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Surprisingly successful spirituality

05 December 2014

GERARD W. HUGHES SJ, author of the spiritual classic God of Surprises, died on 4 November. He will be much missed.

I met him in 1986 when, as a BBC television producer, I had the idea of filming a silent retreat. I had come across Ignatian spirituality, and thought that an Ignatian retreat, with its conversational interaction between a director and a retreatant, would make good television.

Gerry Hughes agreed to take part, and I found some willing subjects to go on a five-day retreat at St Beuno's Spiritual Exercise Centre under his direction. One was the Liverpudlian sculptor Arthur Dooley, and I remember Gerry's extraordinary concentration and patience as he teased out what Arthur was discovering, about himself and God, as he meditated on the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Gerry proved to be a natural on television. He was a Glaswegian Scot, a tall, rangey man with deep-set eyes and a crinkled face. His stillness on camera suggested an inner restlessness held in check, a well-disciplined potential for indignation at oppression, social or spiritual.

He was a great walker. He made a walking pilgrimage to Rome, and then a second great journey, to Jerusalem, following in the footsteps of St Ignatius of Loyola. When I came to Oxford in 2011, I met him again. He had been ill for several years, but he still tried to walk every day, and I often saw him slowly and determinedly making his way round Christ Church Meadow.

Gerry passionately believed that God revealed himself through experience. His spiritual life, he remembered, began at the age of two and a half, when he sat up in bed and said the word "God" in order to see what would happen.

He was disappointed that there was no immediate response, but it was the beginning of a lifetime's quest to find the living God in all things, a quest that never let up.

He did not always have an easy relationship with the Church. He got into trouble with the authorities on occasions. He was instinctively ecumenical, and offered the Spiritual Exercises to lay people and non-Roman Catholics, training them to become retreat-givers in their turn.

He was part of the generation of RC religious who followed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in going back to the sources of the charism that they followed.

By his imaginative and persistent probing of his own and others' experience, he extended the reach of Ignatian spirituality far beyond the Jesuit order. The rest of us can only be grateful.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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