An affectionate tribute and post-Easter reflection from Fr Demetri Roh of ther recently-departed Fr John Lisle.
SIXTEEN years ago I came to Australia from Korea to learn English and some business skills. I was living in Mosman Park with four other Korean boys when Fr John picked me out as having some kind of promise and drew me into his parish in Mosman Park. My English was not good but my Korean manners were excellent.
I loved the spirituality and atmosphere he created at Mosman Park where prayer was the order of the day. Indeed, Fr John lived in a world of prayer that started each day with Holy Mass and the Rosary.
Then at 10 o’clock each evening there was another hour of prayer with the Rosary, Evening Prayer and the Adoration. I will never forget the blessings, with the laying on of hands on my head after prayer.
One evening when we were walking together along Cottesloe Beach in a kind of meditation and dialogue he suddenly stopped and told me that he was sure I had a vocation to the priesthood. Since my conversion and baptism in Korea this had been a dream – but to hear it from him was like being hit by a bolt of lightning from the sky.
To discern this further one of his parishioners, Betty, gave me St Brigid’s 15 prayers and I started saying them each day for the next year as part of my search for my future continued. From that secure spiritual home God touched my life in a number of ways. I came to know his good friend Fr Gordon Bennett and the two of them shared responsibility for constantly bringing me to new insights and knowledge of the glory of God’s Catholic Church and the joys of following Jesus Christ as well as the hope to be found in the devotions of Marian Prayer.
It is the nature of Christian discipleship that there are networks of support and encouragement that connect lives across both generations and nations. However, John Lisle was such an extraordinary person his life touched and moved many people in the UK, the Bahamas, the West Indies, South Africa as well as Australia during his long life as both missionary and pastoral priest. Thus, he will be remembered in many different ways. Certainly for me, John Lisle was an ever burning presence of prayer and devotion.
TS Eliot in his poem “East Coker” once described such a person with a great heart as “one impelled to live a lifetime burning in every moment”. Ann Ulanov wrote that this “image of the person of God burning with life, lies at the heart of God’s self-revelation and our experiences of it. In Exodus 2:3b, God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, which is not consumed; it just goes on and on, the fire never goes out”. Certainly Fr John was a most significant spiritual guide during a critical period of my life and whose influence will continue to burn in my life and ministry.
It was Fr John’s dependence on praying the Divine Office daily and the Rosary that established these spiritual disciplines in my own life. Being part of the vital parish life of Mosman Park under Fr John’s leadership at that time gave me a real experience of what a Christian Community could be. It was there that Fr John encouraged my own vocational yearnings for the priesthood and for that I would be eternally grateful. I, in turn, was able to call two other Korean seminarians to Perth, both of whom are now priests of the Archdiocese.
When the Archbishop Hickey ordained me as a deacon Fr John watched the whole ordination ceremony like an eagle watches her young perched precariously in the nest high on the cliff. Then, when I was finally ordained to the priesthood in Korea but incardinated in Perth, one of my greatest joys was that in addition to Archbishop Barry Hickey, Fathers Gordon Bennett and John Lisle were there as participants in the Sacrament of Holy Orders on that day. I was truly blessed by their presence. Like so many others, there is no way I could ever detail the many ways in which John Lisle guided and supported me on my spiritual journey. I only know that I am part of a great company of persons who Father John, as Confessor, Spiritual Director or friend helped give our lives in Christ meaning and purpose. His ability to discern the critical issues in spiritual life was, I think, as well his unique spirituality a result of his own unique priestly journey. It was one that began in the Anglican priesthood and married life, to his ultimate home in what Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP the former Master of the Dominicans has called “Communion Catholicism”. This secure base in the Catholic Church gave him a spiritual wisdom that allowed him to find space for all those who went to him as confessor or spiritual guidance.
At the centre of his spiritual life was prayer. His prayer life was the practical embodiment of what the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has described as the “indwelling of the Spirit of God in the soul”. Similarly his practical approach to prayer and confession could be summed up in the same theologian’s words, “So it is that tears and feelings of sorrow for sin are both bitter and sweet, that their bitterness once affirmed has a liberating and purifying effect, making room for faith and love”.
After his funeral I stayed behind for a long time by his graveside. Eventually Father Armando Carandang came up to me and invited me to his home to “to have a cup of tea as Fr John would have done for anyone who had come from such a long distance”. It was like the men in Luke’s account of the resurrection when they said, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead”? As Fr Armando and I talked and meditated together my feeling was Fr John was already there among us.
It is in this light of our experience of the resurrection that I give thanks to God that all those years ago he took this shy Korean into the Mosman Park presbytery and said, “Let us pray together.” May Mary our Eternal Mother ensure that his soul rests in peace.