by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Where did you attend University and what was your favorite course, and why was it your favorite?
Breige: I studied Botany and Agricultural Botany at Queen’s University in Belfast. My favourite course was Ecology. Focusing on the interconnection of species, how they supported and depended on each other, it fed my love of nature and gave me an understanding of interdependence of creation that has only increased over the years. The wonder and beauty of creation, the genius of a God who has let it unfold and evolve in all its intricacy and splendour, its capacity for restoration and renewal: all deepening my lived sense of a God who is moving us in one direction to the fulfilment of his dream of kingdom for us. It laid the foundations for a heightened awareness of our challenge to tune into the flow and fervour of that dream and to move with God in its realisation.
And another important reason why ecology was a favourite. I loved being outside in the wild, listening to the birds, letting the warm rain touch me and bring a smile to my face. Never fails.
Gordon: When were you working with Down and Connor Family Ministry and what were your primary responsibilities.
Breige: I started work in Family Ministry around 2000. My focus was on adult faith development in the home. Devoting a huge amount of time in conversations with people, tapping into their experience of their faith, their wisdom, what they were sharing with others, enjoying, what they wanted more of, building up relationships with priests in different parts of the diocese... really getting to know people.
At the same time I was working with Fr Michael McGinnity and drawing on other skilled and knowledgeable facilitators to offer a programme in family ministry which aimed to deepen prayer in the home and enhance an awareness of church teaching on family and sacrament, not through intellectual appreciation but through lived experience. Some of those people who came to our formation stayed on to be trained as school catechists with a focus on offering sacramental preparation in the local schools. The plan was that they could develop their roles in an organic way, to build relationships with parish families. We trained them in a deeper understanding of sacrament, in an appreciation of parish and family systems and in presentation and facilitation skills. We also brought clergy together to help them know how to best use these catechists in the parishes and schools.
Gordon: When and why did you write Whole Parish Catechesis: Faith Development for the Faint-Hearted?
Breige: During my time in family ministry I became increasingly convinced that bringing people out to parish courses and pursuing a programme model was not going to be a way of reaching parish families who were busy being church and loving each other in their own way. So, I was constantly looking for simple ways to reach into family homes where faith was being lived on a daily basis.
Going to the Religious Ed conference in LA in 2004 helped me identify Bill Huebsch’s “Whole Parish Catechesis” strategy as a practical and simple way of addressing the situation. It needed adaptation to make it really simple, something that volunteers could organise and replicate. I saw this as an advantage – people producing and sharing ideas that they came up with – parishioners hearing things in their own tongue, invited to see Jesus with them in their own homes, in their own parishes.
Priests in the Diocese have always been encouraging of what I’ve offered and when I took the germ of an idea to my PP at the time, FR Sean Emerson, he gave me complete freedom to call groups together, use parish facilities and pulpit to advertise as/when required. The process gave people a sense of connection with the gospels and with each other. Parishioners were able to take home a simple THINK-DO-PRAY each week. We aimed at seasons, Advent or Lent, because this would be easier to maintain a commitment. Gentle work, easily executed and carefully reviewed. It seemed to give people a sense of belonging to parish, awareness of God present with them at home.
Gordon: And what about the “Nearness of God”?
Breige: Nearness came as the next stage for me. Working in parishes, longing for people to have a lived experience of relationship with God, I suspected there was something missing in how we were sharing our faith and recognised that I wanted to devote some time to exploring what this might be and if I could offer something to a local audience. Thanks to the ongoing support of my husband whose job made sure that we continued to eat, I gave up my paid employment to become self-employed, which was a cover for doing some parish work, helping parishioners organise their own missions and spending vast amounts of time in prayer and frustration in front of an all too often blank computer screen.
Nearness of God takes the reader on a journey of relationship from Eden to resurrection. What failed in the Adam adventure is restored with Jesus who is emphasised as everything God wants for us and for his creation. The thread throughout the book is the experience of relationship with God as covenant, the tenderness based love of a God who would dies that betray his beloved people.
The book weaves together prayer experience with scripture and teaching, to help the reader meet this God, bring who they are into real conversation, experience more and more of who God is. It allows an exploration and experience of sacrament which is also rooted in relationship with Jesus and with the community as Body of Christ.
It's hard to explain the full content of the book because its value is in the experience of God the reader has as s/he moves from chapter to chapter. It’s a presentation of good teaching, drawing on big hitters such as Raymond Brown, Karl Rahner, Kenan Osbourne, Gerry O’Collins but those writers stay quietly in the shadows of the footnotes to give God more space to speak, to let Jesus touch the reader.
The book’s content was developed not in parish halls but in kitchens. Again, PP’s handed over their homes to me. Parishioners let me into their living rooms to share our thirst for God, to feel his love, to know we were gathering around his Word, touched by his presence with us in the moment. Nearness is a modest offering to a local audience. Its current presentation is undergoing an update, to include online prayer material. That said, the impact on me and others has given me such a sense of the privilege of being with people when they encounter God, know, feel experience him … in their kitchens … and realise how very different that is to knowing about him.
Gordon: When did you start as Spiritual Director, facilitator, Retreat leader at Christian Centre for Mental and Spiritual Well-being and what have been some of your favourite experiences?
Breige: I trained as a spiritual director over 20 years ago and completed a research Masters into growth in relationship with God using prayer with scripture around the time I began in Family Ministry. Writing Nearness gave me more space to offer spiritual direction which I did in different parishes in the diocese and further afield, often at the request of local priests who wanted to give lay people access to this valuable ministry.
About nine years ago, a chance meeting put me into a conversation with Methodist minister, Rev Alan Lorimer. I’d been roaming streets of Belfast looking in vain for somewhere to use as a “Centre of Spirituality – a beggar’s version of the centre established by Madeline Birmingham and William Connolly. It transpired that Alan was looking for premises to establish a pioneer ministry to allow him to offer spiritually sensitive therapy in a Christian setting. He was thinking about bringing in a more explicitly spiritual professional. The morning we first met, he pulled out Sue Pickering’s book on Spiritual direction. He’d found it that morning on Amazon Kindle. Did I know of something called spiritual direction? I laughed, showed him the pages in her book which reference my research – my only claim to fame! - and we soon realised that we’re holding two parts of the same dream: to make growing in mature relationship with God, self and others accessible to folk walking down a Belfast street.
It's hard to pick favourite moments in my experience of working in well.com because the entire experience has been and continues to be difficult but amazing. Many of those who come to us have been traumatised by the obvious violence of our past but also by the less obvious violence which manifested itself in our homes in domestic violence and abuse. People are wounded. And they are strong. They come to us looking for something more …
We are rooted in Celtic Spirituality, gathering a range of different kinds of Christians around the same Jesus. Low Key, under the radar. I deliberately work with small groups. Keeps in personal.
As with Celtic Spirituality, people in Northern Ireland have a darkness which originated in pain and spills into their sense of humour. Alan and I are in the liberation business and it is such a privilege to offer quiet space in the city, encourage rhythms of prayer and practice in ourselves and others and to see people in difficult circumstances live differently because they know, experience, God is there with them. We’ve been joined by others now, new directors that we’ve trained over these years. It’s small, slow work but that feels OK. Deep roots take time to form.
Gordon: How did the partnership with EdgehillTheological College begin? What is the nature of the work you do in that context?
Breige: Rev Tom Wilson, a Presbyterian minister friend came to me with a suggestion that we put together a spiritual direction training programme for a group of people currently offering retreat experiences to clergy and lay ministers. We developed a programme but were only two months into it when Tom received a cancer diagnosis. The programme was suspended. My dear friend eventually died. I assumed the course would die with him.
Responding to what I can only describe as an itch that would not leave me, I decided that I would ‘wander’ about and see if anyone might be interested in taking similar training forward. A conversation with the then President of Edgehill College, Rev Dr Richard Clutterbuck in Edgehill College created sparks of life that I knew signaled the beginning of something significant. The College was very keen to support the training. It was an ideal vehicle for its interdenominational work. Rev Diane Clutterbuck, a spiritual director and experienced supervision trainer wanted to get involved with the training also and became a gift to the team.
Richard Edgehill has acted since as a quiet supportive partner. Others have join in at various times to offer wisdom and support, including Abbot Mark-Ephrem Nolan and Very Rev Dr Ruth Paterson, both committed to helping different traditions come together and grow in relationship with the Christ we share.
What began as a spiritual direction formation programme has evolved to something more accessible to listeners in daily life. We have a group of highly skilled and committed directors and we are also helping others to grow in the kind of listening life Ignatius encouraged as he shared his Spiritual Exercises.
Gordon: What are the primary spiritual challenges in Ireland today?
Breige: I think we have a hard time telling the difference between activity and vitality, being busy with things that I’m not sure have much impact on what I see to be the enduring challenge of the Church. It’s there in the opening words of the Catechism:
“Father,... this is eternal life, that they should know you” John 17: 3. We appreciate the meaning of “know” as an experience of encounter
People need to encounter God.
In my experience, that encounter is taken completely for granted: we are offering Catechesis before conversion, to people who have still not met the Lord.
This passage from Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) also speaks to a challenge of these times. Isaiah 30: 15,16, 18
God, the Master, The Holy of Israel, has this solemn counsel:
“Your salvation requires you to turn back to me and stop your silly efforts to save yourselves. Your strength will come from settling down in complete dependence on me— The very thing you’ve been unwilling to do.
…But God’s not finished. He’s waiting around to be gracious to you. He’s gathering strength to show mercy to you. God takes the time to do everything right—everything. Those who wait around for him are the lucky ones.
Complete dependence on God. I believe we need to pray, not for the world that revolves around our activity but in a way that opens us to relationship with God, so that sitting like the person in Lamentations 3 we might lie face down in the dust and bewail with humility and exhaustion that we’re lost. Then might at last lift our heads to see that God is not lost but has instead been waiting with infinite patience for us to tune into the divine harmony that he has planted within his creation and made visible to us in the person of Jesus … a tuning in which requires an attitude of surrender to the joy of God’s dream and trust in his ways of bringing it about with us.
So much in my experience of Church, of people, of myself suggests that something in us is like the second kind of people in Ignatius’ reflections on love and humility. We want to want this complete dependence on God but on our own terms. Pope Francis invites us: “Let us Dream” in his wonderful piece, full of life and hope. It’s an invitation to encourage action rooted in experience of God in prayer, experience that moves us beyond activity to vitality, to freedom of spirit and a radical life, an invitation to leave everything that doesn’t matter behind.
I believe that it’s as simple and as difficult as that and has been since this amazing Man-God walked the earth, offering God’s healing and restoration to all. Meet Jesus in life, in prayer. Today. Fall in love with him. Let him be our one enduring passion so that we can become like him: radical.
And we can run around looking as busy as we like but there it is: Know him. Follow him. Leave everything.
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.