Some ten years ago, when I was working in England, I received an email from a priest friend of mine saying that he was coming to England to visit me and that he would be accompanied by a friend. The timing of the visit was not good, because my mother had died just over a month previously and I was still deeply in mourning and, although I did not realise it at the time, this made me get grumpy very easily. However, I had been asking my friend to visit for a long time, so I wrote to say they were welcome.
They arrived and spent about three weeks with me, but it proved to be a very testing time. My friend was fine – it was his companion that I found difficult to handle. He wished to show his gratitude for letting him stay in my house, so he decided to buy things for me. For instance, he saw that I sometimes ate breakfast cereal in the morning, so he went and bought some cereals for me – but not the ones I liked. I tried to cover up my irritation at this, although, maybe, not very successfully, so he decided to try to buy other things instead – but again choosing things I did not use. The last straw came when he bought some cheese, having seen that I sometimes like to eat cheese, but not being a cheese eater himself he chose a type of cheese I consider must be made from plastic. It was then that my grumpiness came to a head and I told him to please stop buying things, but I fear I was a little sharp and so things were a little tense for the remainder of his stay.
I was reminded of that visit last Sunday when I read the Gospel story, as told by the Lord, of the Pharisee and the Publican, who went up to the Temple to pray. The Pharisee, as the Lord relates, stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you Lord that I am not like the rest of men….. I fast twice a week, pay tithes on all that I own…etc., etc…” (Lk 18:10) What struck me about this was that the Pharisee “said this prayer to himself”. He himself had obvious decided what constituted a praiseworthy man and so was praising himself – God does not come in at all, except as the background of this self-congratulation. The Publican, on the other hand, knew that what was praiseworthy in man, was doing what God asked of him – and in admitting he had failed in this, he bowed down and asked for mercy.
I take, as the crux of Jesus’ story, that if I wish to serve God, then I first have to ask him what he wants of me, lest, like the Pharisee I get it wrong. The prophet Micah sums it up so beautifully this way, “This and this only the Lord asks of you: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8)
The religious rules of our faith – going to Mass, listening to the Scriptures, fasting, saying our prayers etc. – are not the things God is asking of us, but the way he gives us of listening to what our God wants of us. They attune us and so help us to hear what God is saying to us in the everyday happenings of our lives. For instance – this is an example I have used before – suppose that on your way to Sunday evening Mass you see an old lady fall over, so you stop the car, help her to her feet, but when you see that she is badly shaken you offer to take her home – an offer she accepts. When you get to her home, there is no one there, so you stay for a while and make her a cup of tea to help settle her, but when she is calm again it is too late for Mass and you have missed Mass that Sunday. Now, would you be tempted to confess that you missed Mass the next time you go to confession? If you do, it would mean that you consider that God did not want you to help that old lady. Is that true? Hardly! Our law about attending Mass on a Sunday is concerned about bringing us so close to the Lord – “one-hearted” as the Iban say – that when we see something like that old lady falling over, we hear his voice saying, “Go and help her”.
Our religious practices may be compared to something like a “hearing aid” which enables us to hear the Lord when he speaks to us. The poor old Pharisee apparently did not know that and thought that there was some merit in just wearing the hearing aid, without using it and so he never hears the Lord as he points out the places where he calls us “to act justly and love tenderly” – words we can only hear when we walk humbly with our God.
Now, back to the story of my friend’s visit! Had my friend’s companion asked me how he could help or asked what things I preferred, maybe we would have become good friends by the end of his visit, but because he never asked, because he thought he knew, I was, in the end, rather glad to see him go. So, when we seek to do the Lord’s will and thus come closer to him, we must first ask him what it is that he wants of us. If we don’t, we may end up buying the wrong cheese!
I had a visit this morning from a woman whom I knew forty years ago. She had been a girl when I was in my first mission and she reminded me how I used to go by motor-bike to her home, about seven miles away, to teach her about the Catholic Faith. She never became a Catholic because she married a Buddhist and wished to be one with him, but she obviously appreciated those visits and even remembered the name I gave her – Linda, and that, she said, was why she had tried to keep track of me over the years and had asked a Catholic friend to bring her to visit me today. I have no recollection of those visits, but strange how a little act of kindness sows seeds that still remain years later.
The group-retreats in Bali, over the last two years, were much appreciated, with more people asking than I could accommodate, so I decided to offer two retreats in May of next year – one in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the other in Bali. I had thought that the list of those wanting to go would build up only slowly. That is happening for the Bali retreat, but the one in Thailand was filled within days and I now have a waiting list for it!
Since my return from leave, I have begun again tending my lawn in the centre of the seminary. However, we have an open day for the benefactors of the College next Monday and preparations have begun for that, including erecting a scaffolding for the audio-visual effects – and the scaffolding is right in the middle of my lawn! Talk about Mr Grumpy! We finally compromised with the lads putting small paving stones under the scaffolding, to spread the weight and stop it from sinking into the earth, making great holes in my beautiful lawn!