In 1984, my Malaysian visa expired and I had to leave the country. On top of this, but unknown to me at the time, I had been developing liver trouble and this eventually turned into hepatitis. The result was that, shortly after arriving back in England, I found myself in hospital for a month. During that stay in hospital, I discovered how important the liver is, for not only is it the medicine box of the body, it also greatly influences our moods – and my mood was black! I knew that my time in Malaysia was over, but I did not know where I would be going or what I would be doing; all I could do was look to the past and mourn for what I had lost. I was poison to myself and to all those around me and the one who bore the brunt of all this was my Mum. She had to put up with my bad temper, sharp tongue and the silent periods I would sink into – but put up with it she did and it was greatly due to her long-suffering patience and love that I eventually began to emerge from the black hole where I had lost myself.
I was in hospital for 28 days and in a single room so did not have much company, but my Mum would come to visit me almost every day, in the afternoon. I used to look forward to her visits, but at the same time would often be sullen and surly towards her, when she arrived – but still she came, day after day, and she would sit there with me for about an hour or so before it was time to leave. She had a very distinctive step and I would hear her walking down the corridor towards my room, but, I remember also, that as she neared the door to my room, her steps would slow a little, as though she were trying to pluck up the courage to come in and face her sullen, ungrateful son. However, she never lost courage and turned back – not that I would have blamed her had she done so – and this love of hers slowly won through and bit by bit I was brought into healing. Now, as I remember that time, I am reminded of the Song of the Suffering Servant Is: 53:5: “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” This passage refers to Christ, but my Mum enabled Christ to be present with me as together they carried the pain and difficulty of being with me that brought me into healing. This vicarious suffering is what we call “Penance”!
For most Catholics, “penance” refers to the prayers we are given to say after confession, which somehow “make-up” for the sins we have committed. However, the meaning of “penance” is far deeper than that and is something that Christ calls us all to share in whether we were the ones, who committed the sins, or not. “Penance” points to the work and effort required to heal the brokenness of the world and its people brought about by sin – be that personal sin or the brokenness of the world pointed to by the teaching of “original sin”. My rough treatment of my Mum and others, when I was sick, could have resulted in splitting my family and myself in two, for that is the type of thing that sin does – it destroys, damages, disfigures – and only the love of someone, who is willing to “carry” that damage, can do the “penance” required to put the world back together again and so bring it into peace and friendship again. That is what my Mum was doing when she came each day without complaining – enduring my surliness and sinful behaviour – she was doing penance so that I and might be healed by God’s grace.
My old professor in Rome used to say that we can have a “sinful idea of sin”. By this he meant that “sin” is sin because it damages, because it destroys, because it disfigures. It damages people, communities and the world – we only have to look around us to see that. A “sinful idea of sin” leads us, when thinking of sin, to concentrate on ourselves and our self-perfection and by so doing blinds to the very real damage that true sin does to all around us. We live in a “sinful world”, we live in a world where people live blighted, broken lives because of greed and selfishness. “Sin” is that which causes people not to have the means to care for their families, “sin” is that which leads communities to face each other in hatred and enmity, “sin” is that which mars and destroys the beauty of the lands in which we dwell. This and much more are the effects of sin, which Christ came carry and so to “forgive” and to this end he calls us to share with him in this – to take up the painful task of carrying that brokenness of the world, so that, through the Holy Spirit, he can heal our world and the people who live herein.
This is the meaning of his words: “take up your cross day by day and follow me” - to help him carry that pain, that destruction that must be carried if we and our world are to be healed and unified. Christ is the one “who takes away the sins of the world”, but sometimes miss that the words are the present tense – indicating that his task is not yet completed. It was this thought that led Pope Paul VI, in the document “Paenitemini”, to call Christ “The Penitent One”, because he is still carrying the sins of the world and calling us to share in this task no matter how painful. My Mum heard that call and answered it each day she walked down the hospital corridor towards my room, not knowing what she might find.
Having been forbidden to cut grass for three weeks, I have been looking for other ways to exercise. Usually I walk round our College cloisters for 30 – 40 minutes, but I find it very boring, evening though I listen to BBC radio programmes on my iPod. I think I might try taking up swimming again, but I don’t like swimming with crowds of noisy, splashing people…. Fussy heh?
I go to what was my first mission, Mukah, at the end of next week, to give a retreat to a group of sisters. It has greatly changed over the last 40 or so years, but it still carries some very nice memories for me – even though I now know far more people in the cemetery than I do in the town.