When I first lived in Sarawak in the 1970s, I helped look after the local Leper hospital. About 30 to 40 people would come to the monthly Mass, I said there, and among these was a woman in her late fifties, known as “Bini Boli”. She wanted to be baptised, but didn’t seem to be able to learn her prayers – a requirement for baptism – so, whenever she asked, as she did periodically, I would answer, in a kindly way: “no prayers, no baptism!”
There was another family, in that small community: a husband and wife with five or six small children and they were very poor. The children, in the Leper hospital, were not supposed to be there and, although the authorities turned a kindly blind eye to their presence, the parents received no food rations for them. The fathers made ends meets by working and the mothers made a little extra cash by making handicrafts, however, in this family, the mother had no fingers, due to leprosy, and so could not make handicrafts, and the father, although he tried hard, did not seem to make a success of anything; so, as the children grew, the parents starved themselves in order to feed the children. We knew nothing about this, until one day the father, John, collapsed with cerebral meningitis and spent several months in hospital recuperating, but the damage had been done and John’s health was never good after that. Then, John’s wife collapsed and was also taken to the General Hospital, but there was no long recovery for her. She died, at the age of 36.
I still clearly remember the day her body was brought back for burial. We waited, with her coffin, at the foot of the path leading up to their little chapel, for custom would not allow a dead body to be brought into a house, so when the ambulance came we were going to transfer her body to the coffin and take it to the chapel for her requiem Mass. However, when the ambulance arrived there was a whispered conversation and when I asked what the matter was, I was told that the driver had to take the shroud back to the hospital. I said, “But you can’t strip her body in public!” but the driver insisted that he had his orders and so after a quick conference, the women hurried away and brought back mats, which they held up round the coffin to bring a little privacy to sad business. However, there was another custom that only relatives could touch a dead body – and, apart from the small children, John was the dead woman’s only relative – but it soon became obvious that he was unable to manage, for he kept falling over. Then, I saw someone, with tears streaming down her face, go in behind the mats to help John. It was Bini Boli. Out of compassion she had dared to go against custom and, after Mass, as I watched her walking away from the chapel with her grandchildren, I said to myself, “I will baptise you for that!”
We sometimes have to make an assessment of people and one of those times is when people ask for baptism. We have to judge whether they are sufficiently committed and usually the only criteria available is religious – do they follow their religious duties, do they understand the teaching, do they know their prayers? But there is a deeper criterion, given us by Christ: “Do they love others– especially the poor and weak?” Bini Boli, in her compassion for John and his dead wife, showed that Christ was already within her, caring for those around her – so who was I to refuse her baptism.
At times, we also need to judge our own commitment to Christ and we usually use religious criteria for this – how well we carry out our religious duties – but we also need to go deeper and ask in how far I am letting Christ reach out through me to the poor and needy of the world. The mystery of being a Christian is not me serving God, but God gently drawing me into his love for the world – and especially his love for the poor and needy. The many gifts, with which he blesses me, are given for my enjoyment but also given so that God’s compassion can flow through me as I share with those in need.
How many people cry out to God, each day, for help – help to feed their children, help to buy medicine for their loved ones, help in their loneliness and need. How is God to answer these prayers if not through us? If we believe in the power of prayer, then we must also believe in answers to prayer, answers given through us. God has no ears with which to listen, except ours. He has no hands to reach out to those in need, except ours. He has no human heart with which to love the needy, except ours. If God is to answer prayer, then those answers must also be our answers – there are no others.
A few days ago, I was talking to a woman whose husband had died suddenly, ten days previously. She told me that a few days after that, she was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling that she could not manage and cried out to her dead husband, “Help me!” A few moments later the phone rang and a friend said she was on her way to her house to see if she could help in any way. “Was this God answering my prayer?” she asked. I told her that of course it was – and it was also obvious that God had prompted the woman to come, even before she had made that prayer. What we often put down as a “coincidence”, is God gently drawing together situations and people so that prayers may be answered – through us.
This is why, in the Gospel, Jesus often urges us to “stand ready”, ready to let Him reach out through us to the needy and by letting him do so, we are drawn into closer communion with him. Bini Boli was ready on that funeral day so long ago – and that prompts the question: “Am I?”
Speaking about Bini Boli not being able to remember her prayers, I am now experiencing something similar. I have decided that I need to learn the national language here in Malaysia and a retired teacher has kindly offered to give me lessons. We had our first class yesterday and it made me realise that it takes more than good intentions to get hold of a language. I seemed to be asking her the same questions over and over again – how many times do I have to hear something before it sticks?
In 1980, we began a seminary, here in Kuching, and I was the first rector. Last week one of the first batch of students celebrated his silver jubilee of priesthood. We had a great jubilee Mass and meal afterwards and it brought to mind many of the joys of that beginning – and also the tears and fears that accompanied it.
Classes have started again here in Kuching, but the pace is much gentler than it was last term, for which I am grateful. It gives me time to do other things – such as my book!