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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Seventeen

Faith



I think a human being has got to have some faith, or at least he’s got to seek faith. Otherwise his life will be empty, empty….How can you live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars shine in the sky!…You must either know why you live, or else…nothing matters…everything’s just wild grass.

Anton Chekhov

Three Sisters

 

Ultimately, faith is the only key to the universe. The final meaning of human existence, and the answers to the questions on which all our happiness depends, cannot be found in any other way.

Thomas Merton

 

It is the heart that feels God, not the reason; this is faith.

Blaise Pascal

 

After 17 years in Japan I did not want to cut all my ties with that country. So, when we arrived in Melbourne, in early 1993, I joined the Australia-Japan Society of Victoria.

 

Soon after, I received notification of a Society function, to be hosted by an elderly doctor at his home, in the posh Melbourne suburb of Toorak. I understood that this Dr Dunlop, though in his eighties, was still practising medicine. I recall one Society member jesting unkindly that she would probably not want him performing surgery on her.

 

The doctor was, of course, the war hero Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, and it is to my everlasting regret that I didn’t attend the function, for he died a few months later, and I missed my chance to meet one of the greatest men ever to have walked on Australian soil.

 

It was absolutely typical that he should host a reception for an organisation whose purpose was to bring together Australians and Japanese. For Weary Dunlop, who experienced unspeakable horrors in the barbaric World War II Japanese death camps, had devoted the rest of his life to reconciliation.

 

He even refused to allow publication of his war diaries until 1986, wishing that a spirit of forgiveness prevail, and worried that his writings would inflame old hatreds. But he also became concerned that younger Australians had forgotten the sacrifices of an older generation during the war. He agreed to the diaries being published, to draw attention to the plight of many elderly veterans.

 

The diaries are sensational. They are a vivid account of the daily struggles of a great man as he works to alleviate the sufferings of prisoners of war, whose leader he has become. The diaries are not especially reflective; rather, they are intensely practical, concerned with the day-to-day problems of the camps. And yet the man’s heroic nature shines through. The diaries reveal a man of old-fashioned virtue, putting duty and service ahead of his own welfare. They show a man of character being tested to the extreme and surviving:

 

3 October 1942

 

It was the same soldier who had made trouble in the bathhouse. He at once advanced with his rifle and took a swing at my face which I countered by raising my left forearm and deflecting the blow smartly, he nearly falling over with shock. I was then summoned to the guardroom and went with some qualms, hoping that I might be able to protest to some other Nipponese. On entering, my assailant who was equipped with a heavy length of bamboo about 3ft long and 4in across stood me to attention and then struck at my face with all his strength. I deflected two blows with my left forearm, suffering some damage to the same. He then struck three heavy blows to my left leg, one hitting over the peroneal nerve with a horrid numbing effect of the leg suddenly going to sleep and inflicting two lacerations. Desperately fed up, I disarmed him and threw his stick away. Mad with fury, he seized another lump of wood and was again deprived of it. He then kicked viciously twice, aiming at the groin, kicking my thigh. Then a sequence of still more heavy, murderous lumps of wood which piled up behind me. I was resolved to give him a K.O. and pay the penalty when Hanamura-san, the small clerk of the office, rushed in.

 

9 February 1943

 

Worked on site for officers’ hut and most foully blistered my hands which are very soft. My leg healing very slowly. I am ashamed at how little energy one has in this climate. The nights are not quite so cold which is a good thing as I have given my coat temporarily to Bob Haddon (who has pleurisy).

 

20 July 1944

 

Then all hell broke loose. With angry bellowing the guard, led by the commander, fell upon me in a fashion recalling an otter hunt or the hounds cornering a fox. They belaboured me with rifle butts, chairs, boots, etc. whilst I rolled in the dust trying to keep in a ball, my elbows protectively over my large fragile spleen, face against my chest. Eventually I was motionless beyond resistance, lying face down in the dust, conscious of broken ribs and blood from scalp wounds. I was gathered up, dazed and rubber limbed, and trussed and roped backward kneeling with a large log between my seat and knees. As my head cleared there was the intolerable pain due to rough ground pressure on the knees and the weight and pressure of the log. Breathing was sharply painful with fractured ribs. Slowly the pain ceased in my legs because they had no circulation. How long to gangrene in the tropical heat? Could I last four hours? I squared my shoulders and stared in disdain at the guard.

 

….My ropes were released. With a desperate heave, I disengaged from the log, but my legs were functionless. Slowly, painfully, with the return of circulation, I found I could move them and feel my feet again. At last, a little drunkenly, I was on my feet. I stood to attention, bowed and said, “And now if you will excuse me I shall amputate the Dutchman’s arm who has been waiting all day.” I was determined to show them that Australians were tough!

 

His virtues were recognised. His death, in July 1993, produced a flood of eulogies, along with a state funeral. A statue of him has been erected in a public park, and his face has appeared on a fifty-cent coin. Yet in another age many Australian families would possess a copy of the diaries. Parents would read aloud from the book to their children, discussing Dunlop’s character and his actions, and trying to draw the appropriate moral lessons.

 

 

Would they have held him up as an example of faith? Despite a traditional Christian upbringing - his family were members of the Presbyterian church - he sometimes expressed doubts about the strength of his faith. In the prison camps he worried that he was a poor example of Christianity because of his inability to meet the command of Jesus to love his enemy.

 

Yet this is typical. Those with the deepest faith often feel themselves quite unworthy of God’s blessings.

 

In any case, what is faith? It is one of the three traditional spiritual virtues - faith, hope and love. These virtues require a spiritual relationship with God for their fullest expression. American philosophy professor Peter Kreeft, in his book Back to Virtue, described it thus:

 

It is not mere belief, or mere trust, though it includes both. Belief is an intellectual matter….(I believe the textbooks). Trust is an emotional matter (I trust my psychiatrist)….Faith is more. It flows from the heart….The object of faith is God, not ideas about God. It is essential to know things about God, but it is more essential to know God….Faith is more active than reason. Faith runs ahead of all reason. Reason reports, like a camera. Faith takes a stand, like an army. Faith is saying Yes to God’s marriage proposal. Faith is extremely simple. Saying anything more would probably confuse it. Most of what is written about faith is needlessly complex. The word yes is the simplest word there is.

 

Weary Dunlop clearly said yes. And yet, once again in our public discourse we have an example of Australian spirituality being concealed.

 

Much gets written nowadays about Dunlop, in books, magazines and newspapers. It is not uncommon for such reports to mention his Presbyterian upbringing. Yet in virtually all instances it is clear that “Presbyterian” here is a synonym for “thrifty, hard-working, conservative and perhaps a little old-fashioned”, rather than for “God-worshipping, prayerful and Bible-loving”. Little is written at all about his faith.

 

In her major biography of Dunlop, published in 1994 (and largely read and approved by him before his death), Sue Ebury noted that in the prison camps he would rip pages from his Bible in order to make cigarettes. In post-modern fashion, he memorised any verses that seemed useful, before incinerating the pages around his tobacco ration. He retained to the end only those pages that seemed especially relevant.

 

Last to go were the pages in which Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount. Ebury said that Dunlop decided: “This was the only part worth anything,”

 

And according to Ebury, it was in the dreadful prison camps that he felt closer to God’s kingdom of heaven than at any other time. She quoted him as believing that the kingdom “was at hand, not a promise for the future, not dependent on life or death, but here immediately for those who could shed the awful shell of self and start loving their neighbour as thyself”.

 

He began to see God reflected in the goodness of all humans and all of nature. He regarded religious faith as coming in many forms.

 

After the war, Dunlop’s fellow doctors could not understand his driven nature, his passion to help others, his continual trips to Asia to seek rebuilding and reconciliation.

 

But Ebury says there is no secret about this. “Hintok [Thailand] 1943 is the key, when he read the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of ‘all the misery, the squalor, the grey rain and slush and sick and dying people’ [Dunlop’s words]. He had never felt more useful.”

 

And it was at Hintok, amidst all the squalor, reading his Bible, tearing page after page from it and wondering what was the point of it all, that he was overtaken by a mystical experience. “It was then that he was possessed by a ‘marvellous, almost religious experience…a sort of happiness.’”

 

I do not want to read too much into Dunlop’s words, as quoted by Ebury, and, of course, I missed my chance to question him personally. But the impression is that he received an experience of God’s presence such as is known by some of the Christian mystics and others who are deeply spiritual. He told Ebury, in his simple, forthright manner: “I understood what it would mean to love your neighbour more than yourself.”

 

She commented that he was determined to make the welfare of former war prisoners a personal mission, and he also resolved to answer every call made on him by his country and his community.

 

In the West now, there is enormous interest in spirituality, in numerous guises. But try to talk about Presbyterian spirituality and you will be laughed at.

 

Yet the simple Presbyterian country boy Weary Dunlop - Melbourne University heavyweight boxing champion, Australian rugby cap, doctor, touched by God in the hell of the prison camps - emerges as one of our spiritual giants.

 

In Chapter 14, I quoted John Flynn, who said that his desire was to make Australia prosperous and healthy, “which starts with the body and ends with the spirit”. Yet we continue to ignore the breath of God inspiring the great works of our heroes, such as Weary Dunlop. It is not just our youth who are suffering in a spiritual vacuum. It is our entire nation, and until we apply the cure our condition will surely remain pale and weak.

 

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