Experiments · Jesuit life · Reflection

The F word

It’s been great reading the updates from fellow novices on experiment and seeing the similarities in our experiences. My own time at the hospice is almost over – just a final visit on Easter Sunday – and I am happy to report that it has been a wonderful experience, not only in terms of my daily work but also the wider experience of a new community and London Jesuit living.

Before arriving, I didn’t really have any proper sense of what a hospice would be like. My fear was that it would be a place heavy with death whereas the reality is that it is all about living life as fully as possible right up to the final moments. Plenty of those who use the hospice’s services are many, many years away from death and for them it is a place that delivers a higher quality of life right now.

My abiding memory of the hospice will be as a place of light and laughter and happiness, as well as sadness and, of course, death. God’s presence is very tangible, especially through the love and care of the staff. Patients and families can and do find a deep peace there.

In the main, my work has been with people in the local community who are socially isolated, people who come in and enjoy a few hours of conversation and games and a good lunch. The first thing to report is that my domino and jigsaw making skills have improved dramatically over the period although I remain rubbish at draughts . . .

Looking back on these weeks, three lessons or experiences stand out. These are things that I will take away with me and which I hope will influence my ongoing Jesuit life.

First, the time at the hospice has helped me understand better what it is that I am actually embarking on. The noviciate has been very much about becoming a Jesuit, whereas the hospice has made me appreciate properly that there is also something else: I am a trainee priest.

This hit home quite hard in the first few days when I was called ‘Father’ by one of the patients. This was the first time someone had used the ‘F’ word on me and even though I explained that I wasn’t a priest and was only at the very start of my training, it was clear that the woman had put me into a mental box – I was, in her eyes, now a representative of all things religious.

She behaved differently towards me as soon as she knew what I was doing. And it struck me that not only did I not want her to view me in this way but I also wasn’t even close to seeing myself in this particular context. As far as I was concerned I was still the same Stephen and so the label sat a little uncomfortably at that point. However, the positive is that it has made me think seriously about what actually lies, and should lie, behind the label – in general and for me.

Second, and in many ways overlapping, I had been a little concerned before arriving that I wouldn’t be able to engage with the people I was working with in the way that I should. I thought they might have expectations of me that I wasn’t able to fulfil and I wasn’t sure my previous skills and experience would serve me well in this new context. I’m pretty sure the novice master posted me to the hospice for this very reason. Having operated in a fast-paced, and sometimes no-quarter-given, office environment all my life, work based on gentle social interaction offered a significant element of agere contra. It seems strange to write this now, at the end of the six weeks, but at the beginning I was scared stiff about what I would or wouldn’t be able to say.

But what became clear very quickly is that people are looking for nothing more than simple human interaction. Conversation didn’t need to be profound, I didn’t need to have magical words, simply a trust in God and the willingness to slowly and gently build a relationship. And any of us can do this.

The final, and again overlapping, thought is about experiences during the experiment outside the hospice. I’ve taken the opportunity of living in London to take part in different events in various parishes, events which, each in their different way, have involved a much more public declaration of faith than I have been used to. These have included a Palm Sunday procession through north London, Stations of the Cross through the streets of Soho in central London and engaging with weekend revellers in Leicester Square (via Night Church) and Soho Square (via Night Fever) inviting them to come into church, light a candle and say a prayer (in a similar way to Christopher’s experience in Southall).

Up until now my faith has been something very private but of course, that is not enough – a solely private faith is not possible in a public role of ministry. In many respects, this newfound confidence in getting out there and witnessing, whether through my presence behind a cross in the alleyways of Soho or conversation amidst the bright lights of Leicester Square, is the most significant shift of the experiment and I would also say that it appears to be a very welcome first fruit of the spiritual exercises.

In the final days of the long retreat I was very conscious of how far I needed to travel if I was ever to become a good Jesuit. God has gently presented me with opportunities to inch forward – as well as a better understanding of my starting point – and done so in ways I would not have anticipated as I left Birmingham all those weeks ago. This first experiment has been a good start to the journey, with some important realisations and useful lessons learnt.

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