Before the Vatican 2 reforms, Catholic churches were more mysterious places than they are today. The high altar was up against the wall, because the priest used to say Mass with his back to the people, and in the middle of the altar stood the tabernacle, covered with its veil and with six large candle sticks – three on each side. There was also a communion rail, which marked off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and the gates of this were kept closed, except during Mass, when the servers needed to go in or out. There was also, like today, a red oil lamp burning and that told you that Jesus was present there, in the tabernacle.
When I was a boy of about nine or ten, I had a small holy picture of the boy Jesus sitting on the altar, next to the open doors of the tabernacle and he was talking to a boy about my age. I had this picture next to a small altar I had made in my bedroom and one day, looking at this picture, while saying my prayers, I wondered whether Jesus would talk to me like that, if I went to visit him. So, a few days later, on my way home from school, I went into our church and seeing that there was no one there, I went, with great daring, past the altar rails and up to the altar. I was just tall enough to reach up over the altar and I knocked on the door of the tabernacle and said, “Jesus, are you there?” There was no answer, so after a pause, I tried again, but again, there was no answer, so I genuflected and left the church. Thinking about that incident, I have tried to remember whether I was disappointed that there had been no answer and I think I maybe I was, a little, but, I still believed that Jesus was there, in the tabernacle and that he was my friend, so I went home happy that I had dared to knock at his door!
Since then, I have knocked at his door several times, when I have been in need, but on those occasions he has come, even though I was often not aware, at the time, that it was him. The Eucharist teaches us that Jesus comes to us in and through people and I now find a great way of praying is to just sit and think about the number of times and ways the Lord has come to me in people – throughout the unique Gospel story of my life. Many of those occasions were, when I was in pain and anguish and I called and he came, but there have been far more occasions still, when I did not call out, but nevertheless he came, because he knew I needed him. Sometimes he came to me in people because he knew that my living would be so much richer with that person in my life. Often, these people did not have the appearance of the Saviour – they were often one of God’s little people – but they were people I came to value more and more as time went by – and looking back now, I see that their influence gently grew and their presence enriched me in a way I only realised, when the time came for them to go on their own journey. Now I know that when someone smiles at me with kindness, there are two people looking at me through that smile – and Jesus has opened the door of the tabernacle.
The Eucharist also teaches that not only does the Lord come to me through others, but also that he comes to others through me – but this is often much harder to see. However, people tell me sometimes that something I have done or said – or just by being there – has been important to them. In this way, he draws us into his mission of love and mercy for others – and if I accept and embrace that mission, I become bound to him in such bonds of friendship that will never end. In doing this, he draws me into his work of quietly opening up roads that have been blocked, of binding up wounds, which for years have refused to heal and when all hope seemed to have gone, of helping people go on, despite everything. And in all of this I also am healed and liberated. The bread and wine of my life, which I place on the altar each time I go to Mass, or when make my morning offering, is the giving of myself to share in this mission. My salvation happens, not only when God comes to me in my weakness, but much more so, when, in my weakness he takes me up into his saving mission to others – and makes of me a wounded healer.
So, to return to that incident – all those years ago – when I went up to the tabernacle and knocked – I believe now, that the Holy Spirit put that thought into my head and heart. The Spirit was teaching me that if I was to find the Lord I had to knock. I had to knock, not to get the Lord to open his door, but by knocking I would open the door to my own heart and life. I dared to knock and he has been answering me ever since.
A new term has begun and our upper students have returned after six months out on pastoral work in parishes. It is surprising what those six months do for the seminarians. It gives them a self-confidence and sense of purpose in a more rounded way than they can receive here in the College. I suppose that is understandable, because their vocation to the priesthood comes to them through people – not so much through us priests. If you ponder on what I wrote above, you may understand what I mean by that.
My shoulder is slowly healing – although not as fast as I would like. I notice the latter particularly when I am in bed at night. I have a bedside table, which I place opposite where I lie in bed, so I can switch the light on or off easily, but there seems to be a gremlin, which in the night sometimes pushes it further up towards the head of the bed and when my alarm goes off at 5am and I reach for the switch, I find I have to reach at an awkward angle, with a resulting jolt of pain. Still, that is one way to get fully awake in the morning!
Next Sunday, one of the parishes nearby is celebrating the 130th anniversary of the first Mill Hill Father to climb the sacred mountain – Singai – where the people lived at that time and begin the process whereby the people became Christian. There is a Mass, on top of the mountain, and I am expected to attend as I am the leader of the Mill Hill Fathers in Sarawak. Fortunately, there is a wooden step-walk, unlike the time of Father Felix, the first priest to go up, but there are 1007 steps – and that is an awful lot of steps to go up and come down again! So, a prayer please!