The Times, by Kevin Pringle
Stephen Noon was a high-profile figure in the independence campaign. Now he’s settled for a quieter life.
The last time I saw Stephen Noon was on the terrace of the House of Commons in 2015. We were having a farewell drink as Westminster wound up for the summer recess, a couple of months after the SNP’s extraordinary success in that year’s general election. After working in various capacities for more than 20 years with the SNP, the Scottish government and the “yes” campaign in the independence referendum, we had both decided it was time to move on.
It’s fair to say that Noon’s life has changed beyond all recognition, at least to outside eyes, from the days when he walked Edinburgh’s corridors of power as senior special adviser to first minister Alex Salmond, and from his time as chief strategist at Yes Scotland.
We chat in Glasgow’s Cafe Wander, just along the road from where the “yes” headquarters were. Stephen’s story about joining the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit order of the Catholic church, and his long journey of faith and sacrifice to ideally one day become an ordained priest, is at least as fascinating as anything he did in the world of politics.
Even for a non-believer such as I am, it’s riveting stuff, revealing a strength of character and dedication I’d witnessed politically but which he has taken to a higher level in his religious life.
Noon, 47, entered the Jesuit novitiate in Birmingham in September 2015, taking first vows after a two-year process, “which is the point at which we see whether we fit with the society and the society sees whether we fit with them”.
The novitiate system, which dates back to the 16th century, is demanding physically as well as spiritually: “You do a series of what are called experiments, so there’s a begging pilgrimage. We walked from Loyola in the Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia, and the idea is you beg along the route for accommodation and food. We also had a thing called the 30 days, a silent retreat, which is an immensely powerful experience.
“I worked in a hospice in London. I did a long experiment in Amsterdam, where I worked with the online spirituality team. And then my final experiment was doing the pilgrimage in Dublin, which was again the idea of just providence, trusting that I would head out into the city of a day and trust that I would find food, I’d find interesting things to do, experiences, people, find God in the city essentially.
“The experiments are designed to test the vocation but also push you; I’d never begged for food before, or never slept out in the countryside because I couldn’t find a bed for the night.”
Noon, now based in Canada, is currently a scholastic, a term reflecting the Jesuits’ commitment to education. Ordination could be a decade away, with final vows a few years after that. It’s not a vocation for the impatient.
Drawing on one thread of his former life, Noon is enthused by promoting the good news of his faith in an accessible way. “Twenty years ago, one of the challenges we had in the SNP was that we didn’t really know how to talk about independence in a way that was relevant to people, so we went through a journey essentially of turning our language and our belief into something which was understandable. So if I look at my potential skill set, that’s something I’d like to be able to do. People have lost the language of religion, so we’re trying to communicate an understanding of religion and God. People who haven’t gone to a religious school or don’t go to church on a Sunday still have a thirst for something more than themselves.”
But he is reluctant to draw parallels with the evangelising mission of a political cause; similarities are more personal. “The things that I enjoyed about my work in politics are also the things that I enjoy about the potential of this. We made a very conscious choice as a political organisation to be confident, optimistic, building up, encouraging, all these things which I think helped the SNP become electable. This isn’t about transferring that into what I’m doing now, but those things which made me happy in those days are also the things that make me really content now.”
Noon grew tired of political tribalism — “I was feeling as though the politics of parliament were just like the playground sometimes” — and a Jesuit who had taught him at Glasgow’s St Aloysius’ school suggested that he go to a retreat in Oxford, where he “had a very powerful experience of God in my life which I’d never had before, at that retreat I experienced God as God actually is”.
He adds: “There’s a phrase that Christ keeps on using in the Bible which is never hunger again, never thirst again, and so the experience was a sense of fullness, no longer being hungry or thirsty, spiritually hungry or thirsty. I can’t really describe in words what God is but just this immensity of love and acceptance and hope.”
Noon entered the Society of Jesus in 2015. He talks about a Jesuit technique for making group decisions that arguably our politicians could learn from. “You go round everybody in the room and you ask them to say what are the reasons for doing this, and then you go round the room and you ask everybody to say what are the reasons for not doing this.
“So even somebody who is for it has to give reasons against it, and somebody who is against it has to give reasons for it. Politics would be much richer if we were able to see the elements of truth, the elements of advantage, in what the other person was saying.”
When challenged that intolerance isn’t exactly unknown in religion, he accepts the point but goes to basic tenets: “Absolutely. But again I think that’s not what religion is really meant to be about. At the heart of the Christian religion is the idea of service, the first will be last and the last will be first. None of this is easy but I think the call is for us to be a wee bit gentler with each other, a lot more loving with each other.”
Living humbly clearly gives you a different perspective on life. In Dublin, he “learnt very quickly. I ended up sitting and chatting to a homeless guy and he told me where I could go and get some food. So it became about just slowing down”.
Going from being an architect of a new Scotland to taking your turn at cleaning the toilets is a stark change, and Noon has decluttered his life: “I no longer have a mobile phone, I’ve got rid of my Facebook account, so I don’t do social media. What I try to do is slow down and reach out to people. That’s where I found the calling for me is.
“You strip away all the things that were your armour and protection in the world of work, the props of everyday life. Having gone from a job with a lot of responsibility and decision-making to a certain extent to literally having to ask permission to go out, that was really quite shocking.”
Noon has accepted a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, and looks well on it — though he admits “poverty is the one I struggle with”.
“But the challenge of the vow of poverty is, how can I live a life which is simple? In a sense it’s a witness because in this world of consumerism where people think that they are judged by what they own, for me the power of poverty is being able to say no, I don’t judge myself by what I own, I don’t judge you by what you own, I judge you for who you are as a human being.”
Noon retains his old political faith — “I think the direction of travel, on multiple levels, is towards independence” — but his life’s mission lies elsewhere now, in spiritual wellbeing rather than a country’s constitution. Noon has always taken the long view and knows that every kindly act makes a difference. “You’re stripping away layers of built-up blockages and hurts; it’s just a slow process.”