Brian’s Reflections

​We are thrilled to present this series of reflections and observations written by Heart of Life founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc.

The Secrets of My Heart

A black and white image of St Thomas More and his daughter, Margaret Roper on the right. On the left, in a brown square, a reflection by Brian Gallagher msc, for the Heart of Life Centre: He knew how blessed, gifted, forgiven, embraced, loved that he was beyond anything he could have hoped for or imagined.

When Thomas More was being led to his execution on Tower Hill in 1535, a large crowd gathered to witness. Robert Bolt’s play A Man for all Seasons portrays the scene: More’s beloved daughter Meg breaks from the crowd and rushes to embrace her father, in tears. More comforts his daughter and encourages her to trust the inevitability of death, finally assuring her: ‘Margaret, you have long known the secrets of my heart.’

I was privileged to play the part of Thomas More in a student production of the play when I was a seminarian.  I cherish More’s words to his daughter.  Not many people know the secrets of my heart!

Robert Bolt’s image of Thomas More and his daughter Margaret embracing when he was being led to his execution is not quite accurate historically.  John Guy’s detailed study, A Daughter’s Love (2009), traces Margaret’s frequent visits to her father when he was imprisoned in the Tower.  Her unfailing love sustained More through his last days.  In fact, he farewelled his ‘dearly beloved Meg’ on the Tower wharf when he was being led back to his cell after his so-called trial.[1]  It was at that farewell on the wharf that More said to her ‘you alone have long known the secrets of my heart.’

More is speaking of their unique intimate relationship, their bonding of hearts.  Far from mere intellectual knowing, this is wholistic knowing, to know in one’s whole person.  Margaret alone knew her father’s deep inner life, his ‘secrets’, his profound relationship with God.  She thanked him once for a letter which she said represented to her ‘the clear shining brightness of your soul.’ She alone knew and understood how More was able to oppose the King, despite enormous pressure to do otherwise and despite his crippling fears for himself and for his family.

The primacy of his relationship with God – ‘I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first’ – was non-negotiable for More. Clearly, Thomas More knew in his heart God’s personal love for him.  I don’t know that More ever recorded his experience of God’s love, but I have no doubt that he would have identified with these words of John of the Cross from his Spiritual Canticle:

You looked with love upon me and deep within, your eyes imprinted grace. This mercy set me free, held in your love’s embrace to lift my eyes adoring to your face.

For this surely is the deepest secret of his heart: like John of the Cross, Thomas More knew how blessed, gifted, forgiven, embraced, loved that he was, beyond anything he could have hoped for or imagined.  More knew.  Margaret knew.


[1]Margaret did not witness her father’s execution, whether by choice or circumstance is not known.  She did recover her father’s severed head from Tower Bridge some days later.  The head is buried in Chelsea church.    As a matter of interest, I understand that Chelsea in London is the only parish in the world where both the Catholic church and the Anglican church are named after the same saint: St Thomas More.

These reflections written by Brian Gallagher msc, co-founder of Heart of Life, appear monthly, as part of our 40th Anniversary celebrations.

Human Relationships

Continuing with our 40th Anniversary celebrations, we present Brian’s Reflections, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc.

Two black women embrace each other in a hug. Words read: Forgiveness & fidelity are selfless.

We humans are instinctively relational. We are made for relationships. ‘No man is an island,’ wrote John Donne. From the very beginning, God said: ‘It is not good that man should be alone – I will make him a helper as his partner.’ (Genesis 2:18) Relationships are critical in spirituality and in the ministry at the Heart of Life Centre.

True relationship is defined by forgiveness and fidelity. In a true friendship, we may well feel loved and supported, but we do not relate solely for that reason. We don’t relate to another for the sake of whatever benefit we receive from the relationship. Forgiveness and fidelity are selfless: both focus outside of ourselves, solely on the other person. We forgive another person and we stand by another for no other reason than that they are good things to do. They are values in themselves. The surest sign of God’s Spirit at work is that one’s relationships flourish.

Indeed, I believe that genuine presence to another, standing by another person faithfully is a sacrament, a symbol of divine presence, a gift of God’s grace. Not that I am consciously thinking of God’s being with us when I am with someone. Rather, I refer to my desire to relate without ego, without any self-interest. In all my relationships, whether as carer or partner or friend or stranger, I try to put aside all my pre-conceived ideas (sometimes even my prejudices) about the other person, all my expectation about our being together. I choose to put aside all ego and allow the other person to be who they are. Such selfless focus on the other person, agape, is inherent to the contemplative way. Whether I am contemplating a beautiful rose or a passage from the Bible, or another person, my focus is entirely on the other, entirely outside of myself.

That is the sacrament that I see in our relationships: I am meeting God in that moment of selfless presence to the other person.

 

God’s Spirit in Creation

A spiderweb sparkles with rain drops as the sun comes up in the background. The words: Dare I call this shared life God's life? in white.Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical Laudato Si (#42):

Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.

Loud bells rang for me.  I lived near the sea for many years.   One of the gifts of the time was that I became more aware of the changing seasons, the recurring patterns and indicators of approaching weather, the movement of the tides, and the beauty of my surrounds.  I contemplated the sea daily, I was entertained by the playful bird and animal life outside the window of my quiet space, and I eagerly anticipated the cycle of blossoms and colours in my garden.

I was but one member of this earthly community. I used to say that I lived with a beautiful fox who even ventured onto my front lawn, a black wallaby, an echidna who often visited the back yard, a few koalas, many possums and rabbits, my chickens and my Kelpie companion, Scobie.  We were well aware of one another and respected one another’s right to be there: we lived in harmony.  And I have not even mentioned the bird life. There is something about the mutuality and inter-relatedness of such a community: sometimes only fleetingly, I sensed our shared life, our communion.   Dare I call this shared life God’s life?

Whether in my back yard or in the great national parks that I have been privileged to visit, or the pristine-pure Gordon and Franklin Rivers in Western Tasmania… God’s Spirit of love invites us into deep communion.

Pope Francis’ call for an ‘ecological conversion’ is an invitation to move from seeing ourselves as the ones caring for creation rather to oneness with creation, mutual caring. Heart of Life works to encourage that.

Understanding Spiritual Direction

A candle flame hugged by cupped hands. The words, in white: God is inviting each one to deeper relationship... -Brian Gallagher msc

Heart of Life calls itself a Centre for Spiritual and Pastoral Formation. Pastoral formation is about preparing people for their pastoral ministry. But what is spiritual formation?  Something to do with preparing people inwardly, preparing one’s heart and soul, one’s spirit.

How do we prepare ourselves spiritually? The words ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ can be confusing, as if referring to some extra-terrestrial reality. A big strength of the ministry at Heart of Life has been its programs of formation of spiritual directors and their offering spiritual direction. Again, confusing for some – even the word ‘direction’ is inaccurate, if implying people are told what to do, given direction for their lives. The term is used, I imagine, because it is the traditional term for a ministry that focuses on the faith dimension of people’s lives – where God features in people’s lives, how God is inviting each one to deeper relationship – for the sake of their wellbeing and their relationships with other people.

For this reason, when someone comes for spiritual direction, the starting point of the conversation can be whatever is uppermost in the person’s life at the time – which may be anything from some struggle in their life to some good news they have received. The conversation will focus on what this experience has been like for them, how it has affected them, till invariably the question becomes where is God in this experience, what is God’s invitation here? This is where faith comes into play. Often the conversation leads to the suggestion that it might be worth taking the experience to prayer to listen more closely to God’s word.

Any ongoing process of spiritual direction has the benefit of deeper awareness of one’s inner life, clearer sense of God’s presence and call, and more healthy relationships with other people.  Teresa of Avila once said that ‘the point of prayer is good works.’ So, too, for spiritual direction: the gifts overflow to others.

 

These articles appear as part of Heart of Life’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc. Brian is a priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Australia.

Listening Hearts

Bubbles surfacing in a water glass with the words "As listeners...it helps to be attentive...below the surface." by Brian Gallagher msc

Former chief justice, Sir Gerard Brennan, was much loved by Australia’s first peoples because of his significant ruling on Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo ruling.  Senator Pat Dodson, a Yawuru man from Broome, often called the father of Reconciliation, spoke at Brennan’s funeral, welcoming to land, placing eucalypt leaves on the coffin, and adding his respect for the chief justice. I was struck by Dodson’s statement that what most coloured Justice Brennan’s relationship with Aboriginal people was his ‘listening heart’.

Maybe Pat Dodson remembered St Benedict’s encouragement to his followers to listen ‘with the ear of the heart’. Justice Gerard Brennan did that.

When someone speaks to us, we hear the words and accept them at face value.  We don’t always hear what is underneath the words, the deeper reality that the words are trying to express, often inadequately. The other person’s body language or emotion in what they are saying is often more revealing than their words.

This is true in the listener, as well.  As listeners, when we hear another’s words, it helps to be attentive also to how the words are affecting us below the surface, how we are reacting, what emotion is being touched in us.  For example, as I listen to another, sometimes I find myself becoming quite excited, sometimes inspired, or despondent, or sometimes teary.  Once I learn to trust these deeper movements in myself (having checked – or been helped to check – that they are not coming from something of my own agenda), my response to the other person becomes more relational, more spontaneous, more compassionate. A compassionate response, for example, might be, ‘Great to hear that,’ or ‘Goodness, that must have been tough.’

These are heart responses, spontaneous, connected, warm and caring.  I call this listening with heart.  Much of our ministry at Heart of Life is designed to help.

These articles appear as part of Heart of Life’s 40th Anniversary celebrations, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc. Brian is a priest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Australia.

Where Are You?

Cropped painting of white woman in the nude, with the words: "We cannot hide from God" on the right.

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our 40th Anniversary celebrations, we present Brian’s Reflections, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc.

The first words in the bible are God’s words: ‘Where are you?’  The Book of Genesis tells the story of Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit and then she and Adam hide from God after realising what they had done.  God comes into the garden and cries out, ‘Where are you?’

I can hear the words as it seems to me that God is still asking them – to me, to all of us.  Where are you – not where are you physically or geographically, but where are you, in yourself.  God is asking us to come before God openly as God wants us to be upfront in our relationship with God.

Perhaps other ways of looking at where we are before God is to ask ourselves: What do I stand for? What are my values? What do I believe? How do I relate to other people?  Where am I in my life?  Maybe even, what are my regrets? What mistakes have I made?  Where do I need forgiveness?

We cannot hide from God. We have been taught that God knows all things, that God knows where we are as God sees the heart.  But for our own sake, God’s questions are asking us to come to terms with our own inner life, to acknowledge where we stand before God.  In truth, this is the only way to be before God – honestly and truly, as we are.

The best practice for this is to be equally open in our relationships with other people.  How different life will be when we can be totally honest in the way we meet and relate to others, and likewise others in their way of relating to us.  Mutual respect for all people, genuine listening to the people we encounter daily, caring for all people, whatever of our likes and dislikes – this surely is what God is asking of us: where are you?

In this way, we stand against injustice, discrimination, prejudice and violence in our world because we are meant to be – indeed, we are – loving people.

Broken Hearts

Photo of Jacinda Adern in a black veil in March 2019, mourning the tragedy of the mosque massacre in Christchurch NZ. Text in white reads: "we are broken-hearted, but we are not broken. Reflection by Brian Gallagher msc"

Image: Jacinda Adern, then Prime Minister of NZ visits the mosque less than 24 hours after the tragedy. Christchurch City Council Newsline/Kirk Hargreaves via WikiCommons

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our 40th Anniversary celebrations, we present Brian’s Reflections, a series of observations from Heart of Life co-founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc.

I was in New Zealand early in 2019 at the time of the massacre of Muslim people in their mosque in Christchurch.  Though in a different town, I went to the local mosque to offer support, only to find hundreds of people already there, standing in silence outside a see-through fence adorned with bouquets of flowers in mourning.  Apparently the same was happening in many towns around the country.

In Christchurch itself, the leader of the Muslim community, the Imam, spoke to the crowd there.  His strongest words were: ‘we are broken-hearted, but we are not broken.’ These words have never left me.

Christian faith identifies with this.  Jesus died of a broken heart: the lance thrust into his side to make sure he was dead went right through to his heart – the Gospel tells us that what came out was blood and water.  The blood and water, symbols of life, assure us that in Jesus’ death, life emerges.  We are not broken.

Much of our daily news is heart-breaking: sexual abuse, family violence, famine, homelessness, refugees rejected by governments. Indeed, the church is not exempt.  Our spirituality, our quest for meaning cannot ignore the heart-breaking reality of everyday life.  Reality invites acceptance, but how can we say we are not broken, that life emerges from death?

For many people, meaning in life is found in their very living in the reality of our world.  For others, the group I fall into, much of life’s meaning comes from our faith perspective on the reality of our lives.  My lived faith takes its inspiration from the experience of Jesus.  Jesus did not try to make sense of the brutality of his torture and death, he accepted the reality in silence. Though he felt abandoned, even by God, he was not broken.  Jesus trusted to the end: ‘into your hands I commend my spirit.’  It seems that we discover we are not broken only in the acceptance of our broken hearts: then, life emerges from death.

 

Religion & Spirituality

Editor’s Note: Continuing with our 40th Anniversary celebrations, we present Brian’s Reflections, a series of observations from Heart of Life founder, Fr Brian Gallagher msc.

The 2021 census revealed that 39% of Australians say that they have no religion.  A statistic which has increased annually for some years.

I know some of these people.  My suspicion is that very few of them would want to be seen as ‘irreligious’, though it’s true that they have no religion.  I suspect, in fact, that most live by strong values in their life – for many, even what we call Christian values, sometimes spiritual values.  It seems that, while many people are turning away from traditional institutional religion, they are no less ‘spiritual’.  They still believe, they still long for truth, goodness, fulfillment, they are still caring and generous in their relationships.

Many of these people come to Heart of Life.  And Heart of Life encourages and supports such people, the seekers amongst us.  When churches and all the former religious practices no longer speak to them, people have to turn elsewhere to find nourishment for their souls.  I suggest that the nourishment that they seek – alongside their community involvement and generous relationships – is on a deeper level, a more personal level.  I hear people speaking of their longing for a God who cares and who stays alongside them in their everyday lives.  Whereas the God they find in church is somewhat remote, demanding and judging.

I am well aware that this is not the whole story. There are churches and pastors who are happily in touch with their followers and do speak of God more personally and intimately. And 61% of Australians say that they do have a religion.  (We are not told how many of this group, in fact, practise their religion, or what their religion means to them.)  Still, each to his own!  Certainly, all of us need to be true to our personal calling.  As well, I suggest there is an invitation here to all of us: we are invited to utter respect and acceptance of one another, even those quite different from ourselves and searching in different ways from our own.  May our shared desire for God unite us, not divide us.