Monday, September 24, 2007

9. I PLAYED BUT YOU WOULDN'T DANCE: Learning to Become Joyful Beyond our Loneliness

Recent studies on priests, at least in America, show two seemingly contradicting truths. The first is that priests in their first five years after ordination appear to be “as happy and fulfilled as other American men their age.” This finding is corroborated by no less than Dolan, who, in his foreword to the book by Rosetti says the same, but goes right into the other side of this seemingly paradoxical reality. Dolan says that while “over 90 per cent report high satisfaction with their call and ministry, the public perception is that priests are not joyful, and that the priesthood is in a life-threatening crisis, and that many priest, while internally happy, come off as crabs and malcontents.”

I am not sure a similar study on priests in the Philippines would reveal exactly the same results. Given our proverbial natural propensity to be joyful and optimistic as a people, given the cultural positive attitudes by and large of our people to priests and religious, in general, I am not too sure that we are looked upon and perceived in general as sour and dour – at least as a general rule.

However, it wouldn’t be out of place in a forum such as this, to be speaking about joy. After all, we’ve heard it so often in the past, “a sad saint is a bad saint.” Consequently, if we look at our life and role and ministry as a way to sanctify ourselves and others, nothing stands in the way of this work of sanctification more than being crabby, being sore, being perpetually malcontent, like as if we have an axe to grind against the world, against everyone and everything.

The bad news is that in any given population, in any basket of apples picked at random, you have good apples and bad apples. We do a spontaneous, natural act of selection everyday at table. Although we say it’s the same banana, not all bananas are alike. We naturally pick the better one in the bunch, and the bad ones, generally remain in the bunch, till they become too ripe to eat and which will then be made into banana bread or given an extreme makeover and turned into pudding. You know that well enough.

Given our long training in the context of the seminary, serious pathology would most likely be screened out. There is a natural selection process that takes place in the wisdom of the seminary system introduced by Trent a long time ago. Rosetti, for one, claims that we have few cases of schizophrenia, psychosis, or seriously bipolar. Although it can, and, does arise, particularly from the ranks of those who more or less belong to my generation, priests are no more prone to such pathologies as the general population. As Rosetti says, priests are sick not because they are priests, but because they are human.

But I agree with Rosetti that we do need to talk a little about what we oftentimes pass off as garden-variety “sadness.” Whilst major depression is not part of the list of typical presenting problems of priests, a more subtle, low level, chronic, and milder specie called dysthymia is. This mild depression is something that few priests (and lay people) would even recognize, let alone, accept. But a trained observer just has the nose and the eye for it. Dysthymic people cannot remember the last time they were really happy. They shuffle around with a defeated look, downcast gaze (and some of them mistakenly define this as “profumo sanctitatis”). They shun the noise, the garrulity, and the legitimate joys afforded by everyday life, in the name of detachment and usually hie off to their rooms, or offices, and brood (which they call reflection).

On the opposite side of the spectrum are hypomanic individuals who seem unable to sit down for any length of time alone. They need something to perk them up all the time. They need to be at the center of the action. They need to be there where life happens. They have the chronic niceness syndrome, always available to help damsels in distress and anyone in real or imagined distress, for that matter. They are always huffing and puffing for the next sick call, the next talk, the next Mass, and the next “happening.” Take them away from that type of frenetic activity and they become sullen, withdrawn, or restless, and anxious. Whilst it is by no means pathological in the clinical sense, hypomanics may go through such a frenetic lifestyle, and can claim they do it because of their “apostolic zeal,” and “thirst for the kingdom,” but all they really do is meet an undefined need to be active, to be doing something, to be up and about, and to be saving the whole world. Cardinal Laghi’s famous quip comes in handy: “The Church already happens to have a savior.”

In my modest experience in leadership, and in my equally modest training over the recent past, and as a perpetual student of human behavior, particularly over the past 24 years of my priesthood, of which number more than half was spent in the context of formation, I cannot agree more with a recognized expert in the field all over the world – Rosetti – when he writes that the more common presenting problems of priests and religious are the following: narcissism, passive-aggression, and dependent personality problems.

I know I am treading on dangerous territory. I am walking on a mine-studded field that some of our dioceses and religious congregations in the Philippines are in. It is my educated opinion that of the three, narcissism seems to be the more prevalent in the Philippine setting. I have no hard data to present. My venturing into this field, along with the modest training I had in it, was really born more out of personal interest than on talent. But I see signs of it everywhere. The handwritings are on the wall, and all of us will be well advised to give a look, more at ourselves and less at others, and see just how much this moral and psychological evil has inflicted, and continues to inflict wounds on our communities, on our own personhood, and on the Church as a whole.

I start with the most difficult. Sadly, there is no known cure for them. These are the dashing debonairs of our society. They are talented and gifted. And they don’t just know it. They flaunt it. They make sure you know just what they are capable of, no matter if they are simply imagined. They are the narcissists in our midst. If we go by the rule of thirds that I quoted earlier on, then we should have reason to be worried, to be very worried. At least 33 per cent of clergy, not excluding us, may be in there. Narcissists are focused solely on themselves. They are the ultimate standard to anything. They are charismatic. They appear charming and kind. They know what they want. They know what to do. But you should never cross them. Once you do, you incur their wrath forever. Narcissists see the wrong thing in everybody else except in themselves. They cannot handle criticism. When crossed, their repressed anger is let loose like a dam. They burst like an over-inflated balloon and fly off the handle. They walk out of meetings in a huff, making sure that everybody gets indicted and figuratively sent to hell. They have no qualms about cursing others behaving like they are not capable of making mistakes too. They can even curse the Holy Father, the Superior General, and, if you’re just a local superior in a small community where he belongs, woe to you. You are just peanuts to this bulldozer who has no problems riding rough shod on anyone who stands in his way. All hell will break loose if you don’t do according to his plans. The narcissist’s tendencies, given enough time, is laid out in an intricate web of control, known to psychologists as “projective identification of control.” With enough time, and when (horror of all horrors), the non psychologically intuitive superior puts him in power, the narcissist will lay down a firm, and intractable mechanism of control, and everybody will have to toe the line, and literally kowtow to his every whim and wish, which usually is reinforced with a gruff, a grunt, and a growl. Weiser writes: “Narcissistic clergy operate on the force of personality, and they tolerate no real peers. They may court superiors in order to see themselves as peers of superiors, but they are not interested in genuine exchange. Narcissists are fickle in friendship, judge others in terms of usefulness, and reject people with bitter criticism, a criticism they always spare themselves. Idealization and devaluation is the technical term for their process of boom-and-bust courtship of others.”

The next in line makes a perfect fit for the narcissistic leader. The dependent personality is one whom the narcissist would simply love to have around. Such personalities form perfect part of the narcissist’s “groupie” or clique, individuals that are easily manipulated. Weiser describes them thus: “Depressed/dependent persons have no confidence in their own emotional strength or intellectual abilities. They feel powerless over events and relationships and are often willing to sacrifice anything, including their wants, needs, or themselves, for a sense of belonging equated with safety, security, and love.” Needless to say, such dependents would always love to belong to a small group because that group gives them a sense of security which they are looking for. If you are a small community and you have a clique like that, and you are the superior, you are in for a great deal of resistance. There is not much you can do unless of course you go down to their level and pander to their need for security and belongingness, in which case you would then be guilty of manipulation. Dependent personalities have difficulty asserting their own opinion. They don’t want to say their opinion because they fear being rejected or disliked. In the meantime, their resentment grows, especially if they already feel rejected or alone. Poorly differentiated since childhood, they always look for someone else to prop themselves up, someone else who could meet their nurturance and affiliation needs, someone else who could fill up what is lacking in their personality structure. These dependents are the perfect individuals to be looking for elderly matrons who can mother them, protect them, especially when, in their healthy imagination, they are not cared for in their communities. The bad side of it is, they tell sob stories to people around. The community is put in a bad light, and the hapless, unwary superior is condemned unjustly for being such an uncaring, unfeeling, and insensitive superior who does not act fatherly at all to his subjects (read: himself in particular).

The third most common malady is that of the passive-aggressive. They don’t fight openly against anyone. They just don’t do as agreed. They are not openly aggressive, but it doesn’t mean they are as meek and gentle like lambs. No… they hit you when they think it is most timely, where they think it would hurt you most. They appear to be obedient, nodding their heads in approval of what leaders tell them, but they show a pervasive pattern of passive resistance (low-key rebellion) and negativism. These individuals always feel cheated, unappreciated, and misunderstood. They are always complaining to others. The tragedy grows when they find dependent lay people, who also have very strong needs for succorrance, who literally come to their rescue supplying for what they think their poor priest or brother friend is unjustly deprived of. This includes food, gadgets, and if they are well-to-do, even cars at the poor priest’s disposal. Some even go to the ridiculous point of providing a room where they “are always at home and welcome at any time of day – or night.”

In such a setting, where “original sin” takes the upper hand in our selves, in our communities, in our congregations, religious houses, and dioceses, it becomes very hard for all to live in serenity and joy. It becomes a real challenge. Joy in the community is never to be achieved through short-cuts. Joy is never to be achieved by short-lived tactics like watching movies, and eating out, and finding time for some artificially contrived opportunity to do some backslapping camaraderie that masks an underlying river or resentment and dissatisfaction that is more intrapersonal than interpersonal. Joy, says, Kahlil Gibran, is but sorrow unmasked. Joy is something we ought to work for, sweat for, and sometimes, even cry for. Superiors are the first in the line of battle to assure that joy becomes real, genuine, and not based on flimsy props like food, parties, and gifts. Sometimes, the only way is to suffer through temporary anger misdirected at them by really helping the individuals to learn how to cope with their own issues. Sending them for processing and therapy may be painful, but mere paternalistic benevolence never resolved any big problem in the Church in history. Compassion alone will not clinch it. We also need clarity. And clarity means you have shoulders broad enough to suffer undeserved pain. I have climbed 13 Philippine mountains. I have even been held hostage in our highest peak down south for three days, together with seven others, half of whom were foreigners. You know what is the loneliest spot on earth when there is no one else to share it with? The mountain peak …

What is the use of being atop Mt. Everest if no one ever knew, if no one ever cared? What is the point in trekking alone to Mt. Pulog and then being overcome by the sheer awe and fascination of being higher than the clouds and there is no one else to hear your shouts of glee and triumph?

That is what superiors sometimes are … lonely on top. It is, indeed, lonely at the top. But you never know until it hits you in a moment of clarity that being lonely does have its joys. Joy is but sorrow unmasked. Here is a proof of a story recounted by Rosetti:

He was a seminarian during WW II. Thrown into a concentration camp, he survived. He came to America, was ordained a priest, and sent to a remote mission. He spent yeas building a church, building a community, praying and saying Mass every day. People never came. They ignored him. Years after, he resigned. The Bishop trekked all the way with him to inform people the parish would be closed. The people didn’t like the idea. When asked why despite the fact that they never attended anything, they answered: “You cannot take away the priest. If you take him away, you take away our only light.”

He was stunned. He stayed. And after that, the community began taking part.

No further commentary is needed. Joy is but sorrow unmasked. We priests and religious are supposed to be bearers of joy, gospel joy. And last thing I heard is, this joy can only happen if we take up his cross, and follow him. You better believe it.

The Gospel allusion in the title of this reflection illustrates the fact that also Jesus expressed some frustration. Referring to a game children played – some kind of “follow the leader,” Jesus complained, as children would: “I played but you wouldn’t dance.” We are called to learn how to grow beyond our loneliness, beyond our hopelessness. And this also applies to joy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

8. THAT THEY MAY BE ONE: Learning to Become Men of Communion Beyond our Social Fragmentation

We live in a fragmented world. Society all over is disintegrating at least in some way. Civilizations are in conflict. If we are to believe what Samuel Huntington wrote, then we have reason to be afraid, mortally afraid, much more than we ought to be worried about the global warming phenomenon that threatens a great meltdown of our polar ice caps.

We do not even have to go too far down the road to see that our society is disintegrating. We do not even see eye to eye on who should be leading this country. We never liked any president. We are neatly divided between issues. Not even our Bishops present a united front. Some are dancing paltsy waltsy with questionable figures, and some are downright inimical to certain high profile political bigwigs. Such a state of affairs is not a monopoly of our political system. In our parishes, in our communities, in our schools and apostolic ventures, there is a whole lot of intrigue, of subtle alliances and groupings, of cliques that do more harm than good. We are back to the Filipino culture of insecurity that I was talking about in the first day.

And yet, we claim we are a Eucharistic breed of men, favored like no other with the grace of being able to confect ordinary bread and transubstantiate it into the Body and Blood of Christ our Lord. We preside at reconciliation liturgies. We mediate between warring families, siblings, and groupings in and out of our regular turf. We talk endlessly about unity. We pray even unceasingly about it. We minister, indeed, to a broken world. We minister to a society – and to ourselves – for whom unity is still a distant dream, perhaps a pie in the sky, a process that not even God, by his allowing us to chart our destinies in our freedom, can do with dispatch, and at a pace we all would like to have.

Our prayer, like that of Christ’s, is still “Lord, that they may be one.” But the good Lord had a second portion to that prayer which we cannot ever hope even to get anywhere near to …”even as you and I, Father, are one.”

And this is where our reflection would bring us to. It leads us to the absolute foundation and basis of the unity we pray for, and that foundation is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but the Trinitarian God.

We priests are a spoiled lot. We generally get what we want. We speak and the whole retinue of parish staff gets into action. We ask and we receive. We preach and we expect compliance. We expect no less than obedience. In our pride, there is a tendency to rely solely on procedures, techniques, and tactics to get things moving. We think we are the Savior, even if the Church already had one, as Pio Laghi wisely cracked. We think unity could be had if only we made the right moves, embraced the latest group process from Wharton school of business, or the Kennedy School of Public Service.

But unity is first of all God’s work because first of all it is what God is. It is what God wants and it is what God does, ever so subtly, ever so slowly. His pace does not get beyond our pace, even if he could. And the reason is simple. He wants unity not despite us. He wants unity because of us. He wants unity for us. And he wants it done with us, not without us. This means, to paraphrase Forrest Gump’s wise momma, “The pray-er is, as the pray-er does.” Handsome is as handsome does. Unity happens when we work for it together … each one of us … all of us all together now … to get there.

To get there, we must work together. But we need to define what this working together really is all about.

I call it doing Eucharist. Eucharist is something we do. It is a verb. It comes from a deep need to be grateful. For gratefulness is what being Christian at bottom is. Louis Evely, back in my College days, wrote in one of his popular books, “If you have nothing to thank God for, there is nothing Christian in you.” But Eucharist is not something we do alone. It is something we do together.

It almost sounds strange, but we priests and religious are called to be Eucharistic men and women. But before we can be Eucharistic, we first need to be grateful people. When we get what we want, when we can command and commandeer people and get them to be doing things at our beck and call, when we feel entitled to receive, we cease to be grateful. People who get and grab are never grateful. They think it is their right to have things. But people who receive, reply with gratitude. To get is too violent. To receive is to be gracious and magnanimous with praise and thanks. Just look at how Mary prayed. Magnificat anima mea Dominum! For a whole slew of reasons … for whatever reason … come what may, happen what might, everything is seen as gift … everything is seen as grace.

Allow me to call your attention to what robs us men of the innate and natural capacity to be gracious recipients of gifts. It is inner violence. It is anger. Surprised? Yes. Nothing blocks our capacity to be grateful more than anger that clouds our minds and psyches from the good that we ought to rejoice in. Remember what I told you in one of my first talks? In formation we first need to define our humours, our angers, our sympathies, and antipathies before we can define who we are. Rosetti puts it more clearly: “The journey of Christian human formation is a journey out of anger into gratitude and joy.” All too often we talk, and rightly so, about our need to turn away from disvalues like materialism, consumerism, and the culture of death, as Rosetti points out. But he goes on to say that all too often again, we fail to include that which destroys our humanity so surely and so subtly and that is what anger and inner rage does to us. The forces of evil and Satan, the father of lies have all conspired to lead otherwise good men towards dysfunctional and catastrophic behavior patterns that affect so many people. Satan is very much active in the sin and sickness of anger that is allowed to grow, to rise in power above the shadows and dark recesses of denial and secretiveness.

Satan, as we know, loves to work under the cloak of deceit, secrecy, and suspicious silence. This is how inner rage attacks otherwise good men in our midst. We allow anger to fester. We allow it to increase. We cover it up with a perpetual smile and apparent good-naturedness. We refuse no request. We are available for anything at any time of day or night. We drown ourselves in work, all spiritualized in the garb of apostolic zeal and cura animarum. But we don’t say is what harms us – the seething resentment, the scalding anger that builds up like a dormant volcano that all of a sudden erupts and manifesting itself in terms of subtle and not-so-subtle rebellion, nonconforming behavior, bitter and sarcastic remarks against others, especially superiors, reading too much from otherwise innocent behavior and remarks from them, and that all too common Filipino tactic – avoidance and evasion, the cold shoulder treatment, not going for prayers with others, not going for meals together with others, etc. Satan just loves to work in the shadows.

I have to tell those superiors who may be in this difficult situation. You need to differentiate yourself in a healthy way. You need not blame yourselves if one or two or more of your confreres seem to have it against you. On many occasions, whilst you may be the object of anyone’s anger, you ought to be mature and differentiated enough to know that you are not necessarily its cause.

We need to become Eucharistic men. What exactly does this mean? Does this mean being pious and giving that pitiful, wan look during Mass? No. I mean digging deeper into oneself to see what is there in us that is not very Eucharistic. Where does all that inner rage come from? What is really the root cause of that anger? Becoming Eucharistic persons is exactly being like the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They were bitter, sad, angry and disappointed. The one they were relying on, left them in the lurch. He was crucified. They were now orphaned by a leader of their hopes who would have socked it to the Romans. But he was dead.

I would like to think that before they could be Eucharistic, they first had to let go of all that anger and disappointment, and self-pity. They were open about it. They talked among themselves about it. They even spoke of their disappointment to their unknown guest who at some point began journeying with them. They were processing themselves and allowed themselves to be processed. By the time they sat down to supper, they were ready to be Eucharistic. They were ready to give thanks, because they were already grateful and joyful. And their joy was made full … when they realized the gift of presence of him who offered, of him who gave away, gave thanks, broke, and shared.

Eucharist is all about brokenness shared and admitted and accepted. It is all about receiving and giving thanks for what one has received. When we, as priests and religious, as brothers in the Lord recognize our brokenness and our woundedness and confess it to one another, we are ready to do Eucharist. We are ready to be men and women of communion. And the only reason for this is simply this … we also have first become men and women of compassion … compassion for ourselves, others, and all who, like us, are journeying in pain.

I end with a beautiful one-liner from Catherine Dougherty … “Love and joy are fruit of faith, sacrifice, and pain.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

7. BEHOLD YOUR MOTHER: Learning to be Tender-Hearted Beyond our Cynicism

Recent studies on priests in America in the aftermath of the clergy scandal of 2002 show that a good number of them nurture a positive attachment to Mary, the Mother of God. They speak of Mary in loving and affectionate terms. A number of studies both here and abroad show that the relationship between mother and son, in the early life of the priest influences a whole lot the adult priest’s ability to adjust to a demanding priestly life and role. My own findings in my dissertation confirm what we have always informally conjectured – that mothers in many more ways than one, are truly mothers, too, of our vocation.

In my last reflection, I talked about the ambience that makes us, the environment that shapes us to be the best we could be. Polar bears need the vast icy expanse for them to thrive. Priests need the ambience of a prayerful life to be true to their role and ontological nature as acting in persona Christi.

I would like to add an additional element to this ambience of prayer. I would like to call this, together with Gerard Manley-Hopkins, not only the ambience and habitat for us priests, but our atmosphere, the air we breathe, the air without which we would be limping, gasping for life, for that breath of intimacy that humanizes us, that makes us get closer to the full stature of Christ, who is and who was son of Mary, woman, mother, lady, queen. Allow me, at the risk of boring some of you, to quote a beautiful poem of Hopkins. If you remember your literature, you would know that this poem capitalizes a whole lot on simile, metaphor, and personification.

The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflakes; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but not breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindles to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race –
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemed, dreamed; who
This one work has to do –
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn –
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.
Again, look overhead
How air is azured;
O how! Nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps,
Yet such a sapphire-shot
Charged, steeped sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A bleat and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy, vasty vault.
So God was God of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like our which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
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.

One of the most memorable books I have read as a college seminarian was a spiritual autobiography written by Brother Raymond, OCSO entitled “The Man who Got Even with God.” I have always been making a pitch for this book in my work with counselees and directees. Long before the popular attractiveness of Henri Nouwen and the likes of Ronald Rolheiser came to the scene, this book already made its mark as something that addresses itself to human beings with red blood flowing through their veins. This was as passionate and honest a self-report as that of Nouwen’s and Rolheiser, the precise reason why they are popular authors.

Here is a struggling man, who talks to his fellow struggling men, who is candid about his disappointment, even his anger against God. His story is not the hopelessly anemic and sugar-coated, anesthetized, and vacuum-sealed hagiographical reports of the lives of saints, but a story of a man with real passion, with real hunger, and with real anger against an equally real God, who allows bad things to happen to good people. The high point of the story from which he took the title was the challenge and the threat that he hurled against God at the height of his anger and frustration, being the impulsive and mercurial character that he was: “I’ll get even with you, God!” And he did. He became as saintly as an ordinary sinful mortal could be … maybe not a saint with plastered looks and glassy eyes, and one whose name appears in the elenco dei santi e martiri, but a saint as normal, ordinary sinful people could be, who sins more than just seven times a day.

But this is all beside the point I am trying to make. What I am pointing to is just as remarkable as his human way of relating to God, with his warts and all, but also his earthly and eminently human way of relating to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the mother of us all. He wrote: “The man in us needs a woman; the knight in us needs a lady; and the child in us needs a mother.”

I faintly remember a speaker back in the day when I looked at studies as a chore, and not a passport to liberation, when we would spend a great deal of the time sleeping in class, and complaining about professors who were talking against each other. Our professor in Spiritual Theology, a relatively known writer, told us that devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary ought to have at least three characteristics. It ought to be tender, true, and loving. If I understood him well, in between naps and chitchats, such devotion must be first, truly human with real human feelings. Such was a basic minimum. The heart must come into the picture. There is no such thing as a devotion to an idea. That, to my counselor’s mind, would be an OC thing (obsessive-compulsive trait). Second, it must be true. It cannot be all heart. The mind must cooperate in the whole venture. Heart and mind ought to work in tandem. One does not offer oneself to something not known, not understood, not perceived in toto. But the third has to do with the level of execution. It is the level, not only of knowing and feeling, but of action. The basic order of battle for the cognitive-behavior therapist is simply this: cognition, emotion, action. What we know, how we feel about what we know, explains what we do.

I am talking about good, old fashioned talk about human willing. It is the level of the doing. Forrest Gump, for all his being intellectually challenged, understood well what his mother used to tell him repeatedly: “Stupid is, as stupid does.” Agere sequitur esse. Action follows nature. Doing flows from being.

We are back to the ambience thing. We are back to the natural and supernatural habitat we move in as frontier beings, the habitat of the natural and the habitat of the supernatural – the order of nature and the order of grace.

Sister Bridge McKenna, I think, explains best what this closeness to Mary is all about for priests and religious like us. She hits the target when she alludes to the fact that in Mary, the two orders of nature and grace shines out so well, so clearly, so realistically. In her view of Mary and our relation to her that cannot be said to be high falutin theological insight, she nevertheless tells it like it is for us in her statement that is full of wisdom and insight. Urging priests to love Mary as sons, she said: “No wonder you priests are so close to her, for you both look at Jesus – she on earth and now in heaven, and you, in the Eucharist – and you both say, as no one else can, ‘This is my body; this is my blood.’”

When was the last time you saw your relationship to Mary in that way? When was the last time you imagined your relationship to Mary put in parallel lines with her relationship with Jesus, her Son, and our brother? Doesn’t this remind you of that worldly song “Somewhere Out There?” Beneath the pale moonlight, lovers see each other because they see the same big star in the firmament. That star unites people in love. That same star brings them towards closeness, intimacy, even in the distance, even though they are out of sight. Even in an earthly sense, we mean it when we say, we live by faith, not by sight.

How true are the thoughts of Hopkins! He refers to Mary as our atmosphere, the air we breathe, that among other things, filters the bright light of the sun, and makes them it bearable, makes it gently visible. Like the stained glasses in churches, the sun’s rays which symbolize God’s grace are sifted and filtered, and doled out so that we could withstand it, so that we could benefit from it in doses that we can bear. Truly, Mary is the Mother of Grace, not in the sense that she is its origin, but in the sense that as co-mediatrix, all that grace from the supernatural order, comes to us in the natural order, in a way that we can assimilate, and that way is provided for us by Mary, woman, lady, mother, queen, air wild, world-mothering air, as Hopkins calls her.

The role of mothers in priestly and religious vocations is beyond dispute. We do not need doctoral dissertations to show that. But we do need to know exactly what that role is, for better or for worse. Each of us needs to clarify exactly what role she is still playing right here, right now even if you are well into your thirties, or forties, whether you have transitioned through midlife, or you are currently going through its throes or woes, or joys, or triumphs as the case may be.

Recent decades of research by object relations psychologists have shown the world just how much primary caregivers have influenced, made or broken individuals through a poorly managed process of separation-individuation during the first 36 months of a person’s life. What transpired in those first three years, from the individual’s so-called “private logic” and point of view has immense consequences in the way we, even as priests relate to God, to authority figures, to mother figures, and to the Church, and the Congregation we belong to.

The late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York understood this very well when he wrote:

In my judgment, nothing advances vocations as does devotion of priests to the Eucharist and to Mary: I don’t know that any statistical studies have been done, but from what I observe, those dioceses in which Perpetual Adoration is widespread, personal Eucharistic worship on the part of priests is habitual, and devotions to Our Lady are highlighted – those are dioceses in which vocations flourish. Vocations aside, however, I am sure you will agree with me that commitment to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and to Mary, Mother of Priests, is as strong a lifeline as any priest could hold on to. I know how much I need that lifeline.

Connor, in relation to this, gives the following lines that help clarify the point of our reflection:

Mary might easily be called the Mother of Priests, since she is the mother of Him from whom their priesthood derives. Not only that, our Lord entrusted Him mother to the care of John, the beloved disciple, who stood in for each of us. Mary is, therefore, the universal mother of all humanity, not by a figure of speech, but by a command of her Son. All of us were spiritually begotten at Calvary; priests, then, can claim Our Lady’s spiritual motherhood in two ways. Finally the story continues beyond Calvary. Spiritual writers often note the presence of the Blessed Mother with the Apostles, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Her prayers, they tell us, were directed to her Son, specifically for those men He had chosen and appointed to spread His Gospel. Because of her closeness to the Church at its inception, the theology of the priesthood has always emphasized that the call of each priest has its origins in the merits of Christ and His Blessed Mother.

But all this does not detract from the primary topic of this reflection. Given our Filipino natural propensity to be rather close to our mothers in general, given the fact that culturally and historically and spiritually, we have always been known as “el pueblo amante de Maria,” we priests and religious could not afford to be any less, any different, any more disjointed from this laudable cultural, theological, and spiritual heritage. Whilst we are exhorted to give a close look at the way we look at the figure of woman, at the figure of mother as primary caregiver, at the image-representation of woman-mother in our psyche, we are also exhorted today, to build on what already is there – the tender, true, and loving devotion that most of us have for Mary.

We would do well to end this reflection with a prayer to Mary, the Mother of Vocations:

O Most Holy Virgin, we come to you to implore a great grace, in behalf of all the peoples of the earth. We ask of you laborers of the Gospel. You are our Mother and Queen of Apostles, you have obtained the grace of their ministry. Through your intercession, every vocation has come. Obtain for your Church and the whole world numerous and chosen priests, apostolic and holy persons, who are fervent with zeal and charity. Remember the command of your Son Jesus, when He said: “Pray therefore, the harvest Master that He may send workers to His harvest.” Hear us, O Mother, for the greatest comfort of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus. Amen.

Mary, Mother of Vocations, pray for us.