Some time ago, a friend of mine wrote to me telling me that a Muslim friend of hers had explained to her the meaning of the “Haj” – the pilgrimage to Mecca, which all Muslims should perform at least once in their lives – and had then asked her whether we Christians also had such a sacred place, where we went on pilgrimage. My friend referred the question to me, because she knew that five years ago I went on pilgrimage to Santiago, in Spain, with a group from Reading University. The journey was 100kms and I managed to walk 50 kms., of which I am quite proud – and I also got tired and grumpy at night, of which I am not so proud – but both these things helped make up what we Catholics understand a pilgrimage to be.
For us, Catholics, it is not the place of pilgrimage, which is special, but the journeying – and especially the journeying with others – for the journey is an icon, or picture, of our spiritual life and as such can lead us into a deeper understanding of what we are called to: to journey to God – but to make that journey with others. Our journey to Santiago had its high points, such as the beautiful scenery, through which we passed, and the companionship we enjoyed, but it also had its low points, such as when I got tired and hungry and grumpy in the evenings – which the others so kindly tolerated! These and other ups and downs played a part in bonding us together and our friendship grew throughout the journey, especially when we took turns in doing the chores, such as buying food for lunch or arranging the evening lodgings. In these ways we learnt to lean on each other, to help each other over the difficult parts, to encourage each other when our spirits flagged and in so doing forged bonds, which lasted long after the journey itself – bonds, we discovered, which bound us not only to each other, but also to God. All this helped remind us why God calls us into a Church, into a community; we learn that we need each other and that becoming member of a community is the true pilgrimage of life – and our journey to Santiago was an icon of this.
But to come back to the question: “Do we Christians have a sacred place, which we regard in the same way as the Muslims do Mecca?” Put simply, the answer is: “No!” There are, indeed, some places, which we venerate – such as Lourdes, Rome and, at this time of the year: Bethlehem, where many Christians will soon be gathering at Christmas to celebrate Midnight Mass. However, it is not Bethlehem, which is sacred, but the memory of the Child, who was born there, which makes it a place of pilgrimage. For us Christians, there is only place in the world which is sacred in itself – and that is the human person, for it was in a human person, the person of Jesus Christ, that God came among us at Bethlehem and it is in the human persons around us that we now meet, serve and love God. Thus, it is not Bethlehem which makes the people holy, but the pilgrims, who will once more make Bethlehem sacred, because the one who was born there 2,000 years ago will again be present, but, this time, in the persons who gather in prayer.
This vision is important, for there has always been the temptation to try to separate the service of God from the service due to him in the human persons around us – but it cannot be done. Christ showed this clearly when he gave us the Great Commandment. He joined “Love God” with “Love your neighbour” – and they can never be separated. St. John affirms this in his first letter (1 Jn 2: 3f), where he says that the only way we know that we love God, is when we love each other. This is why we give presents at Christmas – it is the way we grow in love and a part of our pilgrimage to God – but that ‘giving’ should not stop at our family and friends. For us Christians, our only real pilgrimage journey is that of learning to know, love and serve God in the person of our neighbour – and, at this time of the year, this refers especially to the neighbour outside of our band of relatives and friends: the one who is cold and hungry and who has nowhere to stay.
I have just come back from a 10 day tour with the Mill Hill Superior General. We were visiting the bishops of East Malaysia to tell them that the Mill Hill Society is now open to receive candidates who wish to work in mission fields. However, having moved, over the last two weeks, from place to place and bed to bed, I am very glad that I do not have his job and have to do that sort of thing on a permanent basis. On my visit, I met many old friends – especially priests I have taught over the years – enough for my Superior to say, “Have you taught every priest in East Malaysia?”
We began our trip in Brunei, at the silver jubilee celebration of our only Borneo Mill Hill priest – Fr. Ivan Fang. At the airport, on the way, I bought myself a little box of chocolates – just in case I felt like something sweet during the journey. However, when I went to look for them, a day or so later, I found that a rat had found them first. That I do not mind so much – we must share the earth with all God’s creatures! – but then I discovered that having chewed through the box and silver paper wrapping and it had taken two chocolates, only to carry them to the other side of the table and leave them uneaten. It had obviously decided that it did not like chocolate after all. So, all thoughts of sharing having thus been driven out, I set a trap for it – but not baited with chocolate!
I shall be leaving to visit my “outstation” in Bali on 13th December and visiting some people in KL on the way. During my time in Bali, I shall be going on retreat, in that lovely retreat house in the Bali mountains that I wrote about a few months ago. I have not been on retreat this year so I feel the need and am looking forward to it. I shall remember you all in my prayers. I come back to Kuching on 3rd January.
So, I wish you a very Happy Christmas, wherever you may be celebrating the birth of the Lord. I hope that the peace he brings, may be yours, no matter outward difficulties you may be having.
A special word of thanks to all of you who have so caringly shared throughout this year. Those we managed to help send their gratitude and thanks.
All blessings now and in the New Year,