Friday, 23 January 2015


We Clarke brothers used to enjoy camping. Our equipment was very primitive. And that’s the way we wanted it. We welcomed having to use our ingenuity to improvise with the basics. Any way, we had to carry everything on our backs, so we needed to travel light.

As soon as we reached our camp-site we split our labour force between pitching the tent and constructing the kitchen, with the camp fire as the centre-piece. No oil stoves for us! Instead, we’d search for tinder and kindling. No matter if the wood were soaking wet. Underneath the bark it would be dry enough to catch fire. As a matter of pride we allowed ourselves only one match and no paper. So we had to get it right first time, even if it were windy or raining. Anyone who suggested using a cigarette lighter would be treated with the contempt he deserved! So we’d cut some fine wood shavings and surround them with a pyramid of twigs. After striking the match we’d apply it to the tinder and gently blow until it burst into flames. Not too hard, or we’d extinguish any tiny spark before it could become a flame.

Once the fire was burning we tried to keep it alive throughout the duration of the camp. At night we would allow it to die right down. Then the first up in the morning would gently blow on the embers. With encouragement, apparently dead ashes would first glow and then break into flame. We had a blazing fire; we could now set about cooking a hearty breakfast, with a steaming mug of tea.
But inevitably the time came for us to break camp, pack up and go home. We’d take down our tent. Finally, we’d douse the fire with a bucket of water. We had to ensure there was no danger of setting the place on fire after we’d left. With a protesting hiss of steam, our lively fire expired; our camp was over!
Nursing, coaxing the smouldering embers into a roaring fire, and finally dousing the flames, reminded me of one of the prophet Isaiah’s Servant Poems,
"A bruised reed he will not break; a dimly burning wick he will not quench," (Is. 42. 3).
I’m struck by the sensitivity God expects of His servant. He’s not to be heavy-handed with those who are already damaged, weak and broken. In no way was God’s servant commissioned to make matters worst by stifling whatever wisps of hope still remained. Far from it! His servant was to be a
"light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out from prison those who sit in darkness," (cf. Is. 42. 6-7). 
 In other words, He was meant to blow gently on the dying embers and coax them to burst into a lively flame. The warmth of kindness and encouragement can dispel the bleak chill of a loss in self-confidence!

That’s the way Jesus Himself would handle a situation. He expects the very same of us. Jesus did not set Himself up as a harsh judge, eager to condemn and punish the sinner. He described Himself as the Physician, full of mercy and compassion, who’d come to heal those who were sick. He claimed to be the Good Shepherd who searched for the lost sheep.
Above all, that was the approach of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When his wayward child returned a broken failure his father didn’t add to his humiliation by crushing him with bitter recriminations. Instead, he welcomed him back with open arms. He expressed his joy by throwing a rousing party.
Pope Francis makes his own this pastoral approach and urges all of us to do the same. We could say his mission manifesto is to ‘think positive’ about people, even if they’ve made a mess of their lives. We mustn’t give up on the apparently dead embers, or worse still, douse any spark of hope with the cold water of discouragement and condemnation. Instead, we are to seek and encourage the spark of goodness that is present, even in the worst situations. With the Spirit, we are to blow and fan it into the flames of new life.
God has called us to blow new life into the dying embers of people’s hope, not to be fire extinguishers!
Isidore O.P.

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