We Can Find God in Addiction – Thomas Weston SJ
This year’s Winter Living Theology will look at the problem of addiction, which has a spiritual dimension, too. FR RUSSELL POLLITT SJ spoke to Jesuit Father Thomas Weston, who will present this year’s lectures, workshops and retreats.
Every year the Jesuit Institute partners with the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) to offer a “Winter Living Theology” series of lectures.
When the Institute began ten years ago, it was approached by the SACBC with a request to revive the “Winter School” which had been staged successful in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The Institute agreed and “Winter Living Theology” has offered an opportunity for clergy and lay people in major South African centres to access good scholarship on a variety of theological and pastoral issues.
It is an opportunity to keep abreast of theological thinking and receive ongoing formation in theology and faith. It is designed to help people take a few days, if they can, to listen, dialogue and reflect together.
Those with limited time are catered for by the presentation of one-off evening lectures on that year’s particular theme.
Topics which have been covered in the last few years include Christology, scripture, and liturgy.
This year the Jesuit Institute and the SACBC are hosting Fr Thomas Weston, a Jesuit from California.
Fr Weston will be looking at an issue which is increasingly damaging young people and families in South Africa: addiction. The title of this year’s series is “Finding God in Addiction: Pastoral Responses to Addiction and Recovery”.
Have you been to South Africa before?
No, this will be my first trip to South Africa. I have given retreats and lectures all over the world but have never had the opportunity to visit South Africa. I am very much looking forward to my time there and meeting new friends.
Where are you from, and why did you join the Society of Jesus?
I’m from California—a long way from South Africa!
I went to the Jesuit high school in San Jose, California. I was taught by many Jesuits during my time there. Those were the days when lots of Jesuits were still in the classroom; there are not too many Jesuits left teaching in schools these days.
I liked my teachers; they pushed us and made us think. I owe a lot to the men who taught us day in and day out. Towards the end of school I realised that I wanted to teach too—they had inspired me.
I realised too that I wanted to be a member of this hard-working, generous, good group of men. The rest is history, as they say. I entered the novitiate of the Jesuits in the California Province and am still striving to live up to the wonderful examples of Jesuit life and work that inspired me.
How did it come about that you work with addicts?
Well, my own recovery began in 1976. I had a drinking problem and it was going to destroy me, I realised, if I did not get help. I did, thanks to God and my Jesuit superiors and brothers who supported me.
Over the next few years I began to realise that there was little available in the Church for people who were either addicts or lived with an addict.
I found myself doing more and more activities with people in recovery, sharing my story, forming groups and offering spiritual direction. There was a need, I was willing, and had some idea of what it means to be an addict.
Opportunities arose, and so I began working more and more with addicts and their families, offering talks and retreats.
Were your superiors happy with you doing that?
My Jesuit superiors were supportive and, soon, they missioned me to do this ministry.
It has been, besides a short teaching stint, the ministry that I have done pretty much permanently now for many years.
What has been the most consoling part of this ministry?
The most consoling part of this ministry is that I get to meet a wide variety of persons from all kinds of backgrounds.
Addiction stretches across race, class and nationality. Some people are better at hiding it—”the family secret”— but it is a great leveller.
Many of the people I meet and work with are the salt of the earth. I gain great inspiration and courage from people who, as best they can, enter into recovery and try to find the healing they need — for themselves and their loved ones. It’s not easy but determination, support and God’s grace carry them.
I see the best of the human spirit at work. That’s consolation.
What is the most difficult part of your ministry?
Addiction is a disease; it is a killer. There is a lot of heartache and heartbreak. Relationships are ruined, families torn apart. Communities, in the case of drugs, are under siege.
It can be hard to watch someone attempt recovery and then slip back into addiction as they seek “a fix”.
Addicts are often demonised. It’s really an illness that we have to try and understand the anatomy of. It can be hard work—addiction can be ruthless.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not ministering to addicts and their loved ones?
I like to learn, to keep up to date. I read a lot and see myself as a bit of an amateur historian.
I have learnt a lot on my travels about peoples, cultures and the world.
One of my favourite past-times is gardening. I love being out in the garden, nurturing plants and watching then come to blossom. I would describe myself as much more of a city person than a rural one.
I also love cooking. One has to learn that if you live in a Jesuit community. And sometimes, in some communities, you learn fast if you want a good meal—not all the brothers can cook!
Where are you currently living?
I live in the small Jesuit community in Oakland, California. It’s my place of peace, a place where I can study and garden and cook. The rest of the community leave the garden to me.
I have a huge collection of books in the house — the community is not always grateful for the space I take.
I am grateful to live with good men, good Jesuits, who are always working to try and improve the lives of others, especially those who are small, weak and vulnerable.
You mention reading. Is there anything that really inspires you?
I am grateful for the Second Vatican Council, the marvellous work that attempts to bring people together as children of God and sharers of our planet. I have read extensively on the Council; there is still so much about it that we need to discover, learn and put into practice.
When in South Africa you will be offering lectures, but you’ll also conduct two retreats. Do you see both as very important?
Yes, I will lecture, but I also think that retreats are very important.
Addiction is not just psychological and physical. It impacts deeply on the spirit — it is a spiritual problem, too.
I want to be able to help people understand, but I also want to help people spend time in a sacred space, with God, in reflection.
The talks and retreats are for anyone — addicts, family members or friends of addicts. People need great spiritual support, they need God’s grace. We cannot overcome these challenges alone. We need to learn and pray.
When and Where
Father Weston will be in South Africa this month. He has lectured in Johannesburg and will be lecturing in Port Elizabeth and Durban. He will offer a one-day workshop in Cape Town and Manzini, Swaziland.
Fr Weston will lead two weekend retreats — one in Port Elizabeth and one in Durban.
His lectures and retreats are open to anyone; they are for addicts and their loved ones (who often suffer greatly, too). The lectures and retreats are also for those who are involved in or want to work at making a pastoral response to addiction.