When I was a boy of about eleven years old, I got a part-time job delivering newspapers. There were seven or eight lads, like myself, and we were employed by a local newsagent shop, which also sold sweets and cigarettes etc. We boys would hang around the shop and chat while we waited for the paper-rounds to be assembled and marked by the manager. One day, I saw one of the boys quietly slip a packet of cigarettes into his pocket, while the manager was busy marking the papers and then I saw some of the others also take things and the thought came to me to also take something, so I took a packet of cigarettes and no one saw me. However, some days later, when I tried it again, I was seen by the area manager, who happened to be in the shop on that day. He said nothing about it, but the next day he said he wanted to talk to me and took me into his office. To my surprise, he did not scold or threaten to call the police, but he gently told me that he knew some of the other boys stole things and that he had seen me take the cigarettes and then he asked me, “Is that what you want to become?” I do not remember what I said in reply, but that was one of the turning points of my life and that question has remained with me ever since – along with a great gratitude to that man for his kindness and wisdom.
What he was pointing out – and what I am still learning – is that in our every moral action there are, in fact, two choices – or maybe it would be better to say: two consequences of the one choice. The first is the choice to do something either good or bad – or not to do it. But, at a much deeper level, this is also a choice about the type of person I choose to become. Usually, when making the first choice, I am not consciously aware of the deeper effects of that choice, but nevertheless they are there and through my moral choices, I am “moulded” by God into the type of person I want to be.
In our religious instruction, we are taught to examine our conscience, especially when preparing for confession, but sadly, the way we are taught to do this concentrates on our actions – on the things we have done or not done – and, because of this, we often miss out on the opportunity to ask ourselves: “What type of person do I want to be?” This question is a vital part of the spiritual life for our relationship with the Lord is not only about what we do or don’t do, but more importantly it is about the direction of our life – where we are headed!
People often tell me that they wonder what the point of going to confession is, “Because”, they say, “I always confess the same sins”. Because we are taught to concentrate only on our actions, we often do not see that even though we confess the same things over and over again, nevertheless when we say “sorry!”, we are also saying to the Lord – “Even though I have done these things, Lord, and cannot find the strength not to do them, nevertheless it is you whom I choose and you whom I want to be with.” And that is not just an empty wish, for each time I do so, my friendship with the Lord goes down to a deeper and deeper level – and down there wonderful things are happening by the power of the Spirit, things, which at present, I cannot see.
Fundamentally, the Christian life is not about doing good actions or avoiding bad ones – but about choice! As one of the earliest Christian catechetical teachings, the Didache, says: “There are two ways – a way of life and a way of death – and you must choose which way to go!” We may not have the power to do all the things we would like to do, but we do have the power to choose, which way we want to go and when we do that, we open ourselves up to the power of God to mould us into his likeness.
Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist, who was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis, because he was Jewish. He survived three and a half years in the terrible conditions of the camp and when he was released he asked himself why he had survived when so many others did not. The answer he came to was that he did not give up because he knew that his wife would need him, when he got out – for she also had been sent to a camp – and it was his love for her that gave him the courage to face and overcome all the difficulties of his life there. When he was released, he discovered that his wife had not survived, but nevertheless, it was his love for her that has enabled him to live.
He went on further and asked himself, why had not become brutalised in the camp, as many others had done in order to survive. His answer to this question was that this was due to his wife’s love for him. He wanted to be the type of person his wife would be proud of, and because of this he resisted all temptations to survive “at all costs”. Despite the horrific conditions, he chose to become the person his wife would be proud of. Such is the power of love!
Likewise with us! In our life we are faced with the difficult conditions of the world and also with weaknesses and failings in ourselves, but despite them all we can choose, choose who we want to be. It is love that enables us to make that choice – the love we find through our prayer and through all those around us. It is our love for God that makes us go on trying, even though we fail again and again. It is God’s love for us that inspires to want to be someone he would be proud of. Frankl said, “Love undergirds the whole world”. We profess this in our Faith and experience it in our lives.
“Who do you want to become?” – the manager, who asked me that question, did not only know how to sell newspapers, but also knew about the deepest question of the spiritual life!
Last Saturday, I went to give a day of recollection to the Sisters in the local convent here. When Mass began I stood at the altar for the opening prayers and then, when the readings began, I went to sit down in the armed seat provided – but as I did so I felt the wicker seat under me slowly begin to give way. I knew that if I said anything I would disrupt the Mass, so I held myself up with my elbows to prevent my weight resting fully on the wicker seat, which was quite a feat!
I waited till the end of Mass before I said anything, and when they thanked me for the things I do for them – then I asked them to do something for me: “Next time, please give me a chair that will not collapse under me”. They all started to giggle and it took a long, long time, well into lunch before they got over it. So I was right not to say anything, when the chair first began to give way,
I have to go travelling for five days – to Bintulu and to Kota Kinabalu – and then I return to the seminary for a week to give examinations. After that I go to England on leave for three weeks to see my family and friends there. I am looking forward to it. I cannot afford to be there longer than three weeks, because of the College timetable, but I will enjoy the time I have.