GIVE YOUR SERVANT AN UNDERSTANDING HEART, O LORD!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 27, 2008


I used to be annoyed by a distant relative, much older than me, who used to punctuate all her sentences with “Do you understand?” (Naiintindihan mo ba ako?). For every little detail, she would ask whether I understood. More often than not, she would be referring to details about things she would plan – and do – for the benefit of others, especially her loved ones. Being unmarried, all she thought of was how to help as many people as possible, most especially her relatives. That, of course, included me. Every time I would visit her abroad, she would have invariably, a lot of errands for me to do back home - “padalas,” “habilins” and “pabaons” (all meaning give-aways). I would go away from her place not only with boxes of goodies, but also an even bigger number of instructions, reminders and more reminders. Of course, I would listen to each and everyone half-heartedly. My little annoyance would lead me to some kind of “tuning out” for sheer survival of the ordeal. Upon reaching home, I would open the boxes of gifts and goodies and, lo and behold! … every item would be painstakingly marked, and pasted with Post-its, each one labeled with more instructions and reminders.

Funny, but on hindsight, I feel it all made sense. Had they not been marked and labeled, I would not have known what to do with all of them. The mind forgets all too easily. Or if it does not forget, it simply does not understand. Period.

An old Latin proverb, I think, from the Scholastics, tells us: Repetitio mater studiorum. Repetition is the mother of all learning. Just look back at your own experience… what do you remember most? Isn’t it the one that your mother or father drilled into you over the years? Some psychologist coined a word for it, although it has a negative connotation: parental tapes. These are the statements that we heard over and over again…statements that have become us, that have shaped who we are right now.

The Lord, Gospel commentators say, was a good teacher. We need not have a teacher’s advanced degrees to understand this. Today, we hear him ask us: “Do you understand all these things?” Naiintindihan n’yo ba ang lahat ng ito? Like us, the disciples were quick to answer: “Yes.” Exactly like us, who think and act like we already knew everything at times. Exactly like us, who, at times, cannot stand it being told, reminded or instructed.

But often, we really do not understand things fully. We see only parts and parcels of the truth, not the whole truth. Our minds really do not fully grasp everything. We are all short-sighted in a very real sense. “Every scribe,” we are told, “who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Among others, it refers to the ability to integrate a whole lot of things, the capacity to look at wholes and not get lost in disparate parts. It means being able to see the totality, to see as God sees, to think as God thinks, to understand the mysterious ways of God.

Now, this is the difficult part. How does one fully understand the reasons why suffering exists in the world. How does one fathom – let alone, accept – the mysterious and difficult ways of God who thinks not as man thinks, whose ways are not man’s ways? How on earth does one explain convincingly to one who is grieving the sudden loss of a beloved one, deep in the throes of the pain of unexpected loss, that all is well because it is all in accordance with God’s plan?

When my mother died all so suddenly 18 years ago at age 63, I did not understand a thing. I had lots of questions deep within. Of course, my mind knew all the answers. It knew that it was all part of God’s plan; that it was God’s will. But my heart revolted against what my mind told me. It simply did not make sense to one who was still grappling with the sense of utter loss, as painful as it was unexpected. I could not honestly say I understood it all … Hindi ko naintindihan ang lahat!

Of course, at that time, I did not know that what was missing was integration. The event of a sudden loss of a loved one was too close in time for me to make sense of it all. It was too soon for me to situate it within the totality of my life, and that of our whole family. Being too close to the event – and a painful one at that – my whole system was shut off to really understanding anything. I knew in my mind, but at heart, I really did not understand.

Now, older and wiser, there is something I know I can share with deep personal conviction – the truth of what St. Paul today speaks about: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Indeed, how very true this is! On hindsight, my mom’s death, which was hard to accept then, is now really an enviable one. She died so peacefully. Doctors say that her death was the most peaceful death one could imagine, even from the medical viewpoint. She just dozed off to a perpetual sleep. All her life, she was begging the good Lord for a happy and peaceful death. That was what she prayed for, each and every single day. (Days after she died, we got to know she still said that prayer for me which she started praying when I left for the Juniorate –minor seminary – back in 1969. The yellowed-with-age copy of the novena to Mary Help of Christians I gave her in 1968 was still tucked in together with all her daily prayers, all tied up in a neat, but often used, bundle with a rubber band. She always prayed for a peaceful and happy death). The good Lord gave her what she wanted most. Like Solomon, who begged the Lord for wisdom, my mom was given what she asked for. Now, without the obstacle provided by grief that closed the heart and mind to understanding, everything now falls into place.

We would do well to aspire for that same wisdom that Solomon prayed for: “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” There are things that defy our understanding every day. In our selfishness and pride, we do not understand why we need to forgive and live in peace with those who cause us harm, for example. We cannot understand why we need to respect authority – even those, and especially those – who, in our mind, do not deserve to be lording it over us. We do not understand why we need to “turn the other cheek” to those who wish and do us evil. We do not understand why we need to have second thoughts about wishing the deaths of so many evildoers who make life even more miserable than it already is for so many millions of people all over the world.

There are so many things we just do not understand…And precisely for this reason, we need to beg the Lord for wisdom. This wisdom will guide us to discern right from wrong. This same wisdom will lead us to accept basically unacceptable things in God’s own good time. This is the same wisdom that will find solace and joy in God’s commands, despite the initial protestations and questionings that fill our minds and hearts. The psalmist declares today: “Lord I love your commands!” For one who has integrated the disparate parts and parcels of his life, for one who has broadened and deepened – with God’s help – his view and perspective on life and events in the world, for one who has opened himself to the reality of God’s loving intervention in his life, “the law of [God’s] mouth is more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Indeed, everything works for good, for all those who love God.

This is the wisdom all of us should pray and beg God for! This wisdom, more than just opening us to accepting difficult events in our lives, will lead us to an even greater vulnerability – the capacity to risk ourselves for “a pearl of great price.” This wisdom that now acts out of the conviction that all things redound to good for those who love God, will lead us to accept everything God sends in our lives: all sorts of fishes – including those we do not like! People will invariably come into our lives: people we like and people we do not like. There will even be those who will make us suffer. The wisdom that God will give us will make us accept them all, as part of the whole package. For some, it may be a sickly child who demands extra attention from parents. For others, it may be a hard-to-please neighbor – a difficult character we have to love and live with. For still others, it may be a partner in life and in love that for years has become a real pain in the neck for a variety of reasons. Sicknesses, relationships turning sour, failed friendships, broken promises and vows… they are all part of the total loving package from a God who makes the sun shine on the good and the bad alike.

I started out this reflection with the admission that I – and all the rest of us – do not understand many things. Indeed, we still don’t. For all the catechisms and homilies and religion subjects we have undergone, we still do not understand a whole lot of things. I suggest that it may well be because we really do not know what it means to understand. We postmodern people, learned in so many ways and schooled in the finer nuances of logic and scientific discourses reduce understanding to a matter of the mind. But in stark contrast to this outlook, the Bible puts understanding as a matter of the heart. The heart stands for the center, the seat of the total person. It is where decisions and choices emanate. It is, for the Bible, the privileged place for wisdom to take root, from which all actions and decisions take their origin. It is no wonder then, that Solomon begs the Lord: “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”

We need all the wisdom we can get from the Lord these days. There is a very real temptation for us, for example, to fall deep into despair, in the face of so many seemingly insurmountable problems, both personal and social. There is a very real danger for us to become cynical at the sight of so much graft and corruption, at the sight of so much suffering and pain that millions of us have to face on a daily basis. There are a thousand and one reasons to come to grief, to become less trusting, less spontaneous, less warm, tender and loving to our fellowmen.

I would like to share with you the words of an ancient poet, Rumi by name who wrote in the 13th century:

Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round
In another form. The child weaned from mother’s milk
Now drinks wine and honey mixed.

God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
From cell to cell. As rainwater, down into the flowerbed,
As roses, up from the ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
Now a cliff covered with vines,
Now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
Till one day it cracks them open.

Part of the self leaves the body when we sleep
And changes shape. You might say, “Last night
I was a cypress tree, a small bed of tulips,
A field of grapevines.” Then the phantasm goes away.
You’re back in the room.
I don’t want to make anyone fearful.
Hear what’s behind what I say.

Ta dum dum, taaa dum, ta ta dum.
There’s the light gold of wheat in the sun
And the gold of bread made from the wheat.
I have neither, I’m only talking about them,

As a town in the desert looks up
At stars on a clear night.

We all need to beg the Lord, for this wisdom and understanding. Together with Solomon, we ask the Lord to give us that understanding that would be able to see beyond our little concerns, our pains, our sorrows, our worries - and see “God’s joy from one unmarked box to another,” that “gold” that shines out in wheat and bread and other ordinary things in life that we take for granted. We beg the Lord for this wisdom that makes even people in the desert of their lives look up with hope “at stars on a clear night.” This, as we all know by now, is the understanding of those who have decided to love God. And because they have decided to love God, they now see everything in the light of that love. They have become wise for they now see the role of everything that takes place in their lives. They know, and are convinced, that for those who love God, everything works for the good.

Give me more of this wisdom, Lord! Give me more of this understanding heart, O God!


Comments

rooks said…
enlightened as I drove through... thanks!
maxi, osj said…
Thanks Fr. Chito! This is another best of your homilies. I dread the days when it is already nearing Sunday and I have not yet checked your fresh pan de la semana because my internet service provider is down. More power.