Thirty years ago today, on the Feast of Holy Innocents, 28th December 1990, with a group of four people from Northern Ireland, I flew to the Philippines. It was my first visit to the developing world and no matter how much I had tried to prepare for what was to come, I couldn’t cope with the reality of what I met.
Seeking somewhere to pray before going to Victoria Station for the journey to Gatwick, I had stepped into Westminster Abbey, only to be confronted by a demand for payment. Deciding that the Church of England wasn’t much interested in praying, I went instead to Westminster Cathedral, where a beautiful Latin Mass was being sung. There were clouds of incense and a sense of the transcendent. Although it seemed paradoxical that the story of Herod’s killing of babies should be recalled with any element of beauty.
A day later, all that happened in any church at home seemed a travesty of the Gospel. As I travelled through the streets of Manila, I wondered what churches and abbeys and cathedrals had to do with anything.
It was a haunting trip, people living on the streets, people living on Smoky Mountain, the city rubbish dump, people with absolutely nothing. On the island of Negros, a priest who spoke for the poor was murdered and we went to his wake, his bishop said that unless people were like the priest, they were not Christians at all. It was a challenging statement for those who led the comfortable lives of Christians in affluent countries.
Returning to Northern Ireland in late January, the experiences left me with repeated flashbacks, I would wake with panic attacks in the early hours of the morning. In retrospect, the taking of the anti-malarial drug, Larium might not have helped, although it was the best preventative option and it came with a clear warning that it could have unpleasant side effects .
I devised a strategy for coping with the attacks. I imagined being in a refugee camp with a dying child, trying to conjure up each detail. I then looked around and I counted each thing I had. Then, most importantly, I thought about my family, and how fortunate, indeed lucky, we were, to have been born where we were and to be able to live the life we lived. The attacks would be dispelled and I would return to sleep.
I returned to the Philippines in 2001. It was a country barely recognizable from ten years previously. Its progress had been remarkable.
The panic attacks mercifully went away, and I have visited places much poorer since, but the thought process remained useful. In days when I think there have been horrible things with which to deal, I need only look at the news pictures from places where there are people who are truly poor, what do I know of anything horrible?