I was born and bred in London, a town boy with almost no experience of rural life and so looking back, it surprises me how easily I took to rural life, when I arrived here, in Sarawak, almost 45 years ago. This does not mean that I did not have to learn the ways of the river and forest – I did – but I had many helpful people around me, who handled the boats and taught me how to walk through the forest and so for the first two years I managed, but without fully realising just how much I depended on my companions. Then, one day, a priest friend of mine, from a neighbouring parish, asked me to say Mass in one of his longhouses, while he was away on leave. I readily agreed, for although I had never said Mass in his area, I knew where the place was. As the time neared for me to fulfil my promise, I pondered whether I should, as usual, call down my catechist to travel with me, but that would mean a day’s journey down river from his longhouse to where I stayed and then a further day’s journey to get to the longhouse I was due to say Mass in. As I considered doing this, pride reared its head and I thought – “I can manage by myself!”
I set out on my journey by longboat, alone; I went through the canal that connected the river on which the mission station stood with the main river and then on to the longhouse, about two hour’s journey further on. I was enjoying the journey and the sense of achievement when the engine suddenly sputtered and stopped. I tried to start it, but without success, so I used the knowledge I had gained from an old moped I once owned and checked the petrol line, cleaned the spark plugs and blew through the carburettor, but it still would not go. By that time my arm was getting tired from pulling the starting cord, so I stood up in the boat and started to pull again, but to no avail. I, then, remembered someone telling me that if you put the engine into gear, it sometimes started; so I put it into gear and standing pulled the cord once more. It worked! But, because it was in gear, the boat jumped forward, as the engine started, and I fell backwards – out of the boat and into the river. As I came to the surface, I saw the longboat turning in ever tighter circles, until it too disappeared under the water!
Fortunately, longboats do not sink when they capsize. They turn upside down and although the engine pulls one end down into the water, there is enough buoyancy to lift the prow of the boat up out of the water by about a foot and so I swam over and sat on the prow, which supported me, but it must have seemed from a distance as though I were sitting in the water. Now, the river Igan, where I capsized, is a big river – a very, very big river – and in the place where I capsized there were only few people living, so as sat there and looked all round me, I saw only the banks of the river, forest and padi fields, but no people. So, there I sat gently floating upriver on the incoming tide with a bag, I had rescued, in my hand and a deep hole in my tummy. I looked all around and saw no one; I gave a great sigh and said to myself, “Oh dear!”
Fortunately, although I could not see them, some children had been playing on the far bank of the river and had seen me capsize. They ran to tell their parents, who were working on their farms and the next things I knew, there were several small boats, in the far distance, being paddled towards me, with great jovial cheers and laughter as the people came to my assistance. However, when they got to about fifteen metres from me, they stopped! For what they saw was a white man, wet all over, and with a big dark beard and seemingly sitting up in the water, and I heard them saying to one another in Iban, “Go back, go back, it’s an “Antu”, (a devil)” Fortunately, they did not turn back, but instead one man stood up in his boat and called out in English, “Yes, Sir, what has happened?” On hearing this, I thought to myself, “Hmmph! Isn’t it obvious what has happened? But instead I answered, in Iban, “I have capsized” He then asked, “Oh! Are you the priest?’, for they were from the longhouse towards which I had been heading and, on hearing that I was, they all began paddling towards me and with cries of “Ah, pity him!’, they lifted me and my boat up out of the water, rescued whatever luggage they could and took me to their longhouse to dry out and rest.
However, I was not able to say Mass for them that evening, as planned, for my Mass kit was in a metal box and had gone to the bottom of the river and the Igan is so deep that it will never be recovered, and with it went a lovely silver travelling chalice I had borrowed from my priest companion at the Mission. So, because of my pride in thinking I could manage by myself, the people went without Mass and I was left in the humiliating position of having to admit what had happened to my priest companion and to tell him that his beautiful silver travelling chalice was now lost at the bottom of the river Igan.
It would be nice, if I were able to tell you that from that day onwards, I never allowed myself to be led by pride again – but that would be untrue. That was but one of many disasters that have happened in my life and all because I thought I knew best and could manage alone. This is not only true of my relations with other people, but, in a special way, of my relations with God. I profess that “the Lord is my Shepherd – my Guide”, but my prayers have usually been attempts to persuade him to approve the path I have decided on, rather than to ask him to lead me along his paths. However, St Paul says that the Lord turns everything to the good for those who love him and so by honestly looking at those disasters – and not trying to blame others for them – I am allowing grace to work in me and so learning to distrust my judgements – which is merely common sense, because there are so many aspects of the world that I do not and cannot know. So now, each morning, when I awake, I throw my legs over the side of the bed, but before I stand up, I make my morning offering. The words may vary from day to day, but the meaning is the same –“Lord, take my hand and lead me where you want us to be, for I cannot know what is right and good without your guidance.” I must confess that I sometimes am tempted to take back control again, but I know that if I do then things will come crashing down, so I try to stop and think before rushing in to solve a problem, because I know that if I do that, the Lord will show me what part is mine and what part is best left to him. He gives me those tasks which best suit my gifts and talents, while he himself manages the deeper parts that I am not even aware of.
So, the memory of my swim in the Igan river, even though I still sometimes cringe at the thought of it, stands me in good stead, for as long as I keep remembering it, it will bring to mind that it was pride that caused me to capsize and even though, I believe, that the Lord probably prevented worse consequences than actually happened that day, it would have been better if it had never happened at all. If I had asked the Lord to be my Shepherd on that day and not tried to do things my way, then those people in the Igan, would have had Mass and my priest friend would still have his beautiful silver chalice.
I enjoyed my visit to Bali last month and even though many of my old friends there have now moved on to other places, there are still plenty I enjoy meeting again. I managed to visit Matthew in prison and we had a great chat, but I could not find out where Tan was in Malang and neither did I get to see Scott in the north of the island. It was a three hour journey there and another three hours back and my energy was not as great as I thought it was.
I found a mattress topper during my visit to Bali. I had been looking for one ever since my home leave when I slept on one at my sister’s house and found it most comfortable. However, I could not find one to fit my bed and my purse in Kuching, so when I saw one in Bali, which was the size I wanted and a third of the price I was being asked for here, I bought it and brought it back as luggage. There were some bemused faces at customs in Kuching when I told them what it was.
I went for my three monthly blood test yesterday, to see whether my “lodger” is still quietly dozing or whether it is beginning to wake again! My Doctor later phones to tell me the good news that my cancer marker has gone down from 29 to 25 – so I have another three months free from chemotherapy. My next test will be at Christmas.