My friend Ian gave me this memoir of a renowned British Jesuit when I was ordained, together with a two-volume rubrical guide to celebrating the liturgy. He told me that both of them would be good for me, in quite different ways. I expect he’s right. For nearly a decade now, I’ve pulled the rubrical guide out early in Holy Week to remind myself precisely how to unveil the Cross on Good Friday and how to bless the Paschal Candle. This year, I decided I really ought to give Gerry Hughes a turn as well.
Ian was certainly right about these being two very different sorts of books. For though Hughes was a faithful Roman Catholic throughout his life and priest for many decades, he wasn’t the sort to fuss much about liturgical niceties, and over his life, seemed to develop an allergy to rules of most kinds. Though the book has a few moving descriptions of Christian worship, Hughes concentrates on the ways that God is revealed in life outside the sanctuary: in loving relationships, common work for justice and peace, sad and troubling experiences and the beauty of the natural world.
Hughes is best known as a writer of spirituality for ordinary people, tracking the mysterious ways of the “God of surprises” who reveals himself in deeply personal ways. “I can only know You,” he prays in the book’s moving preface, “through my own experience, my only access to You…No one can teach me who You are, or what You are like, unless you show me Yourself. My experience is unique to me: it is there and there only that I can catch glimpses of You and know Your attractiveness.”
Hughes’ life and spiritual vision was deeply shaped by Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, and he pioneered a method of translating their themes into modern idioms, and presenting the Exercises as retreats for lay people, eventually drawing retreatants from a variety of religious backgrounds. Hughes was certain that this was consistent with Ignatius’ original intent, to help ordinary people to discern God’s presence and vocation through imaginative reflection on their own experience. It is the primary theme in his many books, which were extremely popular among British Christians in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Ignatius’ method for the daily examination encourages the disciple to identify consolations and desolations, moments when God’s presence and purpose has seemed clear and remote. Hughes structured his book as an extended examination, and the consolations, particularly in the central portion of the book abound. His was clearly a full and vibrant life, shared with many people of deep faith and profound commitment to the Kingdom way of justice and peace. Hughes seems to have been associated in some way with nearly every social movement since the early 1960’s, including ecumenism, liturgical reform, anti-nuclear protesting, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the sexual revolution. He tells some moving stories of bravery and determination in the face of great opposition, of burdens lifted and faith reclaimed.
Hughes’ desolations are almost entirely confined to the first third of the book, a grim description of his childhood and early formation in the pre-Conciliar Roman church. Hughes brands his youthful self a fundamentalist, and agonizes over spiritual fervor prodded on by scourging, brash confidence in the supremacy of his own church and an otherworldly spirituality focused on submission above all and undergirded by the threat of violence. Prison analogies abound in his description of the many-staged Jesuit novitiate, and every authority figure is draped in black, with menacing tones in the background.
Perhaps this is inevitable in a religious memoir, which must always, in some way, be a story of conversion, and conversion is the most subjective of things. Hughes can’t tell the story of a youthful Corpus Christi procession, rose petals fluttering in a beautiful summer day without settling on the memory that he was marching alongside in the cadet guard of honor, bayonet fixed. For me, who tends to be nostalgic for the days of gorgeous ceremonial, filled pews and earnest young monks, the days of old can’t have been all so hopeless, or there’d have been no deposit of faith for Rahner and John XXIII to awaken when the windows were flung open in 1962. One thinks of Augustine’s Confessions, which is perhaps the closest stylistic analogue to Hughes’ book that I have read. Surely, if we’d have been with Augustine at the pear tree or with Hughes at the procession, it wouldn’t have seemed nearly so terrible. But this is Gerard Hughes’ story, not ours, and the same gracious and loving God, the God who in Christ reconciled the world to Himself was clearly at work in his life as He is in mine (and Augustine’s and Garrigou-Legrange’s, for that matter). For this, may He be always praised.