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Hello to you all,
for some time, now, you have probably noticed that my blogs have not been as frequent. This is because I have been feeling rather tired and this led me to see first my GP and then a specialist. They have discovered that I have a tumour in the liver – as far as I understand it, it is not itself malignant, but is being fed by a malignant tumour in the bile duct. I am told that the best way ahead is to have an operation to cut it out as chemotherapy does not work very well in this case. So, tomorrow I shall be seeing the surgeon about the operation and shall probably have it in a week to ten days time. I have decided to have it done here in Kuching, rather than returning to UK, because I am impressed with the medical services here and to return to UK would probably involve a lengthy delay before an operation could be arranged. There is, of course, no guarantee that the operation will be a success, but it is the best option available.
I am at peace in myself, and I attribute this a lot to having practised the 12 steps for years and learnt to hand things over into the hands of the Lord. I don’t know where he will lead me, but I know that it will be with him – and that is enough for me. However, I would appreciate your prayers, both for myself and my family and close friends, for whom, in some ways, have to carry the heaviest part of the burden.
I climbed Mt Singai, the spiritual home of the Singai Bidayuh in Borneo. I had climbed it twice before, some years previously, but, this time the 1007 steps were almost too much for me and, at one point, I felt I might have to give up. However, my two seminarian companions urged me to stop and rest awhile and then together we finished the rest of the climb and reached the top. We were not alone in climbing the Singai – there were up to a thousand people altogether climbing with us – for we were climbing to remember and celebrate the 130th anniversary of the first Mill Hill Father to climb the mountain and begin the long process of bringing the Gospel to the Bidayuh, who lived there. As the Society Representative of Mill Hill in Malaysia, I was expected to take part, and so drenched with sweat and out of breath as I was when I arrived, I was given a great welcome and was pleased to be there with them all at the place where the Gospel was first preached in that region.
I cannot say that we actually followed in the footsteps of Father Felix Westerwout or those other early Mill Hill men, because we climbed a fairly recent wooden plank-walk of 1007 steps, whereas, 130 years ago, those first missionaries scrambled up the earthen face of the mountain – but, at each step I took, I marvelled at the love and service, in the hearts of those early MHMs, which prompted and sustained them and the Sisters, the FMSJs, who later joined them in their mission. They came, they climbed that very steep mountain and despite the rather hostile reception they received, they stayed – not only for a day, like me, but for years. They built a place to live, they started a small school and sought to reach out, in any way they could, to help improve the life of the Bidayuh – for the Gospel is a message of “life” and we preach it by whatever helps people live more richly.
The Mass was presided over by Father Sepp Schmolzer, a Mill Hill Father, who had worked in Bau for ten years and had helped inspire the construction of the Catholic Pilgrimage and Memorial Centre. He now works in Rome, but during the Mass, Mr Vincent Edy, the Chairman of the Committee of Memorial Centre, welcomed him “home” and then went on to speak of what the coming of the missionaries meant to the Bidayuh. He spoke of the suffocating paganism that had enveloped the Bidayuh, in those days; a paganism, which held the people enslaved through a fear of black magic and so prevented any advance in education, medicine or farming. It was the coming of the missionaries and the faith in Jesus Christ they brought, which gave the people the courage to reject the beliefs that had held them enthralled for so long and embrace the Gospel and the education and new life that it brought them. Those small schools begun by the Fathers, and continued by the Sisters, began to open up the people to new ways of living, ways freed from fear, ways which have now led, as Vincent Edy said, to the Bidayuh nation being among the most educated of the peoples of Sarawak, with many professional men, doctors, lawyers, teachers and priests among them. They are a people, who through the Gospel, have learnt to live; a people who are now themselves helping bring life to others.
The Memorial Mass had a wonderful atmosphere of celebration – celebration of the Christianity of the people and the possibilities of living which are now theirs, but also of deep gratitude for the courage and determination of those missionaries who brought them that gift of life. I was very moved, when the congregation sang, as a thanksgiving hymn after communion: “Give thanks with a grateful heart”. They sang it with joy, they sang it with gratitude and also some with a tear in their eye – and as the words of the hymn rose up among the great trees that still cover the Singai, I imagined them being carried by the Lord back through time to when that first young priest was struggling to climb the hill. I imagined the Lord using that hymn and the gratitude it embodied to touch the heart of that young priest – tired and frightened as he must have been – urging him to go on. I imagined the congregation calling out to him: “Go on, we need you to climb! Don’t give up; we need the faith you are bringing us. You will not see the fruit of your labours, but we now have a freedom that we would never have had if you not had the courage to climb. So – go on, climb and ‘Thank you!’”
In my thoughts, I knew that the young priest would not have been aware that it was the Christians of the future, who were calling out to him and encouraging him not to give up. All he would have been aware of was that something was urging him on, urging him to climb that hill in the face of the fear and uncertainty, which must have filled his heart – and I believe that our faith in “the Communion of Saints” makes it quite possible that that is how the Lord gave him the inspiration and grace to climb.
That train of thought led me on to think about the inspirations and thoughts that sometimes fill our hearts today, thoughts which gently urge us on to some love and service, the results of which we may never see. All we are aware of is the prompting, but maybe that “urging” is someone whispering in our hearts – “Go on, dare to do it, we need you!” Maybe, the prayers and thanksgiving of future generations can reach out backwards across time urging us to do those things which will bring them life. The memory of that great hymn of thanksgiving that rose up from the congregation on Mt Singai urges me to think that this is may well be the way the Lord’s grace works and so maybe the memory of those early missionaries should also inspire me to listen for the angel voices of Christians not yet alive, calling me to climb the mountain I see before me now, no matter how hopeless it may seem – for the Lord can bring life from any situation that we dare, by his grace, to enter. The story of Singai assures us.
I am sitting writing this on a Sunday morning. I have no morning Mass today – my Mass will be tonight – and it is lovely! It so rarely happens that I have such a relaxed day, when I can get up when I like, do what I like, eat when I like with no pressure. It is wonderful and I realise what a gift the Lord gave us in the 3rd commandment of the Sunday rest. Strange, how we humans have, in different times and places, turned that Sunday gift into a rather painful experience of duty etc.
I have booked my ticket home to UK for my annual leave – how quickly it seems to come round. I shall be home from the middle of August to the middle of September and am looking forward to catching up with relations and friends. I have decided to plan my vacation a little more this year, so that I get to do the things I would like to do, for it is so easy to let things slip and suddenly I am at the end of my leave and have not done or seen things that I wanted to.
I have taken up grass-cutting again, after a time of letting my shoulder heal – and my central lawn looks beautiful – although I need the help of a student to do it properly, which includes collecting the grass-cuttings. Without his help, the task would be a little beyond my “puff”.
Before the Vatican 2 reforms, Catholic churches were more mysterious places than they are today. The high altar was up against the wall, because the priest used to say Mass with his back to the people, and in the middle of the altar stood the tabernacle, covered with its veil and with six large candle sticks – three on each side. There was also a communion rail, which marked off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and the gates of this were kept closed, except during Mass, when the servers needed to go in or out. There was also, like today, a red oil lamp burning and that told you that Jesus was present there, in the tabernacle.
When I was a boy of about nine or ten, I had a small holy picture of the boy Jesus sitting on the altar, next to the open doors of the tabernacle and he was talking to a boy about my age. I had this picture next to a small altar I had made in my bedroom and one day, looking at this picture, while saying my prayers, I wondered whether Jesus would talk to me like that, if I went to visit him. So, a few days later, on my way home from school, I went into our church and seeing that there was no one there, I went, with great daring, past the altar rails and up to the altar. I was just tall enough to reach up over the altar and I knocked on the door of the tabernacle and said, “Jesus, are you there?” There was no answer, so after a pause, I tried again, but again, there was no answer, so I genuflected and left the church. Thinking about that incident, I have tried to remember whether I was disappointed that there had been no answer and I think I maybe I was, a little, but, I still believed that Jesus was there, in the tabernacle and that he was my friend, so I went home happy that I had dared to knock at his door!
Since then, I have knocked at his door several times, when I have been in need, but on those occasions he has come, even though I was often not aware, at the time, that it was him. The Eucharist teaches us that Jesus comes to us in and through people and I now find a great way of praying is to just sit and think about the number of times and ways the Lord has come to me in people – throughout the unique Gospel story of my life. Many of those occasions were, when I was in pain and anguish and I called and he came, but there have been far more occasions still, when I did not call out, but nevertheless he came, because he knew I needed him. Sometimes he came to me in people because he knew that my living would be so much richer with that person in my life. Often, these people did not have the appearance of the Saviour – they were often one of God’s little people – but they were people I came to value more and more as time went by – and looking back now, I see that their influence gently grew and their presence enriched me in a way I only realised, when the time came for them to go on their own journey. Now I know that when someone smiles at me with kindness, there are two people looking at me through that smile – and Jesus has opened the door of the tabernacle.
The Eucharist also teaches that not only does the Lord come to me through others, but also that he comes to others through me – but this is often much harder to see. However, people tell me sometimes that something I have done or said – or just by being there – has been important to them. In this way, he draws us into his mission of love and mercy for others – and if I accept and embrace that mission, I become bound to him in such bonds of friendship that will never end. In doing this, he draws me into his work of quietly opening up roads that have been blocked, of binding up wounds, which for years have refused to heal and when all hope seemed to have gone, of helping people go on, despite everything. And in all of this I also am healed and liberated. The bread and wine of my life, which I place on the altar each time I go to Mass, or when make my morning offering, is the giving of myself to share in this mission. My salvation happens, not only when God comes to me in my weakness, but much more so, when, in my weakness he takes me up into his saving mission to others – and makes of me a wounded healer.
So, to return to that incident – all those years ago – when I went up to the tabernacle and knocked – I believe now, that the Holy Spirit put that thought into my head and heart. The Spirit was teaching me that if I was to find the Lord I had to knock. I had to knock, not to get the Lord to open his door, but by knocking I would open the door to my own heart and life. I dared to knock and he has been answering me ever since.
A new term has begun and our upper students have returned after six months out on pastoral work in parishes. It is surprising what those six months do for the seminarians. It gives them a self-confidence and sense of purpose in a more rounded way than they can receive here in the College. I suppose that is understandable, because their vocation to the priesthood comes to them through people – not so much through us priests. If you ponder on what I wrote above, you may understand what I mean by that.
My shoulder is slowly healing – although not as fast as I would like. I notice the latter particularly when I am in bed at night. I have a bedside table, which I place opposite where I lie in bed, so I can switch the light on or off easily, but there seems to be a gremlin, which in the night sometimes pushes it further up towards the head of the bed and when my alarm goes off at 5am and I reach for the switch, I find I have to reach at an awkward angle, with a resulting jolt of pain. Still, that is one way to get fully awake in the morning!
Next Sunday, one of the parishes nearby is celebrating the 130th anniversary of the first Mill Hill Father to climb the sacred mountain – Singai – where the people lived at that time and begin the process whereby the people became Christian. There is a Mass, on top of the mountain, and I am expected to attend as I am the leader of the Mill Hill Fathers in Sarawak. Fortunately, there is a wooden step-walk, unlike the time of Father Felix, the first priest to go up, but there are 1007 steps – and that is an awful lot of steps to go up and come down again! So, a prayer please!
I have gout! Nowadays, thank goodness, I am rarely troubled by it, but I remember how, in the past, my right leg would sometimes suddenly seize up and I would find myself able only to hobble, because of the pain. At first, the doctors I went to see about this could not diagnose it; they did not suspect gout, because that usually appears in the joint of the big toe, whereas my toes were pain free. Then, I met a wise old Mill Hill Father, who was also a medical doctor, and he told me that he was sure I had gout and advised me to ask my own doctor to test for this. This I did; gout was diagnosed and, from that time onwards, I have learnt how to deal with it – I take my medicine every day to keep the condition at bay and should I still get a twinge, which does not often happen, I recognise that it will not cure itself, so I take a second medicine and it soon clears up.
There is also such a thing as “spiritual gout” and this also attacks me, now and then, and when it does I “hobble” spiritually. I am referring to “resentments”! These appear when I get hurt by something someone says or does and even though it may be mostly unintentional, it still hurts and I find myself unable to walk in peace with that person – or indeed with myself! The real or imagined slight keeps rising up in my heart, giving me no peace and this is usually made worse by the temptation to “nurse my grudge”! I take it out and touch it and prod it – and the resentment grows even bigger. The way I used to deal with this was the same way I used to deal with my physical gout – I would rest until it seemed to go away, but, like my physical gout, I had not got rid of the condition, I had only pushed it under the surface and should the person who hurt me suddenly appear – even years later – up it would rise again with all the hissing intensity it had at the beginning. However, when that happens now, I know, that like my gout, I need medicine, but the medicine alone is not enough – there are certain things about my condition that I need first to recognise and accept.
The first thing I need to realise is that a “resentment” is a real wound and it is my wound – a hurt that I carry and one that I alone can deal with. It may have been caused by someone else, but it now has very little to do with that person. I am the one in pain; I am the one with the wound and I have to find the way to heal it. We are tempted to imagine that the person who caused it must somehow be involved in the healing, but this is not true. He or she may well have forgotten all about it and even if he does remember he cannot cure it, not even with an apology. I have the wound and I alone am the one who has to take that medicine.
St Luke sees sin as a disease and a disease which not only affects the person who commits the sin, but also the person against whom the sin is committed. If someone wounds me with their words, I usually find that I have become a hate-filled person, with the hate directed against the person who hurt me. That is what a “resentment” is. St Luke goes further and teaches that the medicine for sin is the Holy Spirit; the Spirit and the Spirit alone can heal these inner wounds, for he alone is “the Lord and Giver of Life”. Only when I open myself to the Spirit, are those wounds able to be healed and I am able to find peace.
In Jn 20:22, we read how Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the apostles “for the forgiveness of sins” – which means the bringing back together in friendship, those who have been divided by sin. Healing only comes when I am willing to take part in this “being bought back together”. But often, when I hear this, my first reaction is: “Why should I forgive him/her, after what was done to me?”, but it just makes sense that I accept this healing for “who is not able to sleep at night?” – not the perpetrator – he/she is fast asleep. I am the one lying awake punching my pillow! I heard it once put this way: “To want to hold on to a resentment, thinking that this somehow punishes the person, who hurt me, is rather like someone, who drinks poison and imagines that his enemy is going to drop dead!” To wish to hold on to a resentment is to drink poison and a poison that will kill me, for the hatred will eventually spread to all parts of my life.
But how do I let the Healer into my life? The Holy Spirit is often described in terms of “wind”, as on the Day of Pentecost: “a great wind filled the house…” Acts: 2:2. Following that analogy, I know that if I wish to let the wind into a room to clear it of foul air, I cannot just open the door, but I also have to open a window, to let the wind blow through the room and bring life-giving clean air. So, also I cannot just invoke the Holy Spirit to heal me, I have to let him pass through me. This we read in the Book of Genesis, “The Spirit moved across the waters…” Gen. 1:2 and life came to be. We also profess it in the Creed: “(the Spirit) proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Spirit must “move” through me to bring me healing. In other words, I have to create a road along which the Spirit can travel through me, Cf Is 40: 3 and I do this by asking a blessing on the person who has injured me!
This blessing, however, is not the blessing I would like to give him or her – such as “Lord, make them truly repentant for the horrible things they have done to me. Make them come before me on their knees to beg my forgiveness!” The Holy Spirit cannot travel through such prayers. Nor, should the blessing be the blessing that I think God should give them, for we all create God in our own image and likeness and we imagine that our grievances are also God’s! The blessing that I must give is the blessing the person would ask for themselves – which may be expressed with the words, “May they be happy, joyful and free!” Moreover, these words must be spoken and even if you do not mean a word of them at first, you must say them! I well remember the first time I took this medicine; when I finished the blessing, I looked up to heaven and said, “I think that is the emptiest prayer I have ever said”, but I carried on saying it for the 30 nights I had been told were required and by the end of that time the words had changed my heart, by the power of the Spirit, and the bitter resentment against someone who had hurt me had faded into nothing. I remember that as I realised what had happened to me, I just humbly stood there, almost in tears, as I experienced the tender mercy and peace of God.
To return to my gout: I am grateful to that old Mill Hill Father, who suspected I had gout – his advice enabled me to walk free. Likewise, I am profoundly grateful to the group of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in a 12 step group, who taught me about the medicine for spiritual gout. Like all medicine, I did not like taking it, but, since then, their advice has enabled me to walk free. They showed me how to let the Holy Spirit, the Healer, into my life and I have passed on these insights to many people, whose lives have been crippled by resentments – and all of us have resentments! The only way to know the truth of these words of mine is to try it yourself. I remember one person, who was in great pain from bitter memories and reluctantly he followed these 30 days of prayer. He came back a month or two later, a changed man said, “It works! You should patent that, you would make a fortune!”
At the beginning of May, I went to Bali to lead a 6 day Retreat cum tour for 32 people from Sarawak. It went very well, for the Karmel, in the hills of Bali, is a wonderful place for peace and prayer. Then, I was supposed to spend a week visiting the people I know in prison – but that turned out to be a disaster. The first prisoner I was due to see was Tan Nguyen, who is now in a prison in Java and a friend of mine made the arrangements for us to fly to the nearest town, stay overnight and then make the rather long journey to the prison the following day. However, on the way to the airport there was a jam due to a lorry breakdown and the tailback was so long we missed the plane. That weekend, unfortunately was a public holidays and every flight was fully booked for the next two days and I returned to the house disappointed. So, I decided instead to visit Scott, a prisoner in the north of Bali, but the next day I had a bad upset tummy and had to cancel. The last one, was Matthew, whom I have regularly visited over the last nine years, but I discovered that the day I was to visit him was the day I had to fly home. So, I saw no one!
I feel especially bad about not getting to see Tan, because I know he was looking forward to it. He has only few visitors, because it is so difficult to get to his prison. He has been in prison for ten years now, having gone in when he was 21. He has managed to clean up his act and would love to have a second chance at life – but he has a full life sentence and unless something happens he will never get out. He hopes to make a legal appeal for his sentence to be reduced to a fixed term, maybe 15 years. That way at least he would have some hope for the future, but appeals in Bali are costly – lawyers etc. cost money and Tan comes from a poor family. He has an appeal fund and if anyone would like to help a little with this, let me know and I will give you the details.
I think my shoulder is now on the mend after massages etc. It does not hurt at night like it has over the last six months. However, I need to be careful. I dropped a pill this morning and it rolled under a cupboard, so I got down on my knees and stretched out for it and – oooooooh! – the pain made me feel a little sick. Ah! The tribulations of old age – it is good that the Office of Readings at this time of the year is taken from the book of Job!
Last Sunday, I walked from the seminary to the Carmel, not a long walk, to say Mass and as I came to the corner of the block, which houses both the Archbishop’s house and the Carmel, I noticed a sign saying, “Rooms for rent”. I thought mischievously, “It looks like a vocations’ advert!”, but I knew it referred to houses further down the lane. However, it reminded me of something I read some years ago about God knocking at the door of a house looking for a room. The man who answers the knock says that he does have one small room for rent and God asks to see it. The man shows him the room and God says, “Hmm, I like what I see, but I did want more than just one room.” The man answers, “Well, maybe I could let you have two rooms.” “Fine”, answers God, “I’ll take them, I like what I see, but would you consider letting me share the whole house?” The man replies, “Well, I don’t think I am ready, at the moment, to share more than just two rooms.” God answers, “That’s ok; I’ll take the two rooms and wait until you are ready to share the rest. I like what I see!”
We sometimes think of our relationship with God in terms of black and white – we imagine that either we are with God or we are not, but that is not how it works. Our union with God more like a marriage, except that God is more determined to hold on to us than any marriage partner would be. In a good marriage, we can see how the love between the couples grows over the years – but grows slowly, slowly, until at last in old age we can look at such a couple and see how much they have become “one flesh”. Through good times and bad, through quarrels and new beginnings, through hurts and forgiveness they have learnt to fulfil the promises made on their wedding day and truly become one with each other. So it is with us and God!
A few weeks ago, one of my students wrote an essay for me and in it, he wrote, “When we sin, we turn our back on God”. Sometime ago, I would have just accepted that statement, but this time, it caught me and I stopped and looked at it again and thought, “No! That is not how it works!” There may be a few times in our life when something like that happens, but much more often something else is happening. Most of the time when we become aware that we are in sin – is not that we have turned away from God – but that our sin reveals to us that we had never really turned towards him in the first place, we only thought we had. Most of us are very blind to the true state of our relationship with God, but, the Lord has sent the Holy Spirit as our Advocate and when we are ready for it, the Spirit uses our sin to reveal to us that there are still rooms in our house in which we have not yet let God live. Julian of Norwich, one of my favourite spiritual writers, puts it another way – she says, “In our eyes we do not stand, but in God’s eyes we do not fall!” Meaning – that we were never standing in the first place.
This way of looking at our relationship with God makes much more sense to me than imagining that I can fall in and out of love with God several times a day – love is not like that. It grows up slowly, like a tree, but also dies only slowly, even if we should poison it with constant bitter words and actions. When, through sin, we become aware that we do not love God as much as we would want, this does not mean we have turned against him – it shows us that the road before us is still long, but the Lord has promised we will one day get there. The great saints sometimes seemed to be in great pain when they spoke about their sins, but, I think that this was because they were so close to the Lord that every imperfection showed up more clearly, whereas with me, I suspect there are still whole corridors, in my house, which are dark, dusty and unlived in, but when the Spirit leads me, through some action I have done, to see how dark they are – I feel the pain of separation, not because the Lord has gone, but because I realise that I have never yet let him live in that part of my house.
Such thoughts bring me back to Eastertime, which we are now celebrating, and that great hymn of praise, “The Exultet”, in which the priest or deacon sings: “O happy fault, O truly necessary sin of Adam that brought us to great a Redeemer!” I cannot bring light into those dark places in my heart, but I can open the door to the Light, by owning their darkness. When I become aware that I am a sinner, I try not to look away and hide my head in shame, but I try to look straight at the Lord – and say: “This is me, Lord! I did that, because that is what I am like. But – you are the One I want, you are the Friend I want beside him, you are the One I choose, even though in my weakness I can do nothing to bring you here.” And Scripture assures me that if I do this and, in my weakness and brokenness, lift up my arms to him, he will not turn away from me, for that is the faith that opens the door of my house to the Lord of Life.
It is some time since I have written anything in my blog. I have been experiencing a dry period, a long winter during which I have had no inspiration or desire to write anything. I think it has been closely connected with the sickness and death of my sister-in-law, Mary, with whom I have been close since my brother died, first to comfort her in her loss and then to accompany her as she became sick herself until she finally died just over a month ago. I used to send her an sms each morning when I woke up, for that was the time she was going to sleep, and I would wish her peaceful dreams. The mornings now seem a little empty, but I notice that my winter is slowly giving way to spring, and small flowers of inspiration are beginning to grow again.
We have finished the first term of the seminary – almost – and in ten days I shall be going to Bali to lead the retreat I give each year. I have 33 people from Sarawak and Sabah coming with me this year, so please pray for us.
About six months ago, I slipped in the bathroom and sprained my shoulder and it hurts when I do things like towelling myself after a shower; and it hurts particularly at night, when I lie on my side. I have tried all sorts of remedies and some seem to help, but then it gets worse again. One of the problems is that I do things that aggravate it – like grass-cutting, so I have decided to stop that for a while, but then late last night, I was turning into the Cathedral grounds on my way back to the seminary, but the gate was half-closed and we could not go in because so many cars were coming out. So, grumpy me got out of the car and pulled the other side of the gate open, something the other car owners would probably not have dared do, but the gate was much heavier than I thought and I spend the night nursing my aggravated sprain!
I have, as far as I can remember, always wanted to be a priest, however, the Secondary School I went to was a technical school, which meant that when I left school, at the age of 16, my dream seemed impossible, for being a technical school, my school taught no Latin, and in those days all our Catholic services were in Latin and to be a priest Latin was required. However, somehow I clung on to my dream, even though, at times, I would get very depressed about whether it could ever come to be.
I was in such a depressed state one Saturday morning, when I was about 18 and met, by accident, my Parish Priest. I used to attend Mass on Saturday mornings and as I was walking home, that Saturday, from Mass, my Parish Priest got out of his car and went to enter a house, just as I was passing. I said, “Good morning, Father,” and he looked up and said, “Oh, good morning, Terry” and went on towards the house; I also walked on, but he called me back and said, “Terry, if you ever have thoughts of a religious vocation, you will come and see me, won’t you?” I do not remember what I said in reply, but I do remember that whereas I had been walking 12 inches below the surface of the pavement before he spoke to me, afterwards I was walking 3 feet above! For what he had said showed me that my dream of becoming a priest was still possible, even though I had no Latin.
I have pondered that and similar incidents in my life and resisted the temptation to label them as mere “coincidences” – for how was it that my Parish Priest came along at just that precise moment? Had he arrived thirty seconds earlier or thirty seconds later, that conversation would not have happened, but the fact that he did come along just then made that short conversation possible – a conversation, which, two years later, was to lead me to enter the seminary and become a priest. Because such “coincidences” have had such important consequences, I tuck them away in my memory, for they reveal that it is not so much I who am seeking God, but rather God, who is seeking me. For instance, in my desire to be a priest, I had never thought to ask myself where that “wanting”, which so hurt at times, came from. All my attention was on what I wanted, aggravated by the fact that it seemed it could never come to be. It never occurred to me that this “wanting” was the “The Hound of Heaven” – as Francis Thompson calls God – calling me, chasing me and leading me on until the time was right for things to be able to happen – and when that time did come, he also sent someone to give me the courage to apply to Mill Hill and so began my journey to the priesthood.
The same kind of experience, I now see, has followed me all my life and, is part of my daily attempts to follow the Lord, for I often experience failure in this and have to face up to the fact that the way I want to walk with the Lord is not the way I do walk. However, the Lord sent me someone, a confessor, who helps me see that what is important, in my life, is not the failure, but that I go on trying. He has helped me see that even though I may be consumed with what I want to be – and my failure to become so – I have not been asking, “Where do those desires come from?” The fact that I still want to grow in the love of Christ for the world means that I will one day come there. The frustration I feel comes from looking at the road ahead and knowing that I am not yet there, but the very fact that I want to be there is a promise from the Lord that one day I shall arrive there – for what he calls us to be, he always brings about by his grace and in his own time. The pain of the wanting and the pain of the failure is necessary for without it I would not even try to walk.
My memories help me here also, for they not only show me how the Lord has always been – calling me, urging me and helping me along the road, but they also show me where I have come from. When I “remember” the past, I realise with wonder that I can now do things that, at one time, were beyond me. In this way, I no longer feel shame in my heart at my failures – although I do painfully still recognise that they are failures – for I now know that these desires, frustrated though they may be at the moment, are the voice of the Lord pointing out the next section of the journey and holding out his hand to journey together with me. They are, thus, the promise of that which Julian of Norwich expresses as: “All will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well.
I have had a busy time since I last wrote a blog – and that is also why I have not written for a while. I went to Bali for Christmas and visited the Jail, where amongst others I met Andrew, who, unless a miracle happens, will be executed in the next week or two. Please pray for him and his family. I also took Matthew, about whom I have written before, a lot of English Readers, for the small school he runs inside the prison.
Then I received news from my nephew that my sister-in-law, Mary, my late brother’s wife, was dying. So, just after Christmas I took a plane home and then on to Ireland to see her. When I first saw her, she seemed very close to death, but after the anointing she seems to recover slightly and we had a lovely week or so together before I had to come back. She phoned me last Sunday to say that the cancer had begun to grow again, but that she is good in herself and is ready to go – even looking forward to go and meet her husband – when the Lord sees fit to call her. Please pray also for her, for all the dying and also all their families, who can only stand and watch.
When I came back, I went to Sabah for a vocations’ seminar. There were about a hundred lads there and fourteen were chosen to enter seminary formation, but I caught no fish for Mill Hill, my own Missionary Society. I told a Religious Sister about that and she said, “Later!” and sure enough last week a young man phoned me from Sabah and said that he would like to join Mill Hill.
So, now the College has started again and we have 22 students – the top three years being out on pastoral assignments this term. So, I have enough to keep me busy. On top of this, I have begun organising the next Bali Retreat cum Tour, which will be from 8th – 14th May. I have six applicants already.
On Christmas Eve, 1914, as darkness fell over the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War, a German soldier began to sing a Christmas carol and soon he was joined by others. Then, slowly, those on the Allied side also began to sing, until one or two soldiers found the courage to get out of the trenches and go towards the other side exchanging Christmas greetings. This was the famous “Christmas unofficial truce” and it lasted for the whole of Christmas Day. During this time both sides helped each other recover and bury their dead and they also exchanged gifts, with one group even engaging in a friendly football match in the “no man’s land” between the two opposing trenches. This period of peace did not last long and soon the Army High Command on both sides began ordering their men to cease fraternising with the enemy and begin once more to try to kill them. That short day of peace and brotherhood, however, remains a historical fact and shows how the Gospel of Christ is able to bring peace and friendship even into the most unlikely of places – albeit for only a short time. It thus gives to us all a glimpse of the power of the Gospel of Christ, if only it is given the chance.
I have seen that same power at work here in East Malaysia. When I say Mass I look out at the congregation and see it is made up of people from many different races, communities and ages. I see people, who once would have considered each other as enemies, now regard each other as family, and while we still have a long way to go as family, we can see, even now, what Christ is doing among us – making us family. Of all our Christian Feasts, maybe Christmas is the one that brings us to see this most clearly – particularly in the warmth with which we greet and smile at each other. In this way, our Christian customs and traditions can sometimes reveal the Gospel more clearly than can doctrine!
I have a small tin Christmas crib, which was given me some years ago by a Mexican friend of mine, and last week, I took it out of its wrappings and set it up. It is very small, and now rather rusty, but it still tells the story. When I had erected it, I just sat and looked at it and as I gazed I saw how everyone in the scene were bringing gifts to the Christ Child – what a contrast to the secular picture of Father Christmas, who is welcomed because he brings gifts – although there is a custom in some places to leave a glass of milk and a biscuit for him.
As I sat there, I saw that to come before the Christ Child, I need to bring something and, I saw, that I need not be ashamed of my gift, whatever it is – if I have gold, that is acceptable, as was the gift of Balthazar, one of the kings; but, if I have only a bit of bread and cheese, as probably brought the shepherds did, that also is acceptable. Standing before the Child, who had nothing, I need not be ashamed of who I am – or am not – and if I dare to stand there as I am I will receive what the Christmas song says the little drummer boy received – “he smiled at me!” Christ smiles at me, not because of what I bring, not because of what I can do, but because I am who I am – and in that smile I know that I am of infinite value, as are all those others around me.
The Christ Child smiled that Christmas Eve one hundred years ago this month and the soldiers looked across the trenches at each other and no longer saw what the enemy were, but who they were – people just like themselves – and they went out to greet each other as friends. That is did not last long, does not matter. What is important is that it did happen – and the smiles of Christmas tell us that it will happen again, until one day there will be no more men of vested interest to demand that we start killing each other again.
“Glory to God in the Highest and peace to people of good will”
The College is quiet! The peace of Christmas hangs over all, for the students have gone home and soon, tomorrow morning, I shall be going to Bali for a week. I was ticking off last night the work I needed to take with me – but, in the middle of my evening shower, I thought, “No! I am going on holiday! The work can wait till I come back!” And so it shall.
I have just been visited by some friends from the days when I was a young priest in Mukah. One of them was a dental nurse and her presence today brought to mind the time when we had a small group of Catholic nurses who used to meet together. One of them “took a shine to me” as the saying goes, and kept turning up at the Fathers’ House, when I was there by myself, with a chicken tied to her handlebars – insisting that she wanted to cook it for me so that we could eat it together. I ran! Fortunately, a week later, she was transferred – but that was not my doing. As we chatted, I recalled that story and the friends said that I should record all those stories in a book. Maybe!
Having got eight young men, who have expressed a wish to become Mill Hill Missionaries, I now have to find a way to train them. Amazingly, the smile of the Christ Child happened and people began to ask if they could help contribute towards their studies, so I am starting up a “Mill Hill Family” group to help join us in our missionary work.
God bless and Happy Christmas,