August 5, 2007
Readings: Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23 / Col 3:1-5, 9-11 / Lk 12:13-21
Perspective is an apt word to encapsulate today’s liturgy. Perspective is having the right frame of mind with which to look at things. It means not being too close for comfort, nor being too distant to see clearly. Perspective is seeing things objectively for what they are. It also means valuing things for what they are really worth, and knowing what to value and why.
Qoheleth gives the opening salvo in today’s reflection on perspective with a little irony. He refers to “vanity of vanities” which really ought to read more like “transitoriness of transitoriness” (1st Reading). He does not downplay nor look down on human toil, nor declare it as useless. All he cautions against is affording every fruit of human toil absolute value. He counsels perspective. He reminds us to toe the middle line between being too attached to the fruits of one’s efforts, on the one hand, and being too dismissive of something legitimate – and – necessary if one is to live in this world of material realities, on the other.
The same perspective is what we are reminded of in Ps. 90 (Responsorial Psalm). Transitory human life, it says, ought to be put in proper perspective, seen in the light of God’s eternity: “For a thousand years in your sight are as yesterday, now that is past, or as a watch of the night.”
St. Paul corroborates the call to a proper perspective. He counsels the Colossians to “take the moral high ground” in a good sense, and “seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” He tells us more pointedly: “Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” (2nd Reading).
Perspective, being the right way of viewing reality, also refers to seeing more, not less. It means having the right vantage point, and thereby, seeing a vast panorama of things from which one can see which ought to be given focus to, and which ought to be treated as secondary, and therefore, of lesser importance. A request from someone in the crowd occasioned a perfect backdrop for the Lord to declare: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions” (Gospel).
Again, the Lord counsels perspective. It means not missing the forest for a tree. It means not getting lost in inconsequential matters and missing what in the end really matters most.
We live in postmodern times. We have witnessed in the not-so-distant past, the collapse of what used to be the bastion of objective truth – authority – through the cultural, and expressive disorder of the 60s. The spirit of the “contestations” (contestazioni, in Italian refers to the cultural revolution that characterized the times right after Vatican II), along with a later collapse of a different bastion and fortress of an unbending and rigid source of another brand of dictatorial truth – communism – has produced generations for whom truth, understood as objective truth, does not exist anymore, anywhere, in any guise or any form.
Funny, but in the postmodern individual’s desire to rid the world of dogmatism, he or she has created a different tyranny of absolutism – the absolute attachment to the belief that there are no absolutes in this world! The singing group Boyzone (admittedly rather dated now for the standards of today’s youth), encapsulates this dogmatist attitude that goes against any dogmatic formulations thus: “No matter what they tell us; no matter what they do; no matter what they teach us, what I believe is true.”
But I sound like I am digressing from today’s topic which is on the importance of perspective. No … I don’t digress. I am illustrating the need for us postmoderns to re-appropriate this lost ability to get perspective.
The Lord does not condemn riches in today’s gospel passage. But neither does he extol and foster penury, utter want, and poverty. He really wants us to put things in proper perspective. He reminds us of the need to watch out lest we be caught in the clutches of materialism on the one hand, and hatred for what the world legitimately offers, on the other hand … things that are not sinful of themselves and can therefore, be legitimately enjoyed.
We live not only in postmodern times. We also live – precisely on account of that – in confusing times. We are often torn by two or more opposing factions, many times appearing as irreconcilable opinions for or against every imaginable issue under the sun. Some mistakenly believe, for example, that the Holy Father’s democratizing the use of the Latin Tridentine Mass, ought to be interpreted as taking sides between two opposing and irreconcilable factions … that it means being on the side either of those who offer “right worship” and those who proffer a “not-so-right-way of worship.” For some others, it might mean being identified with a “strict observance” group and with an “anything goes” group in the Church.
But having perspective is not an either-or, black or white, or polarized thinking and behaving. It means the ability to know and define one’s hierarchy of values, one’s priorities, and one’s order of preference in accordance with the values of God and Kingdom. Qoheleth does not detest legitimate fruits of his labor. But he does remind us that one who absolutizes them is literally to be clutching at straws. It is the height of folly, he reminds us, to work for what is ultimately, the most transitory of all transitory things!
St. Paul, too, does not despise what is earthly. But he does help us to see that what is earthly is intrinsically inferior to what is heavenly. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then, you too will appear with him in glory.” In the same vein, the Lord does not teach us to despise earthly goods because they are evil of themselves. But he does teach us to value them in the right way, in accordance with God’s way of valuing all created things. He makes a striking contrast between those who “store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich in what matters to God.”
Pope Benedict XVI gives me a perfect analogate for this issue of gaining the right perspective. Gaining perspective means striking a balance. It means toeing that middle portion of virtue that straddles the in-between area of two bi-polar – if patently contrasting – realities. But here, contrasting does not necessarily mean contradictory to each other and mutually self-canceling. In a recent statement during a question and answer session with clergy, he spoke of the delicate balance between being focused on the “passion of the world and the glory of the Lord.”
In our postmodern, confusing times, we could be caught up by all that pertains to the “passion of the world.” We need not absolutize them. We need perspective. And that perspective is provided by all that pertains to the “glory of the Lord.”
We can start by reminding ourselves of one element that today’s liturgy would have us focus on: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Alleluia verse before the Gospel).
[National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians,
Paranaque City, Philippines – July 30, 2007]
SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI!
All of us mortals long for the more, the better, the greater, and the ultimate! The history of the world, and our own personal histories reflect this timeless and ageless truth – we look for fulfillment, for what satisfies, for everything that gives lasting meaning to our existence. We even pine for immortality, for the proverbial fountain of youth, physical prowess, and beauty. We hanker for everything that lasts, and all things that lend perfection and lasting dignity to our person.
All that we long for, and all that we look for are not bad in themselves. They are legitimate ends for men and women created by God with the natural tendency towards “self-transcendence.” This includes our legitimate desire for material wealth and prosperity.
Today’s liturgy, though, offers some kind of a “caveat” (a warning). Today’s readings would have us pause awhile and see beyond what we consider as the “ultimate.” The Lord, today, would have us reflect a little bit deeper on the values we hold dearly, on the priorities we have set for ourselves, on the targets we have focused on, and on the bases of the happiness and meaningfulness we have pegged ourselves and our lives on.
For, truth to tell, there is so much blindness in the world today, so much lack of clarity, so much lack of perspective.
The view from Hollywood, for one, is an absolutist one. Entertainment and fun is the ultimate gauge of one’s happiness and well-being. Everyday, we are bombarded by pictures of svelte, upbeat, and perpetually smiling actors and actresses, whose lives appear to revolve around party upon glitzy party, their seemingly happy and ever smiling faces paying tribute to the mantra of youthful life based for the most part on the culture of fun.
So is the view from Wall Street. Wealth and fortune, and the examples of those who made it, constantly hog the infotainment headlines. They act as the modern-day prophets of the capitalist gospel of prosperity and financial well-being.
This absolutist culture is nowhere more visible as in the marriage of capitalism and entertainment in the many shows that dot the prime time landscape: reality TV and shows that consistently gravitate towards Hollywood, New York, Chicago, and, of late, Las Vegas – all centers of commerce, entertainment, and fun. (Have you made a recent count of shows that have focused their sights on Las Vegas?) In many other places all over the world, entertainment and shows mostly revolve around the so-called “primate cities” which function as hubs of development, wealth generation, and the place where to get the “proverbial pot of gold.”
Today, the Church goes counter-cultural, as usual. Today, I am afraid, many people, especially the young, would find the Lord’s good news as one that rather goes against the grain. However, I would like to suggest that, more than being a put-down, today’s biblical readings are an invitation for all of us to gain back perspective, to put back the horse before the cart, and to regain our sense of clarity.
In a culture that has co-opted our minds, our attitudes, and our hearts, and which has gradually led us to absolutize and prioritize our “labor,” “toil and anxiety,” and all “the part of [us] that are earthly,” the Lord reminds us today through Qoheleth that “all things are vanity.” In essence, what we are told is not that all the above is bad, but that they are simply not the ultimate, for they are nothing but “vanity,” that is, mere “vapor,” “breath,” something that is merely transitory. They are useful and important, true, but transitory, not permanent. Being transitory, they are not to be considered the “end all and be all” of human existence.
I had the fortune of meeting and being a friend to a Filipino couple and their children over the past 14 years. When I got to know them, I was doing pastoral work as a substitute pastor in a big parish in Manila, while I was preparing myself to go to Rome for further studies. At that time, they had a booming and lucrative business that placed them among the more well-to-do members of the parish community. The relative wealth they enjoyed, however, did not get to their heads. They kept a low profile, while at the same time, gave generously to the church, while anonymously helping a number of poorer members of the parish. As I got to know them better over the subsequent years, I realized that their lives had been some kind of a roller-coaster ride, with the proverbial ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and disappointments. Their wealth and financial status shot up and shot down, in an unpredictable cycle that would have daunted people with lesser faith. But through all this, the family remained steadfast. They were happy when they lived in prosperity, but they were happy all the same when there was precious little to spare.
They were a clear example of persons who understood the relative importance of wealth.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a priest and an educator/teacher for so many years, I have also encountered people who showed exactly the opposite attitude. Already having more than they could reasonably use to live decent lives, they still want more and more. I have seen people whose drive for more seemed to be the all important rule in their lives, with their families taking a back seat, and values taking a still farther slot in their order of priorities. For some of them, the unbridled drive for wealth and/or power have gradually hardened their hearts, making them callous to the needs of others, and the welfare of their competitors or opponents, as the case may be.
And neither are Church personnel and religious priests immune to such a pervasive culture that can also lead some of us to resort to manipulation and machination in order to safeguard coveted, lucrative posts or hold on to power. To our shame, there are posh parishes all over the country that have become untouchable turfs of some well-connected clerics.
But what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce, too, for the gander. All of us Christians, whether cleric or lay, would do well to reflect on the prayer that we blurted out after the first reading: “If today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” We would do well to remember the relative nature of everything that we have on loan from the gracious generosity of God. “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.”
Indeed, all the parts of us that are earthly, all that we consider important in this world, all that in our lack of clarity of mind and heart, we believe to be the ultimate values; indeed everything that in our shortsightedness, clouds our minds, and makes us lose perspective and miss the forest for a tree, will all one day disappear, for “the world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.” Sic transit gloria mundi! That is simply the way of all earthly glory … like grass, they wither and die; they are here today, and gone tomorrow.
Fr Chito Dimaranan, SDB
[St. Rita Parish, Dundalk, MD – August 1, 2004]