fearful of what the other students would say. I just didn’t want to be different.

I did not want to be seen as different. But I had no father and all the others in the class did have a father. My schoolwork suffered. I began to suffer badly from scruples, scruples that at times made me question my own sanity. Religion became a burden because it was based on fear. But I had to be redeemed so I followed slavishly the one true path of salvation. This was none other than the Church founded on the rock of Peter.

I can see so clearly now as I look back to my own past just how powerful the church can be in controlling the minds of people and how men like Jensen, Pell and their ilk are able to have so much political and emotional clout. In times of uncertainty humans stampede for answers. Hillsong and tele-evangelism are little different to the Alan Joneses, the Stan Zemaneks, and the Ray Hadleys of this world. They talk religious ‘jock’ talk.

The Jesuits who taught me through primary and secondary school were a mixed bunch. A few were beautifully creative and compassionate. Still there were a couple who at times seemed to have suffered severe neurosis. There were traces of Jansenism there which exposed even more my disposition to scruples. I remember when the legendary Jimmy Carlton died an old Jesuit spoke for 30 minutes of how he was enduring hell for eternity, describing the putrefaction of his skin. Why? Because he had betrayed his vocation. We were told how a couple who didn’t marry in the church and who were killed in an accident on their honeymoon were burning in hell for all eternity. And the story of being true to your faith was seen in the light of a good catholic young man going into a condom factory and puncturing the heads of all the condoms.

So here I was a mixture of shyness, reticence, friendliness, fearful of being different and certainly very aware of my inadequacies. I was reasonably ok with schoolwork and matriculated in 1958. But I certainly would not become one of the famous alumni of the college.

On the 31st of January 1959 a somewhat insecure 18-year-old alighted from the train at Douglas Park Station to begin a religious pilgrimage. It was to be a lifetime commitment. Here I had placed my hand to the plough and there was to be no turning back. Religious life was seen as the sign to the world of what the real priorities of life were all about. The vows taken were seen as a witness to that reality. Yet over 20 years other things were realized. The certainties that were fostered at an earlier stage were no longer there. It was not to do with a lack of faith. The real practitioners of poverty were not necessarily those who took formal vows in a ceremonial and consecrated ritual but rather those who sought the quest for the kingdom in their identification with the poor. Obedience had to be more than keeping peace at all costs or letting others take on the burden of responsibility. Chastity was not just about being tokenly wedded with Christ and the denial of passion. It was far more.

It was precisely at this point that I found myself facing a dilemma. On the one hand there was the church which had been the bastion of my mental and spiritual sanity and which in the past had offered me the certainty of salvation if I followed all her rules. Yet at the same time I found something unreal about it all. I was searching for a way to live out the compassion of the Christ, which I had discovered in my reading of the Gospels.

It was then I saw that much of my life in the seminary was an endurance test. We had in no way been exposed to the outside world. For 9 years I had been confined to a set location. Maturity and a sense of self worth were not central to such training, still there were the positives. I had made wonderful lifelong friends. Friends who will be with me always. I was very fortunate to have had a really good academic basis for life outside. I can never fully express my gratitude to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart for the education and even the warmth they gave. I feel sure that the education one got there was better than any other seminary training about at the time. As I went through the scholasticate, light became clearer. I started to be awakened to the outside world through my reading and sharing. The Second Vatican Council had opened so many windows. Our reading became broader and the Order itself allowed us to dig deeper. Two books had a big impact at this stage, Maisie Word’s ‘ France Pagan’ and Fromm’s ‘Fear of Freedom’ allowed me to understand the role of priesthood in a world crying out to be heard and just how easy it is to abrogate our freedom.

If I were to go into the nearly 14 years as a priest it may take time. Dare I say that I did enjoy my time as a curate in the Randwick Parish, my years as a Chaplain to the students at the University of NSW and the several years I spent in the Philippines?

I took leave of the pilgrimage started in 1958 on the 15th of February 1980. I was to continue on the pilgrimage but this time with a different structure. Nine years as a Probation and Parole Officer, nearly 13 years as a school counsellor and now working privately in counselling and also as a Marriage, Funeral and Naming Celebrant. It is like coming full circle and the words of T. S. Eliot seem so germane, ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time’. I want in these moments though to go further. Here we are as a community. We know the real church is multi -faceted. There is a certain heterogeneity. Morris West said, “Once you accept the existence of God than you are caught forever with his presence in the centre of all things.” It is with this in mind that I want to touch on three themes that are central to our belief in a God of Love.

Conscience is at the heart of everything for our engagement with conscience is engagement with the presence of God in our lives and in our decision making. It is here that ambiguity raises its head. On the one hand conscience is regarded as the most fundamental way that we approach moral goodness and truth. The Vatican Two documents insist that conscience must be obeyed yet at the same time there is that expectation that the judgement of conscience will be in accord with the Church’s teaching. Here we have the tension between conscience and the moral authorities within the church.

This tension is exacerbated when some bishops, who by their nature and endorsed with their perceived power, wield an authoritarian and bullying stance. Dialogue becomes stymied. I believe that we need to remember blind obedience and unthinking acceptance of authority may make an institution work more smoothly but the people who live under such a regime will remain infantile and dependent. Pell’s ad hoc comment that we must follow ‘The hard teachings of Christ’ seem to be contrary to what Jesus himself had said “Come to me all you are weary, come follow me for my yoke is sweet and my burden light.” I often think of the words of a modern lyricist Xavier Rudd when churchmen and politicians make their statements and it is so relevant in our Australian setting, ‘Tiny hearts lead our nation and tiny minds let them go’.

A second theme I would like to talk about is compassion. This is at the heart of our faith. All religions of the world put suffering at the top of the agenda. If we deny our own pain we dismiss the pain of others. Each tradition teaches a spirit of empathy by means of which we relate our own suffering to the suffering of others. We look into our own hearts, see our own distress and refrain from inflicting similar pain on others. We turn on TV, we read the papers and we are jolted out of our own frustrated introspection by the spectacle of suffering. We know what it is like when people ignore our suffering.

The one and only valid test for a religious idea, doctrine or statement is that it leads directly to compassion. If your understanding of the Divine makes you kinder, more empathic then you know you worship the true God. Compassion has been practised by all the great faiths because it is the safest and the surest means of attaining enlightenment. Compassion is a habit of the mind that is transforming. Compassion and social justice are interwoven. A 9th Century Sufi mystic Rabiah said it beautifully, “O God, if I worship thee in fear of hell, burn me in hell: and if I worship thee in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise: but if I worship thee for thine own sake withhold not thine everlasting beauty.” The focal point is compassion for we need only see proof of this in the parables of Jesus.

The third theme that I would briefly like to touch on is imagination. Imagination is like a lantern. It moves us into the inner landscapes of our life. When we can view the world with a deep sense of wonder it opens up for us all that was hidden. Mystery and beauty is all about us and yet we can at times fail to see this. It is the quality of our looking that determines what we really see. Helder Camara was in his younger days told to mistrust imagination. He countered by telling them, “Imagination helps me to understand creation, to understand God.” I was fortunate in my seminary training that we had some gifted lecturers who encouraged us to use imagination.

Imagination awakens the inner world. In its innocence it sees new possibilities in what appear to be fixed and immovable. It has no rules for it throbs with the passion for freedom. It goes beyond accepted frontiers. It keeps us young. With imagination we do not permit social convention to dominate and control us. We do not have to be programmed into a patterned social expectation.

If we can work with imagination we learn reverence for we become open to the huge forest of our experience. We see with fresh ideas. The words of Keats ring true, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” Leunig put it ever so richly, “Let us live in such a way that when we die our love will survive and continue to grow.” If we follow the mind alone we will live isolated and lonely lives. It is imagination that brings warmth and tenderness of affection into the life of thought. We will then be able to keep our heads out of our hearts.

As I conclude I see that my life is continually changing and yet I find myself revolving around and around the same themes, the same issues and at times making the same mistakes. From that young boy who loved people, to the young man who entered the semi-monastic life for reasons that are so mixed, to the 40 year old who seemingly turned his back to the plough, to the almost 65 year old who stands beside you – we have a life in kaleidoscope. Here I am now experiencing my own fragility, pondering the thought of death, feeling all too timid in what I should do for the oppressed and vanquished. I continually make that leap of faith yet I know that a sustaining element in my journey is that I am loved by a closely knit family and friends. I am proud to be part of this community that has a vision and a desire for justice.

Finally I live with the words that my 24 year old son penned on the outside of an envelope sent from Darwin, “Beyond the turmoil- beyond the madness… it breathes… it lives- a fairer world, a kinder world – a more peaceful existence. Believe in possibility – trust uncertainty.”

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