Brian’s Reflections

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

A Christmas Reflection

A Christmas Reflection

Editor’s note: The following reflection concludes ‘Brian’s Reflections’ for our 40th-anniversary celebrations. It is the longest, but in Brian’s own words, “It is very close to me”.

Mother Teresa with Fr Brian Gallagher msc, Calcutta India, Christmas 1975.

Almost fifty years ago, I spent Christmas day with Mother Saint Teresa of Calcutta.  It happened this way.

I had been sent by my religious community, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, to study in the United States.  I opted to travel the long way round, via Indonesia, India, the Holy Land, Europe, Great Britain, and Ireland – what in those days was called an ‘around the world’ ticket.  It was my very first time to visit anywhere outside of Australia.  I chose to go to Calcutta because I wanted to witness first-hand what I had always imagined was the hell-hole of poverty in our world. I stayed in a Jesuit community, who were welcoming, but then went about their business.  After four days wandering the streets of Calcutta, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I was totally depressed.  On Christmas Eve, somewhat in desperation, I asked some fellow at breakfast how could I meet Mother Teresa.  With his directions, I found the convent – with a sign on the gate to tell all that Mother Teresa is OUT.  I rang the bell anyway, introduced myself to the sister who opened and simply said that I had hoped to meet Mother Teresa.  “Come in,” she replied.

She left me in a bare front room with a couple of chairs.  In no time, this tiny, frail, faintly stooped older sister (well, older than me!) walked in, all smiling, with outstretched hands.  I felt like hugging her! For a good twenty minutes, Mother Teresa quizzed me – my background, my ministry in Australia, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, what I was doing in Calcutta – finally asking where I was planning to say Christmas Mass.  I had no plans. “Come back at 6 o’clock and we’ll say Mass at Premdan.”

“Premdan?” I asked.

Premdan is one of our homes.  The word means, ‘a gift of love’.”

I celebrated Christmas Eve Mass in 1975 on a makeshift altar, slightly raised for better view, in the middle of a large barn-like building populated by hundreds of crippled, maimed, dying Indian men and women, all on low stretcher-like beds, attended by a handful of Missionaries of Charity Sisters.  It was a powerfully moving experience for me: Jesus was born again in that barn, and I witnessed it.  In my emotional state, I was driven home by some fellow in an old Jeep, with Mother Teresa’s parting words to me: “Come back tomorrow.”

I did indeed go back on Christmas day to find the same Jeep driver waiting to take Mother Teresa and I on a round of visits to five or six ‘homes’ for the sick and dying people whom the sisters had picked up on the streets and in the slums of Calcutta. We sat together on the front seat of the jeep, Mother Teresa in the middle. We spent an hour or so in each home, old buildings, all of which had been donated by various groups in the city. We had ample time together in conversation as we travelled from home to home. As Mother Teresa moved around to greet everyone – I was touched by the personal attention she gave to each person – I walked by her side carrying a large clay pot on my hip, from which Mother took a round sweet treat to give to each person, one by one.  Some accepted the gift in their hands, some on their tongue because they had no hands. All of them touched, sometimes kissed the feet of both Mother Teresa and me, as an expression of respect. These poor, otherwise deprived people accepted the gift with such reverence and gratitude, I commented to Mother later when we were in the Jeep, “It was as though they were receiving Holy Communion.”

She said, “Ah, another premdan.”

What a woman, Saint Teresa, and what gift she gave me.

I had no Christmas dinner that year, but 1975 remains the most memorable Christmas in all my years of celebration. Aware that I was due to leave India the following day, I tried thanking Mother Teresa that evening. I didn’t feel ready to leave, and I’m sure my words of gratitude were quite inadequate. When I asked how I could continue to be some support for her work, she said that the best thing I could do for her was to, “Go back home and care for your people in the same way.”

 

Where is God Now?

Where is God Now?

We live in confusing times.  Many of us find the Covid restrictions terribly hard. At one point, psychologists were saying that we are in lockdown fatigue.  Others are quite disturbed by the many disasters in our world, the earthquakes and the damaging bushfires and floods.  Where is God in these times?

Elie Wiesel tells the story of a cruel hanging of a young child in a Jewish concentration camp, that all camp residents were obliged to witness.  As they watched the child hanging, dying on the gallows, a loud voice from the crowd called out, ‘Where is God now?’  Wiesel recounts that his response came from deep within himself: ‘God is hanging on those gallows.’ Wiesel is saying that in some sense God suffers with us, God grieves, God dislikes the loss of human life as much as we do.

We used to see hope as looking ahead to some future attainment.  As though everything will turn out ok eventually. Rather, I believe that God’s promise of future happiness in some place called heaven does not ignore God’s presence and God’s care for us in this present time.  God is with us right now.

I think we are given little reminders of this: the cheery wave of the old fellow as we pass on our daily walk, my pharmacist’s insistence that she deliver my medications during lockdown, the caring emails and text messages from friends to assure me that they do not forget.  God’s love shines through these people and reminds me that we are not abandoned.  This is not to deny the hard times, but I believe that these little gifts – and I’m sure there are more that I have failed to notice – are God’s way of reminding us that God is still with us, always loving.

I think now that hope is more about such present experiences of God’s ever-present love than about some future promise.

 

Relationship with God

Relationship with God

A blue and yellow floral dispersion on a light brown background. White text: God's gifts are given to individuals but for the sake of all of us.

That wonderfully charismatic figure, Martin Luther King, was fond of saying, “The church is the place you go out from.” Heart of Life, Centre for Spiritual and Pastoral Formation, is a place you go out from. People come in, certainly, and are warmly welcomed, but our mission is ultimately to send people out (as Jesus did), to build relationships, to build community.

When we help people to articulate their inner experience of God in their lives, we notice that people grow in self-awareness and inner freedom, but as well they become more accepting of others, more tolerant, more loving. While our approach might focus on an individual’s personal experience of God, it seems to shift naturally to what is happening in the rest of their life, to their relationships and involvement with other people.  Often people are led to some new action in their life – decisions about relationships and caring for others become clear.

This is the value of our experiential approach.  Traditionally, spirituality is taught experientially – precisely because spirituality is concerned with the experience of God. As we know, the experience of God is something quite different from knowledge of God.  All worthwhile spiritual writing seems to me to be based on personal experience. There would be many examples. Teresa of Avila couldn’t write any other way than to say, “My sisters, this is how it has happened for me – this is how God has been working in me.”

This approach has asked massive change in the way people understand and approach spirituality: while we might still encourage the practice of personal private prayer, it is not solely for one’s own sake or one’s own private relationship with God. While we might still want someone to look more carefully at their personal dynamics, again this is for others’ sake, as much as their own. God’s gifts are given to individuals, but for the sake of all of us – what the same Martin Luther King called ‘the inter-related structure of reality’.

The Secrets of My Heart

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

Human Relationships

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

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

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

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?

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

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.