May 2nd saw the launch of two books by Brian Gallagher MSC, Communal Wisdom and Set Me Free at the Study Centre of the Yarra Theological Union.


bg hugh

The event was chaired by Peter Malone MSC who introduced the speakers and gave a resume of Brian’s ministry and his responsibilities as Vocations Director and Director of MSC students at St Paul’s Late Vocation Seminary in the 1970s, and his studies in Boston.

IMG 8605

He established Siloam, the program for training Spiritual Directors, now at the Heart of Life Centre in Melbourne which he established in 1983. In 1985, he organized the national Centenary Celebrations and Conference for the 100 years of MSC ministry in Australia (the papers published in the book, A New Heart for a New World as well as audiotape records of the papers). He served as Provincial Superior from 1993-1998. After this, he renovated the house at Shoreham, The Cliffs, for its role as a retreat centre. He published several books on prayer and discernment, and obtained his doctorate on the topic of discernment, the basis of his book, Set Me Free.

IMG 8600


The official launch was by Mary Coloe PBVM. Additional support came from Tim Maloney CFC, Chair of the National Association for Spiritual Directors.

bg mary

IMG 8602

Publisher, Hugh McGinlay of Coventry Press also spoke.


For site visitors who would like to read more detail about Brian’s books, we reproduce here the text of Mary Coloe’s launch speech.


Set Me Free: Spiritual Direction and Discernment of Spirits.

-  Brian Gallagher


Given at the launch at YTU on May 2nd, by Associate Professor Mary Coloe, pbvm.

I met Brian about 40 years ago – when we were both teenagers? It was during a Directed Retreat, which Brian and Sue Richardson conducted for a group of us Presentation sisters at Queenscliff. Brian gave a homily that I still remember, about a tree that takes 39 years of growing, before it bears fruit. Most appropriate for all of us at that time.

This book – Set me Free - is the culmination of many years of Brian’s experiential learning as a Spiritual Director. It is not the first fruit – that has already blossomed in the lives of many people, and in the establishment of Siloam and The Heart of Life. But this is Brian’s almost autobiography of his ministry, and, as his Doctorate, it is a critical theological reflection on this ministry.

Chap 1. God’s Spirit in our lives - recognises that you and me can and do have experiences of God in our ordinary lives. God experiences are not reserved for saints and mystics – unless we include ourselves in these words. You and me, like Moses, encounter the holiness of God. The chapter draws on a theology of the Trinity – especially the Spirit.

Chap 2 The Tradition of Spiritual Direction tells the story of Spiritual Direction beginning with the desert mothers and fathers – the wisdom people; then through the middle ages. The tradition was reawakened last century particularly through the work of William Barry, and William Connelly, and also Kathryn Dyckman and Patrick Carroll. The chapter discusses the insights of the feminist and ecological movements – particularly how these movements noted the different ways that women experience and describe themselves – to how men do. Yet for almost 2000 years, spiritual writing, theology, and direction have mainly been the prerogative of priests – thus leaving aside the experience and wisdom of half the human race.

Brian wrote about Discernment; noting that the word comes from the Greek dia krisis – to separate – to sort out. This reminded me of God’s creative work in Genesis – creating order from chaos by separating – light from darkness, waters above, from the waters below. Creation came about through God’s discernment.

While discernment is often associated with decision making, the purpose of discernment is to keep us in relationship – to try to answer the question, will this path lead me to or from the beloved, because it is only from within the relationship that a good decision can be made.


Chapter 3, Learning from experience, I considered the heart of the book –– the focus is not on behaviour, or how a person prays or thinks, but what they experience, and believe me, THIS IS HARD.

When I began in SD I had a vocabulary of two words – good, bad. When my director asked how I felt – I would reply, it felt good or it felt bad!!! I had to learn a language for my inner life. When my stomach was in knots – what was it? - was it excitement or was it terror? All knew was my stomach in turmoil. My directors had to teach me the inner language, and how to interpret inner experiences – Brian, Sue, Margaret Carroll, Liz Teggalove, Chris Chaplain, Kathleen Spokes, Marie Thompson – men and women of great patience, spirit, and insight.

This chapter places SD in the discipline of Practical Theology, and the method of ‘doing’ this practical theology is through contemplation – waiting to see and understand the ways of God.

Here I want to pay tribute to what Brian has achieved. This book is his doctorate. Brian has successfully completed an academically tested and recognised piece of original research, based on experience. It is not easy for academics to recognise experience as a rigorous discipline – it’s too touchy feely! In the United States Sandra Schneiders fought for years to have Spirituality recognised in the academy. Brian and Sue know the hard work it took to get the Heart of Life courses accredited within the University of Divinity. It seems it is easier and more acceptable to think and talk about God, than to sit and wait – till “the first dawning.”

Brian draws upon the method of a famous scientist

I keep the subject constantly before me,

and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little

into full and clear light.

Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation.

These are the words of the scientist, Isaac Newton, describing his own critical method.

Chapters 4 through 7 are on   Discernment – how can we recognise what is of God, from what is not? How can we recognise, the “Ways of the Spirit, as Brian calls chapter 5? Not in theory, but in practice.

In the words of a modern song - how can we know that “God is in the house?”

Brian gives considerable attention to that foundational experience of God – known in the discipline, as consolation without prior cause – described best by Dag Hammarskjöld

 “I don't know Who — or what — put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone — or Something — and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

That – yes – moment of knowing- is the touchstone for assessing later experiences.

In the examples Brian gave to his experience working with directees, I could recognize some of my own stumbling blocks, so while this book is to help practitioners of SD, it offers much to those wanting to be faithful prayers, and sometimes struggling.

The next two chapters are on freedom, which the title “Set me Free,” suggests is the goal of the Spiritual journey. Created in the image and likeness of God, we have the potential and desire to be truly ourselves.

As Brian writes, “A person is freedom. To be human is to be free. Even though the human experience of this inner freedom is limited – some say ‘flawed’ – my experience suggests that one’s essential inner freedom is never lost (p. 224).”

He quotes Gaudiem et spes, “authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image in all people” (p.230).

Brian then examines a realistic anthropology, based on the psychology of Luigi Rulla, and the theology of Karl Rahner and Sebastian Moore, among others. Through the process of becoming a discerning person, we can awaken our real and our deepest desires, and also face with honesty, those things that stifle these desires – the unfreedoms, the fears that cripple.  

The final chapter outlines the elements needed in a program for the formation of Spiritual Directors. This chapter reads as the story of the Heart of Life, and the programs it offers.


I now turn to the second book -

Communal Wisdom: A way of discernment for a pilgrim Church.

This smaller book is a revision of an earlier work co-authored with Susan Richardson. Now, with the insight of Brian’s thesis work and much experience working with communities, Brian offers guidance for how there can be group or communal discernment.

If as a church, or as a parish, or community we decide to move away from hierarchical processes to those that are more inclusive; processes that take seriously what is called the Sensum Fidelium. Pope Francis witnesses to this sense that God’s Spirit is given to everyone, and not just those in leadership.

As in individual discernment, the starting point is the conviction that God can and does enter into a relationship with a group, the conviction that there can be a group experience of God’s presence and guidance. An essential prerequisite is the desire to focus outside one’s own wants, or rational thought, and a desire as a group to seek the wisdom of God.

In this he looks at ways a group comes to a decision

  1. simply seeking by vote, what the majority consider the correct way
  2. working towards consensus, so that the group, as a whole can accept the final decision, even when there are some for whom this is not their preferred decision, but can accept the group position.
  3. discernment of God’s spirit working in the group.

This third method requires a facilitator experienced in discerning and able to help the group name their experience of God’s Spirit. This approach calls for a willingness to give time for personal and group discernment, for waiting on God, and having sufficient maturity to recognise the inner movement of the Spirit, from other distractions such as the desire to make a quick decision, resistance, lack of trust. 

I conclude with the words from the Book of Revelation 3:20

 Listen! I stand at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit says.

Spiritual Direction helps us find the key on the inside to open the door. It is not a question – how can I find God – but how can I open to the God who is searching for me? It is a matter of learning to listen with the ears of the heart, of learning the art of discernment.

With great gratitude Brian for all you have done through your generous ministry, and for this outstanding achievement – it is my pleasure and honour to launch

Set me Free: Spiritual Direction and Discernment of Spirits and

Communal Wisdom: A way of discernment for a pilgrim Church.

 by Dr. Brian Gallagher msc

IMG 8605