Finding God happens for people in so many different ways. For Fr Tom Gleeson his moment of spiritual awakening came in the middle of the night in the desert of far north South Australia.
As he danced under the starry sky, the 24 year old felt an amazing energy and yelled out into the stillness of the cold, clear night, ‘I believe in God’!
It’s been more than five decades since the epiphany and now 81 he still remembers the experience as if it was yesterday. He says the revelation that the divine spirit and nature are connected has been a guiding light throughout his life and ministry as a priest.
“That night changed my life completely,” he said during a relaxed interview with The Southern Cross in his residence adjacent the historic St Joseph’s Church at Willunga.
“I said ‘I want to get to know you God’. After that I would go to Mass not because I had to, but because I was hungry for this relationship with God.”
His desert dance followed a tragic event that occurred when he was in Woomera working for the Weapons Research Establishment. The young sheet metal worker was rocked to the core when he discovered a fellow employee at the camp had committed suicide.
“It just hit me like a rock,” he recalled.
“I went and had a couple of beers with the blokes after work and then thought, I can’t stay here.
“So I walked out in the desert that night…I walked and had no idea where I was and where I was going, but it didn’t matter. My first thought was this guy, the impact of that hit me.
“I thought for him now it’s all over, he doesn’t have any worries about debt or relationships or anything else and I thought, why can’t I do that?”
Admitting he was a “wild young man” at the time, Fr Tom said he was used to being asked where he was heading in life.
“Then a question came out of the desert, out of that red earth – what’s life about?
“I thought straight away of my mum and dad. Even though I was a pain in the arse to them and doing all these things, they would never lock the door on me, I would always have a place to live. And so I am wondering why do they persevere with me? I thought it’s because they believe there is something more to life – it’s faith.
“And I thought, what do I believe?
“Out there that night suddenly the earth, stars and myself were one and there was this amazing energy. I started dancing out there, I was ecstatic and I said, ‘I believe in God!’”
Brought up in a staunch Catholic family, Fr Tom served as an altar boy and dutifully attended church services but said the desert experience changed his mindset. When he returned to Gawler he began attending Mass because he wanted to. He volunteered at a shelter run by Vinnies and supported the homeless where he could. He even took over as president of the local branch of the Knights of the Southern Cross.
However, it wasn’t until a Good Samaritan Sister broached the subject of what he was doing with his life that he finally announced he wanted to be a priest.
Joining St Paul’s Seminary in Sydney at the age of 30, Fr Tom admitted he wasn’t completely sure this was his calling.
In his final year he wrote to his cousin, Archbishop James Gleeson, seeking permission to join a 30 day retreat with the Jesuits as he was disillusioned and thought this might help him rekindle “what I met in the desert”.
For a number of reasons he didn’t make the retreat and continued at the seminary, going on to be ordained in 1973. During his first posting at Mount Gambier he continued to have doubts and put his hand up for a retreat with Jesuit novices in Pymble, NSW.
“I thought if this doesn’t work, I am out of this (priesthood),” he said.
Armed with a book on the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius, Fr Tom was asked to reflect on Isaiah 43: 1-7, by inserting his name into the text.
‘Thus says our God who created you Tom, who formed you, do not be afraid for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name, you are mine… for you are precious in my eyes, you are honoured and I love you. Do not be afraid I am with you.’
“At that moment it was what I had met in the desert, I was dancing again! I was alive with that same energy that is with Earth and the stars. It’s still the same with me today.”
In the years since he has been involved in establishing Contemplative Prayer groups, training people of all faiths in the practice using initially the Ignatian method of discursive meditation, finally Centering prayer.
He preaches barefoot so he can connect with Earth and whenever possible he goes out in the bush to “be with nature, creation, and the Creator”.
During his two years as parish priest on Kangaroo Island he would often “sleep under the stars and have a swim in the ocean in the morning”.
While ministering with Indigenous communities in the Kimberley region he was privileged to learn more about Aboriginal culture and their dreaming and beliefs.
“The Holy Trinity for the Aborigines is in the oneness of nature or creation, humans and the Spirit. When you get that you’ve got everything and that’s how it is for me – inside I am dancing again.”
In 2002, when he was serving as the national chaplain for the YCW movement, Fr Tom moved to Willunga as he felt a deep spiritual connection to the Fleurieu Peninsula.
This followed a journey in 1993 when he walked the 400km Tjilbruke Dreaming trail on the peninsula, absorbing the sacred energy of the area and relishing the opportunity to be at one with nature – including a pod of dolphins which kept him safe along the way.
On one occasion he was climbing a cliff at Sellicks Beach and as he neared the top he realised he was encountering shale. It was getting dark, there was a 50 metre drop to solid ground and the spritely priest was starting to panic as he couldn’t maintain his grip on the rock.
“I’m sweating it and clinging on and the dolphins came right in as far as they could to the shore and they are calling out to me, making a hell of a noise.
“I look at them and as I do I soften into the cliff face and I start looking around. I can go sideways and I start climbing to the top. It was like they came in and said ‘take it easy, take it easy, have a look around’.
“Three times they helped me. When I got to Cape Jervis they came into the boat ramp and I said goodbye and thanks and they went on their way.
“It was an amazing experience.”Jump to next article