Thursday, February 26, 2009
The First Sunday of Lent presents us with a promise, a sign of that promise, and their fulfillment. Speaking to Noah about a new covenant, Yahweh promises no more destruction by flood. A sign of this covenant, Yahweh adds, is the rainbow, and the sign simply put, states: water shall no longer be a sign of destruction. Peter’s letter in the second reading takes up what the waters point to positively. Instead of destruction as in the flood, the waters shall connote salvation. The Gospel presents fulfillment, very literally. Jesus himself declares openly: “This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
A common thread unites all three readings today – the thread of conflict, hostility and destruction, symbolized apparently by the destructive floods, and the wild beasts with whom Jesus was for forty days and nights in the hostile desert. Despite the hostility and the conflict and the destruction, Yahweh promised the binding symbol of the bow that covered the firmament. It shall be seen as a symbol of the covenant between God and humanity and the world of nature.
We live in a hostile world. Marred by sin and the ever present tendency to sin, the world is witness to so much conflict, destructiveness, and all sorts of hostility. There is conflict in our political lives. There is a lot of hostility and potential escalation of conflict between and among civilizations all over the world.
Today’s Gospel shows us that Jesus was no stranger to conflict and hostility. Mark the evangelist tells us that “he was among wild beasts,” and that he was “tempted by Satan” all through those forty days of fasting, prayer and repentance. In the face of conflict, in the midst of wild beasts, he showed in his person and behavior the faithfulness of God. Steadfast in his resolve, Jesus did not just act like a rainbow that stood for the covenant between God and humanity and nature. He fulfilled in his person the demands of the new covenant promised to Noah.
We Christians are called to the same steadfastness and resoluteness. And the season of Lent is a perfect opportunity for us to become the bow that binds all the conflicting elements surrounding our personhood into oneness. By our own fasting, penance and prayerfulness, in imitation of Jesus meek and humble of heart, we pacify not only the external wild beasts that roam around us, but also – and, more importantly - the interior wild beasts in our hearts that stand at the root of our factionalism, divisiveness and sinfulness.
There is a whole lot of fragmentation and selfishness in our society today. There is too much of potentially explosive sources of conflict between ethnic groups, between nations and between whole civilizations. Mere symbolic, token gestures to patch up said conflicts will not do. We need the discipline of Lent in order to become binding rather than dissipating factors in our society. We all need to resort to that which Lent has for so long been asking all believers to intensify: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
TRIED, TESTED, AND TRUE
Our first reflection might have sounded like a lot of bad news. I ally myself with Peter Berger, who in his book “Invitation to Sociology” (1963) speaks of sociological principles and concepts as some kind of “bad news” to the uninitiated. But then awareness of what’s really going on is liberating. It gives us a perspective in which to discern, to understand things a little more, to see the bigger picture in which are framed deeper issues that are not obvious from the superficial plane. In preaching, as you all know, telling people the good news oftentimes necessitates our giving them first the bad news. It is called contextualizing. In biblical hermeneutics, we were told to look at the sitz im leben, the situation in life, for us to be able to make heads or tails of some obscure passage at hand.
It is enlightening to give a close look at where we are. But salvation, the concept that we started out with in the first talk, the grand narrative that is the product we are pushing as priests, preachers, and teachers, does not have to do with where we are. On the contrary, it has to do with where we are called, or more precisely, what we are all created for, invited to, and called to by God.
PCP-II beautifully puts it in the first opening paragraph. The terminus a quo, and the terminus ad quem that we work for is the call for us to turn “crisis” into “kairos.” It is a call to transform a culture of death into a culture of life. It is a call to revival, to a resurrection, a call from wallowing in shallow informative mode towards morphing into a deeper and committed performative mode.
About a year ago, I was having lunch with a former middle executive working for a big mass media broadcast outfit. The conversation turned to job backgrounds and experience and when I asked him where he was formerly connected with, he said: “I was with this media outfit, but I resigned.” I asked him why, and he said: “You probably won’t understand the reason why I did so.” I said, “try me … for all you know I might agree with you.” And he then told me resigned because he could no longer take it. That media outfit was, he said, the single biggest factor that contributed to the progressive dehumanization of the Filipino people. I told him, I could not agree with him more. That was what I had been saying since 1986, when I was principal in a big school right after the peaceful People Power revolution of 1986.
I speak about a main feature in Robinson’s “landscape of our lives” filled with the “contours of hopelessness” – the catalyzing force of the “media moment” that drives, hastens, and amplifies what time, space, and culture do to influence the postmodern consciousness. It is no secret that our collective psyche is “scripted in significant ways by the media,” as Robinson says (p. 103). With the fall of a dictatorship in 1986, came a rise in a very lively, excessively democratized world of mass media, which has since then, been busy “reorienting our lives” in ways we do not even notice. Reality TV, which really is a parody of reality, has invaded our private inner sanctums, and the world of entertainment has redefined values and put the “get-rich-quick-by-any-means-possible” mentality to the fore like never before, as shown by how hordes risk life and limb just to get a shot at instant stardom and instant cash by making a fool of themselves on primetime or lunchtime TV. The bottom line, for Robinson, is simply this, and I quote:
“The media moment with its emphasis on the brutality of life on earth and its sound-bite projections continues to shape the rational, thinking person in a manner that displaces the reality of God and the nature of hope. The media moment distorts our view of the created world, assigning values that often do not accord with the life of faith in God, in Christ in the Holy Spirit and offering such values as ‘reality’” (p. 106).
I think that the opening paragraph of PCP-II puts us right at the heart of what it means to offer hope to a world filled with these contours of hopelessness, and that is engaging in a progressive journey, and not just working for a finished product that is essentially what the postmodern world offers everyday. The world offers palliatives. For headaches, all one needs to do is to pop pills and presto, the headache is gone! For grief, all one needs to do is to create fun, to produce noise, to celebrate so as to quell the pain of loss or whatever kind of loss there is in our lives. The world offers a destination. Our Christian faith offers a journey, and in this journey, we are surrounded by fellow pilgrims, fellow travelers, spoken of by the letter to the Hebrews as “a cloud of witnesses.”
Josef Pieper (1963, pp. 89ss), following St. Thomas, offers an insightful glimpse into the hope that should be in us, despite the contours of hopelessness around us, in terms of two opposing concepts: viator as opposed to comprehensor. The man of hope, despite the erosion of faith, continues to be, and to embrace his status viatoris, his state of life as traveler. His stance is the exact antithesis of status comprehensoris, which is that of one who already has grasped what he is looking for. One who has in hand something he so pines for is already filled, already done. He is not a man in search. He is a man in possession. He doesn’t see himself anymore as one in process, but as one who possesses. And one who possesses does not anymore work for something. He is in a state of fullness and a full glass, as everybody knows, cannot contain more, cannot receive more.
I would like to speak from experience. I am nature lover. I am most happy when I am on a mountain trail, admiring the foliage, the gulleys and valleys, the heights, the nippy cold wind that slaps me gently in the face, the bitter cold that petrifies my joints at night, and the tingling icicles on grass that one treads on at early dawn. But whilst there is an indescribable sensation associated with being atop Mt. Pulag, for instance, there is nothing quite compared to the feeling of working one’s way toward the summit. The summit is there to behold at many spots along the way. One sees it constantly, but one constantly pines to reach it, to conquer the summit. The most exciting segment of any climb is the so-called “final assault” towards the peak. One is in a status viatoris … a state of moving on, of getting there, of attaining something that just days or hours before seemed like an impossible feat.
I remember climbing with a small group from Ayala Mountaineering Club back in 1990. I was out of shape then, having come from so many rapid changes in my life and from a short bout with fever and other health problems. I could not say no to the invitation. I joined because they expected me to say Mass atop Mt. Ugu, where three years earlier, an airplane had crashed against the mountain wall, as it approached to land in thick fog at Loakan airport. I was in utter misery as I climbed. Out of shape, out of the loop for some time before that, I felt like a burden to the group. And to top it all, I had butterflies in my stomach that necessitated my getting off the beaten track time and again, to relieve myself in the bushes. I probably was dehydrated. But the feeling of moving on, of forging ahead, of following the trail blazed by my companions on the way, was encouraging in itself. I was carried by the wings of hope, borne by the winds of longing for the heights, for completion, for fulfillment. I made it, but the best I knew was not in being up there looking with utter awe at the native edelweiss-looking flowers that dotted the exact point of impact where the plane all but disintegrated, the front part, instantly getting pulverized to oblivion. The best was in the struggle, the gradual step-by-step trek toward a point filled with promise and fulfillment. It was hope at its best. Not sure whether I could sustain it due to my slightly debilitated condition, I held on to something I did not know was certain.
The very interest in trekking was born out of an experience of darkness. At some point in my earlier life as a priest, I was bored and felt life was nothing but a routine. I did pretty much the same day in and day out. At that point, I found solace in early morning brisk walks in the darkness, while the rest of the world slept. As I walked, I sorted out things. As I walked, I conversed, bargained, and pleaded with God. As I walked, I realized that I came out with insights I usually didn’t get when I was in the office, buried in concerns that crowded out my ability to think things through in the spirit of serenity and calm objectivity.
I learned then what the wisdom of St. Augustine already offered the Christian world for centuries: SOLVITUR AMBULANDO … things are solved while walking. Things are solved in process, while one is in a journey, not when one is at his destination. The destination is the fruition of a process, and everyone who has gone for an extensive trip or international travel knows that the best part is not in the arriving, but in the process of getting there. The fruition cannot be actualized if the process is not dealt with.
I think that this is an important lesson for us on hope. We priests and religious are an impatient lot. We are also very result oriented. We want instant fruits. When we teach, we expect students to master everything we say. When we lead, we members of the clergy expect absolute obedience and compliance. It might interest us to note, that, speaking as a therapist, the rule of thirds applies to us too – that at least about a third of us are narcissists – self-centered and spoiled brats who would brook no opposition and who cherish being in power and wielding control over others.
Many of us want the glorious destination minus the grueling journey. We want the result, but make short-cuts on the process. We preach hope, but we cannot afford to be waiting upon the Lord to act in His own good time. We admire Job, but no … thanks, but no thanks. We would rather be a Moses forging trails across the desert and hitting rocks and finding sweet flowing waters, and lifting up a staff and greater bodies of water divide and separate.
We are sorely tested now in these postmodern times. In this age of skepticism, people mistrust us, for we stand as personifications of authority. Gone are the days when people considered us as the resident expert on just about anything under the sun, including the sun itself, when people ran to the clergy for anything, for advice, for solace, for guidance, and for everything else.
Given the fact that the product we are pushing has to do with the grand narrative of salvation, a narrative that still unfolds up till now, we priests almost appear to the postmodern youth as irrelevant if not outdated.
We are, again to repeat the words of Ruddy, “tested in every way.”
But the worst of times, is just one side of the story. Even Dickens knew that. The other side of this ongoing narrative is that these are the best of times for us to really be counter cultural, to jut out even like a sore thumb amidst a sea filled with the contours of hopelessness, and become collectively an oasis in a desert of hopelessness, indifference, and resignation.
My economist friends are unanimous in saying that the economic meltdown is not all bad. I believe them. Back in 1983, when the killing of Ninoy Aquino plunged this country into the dark ages of massive poverty and the disappearance of the middle class, our resiliency as Filipinos came to the fore. The best of us shone, and, in the midst of decay, new life thrived. Lugawans and a variety of street food were invented by enterprising Filipinos. Unable to afford more expensive fare, the Filipino palate adapted to things like “isaw,” “proben,” “day-old chicks” and the like. Tokwa’t baboy became a national dish, and lechon manok became party fare de riguer, spearheaded by the enterprising Mang Andok, now a household name all over.
We took everything in stride. We hit the ground running, not stalling in the mire of hopelessness and despondency. And despite the dark ages brought about by wrong and misguided decisions of the people then in power, we survived the six hour daily brownouts, and we came out to party in 1998 when APEC leaders came to give us one brief shining moment under the sun of golden opportunity.
We in the religious orders and congregations are a little despondent in many ways. Not too many are banging at our doors asking to be admitted. And those who do, pardon me, mostly need to be lifted up from some dark depths so that the famous scholastic line that says “gratia supponit naturam” can take effect in many of our candidates. Many of those who come to us, lack the basic skills and the foundational self-knowledge in order to make free choices after a few years of search. The families that produce them are for the most part, dysfunctional, and a variety of issues need to be dealt with before they can make mature and valid choices in life.
We are, indeed, tested in every way. We live in the worst of times. We live in the best of times.
I, therefore, suggest, that taking our cue from no less than Benedict XVI, who most recently wrote about being “saved in hope” (spe salvi), foremost among our tasks, (our munus, as pastors, priests, and preachers, is to be living examples of how hope is lived in our own personal and communal lives.
Our theological training and basic catechism have both taught us that hope is a theological virtue. There is no way, according to Pieper, that a philosopher can adequately speak about hope from the mere philosophical viewpoint. There can never be anything like a philosophy of hope, for hope by its nature is something given, something offered us. It is a gift from no less than God. And this gift has no less than God for its object. At the risk of trivializing Augustine, we can very well say this of hope, as Augustine does for faith: sperare Deum, sperare in Deum, et sperare Deo. The object, end, and witness of hope is God Himself. God and only God. Isn’t this what Benedict XVI so passionately reminds us:
“Man’s great, true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God – God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’” (#27). “This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (# 31).
But all this is informative. Benedict XVI invites us to transcend this and move on to the level of the performative. But make no mistake about it. The performative trait does not mean activism, political or otherwise. In the “settings” for learning and practicing hope, the first in the list is what we all should be at home with: prayer, as a school of hope. He says: “When no one listens to me anymore, God still listens to me.” (#32) But neither does it mean withdrawing into a hard shell of indifference. He continues:
“To pray is not to step outside of history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God – what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment – that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves” (#33).
But the real clincher to this performative hope is when the Pope speaks about action and suffering, action and passion. “Hope in a Christian sense,” he writes, “is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the perverse end” (#34).
And the second aspect, suffering, is where our liturgy tomorrow comes in handy. “Like action,” the Pope says, “suffering is part of our human existence.” We all know that he does not speak about “neurotic pain” which is mostly in a sense, self-inflicted. He speaks of redemptive suffering. And when we suffer, not on account of self-inflicted wounds or man-made situations, even as we try to banish it from out midst, when we sort of “ride the dragons” and “roll with the punches,” as it were in faith, “it is, however, hope – not yet fulfillment; hope that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations, aware that, as far as the external course of history is concerned, the power of sin will continue to be a terrible presence” (# 36).
This is the hope of one who is in a “status viatoris,” not one in “status comprehensoris.” This is the hope of people on pilgrimage, people on a journey. And St. Augustine’s sentence rings loud and clear for all of us: “solvitur ambulando.”
I end with a prayer from a favorite biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann. Using Psalm 54 as inspiration, he makes a prayer in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 WTC bombing. It is prayer worth our while to listen to and make our own. Even as we claim we hope, our very hope may be paralyzed by fear and our God is larger than fear.
We do not really know about running and hiding.
We do not have real sense, ourselves, of being under assault,
For we live privileged, safe lives.
Learning in a garden near paradise.
Nonetheless the fear and the prayer
Live close beneath the surface …
Enemies we cannot see,
Old threats lingering unresolved from childhood,
Wild stirrings in the night that we cannot control.
And then we line out our imperative petitions,
Frantic … at least anxious;
Fearful … at least bewildered;
Turning to you, only you, you … nowhere else.
In the midst of anxiety, confidence wells up,
In our present stress, old well-being echoes.
We speak and the world turns confident and grateful,
Not because we believe our own words,
But because of your presence,
Your powerful, bold, reliable presence
Larger than fear,
Larger than anxiety,
Large enough … and in our own small vulnerability,
We give thanks.
Benedict XVI (2007). Spe salvi: Encyclical Letter of His Holiness PP Benedict XVI.
Berger, P. L. (1963). Invitation to sociology: A humanistic perspective. New York: Random Books.
Brueggemann, W. (2003). Awed to heaven, rooted in earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
CBCP (1991). Acts and Decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines. Manila: PCP-II Secretariat.
Dietrich, D. (Ed.) (2006). Priests for the 21st Century. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Grassi, D. (2003). Still called by name: Why I love being a priest. Chicago: Loyola University Press.
Pieper, J. (1963). Faith, hope, love. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
Radcliffe, T. (2005). What is the point of being a christian? New York: Burns and Oates.
Robinson, E.A.(2004). These three: The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
Rosetti, S. (2005). The joy of priesthood. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.
Ruddy, C. (2006). Tested in every way: The catholic priesthood in today’s church. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.
Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
MARIA, MATER SPEI, STELLA MARIS
N.B. I am posting the first part of a talk I gave to a group of monastic religious and priests on February 7, 2009. The second part will follow soon.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
WHAT IS GOING ON?
I would like to take my cue for this talk from what tomorrow’s liturgy (5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B) would have us reflect on a whole lot. At the risk of being facetious and simplistic, I would like to suggest that our recollection can be helped in no small measure by being attuned to what liturgy offers us as cause for genuine celebration. We know that liturgy is basically a celebration in sign, song, symbol, word and gesture of THE event that mattered most for us, and that is the event called salvation.
Salvation … a word that we bandy about so freely, a word that has, over the recent past, lost both its power and its punch, its push and pull, and its promise, on the one hand, and its call to endless possibilities, on the other. If we go by what economists tell us, what with their sour and dour prognostications, then all our financial power has suddenly vanished like the thin dew in the early morning sun of economic meltdown. In what Christopher Ruddy (2006) refers to as a growing phenomenon of “distance and distrust” that seem to characterize so many of our institutions all over the shrinking globalized world, our concept of stability, solidity, and surety have all but vanished with Maddoff’s billions of dollars that evaporated into the thin air of hopelessness, now hovering all over the world, now reeling under the onslaught of receding prices, receding productivity, receding demand, and receding trust for one another. Why, even the glaciers that took millions of years for nature to build, are now receding themselves, and cracking dangerously, sending alarum bells of concern to environmentalists and ethicists alike. The world is busy trying to breed pandas and polar bears, but the same world is busy pandering to its desires for the more, the better, the higher in every way, thus effectively destroying the poor bears’ natural habitat. As we speak of salvation, more than just polar bears and panda bears are in danger of perdition – the opposite of salvation!
Salvation is now most difficult to define, digest, and much less, deliver to people. Where surety and certitude have gone out the window, what enters in through the wide, gaping door of disappointment is the shake-up ultimately of our spiritual moorings, once solid and stolid in our collective psyche, propped up by a premodern society that reveled in. and was at home with, the uncertainty of the seasons, the unpredictability of the weather, the total mystery attached to most everything people do, from planting to harvesting, to drying their produce in the sun, all the way up to storing them and taking them to market, oftentimes, falling victim to the rise and fall of prices subject to the mysterious law of supply and demand.
Everything was unpredictable, and what does one do to save oneself from losing it all and becoming a nervous wreck? We charge it all to faith. We dump it all on hope, and we refuse to even think that all of it happens as the workings of an unloving God, who is not concerned a wee bit about the welfare of His people. We still love Him. We still believe in him. Believing and belonging were all part of the package of our Christian faith. And when people believed and belonged, no matter what the trials might have been, we were assured of salvation. We rested assured that, despite all, God is close to the broken hearted.
Or is He?
The books I have recently come across with that speak about the priesthood, are somewhat, to put it mildly, a little schizophrenic (pardon the term). One book of Rosetti (2005) is entitled “The Joy of Priesthood.” Without in any way intending to sound like I am against the grain, I do give him credit for making much of the incontrovertible statistical data that say over 90 % per cent of clergy in America report themselves as “happy.” And then he devotes 13 chapters to giving tips on how this data can become truly a reality for all priests. But some titles seem to go to the opposite pole, like Ruddy’s (2006) “Tested in Every Way.” Dominic Grassi’s (2003) homely, engaging, and expansive style, focuses on concrete events in his many years of service as a priest, more often than not, characterized by intense moments of genuine inner joy and deep personal satisfaction, peppered though his life was, with things that don’t go anywhere near “joyful” and “satisfactory.” The books on priesthood written after what Fr. Richard Neuhaus referred to wryly as “the long Lent of 2002” immediately following the sexual abuse crisis in the United States, appeared to me to see-saw between being utter “praise releases” and a courageous facing up to the real issues at stake.
My approach to today’s reflection is more like in the persuasion of Timothy Radcliffe (2005), the former Master General of the Order of Preachers, who wrote a book, with a big, bold title emblazoned next to his awe-filled, and faith-filled – if, plaintive – countenance: “What is the Point of Being a Christian?”
I don’t pretend nor intend to make a summary of what he writes so eruditely in his valuable theological and literary gem. I would simply like to take my cue for the rest of my reflection today with you from that question (THE TITLE) which to my mind sounds as poignant as it is perspicacious and piercing …
What is the point of being a Christian when all of Europe is getting to become what the late atheist Italian writer Orianna Fallaci many years ago prophetically referred to as “Eurabia?” What is the point of being a Christian when we are surrounded, if not inundated, by and with, a vast ocean of humanity and society filled with what E. Robinson (2004) refers to as “contours of hopelessness?” What is the point of being a Christian when the so-called “media moment” has, for decades, especially in Philippine context, effectively taken the place of both school and church in shaping values and influencing societal morals and standards of what is legitimate and illegitimate behavior? What is the point of being a Christian when, despite the painstaking – and, I presume – objective reports by the World Bank on shady deals done by government people, all their conclusions and warnings can be swept away with the wave of a hand at a hasty, emotion-filled, and drama-rich telenovela-like congressional investigation?
What is the point? I would like to raise the issue that as Christian believers and as priests and religious, there is something eminently valid in our question today.
I would like to suggest that this question stands at the core of our capacity to engage in the act of meaning-making that is the hallmark of our being pastors, educators, and educational leaders. Our ability to articulate an answer to this basic question stands at the basis of all we do, all we are, and all we stand for as priests, as monastic and active religious, and as pastoral leaders in a nation that is fast drifting into a collective state of semi paralysis, and, if we let go of our guard, seems to be bent on becoming, not only among the most corrupt nations, but also a budding narco-state, run by a coterie of so-called public servants whose sole and only preoccupation is to safeguard their hold on power, privilege, prestige and position till the next sham elections come around.
But it is no rocket science that before we can attempt at giving an answer to this question, we first need to see exactly what the context in which the question is put forward. This first part of my talk, therefore, focuses on the “what” … What is going on? What exactly are we referring to? I believe that it is only when we understand what is going on, can we rightly and legitimately ask the question we started out with? What, then, is the point in being what we are, and what is the point in doing what we have been doing, and will continue to be doing down the road?
Let me begin by borrowing rather heavily from Ruddy (2006, pp. 18ss). He reports on the study done by the Canadian historian Scott Appleby who suggests that there are three challenges and three tasks facing the Church and its priests. The first is what Appleby calls the “challenge of skepticism.” At its core is the raging doubt about reason’s ability to come to reliable conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality. Basically a reaction to the Enlightenment, which enshrined reason as the ultimate answer to the riddle of existence, this trend of skepticism is behind the postmodern crisis of reason and the rise of moral relativism. Reason has been applied to every perceived or real problem in the past. For many it took the form of technologism, that reduced every problem and its solution to finding the right technological tool to banish it. But it did not take the world long to know that as Peter Senge said, “the solution of today is the problem of tomorrow” (1990). Plastics poised decades ago as the perfect solution to the problem of packaging. Now, the world does not know what to do with the plastic bags that are produced by the world to the whopping tune of 3,000,000 a minute, every single one of them needing about a thousand years to degrade!
The second challenge is the “erosion of biblical and theological literacy.” A certain “hermeneutic of suspicion,” is applied before authority and their tendency to weave grand narratives like “progress” or “redemption.” Postmodern people are averse to metanarratives, and any grand institution espousing such far-ranging and grand designs are met with indifference at best, and hostility, at worst. We do not have to go too far to see its effects in our culture. The western solar new year and the Chinese lunar new year, were both met with a bang and an unprecedented flair in Philippine setting of late. Hordes of “experts” in feng shui flew in from Hong Kong, paid for by the two giant warring media networks. In the run-up towards the celebration of Chinese New Year, the Filipino people were barraged with everything Chinese, like as if, all of a sudden, we were like Vietnam, which happens to have been under Chinese hegemony for 1,000 years! The receding images of biblical figures that used to dominate our collective consciousness have now been effectively replaced by crystals, by aromatic candles, all sorts of aromatherapy techniques and products, and a whole lot of hullabaloo attached to animal figures like oxen, monkeys, dogs, goats and others in the Chinese horoscope.
But the same biblical and theological illiteracy offers what seem to be conflicting signs as our people navigate through the maze of uncertainty, lack of surety, and a whole lot of confusion in the arena of economics, politics, and other arenas. Whilst the theological foundation of our societal lives continues to recede, hordes of fanatic “devotees” to the Black Nazarene, and the Santo Nino increase almost exponentially every year. We happen to be the only country where the original image of the Christ Child has assumed a rapid evolution and what used to look like an exact replica of what is found in Prague, in Spain, or elsewhere, has become a cute, chubby little boy, dressed in all imaginable form, guise, and appearance.
What is going on exactly?
The first and the second challenges coalesce and combine to produce a third challenge: “a fractious pluralism that undermines the possibility of a genuinely diverse but unified moral and religious community.” Whilst diversity and pluralism, per se, are not bad, the trend seems to be pointing toward unhealthy new forms of tribalism in which one group’s identity is defined against the identity of the other group. Healthy self-differentiation is replaced by unhealthy opposition. The misplaced passion that we see in certain fundamentalist groups, whether Christian or otherwise, and their rabid dedication to their groups’ mindset are a frightening case in point. The currently increasing phenomenon of Catholics identifying with opposing sides of the religious spectrum that pits conservatives against progressives is another case in point.
I have been a priest for 26 years. Once, invited by friends in a parish in Northern VA, to celebrate my 24th year as a priest, I was getting ready for Mass in the sacristy. Two newly ordained priests attached to the parish obviously on one side of this spectrum literally ordered me to wear my stole inside the chasuble. Whilst personally I have always preferred to wear the stole inside the chasuble, that day, the one I brought that fitted me was the external one that we are more used to here in the Philippines. I didn’t take offense, but I felt a little turned off by what appears to be the air of intolerance for something that didn’t really matter a whole lot in terms of theological validity and liceity. Such cockiness and rabid attachment to one’s position is a clear case that illustrates the tendency to “shore up religious authority and truth” and facetious “appeals to inerrancy and infallibility” and the “demonization of one’s opponents as insufficiently pure or orthodox” (cf. Ruddy, pp.18ss).
I have been a teacher for 32 years. I began as an emaciated newly professed brother teaching catechism and a little of English and a smattering of other subjects. I taught High School and College, and for the past 17 years, post college, teaching theology students Moral Theology and Pastoral Psychology. Every year, I see additional challenges. Every year, I pine for times past when students were more ready to be students and more prepared to do normal student routines like writing scientific papers, and the like. Now, aside from the need to go back to English 101, one simply feels like making an uphill climb all the time, trying, first and foremost, to establish a common language in order to engage in meaningful discourse.
This is, to borrow the phraseology of Robinson (2004), the “landscape of our lives.” This terrain is characterized by what she calls “contours of hopelessness.” The elements that make up such contours are basically the same challenges that Appleby speaks about: the compression of time, the contraction and at the same time, expansion of space, the cultural landscape produced by the first two, and the phenomenon of the “media moment” as the catalyzing and hastening principle behind the rapidly changing signs of the times.
In plain language, our hope and the ability to set our sights on things that are above, are effectively compromised. Hope has become replaced by a shallow rationality, cynicism, and downright despair – the thought and attitude that there is not much we can do about it. Let me put it like no one else can better do. I quote Robinson:
“Time, space, and culture, as accelerated by the media moment, converge to burden and weigh us down like leg irons, dragging us in the direction of hopelessness. It seems that God is not solving the problems of this world, and our human attempts to do so, time and again, prove to be futile” (2004, p. 108).
I couldn’t find better words to wrap up this first part of my talk, other than quoting PCP-II, itself paraphrasing good old Charles Dickens: “We live in the worst of times. We live in the best of times. But only if crisis is made to become kairos. And we seize the grace of the moment and respond to its challenge. As we should, always, in faith.” (#1)
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
As individuals and as families, we have our ups and downs. We pass through various “seasons of our lives.” Some days can be sunny and bright; others may be dark and dreary. Whatever type of day comes our way, whatever reaction one might have to sun or shade, there is one thing we can be sure of. Life goes on. And the coming of a new day and whatever surprises it brings, is never dependent on our expectations and wishes, our inner disposition, and our worthiness or unworthiness.
Into everyone’s life, some rain has to – and does – fall! This seems to be what Job is acknowledging matter-of-factly. He compares himself to “a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages” (Job 7:2). Never at a loss for words to describe his misery, Job more than aptly stands for a great many of us who may be undergoing their own share of “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number.” Job tells a story that sounds all too familiar to many of us. They are stories that, as a priest, I have been privileged to listen to, and empathize with, over the many years I have been journeying with others in faith and life. The stories sound so alike and yet so different. They are so alike in the sense that all, bar none, are not immune to suffering and pain. They are so alike, too, in the sense that the pain each one feels is deeply personal and far-ranging in terms of consequences. They are so different in the sense that deep pain can be occasioned by a multiplicity of causes and surrounding circumstances, which are as many and as varied as there are people experiencing them.
There is something in the Liturgy of today for people deep in the throes of suffering. God does not take away the pain, it seems to me. God does not offer to make the pain go away. Not necessarily. But the readings tell us something for sure: God is close to the brokenhearted! God is on the side of those who suffer in any way. God offers a gentle reminder for those in pain: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds…the Lord sustains the lowly, the wicked he casts to the ground.” (Ps 147:3,6)
St. Paul stands for this God who is close to the suffering when he also alludes to himself as a slave, willing to go the extra mile and become like others are: “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Cor 9:22).
God is indeed close to the suffering. This, Jesus shows in concrete signs in today’s Gospel passage, alleviating the pain of those brought to him, including Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. God shows himself close to and on the side of those who suffer in any way.
But there is yet one thing we can safely deduce from today’s liturgy, which is no less true and no less important than the foregoing. This is the fact that there is something we who suffer can do despite the suffering and the pain: help others in their own pain, that is, become healers though wounded ourselves. This is what Paul did. “All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it” (1 Cor 9:23). For the sake of the Gospel, Paul became all things to all men, even to the point of calling himself a slave like Job did.
Jesus today even offers a heartwarming example of empathic and active concern for a particular family predicament. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. In Jesus, God’s solicitude for the suffering took on concrete manifestation. In Paul, the same love for the suffering was shown in his willingness and readiness to walk in other people’s shoes, as it were. In Job, we see God’s long- suffering nature and patience. In him too we see a shining example of humble acceptance and resignation to whatever God allowed him to undergo. Job faced suffering without equal, with nary a passing thought to go against the God he believed in.
Among others, Filipinos still show a lot of this trait extolled by today’s readings. Filipinos are close to those who suffer, to the downtrodden, to those who are considered underdogs. How else explain the popularity of telenovelas, and the propensity of Filipinos to identify with those who suffer unjustly? How else explain the fact that for many families, the knowledge that another family is currently facing some difficult trial or at least needs help, would immediately send lola or nanay to that household to provide some help? In many cases, the person really does not need to do anything, nor give anything. In most cases, the poor who have nothing, are those who really help others just as materially needy as themselves. But they give what no money can really pay for: themselves. Their presence and obvious concern for the needy is more than money can buy. Pakikiramay is the untranslatable word for this Filipino trait that stands so close to the nature of God extolled in today’s liturgy: God is close to the brokenhearted. Wagas ang pakikiramay ng Diyos sa nagdurusa at nagdadalamhati! Praise the Lord, who heals the brokenhearted!