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Monday, August 27, 2007

GETTING BEYOND, NOT ABOVE ONESELF

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
September 2, 2007

Readings: Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29 / Heb 12:18-19,22-24a / Lk 14:1,7-14

Today is a Sunday of highs and lows. Sirach counsels us to find meaning in being “low,” a trait which he says, should be inversely proportional to our being “high” up there. “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are” (1st Reading). The letter to the Hebrews takes as a given our having “approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God.” In and through Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant,” we have received the singular grace of being in the presence of the “ecclesia” – the gathering of “countless angels in heaven” (2nd reading).

At first blush, there seems to be something incongruous, if not contradictory, in the first two readings. The first extols lowliness and humility. The second proclaims the singular grace of Christians being able to go up the mountain of the Lord – Mount Zion. The first glorifies lowliness, and counsels us to seek not, and search not, for what is above our strength. The second simply declares the egregious fact of our having been made close to God. The two readings seem to be saying in effect: we are lowly, but we are exalted by no less than God in Jesus Christ, and thus, made worthy to approach the city of God.

This is definitely a day of lows and highs.

But more seeming contradictions are in the offing. The Alleluia verse, which comes right after the 2nd reading upgrades us, so to say, and lifts our morales up by speaking of our closeness to the living God who dwells in the highest heavens, puts us back down once again: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29, Acclamation before the Gospel).

Indeed, today is a day of highs and lows.

But the Gospel passage seems to be the real clincher. Where society’s usual tendency is to seek for places of honor, and for people to exalt themselves, the Lord does the exact opposite. By means of the parable, Jesus counsels us to seek for the lowest places. This is counterintuitive. In a world where “everybody loves Raymund” seems to be the centerpiece of our “self-promoting and narcissistic culture,” Jesus tells us not to get above ourselves. He apparently tells us to avoid the “highs” and prefer the “lows.” But the parable has a surprise, almost “fairy tale-like,” ending, as if to tell us: “Don’t get above yourself, so that God could set you beyond yourself.”

So, is this Sunday’s liturgy really one of highs and lows?

Yes … God wants and wills to exalt us. This, the letter to the Hebrews declares matter-of-factly. We have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. He has come to draw us up higher in and through Christ.

No … God does not want nor will that we should get above ourselves. Today’s liturgical readings are a reality check. We are wisely counseled to take care that we do not exalt ourselves unilaterally: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Gospel). The reality is that, being poor and lowly, powerless and small, we can only proclaim in profuse thanks the equally egregious reality that all we have is God’s generous gift: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor” (Responsorial Psalm). And what is that place, according to the Bible? “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Yes … God does want us to go up higher. This much, the parable makes clear and sure. After putting oneself in the right place – the lowest, the least, and the last – the Lord tells us: “Amice, ascende superius” (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place, Lk 14:10). God tells us to follow not the ways of the world, which tends to always seek selfishly for endless self-promotion, but to follow his ways, for he “humbles the mighty, and exalts the lowly to high places.” It is God who exalts. It is God who gives, and it is He who alone does for us according to what we all deserve.

Yes … today is a day of highs and lows. We are all high in the estimation of God. “We all share in the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). We have God-given dignity and freedom both of which are “inalienable,” that is, things that cannot be forcibly and unjustly taken away from each one of us. This is a day that speaks rightly of “highs” as far as our dignity as human beings is concerned.

But today, too, is dedicated to our rightful “lows.” Dignity does not give us a blanket permission to treat ourselves more than we really deserve. Pride is not to be taken as part of the package of God’s gifts to us, for God’s favorite virtue is humility.

Pride is to close oneself in on oneself. Pride is self-love pushed to the “highs.” When one is proud, the thermostat of one’s personhood “overheats” and the flames of self-promotion pushes the temperature through the roof. When something overheats, the whole system suffers a meltdown. The higher one goes, the lower one goes crashing down the lowest place of humiliation and embarrassment.

Yes … today is a day of salvific and redemptive “lows.” Jesus tells us to “take his yoke and learn from him,” for he is “meek and humble of heart.”

Yes … there is something salutary and beneficial in being in the “lows” of self-estimation and self-aggrandizement. For when one is down there, there is no way but up. But when one has put oneself up there, there is no way but down. At this point, Jose Garcia Villa, the famous Filipino poet who wrote his poems in English, comes to mind. One of his more memorable lines says: “How high is low, if it resembles high yet not grows? … It expires, as it aspires.” Taking Christ’s yoke is clearly a precondition to “learning.” One can grow, only when one learns to be low. For what good is it even if it “resembles high, yet not grows?”

Humility is being in love with the reality of the lows of our human lives. Humility is truth and the truth is that it is not up to us as human beings to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps, but only up to God, who would tell us at the proper time: “Amice, ascende superius.”

Josh Groban is right. We do not raise ourselves up. No … only God deserves the accolade that he sings about: “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; you raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; you raise me up to more than I can be.”

This Sunday of highs and lows thus reminds us of one important thing. We ought not to get above ourselves but go beyond ourselves, beyond power, beyond position, beyond promotion that is shallow. In a word, God calls us to transcendence … “Amice, ascende superius!”

August 28, 2007, Feast of St. Augustine
OSJ Retreat, Marello Retreat House, Tagaytay City

P.S. I thank my OSJ friends and former students for having allowed me to journey with them in this pilgrimage of faith and life. Solvitur ambulando!

HUMBLE FOR A REASON

Reasons, there are, abounding to aim for greatness, popularity, and power. With so much competition in our postmodern culture that values self-fulfillment and self-realization to the hilt; with so much pressure on us to deliver, perform, and conform to the so-called “norms” of a society that ever hankers for the elusive more and more, who would want to be at the bottom of the heap? Who would want to be left behind by the bandwagon of success and achievement? Why, even the Olympic games go by that catchy battle cry: citius, altius, fortius! (swifter, higher, stronger!)

By comparison, the liturgy today simply sounds so counter-intuitive, so counter-cultural! Whilst the whole world speaks of getting up higher in the rung of worldly importance, and exhorts all and sundry to pull their own strings, and to claim their rightful place under the sun, today’s readings almost sound like a douse of cold water to our raging enthusiasm to excel and be known to many for all we are worth (or at least imagine ourselves to be).

Or are they?

The first reading from Sirach opens, not with a shove towards worldly excellence, but a gentle nudge towards spiritual heights: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility.” Jesus, in the Gospel, affirms the exhortation of Sirach, with a very practical rule for party rats: “do not recline at table in the place of honor.” Consciously working and striving to aggrandize oneself and purposely elevating oneself to a level higher than that of others simply does not belong to Jesus’ new set of “table etiquette” in the Kingdom he has come to establish. The second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews gives the context and motivation for such a selfless and lowly stance. Simply put, this world as we know it, is not going to last forever. Sooner than we imagine, the “heavenly Jerusalem” will one day bring to naught all our earthly strivings and all our vainglorious longings for honor, power, and glory.

A sobering thought and a solid reality check all this is!

Today, we are told not simply to be humble. We are also told that there are reasons, too, why we ought to be humble. Let’s get them straight from the horse’s mouth. Sirach tells us that with humility, we “will be loved more than a giver of gifts” and we The letter-writer to the Hebrews reminds us of the ultimate reason to imitate God in his humility … we ““will find favor with God.”approach Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven …” Jesus, for his part, tells us: “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Yes, reasons abound for us to work for greatness and supremacy in every imaginable facet of human life. But more compelling reasons abound that show that the virtue of humility is worth striving after and working for … at least the right humility that the Scriptures speak of, not the self-deprecating type that has received such a bad rap for centuries – the maudlin, self-destructive “humility” that serves one in good stead only during pious retreats, only when there is no more choice left, a humility that enslaves, a humility “for effect,” a humility that really quietly seethes and screams in silent, muffled, and ill-concealed anger.

Yes … the humility that is the subject of today’s good news has nothing of the negative in it. Humility that Sirach speaks about does not smack of weakness and helplessness. The humility presented by Scriptures is redolent of the positive, the powerful, and the freely chosen. Scriptural humility starts with Truth, most especially the truth about God vis-à-vis human beings. And this truth has to do with His choice, His love, and His predilection for us His creatures. God is Love! Bernard Haring writes that these words imply in a challenging way the concomitant truth that God is humility. For “God is the love that bends down to us so that He can lift us up.”

Indeed, humility is truth, as we have often been told. Humility starts in truth which reminds us that we are only humus (soil), but loved immensely by the world’s most tremendous lover. This truth leads us to proclaim with gratitude: “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.” (Responsorial Psalm)

This virtue that has received a bad press over the past many decades needs a little more looking into. It needs a repackaging of sorts, for instead of being all about negatives, it really has to do with a whole lot of positives. In this age and time of “positive psychology,” in a culture awash with ideas of self-fulfillment and self-realization, and in a world replete with examples of self-propelled success and self-made riches, it is all too easy to fall victim to the extremes, either of pride (thinking of oneself as greater than one really is), or self-pity (thinking of oneself as worse than he/she really is). In between the two extremes lies healthy self-esteem, the basic psychological building block of the virtue of humility.

I have it on the authority of moralist James Keenan that, whilst self-esteem is not a virtue, it makes the virtue of humility possible. Again, here we are back to the discourse of the grace-nature interplay. Grace builds on nature. And nature, that is, the human personality ought first to be perfected by, among others, a healthy self-esteem. Keenan goes further, in fact, as to suggest self-esteem to be among the so-called “cardinal virtues” (along with justice, prudence, fidelity, and self-esteem).

As a pastoral counselor and a priest-educator over the past twenty-four years, I find common-ground with what Keenan suggests. More than this, I find the Biblical data on humility more than enough material to prop up such a positive approach to humility cum self-esteem.

Today’s readings are a case in point. They all speak of humility, not only as a positive virtue, but as a virtue that smacks of personal power. The virtue of humility, instead of being a virtue of the weak, really appears to be a virtue of those who are ready and willing to take the Kingdom of God by storm, on purpose, based on a freely made decision to focus less on what earthly and temporal kingdoms have to offer, but more on the “blazing fire” and the “trumpet blast” associated with the “resurrection of the righteous.”

Humble people are never humiliated. They can only be humbled even more, for in the strength and power of their well-placed self-esteem, they become the “meek” who have learned to “take [Jesus’] yoke upon [them] and learned from [him], meek and humble of heart.”

Blessed are the humble and the meek … for they shall inherit the earth. Like Jesus, humbled for a reason, they shall be exalted by no less than the God who is Love, the God who is humility, the Mighty, Strong, Immortal One !(Ho Theos, Ho Ischyros, Ho Athanatos).

Monday, August 20, 2007

ROBUR AB ASTRIS!

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 26, 2007

Readings: Is 66:18-21 / Heb 12:5-7, 11-13 / Lk 13:22-30

STRENGTH FROM THE STARS!

Last week, I wrote about the difficult struggle of a climb I did with friends at Mt. Ugu in Northern Philippines 17 years back. The support of my own little version of my “cloud of witnesses” kept me going, until we all safely made it to the destination, where we were able to celebrate Mass. One thing beautiful about trekking up heights is the difference that is made when one keeps the goal in sight, when one sees the ultimate destination in the looming, but beckoning distance. The sight of the summit, as much forbidding as inviting, keeps one focused on the goal. The view of one’s destination, though seemingly unreachable, keeps one pining for more, walking some more, putting in just a little bit more effort each time, at least to put one foot before the other, “one step at a time.”

The big difference is made by one’s ability to keep the goal in sight, both literally and figuratively. One gains strength by merely focusing on the ultimate goal. This happened to me the first time I climbed Mt. Kanlaon in Negros island in southern Philippines. The smoldering, smoking crater, that sharply jutted out of the relative flatness of Margaha valley, was something one saw for a long, long while, as one inched his or her way toward the smoke-smothered summit.

Our readings today continue the theme of difficulty taken up last week. But this Sunday, the focus is on one having the strength to face that very difficulty. Where last week, we read that Jeremiah suffered and paid a very high price for his “prophetic criticizing” and for preaching the truth, this Sunday, we get a glimpse of the hopeful imagination of Isaiah, and his “prophetic energizing” as he speaks of a vision of a great “ingathering” of peoples from all corners of the world.

What Isaiah sees … his vision, his reporting – in God’s name – of God’s dream, is what energized, not only him, but the people he was – and still is – speaking to. Strength comes from what one sees. When one has a vision of what’s coming up ahead, one gets the necessary push to go on. The ability to face difficulties has to do a lot with what one sees, and where one is going to.

The letter to the Hebrews (2nd reading) takes up the same thematic as it reframes the issue of suffering as discipline that comes from God himself. Discipline of all kinds, is ordinary cause for “pain, not joy.” But in the same breath, the letter declares, that “later, it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Whether it will all turn out for “joy or pain” depends a whole lot on how one sees it all. It is all a matter of vision.

I have it on the authority of schema therapists, that many of our problems can be attributed to what they call false schemas or “cognitive distortions.” What one sees is what one gets. False belief systems that remain embedded in one’s psyche dictate one’s feelings, and both cognition and emotion then influence greatly what one does. Healing, according to the same therapists, could only take place when one heals one’s sight, and makes one capable once more of seeing wholes and not disparate parts.

We all have the tendency to see the pain and never the gain that can accrue from it. We all can very easily look at life as represented by a narrow door that the gospel speaks about. We can get so focused on the reality of the “narrow door” that we fail to notice the other side of that narrow door – a path that leads straight to glory, a straight road that leads direct to God.

I have reported to my readers on several occasions my recent experiences of deep pain and personal suffering. One in pain is hurting in many more senses that just one. One can feel abandoned, rejected, unwanted, and uncared for – rightly or wrongly. But the deepest hurt takes place in one’s ability to see rightly. One’s tears can truly cover one’s eyesight literally and figuratively, on the one hand. But on the other hand, these same tears could become the “telescopes by which we can see far into heaven” as one writer has said many years ago.

It is all a matter of vision …

What then would offer us the strength to be able to enter through the gospel’s “narrow door?” What would it take us to gain strength to squeeze oneself through our own “cistern” experiences of rejection and personal suffering?

The readings today seem to offer us a clear answer. They counsel us to change eyeglasses, to change the way we look at things, to see beyond, and see things that most people do not see, do not want to see, or cannot see, for one reason or another. They tell us to see rightly, to see more, not less, given the eyes of faith that have been given us as gift.

Superstitious Roman pagans of old can teach us a lesson or two. Believing in fate and the positioning of stars, in the pseudo-science of astrology, they found solace and strength in the stars up in the firmament. Robur ab astris … they would say. … strength from the stars.

Ironically enough, this is exactly what I suggest the readings tell us today. They counsel us to see more not less. Pain is not mere earthly suffering. Pain is reframed by God’s Word as “discipline,” as a stepping stone towards greatness and holiness. “So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed” (2nd reading).

The star of our faith is worth giving a second look to. It helps us see the whole instead of parts. The whole does not consist of that “narrow door” alone, but what lies behind that narrow door. But we need eyes to see. We need to set our sights on the goal.

What or who then is our goal? … no less than the Lord who reproves us because He loves us, who, on account of that same love, disciplines us, and who scourges every son or daughter he acknowledges.

What sort of stars do you see?


CALLED, GATHERED, DISCIPLINED, AND SENT
Alternative Reflection

The readings today are very much apropos the much-awaited summer Olympics that will take place next year in Beijing, China.

Isaiah’s vision speaks of a great ingathering of people “from all nations” “of every language” who “shall come and see [God’s] glory.” The passage from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of “discipline” (the original meaning has to do more with “instruction”), and acknowledges said discipline to be a source, not so much of joy, as of pain, but which “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Discipline, in other words, appears to come more easy and more acceptable for one who gets training. (The word for “training” has to do with the root-word for gymnastics). The Gospel, for its part, further affirms the overriding images of the first two readings, by alluding to the need for Christ’s followers “to strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many […] will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

At a time in history when people go through all imaginable lengths to get what they want, what they dream of, and long for, above everything else … with top seeded athletes enduring hours-long stretches of “training” and rigorous “discipline” day after grueling day … when even terrorists spend years “casing” their targets carefully and meticulously … when a mass media-mediated culture of individualism, one-upmanship, and unbridled competition is the run of the day, it definitely sounds refreshing and reinvigorating to hear something that seems to reinforce that which we are already good at – competing, trying to get to the top of the heap, pushing, shoving, or otherwise clawing one’s way to the pinnacle of our earthly desires.

Ever since the philosopher Descartes, and his famous declaration “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am!), which became the banner headline and war-cry of a movement called the “enlightenment,” “going for the gold,” “pulling one’s own strings,” “going out and grabbing for oneself,” and “being number one” became apparently the “right thing” to do, the foundation stones for “rugged individualism” pushed to the extreme.

So what is wrong with disciplining and training oneself in order to become top dog? Nothing in and of itself … Except that if it becomes the end in itself, if clawing one’s way to the top is the end all and be all of one’s existence, and if everything and everyone else is sacrificed on the altar of one’s search for the holy grail of individual and personal success and fulfillment, then all this becomes vanity … all is vanity … Today’s readings, furthermore, tell us we are off the mark … way, way off.

Let us unpack a bit the meaning of today’s readings. First, Isaiah tells us that the proper starting point is not our personal dream, but that of God’s. God’s vision, in addition, is one of a great ingathering of peoples and nations. This is not the language of individualism and narrow, personal concerns. Nor is this the language of exclusivity, but one of inclusivity. Second, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that this search for the common good, this concern for others, and this drive to “go out to all the world [to] tell the good news” is fraught with a lot of trials and, therefore, needs “discipline.” Still more, this discipline may cause a lot of pain. Third, Jesus reminds us that discipleship entails hard work, and that those who are first now will not necessarily keep their title at the end of time. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It is very clear that the need for discipline and training is framed in the context of God’s vision for the world. It is clear that the Christian calling to discipleship is primarily a call to social relatedness, to social responsibility, in the context, not of individualism and a self-centered spirituality, but one that starts and ends with the idea of everyone’s belongingness to a community called and gathered by God Himself.

In our times, encouraged as we are by a techno-savvy individualistic culture, and by mainstream media and round-the-clock entertainment to “do our own thing,” and “look out for oneself,” at a time when the most coveted items are things like “personal computers,” “personal digital assistants,” “personal TV/video players,” and “personal entertainment centers like I-Pods and all, religion and spirituality become highly personal and private matters that need not be talked about in public. God becomes a personal commodity to be sought for on one’s own, at one’s own convenience, at one’s own style and pacing. For a great many, this translates to a God that is conveniently and effectively kept “at arm’s length,” in one’s closet, in the privacy of one’s home, to be consulted only as needed, when convenient, when strictly necessary. For those in the opposite extreme, who are very religious, but who subscribe to an idea of an equally personal and deeply private faith, “discipline” and “training” get reduced to “pietistic” practices and personal devotions. Their faith never gets beyond what at times may be deemed fanatical and misguided attachments to popular devotions, statues, and images. For the former, God is a personal commodity to be called on as needed. For the latter, God is an intensely private source of solace and consolation, and faith is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but private, personal devotion. For such people, personal holiness means spending all-night vigils, doing endless reparatory prayers for “sinners all over the world,” and trying to appease an angry God whose hands are poised to strike the world in punishment.

But today’s readings, and Biblical data as a whole, simply do not support such extremes of living one’s faith. At bottom, both approaches are extremely individualistic, and self-centered. Both are really based solely on individuals’ dreams for themselves. Both lose sight of God’s dream for the world, for all of humanity, including those from whom we might never expect much, at least initially – the foreigners, “people from the east and the west, and from the north and the south.”

Today, therefore, is a good time to be reminded of the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret” – the catholic social teachings. In essence, following very clear Biblical data, said teachings remind us that we all are called to be holy, yes – but holiness in and through our relational selves, in and through our social selves. Holiness, thus, is not a mere pious endeavor, that reduces Christian life to personal prayers and personal devotions, and mere ritualistic attendance at Masses on Sundays. Holiness, in addition, is not mere personal sanctification, but a participation in God’s dream for humankind, for the world, for society. Holiness, is a participation in the mission of social transformation, in sharing in the “joys, the hopes, the anxieties and the griefs of modern men and women” (Gaudium et Spes) all over the world. It means being engaged and involved in an imperfect world trying to reach common fulfillment for all humanity.

For as Christians, we are all called, gathered, disciplined (instructed) by God, and sent to “all the world [to] tell the Good News.”

Monday, August 13, 2007

AMICE, ASCENDE SUPERIUS!

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!




MARY, MAIDEN, MIRROR, MOTHER!

Solemnity of the Assumption into Heaven of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Readings: Rev 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab / 1 Cor 15:20-27a / Lk 1:39-56


A recent book by the feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson is entitled thus: Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints” (2003).Whilst I can make no critique, whether negative or favorable on the whole book as I have not read it yet, the title strikes me somewhat as odd at worst, or intriguing at best. For long standing Christian tradition from the very earliest decades of the Church has always accorded the endearing title of “Mother” to Mary, the mother of Christ.

I am immediately reminded of those famous words of the renowned theologian Karl Rahner who said the equivalent of what follows… “Abstractions don’t need mothers, but people do.” Whilst it is true that being the “first among the redeemed,” and being the first recipient ever of the fruits of Jesus, her Son’s passion, death and resurrection (the grace was given her at birth in anticipation of Jesus’ salvific work), Mary is truly one among us, “blessed among all women” (and men!), truly a preeminent sister among us all, brothers and sisters in Christ, through whom and in whom we have all received the grace of redemption. Mary is truly our sister.

To stop there, however, would be to deny a whole lot more about her. To see her as merely a sister to all Christians is like plucking and detaching a single petal from a flower, and being mesmerized by that lone petal, thus losing sight of the totality of the richly complex and beautiful flower. As is true for systems’ theory, when it comes to the figure of Mary, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Let us give a close look to these disparate “parts” that make up a grander and greater whole that is Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Mary was born immaculately conceived, without any stain of original sin, a singular grace accorded her in anticipation of the merits of her Son’s passion, death, and resurrection. When the angel came to her as a young maiden with the great news that announced her singular vocation to be the mother of the savior, the chosen maiden became destined not merely to be “blessed among all women.” That “abstraction” alone, even if it came from the Archangel Gabriel, would not have made her rise higher than her “handmaiden” status. Just being declared makaria (happy) would not have made her status to rise in our estimation. But the fact is, she was called to be the mother of the Savior. As the Lord’s chosen “maiden,” Mary was “makaria” (blessed). But as the Mother-to-be of the Son of God, Mary became more than just a blessed and happy maiden.

She was destined for more. Her destiny was not to be holder of an abstract title of blessedness. Her calling was to become every man’s, every woman’s, and every child’s object of his or her deepest and most intimate longing – to be mother, to be mirror, that is, to reflect the infinite love of a “good-enough” Father, who has chosen to send His only begotten Son in our midst, as brother, as Lord, as Savior.

Abstract titles alone do not make a woman motherly. Titles and honorific accolades alone do not endear the “child” in every one of us to a woman figure. But a woman, chosen to be mother of our Lord, and given to us be our mother, too, touches us deeply and enriches our personhood to the core. Latest I heard from the Gospel is, we were not given a “sister.” We were given a “mother.” “Woman, behold Thy son; son, behold thy mother.” A woman may not always strike a sensitive chord in a man’s life, but a mother’s presence always makes the heart beat faster. John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth should know, for we are told that “when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb.”

I have it on the authority of “object relations” psychologists that people’s maturity and well-being depends a whole lot on the first “objects” on whom they projected their relational selves. Our psychological, social, and emotional wholeness as adults depends on the internal representations of said “object” during the crucial moments of our first 36 months of life.

Our growth trajectory, for it to be healthy and whole, that is called the separation-individuation process cannot afford to go without an “object” to relate to called a “mother.” That mother does not simply hold a biological, genetic title in relation to the child. That mother ideally ought to be a mirror to the child, someone who “mirrors” unconditional love and acceptance to the child, someone who relates to that child in a way that gives the child a secure base, and which, in turn, offers the child a “secure attachment” to a “good-enough” mother who can be depended on, from whom one can securely “detach” and temporarily “explore” the world, but to whom one can always “rapproche” and touch base with, as needed.

The Solemnity of the Assumption, I would like to think, is all about this “secure base” that the good Lord has given us, His people, His children. Assumption, is really all about Mary going up to heaven, but at the same time being here in our midst. Assumption is really all about presence. No wonder the Eastern Rite Catholics celebrate today’s feast as the “dormition” of our Lady. Mary, maiden, mother slept the sleep of death and was taken up to heaven. Assumption is all about God’s merciful and saving love, being mirrored by a woman chosen to give flesh to the “Word” incarnate, chosen thus, to relate to all whom her Son considered worthy enough of salvation.

Mary, this “good-enough” mother of all whom Christ her Son, considers as his brothers and sisters, continues to warm our hearts and fill them with happy thoughts. Like John the Baptis“our tai
nted nature’s solitary boast” (Wordsworth), the figure of this woman blessed among all women ought to make our hearts “leap for joy” as we do the equivalent of what object relations psychologists call the process of “rapprochement” – the act of drawing near and touching base to her whom her son offered to us as our own mother. “Son, behold thy mother.”

In the final analysis, it is fitting and salutary that we catholics have more than just a sister, but a Mother in Mary. And it is but right and just that we lovingly approach her not only today but every day.

For, to borrow the words of Francis Thompson, “the man in everyone of us needs a woman. The knight in everyone of us needs a lady. And the child in each and everyone of us (man or woman) needs a mother.”

Praise God, we were given not just a sister, not just a maiden, nor just a mother, but a “good-enough” mother who mirrors God’s everlasting love. This God deserves our worship and praise, for in the words of His handmaiden Mary, “the Almighty has done great things … and holy is his Name.”

Monday, August 6, 2007

HEART-SIGHT, MORE THAN JUST IN-SIGHT!

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C
August 12, 2007

Readings: Wis 18:6-9 / Heb 11:1-2, 8-19 / Lk 12:32-48

HEART-SIGHT, MORE THAN JUST IN-SIGHT!

Perspective was what we reflected on last week. It meant having clear eyes to see the difference between what lasts and what doesn’t last … like the dew that with the early morning sun passes away. Qoheleth reminded us last week: transitoriness of transitoriness!” … “Vanity of vanities!” … Jesus, too, would have us set our sights beyond earthly greed, beyond working for mere accumulation of material things. “Take care that your heart is not overtaken by greed.”

Given the right perspective, we know that man ought to work for his keeps, not for his greed. Merely working for one’s keep means one gets to a point when he has to say “enough.” People who work on account of greed never will have enough, for the pull of the more, the better, and the greater simply does not reach a point of satiety.

This Sunday, another perspectival concept juts out of all three readings. And the perspective does not have to do merely with things that last, but more so with the very “last things” – ta eschata – the ultimate realities of human creaturely existence. Wisdom refers to it in symbolic language as the time for the “the salvation of the just and the destruction of their foes” (1st Reading). The Letter to the Hebrews refers to it as “a better homeland, a heavenly one,” and speaks of God who “has prepared a city for them” (2nd Reading).

Something so important and valuable is not to be taken lightly, but prepared for seriously. Thus the reminder from the Lord: “Stay awake and be ready! For you do not know on what day the Lord will come,” (Alleluia verse) repeated one other time in the Gospel passage from Luke: “You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

But I would like to take a little step forward this Sunday. These two Sundays, we have been talking about the importance of having good vision … that is, seeing rightly. Indeed, as the GUI mantra puts it: “what you see is what you get.” Values seen for what they really are worth, are values we work for, strive after, and aim at with the totality of who and what we are as persons. But what we value, we also love. Knowing always leads to loving. A known good is a good that attracts, that pushes us to act towards attaining it. Knowing-good cannot be far from wanting-good. What the mind sees as good, the heart wants as value. Insight cannot be far from heart-sight.

Antoine de St. Exupery, in his famous work “Le Petit Prince” puts it so well: “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Mind-sight (or what we often call insight) is not all there is. We also need heart-sight. We also need to see clearly with the heart, as we need to see with the mind. We need as much evaluative knowledge, as conceptual knowledge.

The first lines of today’s gospel passage clearly point to the need for this heart-sight, as much as the need for insight: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

Peter Kreeft, writing about discernment in daily life, speaks about seven foundational guiding principles. The first, it turns out, is what he calls “hermeneutics of the heart.” The very first rule to follow is literally counter-cultural, so against the grain, as it were, as to seemingly be against common sense. People in our times would rather go for statistics, for scientific, verifiable, measurable, and quantifiable data. People would go generally for what the polls point to – the most popular decision and what would make the majority of people happy. But Kreeft wisely counsels what mass media does not counsel: follow your heart. Follow where your heart leads you to.

And this does not mean being led by subjective and fleeting emotions. Far from it! It means, first and foremost, having heart-sight, being in love with God, being in touch with God in and through our capacity for a decision that springs from the biblical center of our personhood – the heart.

St. Augustine knew it by experience. And he was right all along … AMA ET FAC QUOD VIS! …. Love and do what you will. When we love, we see more, not less. We see what is right and proper, what is honorable, what is worthy of honor and praise. With proper heart-sight, we will be led to do only that which is right and proper … what is godly, what is honorable and worthy of praise. For it is only with the heart that one sees rightly.

Today, the Lord invites us to see life and all it offers from the right perspective. And that right perspective is born from one’s ability to allow room for the heart to do its proper role. Allow me to enumerate some of the characteristics of a person with the required heart-sight and in-sight …

First, the gospel passage tells us not to be afraid. One who sees rightly with the heart has a heart full of courage: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Second, the Lord reminds us that a heart full of love is also a heart full of excitement and readiness for the coming of the Lord: Be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.”

Thirdly, a heart full of love is one imbued with a deep spirit of faithfulness: “Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so” (that which is expected of him).

Knowing what’s coming up ahead makes for good vision. Knowing what one ought to do because of what’s sure to come, and doing accordingly both make for heart-sight. In Christian life, we need more than just insight. We need heart-sight. For it is only with a believing and loving heart that one sees rightly and fully.

Cebu City, August 6, 2007 – Feast of the Transfiguration.

LIVING IN FAITH, WATCHING IN HOPE

I would like to think of today’s liturgy as a lesson on keeping one’s sense of balance in these postmodern times all too prone to all forms of excesses and imbalances. In these confusing times marked by the pull of so many conflicting ideologies and positions on the political, cultural, philosophical, and – even – religious planes, it is very easy for all to fall for one of such extreme positions.

Not even the Catholic Church is spared this particular difficulty and monumental challenge to evangelization. On the one hand, there are those of us who fall for the cut-and-dried and what appears to be a no-nonsense approach to the faith offered by modern-day milleniarists who overly emphasize an apocalyptic, if frightening, vision of impending disaster and gloom that mark the coming of the “end times.” Supported by the teachings of so-called “visionaries” that espouse doubtful theology, and reports of various, alleged, but, unapproved Marian apparitions all over the world, these Christian Catholics spend all their time preaching a “fire and brimstone” type of gospel, based more on fear, than on love and healthy, balanced, and theologically sound devotion.

On the other hand, we have a growing bunch of those who, in their desire to give quick answers to people who are lost in a culture either of material affluence or the utter lack of it, a culture characterized either by overflowing wealth or utmost penury, the gospel gets reduced to a message of prosperity solely for the here-and-now, on the one hand, or one that identifies salvation solely with the hereafter, on the other, leaving people only with the promise of retribution and spiritual salvation only at some unknown time in the future.

One trend identifies salvation with a “this worldly” reality of earthly prosperity and well-being. The other extreme would have people look at this salvation as an “other worldly” reality, as something that will take place only in the after-life. For some misguided Christians, passage to this other worldly reality entails a whole lot of frantic efforts on their part, characterized mostly by endless reparation for one’s sins and the sins of all the world, not letting one’s guard down at anytime, for the “end of the world is near.” Christian life is thus reduced to a life of unnecessary suffering … the more suffering, the better … in order to live what they refer to as their vocation to be “victim souls” for Christ. Suffering of any kind, is not to be shunned, but accepted, even sought for. For others on the other extreme, suffering is to be avoided at all cost, and salvation is identified with material abundance and prosperity, which makes salvation purely a this worldly affair.

It is important that our faith is not based on a misguided interpretation of biblical passages taken apart from the totality of the whole of Christian revelation that comes to us both in Scripture and Tradition. A fundamentalist (and narrow) understanding would have us focus solely on apocalyptic eschatology. Were this to be our sole focus, then the emphasis of our understanding would be on the end of THIS world as we know it. If so, then, our sights are to be directed towards the external signs that are spoken of in several passages in the bible, namely, those symbolic events mentioned such as the stars and the moon falling from the firmament up above, or the reality of wars all over the world, or the sinfulness of humankind. What follows logically from this is the need for us to set a date, or predict a definite time for the “end of the world.” Fear, not love, would then lead us to do what it takes to “appease” a basically angry God, whose hand poised for punishment, could not be further restrained anymore. The here-and-now or the present loses its savor, its importance, and value. What matters more than anything else is one’s readiness to face this impending doom of God’s judgment to a sinful humanity. The world, as we know it, is basically sin-stained, evil, and is therefore, not to be given much attention to. Holiness is to be understood as running away from the world, as one does to a plague.

Today’s readings, though, appear to focus more on prophetic eschatology. They speak about the end of a world, as distinct from the end of the world.

Today’s liturgy, very much like that of last Sunday’s, offers us a lesson on perspective, on a balanced biblical and theological outlook on the meaning of life in the world as we know it, and our attitude towards what this same world can offer us.

The right perspective begins with a very important truth. The Book of Wisdom establishes that it was God who saved and glorified Israel: “For when you punished our adversaries, in this you glorified us whom you had summoned.” The Letter to the Hebrews further deepens this truth, by capitalizing on Abraham’s faith, who obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” The same faith led Abraham to follow God’s will: “By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son…”

All this is an illustration of the perspective of people who have faith, a perspective that enables people to see God in control of history, a God whose future victory and coming is certain, but a God, who is also present and active here and now, in this world, in this life, in these present times. This perspective of faith would have us acclaim with the psalmist: “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be His own.” This perspective of faith would also lead us to appreciate, accept, and enjoy the world which is the fruit of His creation. Legitimate pleasures in this world and in this life are not necessarily bad and sinful. The world, per se, is not evil, for God can never create evil. By itself, it ought not to be despised and avoided. For this is the world that the Lord has given us, the place of our salvation, the locus and starting point of our search for holiness and union with God.

To live with the perspective of faith, however, does not mean living irresponsibly and without the need for any parameters, without any form of concrete moral and spiritual boundaries. To live by faith, as the same readings tell us, is really to live in vigilance, in an attitude of hopeful watching. This right perspective would have us be careful about absolutizing material goods. This right perspective would have us put possessions and belongings in the right place. They are important alright, and definitely useful – even, needed. But they must be seen in their right context: “Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy.” In other words, compared to the pearl of great price,” material wealth, and the search for it, ought to take a back seat.

Christian life, then, at least as far as today’s readings are concerned, has to do with living in faith in the here-and-now and in the “already,” and watching in hope for the hereafter, for the “not yet” of this same faith. At bottom, it has to do with a sense of balance, that comes from a right perspective of things, events, people, material goods, and the world. With so much and something so great in store for us believers, we would do well to be reminded: “Stay awake and be ready! For you do not know on what day the Son of Man will come.” (Communion antiphon)