MY six months of “pastoral placement” at a university in Sydney last year were something of a mitigated disappointment.
I had been looking forward to daily engagements with students, lively discussions and a healthy dose of pub-related socialization.
COVID put an end to most of those dreams.
Students studied online, social engagements were almost non-existent, and the university forbade us from putting up so much as a banner – “UTS Catholic Society” – or even establishing a table where people could come and ask questions.
No doubt these were all prudent measures with regard to public health, but they did nothing to alleviate my sense of being a wasted instrument.
After all those years of study, I was straining at the bit to actually talk to some Catholic and non-Catholic students about Jesus, the nature of God, the Incarnation and the Trinity.
I could still, of course, wander around the campus and make my thirteenth-century mendicant presence felt: the chaplaincy office was closed because it did not conform to the spatial social-distancing requirements.
I even attended an evangelical bible study group, just to see what they were up to.
On one memorable occasion, I was tentatively approached by a curious magpie while seated on one of the colourful, cloth deck-chairs placed on the Alumni Green at the center of the university.
He (she?) seemed rather interested in the cold, spinach and ricotta cannelloni that I was eating for my lunch; left-overs from the culinary efforts of a friar in the priory the previous evening.
Given that we were not able to operate our “coffee cart” or fairy-floss making machine to attract actual university students, this was likely to be my most meaningful interaction of the day.
So I took some cannelloni in my hand and proffered it to the sharp-beaked bird.
Raging success: the magpie couldn’t get enough of it.
The roaming security guards were so enthralled at the sight of my scapula billowing in the wind as I engaged in this first stage of avian evangelization, that they didn’t even shout at me to keep social-distance, as they did to everyone else who transgressed that invisible but indelible boundary.
The occasional rara avis aside, the few non-digital interactions I had with students at the university were fascinating: a young man who shared with me that he is HIV positive, another spoke of his experience as a sniper in the Taiwanese army.
As is the case with almost all people, once the surface was scratched, everyone I met had a fascinating and usually traumatic story of life to tell.
It is usually at this stage that friars, reflecting on their individual pastoral placements, say – and are expected to say – “I found it hard to listen to these painful stories of woe and despair, I struggled to cope”.
That was not exactly my experience.
I was not surprised or shocked or scandalized by anything I heard or saw.
What I did find very hard, however, was trying to control my own response to the pain, suffering and need of the students and other young(ish) people I met.
Essentially, they all wanted to feel loved: what they really needed was a proper hug and to know that someone cared for them.
And this is something that I am prescribed from doing.
Not simply by virtue of social-distancing and the pandemic, but in light of every seminar, workshop or online presentation we have had to endure as part of our training for celibate, chaste religious life.
We are required to impose and maintain “boundaries”.
I have often reflected – perhaps unkindly – that it is probably easy to maintain such boundaries if no one wants to cross them.
Certain friars, as I understand it, have never had any difficulty in maintaining such kindly, avuncular distance.
In all charity, having met them, I can see why.
Their attitude recalls to mind those words of George Eliot in Middlemarch: “To have in general but little feeling, seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion.”
Yet after multiple encounters of this kind, I finally understood and felt for the first time the genuine truth of what had been preached at us as Dominican students for so long.
I am just one man.
I am not the saviour of the world.
That has been done.
We are not social workers.
The only way any of these people are going to find what they are looking for, is to introduce them to Love Incarnate.
We are here to make disciples of Jesus, not ourselves.
One Sunday, when neither I nor Brother Reginald had been assigned to an evening Mass, we went on what is apparently a famous Sydney hike: Manly Beach to Spit Bridge.
Fantastic scenery, great terrain.
At one point, about half-way through our journey, having already covered many profound and moving points in our roaming conversation, the reverend deacon came out with this line:
“We are what Maccas wishes they were”.
McDonald’s spends millions of dollars each year on cultural training programs for its staff, trying to hammer into each employee the “values” of the corporation such that, when serving any customer, those values simply surge forth in an overwhelming wave of golden-arch hospitality.
Whether that is an effective way of going about that aim is a different question.
Yet, as friars spending hours every day in contemplation and study, we are continually immersed in our own perpetual, grace-infused, cultural training program.
There is a link between my experience on pastoral placement and the fast-food-chain-related insight of Brother Reginald.
As a result of the cultural immersion in Christ that religious life is, I had been exuding the Christian ethos.
The love of God which spurs us to undertake our lives of poverty, chastity and obedience is compelling when encountered in person – but can sometimes be misconstrued.
I was explicitly told at one point, “Don’t play with other people’s hearts”.
Sound advice – especially for a mendicant friar.
But hard to do, given the apparent success of our contemplative cultural immersion.
It is no use telling people “God loves you, Jesus died for you”, if the person articulating those peppy little bromides exudes all the warmth of a White Walker from Game of Thrones.
All these experiences, in the end, only highlight the truth of that great line from Dominican Father Herbert McCabbe:
“If you love, you will get hurt and possibly killed; if you do not love, you are dead already.”