I am a town boy – born and bred in London – and so it was a new experience, when, as a newly ordained priest, I was appointed to Mukah, a very rural parish. Our usual way of travelling was by longboat – about five metres long and half a metre wide – with the driver sitting at the rear, a lookout at the front, watching for sunken logs, and me sitting halfway along, with the luggage.
On one occasion, however, on a rather twisty river, I was asked to act as lookout and so I took my place ready and eager to play my part. However, I had been watching the former lookout and had seen how he skilfully used a paddle to help the boat get round the rather sharp bends in the river, so when I moved to the front of the boat I took up the paddle to help in this way, but my efforts caused the boat to hit the bank and go off-balance, until the helmsman stopped the boat, smiled at me and said, “I think it would be better if you left the paddle in the boat!”
This memory came to mind as I realised that Lent is not far away – a time for ‘new beginnings’! I once had a friend, who tried to make every day a new beginning in her journey with God and I asked myself what was needed for a ‘new beginning’. My immediate thought was that a ‘new beginning’ means you start doing things which you have been too lazy to do up to now. But my memory of that boat trip suggested that a ‘new beginning’ might mean doing less rather than more.
When I first entered the seminary, we had speech training every Thursday evening and we learnt certain pieces by heart. One piece began, “As pride was the first sin, so it is the source and origin of all the sins which are committed”. Pride always rears its head when I am involved in something and I assume that things will only work if they are done in my way – and that includes my partnership with the Lord! But, as years pass and I see my ideas of how things ought to be, collapse, I am slowly learning to keep my fingers out of things, which are beyond me – but it does not always work.
One great truth of our Faith says that I have a unique contribution to make in this world – but then so also does everyone else! My task is not only to do what God gives me to do, but to help others do what God wants from them. However, here lies a problem – if I don’t reach out to help, then maybe others will not be able to do what they need to do, but, on the other hand, if I help too much, then maybe they will not do anything at all. I am coming to the conclusion that it is often better to let others make a mistake than never allowing them the chance to try. However, that old pride of mine raises its head in opposition to this thought.
So, where do I go with my new beginnings as Lent draws near? I know that I need to look at myself as honestly as I can and recognise that my paddling skills in many areas are not as good as I sometimes imagine. So, maybe I should listen again to my spiritual mentor St Frances de Sales, who says again and again “Grow where you are planted” – and that often means ‘leaving the paddle in the boat’.
Fr Terry Burke