“Lord, can you imagine…?”
by Fr Tom Shufflebotham SJ
Which day in your life remains for you the most vivid? For me? When in wartime a bomb dropped next door? No; more vivid than that…
I was a young Jesuit scholastic (student) teaching in our college in Africa. It was Half Term and the boys had all gone home except for about thirty. Each scholastic in turn took the remnant on the school lorry for a day out. I took them to an outlying mission where there was a stream flowing over rocks - just right for swimming, safe from catching bilharzia. I happened to bring the shooting-stick that I usually sat on when umpiring cricket at square leg. I told them, “3-o-clock sharp, be back at the lorry”.
At ten-to-three I glanced up and was horrified to notice smoke rising from a nearby kopje (rocky hill). Danger! Some of my boys must have lit a fire, and we weren’t far from the mission. Instinctively sure that the boys would be more hindrance than help I charged off alone towards the fire. Approaching on the path I saw two twelve-year-olds looking frightened. Evidently the culprits! Without stopping I said through gritted teeth, “You come back with me!” As the fire spread up the hill it would burn itself out. But as it spread downwards?
I found it was in a small narrow ravine perhaps fifteen yards wide. I didn’t (still don’t) know how many villagers’ huts lay down below. We had to get that fire out! For beating it the boys took small branches and I had the only thing of much use - the shooting-stick. For half an hour, under the African sun, we furiously beat and thrashed and slashed … and just managed to get it out. The relief! And the exhaustion and extreme dehydration!
We staggered back to the lorry where 20-odd boys watched us in silence. I stopped the lorry at the mission convent and, taking only the two miscreants, went and rang the door-bell. “Sister, could we please have a drink of water?” Evidently puzzled she disappeared and - eventually - returned with a whole bucketful of real lemonade. She’d thought I wanted it for the whole contingent! Wide-eyed she watched as we three drained the whole bucket.
That evening I squeezed in a visit to Chapel. Something like this:
ME: “Well, Lord, what a day I’ve had! I mean really, what were you thinking of? Those two young scamps lighting that fire - I could have died of thirst, and dozens of locals could have been burnt to death!”
LORD: “Hold on, I didn’t put arson into their heads (though I can guess who did). And how come you were inspired to take your shooting-stick with you? And the trouble I took preventing the wind from swirling! That German sister has been chuckling ever since because this morning something had prompted her to choose for meditation Matthew 25, ‘I was thirsty and you gave me drink’. And who d’you think suggested to the sisters years ago that planting a lemon-tree in their garden might (as it were) bear fruit one day? And then there’s the water…”
ME: “Well, Lord, I can’t stay here all night trading insights. I’m bone-weary and need a good night’s sleep, mosquito-free. I expect you to make sure I get it, otherwise you’ll be hearing from me in the morning. I’m off!…”
LORD: “I will be with you…”