On Tuesday evenings, in the seminary, the students have Bible sharing in groups. A few weeks ago, I joined my group and for half an hour we prayerfully read through a Scripture passage and I showed them a way of meditating on the Word. At the end, we prayed the Our Father and I gave a blessing and said, “Goodnight”. However, as I was leaving the chapel I noticed that some of them were beginning to open their breviaries, so I stopped and asked them what they were doing and was told, “We are going to say Night Prayers, Father”. I then asked, “What do you think we have been doing for the last half hour?” They, like many of us, had got bogged down in the details of Catholic practice and momentarily had lost an overall sense of what they were doing. As the proverb says, “They could not see the wood for the trees”.
There are times in our spiritual lives – and Lent is one of those times – when it is good to lift up our eyes above our “catholic daily duties” and gaze at the distant scene to remind ourselves of what the Lord is calling us to, as Christians – and whither, through our baptismal promises, we have chosen to follow him. I remember, years ago, trying to talk to a man, who rather neglected his family, to urge him to give them more of his time and attention, but he kept answering, “But, I have always given my wife her money”. There had been a time, when this man stood before the altar and had said to his wife, “I promise to be true to you, in good times and in bad……. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life.” He had obviously decided, at some time, that he would do this by making sure that his wife always had her house-keeping money – and he would have considered it a sin not to do so – but he had so identified this as his husbandly duty that it somehow hid from him the fact that his marriage promise was asking so much more than just this.
My professor in Rome used to say that we can have “a sinful idea of sin” – one, which hides from us what sin truly is and in the same way, we can also come to a sinful idea of being a Christian. If we confine our vision to small, unconnected acts of: going to Mass, saying night prayers, avoiding impure thoughts, etc., we can lose sight of what these things are about – lose sight of what Christ is doing in our world and what he is asking us to share in.
The parable of the Prodigal son gives us an opportunity to regain a vision of our vocation. It is a story of betrayal and forgiveness, of a family being torn apart and being put back together again. However, like other things in our Faith, we can so easily atomise it and see only an example of the forgiveness of God, but there is far more to this story than that. We need to stand back and see – not just an act of forgiveness – but the whole story, in which many people not only play a part, but are essential to its outcome. It is the story of our world – of how God made us to be a family – of how we have been torn apart by selfishness and jealousy – of how the Father is bringing us back together through the mission of Christ. But the part of the story that we so often miss is that this can only be done when all of us, servants, elder sons etc., play our part.
This becomes obvious, if we use our imagination to enter the story and make ourselves one of the characters. For instance, when the Father calls for “the best robe”, for “a ring” or for “sandals” – someone has to go and get them – not with grudging looks on their faces, but with delight that the son has come home. If the son is to become part of the family again, then the whole household has to share in the welcome and so enable him to know he is wanted. This is also why the Father goes out to speak to the eldest son – to tell him that the reconciliation will not work, that the younger son will never be part of the family again, unless he also accepts him and makes him welcome. This “coming home” is the task of the whole family, not just the Father who ran to welcome the boy – and that also means us.
We can experience this calling of ours each time we attend Mass. In the person of the priest, the Lord holds out the chalice to us, inviting us to drink – “for the forgiveness of sins”. He is saying he needs us, for this work cannot be done unless we all take part in reaching out to those from whom we are divided. It is “sin”, which brought about these divisions and “forgiveness of sins” is that which brings us back together. However, sadly, we tend to privatise the idea of sin and confine it to the confessional box – although the communal celebrations of penance, which take place in many parts of the world, make it clear that sin is more than just a private matter between me and God. Our vocation is to share in this work of reconciliation and it is through our participation that we ourselves are reconciled both to God and to those we have injured.
This is the “wood” we often cannot see for the trees – but all the doctrines, customs and practices that belong to our Faith all point towards it, if we but use our eyes. Our prayers, for example, are words of love that draw us closer to God and to each other – that is why we begin our day with them and also bring it to a close. They bind us together and if we have spent a half an hour, at night, being together and looking together for God’s word to us, then we have prayed our night prayers, even though the form of them may have been different from that which I usually use.
Lent is upon us and with it requests to give Lenten Reflection talks. I agreed to give talks in two parishes – four talks in one and two in the other. Then, the Carmelites nuns, here in Kuching, sent a note saying that they had heard I was giving talks and would I tape them, so that they also could listen. However, it is strange how time passes, for what would have been an ordinary task a few years ago – taping something – has now become so difficult and I no longer have the means or the knowledge of how to do it. So, I now have a third venue for the talks – Carmel!
The BaIi retreat is almost full – there is one more vacancy. Now, I have to work with exchange rates etc. so as to know what to charge in Malaysian ringgit. You may remember that I am rather lacking as a business man and last year I forgot to include my own fare in the calculations and ended up paying for myself!
Many years ago, in Ireland, I and a friend went horse-riding. However, the straps fixing the saddle to the horse became loose and the saddle slipped round, throwing my companion to the ground and almost doing the same to me, except I clung on to the horse’s neck. Later, I was told that after riding a horse for a while, you have to stop and tighten the belt. Well, I have found that in the morning, I dress and tighten my belt and the set off for Mass, but when I am vested and ready to begin, I discover I have to tighten my trouser belt! Strange! Am I getting a little hoarse! (pun)