When I was a lad, among many prayers I learnt was the morning offering – a prayer dedicating the day to the Lord. However, when I went into the seminary and began to say the Divine Office – the several prayers that priests and religious are required to say each day – I let all my other prayers drop, including the morning offering, and that was my prayer situation, when I first came to Sarawak in 1971. After having been here for a couple of years, I went travelling upriver with a priest friend to visit a longhouse, but the water was very low and we were forced to spend the night in a Chinese shop – sleeping on the floor. In the morning, I awoke first, and was sitting, thinking about the day when my friend woke up. I saw his eyes flicker, then he sat up, made the sign of the cross and spent the next few moments in prayer – obviously making his morning offering. Then, he opened his eyes, smiled at me and said, “Good morning!” That so impressed me, that I began once more saying the morning offering every day and it has become for me, the most important prayer of the day; the words have changed over the years and whereas I used to give the Lord everything that was to happen during the day, I now say something like, “Lord, I don’t know where you want us to be today, nor what you want us to do when we get there, so take my hand and lead me to where you want us to be”.
However, important for me, though it is, it is not about the morning offering that I want to speak, but rather how I came to take up the morning offering once more – the so-called “coincidences” of that journey so many years ago. I now ask myself: how was it that the water was low, on that day, and we had to spend the night sleeping on the floor of that shop? Had we arrived at the longhouse, we would have slept in mosquito nets and I would never have seen my friend wake up and pray; also, the coincidence of my waking up first and happening to be looking in his direction so that I saw him wake and make his morning offering; and lastly, why did that prayer of my friend affect me so deeply? What was at work, on that day?
Recently, I was reading a document written by Pope Paul VI in which he speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us in baptism. He says that this is a gift of “Metanoia”, or “renewal”, which works on us gently throughout our life, rather like yeast works to make bread or wine. It is a gentle power moving deep in our hearts urging us on to “become”, who we are destined to be – true children of God. It is this Spirit that moves things so that misfortunes, such as low water in a river, become the occasions for a more profound happening. It is this Spirit who touches our hearts to notice words or actions, which invite us to move deeper into fellowship with the Lord. It is this Spirit, who moves us to reach out to other in compassion and sharing, so that the Love of God may also find a home in me, by showing mercy to others. It is this Spirit, who makes us the children of God – a process, which begins in baptism – but is brought to fulfilment throughout the whole of our life’s journey, under the prompting of this Holy Spirit.
Cardinal Newman wrote the famous hymn, “Lead kindly Light”. It was this Spirit of Metanoia, renewal that he was speaking of. He wrote, “I do not ask to see, one step enough for me”, but we have to be brave enough to take that step. Very often we cling to what we were taught as children about ways of prayer and belief and while they helped us begin our journey, they can also become obstacles to our growth in faith, if we cling to them and do not dare let go so that something deeper and more profound may become our guiding light. We Christians do not have a “way of life”, in the sense that prayers and other duties are laid down for us. We are given the command from the Lord to pray and to love one another – but we are not told how to do that. As St Francis de Sales says, we must serve God according to who we are, where we are and what we are. Thus, a mother of a large family is not expected to pray in the same way as a priest or nun; she must pray in a way that best helps her. We have to follow that gentle light that helps us find the best way for ourselves, or we will find we are merely copying others, when the Spirit would lead us on deeper paths as yet unknown to us. As one Benedictine spiritual master said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t!”
The prophet Isaiah writes, “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me” and as the Lord adds in the gospel of Luke, “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen.” (Lk 4:21) It is being fulfilled in us today, for that Spirit has been given to us. The invitations are being whispered deep in our hearts, in all the situations that we find ourselves in – but we have to listen when the word is spoken, look at what we are being shown and do what we are being invited to. As St. Francis de Sales also said, “Speak when you are spoken to!” – even if you are sitting on the floor of a Chinese shop at the time!
I have had to re-arrange my whole programme for this seminary break. I begin in the same way: I going to Kenya this morning for my nephew’s wedding, but my visit to Bali, which was to have been at the end of January, has had to be changed. So, when I get back from Kenya, I shall have two days here and then I shall go to Bali and celebrate Christmas there. I return on New Year’s Eve and have a few days here before going off to Sabah for the vocations seminar, followed by Jakarta to see someone I need to talk with and then on to the Philippines for a meeting. So for the next month my feet will hardly touch the ground.
Over the last few weeks, I have been telling people, at the end of Mass, about the 800 Christian families of Fr Joe Haas MHM in Indonesia, who are unable to go back to their homes because of hostilities. In these talks, I have not asked for anything, I have just told them that I will be giving him a little something at Christmas for his people. The gentle Spirit, that I spoke about earlier, however, has been using that occasion to touch people’s hearts and they have given about 15,000 Malaysian ringgit – about 3,000 pounds – and I will be able to give that to Fr Joe when he comes for a meeting in January.
Lastly, wherever you may be, and whomsoever you may be with this Christmas, may the Spirit of God be also with you and may you know the peace and joy of Bethlehem. Happy Christmas and a Blessed New Year