When, as a young man, I first arrived in Malaysia, there were many strange sayings I had to learn to understand. One of which was, “Do you know how to eat this? – often asked when I was being offered something to eat – and I used to think, “What an odd thing to say! Of course I know how to eat it – you put it in your mouth and chew!” I later discovered that what was being actually asked was, “Do you like to eat this?”, or, as I now prefer to understand it, “Do you know how to appreciate this?” The question implies – and rightly so – that if I do not like a certain food or drink, then the lack lies in me and not in the food. We have to learn to appreciate things!
I have found this understanding very helpful in many ways, for it allows me to say what I like or dislike, in the way of food, music, books, etc, without condemning those things I dislike and, more importantly, without condemning those, who have a different appreciation from me. It is so easy to dismiss others, who hold a different opinion to me, who like different things from me or who worship in a different way to me – and that includes those who profess to have no beliefs at all, for we all worship something – namely, that which is most important in our life, for this becomes the standard by which we judge the value of all people and things. Worship does not mean bowing down in prayer, although it can be expressed in that way.
I think that when I was a younger man, the Roman Catholic Faith was the most important thing in my life and I tended to judge everyone and everything according to what I understood of that Faith. However, my living of good times and of bad has shifted my focus away from the Faith, which I still hold dear, to the God who is being revealed to me through that Faith – and I am coming to see that he is far greater and more involved in life than the teaching of doctrine manages to convey. Although, looking back, I realise that theology tells us this, but I had not yet learnt how to eat that truth.
I am discovering that God understands where I am in my life and how I got here – because I chose the things I knew how to eat, often at the expense of tastier things I had yet to learn to appreciate. I am also discovering that he leads me on in my journey – by slowly opening my eyes and my heart to those tastier experiences. From him, there is no bullying or condemnation to force me on my way, only the gentle journeying with me, teaching me to learn to eat new things.
When I first came to Malaysia, there was another Fr Burke there, an old Jesuit priest in Kuala Lumpur. I heard many stories about how he reached out to people in their need, but the way he did so, often horrified some of his brother clergy, due to the cavalier way in which he broke canon law and accustomed ways of doing things. I only met him once, in 1972, but I still remember part of our conversation. He said to me, “At my time of life, there is only one thing that really matters – and that is compassion”. At the time, I had not yet really met that Compassionate God, whom he had come to know. I had to wait until I myself was in need of compassion, but I am coming to know him more and more and I am discovering that he has such understanding of the mess in which I so often find myself, because he is a God who knows how to eat everything.
All blessings for the New Year; may it truly be a Year of Grace for you.
Fr Terry Burke