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by Edmund Campion

Abbott the seminarian - The wisdom of 'confession'

I am reading Michael Duffy's joint biography, Latham and Abbott (Random House Australia; $32.95), the two finest politicians of their generation, as he calls them. They stand with their feet in the mud, he says, and their heads in the clouds: most politicians are a lot shorter. Then Duffy adds that each of them has an extra dimension: each understands that Politics is not just about power but about words and stories. "They tell stories about Australia and also stories about their parties, stories that inspire them and others to act." These sentences went into my commonplace book because I want to think about them and probably to quote them again.

But why am I mentioning this book here, in a column normally devoted to religious books? Surely Latham and Abbott deserves mention in the new e-mag New Matilda; but why here? The answer centres on a short period in Tony Abbott's early life, when he was a seminarian for three years at St Patrick's College, Manly (NSW). A decade after Abbott left, a commissioned history of the seminary was published. Written over five years, it is dense with archival material about the founding and running of the institution but it stops, alas at the time of the Second Vatican Council. The Manly seminary had another thirty years to run - it was transferred to Strathfield in 1995 - so a person wanting to explore the in-depth impact of Vatican II had to look elsewhere than the official history.

This is why Duffy's pages on Abbott the seminarian may catch the attention of future church historians wanting to chart Vatican II in Australia. Briefly, Tony Abbott according to Duffy was unhappy in the seminary. He thought the teaching was vacuous and overly hospitable to modern thought, producing intellectual weaklings who would be pushovers for the enemies of the Church. As for spiritual formation, he found it flabby, unmanly, toxic with psychobabble and manipulative techniques. Duffy alleges that homosexual behaviour was marked and refers to instances of homosexual behaviour that he has heard about (not, apparently, from Abbott). There is some loose talk of heresy.

Church historians cannot ignore such evidence, even if they suspect there may be more to say. We await other memoirs, autobiographies and biographies of the men who wore a cassock in the Vatican II decades. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott's biographer has the floor.

In the quest for self-transcendence, or spirituality as it is commonly called, one high achiever has failed to attract much bookshop attention. This is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a movement that has not only enabled millions of alcoholics to master their addiction but also has lit the way for many cognate movements such as Narcotics Anonymous for druggies and GROW for mental illness recoverers. At the heart of AA's appeal has been its non-sectarian, undogmatic reliance on a power greater than oneself, whom most people call God.

Joanna Thyer's Steps to Life (ABC Books; $24.95) connects the 'twelve steps' of AA to acknowledged masters of the spiritual life: the Desert Fathers, St Benedict, Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, St Ignatius... Take chapter four as an example. It's about AA's fourth step, when you make "a searching and fearless moral inventory" of yourself. The chapter opens with the story of Brian - first names only here, as in AA - who reports that after making a list of his resentments, he saw that he was burdened by secret shames (and so was enabled to dispel the shame). From here Thyer moves to a swift but profound inspection of what a thorough moral inventory might involve. She tells you to look at "things like fears, resentments and misdirected instincts, which include those drives within you, like the drive for personal recognition or power, that 'causes you to fluctuate between a constant desire to satiate your ego and a state of low self-esteem'. Once you deal with what separates you from God, she says, you get closer to your more authentic self. Next, she links this inventory-taking to the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius and goes on to give a sketch of Ignatian spirituality. A quotation from Deuteronomy and a paragraph on John Cassian, the fifth century monastic sage, rounds off the chapter.

Only ten short pages. Yet when you read those pages slowly - ABC books have so designed the book to encourage slow reading - you become aware that they are learned without being pedantic or academic, and experienced and reflective without drawing attention to their author. It's a magisterial achievement by Joanna Thyer, a workplace counsellor whose first book this is, so far as I know. More, please.

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