Fr. Henry Patrick Nunn S.J. (Hank)
23.01.1930 to 31.07.2016
Hank used to supervise me. Every Friday night from 10 to 11pm. One of his favourite lessons to teach was the concept of boundaries, both physical and psychological. As I can now see, after being in the field of mental health for about 16 years, this could be one of the most fundamental concepts for well being.Once someone understands what's the difference between what is happening inside me and what is outside, what is my responsibility and what is not, what is my emotions and what is someone else's, what is the past and what is the present, what is mine and what is yours, and what is self and what is personality - and many more distinctions to our experience - then develops a sense of who one is and what is their place in the world.
Yesterday, the 1st of Aug 2016, we buried Hank. He lay peacefully in his final earthly bed in front of the altar, one that he stood behind on numerous occasions, communicating through his powerful voice and even more powerful eyes. I spoke to Cyril, the father in-charge of Hank over the last year. Cyril has been amazing in making sure Hank was well looked after, and on the 31st of July he knew that Hank was dying, and organised for a mass with all the senior fathers in Hank's room at 6:30pm. He then got word at 4pm that Hank was sinking and rescheduled the prayers, which began at 4:15pm. Hank passed away as the prayers ended at 4:30pm, with all the fathers around him in his last moments.
As I sat through the funeral, I recollected my times with Hank, just as quite a few who were there would have done. Of course he has touched a large number of people, very deeply and personally, but that is only an obvious outcome of someone whose life transcended boundaries. He has told me stories of his life, and some of these I recount here: perhaps I won't get the facts exactly right, but I do get the spirit in which they were told.
He was a young boy, of three or four, and could recall that it was his mother who gave him the sense of feeling safe and secure, from whom he derived his strength to accept people as they are. He grew up respecting his hard working father, but crossed a boundary of being a rebel very early in his teens. He went way beyond that boundary - though very intelligent, as one of his class mates recounted, going into not knowing who he wanted to be. He was lost. The pub and the hockey games were his world for a good part of his later teens. A Jesuit father met him along the way and questioned him matter-of-factly as to why he was being an irresponsible bum. That shook Hank. He had also lost a brother to the war by then, a man he admired. He flirted with the boundary between responsible and irresponsible for a short while longer, and then chose to join the Jesuits, an obsession that he continued for the rest of his life - 65 years as a Jesuit.
He left what was called home - Halifax, Nova Scotia - for Ethiopia, crossing geographical and cultural boundaries. He lived among the bush kids, taught in Haile Selassie's school, met him, taught the bush kids football, beat the Italians with his interracial team! After a few years he could not think of going back to Canada, a place that seemed to have become alien to him; and Ethiopia had caused a deep appreciation of life which he did not want to lose.
He crossed not just another boundary, but half the world to reach Darjeeling in India. There he transformed the life of St. Joseph's School - North Point -, making football, long weekend treks and theatre integral aspects of the boys' education. He got the first play to include both the boys, and the girls from the convent - a big leap in those days. He says those plays were responsible for, at least a few girls, picking up life partners.Tenzing Norgay was their sherpa for their mountain hikes: Hank and he hit it off well, and he of course went on to become a world leader with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute coming about. Much against his will, Hank supported a couple of adamant young students to adopt the Christian life, one of whom later took his position as head master of the school, and also became Hank's boss as head of the Province.
In those years at the school he saw himself cross good and bad boundaries. Sending his teachers to get trained in counseling was one of the many good ones. Letting his anger overcome him and seeing the darker side of what a human being is capable of, is something that he recalled with regret, and a promise to be a better man: He was over 50. He went back, closer to home, to The Guelph Retreat Center, to search in himself who he wanted to be; only to return trained as a spiritual director and a counselor at Ashirvad, Bangalore. He trained and helped a group of women to get through their own struggles and become counselors, a group known as Helping Hands: This was 1978, and they still continue their work. Then, of course, came Jacqui Schiff asking him to join her in setting up a treatment center for schizophrenia using an unorthodox method. Having gone beyond the boundaries of taking the safer path many times by now, he joyfully agreed. The next 20 years were radical, and perhaps as interesting as his time in Ethiopia, working in an environment with very little resources in an area where very little was known. Many people joined him and left, including Jacqui. Many people came for help from different parts of the world, and once a year he travelled out; he was charismatic and armed with an alternative way of helping those whose sense of boundaries were so blurred that they could not make the difference between their inner world and the one outside.
It is at this time I came along, when he was about 70. I was 22. We had an interesting relationship. I was first his staff member. A few years on he began supervising me, and then was also my therapist for the next 7 years. Then I became his friend. By the time he was in his late 70s he wanted to talk about his work and asked me to become his supervisor.
Hank read a lot through the years, and wrote a lot - Short essays on his reflections about his work and spirituality, often in diaries, very often undated. On demand from a lot of people he decided to write a book, a struggle which came through - Opening to Trust. The process was without much joy and much frustration, as he was already forgetting words and thoughts. A couple of years more and the Friday nights became a time to fulfill his needs, to listen to him read - parts of the Bible; the Ignatian Spiritual Direction course book; Ken Wilbur; and specially a book called Dynamism of Desire written by Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. We watched the French Open; discussed world politics and rooted for Obama; talked about life - he always said he was fortunate for the life he has had. We celebrated the passing away of his friends Ed Burns, Vince and Abe. Once in a while he would get into the mood and we'd call 'Uncle' Bill or his sisters. The closest family he had since he moved to Bangalore was his nephew Bruce, who lives in Perth. Bruce would organise for Hank to visit Perth almost every year, where he lectured at universities and talked in many forums about what is possible with people who have schizophrenia.
In October 2013, Hank resigned as the Director of Athma Shakti Vidyalaya, 34 years after he started it. He was 83. His dementia, which had begun a year earlier, had got worse, and early in 2014 he moved to Mt. St. Joseph's to live with the older fathers. Going from the geographical boundaries of Halifax, Canada, beyond the boundaries of the developed world, to the world of intellect, and then the boundaries of the mind, beyond the psychical in to the psychological, and beyond to the metaphysical and spiritual and further beyond in to the depths of loneliness, anger, frustration and then further beyond to accept it all silently. And, as I sat there thinking about these lines that we create, our limits, which we call by different names such as culture, norms, nationality, identity and so on, and how they were mere lines to Hank: drawn to be crossed.
My last meeting with him was simple, only three words -'Goodbye my friend'. And then we buried him. As I write this I realise that there are so many with such accounts of him, and all unique, and all equally personal and intimate. However, this is mine.
02 Aug 2016
- The Hank Nunn Institute, a developing therapeutic community organisation in India, was named by its founders Anando Chatterji and Shama Parkhe in honour of Fr. Hank Nunn.
- Athma Shakti Vidyalaya Society (ASVS), is a residential community for those with chronic psychiatric disorders which was founded by Father Hank.
- Photograph: Hank with Kandu, his dog, who passed away when Hank moved away from ASVS to live at Mount St Joseph's. Shama writes that "Hank and Kandu shared a deep attachment."