“Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Thomas’ problem is one that we all have – he speaks beyond his knowledge; he judges before he has considered; he condemns what he has not understood. Which of us has not done that?
I once lived with a saintly old Jesuit. You’ll be pleased to know that we still have one or two. In his late eighties, he was incapable of even the simplest work, so he was sent to the noviceship to be a good influence on the wild young men that we once were.
He loved it. He said that he was now too old to be anything except love and to do anything except pray. But what we all found most remarkable was that he was a man of complete hope and trustfulness. Whatever occurred, he found the good in it. Whoever he met, he found the good in them also. In his belief – though he would never have put it this way – God lives in and through every little piece of His creation and in every moment of recorded time. He did not have a negative bone in his body.
But if I am honest, he was also a man whose goodness could annoy. He seemed – to my mind - just a little bit too full of himself, too full of how happy he was in life, too full of enjoyment of the good things in life and (especially for me as a young man with my own struggles in that area) just a little too fond of the company of women.
We asked him about it – he said there had been times in his life when he had been cynical, but he was too old for that now. He said that people always died from the feet upwards and, since cynicism is the lowest part of a person, that is always the first to go. [Sadly, I think he was rather better at sanctity than anatomy.] But, truth to tell, we also found that odd. Not just odd in the sense of unusual, though his grace was certainly unusual, but moreso because we knew that, during the Second World War, he had spent four terrible years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp – and had been one of the very few who had survived. He rarely spoke about it – we believed because he found it hard to speak with charity about those who had tortured him and killed his friends. But on those occasions when he did, he always did so to describe some moment of humour, of goodness, of love. So perhaps it was not, in fact, so odd. He did, after all, survive. And, having survived, every moment came to him like the personal blessing of God; and every person came to him like a new vessel of the Holy Spirit.
Well, one day just a few months ago, in a moment of complete idleness, I put his name into ‘Google’. A few choices came up, I picked on one at random and this is what I read: (I thought of correcting the English for your sensitive eyes, but then I changed my mind – better you hear the story as it is told by a man – a man called Len Abbie - who was there at time)….
“When we were captured, Squadron Leader Padre Rorke took his uniform off and changed for an airman’s, for he seemed pretty wised up, they did separate senior officers from other ranks. The Padre said his place was amongst the men and indeed he slept in our billets. I saw him, when a prisoner, take a rifle off a Japanese guard who was beating hell out of an English prisoner. The Padre took the rifle, stood to attention, bowed to the guard and handed him the rifle back. The guard stood flabbergasted. Raised his rifle to hit the Padre, stopped. Then said “Muchigo” (come with me). He took the Padre to the guardhouse. This was at Yar Mari camp, Surabaya where there were at least 3,000 prisoners mostly Dutch. Rumours spread round the camp like wildfire. They will shoot him, they will beat him up. About 3 hours later Padre returned to his hut with a packet of Japanese fags and a bag of fruit. The interpreter said the camp commandant, a Major in the Emperor of Nippon’s Imperial Forces was a true Bushido and admired the courage of the Padre. From that day some of the guards even saluted him. At Malang camp when we were made to witness the execution of four prisoners I said to Padre Rorke “Where is your God now? He let that happen”. He replied “What you witnessed this day was not God’s work but man’s”.
Reading that made me go back and read again his own little book, Greatness of Heart, Sermons in a Prison Camp.
His text is Romans 9: 31-39 “With God on our side, who can be against us?”
“In Camp II at Pakan Baroe in Sumatra, more or less on the Equator, and unpleasant, I used to preach every Sunday to all and sundry, all races and faiths. Men in adversity instinctively seek God, sometimes unknowingly. It was some time in July and the Collect that day said “Oh God, your Providence rules all things with unfailing wisdom, take away all that harms us and give us all that is for our good”.
Alongside the spot where I used to preach there were two long bamboo huts, dignified with the name Hospital, in which lay dozens of men, mostly young, wasting away with all manner of tropical diseases and never enough to eat, and scant medicines. They lay side by side on wooden platform, with no mattresses and often no blankets. Hygiene was primitive. Down the centre were about ten camp beds, where lay the men next to die. They were put there because it was easier to minister to them but they knew they were not going to live. I buried them nearly every evening.”
So, I now think I was wrong about Pat. If I had but known it at the time, he had his reasons to enjoy life. He had seen the alternative.
I thought of him today when I read these readings because old Pat Rorke is one of the very few people I know who would not have made Thomas’ mistake. He would have met his fellow disciples with love and heard their words with trust. He might have had his doubts, but he would have gone forward enthusiastically into God’s future.
Let us pray that we may be given the grace to do likewise.
Paul O'Reilly SJ