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Monday, September 29, 2008

CHOSEN TO GO AND BEAR FRUIT THAT WILL LAST!

Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
October 5, 2008

Readings: Is 5:1-7 / Phil 4:6-9 /Mt 21:33-43

I have been an educator (a teacher) for the past 31 years. Add to those years four more when I dabbled at religion teaching as a 4th Yr High School student, as a freshman in college, a sophomore, and a novice teaching catechism. They seem enough to enable me to make some simple generalizations and conclusions, don’t they?

One simple generalization I should like to make as I look back, is this… it is hard to deal with the indifferent, with the lazy, with those who are not properly or sufficiently motivated to learn. It is far easier to deal with those who are eager to learn, far easier even with those, who, while short in understanding, nevertheless are participative, who show effort, good will, and a lot of hard work. Students who have drive, who show interest, and who apply themselves to study are those who give meaning to the life of a teacher. They make mistakes, assuredly. But it is precisely those mistakes that propel them towards learning. And it is precisely those mistakes that make a teacher like me relevant and useful.

The key-word here is productivity that points to results that do not fall short of the effort put into whatever endeavor; results that are commensurate with the care and efforts expended. Surely, a vine-grower who sees to it that everything is in perfect order expects to harvest fine, sweet grapes, not wild grapes. The passage from Isaiah does not make a secret about the vine grower’s utter disappointment: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” It is easy for us to sympathize with the vine grower who, in frustration decides to henceforth stop all he had been doing, for it had not born fruit as expected. It had been chosen; cared for; treated with special predilection and attention. But it failed to deliver and bear fruit. Like the indifferent and lazy students, the vineyard failed to appreciate and respond appropriately to all that investment of love and caring that the vine grower had shown more than just convincingly.

We all are no strangers to this path of indifference and laziness – and lack of fruitfulness, even as we are no strangers to a similar experience of love and solicitude from a personal and loving God. As a teacher for so many years, another simple generalization I think I can safely make is this: those who have more in life, exert less effort. Those who are born in a privileged culture of plenty are loathe to exerting efforts and working hard for anything. Everything comes easy for the rich and the powerful. Everything can be had for the right price. The rich do not feel the need to do extra work. But it is generally those who have little in life, who have very limited resources who know they must work hard to get at something that does not come automatically to their world of resources. Asian Americans who were born and were thus exposed to a culture of want excel far more than home-grown Americans who only saw abundance and plenty. A recent study by Time magazine shows that Asian Americans, on the whole, earn more than the native-born Americans, of whatever, ethnic group. Again, the key-word is effort, good will, and the drive for productivity. This is as far as material productivity is concerned.

But alas, the same may not be true with regard to spiritual fruitfulness. (An old, but very precise word for this is fecundity).

Take now our case as Filipinos, so blessed by God, with that singular favor of being the only Christian country in Asia! Chosen from among so many, the Christian faith took firm root in this vast area surrounded by some of the world’s great faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism, etc. From among so many, we received the singular grace of evangelization and Gospel illumination. Just what have we done with it? To us, the Lord, could very well say: “What else have I not done for the sake of this vineyard of mine?”

Take now our own personal cases and the blessings that have been showered upon us… Most of those who get to read these reflections are those who probably can afford, or at least, can have access to a computer (or at the very least, its wonderful effects. I do know for a fact that some of my readers make hard copies of these reflections, and either file them for others, or pass them around for them to read, or forward them via e-mail!). What more can most of us ask for? We have relatively stable jobs. Many of us, if not most of us, can afford a modicum amount for some form of recreation or relaxation, at least occasionally, or on a regular basis. Many of us belong to that portion of our society who can have the means and the material time to go to Mass each Sunday, and still have time to spare to go malling or whiling some time for rest at home. Many of us can afford not to work on Sundays. What else do we expect God to do for us in order to make us realize we need to make extra efforts to learn more about Scripture, or about our faith? Indeed, as the responsorial psalm puts it so bluntly, “the vineyard of the Lord [that the first reading is talking about] is [us] the house of Israel.” We cannot self-righteously think that the readings today do not refer to us. We cannot be “sitting pretty” and getting more and more complacent about our faith that does not go beyond merely attending Mass on Sundays and not allowing it to bear fruit in our daily lives. Surely, the readings today ought to prick us in some way. What have we done in return for all the blessings we have received? What have we concretely done to help alleviate the worsening problems of our society? Have we become so complacent about the trash, the traffic, the graft and corruption, the utter lack of professionalism in our culture – all signs of a cultural and moral malaise that social scientists are talking about? The vineyard of the Lord is us! It is US the Lord now is calling to task, asking us what fruits we can rightfully boast of. To us now is given the gentle reminder of the Gospel: “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

There is something in the readings today that convicts me personally. Having been an educator for all those years, a priest for almost 26 years now, I know I have to ask myself what fruit have I born so far. I have been chosen. I have been, and still, am loved with a marvelous love by this world’s tremendous lover! His love has born so much fruit for others, including me. His love is so life-giving, so fecund, so powerful. What return have I made for all this? What return can I now make?

Paul himself tells us today, too, in his letter to the Philippians. What return can we make for all these blessings from the Lord? “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Yes, the pickings are there for us. But we have to get up, roll up our sleeves and get to work. We cannot afford to be indifferent and slothful. We have to make choices. We have to decide and not coast along, complacent with the minimum we think we have been doing (ever thought about the measly few pesos you have been putting in the collection plate week in and week out, pitted against the hundreds, if not, thousands of pesos you put to entertainment and food?). Surely, not everything we have done and still do is true, just, honorable, pure and lovely in God’s eyes!

A favorite line from a favorite poem of Hopkins aptly expresses my convictions at this time. One that does not bear fruit, that is, one who is not fecund, is just like a eunuch, which we all are unless we go and bear fruit.

…birds build – but not I build; no but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes…

What is it that mostly occupies our attention? “Oh, the sots and thralls of lust do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend, Sir, life upon thy cause!”

“Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”

Send my roots rain, O Lord, for you have chosen me to go and bear fruit in plenty.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

WHAT WE DO, NOT WHAT WE SAY WE WOULD DO!

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
September 28, 2008
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection/Gospel Reflection

Readings: Ez 18:25-28 / Phil 2:1-11 / Mt 21:28-32

We all love people who mean what they say – people who do as they promise; who fulfill what they say they would do. As a child, I used to make tantrums when my parents or anybody older would make a little promise and then would forget about it. Disappointment would usually follow when that happens.

Today’s first reading seems no stranger to disappointment. The chosen people, disappointed that they are getting their just deserts after misbehaving, have the gall to complain: The Lord’s ways are not fair! Through Ezekiel, Yahweh tries to correct that misplaced disappointment. No, it is not God who is unfair, but us who do evil deeds in his sight.

Evil deeds… iniquity… and death as an aftereffect of that iniquity… sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? We reap what we sow. We get what we deserve. Tit for tat. Measure for measure. An eye for an eye… a tooth for a tooth… It is so easy for us to fall into this trap of a popular New Age concept… karma… one deserves to suffer because one has done evil. Tagalog slang even has coined a word for it: resbak. Do evil and evil will turn around to get back at you. What goes around, comes around!

Now, if this were our understanding, then, I agree. The Lord’s ways are unfair!

One sad thing that I find is gradually seeping into the mainstream belief system of many Christians and catholics is that very popular word KARMA, which comes from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, which has over the past years, been popularized by New Age doctrine and practices. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, it seems to me karma refers to a certain payback system. One pays for what harmful thing one does to nature, to fellow humans, to animals, etc. One pays for what one does not do which he ought to do. One suffers – and through a constant purification process (viewed negatively) one reaches perfection, and attains that state of emptiness of all desire called nirvana.

The Christian doctrine of grace, however, is positive, not negative. It smacks of being filled, not being emptied. Grace enlivens us, not empties us. Grace is participation in God’s life, not being emptied of all cares. Grace is good news. Karma is not. Grace is liberating joy. Karma is enslaving fear. Grace perfects us. Karma diminishes our person. Grace is positive perfection that is a gift from God. Karma is negative “perfection” that is based on deprivation and emptiness. Karma is emptiness as a goal. Grace is emptiness as a process toward fullness, a step towards perfection. Karma’s emptiness is a fruit of human effort. The emptiness that comes as a prelude to grace is human and divine in nature.

Let us look at what St. Paul tells us. He speaks about Christ’s self-emptying –his kenosis as the Greek word puts it. “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Now what more and better expression of self-emptying is there than this? What better expression is there of humility than for the Son of God to take on human form and become one like us, leaving aside for the meantime His divinity and dwelling amongst us, pitching his tent in our midst? This surely is self-emptying pushed to the hilt! But St. Paul hastens to add, “But because of this, God greatly exalted him, and bestowed to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”

This is emptiness that is positive… emptiness that smacks of fullness. This is not the karma that popular culture seems to be extolling to the full. This is pleroma – the fullness that can be had in Christ, who in his utter humility and self-emptying, has been exalted high above all creatures in the heavens and on the earth.

This is the fullness of one who obeys. Paradoxically, one who obeys empties himself/herself apparently of all, including one’s self-determination. One gives his all, in a sense by obeying.

In the Gospel of today, we have a picture of genuine obedience that is of the self-emptying kind spoken of by St. Paul. One gives nothing more than his word. “Yes sir!” But he did not obey. He did not do as he said. He gave up nothing. The other son said, “I will not!” But later he probably thought better, and without saying anything further, just went and did his concrete act of self-emptying by doing what he was told to do.

There is something here that merits our reflection for today. The world is littered with broken promises. We make and break vows everyday. In the U.S. 50% of marriages end up in divorce sooner or later. And since we in the Philippines just love to ape what they do elsewhere, we are fast going that direction, too. Although illegal, I was told that there are 300,000 abortions done every year in the Philippines – mostly done through crude, if not, cruel means. Politicians get elected on the basis of promises to the poor and downtrodden. But once in power, those same promises don’t get to see the light of day. We break promises just as fast as we make them. And the primary motivation why they are broken? Definitely not that which led Jesus to empty himself of his divinity…definitely not that which led him to humble himself and become one like us. Why do we break promises? Because of our utter love of self… because of our selfishness and the insatiable desires of our hearts.

Great promises do not make for greatness as a person. No one gets a reward for the promises one does. The proof of the pudding is in the eating… handsome is, as handsome does! Good intentions alone do not send us straight to heaven. The road to hell, they say, is paved with a lot of good intentions. Holiness, fullness, perfection, greatness… call it what you might…it refers to what we do, not what we say we would do!


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

MY THOUGHTS ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS, NOR ARE YOUR WAYS MY WAYS!

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
September 21, 2008
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection

Readings: Is 55:6-9 / Phil 1:20c-24 / Mt 20: 1-16a

In these times of increasing unemployment and underemployment, when those who have jobs are underpaid (at least compared to the cost of living that continues to rise, along with the rise in prices of petrol), and when those who do have work are not doing the job he or she has trained for, there is apparently little good news in today’s gospel.

In these times when due to underemployment in many countries, coupled with rising living standards, - all taking place as logical offshoots of globalization – not a few quizzical eyebrows would be raised in the face of the apparent injustice committed by the landowner of the gospel parable for today.

Indeed, the world is mute witness to so much inequality. We have heard enough of CEOs of big corporations in America who retire – or are fired – with huge emoluments that are patently more than enough for them to live a life of comfort and affluence, with more to spare for their heirs (up to the third and fourth generation!). We have heard enough about the unproportionately large take-home pays of the CEOs even of government institutions. We know enough to make most of us ordinary workers drool at the thought of how much those CEOs truly receive as take home pay.

In such a situation, can we be blamed if we feel a little short changed, if we feel there is something amiss in today’s parable, if we feel that there is something unjust in today’s Gospel parable.

Is there room for the Good News in such a state of affairs? Isn’t there some kind of mistake somewhere here? Is this for real? Are we to take these things sitting down, allowing injustice to prevail in the land?


Take the case of all those Filipino overseas foreign workers whom our politicians just love to describe as “modern-day heroes” who dutifully and religiously shell out a portion of their hard-earned money to so many pre-need companies, in their simple belief that this is the only wise investment they can ever think of, only to wake up one day that their hard-earned money is gone? Take now, the case of those who put in their lifetime savings, their retirement lump sums in the pyramidal schemes that make retirees and widows to part with their life savings, only to realize one day that the bubble has burst? r

There must be something wrong here. There must be a mistake!

Oh, yes, there is something seriously wrong where injustice reigns! No, there is nothing wrong with what the gospel parable today would have us understand.

For this is not all about remuneration. This is not all about what is due to anyone by justice. This is not all about what one has to be rightfully receiving or meriting on account of one’s work. This is not all about the ways of this world that goes by definite standards of calculation and quantification and rightful compensation. If it were so, I would say, the workers who just came in – the Johnny-come-latelies who pitched in almost nothing to the enterprise of the landowner deserved nothing in return for their little work.

But this parable is not about all of the above. This parable has something otherworldly. For it has to do not with compensation per se. It is not an employee manual or a how-to-remunerate-your-worker manual kind of thing. It is not about paying work here. It is about DOING SOME WORK FOR GOD. In other words, this parable has to do not with us getting what we deserve from God, but about getting much, much more than we really deserve.

Let’s face it! No one deserves to do work for God. No one has the innate right to do work for Him. All of us, St. Paul says, fall short of God’s glory! No one deserves to be called to pitch in and help God advance His cause. It is all God who calls. It is all God who makes us do His work. And it is all up to Him also to recognize each and everyone who does work for Him. This is not remuneration. This is generosity that comes from the nature of a God who makes His sun shine on the good and bad alike. This is the largesse of a God whose standards do not fit in the ordinary earthly mould of hours and weeks and months and years of service which are then to be given corresponding equivalents. This is the management style of a God whose priority is not our capability, our talent, and our efficiency – nor our productivity, but His dream, His work, His cause, His project. This is the invitation of a God whose overriding concern is what we could do to help Him save a world without divisions, borders, distinctions and separations. This is the all-inclusive nature of a God who does not discriminate for any reason. All He looks for is willingness, availability, and readiness to do His will – yes, including accepting outcasts – those who would generally not be accepted and those who would most likely be ignored. This harks back to the Gospel of the 20th Sunday which spoke of the Canaanite woman. Although a Gentile, an outcast – a foreigner – she received healing from the Lord who saw through her great faith and tenacity in prayer.

How different would have been the standards we would have used! How different are our ways from the ways of God! “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.” These comforting – if, truthful – words from Isaiah, we must remember, were addressed to “scoundrels” – those who are not looked upon nicely by the mainstream crowd. To these scoundrels, Isaiah counsels: “Let him turn to the Lord for mercy…seek the Lord while He may be found, call him while he is near.”

We are back to the nature of God as one who loves unconditionally, one who welcomes with no ifs and buts, with no prior requirements. But to reach this conviction takes more than just reflecting on it. The questions the landowner posed to the complaining workers who felt shortchanged are significant here: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”

Indeed God’s ways are as high as the heavens above the earth; so high above men’s thoughts! God is calling on us to elevate our thoughts like God’s. He calls us to rise above the usual ways of reasoning and thinking that keep us bogged down in selfish motives. The clue to the understanding of today’s obscure gospel parable is there: in the motivation with which we do things. No simple earthly motive will do. Working for pay alone will not make us happy. It is bound, in fact, to make us unhappy seeing that others get much more for less work. It is bound to make us disconcerted finding out that others who are just upstarts, as it were, who just got to the group, or just got ordained or appointed to a sensitive leadership post, are getting more than their fair share of the limelight, and the adulation or admiration of people. Former students are becoming better than their mentors. Former subjects are now taking over and taking the helm of command. People who used to be dependent on us, now have cut a broad swath of their own in the road of life and trailblazing for others in their own right. Those who used to consult us are now ruling over us. Friends who fawned on us now frown at us, perhaps dissatisfied with our performance. And the greatest seeming insult is as Matthew reports: "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.(MT 21:31) Those people we love to look down upon, those people we love to hate because they have been labeled as such by society, turn out to be as worthy of God’s love and forgiveness as all the rest of us who think of ourselves as more deserving.

This puts us right at the heart of motivations. Why do we do what we do? Why do we do work for God? Is it for the rewards that God – or other humans - can give or it is because of God Himself? Jesus shows us the way. He tells us that the only valid motive, the only valid reason for doing work for God is nothing else, nothing less, nothing more than love. This is the love that is behind the generosity of the landowner who gave all of one day’s worth of work to those who were given work at the last hour. Through no fault of their own, they could not work, and when given work, they applied themselves to it with unfeigned alacrity. This is the same love as motivation that would make us accept the basically unacceptable, that would help us take the back seat and allow others to shine too, to strut their hour upon the stage, as it were, and become, either like us or even better than us. The questions of the landowner are, therefore, also a call to humility, a reminder that, after all, no one has the monopoly of anything in this world, that – excuse the analogy – every dog, too, has his own day, and that God is free to love whom He wills, and makes his sun to shine on all, bad and good alike.

This understandably high level of motivation – to think as God thinks – is not possible without prayer. Isaiah counsels us to “seek the Lord while He may be found.” To think as God thinks… this has to take place through active seeking. It cannot happen only through wishful thinking. We have to make it happen.

What better way is there for us to make it happen as in this Eucharistic event, where there are no boundaries, no divisions, no distinctions? Here in the Eucharistic celebration, where we ought to feel welcomed, loved and accepted as we are, here is the opportunity, like no other, where we can immerse ourselves in the best prayer that hopefully, through God’s grace, we may gradually grow and think as God thinks, love as God loves. For although God’s ways are not our ways, we are called to become like Him. It is now time to begin… to seek God while He may be found.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

GRATITUDE, NOT GRUMBLINGS

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Sept. 14, 2008

Readings: Nm 21:4b-9 / Phil 2:6-11 / Jn 3:13-17

It is easy enough to sound pious and serene during the good days. It costs nothing much to talk about braving the storm when the sun is up and shining, and it is no problem to talk about living life fully when one is healthy, when one is in the prime of life, and when everybody around you seems to be bubbling with the energy of relative health and youth.

But it is when we find ourselves wandering apparently aimlessly in the hot and sultry desert of uncertainty and monotony that all niceties and superficial piety evaporate faster than the manna of old could be desiccated by the merciless desert sun. In times such as these, when the reality of a difficult, nomadic life in the desert, far from one’s real home, far from the relative comforts of a life one has gotten used to, albeit in slavery in a foreign land, far from the much awaited “promised land,” one understands why the Israelites gave in to grumblings and complaints: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!”

When one looks at pain, suffering and death in the eye … when one sees mortal pain and the very real possibility of yourself or someone you love dying soon … when anguish, mortal anguish stares you in the face and you know it won’t go away anytime soon, gratitude grovels and shrivels at the root. Grumblings take the better of us, and our eyes are cast downward in desperation, if not anger or frustration, at a God who does not seem to care.

So why does the Church celebrate the ultimate symbol of pain, suffering and death – the cross? Why is it that Church liturgy since early times, extols the cross, which, after all, was the most shameful, most painful, most inhumane, and most humiliating form of capital punishment humankind has ever invented? The feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that we CELEBRATE today, indeed, defies logic and what so many people call common sense.

There is simply no logic, no rhyme and reason to it all! That is, from the purely human, earthly, worldly way of reckoning and reasoning.

But it is this very same lack of logic and explanation that stands behind the reason for our celebration today. Celebration, the kind we do in our times, is really cheap. The kind of celebration we often do may not go beyond commemoration – an act of remembering an event that happened in the past. Thus we celebrate birthdays. We gather to remember the event of our birth or of a loved one or a friend. We also celebrate anniversaries. And we keep count of the years and each one has a particular appellation attached: paper anniversary, silver anniversary, pearl anniversary, golden, diamond, etc. The celebration that we often do is a look backward in time, a counting of years gone by, mostly, assuredly, not a bad motivation to pop a bottle of champagne for, or make a sumptuous spread of food to be shared with friends and loved ones.

Today, however, the Church celebrates the exaltation of the cross. Here we speak primarily not of a material event that happened at some point in the past. Here, we are face to face with a MEANING of an event, a meaning attached to a salvific event that, indeed, took place in the past but which has repercussions that persist up until the present, and the future. Historical though it definitely is, what we celebrate really goes beyond history, for the meaning of it all embraces the realm of mystery.

We celebrate the exaltation of the cross, based on a historical event of the discovery of the wood of the cross by St. Helena, but which goes beyond that undoubtedly historically significant event. We celebrate the meaning attached to a bigger event – the salvific event that the cross stands for – the mystery of our salvation!

But all this serves nothing to assuage my pain and suffering, you say? What for is all this deep theologizing if this cannot at all remove the pain I am undergoing at the moment? Where does all this conceptualizing lead one who is deep in the throes of real, personal pain to? Just what advantage does Christian faith have over others who are in similar predicaments? Just what sort of bearing does my faith have on this existential pain that just would not go away?

I would like to think that the same first reading gives us a clue to the answer. “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.”
The implication seems to be clear enough. No, there is no direct and cut-and-dried answer to pain and suffering. No, the cross will not take away the pain, for that is what the cross is all about. It is all about facing pain headlong. It is all about meeting death squarely. It is all about embracing suffering and dying in answer to a summons and a call from above. It is all about doing the will of Him who sent him, so that others might live!

Faith therefore does not have a ready answer to our existential questions. Faith offers no solutions to concrete problems that are part and parcel of our being human – fallen, but redeemed. Faith ought to lead us to a spirituality and spirituality, among others, means a way of making concepts and the contents of our faith come to fruition and application in our lives. Spirituality is not mere knowing what to believe. Spirituality is being caught up in a world of meaning, a world of mystery. Rainier Maria Rilke speaks of this in terms of not anymore trying to find answers to difficult questions, but in terms of loving the very questions themselves.

There is a whole lot of tension in my personal life of faith right now, I must confess. It is tension that springs from a difficulty I find myself in right now – that of integrating my faith with the current situation of personal pain that has once more visited my family and my siblings in particular. I am called right now, as much as each one of you is, or will be, at some time or other in your lives, to love the very questions themselves, and to embrace the mystery of the cross which, for the nth time, has become more than just an image, an icon, or a feast to preach on. The cross has once more become real to me, so real as to cause sleepless nights and veritable “wrestling” bouts with the Lord of life, the God of the living and of the dead – and of the dying!

There is need for me, and for all of us, to “look up to the Lord” as much as the Israelites, bitten by the serpent that stood for everything vile and unacceptable in our lives, had to look up to the bronze serpent on the pole. I need to look and really see beyond the event that gives so much anguish and pain. I need to have perspective!

This, my friends, is what faith-become-a-spirituality offers us – perspective! This is what we all need to keep in mind and treasure in our hearts – perspective … a way of looking at reality, at events, at everything that happens, or does not happen, or could happen, come what may; happen what might!

Although it may sound trite and worn to some of you, let me remind you of an old, old song that comes in handy as I face life ahead, hopefully with an unflinching, unflappable perspective … “Day by day, O dear Lord, three things I pray: to know Thee more clearly; love Thee more dearly; follow Thee more nearly, day by day!”

Day by day! It is my hope and prayer that all of us get to have that needed perspective that would give us the needed strength and courage to face what needs to be faced. Today is a good day to begin. In this perspectival view of life, the cross looms large in the horizon. And blessed are those who have seen and believed, because by His cross, Christ has redeemed the world!





Sunday, September 7, 2008

WITH DELIGHT I REJOICE IN THE LORD!

Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
September 8, 2008

Readings: Mi 5:1-4a or Romans 8:28-30/ Mt 1:1-16, 18-23


There is delight every time we speak of birthdays. All over the world, the birthday of someone close to us is a red-letter day, in most cultures. A birthday celebration is an opportunity for others to take delight in the gift of personhood of someone loved. But a birthday also offers the celebrator to take delight in the riches of his or her personhood, including the possibility of celebrating the gift of people who love him or her.
A person’s birth is a day of delight and rejoicing. It is a day full of promise, full of hope, and a guarantee of the best that budding humanity can offer.

The Church’s calendar that commemorates the birth of our Lord on Christmas Day, is one such day par excellence – for reasons that go far beyond what I just wrote above. For Christ’s birth is not just promise. It does not merely bode well for humankind in a vague, simplistic way. It is reality, not a mere promise – the reality of God taking on human flesh and form. Small wonder we call it the mystery of the Incarnation. No wonder, too, that it is the second most solemn feast of the whole liturgical calendar.

But the supreme day of delight and rejoicing for the birth of the Son of God sort of ricochets in favor of the woman who bore him and brought him to the world – Mary, blessed among all women. If Jesus is the Sun, with its searing and brilliant rays, then Mary must share in that utter brightness and brilliance, for she had been chosen to bear him in her body as mother. If Jesus is the wine of gladness, then Mary must be the cup that brings the same cheers to humanity. What is superlative in the Son, is of great impact to the woman who gave birth to the Son. What is to the utmost with regard to Jesus, must be of momentous importance to her whom he called mother.

The birthday of the Son, the Sun of Justice, though of eternal magnitude, has a lot to do with the birthday of her whose cooperation made all that brilliance of the incarnation happen. She is not the Sun, but bathes profusely in the light of the Sun, her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord!

And what is good for the Son is also good for the Mother who brought the same son to the world. Jesus’ birth changed the course of history forever. Mary’s birth signaled that dawn of the coming brilliant sunshine of salvation for a world walking in darkness. The world has seen a great light, but before that light exploded in all its supernatural brilliance, the dawn first had to break forth in the initial flickers of brightness brought about by someone named Mary, the sweetest name of Mary, whose birth signaled the breaking dawn of salvation. She was the first among the redeemed. And her coming to the world, born of Joachim and Anna, in retrospect, signaled the initial rays of what the sinful, suffering, dark-weary world, had, for long, been waiting for.

Today, is indeed, a day of unalloyed joy. For good reason, with delight, we rejoice in the Lord!

Allow me to quote this traditional 17th century hymn that says eloquently what I can only so vaguely express:

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine.
Mary the Wheat, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the stem, Christ the rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the Cup, Christ the Saving Blood.
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored.
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
By all things blest while endless ages run. Amen.

Friday, September 5, 2008

FOOLS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE

Novena in Honor of the Most Sweet Name of Mary
Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica
Hagatna, Guam
9th Day: September 6, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 4:6b-15 / Lk 6:1-5

N.B. I am posting this ninth homily for the ninth and final day which coincides with the fiesta celebrations, although I will not be able to deliver it as I have to be at the airport at the time of the Mass. I take this opportunity to thank Archbishop Anthony Apuron, Msgr. Benavente, and all of my newfound friends on Guam! Hafa' Adai!

Suffering is not a very easy topic to talk about to a postmodern culture deeply steeped in the collective desire to get suffering out of the way, push it under the rug, or just something that one would simply wish would go away. George Weigel says that it is one of the hardest facts of life to face or understand.

I’ve got something to share with you … suffering is something that we all need to deal with. I don’t know whether that sounds to you like good news or bad news, or just plain reality check, but I do have good news to share with you in relation to this seeming bad news. We are not alone. And we were not created purposely by a masochistic God just to suffer.

First, let’s talk about not being alone. The traditional Latin hymn stabat mater says it all. When the Lord unjustly and unfairly was made to suffer and die a shameful and excruciating death on the cross, his mother was there juxta crucem to accompany him in his final journey through pain and sorrow. Only those who know pain and sorrow first hand, can credibly accompany those in sorrow themselves. Mary, the woman of sorrows, was there at the foot of the cross, and her being there was more than just an empty symbol of sympathy, but a deep and efficacious sign of com-passion, or suffering with.

This may well be one reason among others why the whole world loved and revered Pope John Paul II. He was schooled in suffering. He knew both physical suffering and what psychologists call “agent narrative suffering,” first hand. From his very early years, Karol Wojtyla was no stranger to suffering. His mother died when he was young, his brother when he was 12, and his father when he was still a teen-ager. Rarely is there anyone who has felt the pangs of aloneness as he did very early on.

This explains why when he wrote Salvifici Doloris, he was eminently and deeply credible, for like Mary, the woman of sorrows, he was equivalently speaking, juxta crucem, at the foot of the cross.

I remember having to comfort a couple after the totally unexpected death of their young teen-age and promising son a victim of a freak accident. When I came to the wake, I had no words to tell them. All I did was to sit by them, quiet, pensive, compassionate, and in the best spirit of concern I could muster. This I did, for more than an hour. I hardly spoke. They also barely talked. I held their hands and stayed with them for a while. When at some point I told them I had to go, they broke down and told me: “Father, please don’t go. Of all the priests who came to condole with us, you are the only one who did not try to rob us of our pain. All the others were trying to pressure us to get rid of our pain and move on.”
In their well-meaning desire born of the culture that is wary of pain and sorrow, those priests were actually doing more harm than good to the couple. They were making them feel guilty for feeling so bad at the death of someone they pinned a lot of their hopes on.

Stabat Mater, has to do with such accompanying attitude of com-passion of suffering with. Mary did it. Mary is an example par excellence of compassionate journeying with the one in pain. Compassion is not pity, nor sympathy. It is, on the other hand, empathy, that capacity to place oneself in the shoes of the other, or that ability to make the suffering one feel that he or she is never alone.

St. Paul, like Mary, endeared himself to the fractious and querulous Corinthians precisely on account of the same capacity to empathize with them. He was familiar with them enough to share with them his inner pain and turmoil:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty,
we are poorly clad and roughly treated,
we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands.
When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;
when slandered, we respond gently.
We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all,
to this very moment.

By so doing, Paul not only claimed he suffered. He also declared to them how close he had been to them in pain and sorrow. He told them how much of an authority he has become trained as he had been in the same school of suffering that they, too, are undergoing.

This not only endeared him to the Corinthians. This also made him credible and believable when he now claims himself to be a fool for Christ’s sake, that is, someone who has found meaning behind pain and suffering, someone who, whilst not purposely looking for suffering, knows that when it comes, he need not fear unduly, he need not lose hope, and instead would draw him closer as a disciple to the suffering Messiah, the suffering servant, who was led innocently to the slaughter.

I would like to quote George Weigel in his book “The Courage to be Catholic:”

“Christians believe that the worst in human history has already happened. It happened on Good Friday when humanity nailed the Son of God to the cross … The answer to that was given three days later when the light shown across the land again, indeed, shone as it had never shone before. That the cross leads to the resurrection is an article of faith. So is the hard truth that the road to easter glory always runs through Calvary.” (2002, p. 227)

And that worst that happened that eventful Good Friday afternoon happened with Mary, the woman of sorrows, at the very foot of the Cross.

Is there one who would not weep
Whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear mother to behold!”

Consolatrix afflictorum, ora pro nobis!

STEWARDS OF THE MYSTERIES OF GOD

Novena in Honor of the Most Sweet Name of Mary
Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica
Hagatna, Guam
8th Day: September 5, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 4:1-5 / Lk 5:33-39


We are, as you know, deep into the year-long celebration in honor of St. Paul on the occasion of his 2000th birthday. A few days ago, I spoke to you about a particular harbor he landed on in the year 58 AD, in the island of Rhodes, Greece. The sight of it led me to reflect on how empowered he felt, and how that power had led him to do what was seemingly impossible by any standard.

As I reflect on that empowerment, my thoughts also go to the woman, the first among the redeemed, Mary, who, on account of a direct intervention of the Spirit, conceived in her virginity and bore in her womb the Word made flesh. By her cooperation with God, she became for posterity, the Mother of grace, the Mother of God, both theotokos and Christotokos, God-bearer and Christ-bearer.

The account of the annunciation merits being revisited time and time again. There is so much to fathom and so much mystery to be unwrapped in that short account that contains the summary of the mystery of the Incarnation. There we find a great deal of Christology. There, too, we see a lot of anthropology, exemplified by a woman like no other, Mary, whose FIAT literally changed the course of the world awaiting redemption since the fall of Adam and Eve.

Mary who listened to the word of the angel, did not only listen. She treasured the Word in her heart. She gestated the Word in her mind and in her spirit. And the Gospel tells us: the Word became flesh.

The Word did indeed become flesh in many senses. In a theological and Christological sense, the utterance of God, the Logos, who was right from the very beginning, took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, born into the world, through the cooperation of Mary most holy. But word also does become flesh in other senses too. Let me illustrate …

One author recounts the story of a little girl named Mary Ann, who was born with a cleft palate. Being poor, her parents had no means to get her face straightened out. She grew up to the taunting of playmates and school mates and others who kept on badgering her and asking her whatever happened to her lips, so distorted and twisted that would make Betty La Fea look utterly beautiful in comparison. Somehow, along the way, Mary Ann knew better than to tell the truth. Somehow she learned that it was easier to simply say she fell while playing and her face hit a sharp object and that caused the ugly contorted scar on her lips and face. Somehow, telling a lie felt lighter than the prospect of having to accept the reality that she was born ugly. Mary Ann did not bloom. Mary Ann did not pursue the limelight. It was sweeter to be simply far from the madding crowd, and away from prying eyes and prying lips. Until she had a wise and kind teacher, one with genuine motherly concern. One day, the teacher made a simple game in class. It was a “read my lips” game. The teacher would stand right outside the door and would whisper something to every child in the room. And every one of them was told to guess what she was saying in whispers. When it was the turn of Mary Ann, the teacher slowly whispered to her, “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann read her lips right. Mary Ann heard the words alright. Mary Ann treasured those words and mulled them over and over again. She gestated those words in her heart and mind. And those words bore fruit in self-esteem, and healthy self-respect and love.

The words became flesh in a renewed little girl who found new reason to believe in herself. Someone loved her. Someone cared for her. Someone believed in her. And that all made a big difference in the little girl’s life from then on.

She heard the ultimate blessing from someone else – a good utterance, a good word, a gentle whisper of an encouragement. And the words became flesh indeed!

One recent study of priests in the United States, shows that a great majority felt a certain tenderness when it comes to the Blessed Mother. As a counselor/therapist myself, I am not surprised. I have read other earlier studies that showed a direct correlation between priests’ affective closeness with their mothers and their ability to adjust to the rigors of the priesthood later in their adult lives.

The image and reality of mother figures prominently in our lives as priests. Years ago, I read a memorable book written by a Cistercian monk entitled “The Man Who Got even with God.” It impressed me very deeply, as I thought that it was no nonsense apologia or a confession of the difficulties the author had to face while trying to become a monk and to pursue holiness in the context of monastic life. A line remained in my heart and mind after all these years: “The child in us needs a mother. The man in us needs a woman. And the knight in us needs a Lady.”

We all need mother in our lives. Don’t we all believe in this? That home is where mother is. Home is associated with mother, for after all, her womb was our home for the first nine months of our lives, and to that womb, our umbilical cord was connected for a long, long time. Mother gestated us. Mother brought us to term, and mother brought us and introduced us to the external and bigger world. Mother is everything to all of us. Mother is mother for many reasons. Small wonder that Mary, mother, maiden is mirror to so many titles and honorary names, more than enough to fill a twelve-month calendar, with some more to spare.

But I am digressing from my topic. The Word taking flesh is a Christological mystery. That is the mystery of the Incarnation. But Mary is not only instrumental for that sublime mystery. She is also mother who gestated and bore fruit in other ways, like our earthly mothers did … like that wise gentle teacher of Mary Ann did.

We need to be generative people. We all need to gestate Jesus in our hearts and minds. We all need to father and mother the Word until it becomes flesh in our lives and in the lives of others. And we do this, like Paul did, by being stewards of the mysteries of God. This we do by storing them in our hearts and minds.

The Latin word for believe is Credo, which is a contraction of two words: cor dare, which means to give one’s heart. Faith, creed, belief is a matter of the heart. When one believes, one gives one’s whole heart to what one cares for. The teacher of Mary Ann did precisely that. She believed in Mary Ann. She reached out and offered her heart to the little girl. She gestated her in her heart and mind. And that word of affirmation became flesh in a renewed Mary Ann, confident now that she is also worthy of being loved and considered part of the human family of beautiful souls.

I invite you all to go on treasuring the mysteries of God in your heart. You do that by taking to heart what you utter Sunday in and Sunday out: Credo in unum Deum Patrem Omnipotentem. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty … We do this by holding on to these symbols of the faith and gestating them ever so carefully and lovingly our lives.

Mater amabilis, ora pro nobis!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

TO THE LORD BELONGS THE EARTH, AND ALL THAT FILLS IT

Novena in Honor of the Sweet Name of Mary
Dulce Nombre Cathedral-Basilica
Hagatna, Guam
7th Day: September 4, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 3:18-23 / Lk 5:1-11

Yesterday, we spoke about something that sounds so earthly and at the same time so heavenly, literally and figuratively – Mary, the star of the sea, stella maris, a title so old and yet so new, so ancient and yet so relevant, as I tried to explain yesterday.

I would like to add a few more ideas related to this title of Mary, Star of the Sea. First and foremost, the gospel passage today refers to an incident right beside a body of water, the Sea of Galilee or Lake of Gennesareth. It is really a relatively small fresh water lake, but which the Jews back then called sea of Galilee, around which the daily lives of people then revolved, for the most part, and around which many incidents in the Lord’s life revolves, too, this gospel incident included.

My reading of this passage is rather simple. It is a confirmation of what we said in response after the first reading: TO THE LORD BELONGS THE EARTH AND ALL THAT FILLS IT. We are told by Luke that the disciples, who were hard at work all night, caught nothing. The Lord, knowing this, told them to “put out into the deep.” They did. And they caught a draught of fishes, far beyond their expectations after a fruitless night. It was like as if, to my mind, the Lord was indeed reminding the disciples and us, “to the Lord belongs the earth and all that fills it.”

Maybe we could use a little reminder every now and then. We live in a world filled with all sorts of exploitation. We exploit the world and all that is in it … with utter abandon, like as if there were no tomorrow. There was a time plastics were touted to be the solution to the problem of packaging. That was decades ago. Now, we don’t know what to do with the three million plastic bags we produce every minute all over the world. Back home, in the Philippines, most of the trash that clogs our waterways come from plastic packaging of the most sought after cosmetic product in the country – skin whitening lotions! The American preferred method of doing away with trash is to get them out of sight. That means making mountains of land-fills in the deserts and in other barren areas of the vast United States mainland. Have you seen the thousands of planes sitting like ducks in the Mojave desert in California and Nevada? Out of sight is out of mind, so people say. But not out of our growing areas of concern!

We do need to face what Al Gore calls an inconvenient truth. We do need a little reminder that to the Lord indeed, belongs the earth and all that fills it. But we have grown callous over so many things. Living as many of us do, in a culture of plenty, many of us don’t have the faintest idea about the limited nature of what we squander with impunity every day, everywhere, in every way. Take water, for instance … we almost think it is unlimited and won’t ever run out. But as predictions go, nations will soon go to war for fresh water. And if the soaring prices of petrol mean anything to all of us, it is at best, a wake up call for the whole world who still believe that all that fills the earth is ours for the unlimited picking.

But you may ask, what does all this have to do with the Blessed Mother?

As star of the sea, Mary, to me, does have something to teach us about this inconvenient truth, that has become a raging moral issue in our times. As the first among the redeemed, conceived without original sin, on account of the grace of redemption advanced, as it were, by God to make her a fitting dwelling place for His Son, Mary is a daughter of Adam and Eve, and therefore, part of the great human family.

But let us say something more about this human family. We come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, as it were. We come from different backgrounds and different cultures. Most of us, as the Greek word hoi polloi connotes are just ordinary folks, who weren’t born with a silver spoon in the mouth. If we go by statistics that ought to bother anyone, a great portion of the world belongs to the teeming masses of the poor, who get by a fraction of a dollar a day to survive.

Unless I got it all wrong, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus belonged to this social class. A son of a carpenter, Jesus was not high born, nor did he aim at being part of the ruling elite in his society. Mary was one of the proverbial and biblical anawim – the poor of Yahweh, who could only afford to offer a pair of turtledoves when Jesus was presented in the temple on the 40th day after his birth.

This same Jesus, later on, was going to declare the poor blessed. This same Jesus was the one who would die poor, with nothing to claim as his own, naked up on the cross in Calvary, and buried even in a borrowed tomb, lent to him through the benevolence of Joseph of Arimathea.

But what does all this have to do with the topic at hand, the need for us to really be reminded that all the earth belongs to the Lord, along with everything that is in it? The idea of being poor and being blessed does have a lot to do with responsible use of the world’s resources. It is the capacity to live like the blessed poor do, with simple tastes, and simple dreams, knowing that everything they plan to use is limited, has a lot to do with the Christian virtue of responsible use of created goods. Being poor, and thus, being limited in what and how much one can use, when freely accepted and integrated in life, is thus a passable standard of what it means to tread lightly on this earth, with minimum impact, with minimum contribution to the carbon footprint on earth, that is our only home.

This all translates to a life of simplicity, a life of uncomplicated humility and hiddenness in God. This is the virtue in which Mary excelled. No wonder, she could honestly pray: “My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his servant. All nations will call me blessed, and holy is his name.”

It is interesting to note that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a beautiful poem comparing Mary to the air we breathe, air that surrounds us from all sides, air that filters and lets in the sunlight of grace from above. This merits our attention as we speak about Mary and our supposed Christian concern for the environment. Allow me to quote the last strophe of his rather lengthy poem:

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.



Wednesday, September 3, 2008

TO OTHER TOWNS ALSO I MUST PROCLAIM!

Novena in Honor of Dulce Nombre de Maria
Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica
Hagatna, Guam

6th Day: September 3, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 3:1-9 / Lk 4:38-44


A cute little book I read in 1999 is entitled Mary: The Star of the Third Millenium. Frankly, I don’t remember much of what I read. All I remember is the title intrigued me and captivated my curiosity. Why would another title among so many be added to our Lady? And what importance does it have for us all 7 years already into the much hyped third millennium?

In retrospect, I like the title. First of all, I am captivated by stars since I was a child. Growing up in the country side, with no street lighting whatsoever, dark nights afforded children that we were, so many hours of star gazing, and so much time solving the riddle of the stars on dark, starry nights. Secondly, I like what stars stand for – dreams and visions, goals that transcend time and space, dreams of distant and far flung places that I could only picture in the imagination, ambitions in life that any boy would invariably have while growing up. The image of the star, so near and yet so far, so available and yet so unreachable, has always been equated with lofty dreams and goals in life.

As I grew older and hopefully wiser, I later learned that the star meant so much more to people, and most especially to mariners and sailors, who plied the deep blue seas and who depended on the bounty of the high seas for their livelihood. They literally had to rely on the north star, the star of the sea upon which they sought direction and guidance as they set sail to the wild blue yonder for adventure or for sheer survival.

I also learned that that physical image of the north star, the star of the sea, would gradually be applied figuratively, and – it must be said – affectionately, to the Blessed Mother, who became known as Maris Stella, the star of the sea!

One thing I asked my guests to do during my 25th anniversary celebration of my priestly ordination last December 8, 2007, was to sing along with me a latin hymn I have learned to love as a high school student back in the day: Ave Maris Stella. Hail Star of the Sea.

It was a hymn replete as much with poetry as with pathos. It was a passionate loving plea to a woman considered as the star of the sea, the sure-fire guide that would deliver all lost souls out in the tempestuous sea of life. What a great and fitting image that was! And how apropos a woman who is considered mother of all who believe in Jesus, her Son.

I would like to go a little on the personal side for now. When I got to know the Salesians as a 13 year old kid, one of the first things I learned was the special love and devotion they had for the Blessed Mother. Don Bosco, to me, was immediately associated with a woman in blue and pink, with a scepter on one hand, and the child Jesus on the other. Mary, Help of Christians was Don Bosco’s Madonna, and the Salesians back then in 1968 lost no opportunity to speak about her, always with a certain glow in their faces, and a twinkle in their eyes. I was impressed. And I lost no time in introducing my mother to Mary Help of Christians. I gave her what the Salesians gave me, stampitas, and copies of the novena to MHC and everything written about her. My mother was an instant devotee. She was hooked. And she remained so till she died many years later. When she died, I learned that the original copies of those stampitas and novenas, were still part of her daily bunch of prayers which she recited without fail from 1968 till the day she died, all neatly bound together with a rubber band for easy retrieval everyday. I also learned that she had been saying a special prayer for me since the day I entered the seminary till her last day on earth. She prayed in season and out of season. She called on her in good times, and in mostly lean times. She cried out to her and fled to her protection when we were inundated and overwhelmed by the waves of trials and difficulties as a big family with modest means. With so many of us to send to school, and limited resources to get by, I knew in my heart, that Mary as Star of the Sea was always there waiting to be called upon. And call upon her often, she did. This I know for sure.

Young people now probably can’t relate much with the idea of a guiding star. People don’t look to the physical stars anymore for guidance. No, they look for Garmin and GPS gadgets. Peole now are no longer accustomed to search for anwers from the stars. No, they look for horoscopes, that is, literal guidance, not so much from the Star, but from the positioning of physical stars and alignment of planets.

But I have come from so many miles away, from far-flung poor Philippines to do what Jesus also meant to do, as we read in the gospel of today: “I must go to other towns also, for this is what I was sent to do.” Yes, I come here today and the past 5 days, with a purpose – and that purpose is to tell myself first of all, and you my newfound friends that Mary was, is, and will remain the star from which I gather strength. The ancient Romans used to quip “robur ab astris,” … find strength from the stars. They meant that literally … I mean this now figuratively and literally at one and the same time. Mary remains for me the star of strength, the star of hope, the star in my sea marred at times by tranquility, and often by storms.

I have been a priest for 25 years. I have been an educator for (a teacher) for 31 years. Although I would choose, given the chance, to do it all over again, I must tell you that those years were not exactly a walk in the park. There were times when the sea was swollen with waves of difficulties, and times when there was tranquility and order. There were times when the stars I sought for were easy to spot in the dark firmament, and times when, no matter how hard I tried, I saw no everlasting hills. There were times when, to quote Christian Rosetti, “look right, look left, I dwell alone, no everlasting hills I see … my life is like a falling leaf, O Jesus quicken me.”

Again, I am reminded of what the ancient Romans also loved to say: AD ASTRA, PER ASPERA… to the stars, through difficulties! The star kept people going, and going and going, much like an Eveready battery. To the stars, yes … but in the meantime, one has to go through the rough terrain of life.

And this is where Mary comes in. Mary, the star of the sea …


Hail, star of the sea,
loving Mother of God,
and also always a virgin,
Happy gate of heaven.

Receiving that Ave
from Gabriel's mouth
confirm us in peace,
Reversing Eva's name.

Break the chains of sinners,
Bring light to the blind,
Drive away our evils,
Ask for all good.

Show yourself to be a mother,
May he accept prayers through you,
he who, born for us,
Chose to be yours.

O unique virgin,
Meek above all,
Make us, absolved from sin,
Gentle and chaste.

Keep life pure,
Make the journey safe,
So that, seeing Jesus,
We may always rejoice together.

Let there be praise to God the Father,
Glory to Christ in the highest,
To the Holy Spirit,
One honor to all three. Amen.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

NOT THE SPIRIT OF THE WORLD, BUT THE SPIRIT FROM GOD

Novena in Honor of Dulce Nombre de Maria
Dulce Nombre Cathedral-Basilica, Guam, USA
5th Day: September 2, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 2:10b-16 / Lk 4:31-37

I would like to start by reading another poem, one that sounds a little irreverent in the context of a Mass in the Cathedral Church of Guam. Here it goes:

Our Lady of Vacation

Sweet Lady of Vacation Days
O hearken to my plea -
Where ever I roam in leisure's ways
Protect and shelter me !
May virtue's robe which now is mine
Unspotted ever remain;
Make of my heart a cloistered shrine,
And keep it free from stain.
May all my hours be filled with joy
As yours in ancient days
When visiting Elizabeth.
Your heart hymned songs of praise.

May each vacation be for me
As your own Visitation -
And each new one more holy be
Dear Lady of Vacation.
O Lady, good and true and kind
When pleasure's haunts I tread,
May I be deaf and dumb and blind
To sin and tempters dread -
To when at length life's day is done,
I too may hope to spend
My days with you and your Son -
A vacation without end.

J.A. Williams, in Croarkin, Walter E. (1940). Our Lady in Poetry: An Anthology. Chicago: John Maher Printing Company.

This short and simple versification struck me for one simple reason … It speaks about a reality as mundane as a vacation. But what is interesting is the author’s ability to fuse together the profane (a vacation) and the profound (Our Lady’s maternal guidance and care). You don’t need rocket science to understand that this is what we call integration – the capacity to fuse together two seemingly contradictory realities and turn polar opposites into something that makes for a meaningful whole.

In deeper theological jargon, we can refer to this as the integration of grace and nature, the human and the divine, the sacred and the secular, the temporal and the supernatural, the real and the sacramental, if you will, the existential and the spiritual.

One sign of spiritual maturity, among many others, is the capacity to integrate and fuse together what appears to be irreconcilable realities. It means the capacity to be at home with ambiguity, or the ability to have what we can call a sacramental view of reality. St. Ignatius popularized this long ago – the capacity to “find God in all things.”

Today, the fifth day of our novena, we continue our journey of spiritual discovery of the greatness of the woman clothed with the sun, Mary. And like the short poem that we read just now, we don’t have to go to the highest firmament of the heavens to do that. We can start from ordinary daily human experience, like that of J.A. Wiliams, who finds enough reason to be affectively connected with Mary in the experience of a mundane and simple vacation.

That same human experience is where St. Paul finds inspiration. In a continuation of the passage we have been reading these past days, St. Paul deepens on his account of the power that he received from the Spirit. This impetus from above is behind his conviction that there is something greater and nobler than just plain, ordinary, and earthly wisdom, no matter how lofty. Said earthly wisdom is no match to the exceedingly deep wisdom that is given from above. This is the wisdom that now he takes pride in. This is the same wisdom that he declares with remarkable conviction and confidence, the wisdom that now leads him to go beyond the level of the natural and aim for the higher things that are above.

The natural man, he says, finds difficulty understanding matters spiritual, for his wisdom, being earthly, is in no position to fathom the higher realities that transcend the here and now. But for the spiritual man, endowed with wisdom from above, things are different. The spiritual man or woman sees differently. The spiritual person sees more, not less. He or she can see the workings of God even in the daily realities of life, even in things that may be called “worldly.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts this idea of the spiritual person seeing much more in this particular stanza of one of her poems:

Earth is crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes and worships.
All the rest sit around and pluck blackberries.

Barrett Browning speaks of sensitivity. She refers to a capacity to see much more than meets the eye. This is what I call a sacramental stance. This is what we refer to as the capacity to see beyond and see deeper into things. It is the capacity to see more when one loves more, when one is affectively engaged with one’s daily experience. I am at this point reminded of that beautiful prayer that begins with what the poet sees everyday – her kitchen, filled with ordinary things like pots and pans:

Lord of all pots and pans and things, since I've not time to be
a saint, by doing lovely things or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawn's light or storming Heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love, and light it with Thy peace,
forgive me all my worrying and make my grumbling cease.
Thou, who dids't love to give men food, in room or by the sea,
accept this service that I do, I do it unto Thee.

The great tragedy of our times is the fact that we are too caught up by technologism. Technology by far influences a great deal of our waking hours. We wake up to the sound of electronic alarms. We get up as we are bombarded by noise in the guise of news. Before we can even lift our minds and hearts to God, they are co-opted almost instantly by the pull of the ubiquitous mass media of communication. We can’t part with our 3G cell phones, PDAs, and personal computers. We see and hear a lot of things, but we really see less and less of what really matters. We are called to a supernatural life, but all we worry about are things that don’t go beyond the level of the natural. We are spiritually blind in many senses.

Ironically, in the Gospel of today, it took a sick man to tell who Jesus was – the Holy One of God!

Our Blessed Mother Mary was a woman who treasured everything in her heart. But Mary, as far as we know, did not hie off to a monastery to do that. No … she was immersed in the daily cares of daily life, being a mother to the child Jesus, being a wife to Joseph her husband, following him even as they escaped to Egypt, living the daily life such as the anawim of Yahweh knew how. We know she did. And we also know that she treasured things in her heart, even as she was busy doing daily errands of charity, and affairs in places such as the kitchen filled with pots and pans and things. When she ran in haste to the hill country of Judea, it was not for a vacation, nor for a retreat up the mountains. She went there with work to do. She wended her way up there with charity in mind, to help her cousin Elizabeth who was due to give birth to John the Baptist. She definitely knew what it was to be in communion with God even in the midst of, in and through the daily cares of daily life.

This is the reason why there is so much prayer and devotion associated with a woman who knows what it means to be immersed in a world of pots and pans and things. This is the reason why the best prayers addressed to her are the most simple and most straightforward. Let us end this reflection with one of them:

Remember O Most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother. To you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy, hear and answer me. Amen.



Monday, September 1, 2008

BASED, NOT ON HUMAN WISDOM, BUT ON THE POWER OF GOD

Novena in Honor of the Sweet Name of Mary
Dulce Nombre Cathedral-Basilica
Hagatna, Guam
4th Day: September 1, 2008

Based on 1 Cor 2:1-5 / Lk 4:16-30

I have just gone for a pilgrimage following some of the footsteps of St. Paul last May of this year in Greece, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Everything I saw, of course, was memorable, (even if I cannot remember the many details of what I saw and heard in those three places). Whilst everything was impressive and worth remembering, one seemingly insignificant detail remains etched in my memory and my thoughts. It is that little cove and port in Rhodes used by Paul in the year 58 AD that specially impressed me the most. From atop the acropolis of Rhodes, the port looked unimpressive at all. There was nothing that would make it stand out at first blush. But upon knowing what kind of port that was, then I kept mental tab of it, then – and now.

The port I refer to is a hidden one. It is like an inland cove, separated by a bluff that had a very narrow opening. From atop the acropolis, one could not even see the tiny opening in the bluff that separated the open sea and that inland cove and port. Only tiny vessels could have fitted in there, tiny boats that would definitely have been very dangerous to ride on out in the open sea, totally at the mercy of the unpredictable elements and the twists and turns of the weather patterns.

I was led to think of how daring and adventurous St. Paul was. But there was more in my thoughts. I was led also to think about the power that Paul must have had to brave the seas, to face up to the challenges of globalized travel which, at that time, must have been indeed more than just difficult. They must have been very dangerous, as indeed, he reports to us, recounting the shipwrecks he experienced in all this missionary journeys.

St. Paul, however, gives us a clue as to where that power comes from. Make no mistake about it. This is not shallow spiritualizing on his part. This is boasting, but boasting humbly in the Lord, as he puts it. This is the great, adventurous, and daring Paul, who, to use a phrase popularized by somebody you know very well, showed us what it means to have the audacity of hope.

That power, he says, comes from outside of him, above and beyond him. That power comes from the Spirit, the same Spirit, that the rest of the disciples born of normal course, as it were, witnessed and received in forms of tongues of fire and blowing wind on the day of Pentecost. Paul, the great missionary, impelled by the Spirit of the Lord, gives credit to whom credit is due – to God who sent His Son and to the Spirit that proceeded from the Father and the Son.

How many of us can do a Paul and give credit to whom credit is due? How many of us can really honestly step out of ourselves, and our world, and see reality from the vantage point of God? How many of us can distance ourselves from our own misguided sense of autonomy (the attitude that precisely leads us to “play God”), and attribute to God the so many good things we think we do?

Today’s first reading from Paul is a telling lesson on humility and truth. Paul claims the power that propelled him to do what he had done. That power is what led him to do the unthinkable, to do the impossible, and to achieve what is ordinarily unachievable. But he takes care that we get to know from whom it comes, who is the author of it all, to whom credit and honor, and glory is due. He attributes it to the power from on high.

The Lord in the gospel offers us a similar lesson. He was led by the Spirit to speak in the synagogue, where he told his listeners just what his mission statement was. Humble like Paul was, he spoke about being sent, to do humble things: to give the good news to humble folks – the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and give sight to the blind. He was a man sent. He was a man with a mission. And today, he lays claim to it in humility and truth. He boasts in God’s name, and boasts humbly in His name. But take note, that he boasts only insofar as he is sent, impelled, and empowered by the Spirit.

We must complete the picture of humble empowerment painted by Scripture and Tradition. There was someone else, whose birthday we are looking forward to, who was also humbly boasting in the Lord. That someone’s name, of course, is Mary, blessed among all women. Given the initial call from above, she proclaimed in all humility, “how can this be since I do not know man?” But the insistent messenger told her like it is: “the Spirit will overshadow you and you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Emmanuel, God-with-us.” And having been given those powerful words, she all the more humbly declared, but this time with a perfect attitude of “dancing with the music of the Spirit,” “Be it done to me according to your word!”

We are back to the happy mean between playing God and playing human. Mary, was as human as you and I. But Mary did not demure forever. She did not hem and haw and protested endlessly. She cooperated. She obeyed. She followed what Barack Obama, could only faintly and much less credibly claim – the audacity of hope.

One of my revered Salesian bishops who lived, worked and died in India, Archbishop Louis Mathias, had this interesting motto that is related to what I speak of now: “Aude et Spera!” Dare and hope. Like Paul he dared. Like Paul and Mary, he hoped. Empowered from above, all three – Paul, Mary, and Louis – did great things. That is why they could boast, and boast humbly in the Lord. And they could do so only because the power they showed in doing those great things, was really power that comes from above, power that they met with cooperation.

I quote some lines from D.H. Lawrence:

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only, I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.


St. Paul was led by the Spirit and he obeyed. Mary, too, was overshadowed by the Spirit and she cooperated. Jesus, starting out in his public life, listened to the Spirit and he was led to declare his mission statement. Paul may not have found the mythical garden called the Hesperides, but he found greatness … greatness that he did not give to himself, but greatness given to him from above. Mary may not have cultivated beautiful rose gardens. Being poor, she most probably could not do anything similar or related to it. But she found more than just a garden of delights. She found total delight in living according to God’s word. Put into the picture the thousands and thousands of saints in the roster of the Church and you have a company of blessed ones who had faith, based not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.