One of my favourite spiritual mentors and characters is the Jewish Rabbi, Lionel Blue. I have only actually met him once, but his BBC broadcasts and writings have been of tremendous help to me over the years. Amongst other things, he has helped me to appreciate the part that humour should play in a healthy spirituality. I remember one BBC programme, in particular, some years ago, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. He was sitting in the garden of the Carmelite Retreat House just outside Oxford and he was reminiscing prayerfully about his life. He said something like this: “Lord, I have always been a good boy. I wanted to be a good boy for my Mama and I wanted to be a good boy for my Rabbi and especially I wanted to be a good boy for you, Lord, so I did the things I thought would them all happy – and, I thought, would also make you happy.” At that point, he gave a great sigh and said, “But, Lord, I’m tired of being a good boy. I want to be myself, to be Lionel and do the things that make me, me.”
Having reached roughly the age that he was, at that time, I realise that I am in a similar position, but this is not something new, rather it is something the Spirit has been leading me towards for a long time. I remember, an instance of this, when the Holy Spirit brought to my mind the memory of a conversation, I once had, with my old Parish Priest, Francis Ryan. I had asked him whether his patron saint was Francis of Assisi and he had answered, “No, it is the gentle Francis – Francis de Sales”. The Spirit used that memory to make me curious to know more about St Francis de Sales and I started looking for his writings and, having found them, have treasured his wisdom ever since. This is one of his sayings, which points towards the same journey that Rabbi Lionel was on – and which I am still on – “Most of us” he wrote, “spend our lives looking over the fence at other people and wishing – and often praying – that we were like them. We think that if we were like them all our problems would be solved. But” – adds Saint Francis de Sales – “if God had wanted you to be like that, he would have made you like that; instead he made you as you are, because he wanted you to be as you are. So, to do God’s Will, stop looking over the fence and grow where you are planted!”
Pondering these words, I began to realise that, like Rabbi Blue, I too had wanted to be what others thought I should be – and that included God! I had assumed that there was such a thing as the “model christian”, the “model priest” and that I was supposed to become like that, so I used to pray earnestly that the Lord would make me like that. I am now so grateful that he ignored those prayers of mine and instead has been leading me throughout my life to become “me”! So, I am now learning to ask the Lord, each day, what his Will is for me, for I so often get it wrong, when I rely on what I think is right and wrong. His Will and his Providence, I am learning, are far greater than I can possibly imagine and they always astonish me.
However, in addition to this wrong understanding of what God wanted for me, there were also parts of me that I rejected, that I hid from and desperately wanted changed and so I begged and begged the Lord to take them away. However, on one occasion, when I was imploring him to free me from them – I heard him answer, “But, if I took them away, you would no longer be “Terry” and it is Terry whom I love – not that imagined, perfect man without faults.”
It is an awe-inspiring experience to be loved in this way and I am still plumbing the depths of that experience – that what the Lord wants is “me”, that he wants not only to listen to my story, but also to tell my story together with me. So, I am having to look under the old costumes and masks that I have worn for so long, to discover who the “Terry” is, that is hidden under the “Father Burke” I have lived with for so long. I am having to learn to tell again my story and tell it with all its gifts and weaknesses, its successes and failures – and also to listen to it in memory and accept the love of my Lord, which is written throughout that story of mine – especially in the episodes of sin and grace which are woven throughout my life. I am also still having to learn to be honest about myself – and so discover the place for my Lord in my life, my story – for it is only in my weakness and failures, in the broken and dark places of my story that he can shine and become one with me by drawing me into living with him. I am realising that if I seek to be perfect and so self-sufficient, he can have no place in me – and that I do not want.
Recently, I attended a Mill Hill meeting of our priests from the various Asian Mill Hill Missions. At the end of the last Mass, our Superior General suggested that we approach each other in friendship and bless each other. This we did and I was touched by the love and concern I experienced as each one came to me to bless me, for most included a prayer that I may be cured from the sickness I carry within me. However, I noticed that while I appreciated their loving words – my heart drew back from the petition that I should be “cured”, for it seemed to suggest that my cancer had no real part in my story with the Lord, whereas it has drawn me much closer to him. I pray instead that I may be “healed” – that I may, by God’s grace, accept myself as I am and entrust myself into the Lord’s hands, whatever the future may hold. Whatever then happens to me, my story will be interwoven with the story of Jesus, my Lord – and I shall become the one whom God made me to be.
Our celebration in Kuching of the 150th anniversary of the Founding of Mill Hill is over! It was quite wonderful, not only because of the celebration itself, but especially because of the wonderful people who came forward to help and to bring it about. I am most grateful to them for arranging the Mass – at which we had over 60 bishops and priests – for arranging the Fellowship buffet afterwards for 600 people and for raising the money, from the sale of memorial booklets, which not only helped pay for the meal etc., but will also help support the nine Mill Hill seminarians, whom God has sent us – so far!!
I am feeling quite good, at the moment, after being, for over a month, free from chemo. I am still a little weak and wobbly, but it is quite marvellous to see how much kindness and consideration this prompts in people. Because of this I could attend a Mill Hill meeting in the Philippines, directly after the Anniversary celebration on 2nd May, and have managed that well also. I returned from the Philippines on Sunday and then on Wednesday, I go on leave to UK for four weeks to see my family. I am looking forward to that.
The seminarians at Kuching have now gone on holiday – together with the lad whom I trained to cut “my lawn”. However, the grass got a little long and another priest kindly took it upon himself to cut it – but he did so in his own fashion. I watched him doing it, but he did not cut it so that it resembled Wembley football ground (as least in my sight) but he did it in corkscrew fashion – starting with the sides and working round and round until he came to the middle. I watched without saying anything, but in my heart I sighed, “Aaaaaaah!”