Prayers on a cliff edge
EVEN if I coughed the vehicle wobbled, ever so slightly. If I shifted about or tried to open the door of the old Land Rover things got very scary.
I was on my way from Fotabong to Foto, two remote villages in South West Cameroon where I lived and worked as a priest. It was the rainy season and so the road was muddy and dangerous. I say 'road,' it was a dirt track which climbed 2000 feet along a ledge cut into the side of the mountain.
Two parallel ruts ran up the middle of the track made by other vehicles which had battled their way up or down. Each time a vehicle bounced along, the ruts would get a little deeper until some poor soul would find themselves stuck and unable to move, wheels spinning to no avail—a bit like a tortoise flailing about on top of a large stone. There would then follow an hour or two digging and wrestling to get going again.
That is what I was trying to avoid when I put my right wheels on the ridge in the middle and my left wheels on the roadside verge on the left. The verge gave way, a little avalanche ensued and I began to slide over the edge towards the forest 200 feet below. The only thing stopping me from plunging down was that the axle on one of my front wheels was caught on a rock.
I couldn’t move. There was nowhere to jump out to—only thin air—and I didn’t have wings as yet.
So I sat and said the Rosary, remembered to say a good Act of Contrition and thought about my family back in Scotland.
There can be a great stillness in the midst of danger—a point where you become very self-aware—where everything has a clarity that is rare in day to day life. Those moments are a great gift, despite the circumstances, because what lies in the depth of your heart, why you have lived your life in the way you have, surfaces. For me in that moment, it was my connection with God. It was sitting in the stillness—literally between heaven and earth, that I realised how much faith I had actually been given. The presence of God was with me. He had always been there. It almost did not matter if I clung on to the cliff edge or plummeted down into the trees. God was with me and I was loved. Things come and go. Everything passes. Only God remains.
Atem Forbinake stopped in mid-stride as he rounded the corner when he saw me. He started to run towards me but halted when I firmly raised my hands. He nodded and said: "I go come" and dashed off back up the mountain. Twenty minutes later he returned with 30 people and a band of curious children.
A loud and animated discussion followed while I remained in my sacred bubble. Eventually ropes were tied to the bumper and heaving and hauling began to a rhythmical incantation—everyone, men and women, pulling in time. Then with a lurch, I was back safely on the road. I got out the Land Rover and there were high fives, hugs and laughter. The women started to sing. I was no longer alone with God. God was among us.
That scene could be a metaphor for the Church—the people rescuing their priest. Often as priests we find ourselves on some cliff edge or other. Over-work, loneliness, tiredness, temptation, worried about how to sensitively respond to a person or a family in front of us who are faced with tragedy. And equally often we are humbled by the love the people give us in return in simple, uncomplicated ways.
That love is the witness the Church bears to the world. That love is the presence of God in our midst. And that love is what the mission of the Church is all about.
This is what lies at the heart of why Pope Francis has declared this coming October as the Extraordinary Mission Month. While our theological doctrines and fine sermons are important, it is the love among God’s people that speaks most to the world. The mission of the Church starts with how all the members of the Church care for one another: the school child giving money to the Holy Childhood to help other children in Africa or Asia; the children in Uganda praying for the Church in Scotland; the Carmelite sister praying for those who come to the monastery; the old couple in Mossend sponsoring a seminarian or novice in some distant land; the family who befriend the old lady who sits alone at Mass.
In the middle of all the Church’s current difficulties, the scandals, this cliff edge that we find ourselves on, the Holy Father invites us to be still and to return to the essence of what our Church should be all about: loving, caring and rescuing one another.
Pope Francis wants us to remember that we are all missionaries, all called to bear witness to the divine love among us.