Finding Providence in a POW camp
Diary of a City Priest, by Pastor Iuventus, available from Amazon Among some remarkable priests it has been my privilege to meet in the course of my life, one of the most obviously and strikingly holy was Fr Pat Rourke, a Jesuit who must have been in his 80s by the time I knew him. In the course of many years in the Society of Jesus he had been variously the rector of a large Jesuit community and parish, a spiritual director at the seminary, a schoolmaster and all manner of things. By the time I met him, he was white-haired and venerable, the spiritual father to a boarding school and adored by all the pupils. It was obvious that he must have been a strikingly handsome, tall man when he was younger. He still had amazingly twinkling blue eyes.
Sunday’s Gospel about the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air, and that proverbial phrase about each day having enough of trouble to worry about the next, brought Pat Rourke to mind. For just occasionally he would speak and write about his experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the closing years of World War II. Such places were, of course, notorious for the cruelty to which they subjected their inmates, and the high mortality rates from the beatings, the poor diet and virulent diseases. This was not what he spoke of. He spoke of what he described as a kind of nostalgia for the place, a homesickness for the simplicity of it. There, he learned to put his faith entirely in God, not as a theory but as the way to survive moment by moment. It was God’s Providence which he trusted in. This was not the glib, Polyanna-like belief that everything would come right in the end. The suffering and death he saw round him was proof enough that it was not that simple. No, he learned to believe in God’s Providence, that God had a plan, that his care was with him in each moment of each day. It would be too much to say that he was indifferent as to whether he lived or died – that would not be true. No one can be so. But he was convinced that in every moment he was being offered an invitation to grow more in God’s love, to accept from God’s hand the little details that made up each day. To live in the present moment, accepting what God sent. That conviction never left him. He was sublimely free.
In that stark world there were none of the comforts we imagine make life bearable, the kinds of things we regard a essential to our quality of life. Yet Fr Rourke spoke of the love the prisoners showed one another, how they would give away their meagre rations to a sick comrade, how they would take beatings in the stead of someone weaker or more fearful and fragile. Fr Rourke told of how he would tear out the pages of his breviary and trade them with the guards for an egg or medicine for a sick inmate. The guards would use the thin paper to roll cigarettes. (It’s an image that comes back to me sometimes when I am preparing to say my Office. It is a beautiful reminder of the purpose of the prayer, to sanctify the day and intercede for the Church and the world.) In such a furnace are great souls proved and refined, but this lesson learned through unimaginable hardship was a liberating one. Fr Rourke would speak of the lesson of the cave – a cave which was part of the prison camp, but also the cave at Bethlehem where there was only great poverty and simplicity and the shining light of God’s love and his mysterious presence. These can be obscured by too many comforts and possessions, I can live fearful for my safety and comfort, and in so doing secretly be resisting learning the lesson of a total and wholehearted dependence on God’s Providence. To let go of what feels essential is a critical moment in the spiritual life. Until it is no longer there to hold one up one like a crutch, one does not truly understand that it was no longer holding up, rather it had perpetuated an irra tional fear of falling. In all Fr Rourke’s Jesuit formation must have helped. St Ignatius counsels above all else indifference: the willingness to take good and bad things from God equally and let neither shake the conviction that it is only the love of God which means anything to life – not what I own, how fortunate I am, how wealthy or how poor. Suffering is not the mark of God’s disfavour any more than success is. Moment by moment we are to surrender memory, understanding and will to the loving presence of our Creator with the faith that every moment is in the power of his love.
And the will is all-important for St Ignatius. I cannot yet, at the level of my natural affections, be indifferent to good and bad things; I do not need to be. In all that happens, and in all my anxieties, I have to exert my will to say with Ignatius: “Take Lord and receive, my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will. The grace and love of you are wealth enough for me.” One day I will learn whether or not I really meant it.