At 2am, on a cold and frosty night, nearly twenty years ago in Reading, I received a phone call from the Obstetrics Department of the local hospital. The caller was a nurse, who told me that a woman had miscarried at 7 months and wanted the foetus blessed. I ask at what time the woman had miscarried and was told that it had happened at 7.30pm the previous evening. “Then why”, I asked grumpily, “are you only calling me at two O’clock in the morning?” “Because”, the nurse replied, “she has only just asked for the foetus to be blessed.” “Which parish is she from?” I asked and the nurse said, “Oh, she is not a Catholic.” “Then why are you calling me?” I said, “I am the Catholic chaplain”. “Because you are the duty chaplain”, she answered patiently, “and so look after all Christians at night”. I looked at my nice warm and snug bed, gave a sigh and said, “OK, I’ll come.”
I had no car, in those days, and the hospital was about half an hour’s walk from the Parish House and as I walked I grumbled and complained to the Lord, “I don’t know why you’re sending me there. She’s not a Catholic, so what am I supposed to do?” When I arrived at the hospital, I was shown into the room, where the woman was and I sat talking with her, while the nurse went to get the tiny body. The foetus was a perfectly formed boy and the nurse had carefully washed the body and placed it in a small cardboard box, which she had made into a cradle with a little pillow and coverlet. All three of us sat and quietly talked about the baby and I asked the mother whether she had given him a name and she answered, “Yes, Thomas” and then she cried a little as she told us that he would have been their first-born. Then, I blessed the tiny body and found myself saying, “O Lord, you knew little Thomas could not live long in our world, but you wanted him to know he was loved and wanted before you took him home and so you put him under his Mother’s heart for seven months….” After the prayer, the nurse took the baby away and I held the mother as she cried out her pain and sorrow. We were three strangers, but something much deeper held us together that night and made it one of the most intimate occasions that I have ever experienced.
The Lord is involved in everything we do – but most often we are not aware of what he is doing or the extent of it. So it was on that night – as I walked back home, I looked up at the sky and said, “Alright, so you did know what you were doing when you sent me there – and I’m glad I went”. However, all I had seen, at that time, was that the Lord had sent me to comfort a young mother, but I now realise that there was far, far more going on. The memory of that night has led me to slowly realise that I was also sent, because I needed to go, for in those intimate moments between me, the nurse and the mother, something was happening – I was being moulded into becoming a caring person – but on my walk home, however, I saw only that a young woman had been comforted, and so missed the full richness and wonder of what had been taking place.
That memory came back to me last weekend, as I read the story of the feeding of the five thousand (Mat 14:13-21), and it helped me see the story with new eyes. We also tend to think of this story only in terms of the results – Jesus fed five thousand with just five loaves and two fish, but can that be all there is to it? Was the Lord only interested in giving them supper before they went home? Put that way, we realise that something much deeper must have been taking place, something we miss if we only look at those five thousand well-fed people.
The richness of the story begins to appear, if we look at the way the Lord draws the disciples into the story. They come and tell Jesus to send the people away because they are hungry, but he tells them to give the people something to eat themselves; they understand this only in material terms and so exclaim, “But we only have five loaves and two fish!” The Lord, however, does not then side-line the disciples; he keeps them right in the centre of the story and tells them, “Bring the loaves and fish to me”. He, then, blesses the food, breaks it and gives it back to the disciples to distribute to the people – and it is here that we need to use our imagination in order to see that the Lord was doing far more than just giving the people their supper. We need to picture “how” the disciples gave that food to the people and what they said as they did so. I cannot believe that they handed it out in silence – or, even less, that they said, “I hope you are grateful for what you are being given!” I am sure that they must have given it with a smile and said something like, “The Lord wants you to have this and I hope you enjoy your meal”. If I am right, then as the disciples took the food to the people, they were not just giving out bread, they were themselves becoming bread – for, by showing them that they were loved and wanted, they were also feeding the people, but at a deeper level.
Bread is made from grains, usually of wheat, grains, which first have to be ground into flour and then mixed with water and yeast to make the dough. I once watched someone kneading dough to make bread – they pounded it, pushed it, pulled it and they kneaded it, over and over again. I remember asking, “Isn’t it ready yet?” and was told, “Oh, no! It takes a lot of kneading to make dough ready for baking.” We need an equal amount of pounding and pushing and pulling in order to make us into caring, compassionate people, ready to become bread for the world. This is the Lord’s work and he is at this in all the happenings of our daily life. He was making bread when he drew the disciples into the feeding of the five thousand and he was also making bread when he called me out on that cold night in Reading and sent me to the hospital.
I have been feeling tired quite a lot over the last few weeks and have also had a cough, so last week I finally decided to go to the doctor. He examined me and told me that I had bronchitis and gave me various medicines – for the cough, the mucus and antibiotics. Marvellous! I feel a new man. I have found some energy – the first time for quite a while.
Over the past few weeks, I have heard and read about two young Englishmen living in Bali, who had motorbike accidents. Both of them were knocked unconscious and were taken to the local hospital where they remained in a coma. Neither of them had medical insurance and the costs were nearly £1000 per day. The aunt of one of them is my cousin and she told me that he has just been repatriated to UK, but at the cost of £80,000! His family and parents, who are retired for the flight, are struggling to find ways to pay back that money – and may well have to sell their home to make up the shortfall. Please remember them in your prayers and also all other families in similar situations.
Please also remember in your prayers, a young man who prison in Bali, who is trying to raise the money for an appeal so that he may not have to spend the rest of his life in prison.