Journalist learns the power of accompanying

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At Adelaide Writers' Week in March, journalist George Megalogenis asked Leigh Sales who had surprised her most in the research for her book Any Ordinary Day. She replied: 'Steve Sinn, the priest. Because I'm not religious myself and I felt like we were going to have nothing in common and his way of looking at the world wouldn't make sense to me ...'

Leigh Sales' Any Ordinary DaySales' book is an investigation into how people survive the worst that can happen. The book's tagline is 'Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life.' Sales met Jesuit priest Fr Steve Sinn through Juliet Darling — one of the people whose story of traumatic loss is told.

Sales told Megalogenis: 'So Steve Sinn said to me you have to accompany people when things happen to them.' And I said to him, "How do you know what to say? Do you feel like God tells you what to do and what to say?" And he said, "Well no, I've got no idea. I just show up and then I'm just there and if I say the wrong thing and they snap at me it doesn't matter ... It's not about me it's about the other person. You just have to show your willingness to keep accompanying and stop thinking about yourself and what you might do wrong."'

This willingness to accompany and be alongside brokenness recalls for me the writing of Bill Williams, a man with a chronic disability who experienced the regular presence of carers. In his book Naked before God: The return of a broken disciple, he said he craved 'a non-anxious presence ... I've been with people who are not made anxious by my brokenness, and I've seen the difference. It is, in fact, the best definition of ministry I have ever heard; I nearly wept when I heard it, it so defined what I needed.'

There is a deep reciprocity in this awareness, one that trusts that the presence of two humans together is a solidarity even within the profound loneliness that suffering can bring. Sales writes of the way Sinn helped Darling: 'By offering his own bewildered humanity, Steve Sinn allowed Juliet hers.' There is no sense of proclamation in this awareness, it is not about being holy or trying to 'present' the Divine; it does not come with the kind of theology that needs to put in a word from the sponsor.

When I was a chaplain, I stumbled on a prayer fragment in some all-age worship resources. I learnt it by heart before I recorded its source, but it has come back to me often. It encapsulates those moments when we are moved by the grace of bearing witness to one another's lives: 'You made each of us to take you as a gift to others.' This is echoed in words Sales quotes from the priest — 'We are his presence to one another, human beings.'

At Writer's Week, sitting in the deep shade of big oak trees on a hot day in Adelaide, Sales recounted another story. After the tragedy of Walter Mikac's wife and two daughters being shot and killed in the Port Arthur massacre, one of his friends could not face meeting him. Mikac literally had to run after the man, who had turned and fled up the street. Mikac had to be the one to say to his tearful friend, 'It's okay, Doug, you don't have to say anything.'

 

"There is a deep reciprocity in this awareness, one that trusts that the presence of two humans together is a solidarity even within the profound loneliness that suffering can bring."

 

This scenario was repeated a number of times by friends or strangers who found his story too much to bear and feared saying the wrong thing. Mikac told Sales that there's nothing anyone could say, no matter how badly it came out, that could be as bad as what had already happened to him.

Having heard Mikac's story, Sales tells of her resolve to visit a friend who was dying in hospital. 'I still had all exactly the same feelings. I was scared to go up to his hospital room, I was scared the nurses were going to do something gross ... I'm scared he's going to be like crying and in pain and I'm scared I'll say the wrong thing ... but I just sort of felt like, after Steve said you have to accompany, I felt like it doesn't matter that I'm scared, that's alright.

'This is scary. I should be scared of this, but I still have to keep going there because I hung out with this friend at good times and weddings and parties and at the pub and at dinner and all the rest of it. And don't I, at the very least, owe them to come and sit next to them in their hospital bed when they are about to die and in great pain ...'

She turned up.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and associate teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. Her first book Tender: Stories that lean into kindness will be published by MediaCom in May.

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, Fr Steve Sinn SJ, Jesuits, Leigh Sales, Walter Mikac, Port Arthur massacre

 

 

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Existing comments

Having known Fr Steve Sinn personally for some years, I can recognize the qualities and dispositions Leigh Sales appreciates in his relating with the traumatised, the broken and the outsider - among whom he has lived most of his priestly life. I've also been privileged to see how many people, having met him, have been drawn into the depths that draw the man himself into hours and days of time alone with God and the scriptures (he knows at least one Gospel by heart), and the celebration of the Eucharist - but not, as he revealed in a rare recent press interview, at the expense of his accessibility to those in urgent need in whom he hears Christ's call and encounters him. Steve's way of following Christ is, I'd say, the antithesis of the clericalist mentality and modus operandi portrayed in the pen-picture created by Fr Andrew Hamilton in ES (28/2/2108).
John RD | 18 April 2019


Leigh Sales may not be religious per se, but she is extremely astute. She has also gone through some very difficult times herself and that can make you more open and aware as to what life is really about. I think this was what Jesus was on about. Many clergy, at all levels, talk at people, rather than helping them to face their pressing problems and rise above them. Steve Sinn and you take another tack. You both realise it's about them, not you. This sort of ability does not come automatically. It has to be developed. Of course, certain people, due to their personality, are inherently more capable of this than others. But it does take time and dedication to develop. I think this is why many clergy settle for the easy way out. How sad! No wonder the churches are empty. Hopefully people like you two will have some effect in facilitating much needed change.
Edward Fido | 19 April 2019


It’s so timely at Easter to be reminded to accompany those suffering or in need. So challenging to do, yet so helpful. Thanks for the encouragement to keep at it!
WG | 21 April 2019


It is interesting that WG brings up how appropriate to Easter this article was. I watched clips of the Easter messages of some of our Church leaders and was underwhelmed by most, except for the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, who spoke directly of the Resurrection, calling it a Cosmic Event which changed the world. If I remember correctly, Karl Barth said Christianity stood or fell by this event. I do know Steve Sinn, both from school and university. Unlike so many others I know in clerical vocations, I think Steve, by sticking with it and not settling back into a comfortable life, has both felt the transforming power of Christ's Resurrection and witnessed it to others. This seemingly 'silent' witness is probably the most effective. These days there are many militant Anti-Christians out there who, like Voltaire, are crying out for its abolition. Others, like Leigh Sales, are not Anti-Christian and can see the merit in Steve's work. They are probably closer to the truth than many so-called 'Christians'.
Edward Fido | 29 April 2019


Thank you, Julie
Patricia Taylor | 01 May 2019


I have read Leigh Sale's book and was somewhat taken aback by her seeming naivety about other people's suffering and how they cope with it. I was heartened by her reference to Fr Steve Sinn's response which pointed her towards listening to people who are suffering traumatic episodes in their lives. I too work in pastoral care and through our training in Clinical Pastoral care learn about empathic listening, listening with our hearts. The important point Steve Sinn made is that we are not equipped to solve people's pain from traumatic experiences but be available to listen to them, accompany them. I like Leigh Sales and have been a fan for quite a few years of her professional career and was puzzled by her seeming reluctance in just being with suffering people. The point that Steve Sinn makes is that we are not there to solve people's problems but to effectively listen and accompany them for as long as it takes.
Paul Rummery | 01 May 2019


Thanks for this great article Julie. I had the happiness of being on a Retreat given by Steve Sinn last year. John RD's comment about Steve's way of following Christ being the antithesis of clericalism is spot on. We do have a great many good and wonderful priests. I was at a baptism on Sunday at Liverpool where Paul Monkerud taught, laughed and encouraged people through a wonderful ceremony. I spent time at Kincumber in the holidays where two fine priests lead by allowing the people to lead too. I'm in contact with Graham McIntrye whose dedication to the poor is phenomenal. I learn so much from Claude Mostowik MSC, who never ceases to reflect Christ....now I've started to name names I should stop, but I am thanking God for these and so many, many other men in our Australian church, beavering away being other Christs and helping others do the same. They're not clericalists, building dreadful little empires and weighed down with the frills of office. They're too intent on following Jesus to be painting themselves as victims of society, and instead they recognise the real victims, and spend themselves for them, as so beautifully expressed in this fine article.
Susan Connelly | 01 May 2019


Susan Connelly you say: 'They're not clericalists, building dreadful little empires and weighed down with the frills of office'...Your words remind me of the cynicism of the Jews who were more curious to see Lazareth after his resurrection, than to see Jesus... They're too intent on following Jesus to be painting themselves as victims of society, and instead they recognise the real victims?? And are very inaccurate. Fr Steve Sinn has been given a life that best suits who he is today. I have no doubt 30 years ago. He was a different man. If he gets praised. Please respect and remember it is because of the wounds belonging to those he is accompanying, as his own. Wounds that reflect the humanity of Christ. The Christ in all of us. And in all humility. As a true servant of Christ. He would despise being placed on a pedestal. As he would be the first to say. The people he has and is caring for have defined and shaped who he is today. Just as those in your life and mine and in everybody's life, have. Moreover, the duties, let's say of a Bishop, include comforting hundreds of grieving, mournful people at the one given one. I am certain you didn't make it to Sri Lankan Mass of Remembrance - Friday 26th April 2019, at St Marys. Had you, All your words would have been sweet. 1 Corinthians 1:12
AO | 02 May 2019


BTW. I find the retreats organized by the Jesuits, extremely highly priced. I get that they are- 'Robin Hood'. Though, realy, catering retreats only for the upper class- well to do women, and men. And not allowing those on centrelink payments attend let's say $50, is disheartening. The House of Habsburg days are over. And please chuck out those 2 headed eagle vases you guys are keeping in the closets of your churches.
AO | 02 May 2019


It is not surprising that, in this review by Julie of a book by Leigh Sales on resilience, all the comments in ES are on Steve Sinn, a Jesuit who tries to do his life's work away from all forms of publicity. He is not on Twitter and I think you could only get in touch with him in a roundabout way via his old parish. He is now far from the Eastern Suburbs on a project bringing broken lives together. This is not for the fainthearted. His work requires an extremely dedicated, capable and experienced priest, which he is. He is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist and I think he would know not to trespass on their domain and would refer to a doctor if necessary. This is crucially important. I think Steve helps heal people. He would, I believe, credit any success he has to God. He is not the Catholic equivalent of the late Dr Norman Vincent Peale, pedalling a sort of Christianised Pop Psychology. It goes far deeper. To really understand what he does I think you would have to be like him and be involved in similar work. This is not armchair stuff.
Edward Fido | 02 May 2019


Spot on, Edward.
John RD | 03 May 2019


Unless she is working on a project, a journalist’s life is one of concurrent or consecutive short-term assignments in which, through no fault of her own, she is a fly in – fly out tourist upon the unfortunates she is sent by her employer to cover. Perhaps, just as academics take sabbaticals to recover the meaning of what it is to be an academic, a job or privately-assigned project to stay for some time with a reportorial subject may be what a journalist needs to ‘stay fresh’ in what and how she sees.
roy chen yee | 05 May 2019


Thank you John RD. I found your and Susan's comments enlightening, because you both have actually interacted with Steve. I think you, particularly, have known him for a long time. AO, who, I suspect does not know Steve, seems to bundle him in with 'the evils of the Church', 'expensive Jesuits' etc. It is easy to become cynical like this, but I think it is a gift, if, like Chaucer, you are able to differentiate between clerical exploiters, like the Pardoner and exemplary clerics, like the Priest. They have always existed simultaneously since the earliest times. I'm not quite sure what Roy was saying. He seemed to be suggesting that Leigh, or perhaps Julie, was becoming a bit glazed and jaded with overwork and was a bit wide of the mark. I think they were both spot on. Leigh could see that Steve 'had something' but did not quite have the spiritual map or vocabulary to interpret it. Julie reported accurately what Leigh told her. I found both honest and laudable. There is always a danger in seeing the Church as a sort of laager formed against the outside world. Much better the vision of the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who said Jesus came, not to found an institution, but to change the world. I am pretty sure Steve is trying to do this right where it is really needed.
Edward Fido | 06 May 2019


I hope your very apposite Chaucerian reference with its important distinction won't be lost in current reformist discussion by those who eschew anything medieval, Edward. There's much, too, in your observation about wagon-circling in the Church and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's insight; though some sense of beleaguerment is, I think, inevitable when Catholic teaching and practice are so often caricatured or directly attacked in media coverage. With you and Susan Connelly, I believe the ministry of priests like Frs Steve Sinn and Tony Herbert SJ in India is a statement in itself about the ordained priesthood and spiritual poverty - expressed as availability and trust in God - in their primal form: the imitation of Christ's selfless service (although, even as I write this, I can hear the embarrassed, laughing-off disclaimers of both men).
John RD | 07 May 2019


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