In 1941, an Austrian doctor and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, and his wife were sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis, because they were Jewish. The conditions in those camps were appalling and yet Viktor survived, whereas many others gave up and died. After the war, he asked himself: what was it that caused him to survive, when so many others, often men stronger than he, gave up and perished. The answer he gave was “his love for his wife”. All through those years, the thought of her kept him going, for he knew that after the war, she would need him and this gave him the strength to endure the terrible sufferings and the inhuman situations in which he found himself, so that he would be there for her.
After the war, he discovered that his wife had not survived the camp, but the memory of how his love for her enabled him to survive remained with him. Reflecting on this, he came to see that between any situation, in which we find ourselves, and our response to that situation, there is a space where we can choose what attitude we will take up in the face of that situation. In other words, we may not be able to change the situation, but we can always change ourselves. The conditions of near starvation in the camps had led some there to become vicious, self-centred brutes, but Viktor remembered others – not many, but some – who went from bed to bed, comforting the dying and very weak – even sharing with them their last bit of bread. All these men faced the same desperate situation, but the choice of how to respond led to some being swallowed up by the cruelty – but enabled others to transcend it and become saints. The camp thus showed him that we humans, in the depths of our being, are free and nothing can take away that freedom –not even when we are facing death, for he had seen men brought to the doors of the gas chambers and they had chosen to walk in with their heads held high and with the “Our Father” or the “Shema Yisrael” on their lips! Nothing could deprive them – or us – of our dignity, if we so choose.
This profound reflection of Frankl is not about doing what is right or wrong; it is far deeper than that – it is about the person I choose to become. Mostly, this choice is made in the many little choices of every day, but now and then I am brought face to face with a major form of this choice, when I come up against a serious situation I cannot avoid and I have to decide how I shall respond to it. It is then that those I love and those, who love me play a vital part, for their love enables me, prompts me, urges me to choose to become the person that both they and I would be proud of. Their love thus gives meaning to my life and gives me the power to become the person I choose to be – even if, as in Frankl’s case, the beloved is dead, for the love I have for that person, and the memory of their love for me, still lives on and still moulds me in the choice of whom I choose to become.
This is an aspect of the Lord’s teaching that, I think, we often miss. When we read of how the Lord sat teaching the people for hour after hour and they still wanted more; what was he saying to them? It is obviously not a list of “does” and “don’ts” – a list of right and wrongs – even though such things may well have come in somewhere; a clue to this comes in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says to them: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…..etc.” He is speaking to them about the type of people they can choose to become – and, more important, telling them that the love of God is part of that process of their becoming, for it is God’s love for them, which inspires and enables them to make that choice. In Jesus, we see that we are loved – and that love of his sets us free, free to choose, free to become people Jesus would be proud of – the sons and daughters of God.
Sometimes, people speak about the gospels as though all that is important in them is the ethical teaching, but the experience of Viktor Frankl and indeed the experience of anyone who has tried to live a life of love and service, shows that a true moral life without the love of and for others to underpin it, is not possible. The Gospels show us that Christ calls us not to good actions, but to love – he is calling us to “become” and he gives us the power to do so, because his is the face looking at us in each person we love – as the song in “Les Miserables” says, “When you look on the face of one you love, you look on the face of God!”
In Holy Week, which, as we enter Lent, we are beginning to prepare for, we see how much God in Christ loves us. We see how his love for us, that that love which enabled him to endure his passion and death on the cross. We are taken up into that story through the ceremonies of Holy Week; taking part in them, we see, touch and experience the love which gives us freedom – freedom to follow him, freedom to love him, freedom to become. Viktor Frankl’s love for his wife was made up of many small things – words, in the right place, sharing what they had, giving up things for each other. Such is the way that love is built up. Such is also the way that our love for Christ is built up – through words in the right place (prayers), sharing what we have (almsgiving), and giving up things for him (fasting). These are the works of Lent, the season we have begun this week. Viktor’s love held him strong through some terrible times – our love for Jesus, and especially his for us, will lead us to cling to him and so enable his love have its full effect in our lives.
I have been having a busy time over the past month. Amongst other things, I went to Sabah, North Borneo, for a weekend vocations’ seminar. There were over 150 lads who were interested in priesthood. I gave a talk on Mill Hill, the Missionary Society I belong to, but no one asked to talk to me about it. So, on Sunday morning, I said to the Lord: “Well, I am only the net – you have to do the fishing, if that is what you want”. Later that morning, one of the seminarian handed me a list of 22 names of lads, who wanted to talk about Mill Hill. Out of those, about four or five are possible candidates to begin later this year – for all have already been in contact with priests about a vocation. I was astonished – and still am! Now, Lord, we need the miracle of loaves and fishes to feed them!
We have just begun a new academic year with nine new seminarians at St Peter’s. However, no sooner had we begun the term than we broke for two days for Chinese New Year. This was accompanied by fire-crackers and visiting homes to wish friends a Happy New Year. I went to a couple of places with our non-Chinese seminarians to visit families – but it must be quite daunting to suddenly have 20 hungry young men turn up on your doorstep, so we only visited those houses we had been invited to.
For those of you who live in or near Kuching – I shall be giving four Lenten Reflections in the AVA room at St Peter’s Church, Padungan on Thursday evenings from 8pm – 9.15pm, if you would like to attend. They run from Thursday 28th February – 21st March