I have just come back from Bali, where I had the opportunity to visit some old friends, including some in prison, and among these was Matthew, the youngest of the “Bali Nine”. This is the name given to a group of mainly young Australians, who were caught, in 2005, trying to smuggle high class heroin from Bali to Australia. Matthew was just seventeen, at the time he was arrested, and has spend the last eight years in jail – but he is facing life imprisonment and, at the moment, that does mean “life”!
During our chat, he told me that now and then he receives hate mail and that he had received one such letter the previous week. The writer wrote that he hoped he would rot in jail, for there was no forgiveness for people like him, nor for what he had done. Matthew spoke quite calmly as he told me of the letter, but I was not quite so calm listening to him. I was thinking in my head how I would reply to such a letter – but then Matthew went on to tell me that he had replied to the letter and he told me what he had written.
He said that he told the guy that he was right and that what he had done was inexcusable and that he took full responsibility for his actions. He said that, at the time, he was only seventeen and newly out of school, with no thought in his head other than to have a good time and enjoy himself. He said that when he was offered the chance to make some quick money, he had gone along with it, with no thought of the consequences of what he was doing. However, he said, that was no excuse and having thought about it over and over again, he now realises that had they succeeded in smuggling the drug into Australia, many thousands would probably have died, many children would have grown up without a father or mother or both, and many families would have been broken or marred for life. He told me that he was now most grateful to God for having stopped him and if that meant that he must spend the rest of his life in jail, then he accepted it – I was profoundly moved as I sat and listened to him.
On my previous visits, Matthew had told me something of his history and life in prison and I knew that he runs a little school there, but this time I discovered that he now runs two schools. In the first, he teaches English, so as to give those prisoners, who want it, a better chance of getting a job when they get out. The other school is to provide basic literacy and numeracy for those prisoners, who cannot read and write – and he now knows enough Indonesian to be able to do this. He even gives certificates to those who reach the required standard and this gives them a sense of self-worth – which for some will be the first time in their lives that they have ever been awarded something – but his main aim is to enable those, who take up his courses, to make a new beginning for themselves and their families, when they leave jail – even though for Matthew himself, at least at present, there is no prospect of any such future. His life is now one of service to others – and I was reminded of the Lord’s words, “I came that you might have life and have it to the full”.
Later, as I took a walk along the beach, I began to think about how Matthew’s life has been turned round from being a self-centred young boy of seventeen to become this calm, spiritual young man, whose life is devoted to enabling others to live. The cynic would probably claim that it was prison, which had brought him to his senses, but although the prison has been the place for this change – it is not the cause. I say this because Matthew has a buddy, whom I also chat with at times. They are close friends and used to do everything together, but Matthew told me, during this last visit, that his buddy has been worn down by the prison experience and has gone deeper and deeper into depression – and is now hooked on drugs. If it were “prison” that is the medicine, which changed Matthew, then it would have changed his buddy too – but it didn’t, in fact it is having the opposite effect – that of destroying him. That which has and is changing Matthew is, I believe, that quiet and gentle power that we refer to as the Holy Spirit, the one whom, in the Creed, we call: “the Lord and Giver of life”.
Remembering the “firework-like” description of Pentecost, in Acts 2:1-13, some people might baulk at me calling the Holy Spirit: ‘that quiet and gentle power’, but we need to make a distinction between the occasions of our accepting the Holy Spirit into our lives and the work of moulding and creating that he does in the depths of our hearts. It is similar to the distinction we make between a ‘wedding’ and a ‘marriage’. A ‘wedding’ may be a noisy, sparkling affair, with music, laughter and great feasting, or it may be a quiet occasion, with only the couple, the priest and two witnesses present – for that which makes a wedding is not the fanfare, which accompanies it, but the promise to be true that the couple makes to each other. The ‘marriage’, on the other hand, began the day they first noticed each other and discovered they were interested – and it will continue to grow, by God’s grace, for as long as they both shall live; for the ‘marriage’ is the process of making those vows real, of learning to put the other first, of learning to forgive one another and start over again, of learning to be profoundly grateful for the gift of the beloved. A ‘marriage’ is made up of a hundred thousand small impulses of the heart, matched by a hundred thousand gifts of self in response to those impulses – all that brings real love into being and not just the promise of it.
In the same way, the acceptance of the Holy Spirit into our lives, may happen in many ways; it may be accompanied with something like fireworks, such as in a crowded, enthusiastic seminar of the Holy Spirit or it may come very softly, as happens in the quiet of the confessional. But, however it comes, that acceptance has to be made real in the everyday journey of our lives; in a hundred thousand ways, the Spirit gently prompts us to reach out in love and service to others and when we yield to these promptings, our likeness to Christ, already prepared by the Spirit in the depths of our hearts, is made real.
For most of us, there are various occasions in life, when we are aware that we are choosing a certain direction in life – which as Christians we understand as the acceptance of the Spirit – but it is beyond us to understand what the Spirit is doing in the depths of our heart – and, indeed, there are times when we may wonder if anything is happening at all. However, now and then, we see the fruits of his work in the compassion for others, which appears unexpectedly in the things we do and say – and then we know that the Spirit is at work within us. It is these fruits that I have watched come to be in Matthew, over the eight years I have known him, and that is how I know the Spirit of Life and Love is at work in him. This also gives me hope, at those times when I feel downcast, that the Holy Spirit is equally at work in my heart – and it also gives me hope that the Spirit is at work in the heart of Matthew’s buddy, who at the moment dwells in darkness. And for that I pray!
We were a group of 32 who went on retreat in Bali – and were joined by two more Bali people while there. You can see the work of the Spirit in such a group – for they come together as strangers and leave as friends – as often happens without us realising what the Spirit is doing.
When I came back from Bali, I stayed over at the seminary in Penang for two days, for we have two Mill Hill students studying English there. The Rector, Fr Gerard, always makes me feel very welcome and this time took time to give me, and the Mill Hill students a tour of the island. Great time.
So, now I am back at St Peter’s in Kuching and tackling the grass, which has grown so while I have been away. The students are away still, they only come back after Dayak New Year on 1st June. However, I have a companion in my grass-cutting – a small black bird, with a yellow beak and a little splash of white in his tail-feathers. As soon as I start up the engine of the grass-cutter, he appears and follows me along looking for worms etc. He is not frightened and comes very close while I am cutting, so as not to miss anything. Then, when I stop to take a breather, he stands there looking at me, with his head cocked to one side as though to say, “Are you tired?” and I answer him, “Age, my friend, age!” at which he seems to nod and just wait for me to begin again!