By Peter Bugden
FR Benignus Clowes clearly remembers the day early in his time as a Franciscan friar when he came away from confession and “cried and cried”.
Dogged by scrupulosity – obsessive guilt about moral and religious issues – he had spoken with an experienced friar about the problem and he found the answer devastated him.
“He said to me: ‘Ben, you may always be scrupulous’,” Fr Benignus said.
“I went away, and cried and cried. He was right.”
Fr Benignus, who recently celebrated 60 years as a priest, told of the experience in a piece he wrote in the 1990s when he and fellow Franciscans were asked to prepare a brief summary of their lives.
At 17, when Brisbane-born Colin Clowes entered the Franciscan novitiate at Campbelltown in New South Wales, he was on top of the world.
He was appointed the “senior” of the 15 novices.
“In other words, I was full of confidence,” he said.
Then, after about a month at the novitiate, he had surgery to remove his appendix.
“Soon afterwards, there began a ‘demise’ which would colour my life for decades,” Fr Benignus wrote in the piece that he shared with his fellow Franciscans in more recent years.
“I slithered into a state of scrupulosity, a condition I’d never known before.
“I was to learn over the years that it can definitely come under control, but it doesn’t go away.”
But scrupulosity was only a sign of what was to come for Fr Benignus.
After teaching at the Franciscan Juniorate in Robertson, NSW, for two years (1955-56) and studying at the University of Melbourne for a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education from 1957-63, he taught Latin, history, English and religion at Padua College, Kedron in Brisbane from 1961-77.
He was vice-rector from 1973-77 and then rector from 1978-83.
They were good years, both at the college and parish pastoral work “that I could now handle quite well”.
But dark days were looming.
“Before finishing at Padua in 1983, I was very fortunate to have initiated a long-term involvement with the Marriage Encounter Movement, and I was then transferred to give retreats in Auckland until September 1984,” Fr Benignus said.
“That was before going with the delightful Fr Frank Moloney OFM (deceased) for a year to the Franciscan Study Centre in Canterbury, England.
“Without warning in New Zealand, I fell into a very deep and very frightening depression for several months.
“Strangely, the depression dissipated almost as soon as I reached Canterbury.
“The year there was very pleasant and very informative.”
Fr Benignus’ situation then turned for the worse again.
“An attempted return after Canterbury to begin teaching in 1986 at a co-ed school in Melbourne was a failure, as was my appointment to the formation house in Toorak Road,” he said.
“I lasted only a term – as did teaching Latin at Yarra Theological Union.
“Another bout of depression landed me in the Melbourne Clinic for three weeks.
“A second stay at the clinic some months later when I was in good spirits (called manic) brought with it the diagnosis that I have manic depression (now called bipolar mood disorder), and I continue to this day to be under treatment.”
Fr Benignus said these days bipolar disorder would normally be diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 25.
“I was diagnosed when I was 57,” he said.
“So in other words I went through all what it was to be bipolar, without any treatment.”
About the time he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder Fr Benignus had been elected a delegate for the first time to the Franciscan provincial chapter but had to return unwell to Melbourne halfway through the chapter.
“My pride would have been hurt, if I’d had any left,” he wrote in his piece for the Franciscans.
“I was (then) reduced to what seemed to be virtual uselessness.
“Every working-day I used to do simple tasks in the Franciscan Press, and wonder whether I would ever again take up the roles to which I was accustomed.
“Then somehow I found myself living at the parish of St Francis Xavier, Box Hill (Victoria), but for some time I did nothing more than offer the midday Mass and give a short homily.
“As time went by, I recovered good health and I was able to do, with great pleasure and satisfaction, all the very things that I thought as a callow youth of 17 I would be doing from the earliest years after my ordination.”
For Fr Benignus, though, reflecting on the dark times is a valuable experience.
“In a way, for me, it has been a very personal and real experience of how important pain or suffering is,” he said at the Franciscan friary in Kedron where he lives in retirement.
“I’m inclined to think, without sounding morbid, that pain is one of our greatest teachers if we let it be.
“You don’t have to know too much Christian theology to know the part that pain plays, even though we don’t like it.”
And Fr Benignus cherishes the Franciscan way of life.
“What I like, have come to like, is that it’s an approach to life, an approach to spirituality, which makes sense and is very sympathetic so that it is a spirituality that has a wonderful openness about it,” he said.
“The sort of thing that Pope Francis is advocating – life is meant to be a joy. Life is meant to be a joy.”