Last week was my last time to visit Singapore for medical treatment, at least for the foreseeable future. This is not because the doctors have managed to cure my cancer – that can only be done by cutting it out and they consider that procedure too dangerous – but, they believe that it can be controlled through chemotherapy and have given permission for this to be given in Kuching, rather than Singapore, which I am happy about. So, it seems that I will to carry my tumour for the rest of my life – or, in other words, I must rest in the hands of God, day-by-day, but that is not such a bad place to be!
When it came to saying goodbye to the people whom I had come to know at the Treatment Centre, I was surprised at the friendship which, I then realised, had grown up – not so much with the patients, for there are so many that I did not usually see many of them more than once or twice during my time there – but with some of the clerks, helpers and nurses etc. As I sat there, that last time, waiting for treatment or to pay bills etc., some would see me and smile or wave – and it gave me pause to realise that the death-dealing disease, which had brought me there had also been the door through which those friendships had come to be. Sickness and pain had been the place where compassion and friendship were born.
I now realise that I had seen this same thing in the clinics on several occasions – not so much on the faces of those who were sick, but in the concern on the faces of those, who accompanied them – their friends and relations. Pain and fear call from our hearts mercy, compassion and love – when we choose to answer that call – and so reveal the deep truth that somehow love is always inextricably linked to suffering and misfortune. Indeed, it is in reflecting on such times of suffering that we come to realise that we do love, although, in the midst of that pain and confusion, our attention is not on the love, but focussed on the one whose distress is calling that love from out of the depths of our heart.
We sometimes hear the remark that if God is good, why does he allows pain, sickness and death in our world. Wouldn’t it be better, it is asked, if we could live in a world without pain and suffering? We cannot plumb the depths of God and I do not know the answer to this, but there is a glimpse into this mystery in the hospital wards, among the disabled and maybe, above all, when we read the inscriptions in our cemeteries. The Poet, Edwin Muir, wrote of this seeming contradiction in his poem: “One foot in Eden”. He likens Eden to a world without pain and suffering and then compares this with the world in which we live – a place of tragedy and success, of good and evil; and he writes that in our world are “flowers that Eden never knew”. For only in this, our world of pain and sin and betrayal, not in the world of Eden, do we find hope and compassion, mercy and faith – and these are the flowers that are not to be found in a world where brokenness never happens. Maybe this is why at the centre of our Christian Faith stands the Cross – for the degradation, injustice and hatred that the Cross reveals, also calls forth the mercy, compassion and love that we see in Veronica, Simon and the women as they stand at the foot of the Cross. It seems that only this revelation of the weakness of God can save the world, because it alone can bring about the hope, faith and love, which, in Christ, fosters the redemption of the world.
I once read of the mother of a large family, who was asked, “Which of your children do you love the most?” She answered, “The one who is in trouble!” This is another way of saying what I have written above, but it can also be, I realise, a fresh approach to the season of Lent that we have just entered. Previously, I have always decided how I should “pray, fast and give alms”, during Lent, but, I realise, this season is not supposed to be “Do-it-yourself holiness”; it is supposed to be a way of saying to the Lord, in practical terms, “Your Kingdom come; Your Will be done”. But, does the Lord ever tell us where he is calling us to come to him? He does – in all those around us, who are in trouble, in need – but so often I am deaf to their soundless cries and blind to their need of help. My first Lenten practice, therefore, this year must be to wait patiently for the Lord to give me the gift of hearing and sight, and then I can put into practice the lessons I have been taught in the clinics and treatment rooms of Singapore General Hospital.
Here in Kuching, we have been having rain, rain and more rain, so much so that there were very few fire-crackers during Chinese New Year just passed – normally you cannot sleep through the loud bangs that happen at Midnight – but not this year. Everything is muddy, including my lawn at the centre of the building. The seminarians have returned, but they cannot venture on to the lawns to try to cut them, without turning them into a quagmire. So, we shall have to wait for the sun!
I have been on tenterhooks for a couple of months now, because the unused pages of my passport have been filling up with stamps, as I have been going in and out of Kuching to Singapore. I have not been able to renew my passport, because it has to be sent to UK and that takes about four weeks, and I have had to go to Singapore about three times every month. So, the news that I can have my chemo done here in Kuching is quite a relief – I have only two spare pages left! Marvellous what happens when you see no answer to a problem and so put it into the hands of the Lord!
I wish you all a good Lent – and, of course, followed by a joyful Easter!