Thursday, February 21, 2013

The poor and the most vulnerable are the ones who have, time and again, led me back to my visions, hopes and dreams, the powerful ideals of my youth, and to Christ who himself was poor. (A brief reflection on a Lenten Thursday)

About a week ago, a young university student came to me for spiritual advise. He struck me as a bright and articulate young man who came from a well-off family. The second in a brood of four, his father was a medical doctor, his mother an accountant. 

Friendly and cheerful, his demeanor nevertheless concealed a dark and stormy interior. He was "lost", he said, "directionless", even "depressed". He struggled with his faith, with his trust in a good and loving God, he struggled with his ideals, especially in a society which, in his words, "seemed bent on taking the road to destruction". 

"I think I'm slowly becoming an atheist", he said. "Or perhaps a very perplexed agnostic".

Listening to this young man speak, I remembered the words from a book written by our speaker at the seminary's philosophical conference last Friday.

"The Jesuit theologian, Jon Sobrino once observed, "The poor have no problems with God - the atheism of protest - so reasonably posed by those who are not poor, is no problem at all for the poor (who in good logic ought of course to be the ones to pose it". 

"A great irony of the post-Enlightenment world is that the rejection of God's love in the face of human suffering has come principally from those sectors of society most blessed by economic prosperity and material security. It is not the poor who have become secularized". 

"It amuses me", wrote Ignacio Ellacuria shortly before he died, "when people say 'God has disappeared from the world', because God has disappeared from Europe or the universities. But this isn't the world". Not only has religious faith not succumbed to the forces of secularization, but it continues to thrive and grow - particularly among the very peoples whose suffering is supposed to represent the most devastating argument against religious faith. Either the poor are horribly ignorant, infantile, manipulable, and untrustworthy, or else they're onto something. I prefer to believe the latter." (Roberto Guizueta, "Christ our Companion")

As I looked at the young man sitting, so distraught in front of me, I couldn't help but remember the rich young man to whom Jesus once said: "You lack one thing: go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, then come follow me". (Mark 10:21)

Time and again, it is the poor, most especially the most vulnerable of them, the children, the elderly, the lonely, and the ill, that have led me back to Christ, to my visions, my dreams, the powerful ideals of my youth. 

If only this young man - I thought to myself - could have that experience, if only he too could get his hands dirty, if only he could, even for a while, walk in the footsteps of Christ who was himself poor, he too might find his redemption. 

I did tell him that; he listened, but didn't really reply. As I said goodbye to him, I prayed that his heart may lead him to the poor, so that they in turn might lead him to the one who alone could satisfy the hunger I sensed he felt deep in his heart, in his very soul.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

At some point, our calculations must stop, and we must take the leap of faith, trusting in a God who will never abandon us. (Reflections on Jesus' Temptation in the Desert, on the First Sunday of Lent, Luke 4:1-13)

My good friend, Fr. Robert Vallee asked a very interesting question last Friday during a philosophical conference here at the seminary: Do we always aim for the good of ourselves when we do good to others?

The answer, of course, is “yes, we do”. There’s no path around it. Even Jesus says that if we give of ourselves completely, we will gain ourselves back. “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it”. (Matt. 16:25)

Is there a difference then, between the way of Christ (the way of self-giving) and the way of the world (the way that seeks only the good of oneself)?

The way of Christ is the way of trust: When I love others, I may or may not gain myself back, I may or may not receive a return. But I trust that I will; because it was promised by Christ.

The way of the world says, “There’s no guarantee that I’ll receive a return, there’s no assurance that I’ll gain myself back if I give of it completely, I therefore need to carefully calculate everything I do, everything I say, every step I take—to make sure that whatever I do, especially for others, I receive a return, I gain myself back.”

The way of Jesus is the way of faith, of confidence and trust. The way of the world is the way of calculation. It is born out of uncertainty, it is rooted in fear: “I may not receive a return; so I must make sure that I do.”

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign took everyone by surprise, and the question in most people’s minds was “why”? One interesting article, among the hundreds that tried to analyze the pope’s decision, said: “Does he not know that if he gives up the papacy, he makes himself vulnerable to the whims and control of those who will  no longer fear to use him because he no longer has power and authority?”

In fact, another article even suggested that his decision to remain inside the Vatican’s walls after he retires is motivated by fear, not only for his safety, but fear that he will be hounded or even prosecuted for the abuses that have happened in the church over the last few decades.

Amidst the storm that now surrounds him and his choice though, the Holy Father has remained an image of calm, of confidence, of faith, and of trust. He knows he and his beloved Church are both in good hands. He has no need to calculate; he is free.

The temptation to calculate is rooted in fear: the fear of failing, the fear of not achieving our goal, even if our goal or purpose were good.

In the story of Jesus’ passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas Iscariot: the traitor, the betrayer, the man who sold his friend for thirty pieces of silver.

Judas, we are told by some scripture scholars, probably loved Jesus more any other disciple. He was also the most intelligent of the group—which was why he was in charge of finances. Judas was also the one who was perhaps most convinced, more than any of the disciples, that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Son of God. 

But Judas, aside from wanting the Messiah to be a powerful, political, and popular earthly king who would restore Israel by destroying its enemies, was also impatient, and most likely wondered why Jesus had not yet decided to finally establish the Kingdom.

Judas believed in Jesus. Yet he found himself wondering more and more why Jesus seemed more interested in following the path of suffering and death, rather than the path of power and glory. And so in one desperate act of calculation, Judas betrays his teacher and friend. Judas thought he could force the hand of God. 

Believing perhaps that when Jesus was finally getting hurt and suffering in the hands of his enemies, his Father would finally be forced to reveal to the world that Jesus was his son. And he would come down with all his angels and the entire heavenly host to smite and destroy anyone who would dare hurt His beloved son. And that was Judas’ greatest miscalculation.

Jesus’ own temptation in the desert was a temptation to calculate. “If you do this”, says the devil, “you will achieve this”. But Jesus refused to calculate and instead placed his life completely in his Father’s hands.

We all, from time to time, face our own temptations to calculate. “If I say this, my formators will think this”. “If I did this, my superiors will think this”. “If I were to act this way, this is what they will think of me.” “If I take these steps, I will achieve this”.

Awhile ago, a well-meaning priest-friend sent me an email suggesting I seriously consider thinking of ways by which I could move ahead in my ministry. “You have to do it”, he says to me. “Imagine all the good you can do in that position”

Do not think that I wasn’t tempted; because I absolutely was. Thankfully, though, the wiser counsel of other priest-friends prevailed. And so I chose to email my friend back. I told him I’ve ceased, a long time ago, from planning my life, from living it like I were playing a game of chess, anticipating every single one of life’s moves in order to get ahead.

At some point, our calculations must stop, and the leap of confidence, trust, and faith into God’s awaiting arms must be taken; because our life isn’t a game of chess, neither is our vocation, neither is our faith – if they are to be authentic.

We shall throughout our lives – even as priests, and even in the Church, be faced with the temptation to calculate in order to “get ahead”.

Even Jesus was presented with that temptation in today’s gospel.  Three times, he was tempted; three times, he reasserted his faith and confidence in his Father – and Father didn’t fail him.

When you feel tempted to calculate, don’t. Instead, renew and reassert your trust in God. You will not be disappointed.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has ready for those who love him": Giving God the Reins of our Lives (Reflections on the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 5:1-11)

Two families, both visited by unspeakable tragedy – a friend of mine had the opportunity to minister to them in their time of grief and to walk with them as they tried to cope with the terrible loss, each family losing a child, one to illness, the other to an accident. Both families at first tried their best to pull together, to support one another, to console and  pray for each other; and the entire parish community did its best to surround them with love and care.

Sadly, their stories ended differently. One family, after some time, broke up, husband and wife, simply unable to cope with the loss. They began blaming one another and, perhaps blaming God for their loss, simply dropped out of their parish community which had gathered around them in their time of suffering.

The other family did its very best to stick together, husband and wife supported one another, found comfort and consolation in the love and care their church community continued to show them, and trusted that God had not abandoned them, but still had them in his hands. They took care of their surviving child, and though with much sorrow and pain, slowly rebuilt their family.

Life seems relatively easy when we’re in control, when everything appears to be going well. Every so often though, things change, and we do lose control. We get disappointed, and these disappointments range from the very small to the very big. When these things happen, when life visits us with difficulty, suffering and pain, there are always two possible responses: to become bitter and lose faith and trust, in God and in ourselves, or to trust God all the more and let him take the driver’s seat, giving him full control of the direction of our lives.

Peter and his fellow fishermen—hadn’t got a catch the entire night, then Jesus comes along making a suggestion. "Put out into deep water, and lower your nets for a catch", he tells them. Why should Peter listen? There were two things going against listening to Jesus’ suggestion. First, Jesus was no fisherman. He was a carpenter. What would a carpenter know about fishing? Second, Peter had already told Jesus that they had been fishing all night with no success.

And yet Peter chose to listen to Jesus and put his trust in him, even if he wasn’t himself too sure. "Master, we have worked all night, and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets". In the end, his trust paid off. They caught a lot of fish, almost breaking their nets.

God cannot show us great and amazing things, He wouldn’t be able to let us experience the great adventure that is life, to its fullness if we insist on being in the driver’s seat and controlling everything: ourselves, other people, even God himself.

But that’s not always easy to do. Control gives us a sense of security. We know what we want, we know how to get it. The opposite of trust is not the lack of trust. The opposite of trust and its enemy is fear. We refuse to “let go” because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of failing; we’re afraid that we might not make it. We’re afraid that our effort might not be enough. In fact, we’re sometimes even afraid that God’s effort will not be enough.

And that’s perfectly understandable. When Moses came to God asking him to give the water to Israelites who were wandering in the desert, God told Moses to strike the rock once and water will flow. But Moses was so afraid that he might fail, that the people will revolt, that even God might fail, and so what does he do? He strikes the rock twice. Just to make sure. And God, of course, didn’t like that one bit. It showed Moses’ lack of trust and faith in God.

Can we give up control, and let God be in the driver’s seat of our lives? It can be scary, because like Moses we sometimes think that even God might fail. And that’s probably not a bad thing altogether. The thing is, unless we can become like Peter, and put our trust in God completely, trust that God knows what he’s doing, even if we feel doubtful sometimes, we will never really know what great and amazing things God has in store for us.

Saint Paul in his 2nd Letter to the Corinthians tells us: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard what God has ready for those who love him”. Unless we “let go”, and “let God” be in control of our lives, we will find ourselves again and again, frustrated, disappointed. And we will never experience that great adventure of life that God has in store for us.

Let go then. Let God be in control. There is nothing to fear.

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