Only Drowning Men Can See Him

Only Drowning Men Can See Him

Fr Terence Burke mhm

Fr Terence Burke mhm is a Mill Hill missionary ministering in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. In this moving testimony he shares his personal experience of living with cancer.

Homily for an afternoon of Mass and Fellowship

for cancer Sufferers and their Companions, held on 13th August 2016

Hello, I am Terry and I have cancer.

I have been looking forward to spending this time with you, because I find it gets a little lonely sometimes, for even though I have many wonderfully kind and caring friends around me, they cannot really know where I am – living with something that may one day kill me. Only you know where I am – you who also live with cancer – and I hope that as we spend this time together and share our experiences, we may receive that strength and peace which comes when two or three gather in the Lord’s name.

I remember clearly the day I was first told that I had cancer and needed an operation immediately – I asked the doctor how long I would live without treatment and he told me, “Six months”. I received the news calmly and then went home and tried to make sense of it. We all know that we are going to die, but that is “head knowledge”, but when you are told that you have cancer – that your life is probably drawing towards its close – this becomes “heart knowledge”, you “know!”, but that knowledge takes time to absorb. I was given my news by the doctor on a Friday and by Sunday everyone seemed to know – but then Kuching is a small town – so when I went to say Mass that day, people kindly asked me how I was and how I was feeling – but I didn’t know myself how I was, I was still confused and maybe even angry at the news. So, sadly, I answered some quite gruffly and I am still apologising for having been so grumpy!

However, I did come to accept it rather quickly and even find peace in it, but then I had an advantage. Some twenty years or so ago, I had trouble with alcohol and throughout my troubles I begged and begged the Lord for help, but nothing seemed to happen until the time when I chose to enter rehab. It was a place for priests and the programme included a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament each day and one day I asked the Lord ,

“Where were you when I begged and begged for help and you did not come?” and I heard him answer, “I was on my knees beside you, every day, begging you to let me in and share your pain, but you did not want me; you wanted only my power, so that you could go on running your life in your own way.”


Remembering the predecessors

And with a heavy heart, I realised that it was true. From that day onwards, I have tried to share my life with the Lord – to hand over to him the difficulties I come up against and to give myself into his hands when I find things are beyond me. It is a way of life that I am still learning day by day and it is summed up in the Serenity prayer:

O God,

grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the Wisdom to know the difference.

I made that surrender to the Lord once more when I heard the news of my cancer and he has given me a most deep peace; he has healed me at the deepest level of my being, for I have been brought to “know” that I am in his hands and so can accept myself just as I am, knowing that I am safe with him. I know that when it is time for him to take me home my life will be complete – he will not let me die before it is so – and it also means that while I still have life, there is still something for me to do and this helps me greet each day with anticipation.

When I met you, as you arrived today, my dear fellow cancer sufferers, I felt that same peace coming from your hearts, for the awareness of the sickness within us opens that door to the Lord’s love and care that only people like us can know. As Leonard Cohen sings in one of his songs,

“Jesus chose to walk upon the water, because only drowning men and women can see him.”


Sunday Mass at Kuching Cathedral

We are sharing in the Cross of Christ, my friends, and our sufferings, both present and to come, help further the redemption of
the world. We do not know how this happens, but it is our Faith that when we pray for others, love and compassion is released into the world – a power of healing. As a young missionary, I once experienced the power of the prayers for me of an elderly
lady who suffered greatly from arthritis. On one occasion on a long and difficult journey here in Sarawak, I collapsed with exhaustion, but slowly became aware of the power of her prayers somehow getting me to my feet and urging me on, when all my strength seemed to have vanished. The world needs our prayers, especially those who carry God’s mercy and compassion to those in need. They do not go out through their own strength, but, as St Therese taught, through the loving prayers of the sick and elderly and weak of this world. Someone somewhere lies prostrate, as I once was, waiting for our prayer to lift them to their feet once more – may our prayers go out beyond our own needs to all those who need help.

And to you, our dear friends and carers, who have also come here today – we are deeply appreciative of the love and care you show us. Your love often seems the only good thing that our cancer brings us, for it has drawn us closer together with you than we would otherwise be. However, we also need you to help us rejoice in the life we still have. Thoughts must cross your mind that maybe you will have us with you for only a limited time and this may cause you to be sad, but we are with you now – so help us to live fully and joyfully the time we still have together with you. Because our possible death has become something real to us, we need to talk to you about our lives; we need to tell you of old memories, some sad, others of regret, but others still of joy – of the people we have loved, of the ones who have loved us and the wonders of life we have known. We need you to help us bring our life together in this way, so be not sad for us, but enjoy us; help us to live richly, fully and with hope, that the peace of Christ which fills our hearts may also be yours. Amen.


Kuching Cathedral

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