When I was ordained, in 1971, I was appointed to Mukah, a large rural parish in Sarawak. The mission station was situated on the coast and while there were some established Christian communities in the neighbourhood of the mission, the upper parts of the two rivers, on which the parish was based, were largely un-evangelised. However, it seemed that the time was ripe for the Gospel, for some people from those upper reaches of the river were beginning to ask about becoming Christian and on one of my trips upriver some of them came to see me!
Before arriving in Malaysia, I had taught people preparing for First Communion, Confirmation and had also taught at youth seminars etc., but never before had I been asked to be the guide to a group of people, who wanted to become Christian. I remember feeling that this could not be just a matter of “teaching”, but it had to be once of “formation”: I realised that I was being asked to set out on a journey with this group of people, a journey of growing faith – but where and how did that journey begin and what was the path it should follow?
I turned instinctively to the way I myself had become a Christian, but instead of focussing on my family and the community of faith in which I was born and grew up, I looked instead at my primary religious education. I had been taught about the Catholic Faith through the Tridentine catechism, in which, statements about the Faith were laid out in question and answer form – and we children were expected to learn these by heart. My seminary theology lectures, likewise, were aimed at understanding the various teachings of the Catholic Faith – but not, as I began to realise, how they were connected to the way we Christians lived out our Faith in our lives. So, when I looked at my own religious education, seeking a pathway along which I could lead my group of people into faith, all I could see were “disconnected” pieces of information, rather like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. There were various truths, which we Catholics believed in, prayers that we said and commandments that we obeyed, but how these fitted together and related to each other was not apparent – my jigsaw pieces described what I thought of as constituting the Faith – but not how to start growing into the Faith as a way of life!
This problem forced me to question things I had always taken for granted and I slowly began to see that I was confusing my faith in Jesus Christ with the way I had been taught to understand it – that is through my “jigsaw pieces” of doctrines and laws. I had assumed that I had to know and accept these doctrines and laws in order to come to believe in Jesus Christ – in other words that “understanding came before faith” – but, in fact, it is the other way round: “faith comes before understanding” (Is.9:7). This is why you cannot argue a person into faith – it is always a gift: God whispering words of love deep in the heart of the person called – and this “touch of God” takes place at a far deeper level than understanding. However, once God has “made the eyes!” – as George Herbert so beautifully puts it in his poem “Love” – the person touched in this way, is led by the Spirit to try to understand and express that experience in words and over time these words have been gathered into the “jigsaw pieces” of the doctrines and laws of our Faith.
Thus, I came to see that my faith in Jesus Christ is not the acceptance of a series of truths, but the unique story of my love and friendship with the Lord – a story lived out at a much deeper level than that of doctrines and teachings. It is the story, above all, of my learning to trust God – trust that he truly loves me and accepts me as I am – and so, even though my story may often seem to me to consist of one step forward and two back, it is a story of a journey, a journey of growing faith, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit – but a faith of the heart, and not, first and foremost, of the head and so, while we need to try to formulate the Faith that holds us together as a Church, those formulations can never, by themselves, adequately express our faith – for as Blaise Pascal says: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know!”
Our personal journeys of growing faith, while unique, are not, however, solitary journeys, but are lived out in the company of all who are called by God. Vatican 2 speaks of this common journey, when it describes the Church as “a Pilgrim People”, a people on the move, a people who need each other as we try to be faithful to Christ in his mission. We are helped in this by those doctrines, laws and practices etc. that make up the Tradition of our “jigsaw pieces”, because they give tangible expression to our common faith and when we profess them together – as we do each Sunday in the Creed – we both affirm that we are one Family in Faith and, through our common Profession, we are made more deeply so.
However, to understand how Tradition helps us live out our common mission in Christ, we need to see those “jigsaw pieces” in a new way: as “gifts of wisdom”, given by our forebears in the Faith to help us understand where we are on our journey and to encourage us, when he tend to be despair, by giving us a glimpse, a vision, of the “Far Country” towards which we are walking. Unfortunately, the life-giving nature of these truths of our Faith is often obscured by the rigid way they are taught – a way that sees them as things laid down by God to be accepted and obeyed if we wish to be saved. But such an understanding cannot be correct, for this would mean that they stand between God and mankind as Mediator – whereas it is the basic truth of our Christian Faith that there is only One Mediator between God and us – and that is Jesus Christ (1Tim: 2-5) our only Lord. He knows that we can only grow step by step as he leads us into that fullness of life that he came to give (Jn.10:10). To this end, he himself takes upon himself the burdens, the sins and the brokenness that are too heavy for us to bear and so enables us to walk with him along the road to life – secure in the knowledge that his love will never give us up or fail us.
Thus, these doctrines, traditions and laws, handed down as treasures of our Faith, are not “facts”, but “truths” – words spoken to us by the Word who is Life. Unlike “facts”, “truths” can only be heard by those who have opened themselves in trust to the speaker – and so these “truths” of our Faith can only be heard by those, who know Jesus Christ in faith – through that intimate communion with God that we call “worship”. When we worship in prayer we are drawn ever more deeply into the heart of God and in this, the way we answer his loving touch – no matter how poorly we may do so – our life of faith, our story, begins.
And so – led by the Spirit in ways I still do not fully understand – we did not begin to lead that group of people on their journey of faith by first teaching them the jigsaw pieces of Faith, but by telling them something of the story of Jesus Christ – of his compassion and mercy – and then we taught them how to say together their Sunday prayers – and it was in their Sunday worship that they came to know the One of whom the story told “and he took their hands and led them towards the hills and the breaking of the day”. (Minnie Louise Haskins)
I have been looking forward to the Seminary holidays, thinking it would be a time to do a lot of writing, but I have been struck by a virus, which knocked all the energy out of me. I am still suffering from a cough, but that seems to be slowly getting better. So it has only been the last couple of days that the energy to do anything has begun gradually to come back to me. I am aware that such viruses are running riot all over the world – so my prayers are for you all who are also victims: may you take the rest you need and give thanks to the Lord for what you can do!
I had my three-monthly blood test, just before Christmas, to see if the lodger in my belly is behaving himself and I was told that the cancer marker is still stable at 25. So, I thank the Lord for another three months free of chemotherapy – and for the gift of knowing that every day is precious.
Thursday, I go to Sabah in north Borneo for their annual Vocations seminary. They usually have over a hundred young men interested learning more about vocation and priesthood. It is a privilege to help some hear what the Lord may be asking of them. I do not speak the language very well, so I make up for it by singing and maybe even dancing. Preach the Gospel however you can!!
You may remember that I sent a letter on to you about a young Mill Hill priest in Pakistan that I thought might interest you. I spoke briefly about his efforts to provide education for the children of his parish and help their Mums provide clothes as well. I spoke at two Masses and told the people that I would send something to him for Christmas – but I did not ask for anything. The result has been that altogether I was able to send him MYR40,000 or roughly £7,000 sterling. I get a “tingle” when things like that happen!
Happy New Year,