Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Reflections for Adoration (September 10, 2008)

On the night he was betrayed, he took bread, he gave you thanks. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.

The spiritual writer, Henry Nouwen, points to four important actions in the celebration of the Eucharist that we can say mirrors the life of a seminarian or priest. The bread at mass, he says is (1) taken, (2) blessed, (3) broken, and finally (4) given or shared.

We are in fact “taken”. Called to leave behind the lives we used to live, in order to follow Christ more closely. We are in fact “blessed”. Our very calling is a blessing. Our being here is a blessing, and one day, as priests, we will be “given” and “shared” with others. “Taken”, “blessed”, “shared”— easy enough to understand, easy enough to accept. But “broken”?

On the 19th of this month, I will celebrate the 10th year anniversary of finishing my doctorate in Belgium. I defended the dissertation on the 19th of September 1998, packed my bags on the 20th, and headed back to Manila on the 21st. I wasn’t a priest yet, but four days later—I hadn’t even gotten over jetlag, I was made spiritual director in the seminary (with 39 directees—I kid you not) professor of philosophy and theology, and diocesan librarian. I said to myself: “I can do this”. I had such a great time, even if I was so busy.

A few months later in December of 1998, I was ordained a priest, was made vocation director and seminary counselor and director of human formation. Again I said to myself, “I can do this”. A month later, I got appointed professor of philosophy and theology at two of the largest universities in the country. And again I said, “I can do this”.

Two years after ordination, I was asked to give up being spiritual director and was made Dean of Men. Was asked to preach the clergy retreat for all 1700 priests of the Archdiocese of Manila, and in the same year, made to preach the homily at the cardinal’s anniversary mass attended by the president of the country, tons of government officials, the papal nuncio, and bishops from all over the world. Again I said, “I can do this”.

Why do I share these things with you? I share them because it was amidst all these experiences in which I kept saying “I can”, that I came face to face with one of the toughest experiences in the priesthood, the realization, that “I can’t”. One day, coming back to the seminary after five hours of class at the Jesuit university, early morning mass, and two spiritual direction sessions after supper, I broke down, in my room. I wanted to run away. I wanted to become a priest, and I sure was enjoying the flurry of activity, but I realized I had run out of steam. The energy had all but dissipated.

I called up one of the old Jesuits and poured my heart out. “You’ve been doing it all by yourself”, he said. “Where is Christ in the picture? Where is Jesus in all this? Have you given him any role to play at all? There’s no question, you can do a lot of things. But you really can’t do them alone. You’re not superman! And you’re not being asked to save the world. Jesus already did that two thousand years ago”.

I had a lot of experiences of being “broken” as a seminarian. That was my first experience of it as a priest.

“He took the bread, he gave you thanks. He broke the bread”.

This past week I had several conversations with some of you, conversations I’ve had before with students, conversations I myself had with my professors when I was a seminarian.

“Father, I don’t understand. All this philosophy is getting me confused. What happened to truth? What happened to certainty? What happened to all those things I’ve held dear? What’s going to happen to my faith?”

There is, as those of you who are new, and those of you who have been in this journey for some time now, will realize—a “shattering”, a “breaking” that we all have to go through, as seminarians, and yes, as priests. And that can be a disconcerting, perplexing, confusing, and anxiety-inducing experience. To feel yourself yanked off your former certainties and be asked almost to take certain things on faith—that can’t be easy.

There is a very real experience of being “broken” and being “shattered” in seminary—just as the students of Socrates gradually found their old certainties broken down and shattered. As I’ve told those of you who’ve been with me in class, philosophy has that tendency—it will deconstruct, dissect, and pull apart many of the certainties we hold dear. And this involves not only former certainties about your faith. At some point, you will also discover things about yourselves, realize and recognize things, both good and not so good, things about yourselves that you'll be proud of and things you'd probably feel a bit embarrassed about. You will sometimes feel your very own selves "deconstructed" and "broken apart'.

But the difference between what philosophy often does and what Jesus does is that Jesus “breaks us down” so that he could reform and refashion us, so that he could rebuild us into something and someone stronger, someone wiser, someone better than the person who first stepped foot in this place. Because it is the only way by which he can mold us into the man God wants us to be. And it is the only way by which we can truly give and share our own experiences with those we shall be serving one day as priests.

On the night he was betrayed, he took bread, he gave you thanks. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said, Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.

Taken, blessed, broken, and shared. Do not fear the “breaking”. Do not fear the “shattering”. Put your lives in the hands of Christ. Trust that he is rebuilding and refashioning your life into something better, into something new. Do not fear being “broken”. Christ will not disappoint you.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)