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Fidelity, not glossy, but the magic that changes everything

Well on February 9th in 1974 I became Brother Damien. Fifty years ago!! Gee I’m getting old. Normally we Brothers, when you reach fifty years as a Brother you have a celebration – but as I joined the Brothers and then left and then joined and then left and then joined and then left and then joined – no one – including myself at times is sure of whether I am a Brother or not! I will probably have a celebration at the end of 2025.

But what will I be celebrating? The only answer I can give is, fidelity and a dream worth giving your life for. If I have been anything, I have been faithful. Not faithful to the Church as such. Not necessarily faithful to the Brothers as such. Certainly not faithful to titles and power and ego but faithful to placing one step in front of another in the midst of fog, when surrounded by uncertainty, when confused and when wrapped in delight.

In my fifty years of Religious Life I have NEVER known certainty. Prior to 1974 lots of young men became Brothers or priests and lots of young women became Sisters. But, almost as if some magic button was pressed from about 1973 the numbers joining rapidly declined and the numbers leaving Religious Life rapidly increased. So from some 300 Brothers in Queensland with an average age of about 30 we now have about 40 with an average age of about 80!

Prior to my becoming a Brother, the Brothers were held in high esteem. They were men’s men, they were powerful, they ran great schools, they were great sporting coaches, and by pretty well every measure, they were successful.

As a young man I brought into a dream, into an ideal. I bought into a dream and ideal of men sharing community life and sharing our lives, living simply, passionately being there for young people and especially young people doing it tough. I bought into a dream of brotherhood – true brotherhood, where one walked beside, sat with, cried with and helped young people be their best selves. As you know, Religious take three vows: poverty (to live simply so that others may simply live), chastity (to love freely as brother, to brother the people of my day to day) and obedience (to go where the Spirit calls, where needs calls).

Rarely has my dream of Religious Life being born out in my day to day reality. But surely this is true of most commitments, rarely is it the ideal but a choice to follow your heart’s longing. In my Brotherhood there have been moments of powerful meaning making, glimpses of a deeper brotherhood and moments when I felt deeply that I belonged.

I am a highly feeling person. I cry at sunsets, in romantic movies and at weddings. I love hugs and if I wasn’t a Brother I would have been a ‘holder of hands’. But sadly, our Brotherhood, while great men, has not been an easy place for we feeling types.

While there have been some great men, great Brothers, men who were truly men of the heart, men who gave of themselves generously and whole heartedly to be with fragile young people on life’s journey – they were often the exception. Sadly, too many communities were cold. Sadly, too few Brothers appeared to be in touch with their feelings. Sadly, hugs were rare, and silence was common. On my 21st birthday, other than my wonderful mother phoning me there was not ONE single indication that I had reached one of life’s milestones. No party, no cake, no wishing of ‘happy birthday’ – just prayer, teaching, sports coaching, prayer, meal, watching the TV News and then bed!

I can clearly remember when the sexual abuse crisis hit and we discovered that some among us had sexually abused the children placed in our care, I was in shock and that shock quickly became shame. The dream and the community that I had committed my life to was now enveloped in shame. Sadly, and you would have all heard this theme from me often, rather than facing that weakness and shame and brokenness and growing in brotherhood and intimacy from it, far too many of us, individually and collectively ran away. Having said that, we Christian Brothers have actually been much better at facing our shadow than many other groups in the Church – and generally speaking, we have engaged with victims with humility and contrition. But that same engagement has not always carried over into how we treated one another.

I remember as if it were yesterday walking into the office of my Brother’s Leader here in Queensland and saying, “Tom, we really need for the Brothers to gather and share story about how we are feeling in the midst of the sexual abuse crisis, share our shame and brokenness and lean in to one another!” Br Tom looked at me and simply said, “Damien we just aren’t ready for that!” I replied from my heart, “Tom, we will never be ready. If we wait until we are ready to share story with one another and be there for one another in the midst of our poverty and brokenness and brotherhood, we will never do it!” And generally speaking we haven’t!

I write this not to invite sympathy. Can I repeat that line, “I write not to invite sympathy” for every life has its joy and its pain, its good and its bad, its adventure and its mundane. In so many ways Religious Life and any other forms of heart commitment are very similar.

I write this because all of this and more, has taught me the gift of fidelity and the importance of having a dream that you believe in. I am convinced I was a pupil in the ultimate school of life – watching my wonderful mother Zena walk beside and love Dad. In all of Dad’s mental illness, in all of his frailty, in all of his brokenness, Zena was there, was faithful, was beside and he KNEW it. Zena and Frank were not ostentatious in their affection – actually, they rarely displayed much affection for each other in that sense. But were they ‘there for each other’, “in the good times and in the bad” – absolutely!

And dad too was faithful. Certainly faithful to Zena but also faithful to the homeless guys who would drop into his toy shop for a meal voucher, faithful to his Meals on Wheels roster, faithful to his ministry of sharing spiritual books, faithful to we kids and more. Dad as well, though I did not realise this until many years later, also sowed in me the seed of fidelity to his dream. Dad, despite all of his mental illness and trauma, never gave up on his dream to be a journalist and to have his own newspaper.

I am sorry for boring you again, but I will once again recall that night when I was working on Eddie’s Van with the homeless. It was a Friday night. I was tired and grumpy. It was bucketing down rain in Brisbane. I just wanted to go home. I arrived at the van set up place and the team of five sixteen year old lads were busy boiling water, packing coffee and tea and soup. “Let’s not go out tonight!” says grumpy Br Damien. “But Sir, we have to!” “Why?” “Because we told them we would be there!” So, with smoke coming out of my ears and my grumpy mood all pervading – down to King George Square we went. There, in the midst of drizzle, with the boys spread out chatting away to the thirty or so homeless people who turned up, I heard one of the most powerful sentences of my life. From one homeless guy in the bus shelter to another, “See, I told you they would come!”

That night, I learnt in the most powerful of ways that it was not about the coffee or the tea or the soup – it was all about relationship, all about ‘turning up’, ‘all about fidelity’ for people who had too often been let down.

There is a poem with the line, “to get up in the middle of the night and do what needs to be done for the children!” Fidelity – the tired, exhausted mother or father, who walks the corridors with the crying child! Fidelity – the parent who ‘hangs in there’ with the troubled and moody teenage who tests every boundary and has a Ph D in emotional manipulation. Fidelity, the partner who chips away at the walls that a loved one has built around them. Fidelity – the dreamer who gets up over and over again and does their small little bit for justice, for reconciliation, for wholeness and for healing. Fidelity – the son or daughter who sits day after day by the bedside of a parent with dementia.

I can remember working at St Columbans at Albion and spending time with two young men whose father was cruel. The mother could not use the phone in the house and had to go to a phone box down the street, no hugs or cuddles, only blame and verbal abuse – constantly. I can remember dropping the two lads home after a late night school function and there would be the mother, asleep on the couch, ‘waiting up for her boys to come home!’ Fidelity.

Yes, I have failed a hundred thousand times over these fifty years. Yes, I have spent years driven by ego. Yes, I have made a past time of playing the martyr and good old ‘poor Damien’. Yes, I have been dealt some difficult cards on life’s journey – no one’s fault – but if I have one good quality, one worth celebrating – it has been my fidelity and my dreaming. I have never given up on my dream. I have never given up on facing my fears. I have never given up on the theory of the faith community nor Religious Life despite every reason and excuse to do so.

Fidelity is not glossy. There is no backing Hollywood sound track, there is no adoring crowd – often all there is is ordinary life, ordinary people, ordinary courage – and small acts and small choices to get up again, try again, hope again, believe again, forgive (self and others) again. Sure, fidelity is not glossy. There is no movie script, no fairy-tale ending (though there are no shortage of magical times), no perfect marriage or perfect Brotherhood or perfect relationship. But it is not about perfection. It is all about finding in the ordinary the extraordinary, and believing in that extraordinary in the midst of the million ordinary, dull steps of the journey.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am one of life’s luckiest people. I have known so much love and fidelity. I have been carried, and hugged, and loved, and forgiven, and celebrated, and laughed with and cried with the most profound joy – and known the most profound peace. Yes, I am one of life’s luckiest people who for some crazy reason, fifty years ago, came to be known as Brother Damien and who, despite my feet of clay, has attempted to brother myself and those I have been privileged to share life’s journey with.

So, as I begin my 51st year my heart is so full of gratitude. Grateful for the hundreds who have believed in me. Grateful to my God who has called me and loved me, totally and unconditionally. Grateful to my Brothers in community who have loved me, held me and called me into life. Grateful for the extraordinary opportunities for brotherhood that have come my way. Grateful for the legacy of the heart bequeathed to me by my parents. Grateful for the little people who have loved me into life. All of this probably means that I am grateful, oh so grateful, to wonderful people like you who are reading this!

2 thoughts on “Fidelity, not glossy, but the magic that changes everything”

  1. Pricey what do you want to do when you grow up? I ask myself this time and again and being your age, all I can say is I wish I had more lifetimes on Earth to do all that I want to achieve and learn and ponder. Looking back however, it is, and would be, a continuation of the same.. serving, supporting, adcocating, teaching (and fully embracing life) but just in different roles and locations. All roads lead to home.. your own inner home.
    It is excellent to once again (after many years), to come across your priceless unique take on life. Rock on Pricey.

    1. Dear wonderful Helen, I love your reflection. Yes, “all roads lead to home, your own inner home!” Have a wonderful weekend. Thanks friend, Pricey

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