Some years ago, when I was teaching at Mill Hill in London, a young man came to the College to train as a Missionary Brother. As I got to know him, I discovered that he painted a little, but when I asked to see his paintings, he was rather shy to show them. Eventually, however, he let me see them and I was quite shocked, because they were pictures of blasted and broken landscapes, painted in blacks and purples and dark browns, a sign that all was not well. During the course he was attending at Mill Hill, it was discovered that he was dyslexic – a condition which affects the way a person sees words – and in this young man it had meant that he could hardly read and this had made his schooldays a nightmare. Instead of trying to discover why he could not read, his teachers had labelled him as “stupid” and so to protect himself, he stopped trying to excel in anything – because if he did not try, he could not be laughed at when he failed. When I discovered this, I took to trying to help him with his reading and writing, and slowly, together with the efforts of the leaders of his course, he began to gain confidence. He eventually left Mill Hill and now lives a life, at ease with the world around him, because he is no longer afraid of failing. His teachers at school, by mocking him as stupid, had imprisoned him in his failures and his fear of being laughed at had kept him chained there. His chains began to be broken when, at Mill Hill, he found people, who looked at him in a new way and saw more than a lad who had failed – and that regard for him, gave him the power to dare to be.
The story of Zacchaeus in the gospel (Lk. 9:1-10) is a parallel to that of my young friend at Mill Hill. He was a tax-collector, despised and hated by the crowd and that hate-filled regard kept him prisoner in the role he had cast for himself. It was only when Jesus came along, looked up at him – and, I am sure, smiled – and said, “Zacchaeus, come down, because I will stay at your house this day!”, that his chains were broken and under the gaze of someone, who saw he was more than just his past, he found the power to be free, the power to dare to be.
This same dynamic is at work is us, when we stand before the Lord and let him see us as we are. When that happens, we see in his loving gaze, not just what we are, but also that we can become. His look of love liberates us from the chains of what we have made ourselves and we experience the freedom of the children of God, the power to dare to be. This, however, is difficult and the fear of being looked at with disdain often leads us to hide ourselves from him and so, in prayer, we tend offer the Lord the person we hope one day to be – not the person we are now. To open ourselves to the sunshine of Christ’s smile, as Zacchaeus did, we have to stand in truth before him – and the only way to do that is by also telling the truth about ourselves to another human being. In his first letter, St John says that the only way we know we love God is by loving the brothers; the same holds true when we tell the truth about ourselves – only when we reveal who we are to another person, do we truly let God see us. Many may object saying, “But God knows what I am like – why do I need to tell him?” There is a great difference between me knowing something about you, as told me by someone else, and knowing something of you because you yourself have shared it with me. In the first, I see you from without; in the second I see you from within and it is only when I let God see me from within, do I see his smile – the smile that sets me free.
This work of freeing up people from effects of the hateful stares of those, who only see us as we are, is a work Christ asks us to share with him. He needs our eyes; he needs our smiles – he has no other – but, I am also caught up in the hateful sneer of gossip that keeps people chained. When I gossip, I am not speaking of the good a person has done, but of the wrong, and by so speaking I keep them enchained. To become the eyes of God, I need to be able to look at them with the eyes of God – and I can only do this with the opposite of gossip – words of blessing. When I use words of blessing towards someone, such as: “Lord, make that person happy, joyful and free”, God uses those words to reach out in grace through my words and, as he does so, he takes my hand and draws me along with him and I begin to see that person as God sees them– and then the freeing smile of God become possible.
I have often wondered how my young friend at Mill Hill dared to apply to be a Brother. He was facing the risk of being laughed at, but, he told me it was desperation that drove him to dare to look for a life worth living. He found that life. One of the great changes of my life also involved daring to tell who I am – it was something I dreaded, but am now so glad I did it. But this need to tell, however, is an on-going need – as someone once said to me “If it hurts, tell it; and go on telling until it stops hurting”. God’s smile also helps us in the telling and so makes the deeds of our past, not a barrier to the future, but the doorway to it.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that the ladies, who do our washing, here at the seminary, were using a small, non-steam iron. I asked one whether she would prefer a steam iron and she said that she wouldn’t because she would have to keep filling it with water. I, then, remembered that in England I had bought a steam iron that had a small water tank attached and this made for easier ironing because there was no need to keep filling it. So I set out to find one here in Kuching and went from shop to shop, but found nothing. I came back home disappointed, but as I sat, having a cup of coffee, wondering what to do next, I began to laugh, for I realised that I had made a mistake I have made several times before. I had been looking for a labour saving device of the kind used in Europe, where people with money look for labour-saving devices to cut down their work. Here in Kuching, however, there is no market for such objects, because those who have the money do not do the work – they have maids to do that – hence no labour-saving devices!
There are quite a lot of Catholics in Kuching, but not many Caucasians, so it is quite easy to pick me out as the priest who says Mass here and so if I see someone looking shyly, it usually means they are Catholics and so I smile and nod – and get a big smile in return. Last week, however, I saw a young man looking sideways at me as he walked towards me, so I nodded and smiled only to see him toss his head and look away – I suppose you can’t win them all!
Tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls and for several days now people have been in the large cemetery next to the seminary here, cleaning the graves of family and friends in preparation for the Feast. They also have the custom of lighting candles at night and as the cemetery is on a slight slope, it is a wonderful sight to see it all lit up.