Sister Patricia Byrne, SSC
Going on mission to Hong Kong in 1976 was both an exciting adventure and a shock to the system. Moving from the wide-open spaces, the peace and tranquillity of a small Irish town to the closely packed high-rises, the noise, the over-crowded streets, was a new experience for me. Studying and struggling to speak one of the world’s most difficult languages was an added stress. It was therefore with great relief, six months later, that I found myself on one of the outlying islands at Xavier House for my annual retreat.
Xavier House, a Jesuit retreat centre, was a total contrast to the busy life of the city. On the island where it is situated there are no cars or buses; you walk or cycle everywhere. There are, as in the rest of Hong Kong, crowds of people. But after you negotiate the hundred or so steps up a steep hill and arrive at Xavier House you are in another world. Quiet, situated on the edge of the South China Sea, with space to walk, and lots of trees and exotic flowers; it was a place to be refreshed and renewed before returning again to the city and the busy work day.
So, it is with a sense of wonder that I found myself in October 2000 back in Xavier House, this time as a member of the staff. As a teacher in a secondary school and later working in a parish I came to see that often the spiritual and psychological needs of people were very great, and Hong Kong had few resources to help them.
So it was that I began to reflect on where I could best be of service at this point in my life. it was just then I was invited – the first woman and the first sister – to be part of a new team in Xavier House. In preparation I took some studies in spirituality and spiritual direction.
For the past number of years, together with two Jesuits, I have been working in Xavier House. Most of those who come are lay people, both Catholic and Protestant.
One of the first people I met, a young woman, suffered from depression. However, she felt that by keeping in close touch with God, she could manage her life. She was already receiving some counselling. The retreat was a struggle for her, as she looked at all the pain she had experienced in her young life. But, trusting in God, she courageously journeyed through the days, and left in a spirit of peace. I often wondered about her as the years went by, and to my joy she returned to Xavier House for a retreat a few weeks ago. Although she still deals with her tendency to depression, she is close to God and finds much joy in serving her church community.
In our garden at Xavier House, at a certain time in the year, the lotus rises in glorious bloom from the depths of the small pond. It glows deep pink in the sunshine. I like to think of this as a symbol of my work. The pond is deep and often murky, like the inner depths of the human person. The sun is like the bright light of God who encourages us to go deep within. And when we do this, there are moments in the sunshine of his presence when our inner beauty, made in God’s image, blossoms forth in all its loveliness.
This I have discovered time and time again with the people I direct. They come here stressed out from their busy lives as teachers, housewives, priests, office workers, etc. They are glad to be in a quiet place, but find it so hard to slow down, to become quiet. They carry the anxieties of their lives, and share these anxieties with me in our initial meetings. However, as they get in touch with nature – the sea, the trees, the song of the birds – they begin to be absorbed by the beauty, and by the beauty of the Creator, who has shared all this with us.
Slowly they let go of the cares and anxieties and listen to God speak to them through nature and through the Scriptures. Many people come with a problem to be solved. As the weekend or week goes by they come in touch with another part of themselves. They discover that the important thing for them is to be with God, and to know that God loves them and wants to be with them. When their relationship with God comes to the fore, when they experience his love for them as individuals, the other things they were concerned about fall into place. In these moments they discover with wonder the beauty of God, and like the lotus, the beauty rising from the depths of their own lives.
As a director I need to listen very deeply. For some people even to feel listened to can bring relaxation and healing. My role is like that of the mid-wife, who helps at the birth, then stands aside. The important thing is what is happening between the person and God, and my task is to encourage that and get out of the way.
Because of their busy lives people often neglect to notice what is happening to them and where they are going in their lives. I suggest that they could try to have at least ten minutes of meditation each day. Another suggestion is to spend some time reflecting over the day gone by. I encourage them to note the feeling which was strongest during that day – joy, peace, anger, hatred, loneliness, shame, happiness, etc. and to talk to God about that, trying to find the root cause of that particular feeling. In this way people reflect on their lives daily, and learn with the grace of God how to change or to grow.
When I meet people as a spiritual director, we talk about their prayer and about how they are relating with God. We talk about their life and their relationships with family and with other people. We talk about what makes them happy or sad – what gives them life, and what takes away their energy. As we converse, we know that we are not alone, that God is guiding us, and helping us together to find out what would be most helpful for this person at this time. I often marvel at the great privilege which is mine and all that I receive through the openness and trust of the people who share with me.
It’s hard to switch off all the voices and all the choices that clamour for our attention today. However, if we do, we may gradually be filled with wonder as we discover the presence of God within us, and, like the lotus, allow that presence and that love to shine through all we are and all we do.