Friday, December 30, 2011

Remembering the simplicity and gentleness of our childhood Christmases (Reflections on the week of Christmas, 2011)

“Ano ang gusto mong maging, paglaki mo?” (“What would you like to be when you grow up?”) Didn’t we use to ask each other that question when we were kids? And weren’t we ourselves asked that question by adults or other children?

This past week, I had the opportunity to talk to a gentleman who was seeking counsel about the direction of his life. (I did ask his permission to share the point of our conversation, albeit in a very general way, so that others might benefit from his story.)

“My life has all but unraveled, father”, were his first words. “I don’t know what to do anymore. It seems my life is spinning out of control. I’m not a bad person, and I’ve always tried to do my best, but my life seems to have just lost all focus and direction.”

He then proceeded to share the many challenges and problems he was facing, many of which were of his own making. “I really don’t know what happened to my life. I think I just woke up last week and realized I’m in my mid-40’s and my life’s been slipping away. And I can’t seem to know what to do about it”.

There’s a line in a song that goes: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. We do tend, on numerous occasions, to lose focus. We busy ourselves with a thousand and one peripheral things, in the process of which we fail to realize we’re losing sight of the few really important and essential ones. Our lives become more and more complex, more and more complicated, and then one day, suddenly, we wake up and realize, we’ve gotten older. But what has happened to our years? What happened to our original goals, visions, and dreams? Did we fall asleep and then just suddenly wake up?

Something that gentleman said during our conversation left me with something to seriously think about all throughout this past Christmas week: “I miss my childhood Christmases; they were far more simple then. You know, I miss my childhood. Life was much more simple”.

He then began to tell me of how his family would go to midnight Mass on Christmas, exchange gifts before sitting down for their Christmas meal. The kids all got simple toys from their parents, and they in turn would get their parents something simple they’d save for with their lunch money. The following day it was visits to their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and godparents. “Life was so simple then. Even as I was growing up, it was simple. Now it’s out of control,” he kept repeating. I noticed he was crying while he told me of his childhood Christmases.

When he was done. I said to him, “You know what, I believe it’s the same for all of us. We look back to those days and remember how simple, gentle, and good life was, even if our families weren’t perfect. But we all know, there’s no going back. Life just gets more complicated as we get older; and sometimes, we do feel like things have gotten out of hand, and we’ve lost a great deal of control. And we long to go back, turn back the hands of time, wipe the slate clean, and if only we could, start over.”

Don’t we all, from time to time, find ourselves saying these things, looking back to our childhood and wishing we could return to a simpler and gentler age? When we were still full of hopes and dreams, and they seemed very easy to achieve, when we used to ask one another and be asked: “Ano ang gusto mong maging pag-laki mo?” (“What would you like to be when you grow up?”) - To which we could give any answer we wanted. It isn’t something we’re asked anymore as adults. Nor is it something to which we could now give any answer we want.

Just a few weeks ago, one of my former students was asking me what I would’ve been had I not chosen to become a priest. “A doctor, that’s for sure; or a lawyer or architect. Those were my choices.” “That’s it?” the kid said, and then followed it up with another question, “Was there anything else you wanted to become?” “Yup. I wanted to be a fireman!”

Our lives may not have become as complicated and problematic as that of the gentleman who sought my advice, but we all from time to time feel like we’re slowly losing sight of those things we’ve valued and held dear for as long as we could remember, and we long for a time when life was more simple.

With all the ‘craziness’ and ‘busyness’ that we adults put into preparing for its celebration (“When its is over, I can finally breathe”, was how a friend of mine put it.), the Christmas Season could in fact provide us with the opportunity to stop and consider how complex our lives may have become and whether or not it is still possible to recover even a bit of that gentleness and simplicity of our childhood.

I am not suggesting that we try to recover all of it; there’s no turning back time. But that doesn’t mean that we have to allow our life to just slip out of our hands and allow it to become more and more complicated until we eventually wake up one day and discover that life is controlling us rather than we ourselves directing our own lives.

Perhaps that’s why Christmas always strikes a chord in the hearts of many, but it’s also why it’s most meaningful for children. When we look at them, we remember, not so much our Christmases past, but the simplicity of our childhood years. Sadly, as adults, we too easily dismiss those feelings, thinking they’re nothing more than sentiment and nostalgia. And then we get back to our daily routine, the daily grind, we pinch ourselves or slap ourselves back to what we believe is “reality”.

But while it’s true that there is no turning back, while it’s true that an adult must live in an adult world, it is always possible to leave a space, deep inside us, where the simplicity and gentleness of our childhood will forever remain fresh and alive, waiting for us to return to it at moments of turmoil, stress, anxiety, fear, worry, and especially at those times when we feel that our life is beginning to unravel in its complexity.

We’ve all heard that line, “Christmas is in the heart”; so is simplicity, and so is our childhood – when all was still fresh, when all was still new, when all was still hopeful, when life was still a wide-open door.

This Christmas Season, may the Son of God, born of simple parents, in a simple manger, visited by simple shepherds, awaken in each one of us the desire to keep our childhood Christmases forever alive in our hearts, by keeping that space deep inside us, where life will always be simple, where we shall always be filled with joy, and hope, and that eagerness (perhaps even giddiness) with which children greet the morning of Christmas day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I shall cast my lot with a God who never fails (Reflections on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-38)

In his book “Fear and Trembling”, the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard spoke of what he called a “knight of faith”, that is, a person who is so utterly convinced of two things: the sheer impossibility of something, and the absolute possibility of the very same thing.

“But is that not absurd? How could the possible and the impossible co-exist? That’s like saying day can become night”, a student once asked during one of my philosophy classes. And Kierkegaard’s words can indeed be deeply perplexing, if not downright confusing.

Still, there is a profound yet subtle, and thus often unnoticed difference between an absurdity and a paradox; for while an absurdity paralyzes thought, rendering it impotent, a paradox pries thought open, making it susceptible to greater depth. An absurdity is a dead-end; a paradox, the discovery of paths yet to be taken.

As such, the knight of faith embraces, not an absurdity, but a paradox; and he embraces it fully. He does not run away from it but welcomes it with open arms and immerses himself in it. For in doing so, he knows in his heart of hearts that there is a far greater power, a far more formidable force, a far greater strength that shall embrace and welcome him with open arms like that of a Father, who tugs a beloved son or daughter as close as he can to his heart, in order to assure him: “There is nothing to fear. All shall be well”.

And because of his conviction in the force and strength of this assurance, the knight of faith is able to take a leap into the unknown, trusting only that God will always be there to catch him.

In the same book, Kierkegaard names two persons whom he says qualifies perfectly to be called “knights of faith”: Abraham, and Mary. Abraham because he knew that while giving up his firstborn, God will give him back his son, and Mary because she would have a son even if she had no relations with a man. In fact, Kierkegaard quotes the words from the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke.

The key to understanding the ability to make this “leap of faith” is the 37th verse of the First Chapter of Saint Luke. In Greek we read, ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα - hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. (“For nothing will be impossible for God”.) More literally translated though, it means: “The word of God is not unable”, or “Every word of God accomplishes what it says” - which has often been translated: “Nothing is impossible with God”.

Mary’s “leap of faith”, her total and unambiguous “yes” to Gabriel’s message from God was a sign of a complete and radical trust in a God who never fails, who keeps his word, and accomplishes what he says.

“Nothing is impossible with God”. Could more beautiful words have ever been spoken, words that kill fear at its very root? If fear is truly faith’s greatest enemy, then confidence and trust in a God who can never fail—for whom “nothing is impossible”—is faith’s greatest anchor and shield.

But are they simply beautiful words?

In late May of 1995, a young man who had received a scholarship to do an advanced degree from a university in Europe was walking back to his residence with the treasurer of the college, a soft-spoken gentleman named Daniel.

Three years before that, in early 1992, his superiors had informed him that he was being sent abroad for further studies and that he should prepare everything for his eventual departure. Being all but 21, he was naturally hesitant, even anxious; but convinced by his spiritual director that this was part of God’s plan for him and the work he may eventually be asked to do in the church, he obeyed.

At the last minute though, while not completely pulling the plug from the whole affair, his superiors informed him that while he was still free to leave for his studies, no financial assistance would be forthcoming. He was to be on his own. “It’s a trial”, his spiritual director assured him. “Go, and don’t worry. God will take care of you”.

And so off he went, venturing into totally unknown territory, studying as hard as he could in his first two years of advanced studies, doing his best to prove to himself that he was worthy of the trust given to him by his superiors.

When he completed his first degree, he wrote them, saying: “I’ve done my best to do as you’ve instructed me, and did well even without your assistance. I hope I’ve somehow managed to prove that I am serious about what I’m doing and that I have no intention of taking you for a ride. My spiritual director has assured me this is God’s will for me. At this point I would like to know if you are now willing to support me?”

The response came quickly: “Yes. Ask the college treasurer to send us the information. We will now support you”. Imagine the joy and consolation he felt; he had finally proven himself worthy of their trust.

On that late afternoon of May 1995, however, as he strolled back to the residence with the man who had, just a year ago, sent all the information his superiors required, an odd question popped into his head. “I wonder if my tuition for the previous year has already been paid in full?” he decided to ask the gentleman walking with him.

“Don’t bother yourself with those matters”
, came the reply. “It’s exam time; that’s what you should be bothering yourself with”. He felt his heart beat faster. “Come on now”, he pleaded. “Don’t you think I should know. It does concern me after all”.

Daniel, the treasurer, stopped, scratched his head, took a deep breath and simply said: “Maybe you should go ask the college president. He’s in a better position to answer your question”. The young man’s heart beat even faster; all he could think of was getting to the residence as quickly as he could so he could catch the rector and make his inquiry.

As soon as he entered the green doors of the college, he made a dash for the president’s office. David, a religious priest had been college rector and president for two years now; he was sitting at his desk, getting ready to end his work day.

“Hey David”
, he said as he knocked on the door that was always left open for anyone who wanted to drop by. “You have a minute”? “Come in, have a seat”, David replied. “What can I do for you?” Trying to catch his breath, his heart feeling like it was beating a thousand times a minute, he managed to utter five words: “Has my tuition been paid?”

There was an awkward silence that probably lasted no more than ten seconds; for him though, it might as well have been ten minutes, even ten hours. “Don’t bother yourself with those matters”, came the response. “Don’t you have exams tomorrow? Just go back to your room and study.”

At that point, he felt a hardness in his chest, a lump in his throat, and pincers squeezing his temples. He had been standing all this time. Now he finally had to sit as he felt his knees buckling. “David, you have to tell me the truth,” he said. “I need to know. Otherwise, I can’t study. I won’t even be able to sleep. I’ll probably fail tomorrow’s exam”.

The rector took a deep breath, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Well, you really shouldn’t worry about these things; but since you insist on knowing. No, your tuition for this year has not been paid”.

The young man felt as if a ten-ton boulder had been dropped on him. He had been suspecting something for the past couple of weeks. He wasn’t certain why, but deep inside there was that nagging suspicion that things weren’t quite right. He began to cry.

“Where in heaven’s name am I going to get that kind of money this late in the school year? Why did they not just tell me, no. Why was I promised help, only to be denied, then not be told that nothing was forthcoming? What am I going to do?”

At that moment, he wasn’t quite sure if there was anyone left that could be trusted. Sensing the seriousness with which the young man had taken the matter, the rector put his hand on his shoulder and said: “Listen, I told you earlier, not to worry. Right now, your business is to study and prepare for your exams tomorrow and the rest of the week. Let me worry about these things. I want you to go back to your room, take a deep breath, say a prayer, and after having regained your composure, study as hard as you can for your exam tomorrow. Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best”, he replied. “But before you go, let me ask you something. Do you believe in what you’re doing?” David asked.“Of course, I do!” he replied. The rector paused, then continued. How convinced are you that what you’re doing is going to create good both for yourself and other people?” “Totally convinced!” came the reply. “Do you believe God can work wonders?” “What kind of question is that? Absolutely. I do!” “Good", said the rector. "Now go. You have an exam to prepare for.”

The young man left the rector’s room, still with a heavy heart, but determined to block out, at least for the remainder of that night, anything that could distract him from the urgent business at hand, studying for a grueling oral exam in philosophy the following day.

The next morning, as he was about to leave the building to head over to the exam venue, the rector called him to his office. “You have a minute?” David asked. “Sure. My exam isn’t till an hour from now. I just want to get there early”, he replied. “Have a seat.”

Again there was a brief moment of silence that felt like an eternity; but unlike the one of the previous evening, this one had none of the awkwardness. In fact, he sensed something different, something good.

“You remember those questions I asked you last night?” “Yes, I do”. “Do you remember the last one?” “Yes. You asked if I believed God works wonders.” “That’s right”.
The rector paused, took a deep breath and smiled. “Well, he has.” “What do you mean?”

“What will you say if I told you your problem has been solved?” “You’re kidding, right?” He wanted to jump out of his seat and hug the rector, but he controlled himself, not sure if this was a joke or something. “No, I’m serious”, David said, pursing his lips and slightly nodding his head.

“Your tuition for this past academic year has been paid”.
“By my superiors back home?” he asked, holding one last sliver of hope that they had come through for him. “No. By a generous person who also believes in what you do, and believes that you can do much good for other people later on”.

The young man began to cry; but unlike his tears of the previous night, these were tears of relief and gratitude. God had come through for him, through the kindness of persons he hardly knew.

“And that’s not all”, the rector interrupted his quiet sobbing. “Your tuition for all your years of study have been assured. You can finish all the degrees you need finish; you have nothing more to worry about. The people you trusted may not have come through for you this time, but that’s alright. God has. And that’s all that matters.”

The young man, stood up, hugged the rector tight, said thanks, and rushed to his philosophy exam (which he aced by the way, despite the sleepless night).

He spent several more years at that place, made new and really wonderful friends from all over the planet, expanded his horizons by meeting amazing people from so many countries, completed several degrees, including a doctorate which he defended with flying colors; but most of all, he grew in understanding, appreciation and confidence in a God who, in his rector’s words, “can do wonders”.

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. Hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. “Nothing is impossible with God”.

The words of Scripture are true. They aren’t just beautiful words.

I know; because I was that young man.

And for as long as I live, I will never forget those deep, dark and dizzying, yet absolutely magnificent moments on that late afternoon of May 1995, and the equally awesome moments of the following morning, and the following years! For it was then, and (as I discovered in the many years that followed) that my trust and confidence in a God who can never fail, was finally and forever set in stone. And it is with him that I have, ever since, chosen to cast my lot, for I know He will never fail me.

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα. Hoti ouk adunatesei para tou theou pan rema. “The word of God is not unable”. “Every word of God accomplishes what it says.”

“Nothing is impossible with God”. They’re not just beautiful words; they’re true.

[That experience on that afternoon in May, in that beautiful university town in Belgium called Louvain, at the seminary known simply as “The American College”, enabled me to better understand what the Blessed Mother felt at the Annunciation, when Gabriel spoke those immortal words to her: "Do not fear... nothing is impossible with God". And it has allowed me, with every passing day of my life as a priest, as a seminary professor, as a Christian, and as a man, to proclaim with Mary: “The Almighty has done great things for me; and holy is His name!” Those who put their trust completely in God, will not be disappointed. He never fails.]

Friday, December 9, 2011

We are no more than paths, pointers-along-the-way; Christ alone is the point. (Reflections on the Third Sunday of Advent, John 1:6-8, 19-28)

A few years ago, when I began teaching at Providence College in Rhode Island, I remember standing outside the classroom before classes started. I wasn’t dressed in clerics and had a heavy jacket on. One of the students waiting in the hallway, turned to me and said: “You in this philosophy class too?” I nodded. “Dude", he continued, "I hope this guy Santos doesn’t turn out to be a sleeping pill, or I’d just die!”

A couple of minutes later, as they took their seats in class and I took mine at the professor’s seat in front, the kid turned red as a ripe tomato when he realized I was the teacher and not one of his classmates. He came up to me after class and apologized; we both had a good laugh. I have a lot of student-stories I’ve jotted down over the years, a number of them funny, a few not-so-funny, a couple sad ones, but always good ones.

Each time a semester ends, and every time I celebrate mass at a parish and greet people as they leave—I always find myself asking: “Did I make a difference?” “Did my teaching make a difference in the lives of my students?” “Did my preaching make a difference in the lives of those with whom I celebrated the Eucharist?”

I remember attending a young friend’s graduation once; she was the youngest of five children At the reception afterwards, I had the opportunity to have a brief conversation with her parents who had also become good friends. “We’ve done our best to teach her well, father”, the mom said to me. “My husband and I have tried really hard to share all our values and principles with our kids. Now that our youngest is done with college, we’re happy,” she paused, then continued, “but I guess there will always be that apprehension whether we’ve prepared them well for life or not. I hope so. But it’s really hard to tell”.

It is often hard to tell. At the end of last semester, I was telling one of my students that I had completed my 31st semester of teaching. And over the past couple of days, as I did my readings, my prayer, my journal, I decided to go over my old school and student records that are still saved in one of my computer files. In fact, I still have the lists of all the students Ive taught since I began teaching in 1995. Anyway, as I was going through my lists, I’ve discovered that I’ve taught approximately 120 classes, taught around 3500 students—on three continents, at seven seminaries, nine universities, and have celebrated at least 2800 masses. That’s a lot of words!

Do our words make a difference? Do we even make a difference? Did the countless words I have spoken at the courses I’ve taught, the masses I’ve celebrated, the conferences and seminars I’ve given, made any difference at all?

Do the words of advice, caution, teaching, admonition of parents who wish to impart their values and principles to their children, ultimately make a difference? What impact do the words, actions, and examples of teachers have on their students? How much of them will these young men and women remember? What effect will they have on their future lives?

A few years ago I had a student who had shown much promise in school. He was bright, hardworking, was a normal, well-balanced young man. He left in the middle of his college studies, and while he kept in touch for a while, after some time, I stopped hearing from him. A couple of years later, I learned from one of his friends that he had gotten involved in a gang, did drugs, killed someone, and was now in jail. I didn’t know the details of what had actually happened to him, but to this day, whenever I think of that former student, I couldn’t help but wonder: “Did I make a difference in that kid’s life?”

It’s one of those questions priests, doctors, teachers, counselors, and many others in the helping professions find themselves asking every once in a while. “Did I make a difference?” And I’m sure you have found yourselves asking that question as well. Whether it’s to your family, your friends, your classmates, or the people you meet or serve in the many things you’re asked to do as seminarians.

When I was newly-ordained and was particularly concerned whether I was being effective in what I was doing, I remember talking to Albert, an old Belgian missionary priest who had been in the missions for more than 50 years. "Don't worry about it", he said. "We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering. He does the nurturing. He does the harvesting as well. All you can do is plant the seeds”.

John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in the NT, second only to Jesus. In fact Jesus himself says, in another part of Scripture:
“no man born of woman is greater than John”. (Luke 7:28) And yet, over and over again, we encounter John in Scripture saying he is no more than the messenger, “a voice crying out in the wilderness”, sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and that he isn’t even “worthy to untie the straps” of Jesus’ sandals. And in what are perhaps the most humble and at the same time, most powerful words spoken by any of the biblical prophets, John says, “he must increase, while I must decrease!”

The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur once said: “The most powerful signs efface themselves”. In his effacement of himself, John became the most powerful force that leveled the path on which was to walk, the Son of God.

We—that is, every Christian man and woman, but especially seminarians, future, priests, parents, and teachers, are meant to be like John the Baptist. We are but messengers. “We are not the Christ!” Our task is merely to prepare the way, to plant the seeds, and leave the rest to God: the watering, the nurturing, and the harvesting.

We are, like John, but messengers. Christ is the message. We are merely pointers. Jesus is the point. We are just road signs, Jesus is the way as well as the destination. Nothing we do is ever about us, but always about Christ.

[Allow me, at this point of the reflection, to speak very briefly, to my students who are future priests, and to all seminarians: Never forget that only Christ deserves to have a ‘fans club’. People will naturally find you ‘attractive’ in many different ways. Many priests and seminarians after all are kind, gentle, and caring. Many of us are good speakers, and not a few have pleasant personalities. People like those qualities. The thing is, while there’s nothing wrong in receiving their praise and admiration (and we should learn to say “thank you” sincerely, by the way, whenever we are appreciated), we also shouldn’t forget that those words of praise do not primarily belong to us. They are first and foremost directed to Christ, not to ourselves. Granted that doesn’t always happen—some of us forget the Baptist’s words, “I am not the Christ!” That still doesn’t change the fact that without our identification with Christ, those words mean little. They’re Jesus’ ‘fans’, not ours.

And we shouldn’t be going around trying to form our own ‘groupies’. One who does so completely misses the point of the whole situation. We are meant to be ‘attractive’ to people, that is true. Adrian Van Kaam the author of “Religion and Personality”even suggests that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being “a little vain”, meaning keeping oneself well kempt so as not to turn people off. But neither should we forget that looking pleasant and attractive or speaking and acting well, are not meant to draw people to ourselves. That will naturally happen. What we’re really supposed to do is to lead them—when they do come to us—to Christ. He is the chief shepherd, remember. We aren’t the point. He is. Never lose sight of the Baptist’s words: “I am not the Christ!”]

We are merely paths that should lead others to Christ who alone is the true destination. To realize this does two things to us. First it teaches us humility.

It’s God’s work that we do. Not our own. It’s God’s people we minister to, not ours. It’s God’s church, not ours. Like Moses we hear God speaking to us: “Take off your sandals. The ground you walk on is holy ground”. Humility teaches us to reverence all things, persons, events, and circumstances—for they are all, good or otherwise, the incognitos of God whose beloved Son redeemed the world two thousand years ago. We aren’t asked to save it yet again, but only to ‘divine’ His presence in it, and share the wonders we find. A poet once said that all we do is “write one verse in the everlasting poem written by the hand of God”. Even our lives are never completely our own.

Second though, it teaches us confidence and trust in God whose work we do, and to whose providence and care we must commend everything we are.

Thus, we don’t have to keep worrying about how our words, our preaching, our teaching, our homilies, are ultimately received by people. We simply plant the seeds. God does the watering, nurturing, and harvesting. And so there is nothing for us to worry about. For as the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, once said: “Our work is in good hands”. In God’s own time, he will bring to fruition the work he had us do. Or as Blessed John XXIII was said to pray when confronted by big problems in the church: “It’s your Church O Lord. I’m going to bed. Amen.”

Have we made a difference? Perhaps we can never fully tell. But with humility and trust in our hearts, we know that God has made that “difference”—hopefully through us.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Prophets in our midst, messengers of God's "tough love" (Reflections on the Second Sunday of Advent, Mark 1:1-8)

On the 19th of September, 1998, I received what I've always considered a most valuable piece of advice from a good friend who attended my doctoral defense at the Institute of Philosophy in Louvain: “Always remember”, he said, “be kind to your students. You were a student once”. It’s something I try my utmost to remind myself every exam time. (Not that I’ve always succeeded, as I’m sure some of my students will attest.)

The interesting thing is, when I look back at my days as a student, whether in grade school or graduate school, it wasn’t always the teachers who went easy on me that I remember as having had the greatest impact on my life. Instead it was those teachers and professors who showed me what is at times called,
“tough love”: the ones who called me out, who challenged me, who instead of allowing me to sink into mediocrity and indifference, reminded me that God calls each of us to make a difference in this world, and that I should leave this world a better place than how I found it.

Two of them stand out in particular. When I was new to seminary, I was pretty arrogant. I was ahead of my class and made sure everybody knew it. One time we had an exam and I finished before everybody. The exam was meant to be an hour and a half long, I finished mine in 20 minutes, I looked around, noticed everyone was still writing, so I tried to get everyone’s attention. When I couldn’t, I decided to whisper to the kid sitting next to me: “Man, this is easy. I can’t believe she made us answer these questions. What a joke!”

Sister Kremhilda (yes, that was her name) who was our professor, heard what I said, stopped the exam, called me to the front of the room, and made me stand before her desk which happened to be on a raised platform. “Do you think you’re better than all of us here?” “No sister,” I replied. “Then stop being a show off, and stay in your seat and be quiet!” That was the first time in my life, I was scolded - by a nun! - in front of a whole bunch of people. I felt my oversized ego shrink to the size of a pinhead.

After class, Sister called me, and explained that while she didn’t like the fact that she had to call me out in front of everybody, I also had to learn my lesson, and it had to be such that I'd remember it for a long time. “You seriously want to become a priest?” “Yes sister”, I replied. "Then learn humility now; and remember that while God may have given you gifts, your task in the future is to help people, especially the least, the poor, and the weak. How will you be able to accomplish that if you think so poorly of them?" She was right; it was a lesson I would never forget.

The other was a priest named John, an extremely tough professor who some of us his students called all sorts of names (some of them, I must admit, were rather unkind). He was very hard on his students, myself most especially. After exams, I’d usually get called to his room and be reminded that I was “underachieving”, was “wasting my time, and his time”, and "would never be a good priest if I continued being satisfied with mediocrity".

One of the stories that got passed from one generation to the next in seminary was that when John was younger, he’d station himself at the back of the chapel every morning before prayers. Whenever he noticed someone being absent from morning prayer or Mass, he would go up to the students’ room, knock on his door and say: “Oh, you’re sick. That’s awful. Here sit up and lets check your temperature”. He’d have a thermometer at hand, and if that thing didn’t show the student running a temperature or if it looked like he were just trying to skip Mass and prayer, John would instruct him to get up, get cleaned, dressed, and head to chapel, even if he were already late. (On the other hand, if he saw that the guy wasn’t faking illness, John would always have an aspirin or Tylenol at hand.)

A lot of times, when people speak of prophets, they think of men and women who can foresee or predict the future. Prophecy and prediction are sometimes thought of as synonymous terms. If we read the Bible, however, especially the Old Testament—and try to understand the role the prophets played, we discover that they were not really people who could predict the future. Rather they were persons who called Israel to task—called them out, challenged them—whenever they started forgetting important things: like following God’s commandments or keeping to the straight and narrow path.

And prophets weren’t easy to deal with either. This was why most of them were disliked and even killed. People don’t like to hear about their mistakes, faults, and shortcomings. In fact, one sure way of knowing true prophets from false prophets in the Old Testament was quite simple. False prophets told people what they wanted to hear; true prophets told people what they had to hear—even if this didn’t endear the prophet to his hearers.

John the Baptist shows up in the Gospel reading today. He was one such prophet. He came to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, but he did so by reminding people of their need for conversion and repentance. It was a message that wasn’t easy for John’s hearer’s to swallow, especially not the Scribes and Pharisees who ironically were regarded as the most religious, pious, and devout men of that time.

Also, John was not exactly a pleasant person. He wore camel hair, ate locusts and wild honey, lived in the desert, and was most probably unkempt. He was certainly not an attractive sight to see, and his message was even harder to accept. And yet, he was sent by God to prepare the way for the coming of His Son, to prepare a path for the coming of Christ. John stood in line with the great history of prophecy in the Old Testament. In fact he is sometimes considered to be the last in that line of Old Testament prophets.

There’s one sure thing we learn about prophecy in the Bible. Prophecy is meant by God to wake people from their sleep, from their indifference or apathy. Prophets shattered people’s complacency and reminded them once more of those things that should really matter in their lives. They kept people on the straight and narrow path.

For us, prophets can come in the form of the persons we encounter: a friend or a loved one perhaps who reminds us of the things that are important in life. Or it may even be an experience God sends us—an experience that might in fact be tough and challenging for us, sometimes even painful and hard.

Prophecy in our lives can in fact take the form of these difficulties and problems that show us God’s “tough love” toward us. It’s a love that isn’t meant to break us or tear us down, but to strengthen us, by challenging us to remember what is truly important and valuable.

As we prepare our hearts and minds, bodies and souls for the coming celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, let us pause for a while and give thanks to God for the persons, the events, the experiences that have challenged us, stretched us, and reminded us of those things in life that truly matter - things we too often, tend to forget. Let us be grateful to God for these prophets and these ‘prophetic moments’, and let us continue welcoming them and learning the important lessons they teach.

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