Last Thursday was the Feast of the Assumption and the Gospel told how, after the Angel Gabriel spoke to Our Lady, she went “as quickly as she could” to the hill country of Judaea, to her cousin Elizabeth. In the past, when I have heard that story, I had always assumed that she went out of concern for her cousin, because the Angel had told her that Elizabeth had conceived and would bear a son. However, recently a friend of mine here in Kuching, Father Stephen, gave me a different interpretation of this episode and I would like to share it with you.
He said that he wondered what must have been the state of mind of Mary after the Angel had left her. She was suddenly alone with the knowledge that she was pregnant – an unmarried mother in a society, which stoned unmarried mothers. He imagined her standing there, full of fear, at what the Will of God would mean for her if she dared to follow it. She doubted herself and so she ran, she ran to her cousin Elizabeth for help and Elizabeth did not fail her. Elizabeth’s love gave her the courage to accept her vocation, which we can see in that it is only after Elizabeth says to her, “Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled” that Mary bursts forth with the Magnificat, declaring, “The Almighty works marvels for me; Holy is his Name”. Elizabeth’s faith in her gives her the courage to accept her vocation and face up to the trials, pains and sorrows that will be involved in giving the world its Saviour.
When we listen to stories of people who lived lives of courage and love, we are often told just about them and we do not hear about those many others who surrounded them – those, who, by their belief in them, gave them the courage to live and to love. If Fr. Stephen is correct, and I am of the opinion that he is, the people around Mary are an intimate part of her story – first Elizabeth and then, of course, Joseph, without whom is could not have happened. The same is true when we look at our own life stories – the Scriptures of our lives – we can sometimes see the hand of God, who has loved and guided us, but we often do not fully appreciate those around us, who believed in us and made it all possible. Maybe, we need a special day each year to sit and remember all those people who gave us the courage to live, just as Elizabeth and Joseph gave Mary courage.
I remember when I was 19 and had long wanted to be a priest, but did not have the courage to tell my parents, for although my family were strongly Catholic, there were no priests or nuns among our relatives – and I doubted whether it could come to be. One night, I decided I must tell them, so when my Mum passed my room on the way to bed, I called her in and she sat on the bed as I told her that I wanted to be a missionary priest. I realise now that she had already guessed, but I remember her words to me that night, “Terry, you have one life to lead and you must lead it as you choose, not as you think your father and I would have you lead it. You father would rather you became a diocesan priest so that we would see you more often, but if it is to become a missionary that you want, then you must follow that.” Her words not only gave me courage that night, but have followed me through the years, enabling me to embrace things that otherwise I might not have had the courage to do.
My Mum, however, is but one of many people God has sent to me to help me on my way, not only in the sense of giving me the courage to follow my dreams, but also to accompany me on the journey and especially to pick me up when I am down and give me the courage to start again. They are always there, always around us and without them we could do nothing, but we often do not sufficiently appreciate them and do not realise the great love God shows us through and in them. This reliance on each other is the meaning of being a “community”, of being called into the “Church”. This is not just the group of people we happen to live with, but the people, who are intimately part of our journey and without whom we could not live.
I remember once seeing such a community in action; it was in New Orleans, USA, where I once lived. Near the parish where I stayed there was Catholic church where most of the parishioners were Black and it a wonderful young Gospel choir. Occasionally, on a Sunday after I had said early Mass at my church, I would attend Mass at the Black Church in order to listen to the choir. On one occasion a young lad, about sixteen, was making his debut as a soloist and was obviously quite nervous. The choir sang the chorus to the hymn and then the young lad began the verse, but he slipped into the wrong note and so the verse in a different key. I was wondering whether the choir would stop and begin the hymn again, but no; at a sign from the young choir-master, the choir dropped into the key the young lad had mistakenly fallen into and they finished the hymn in that key. The congregation were aware of what had happened and, at the end of the hymn, the choir-master gave the lad a big hug and everyone applauded, for what we had heard was a hymn that was maybe technically faulty, but as a hymn of brotherly love, I have never heard the like.
The miniature, but very vocal chickens that live at the back of my bedroom, continue their campaign as nuisance-makers. They start crowing very loudly, sometimes at early as 4am, and wake me up – and then go back to sleep themselves! During the day, they are let out of their cages to wander the seminary grounds and have a large area of football field and garden to scratch over, but they insist on coming close to where I live instead – just, I am sure, to annoy me. The other day, I chased them away, but the following afternoon I could hear the crowing very loudly and discovered they had come inside the doorway of the building where I live and the stairwell was acting like a sounding board making their calls twice as loud. I always though chickens were rather stupid, but is it possible they were taking revenge on me?
Monday 26th Aug, I leave for the UK and Rome, for my annual leave and a three week course in Rome for + 65 Mill Hill priests. I shall be back in the middle of October. I am looking forward to the rest, because I am feeling a little tired. So, you will be in my prayers while I am away and please pray for me,