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Sunday, August 31, 2008

CALL HOME, & COME HOME TO MOTHER!

Novena in Honor of El Dulce Nombre de Maria
Third Day, August 31, 2008


Popular belief has it that when the statue of Santa Marian Camalen landed on the shores of Guam, it came floating upright and surrounded by candleholders. On this belief is based a whole lot of our popular devotion and love for the Blessed Mother under that title.

We do well to keep not so much that story alive, as the meaning behind that story which has to do with our growing sense of attachment and healthy love for whom Scripture passes on to us, as a woman blessed among all women.

Yesterday, I talked to a mostly young crowd about a sense of homecoming. Home, according to popular reckoning, is wherever mother is. We would consider home any place where we see the imprints of our own mother’s care and solicitude. Home is where we experience directly or vicariously, our mother’s cooking, our mother’s care, and our mother’s presence in some way, real or symbolic.

I spoke yesterday about our homecoming to mother Mary whose home is where we can utter the very first syllables that, all over the world, in whatever culture, refer to our earthly mothers: nana, nanay, mama, inay, ima, mommy … Like the word we use to refer to father, abba, dada, daddy, babbo, tatay, mamay, it usually is only bi-syllabic … easy to pronounce, easy to utter, and these syllables are the very first words a child can easily learn to say.

I have it on the authority of object relations psychologists that in the first 36 months of a child’s life, the sense of bonding and healthy attachment happens for a child. This is the time when the child learns to utter nana, mama, nanay, ima, mommy or the like. This is the time when the child gets to experience first hand what it means to be at home, what it means to have a mother to go home to, and what it means to be secure in the presence of a primary caregiver.

What these psychologists basically tell us is that a sense of belongingness, a sense of security and healthy attachment cannot take place without the real or symbolic presence of a mother, whether that mother is biologically or only psychologically so, whether she is biologically one’s mother, or only a significant other substitute, or SOS.

And this is where one’s faith matters a whole lot. What may psychologically or physically be absent is supplied for by one’s faith. What is important is that our mind and heart professes love for someone whom one can aptly call a mother.

Scripture offers us one such woman. Scripture offers us one such mother. And we earned the right to call Mary Mother by the very words of her Son who said whilst dying on the Cross: “Son, behold your mother.” Christian tradition has for long considered John the Evangelist as one who stands in for us and represents us.

The miraculous landing of the statue of Santa Marian Camalen on the shores of Guam appears to me as a possible representation of this generous invitation of Jesus her son, to us: “Behold, your mother.”

But we gather in the liturgy not only to be fed, not only to hear, not only to receive, but also to give, to offer, and to promise to the Lord. Liturgy is, as we all know, dialogical. It is a two-way traffic. We gather together to be nourished by God, but also to offer fitting worship to Godhead. We understand liturgy as a give and take.

What then are we called to do in our days and times?

I suggest that a big responsibility is in our hands. This is the time when we can no longer live in denial and accept the growing reality of a world gone very secular. The tyranny of relativism is all around us. The pull of secular materialism is very strongly and steadily tugging at the hearts and minds of the young. The pull of the mainstream popular culture, strongly based on the information revolution has been, for decades, the single most powerful factor that has kept the young effectively away from Christian catholic culture.

Whilst the Church continues to offer herself as home to the young, the young may no longer feel at home in the Church and in her traditional symbols. The prayers that the “techa” (prayer leaders) of old have been saying with love and devotion no longer attract the young who are most probably even losing the very language that has been the mainstay of their sense of identity as Chamorros, or as ciudadanos de Guajan of yore.

A big challenge is rearing its ugly head before us all, ciudadanos y amantes de Maria. I rue the day when the “puntan dos amantes” (a famous tourism site in Guam) will see more people daily than the home of el dulcissimo nombre de Maria.

Let the passage I quoted from St. John be a reminder for us … The Lord told John “Behold your mother.” But the same Lord told John who represents us: “Behold your mother.” That means there is work for us to do. Liturgy being dialogical, there is something we ought to be doing on our part. We need to get close to Mother. We need to go home to Mother. And we need to call on her as Mother. We need her to remain not only Santa Marian Camalen of the history books, but as a Mother who is part and parcel of our ongoing story as a people so in love with Mary, Mother, Maiden, and Mirror of our the greatness we all are called to.

There are two things we need to do: reconnect with Marian Camalen. Call home to her in prayer. And second: to do a sort of homecoming: come home to where mother is … home where our faith, love, and hope grows. Santa Marian Camalen, rogad por nosotros!


PLAYING GOD OR PLAYING HUMAN?

Novena in Honor of El Dulce Nombre de Maria
Hagatna, Guam
2nd Day: August 30, 2008


Based on 1 Cor 1:26-31 / Mt 25:14-30

The moral theologian Thomas Shannon offers an interesting paradigm to illustrate what it means to go into two extremes with regard to technological interventions in our human, bodily lives and what we do to our own bodies. On the one hand, we can “play human” and, in its extreme pole, refuse to do anything or to take resort to anything in order to improve our physical, bodily existence, and to simply allow God and his grace to lead us to a certain level of well-being. This first approach means utter dependence on God and God alone. It refers to being totally on the receiving end in reference to God’s help and God’s gift of salvation. One of its concrete effects would be to take refuge in the false belief that technology has nothing whatsoever to do with Christian faith and that to take resort to what technology can offer is tantamount to being faithless, and being unable to place one’s entire self in the hands of God.

The other extreme, playing God, is to go the opposite path of technologism. This means that one ought to follow the so-called “technological imperative” – that says, “if it can be done, it ought to be done.” This also means that when it comes to doing anything to improve life, health, or our bodily welfare, there are no limits whatsoever, no bounds, or anything similar that should hamper man’s dreams and desires. Thus, there ought to be no limits to embryonic stem cell research, to eugenics, or the dream to create what journalists would love to call “designer babies.”

Both, according to Shannon, are flawed approaches and attitudes. They represent two extreme poles, that do not represent the happy mean, or the virtuous middle.

At least one of the two extremes, and the middle ground, in some way, may be said to be represented by two contrasting attitudes that are shown by the servants in the gospel. Three servants were entrusted with talents, one got five, another got two, and the third got one. The two who got five and two talents proceeded forthwith to work so as to double what they received. They invested what they got and produced more for their master. In contrast, the one who got only one, played as human as can be, and thought nothing about what he could possibly do with the little that he received. He hid it in the ground and refused to budge a finger to make more for his master.

I would like to see in the other two servants who invested what they got, an image of the virtuous mean between the two extreme poles of playing God and playing human. This is what we refer to as the virtue and attitude of responsibility, the virtue that leads one to make good use of what one has received, what talents and capabilities one has, not for one’s own good alone, but also, for that of others.

I see more. The attitude of responsibility shown by the two servants speaks much of two individuals who are fully engaged with the world and everything in it that shares in the goodness of the creator. It represents an attitude that values whatever God has created and given for what they are – gifts and blessings from the Lord, and given for our benefit and the benefit of all his creatures. In contrast, I see the attitude of the miserly servant who hid his talent underground as representing someone who is not fully engaged with created reality, someone who is totally dependent, and one who probably cannot believe in, nor accept, his God-given capacity to be “master of all creation.” It represents, to me, an inability to give full and responsible cooperation to the grace and gift of God, who calls us to participate in His creative work.

In this second day of our novena, my thoughts go to someone who is called blessed, primarily because she proclaimed by her FIAT, that statement of full cooperation with the will of the Lord. Mary, for me, and for all of us, a towering example of what it means to claim the glorious liberty of God’s children, and cooperate fully with what the Lord gives her. Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum!
This is the language of full engagement. This is the language of full human cooperation. This has nothing to do with playing human to the extreme, that leaves all responsibility to God. This is the story of divine-human cooperation that ought to be the story of each one of us.

The first reading alludes to the great gift given from above. This great gift has to do with God “choosing the foolish of this world to shame the wise.” It has to do with “God pulling down the mighty from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.” This is the story of God’s unmerited and unsolicited gift of salvation to humanity, a gift, nevertheless, that needs to be unwrapped, enriched, and used “for the life of the world.”

I would like to propose that we take up this cause for Mary, our Mother. I would like to suggest that we all today, always and for all ways, enshrine her in our hearts as model par excellence of one who “dances with the music of the Spirit” and cooperates fully with God’s gift and God’s call, in order to produce more talents for our Lord and Master. We will have occasion in other days to put more flesh into what this cooperation is all about. Suffice it for now for us to dwell on this simple, but profound idea that Mary is one who did not have to play God, and usurp divine authority to be great. No, she was great and declared blessed because she has allowed herself to play more than just human in the sense of not being utterly dependent, but one who took up the cudgels for God, by cooperating with Him and His plan of salvation. Indeed, as we answered after today’s first reading, “blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be His own,” and blessed is the person who, like Mary, lives and acts according to that singular choice and blessing from the Lord.

FOOLISHNESS & DEFEAT VS WISDOM & VICTORY

Novena in Honor of El Dulce Nombre de Maria
Dulce Nombre Cathedral-Basilica, Guam, USA
1st Day, August 29, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 1:17-25 / Mk 6:17-29

N.B. I am posting on a daily basis the series of homilies I am currently preaching at the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica at Hagatna, Guam.

We start out our novena with a story of seeming failure and defeat. The story that the liturgy presents us sounds almost like a telenovela, replete with individuals scheming and taking resort to manipulative tactics, hushed whispers behind curtains, and conjuring up sinister plans that end up in utter failure for one man who was acclaimed as a man greater than whom no one else born of woman had ever been.

Let us not mince words this time. John the Baptist, from the human plane, was an utter failure, a story of defeat along with a side story of worldly wisdom gone wrong.

Not much of a piece of good news, you would rather say perhaps? Hardly something worthy of the start of our novena in honor of a Lady portrayed by both Scripture and Tradition as one who steps on and crushes the head of the serpent in a marvelous story of victory? Indeed … the world everywhere is still full of a whole lot of these telenovela-like situations of both defeat and victory.

We live in a world filled with ambiguity. We find truth in what we pray our Lady for so often, enmeshed as we all are in this “valley of tears.” We see a lot of stories of seeming victories – China putting up a massive and majestic coming out party seen by no less than 4 billion people all over the shrinking world, stories of heroism despite so many problems all over the world, lives of ordinary people lived in fidelity, in trust, and in harmony with each other. But we are also aware of countless stories marred by disappointment upon disappointment. The psalmist of yore knew first hand that situation that up till now befuddles all men and women of good will: “Why is it that in disappointment all I endeavor end?”

One reason, among many why we go to Church, is we look for meaning. We look for answers to many questions. We look for divine guidance from above. Liturgy, apart from its main scope of giving fitting worship to God alone, also aims at affording us the opportunity to stop a while, leave the cares of our daily lives, in order to engage in meaning-making. We pause awhile, not only to think about God, but also to think about how to make our personal God really present in our daily lives.

This novena in honor of our Lady is no exception. We pause a moment and think about our lives. And the good news that I bring in the name of the Church is that it is worth our while to do so, and that the Blessed Mother, whom the poet Wordsworth refers to as “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” can, and indeed does help us to put back meaning into our personal and communal lives.

On this first day, I start with something simple, something foundational, and something that juts out so clearly in today’s readings. St. Paul gives the opening salvo to this effort at meaning making. He reframes what the world usually thinks of as defeat and unmasks the cross as the ultimate symbol and efficacious sign of our salvation. He makes much of the distinction between what the world claims as folly, and reveals for us the other side of the reality of pain and suffering willingly accepted for God’s and others’ sake. He speaks about worldly wisdom and pits it against the surpassing wisdom of the Cross. He makes it possible for us to look at various types of defeat and disappointment and see beyond them, and in faith and hope, see more, not less. He shows us that the same attitudes of faith and hope can turn darkness into light, despair into hope, and defeat into victory.

And this is the same message of the woman above all women, for whom and in honor of whom we gather for nine days beginning today. It is no secret to all of us that all the approved apparitions of our Blessed Mother mostly took place in areas of seeming defeat and depression – in poor, insignificant – even, barren – areas: Lourdes, at the foot of the Pyrenees, Fatima in rural, and rocky Coimbra, Portugal, and so many others. In almost all of her earthly apparitions, it seemed like Mary took up the cudgels for all those whom the world considers as foolish and weak, in order for them to experience the revelation of victory that God Himself works for all those who love Him.

Our Gospel reading today is another story of seeming utter defeat – the beheading and martyrdom of John the Baptist. Worse than this, one cannot have – a story of one who spends his short lifetime preparing for the coming of one greater than he is, who spends all his life in semi-privation, only to be rewarded with a violent death that he did not deserve. John the Baptist, from a purely human viewpoint, can only be called a loser.

But people of faith, hope, and love see things differently. As we start this novena, we would like to take stock of how much or how little, or how different is our way of seeing things. I would like to think that the Blessed Mother is with us these nine days, and for always, as we continue to search for meaning, despite all the seeming meaninglessness that surround us. She also grappled with meaning. The Gospel of Luke tells us how she pondered on everything in her heart. In between the lines, we can see also how she struggled, how she tried to keep afloat in a turbulent sea of disappoinment upon disappointment. But the same Gospel tells us that “she treasured everything in her heart.”

This may well be what we all need to do … to treasure … to reflect on, and mull over in faith, hope, and love whatever it is that comes our way. When we do, we just might see more, much more, and even see beyond. Foolishness and defeat, much like the reversal of fortunes for the powerful and the proud being brought down from their thrones, will be transformed into higher wisdom and glorious victory in God. And then, we will have all the more reason to claim as we just did after the first reading: “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

Thursday, August 28, 2008

OWE NO ONE NOTHING, BUT LOVE!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
23rd Sunday Year A
September 7, 2008

Readings: Ez 33:7-9 / Rom 13:8-10 / Mk 18:15-20

N.B. I am advancing this post for the 23rd Sunday as I am leaving tonight for Guam and I am not sure whether I can have access to the web.


The postmodern, globalized world that prizes individualism, personal success and achievement above most everything else, causes many people to drift apart from one another. As a priest, having been exposed to a relative variety of situations in different places, one thing I realize is the fact that even in very small externally tightly packed enclaves within subdivisions and posh villages, or simple barrios all over the country, there is a growing phenomenon of communities becoming gradually estranged from each other. Gone are the days of communities whose members know exactly what is going on with each other’s families, when everybody’s concern is everybody’s business, when there is a lot of “feeling for” others in a lot of ways.

I certainly miss the times when neighbors would – all in a good-natured way – check in on each other’s children or tend one another’s vegetable gardens, or, on occasion, offer one another whatever special dish one has cooked for merienda. More traditional communities of yore, certainly showed a little more caring and love for each other.

Contrast this to what goes on in most places now. Streets barricaded like as if they are preparing for a siege from the Israeli army; houses fortified by iron grills and heavy doors; neighbors who do not even see each other, let alone know one another … Our communities are drifting apart from each other.

Filipino sociologists speak, too, of the phenomenon of the so-called Filipino culture of insecurity. Unable to see much hope in government and governmental institutions, finding no sure support from other non-governmental agencies, sadly, including the Church, the Filipino family only finds itself as the source of any semblance of security. End result: Filipino family-centeredness; small-group centeredness; clannishness, and their close cousins. The “tayo-tayo” mentality (small group centeredness), with its negative connotations, is thereby affirmed and fostered, aided in no small measure by grinding poverty, the lack of opportunities, the weak economy, not to mention the problem of criminality, most of which can be violent and potentially deadly.

This is the backdrop against which today’s good news will have to situate itself!

All three readings today speak of responsibility for others. Ezekiel is appointed watchman for the house of Israel, given the responsibility to forewarn Israel when necessary, and to dissuade evildoers from their evil plots. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, assumes a more proactive stance as he admonishes them to owe no one nothing, except love. Four negative injunctions are summed up in one: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For its part, the Gospel according to Matthew, even goes farther and more proactive when Jesus tells his disciples to correct their brother or sister should they be in error, all in the spirit of Christian brotherly love.

There is a lot here in the three readings that is counter-cultural. Indeed, they run counter to the prevailing trends in our society and culture, as we have outlined above. And precisely for this reason, it is called Good News! It is good news for a variety of reasons. First, because it is a call to fullness and perfection. As St. Paul puts it, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Being responsible for others in the context of community is a concrete manifestation of this commandment of love. Second, it is good news because it offers an alternative to the current prevailing culture that really stifles the human spirit ultimately. Being cooped up in one’s own shell, as it were, focused on one’s personal concerns alone, mindful of one’s business alone, to the total disregard of others’ needs, is really to live only half a life. There is no fulfillment, no joy in living for oneself alone. Nowhere is this made more clear than in the case of a little community within a big subdivision that I am ministering to on occasion. The 50 or so households within that little enclave did not know one another, and did not care for each other’s concerns until some time ago, when they thought of organizing themselves, and, through the weekly sharing of the word of God and fellowship, they have become a veritable BEC (Basic Ecclesial Community). Now they meet once weekly for prayer, reflection on God’s Word, and common action on things that benefit the community as a whole. Interestingly enough, what initially brought them together was an experience of one potential common need: a fire that razed two houses within the neighborhood. That catalyzed them into action. They shared their resources. They began to help each other. They then graduated into praying together and reflecting together on the Word of God. They went even beyond mere common worship. They gelled together into action that concretized the unfolding salvation in their lives. Salvation thus has become both God’s - and theirs – to do. Salvation has become for them, not a finished, once-and-for-all act done by God alone in Christ, but something that is ongoing, something to which everyone is participating, and something that is born out of a commitment to love both God and others.

This is the most important reason (the third) why the call to be responsible for others in community is real good news. It is good news because it is something that does not take place passively, for which we do nothing but wait on God to act. It is good news because we have to make it happen – with God’s help, assuredly – but it has to be an ongoing proclamation. It is no longer a proclamation in word, but now a proclamation in works of love: by watching over others like a sentinel (like Ezekiel), by owing nothing but love to others, and through fraternal correction of those who err in some way.

To be honest, are we really capable of doing all this?

Let us go back to our culture and to our experience. I would like to think it is possible. Just look at how we dote on our clan. Just look at how we care for members of our family, our little group. Look at the noble ideals that the many fraternities and sororities in colleges and universities throughout the country stand for: brotherhood and sisterhood, unity, care for one another; protection and all sorts of support all the way, even up to adulthood and old age. There is a lot of love going on in our culture... a lot of concern for each other. What the good news would have us do, we already find in seminal form in our society.

And this is now the fourth reason why all this is good news. The semina verbi (the seeds of the Word), the Word of God in seminal form is already within us, in us, waiting to be tapped, waiting to be released. All we need to do is expand it, broaden its area of concern, make it inclusive and encompassing, and release the power within it to make of our society, our culture, our people – all of us as individuals – a more gentle and caring people.

Sounds all too good to be true? No, not really. Difficult? Well, yes. Indeed! Impossible to do? It will be, for as long as we do not know how to sift the chaff from the grain. Most people think that loving others means liking them. Most people equate loving with liking. If this were the case, then loving would really be impossible. For if this were so, then loving is nothing but a feeling. And feelings, like any other emotion, are something we cannot control. Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they are just automatic reactions from within us. We cannot not feel dislike for some individuals, for some events and places and objects. But we can decide to do good, to love and be responsible even for people we do not like.

And this is the fifth reason why all this is good news. We can do it… regardless of our feelings. Our feelings may spell D I S L I K E but no matter. We can still do good, be good for others, be solicitous for others’ welfare, etc.

And one final question to ponder… are we to receive any help from above to make this easier for us to do? Yes! The Gospel of today tells us: “Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” Curiously enough, the Lord, who calls us to love others in the context of community, offers us the very same community and togetherness as the source of strength to do what we ought to do: love others as we love ourselves. We are told again by the Lord: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

This is why he gathers us as one in the Eucharist such as we are celebrating here and now. In the sacrament of unity and love, we are gradually molded into a community of love. In the bread of God’s word that we break, in the bread of his body that we break and share, we are healed of our own brokenness, our own emotional distresses and other “feelings” that pose as obstacle to loving fully as God wants. When we come face to face with our brokenness and need for forgiveness and healing, when we realize that God loves us unconditionally and offers himself to us, “regardless of feelings” – when we get to understand that we are loved by him “warts and all” with no ifs and buts, and that he offers us his own broken body to be shared, we cannot but be led to do to others what he has done so graciously and so gratuitously to us. In this sense, loving becomes salvific. It ceases to be a chore, a duty, a “must” – something that we owe others to. It becomes its own reward. And then and only then can we say: OWE NO ONE NOTHING, BUT LOVE!

Monday, August 25, 2008

THINK AS GOD DOES, NOT AS HUMAN BEINGS DO!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
22nd Sunday - Year A

August 31, 2008

Readings: Jer 20:7-9 / Rom 12:1-2 / Mt 16:21-27


The language of today’s liturgy could be a little too graphic and straightforward for comfort. There is a whole lot of passion and emotion jutting out of every line, particularly in the first and third readings. The choice of words, particularly of Jeremiah, evokes the idea of paradox – two seemingly contradictory things put side by side and still capable of putting forth a meaning that goes beyond both elements of the paradox. Jeremiah’s words remind me of what we do when things do not go our way: we complain profusely. We cry out in protest. We make noise and we clamor for redress. Jeremiah’s language today is definitely one of complaint – and I have it on the authority of those who know Hebrew – rather coarse and brash. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the day, I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me.” (I was told the better translation has to do with some kind of forceful seduction!) But on the flip side, we are also face to face with a Jeremiah who not only complains, but actually capitulates. “I say to myself, I will not mention him, I will speak in his name no more. But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones. I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.” The first reading shows us a man torn between recrimination and resignation. He had strong words for the Lord who seduced him. He had an axe to grind with the Lord who called him to do what he did not originally want to do. He was very literally arguing with God. He showed the two sides of complaint and recrimination, on the one hand; and capitulation and resignation, on the other.

The second reading is another study in paradox, too. On the one hand, Paul speaks of self-offering and surrender; but on the other, he also counsels against being co-opted by the culture of this world, and of this age. At one and the same time, Paul expects his readers to let go, to offer oneself and surrender oneself to the Lord, but he also asks them to stand pat on one’s value systems, and not to be carried away by the ways of this age. Surrender and self-offering on the one hand; severance and distancing of oneself from the prevailing culture, on the other.

But by far, the most intriguing is what the Gospel reports to us today. What a contrast! What a paradox is contained herein! Just last week, Peter was given pretty high ratings. On top of the high marks and excellent rating, he was called petros, (rock), the ground of stability on which Jesus was to build his Church. But today, the petros (rock of stability) has, by an unexpected turn of events, become skandalon (tripping stone, no less). Jesus even calls Peter Satan, and was ordered to get off Jesus’ back., and refrain from testing him. This happened after Peter tried to remonstrate with Jesus, again using language that smacks of argumentation: “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”

This is a day of remonstrations, protests, complaints and argumentation. But this is also a day of capitulation, of self-surrender, resignation and conformism. Aren’t these two sides of what human beings like us are all too familiar with and capable of? Isn’t this one more example of the “dynamic tension” that we all, as human beings, find ourselves in and, which we need to integrate? Are not these paradoxical – if, contradictory - feelings and experiences part and parcel of our experience as human beings?

I see in all this a picture of who we are and what we are like as human beings. We are often torn between two opposing poles that both claim our allegiance. We often find ourselves between two choices that we both prize and value. And sometimes the choice is not that easy to make.

As one who has been working for vocation development for well over 15 years, as spiritual director and co-discerner to young men who aspired at some point to become religious and priests, I have come across similar cases so many times. As a co-discerner, I ought not to make decisions for my directees. All I could do is to help them, give them guide posts along the way, show them the bigger picture, as it were; or show them certain potential consequences of their choices in the most realistic and objective manner. But there is a point beyond which I cannot go. That point is theirs and theirs alone to traverse – the moment of coming up to a definitive decision, which I cannot do for them. There were surely moments that were agonizing for both the candidate and me (possibly more for me, who have invested so much time, psychic energy and effort to develop the prospective candidate). It was so easy to “paternalize,” be directive, and tell them point blank what I feel is God’s will for them. But alas, things do not work that way! I do not have a hotline to God and I can only give them directions based on what they tell me, or what I externally observe in them. Basically, what I am saying is, in such matters as one’s personal response to the Lord, it is every man’s personal territory. Each man has to find out for himself (always with external help and guidance, of course) what is God’s will for him. Assuredly, there are moments very much like the experience that Jeremiah speaks about. There are moments of tension, when all one can think of doing, at least initially, is to complain to the Lord. The Book of Psalms is filled with so many examples of this complaining, of this recrimination, of this prayer from the depths of one’s heart that does not hide anything, that does not mince words, that does not put up a false image before the Lord. The psalmists, to use modern-day slang, tell the Lord like it is!

But these are also moments of liberating truth. These are moments when our faith is sorely tested and tried. At some point, we are almost compelled to complain and pour our hearts out. And, truth to tell, the same faith comes out, more often than not, as true. When faith is thus purified, we are victims no more, but victors. We are face to face, not with defeat, but with the fascinating and compelling truth that, at bottom, deep within our hearts, we are all thirsting for God. St. Augustine, after years of wrestling with the Lord, - complaining and arguing, if you will – found that out and this he expressed so well in that famous prayer of his: “Restless are our hearts, O Lord, and restless will they remain, until they rest in you.” What is this, but just an echo of that plaintive prayer of the psalmist: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord, my God.”

Jeremiah’s, Peter’s, and our own private logic, even as we feel so entitled to our plaints and pleadings, our complaints and arguments, turn pale before the Lord’s logic of salvation. The Lord’s arguments overpower us, and, in the words of Jeremiah, God “triumphs” over us. “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me (skandalon).” When and how do we become tripping stones or obstacles to him? When we “think, not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Just look back for a moment at the times you remonstrated and complained to the Lord. Tell me if these weren’t moments when we were really saying in effect: “not your will but mine be done.” In our private logic, marred as it is by original sin, by selfishness and pride, we think we know what is best for us. Not only do we think that way, we also want God actually to agree with us! We want to co-opt him in our plans and works. But we are too deeply steeped (conformed is the word St. Paul uses) in the culture of this age. We are totally taken up by values that are not Godly, and God thus makes a counter-argument through St. Paul: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

The Lord confronts us with a choice. As human beings, to borrow a concept from existentialist philosophers, we are thrown into the world of choices. We cannot not choose. Not to choose is to have chosen. Not to decide is to have decided. St. Paul, Jeremiah and Jesus show us the way. Jeremiah acts on the fire burning in his heart. St. Paul admonishes us not to conform, but decide to be transformed by the renewal of mind, that we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. And the Lord puts before us the great choice, the greatest act open to free believers and followers: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Life puts us face to face with a variety of reasons to complain and argue with God. There is always something that makes us teeter on the edge of our faith, something that makes us even doubt, at times, the same faith. On such occasions, even as we argue passionately in prayer to the Lord, as shown by the three readings of today, we need to listen carefully to who we are, to our nature as human beings created by God, and, with St. Augustine, with Jeremiah, with St. Paul and with Jesus, exclaim in faith: “You have created us for yourself, O God. Our hearts are restless and restless will they remain, until they rest in God.” This is no longer the language of remonstration and argument and complaint. This has been integrated with the language of capitulation, resignation and abandonment. This is the arena of free and responsible choices open only to human beings according to the design and will of God. Even as we are not supposed to deny our right to complain to the Lord, we are invited to affirm our basic choice for Him, our basic orientation to a God who then leads us towards the fullness of life.

Tough teaching that is very difficult to do? Lessons that are hard to understand? Yes, and precisely on account of this, we need to think as God does, not as human beings do.

Monday, August 18, 2008

ROCK SOLID IN FAITH WITH PETER

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflections
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 24, 2008

Readings: Isaiah 22: 19-23 / Romans 11:33-36 / Mt 16:13-20

We all love a firm leader… one with clear directions, steadfast in resolve, willing to go the extra mile to meet common goals, unflinching in his commitment, unwavering in his resolve, yet solidly grounded in the human reality of failure and weakness. And precisely because such leader is in touch with the human possibility of failure, he also has compassion, patience and gentleness with the erring, the wayward, the lost, and perhaps, the least promising.

Unfortunately, such leaders are few and far between, if not downright unavailable, in most places all over the world. Societies think they can raise them. Schools of leadership abound everywhere. The Kennedy Institute for political leaders is a much-coveted place to be for any aspiring and ambitious politician, for example.

But alas, leaders are born, not made!

I would like to add to this. Leaders are not only born, like as if they had it in their genes. From the Christian and Biblical perspective, as is clear in the readings of today, leaders are raised by no less than God himself. God chooses and anoints them and gives them authority over others. In the Christian tradition, God himself sends his people judges, prophets, kings, and shepherds after his own heart.

Both Eliakim and Peter are this type of leader molded in the heart of God. The former was appointed to replace Shebna to hold the power of admission and refusal to ingress within the palace of the king. Symbolic of this was the handing on the keys of the house of David. As every beginner of Bible studies knows, the account of Eliakim is a foreshadowing of the handing on of the keys to Peter, declared by Jesus as rock on which he was to build his church. Peter, the rock, was given the power of the keys, no longer in an earthly kingdom, but in the kingdom of heaven.

It is definitely reassuring to note that the promise of the Lord attached to his handing on of the keys to Peter, speaks about solid certainty, stability, and indestructibility. “Not even the gates of hell will prevail against it (the Church).”

It is time for a little reality check. Our recent experience may be a little less certain, a little more shaky. For one, there are few vocations in traditional Christian societies. The voice of the Shepherd, the Pope, as Bishop of Rome and pastor of the universal Church, has been dulled and stifled somewhat by a culture that prizes materialism and production, more than it does thinking about the after life, and things to come, along with the values both entail. The recent scandals from among Church leaders, which the Mass Media have been very quick to point out and make seemingly endless reports about, have tarnished in no small measure the image of church leadership. It has caused the wearing away of a great deal of trust and esteem for the figure of the shepherd as leader.

Add to this the slipping away of trust, too, in our political leaders, the cynicism attached to politics in general, and to political leaders, in particular, especially in the Philippines where we have not really had a government that approximates an acceptable level of stability and trustworthiness. As I said in last week’s reflection, we live in a stormy world – in all aspects – be it in the political, economic, and spiritual planes. The rock that the Lord speaks of, in the case of Peter, may even, at various times in the history of the Church, have become a scandal (a stumbling stone) for many.

Let us not mince words. Owing to the mystery of human freedom and the mystery of iniquity, and, most specifically, the principle of human cooperation, there have been real, solid rocks of faith in the persons of so many Popes in the history of the Church. Unfortunately, there have also been, not solid rocks, but stones that tripped many, stumbling blocks to not a few, over the centuries. I guess, if we were to be the ones to do the appointing and the anointing, I doubt if we would have put certain notorious personages in power at all. If we were to go by the yardstick of our expectations, our desires and wants about the leaders who would rule over us, we would not have allowed the likes of Alexander VI, for a while Pope, whose personal and public life was not exemplary and worth emulating at all.

Or would we? Are we sure about this? Just consider for a while… How many leaders that deserve not to be in position have we placed? How many people in authority now really have no human right at all to be where they are right now? And yet they continue to lord it over us. They continue to wield immense influence over the future of so many young people and those yet to be born. For all our desires to have a leader that fits our ideal mold, who possesses all the good traits, some of which we have enumerated above, we really end up with leaders who are less than ideal, who may even be disappointing – if not, downright – revolting! And to think that as citizens of a democratic country, we have the power to seat and unseat – and therefore – to choose those who should lead us! Just look at the so many disasters we as voters have heaped upon ourselves, by putting into office people who were not leaders after the heart of God.

But let us clarify terms. What does it mean to be a leader after God’s own heart? I would like to take a clue from the remark of St. Paul in today’s second reading: “How deep are the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” Indeed, how very strange to the human mind that he should have raised some real pains in the neck to be leaders – not only in civil society, but also in the Church! And to think that Alexander VI was not the only one! “Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?”

The call of and the promise given to Peter gives us a clue to the “inscrutable ways of God.” Yes. He does appoint and anoint leaders – even those who, to our short minds, are not the best to be such. As the story of Peter shows us, for God, the priority is on his call, his grace, his anointing… not on the worthiness, aptitude and innate gifts attached to the person of the leader. God’s call is not to be held hostage by worldly considerations and qualities. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” This is to say no mere human authority was behind all this. Human considerations do not take center stage in this, but God’s choice, God’s will, God’s predilection. And this God does, no matter our lack of understanding and hard-headed protestations.

We do have the right to our opinions about those who lead us, including our church leaders. We do have the innate right to also feel disappointed about some of them. We can even be sad that some of them are not those we would have wanted to have as pastors. Nay more, we can even be angry that some of us, your shepherds (perhaps, including us), have done nothing but betray your trust repeatedly, down through the centuries, - and, most of all, in these recent years when report upon saddening report only shows how human and frail and prone to sin we all are.

I join the Holy Father, and many bishops and priests all over the world in begging forgiveness from you whom the Lord has given us to shepherd – please God, in the way He wants us to. Some of us have disappointed you, saddened you, angered you (as yours truly has done so, too). But I also join the same Holy Father, the Bishops and the priests all over the world in asking the good Lord, that you may find it in your heart to forgive our failings and sins, and to hold fast to that which today’s promise and call to Peter really should make us all understand, in faith… When God calls, the primary considerations are not the earthly criteria as we know them. When he calls, he also calls the shots. He is in charge. His grace is the most important element. Some Popes in the past, as some of us, even now may have, and may still disappoint you in the human way of looking at things. Today, we are invited to look beyond, transcend the utter humanity of those God calls to shepherding roles. We are asked to transcend the ineptitude of the fisherman named Peter who was called to discipleship and servant-leadership. “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”

We would like to ride on and hold on to Peter’s confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” We would like to stay on with Peter. We would like to keep our focus on Christ. He it is who raises leaders after his Father’s heart – no matter the unworthiness and frailty and utter sinfulness. He, it is who placed that solid rock of stability in the Church. We are rock solid in faith with Peter.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

SEEING HEAVEN AS OUR FINAL GOAL

Catholic Homily/ Marian Reflection
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
August 15, 2008


In these days, the whole world is focused on seeing stars, gold, stripes, honor, and reward … in Beijing, for the much-awaited summer olympics. For the more than 200 countries and territories that sent contingents big or small, the ultimate goal is that much coveted place under the golden sun, preferably replete with gold medals galore as testimony to their achievement, prowess, skills, and abilities in the various sports that the whole world tries to excel in … citius, fortius, altius … all goaded on by the mythical more in every sense of the term … faster, stronger, and higher!

The Olympics, for centuries, have always represented the best and the highest human aspirations of the family of humankind. Not a bad alternative to a world so marred and tarred also by the worst that humankind is also capable of … terrorism, war, murder and mayhem. (In the Philippines, and many other third world countries, all this is made worse by a political system that seems to be almost genetically wired to be corrupt, personage centered, and patronage based!)

The best and the worst of humanity … name it … we have it all … here, there where you might be reading this reflection … and everywhere where sin has taken root in the heart of man.

Still, for all the evil that sinful men have grown more capable of doing, from preventing births to snuffing out innocent lives, to killing innocent lives by the thousands in terrorism, to killing people softly through manipulation and massive corruption in and out of governments, humanity never loses sight of the best that the same humanity can offer, revel and glory in!

I speak about the best that humanity can boast of … I speak about the highest that humanity can, and was able to reach. No … I don’t speak of scaling Everest and K2 alone, not even of the fact that quite a few Filipinos who were born in the torrid tropics were able to make it to the roof of the world. All that is sure something to be proud of, to be healthily happy about. But I speak of something more. I speak of something that penetrates the heights – the physical and giddy heights of human achievement through one’s skills, abilities, and physical powers alone.

I speak about the citius, altius, and fortius of life at its best, life at its heights undreamed of and unforeseen by mortal men. I speak about the glory that goes beyond mere fleeting fame that lasts but a few seconds, a few minutes, days, months, and years. I speak about eternity and what is in store for all those who know where the real citius, altius, and fortius can ultimately be found.

And I speak today about the real possibility and reality made actual and palpable by what the poet Wordsworth has termed, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

I speak about a woman blessed among all women – Mary – blessed not on account of medals earned, but on account of overflowing graces merited and received condignly and freely by a God whose love and compassion for us is everlasting!

Make no mistake about it … Mary received graces overflowing, not primarily because she deserved them on account of four or more years of training or, in our current language, her furiously trying hard for them. No … Mary received graces overflowing not primarily because of personal merit, but primarily because of a God so in love with us, so dedicated to the fruits of his handiwork – humanity – that He assured us the wherewithal to be able to pursue that which He ordained us for – Heaven and eternal life with Him.

Mary is our tainted nature’s solitary boast, not because she has competed for it, made a sprint toward it, or catapulted herself to it, but because God has so lovingly chosen her and called her to be what we all are ultimately called to. Mary is the first among the redeemed. Mary is mother of all graces because all of us are called to the same graces, the same favors, the same glory that God has prepared for us.

Yes, the greatness of Mary lies not in her making a mad dash for it, as people in the Olympics do in these days. Her glory lies in the fact that God has generously chosen her to be what she is, mother of God, mother of Christ, and mother of grace.

But there is more. Surely there is little merit in mechanically being what one was programmed to do. One can mechanistically respond to commands like a computer does. Given the right program, the right software, the right hardware, something like a robot can simulate obedience, dedication, and loyalty to its master and creator. But that spells greatness not for the robot, but for its maker.

This is not what I speak of. Mary is great on account of God, surely. But Mary is great not solely on this score. Primarily yes, but not solely. Mary, the mother of God is great because of the depths of her cooperation, the intensity of her response of ‘Yes’ to a God who deigned her worthy of being His Son’s mother.

And this is the greatness that today’s feast is all about. That greatness is not a one-sided, unilateral gift from above. That greatness is something that Mary merited both as a free gift from God and a free answer of love from below. That greatness is both God’s work and Mary’s – by her FIAT, by her act of self-oblation and self-offering to a cause that definitely goes far higher than any man can ever hope for, nor work for.

But Mary’ assumption into heaven is not just an empty boast. It is not just a dream not unlike the dream that the company “Dreamworks” is capable of putting up, to the total entertainment of a world gone hungry for things that are above, versus things that are here below. Mary’s assumption, which, by the way, not a single soul claims to have witnessed, is a boast that goes beyond being a preposterous claim of misguided souls. It is a boast that becomes a dream, that blooms into hope of something real, palpable, and achievable – a dream that goes beyond momentary glory that never goes beyond the fleeting reality of man’s earthly life. The great athletes that the Olympics have produced will remain etched in the memories of men all over, only until humanity can manage to speak about them and remember them for a limited posterity. But not so, the glory that awaits all those who believe, for no eye has seen, nor ear has heard what glory the Lord has prepared for those who love Him!

Today, we got a clue, and a real and palpable one of what awaits us. Mary, assumed into heaven, is our boast. She, too, is our claim – the claim of hope that makes it possible and imperative for us all to see heaven as our true goal!

'May we see heaven as our final goal and come to share her glory'.

N.B. I write from Hayward, CA on my way to Austin, TX for my nephew's wedding. I ask my kind readers to include my sister Lita who was recently diagnosed with cancer in their prayers. I know in my heart that I can rely on my readers from all over the world now to say a little prayer for my intentions.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

LIBERATE ME, O LORD!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
August 17, 2008

Man is, at heart, a social being. He pines for company, for relationships, for togetherness. Joy is never full, never complete, never true unless it is joy that is shared, partaken of by others, and – ultimately – enjoyed together. Joy shared is joy increased.

This is true even for societies like the Jews of old who were very jealous of their common identity. Outsiders, foreigners, gentiles (the worst of the lot) just did not fit in. They were outcasts. They deserved no attention. They were considered far from the circle of concern of the average Jew, whose utmost priority was to maintain the purity of the faith and tradition.

But the good news of the Lord is as much good for the ancient Jews as it is for us right now. The Lord was gradually leading his people to a less narrow understanding of salvation, a less ‘selfish’ outlook towards what was in store for those who believed in the Lord. This is what the mysterious unknown prophet that rode on the authority of Isaiah is telling us today. Foreigners, he in effect says, who follow the dictates of the covenant, will be brought to God’s holy mountain and made joyful in his house of prayer! Foreigners! Outcasts!

We are face to face with the inclusive nature of a God who saves! This is one clear offshoot of the nature of God as a community of three divine persons! Although by then not yet clear, revelation, on hindsight, may already then, through Third Isaiah, be showing signs of the truth that will be made formal and complete in Jesus Christ. God is community. God is a loving, “including” God. God is self-sharing, (the Latin word for it is diffusivum) goodness. Already, He was revealing himself as one who does not exclude, who is not at home with the word ‘outsider’ and ‘foreigner.’

Beginning from Abraham, God’s call was for the Jews to become the “jump-off” point of salvation for all nations and peoples. Like Abraham, his descendants were expected by God to bring salvation to all, notwithstanding the jealous streak that characterized the Jews for so long. Inspired by such a call, the psalmist could only declare: O GOD, LET ALL THE NATIONS PRAISE YOU!

O God, let all the nations praise you! This is the plea of one who has followed the cues of a God who calls all to salvation. This is the spirit behind the prayer we started out today with (the Collect)…There we begged the Lord that we may love him in all things and above all things and so reach the joy prepared for us beyond all imagining. Part of this joy is the joy of knowing we are all traversing the same path that leads to salvation, the joy of being together in God’s love, the joy of being united as a people, though different from one another in so many ways.

O God, let all the nations praise you! This is the plea of those who have understood that there is no fulfillment for those who still nurture separateness, class distinctions, and all forms of disunity in their hearts. This is a prayer of us all who know that part of the eternal joys in heaven would be characterized by fullness of union, communion, community with the saints and angels in their eternal hymns of praise to God, the heavenly liturgy that traditional theology has always been referring to.

O God, let all the nations praise you! Free us from all our selfishness, our self-centered concerns, our exclusivity and lack of attention to the needs of those different from us in any way. Let all your nations praise you. Let all those who have feel one with those who do not have much, or have nothing at all. Free our innate desire for oneness and cooperation.

O God, let all the nations praise you! Begin with our nation, O Lord, up till now, so broken and so divided by the “original sin” of patronage politics and elite economics all rolled into one. Let all the peoples praise you Lord, not only those who can afford the luxury of time to go and worship on Sundays, not only those who can afford to wear something decent and presentable in Church. Let all the peoples praise you: the churched and the unchurched, who, through no fault of their own, could not bring themselves to the mainstream and worship as one great, big community of brothers and sisters.

There ought to be something liberating in the Good News of today. St. Paul himself, in the letter to the Romans, makes an honest admission: ALL OF US WERE OUTCASTS, AT SOME TIME OR OTHER! All of us are sinners. “All men have fallen short of the glory of God.” We were all outsiders. But God’s love called us to belongingness, to union, to participation. “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.”

This is the mercy that was behind the seeming insistence of the woman, despite Jesus’ initial refusal. First, Jesus did not say a word. Then he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then, a third time, he refused her saying, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” But behind the seeming stern refusal, the woman of great faith saw a heart that was overflowing with inclusive love and mercy. Her prayer is curious: “Have mercy on me, Son of David!” (ME!) But then, it continued: “My daughter is tormented by a demon.” No, her prayer was not for herself. Her prayer had to do with inclusivity. It was a prayer of intercession. It was a prayer for someone other than herself, addressed to one who said he came… that “all may have life and have it to the full!”

We need to allow the good news of God’s encompassing, inclusive love liberate us from our selfishness and closed-in-oneself exclusivity that is the bane of our modern society. Just look at the endless intramurals going on in all branches of government! There are termites and similar creatures that continue to wreak havoc on our hard-earned unity and relative political peace. Unless we are careful, our tiny country, the Philippines, may be dismembered courtesy of self-serving politicians, opportunitsts, ideologues, and rebels alike.

We all suffer from slavery. We are all enslaved by our selfishness, by our lack of mercy and compassion – our sense of entitlement to exclusivity. Politicians act like they are the only ones capable of holding office. (Just look at all those political dynasties!) Businessmen think they are the only ones with the right to make money. Big retail tycoons engage in cutthroat practices to corner the market and ease out smaller businesses. The intelligent and the schooled think they are the only ones entitled to an opinion and they lord it over those who may have had less opportunity to hone up their skills. Even the poor edge each other out for precious space, preying on the less wary and capitalizing on their ignorance (How else explain the phenomenon of professional squatters?) We are all enslaved by something. And the point of commonality resides in each one’s desire to keep out the “strangers,” the “foreigners,” the “outsiders” from our midst. Enclaves of exclusivities thus imprison us in various ways. (Look at all the streets of our subdivisions all appearing like virtual fortresses – if not prisons – with all the gates and high walls and sentries night and day!)

I would like to think that the model of today’s readings is one of liberating compassion, liberating inclusivity. Excerpts from a favorite poem of Miguel de Unamuno comes to mind at this juncture. He says: No canta libertad mas que el esclavo, el pobre esclavo; el libre canta amor, te canta a ti, Senor! (No one sings of freedom more than the slave, the poor slave; the one who is free sings of love, sings to you, O Lord!) The somewhat long prayer to the Lord ends thus:

Mira, Senor, que mi alma (See, O Lord, that my soul)
Jamas ha de ser libre (may never have to be free)
Mientras quede el esclavo (while the slave remains)
En el mundo que hiciste, ( in the world that you made)
Y mira que si al alma no libertas, (and see that if you do not free this soul)
Al alma en que tu vives, (this soul in which you dwell)
Seras en ella esclavo. (you will remain in it a slave)
Tu, tu mismo, Senor! (You, you yourself, Lord!)
Liberta-te! (Deliver yourself)
Liberta-te, Senor! (Deliver yourself, Lord)
Liberta-les, (Free them)
Atales con tu amor! (Bind them with your love!)
Liberta-te. (Liberate yourself)
Liberta-te en tu amor! (Liberate yourself in your love!)
Liberta-me. (Deliver me)
Liberta-me, Senor! (Deliver me, O Lord!)

Deliver all nations, Lord, from their selfish concerns. Deliver us Lord and free us from every form of exclusivity and uncaring unconnectedness. Free our capacity to love you in all things and above all things, so that we may reach the joy you have prepared for us that is beyond all our imagining. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

TAKE COURAGE, IT IS I! DO NOT BE AFRAID.





Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
August 10, 2008

We live in a stormy world. There is no doubt about that. Everywhere we go, there is strife, uncertainty, instability. In politics, in economics, in religion… why, even in the Church we so love, in not a few places rocked by waves of disappointment upon disappointment, born out of sacred trusts betrayed by the very keepers and guardians of that trust. There is pain and anguish in the hearts of many, most of all in those who have been victimized, in the hearts too, of the innocent who are unjustly lumped together with those who have been less than exemplary.

We are not too sure anymore whom to trust and whom to get courage from!

And the all-too-common tendency we have is to run away in fear, to hide and go far from all that is behind our fear. Like Elijah, we flee from anyone, anything that can inflict on us further confirmation of our fears. Elijah was fleeing vindictive Jezebel, out to kill him for shaming the prophets of Baal, and making the true God known to the people. Loss of courage and hope could also be the way out for many. Again, like Elijah, we are tempted to say with exasperation.
“This is enough, O Lord. Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4)

I must confess to you that there have been times in the past when I felt exactly like Elijah in his lowest moments. These were times when my faith was sorely tested, when my confidence in a God who claimed to be present in my life, appeared more like wishful thinking than anything else. How these words of the psalmist faithfully reflect my complaints before the Lord in those trying moments:

How long, LORD? Will you utterly forget me?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I carry sorrow in my soul,
grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Ps 13)

Whilst I identify myself with the psalmist completely, there is something that draws me more intensely to the depth of pathos and passion that fills every line of Miguel de Unamuno’s poems as in his Salmo I based on Exodus 33:20



Donde estas, mi Senor, acaso existes?(Where are you, Lord, if in case you exist?)
Eres tu creacion de mi congoja, (Are you a creation of my anguish?)
O lo soy tuya? (Or am I a fruit of your anguish?)
Porque, Senor, nos dejas (Why O Lord, do you leave us?)
Vagar sin rumbo (To roam without direction)
Buscando nuestro objeto? (Searching for our goal)
Porque hiciste la vida? (Why did you create life?)
Que significa todo, que sentido (What meaning has everything, what meaning)
Tienen los seres?…. (Do all beings have?)


Quiero verte, Senor, y morir luego! (I want to see you, Lord, and die thereafter!)
Si hay un Dios de los hombres, (If there is a God of all men)
El mas alla, que nos importa, hermanos? (The one above all, what does it matter brothers)
Morir para que El viva, (To die so that He may live)
Para que El sea! (That He may be!)
Pero Senor, “yo soy!” dinos tan solo, (But Lord, “I am,” speak but the word)
Dinos “Yo soy” para que en paz muramos, (Tell us “I am,” that we may die in peace)
No en soledad terrible, sino en tus brazos! (Not in terrible loneliness, but in your arms)
Pero dinos que eres, (But tell us that you are)
Sacanos de la duda (Deliver us from all doubt)
Que mata al alma! (That stifles the soul!)

There may be doubt as to whether Unamuno was able to get out of this rut of seeming despair. But his words leave no doubt about the pain and the anguish that were in his heart, even as there is no doubt that the readings of today precisely are an equally passionate call and reminder for us to go on trusting, go on believing, go on hoping.

The clue to this solid appropriation of faith, hope and courage and trust is precisely what Unamuno clamored for so passionately: the abiding presence of the Lord and His manifestation in our lives! Elijah runs into the desert and prays for death. But the Lord leads him to Horeb and shows Himself in a “tiny, whispering sound.” A tiny, whispering sound… not in an earthquake, not in the wind, not in the fire…the gentle presence of love and caring that does its work unheralded, quietly, but surely! This is the answer of a God who cannot be cowed by our panicky fears! This is the way of a God who would not be coerced by our impatience and impertinence, even in prayer that is more directed at ourselves and our needs, rather than on God himself! We look for a God who is quick to do as we bid Him do. We create Him from our states of anguish! And our anguish makes us look for His loud and noisy proclamations. But it is not so, as the psalmist says (and we said in response to today’s first reading):
“I will hear what God proclaims; the Lord – for He proclaims peace. Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, glory dwelling in our land.”

There are many Unamunos in our times, myself included. At a time when the growing realization dawns that corruption has penetrated all branches of government in my country, including the judiciary, people are worse off now than Unamuno probably ever was! To the Unamunos in our midst, I suggest that the focus of today’s readings can help us in no small measure. We need to look closely at the way God manifests himself to us right now. I draw some inspiration from William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

This is watchfulness at its best… the ability to see beyond (Remember Patch Adams?) … the capacity to look and see much more in what one sees. This is what I call “sacramental view of reality” … of events in the world, of life itself. This is sensitivity to the ways God is manifesting himself to us … every day, everywhere, at all times. This is to look at everything with the eye of hope. I remember seeing a poster somewhere that said: “Two men looked out the window. One saw mud; the other saw stars.”

I personally profit a lot from literature, from reading. This, for me – the testimony of so many women and men about their own struggles of faith, their own journeys of hope and the examples of their own courage in the face of difficulties – these all are eloquent manifestations of the presence of God in my life.

One favorite book I love to browse through time and again is Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be. He ends his book with a powerful affirmation that strikes close to the heart of what I am trying to develop in this reflection. “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” In the introduction that he wrote to the book, Peter Gomes adds wisdom to the already profound ideas of Tillich as he writes:

It does not take a great deal of imagination or courage to believe that God is on your side when you are prospering or winning; it takes a great deal of courage and imagination to believe that God is on your side when you are suffering or losing. To believe in love in the face of hatred, life in the face of death, day in the dark of night, good in the face of evil – to some, all of these may seem to be hopelessly na├»ve, wishful thinking, “whistling in the dark” (a decidedly non-Tillichian phrase); but, to Tillich, all of these are manifestations of enormous courage, the courage of confidence in more than the sovereignty of fact and appearance. “Providence,” he argues, “is not a theory about some activities of God; it is the religious symbol of the courage of confidence with respect to fate and death. For the courage of confidence says ‘in spite of’ even to death.” This is the echo of Job, who, in the midst of his dung hill and despair, gives in to neither and proclaims, “Though he slay me, yet will I praise Him” (Job 13:15)

But the best is yet to be told… this time by Matthew. The disciples were caught by surprise at a storm-tossed sea, in the dead of night. These are all conditions that would, and should wear away all courage. The Lord came and manifested himself in the midst of all this fear and trembling in the utter darkness. “Courage. It is I,” he said. Peter, the most intrepid among them, asked him “If it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” The Lord did so, and Peter walked on water, like his master. But at some point, something inside him took the better of him. And he began to sink.

We have to admit the fact that in life we are navigating through a stormy sea. That is a fact that our experience has shown us repeatedly. Incontrovertibly. But this is not the real problem. External troubles and difficulties are not half as bad as internal troubles. These internal troubles are those that make us sink: our lack of courage, trust, hope and faith – assuredly not on externalities, not on material things and earthly realities – but on a person – the person of the one who today tells us with authority: “Courage! It is I.” Peter did not sink because of the waves. He already walked on them! He has triumphed over them. He sank not because of those external troubles (the waves that raged in the stormy sea). He sank because he lacked faith, hope, trust and courage in Him who was there for them. He lost focus and allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his panicky fear and anxiety. He thus began to sink.

There is a need for all of us to take stock of our own “courage to be.” As you see by now, this is Tillich’s way of referring to faith, hope, trust and confidence in a God who is present in us, with us, and for us. More than this, we all have to find out the various ways by which God is present to us, the ways by which he manifests himself to us, be it through nature, through the liturgy, through poetry and literature, or through meditation and contemplative prayer. In all the storms that pass by our lives, God always has a unique way to be present to us – ever so gentle, unassuming, unheralded, unproclaimed – the tiny whispering sounds of our lives. May I add another ‘whisper’ of his presence via this poem of D.H. Lawrence?

PAX

All that matters is to be one with the living God
To be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair
At peace, in peace
And at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
At home, at home in the house of the living,
Sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
Yawning at home before the fire of life
Feeling the presence of the living God
Like a great reassurance
A deep calm in the heart
A presence
As of the master sitting at the board
In his own and greater being,
In the house of life.

N.B. The good reader, especially those more adept at Spanish will have to forgive my less than literary translation of excerpts of one of Unamuno’s poems I quoted above.

Monday, August 4, 2008

MORPHING BEYOND SUPERMAN!

Feast of the Lord's Transfiguration
August 6, 2008

Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-`4; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9


This is the age of “extreme makeovers,” “dramatic transformations,” and super-heroesque, surgical military interventions via so-called “smart” and “precision” bombs. Everywhere we go, the cult of “Superman” (or its equivalent in Philippine local setting, Captain Barbell, and the like) is pretty much in place. We adore rapid and dramatic changes and transformations in every aspect of our earthly lives. Plastic surgeons simply have their hands full all over the world trying to save literal and figurative “damsels in distress,” rendered unhappy by a less than ideal face, or figure, or bodily form.

We want transformation. We clamor for change. We demand newness and freshness, not only in the produce we buy daily in our traditional “wet markets” or the spick-and-span “hypermarkets,” but also in our governments, in our society, in our nation, and in all our leaders. We want change, and we want it quick. We want it now, not sooner or later. In the Philippines, we have even gotten a little too much used to effecting change via extra-constitutional means. We want to make “people power” at the slightest whim and fancy … when we feel our leaders and traditional politicians are not morphing fast enough into becoming the “Supermen” we thought we have elected to office.

Today, I have some good news for you … no … not mine, but the Lord’s! He shows us a way towards morphing into, and towards, what He has originally created us for. And He does not speak of extreme makeovers. Neither does He speak about being super heroes running and flying around donned “in a silly red sheet,” as the singing group Five for Fighting croons.

What is definite in this good news is that God does want us to be transformed. He wants us, pardon the term (more used in botany than in theology), to “metamorphose.” And today, Christ gives us a glimpse of what we all, are really called to by God – in and through His transfiguration. “And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”

Simply put, we are called to be transfigured, too, like Christ.

This is the Good News. The bad news, however, is that many of us seem to have misappropriated, or at least misunderstood what this divine calling is all about. Let us look at some of them …

First, there are those of us who think that change only depended on them. Some even think that violence can clinch it for all time. Armed rebels, coup plotters, terrorists, and their ilk, seem to act like they have marching orders from heaven to “change the face of the earth.” They want change and they want it fast … by hook or by crook.

Second, there are those of us who think they have the only valid and true blueprint for change. They act like they got everything figured out. They behave like they have what it takes. These are the “supermen” or the “Captain Marvels” of our time who seem to have all the answers to every problem, who think that other people are always the problem, but never themselves. In the Philippine political system (run like hell by Filipinos, by the way, as Quezon predicted), we got a whole bunch of them, both in the ranks of the abusive administration, and the acrimonious, endlessly sour-graping opposition.

Third, there are still others whose idea of change simply means to wait for “heavenly signs” and celestial, galactic interventions from above. Such people spiritualize everything. They dump the whole problem into the hands of God, and wait endlessly for “divine intervention” and “miracles” from the Lord whom they expect to put to rout all evildoers, and set aright everything wrong in the world. Such people wait for the equivalent of “Superman,” who will single-handedly restore justice and right in all the world.

The Lord’s Transfiguration has nothing to do with all three mistaken notions we have mentioned above. The Lord’s transfiguration is a glimpse in time of what God eternally is, - a glorious God, a God of majesty, a God who is Lord and King of all creation, a God who – precisely because He is glorious and eternal – is also Lord of history. Here, we speak not of an empty, shallow, and triumphalistic metamorphosis, like as if God needed to boast of His power, glory, and majesty. As God, He has no need for such mundane manifestations. He has no need to assert His innate glory. With or without us clapping our hands in awe, God would still be God, and there is nothing we can do to detract, add, or subtract from that intrinsic glory of God.

But there were three disciples who, like all of us, needed to see a glimpse of that divine glory and majesty. God didn’t need any transformation, but men and women like us do. The three disciples were called and invited to witness such a divine manifestation. And such a transfiguration had nothing to do with merely shallow and inane extreme physical makeovers, but a deep and profound transformation that starts from within and extends without. The three disciples, witnesses to such an epiphany, stand for us who, like them, are now called to be exactly the same witnesses, not only of God’s glory, but also of God’s saving mercy on His people.

The three readings of today speak of no “Superman” or “Rambo-esque” superhero who comes accompanied by artificial claps of thunder and peals of lightning. The vision of Daniel, it must be remembered, took place at a time of great suffering for God’s people who were threatened, persecuted, and made to suffer by the ambitious Antiochus Epiphanes, who wanted to impose his earthly glory and power over everyone in the known world at that time. Behind and beyond all that pain, Daniel saw a vision of what the real God is like. And he stands witness to such a conviction in faith and hope, and speaks of his vision of one who was literally a “son of weak man” who is coming down with clouds to rule over an earthly kingdom come down upon this world of pain and problems from the heavens.

The transfiguration, then, is not primarily about God and his giving us a glimpse of his glory, but about us women and men, who are now witnesses of that same glory. In Peter’s terms, we are now holders of this “prophetic message” which is “altogether reliable.” But as holders, we are not just “keepers.” We are, in the words of James, not only “keepers and hearers of the word, but doers of the word” (Jas 1:22). We are now those who stand in need of transfiguration, of transformation, of change that ought to start the transformation of society and the world.

The three disciples definitely were changed interiorly by a vision of the Lord’s own transfiguration. They were so taken up by that interior transformation that they wanted to build three tents right then, right there. They felt like Supermen freshly and newly empowered by the Golden Sun experience of a heavenly vision. But they were not called to be just keepers of a vision. They went right back down the mountain of meeting, back to the plains of mission, back to the arena where transformation had to take place, in a world that was waiting for leavens and salt that would gradually effect personal and social transformation. That transformation does not happen through extreme makeovers and triumphalistic means. That transformation ordinarily does not take place in leaps and bounds. Morphing into becoming a Kryptonite-immuned “superman” might sound good to impatient people like us longing for change, but today’s good news invites us to morph beyond superman, and, as we “listen to the voice of [God’s] Son,” we ask him to “help us become heirs to eternal life with him who lives and reigns forever and ever.” (Opening Prayer)