Charterhouse Chronicle, Catholic Herald, 9 March 1990
The atheist is a dismal table companion. Twenty minutes conversation with him is sufficient to depress, sadden and irritate the most ebullient optimist. One feels baffled by his isolation, and ashamed of one’s own feeble wielding of those Christian convictions that should carry all before them.
But one’s vanity is piqued and one rises to the bait – despite experience which counsels a decent retreat to polite reserve. Or heed the plea of the psalmist when he begs “Lord, set a guard over my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips!”
The atheist’s hopeless hatred of all things godly confine his perspectives to an earth bound materialism that is, eventually, deeply boring. A whole dimension to living is hidden from the genuine atheist. Even his curiosity has been stifled, and matters spiritual are restricted to the realm of fairies, tea-leaves and ouija-boards.
One should know better than to tangle with an atheist (especially at a supper table). They live on a foreign plane where simple words have different meanings. In this semantic jungle providence means only luck, miracle means chicanery, and hope (the lifebelt grasped by agnostics and most of the rest of us) is a nonsense that gullible fools clutch as a comforter.
As for God … You can tell that I am still smarting from a recent encounter over the spinach soup. I was thoroughly worsted and tied up in intellectual knots like some low-budget Houdini.
After this bruising collision confidence was restored over tea with a young Benedictine monk, one of the Vietnamese boat people. Br. Barnabas was born in Vietnam in 1962, the second of nine children. He left Saigon in 1980, a departure arranged by his parents at great personal sacrifice. One of the reasons for leaving was his vocation to the priesthood.
The regime uses subtle methods to prevent young people practising their faith, organising various tasks in the evenings and at weekends in which the young are obliged to take part. To help support his large family (his father is disabled), Br. Barnabas’ education was interrupted while he worked as a tailor and as a watchmaker.
To study for the priesthood was almost impossible. His escape in a small fishing boat has all the ingredients of the classic adventure story – including being stuck in river mud when the tide turned, and taking cover on a small island for four hours until the tide came up again.
Then followed three days tossing about on the open sea until the group of 24 was picked up by a British tanker.
Poor Br. Barnabas was pitifully sea-sick – an affliction one forgets must strike many a refugee boat-person. Once aboard the tanker he realised he had truly left Vietnam, possibly for ever.
To this day he is saddened that he didn’t say goodbye to his family “properly”. The tanker called at Taiwan but the group was not allowed ashore. Next stop was Singapore where, after some delay, the refugees were taken to a camp.
Four months later Br. Barnabas and seven others were flown to England, the rest of their companions joined relations in Canada, Australia and America.
Time to rethink
After ten years in England Br. Barnabas will be ordained at Ampleforth Abbey in June. This thumbnail sketch cannot describe his cheerful acceptance of whatever life flings at him, his steady trustfulness in the face of separation from his loved ones, or his hope in a useful future.
The exile’s lot must so often seem bleak and lonely, but you’d never guess it from this monk’s happy demeanor. His gently expressed wish is that the government should look again at its policy of forced repatriation of the boat people in Hong Kong, and use all possible means to persuade other nations to take in these long-suffering families.