It is said that when a memory comes to us from the past, there is something there for us either to put to rest or to learn from. Recently, a memory came to me of an incident, when I was newly ordained and was asked to supply, for a month, as Chaplain to Wandsworth Jail in London. I would go to the jail each morning, see those prisoners, who wished to talk with the Chaplain, then I would visit first the punishment wing and then the hospital wing. One day, when I went to the hospital wing, one of the warders told me that there was a young Catholic man in the padded cell, who was having a bad reaction to the withdrawal from drugs. They had put him in a straitjacket, he said, and locked him in a padded cell so that he would not hurt himself – and then he added, “It is too dangerous for you to go in, Father, but you can talk to him through the small glass window”. I went to the window and saw him lying on his side on the floor, not looking towards the door, and twitching slightly. I tried talking, but he did not respond, so I left him.
The next day, the warder told me that the young man was over the attack and that I could go into the cell – “but”, he said, “leave the cell door ajar”. I went in, leaving the door slightly open, as told, and found the young man, whose name I cannot remember, sitting on the floor – because there was no furniture in the cell. He greeted me politely and began to chat, but I was a newly ordained priest and full of my own concerns; all I could think of, at first, was – ‘should I sit on the ground, rather than speak down to him’ and then when I sat down I began to wonder whether I could reach the door in time, if he chose to attack me!! However, slowly, I began to hear what he was saying to me. “For the last two days, Father, I have been in hell”, he said, “All I wanted was to kill myself to escape from the horrors that filled me and surrounded me. However”, he went on, “I have told God that if he will use that pain and suffering to help cure some sick child somewhere, then I am willing to go through it again.”
What strikes me now, as that memory comes to me from across the years, is that the young man’s thoughts were not on himself. He was not primarily concerned about the terrible time he had been through, nor was he expressing regret for what had landed him in that prison cell – his crime and drugs – instead, somehow the Lord had touched him, taking him into his love and concern for the sick and the weak. It had obviously been an extremely intimate experience for him and his heart had responded to the invitation of his Lord to help a sick child and so he offered the only thing he had – his suffering.
I cannot help thinking that had that been me, how different my own reaction would have been. My first thoughts would have been to ask the Lord for mercy for the crimes that had brought me into prison and for the stupidity, which had led me to start taking drugs – but that young man’s thoughts and prayers had gone past those thoughts and were concerned for others, which is a true sign that the Lord had touched him.
I, like many other Christians, have a rather selfish spirituality; it is centred on myself, my needs and my concerns – and only rarely do I reach out in thought and prayer for those beyond my immediate circle of acquaintances and friends. The Scriptures rebuke me for this, for as 1 John 3ff tells me quite clearly, the only way that I can know that I love God is that I love my brothers and sisters – and, in God’s eyes, there is no one who is not included in this category, for all are the children of God. To accept having boundaries to my spiritual life, which limit my concern for others is just not acceptable.
We often make the mistake of thinking that our primary spiritual relationship is between God and me and only after that am I called to concern myself with others, for God’s sake. That is not true! The primary invitation from God is not to love him, but to join with him in his love for the world – and in so doing I come to discover that I have been bonded to him in a love and compassion that will last forever. The union I am being invited to is not, fundamentally, the union of two lovers looking at each other and concerned just about themselves, but the union of two friends who together look with love and compassion towards those in need and – hand in hand – reach out to care for them.
Our prayers will reveal to us, which of these two attitudes are ours – do my prayers reach our beyond myself? Am I being led by the Holy Spirit, “who proceeds from the Father and the Son” and who wants to take me with him on his mission? Or are my prayers concerned with my own problems and my own needs and the needs of those closest to me? If they are the latter, then I need to change my prayers and begin to make them include those I do not know, do not yet love and do not yet care for. Such prayers may well be a formality at first, that is, prayers which I say without much fervour or meaning, but there is an old saying, “We fake it to make it!”, which means that if I say the words, out of a choice to share with God in his love for the world, then the Holy Spirit will give life and love to those words and I will find myself being drawn ever deeper into the heart and soul of the Trinity.
It has been over forty years since I met that young man, and if my memory serves me well, I met him only the once, but I now see that he was far further along the way of the Lord than I was – and maybe still am. He seemed to know that Christ was his Saviour – and all the wrong he had done could only be righted by the Saviour and not by his prayers – so having entrusted all this to the Lord and being thus freed from their weight and chains, he had heard the call to love and care for those in need – and had jumped at the chance with an enthusiasm and trust that forty years later I am still trying to emulate.
I have had a rather busy two weeks. I went to Singapore for three days to do one or two things, including a fitting for my cassock, which was too long in the length and the sleeves – I think it made me I look a little like “Dopey” in Snow White and the seven dwarves! I came back on Saturday and then, on Monday, I went off to Sabah to give a “3rd Age spirituality” course to 37 older Sisters there. I returned on Friday, but I find I tire more easily these days, so I was grateful for a rather lazy day on Sunday. Now I have to catch up on student essays and assignments.
I wore sandals when I walked about Singapore – and I do not think they fitted very well, because I ended up with a blister on the ball of my right foot. It is a most awkward spot to have a blister, isn’t it? And for a man with a belly like mine, it is also very difficult to dress!!
I remember Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, who used to be the Master General of the Dominicans, saying once that he got most of his theology, these days, from novels and movies. They are about life, he said, even if they are fiction, and if they are about life then they are also about God! Well, I went to see the movie “Maleficent”, a short while ago, and enjoyed it; and it reminded me of what Fr Timothy said, because there is a great insight into what “true love” actually is – but I will say no more in case you haven’t seen it yet.