Monday, October 6, 2014

An Exclusive Interview with Fr Hedwig Lewis, SJ

An Exclusive Interview with Fr Hedwig Lewis, SJ

Published in DNC Times (Pune)
October 2014

1: Fr Hedwig, on 20 June this year you celebrated the 50th anniversary of your joining the Society of Jesus. Isn’t this another “red letter day” for you?

Well, it’s a golden milestone on which I rest awhile to scan the historical landmarks on my life-map. There are farther horizons to explore and more boundaries to cross.

2: We gather from your website that you were appointed to St Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad, after your ordination in 1977. You have been professor, student counsellor, Vice-Principal and Principal. Also, Rector, Director of the Xavier Institute of Languages and Xavier Centre for Human Resource Development. How do you now perceive that period of your life?

The word perception brings up images of the two men who looked out of prison bars: “One saw mud, the other stars”. I have looked high and low, at my peak moments and my pitfalls, my lights and shadows. I am left with a feeling of fulfilment, because I gave 100% commitment to my mission, and lived out the Ignatian Magis. What I cherish most was the opportunity given me by the Society of being in the service of education in its diversity. And the multi-tasking it involved enabled me to develop my administrative skills, taught me how to handle crisis situations, helped me interact effectively with all classes of people.

3. You had to resign from college and public ministry in 1995 because of a neurological illness. Yet, you have authored over thirty books since then. What has been the secret of your energy and productivity?

I would say ‘deep trust in Providence’. I felt the need of inner strength to transcend my physical disabilities. I was still fresh from my research on the Spiritual Exercises for my book At Home With God, which was published four years earlier. One basic principle that surfaced in my helplessness was that I am a “co-labourer” with God. If I do my best, within my limitations, God will do the rest. This ‘partnership’ worked for me, and for the greater glory of God. My books became my pulpits, my messengers. When the going got tough, I gazed at the picture of The Smiling Christ on the Cross posted on my bookshelf for strength and inspiration. 

4: Looking back at your five decades in the Society, can you recall some of the convictions and motivations you had during formation?

Thanks to this Jubilee Year, I have done some soul-searching of my life as a religious, guided by my sharp visual-memory, and several diaries (that survived the dustbin) containing my emotional responses to events. Let me give you a rough idea of my orientations as a scholastic.
<> I was convinced that Religious life is only for the stout-hearted. Jesus says: take up your cross daily and follow me (Lk 9.23). Whenever I found myself in a comfort zone, I would look around for the “cross” I had dodged… and start afresh. I also used to routinely check whether I was compromising between what was convenient and what was challenging, between striving for perfection and seeking loopholes.
<> AMDG was, and remains, the crucial “compass” and “touchstone” for my attitudes and actions, my self-development and social commitments.
<> I had a passion for wholesome living; that is, developing all-round abilities. I believed it was important to have a craze for at least one extracurricular activity (not a hobby) that would enhance my future ministries. Jesuits who are not “crazy” tend to be lazy. One area I concentrated on was creative writing. Providentially, during Philosophy this talent was noticed, and I was handed charge of editing the province vocation magazine Apostles of Gujarat, as well as the diocesan vocation monthly Children’s Page. In Theology I was given editorship of AVE. Through these opportunities I was able to lay a solid foundation for what would turn out to be, by a twist of circumstances, a writing career. I also developed expertise in counselling through reading and attending seminars/workshops; and skills for youth apostolate.

5: Can you share one significant experience that impacted your life as a priest?

After the ceremony of my ordination on 16 April 1977 at the Goregaon Seminary in Mumbai, while boarding the special bus for the railway station, a teenager approached me and asked whether he could join us. I said yes but paid no further attention to him. The train was not crowded, and my family and friends could sit together. As I turned my head, I noticed the lad a couple of rows away with his eyes fixed on me. I felt some vibes and an inexplicable urge to meet him. I quickly excused myself from the group and sat next to him. He said he was hoping to speak to me. He had been so impressed when he saw me at the altar, he explained, that he felt God prompting him to confide in me. I was deeply touched. I counselled the boy fervently till his home-station arrived. We parted as friends with promises to keep in contact. The story does not end here but for the present I want to share its impact on me.

It may seem like a commonplace incident, but to me it was certainly a “moment of recognition” of my call within the Call. A mysterious transformation was taking place within me during that short encounter. Even as I was conversing I was experiencing the movement of the Spirit in my mind and heart. I suddenly began feeling like a different person. I felt I was no longer in the usual friendly-counsellor mode, but was transformed into a pastor entrusted with a mission to heal a broken world.  

That night before going to bed, my thoughts were not on the euphoric ceremony of the day, or even about the fact that I was a priest at last. I was simply overwhelmed with God’s ‘ordination gift’ to me in confirming my heart’s deepest desire of being recognized as a spiritual director and counsellor.

I had taken for granted that it would be years before I established myself as a counsellor, but the incident in the train revealed that I was already on track. And as if to reassure me, there were more divine surprises in store. A month later when I arrived at the college where I was appointed to teach, I was told I would have to also double-up as Student Counsellor since the former one had unexpectedly left the college. Oh, how my heart bounced on receiving this bonus from Providence! The next thing I know, I was in my predecessor’s trendy office ready to launch my campus ministry. Down the decades, I have held numerous administrative positions, and have been involved in varied activities, but counselling and spiritual direction have remained my forte.

6: Thanks for sharing at such personal depth. One final question: what qualities do you feel Jesuits in training need to develop?

I have been out of touch with scholastics. However, years ago I had given a ‘Recollection’ where my talks provided five pointers for living out the Jesuit charism, under the acronym IGNIS. I trust they are still relevant. I’ll give you an outline from my old notes.

> Impelled by the Spirit. You must be constantly attuned to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, through the daily Examen and prayerful discernment, so as to become more and more spiritual (personal level), more and more compassionate (social outreach).

> Geared for excellence. The emphasis is on “gearing”. This means ‘equipping’ yourselves with professional skills as you strive to become better than your best – in every field, human/spiritual. Gearing prepares you to become life-long learners and to manage yourself. There are superiors and directors of work who tend to be unprofessional in their attitudes and aptitudes. Many either remain non-functional or get burnt out easily for lack of basic managerial know-how.

> Non-Negotiables: do not compromise with anything that obstructs you from living out zealously the Society’s motto of AMDG-Magis.

> Ignatian: Your words and deeds must be branded “Ignatian”, and must clearly reflect Ignatian values and spirituality.

> Servant-leadership: Ever to love and to serve, unconditionally and universally, especially the marginalized at all strata of human society.

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