When I left Sarawak in 1984, I was appointed to New Orleans, where I taught, studied and also helped out in the parish where I lived. After having been there for a month or so, I asked the Parish Priest if I could visit the sick, for this would give me a break from my studies and, as I did not have a car, would also give me some exercise. The parish priest agreed, but asked me not to take communion, because there was already a rota for lay ministers to do this. I decided to begin with those at the furthest end of the parish and among these, I was told, there was a man dying of cancer, so I noted his name and set out. When I arrived at his street, I suddenly stopped in dismay, filled with a sense of inadequacy, and found myself praying, “Lord, help! What am I going to say to this dying man?”
During my time in Sarawak, whenever I was called to the sick it was always to anoint them, hear their confession or bring communion – and, to a certain extent, I could hide behind these actions. On that day in New Orleans, however, I was suddenly aware that I had nothing to hide behind and as I came in sight of the dying man’s house, I felt naked.
I was met at the door of his house by his wife, who looked surprised and asked, “Father, how did you know?” I was puzzled and asked, “Know what?” She then told me that the doctor had been a short while before and told him that he had about three weeks to live – “And”, she added, “he is in a bad way.” My heart sank even further as I followed his wife into the room where the man was and as she went out, I found myself sitting on his bed, taking his hand and saying, “So, you are going home soon.” The man sat up in bed, put his arms round me and began to weep and weep and I held him, saying nothing, until he finished crying. He then lay back in the bed and said, “Isn’t it sad, Father, that we have to be so macho with our family?” I stayed with him for about half an hour and then I left. I never saw him again and three weeks later he died.
Some years later, while on a visit to New Orleans, I met his wife again and we talked about the day I had visited her husband. She said, “I don’t know what you did, when you went into that room, Father, but before you came, he was angry and closed up on himself. He had shut himself up and would not talk to any of us, but after your visit, he was loving and open and those last three weeks were easily the most beautiful of our whole marriage.”
I also have often wondered what happened in that room, because something wonderful obviously happened and I was obviously part of it, but it was something that I was drawn into, not something I did. It was something I was made part of, not something I initiated.
Moreover, what prompted me to visit the sick? Why did I decide to begin visiting those furthest away? Had I started with those nearest the church, the man would have been dead before I got to him. What moved me to sit on his bed and not on the nearby chair, for had I done so, I could not have held him as he cried? Was all this mere coincidence or was I being drawn into something more powerful, more intimate, more loving than could possibly come from me alone?
I believe that, on that day, I was experiencing that love of God, which entered the world in Jesus Christ and is now reaching out to us and through us to heal, to console, to bring us into the oneness that we call “salvation”. That dying man let himself be embraced by that love and so was not afraid or angry any more. I let myself be drawn into that love by following the “prompting” to visit the sick, to go to that house so he could see the love that was calling him home. And, as I did so, I was made part of that love, for Love itself used my presence, my words and my arms to hold and reassure him that he was indeed loved. I discovered, on that day, that the Christian life is not me doing something good for others – but letting Love love others with and through me. Most of the time, this is done so gently – among our families and friends – that we do not notice it happen. But there are those rare occasions when we see it at work – and when I stood on that street in New Orleans and said, “Lord, help! What am I going to say to this dying man?” I opened myself to let it happen through me.
Recently, I was chatting online to a Moslem man I know and I asked him whether he had gone home for Moslem New Year. He told me that he had – and added that he always tried to go home, even when he could not really afford it, because his mother, of whom he was very fond, had gone deaf and so could not talk with him on the phone. I asked him about a hearing aid and he told me that she had been tested for one, but it was far too expensive and he could not afford it. Recently, someone had given me some money, so I asked whether I could help pay for it and, with surprise in his voice, he said that he would have enough in his savings to put the rest. And so it was agreed. I have had two emails from him since, full of thanks, and telling me How delighted his mother is, now able to join in conversations again and, for him more important still, he and she are now able to talk to each other on the phone each week. Coincidences?
Some people have written to say that they can no longer find my website www.fatherterryburke.com, which carried a collection of my weekly blogs. This is because it is no longer there. A friend of mine kindly erected it and has been paying for the site for the last four or five years, but he has found that circumstances no longer allow him to do so. I am very grateful to him for his kindness and was going to let it disappear, but someone from Kuching has come forward and offered to set up another such site. We spent Saturday morning working on what it should look like, but most of the work is being done by him – so thank you Clive.
I sometimes boast a little that my early years spent travelling the rivers of Sarawak taught me to eat whatever is put before me. It certainly helped in that direction, but as the years have passed I find myself less attracted to fish dishes, particularly if they are boiled or steamed. However, here at the seminary each Friday is kept as a day of abstinence – and so is a real day of penance for me because the lunch is always fish. Having passed the canonical age of 65 and no longer have to fast, it is a little ironic that each week I now have to face a day of penance eating fish, something I could always avoid before. But then, it is quite possible that I need it more at my time of life. I mean the penance – not the fish!