A new book on meditating on Jesus’ love comes from hard-won experience, writes Martin O’Brien
You come from a conversation with Jim Deeds uplifted and refreshed. Those who have attended the retreats he has recently conducted at Lough Derg (with his friend and fellow author Fr Brendan McManus SJ) or listened to his talks to various faith groups say the same.
Mr Deeds (47), writer, pastoral worker and former university drop-out, born and brought up in Belfast where he has lived all his life, is a multi-dimensional person with many talents.
First and foremost, Jim is husband of Nuala and father of their three children, Brendan, Joe and Eimear. They live in the Catholic Glen Road area in west Belfast not far from Jim’s parents Brendan and Ann.
He recalls being an altar boy “until I grew a beard and became taller than the priest”.
“I learned two different spiritualities from my parents. From my mum, a very devotional liturgical spiritualty. She taught me to pray and introduced me to the Bible and to a God who loved me.
“And from my Dad I learned an everyday solid practical Catholic spiritualty summed up in two phrases: ‘If you live right it will all come right in the end’ and ‘your family comes first.’”
He also recalls the influence of a succession of priests singling out “my mentor” the late Msgr Tom Toner, one-time local parish priest whose picture rests in “a sacred space” along with a rosary and other religious objects in his office.
A former social worker, Jim is parish development co-ordinator and training and facilitation officer in the Living Church Office of the diocese of Down and Connor on north Belfast’s Cliftonville Road.
When the opportunity came up to apply for the post, “I recognised it as a calling…otherwise I would still be a social worker.”
A writer of spiritual books and a broadcaster – a regular on BBC Radio Ulster’s Thought for the Day – as well as being a poet, musician and woodturner in his spare time, Mr Deeds’s latest book, Deeper into the Mess – Praying Through Tough Times has just been published. Co-written with Fr McManus, it’s a sequel to their well-received Finding God in the Mess – Meditations for Mindful Living which is to be re-published by Loyola Press in the US next year.
The new book, modelled somewhat on St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, is striking for its invitation to those “in an emergency” to meditate on Jesus’ love for them personally, to read powerful words from Scripture and to take action to remind them they are not alone.
I came back to practising through my children, I wanted them to have what I had [in my upbringing] and realised what I had missed”
If the laboured diocesan job title suggests a deskbound post, you couldn’t be more mistaken. He keeps attendance in his office, where he spoke to The Irish Catholic, to a minimum.
“My job has always been out and about. I am an itinerant pastoral minister, so I travel round,” he says. “My real passion is people, my passion is building community, my passion is being curious about how God moves in different parts of the diocese in different ways.
“I have a real passion for infusing professional ‘as good as we can get’ facilitation skills with Scripture and prayer.”
He spends a great deal of his time with people in parishes the length and breadth of the diocese – the second largest in Ireland after Dublin.
Much of his time is spent working under the leadership of Living Church director Paula McKeown in rolling out the diocese’s pastoral plan, including the development and formation of parish pastoral councils and providing training in the teaching of the Faith at local level.
An enthusiastic user of social media, he deploys Facebook and his Twitter account @gymforthesoul as effective tools of evangelisation and of affirming community endeavour.
Gym for the Soul is also the title of his first anthology – subtitled ‘Poems for a Spiritual Workout’. Deeds won’t claim credit for the title, reminding me that it was inspired by a schoolboy who heard him speak about the faith to his class at a Belfast school.
The boy had just been to PE and remarked: “Jim’s class is like going to the gym for our souls.”
His debut book was Surfing Life’s Waves: Reflections for Everyday Life.
You are not in Deeds’ company for long without discerning his love for Ignatian spirituality stemming from the influence of Alan McGuckian SJ, Ireland’s first Jesuit bishop who before his translation to Raphoe in 2017, was the inaugural director of Living Church from 2011.
He also acknowledges the influence of Jesuit writers Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Fr William J. O’Malley “who have tried to understand God through the lens of science”.
In his almost 20 years as a youth social worker prior to his appointment to Living Church in 2012, Jim worked at the cutting edge of care for some of the most troubled young people in Belfast. His duties often entailed working with adolescents requiring psychiatric care and those with disabilities including autism.
Particularly stressful was an 18-month stint working with children who had been abused by older siblings. “The abused children were the same age as my own children,” he says. “Reading the files was distressing.”
My job has always been out and about. I am an itinerant pastoral minister, so I travel round,” he says. “My real passion is people”
After schooling at St Teresa’s Primary and St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar, near his home, Jim secured a place at Queen’s University to study history and anthropology only to drop out after two years and take up busking in Belfast city centre to make ends meet prior to becoming a social worker.
“I wasn’t mature enough for university, I was deeply unhappy.”
He recalls “a hedonistic period and lots of partying” extending from his time as a student into his 20s during which he fell away from the practice of his Faith “while never losing my faith in Jesus Christ”.
He said: “I came back to practising through my children, I wanted them to have what I had [in my upbringing] and realised what I had missed in the practice and exploration of my Faith and became active in my parish in my 30s.”
His Faith has developed, he says, primarily through the reading of Scripture and meditation.
As an ordinary young Catholic who “never even for a moment” felt tempted to join the IRA, he recalls persistent petty harassment by the security forces and being particularly fearful of certain regiments.
“I remember being absolutely petrified by the Paras [Parachute Regiment] and the UDR,” he says, trying to explain the non-appeal of the IRA, “I imagine it has a lot to do with being brought up with Faith, having a radical non-violence person as my hero, Jesus, being brought up to read about him and getting to know him and having that reinforced at Mass.
“For me that cemented my sense that radical non-violence is the way to go.”
While naturally dismayed by the collapse of the Good Friday institutions, this political failure makes Mr Deeds even more determined to work for reconciliation. Loath to blame politicians “who are a reflection of all of us in concentrated form”, he stresses the importance of building relationships at community level that promote healing and the growth of a more mature politics providing a better context for “sharing this piece of land together”.
A few years ago, he was appointed a director of the 4 Corners Festival in Belfast, an inter-Church initiative founded by two clergymen, Fr Martin Magill and Presbyterian minister, Rev Steve Stockman. He had previously attended festival events and performed readings of his poems.
Mr Deeds says: “The 4 Corners Festival examines society through the prism of Faith, and I was inspired to find out more about it by Fr [Martin] Magill.”
Fr Magill has, of course, recently made international headlines after his address at the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee.
Asked to describe the God that he has got to know better over the years, Jim Deeds immediately cites the story of the rich man “who thought he had everything sorted” that Jesus “looked steadily at and loved” (Mk 10:21).
“That is the God that looks steadily at me in my mess that I write about. He looks steadily at us and loves us.”
Deeper into the Mess – Praying Through Tough Times is published by Messenger Publications.