Mill Hill seminarians never know where they will be sent until about a year before ordination and I still remember myself and my class-mates being called to our Superior General to be told where we were going to be sent the following year. There were eight of us: seven were appointed to various parts of Africa, but as he handed me my letter of appointment, he said, “I hope you will be happy in Kuching”. I had wanted to go to Borneo and it had been that which prompted me to enter Mill Hill, but “Borneo” was “Borneo” and I was not familiar with the name “Kuching” so as I took the letter and thanked my Superior, I was whispering in my heart “Kuching? Kuching? Where on earth is Kuching?” I soon discovered, however, that it was Sarawak and delightedly went to see a Mill Hill priest, on the seminary staff, who had worked here and he produced a glass of sherry with which to celebrate and gave me a small anthology of the country I was going to go to.
Later that night, I experienced what is called” “euphoria” – one of the few times of my life I have done so – a feeling of wondrous joy – and in my case because I was going to be a missionary priest in Borneo, something I had dreamt of for a long time. I thought that I had made it! However, what I did not realise was that those feelings of euphoria pointed to the future; they were a promise of what one day would be, by God’s grace, if I held to the journey – but it would be a journey of light and darkness, of hope and sometimes near despair, a journey that would take my whole life long – but a journey in which I am still guided and strengthened by the promise given to me that night, now so long ago.
Such experiences occur in many form and are very much part of the spiritual life. Any joyful experience – of the closeness of God, on getting married, of having a child etc. – all point not so much to the present, but to the future. They are promises given us so that when God seems far away, marriages get difficult or the future seems dark, we can remember – that God was truly there that night, your love for husband or wife was real – and in those memories we can find the courage to hold on, especially when we find ourselves so trapped in the darkness that we are tempted to give up and find an easier, lighter way.
When I was first ordained, I was asked to take part in a BBC TV religious series called “New Beginnings” – in my case to be interviewed on my new beginning as a priest. I was asked by the interviewer whether I thought that a priest needed to be a strong man and I found myself answering that I thought the priest needed to be the “weakest link” – the place where the love of God could break into our world. I don’t think I truly appreciated the truth of what I was saying at that time – but I have since found that weakness and failure in my life have been the times and occasions when God’s love has most powerfully moulded me into a more compassionate and caring friend, companion and priest. Married friends and others tell me they have experienced the same – those dark and turbulent times are precisely the times when they have grown in love and forgiveness for each other. But, it is because they can be such terrible experiences that we need those guiding stars of our special memories to give us the hope to carry on.
The Songwriter Leonard Cohen sings of this in one of his songs: “Christ walked upon the waters, because he knew that only drowning men could see him!” It is only when we reach those points of darkness on our journey that we are able to see who Christ truly is – our crucified Saviour – and when we find the courage to let him embrace us in our weakness and failure, he slowly lifts us up and begins to leads us towards Resurrection. The Easter Christ, the Risen Lord, therefore, is the greatest of those guiding memories that give us hope. In baptism we pledge ourselves to him, at the beginning of our journey with him to the Father – but when the darkness comes we so often forget that we can only come to Easter through the failure and despair of Good Friday.
When I sit in the confessional, I sometimes hear the anguish of heart of those who have met the limits of their strength and feel they have betrayed Christ. They feel that if they truly loved Christ they should be strong for him in times of temptation and they are brought near to despair when they discover they are the weakest link. My heart goes out to them as I try to tell them that if they had truly betrayed Christ – they would not be there in the confessional! They would have done what Judas did and run away – whereas they are doing what Peter did – he wept and came back to Christ – and his brokenness became the clay with which the Risen Lord fashioned the Rock, who Peter is today. This is also true of our brokenness – it is the clay which the Lord uses to mould us – so that the promises in those guiding memories given to us will one day come to be.
I have begun chemotherapy here in Kuching and it is much more relaxed than my journeys to Singapore, although I still miss the friends I made there. I am also finding that the brokenness of being a cancer-sufferer also enables me to come close to other cancer victims. We seem to lift each other up and find the healing and peace to accept ourselves as we are.
The rainy season here, this year, is wetter than I have known it for a long time. It rains for hours on end – heavy rain with no sign of easing up. One minor difficulty that this causes is that should someone come and knock at my door, they cannot hear me when I tell them to come in. I shout and am tempted sometimes to throw something at the door – but then have to get up and open it myself. St Paul says that God turns everything to the good for those who hope in him – and I suppose I need the exercise!
I have one more chemo cycle to go through, before I come to my two month break from it. I must say that I am looking forward to it – maybe I may even get to cut a bit of grass again, but not, of course, in this rain!