On my recent visit to Africa for my nephew’s wedding, I met a young woman, who was housekeeper in the house where I was staying. She was a good-looking and hard-working young woman and she had a daughter about the age of six, one of a pair of young girls, in that house, of roughly the same age and height, and their sparkling eyes and ready smiles brightened each day that I stayed there. Later, I was told that some years before, the young woman had had an admirer, who asked her to marry him, but when she refused, he attacked and raped her. Her little girl was the result of that rape. I thought about that when, in the middle of the wedding Mass, I looked at her sitting in the front row, in all her finery; she saw me looking and gave me such a radiant smile and, in so doing, showed me the face of our God, who makes the desert bloom and brings such a wondrous good, as that little girl, from the hideous crime of rape.
She also came to mind at Midnight Mass, in Bali. At the prayers of intercession, a Filipina friend prayed for the victims of the terrible floods that have devastated the Philippines and added – “but all things happen for a reason.” I had heard this said before, but that way of putting it is not quite correct, for it seems to suggest that God sends disasters on the earth, which he does not, but he can and does use the sometimes terrible happenings that occur on the earth to bring about good and he does this in such a wonderful way that sometimes we are tempted to say – “In a strange way, I am glad that that happened, because without it I would not have known the goodness I now know today”.
Such a happening occurred in 1987, when a hurricane struck the south of England – the worst for over a hundred years – and destroyed so many trees that experts said that the forests of southern England would need a generation to recover. However, the following year, flowers sprang up in those areas where the trees had fallen – for they could now receive the sunshine – and the woods and forests were more beautiful than they had been for a long time. Likewise,
I remember someone, who had suffered from alcoholism, telling me of his 20 year history of compulsion to drink and how it had been an ongoing nightmare. However, having now been brought into recovery by the power of God, he was actually grateful that he was an alcoholic, because, he said, he was now closer to God than he would ever have been, had he not endured that terrible disease.
Our religion and the spiritual practices we have been taught are not given to us so that we may be protected from the disasters and tragedies that ravage our world, but are given so that we may know how to let God into our lives so that he may lead us into goodness and also be able to face up to and live through those terrible happenings as they occur. It is in entrusting all these things into the hands of God that we grow as his sons and daughters and enable him to bring goodness out of those difficulties and tragedies; as Scripture says, “God brings everything to the good for those who love him” Rom. 8. This teaching stands at the very heart of our faith – for the resurrection came about through the horror of Good Friday and so turned that day of hatred and evil into a day of hope for all mankind.
The memory of that smiling, little African girl will long remain with me – assuring me that our world is not as black and white, as we tend to think. It assures me that even though tragedy and evil may come upon us, either through the blind destruction, which can come from nature, or through the malicious machinations of men and women, God will never be defeated. Goodness will out – the desert will bloom again – as the smile of that little girl showed me.
I enjoyed my visit to Africa. The wedding was great fun, including, when at the reception, an old Maasai woman, one of the leaders of the clan, gave a speech teaching the bride and her husband (my nephew) what the clan expected of them both – the groom was expected to now help the family of the girl and the girl must not let her gaze stray to other men! The giving of this very down-to-earth wisdom is traditional at a Maasai wedding – but I understood what was being said because it was translated into English as she went along – much to the embarrassment of the bride and groom.
A few days later, I met a young man and, in the course of the conversation, he told me that his father had died of AIDS and that his mother was HIV positive. He was literally working his way through College to get a journalist’s degree – working till he had enough money for the next year’s fees. In the course of the conversation, I saw him writing things down in an old exercise book and on asking him what he was doing that, I was told that he was taking notes for an assignment, for he had no laptop. Some people had been generous to me for Christmas and so I bought him a laptop, at which he was over the moon. However, when I returned to Malaysia, I got a message from him saying that his mother had been taken into hospital and begging me for the money for her fees. I felt uneasy about this, but told him to get an invoice from the hospital, scan it and send it to me by email. It arrived the next day, so I sent it on to a Mill Hill friend of mine in Kenya and asked him to pay the bill for me. He said that he would, but the next day, he wrote that he had been to the hospital and they had no patient of that name and when they looked at the invoice they said it was a forgery. How sad to begin the New Year like this – not sad for me, but sad for the lad.
I was given a glimpse of understanding, while on the way to the hotel where the wedding was to be held. The taxi-driver got lost and we travelled for an hour through a slum part of Nairobi. It reminded me of the worst parts of Mumbai, when, years ago, I lived in India. Sheer poverty! Rows and rows of tin huts amidst rubbish strewn roads, with so many people trying anything to live. The contrast between that part of the city and the hotel, where the wedding was held, was startling and helped me understand how young people might grab any opportunity that might seem to offer a way out of that awful poverty. So, I have no regrets that I gave the boy the laptop, for despite what happened later, I believe he was in need – and the poor do not need to be “deserving” in order to be given help. As John Paul II said, “When we reach out to the poor, we are not giving charity, we are giving justice.”
With that thought, may I wish you all God’s blessings of yourself and your dear ones in this New Year of Grace – 2012!