News from Vietnam

Many of the AIDS victims I look after are very close to returning to the Father. I often end my visits by giving them a farewell kiss on the forehead. One woman to whom I had done this summoned up her last remaining strength and said, almost inaudibly: 'Don’t I smell rather awful?'
I warmly reassured her that she did not (the Chinese and Vietnamese give greeting kisses with the nose, not the lips). I’ve just said 'farewell kiss', but of course I mean "until we meet again", not "goodbye".helping, to give life!helping, to give life!
In January, I had the chance to travel to the north of the country for a two-day national meeting on the theme "Christians and AIDS". It took thirty-three hours by train to make the 1,700 km (1,100 mile) trip, and it allowed me to see some beautiful parts of the country. The image that has stuck in my mind most is of farmers barefoot in the muddy paddy fields, like ghosts in the mist and cold (which is fairly exceptional this year). The rice farmer is the most useful, most essential member of the national community, and yet at the same time one of the poorest. A whole life of hard labour does not allow him or his family to enjoy a decent standard of living, so along with his mates he ends up crammed into the city slums, as in many places throughout our wide world.
Peasant farmers working in the mud in the rice fieldsPeasant farmers working in the mud in the rice fields

Group discussions have never been my cup of tea, so I sneaked off from this worthy and respectable gathering of about fifty participants, and went to seek out the Little Sisters' Fraternity, which is hidden away in one of the capital's shanty towns. One of the Fraternity's four Sisters had made her final profession not long before (I had attended the event), and I was struck and moved by the co-relation between what she had undertaken to do at the time of her vows and what she and her Sisters were now living out day after day in their present-day Nazareth. God’s grace is ever with us!
I have a small friend. He really is small as he is only 95cm tall (3 ft 2), and lives off a single bowl of rice a day. But his heart is large: he gets up at 4 a.m. and with his tiny steps he walks about 10 km (7 miles), shouldering a bag larger than himself, to the town rubbish dump, where he spends the day collecting wood, paper, boxes and other metal.
About 5 p.m. his old Dad comes to collect his son, stomach empty and bag full, and brings the whole lot back home on his ancient bike, which he can hardly push. These humble people (Dad, Mum and the boy) have a cheerful evening sorting out the day's harvest and hoping they can sell quite a bit of it the next day. Carrying a load on an ancient bikeCarrying a load on an ancient bike It is a hovel with three warm hearts living in it: my friend much prefers this to taking up the offer to be part of a freak show in a circus, which would have taken him a long way away from his sick and elderly parents.

One of my uncles was a Buddhist monk (my mother and her three children were the only Christians on my mother’s side of the family). Although we were of different faiths, my uncle and I had a lot of affection and respect for each other. With him I used to say that all here on earth is but illusion, impermanence, emptiness, futility and inconsistency; and with Father Henri Le Saux I say that God alone exists. He is the only subject, the only "I am", and that everyone else – ourselves included – are only "he is". That is his place, in the heart of Being.

"I was sick and you visited me" (Matthew 26:36) Moved by this saying of the Lord's. a group of friends (doctors, nurses, care-assistants, employees, traders, labourers, students, priests, religious sisters and others) suggested accompanying AIDS patients right to the end, with the kind of care called 'palliative' most of the time, in line with our more than modest means, in the face of the great number of men and women affected by this "evil of our century".
We often have to deal with the living dead who are in the process of passing from life to death. My final acts are reduced to wiping a damp napkin over this package of stretched-out bones, dry or battered skin (this is what is apparent to the eyes of the flesh), cutting fingernails, running a comb through the hair, a gentle kiss on the forehead, and this prayer, aloud, for a Christian, "Father, I give my soul into your hands". To a non-Christian I say quietly, "So, my brother (my sister), have a good journey. Our Father is waiting for you; and when you see Him, tell Him that all of us who are still in this world place all our hope in Him".