Many years ago, I was asked to help out in the parish neighbouring mine, because the Parish Priest had died. I would set out on a Saturday afternoon and travel 20kms, in an old bus, which bounced its way along a sandy, potholed road until we reached the small town at the mouth of the next river. There, I would take an old motor launch and watch the scenery, as it chugged its way upriver for two hours, until it arrived at the small town where the Parish church was. I would usually stay there for the weekend, saying two Sunday Masses, one in the church and one in a kampong, some way upriver, and then travel back to my own mission on the Monday. I was young, 29 years old, with time and energy on my hands, a passion for fixing things – but almost no money to do it with. On one of these weekend visits, my gaze alighted on the rather grubby shrine of Our Lady in front of the Church, which was glassed in on three sides, but had a piece of plastic bag tacked on to the fourth side to keep out the rain. I took the statue into the house, washed it and over the next few weeks painted it until it was ready to go back in the shrine. I next cleaned out the shrine, painted that as well and measured the side without glass, for I had saved up my pennies to buy a piece of glass for it, the next time I came. A few days later, in my own mission, I bought the glass and was carrying it back to the house, when a 16 year old Catholic lad, by the name of Wilbert, came up and offered to carry it for me. I knew Wilbert quite well and as we walked along chatting, I told him about the shrine and he asked if he could come through with me the following weekend and help me fix it up and I gladly accepted his offer.
Early the following Saturday morning, we set off and it took both of us to keep the glass safe on the bumpy bus journey, but finally we got it to the parish just before lunch. We ate in the bazaar and afterwards I went for short a siesta, while Wilbert said that he would begin getting things ready. When I woke up, I found a sorrowful lad waiting for me. While I was asleep, he had decided to try to fix the glass by himself and in the course of doing so had broken it – it was not shattered, but lay in two pieces. I grumbled and complained, saying that he should have waited for me – and the memory that scene came back to me this past week – of Wilbert standing there with tears gently rolling down his cheeks.
I was puzzled at first as to why this memory had suddenly surfaced, for it happened while I was meditating on the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ” (8:35). I had been thinking that this was true when trouble came from without, but, I was pondering, was this also true, when trouble came from within, from inside us? There are times when my spirit seems to revolt against the Lord and goes its own way. Does not this, I wondered, come between me and the love of Christ? Can his love still reach me if I have chosen to go in another direction? It was then that the memory of Wilbert and the glass re-surfaced and I remembered, for the first time in many years, the look on that tear-stained face – a look which showed that Wilbert condemned himself far more than my grumbling had done, yet all he had done was being willing to try.
It is strange how divided is the life we lead here on earth; we gain wisdom in one part of our lives, but we do not easily apply that insight to others areas of life. For instance, it would never occur to us to give our computer to a carpenter to be mended. Nor would we call in an electrician, if we had a pain in our back. We know that there are some things a person can do and others that he is unable to do. We do not expect everyone to have all skills – but we do not remember this, when we think about the spiritual life – and especially our own spiritual life. Wilbert knew what he wanted to do, but he did not have the skill to do it, and I blamed him for this – but worse, he blamed himself much more. Likewise, in our spiritual lives, we know what we should do – such as: with me, not being grumpy – but we often do not know how to do it. And then we blame ourselves and live in a shame, which can stultify our lives, because it hides from us the affection in which God holds us. These things come from within, but they do not separate us from the love of Christ even though at times we feel that they do.
Spirituality and morality are ways of loving – and loving is as much a skill to be learnt as mending computers or doctoring are – and part of this skill is realising that when we act, we do not do so in isolation from other things going on in our lives. We may be concentrating on one thing, but there are always many other things involved, when we try to achieve something – and it may well be that these “side issues” are more important than what I am trying to do. For example, all that I could see, those many years ago, was my aim of having a neat clean shrine, glassed in on four sides – what I was not looking at was a young man, who had happily given up his weekend in order to help me with what I was doing. As I sat there, remembering Wilbert, I now realise that his offer of friendship was far more precious than a refurbished shrine for the parish church.
I judged my efforts to refurbish the shrine by the results – I was left with a shrine which had the glass on one side broken. I also judge my union with Christ by whether I complete the things I assume to be necessary to foster that communion. If all I had wanted was a perfect shrine, I could have hired a skilled man from the bazaar to do the work and there would have been no tears and no regrets, but no thrill of trying to do it myself. Instead, I have the memory of something I tried to do – and only partly succeeded at – but my “trying” also brought me close to Wilbert, who remained a close friend – despite my grumbling – for many years afterwards, until, over time, contact with him was lost. I know now which of the two I most treasure. So, despite the broken glass, something more precious was created that day – and in remembering that, a new insight into how the Lord works was received.
I have been trying to remember how that episode with the broken glass ended. I would like to think that when I saw the tears on Wilbert’s cheeks I went and put my arm round him and told him it was ok. But I can’t remember, whether I did so or not. I do so hope that I did, because one day, when I myself come before the Lord, with tears on my cheeks – because of all the things I think I have failed at – I hope that he will also come and put his arm round me.
I have come back after spending ten days, in the Philippines, giving a retreat to the eight Mill Hill Philosophy students there. I enjoyed their company and gained a lot from the retreat myself. However, it is a long time since I have seen so many photographs taken and not wishing to be left out, I gave my camera to one of them to take some pics. One of the problems with digital cameras is that you can take as many pics as you like – but then you have to go through them to decide which ones to keep and which ones to reject.
I took with me a young man from Sabah, East Malaysia, Chaistten by name, who has expressed a desire to become a Mill Hill Missionary. He is the first candidate from East Malaysia and I met him last January when I was at the big vocations retreat in Sabah that I told you about. So, please pray for him; he was accepted and will begin his training in July of this year.
Yesterday, I felt an ache in my left arm, just below the shoulder and I felt a twinge of worry, because I had been reading of how heart attacks are often predicted by pains in the left arm. I was in bed, at the time, but then I realised that I also had an ache in my right arm, in the same place. I lay there wondering a little as to what was causing it, when I realised that I had been cutting grass for the past two days and the lawn mower is quite heavy – so just muscle pain!
My ruby Jubilee of ordination will be on 12th June this year, a Sunday and I will be saying the evening Mass at St Peter’s Padungan, the church where I usually help out by saying one Mass on a Sunday. The Parish Priest has kindly told me that he will arrange a buffet reception in the Parish Hall after Mass. However, because it is a Sunday, and the priests will not be able to come, the seminary is going to host a Mass followed by a buffet at the seminary on 13th June. Now I have to find the time to have small cards printed as “a little memory”, as my late Aunt Mary would have put it.
Late last night, I received a message from one of the “Bali Nine” in jail in Bali. One of those I visit is going to have his sentence reviewed on Tuesday and he asked if I could send a letter of support. So, I sat late into the night composing one which I hope will help him. I finished it and sent it off and I hope it will help. At present, he faces life imprisonment – his whole life! Please remember him in your prayers.