Recently, a woman asked to see me and when she arrived she was obviously nervous, even frightened. Slowly, she began to tell me how, about twenty years previously, when she was studying far away from home, she had become involved with a man who said that he wanted to marry her. She had become pregnant and then discovered that the man was married. She was too ashamed to tell her parents, because it went against all that they had taught her, but she did not want to abort the child and fortunately there was a family, she knew, who took her in, cared for her and, when she had delivered her baby girl, offered to adopt the child. She agreed and then returned to Sarawak, never to see the family again, but she told no one about what had happened, except her husband, when she married. However, so great was her feeling of guilt at what she had done, that she never went to confession; she thought that she could not be forgiven. As she finished, she began softly to cry, so I took her hand and told her that she had been a very brave young woman, for despite tremendous difficulties, she had chosen to give the gift of life to her daughter. Because of her, a young woman now lived and, we hoped, was happy. That was not sinful – that was God-like – I added that I was sure that God was very proud of you. Her face began to lift as I spoke and you could almost see the chains she had worn for years dropping away from her and, when we finished talking, she walked away a free woman – healed and forgiven.
We are not good at judging ourselves and we are even worse at judging God. When we fail to live up to what we think to be right, we condemn ourselves – and then imagine that God also condemns us. I read once that “God made us in his own image and likeness and then we did the same for him”. We project onto God our own attitudes and feelings and when we turn away in disgust at our own or others’ behaviour, we imagine that God does the same! We overlook that the Gospels show us the face of a God who is madly, completely, hopelessly in love with us. It is not God who turns away from us when we do wrong, but we who block out the face of our loving Father by putting on to him the false mask of an angry and vengeful God. We close up on ourselves in shame, just as that poor woman did, because we think that we have done something that he would not be able to forgive.
Last Sunday, the Gospel was the story of the Samaritan woman at the well – a story which shows so clearly that the Lord will not allow himself to be pushed away, even when our behaviour is rather awful. Jesus sits down by the well and asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. She turns her sarcastic tongue on him and mocks him, but he will not give up on her, no matter how defensive or impertinent she becomes. Finally she realises that he is not looking down on her, but offering her friendship, offering her life and she dares to stand in truth before him and own who and what she is. Faced with Jesus’ kindness and concern, she realises that it was alright to be herself, she was not being condemned, and in that acceptance by the Lord, she received what we call “forgiveness” – which is not God opening himself up to us, but us allowing the barriers which separate us from God, barriers which we ourselves erected, to be taken down.
Our prayer also often carries these marks of separation. We can be so preoccupied with what we think God wants us to be – virtuous, disciplined, charitable – that our prayers are taken up with promises to become like that. We do not realise that he wants me, as I am, with all my warts, lacks and brokenness – all that makes me, me! I am the one he loves and I am the one he wants. All he asks is to let him love me as I am, to trust him with myself. He will not look down on me or despise me – just as Jesus did not look down or despise the Samaritan woman. In that unconditional love of God for us, we find life and joy. God becomes for us what pure clear water is for a thirsty man. The woman, who came to see me, could not forgive herself because she felt that she had betrayed all that her parents had taught her about what was right and good. She thought they would be horrified and imagined that God would also be like that. By coming and telling me about her story, she allowed God’s Spirit to break down those walls of falsehood and was once more able to see her Father, her God smiling at her with his arms open, just waiting for her – just as he had been waiting for her throughout all those twenty years she had carried her chains.
I have been having a very busy Lent up to now. Tonight, I will be finishing a seven week course on sexual morality in one of the Kuching parishes. I have given two-day and three-day Lenten reflections in two parishes. I have given a weekend retreat to the Ladies’ Guild and next Friday I go to the Philippines for ten days to give a five day retreat to the Mill Hill students. This is on top of my normal lectures. Still, it keeps me out of mischief – or almost!
I have got myself a new mattress for my bed. It is lovely! My old mattress was getting rather thin and the bed made noises when I turned over at night. This one is much more firm, so no noises and a good night’s sleep. As I snuggle down, I bless the kind person who bought it for me.
My 40th Jubilee of priesthood is on 12th June this year – something I think is worth celebrating. There will be a Mass in St. Peter’s Parish, where I help out on Sundays, and also a celebration here in the seminary on 13th June. If you are in the neighbourhood on that weekend, you are very welcome to join with me.