Every morning, from around 6am, you’ll find Father Andrew Hamilton SJ (known as ‘Andy’) walking among the trees and paths in Royal Park, Parkville, in Melbourne’s north. As he makes his way through the pre-dawn mist, he inhales the crisp morning air and notices how the moonlight shines through the towering gums and how the trees cast an array of shadows across the fields. As the sun slowly creeps above the horizon, its golden light hitting the tops of the trees, “bringing them to life,” Andy continues to walk and pray.
Andy Hamilton is a Jesuit priest who, at 83, has seen and experienced a lot. However, it is the time spent in nature that most grounds him and provides “the baseline” for all other events that take place in his life, including his relationship with God. He can trace his deep love of nature and God back to his childhood.
Born in Gardenvale, an inner-city suburb south of Melbourne, he was the third of five children born to Jim and Marjorie Hamilton. His father was the “Catholic doctor south of the river”; her mother was a nurse in her early years, and half of their large family home was used for surgery.
Andy’s fondest childhood memories are his visits to the family cottage in Emerald, in the countryside east of Melbourne. “Our family had a small house in the bush in the hills, with Emerald Lake nearby. There was no electricity or gas, and Puffing Billy was the standard mode of transportation up there at the time. It was a paradise,” he says. “When we first went there, towards the end of the war, there was still petrol rationing, so I often came home from mass in someone’s horse and cart.”
Andy says his calling was “rooted” during this time at Emerald as a child. “It was idyllic in the bush, walking bush roads and things like that. There was a sense of God in that, and finding God in nature. God in nature has always been very central to me. The importance of God, nature and walking stayed with him during his novice years with the Jesuits.
“Some of the key things I remember about that time are not specifically religious, but more related to walking. Very simply, we were walking around the novitiate on a Thursday and it continued. You could go up to about 50 kilometers on foot. We were young men walking through Plenty country, down to Yan Yean and back by Arthurs Creek.
It was this recurring experience of nature walking – and later cycling, which Andy still enjoys today – that founded his faith and outlook on life. “Any of the key events has always been associated with the rediscovery of God in nature, you might say. It’s kind of like a harmony, it’s the baseline that other events were tied to.
Andy was inspired to join the Jesuits during his high school years at Xavier College, Kew. Two teachers were particularly influential. One was Father Bill (Jerry) Owens, who was “highly intellectual and had broad cultural interests” and who taught Andy Latin and Greek. The other was Father Paul Keenan, “a country boy from Yarrawonga who was very much a companion to the boys, and Xavier’s sporting master.”
“When I was thinking about my calling, one of the things that reassured me, or made me think, ‘This crowd might be worth joining,’ was one day when we [the students] were outside rolling the pitch and the Master of Sports, who at the time was still wearing his Jesuit coat and robe, had taken them off, and underneath he had a sweater with holes in the sleeve. I thought, ‘This is my mafia. It’s simple. Like Emerald. From there I joined the Jesuits and became a novice.
Joining the Jesuits was not (and is not) becoming a priest, Andy says. Rather, it is about joining a “brotherhood”. “Being a priest is important, but for me it’s a stage. Rather, it is about being in relationship with others, in community and brotherhood.
Andy studied theology in Sydney and Melbourne. He taught at Xavier College for two years, then taught theology for 30 years at the United Faculty of Theology in Parkville. He has been involved in training and retreats over the years and served as spiritual director for several years. However, “the most life-changing experience” in ministry was his time spent in a Cambodian refugee camp on the Thai border with Jesuit refugee services.
“I decided I really needed experience to take me beyond where I was at,” he says. “My time in the Khmer camps put bones and faces to the following of Jesus in the poverty and humiliation that were at the heart of Saint Ignatius. The refugee thing was practical, and that’s what I was looking for and that’s why it was so difficult. For me it had always been intellectual – I was very attached to a Catholicism that concerned the poor or worked for the poor – but after Vatican II it was go out to the poor. And I was terribly aware that I was terrified of meeting a poor person.
“It was a bit like a retreat in some ways, to rediscover myself as a sinner, but also to be very blessed by the enterprise – by the refugees themselves, the Cambodians I was working with, by the people extraordinary people who were brought together, often young volunteers from all over the world, and also by the extraordinary older Jesuit characters.
Although difficult, this “very rich experience” allowed Andy to stay in contact with the refugees who came to Australia, first visiting them in immigration centers and then providing them with support and friendship when they lived in the community. He was chaplain to the Lao community for 37 years and chaplain to the Cambodian community for many years.
The Life of a Writer and a Poet
It is these rich, practical life experiences that form the basis of Andy’s writing and poetry, which often covers topics related to social justice, politics, life, faith, nature and people, both social and personal. “I can write about anything, but it has to make sense of people’s experience on the edge,” he says.
Reflecting on his teaching days, and now on his writings, he says, “I wasn’t into purely theoretical discussions or liturgical questions about what you should wear on the altar, etc. I wasn’t claiming they weren’t true or that they weren’t appropriate, but I wasn’t interested.
“So the test I found myself applying to my writing was a negative test. I wasn’t going to say anything that didn’t make sense based on my experience with refugees. It was the experience of the refugees and the lives of the people that mattered. If faith didn’t make sense, it didn’t make sense. This has also been a criterion for my writing.
Andy doesn’t shy away from delving into relationships in his writing, which he says is “the key to everything”, certainly in his writing about Australian politics or society. “To be human is to be shaped by relationship.”
Having started writing articles in 1967 for Annalstoday you can regularly read Andy’s work in Eureka Street, Australian Catholics and Madonna. Each month, Andy also freely shares 6-8 topical articles he has written from Jesuit social services and Jesuit communications for schools and parishes across Australia.
The heart of Andy’s writing is found in his poetry. “Poetry is the most important form of writing I do for myself. It’s the one I take most seriously,” he says. “It’s part of me now.” He was inspired by another contemporary Jesuit, Father Peter Steele, who was “an extraordinarily good poet,” according to Andy. “But I think a lot of the energy came from contact with refugees and particularly with refugees in Australia. “
When it comes to poetry, Andy says, “I think a lot of it is about unraveling a deep, elusive feeling. It is a feeling and an observation of the world and where they come together. I guess they’re always about your relationship with people or with incidents or things like that, but they’re normally little stories turned into poems. Andy also enjoys weaving images into his poetry, often drawing inspiration from his observations and experiences in nature. “I think the gift I have in writing is through imagery, at least if I’m in song. If you can find an image that runs through the poem, that’s fine.
Andy says he hasn’t written as many poems as he would like, but finds continued inspiration in the writing and poetry gatherings he is a part of. He also finds continuous nourishment in prayer, silence and solitude, especially during his daily walks in the park.
“I think it’s that kind of loneliness where you go out in the park in the morning and you know, at this point, you have thoughts like ‘What am I going to do today? or “What are the pressures?” And those things can graze you or possess you, but then you look at the trees and look at the sky and think, how insignificant they are compared to the gift of being invited into this world and the gift of being alive in the world. and to be called and loved by God in the world. This is where I come back. And it usually lasts a good two minutes.
“Humility” by Andrew Hamilton SJ
it’s walking in the cool of the early morning
the tree trunks turn red,
the shrubs sport twenty shades of green,
bubbling grass touched by dew.
Every blade reaching the sun,
showing their teeth to bees and butterflies,
mynas and magpies calling,
jostle to delimit their territories,
sunlight catching a white dog rolling in the grass,
and above the rise the towers of the city
made beautiful, almost human, because they reflect the light –
and in all of this
so many things growing, chasing, dying, changing, reaching, falling.
Humility is marvelous,
riding gratitude like a wave
that, briefly in this small space,
They give me a small part,
and words with which to bless.
Fiona Basile is a freelance writer and photographer. She regularly contributes to Melbourne Catholic.
Reproduced with permission from Melbourne Catholicthe information publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.