Hello to you all from Rome.
We are now into the third and last week of the Mill Hill +65 course, with just a few more days to go before we say “goodbye”. Being here together has been wonderful, but a little like a ‘time warp’, because of the 28 people on the course, 18 of us were in College together, about 40 years ago, and yet we seem to have fitted together again just as though those forty years had not been. We did not have to make friends again, we just carried on the friendships that were made all those years ago. This is particularly true of my friendship with a classmate of mine, Rene. We first met in 1965, when I went to Holland to study philosophy; those were difficult years and of the 32 guys who started in our class, only three of us were ordained and then one of us – Kees – was murdered by a burglar some years ago in Uganda, so, my friendship with Rene is something special. We said goodbye to each other 42 years ago, just before ordination and he went home to be ordained and I did the same. He, then, spent the next 35 years working in the Congo and now works in Holland, whereas I went to Sarawak and then several other places, before coming back to Sarawak again – and our paths never crossed until the first day of this course when I walked into the room where he and the others were having supper. On the journey from England, I had wondered how he may have changed and it came as a surprise to see him now silver-haired and with a tummy that rivals my own, but as I came into the room I did not notice that, I only saw him standing there with his great, familiar smile on his face and his hand outstretched to greet me – and after 42 years I found again my friend!
Together with that of Rene, there have been many other friendships renewed and remembered and this was the subject of the first week of our course – remembering them – the friendships we have enjoyed and the various parts of the world in which we have worked. It was suggested that we should look back on our lives as something like a river that we have been travelling on and calling to mind the things that happened on the course of our journey – both good and bad. We talked about some of these experiences in our groups and learned how to grasp them all, to remember how dear some people and places have been to us, and how to learn from all our experiences – even the bad ones – and then how say goodbye to them with appreciation and gratitude. The river flows on and there is nothing and no one that we can stop for or hold on to – all, in time, must be let go in gratitude.
Our second week, which we have just finished, has been a time to talk and pray about the “now” – about the aches and pains which have appeared and learning not to cling on to the strengths, energy and gifts, which are not now as strong as they once were. We have learnt about nutrition and the health challenges which we may now have to face as well and also the possibility of gradual failing memory etc. Some of our company here live by themselves and as such failings become more present, it was mentioned that they can bring with them fears of how will we will be able to cope. These fears have found an answer in the warmth of our gathering. In our coming together, we have re-discovered the friendships, which, in our youth, gave us the courage to go out with the Lord as missionaries, confident of the encouragement and support of the band of Mill Hill to which we belonged. Now, as we experience the waning of those gifts and talents and strengths, which gave us such joy as young men, we find that those same friendships are still there – not now inspiring us to join with each other in a mission to change the world, but friendships, which are our home, the place we can return to as our strength fades, friendships which will not fail even thought we ourselves may fail – and that gives us confidence in the love of God that we find in those continued friendships.
Cardinal Hume, former Archbishop of Westminster, spoke of friendship like this:
“When two persons love, they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next… to love another, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to have entered the area of the richest human experience…” (Cardinal Basil Hume)
Pondering on about this, I begin to realise that the eternal life we hope for, is not something we will be given at the end of time, but is something that is offered to us now, in the people we meet and grow to love, in the friendships which we make and which stay with us – no matter how much time passes. These friendships are something we can trust, something we can believe in, something we can continue to hope for, even thought time or distance remove us from the ones we love. They will not be lost and even though at times they may seem to be something in the past, our Faith tells us that they are something also waiting for us in the future. As Scripture says:
“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will end; as for knowledge, it too will pass away. Only faith, hope, and love will not pass away, and of these three, the greatest is love.” (I Cor.13)
The weather here in Rome is lovely – sunny days, but low humidity and a gentle cooling breeze. However, I notice the nights getting longer. Each night after supper I take a walk round the garden with a friend of mine, Tom, and whereas when we started the course it was still light at that time, now it is almost dark. Winter is drawing on and reminding me that it will be soon time for me to return to Sarawak.
Last Wednesday, we went, as a group, to see the Pope – together with 200,000 other people! The audience was in St Peter’s Square and, as we had applied for seats, we were given a good place in front of the papal chair and not too far from the Pope. All around us were smartly dressed clerics, all in black clerical suits and roman collars – and we Mill Hill men were dressed as rather raggle-taggle missionaries – there was not much point to buy black clerical wear for one morning! At such gatherings, the various groups are announced and the group concerned acknowledges this with a cheer. When Mill Hill was announced a great cheer went up from our band of men – one louder I think than our smartly dressed neighbours.
We finish here on Saturday and I go back to England for 10 days or so, before I return to Malaysia. I will stay in Reading, about 40 miles west of London, but I am going to take my sister and sister-in-law to London for a meal and a West End show, called “Top Hat”. My sister especially enjoys such outings, but only rarely manages to go. So we are going to have a night out together.