20th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 19, 2007
Readings: Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10 / Heb 12:1-4 / Lk 12:49-53

The readings of today remind me very much of a trek up Mt. Ugu 17 years ago, just a few months before I went to Rome for further studies. I was invited by the PAL-MC (Philippine Airlines Mountaineering Club) to celebrate Mass with them atop the peak where three years earlier, a PAL turbo-prop plane had crashed. I reached the peak with the group alright … but with much difficulty. By then, my full-time work, that is, being acting parish priest where I am right now, and all the teaching job I was concurrently doing, after wrapping up my stint in our college in Mandaluyong City as Dean, all contributed to my being out-of-shape, not to mention the fact that, by then, I had a queasy tummy that, for days, kept me running, if you know what I mean.

The whole climb was a torture and an absolute struggle. It was embarrassing to the group as I had to stall them, or delay their ordinarily fast pace of ascent. The stunningly beautiful vistas of pine forests and deep gorges and ravines, and everything exciting that is related to the climb went unnoticed and unappreciated as far as I was concerned. Being there atop the ceiling of the Cordilleras of Northern Luzon meant nothing to me as I was in the thick of the struggle.

But what egged me on and urged me to go on was the vision of what was coming up ahead, with a lot of help from very understanding individuals who made up the group. They were “my cloud of witnesses,” to use the same word used by the letter-writer to the Hebrews (2nd reading).

I hadn’t quite gotten yet into the 8th year of my priesthood, but as early as then, I knew, and had first hand experience that life is more than just a trek up beautiful mountains, that life was not exactly “like a box of chocolates,” as the famous Forrest Gump would say a few years later. Life as our readings tell us today in no uncertain terms, is a struggle of heroic proportions.

Jeremiah’s story is more than just a case in point. He did good. He obeyed God, albeit reluctantly, at first. But all he got in return, at least temporarily, was a lot of rejection and persecution. Today’s passage stands witness to that persecution, to that struggle that every good man who tries to be good and do good is ineluctably subjected to. In an earlier post, I had the privilege of sharing with you in broad strokes, my own cistern experience of rejection that the book of Jeremiah could only describe thus: “There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud” (1st Reading). My teacher, Dr. Robert Wicks, had a better way of putting into words that experience of mine as a “bewildering slide into darkness.”

Scott Peck’s first book captures what I am trying to say. The thesis of that first book is, simply stated, as follows: LIFE IS DIFFICULT.

I know better, now that I am older, than to belabor what is so obvious to all my readers and hearers. Life is a struggle. Incidentally, Scott Peck’s second book builds up further on that original thesis. There, he says simply: LIFE IS COMPLEX. To deny one or the other, or both – depending on the intensity – would then qualify as either neurosis, or psychosis!

But it is when one is in the cistern of muddy confusion and disappointment that one learns to cry as did the psalmist: “Lord, come to my aid!” (Responsorial Psalm).

The Lord does come to our aid. The Lord did come to my aid in that struggle of a trek. I reached the peak. I reached the star of our common endeavor. I was able to say my Mass in suffrage of the souls of those who died in that crash, lending truth to that Latin saying that, at that time, I only held onto conceptually – AD ASTRA, PER ASPERA … TO THE STARS THROUGH TOIL!

The Lord does come to our aid. He does so by surrounding us with “so great a cloud of witnesses.” How true, indeed! I grew up knowing more or less closely two very great Popes – Paul VI and John Paul II. (Incidentally, it dawned on me that most of my priestly life was under John Paul II’s pontificate). My readings of the turbulent times immediately after Vatican II tell me how much Paul VI had suffered. His suffering, truth be told, came from right within the Church, from the very people who should have stood up for him and supported him. It is no secret, too, that John Paul II also suffered terribly, especially in the last years of his life. But despite all the speculations that both would resign, they both held on with perseverance and faith, as if to proclaim with their lives what the letter to the Hebrews exhort us all to: “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (2nd Reading).

The Lord does come to our aid. He does so in the person of Jesus His Son, who passed through “sweat and care and cumber, sorrows passing number.” This same Jesus now tells us struggling humanity: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Gospel reading).

My struggle to reach the peak of Mt. Ugu is nothing more than a pale comparison to what the cloud of witnesses that I refer to above really had to undergo. There is more to the list. I have not mentioned countless others who braved through all imaginable forms of problems and strife, and came out of the struggle stronger and more convinced of their faith, hope, and love for the Lord. Even my own struggles beyond Ugu, the “bewildering slide into darkness” that I refer to above and elsewhere in my blogs and writings, are nothing compared to what others have suffered and still are suffering from. I am shamed by so much that so many others have to put up with everyday, just to follow the Lord and proclaim His lordship in all the earth.

There are so many other Ugu experiences that I have gone through, some worse, some less, but all of them difficult and unpleasant. Whilst I feel no need to pick a quarrel with Forrest Gump and his disarming simplicity, I take exception to the first part of that line that made him popular and quotable: “Life is like a box of chocolates …” But the second part is something I subscribe to: “you never know what you’re gonna get.”

There is one thing I do know for sure, however. God wants us to go beyond pain, go beyond difficulty. He has come to make us follow Him beyond Calvary: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Alleluia verse). The Gospel story does not end in Calvary. It ends with the resurrection and ascension. He has come to raise up, too, to lift us up.

In my ongoing struggle, I find a lot of solace in the parable of the Lord where an individual invited to a party chooses to sit at the lowest place, uncomplaining, unassuming, and unhesitating. The master of the house comes and sees him and tells him: AMICE, ASCENDE SUPERIUS! (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place Lk 14:10).

This year, the 25th of my priesthood, I have thought of forming a new foundation to help struggling, but well-meaning priests like me, take up the challenge of the Lord to go beyond pain, beyond difficulty, to go beyond the agrum ( rough fields), and move onward and forward to the sacrum (the holy) to which they are all called. My suggested motto is precisely this: AMICE, ASCENDE SUPERIUS!