Gerry of Surprises: Remembering Gerard W. Hughes, S.J.

Gerry W. Hughes S.J., whose Requiem Mass will be celebrated at Farm St. Jesuit Church in central London on Monday, loved stories and their telling. One of his favorites was about a meeting of a group of religious, that he was obliged to attend reluctantly. It began with an instruction to the group to form a circle and consecutively introduce themselves, sharing with the group their names, their provenance and something about their Jungian MBTI psychological profile or their Enneagram number. Gerry noticed that he’d be the last in the circle to speak. His turn came; he introduced himself by name, indicated that he was a Scottish Jesuit then announced “and I am a unique creation of God.”

Those who knew Fr. Gerry, and there are many, will instantly recognise the man from this little anecdote, that he loved to tell, and that it speaks eloquently of who he is and how he looked at life. Gerry was not a rebel. He was a questioner. And if to ask questions is to posit the infinite, as spiritual theology often suggests, then Gerry’s questioning—of himself, of all of us, particularly in the Christian church—was all about the search for the infinite mystery of God in whom, in another of his favourite phrases, “we live and move and have our being.” Gerry knew how limiting religion can be. He loved to cite Martin Buber’s view that “nothing so masks the face of God as religion.” Gerry encouraged us all to recognize this fact about ourselves; that we are necessarily caught up in a mystery that is much greater than ourselves and our structures. If the search for that ultimate mystery would bring the seeker into conflict with those structures, that was a price worth paying. It was a price that Fr. Gerry had to pay, in the currency of misunderstanding and opposition, several times in his long and full life.


God of Surprises, his magnum opus, was an instant word-of-mouth hit, a work that changed many lives for the better. For many, it was an introduction to Ignatian spirituality and the possibility that prayer could be for everyone, even for non-specialists, even (whisper it!) for lay-people. It still sells, in numbers and in many translations. It was not his first book, as some careless commentators have claimed. Some years earlier he’d written In Search of a Way, an account of a 10-week pilgrimage he’d made, on foot, across Europe to Rome, but also of the inward journey he was making and to which he invited the reader. Gerry was slightly annoyed when, following the success of God of Surprises, the earlier book was re-issued as if it were a sequel. He would go on to write the story of another journey, the eponymous Journey to Jerusalem, and a number of other titles as well as articles and innumerable talks. For us novices, all those years ago, he was a great example of the mobile available Jesuit, arriving home late at night off the last train from yet another talk in another town or city, often given to a justice and peace group, with whom he had a particular affinity. For Gerry, any realistic engagement with that God of surprises would always lead, inexorably, to a concern for all of God’s creation; people and planet alike.

There was a brief moment when it looked as if God of Surprises might never see the light of day – and, in a sense, it didn’t, literally, at least for a day. Written in the days before hard-drives and even floppy disks, Gerry shared his only completed, hand-typed manuscript around the community of the Jesuit novitiate in Birmingham, where I’d the privilege of living with him. One day he asked, at lunch, if whoever had the manuscript could return it; and again at supper, because he hadn’t yet got it back. It couldn’t be found; Gerry’s customary sangfroid looked shaky for once. It can now be revealed, to my shame, that the reason the manuscript had not seen the light of day was that it had fallen down the side of my bed, within which I had been reading it. Gerry, to my relief, laughed loudly and generously when he got his book back with my miserable, school-boy explanation. The rest, as they say, is history, as the book soon became probably the most widely-read spirituality work ever.

Gerard W. Hughes, S.J., spoke often, as he challenged the faulty image of a terrifying God that many of us carry about with us, of what he felt was more likely to be the Lord’s first question of us when we meet God face-to-face. Rather than a scary taxonomy of sins committed and rules broken, it would be much more likely that God would ask us, “and how did you enjoy my creation?”. As America’s editor-at-large, fellow Jesuit James Martin, remarked to this writer, it must have been quite a moment for the Lord to encounter Gerry of Surprises! Such a line would have appealed to Gerry: Gerry the walker, Gerry the questioner, Gerry always the son of Ignatius, Gerry the wise yet challenging guide to so many on the inner journey. We will miss him.

David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

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brandon roy
4 years 2 months ago
May God Bless all the plus


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