Book review: Wings for the Soul

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ reviews Fr Chris Gleeson SJ’s book, Wings for the Soul: Madonna stories to celebrate its 125th year. Fr Chris has more of a reflective tone compared to the other editors of Madonna, who show their own distinctive style.

Christopher Gleeson SJ, Wings for the Soul: Madonna stories to celebrate its 125th year, Wilkinson Publishing, ISBN 9781922810960

Fr Chris Gleeson keeps distinguished and enduring company. Between them, Frs Michael Watson, Eustace Boylan and Herbie Wilkins and Chris edited and wrote for Madonna for almost 100 of its 125 years. Like the previous editors he lent to the magazine its distinctive conversational tone, a spirituality that spoke to the lives of its readers and the circumstances of the day, and the sharing of insights from the best writing. When we read Wings for the Soul, his collection of his contributions over the last 20 years, we are reminded of the significant events in the life of the Church and the world during this time. We are also invited to revisit the ways in which we tried to read the times in the light of the Gospel and to respond to them.

Each of the editors of Madonna has had his own distinctive style. In his column Herbie Wilkins engaged directly with letters from his readers, particularly about the changes in the Church introduced by the Second Vatican Council. Chris Gleeson has a more reflective tone, inviting the reader into his own life through stories and through his favourite quotations from almost everyone. At first glance his writing may appear to be almost a stream of consciousness, but each turn in his editorials proves to be a well-placed brick in the spiritual house he is building.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the distinctive quality of Chris’ editorial pieces is to dissect one. In his reflection on those feelings of regret we all experience he begins by celebrating the life of the recently deceased Fr Bill Johnston, a Jesuit from the United States who wrote much on mysticism and on non-Christian religions. He then recalls how Fr Patrick O’Sullivan, a Jesuit Provincial and one-time editor of Madonna, once curtailed the Jesuit students’ summer beach holiday in order to attend a course given by Bill. Not a popular decision!

The editorial then pivots with an apt quotation from Shakespeare to a passage from Fr Johnston’s autobiography, written twenty years later, in which he remembers the course with pain and describes it as a ‘complete flop’. Chris recalls reading his autobiography and wanting to write to him to say how valuable he had found the seminar. The letter was never written, never received, much to Chris’ regret. His regret evokes a song by Frank Sinatra about ‘tender moments’, that came back to him some twenty years later in a retreat at Sevenhill, and in a Feast Day Mass for all the Jesuit Saints celebrated in the Crypt at Sevenhill where the early Austrian Jesuits were buried. The editorial concludes by reflecting on the importance of tender moments that touch us, on the way in which they are nurtured by friendship and water it, and on our common woundedness. In this he draws on a telling quotation from the United States spiritual writer, Ronald Rolheiser, and then returns affectionately to Fr Bill Johnston.

This editorial illustrates the qualities of the contributions to Wings for the Soul. Chris invites us generously and bravely into his own life, not to look at the trophies in its cupboard but to enter the vulnerable places of perceived failure and his discoveries as he lives with them. The editorial is a path of discovery which may seem to curve off the path, but in fact takes the most direct way in the curved world of the human heart. Each turn unpeels new layers of the spirit, providing salient wisdom, whether through Bill Johnston, Frank Sinatra, Shakespeare, his Retreat director or Ronald Rolheiser.

This reflection on regret and the collection of which it is part display a rare hospitality to people and to good words. In the book many hundreds of people are mentioned, each with praise and gratitude. They include teachers, parents and students met in his work in Jesuit schools, his fellow Jesuits, friends and people in the news. They are also mentioned through their words, including singers, poets, Biblical writers, novelists, journalists, children and saints. In each case their words are not only pertinent to the topic under discussion but illuminate it. His writing is not an exercise in self-centred name dropping but in respectful and discriminating guest inviting.

People who would like to be invited on a journey that will lead to self-reflection and prayer will find Wings for the Soul a rare gift. It is also a celebration of all that is good in Madonna, a fitting publication to mark over 120 years of its publication.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

Wings for the Soul book launch at Xavier College.

Find out more about Wings for the Soul: Madonna stories to celebrate its 125th year.

Feature photo by Dom J on Pexels.