By Brother Damien Price
I was preparing for my final vows as a Christian Brother when I asked if I could I go to Sydney to work with homeless people because I was “scared” of the poor.
It seemed to me that being a Christian Brother and scared of the poor were a contradiction.
So, for some three months, I worked in the Cana Community in Surrey Hills in inner Sydney. It was an extraordinary time.
I had only been there a week when Sr Anne Jordan – a wonderful Presentation Sister from Lismore – told me: “We’re going on retreat to Mittagong”.
I assumed the ‘we’ was Father Brian Stoney, Sr Anne and myself – after all, we were the ‘God’ people and we knew all about retreats.
As the week went by, the whiteboard in the kitchen area began to list more and more vehicles taking people to the retreat.
I asked Anne: “Who is going on this retreat?”
She replied: “We are, Damien – the Cana Community.”
Now I got it: Fr Brian, Sr Anne, me and the volunteers.
But my confusion grew when a mini-bus from Hunters Hill and one from St Aloysius, Milsons Point were added to the whiteboard.
I asked again and Sr Anne told me (again), “We, the Cana Community, we’re going on retreat”.
Nah, she couldn’t mean all of us: the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the former prostitutes, the homeless, the handicapped, those coming out of prison, those about to go into prison.
But she did!
I was NOT impressed. My ego was rampant.
We ‘holy’ ‘religious’ people do retreats. My ego whispered: “What would THEY know about retreats”.
What an arrogant bathtub I was!
The day of the retreat came around and 60 or so people gathered at Albion Street, Surrey Hills: a mixed bag of homeless; people with all sorts of substance abuse issues; people with a variety of mental illnesses; sex workers and more.
Among them, like a rat on a log in a flooded stream, was one Christian Brother.
We had not gone 20km when, on some straight stretch of Parramatta Rd, the convoy pulled over.
Why? So the retreatants could get off and have a smoke!
The smoke poured from my ears.
We finally arrived at Mittagong after another coffee and smoke. Like a good Religious I sat, notebook and pen in hand ready to take notes.
Sr Anne looked out at us: “What colour is God?”
After a pregnant silence, she said that we would gather in groups in 15 minutes to talk about it.
I was furious – that was the ‘spiritual talk’ that I had come all this way? What would THEY know about such a topic?
I went outside, walked up and down looking holy (that was what we professional retreatants did) while the mob had another coffee and smoke.
We gathered in our groups. I was the only “normal” person in the group of six. No one said anything.
Next to me sat a rather large lady with tattoos everywhere. She said something very close to this (I raced off at the break and tried to copy it down):
“Well, seeing no one else is talking, I’ll start. My God is green!
“You see, I have been a prostitute – don’t do much these days, too old for it – but when I had worked the streets of St Kilda in Melbourne from 8pm until 5am and I came back to my room exhausted and sore – sometimes I had been bashed, sometimes raped, often cold and always feeling empty – I lay down on my little cot in my small boarding house room.
“I curl up in a ball and I look at the wall. On the wall I have an old poster with Psalm 23 on it. I slowly read that Psalm: My God is the God of green pastures who leads me by the waters of life, who refreshes my hurting spirit – my shepherd God calls me, gently by name – he knows me – he sure does – and he looks out for me.
“Yeah, my God is Green!”
I was stunned into silence with my rampant ego quietened.
A small voice from deep within me whispered” “Damien, you could learn a lot about God, love, life and the spiritual journey from the mystic sitting next to you!”
The next day she did it again when Anne asked in her one line input: “What baggage do we carry?”
But that answer is for another day.
Surely the key to the spiritual life is consciousness, awareness of ego, silence and a true openness to God revealed in all things for those who have the eyes to truly see and the ears to truly hear – and the heart to allow encounter!
Brother Damien Price is a former teacher in Brisbane schools including St Joseph’s, Gregory Terrace, St Patrick’s College, Shorncliffe, and St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane. He continues to work with schools across the country.