Young people today are often greatly surprised, when they hear what Sarawak was like when I first arrived here 45 years ago. Outside of the towns, there were only few roads and the priests usually walked, when visiting the kampongs and longhouses, or went by boat – and these journeys could take up to three of four weeks. Moreover, there were no mobile phones and the internet had not yet been invented, so when we travelled we were out of touch until we reached home again. In comparison to today, we lived poor lives, but they were happy lives, for we lived very close to our people; we stayed with them when we went on visitation – even though this often meant sleeping on the floor of the longhouses, among the fighting cocks and the dogs and above the pigs! But because we shared their lives and spent time with them, this brought about strong friendships – friendships, which revealed what the Christian Faith was about, for friendship with God is discovered and fostered by friendship with each other.
I was reminded of this the other day when reading how the Lord sent out the seventy two disciples (Lk 10: 1-73) telling them to take nothing with them – no haversack, no spare tunic etc. That passage brought to mind, when, as a newly arrived priest, I was preparing for my first trip upriver; I asked the priest I was going with, whether we should take food with us. He replied, “No!” I, then, said to him, “What if I can’t eat the food?” He looked at me for a moment and said, “You eat it! And if you can’t, you go home, because you’ll be no use to us.” He went on: “The people will offer us the best they have and we accept it – gratefully!” This gave me a new insight into what the Lord was saying to the seventy two disciples; he was telling them – and telling us – the way to make friends with our people, that when we share their lives, when we gratefully accept what they offer us and when we spend time with them, we are, in fact, preaching the Gospel, for as the ancient saying, “Ubi caritas et amor…” says: “Where there is love and where there is friendship – there is God”.
The priests of the generation before me also discovered this, helped I think by the even simpler lives that they lived. I remember, when I first arrived, listening to their stories for they delighted in telling of humorous things which had happened to them at various times and places, when on visitation, but as I listened I also knew that together with those stories, there must also have been other stories about times of loneliness and often great hardship, such as when they were interned during World War 2 by the Japanese, but of these they only rarely spoke – instead what shone through their stories was their love of East Malaysia and its many peoples. Their people became their families, formed by the love and friendships which came about when they shared the lives and spent time with their people. It was this love and friendship which became the foundation of all the Christian communities – and such was the way that Christ came to live in the Land.
Those men and women would be astonished to see how wonderfully the communities they helped to found have grown and prospered. They would marvel, I am sure, at the wonderful churches that now dot the landscape, replacing the poor wooden and bamboo churches that they prayed in and often also lived in. They would be intrigued by the instant communication brought about by the internet and mobile phones – but, despite all these advances, their lives still have something very powerful to teach us today. The friendships they found and fostered among the people remain the bedrock of the Catholic communities here and whereas we often think of strengthening the Christian communities through courses, seminars and more frequent access to the Eucharist, we should not forget that the communities came about by people spending time together and through sharing each other’s lives. The love and service that inspired the priests and sisters – and now inspires so many others – to spend their lives in the service of the Good News, remains the glue that holds the community together and the friendships that they found and fostered remain the setting in which we discover ever more who our God is and where true happiness lies.
I arrived back from leave in UK about four weeks ago. I really enjoyed seeing and being with family and friends, even though the cold took a little getting used to. It was wonderful to be free of chemotherapy for three months, and discovering again the taste of different foods – especially the wonderful Sunday lunches that my sister cooks – even though it means that I am putting on weight again, after having lost 10 kilos.
On my return, I had a blood test and my Oncologist told me that the cancer marker is still stable, despite having had no chemo for three months. So he has given me another three months free from chemo, until the end of September and should the marker still be stable, I think he may extend the chemo-free period yet again. I still feel tired, but slowly that is fading and I am told that it takes a long time to recuperate from chemo,so the time hopefully may come when I begin cutting grass again!
I am most grateful for all your kindness, concern and prayers during this time. This has been very healing, for it helps me know and appreciate the love which carries me whatever the future may hold.