Wednesday, August 29, 2007

6. TAKE THIS CUP AWAY IF POSSIBLE: Learning to Pray Beyond our Suffering

Stephen Rosetti writes about the sad fact that most priests “are simply not praying enough.” He recounts a dialogue he had with a priest who came to him for some form of help. To his question: “Do you pray,?” the immediate retort was, “I have no time to pray!” His answer to him was, “Then you don’t have time to be a priest.”

Recent dramatic changes in climactic patterns all over the world, among other things, have reminded us about how the whole web of natural life in the world is intricately and delicately interwoven and interdependent. A recent issue of Time magazine has for its cover the admonition: “Be worried. Be very worried!” On the cover picture we see a solitary and seemingly worried polar bear, marauding gingerly over literally thin and vanishing ice on what less, than a decade ago was solid slab of icy stability and comfort for thousands of them. Miles and miles of solid icy seas were the bears’ natural habitat. What they are and where they live, the conditions that surround them, including the air that they breathe, the ice that they walk on, and the seals that co-inhabit their shrinking and progressively disappearing world, are simply intertwined and interconnected. The simple lesson to learn among others is simply this. Bears thrive on ice and floes, and subzero temperatures that, in turn assure them their steady source of nutrition. Polar bears just aren’t made by the Creator to be sashaying in slush and melted snow. They are meant to walk on solid ice. They thrive on the cold. Take them out of that and they vanish from the face of the earth.

I would like to use this as a backdrop for my topic on this sixth reflection. Prayer is to priesthood and religious life, as ice and floes are to polar bears. One cannot thrive without the other. Remove one and the delicate balance is upset.

Fish is to water, as prayer is to priest. More than this, long-standing tradition traces a link between prayer and the priest’s ability to suffer meaningfully, suffer salvifically, and suffer evangelically, in the way Christ would have us do. In the words of Connor, “the taking up of the cross never has been, nor could it ever be, foreign to the priestly life. In fact, it is one of the essential ingredients.” Connors quotes Van Zeller, who wrote:

The priest may not be departmental in his relationship to Christ and to Christ’s members. He cannot choose to follow Christ in His preaching but not in His suffering, to worship His incarnation but neglect His act of redemption, to preach His transfiguration and not to practice His doctrine of the cross, to follow Him in His charity but not in His Gethsemani. The disciple must be as his master, the servant as his Lord. If Christ is the Divine Mediator, the priest is the divinely appointed human mediator.

The link between prayer and suffering is clear from Van Zeller’s words. The link between prayer and the priest who is called to be like unto Christ, by “patterning [his] life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross,” is equally clear.

I must tell you that at times, it gets a little embarrassing when, during my frequent times-off with lay people who are friends, with people I minister to, the request for prayer always comes up. But are we, really? How many times have we sounded hallow, promising people prayers and then knowing deep inside our hearts that all we could really manage over the past 5 or 6 years or even decades was a few minutes of hurried and mumbled prayers, usually the minimum prescribed for the Liturgy of the Hours? How many times have assurances of prayers come out of our lips but not out of our hearts?

We are simply not praying enough as priests and religious. In our sophisticated and relatively learned faith, we have lost a little of the simplicity of ordinary people who really made of their days holy days through a regular rhythm of prayer that would shame the most educated among us equipped with the most beautifully bound and gilded Book of Christian Prayer. I have my own little confession to make that still embarrasses me. Over the past 24 years as a priest, I have been propagating devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. My first convert was my own mother. Back when I was a first year high school student in Don Bosco in Mandaluyong, I was struck by the Salesians’ passionate plea for us Bosconians to cultivate a filial devotion to Mary Help of Christians. That first encounter with Mary I had never left my heart. I was hooked. But not for long. I passed on the devotion and the prayer leaflets to my mother. From 1968 onwards, till the day she died in 1990, no single day passed by without her praying the prescribed prayers for a devotee of Mary. She prayed to her much more than I ever did, more than I ever cared to.

Very recently, I received a call from a friend and former colleague in the Catholic Scouting Movement. Back in the day when I was the National Chaplain, in 1988, I introduced a Scout Executive to Mary Help of Christians. I have not met him nor talked with him after I left Mandaluyong in 1990. But the call sounded familiar. It all convicted me once again. Here comes one I introduced to Mary 18 years ago and now telling me he had indeed seen what miracles are, as Don Bosco, promised his followers.

The turf that I, as a priest, ought to be moving around in, the ambience that should have dictated my life of ministry – no doubt many and varied – has been occupied by people who mean what they say when they pray: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

It is significant that the request came from his disciples. Prayer is the disciples’ original turf. It is the ambience where priests, not polar bears, ought to be at home in. Rosetti, with a little tinge of humor, writes that there are several reasons why priests do not pray. The first sounds very familiar to us active religious. We are infected with the virus of activism. Performing, producing, delivering results are the usual gauge by which people measure our level of success and achievement. A priest who builds and constructs gets noticed much more than one who prays and spends time with the Lord. A second reason, Rosetti writes, comes from the very people who ask us to pray for them. One morning preparing for Mass, Fr. Rosetti was deep in prayer until one woman nudged him and said: “O Thank God, I saw you when you are not doing anything.” In this world of results and achievements, praying is a useless occupation. One is not doing anything if one is praying.

But what I think is the most disturbing reason not to pray is what many of us might not be willing to admit. We are afraid of what will surface, as Rosetti states. Some priests, according to him, are actually afraid of God.

Some of the most memorable utterances of Pope John Paul II may be important to recall at this point. In his best-seller “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” he spoke about not being afraid. Harking back to the homily he delivered back in 1978 when he officially took office as Bishop of Rome, he hollered back then in his youthful, stentorian voice that remained etched in my memory: “Be not afraid.” He spoke with authority. He spoke with panache and passion. And one of his strong messages anent this was: “be not afraid of God.”

That struck me then as odd. Why would the Pope talk about something that ought never to happen. Why would anyone be afraid of God? It dawned on me that it is more common than we often imagine. Haven’t we heard anyone tell us how they wouldn’t want to hear homilies and attend Masses, simply because that would make them responsible for what they did? They preferred to stay in the state of ignorance for ignorance would serve always as a convenient excuse for them to go on doing what they do. Sometimes, it is all about being afraid of oneself instead of being afraid of God. Rosetti writes:

Some priests do not pray because they are afraid that the personal hurts and pains buried in their own hearts will surface. They have to face themselves; it is no accident that the spiritual masters have said the spiritual journey begins with self-knowledge. When the mess that lies within each of our hearts surfaces, it is painful to deal with. But facing ourselves is essential for a deep inner healing. The spiritual journey cannot begin in earnest without it.

I have a little theory in addition to what Rosetti says are the reasons why priests do not pray. I think it is some kind of a passive-aggressive revolt against God. I am of the opinion that priests who suffer and who find no meaning behind their suffering may nourish deep but unacknowledged anger and resentment against God. Deep in denial, they do not get in touch with their real feelings. The feelings, instead of being identified and named and accepted are buried. But what is buried does not disappear. They come out in some other form. And for a non-violent culture as we are, it often comes out as quiet passive-aggression. It comes out as the inability for, and the lack of interest and dedication to prayer.

The ecclesiastical landscape is filled with a lot of sore losers, of wounded foot soldiers, and cynical erstwhile platoon leaders. I know. I was once one of them, perhaps, I still am in some way. But there is something salutary about accepting that we have been beaten black and blue instead of pretending there’s nothing wrong, keep a stiff upper lip and grin and bear it. Suffering does come our way. It is part of the whole package of mysteries that came with the gift of life. We all know this in theory. But when suffering knocks too close to our doors, comes too close to where we are, we protest, like Job, like Jeremiah, like Jonah.

I have been a religious and a priest long enough to know that there is politics and political maneuverings in the Church that we love. There are cliques and unholy alliances. There, too, is naked ambition everywhere. There, too, is envy and greed. It is all part of the package of human sinful tendencies, what we used to call concupiscentia, back in the day. And the bad news connected to all this, is that it all causes suffering. When the political machinery of an ambitious cleric begins to churn, it can ride rough-shod on anyone in its path, and pity the one who happens to stand in the way. On not a few occasions, I was right there on the path of such a machine. I stood bravely and proud. But I lost despite my gallantry and misplaced pride. It took a big toll on my sense of trust, on my sense of attachment to mother Church. I became on overnight pariah, believing but not belonging; being present while not being all there; visible but hardly audible. I was in pain. I was in protest. And I was not praying.

At this point, I would find it salutary to be reminded of what Connors writes about us priests who may be deep in pain and other forms of suffering:

Each priest has the consolation of knowing that his share in Christ’s sufferings is not unique to this particular vocation; every soul in the world who has taken the following of Christ seriously has embraced the cross, and with all of them the priest enjoys a great solidarity. If one may speak of the vocation of suffering being accepted in life situations in any order of priority, the priesthood would be high on the list, if not first; it would be extremely difficult for a man to speak to people about faith if he has never struggled with doubt; to speak to them about suffering if he has not experienced his own darkness. In fact, it is entirely possible that a man who has been given great responsibility will bear a cross of similar proportion.

Again, Connors quotes Van Zeller, who speaks of our Christian priesthood as distinct from the OT priesthood in the sense that offerer and sacrifice are found in the one and the same personhood of the priest himself:

The man who celebrates Mass is, mystically and figuratively but nonetheless significantly, on the paten of the Suspice and in the chalice at the Offerimus. It would be a mistake to think of our Mass and our position in it as separated into parts: I, the man, as the subject; the sacred species, the material element, as the object; God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, as the end. But because Christ is at once priest, victim, and end of His own sacrifice, so we can think of ourselves, made one with Christ in His sacrificial act, as directed towards the same Father in the same redemptive act.

This reflection is for all of us who are wounded in some way. I ask you in the name of the late Pope John Paul II, never to be afraid of man, never to be afraid of the Church, and never to be afraid of God. At great moments like our ordination day, our 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries, when we are in control, when we are in the saddle, when we are put atop pedestals for reasons deserved or undeserved, life seems rosy and most promising. The world seems like an oyster for us. The future always looks bright. But it is when suffering that is, at least to our mind, undeserved comes our way, when through the same mysterium iniquitatis that we were speaking of, someone rides rough shod over our sense of self, our personal dignity, all the values we were holding onto for decades, and we feel we are left holding an empty bag of failed friendships, broken dreams, and broken promises, the late Holy Father’s stentorian voice – the voice of the true and good Shepherd, beckons us never to be afraid, never to be afraid, and to go on learning to pray beyond our sufferings. I end with a famous quote from one who has seen more than just life, but also a whole of undeserved suffering, St. Teresa of Avila:

Nada te turbe
Nada te espante.
Todo se pasa.
Dios no se muda.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

5. FORGOTTEN AMONG THE LILIES: Learning to Serve Beyond Our Need for Affirmation and Recognition

I like the imagery conjured up by the title of Rolheiser’s latest book from which I borrow the title of this 5th reflection: “forgotten among the lilies.” Although this is by no means what he is discussing in the book, I was struck by the fact that people generally only notice the lilies in a pond. They marvel at the immaculate white flowers. Focused as they are on their beauty and brightness, they miss the murky and dirty pond that gives vibrant life and unparalleled beauty to the flowers that merit elevation to the glories and sanctity of altars all over the world.

My thoughts race back instinctively to John Milton’s famous poem on his blindness. My thoughts immediately are transported to the reality that many of us in our prime, would most likely never talk about, given the fact that we are still on the saddle, very much in the limelight, pretty much in control, or still sought after by people who admire us, who believe in us, who call us to minister to them in every imaginable way, or who pander to our every whim almost, who cater to our simple and not-so-simple desires.

I am talking about what generally most of us dread. I do. And this is an understatement. I am afraid of the time when I will just be in the sidelines, unable to be there in the center of it all, unable and incapable of making my presence felt in significant ways. Whilst I admire what Milton is saying in his Christian resignation, “they also serve who only stand and wait,” there is still something in me that protests, something that rises up in arms at being relegated to the unexciting task of warming up benches in the game called life.

I am talking about humility. I am talking about the legitimate need for affirmation and recognition that are part and parcel of our human personhood. In this ego-saturated world, in a world where about one-third of us are narcissists, focusing mostly on our own needs and concerns, humility is not a very popular word. At a time when Thomas A’Kempis’ classic “Imitation of Christ,” does not get too much of a following, with copies gathering dust on forlorn shelves of our community libraries all over, humility is not something religious and priests like us would go running for as top priority in our list of resolutions on a rainy recollection day.

And yet, as Timothy Dolan says, quoting Barnabas Ahern, humility is the Lord’s favorite virtue. All four gospels extol it. Greatness is equated with being lowly, with being at the bottom of the heap, being sick, being poor, with suffering, with children, with sinners. Everything small, everything insignificant … is what was extolled in the gospels. It is indeed, counter cultural. It goes against the grain. It goes against reason.

Dolan speaks of two types of humility: the humility before God, and the humility before others. I don’t really know which of the two is easier for you and me, but all I know is the former is absolutely necessary for us priests for the reasons I have mentioned above. For the most part, we priests and religious enjoy a status not given to our counterparts. Whether we are capable or not, whether we are brilliant or not, titled or mediocre academically, we occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of many of our people – thank God! They look up to us. They still, for the most part, think that we have many of the answers to their increasing questions. Why do you think fake priests and irregular priests rake it in while illicitly celebrating one Mass after another in funeral homes, and in private homes, and elsewhere? The simple faith of many still consider having a domesticated priest at home a privilege and a sign of status, a piece of news they can always pull out of their sleeves at parties and mahjong games: “Fr. So and So was at our place last evening!”

No matter our very modest upbringing and initial education, we priests are very often a celebrity in our own right. And this brings us a myriad of problems. First in the list is our spirituality. Without humility, spirituality takes a beating. It cannot take off. It cannot take flight. Pelagius and his ideas still rule the spiritual roost for us, as Dolan writes. We think we can do anything from our own human efforts alone. We can think we are Superman. With so many laurels and feathers pinned on our caps, with so much achievement for the record, we are anything but willing to surrender our turf to the average man on the street. That definitely includes those who are far below me in my estimation. But as Dolan tells us, “holiness, heaven, cannot be earned but only given to one who humbly admits that he needs God desperately and can never win divine favor on his own merits.”

I think that in the Philippine scene, like Dolan writes in the case of America, there is a more subtle form of lack of humility that we need to consider. Some of us, with most likely elevated scores in the Mania scale of any psych test, think, act, and move like all the world needs is a few more like us, with the right charisma, the right looks, the right attitudes, etc. They think that the salvation of the world depends solely on them and they have decided at some point they were divinely ordained to set aright everything that is wrong in the congregation and in the Church. Apropos this, Dolan quotes Cardinal Pio Laghi who remarked at a talk given in England thus: “Yes, I always worry about a young man who feels he is the Church’s savior. The Church happens already to have one!”

Being one who for long has been in the business of formation, I have realized that the cocky ones who were too sure of themselves, who looked down upon the lack of holiness of their fellow seminarians, who always behaved like they were the personification of the rule, who, in psychological terms, were too full of their “ideal self,” ended up falling flat on their faces at some later period in their growth. Sometime during their midlife transition years, the scaffolding of their false self, the projected persona collapses and the real self kicks in. This is not bad in itself except that all the unaddressed, denied, unaccepted and unrecognized issues like anger, resentment, unmet needs now all come surfacing and more often than not projected onto others, or they use others now to supply for what they missed earlier on. Believe me, if you happen to be the local superior of these people still struggling with adolescent individuation issues, you are in for a tough time. If you are the one in this predicament, you are in for an emotional roller-coaster ride. You will be dysfunctional to yourself and to others, and no amount of fervorini or talks on humility will be able to make you come down from your high horse of holier-than-thou, but poorly differentiated sense of self.

Formation is by and large a thankless job. When you are done leading them to the light, formandi will always think they did it their way. There is something funny about us humans, but I think the song “My Way” became popular not because it was eminently cantabile but because it really hit the nail right on the head. Everyone wants to do it his way. When it fails, it’s others’fault. When it succeeds, it’s due to my ingenuity. It is because I am brilliant. I am capable. I am great.

Donald Cozzens, in the first of a series of books he wrote immediately preceding, and following the clergy scandal in the US, referred to the Jesuit Michael Buckley who proposed paradoxically that “what the Church needed in her priests were a few weak men.” Cozzens writes:

He asks of the seminarian ready to be ordained, ‘Is this man weak enough to be a priest?’ His question takes us back to the humanity and manhood of Christ who was judged a weak and ineffective leader of a religious movement comprised of discouraged and confused Jewish peasants, to the weakness of a stammering Peter, to the ambition of James and John. Buckley continues: ‘Let me spell out what I mean. Is this man deficient enough so that he can’t ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Because it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, maintains Hebrews, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies.

If what I am trying to develop is not yet clear at this point, I would like to make it explicit. Humility for priests and religious has to do with this acceptance of this real, not romantic, weakness. Only those who accept they are weak are those who are humble enough to ask for help and support. As a teacher over the past 29 years, I have known and have grown convinced that the best teachers aren’t exactly those who breezed through their scholastic work with hardly any effort on their part. The best teachers are those who struggled a little, those who knew they could not make it without riding on the wings of hard work and a lot of prayer. The best mentors and counselors are those, who, themselves, have seen life and have stared at suffering in the face.

I would like, at this juncture, to quote Brian Doyle:

[Grace is found in] the bone of the character of a priest who walks to his breakfast with blood on his shoes, the blood of a student who died in his arms in the night after a drunken wreck, the priest is a wreck himself this bright awful dawn, minutes after he blessed the body, but he puts one foot in front of another and walks in a normal day because he is brave enough to keep living, and wise enough to know he has no choice, and he knows he received grace from the hand of the Lord when he needed it most, first when the boy terrified of dying grabbed him by the collar and begged to be told he would live forever and now, here, in the crack of the morning in a campus parking lot as he hesitates by his car, exhausted, rooted. But he walks.

There is a quiet dignity in the humble selfless service of a man who happens to be a priest who keeps on walking even while there is no one to goad him on and no one to cheer for him, even when there are no rah-rah boys and girls to egg him on. There is quiet heroism in the religious priest or brother who recedes into the background, far from the limelight, and does his work quietly and dutifully, even if no honorary doctorates or the like would most likely not be coming his way. But there is greatness in ordinariness. Robert Wicks writes that “ordinariness is palpable holiness.” All the great themes of the gospels were drawn from very humble and simple things like salt, coin, lamps, mustard seeds, and bushels.

I would like to end with a prayer, the Litany of Humility, which I first discovered tucked in a cramped confessional box in a parish in Arlington, Northern Virginia, a prayer quoted too by Dolan:

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase and that I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised, and I unnoticed,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
Our Lady of humility,
Pray for us.

Monday, August 6, 2007



Wholeness, some authors rightly say, has to do partly with the ability to be at home with paradox. Paradox refers to any reality that cannot be reduced to either black or white, black and white, or just nondescript shades of grey. Paradox refers to a reality that is both black and white, at one and the same time. Sometimes it is more like the former; sometimes it is more like the latter.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists are all too familiar with that dysfunctional mental schema called “black or white thinking.” It is that “either/or” rigid attitude that gets lost when what one talks about cannot be rigidly defined in terms of two conflicting, and irreconcilable extremes. Mental health, the same therapists say, and I agree, has to do with the ability to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis[2] shoals of either/or, and black or white thinking. Veer too much on the left and the boat founders. Steer too much on the right and the boat shudders to a splashing halt. The siren songs of rigid, compartmentalized thinking have caused many a ship of otherwise capable personalities flounder on the shoals of paralysis and dysfunctionality.

In my experience as a counselor, I have increasingly grown convinced of – at least for me – an emerging paradox. Sometimes, in order for one to get a breakthrough, ironically all he needs is a breakdown. A breakthrough happens when one’s defenses collapse and one hits rock bottom. But before it can happen, one literally needs to allow that breakdown and collapse to happen. One allows oneself to be wounded all over again, at least temporarily, to revisit a past event, relive it with all its concomitant pain and misery, in order to rewrite that same painful memory and set out on the difficult path of writing new life scripts.[3]

The paradox increases in scope. One realizes in time that what one is afraid of, what one is trying so hard to push away and deny, is what precisely keeps us paralyzed, dysfunctional persons to ourselves and others, and what perpetuates our misery in the long run. More than just this, what we blame others for, is the very thing that we cannot even name and claim – let alone – tame in ourselves. What we deny is what we project. What we deny somehow attains a life of its own, and holds us in its powerful grip, thereby rendering us no more than just slaves of our own dysfunctionalities and hopelessly attached even to the very pain we hate and which we would like to go away.

Scriptures are never wanting for models and examples that illustrate the many problems we encounter – along with the redemption that ensued when said individuals literally and figuratively bit the dust and embraced their brokenness. The one that immediately comes to mind is St. Paul who was given a mysterious affliction the details of which we do not know. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote thus: “Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated” (2COR 12:7). That was some “thorn” about which elsewhere he would keep referring to, like he did in his letter to the Romans. This time he was a little more detailed and graphic in terms of the intensity of the interior conflict he was facing. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if (I) do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin” (Rom 7:14-25).

Interestingly, Paul embraced his brokenness. He went down to the depths of admission even of guilt and sin, and that paved the way to forgiveness and salvation.

As a young professed religious, I had a particularly unforgettable experience in boonies of Calamba in the late 70s. I was teaching catechism in Barrio Barandal. One afternoon, during a brief lull from class, I went out to take a breather. By the side of the road was mango sapling about a meter tall. Not having anything better to do, I decided right then and there to tie a knot using the mango sapling as rope. The knot was tied right in the middle of the growing sapling’s main stem. More than a decade later, I went back there as a young priest. The first thing I looked for was that mango tree. I felt for the knot. I found it and touched it. It had grown strong at its broken place.

The tree had embraced its pain, accepted it, and grew in spite of it. Acceptance has a way of leading to miracles. Denial, its opposite, has a way of leading to mysterious, covert behavior. Acceptance leads to the light. Denial leads to the depths of further darkness and mystery.

One thing about us religious men is that we know a whole lot about one another in our communities, but at the same time, we don’t know a whole lot about one another. Growing up together in formation houses lent us the rare opportunity of getting a front seat view to all our quirks of personalities, our tastes, our pet peeves, our dreams, and even at times, our ulterior motives. The rare psychological intuitives in our midst would perhaps essay a guess as to what our real motives are in any given situation, but by far, the great majority would only go by the rule popularized by GUI of Macintosh: “What you see is what you get (WYSIWYG). But as we grew up into becoming young adults, as we began to navigate the troubled seas of midlife transition, as we tasted a little power and prestige, as we got to know the hidden powers waiting in the wings to be tapped to full capacity, perhaps talents we never knew we had, we suddenly saw our potentials, our power, our capacities. And some of us didn’t know how to handle success. Some of us may have been caught off balance by the newfound freedom, and the possibility to catch up with the individuation needs we never got around to doing, growing up as we did in the context of rigid formation in the seminary.

Soon it was either one or the other. Either we were getting broken, or we were breaking the backs of other people. Our personal paralysis somehow finds a ready and willing receptacle. Misery loves company. And a dumping ground of all our negativities is what we are looking for all the time. Soon we find ourselves reacting disproportionately negative to what objectively are really innocent – if, at the most, thoughtless – behavior of others, especially if those others were superiors or at least were perceived to be powerful. Soon, we were out on a witch hunt, searching for faults in other people, including conjectures, rash judgments, imaginary hurts and insults. We were hurting and people who are hurting end up hurting others. That is, if one is unable even to accept he is hurting deep inside.

I got bad news for superiors. If you have accepted to be one, then you must have very broad shoulders. For one, it just is your unfortunate lot to be at the receiving end of everybody’s real or projected issues. Now if you have unaccepted and denied issues of your own, then the problem is magnified. That would be fusion of issues. That would be at times like two psychological teen-agers in their early or middle adulthood at loggerheads, wrangling over actually childhood issues that have not been identified, that have taken a life of their own, and that cause untold havoc to people’s peace of mind and healthy functioning. In case you may wonder what are the signs of such unhealthy functioning, here are some: giving the cold shoulder, dagger looks that could kill instantly, passive aggression, and a host of others.

But I also got good news for superiors and their opposites, which the great majority of us would be a great deal of our lives as religious. Help is on the way. There is a possibility to get out of this rut, get unstuck, and move on. But the good news comes with a bit of bad news. It is every man’s ball game. It is up to each one of us to dive inside the playing field and wrestle with brain and brawn against the only real opponent – let’s call him enemy – and that is ourselves! Yes, in the great history of the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of sin, the only real protagonist there that stands smack at the center of it all is “I”. There is nobody else other than I. If there is anything that Judas the betrayer asked rightly, if there is anything that could go down in the history of self-knowledge as a monumental insight to it all, it was what his self-incriminating question: “Is it I, Lord?” (Mt 26:25). In Jungian psychology, the I, which he called the “ego” is so potentially problematic that he used a different term to refer to the basis of one’s identity – the SELF. For him, it is not the Ego that was created in the image and likeness of God, but the “self.” The ego needs to be purified, much like what Pope Benedict XVI was referring to about eros – the need for ascent and purification.[4]

All the foregoing has been designed to make a pitch for human formation that has been emphasized by Pope John Paul II:

The whole work of priestly formation would be deprived of its necessary foundation if it lacked a suitable human formation. The priest, who is called to be a living image of Jesus Christ, head and shepherd of the Church, should seek to reflect in himself, as far as possible, the human perfection which shines forth in the Incarnate Son of God and which is reflected with particular liveliness in his attitudes towards others as we see narrated in the Gospels … In order that his ministry may be humanly as credible and acceptable as possible, it is important that the priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ (Pastores Dabo Vobis, # 43).[5]

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, who wrote, just around the time the whole world was worried sick of the Y2K bug whose bark was worse than its bite, a book which he entitled “Priests for the Third Millenium,” (Dolan, 2000)[6] has only very encouraging words to say in a foreword to another book by Stephen Rosetti[7] published just last year:

And we will all come away more firmly convinced of the classical Catholic dictum that ‘grace builds on nature.’ For what Father Rosetti valiantly believes is that the unfailing power, awe, mercy, and strength of the grace of holy orders, blended with the wholesome, healthy, self-knowing, mature nature of a man humbly open to that grace, produces a chemistry that combines God and man, heaven and earth, saint and sinner, rise and fall, life and death – a priest, a man of joy.[8]

Priests and religious, more than any other, are a frontier people. We live on the fringes. We straddle that twilight zone of the intra-worldly and ultra-worldly realities. We are in the world, but not of the world. We do very earthly things, but our sights and intentions are set on the beyond.

This is why all the titles of my talks have to do with the beyond – the basic call to transcendence that our vocation as priests and prophets is all about. Weaknesses and sins are not our real enemy. Our real enemy is what classical spiritual writers call “acedia.” Modern authors call it the “noontime devil.” And it is most operative when people lose verve and vitality to grow, - no, not despite our weaknesses, not because of our weaknesses, but beyond our weaknesses. Such is the power of grace that Archbishop Dolan was writing about.

[1] I borrowed the title from Paula Ripple. Growing Strong at Broken Places. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1986).

[2] Scylla and Charibdis are two islands in Greek mythology in between which ships are supposed to navigate carefully lest they are dashed to pieces by the shoals. Sailors, according to mythology are attracted to both by sirens who sing haunting songs and the unwary sailor who follows those songs ends up being dashed to the rocks and perishes.

[3] Cf. Imelda Virginia G. Villar. Brief Psychodynamic Strategies for Counseling and Psychotherapy (Manila: De la Salle University Press, c. 2001).

[4] Pope Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est.

[5] Pope John Paul II. “Pastores Dabo Vobis,” No. 43

[6] Timothy Dolan. Priests for the Third Millenium. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000).

[7] Rosetti. Op. cit.

[8] Rosetti, op cit., p. 9