My brother has cancer. We don’t know how serious it is as yet, because he is still undergoing chemotherapy – but it is worrying, for side-shoots have appeared since it was first diagnosed. A few weeks ago, he asked me to pray for a woman he and my sister-in-law had met during his treatment, “She has had a far tougher journey than I have,” he said, and then he began to tell me a little of her story. She had given him, he told me, a small plastic figure of a guardian angel, “to keep you safe during your treatment”, she had said, and my brother was so touched by this kindness that he asked me to say Mass for her and seemed more keen that I should remember her, in my prayers, than remember him. As he was talking, I was deeply moved that these two people, so much in need of help themselves, should be so concerned about the care and welfare of someone else. Such altruism – care and concern for others – is often to be seen in those who are themselves in need of care and help. It is a sign of the Spirit’s presence.
This remembered this recently, when I was reading the gospel of the wise and foolish virgins. Only the wise virgins had oil for their lamps and so could enter the wedding feast – the foolish had no oil and so could not enter. “Oil”, when it is found in the Scriptures and the liturgy, is usually a symbol of the Holy Spirit – as it is in this parable. When a person is baptised, or confirmed, or ordained a priest, they are anointed with chrism – olive oil mixed with perfume and blessed at the Mass of Chrism. Chrism symbolises the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the person – and not just the “coming” on that one occasion, but also the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in us as he pulls us out of ourselves, moving us to care for the world with the Lord. “The Wedding Feast” is not a reward for the love and care that we are drawn into, but is the deep beauty and joy we experience when we do love and care for others. The prayers and practices of our religious faith are all designed to open us to this movement of the Spirit through us, but without it, they are like lamps without oil, lamps that cannot light our way to the Wedding Feast.
We often think about our salvation in rather individualistic terms – me being a good boy – but salvation is being brought into the family of love and care – and that is obviously something that only concerns me. The Mass, our central act of worship, speaks of the Lord still being among us, inviting us to join him in his care and concern for the world and if I accept, I open the doors of my life to the Holy Spirit, who draws me into that love. It is tempting to say in response to this, “well I care for my family and friends” – and it is true, they are my first “neighbour” – but if I never allow myself to be drawn out beyond those I love, then I am in just a larger form of selfishness – “me and mine” against the world. Christ can’t fit into that. Not that we learn to love like Christ all at once – it goes step by step, as the Spirit guides us. We find ourselves continually being led to cross over boundaries as the Spirit moves through us, taking our hearts and giving them to people we don’t know – and then to our astonishment we discover that the strangers we reached out to have changed and have become our beloved brothers and sisters. The family of those I love thus gets larger and larger. Because I was given oil in my lamp, I dared to go among strangers, and discovered them to be family.
The Spirit “nudges” us, prompting us to reach out to others and I received such a nudge recently on the Feast of All Souls. On the evening of that day, I went up to the Catholic cemetery near the seminary, here in Kuching. I went to light candles and say some prayers at the graves of the Mill Hill priests, who worked here in times past. The cemetery was a blaze of candle light as many others came to remember and honour their dead. As I made my way slowly back, I noticed a few graves here and there with no candles on them – their family members had probably moved away and there was no one to remember them on All Souls Day. It struck me that if I could not spare a candle for those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ, then there does not seem much hope that I will dare reach out to those who are complete strangers. A small plastic angel was the doorway to a new friendship for my brother; maybe a candle will help do the same for me next year.
I decided earlier this year that I would tutor the students instead of just teaching them. It is working very well, but I did not appreciate how much extra work it would be for me! Amongst other things, the number of my blogs has decreased because there always seems to be a stuent waiting to see me for tuition. I must stop now – here comes another young man!
Suddenly, I realise that Christmas is getting near – and even next January’s appointment page is filling at an alarming rate. My thoughts keep going to a Mill Hill confrere of mine in Indonesia, Fr Joe Haas. There was a war some eight or nine years ago between Christians and Moslems on the islands where he works and his parishioners have never been able to return to their land. He says that they manage somehow, but if they need something extra such as medical or school fees, then they are in difficulties. I know Fr Joe will be travelling soon for his Christmas visit to them – even though he is into his 70s – so I have decided to send him a gift for Christmas, so he has something to bring with him when he goes.
Last week, a young man was trying to persuade me to get an iPhone – I still use an ordinary mobile phone. He told me in all seriousness that in twenty years’ time my type of phone will be obsolete and so I should get myself a modern one now. I thought – but did not say – “in 20 years time I will be almost 90! I doubt whether I will be interested in any type of phone, let alone the latest gadget!”