I climbed Mt Singai, the spiritual home of the Singai Bidayuh in Borneo. I had climbed it twice before, some years previously, but, this time the 1007 steps were almost too much for me and, at one point, I felt I might have to give up. However, my two seminarian companions urged me to stop and rest awhile and then together we finished the rest of the climb and reached the top. We were not alone in climbing the Singai – there were up to a thousand people altogether climbing with us – for we were climbing to remember and celebrate the 130th anniversary of the first Mill Hill Father to climb the mountain and begin the long process of bringing the Gospel to the Bidayuh, who lived there. As the Society Representative of Mill Hill in Malaysia, I was expected to take part, and so, drenched with sweat and out of breath as I was when I arrived, I was given a great welcome and was pleased to be there with them all at the place where the Gospel was first preached in that region.
I cannot say that we actually followed in the footsteps of Father Felix Westerwout or those other early Mill Hill men, because we climbed a fairly recent wooden plank-walk of 1007 steps, whereas, 130 years ago, those first missionaries scrambled up the earthen face of the mountain – but, at each step I took, I marvelled at the love and service, in the hearts of those early MHMs, which prompted and sustained them and the Sisters, the FMSJs, who later joined them in their mission.
They came, they climbed that very steep mountain and despite the rather hostile reception they received, they stayed – not only for a day, like me, but for years. They built a place to live, they started a small school and sought to reach out, in any way they could, to help improve the life of the Bidayuh – for the Gospel is a message of “life” and we preach it by whatever helps people live more richly.
The Mass was presided over by Father Sepp Schmolzer, a Mill Hill Father, who had worked in that area for ten years and had helped inspire the construction of the Catholic Pilgrimage and Memorial Centre. He now works in Rome, but during the Mass, Mr Vincent Edy, the Chairman of the Committee of Memorial Centre, welcomed him “home” and then went on to speak of what the coming of the missionaries meant to the Bidayuh. He spoke of the suffocating paganism that enveloped the Bidayuh, in those days; a paganism, which held the people enslaved through a fear of black magic and prevented any advance in education, medicine or farming. It was the coming of the missionaries and the faith in Jesus Christ they brought, which gave the people the courage to reject the beliefs that had held them enthralled for so long and embrace the Gospel and the education and new life that it brought them. Those small schools begun by the Fathers, and continued by the Sisters, began to open up the people to new ways of living, ways freed from fear, ways which have now led, as Vincent Edy said, to the Bidayuh nation being among the most educated of the peoples of Sarawak, with many professional men, doctors, lawyers, teachers and priests among them. They are a people, who through the Gospel, have learnt to live; a people who are now themselves helping bring life to others.
The Memorial Mass had a wonderful atmosphere of celebration – celebration of the Christianity that the people hold dear and the possibilities of living which that brought them, but it was also a celebration of deep gratitude for the courage and determination of those missionaries, who brought them that gift of life. This was almost tangible, when the congregation sang, as a thanksgiving hymn after communion: “Give thanks with a grateful heart”. They sang it with joy, they sang it with gratitude and also some with tears in their eyes – and as the words of the hymn rose up among the great trees that still cover the Singai, I imagined them being carried by the Lord back through time to the day when that first young priest was struggling to climb the hill. I imagined the Lord using the fervour of that hymn and the gratitude it embodied to touch the heart of that young priest – tired and frightened as he must have been – urging him to go on. I imagined the singers calling out to him:
“Go on, we need you to climb! Don’t give up; we need the faith you are bringing us. You will not see the fruit of your labours, but we now have a freedom that we would never have had if you not had the courage to climb. So – go on, climb and ‘Thank you!’”
I know that that young priest would not have been aware that it was the Christians of the future, who were calling out to him, encouraging him not to give up. All he would have been aware of was that something was urging him on, urging him to climb that hill in the face of the fear and uncertainty, which must have filled his heart. It is because of our faith in “the Communion of Saints” that I think it possible that that was how the Lord gave him the inspiration and grace to climb.
That train of thought led me on to think about the inspirations and thoughts that sometimes fill our hearts today, thoughts which gently urge us on to some love and service, the results of which we may never see. All we are aware of is the prompting, but maybe that “urging” is someone from the future whispering in our hearts – “Go on, dare to do it, we need you!” Maybe, the prayers and thanksgiving of future generations do reach out backwards across time urging us to do those things which will bring them the Gospel, bring them life. The memory of that great hymn of thanksgiving that rose up from the congregation on Mt Singai on that Sunday inspires me to listen for “the angel voices” calling me to climb the mountain I see before me now, no matter how hopeless it may seem. He did it on the Singai, I must believe that he is also doing it now!
Terence Burke mhm