Stephen Noon SJ
Writing my profile for the Jesuit website is a bit like writing a Facebook post or a CV. There is a powerful temptation to just give the glossy and good bits, but that would only tell part of the story of why I am here.
I first met the Jesuits back in the 1980s in Glasgow. However, despite their best efforts, I didn’t quite manage to develop the sort of mature relationship with God that was necessary to have a meaningful and living faith in my early adult life. I continued to view God with the eyes of a child, seeing him as a sometimes angry, judgmental, distant old man. And that meant that I was one of those Catholics who was never quite in and never quite out of the church. God was there, but definitely not as a central part of my life.
I worked for 20 years for the Scottish National Party and was very fortunate to be able to work for the leader of the party as we grew from being on the political fringes to being a majority Scottish government. I was involved in policy development and strategic communications, working for the party at Westminster, Holyrood and in the Scottish Government. It was in so many ways a dream job and I loved the sense of hope and optimism that had become central to the way we tried, as a party, to engage with people and with the world.
But, despite all this, there was still something missing.
In 2013, one of the Jesuits who had taught me at school suggested that I go for a week of silent prayer and reflection in Oxford, where he lived: a ‘time out', of sorts. It was a life-changing experience and one that enabled me to encounter God as God really is. For the first time, I could understand what Jesus meant when he talked about never being hungry or thirsty again. I knew then that I wanted to help others to the same sort of experience – to an encounter with the overwhelming, all embracing love that is God.
One of the challenges of talking about encountering God in a new way is that it can sound like suddenly, after the flash of light, everything is perfect. But of course, that is not the case. At the start, especially, there was a lot of crunching of gears as I tried to change course and, more consciously, direct my life according to God’s gentle invitation each day.
I entered the Jesuit noviciate in 2015, after the amazing experience of working for the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum. It was a campaign built on a passionate and energetic grassroots movement and it was a real privilege to be part of it. At the heart of the campaign was the idea that people would talk about their own personal reasons for voting Yes and this was how they would persuade their friends and family to vote Yes too – a sort of conversion through conversation. It is an approach that we, people of faith, could also learn from – by sharing our own life-giving encounters with God perhaps we can help others to the same sort of experience.
The Jesuit noviciate was a period of slowing down and facing up to some big personal challenges – there were a lot of rough edges to be smoothed away, including an unhealthy dose of pride and self-reliance. But, time after time, I had no choice but to let go and rely solely on providence and God working through the generosity and kindness of others.
I am now studying in Toronto – a mix of philosophy and theology. But life as a Jesuit, even at this stage, is not all about studies. I am able to work in the local Jesuit parish with LGBT Catholics and have also spent some time developing, and undertaking, ‘retreats on the streets’ – a sort of urban pilgrimage and a way of helping people find God in the streets of their city.
If you had told me 10 years ago that this would be my life, I’d have said no way. But now, I couldn’t imagine anything better. There is a special joy and contentment that comes from being able to work for God, and the people of God, in such a life-giving way.