Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me." (A Brief Reflection on the Feast of St. John Bosco, Patron of the Youth, Matt. 18:1-5)

At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me”.

“To receive a child” is a phrase that’s capable of bearing more than one meaning. In the context of the saint whose feast we celebrate today, it can mean, not so much receiving an actual child, as to receive a person who has qualities associated with children.

In our highly competitive world it’s quite easy to pay most attention to the person who's aggressive, assertive, attractive, successful, driven, and full of self-confidence, just as it is easy to neglect and even disregard, those who are often left behind.

When I first began teaching many years ago, I found myself gravitating towards the more intelligent students in my classes. They were easy to teach, quick to raise questions and had no hesitation arguing about serious and difficult issues in class. They were always enthusiastic, engaged, and always eager to learn.

It wasn't that I didn't care for those who weren’t as bright, I just thought that if I concentrated on the smarter ones who were always behind the lively discussions and exchanges in the classroom, all the rest would naturally be drawn in, follow, and learn. (I figured it’ll be like “trickle-down economics;” you take care of those on the top, believing that the benefits will somehow make it to those at the bottom, then everyone benefits.)

I was pretty satisfied with the way I thought things were going until one time, during an exam I was conducting, a student who had failed the course the previous year and had to re-take the exam, sat in front of me and began answering my questions. Halfway through his answer, I found myself getting really frustrated, not only because his answer was wrong, but because I remember asking him the very same question the last time he took that test. I figured I was being abundantly generous by doing so, and that it should be so easy for him to give me the correct response this time.

I think I may have raised my voice a little; I was getting upset. “How could you not know the answer to this question?! I asked you the very same question the last time you took this exam! Have you learned nothing?! This is the second time you’re taking this test. Do you want to fail a second time?”

The young man just sat there, staring at me, with a devastated look on his face. Then tears began rolling down his cheeks; and when he finally managed to say something, his words felt like a blade cutting right through me. “Father, this isn’t my second time to take the test. It’s the third. I’ve already failed twice. I study so hard and write down everything you say in class”. (He opened his notebook and showed me the pages.) “I don’t know what else to do. I try so hard to understand the lesson, but I keep failing”.

It was one those “a-ha” moments for me. (One philosopher calls them occasions of “cosmic disclosure”.) Whatever term one chooses, one thing was certain, it was my moment not only of profound realization, but conversion. I had forgotten “the least” among those God had sent me to teach and guide. This young man wasn’t failing because he kept failing to make the cut. He was failing because I - the one who had been sent to instruct and guide him through the forest of philosophical speculation - had failed him, three times. I had to make amends.

“And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me”.

John Bosco was a person who took to heart Christ’s message in today’s gospel. Living at the end of the 19th century, he began a community of men and women who dedicated themselves to caring for the poorest and neediest young people in Italy. John Bosco sought to give impoverished youth of his time, a good Christian education, and cared for both their spiritual as well as their material needs.

Jesus—in today’s gospel—may well be reminding us that the most important people in this world are not necessarily the successful ones and those who have climbed to the top, but the quiet, humble, and simple ones, who do not only have the heart of a child, but who actually need us in the same way that children do.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in God’s eyes, whatever we do to those who are often regarded by the world as insignificant and of little consequence, we do not only for them, but for him as well.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Holiness of life is a seminary student's most important goal, not simply the priesthood (A Brief Reflection on Mk 5:1-20, Mon. 4th Week in Ord. Time)

This morning, instead of talking about “Legion and the pigs”—which is often what happens when this passage is read—I’d like us instead to reflect briefly on the man who had been healed and who, at the end of the story, comes to Jesus wanting to remain with him.

In a number of passages in the New Testament, we see Jesus calling people, inviting them to follow him. He did so to the twelve apostles. In one instance, the man he invited hesitates and asks to be allowed to return home first in order to take care of the funeral arrangements for his father who had passed away. But Jesus insists on the urgency of his invitation and tells him, “Let the dead bury their dead”.

In this case, however he tells the man from whom he had expelled demons, ordering them to enter the herd of swine: “No. Go home to your family and tell them what God in his mercy has done for you”.

One of the folks I managed to visit these last few months was an old friend from seminary who left and who’s now a doctor working in a small rural community.

I visited him at the small hospital he and his wife, who’s also a doctor, built and where they treat mostly patients coming from poor families. It was amazing work he was doing. But what I found even more amazing was the sheer happiness and fulfillment I saw in the man. He was completely immersed in his work, driven, focused, like nothing else mattered but the people he was helping.

While I sat there waiting for him to end his office hours for the day, I chatted briefly with an elderly man who was waiting his turn.

“He’s very happy here with you, isn’t he? You folks are lucky. What a great doctor!”, I said to him. The old guy looked at me and, as if to correct me, said, “What a holy doctor!” His words caught me by surprise; but he was right.

Sometimes, those of us who are ordained or who are still in seminary tend to forget that at the heart of the call we received from God is not simply a call to the priesthood, but to a life that is happy, a life that is complete, full, and whole, in other words, a life that is holy.

The priesthood is not so much an end as a path, a way that leads to the far more important goal which is holiness of life. The priesthood is what we trust will get us there. Why is it important to keep this in mind?

It isn’t simply because of the obvious fact that not everyone here will one day become a priest.

But more importantly, because if we understand that our goal for being in seminary is more than just to get ordained, but to become good and holy men, we will - as my old spiritual used to constantly remind me - "already live what the priesthood means and entails, not when the bishop lays his hands on our head at our ordination, but now".

It will allow us to see that the demands of our life in formation are not simply stages, or worse, hurdles that we need to overcome in order to get ordained.

Instead, we will see all of them, from the most challenging to the most seemingly insignificant, as gifts from God that are meant to slowly awaken in us that thirst for holiness of which ordination is no more than a most significant point along the way.

To realize and keep in mind that our call is to be a man of holiness—whether we become priests or not—is to seek to be that man, not later on, but today.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Worry, anxiety, fear and distress; they all fade away when the love of Christ takes charge (Reflections on the 4th Sunday in Ord.Time, Mk. 1:21-28)

Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance,
attains all things.
He whom God holds
shall want for nothing;
God alone suffices.

(Teresa of Avila)

Beneath the amazing account of healing and exorcism in today’s gospel reading is a thought that ought to guide and direct the life of every Christian, a thought summed up perfectly in the poem written by St. Teresa of Avila (often called her “Bookmark” since it was found tucked into her prayer book after her death in 1582) as well as the second line of the reading from St. Paul: “I should like you to be free of anxieties”.

No one is exempt from the storms of life, not even the most faithful and devout follower of Christ. And while Scripture tells us that God “gives his sun to shine on both the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), it is equally true that suffering and pain are visited and distributed by life equally on everyone, good and bad, believer and unbeliever alike.

And yet, as Teresa says in her prayer, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. One who believes and trusts that his life is always in God’s hands has something that no one else possesses, and that is that unshakeable confidence that no matter what happens, “all will be well”, for “the lives of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever harm them”. (Wisdom 3:1)

If there is one thing that today’s gospel reading so confidently proclaims, it is the fact that God is in control; Christ is in charge, even of the darker areas of our lives. Jesus heals a sick man—and even the unclean spirits obey him. And because Christ is in charge, St. Paul is able to urge us, just as he urged the Corinthians in the second reading, to cast off anxiety, worry, and fear in our lives.

“Worry, anxiety, distress, fear”—these words should not be part of the vocabulary of a Christian, for Christ casts them all away, just as he cast away the unclean spirit that held the man hostage. In the ancient world, illness was attributed to the possession by unclean spirits. We don’t attribute illness to demons anymore—and we no longer fear diseases as much. But fear, worry, and anxiety are still demons that plague our lives. They still have power over us today.

Today’s readings tell us that with Christ, all these demons that sometimes bother us—are cast out. Christ is in command. God is in charge. And there is no need to be anxious, fearful or worried—about anything. But we do have to ask: what does it mean to say that God is in charge? What does it mean to say that Christ is in command? What does it mean to say that God has control? There are two ways of being in control:

There is the way that suffocates. It takes away our freedom and our ability to decide for ourselves. There’s the kind of being in charge that controls every single detail of a person’s life. But there’s another way. It gives a person space and room to grow. It doesn’t take away our freedom, but simply guides us and encourages us to seek the good for ourselves. The first way stifles growth and sometimes it can actually do more harm than good. The second way is the way of Christ. It’s God’s way of being in charge. It’s his way of being in control.

Pope Benedict calls it “love” in the first encyclical he addressed to us Catholics. And he also says that there are two ways of loving. These are two ways that reflect the two kinds of control: (i) there’s the way the world loves, and (ii) the way that God loves.

The way the world loves is directed towards oneself. It seeks the good of oneself before anything else. It always asks the question: “What’s in it for me?” It loves others because of what it will get back in return. “I scratch your back; you scratch mine”.

Is there anything wrong with this way of loving? Not really. It’s how the world operates. And we should look for a return on our effort. It’s natural and normal to seek a return in our investments, even in other people. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with the way the world loves. But it isn’t God’s way. It may be the “real” way, but it’s not the “ideal” way. And it certainly isn’t the Christian way!

God’s way, Christ’s way of loving is the love that gives and seeks nothing in return. That’s what the pope says in his letter. Now that’s not easy. But it’s also what makes the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels.

When Jesus did something good, he asked for nothing in return. When he healed people, he did it for the sake of the sick person. When the Pharisees and Scribes did something good—it was usually so that they can be noticed and praised by people. Their love was usually self-seeking. Christ’s love was selfless. Their love was the way the world loved. Christ’s way of loving was the way of God.

We can certainly love in the way the world loves. But the readings today, and the pope’s letter, invite and encourage us to love in the way God does. It’s not going to be easy, because it’s part of human nature to want something in return, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try, or that we won’t succeed.

Today we are presented with two ways of being in charge, two ways of loving: the way of the world—the way that’s founded on fear, on worry, on anxiety, and distress; or the way of Christ—the way that rests secure knowing that, as Teresa of Avila says, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”. Which way are we going to choose? That choice is ours alone to make.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Seminary life is a journey of ever-deepening trust, for the sake of being conformed to the image of Christ.

Seminary life is a journey towards being conformed to the image of Christ, according to the mind of the Church, the two thousand-year old community of believers to which we belong. Now when Jesus sent his disciples out, one of the things he commanded them to do was to “take nothing with them for the journey” except that which was an absolute need.

While a seminary student is not yet being “sent out” to do ministry, the words of Jesus to the disciples have an echo in his life. When we enter seminary, the only thing we take with us is ourselves. The thing is, this ‘self’ we take with us can sometimes be the greatest and heaviest baggage we carry.

Our ‘self’ is what we bring to Christ and present to God when we enter seminary. It’s the starting point of our journey. It’s the material that will be used - the "material cause", to borrow a term from Aristotle - of what is to one day become, a finished result, namely, a priest according to the mind of Christ. Without it then, there can be no finished product. The question is, what exactly is this ‘self’ we’re bringing along with us?

It’s the coming together of many things: our intellectual, emotional, physical, and even ethical make up, our family background, our education, our upbringing, our strengths, our weaknesses, our personality quirks, our problems, etc. The self is a very strange mix of all sorts of things: good and not-so-good. “We are darkness and light”. But it is this “strange mix”, this “impure mix” that is the most basic ingredient or material that God will use to mold the future priest he wants us to be. There is no other.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger says - I'm paraphrasing here - that “the inauthentic is the ground out of which the authentic arises”. Who and what we are in our totality—the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant—the fact that in us dwell the twin realities of sin and grace—this is the ground out of which God will form the priest he wants. For as Thomas Aquinas says, “grace does not destroy nature. It builds upon nature and brings it to perfection”.

When we enter seminary, and all throughout our years in formation, the invitation is always: “come as you are”—because it is our encounter with Christ in formation that will transform us. We do not do it ourselves.

Who and what we are, our humanity–the core of ourselves–this is what needs to be formed and transformed by our life in formation; not the externals or the accidentals of our character or personality.

This, however, involves a tremendous risk, requires a lot of confidence and trust, because it can be daunting, even scary. And fear is the greatest enemy of formation, discernment, vocation, faith, and of life itself.

There’s a great amount of risk involved in seminary, especially if one does enter fully into the process of formation. There’s a lot of “what ifs” involved. What if I’m just wasting my time here? Are all these things going to produce the result they say they will? Is my ‘investment’ of time, self, energy, effort, etc., worth it? There’s a lot I’m really giving up.

Every so often I still think of the ‘life’ I’ve ‘missed’ because of entering seminary too early. On some days I feel bad when I think of the ‘what-ifs’. But as Adrian Van Kaam, spiritual author of books on formation says, growth in maturity is realizing that in life, some doors really need to be closed, not all paths can be taken. And becoming the person God wants us to be involves accepting the fact that we can’t be everything we would like to be, but only the best of what we have chosen to be.

There’s also a great amount of risk involved in entrusting ourselves to those in charge—the priests and professors who are part of the seminary formation staff.

We have our own ideas, our own visions, our own dreams, hopes, ways of doing things, of seeing things, etc. Sometimes they will agree with what those forming us think, sometimes they won’t, at other times, they’ll probably go against them. But this is part of the package, not only of seminary life, but of being part of the church as well.

Being a good priest (and a good seminary student) involves recognizing, accepting, and living within the tension of being a faithful and obedient son of the church, and being “one’s own man”. Part of our calling as seminarians, and later on as priests, is to learn to be at peace as we live an “in-between” kind of existence.

Theologians for instance, can encounter teachings of the church or ways of presenting the church’s teachings that are challenging. And here there are always two dangers involved: either complacency or rebelliousness. One can simply ‘go with the flow’. It’s one thing to remain faithful to the teachings of the Church, it’s another thing to use that as an excuse for not wanting to struggle with the demands of these teachings.

Fidelity must never be made an excuse or cover for laziness of mind and complacency of soul. Thomas Aquinas was misunderstood when he first articulated his philosophical and theological positions; some his books were even ordered burned in Paris; but no one could ever accuse him of complacency and unfaithfulness.

Similarly, it’s one thing to struggle with the more difficult and challenging teachings of the church, perhaps even find oneself perplexed about them, it’s another thing to use this as an excuse for destructive critique and dissent. Perspicacity and a critical mind must never be made excuses for adolescent rebelliousness and a deep-seated need to always be proven right by proving everyone else wrong.

But these dangers do exist in seminary formation: Laziness and complacency on the one hand, arrogance and rebelliousness on the other. Living within the healthy tension of being a ‘faithful son of the church’ and being ‘one’s own man’—is the only honest way to go, the via media where virtue stands. But this is risky, tricky, and oftentimes, tiring, as it is always far easier to acquiesce to the extremes.

But that’s where the challenge lies. “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few”. (Matt. 7:13-14) The ‘middle way’ where virtue lies is the ‘narrow gate’, the difficult and challenging path—which is why few choose it.

Here, as a footnote though, we must add that even in doing theology, the ‘key’ is to always give our faith community’s accumulated wisdom of two thousand years the heavier weight. It always works.

It’s also risky because every community has its share of unfortunate stories of trust betrayed, of disappointment and disillusionment.

Many years ago, when I was sent by my bishop to study abroad after college, one of the persons on staff whom I trusted and thought was my friend and was supporting me turned out to be one of those who were trying to put hindrances on my way. It was only years later that I learned of it. All’s forgiven and forgotten of course; but the case proves the point why some students sometimes find it difficult to open themselves up to those guiding them. Perhaps they’ve heard of ‘stories’—and not very encouraging ones.

But that’s the nature of the situation, and while saying that doesn’t mean simply accepting it and doing nothing to somehow change it if and when we can, it also doesn’t mean that we can transform it overnight. The possibility of trust betrayed is real; and yet just as real is the possibility of trust deepened—something I experienced with the spiritual directors I was blessed to have as a student in seminary, not to mention the really great priests on formation staff I was privileged to meet, and under whose care and guidance I experienced the tremendous growth in my life as a person, my vocation as a seminarian, and my faith as a Christian.

Trusting those the church has tasked to form us involves a real risk on our part, and yet it’s a risk we must take and is one worth taking.

There are three basic types of persons: those who run, those who sit on the sidelines and watch, and those who take the risk and commit.

The first two types are those who fear getting hurt. And so they either run away from risk or prefer to watch while others play. They will most likely never get hurt; but neither will they ever know the joy and triumph of succeeding. Those who risk and commit, on the other hand—they are the ones who will most likely experience hurt, who could in fact suffer loss; and yet they are also the only ones who open themselves fully to the possibility of winning.

The courage to take risks and to commit to things, even if things can be fearful and intimidating, is born out of a deep trust and confidence, in oneself, in others, and especially in God.

This is not just a superficial kind of confidence, but one that comes from the heart; and it can be nerve-wracking and even disappointing at times. Think of Abraham, for instance. God called him out of the comfort of his home, inviting him to follow into the unknown, with only a promise that he shall be made the father of many nations. Years later, we find Abraham pouring his heart out to God; he had no sons, he had no nation. Yet we know how Abraham’s story ends: God kept his promise.

This same trust in God lies at the foundation of a seminarian’s ability to trust those tasked to form him, in the process of formation itself, and in the wisdom of the Church in whose care he commits himself when he enters seminary. “We stand taller when we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us”, one of my professors in Louvain used to constantly remind his students. To trust in the wisdom of the formation process is to stand on the shoulders of the giants of our faith, whose wisdom represents the accumulated treasure of two thousand years.

Only a genuine and profound trust and confidence in God will allow a priest to effectively minister to people in both a prophetic and pastoral way, challenging and encouraging them at the same time.

In this, fear is the seminarian’s greatest adversary. But this isn’t the kind of fear that is the “beginning of wisdom”. “Fear” that is at the “origin of wisdom” is the result of an earnestness to do what is good, right, and just before God. This is “holy fear”.

The type of fear we speak of, which is the enemy of trust, is fear born out of an insincere heart. It is the result of a desire to see to it that everything is right because one is aiming at something, or aiming to get something. It is fear that results from a purpose or goal that is ultimately incompatible with the call one has received from God.

This fear is the most dangerous kind, for (i) it makes one hold his cards too close to his chest, (ii) it makes one always want to say ‘the right thing’, (iii) it makes one always ‘guarded’ in his words and actions, never ‘letting his guard down’, (iv) it makes one put on a façade which he believes is acceptable and will win him favor, (v) it makes one suppress what his heart and conscience may tell him, and finally (vi) it makes one put on a false ‘persona’ or a ‘mask’.

One who succumbs to this fear will eventually be left without knowing anymore who or what he really is. He eventually learns to live a lie. The very ground which God should be working on and transforming through the formation program, gradually disappears. The externals of one’s personality then become the source of one’s identity—trappings, trinkets, titles, honors, degrees, wealth, power, fame, etc. Soon he identifies with these externals, like the Pharisees of Scripture who “lengthen their tassels and widen their phylacteries”, he mistakes style for substance, mistakes the fancy robes he wears for genuine religion, the accessories he burdens himself with for authentic faith, and a mountain of mumbled meaningless words for true spirituality.

What difference is there between such seminarian or priest and the whitewashed tombs Jesus railed against? When the person beneath disappears and is replaced by a hollowed-out shell, what else is there for God to work on?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christ's invitation is to abandon our nets, over and over again (Reflections on the 3rd Sun. in Ordinary Time, Jn 3:1-5,10; 1Cor 7:29-31, Mk 1:14-20)

It isn’t often that all three readings for Sunday Mass contain a comparable or even unified message; a lot of times two would say something similar, and the third would contain a message that stands on its own.

Today is therefore one of those few occasions when all three seem to point us to the same thing: urgency, earnestness, eagerness, and immediacy.

The city of Nineveh listened to Jonah and they repented, averting catastrophe. “Time is running out... and the present world is passing away”, says the second reading. “The kingdom is at hand”, Jesus tells us in the Gospel, then he calls his first disciples who immediately abandon their father and their nets and follow him.

The past couple of months that I’ve been away, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a lot of people I know, friends, former students, parishioners at the different parishes in which I’ve assisted in the past, classmates from Asia, Europe, and here in the States.

Two of these encounters, however, stand out among the rest. The first was with an elderly couple with whom I’ve been friends since my early days in Louvain in 1992. I was twenty-one then and they were in their early fifties. The guy was a visiting professor at the university. They’re both in their seventies now and the husband’s health is declining.

It was such a joy to meet them again because even in Belgium, what I remember most about them was how, even at their age, they still acted like the high school sweethearts they once were. In fact that was still pretty much how they were when I saw them recently. Back in 1992, I remember asking what their secret to sticking together was. They said the same thing: “You just keep your interest in each other alive. You know, “keep the fire burning”; but you’ve got to work on it, every single day. It's not a one-shot deal".

The second was with a friend with whom I used to share ministry and homily ideas until a few years ago when he decided that the priesthood was no longer for him. He left the ministry and asked to be laicized. Like the elderly couple, I felt good to see him, and it really didn’t matter that he was no longer active in ministry. It was a joy to talk to him again and remember our days as students.

He didn’t leave because he had problems in the ministry or with the church. There were no scandals, no accusations. As he told me before leaving, “I just lost interest in the priesthood, I guess. I’m not angry or frustrated. I don’t think I’ve made a mistake, and I don’t regret getting ordained. I’m just not interested anymore”. Hard as it was to understand what he meant, I respected what he said, as well as his decision to leave.

How do you keep the fire of interest in something going, especially in something that’s meant to be a commitment for life? How was it possible for that elderly couple to remain so much in love with each other for more than fifty years, while my friend lost interest in his ministry in less than seven? How is it possible for us to keep the initial fire of our enthusiasm for seminary life alive, months or years after our we’ve entered?

The key lies in the message of all three readings today: urgency, eagerness, immediacy, and earnestness. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John; and they immediately follow him.

Each one of us here has heard the same call, and we followed. Like the disciples, we’ve left our families, our former life, and many other things we were used to, and committed ourselves to something else: my friend to his ministry, the elderly couple to one another and to raising a family, and we, to being formed as future ministers of the Gospel.

I’m quite certain that at their wedding, and at my friend’s ordination, the fire of interest, the sense of earnestness and eagerness for the new life they’ve chosen was at its most intense. So why did their paths diverge? Why did the elderly couple retain the fire of interest, while my friend’s simply petered out?

The answer lies in this: that whereas the elderly couple knew that such urgency, immediacy, and earnestness in responding to an invitation is absolutely necessary, it’s no more than the beginning. And it’s never a one-shot deal. Rather, the urgency of the call, and the immediacy and earnestness of the response have to be re-lived and renewed. Its fire has to be kept burning and rekindled, over and over and over again, at every moment of our day.

Failure to do so leads to complacency, to smugness, and gradually, to a loss of that original fire that accompanied our initial response.

When we chose to enter seminary, or when we gave ourselves to someone in marriage, or simply committed ourselves to something important and worthwhile in life, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, we abandoned our nets and followed Jesus.

But such abandonment must happen again and again; we must leave our nets daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, and respond with a wholehearted and unhesitating “yes” to Jesus’ call that also happens again and again.

It happens when we get up in the morning, and eagerly face that day's responsibilities, especially on days when we’re too tired to get out of bed. It happens when we give ourselves wholeheartedly to prayer, focusing our minds on Christ, especially in the Eucharist. It happens when we give ourselves completely to our studies, most especially those classes we would rather not take, and whose relevance to our future life we sometimes question.

It happens when we give ourselves in charity, kindness, and generosity to everyone we live and work with, our teachers, our co-workers, the persons who work for and with us. It happens when we do the work we have to do, no matter how difficult it might sometimes be. It happens when we do those many small and unnoticed acts of good that only our Heavenly Father can see. It happens in everything we do, say, and think; it happens in everything we strive to be.

“Come after me, and I shall make you fishers of men”, Jesus invites the disciples. And in one instant, without calculating, without reconsidering, without hesitating, they leave everything behind and follow him.

He bids each of us to do same, every day, every hour, every minute; he bids us to follow him by “leaving our nets” again and again, and again.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Ruminations at the end of a 33-hour journey

You shall not worry, for worry is the most unproductive of all human activities.

You shall not be fearful, for most of the things we fear never come to pass.

You shall not carry grudges, for they are the heaviest of all life's baggage.

You shall face each problem as it comes; you can only handle one at a time anyway.

You shall immediately find a solution to every problem you encounter, and shall neither sulk nor brood or dwell too long or too much on placing blame.

You shall not take problems to bed with you, for they make very poor bedfellows.

You shall not borrow other people's problems; they can better care for them than you.

You shall not try to relive yesterday for good or ill, it is forever gone; concentrate on what is happening in your life and be happy now!

You shall be a good listener, for only when you listen do you hear ideas different from your own.

You shall not get "bogged down" by frustration, for ninety-percent of it is rooted in self-pity and will only interfere with positive action.

You shall never allow yourself to be ruled by the fear of committing mistakes, but you shall immediately arise after having stumbled, and shall learn well the lesson your fall has taught.

And you shall count your blessings, never overlooking the small ones, for a lot of small blessings add up to a big one.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eighty-six thousand four hundred seconds

Imagine a bank that credits your

account each morning
with $86,400.

It carries over
no balance from day to day.

Every evening deletes
whatever part of the
you failed to use during the day.

What would you do?
Draw out all of it, of course!

Each of us has such a bank.
Its name is “time”.

Each morning, it credits you
with 86,400 seconds.
Every night it writes off, as lost,
whatever of this you have failed
to invest to good purpose.

It carries over no balance.
It allows no overdraft.

Each day it opens a new account for you.
Each night it burns the remains of the day.
If you fail to use the day's deposits,
the loss is yours.

There is no going back.
There is no drawing against "tomorrow."

You must live in the present
on today's
Invest it so as to get from it the
utmost in health and happiness,
goodwill and success.

The clock is running.
Make the most of today.
And remember that time waits for no one.

Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
Today is a gift.

Receive it with your whole heart,
mind, body, and soul,
embrace it,
and live it to the full.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Brief Phenomenology of Forgiveness

Forgiving is never easy; it's also quite tricky, and often complicated. But it should never be understood to simply mean - or require - ridding oneself of hurt and pained emotions; especially not immediately.

Pain and hurt are normal human reactions, whether physical or emotional. So is anger at having been wronged.

Nature has inscribed them in us, allowing us not only to be aware of what can cause us harm, but also to avoid them in the future. They’re consequently mechanisms, not only of defense, but of survival.

God will therefore never ask us not to feel what we feel, or feel what we don't feel. And so, there's absolutely nothing wrong with allowing oneself to feel that pain, hurt, and anger, for a time; as long as it doesn't take over one's life, and as long as one understands that he has to eventually learn to let go lest they begin dictating his thoughts and actions.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus and the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius were one in counseling us to “master our feelings rather than allowing them to master us”.

And neither does forgiving mean allowing oneself to be treated poorly again and again. Christ’s command to forgive “seventy times seven times” is not a recommendation to allow oneself to be treated like a doormat.

It is, rather a ‘path’, a process, because forgiveness is never a one-shot deal. It’s a process towards the recognition and acknowledgment of two very important things.

The first is the recognition that all things are in God's hands and that His hands are larger and more powerful than ours, or those who may have harmed us.

Forgiveness is consequently a declaration of an unshakeable confidence and trust in a God who is always, and ultimately 'just'.

As Scripture reminds us: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever touch them... Afflicted in few things, in many they shall be rewarded; because God has tried them... as gold in a furnace he has proven them”. (Wisdom 3:1,5-6a).

Second, forgiveness is a path that leads to the recognition that one is ultimately "larger" than the hurt, “stronger” than the pain, and “bigger” than the one who has caused them.

Forgiveness is thus a path, not only towards liberation, but personal empowerment. It is a testament to the invincibility of the human person’s capacity to rise from the ashes of suffering and pain that others have caused.

Those who tell us that "forgiveness represents a refusal to allow the other who has harmed us to have power over us"—are making a most valid point. The ancient Stoics certainly thought so; and so did Socrates who was condemned by the very people he cared for and sought to enlighten.

The real injustice when one is harmed, Socrates tells us—as recounted by Plato in one of his Dialogues—is not in the harm that has been done to oneself but in the one who has caused that harm.

This is the profound truth behind the idea that something incomparably worse befalls him who causes harm than happens to the one who has been harmed. Recall the remark made by Socrates: “My dear Callicles, to receive a box on the ears wrongfully is not the greatest of outrages, nor even to fall into the hands of a murderer or pickpocket…To do such an injustice to another is a far greater evil for the doer of the injustice than it is for the victim”.

The American philosopher, Charles Hartshorne put it this way, “to cause harm to another is to corrupt and degrade oneself”.

And lest we forget, nowhere in Scripture was the power and glory of God, especially in the Gospel of John, most clearly revealed than on the cross, when Jesus forgave those who had condemned him to die, the very same persons he loved and cared for.

Forgiveness is never easy; but it remains the most potent declaration of an unyielding confidence and trust in God who is just, and in oneself as fully capable of triumphantly rising, pheonix-like, from the deepest and darkest pain, over and over again.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Hope and redemption (Reflections on the Feast of the Epiphany, Matt. 2:1-12)

2012! A New Year has just unfolded before us, filled with new hopes, new dreams, new expectations, new visions, new plans and resolutions, a whole lot of new things!

Two thousand and twelve years ago, something new supposedly came into this world, someone supposedly came into this world to save it, to renew humanity. Jesus came, sent by his Father, to forever change the face of the earth, to save and redeem humanity. Henceforth, humanity will learn to love, learn to forgive, learn to share, learn to live in harmony and peace.

On the night he was born, the angels were supposed to have shown themselves in their vast multitude singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth—to men and women of goodwill”.

And yet two thousand and twelve years later, despite our hopes and dreams and visions and expectations, each one of us, every so often, experiences that nagging sense - when we look at the world in which we live - that somehow, the promise given is yet to be fulfilled completely.

2011 ended, and with it's ending came many dreams and visions for the New Year 2012. Where will they be New Year’s 2013? What will this year be like? Will there be peace? Will there be prosperity? Will there be goodwill?

People in this country are said to be full-blooded optimists, but not because they know things are going to go well, but probably because—as a friend of mine put it—"when you got very little, or nothing else to pin your hopes on, you have to be optimistic". Hope is often the only thing that seems to keep many of us going on these shores.

Where indeed do we find salvation in this piece of earth God gave us? Peace? Goodwill? Kindness? Prosperity? Generosity? Two thousand years and we’re still waiting. How many Christmases and New Year’s days have you celebrated? Sometimes I come home and feel bad—not because of the poverty and misery I see around, but because I know in my heart of hearts that it can in fact be different; that we have all the necessary resources to change the plight of everyone in this nation.

Why hasn’t it happened? Sometimes, the mere thought of it as I drive through the poorer areas of Manila is enough to make my heart sink. A Christian nation? The only Catholic nation in the far east? A nation that loves celebrating Christmas? Your heart is crushed. Where is Christ in all this?

A couple of years ago, on Christmas day, my siblings and I were going around the city to distribute bags of food and toys that we packed days ago, looking for street children to give them to. It was as much for them as it was for my siblings—it probably made them feel less guilty about the advantages they’ve had in life.

At one point, along Shaw boulevard, as the kids began milling around the van, I heard my kid brother yelling. When I asked what it was all about, he told me he was getting really annoyed, the children were shoving and pushing each other to get ahead, some coming back four or five times to get as many bags as they could.

“What do you expect?” I thought, "Poverty doesn’t only destroy one’s stomach, it sometimes ruins one’s consciousness and sense of right and wrong as well". (Which reminds me; the real tragedy of poverty isn’t that people are poor, it’s that poverty sometimes demolishes character, values, and principles as well. Poverty's real tragedy is that it often robs one of one's very humanity.)

Poverty certainly isn’t—and should never be—an excuse for acting wrongly; but it sure is an explanation. Everyone on these shores is poor! We all are! And there are no exceptions. The materially poor because they go hungry; the wealthy, because they often can’t see anything or anyone beyond their own selves, their family, their friends, and anything that’s connected to them.

A shrunken and shriveled circle of care and concern is itself a sign, not just of an impoverished consciousness, but of a mind, heart, and soul that can see nothing beyond the walls and boundaries of the self.

I felt so bad after that morning’s experience that I figured I’d just give the remaining bags to a church and have them distribute them. “What a morning!” I thought. “You try and do something nice and you end up feeling awful afterwards instead. If I didn’t go out with those guys this morning, I wouldn’t have seen such ugly behavior in those we were trying to cheer on Christmas Day”. I went back home and tried to simply forget about the whole thing.

That afternoon, however, I figured I’d do another run, thinking to myself, “What’s there to lose? Maybe something else will come up”. It was just myself and the driver this time; my siblings had already gone home. As we made our way to another part of the city, the usual sight of street children standing around street corners greeted us. Ben, the driver, stopped the van, I opened the door, picked up a bag of food and went out. As soon as one kid spotted me, a whole bunch of them came running. “Here we go again”.

They milled around, pushed, shoved, some said ‘thanks’, many didn’t. At some point, I knew I was going to run out of bags to give away, and pretty soon in fact I did. That’s when two kids came up, brothers it seemed, ages eight and five, I guessed. I handed the bag to the older kid. “I’m sorry, it’s the last one”, I said. He opened the bag right away and pulled out the sandwich inside.

“It’s the last one”, he said to his younger sibling who by then was looking at me, expecting perhaps that I’d be giving him something still. I had nothing more to give, and I didn’t want my heart crushed again, so I said “Merry Christmas”, turned around, and began loading back into the van the now-empty boxes where the bags had been stored earlier.

The two began walking away, and Ben started the car. Then from the corner of my eye, I caught sight of something that turned my Christmas day around, restored some of my confidence in the goodness of human nature, and filled me with hope, even for these children whose life on the street almost guarantees that they will not get an education, will hardly learn values, and will most likely not even live past a certain age.

The older brother holding the sandwich, cut it in half, and handed part of it to the younger one who proceeded to eat it with much gusto as they walked back to the street corner on which they hung around. It was a moment of pure grace, at work in the dirt and shabbiness of these young brothers I found on the street. And it was redemptive - for me. I went back to my parents’ place, still with a heavy heart, but one that had, on that Christmas evening, encountered hope made flesh.

Do not expect to find God in big, grandiose, glamorous, and showy things. Find him in the common, the ordinary, the plain, the simple. Find him in the weak, the sinful, the sorrowing, the outcasts, the difficult. It is there that you will encounter, not only hope, but often, redemption.

A New Year has begun. The key to finding God, to finding life, to finding fulfillment, joy, and true happiness is to seek him in those persons, events, circumstances, and things he likes to veil and hide himself.

Learn from the three wise men who followed a sign so ephemeral as the light of a star leading them, not to the palace of a mighty and powerful king, but to the home of a poor family whose sole and greatest treasure was a small and helpless infant, born in a manger, for there was no room for him in the inn.

"And behold, the star that they had seen at its rising preceded them,
until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.
They were overjoyed at seeing the star,
and on entering the house
they saw the child with Mary his mother".

Find him in your loved ones, find him in your children, find him in your husband and wife, your fathers and mothers, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, find him in the people you encounter on the street, the motorist you yield to and let pass, the person for whom you hold a door and who holds it for you, find him in every small act of kindness and generosity you do and that is done to you. But most of all, find him in those who, like the poor, helpless child in today’s Gospel, cannot repay the good you have done. Then you shall find true and lasting wealth.

And finally, find the God who has chosen to incarnate himself in each one of us; find him within your very own selves. Saint Augustine used to counsel his flock “Do not go out of yourselves; go within; truth dwells in the inner man”.

Do not seek God in externals, in things that show, in things that glitter but eventually fade, in wealth that "moths eat, rust corrodes, and thieves can steal". Do not seek him in external beauty, popularity, and fame which are there today but gone tomorrow.

Rather seek God in what lasts—in virtue, character, in values and principles that define who and what one truly is, and which nothing and no one can ever take away from you.

The wise men knew where to find God. They didn’t look for him in Herod’s palace, they looked for him in a stable; they sought him not in a powerful earthly ruler, but in a powerless child.

God is there, you just have to open your eyes, open your hearts, and be willing to recognize Him when he reveals himself, and you will find redemption, you will find hope.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"What is it your heart desires the most, that sets it on fire?" (Reflections on the Gospel, Jan. 4, 2012, Jn. 1:35-42)

Fr. Friedrichs was a wonderful priest whose way with us his students and spiritual directees spoke very clearly of his care and concern for those he was guiding. At one of our sessions, during a pause in the conversation, I remember asking him a question which probably caught him off guard, but which, I guess, didn’t really surprise him. “Do you really care for me or are you just doing this because it’s your job?” I was afraid I had offended him by asking a question that seemed to suggest that I didn’t trust him enough.

True to form, however, my ever-perceptive friend must’ve sensed that I was asking a sincere question. “Both”, he said. “It is a job”, he added, “I wouldn’t deny that. But it’s not just a ‘job’. It’s what I do. I’m a spiritual director, and I love what I do, I like guiding, assisting, and caring for people very much. And you’re one of them”. His response was both sincere and real. I was to have that very same conversation years later, with one of my spiritual directees at the seminary where I was assigned.

That answer I got from my spiritual director—“loving what we do”—is a great way of bringing together the two sides of our idea of our 'calling' or ‘vocation’. On the one hand, vocation is about God calling us, inviting and drawing us to him. But vocation is also about us responding to that invitation, of being attracted to God’s invitation, because of a seed that he has planted deep in our hearts. What exactly is this ‘seed’?

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we find what could well be a most profound way of understanding what this ‘seed’ is. Two of John the Baptist’s disciples begin following Jesus after John points to him as the “Lamb of God”. Out of a great curiosity, or a strong initial interest perhaps, they tail Jesus for a while, until he turns around, looks at them both and asks: “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38)

“What are you looking for?” A better sense-translation of the Greek, τί ζητεῖτε; ti zeteite, would probably be “What do you want?” The Greek zetein— “to search”, means in a more profound sense, “to desire for something”. What Jesus was asking the two curious ones was in fact, what they “desired”—i.e., what they most eagerly wanted, what in their heart of hearts they longed for more than anything else. To which they respond of course, with a question that spoke of what was in their hearts: “Teacher, where do you stay?” It was a question that in effect meant, “We want to know you more. We want to know who you really are. Show us where you live. Take us there. Take us with you.” What is most interesting about this episode is that Jesus takes them with him, saying: “Come and see”. (Jn 1:39)

Desire is the force that powers the universe. We’re not talking about some superficial kind of ‘wanting’ here, like wanting to be wealthy or popular, or powerful. Nor does this kind of desire include in its scope, desire for what is obviously wrong and misguided. What we’re referring to instead is, knowing what one, in the “innermost core” of himself, earnestly seeks in life. We’re talking about vision and goal, of ultimate purpose. We’re talking about what we normally mean when we use language like “what I am called to do”, “what I would like to be”, “what shape I would like my life to take”, "what direction do I wish my life to have"?.

Just as Jesus’ question to the curious followers of the Baptist was the foundational question that led them to follow him more closely, so too is that question which God himself has planted deep in our hearts—“what do I so earnestly seek in life”—the foundational question of every true calling or vocation.

Noli foras ire, in te redi, in interiore homine habitat veritas, says St. Augustine. “Do not go out of yourself, go within, truth dwells within”. God has placed the seed of vocation deep within our hearts and souls and it is there that he speaks to us, inviting us, and showing us the way. Unfortunately, most of the time, we are like the disciples after the Ascension, constantly “looking up to heaven” for signs that should rather be sought from within. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11)

Vocation is about looking into ourselves, taking stock of the gifts, talents, skills that God has given us, and asking ourselves in all honesty, what it is that we would like to make of these blessings. “What would I like to do with these gifts?” “What would I like to do with my life?” “What would I like to be?”

“What would you like to be when you grow up?” was a question we were all asked as children. As we do “grow up”, however, we learn two important things: first, that being “grown up” is not so much a final stage one arrives at in life, it’s rather a long and never-ending process; and second, we never really outgrow that question, “What would you like to be?” Life after all—our “calling” to “be all we can be”—is very much like “growing up”, it’s a never ending process that calls us to never cease responding to the invitation placed before us by God himself. Put more simply, it’s being aware of those special gifts, the “charisms” we have, and putting them to good use.

As a student in Louvain, I had the opportunity to be among six students interviewed by a panel of donors and benefactors of the seminary. These were successful men and women who belonged to the board that assisted the seminary. One of the questions I remember from that encounter was asked by the owner of a large European company. After telling us that he appreciated everything we said about our faith, vocation, studies, etc., he paused, took a deep breath and said: “Now gentlemen, tell me, what do you wish to do as priests?” He wasn’t at all expecting the usual “celebrate the mass”, or “be a good or holy priest”, response. Those are 'givens'. He was asking us what line of work we wanted to go into as priests. In terms more familiar to us, he wanted to know what “charisms” we believed we had, were bringing into the church, and wanted to realize and live out as priests.

My spiritual director’s answer to the question I asked him hit the nail on the head. He was happy with his work, his ministry. He was good and effective at it, because he “loved what he was doing”. He was “a spiritual director”. That was his gift from God, that was his charism, and being a good spiritual director was his way of realizing that gift and responding to his vocation.

One always goes the extra mile when he truly appreciates, enjoys, and loves the work he does. And that was why when we, his spiritual directees, would talk about him, the common experience we all shared was that this was one happy and fulfilled priest, who loved his ministry and whose life was “whole”. And that happiness, fulfillment, and “wholeness” rubbed off on everyone he met, taught, and ministered to.

You can always tell when a person loves what he does; he's 'into' it, a hundred percent, heart, mind, body, and soul. “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38) "What is it your heart desires the most, that sets it on fire?" Discover it, find it, embrace it, then pursue it with all your might.

"The world does not know us, because it did not know him" (Reflections on the First Reading, Jan. 3, 2012, 1Jn. 2:29-3:6)

About two years ago, a new edition of the Bible—nicknamed “the Green Bible”—was published. It’s stated aim was "to equip and encourage readers to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it". This first Bible of its kind included inspirational essays from a number of spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul II. The aim of the edition was certainly noble and admirable.

Surprisingly though, when the Bible did hit the shelves at bookstores, the first words of critique and rejection, came not from non-believers, but from certain fundamentalist Christian groups, their main argument against the edition was that Christians are called to “flee”, “shun”, and “reject” the world as the place of evil, torment, and suffering, and should instead look forward to the “world to come”. Talk of care for the environment and the earth, some of them insisted, was really no more than a facade for a kind of secularism that seeks to “water down” Christianity’s rejection of the world and its coming condemnation at the end of time.

Before we judge these Christian friends of ours too harshly, it is perhaps important to remember that the Scriptures as well as the constant teaching of Christianity’s greatest minds, have always reflected a rather ambivalent attitude towards “the world”. There are in fact, two ways of understanding that have been in a relationship of constant tension with each other throughout Christianity’s two-thousand year history.

On the one hand, there is the view rooted in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis which regards the world, as well as all of God’s creation, as “good”. The world isn’t evil, and humanity is not on the road to perdition. The “fall of humanity” is not denied; we are indeed sinners who have “fallen short of the glory of God”, but we are not totally and completely depraved. The world has somehow lost its way, that is true; but it is not beyond redemption. In fact, the Gospel of John says in no uncertain terms that “God so loved the world that He sent his only Son” in order to save it.

For us Catholics especially—who have taken seriously, the profoundly Judaeo-Christian understanding of the world, namely, that creation remains, despite the fall, a reflection of the goodness and greatness of God its Creator—the world is not an evil place; it remains fundamentally “good”. And human beings, despite their weakness and sinfulness, remain at their core, good.

This foundational idea lies at the heart of two very important characteristics that make us Catholics unique and different from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. In fact, it is a foundational idea that has defined the “Catholic identity” for two thousand years.

The first is our “sacramental understanding” of the world. Simply put this means that we Catholics believe that the world, as well as each human person, is able to reflect, albeit in a very limited ("veiled" and therefore, "sacramental") way, the nature of its Maker. Creation reveals its Creator, the world of nature itself reveals God who has made it, and the human person, despite the Fall, remains an “image and likeness” of God.

Hence, ordinary things, like bread and wine, can become “sacraments”, revelations of the subtle, yet undeniable, presence of the One who has made them. Water, oil, as well as other signs and symbols can aid us in catching a “glimpse”, no matter how vague, of the One who created them. To believe in Sacraments is to proclaim with the writer of Scripture, “the heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth the work of His hands”. To believe in Sacraments, is to proclaim with every fiber of our being, that the world that God created and in Genesis declared “good”, remains good.

The second thing that so uniquely characterizes Catholicism, and has clearly and consistently defined our identity, for two thousand years—and which springs forth from our stubborn insistence that the world and humanity are good—is the fact that we Catholics (and this is something of which every single Catholic can, and should be proud), of all the Christian communities, has taken the command of Christ to “love one’s neighbor as oneself,” most especially the needy, the poor, the weak, and the “least of one’s brothers and sisters” with the utmost seriousness.

The “neighbor”, as it has come to be understood in the Catholic tradition, is not simply a “path” towards God. The “neighbor”, i.e. the “least of one’s brethren”, is himself a revelation, an epiphany, an incarnation of Christ himself. “We must love the poor, not because they remind us of Jesus”, says Teresa of Calcutta. And she continues, “we must love the poor because they are Jesus”.

The Catholic Church is one of the largest providers of social services to the poor and needy of the world. (This it has done consistently for two millenia, despite some of its less committed members' daliance with power and wealth, and identification with the rich and mighty of this world.) Think of the many founders of Catholic religious communities and congregations throughout the centuries whose groups have dedicated themselves to aiding the poor and disadvantaged.

In the United States today, the Catholic Church is second only to the government in providing such services to the neediest members of the human family. In the Philippines and in much of the developing world, the situation is not too different. We may not always be the Church "of the poor" - though that has always remained an ideal towards which we strive, yet at our best, we are, and have always been, the Church "for the poor".

A student of mine who had been wavering in his commitment to the Church and was becoming attracted to the “Christian” communities (mostly fundamentalist groups) that were operating at the university where he was studying, once asked me, “Father, what makes us Catholics unique? Why be a Catholic, when there seems to be a lot of things the Bible says that don’t seem to agree with our practices?” (He had heard this argument from his fundamentalist friends).

My answer to him was simple, “No Christian community has a corner on making every single practice of its faith and its life coincide perfectly with the words of the Bible. But there is certainly one Christian community that has taken with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, what Christ says, is going to be the one and only important question we shall all be asked on the day of Judgment, "I was hungry; did you give me food? I was thirsty; did you give me something to drink? I was naked; did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison; did you visit and comfort me?" That community is the Catholic Church. And it is that seriousness with which we have, for two thousand years, taken Christ’s command to love the least of our brothers and sisters, that makes us Catholics unique in all of Christianity, and in all of humanity. It is also what defines in the clearest possible way, our identity”.

This is why we Catholics do not shun the world, nor do we take flight from it. There is, for us, no world “alongside” God; there is no world “apart from” God; nor a world “separated and isolated from” God. In the words of Saint Paul, in God, we and all the world, “live, and move, and have our being”. And as followers of Christ and believers in the truth and beauty of the Gospel, we are called to “win” the world for Christ through the witness of our lives.

The Christian is called to live “in” the world as a witness of the Good News that Jesus had preached, one that proclaims redemption from sin and liberation from pain, misery, and unnecessary suffering. The Christian must therefore work in order to make the world a better place; and he must strive to protect and care for the earth for the sake of future generations. And John Paul II as well as the popes of the modern age have constantly reminded us that the work of justice is an integral part of the proclamation of the Gospel. We must labor within the world in order to bring the world closer to the ideal and plan that God has for it.

At the same time, however—and in this we must somehow agree with our non-Catholic friends who have a far less positive view of the world and of humanity—we must never forget that there is a necessary “againstness” that’s built into our being followers of Christ. We are “in the world”, but are never “of the world”; it is not our destiny, nor is it our home. As such the Christian must realize and accept that there is only so much he or she can do to “influence” or “transform” the world.

Scripture itself, while teaching that the world is “good” and remains “loved by God”, also—in a number of places—regards it as the domain of evil, a place of testing, a vale of tears, and the place where “the prince of the world” is constantly at work. “The world does not know us, because it did not know him”, declares the First Reading at Mass today.

There is a very real sense, in which the follower of Christ will always find himself somewhat of an “alien” in the world and in the society in which he or she lives. This is not a Christian’s “home”, and as such, he must be constantly on guard lest he “water down” or worse, “lose” his identity as Christ’s follower as he strives to “live in the world”.

The “way of the world” is not the “way of Christ”, nor is it the “way of the Gospel”,
and a Christian must always be aware of that—no matter how seriously he takes the injunction to love the world, care for it, and seek to bring it closer to God's ideal and plan.

This is especially true of the Christian's involvement in politics. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who wrote the book entitled, "Resident Aliens", points out that it would be a rather curious thought to imagine Jesus commanding his apostles to change the Palestine of his day by engaging in political action that would transform the social, political, and economic landscape by imposing the ideals of the Gospel.

We Christians today must therefore be wise with regard to such engagement, lest we mistake "action on behalf of justice", for the "imposition" of our commitments, no matter how seemingly religious and consistent they are with our interpretation of Christ's teachings. This isn't an invitation to retreat or timidity, only caution and prudence.

The way of the world is not the way of Christ, and never the two shall meet.

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