Journey


I’ve been planning three journeys this year. I’m going up to the Scalan mass in June then in July I’m going to Benbecula for an ordination. I’m no sooner home from that than I’m off to Canada to visit my son and his family. I used to enjoy journeys but I don’t find them so interesting now. Maybe I’m getting old. (You don’t need to agree with that too quickly)

I don’t enjoy driving on long journeys on busy roads. The traffic is heavy and you really need to keep a good lookout for people doing foolish things. You don’t get a chance to see what’s around you. Flying is no better. Our flight to Canada will entail going to Manchester, the only way we can get a direct flight to Vancouver. Glasgow to Vancouver was always popular but that’s gone. Long waits at airports are a real pain.

We go on journeys to find something. I’m going to the Scalan to find and celebrate a little bit of our history. The other journeys are to catch up with family and find out how they are living. Most of all I suppose I’m going on journeys to find something about myself. It used to be fashionable to go on a journey to find yourself. The Beatles went to India to spend time with the Maharishi and find themselves. That puzzled me at the time. I thought that was strange to look for yourself in a place you had never visited before..

I’ve since realised that they were probably right. When you move out of your normal environment and encounter different people in different cultures it shows up aspects of your own life you took for granted. Travelling in Africa I’ve encountered people who would give you their last cup of water or bowl of rice. That made me question my own commitment to others. I might give some spare money to a charity but these people literally gave away all they had.

Young people are often encouraged to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves before getting into work. The emphasis is all about ‘me’. We are encouraged to empower ‘me’. To achieve our potential we must concentrate on ‘me’. We are in a modern cult of ‘me’. We have become the focus and centre of our own lives. I think this is a mistake

Life is a journey. Not just cradle to grave but a journey from being a baby knowing nothing growing to discover the world and our place in it. Some have a long journey and some have a short one. Do we get tired of the problems we encounter and miss the interesting things on the way? Life throws up problems that can threaten to overwhelm us and we worry so much we risk missing the important stuff. It can be easy to miss finding out who we really are. Sometimes we are defined by where we live or the job we do. Sometimes it’s about what we own. All of these miss the real ‘me’.

Now I never remember the words of songs but one phrase that has stuck in my memory from the sixties is “You’re so vain I bet you think this song is about you.” I think that sums up the cult of ‘me’. If I focus completely on me then I’m missing out on everything else and because I don’t exist in isolation I’m missing out on part of myself.

I exist as part of something much greater. In John’s gospel we find Jesus explaining just that.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”

John 15: 5

So the real you is not just the person I see on the train in the morning, making your way to work, coming home and putting your feet up. You are really part of Christ’s being, part of His work in bringing His kingdom to reality on Earth. Our journey through life is part of that great work. Whether we live in a one bedroom flat or a fifty room mansion is irrelevant. Whether we owe money to the bank or own the bank makes no difference to the real importance of our lives.

Losing sight of that is one of the great tragedies of our times. Our society measures the worth of a person by their wealth, position or celebrity. The poor can be ignored but the rich must be listened to. The media seek out the opinions of celebrities more often that finding people of intellect when reporting events and the great questions of our time.

When we deny the presence of Christ in our lives we reduce human life to that of a commodity we can seek or dispose of as we please. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported that in Scotland 13,286 unborn children were aborted in 2018. The National Records of Scotland tell us that the most common cause of death in Scotland in 2017 was Ischaemic heart disease: 6,727deaths.

As we can see abortion is almost twice as lethal as heart disease yet those unborn children are not counted in the statistics. Is that because we might be victims of heart disease ourselves? Do I focus on what might affect me because my life is important and the unborn are not? As a society we certainly seem to have cut ourselves off from God. Cut off from God do we achieve nothing?

We live in an age of great technological advances and of great wealth. Has that helped us to solve the problems of our time? We certainly see advances in medicine, combating diseases that swept the earth in the past. Are we happier now? Some of us live longer, happier lives but we live in a world that seems to be facing growing problems that we might actually be causing.

We see mass movements of migrant trying to escape danger and find a better life. The world’s oceans are predicted to rise and flood coastal cities. The air we breathe is polluted by the vehicles we drive around in. (I confess to driving one of those vehicles.) Scientists warn us that we are changing the planet so that it will not sustain life.

We don’t seem to have achieved much. We don’t seem to have achieved happiness as measured by our society’s values. We are not rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough or whatever. Only by Gods measure can we see the real value we have.

So when you are trying to find the real you please bear this in mind. It’s not all about ‘me’ it’s about ‘us’. You are important because you are a branch on that vine. You are so important that God sent His only Son to die for you. If God values you so highly why would you even consider the popular values of today?

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What does it take to make you happy?

Have you ever met anyone who always miserable? Nothing seems to satisfy them. They are hard to take. But really we don’t like to admit that we are never completely happy.

We are always searching for that elusive thing that will make us really happy. What could it possibly be?

Read my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish. The full text is here next week.

The Guide to Happiness – My October Column in Full

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 27th October.

I’ve almost given up watching the news on television and after a quick scan of the headlines I tend to turn to the crossword. The reason is that it’s all bad news. Think about the big items on the news recently. Asia has suffered from terrible floods, mudslides and earthquakes. The Caribbean has been hit by one hurricane after another before they moved on to hit America. Then California went on fire. The vineyards were burned down. No more Californian reds; that is really depressing.

Politics has been no better. Right wing extremists are on the move everywhere and nobody likes this government; not even the politicians themselves. Nobody is happy. Even in the Church we have dissent and distrust. We have cardinals telling the Pope he has got it wrong. We have a Catholic hospital in Belgium offering euthanasia. Is it any wonder people are unhappy?

Surely God didn’t intend us to be unhappy? He could have given us some advice on how to avoid unhappiness. Luckily he did. If you think back to the Old Testament story about how the Israelites escaped from Egypt you might remember that they wandered around the desert for years. They became very unhappy with their leader Moses. He was taking them to a promised land but they couldn’t see an end to their wandering.

Moses was sent off to consult with God and returned with a guide to happiness that we call the Ten Commandments. Now, not everyone would agree with my description of the Ten Commandments as a guide to happiness. Today many people think of the commandments as a prescription for unhappiness. They stop us doing things we might want to do. They are said to emphasise the negative rather than the positive. Can commandments like these really be a guide to happiness?

If anybody should know what it takes to make us happy it must be God, he made us after all. God is in a unique position to know what makes people happy and what makes them unhappy. If I had the job of sorting out people’s unhappiness I would probably start by looking at what makes them happy. Winning the Euromillions draw could really boost my happiness levels. Being famous or staying in luxury hotels should really boost my self-regard; maybe even being able to buy a pair of shoes that actually fit would help.

However, looking at the facts seems to undermine my conclusions. People who win large sums seem to experience a hard time. Some even claim their windfall has ruined their lives. Looking at celebrities and the ultra-rich I seem to see people who are really unhappy. A few years ago, when I wrote the Missio column for this paper, a former editor complained that the pictures of children in Africa that I submitted were good but the children were always smiling. Perhaps some sad faces would paint a better picture of their plight.

I did offer to provide pictures of sad faces but I warned that I would need to go around Scotland to get some miserable looking faces. The African children were happy that they has something to eat that morning or that they could go to school that day, simple things. Here we take it for granted that we will be fed but we might not be happy with what is served up for us. I never saw children in Africa complain that they didn’t like the food.

It would seem my understanding of human happiness is less than useful. I think I need to have a look at God’s ideas of happiness and try to understand why He sent Moses to lead the Israelites to a happier place.

So, who was Moses and why did God choose him to lead the people? We all remember the story of Moses being put into a basket and floated down the river to be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. In this way he was to escape the slaughter of Israelite children by Pharaoh’s soldiers. He grew up as an Egyptian prince but had to flee after killing an Egyptian who was mistreating Israelite slaves.

Moses was a killer, a poor orator and wasn’t very confident. I would not have thought he was a good choice as leader of the people. When God called Moses he was afraid and when he was told what God wanted him to do he was reluctant to agree. God persisted and gave Moses miraculous powers so that he could convince the Israelites that he had been sent as their leader and to convince Pharaoh to free the slaves.

As we recall, Moses did manage to free the slaves and led the people into the wilderness; taking them to the ’land of milk and honey’ that God had promised. If he had led the people straight to this Promised Land I’m sure they would have been contented. Unfortunately they wandered through the wilderness for forty years. The people experienced hunger and thirst, scraping an existence from very poor land. No wonder they were unhappy. They began to think that God had sent them there to die. They complained to Moses and that’s when he went off to the mountain to consult with God.

Why did God make the Israelites wander for years before coming to the Promised Land? I think He might have known that if the journey was quick and easy the people might not have appreciated God’s gift. They would soon forget what God had done for them and assume that it was all their own doing. He wanted them to remember that all the good things they had were given by God.

I can’t help drawing comparisons with our western society today. We assume that everything we have is entirely the result of human genius and man’s labour. We have rejected any idea that God had a hand in our good fortune and many reject any suggestion that there is a God at all. Our sense of values is distorted. We value an iPhone8 above a real apple because it can enable us to communicate. You can eat an apple but not an iPhone8. We talk of growing our own food as if we make the plants grow. We didn’t invent plants or any other form of life. We have written God out of the story. Fake news is nothing new. We have been steeped in fake news for years . No wonder we are unhappy.

Over the next few months I’ll be looking into God’s guide to happiness.  What is it about the commandments that can bring us back to recognise what’s real and what’s fake news? Do they contain the truth about me as a human being and help me understand why I’m here? How many of us can remember what the Ten Commandments are? My investigation of the Ten Commandments will not have a cast of thousands or the booming voice of Charlton Heston. It will not have a budget of $13 million but I hope to take a serious look at something I’ve taken for granted.

The problem with this is the danger of showing up shortcomings in me and how I live my life. Will that make me happier?