Last month I went to India for a wedding. The groom, Anji, had been one of the boys in a hostel for street children, where I worked, some sixteen years ago, and he had really wanted me to be with him on his big day. During that short visit, I met about twenty of the hostel boys I had helped look after and I was touched by their affection and the gratitude they still felt for what the Fathers had done for them. There was one person, in particular, whom I really wanted to meet; his name was Thomas and he and his brother had been brought up in the hostel. However, they had been unable to come to the wedding, so driven by Samy, another ex-hostel boy, I made the two hour journey upcountry to where they lived. They were both very pleased to see me and we spent a lovely afternoon together, but as I got ready to leave and return to the city, Thomas asked for my telephone number, which I thought a little strange because Thomas cannot speak English and I cannot speak Telegu. However, I gave it to him and the next day I received a telephone call from him, “Father”, he said, “this is Thomas….” and then he carried on speaking in Telegu. I tried to imagine what Thomas must be saying to me and replied to that and that was how our conversation went – two people speaking different languages, but somehow managing to communicate. After a while, I said goodbye to Thomas and hung up, but he phoned at least once a day for the rest of my visit and each time we had another such strange conversation! But why did he do it?
I had last met Thomas seven years previously, on my last visit to India. On that occasion, I had heard that he was unwell and also that he had been taking drugs – someone had put him on drugs several years before and Thomas could not break from them. So, I went to see him and was shocked at what I saw – he was so terribly thin that I assumed he had contracted AIDS, through his drug use. His brother showed me a doctor’s report, but it told me nothing; so I did the only thing I could think of, I prayed with him and his brother, but as I left them, I was almost sure that it would be the last time I would see Thomas alive.
The next day, however, a priest friend of mine invited me to go with him to visit an Indian lady, who owned a private school and had been very kind in giving several scholarships to our hostel boys; so I went with him and, while there, I met her son, a doctor, on a visit from England to see his mother. During our conversation, I mentioned Thomas and the son told me to bring Thomas to see him, but that it would have to be that evening, because he was leaving for England the following day. So, we arrived with Thomas about seven O’clock that night and after examining him, he said that he thought it might well be TB, not AIDS, and that I should take him to get an x-ray. Fortunately, in India, you can get an x-ray at any time of the day or night and so we went immediately to the hospital and returned to see the doctor, with the x-ray, just before midnight. He looked at it and said that it was indeed TB, not AIDS and gave me a letter for the doctor at the TB hospital.
The next day, we took Thomas to the hospital and, after having been examined, he was admitted as a patient and was told that he would have to stay there for several months. The hospital and the medicine were free, but not the high protein food supplement that he would need in order to recover. However, I had enough money to buy a month’s supply for him and when I returned to England I sent enough money to Samy to buy the needed food for the rest of Thomas’ stay. When I left India that time, I was happy that I had been able to help Thomas, but I still had grave doubts that he would ever fully recover. Hence my delight, when I met Thomas this time: he was fit, healthy, had a job he took pleasure in, was building his own house – and had not touched drugs since his time in hospital.
It would be easy to say that I had saved Thomas’ life, but that would be a very “tunnel-visioned” view of what actually happened on that visit to India – for it completely overlooks the many “coincidences” that brought Thomas a new lease of life. The fact that I chose to visit India seven years ago and to come at a time when Thomas so desperately needed help, was a coincidence. The invitation from my priest-friend to visit the lady, whose son was a doctor, was a coincidence – as also was he his actually being there at that time and so able to diagnose Thomas’ ailment. There were too many coincidences for this to be chance – and I have come to be aware that where many coincidences come together, in this way, the Lord is at work: the one who said, “I have come that you may have life – and have it to the full!” Looking back, I am convinced that on that visit to India, I saw the way the Lord works among us.
Last Sunday, we celebrated the Ascension of the Lord, the day when the Lord went away from us. However, he went away, so that he could live among us in a far more intimate way and through the power of the Spirit he now shares our lives and goes on healing, caring and giving life, but now through, with and in us. If we dare to offer ourselves to him, when we see the bread and wine being offered at Mass, we open ourselves to being drawn into this life-giving love for others and we also become loving – even though we may not fully realise what is happening at the time. So, I did save Thomas’ life, but so also did the doctor, the priest who invited me to go visiting and also Samy who made sure Thomas had the food he needed – all of us were life-savers sharing in the power and loving care of the Lord – for he was the one who really saved Thomas, by pulling us all in together through those “coincidences”.
That is why Thomas phoned me every day and sometimes twice a day during my visit to India. He is now fine and well; he no longer uses drugs and reaches out to help those around him. He has a life, a life he received from the Lord, but a life he received through me and so he wanted to give thanks to the Lord – but also through me. Hence the phone-calls!
I must admit that on one occasion, when I saw that it was Thomas calling me, my heart sank and I did not answer! But, at other times I did answer and we had this strange conversation with Thomas using one language and me using another – but it does not matter: we were rejoicing – he that he was alive and I that I had been given a wonderful opportunity of helping someone live. I suppose that you could say that in those unusual conversations, we were both praising the God who lives among us and draws us into life and we were doing so through the gift of tongues!
Now I am back in Kuching and the new term has begun. The senior students have returned after six months of pastoral work in the parishes. It must be hard for them to come back to their studies after living a different type of life for six months – but they now have many new experiences to use in their theology studies – as do I.
This last month has been a worrying time for me on the family front. My brother and his wife, Mary, were due to come for my jubilee, but my brother had been getting a severe pain in his side and when he went for consultation, it was discovered that he had cancer. Fortunately, the consultant has assured him that while they cannot get rid of it, they can treat it and keep it under control. That has made us all much easier about the future, but it means that he will not be able to be here for my jubilee. I shall miss him and Mary as they were the only members of my family, who were coming. May I ask for your prayers for my brother, Bern, and for Mary his wife who must have suffered many nights of worry.
My jubilee Mass and reception is to be held at St Peter’s Church, Padungan at 5.30pm on Sunday 12th June and, if you are within striking distance, you are very welcome to be with me. Being a Sunday, the priests, of course, cannot be there, so the seminary is hosting its own celebration the next day, 13th June, when some priests will be able to be there. I now sit back and think, “Where have those 40 years gone?” Sometimes, when I look back at those years, I think of them as a survival course, but, then, other memories arise and I come to consider myself one of the most fortunate of men!