Circling and Spiralling into Meaning

Author: Judith Scully

This original article was written by Moira Byrne.

A Gentle Unfolding: Circling and Spiralling into Meaning by Judith Scully (David Lovell Publishing, 2018) is aptly titled. This is a gently and beautifully written memoir by a person of faith, reflecting on her life and the movement of God in it. I’ve read a few wonderful memoirs recently, and this is all I enjoy in the genre. It has the arc of a story, with smaller tales and honest self-reflection adding insight, emotion and depth to the narrative of a life. The chronicle of Judith’s life is a framework for sharing her experience in, observations of and suggestions for the Catholic Church, and this makes it a particularly timely book for the Australian Church in our current moment of crisis and perhaps renewal.

Judith entered the sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) at a young age, and spent her formative years in the order - most of which were spent in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. After 12 years, Judith left the OLSH sisters. She married an old school friend, and when the pregnancies she’d hoped for didn’t happen, she fostered three siblings and adopted a fourth child as a baby. Her husband, Terry, was later diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and she became his carer until he died well before his time.

I enjoyed metaphors and descriptions that somehow conveyed the beauty and wonder of the Church, including as a ‘giant circle’ (page 70) or as a ‘microcosm of the Church that Vatican II had envisaged - women and men gathered around the Gospel, our adult faith integrated into different lifestyles, flowing out into ministry and back into everyday life’ (page 80). Yet Judith did not gloss over difficult problems such as clerical sexual abuse; she noted her deep betrayal at seminary training that taught priests to support each other rather than prioritising child safety (page 78). She also noted her personal regret in not following ‘the whispering voice of the Spirit’ to create opportunities and possibilities to support Catholics in faith formation, and observes sadly that ‘we Catholics talk fluently about community but we don’t do it very well’ (page 84), and that ‘our church is not family friendly’ (page 89). 

Judith wrote particularly insightfully, and poignantly, about her years in pastoral ministry, culminating in her time as pastoral lay leader and what such an experience ‘could mean for the future of the Church in Australia’ (page 114-115). I had read enviously of Judith’s ministry of ‘ripple days ... because the waters of baptism ripple through our lives’ (page 86). For both parents and children being prepared for baptism, the ripples program used the language of the everyday and imbued it with sacramental symbolism. ‘It’s a shame that so much of our feel for God, our touching into God, has disappeared into intellectual church-speak’ (page 88). Again, Judith has her own regret, too, wishing she had nurtured more the seeds of faith in the parents as well as the children (page 89). 

Similarly, Judith did not resile from candid analysis of her marriage, and what she may have done differently (pages 109-110), having realised over time that ‘vulnerable intimacy is the swinging gate between human and divine love’ (page 110). She wrote of moving from ‘fitting’ prayer into her day, toward the notion that ‘life itself [is] the prayer, the tensions and joys, disappointments and timelines, struggles and breakthroughs that I experienced and the way they swirled around inside me. God and I experienced them together’ (page 139). She writes of the heavenly wisdom and mystery of God and faith, yet it is imbued with a down-to-earth sensibility wrought by life experience. I appreciated her references to some of the Church writings and traditions I love most, noting that some of her reading was to ‘dip delightedly into journals that surprise me with our shared uniqueness’ (page 133). I am delighted that Judith’s story did that for me.