In the parish where I worked at the time, the 70s and 80s were marked by a spate of church building or refurbishment. We had pastoral care over 30 villages and longhouses and most of these were either in the process of building churches or improving them. The people themselves planned and executed these building and renovations and with some fine results, but also some “interesting” results! One chapel committee, for example, decided to make a new confessional and also to buy a new chair for the priest to sit on. So they bought a solid piece of block-board and decided to cut the grill – that through which the priest and penitent speak – according to an artistic design. They designed the grill in the shape of a heart, through which passed a cross and they cut this into the screen with a drill. The resulting shape looked very good, but when I used it to hear confessions, I found that the drill holes were so small that I had to press my ear hard against the wood in order to hear what the penitent was saying. Added to this, the chair they had bought for me to sit on when hearing confessions was a tubular steel chair and that would have been fine, except that the floor of the confessional was neither wood nor cement, but hardened earth. Now, I am a big man, so when I sat down, with my ear pressed against the board in an attempt to hear what was being said, I found myself slowly sinking as the tubular legs sank into the earth floor and at the end of each confession, I had to pull the chair out of the earth and put it in a new place and try to hear what the next penitent was saying before the sinking chair took me out of ear-shot! The whole problem could have been avoided had they shared their plans with me and asked what I thought, but it rarely occurs to us that the way we think things should be done may not be quite the best way.
That is true of so many things in human affairs – and even more so in matters of God. I remember that it took me a long time to realise that my ideas of how God’s Will should be carried out may not be the best way of doing things – and it took me even longer to realise that my ideas of what is right and wrong may not always be God’s – despite landing myself and others in trouble on many occasions. From when I first learnt to pray, I used to say: “Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done”, but it never occurred to me to ask God what his Will actually was! Our personal prayers also tend to take the same form – we are so sure that we know what “the Good” is, that our prayers often consist in telling God what to do and, if we are honest, this sounds much more like: “my Kingdom come and “my will be done”. Only when I find myself on my knees before God, as my world collapses and all my plans and ideas are revealed to be the straw they are, does the true prayer of someone before his God come to my lips: “Lord, teach me your ways!”
The Gospel story is full of instances of the Lord disappearing to spend time in prayer to his Father – and I am sure that we can only truly understand this need for prayer when we also understand that in taking upon himself the fullness of our human nature, the Jesus had to struggle, like us, to discover the Will of the Father and he could only do this – by asking him in prayer! Indeed, we see this right up to the end of his life, when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked the Father if there was another way, apart from the cup of suffering he saw before him. Christ, the God-man, in his humility, asked for help and advice from his Father, whereas we, so often, do not, because in our pride we think we know – as an ancient writing says: “As pride was the first sin, so it is the source and origin of all the sins that are committed.”
We know we are led by the Holy Spirit and that every good desire comes from him – but not necessarily how to put that desire into action – for that we need help and advice. Only the prayer of asking for such help and advice can open us to that awareness that there is a distinction between what we want to do and how to do it. A morning offering, which humbly asks the Lord to tell us what his Will is today, can open us up to this – but we must also listen to the answer. It is the Spirit who urges us towards the good; it is the Spirit who inspires us, according to our capability, how to do it and he does this in many ways – often in the form of a movement of our heart or a passing thought or memory. We need to learn to listen to him, however he may speak, if we are to hear this word of advice and so avoid chairs that sink into the ground. I once heard this teaching put in another, succinct way: if you think of God as your co-pilot – change seats!
As I look out of the window, this morning, I see sunshine – something we have been lacking for some days now. The remains of a typhoon have been off the coast of Sarawak for the past week and that has brought us rain, rain and more rain. It helps me remember what a depressing place England can be in winter – especially just after Christmas – and I offer up a prayer for those of you there that you will remember that Easter and Spring is coming!
This coming weekend, there is a vocations seminar in Sabah, the Malaysian state to the north of us. It is organised by the Sabah clergy and run by the seminarians and they make wonderful recruiting sergeants for Mill Hill as well as for the dioceses of Sabah. Last year, they got me to sing an action song as a part of the entertainment and I was told by one lad that that made him realise that I was human!!! We got two Mill Hill candidates from the seminar last year – marvellous what a song and dance act can do – under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that is!
As the priests and seminarians are away and I am the only one in residence, I thought it would be a good opportunity to diet, so I cut out rice. I thought that together with daily grass-cutting I would lose weight, but I seem to be getting bigger! I think it maybe that three meals are put in front of me every day, with the result I feel a pressured to eat because the cooks go to so much trouble and care to prepare nice food for me. I console myself with the thought that a skinny Father Christmas would not be able to do his job properly!