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Interview: Roger Dawson, director of St Beuno’s

02 July 2021

‘Sometimes the only way God can get us to stop and listen is via a cannonball’

St Beuno’s was built in 1848 as a theology faculty which prepared over 200 men to be ordained as Jesuit priests. In 1926, It became an infirmary for elderly Jesuits, but continued to train men in their final year of training before final vows.
 

In the 1970s, our spirituality work developed, and more retreats were given individually, including the Spiritual Exercises; so St Beuno’s became what it is today: a retreat house and spirituality centre. We have 60 beds, and give about 150 retreats and events per year.
 

During lockdown, we started to do online retreats on Zoom, and people who wouldn’t have been able to stay could participate, but we’re now open again for up to 48 people. About 50 per cent of our retreatants are Catholic, the remainder being largely Anglican or from other Christian denominations.
 

Jesuit spirituality is about attention. All prayer is about attention to God, but Ignatius had some particular assumptions: God created Good, and fundamentally all of creation is good — we don’t have to look for God in specially holy bits.
 

Discernment becomes important, therefore, because how do you notice God’s particular presence in all the world? You look for God’s fingerprints — where you find consolation, not desolation. Signs of beauty, truth, and goodness. God may get stuck into ugliness, untruth, and wickedness, but it’s harder for us to find him there. Typically, he’s where we find faith, trust, hope, and love. It’s a spirituality for people in the world, confident that God’s on their side, who know God’s trying to give us more than we can possibly receive.
 

Aquinas was more positive about creation than Augustine, but Catholicism was a fortress religion until Vatican II released a lot of its élan. While monastic spirituality centres on stabilitas, Jesuit life is about engagement, mobility, dialogue, listening for the presence of God in any situation. We’ve always valued the ministry of the mind, education, and reflection. The Spiritual Exercises are a great gift to the Church, and today Pope Francis is calling the Church to be a discerning Church.
 

We’re “religious priests” and Brothers, living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in the Catholic Church under our own Superior, founded to go where the need is greatest. We live in local communities, but some Jesuits live on their own, or dispersed. St Beuno’s currently has six Jesuits, including five priests, and a team of lay men and women, some of whom are resident.
 

This year is the 500th anniversary of the dramatic moment when St Ignatius was hit by a cannonball, and his conversion as he convalesced. Most of us have had a cannonball moment. For me, it was in the early ’90s. I was 33, and had qualified as a clinical psychologist, after leaving the army, and was working for the NHS in adult mental-health services. I had a sense that something wasn’t right, and was asking the existential questions.
 

Then I saw Alive, the film about a plane crash in the Andes which killed many of the Uruguayan rugby team. Some survived by eating the bodies of their friends, until eventually two of them risked going over the mountains to seek help. The film confronted me with the big questions: What’s life for? Why does God allow practising Catholics to die in plane crashes? What makes life worth living so much that you’re prepared to eat the bodies of your friends? It knocked me flat. It laid me low for a quite a while. It was graced. It was awful. I didn’t get any answers for a long time.
 

Sometimes the only way God can get us to stop and listen is via a cannonball. I don’t believe he fires them, but, when events occur, God uses them. He didn’t arrange for the plane to crash, or me to see that film, but when something flattens you, God can use it and pick you up off the floor. Privileged people are used to being in control, and the Christian life demands that we allow God to be in control.
 

My father was a Royal Air Force officer, and my mother was a nurse; so we moved every two or three years. I have two sisters and one brother. I was at boarding school from age 11, and then became an army officer for nine years. I converted to Catholicism when I was 28, but through a Benedictine monk. I then told a friend I would become a priest. It took me nine years to enter the Jesuit novitiate. If someone had told me when I entered Sandhurst at 19 that I’d become a Jesuit, I’d have thought they were ridiculous.
 

Ignatius attracted me, though, even before my conversion. I thought, I know people like this who go to pubs and get in fights. He sounded like a guy I could spend an evening in the pub with. His life’s a story of a great interior and exterior journey. He’s both an inspiring figure and a rather scary one for most Jesuits.
 

He’s recognisable as a proud, vain, ambitious man on a mission, who changed direction to work on a much grander project for God. If he’d stayed with his original plan, we’d never have heard of him, and you wouldn’t be asking me about him or me.
 

I hope next year’s 500th anniversary of his death will be a moment of grace for us, where we can deepen our commitment and be further converted. The world and the Church has been hit by cannonballs over these past years, and our need for conversion is great.
 

A certain robustness is needed in the army, and you know that there is the possibility of taking lives, and you have to get used to that possibility. I served in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, but I never fired my rifle, and it was often very boring. To train as psychologist, I had to become more sensitive. It happened partly through clinical training, and partly through the level of reflection demanded on your own responses to the distress and suffering you were hearing.
 

As director at St Beuno’s, I do a lot of leadership and admin — and hotel management. But I also do spiritual direction. With psychotherapy, the major focus is on the individual; in spiritual direction, the major focus is on God: where’s God at work in my life? What’s God asking of me? What’s the need here beyond myself?
 

It’s incredibly counter-cultural. If people think: “I’ve got my career and my body in shape — what about my spiritual needs?” and see spirituality as the final part of “my brilliant life”, then it is a mistake. When we seriously pursue the spiritual life, we have to abandon the Big Me.
 

Gratitude is central to Ignatian spirituality, as it is to Christianity, and cultivating the spirit of gratitude, rather than of entitlement, is a really counter-cultural shift. Positive psychology uses gratitude to cultivate the good life, but from the spiritual perspective we start to see what God’s doing for us. Ignatius became convinced that the most serious sin is the sin of ingratitude, because it’s fundamentally not relating properly to God or other people or Creation.
 

I’m 61, and I’ve already had a very varied and interesting life. I can honestly say that if I died of Covid I’d just feel grateful for all I’ve received. I’m happiest when I’m climbing mountains with a good friend. I’ve been climbing since I was 15, and it’s peaceful, joyful, and leaves me feeling better.
 

I move to Glasgow later in the summer, to be Superior of Jesuits in Scotland. There are 15 Jesuits in parishes in Glasgow and Edinburgh, a non-residential spirituality centre, and a centre in Edinburgh for events and courses. We’re starting a new mission in Newcastle, but there’ll be fewer Jesuits in ten years’ time; so we need discernment.
 

Some of the young people I know give me hope for the future.
 

I pray most for my family and my godchildren, as well as for the Church and the world.
 

I’d love to have ten minutes with Pope Francis. Holiness is attractive. I don’t know what I’d say to him, but I’d want to thank him. He said clearly that he’s a sinner — and there’s no contradiction between being a sinner and being holy. All the saints know that.

 

Fr Roger Dawson SJ was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. pathwaystogod.org/org/st-beunos

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

More events

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