Some time ago, an older woman, here in Kuching, phoned me and said, “Father, I don’t want to go to Mass” and I replied, “Then, don’t go!” She was obviously surprised by my reply and said, “You mean I don’t have to go?” I knew that she had been suffering from slight depression for some time so I said to her, “You still love Jesus, don’t you?” and she answered, “Yes!” “Then”, I said, “You have money in the bank from all the years you have cared for him and served him. Now you are under the weather, relax and let him look after you!”
Most of us were taught our religious duties as children in the same way that a Mother teaches her children what is “right” and “wrong”. She may, for example, tell her son that it is “wrong” to kick his younger brother – and that may be the only language he can understand at that age. It will take some years for him to gradually appreciate that friendship between brothers is something wonderful but needs to be cherished – and this friendship is not helped by being kicked! So, also, we are usually taught as children that it is a “sin” to miss Mass on a Sunday – but unlike children in a family, we often get stuck there and, as we grow, continue to understand our Sunday Mass as a duty we have to do, rather than a time to taste the deep and abiding friendship that is growing between God and us.
This is the difference between “head understanding” and “heart understanding” and it is present in all of us, although most of the time it does not cause us too much trouble. When most of us ask ourselves why we come to Mass on a Sunday, our head tells us that we do so because we must fulfil our religious duties, but at a much deeper level we know that we come because our heart draws us there. We choose to come not to avoid sin, but because of the friendship between God and us in our hearts, a friendship we cherish and value, a friendship we want, even though it is so deep that we often miss it. Thus, we will be tempted to say that we come to Mass, “because it is a sin not to go!” It is only when circumstances do not allow us to get to Mass on a Sunday and we fee drawn to confess it that we are given the opportunity to understand ourselves more deeply and so come to appreciate the power which moves us and leads us to choose to be there at Sunday Mass.
Some time ago, a man came to confess that he had missed Sunday Mass and when I asked him “Why?” he replied that his wife had been dying and so he stayed with her. I gently explained to him that to have left his wife and gone to Mass would have been wrong – not the other way round – for in caring for his dying wife, he was living out that love and care that he learnt about and received at Mass. In other words, he was celebrating Mass there with his wife. Like most of us, this man followed God’s love in his heart, but when he tried to understand what he had done, he used his head to try to understand – not his heart – for the reasons of our heart are so deep that we cannot grasp them with our head. As Blaise Pascal, the Catholic Philosopher said, “The heart has reasons that reason (the head) cannot understand”.
I have come to experience this myself, at this present time, when the side-effects of the chemo-therapy I am receiving cause me, at times, to feel so tired and lacking in energy. Here in the seminary we begin our morning prayers at 6am and I used to get up at 5am so that I could spend a half hour in quiet with the Lord before prayers began. Now, I usually have to drag myself out of bed in the morning, even though it is much later than 5am that I get up. My head tells me that I am being lazy and with a little more effort I could get up for prayer and show the Lord how much I loved him. But then, another, much deeper voice whispers, “I don’t need to be shown that you love me – I know it! Now it is my turn to look after you and minister to you”. Here are echoes of St John in his 1st Letter, “Even if our conscience condemns us, God is greater than our conscience” (3:2).
Love is not something that can be known with our heads – only with our hearts. We have to dare to let ourselves be loved in order to “know” in the full, experiential way, what love is. I have learnt this at different times of my life when I have had to stand before God in my weakness and shame and let him love me back to health. I am learning to do that again now, in my weakness, even though my head sometimes condemns me for it. By God’s Grace, I learning again to let him love me and it is because of this that I could say to that older woman, who said that she did not want to go to Mass, “Then, don’t go!” If she follows that advice she will experience God’s love in a way not yet known in her life, for she will be making an act of faith far deeper than any she has made up to now in her life, for she will be letting God love her as she is.
I grow African violets. I got to like them through my Mother, who also grew them. They are a very grateful little plant, for if you take a leaf and put it in water, it will grow roots and even if you just put a leaf straight in the ground it will also take root. I started to grow them a few years ago when I saw one rather bedraggled, sorry-looking pot of African Violets in our cloister and I took it to my room and adopted it. It seems to like the air-con and I remembered that while it likes a lot of light, it does not like direct sunlight. So, I set it by my window and it has flourished. I now have ten plants – not including some I have given away – and I have a nursery of five babies. They help remind me that I am supposed to be a life-giver.
Our students have gone for their end of year break and will not appear again until after Chinese New Year. So, the College is very peaceful and quiet. I asked my “student grass-cutter helper” to cut my lawn before he went home and he has done so and it looks good for Christmas. I shall probably get irritated as I see it getting more and more straggly, but one student who does not live so far away has promised to cut it during the holidays. (With all the things to worry about, here I am worrying about my lawn – shows I am human I think!)
I go to Singapore, this coming Wednesday and Thursday, for my last chemo session before Christmas. I have had a two week break since the last and I needed it as the last two hit me very hard. However, I am learning to say to myself, “This too shall pass!” and it does. My doctor has been very kind and has cancelled the session I should have had on Christmas Eve – so after Thursday I shall have a three week break before I go again. So, I should be in a fit condition to remember you all at Mass on Christmas – even though I may not have the energy to celebrate Midnight Mass.
May you all have a very happy Christmas – wherever you are and whosoever you are with. My grateful thanks for your kindness to me throughout the year, especially your encouraging emails, prayers and gifts both to help with my Singapore treks and support for the Mill Hill Family here in Sarawak.
God bless you all,