Now and then, someone will come into confession clutching a prayer book open at “an examination of conscience” and when I see that my heart sinks a little, for I know that I am going to listen to an almost impersonal list of faults, which seems to do very little for the person concerned except to make them feel bad about themselves. The book stops them from seeing confession as a meeting with the Lord, who loves them and instead they measure themselves against the impersonal list of negative rules, found in these books and label themselves as “failures”. The consequence of this is that when I try to encourage them to take the Lord’s hand and accept his invitation to his partner, their reply is so often, “Oh, not me, Father, I am a sinner!” And I am tempted to respond, “Well, what do you think the rest of us are?”
Many of us seem to have caught the idea that we begin our spiritual lives as perfect people, “washed in the blood of the Lamb”, and this has been understood to mean that we have been made perfect – thus, any sin is seen as a betrayal of the Lord and so disqualifies us from being his companions. They forget – or maybe have never been taught – that our great sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are not magic and do not change us from being spotty frogs into handsome princes in the inkling of an eye – instead, they begin in us a process of truly human and divine change, in which the Holy Spirit gradually releases us from the chains that bind us and moulds us into the likeness of Christ. Thus, our reception of the sacraments truly frees us from our sins and makes us children of God – but we need to understand that this is a process, the work of the Holy Spirit, and will take the whole of our lives to bring to completion. Thus, when we look around us in church, what we should see is not a group of perfect people, but a group of sinners – but sinners on the way to greatness, sinners being moulded into the image and likeness of Christ. We are part of a People that are “coming-to-be”, a “Pilgrim People”, as the Second Vatican Council called us and it is to these people – including me – to whom Christ holds out his hand in friendship and partnership. The fact that we are still weak and often fail in some things does not prevent us from working with Christ, but can even be a help for he can use our very weakness in his service. The Lord does not ask us to be spotless, but to “bear fruit” – to walk with him, to love and to serve with him, and in doing this the Spirit moulds us into his likeness.
Only by giving ourselves day by day to the Lord as his companions, will we experience that we are an intimate part of the Lord’s mission, for we come to know that he has no hands to reach out with, but ours; he has no ears to listen with, but ours; he has no mouth to speak words of comfort, but ours – and above all, he has no heart to love with, but ours. The sacrament of the Eucharist is a plea from the Lord to give him a heart and life to live in – mine and yours – but I have to give myself, weak and sinful as I am, to be used by the Lord as he sees fit. Thus the needs of this partnership can never be laid down in a list of rules of “dos” and “don’ts” as written down in a prayer-book’s “examination of conscience” – it is a far, far richer experience than can ever be captured in such rules. It is a way of life that requires us to be on our guard and watch for the movements of our heart, which is how the Lord prompts us into action, for the situations, in which the Lord needs us, will suddenly appear in the happenings of our day and we must be ready to grasp them, for if we hesitate, they will pass us by never to be repeated.
This is why my heart sinks when I see someone carrying an open prayer-book into confession. I want to cry out, “Please, my friend, don’t look down at the book – all you will see is an image of God as a policeman ready to slap your fingers for having failed. Instead, look up at the face of your Lord and see that you are called to greatness, called to be the companion of God Almighty, a partner in his saving and healing work. That book will only hide from you the greatness and wonder of your vocation”.
I have just come back from two weeks in Bali. The first week was taken up leading a retreat and sightseeing tour for a group of 30 people mostly from Sarawak. We went to a lovely Carmel Retreat House in the hills of Bali, which was a cool and inspiring place for a retreat. People have been asking me to put their names down for the next retreat – I answered, “Who says there is going to be a next retreat?”
Sadly, I did not get into the prison in Bali, this time. I put aside the last Monday I was there to pay a visit, but when the time came I remembered that the prison is not open on Mondays. I have also lost my contacts with the guys inside so I was not able to tell them I was about. So, I have had to content myself with a prayer for them – please join me in that.
Two years ago, the Mill Hill Missionaries had a General Chapter here in Kuching and agreed to be open to missionary vocations from East Malaysia. I was asked to speak to the Chapter on that issue and I reminded the members that if the venture is of God it will succeed, but if we do not try we will never know. Now, two years later, we have four young men in or beginning their training as missionaries – and although I believed the words I spoke to the Chapter, I am amazed as I see the hand of the Lord so powerfully at work. Now, for the first time, the Lord has sent us these young men – not to join the Mill Hill mission to East Malaysia, but to join the new Mill Hill Mission from East Malaysia. Moreover, out of the blue, people have also come forward to offer the spiritual and financial help needed to train these young men. I am reminded of how I often feel when I stand on a high place and look down – it makes me tingle!