The Penitent One

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.

Diary

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.

God bless,

Terry

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On a journey

One evening last week, I was taken out for a burger by a young man, who attends the parish church where I say Mass on Sundays. The burger stall is new and is run by two young chefs, who are trying to launch out on their own and after giving our order we sat down in a nearby café to have a drink, while we waited for the burgers to be cooked. When they arrived, the chef, who brought them, looked at me, and said, “I seem to recognise you; are you one of the Fathers?” I answered that I was and he then said that he used to go to Mass at St Joseph’s Cathedral, but added, “but I don’t go any more; there are too many hypocrites!” He seemed interested in chatting a little, so I replied to his remark by telling him about Evelyn Waugh, a British writer of the last century. Waugh was a convert to Catholicism and attended Mass regularly, but, at the same time, by all accounts, he was a most unpleasant man. One day, in the course of being rude, someone said to him, “How can a man like you go to Mass every Sunday? Aren’t you being a hypocrite?” He answered, “No, because you should see what I would be like if I did not go to Mass!” The young chef thought about that for a moment and then said, “That’s an interesting way of looking at it, thank you!” and then left to tend his stall.

Evelyn Waugh saw something about the Faith that we often overlook – at this present time, we do not have full freedom with regard to our behaviour, we are chained by the type of person we are – in other words: we are sinful people and so we act sinfully. However, he also saw that we are on a journey of growth and that gives us hope, for although we have not yet arrived at our final destination, we are on the way. We are being moulded by the Holy Spirit, day by day, into the likeness of Christ and if we cooperate with the Spirit, then, one day, we will be fully and completely like Christ. As St Paul says, “So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”  This is why St Paul can and does call us all “saints”, because although we are still sinful in many ways, we are in “process” – we are being led by the Spirit and, one day, we will be completely transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Does that mean we can just sit back and let things be? No, because the power of the Spirit is not magic; it rises up within us through our choices for goodness that we make in the depths of our heart – this is how we cooperate with the Spirit. Thus, whenever we look at our sinful ways and ask for forgiveness, we are not just asking to be absolved from those acts, but through them we are looking at  ourselves and making a choice – “No! That is not the person I want to be! I want to be like you, Lord; I want to become like you; I want, one day, to be with you!” and in that heartfelt choice, I give leave to the Spirit to continue the journey we are on and mould me, make me, love me into the image of Christ.

One of the reasons that we overlook this aspect of our Faith is that we Catholics are trained to look at the things we do wrong, but not so often to see the things we do right. We start each Mass with an injunction from the priest “to acknowledge our sins”, but, as Cardinal Martini used to say, now and then, we should also call to mind the good things that we can now do – but could not have done ten or twenty years ago. This is the “process”, but how does it work?

St Paul says that “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” This love is not so much God’s love for me, but God inviting me to love others with him. When I find myself in a situation where I see some good that I can do – a helping hand, a friendly word, a kindness – this is the Holy Spirit bringing it to my attention and also giving me the love to choose to do so. My part is to choose for that love. If I choose not to, then that love disappears, because it was not really mine in the first place, but if I choose to follow that inspiration and reach out in compassion to that person, then that love becomes my love – and thus I grow.

Our baptism is a “one-off” act, whereby God takes us to himself in an act of re-creation, but that act is also a process and goes far beyond the pouring of water and the saying of the words of the sacrament. It is an act that has tremendous consequences, for, as St Paul says, “The whole of creation waits with eager longing for the sons of God to be revealed.” (Rom.8:19) When that day comes, then there will be no more wars, enmity or hatred, but until then we have to learn to bear with one another’s failings, take time to help each other understand that we are on a journey and that can take place anywhere– even at an outdoor burger stall in Kuching.

Diary

For some months now, I have had pains in my right shoulder. I thought it was tendonitis, due to using a computer mouse too much, so I changed hands when using the mouse – which was interesting. It was rather like trying to do up a button when looking in a mirror! However, the pain persisted and then a memory came back to me of when I lived in USA and fell down some steps, resulting in a pinched nerve in my shoulder. At the time, I had an old friend – a nun and old-time nurse, who knew old-time remedies – and she advised me to take aspirin every six hours and it worked. However, I could not remember how long I was supposed to take it for and when I stopped, the pain returned. So, I went to an osteopath here in Kuching – a chirpy young woman – and she confirmed that it was a pinched nerve, together with a strained muscle. She began manipulation and I already feel a benefit from it – but I have to leave off grass-cutting for three weeks!

We celebrated the “Friends of St Peter’s College” day last Monday and about 500 – 600 people came for the Mass and the meal and entertainment afterwards. I met two elderly ladies whom I have known for the last forty years. They were among the many people who supported the College in the beginning when we had almost no money, and they faithfully sent us small donations over and over again and so we survived grew. The sheer devotion and love of such people overwhelms me and when I look into their smiling faces, I see the face of God.

I will be spending Christmas in Bali this year – as I am not really needed here in Kuching. I will go a week before Christmas and return the day after Christmas. That will give me time to visit my friends both in the prison and outside it.

God bless,

Terry

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Embracing weakness

Some twenty odd years ago, I became sick. I felt tired all the time, I could not do my work properly and found it very difficult getting up in the morning. Into this mess stepped a young man, who was training as a student of Mill Hill. He would come in the mornings to help get me up, he would make sure that I had whatever medicines and other things I needed and would often come and sit for a while in the evenings to keep me company – he even read up about my condition to see how he might help me further. At that time, I felt so ashamed of my weakness and prayed desperately for the Lord to take it away – and while I was grateful for the help of that young man, I so wished it was all different! Now, some twenty five years later, my opinion about that time has changed. That young man, who was such a help to me, has now left Mill Hill and followed a different path in life, but the friendship that began during the time of my weakness, is still there and has deepened and matured over the years. I went to see him recently, while I was home on leave, and although I only meet him about once a year, it struck me that our friendship is as though we saw each other every day. So, when I look back at that time of my sickness, I no longer reject the feelings of weakness and helplessness that were mine, but, instead, I remember the deep and abiding friendship that grew out of that time, a friendship that could only have come about because I was weak – and I give thanks for the weakness that was mine. Weakness is something we look down upon and despise in our world and often this works its way into our attitude as Christians – we are frightened of weakness , both physical and spiritual, and reject it, even though we proclaim that the prayers of the sick and weak are powerful in the sight of God. More and more I realise how we need to re-evaluate the place of weakness in our lives, because were there no weakness in our world, no brokenness or damage in our lives, then neither would there be compassion, mercy, or even faith, for we can only find our Saviour in our weakness and failure – not in our strength and success. This does not mean that God sends us pain and sickness, as some seem to think, he does not. Our world and the people in it are more than capable of doing that, but God does reach out to us in our weakness and takes up that pain, brokenness and weakness and brings out of them such miracles of love and care that we can only stand in awe and wonder. On Good Fridays, as celebrant at the ceremonies, I am able to watch those coming up to venerate the cross and I see the love and devotion in their faces as they kiss the cross and hold up their small children to touch the figure of the one who died for us. It shows how God can take the cruelty and hatred of the world and make it the very place where love, compassion – and friendship – are born. There is a time of our lives for us to be strong, to do, to create, but our lives begin in weakness, and in that weakness we begin to know love – first through our parents and others who hold us and care for us in our weakness as babies. The same is also true, for most of us, at the end of our lives – we come to know weakness once more as our strength drains away due to age and sickness and we become reliant on others. A point to ponder is that whereas the things we are most proud of are those we accomplish in the times of our strength and ability, but the things of beauty and gentle joy that will abide forever, are born not in the times of our strength, but in the times of our weakness. Both strength and weakness have a place in our lives, but the part we do not particularly like, our weakness, is usually the more fruitful part – and this is true of both our friendship with God as well of our friendships with those around us. Cardinal Hume said of friendship: “Love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected… When two persons love, they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next… To love another is to have entered the area of the richest human experience…” True friendship is born and grows when we are there for the other in their weakness and need and they, in turn, for us. It is being true to someone, when the world sees only failure, and so giving them the courage to stand up and walk again. The deepest part of the friendship I have with my Saviour was born in the times of my weakness, as was my friendship with that now “not so young” man, who came to me in my weakness so many years ago. Diary Some of you have written to ask if things are ok with me, because there has been no blog for some time. That is very kind of you and I thank you for your concern. I am well, but have been on leave and been doing other things too, but I must also admit to hitting a certain “dry period” with my blog. My leave in UK was for just under three weeks and there were many friends and other to see – and I did not get round to them all – and so there was not a lot of time to write. Then, when I came back, I went to West Malaysia to give a week’s retreat for diocesan priests there – and those talks also had to be prepared. However, now I am back and have time to reflect on some of the things that happened during my holidays and persons I met – and as you see from above – the inspiration seems to be beginning to flow again. On the evening of All Souls, I usually walk through the cemetery at St Joseph’s Cathedral to visit the graves of old friends. I usually take some candles with me, so I can light a candle for them and also put a lighted candle on the untended tombs, which I do for them and in memory of my own loved ones whose graves lie far away. Two years ago, I noticed another grave, among the graves of the Religious Sisters, but the nameplate was in such a bad condition that I had great difficulty in reading the names, of which there were several. They had been painted on a piece of tin, but the harsh Sarawak weather had nearly obliterated the names, but I did notice that they were the names of Religious Sisters – sixteen in all – and so, I set myself to discover who they were and after two years, and much letter writing, I have managed. They are the remains of sixteen Religious Sisters interred in that grave; eight of them were the “White Sisters”, the first nuns here in Sarawak, together with one of the first of our local Sisters. The rest are the remains of seven elderly Dutch Sisters, who were transported here from Indonesia, by the Japanese, during the Second World War, and died in the internment camp at Batu Lintang. When I found discovered who they were, I decided to erect a better monument to them. However, on either side of this grave, were two graves belonging to two of the first White Sisters, who came to Sarawak and their tombs were also in a bad condition, so I decided to refurbish all three. I have finally managed it and the new gravestones should be ready by All Souls Day. The cost of it all was RM12.000, (Just over £2,000, for those of you outside Sarawak) and I had just RM750, kindly given by people, when I first thought of the idea. The Cathedral Cemetery Committee added RM5.000, but I was still left with over RM6000 to find, so I borrowed it from the Mill Hill accounts and then mentioned at Mass last Sunday that I was hoping something would happen before I had to hand in my Mill Hill accounts at the end of the year. I am happy to tell you that within days the money came – and my reputation as an accountant (if I ever had one!) has been saved.

God bless,

Terry

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Who do you want to be?

When I was a boy of about eleven years old, I got a part-time job delivering newspapers. There were seven or eight lads, like myself, and we were employed by a local newsagent shop, which also sold sweets and cigarettes etc. We boys would hang around the shop and chat while we waited for the paper-rounds to be assembled and marked by the manager. One day, I saw one of the boys quietly slip a packet of cigarettes into his pocket, while the manager was busy marking the papers and then I saw some of the others also take things and the thought came to me to also take something, so I took a packet of cigarettes and no one saw me. However, some days later, when I tried it again, I was seen by the area manager, who happened to be in the shop on that day. He said nothing about it, but the next day he said he wanted to talk to me and took me into his office. To my surprise, he did not scold or threaten to call the police, but he gently told me that he knew some of the other boys stole things and that he had seen me take the cigarettes and then he asked me, “Is that what you want to become?” I do not remember what I said in reply, but that was one of the turning points of my life and that question has remained with me ever since – along with a great gratitude to that man for his kindness and wisdom.

What he was pointing out – and what I am still learning – is that in our every moral action there are, in fact, two choices – or maybe it would be better to say: two consequences of the one choice. The first is the choice to do something either good or bad – or not to do it. But, at a much deeper level, this is also a choice about the type of person I choose to become. Usually, when making the first choice, I am not consciously aware of the deeper effects of that choice, but nevertheless they are there and through my moral choices, I am “moulded” by God into the type of person I want to be.

In our religious instruction, we are taught to examine our conscience, especially when preparing for confession, but sadly, the way we are taught to do this concentrates on our actions – on the things we have done or not done – and, because of this, we often miss out on the opportunity to ask ourselves: “What type of person do I want to be?” This question is a vital part of the spiritual life for our relationship with the Lord is not only about what we do or don’t do, but more importantly it is about the direction of our life – where we are headed!

People often tell me that they wonder what the point of going to confession is, “Because”, they say, “I always confess the same sins”. Because we are taught to concentrate only on our actions, we often do not see that even though we confess the same things over and over again, nevertheless when we say “sorry!”, we are also saying to the Lord – “Even though I have done these things, Lord, and cannot find the strength not to do them, nevertheless it is you whom I choose and you whom I want to be with.” And that is not just an empty wish, for each time I do so, my friendship with the Lord goes down to a deeper and deeper level – and down there wonderful things are happening by the power of the Spirit, things, which at present, I cannot see.

Fundamentally, the Christian life is not about doing good actions or avoiding bad ones – but about choice! As one of the earliest Christian catechetical teachings, the Didache, says: “There are two ways – a way of life and a way of death – and you must choose which way to go!” We may not have the power to do all the things we would like to do, but we do have the power to choose, which way we want to go and when we do that, we open ourselves up to the power of God to mould us into his likeness.

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis, because he was Jewish. He survived three and a half years in the terrible conditions of the camp and when he was released he asked himself why he had survived when so many others did not. The answer he came to was that he did not give up because he knew that his wife would need him, when he got out – for she also had been sent to a camp – and it was his love for her that gave him the courage to face and overcome all the difficulties of his life there. When he was released, he discovered that his wife had not survived, but nevertheless, it was his love for her that has enabled him to live.

He went on further and asked himself, why had not become brutalised in the camp, as many others had done in order to survive. His answer to this question was that this was due to his wife’s love for him. He wanted to be the type of person his wife would be proud of, and because of this he resisted all temptations to survive “at all costs”. Despite the horrific conditions, he chose to become the person his wife would be proud of. Such is the power of love!

Likewise with us! In our life we are faced with the difficult conditions of the world and also with weaknesses and failings in ourselves, but despite them all we can choose, choose who we want to be. It is love that enables us to make that choice – the love we find through our prayer and through all those around us. It is our love for God that makes us go on trying, even though we fail again and again. It is God’s love for us that inspires to want to be someone he would be proud of. Frankl said, “Love undergirds the whole world”. We profess this in our Faith and experience it in our lives.

“Who do you want to become?” – the manager, who asked me that question, did not only know how to sell newspapers, but also knew about the deepest question of the spiritual life!

 

 

Diary

Last Saturday, I went to give a day of recollection to the Sisters in the local convent here. When Mass began I stood at the altar for the opening prayers and then, when the readings began, I went to sit down in the armed seat provided – but as I did so I felt the wicker seat under me slowly begin to give way. I knew that if I said anything I would disrupt the Mass, so I held myself up with my elbows to prevent my weight resting fully on the wicker seat, which was quite a feat!

I waited till the end of Mass before I said anything, and when they thanked me for the things I do for them – then I asked them to do something for me: “Next time, please give me a chair that will not collapse under me”. They all started to giggle and it took a long, long time, well into lunch before they got over it. So I was right not to say anything, when the chair first began to give way,

I have to go travelling for five days – to Bintulu and to Kota Kinabalu – and then I return to the seminary for a week to give examinations. After that I go to England on leave for three weeks to see my family and friends there. I am looking forward to it. I cannot afford to be there longer than three weeks, because of the College timetable, but I will enjoy the time I have.

God bless,

Terry

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“Come with me”

It is said that when a memory comes to us from the past, there is something there for us either to put to rest or to learn from. Recently, a memory came to me of an incident, when I was newly ordained and was asked to supply, for a month, as Chaplain to Wandsworth Jail in London. I would go to the jail each morning, see those prisoners, who wished to talk with the Chaplain, then I would visit first the punishment wing and then the hospital wing. One day, when I went to the hospital wing, one of the warders told me that there was a young Catholic man in the padded cell, who was having a bad reaction to the withdrawal from drugs. They had put him in a straitjacket, he said, and locked him in a padded cell so that he would not hurt himself – and then he added, “It is too dangerous for you to go in, Father, but you can talk to him through the small glass window”. I went to the window and saw him lying on his side on the floor, not looking towards the door, and twitching slightly. I tried talking, but he did not respond, so I left him.

            The next day, the warder told me that the young man was over the attack and that I could go into the cell – “but”, he said, “leave the cell door ajar”. I went in, leaving the door slightly open, as told, and found the young man, whose name I cannot remember, sitting on the floor – because there was no furniture in the cell. He greeted me politely and began to chat, but I was a newly ordained priest and full of my own concerns; all I could think of, at first, was – ‘should I sit on the ground, rather than speak down to him’ and then when I sat down I began to wonder whether I could reach the door in time, if he chose to attack me!! However, slowly, I began to hear what he was saying to me. “For the last two days, Father, I have been in hell”, he said, “All I wanted was to kill myself to escape from the horrors that filled me and surrounded me. However”, he went on, “I have told God that if he will use that pain and suffering to help cure some sick child somewhere, then I am willing to go through it again.”

            What strikes me now, as that memory comes to me from across the years, is that the young man’s thoughts were not on himself. He was not primarily concerned about the terrible time he had been through, nor was he expressing regret for what had landed him in that prison cell – his crime and drugs – instead, somehow the Lord had touched him, taking him into his love and concern for the sick and the weak. It had obviously been an extremely intimate experience for him and his heart had responded to the invitation of his Lord to help a sick child and so he offered the only thing he had – his suffering.

            I cannot help thinking that had that been me, how different my own reaction would have been. My first thoughts would have been to ask the Lord for mercy for the crimes that had brought me into prison and for the stupidity, which had led me to start taking drugs – but that young man’s thoughts and prayers had gone past those thoughts and were concerned for others, which is a true sign that the Lord had touched him.

            I, like many other Christians, have a rather selfish spirituality; it is centred on myself, my needs and my concerns – and only rarely do I reach out in thought and prayer for those beyond my immediate circle of acquaintances and friends. The Scriptures rebuke me for this, for as 1 John 3ff tells me quite clearly, the only way that I can know that I love God is that I love my brothers and sisters – and, in God’s eyes, there is no one who is not included in this category, for all are the children of God. To accept having boundaries to my spiritual life, which limit my concern for others is just not acceptable.

            We often make the mistake of thinking that our primary spiritual relationship is between God and me and only after that am I called to concern myself with others, for God’s sake. That is not true! The primary invitation from God is not to love him, but to join with him in his love for the world – and in so doing I come to discover that I have been bonded to him in a love and compassion that will last forever. The union I am being invited to is not, fundamentally, the union of two lovers looking at each other and concerned just about themselves, but the union of two friends who together look with love and compassion towards those in need and – hand in hand – reach out to care for them.

            Our prayers will reveal to us, which of these two attitudes are ours – do my prayers reach our beyond myself? Am I being led by the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son” and who wants to take me with him on his mission? Or are my prayers concerned with my own problems and my own needs and the needs of those closest to me? If they are the latter, then I need to change my prayers and begin to make them include those I do not know, do not yet love and do not yet care for. Such prayers may well be a formality at first, that is, prayers which I say without much fervour or meaning, but there is an old saying, “We fake it to make it!”, which means that if I say the words, out of a choice to share with God in his love for the world, then the Holy Spirit will give life and love to those words and I will find myself being drawn ever deeper into the heart and soul of the Trinity.

            It has been over forty years since I met that young man, and if my memory serves me well, I met him only the once, but I now see that he was far further along the way of the Lord than I was – and maybe still am. He seemed to know that Christ was his Saviour – and all the wrong he had done could only be righted by the Saviour and not by his prayers – so having entrusted all this to the Lord and being thus freed from their weight and chains, he had heard the call to love and care for those in need – and had jumped at the chance with an enthusiasm and trust that forty years later I am still trying to emulate.

Diary

I have had a rather busy two weeks. I went to Singapore for three days to do one or two things, including a fitting for my cassock, which was too long in the length and the sleeves – I think it made me I look a little like “Dopey” in Snow White and the seven dwarves! I came back on Saturday and then, on Monday, I went off to Sabah to give a “3rd Age spirituality” course to 37 older Sisters there. I returned on Friday, but I find I tire more easily these days, so I was grateful for a rather lazy day on Sunday. Now I have to catch up on student essays and assignments.

I wore sandals when I walked about Singapore – and I do not think they fitted very well, because I ended up with a blister on the ball of my right foot. It is a most awkward spot to have a blister, isn’t it? And for a man with a belly like mine, it is also very difficult to dress!!

I remember Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, who used to be the Master General of the Dominicans, saying once that he got most of his theology, these days, from novels and movies. They are about life, he said, even if they are fiction, and if they are about life then they are also about God! Well, I went to see the movie “Maleficent”, a short while ago, and enjoyed it; and it reminded me of what Fr Timothy said, because there is a great insight into what “true love” actually is – but I will say no more in case you haven’t seen it yet.

God bless,

Terry

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He waited for me on the way

Some years ago, I lived at Mill Hill in north London, but once a week I would go into downtown London to teach and, on the way, I would usually see several people begging. I had heard stories that some of these were not true beggars and that others were drug addicts and so after thinking about it, I decided that I would not give them money. On one such journey, I remember passing a young man about 20 years old, sitting on the pavement with a handwritten sign saying, “Hungry and homeless”. We made eye contact briefly, as I passed, but I walked on; however, after having turned the corner, I stopped because a thought had come to me: “What if he is genuine – and really hungry and homeless?” So, I turned back to find the young man and give him something, but when I reached the place where he had been sitting – he had gone. I just stood there and in my heart said to the Lord, “Lord, if you want me to help someone, please give me time to prepare – I am not that good at being spontaneous!” He did not answer me – at least not then.

            Recently, I was preparing a homily and the memory of that young man came to mind again and also my words to the Lord – namely that he should forewarn me when he wanted me to help someone. However, this time I heard the Lord answer: “But you had already made up your mind to ignore anyone begging, without considering whether that might be me sitting there – so if you choose to live by such blanket rules, please don’t complain if I let you have your way!” I sat there humbled, for it was true, I had already made up my mind that I was not going to give money to anyone begging – and I had not considered the possibility that I might meet a genuine case and it would be the Lord himself sitting there with his hand out.

            In one of his sermons, St John Chrysostom, a 4th century bishop in what is now modern-day Turkey, scolded the people of his time, who came to church to worship, but ignored the beggars who sat at the doors of the churches. He said, “How can you worship the Lord Christ at the altar, offering gold chalices and beautiful cloths for his house – and then ignore that same Christ as he sits at the door of the church asking for alms?” His words bring home very powerfully a central truth of Catholic Christianity – Christ is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, but he is equally truly present in his people, especially those in need – as he clearly tells us in Mt 25: 31-46. Then why do we stress the one truth, but tend to pass over the other in comparative silence? This has much to do with what happened at the time of the Reformation.

            The Church teaches that Christ really and truly dwells with us in three ways: in the Eucharist, in the listening to the Scriptures and in the community. No one aspect is more important than the others – for all point to the others and imply all the others. However, at the time of the Reformation, the Protestants accepted the presence of Christ in both the community and the Scriptures, but denied his true presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus, Catholic catechetics began to stress the true presence in the Blessed Sacrament, because the truth of this teaching was under attack, but spoke only briefly of the presence of Christ in the community and the Scriptures because this was not being challenged. As time passed, the situation normalised and the Protestant threat was not so urgent, but our way of catechetics did not change and so we came to have a rather skewed teaching on the true Presence of Christ, emphasising it in the Blessed Sacrament, but often overlooking it in the Scriptures and the community.

            This has begun to be balanced out, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, over the last fifty years, since the Second Vatican Council, and we now have a much great appreciation of the Scriptures and Christ’s saving presence that comes to us through the Scriptures, but we are still some way from showing a real appreciation of his presence in the community. For instance, our Sunday services are supposed to be gatherings of the Family of God, not just my individual attendance at Mass, but our Masses are often rather cold and impersonal occasions, especially if you are a stranger to a parish. Rarely are we welcomed at the door; often we are left to find our own place to sit and the handshake of peace, which once brought in an element of friendship, has, since the bird flu scare, been reduced, in most churches, to an unsmiling nod of the head.

In our teaching, we emphasise strongly that we must fulfil our Sunday obligation by attending Mass – but we do not teach that Christ is standing there among us, waiting for a friendly smile or a kind word, with the result that he often waits in vain! If we truly believe that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20) – then we must show it. Protestants are often much better at this than we Catholics and I have heard of Catholics, who have visited their churches and having been received with such warmth, never come back to our larger but often much more impersonal gatherings. The real presence of Christ in the community must not remain just a truth, but must become an experience – but this will only happen when each of us make it so.

            This brings me back to where I started – to that young man sitting on the London pavement asking for money. If I am to meet my Lord on my journey in the many places where he stands waiting, I cannot live by hard and fast rules of “so-called” Christian behaviour. Christ demands that we be on our guard at all times, ready to greet him (Mk 13:26) ready to reach out to him wherever he appears. So, I need to listen again to St John Chrysostom and take his words to heart – I cannot just recognise Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, but then ignore him in the person standing next to me. Moreover, as I discovered on my London journey, Christ will not inform me beforehand where and when he is going to ask for my love – I must stand ready or I will lose a chance to come closer to him, just as I lost the chance with that young man begging on the streets of London.

Diary

We are deep into the term at the seminary and this has brought with it extra challenges. We had five new students join us at the beginning of the year and I am having to give them extra classes so they can catch up with what they missed. Then this term, another three students joined us and they also have things in my subject that they have to catch up with. All this has to be done together with me my normal classes – so I am feeling a little bit overworked!

I came back from Sabah by plane last Sunday, after having celebrated a “Sending Mass” for two Mill Hill students who will be going to Africa, and as I boarded I was greeted by the steward – a Catholic, whom I know. He always gives a cheery welcome to the passengers and he did so this time – asking people to raise their hands to indicate whether they were from the State of Sarawak or Sabah. He then announced that the Sarawakians were in the majority! He then proceeded to welcome all to the flight and added, “We are pleased to have Father Terry Burke with us on the flight today – he is our Catholic priest from Kuching” at which I received an applause from the people – for there was a group of Catholics who had been attending a conference in Sabah – and he then added, “Father, I have not been able to get to Sunday Mass today – so I need to go to confession!” At which there was a great cheer from the Catholics aboard – what the others thought of it all I cannot say.

God bless,

Terry

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THE RIVER

Hello to you all,

                             I came across this piece of writing during the retreat in Chiang Mai. I wrote it over 25 years ago and had forgotten about it. However, as I read it again, it touched a chord in me about how we are led by the Spirit. I thought you might like it, especially as we are now in the middle of the Great Novena to the Holy Spirit.

 

THE RIVER

 

And so, I came to the river. I knew, I think, that it was there, but I had never really seen it or felt its touch, probably because I was too young to know where to look – until that night in summer. It was still bright when I went to bed, but I was not allowed to stay up until it got dark, for I was still young and the summer evenings in Britain are long.  However, although I went to bed at the required time, it was difficult to sleep while the sky was still so bright and that night I lay there not sleeping and was still awake when I heard my sister pass by my room. She was allowed to stay up later than I, for she was older, and because I was bored, I called out to her and she came into my room and made that night different. She sat down by the side of my bed and began to speak and slowly she began to tell me about the river! 

 

            You can see the river, she said, when you make the Sign of the Cross. You raise your right hand to your forehead and say, “In the name of the Father“, and then you move your hand to your tummy and say, “and of the Son“, and then you move your hand from the left shoulder to the right and say, “and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” (We said “Ghost” rather than “Spirit” in those days!) I did what she said and suddenly I also began to see the river. It sparkled in the evening sun, and how pretty it looked. My sister began to speak again and said that I would be able to see where it was coming from if I said: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my life and my soul” I then said those words and did begin to see where the river was coming from. My sister then went on with other words, which I now know pointed to where the river is going, but from where I was then, I could not see those parts of the river. My sister soon left and I was left to snuggle down to sleep, but thinking how nice the river was – how gentle, how pleasant to have it running through the garden of one’s life! 

 

            How long it was before I felt the call of the river to come to it, I do not remember, but I grew up accepting its presence and found it nice to have there, although at times it did seem to bar my way and hinder me a little. For the most part, I accepted that others did not seem to have a river in their life, but that did not make me envious of them, but rather made me feel a little special, for I had my river and I appreciated that it was there. Those with whom I grew up accepted that it ran through my life and whereas they might be curious of it, they asked no questions and just accepted that it was a part of me.

 

            Slowly, however, the river began to exert its magic over me, calling me softly, so very softly until I began to move towards it. It was seductive, urging me to come ever closer until, at last, I was caught! I was drawn to its banks and there I saw a boat into which I could step, if I so chose. If I stepped in and cast off, it would mean daring what lay beyond the bend, but when I saw the boat I didn’t really think about that at all – all I saw was how seductive the river was as it lay there so temptingly, so cool, so joyful! All I wanted, all I could think of, was how to get into the boat and let the river take me wherever it would.

 

            How to step into the boat? I did not know! But, I was fascinated with the dream of getting into the boat and all through my latter school days I played with that dream. I would try it on at night, although not always with joy! Sometimes, as I would be going to sleep, a picture of the boat would come to me as I lay trying to sleep. It would be disturbing and I would try to forget it but it would keep coming back – urging, urging me to get into it. I would say that I wanted to sleep, but the thought would come again and a picture of the river would rise so powerfully that finally I would slip over the side of the bed, kneel on the cold floor and so enter the boat as I knelt and said my night prayers. Then for the rest of the night I would sleep in the boat, gently rocked by the breeze, the so gentle breeze that flowed across the river. 

 

Diary

 

May was a busy month. There was a retreat cum tour in Thailand – and we were rocked twice by earth tremors, which was quite exciting! Then, I flew to Bali for another retreat cum tour – but, this time, without the earth moving – although two of our people were quite shaken by something that happened. Let me tell you about it.

 

At the Carmel Retreat Centre, we were having lunch one day and I was opposite one of the men in the group. He was chatting away quite animatedly and I finished my meal long before he did. Normally, I would have stayed while my companion finished eating, but something urged me to leave him – so I made an excuse and left. By that time, no one else was in the room – all had finished – but one of the group came back for something and when she saw the man alone she began chatting with him – the first time she had done so.

 

This woman had been adopted as a child and whereas she knew a little about the family she had been adopted from, she thought they were all dead and that she was alone in the world. However, as the two chatted they were drawn to share more and more of their story with each other and the woman discovered that she was, in fact, sitting and talking to her uncle! It had a profound effect on both of them.

 

Thus, does the river draw us into places unthought of!

 

After the Bali retreat, I spend a few more days there, visiting people, including the prison. I stayed about 40 minutes, for it was so crowded and hot that I couldn’t stay longer. The next day, I had a streaming cold – which I think I must have picked up in prison. This developed into bronchitis, which only now am I getting over. However, I should be better by the time the students arrive back on Thursday – at least I hope I shall.

 

Two Mill Hill students – one from Sarawak and one from Sabah – are setting out tomorrow to go to the Philippines to begin their formal studies for the priesthood. They have dared to step into the boat – their names are Christian and Freadzeno – please pray for them.

 

The Dayaks in Sarawak are celebrating “Gawai Dayak” today – Dayak New Year – So, to you all:

 

“Gerai Nyamai, gayu guru, senang lantang, panjai umor nguan menoa”!

 

God bless,

 

Terry

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