Last Holy Thursday, I celebrated the foot-washing ceremonies at the Montfort Youth Training Centre in Sabah. There are about 150 young guys training there and they sang the Holy Week Hymns with all their hearts and their singing evoked the memory of a very different foot-washing ceremony many years previously – that took place not in a Church but at the entrance of a longhouse.
When I first arrived in Sarawak in the 1970s, there were very few roads and most of our travelling was done by boat or on foot and on one such journey, I visited an upriver longhouse in the Balingian area. It was my first visit to that house and to get there we had to go by boat a good deal of the way, but then we had to walk through thick forest for the last hour or so. So, when we arrived I was looking forward to a place where I could rest, but as I reached the doorway and was preparing to enter, someone said, “Not yet, please, Father, wait a moment”. So I sat on a log by the door and not long afterwards, the Headman appeared with a bowl of water and knelt in front of me to wash my feet, for in the tiredness from the journey I had not noticed that there was mud on them. It did not take long and then the man looked up into my eyes, gave me a deep smile and said, “You are welcome, Father”, and I felt very welcome especially as he then took my hand and led me to the sitting place in the longhouse.
As I pondered on that memory, I realised that it could be taken as a parable, in miniature, of our redemption – I was looking for a place where I could feel at home and had arrived at such a place, but before I could enter, the Master of the house had to wash the dirt from my feet, so that I could enter with dignity. But then I was drawn deeper into that memory and I realised that the real treasure of the story was the smile of welcome – for without that smile, the foot-washing would not have been a parable. Had the man come with the bowl of water, but without a smile and maybe also grumbling about people who do not know better than to enter houses with dirty feet – then his action would have been a reproach, not a welcome.
One of the deepest truths of our Faith is the saying “Ubi caritas…” – “wherever there is friendship and love, there is God”. An action which leads us into friendship with others and so also with God is a “good action”, but an action which is done without kindness – without a smile – may be a “righteous action” but if it does not lead us into friendship it is not of God. Some people get a little frightened of this, for it seems to suggest that I am saying that only kindness matters and rules and laws can be dispensed with – but that is not what I am saying. Laws and rules show us the path into friendship and love – but they have to point beyond themselves in order to do that and so it is possible to obey all the rules and still not find our way into friendship – witness the Pharisees in so many Gospel stories. However, if I look at someone with friendship and kindness, I am hardly likely to kill him, steal from him, cheat him or lie about him. Kindness therefore stands as the guarantee that what I do is of God.
We sometime overlook that there are two parts to our task of being Gospel messengers – there is the “what” and there is also the “how”, as my memory of the headman washing my feet shows – the “what” was the washing of my feet; the “how” was the smile which transformed the action into an expression of friendship and welcome. I believe that Christ teaches us this distinction in John 14, when Thomas says that they do not know the way to where Jesus is going, he answers, “I am the way the truth and the life”. ”What” we do as we try to be faithful to Christ will depend on time and circumstances, but the “how” must always be the loving, gentle understanding “way” in which Christ treats each one of us. Unless we speak and act with gentleness and love our words and actions cannot become Christ’s words and action – because he cannot fit into them; he cannot live in us through them!
All our actions and words as members of Christ’s Church receive their power of welcome through the looks we give people as we speak to them, greet them, distribute communion to them, for through our smiles and friendship we enable them to recognise the Christ who stands before them. The work of salvation in the Church is truly the work of Christ and his only, but the way in which we share in his work, the kindness and friendship with which we greet people and speak the Word to them, can enable them to receive what he wishes to give them in a far more fruitful way. In other words, a smile can change a ritual act into a wonderful experience of friendship and love as I learnt, when my feet were being washed at the door to that longhouse many years ago.
A few days before I came on leave to UK, I consulted my Oncologist in Kuching about the pain I was experiencing. I then underwent a MRI scan and discovered that my cancer had spread to the liver.
When I arrived in UK I still fully intended to return to Sarawak at the end of May, but after a week at home I realised that the pain and the effect of the painkillers was such that it would be better not to return to Sarawak.
So, now I have begun my next and probably last missionary journey and I am looking round for what the Lord is calling me to – for if I am here, then there is something for me to do. I have so many memories to help me, of so many wonderful people – so many things to remember and laugh about, so many things to hand over for healing, so many thanks to give the Lord for a wonderful life, so far lived. And I am at peace! May his peace be with you too.
One night in England, some years ago, I was at a 12 step meeting – a group which helps people recover from alcohol and other addictions – when a young woman was led in by two companions. She was in a bad way: dishevelled, dirty and shaking with alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Often, when someone like that enters a room, people tend to move away, but what impressed me, that night, was that people moved closer to welcome her to the table around which we were sitting and one of them got her a cup of tea and then helped her drink it, as her hands were shaking so badly. I heard later, that she had come to the meeting looking in desperation, because earlier that day the local Council had taken her children into care, as she was incapable of looking after them – her husband having already left her because of her drinking.
Over the months that followed, I saw her several times at meetings and bit by bit she became easier in herself, cleaner and healthier. I watched her slowly graduate from being the one who needed help, to one who began to help others, arranging the chairs for the meetings, making the tea and welcoming newcomers, but then several years passed before I saw her again. It was at “Freshers’ Day”, that I saw her again, the first day of the academic year, at Reading University, where I was chaplain, when a smartly dressed young woman came up to me and smiling said, “Hello, Terry”; I looked and to my surprise I saw it was her. She told me that she had just enrolled for a degree course, that she had a job and had got her children back. I told her how pleased I was to see her doing so well and as she walked away, I thought to myself – what I am looking at is “Resurrection” – the new life of Easter.
Our Easter belief in “Resurrection” is not just that Jesus rose on the third day, nor is it the hope that we shall all rise again after our deaths, but “Resurrection” is a reality now – it is the new, risen life of Christ that all of us are being drawn into day by day and it is that same life I saw blossoming in that young woman – a life which began on that day of pain when her children were dragged away from her and in desperation she tottered out of the darkness into that 12 step meeting looking for hope.
We often miss seeing the many signs of “Resurrection” that surrounds us – because of a misunderstanding as to how it works. We are taught that Christ saved us by dying for us on the Cross but this can lead us to think that Christ’s “Salvation” is a gift we have already received and, in that way, is in the past. However, “Salvation” is happening to us now! It is the process of our being moulded into the full image and likeness of God – as St Irenaeus teaches – and takes the whole of our lives and even beyond to be brought to completion. This is why in the 3rd memorial acclamation at Mass, we call out: “Save us, Saviour of the world, because by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free”.
“Redemption” and “Salvation” are often spoken of as if they were the same thing, but they are not! “Redemption” refers to being freed from the chains, which bind us, just as that young woman began to be freed from the chains of alcohol, which held her bound, through the terrible experience of having her children torn away from her, but she still had to journey through the long process of learning to live that new life of “Salvation” given her by God. The damage that had been wrought in her by the selfishness, which lies at the heart of all addiction and sin, had to be slowly undone and she made new.
We see process revealed in the story of the raising of Lazarus (Jn Ch. 11). Jesus stands at the tomb and calls, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus totters out – “totters” because he is still bound by the bandages, the trappings of death, and so he cannot yet walk freely. This is why Jesus says to those near him, “Unbind him – let him go free!” Lazarus was called out of the tomb of death, just as that young woman was called out of the tomb of her addiction, and just as he needed those around him to help unbind him and let him go free – so also that young woman needed those around her to help unbind her from the damage done by her addiction and help her walk into life.
We can see this process of moving from redemption into salvation in the story of that young woman, but we must not imagine that it does not also apply equally to each one of us and all of us together. We are all in that process of being drawn into new life by the word of the Lord and the power of his Spirit. Our Catholic practice of confession is our being “called out of the tomb” but, as with Lazarus and that young women, the damage in our hearts that led us to sin, can only be removed slowly and with the help of others. In other words, we do not become sinners because we sin, but the other way round – we sin because we are sinners and our sinful actions are the fruit of our diseased and fragmented hearts, hearts which can only be healed by the medicine of the Holy Spirit, as he leads us into works of loving service to others.
Jesus himself taught us that – “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person. (Mt.15:11)
Through our confession, we begin to see where our sin comes from – from out of our hearts – and then the real work of “unbinding” begins. The layers of selfishness, which underlie all sin, need to be peeled back, but to do this we need each other. Our need of each other is far more than just someone to be at Mass with on a Sunday – we need our community to give us the courage to come out of the tomb, to start again when we fail, to try new ways of living and loving – and above all they help unbind us, when we reach out to them in mercy and compassion.
Our confession acknowledges the wrongs we have done, but our unbinding speaks far more eloquently of the type of person we want to become. This is not a choice to do or not do certain actions, but the choice to become a certain person – and, having made that choice, not even my failures can destroy it, for like Peter, my betrayals are used by the Lord to bring us ever closer together. This I know, because his eyes tell me that I am welcome and wanted – just as the eyes of those people around that young woman, so many years ago, assured her that she was welcome and wanted and through them she found the life, the salvation that Christ holds out to us all.
I am being knocked about by a virus, my doctor tells me. I ache in strange places – first here and then there, never the same. It makes me tired and sometimes I get up late in the morning – even though I wonder if I am just being lazy! I haven’t cut grass for over a week or so because of it – and with the rain and hot sun the grass is jumping up. But I am still smiling – and at the end of the day that is all that really matters.
Holy Week and Easter are almost upon us and with them my travels begun. I go to Sabah, next week, to the Montfort Youth Training Centre to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with them. Then, on my return to Kuching, there are end of term exams and after that I set off for my home leave, stopping for a few days in Kuala Lumpur to see some friends on the way. So Happy Easter to you all, wherever you may be – and remember Resurrection is something real – very real – and often it begins with just a cup of tea.
Part of our Catholic way of life is to learn about the truths and traditions of our Faith. We do this either, as children, in catechism classes or, if we are older, in the RCIA classes, which prepare us for baptism or reception into the Church. This is a good and important practice, for we need to know what our Church teaches and holds to be true. but it can cause problems sometimes, because there are two types of religious “knowing” in us – first, there is the catechism “knowing” which tells us about what the Church believes and teaches, but there is also a much deeper kind of “knowing” in us, which comes from our unique, personal experience of God in our hearts and our lives, but while this second kind of “knowing” is very real, it is often so deep that often we are not really conscious of it – and this is where the problem can arise. For instance, if I ask churchgoers why they come to Mass on a Sunday, they will often answer, “Because it is a sin not to.” This is something they learnt in their catechism classes and while it is true, it is not the deepest or even the real reason why most come to Mass – as I hear so clearly when I sit in the confessional listening to people telling of their struggles to be faithful to God. I remember an elderly lady once telling me how she had missed Mass twice and when I asked her, “Why?” she said that she lived some way from the church and had no transport and on those two days it had been raining heavily. So, I told her, that there was no sin if she stayed home on such days, but she answered, “Oh no, Father, but I want to come!” This was not her catechism classes speaking, but her deeper “knowing” – which came from having felt the caring touch of God and his loving call to be with him – a call she tried to answer in the only ways she knew – which included coming to Mass on a Sunday.
We are helped to understand this deeper “knowing”, when we learn how God spoke to Abraham, saying, “Leave your home and your father’s house and go the land I will show you.”(Gen.12:1) In answer, Abraham left his homeland and set out on a journey that would take all his life and beyond. We learn of this in our catechism classes, because his story helps us understand what also happens to us – each one of us – in our encounter with God. In various ways, God speaks to us deep in our hearts, inviting us to leave our homes and go with him to the land he will show us – a land of kindness, a land of friendship, a land of love – and we want to go, we choose to go. Our attempts at living the Christian life are the ways in which we try to answer that call and as I sit in the confessional I hear so clearly that you are not just trying to keep the rules learnt in catechism, but are trying to live up to that great love for Christ in your hearts – and I also see the tears and feel the pain, when you think you have failed him. As I sit listening to you, I see my own failures, but you also show me what we so often forget – that the important thing is not that we have failed, but that he calls each one of us personally and in that call is the promise that he will never let us go – but will eventually bring us home. This is why we need the story of Abraham – not because we need to believe in Abraham but because we need to believe in ourselves – believe that God has truly spoken to each one of us, just as he spoke to Abraham.
I see this deeper “knowing” also on Good Fridays; when the celebrant sits down, after having unveiled and kissed the Cross, it is one of my great privileges, as a priest, to watch the faces of the people coming up to kiss the Cross, something the congregation cannot see, as the people have their backs to the congregation. I see the tears on some faces, I see the concern on others as they lift up their children to kiss the Cross and I see the love and hope on the faces of all. Each one comes because Jesus has met with them deeply in their heart – that same Jesus who died to set them free and who rose that they might live and live fully with him. Their faces reveal that deeper “knowing” that the God who calls them in Christ is a God who can be trusted – and so they come forward to acknowledge that trust touch by kissing the cross.
This deeper “knowing” is vital for our spiritual lives, because it is only there that we “know” that God speaks to each one of us personally. Catechism knowledge speaks in generalities; it speak of the truths that all should accept and the laws that all should obey and if we only had that type of knowledge, we would tend to think that only the heroes of the Faith – the great saints – were God’s special people, but, we would think: not “me”; I fail too often! Our deeper “knowing”, however, tells us to the contrary that each one of us is special, and that each has a special task, a mission given personally by God, one that only “I” can perform and that if I fail to do so it will never be done. When Abraham answered God by leaving his home, he began the story of our great Journey with God, of which we are all now a part, but our answer is just as important as Abraham’s, for we each begin a new stage of the journey and we will profoundly affect the lives of those we meet on our journey. For this reason, we need, sometimes, to return to the Abraham story so as to feel our way into that deeper knowledge of the heart, where God speaks to each and every one of us each day. I can only do this by daring to entrust myself into his hands, as Abraham did by setting out and as Christ did by embracing the cross. When I ask, “Lord, What is your Will for me today?”, I will be probing that deep “knowing” of my heart, which is far more profound than that which I learn in catechism – because it is the experience of God himself – the experience of the God who rose for us on Easter Day to bring us into the fullness of life.
We have been having a long and wet rainy season this year – so much so that many of our fruit trees did not fruit. This has also meant that you could almost see the grass growing, but fortunately I have got back some of my strength to do some cutting. I had not realised how much I wrote about ”grass-cutting” in these blogs until I was visited by two friends – separately – from UK recently and both remarked, “So, this is the grass I have been hearing about for years!”
Next week we have a visit from the Mill Hill Superior General and, among other things, he will be present at a Mass, Lenten Reflection and tea party of the Mill Hill Family at 3pm next Saturday at the Seminary. This is a group of people help support with prayers and donations our Malaysian Mill Hill seminarians. God has now blessed us with ten of them – now we have to find ways to look after them!
I shall be taking my leave in the month of May and going to UK to visit family and friends. I am looking forward to seeing the May blossom and flowers – and also the smiling faces of the many whom I know.
I would like to introduce you to a Lady friend of mine by the name of Julian; she lived nearly 800 years ago in the town of Norwich in England, but her writings, I find, still have the power to touch the heart most powerfully. She wrote about sixteen visions of the Lord she received, when she was near to death from a serious sickness and she called these writings, “Revelations of Divine Love”. They have helped many people on their spiritual journeys with the Lord and I would like to tell you a little of how she has helped me.
I first met her at a time when I was feeling very low. I was struggling against my weaknesses and, despite my prayers and pleas to the Lord for help, they just seemed to get worse and worse. Every time I fell, I would shamefacedly come back to the Lord with sorrow in my heart, beg his pardon and promise that I would not fail next time, but to no avail – I kept on failing. I remember once reading the Lord’s words to St Paul, “My grace is enough for you” (2 Cor.12:9), and crying out, “Then why is it not enough for me?” The second part of the text says, “for my power is made perfect in weakness”, but I did not understand this, so I just passed it by. Then, I came across the writings of the Lady, who was to become my friend, Julian of Norwich – she wrote that in one of her visions when she saw how much the Lord loved her she had cried out, “But, Lord, I keep sinning, I keep sinning…” and her words echoed in my heart, but then the Lord gently replied, “Don’t worry about sinning, don’t worry about it – don’t you see that your sins are necessary, for until you realise how weak you are, you will never take my hand!”. I was flabbergasted!
I had been taught that all sin was terrible and even that it would be better for the whole world to be destroyed rather than one small sin be committed! So, how, I thought, could the Lady Julian be right? Then, my mind was moved to remember the words of the “Exultet”, the song in praise of the Easter Light, which we sing on Holy Saturday night. “O Happy fault, O truly necessary sin of Adam that brought us so great a Redeemer”. The scales then began to fall from my eyes and I began to see what it was that the Lord wants for me – he is not interested in my becoming a righteous, law-abiding man – he wants me to become his close and loving friend, who, trusting in his love for me, takes his hand and learns to live with him and letting him live with me. He wants me to share with him, including the problems and difficulties of my life – to let him be: “The Lamb of God who takes upon himself, the sins, the burdens, the brokenness of the world” that we may become true and abiding friends.
My friend Julian thus led me to understand a little the path of love and showed me that the moral laws, with which I had been having such trouble, were not “things”, which someone did if they loved the Lord, but they were the love of the Lord. She wrote, “the fruit and purpose of prayer is to be ‘oned’ (become one) with God and be like God in all things”. But this is a slow journey – and difficult at times especially when we fail – and, to help us at such times, Julian showed me a new way of looking at failure – she said: “The Lord looks on his servants with pity and not with blame, for, even though, in our sight we do not stand, in God’s sight we do not fall” – because we were never standing in the first place! So, we should not be worried or frightened by our failures, because, as Julian says, “the love of God for us is hard and marvellous. It cannot and will not be broken because of our sins”.
Nevertheless, there are times when we feel that God’s love has left us, – that our world is crashing down around us and that no one cares. To this Julian replies, “Jesus did not say, ‘you will never have a rough time, that you will never be overstrained or that you will never feel uncomfortable,’ but he did say, ‘you shall never be overcome!’” All these difficulties are a necessary part of the journey, but our trust in his love for us, which will be our anchor and hold us firm, for “God loved each one of us before ever he made us – and that love has never diminished, nor ever shall”. Because of this, she says, our lives should be marked with joy, for “the greatest honour we can give Almighty God is to live gladly, because we know he loves us.”
Sometimes our sight grows dim and we can no longer see this promise clearly – then we are tempted to rush around looking for special blessings or deliverance or forms of prayer that we think will restore God’s love for us. To this the Lady replies, there is nothing to restore, “because between God and the soul – there is no between”. And as she smiles farewell, she tells us not to be afraid for “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well”.
The effects of chemotherapy are slowly leaving me – they may even have gone, but the problem is that I am not sure what it’s like to feel “normal”! However, I am feeling better, even though I have my off days, which I accept and do not push myself to do my walking or grass-cutting on those days. However, I usually manage to exercise three or four times a week – and my lawn is looking better for it!
The seminary has begun its academic year, but we only have nine seminarians at the moment. This is because we have begun to share the teaching with Penang College General and they have taken over the Philosophy studies, leaving us only Theology and years 2, 3 and 4 of the Theology students are out, during this term, doing pastoral work. So we all rattle about in this big building until the others return, when we should have about 33 students.
We have two prospective Mill Hill students starting their training this coming week. This brings the total to ten at various stages of training. Please pray for them – especially the new ones – I still remember the day I set out on my journey – my feelings were rather mixed – part delighted, part tearful, part scared!
When I was ordained, in 1971, I was appointed to Mukah, a large rural parish in Sarawak. The mission station was situated on the coast and while there were some established Christian communities in the neighbourhood of the mission, the upper parts of the two rivers, on which the parish was based, were largely un-evangelised. However, it seemed that the time was ripe for the Gospel, for some people from those upper reaches of the river were beginning to ask about becoming Christian and on one of my trips upriver some of them came to see me!
Before arriving in Malaysia, I had taught people preparing for First Communion, Confirmation and had also taught at youth seminars etc., but never before had I been asked to be the guide to a group of people, who wanted to become Christian. I remember feeling that this could not be just a matter of “teaching”, but it had to be once of “formation”: I realised that I was being asked to set out on a journey with this group of people, a journey of growing faith – but where and how did that journey begin and what was the path it should follow?
I turned instinctively to the way I myself had become a Christian, but instead of focussing on my family and the community of faith in which I was born and grew up, I looked instead at my primary religious education. I had been taught about the Catholic Faith through the Tridentine catechism, in which, statements about the Faith were laid out in question and answer form – and we children were expected to learn these by heart. My seminary theology lectures, likewise, were aimed at understanding the various teachings of the Catholic Faith – but not, as I began to realise, how they were connected to the way we Christians lived out our Faith in our lives. So, when I looked at my own religious education, seeking a pathway along which I could lead my group of people into faith, all I could see were “disconnected” pieces of information, rather like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There were various truths, which we Catholics believed in, prayers that we said and commandments that we obeyed, but how these fitted together and related to each other was not apparent – my jigsaw pieces described what I thought of as constituting the Faith – but not how to start growing into the Faith as a way of life!
This problem forced me to question things I had always taken for granted and I slowly began to see that I was confusing my faith in Jesus Christ with the way I had been taught to understand it – that is through my “jigsaw pieces” of doctrines and laws. I had assumed that I had to know and accept these doctrines and laws in order to come to believe in Jesus Christ – in other words that “understanding came before faith” – but, in fact, it is the other way round: “faith comes before understanding” (Is.9:7). This is why you cannot argue a person into faith – it is always a gift: God whispering words of love deep in the heart of the person called – and this “touch of God” takes place at a far deeper level than understanding. However, once God has “made the eyes!” – as George Herbert so beautifully puts it in his poem “Love” – the person touched in this way, is led by the Spirit to try to understand and express that experience in words and over time these words have been gathered into the “jigsaw pieces” of the doctrines and laws of our Faith.
Thus, I came to see that my faith in Jesus Christ is not the acceptance of a series of truths, but the unique story of my love and friendship with the Lord – a story lived out at a much deeper level than that of doctrines and teachings. It is the story, above all, of my learning to trust God – trust that he truly loves me and accepts me as I am – and so, even though my story may often seem to me to consist of one step forward and two back, it is a story of a journey, a journey of growing faith, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit – but a faith of the heart, and not, first and foremost, of the head and so, while we need to try to formulate the Faith that holds us together as a Church, those formulations can never, by themselves, adequately express our faith – for as Blaise Pascal says: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know!”
Our personal journeys of growing faith, while unique, are not, however, solitary journeys, but are lived out in the company of all who are called by God. Vatican 2 speaks of this common journey, when it describes the Church as “a Pilgrim People”, a people on the move, a people who need each other as we try to be faithful to Christ in his mission. We are helped in this by those doctrines, laws and practices etc. that make up the Tradition of our “jigsaw pieces”, because they give tangible expression to our common faith and when we profess them together – as we do each Sunday in the Creed – we both affirm that we are one Family in Faith and, through our common Profession, we are made more deeply so.
However, to understand how Tradition helps us live out our common mission in Christ, we need to see those “jigsaw pieces” in a new way: as “gifts of wisdom”, given by our forebears in the Faith to help us understand where we are on our journey and to encourage us, when he tend to be despair, by giving us a glimpse, a vision, of the “Far Country” towards which we are walking. Unfortunately, the life-giving nature of these truths of our Faith is often obscured by the rigid way they are taught – a way that sees them as things laid down by God to be accepted and obeyed if we wish to be saved. But such an understanding cannot be correct, for this would mean that they stand between God and mankind as Mediator – whereas it is the basic truth of our Christian Faith that there is only One Mediator between God and us – and that is Jesus Christ (1Tim: 2-5) our only Lord. He knows that we can only grow step by step as he leads us into that fullness of life that he came to give (Jn.10:10). To this end, he himself takes upon himself the burdens, the sins and the brokenness that are too heavy for us to bear and so enables us to walk with him along the road to life – secure in the knowledge that his love will never give us up or fail us.
Thus, these doctrines, traditions and laws, handed down as treasures of our Faith, are not “facts”, but “truths” – words spoken to us by the Word who is Life. Unlike “facts”, “truths” can only be heard by those who have opened themselves in trust to the speaker – and so these “truths” of our Faith can only be heard by those, who know Jesus Christ in faith – through that intimate communion with God that we call “worship”. When we worship in prayer we are drawn ever more deeply into the heart of God and in this, the way we answer his loving touch – no matter how poorly we may do so – our life of faith, our story, begins.
And so – led by the Spirit in ways I still do not fully understand – we did not begin to lead that group of people on their journey of faith by first teaching them the jigsaw pieces of Faith, but by telling them something of the story of Jesus Christ – of his compassion and mercy – and then we taught them how to say together their Sunday prayers – and it was in their Sunday worship that they came to know the One of whom the story told “and he took their hands and led them towards the hills and the breaking of the day”. (Minnie Louise Haskins)
I have been looking forward to the Seminary holidays, thinking it would be a time to do a lot of writing, but I have been struck by a virus, which knocked all the energy out of me. I am still suffering from a cough, but that seems to be slowly getting better. So it has only been the last couple of days that the energy to do anything has begun gradually to come back to me. I am aware that such viruses are running riot all over the world – so my prayers are for you all who are also victims: may you take the rest you need and give thanks to the Lord for what you can do!
I had my three-monthly blood test, just before Christmas, to see if the lodger in my belly is behaving himself and I was told that the cancer marker is still stable at 25. So, I thank the Lord for another three months free of chemotherapy – and for the gift of knowing that every day is precious.
Thursday, I go to Sabah in north Borneo for their annual Vocations seminary. They usually have over a hundred young men interested learning more about vocation and priesthood. It is a privilege to help some hear what the Lord may be asking of them. I do not speak the language very well, so I make up for it by singing and maybe even dancing. Preach the Gospel however you can!!
You may remember that I sent a letter on to you about a young Mill Hill priest in Pakistan that I thought might interest you. I spoke briefly about his efforts to provide education for the children of his parish and help their Mums provide clothes as well. I spoke at two Masses and told the people that I would send something to him for Christmas – but I did not ask for anything. The result has been that altogether I was able to send him MYR40,000 or roughly £7,000 sterling. I get a “tingle” when things like that happen!
Happy New Year,
I remember going to confession once, when I was a teenager, and after I had confessed my sins my Parish Priest said to me, as he always did, “Now make a good act of contrition” – but what is a “good” act of contrition, as opposed to an ordinary act of contrition”? At that time, I presumed it meant saying the prayer without any distractions and I also presumed that it was necessary to say it in this way if my sins were to be forgiven. After I had left the confessional and was making my thanksgiving, I began to wonder whether I had said the prayer properly, so, just to make sure, I repeated it again, and then a second time – but the more I concentrated on trying to mean each word, the less I was thinking about the God to whom I was supposed to be speaking! Was that also a distraction, I wondered, and, if so, I had been forgiven or not?
These concerns are called “scruples” and are symptoms of a spiritual sickness, for they “infect” our spirituality in various ways, but especially with the idea that prayer only “works”, when it is said perfectly and so prevents us from living at peace with our God. It leads us to think that God is always demanding perfection from us both in prayer and in action – but this is not true! St Francis de Sales explains it this way:
“The biggest mistake that most of us make about God, the one that most consistently undermines our peace of soul, is the idea that God demands a lot of us, more than a fragile being like ourselves could ever give. Such a God is frightening! But in reality, God is content with the little we can give, because he knows – and accepts – that we only have very little. We need do just three things:
If we follow these three rules, God will live with us and when we live with God in this way we will not be anxious for we will have no need to fear a God who never asks of us more than we can give.”
St. Francis de Sales
Scruples blind us to the fact that the Lord we follow is “The Good Shepherd” – the one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to look for the one who is lost (Lk 15:4) and so we find ourselves unable to see that no matter how poorly we manage to respond to his coming, this cannot prevent his love from having the healing effect that he intends. Scruples make us feel “guilty of dust and sin”, as George Herbert puts it, and make us want to draw back from God’s love – driven so by shame – but our Lord is persistent, whispering to us – again in Herbert’s words – “ Who made the eyes but I?” The Lord, thus, draws us into responding to his answering him and we try to express our love in words and actions, but it is our love itself which gives life and value to those words and actions – and without it they are empty. I now realise that the very fact that I had chosen to go to confession, on that morning so many years ago, was, in itself, an act of love – a prayer of contrition – a response to the God who loves me and had called me to Himself – and that was all that really mattered.
Scruples lead us to judge our actions by their outward appearance – but true love often wears very shabby clothes – for it uses whatever is available to show its smile to the Beloved. I remember some thirty years ago following a thirty day retreat, during which we were expected to pray for five separate hours each day. At the beginning, I found this very difficult and during one hour’s prayer, I was dry! I tried to pray, but after a while I could not think of anything to say or do and when I looked at my watch and I saw there were still twenty minutes to go, so I turned to the Lord in desperation and said, “Lord, I am bored out of my mind, I don’t know what to say or what to do – but I am staying here and although all I can offer you is the determination to somehow get through the rest of this hour, I hope you will accept it, because you are the One I love and wish to be with.”
I began to learn that day that boredom and distractions are an essential, but, thank God, only a periodic part of our spiritual journey, for when I endure these two terrors for the sake of God and not any pleasure that I might get from prayer, then I am growing in love – for that is what love does. We ought to know this from our everyday experience, for we see it all around us: parents who do hard and difficult work for the sake of their families or someone spends long and often boring hours, nursing a loved one – they do it for those they love – for they know that love needs both sunshine and rain in order to grow and our love for God is no different.
Scruples damage our prayer-life by leading us to identify the way we were taught to prayer with the prayers we were taught to say. Many fall into this trap and come to think, for example, that the form of morning prayers we were taught as a child is “morning prayer” and so not to say these words is to be faithless to God. There is a principle in our Catholic Tradition which says that we cannot demand of someone more than the Gospel demands – and whereas Jesus told us “to pray”, but he did not say that we had to use a particular form of prayer or pray at particular times. These are habits which can help us in our prayer, but if they no longer suit then we should change them and find other ways of praying or others times, which may help us better give voice and expression to the great love which God is causing to grow up in us.
Love takes to herself many forms and disguises and no one form can exhaust her beauty or adequately express it. She can sing in great music and reveal herself in lives of great dedication and service, but she can also be seen in a wilted flower given by a small child to his/her mother. She flourishes best in small actions that often pass unnoticed. I read recently, in a newspaper the other day, of a husband and wife, who had been married for 54 years and who had to be hospitalised because both were seriously sick. As the husband drew near to death, the nurses wheeled his wife’s bed into his ward so they could be together. She was only able to reach out and touch his hand, but he knew her touch and responded with a slight squeeze. He died shortly after and his wife followed two days later. That slight touch of her hand was all she could do to show her great love for her husband, but it was enough. Likewise, our God does not demand great gestures of love from us – the smallest faltering word, the slight touch of a hand, the mere look of hope can open our hearts to the Good Shepherd, who comes to gather us to himself.
I went to Singapore, a few weeks ago, for a short break with a friend of mine and while there I thought to buy some shirts my size. It is interesting that there are plenty of guys around who are even bigger than I, but very few shops that sell shirts for the “larger gentleman!” So I went to a famous store called “Mustafa” and they had shirts of every size and description. I bought one which was 3XL and tried it for size – you can’t trust size labels because a 3XL in one shop fits, whereas a shirt with the same label in another might not. However, this one fitted me well and I liked the colour so I bought it. Then I saw another with the same label and the same size label so I bought that one too – only to find when I got back to Kuching that it was too small! Still, the larger seminarians are always happy to take such things off my hands!
I will be in Kuching for Christmas as the parish priest, where I help out on Sundays, wants to go away with his family on a bonding holiday because their Mum died earlier this year and so I offered to supply for him. I shall miss my visit to Bali but shall include them and all of you in my Christmas Mass. So, if I do not get to write another blog before Christmas – I am suffering from writers’ block still – may I wish you all God’s blessings on you, your family and friends at the coming of Christ and may he lead us all into a New Year of Peace and Goodwill.