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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A WORLD OF FRAGILE PEACE & EMPTY PROMISES

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
February 27, 2011




Just two days ago, the Philippines celebrated the 25th anniversary of the so-called peaceful PEOPLE POWER revolution that toppled a dictator's government, infusing fresh hope to a people subjected to suffering for so long. As history proves, the event was a trendsetter. Whether or not people everywhere acknowledge it, the fact is that the event set a precedent followed in so many other places soon after, not excluding the recent spate of "revolutions" that have hogged the headlines over the recent weeks all around the globe.


It was truly a gift of the Filipino people to the world - a peaceful way to effect change.


However, 25 years after, it is up to us now to grapple with the nagging question whether change really had taken place ... or whether what we call a peaceful revolution had really caused a massive change in our people's values and political systems that supported or bred, or nurtured the very reasons that brought us all out in the streets crying passionately for change.


I find today's opening prayer deeply touching and meaningful in the light of what we just celebrated: "Send us as witnesses of gospel joy into a world of fragile peace and broken promises."


The whole world knows by now how we shot ourselves in the foot, not once, not twice, not thrice, but so many times, soon after that. Barely three months after the historic event, military adventurers who thought of themselves as rampaging messiahs started the trend that was to be repeated many other times - coup d'etat, or forcible attempts at wresting power away from the civilian government. Not a single one of those military adventurers has ever said sorry for having done so. Not a single one of them has accepted the fact that they have done a disservice to the people in the long run, and their quiet quest for peace, buoyed even by the broken promises of those they had pinned all their hopes to.


The first reading strikes me like salve applied like a soothing poultice to a festering wound of disappointment ... The Lord reveals himself as a "mother" who can never forget her infant, a caregiver who will never disappoint, a parent who will never fail to deliver.


The whole imagery strikes me as deeply personal. When my mother died unexpectedly at 63 many years ago, I was devastated. It took me ten years to grieve over her death. It was a case of complicated mourning, made so by my feelings of disappointment, expressed or unexpressed, acknowledged or unacknowledged, known or unknown to me then. I knew then that I was often angry with her for little things, trivial stuff, childish matters. She did not deserve any of it. But neither did she forsake me as her son. She never forgot me. She never for once despised me. She continued on, fondling me with her brightest hopes and showering me with her loftiest dreams for me. She was a mother. Plainly. Simply. Undeniably.


The Philippines has been acting like I was acting, a spoiled brat, an angry, intractable people, who cannot get their act together. We have not shot ourselves in the foot alone. No ... we have gone right back to our sinful ways, like as if EDSA I never happened. We went right back to where we started, right back to the very reason why we gathered en masse at EDSA.


The mind-boggling "business interests" of top military honchos, along with their wives and other friends and relatives, along with so many other unresolved scandals that have gripped the nation over and over again, remind me of the reality of the world in which we belong, a world that has given us common cause to gather together today and pray ... a world of fragile peace and broken promises.


But the readings today offer more than just a soothing salve of wishful thinking. It offers us a spirituality, a spirituality that makes us acknowledge the reality that evil and good can co-exist even in each one of us here, a reality that should make us shun the tendency to divide the world into bad guys and good guys, with us on the side of the good. No, it is a spirituality that makes us grapple with the reality that we are all actually capable of doing good and evil, that sin is always a reality that can rear its ugly head in each of us, that we are all capable of doing great things and doing dastardly acts ... that we could follow the way of the pusilla anima, or the way of the magna anima... that we could be at one time, pusillanimous, and at another time, magnanimous.


I was being pusillanimous by allowing anger to get the better of me and staying cross with my mother for some time. But she was being magnanimous in understanding my hurts, my disappointments, and not taking things against me.


This is the magnanimity of spirit that leads us now, despite the disappointments and the experience of "broken promises," to declare before God: "Rest in God alone, my soul." (Responsorial Psalm).


Twenty five years might look like a long time, and we are running out of patience. In the words of Hopkins, after twenty five years, "hope is growing grey hairs." We can lose hope and optimism. I certainly do. I don't know about you.


But the spirituality that God rouses us to, today, is one that gently reminds us, as St. Paul does, "not to make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes." He tells us to wait some more, wait actively in hope, "for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts."


The same gift of spirituality tells us to be wary of serving two masters: the God of hope or the demon of desolation and utter disappointment. God tells us to be solid in the allegiance of hope, no, not to mammon, but to Him alone. "Rest in God alone, y soul."


That same gift of spirituality tells us not to be enslaved by worry, and behave more like carefree birds who trust and are never disappointed.


That same gift of spirituality tells us most of all, to look beyond ... not to be imprisoned in my pusilla anima mode, but to let oneself loose in the spirit of magna anima, like my mother who did not give herself to anger in retaliation to my passive aggression.


The stories that hog the headlines and inundate TV and cyberspace are sure disappointing. They are even embarrassing, to be sure. Millions of dollars given as aid, end up being pocketed by very good military men turned businessmen with unlimited ROI. There are reasons to be angry. There are even more reasons to lose hope and just give up this world of "fragile peace and broken promises" as bad job.


But let us all be magnanimous. Let us all look beyond. And let us put first things first: "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

GOING WITH THE FLOW, OR GOING BEYOND?


7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
February 20, 2011


I have done the famous “shooting the rapids” at Pagsanjan, in Laguna, Philippines, only once in my life. For those who may not be familiar with the experience, it is, simply put, white water rafting in reverse. One goes upstream instead of downstream. One is nothing more than a passive rider. Everything is done for you by the fleet-footed boatmen, who use, not oars, but their bare feet and bare hands.

As far as I can tell, only salmons intent on going back to their spawning grounds to die, or spawn some more, do that trick with natural ease. The rest of us lesser mortals simply would rather go along for the ride, and allow oneself to be carried away by the current.

I must confess being carried away by the current is not such a loathsome idea. You lose all sense of self-responsibility. Somebody else does the worrying. Somebody else thinks about the consequences. Someone else does all the planning and the scheming, and the executing.

Sounds familiar? Yes, if you look at how corrupt individuals, nations, and governments behave. Individuals don’t do the money laundering. Individuals don’t actually get to know where the money comes from, or who actually pulled the trigger that killed a political opponent. Somebody else does that, or a whole syndicated group does that service that no one else would know. One just goes along for the ride. One follows the trend, what is known in Tagalog as that by now infamous word “kalakaran,” made popular by the one who started this trend of getting away with a lot of things, by ratting on others who were, like him, deep in the groove of these convoluted and complicated conspiracies of evil.

The Lord in the gospel today speaks about what was current, what was the fad then, the lex talionis. The law prescribed not going beyond what was acceptable then: an eye only for an eye; a tooth, for a tooth, and nothing more. That was the acceptable trend. That was the flow of things. That was how the groove was at that time. That was the “kalakaran.”

I am sure those who make it to “shooting the rapids” without really trying very hard, all with the help of able-bodied and sure-footed boatmen, in the end would want something more, granted that they have the means and the strength to do it. They look forward to doing more. In the Philippines, they soon set their sights on the white waters of Cagayan de Oro, or of Benguet up in Northern Philippines. They want to go beyond what is the normal trend. They aim for more. They want the ultimate … citius, altius, fortius, as the Summer Olympic games would put it.

The Lord calls us to something more. The Lord challenges us to do more. We are expected to go beyond what is considered the normal trend. We Christians are expected to go against the current, not go with the flow.

Moses was given a clue to what was coming: “you shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart … take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

St. Paul pushes it a notch higher. He speaks of the “wisdom of this world” as “foolishness in the eyes of God.”

If there is anything I kind of “admire” in the many individuals implicated in the so many conspiracies of evil, all over the world, including the recent ones exposed in the Philippines involving a cadre of uniformed men, duty bound and sworn to protect the people of the Philippines, it is this … they seem to have an unlimited supply of worldly wisdom. They never run out of ruses and excuses, and means to skirt around the letter of the law. Money laundering is simply referred to as “conversion.” Ill-gotten money is reframed as “gifts” (pabaon in Tagalog), and lying reduced to simple “forgetfulness.”

I was introduced to the concept of an “8-hour workday” only when as an adult, I became an administrator. Growing up, I never saw nor heard my elders, including my father, talk about stopping work after 8 hours. I grew up seeing first hand my parents and grandparents working all the time. Being poor, born in the context of a poor farming town, they sure knew that life is all about going the extra mile, doing the hour(s), and, yes … burning the midnight oil. Life was all about dreaming for more, striving for more, and giving your best into everything you do.

For at least two decades now, I have been guided by the simple words from the gospel of Luke – Ascende Superius! (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place! Lk 14:10). It has summed up a whole lot of my childhood learnings from my parents. It has become my personal motto, the motto of the foundation I started in honor of my father (CASETTA DI ANTONIO FOUNDATION, INC), and two years ago, Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong, asked me if they could adopt it, too, as their school motto.

We are called to go up higher. We are expected to move up from just going along with the flow, and passively enjoying the ride. We are challenged to be at the cutting edge of change, for the better, for the nobler, for the more honorable. And it has to do with more than just not harming others, but actively doing good even to those who do harm to us. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”


Friday, February 11, 2011

CHOOSING WISDOM; CHOOSING LIFE


6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
February 13, 2011


Recent events all over the world just cannot but get us thinking. They confront us with the power of choice, and the consequences of the choices that we make. Even as I write, the whole world waits with bated breath at what choices the President of Egypt would do. But more than that, the whole world, too, cannot wait till it sees what further far-ranging consequences would ensue once he takes that expected, but at the same time, dreaded, step down from power.

We have seen similar scenarios before. We still see scenarios where the choice boils down to deciding for good or for evil; for life or for death. No less than Sirach confronts us with the inevitability of choice, and the ineluctable consequences that spring from our choices. “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.”

I have seen first hand the power of personal choices. I have had a number of very intelligent peers, classmates, and neighbors. We grew up together. We studied together. We more or less shared the same childhood pursuits. Some of them were expected to shine out as adults, and a few were expected to make it big in life. But alas … the future is made up of many little, seemingly insignificant choices, along with some major decisions one does every step along the way, in the journey called life.

Initial choices begin with little things, like choosing not to eat healthy right from the start, choosing not to eat veggies, for one, or choosing to sleep late and sleep in every day. It has to do with little things like deciding not to be on time, today, tomorrow, everyday this week, some days the following week, until it all becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Soon we graduate into making bigger choices. It has to do with skipping classes, or choosing not to write that term paper, or deciding to ask someone else write it for us. Soon it is deciding to just take the short-cut and, instead of studying, just go ahead and cheat during exams. Further down the road, other choices dot the landscape of our lives. We graduate from cheating in school to cheating at work, to just receiving bribes, and closing an eye on some irregularity. Soon, people progress from a few thousands, to several hundred thousands of dollars (or pesos), till in due time, one does not even have to make a choice. One just goes along with the flow (known in Tagalog as “kalakaran”) … One does not really cheat … no … one only receives the “largesse” of people, and one does not want to know where the money really came from.

The choice that began with not doing one’s homework, or not getting up on time, has become a full-blown vice, and a deeply ingrained attitude. Nothing is wrong anymore, for it is just the way things are; it is just the way it is, and there is nothing I can do about it.

One or two of those promising brilliant childhood playmates of mine have turned to seed, with a few of them eventually becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, living a no less that miserable existence. They have made choices right from the start, and the choices they made spelled their destiny.

I am pretty sure that corrupt officials who made it to the news in the Philippines these past few weeks did not wake up one fine morning capable of receiving millions and millions of pesos without batting an eyelash. No … they grew calloused doing it, a little at a time. The choices they initially made did not concern huge amounts, but little amounts that eventually effectively put off the light of conscience deep within them.

But you are here in Church today, just like me, to make sense of it all. Like me, you dream of a better self, a better version of yourselves, which according to Matthew Kelly, is really what holiness is all about. You have come here because you want to be reminded of the answers that you already know, truth be told. You have come here because, like me, you are struggling to make our daily choices in line with the will of God, and His dream for humanity. You have come here, because like me, you feel weak, you feel challenged, and you know deep in your heart, that it is not easy to remain standing, when all the rest around you are falling down like flies.

You have come here because you care. You care for your future. You care for your children. You care for your reputation. You care for the Church and society at large. And you care enough to be bothered by the news that seem to say there is no hope anymore for the world, for humanity, for our nation, for the political system.

Today, in between sighs, as much sighs of exasperation as sighs of hope, I have to tell you as a priest, that I believe in what Sirach reminds us of: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, they will save you… before you are life and death … whichever he chooses shall be given him.”

I have to tell you as a priest that I subscribe to a vision – God’s vision and dream for us, and I also believe that “no one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin.”

We have the power of choice. We have the power to decide for what leads to what St. Paul promises: “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

It has to begin somewhere. And that somewhere has to do with where it begins for us – the heart. Whilst we are right in feeling disappointed, angry, and hurt that our leaders, those we looked up to, are less than honorable, less than reliable, and even despicable, we have to find it in our heart to choose and to decide to begin with ourselves. We need to be wise and make the right choices – to do the right things and to do them rightly. In the end, we choose not something silly, but we choose no less than wisdom – God’s wisdom!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

BEING SALT & LIGHT


5th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
February 6, 2011

Readings: Is 58:7-10 / 1 Cor 2:1-5 / Mt 5:13-16



I dabble at cooking. Our kitchen is well stocked with all sorts of spices I am familiar with and know how to use. Sometimes I plan to cook something exotic, something spicy, and something that will give me the excuse to finally use that unopened bottle of whatever that has been sitting in the cupboard for months. But most often, for lack of time, I end up skipping all the fancy spices. But at all times, I reach out for the salt shaker. I can do without most of the multi-colored spices that fill our kitchen cupboard when I cook. But I cannot do without salt. Without it, the flavor does not matter. Without salt, the daintiest of flavors simply don't stand out. And food, no matter how much it has been slathered or sprinkled with herbs and spices, simply remains insipid and unappetizing.

My eyesight is not as good as it was before. There are certain things I simply cannot do anymore: reading while in bed; reading without my reading glasses; even ironing clothes in faint, yellowish incandescent lights. I realize I want more lighting everywhere ... in restaurants, movie houses, churches, living rooms, and my own bedroom. I simply cannot stand the soft glow of lamp shades that, to me, at this point of my life, are more decorative in scope than anything else. Without light, I cannot appreciate much of anything. But given the right lighting and the right angle, even simple cheap items appear more valuable and expensive than they really are. Just about anything in store shelves at malls, where lighting is professionally done, people buy things on impulse, mesmerized by the superb and enticing lighting, even if the products are actually mediocre.

Salt ... just see how much we take it for granted. Young people slather salt very generously each time.  In the place where I work, a type of all-purpose sauce oozing with salt and salt compounds (called finadene), is there everywhere for the taking ... at school cafeteria, restaurants, and even in 5-star hotels. The kids in our school simply love to pour it on rice all the time.

At my age, I know from experience that salt is the primary seasoning par excellence. Without it, nothing tastes quite savory and good. With it, food stands out, and appetite is perked up.

Like salt, light is something that acts as perpetual supporting actor. Barring the expensive and well-crafted lighting fixtures from Italy and elsewhere, light is something taken for granted, unnoticed, unappreciated, and unheralded, until it disappears. With it, a lot of things happen even without one working too hard. Security is beefed up where lighting has been studied well, designed, and planned for. Colors stand out and become more solid. The sparkle of goods becomes almost mesmerizing to people who end up buying things on impulse. The light that is mostly ignored play a no mean role in the decision-making process of people.

Salt and light ... these are what the Lord would have us be. Used in moderate amounts, or used professinally, they perk appetites up, or heighten the value of things. A well-lit lighter on the shelf simply appears desirable and good, even for someone who does not smoke, and thus, have no need for it.

Both salt and light enable food and objects to attain a value higher than their actual worth. They give taste. They give value. And they lend meaning to otherwise ordinary objects people take for granted as the months and years pass.

Salt and light ... These are what the Lord calls us to become ... and remain.

These are what the world needs ... especially now ... especially here, where darkness and insipidness seem to be the run of the day.

In my beloved country, new revelations and allegations show how deeply ingrained and embedded the darkness of structural sin is. Money meant as aid from wealthy countries end up in the pockets of a complex web of relationships in the traditional institutions of government ... from the armed forces to bank officials, to civil servants, to couriers, and accountants and virtual unknowns in the inner circle of power of the few, the brave, and the chosen! The whole nation is in the dark literally and figuratively, how evil men and women were able to spirit out hundreds of millions without alerting higher ups in banks, and the bureaucracy in private institutions.

The once-darlings of the media, who were regaled by their singing prowess and other talents, are shown to be individuals who have a lot to hide in the dark basement of unwanted memories.  All of a sudden, wise and intelligent generals, simply cannot remember events that happened just a few years before. Intelligent and wise, as they are, they have become nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but fit to be trampled underfoot. Those we looked up to. Those we trusted and believed in; those we thought were keeping our best welfare in mind, were actually akin to salt losing its taste.

But to our shame, we men of the cloth are not to be considered exactly blameless. Repetitive reports of wolves in sheeps' clothing have sullied the image of the Church as a whole. Guardians of morality that we are, some of us have seriously wounded the trust and confidence of the weak in faith, hurt and abused many times over by the institutional Church's seeming insouciance and insensitivity. The light that most often was neglected and unnoticed, suddenly comes to the fore, more by its absence, rather than its presence. The light of good example, the light of faith, hope, and love, have all but dimmed on account of our personal and collective sinfulness.

As a priest myself, I would like to rouse my readers to a newfound realization. The Lord calls us salt. The Lord also calls us light. The fact that we are often ignored does not mean we are not to hold ourselves fully responsible for the ills that happen in our Church, in our world, in our society. The famous story of Gandhi is worth being repeated at this junction. He loved the gospels. He believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But unfortunately, so we were told, He had not met a single Christian who fully lived according to the tenets of the gospels. It may be a little exaggerated alright, but it never fails to remind us of our need to be salt and light.

Now, more than ever, we need to reappropriate our nature and purpose. Here, more than anywhere else, we are called to bear light and enlighten others, so that they, too, might see the light that we claim we have found.

We can ignore both no more. We can no longer afford to see salt and light as some kind of supporting actors in the drama called life. No ... they are not just fixtures or condiments. They constitute the core of what living rightly is all about ... being salt and light.