By Peter Bugden
A BRITISH TV comedy series once had an episode in which one of the main characters swallowed “The Little Book of Calm” and was taken over by a calmness obvious to all, no matter what the circumstance.
The calm character worked in a book store, just as Brisbane Catholic Heather Joseph, calm by nature, does.
Hers is a true, genuine calmness that comes, not from having swallowed The Little Book of Calm, but from her deep faith.
Hers is a peace and serenity fed in part by her life-long devotion to following Jesus Christ, by the deep faith of her family, from following the man of peace St Francis as a secular Franciscan and from her experience of having worked in Catholic book stores – the Aquinas Book Store and the St Paul’s Book Store in Brisbane – for the past 24 years.
Mass-goers at St Stephen’s Cathedral are familiar with Heather’s serenity which shows through the way she proclaims the Scriptures daily with her smooth, rich voice.
Heather counts it as a grace to have the opportunity to proclaim the Word of God each day, and it probably would never have happened if she had not been working at the book stores in the cathedral precinct and been able to attend daily Mass there so easily.
That situation would never have arisen but for an invitation that came out of the blue at a coffee shop.
Heather, who grew up in the small NSW town of Delegate, near the Victorian border, as the eldest of 11 children of Margaret and the late Allan Michael, trained as a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney from the age of 18.
After her training she left for Brisbane where she married Peter and had five children.
Heather nursed her bedridden father-in-law Joe Joseph for 10 years, an experience she counts as one of her “greatest delights”.
“He was a wonderful, quiet man – a real treasure, and I was with him when he passed away,” she said.
“Everybody was on holidays, and I was there on my own.
“I just thank God (that I was able to be there). It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be able to be present. What an extraordinary mystery that is.”
It was after that period that Heather’s life was to change direction again.
“I used to come in here (St Stephen’s Cathedral) for Mass, and (former archdiocesan secretary) Dan Flynn saw me at the coffee shop one day, and he said ‘Have you ever managed a book store?’,” she said.
“And I said ‘Never, but, you know what? I’m willing to give it a go’.
“I had no particular qualifications,” Heather said of the brave move that would influence the rest of her life.
The store was then Aquinas Book Store, before it became the St Paul’s Book Centre.
Heather had a hand in that change as well.
“I was with Aquinas and then the Catechism came out – it was huge – and I was dealing with St Paul’s Publications at the time,” she said.
“I remember saying to the Society of St Paul, ‘Why don’t you put in a tender for this book store’ (after someone else had turned down the option).”
The Society of St Paul accepted her advice and took over the store, and Fr Bruno Colombari, who Heather describes as “a champion”, became manager.
Heather had a break from working at the store, but Fr Colombari invited her to come back and she accepted.
“And I’ve been here ever since,” she said.
“If you’d told me that I’d be working in a Catholic bookstore 30 years ago I probably would have resigned from the human race. And it’s been my greatest grace.”
Heather said working at St Paul’s “has been a real lesson in the way people live out their faith”.
“They’re beautiful. They come in and they have no idea how exquisite they are, a lot of them, because they’re quite simple and they’re unaware of just the fact that they’re searching or looking to deepen their faith – that they are responding to the Holy Spirit, and their ‘Yes’ to God,” she said. “They don’t realise just how marvellous it is.
“… They might say ‘I’m not really very good at this or that’. And I say to them, ‘Do you really know that what you’re doing now is your ‘Yes’ to the Holy Spirit. It’s a beautiful thing. Take heart’.”
One of the key things that Heather has become more aware of is that our “first response (in situations) is human, the second response is divine”.
“And the people really move away from their humanity to a degree to understand that the Divine is in charge. It’s just wonderful.
“It’s from my experience as well. I am quite rabid at times in my thoughts, and I often think ‘the first response is human, the second response is divine’ when you think who you must be or who you should be.
“I’ve learnt that from being here and experiencing the goodness of people without them even being aware. They don’t know their goodness.”
Heather has come to know many priests and religious during her time at the book store.
“It’s amazing what you pick up with just watching and observing or not even deliberately watching – you pick up things,” she said.
“It becomes an awareness where they move towards in their spirituality, how they react and their manner. It all speaks of their journey.
“It’s been a wonderful thing.
“It deepens your prayer life in the sense that when you know who you’re praying for, too, and the importance of it. It gives heart and dimension to your prayer.
“More than anything, … I’ve always felt that we live our lives (but) we really don’t know just what it is that God calls us to do a lot of the time.
“And I just see the finger of God so much in things that have happened, I would never have chosen myself necessarily but the grace of God prevails.
“And you find yourself in a situation or that situation and the way things work out, and you look back and you think ‘Sweet Lord, to be given such a grace’…”
Heather’s years at St Paul’s have been “a marvellous insight into my own human nature and then the relational human nature of everyone – how we relate to one another”.
That has happened just as much in dealing with difficult customers.
“The first response can be very human but the second response …
“It’s amazing. If I rest a moment with someone who is being short, I find that that is the divine response – waiting and letting them find their ground. And it’s lovely. We’re both redeemed,” she said with a laugh.
Heather said she had been “very blessed”.
“It’s all part of this wonderful opportunity which I’ve been given by God to be here, somewhere where I’d have never thought of being,” she said.