Homily for the funeral of Billy Hewett SJ – 7 March 2019 -- Corpus Christi Church, Boscombe, Bournemouth.

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; John 15: 9-17

‘If you keep his commandments, his laws, his customs, you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you … ‘ The Church’s first reading from the book of Deuteronomy for this second day of Lent. Not very characteristic of Billy, although it does take up a theme of right choices central to St Ignatius. But if you were 15 years old at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s at Stonyhurst College, and had Billy Hewett as the main authority in your life for two thirds of the year, then in a bizarre sense this reading is only too appropriate. Keep the rules; know where you have to be and what you have to do; then you will do well. Organization, gentlemen. 

In his second year in post, Billy had the idea of regulating our lives by having us carry round duplicated sheets of A4 paper – successively yellow and pink, I think later blue and green. The sheet told you where you were meant to be and what you were meant to be doing at any point in the week – all in Billy’s chaotic typing. Organization, gentlemen. It was an act, of course. An act that Billy – at least some of the time – enjoyed. And an act quite plausibly executed. Tales of the real Billy and all his eccentricities in adult company would occasionally filter down to us – but we didn’t really believe that they could be true. 

Billy’s career as a disciplinarian of adolescents was cut short by a sudden death in the community, and after three years he was made ‘spiritual father’ – both chaplain and head of religion teaching. In an article he later wrote he spoke of ‘a lethargic and seemingly irreligious group of well-heeled senior schoolboys’ impervious to his attempts to come to terms with what Vatican II meant in a traditional Catholic place like Stonyhurst. These attempts had included not only what became his first audio-visual production, but also ‘lotus postures, headstands, and the theology of the Beatles’. But Billy was being a bit unfair to himself in that passage. Unconventional, flamboyant, probably exasperating to higher authority, no doubt -- but he brought flair, panache, and genuine goodness to a role that was by no means easy. And many of us owe him a lot.

A rather opinionated student in the year behind me wrote in the pupils’ magazine in criticism of the religious regime, complaining among other things that we had at best only something vaguely suggestive of a syllabus for religion teaching. Billy took up the challenge in a reply, for some reason under the pseudonym, ‘Peregrinator’:
“vaguely suggestive”—that is superb. St Ignatius would have been proud of me … not the turgid, hidebound, everything answered and cut and dried fortress apologetics that my generation were fed on, but “suggestive” – that is good: it means you can question further, discover for yourself, seek and find the riches of Christ that should never have been locked … into dead textbooks.
It was at this period too, with the help of Wilfrid Usher, that Billy began to explore creative ways of sharing the Ignatian heritage, and in 1975 he moved to London and this became his main activity. Now he centred his work on Inigo – not St Ignatius ‘the author of what became the handbook on counter-reformation Spiritual Exercises’, but the earlier pilgrim with a native Basque name: the quixotic teller of his own life story. 

Billy had moved beyond the schoolmaster act. His Inigo was concerned to tell us ‘how he reached beneath the masks’ to find God’s image in new and deeper ways. In an article of the period, Billy coined a word and spoke of ‘the process of “exercization”’. Deeper than Ignatius’s Exercises was Inigo’s ‘readings of saints’ lives that insinuated their fertile way into his consciousness, raised his awareness, engaged his imagination, and gave him the very stuff of his first discernments’. For Billy, were Ignatius alive today, he would give his Exercises ‘by telling his story rather than by taking his exercitants through the elaborate set pieces of his own later ritualizations’. And he would be using artistic and technical media of all kinds: folksongs Basque, English and Hebrew; radio, cassettes, recordings. He would also be drawing on psychologists such as Carl Jung and Ira Progoff. 

Billy’s work was creative and successful. One lady on hearing of his death, wrote simply ‘Oh I’m SO sad’. She had clearly been greatly helped by this figure sitting cross-legged on chairs, and having her fill up a journaling questionnaire. But, interestingly, her language rather broke down as she went on: ‘Trouble is, mine is so peculiar everyone thinks I’ve made it up’. When Billy’s ministry worked well, it touched people at a very personal level, where they were not easily articulate. But it was real – something you sensed beneath the words. And it liberated others to be themselves. ‘So peculiar they think I’ve made it up’. And Billy’s work in this period of his life had considerable international success. ‘I have commissioned you to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last’. 

At the same time, Inigo Enterprises was more than Billy’s creative work. He was a publishing entrepreneur, working with Tom Longford at the Gracewing publishing house, and it is partly thanks to him that Michael Ivens’s magisterial commentary, Understanding the Spiritual Exercises, was finally published despite Michael’s unease with any sort of closure. It is thanks to Billy, too, that Joe Munitiz’s important translation of Ignatius’ Spiritual Diary or Discernment Log-Book became widely available.

‘I call you friends’, says Jesus in our Gospel today. ‘To walk alone to find yourself is an important way’, Billy’s Inigo tells us, ‘but people also need to share life with friends’. Joe and Michael, his brother Mick, many other Jesuits were important to him personally. And what Billy’s Inigo says about Isabel Roser surely foreshadows how he was helped by Cristina Connolly, otherwise known as Potty -- his close associate from the late 1990s onwards, who supported his work in her beautiful home, and cared for him as he got older in a way that a Jesuit community on its own could not:
He led to a lady who loved me with a generous love;
Gave her attention to my schemes linked to dreams from above;
Gave her support, listened with love, when all others mocked loud,
Risked reputation, all reservation, let love grow through me.
But paradoxically Billy’s work was too idiosyncratic for any Jesuit really to share it. He liked being distinctive; but he also found it painful that others often couldn’t follow him. 

In the early 1990s, another group of friends became important. Billy made contact with a group of theologians and social scientists centred round the figures of Raymund Schwager, a Swiss Jesuit theologian, and René Girard, a French literary and cultural critic. The central intuition holding this group together was twofold: firstly a sense that human societies are constructed round the regulation of violence and rivalry through scapegoat figures; and a sense that Jesus’s resurrection opens up something utterly different, showing us that the true God transcends all our petty rivalries.

The Girardian approach certainly has its critics, including some of Billy’s closest friends; conversely the Girardian great and good did not really know what to make of Billy’s enthusiastic presence among them. I recall about twenty years ago meeting some French people who had encountered him in this context, utterly nonplussed by a figure who had presented himself to them as petit Guillaume, singing them songs when they were waiting for a learned philosophical lecture. But the groupt accepted him warmly, and perhaps gave Billy a sense of academic company and affirmation that he had always longed for and never really received. 

The Girardian vision involves dramatic contrasts. Over against a destructive social order, Jesus opens up something different. And there is something Girardian about our gospel today. Yes, John’s Jesus calls his disciples friends, and shares with them everything he has received. But even he contrasts this new relationship with another sort of religion, a religion of subservience – I am not calling you servants. And a few verses later, we have talk of the world persecuting Jesus’s disciples, and hating them. Whereas Billy’s work in the 1970s owes something to Teilhard de Chardin, and a vision of all things being reconciled in Christ, his contact with Girard led him to think and act more conflictively. Yes, the faith was there – but there was a much keener sense of the forces militating against it, and of how we find gospel hope only through dramatic conflict. 

Though Billy maintained a resurrection hope of a new world where no-one was excluded, he also identified with the scapegoat figure. He had always had a tendency to depression – now deafness, dementia and arthritis set in as well; he could no longer work; he was sometimes difficult to live with. Only his beautiful speaking voice remained. In this time he was wonderfully supported by the staff here at the Corpus Christi community, and perhaps especially by the Activities Co-ordinator, Louise Ollerenshaw, who ensured that he still got to concerts and the theatre, while serenely negotiating all the occupational hazards of expeditions with Billy. But life was not easy. In his heyday, Billy had been able to imagine the whole of human life as irrigated by a living stream of grace. In his old age, like his beloved Hopkins in his last years, he could still evoke gospel hope. But he was also keenly aware of ‘the blight man was born for’. He lived them both. He identified both with the excluded scapegoat and with the restored, forgiven disciple.

Shortly after I was asked to speak today, a memory of Billy came back. A wet Thursday at Stonyhurst. Thanks to a decision taken by Billy – one in which he took an evil delight -- I was in the cadet force, in a platoon that was notionally working on constructing an assault course in the woods --  though I and many others in the group had every interest in making sure that such an instrument of torture would never be completed. When we finished, Billy turned up – it had been arranged that he would drive me into Burnley to join others at a concert. I was still dirty and sweaty; Billy’s driving was not great --- at one point he was asking me what he needed to do to realise a manœuvre; by the standards of the risk assessments schools have to undertake today, the situation was far from ideal. But then there was the concert – the Amadeus String Quartet. I found myself captivated by my first exposure to a long, passionate piece by Schubert, one that I have loved ever since. My embarrassment at being so dirty, the adolescent misery of assault courses and cadet forces – all this was swept away by a discovery of transfiguring beauty. And Billy was behind all of it. 

Billy was, I think, scarred all his life by a repressive, disciplinary culture, and by its religious expressions: anxiety about mortal sin; the wrong sort of sacrifice; an abstract theology that enslaved. But Billy was also a prophet of transformation. He knew how to open up something different, both for himself and others. As a religion teacher, he taught us that our love for an institution should be in proportion to our desire to reform it. 

Living with that interplay was a struggle, and Billy’s take on Girardian theory expressed that struggle—a struggle that marked Billy’s whole life, and was never fully resolved. We are learning, all too painfully, how widespread that sort of struggle has been in Catholic life – how the wrong sort of religion has had deadly effects throughout the Church, all the more insidious because they have not been acknowledged. We can pray that he may now be finally at peace, finding with his family and friends who have gone before him a reconciliation he never completely had in this life. We can give thanks for Billy’s witness. And we can still open ourselves to the essentials of Billy’s teaching – which was ultimately not about Billy, nor even about Ignatius, but about how each one of us, in our all quirky differences, can find God at work behind the masks, beyond the destructive, competitive patterns of relationship that blight us. All in the context of faith and hope in the truth of Christ’s kingdom, where all things are made new, where rivalry is no more, and where no-one is excluded. In Billy’s own words: 
Sense him saying, hear him singing:
'Break new ground, seek further ways!'
Jesus grows where you respond, he spreads where justice calls.
Sense his presence, deep now within you;
Hear his call to seek new ways.