Some years ago, one of our Mill Hill priests told me a story about his sister, Ann, which I would like to relate to you. Ann came from a large Catholic family where she was one of the older children. When she left school, she trained as a nurse and then married, but when their eldest son was born, they discovered that he had spina bifida, a congenital disorder, which would mean that he would have to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. At first, Ann and her husband were very distressed and this also brought with it spiritual confusion – why had God given her a disabled child? However, after thinking and praying about it she came to the conclusion that of all her brothers and sisters, she was the one best suited to look after a disabled child, because she was a nurse and so she slowly began to see that God had especially entrusted her son to her and her husband – and this was a trust they came to wholeheartedly accept.
Some years later, Ann met another Catholic mother, whose child had been born with webbed toes, a not unusual complaint. However, this mother was indignant and said, in Ann’s hearing, “How could God have given me a disabled child? I have always gone to Mass and said the rosary. How could God have allowed this to happen to me?” After listening to her, Ann said to her, “First of all, as a nurse, let me assure you that your child’s complaint is very minor, the doctor can just snip the skin between his toes and no one will know the difference. “However”, said Ann to the woman, “I can also assure you that you will never have another disabled child. God entrusted this child into your care and you rejected him. So, I tell you with certainty that he will never trust you with another one!”
The more I think of Ann’s story, the more I realise what a profound insight was given to Ann of the relationship God is holding out to us. She came to see that God knew that her disabled child was coming into the world, not because he had deliberately disabled him, but because of the brokenness of our world which causes such things to happen. She also saw that God wanted to make sure that the child was wanted, cared for and loved and he turned to Ann for help. She opened her arms to the child, her son, and in so doing she was drawn into God’s love for this child. She thus, experienced what our Faith tells us – that God is healing our broken world, but he needs us, he wants to draw us into that ministry of healing. In other words, he is asking us to become his family, sharing in his care and his work – and as we do so we become loving people – which is how salvation works.
The Catholic mother, on the other hand, whom Ann met, does not seem to see this invitation to love and serve with God. She is focussed only on herself and her ideas of what will bring happiness. She seems to see her relationship with God as solely concerned with assuring that her ideas of happiness will come to be. She seems to understand her relationship with God as something like a wage-earner – if she does her work, namely her religious duties, then God will pay her by making sure that her life goes smoothly. If she would but pause for a moment and think about this, she should come to realise, by God’s grace, that our religious duties do nothing for God – they are given to us for our benefit, not God’s. But the temptation is always there to imagine that we are somehow “buying” protection by our prayers and religious duties.
I realise that my explanation of this story is a little too black and white, but I have done this deliberately to show clearly that there are alternative ways in which we can approach our relationship to God. However, I know that in real life, we are not black and white, but are rather shades of grey. There are probably some elements of the wage-earner in all of us, but I hope also there is movement caused by the Holy Spirit as he urges us and moves us, in the depths of our being, to realise our dignity as God’s sons and daughters and become family by taking God’s concerns to heart.
Maybe Lent is a good time to take stock of ourselves and look to see if there are elements of the wage-earner in us. The best way to do this is by looking at our private prayers, at the way we pray – are we mainly concerned with trying to persuade God to be interested in our concerns – or do we, in our prayers, allow the Holy Spirit to open us to the needs of others, to share in what God is doing in our world? We can do this by asking, who Christ is concerned with in our world – such as the poor, the needy, the lonely, the outsiders etc. If we then begin a Lenten penance of praying regularly for these people – even if we find that we do not really care about them – then we will discover that through these prayers for the needy, our hearts are changing and the care and concern of Christ is becoming rooted in our heart. In other words, we are becoming true family. In other words, “we fake it to make it” for through these prayers, Christ is transforming us by his Spirit into ever more truly family members with him.
I remember that my Dad used to say that the Lord has promised us “three score years and ten” – which is 70 years – and that anything more is a bonus. He lived to be 71, but I remember that when he reached the age of 70 years, he was an old man, but then he had had a hard life. This memory of my Dad’s word gives me cause to pause, because this coming Monday – 24th March – I shall be 70 myself, but I don’t feel like an old man – even though I have aches etc that I once never knew. So, it is a good place to pause and look back though – and I am sure I shall do so over the next few days. One thing that strikes me is that I have wanted to be a priest for as long as I remember – and in my early years I thought I knew what type of person I wanted to be and prayed that it would be so – I can only say now that I am profoundly grateful that the Lord ignored those prayers and made me both who I am and also gave me the family and friends I am blessed to have.
My birthday will be a day like any other, because I have classes to give and other things to do, but later in the week I am going to Singapore for a few days to meet a few friendsi, to eat and drink – even though it is still Lent! – and in this way to thank the Lord for his love and kindness, by relaxing with friends – which shows us who God is.
I have been suffering from a cough for the last week. It is not too bad most of the time, but it has caught me a couple of times during Mass, so much so that yesterday morning I had to ask one of the other priests to take over my duties as the main celebrant at Mass, due to a coughing fit. It began when I gave someone a lift the week before and he was coughing in the car. So, the motto is……. I am not sure!