Sept 15. The Centurion’s Faith: “Say but the Word . . . .”

To pray on and ponder:  Luke 7, 1-10.

Id quod volo [That which we desire most]: To encounter Jesus who calls us to humility in our reception of God’s Word, preparing a heart that is open to listen and to receive, to let go and to surrender ourselves to a fuller embrace of what God desires for our persons and our lives.

The faithful Roman Centurion is a character in the Jesus story that never ceases to draw from deep within me, profound awe and wonder. For one he is a character that is considered an “outsider” from the perspective of Jewish faith as well as the budding core of the Jesus followers, who by that time still considered themselves belonging to the Jewish faith community as well. As an outsider, a gentile, he is considered impure and not fit to come in the presence of Jewish shrines, holy places and persons. At the same time, it is unthinkable that he a Roman official would do favours for a slave. But these he does–he abases himself, thinks kindly of his slave and out of compassion for his servant, does what is unthinkable–he sends word to Jesus to petition a healing.

And we see how humbles himself and how he pays respect to the Jewish law which really does not cover him–he asks for Jesus to come to him as he considers himself unworthy to enter the Jewish household where Jesus’ holy presence dwelt at that time. Also he dispenses Jesus from coming to his household to make the healing, but to simply say the healing word from a distance. We (yes, we are really gentiles too, technically!) emulate the centurion’s humble act when as we approach to receive the holy eucharist, we are all asked to pray at mass, “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.”

Jesus eagerly consented to the Roman Centurion’s plea, he wanted to go and visit the Centurion’s house. Jesus does not ordinarily mind going beyond these protocols of the Law. He does not consider himself defiled by contact with gentiles or sinners, rather his presence purifies and sanctifies people and places he encounters. Leprosy does not defile him. Instead Jesus touches lepers and they are made clean. Sinners do not defile him, neither the custom’s man Levi or Zacchaeus nor the penitent woman who washes her feet with tears, wipes them with her hair and pours extravagant perfume on them. He is not defiled by these sinners, rather, he purifies them, forgives them and makes them whole. And here, this gentile Roman Centurion will not defile him either, rather his encounter with the man will confirm his faith and his love. Jesus sees genuine faith from the Centurion and he praises it. He sees genuine love coming out of the Centurion, and he validates it and fulfills with his healing, albeit in this case, his healing from a distance.

This brings us to another curious and amazing detail: “Say but the Word.” This official makes a profound act of faith. “Lord, you do not need to pay my house a visit to cure my servant. Your Word should be enough. It works in my world–the world of the Roman army–the word of a person of authority accomplishes its intention with a simple and direct order. If authority works in my case, I have faith that it does work in your case too. Say but the Word and obedience should carry it through.” These convictions carry so much faith in them–faith in the authority of Jesus’ Word, faith in the order of things, faith in obedience of subordinates, and faith in the yet inexplicable healing power of this man Jesus. Again it takes much “dying to self” and “embracing Jesus’ world” for this Centurion to come forward and ask Jesus for a healing, and this not for himself, but for his slave.

We also appreciate how Jesus himself is transformed by this event. He must have realized how God’s Word inserts itself into things, inculturates itself in ways that receivers and hearers can more easily make sense of the Word, find meaningful connections and thus are drawn to embrace them fully. So then Jesus must have realized, time would really come that more and more gentiles would see, would express their faith and make space for God’s Word to be sown in their hearts and grow and bear fruit. Time will come when people need not become Jews in order to follow God and become disciples after the heart of God: “Amen I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such a faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and from the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the banquet of the Kingdom of heaven!” And we, friends are a fulfilment of that prophetic statement of Jesus!

We ask for this grace of humility, an ability to die to ourselves to make space for God’s Word, unworthy though we are, we God’s Word to enter into our lives and ask that God’s presence, incarnate in us purify us and sanctify us. We ask for the grace of obedience, that the Word active from within us may fully accomplish its mission in us and through us. We ask that all these lead us to our final destiny which is to recline with all people of faith in an eternal banquet of love and communion with God. God Bless!

September 15, 2014  Leave a comment

September 5. Called to be Servants of the Lord and Stewards of the Mysteries of God.

To Pray on and Ponder:  1 Corinthians 4, 1-5; Luke 5, 33-39.

Id quod volo (That which we most deeply desire): To gain a sense of what it means to be servant of the Lord and steward of God’s mysteries, the better to embrace these calls as I go about my day to day life and ministry.

It felt like a solemn send-off from the Lord when we celebrated our graduation mass for Module 4A2 for Ateneo de Davao formators. All were spent but satisfied after a whole day of designing and clinic-ing retreat programs for actual target groups in the AdDU community. Even when energies were visibly low, the group that stayed on for the much delayed mass and graduation sang their hearts as we entered into the celebration. Zeal and joy were in the air. And then when we got into the readings, there was a solemn silence.

“Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” St. Paul’s exhortation to his Corinthian community about the role of the ministry leaders just rang true for this group of formators and CIS staff. Participants in the course kept discerning in their heart if this ministry was really for them. Many could not doubt that gifts and skills akin to spiritual direction and retreat-giving were given them and these gifts were very visible in the way they conducted their direction practice from Day 2 of the course. But praying through the themes of the First Week as well as listening to topics like narcissism, sin and conversion, healing also gave them some roller coaster ride of sorts as they felt both their unworthiness for the ministry and the great loving trust that the Lord seemed to be communicating to them in this call and mission. I could only tell them from the heart, “welcome to the club” or sinners, called to be companions in mission.

As ministers, called to be servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God, we just keep at praying John the Baptist’s mantra constantly “I must decrease so He may increase.” It is God’s Word that ultimately enters into a person’s heart to heal it and transform it. That Word will have already been planted into the person’s heart, long before the Lord sends him or her to us for retreat-accompaniment or spiritual direction. Our work as stewards is to help the person notice God’s most subtle movements in the heart, and when the directee is able to fix his or her gaze on God, then we help him/her to relish and savour God’s loving touches, and be caught in awe at how God accompanies each one through healing and self-offering.

When we read the Gospel with St. Paul’s exhortation in mind, then we ministers  are reminded as well, the Word that we encounter in a directee’s heart is the same Word of God which Isaiah described in Isaiah 55, 10-11:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
    and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

As directors we put our absolute trust on that Word to accomplish its desires in the hearts of our directees–we only need to help manifest the Word’s movements into the foreground of our directee’s consciousness.

But then there’s this other quality of God’s Word–it is like a double-edged sword. And we as ministers have to heed the Gospel’s reminder that as we continue to embrace ministry from the Lord, God’s Word will also purify us and transform us. Even in the space where we encounter the Word while directing others, we often experience God speaking to us and inviting us to some conversion, some letting go of an attachment, some closer embrace of humility, honesty, courage and generosity. The Word wants itself spoken clearly and loudly that only our honesty and transparency before it can make us real transmitters of the Word. We do bracket these Director-Word conversations while we listen and focus on our directee’s process but after the sessions we also attend to ourselves and bring our own experiences to supervision, the better for us to hear God’s Word to ourselves.

Servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God then is a call many of us need to take seriously and respond to, and as we do respond with honesty and integrity, our God who calls us and sends us blesses us a hundredfold with freedom and a greater capacity for loving.

Are you one who senses the gift of ministering to others in spiritual direction or retreat-giving? Do people naturally gravitate to you when they need a sounding board, a wisdom companion, one who helps sort out things that come out of dreams or prayers, a co-discerner as one considers choices of the day-to-day or of life direction? Has your prayer become more contemplative, more listening, more a conversation with a God who seeks you out constantly to engage you in a relationship and companionship in mission? Are you one who is drawn to things Sacred and whose visions of the world and of life have grown in breadth and depth to carry God’s desires for our world? If these are your experiences, perhaps you are ripe for discernment for ministry–seek out a companion or guide to sort out this call and respond. And for our twenty-one formators in the Ateneo de Davao community, I ask your fervent prayers. More and more they will be thrust into spiritual direction and retreat work. They will need a continued shower of God’s grace for personal clarity, honesty and courage, generosity and zeal, integrity in ministry. God Bless!

September 8, 2014  Leave a comment

September 4. When the Lord Invites Someone to Ministry

 

To Pray on and Ponder:  Luke 5, 1-11.

Id quod volo (That which in this prayer we desire most):  To encounter Jesus calling us into ministry, inviting us despite our weaknesses, calling us into depth, so that our gifts may be put to use for the edification of others.

We were just two days shy of the end of our workshop, forming Ateneo de Davao formators into retreat-giving for First Week Retreats. Thankfully, the Gospel proclaimed at mass on that day as we wrapped up the theory portion of the workshop just seemed very appropriate to the group: “Go further out into the deep, lower your nets again for a catch.”

I recalled to the group that Luke places this scene at the beginning of the Public Ministry. It was the occasion when the Lord calls his first disciples, Peter, James and John. Peter was in fact the head fisherman here and on his instruction, they seemed about to call it a day, cleaning their nets by the shore, after a whole night’s work at sea without a catch.

Jesus requests to be on Peter’s boat as he preaches. It seems the crowd has grown large and was pressing on him. Having him on the boat would give him a visible stage from which to proclaim the word to the people. We assume of course that Peter could listen in as well. When the crowd was dismissed, Jesus turns to Peter and gives an instruction which could have sounded quite odd to Peter. He knew that Jesus was a carpenter and not a fisherman. But Jesus indeed bid him to launch to sea again. And so understandably Peter was being polite when he said, “Lord we were fishing all night and we had no catch.” Peter could have very well lashed out at Jesus (as was depicted in the Zeferelli film, Jesus of Nazareth,” “Will you preach to the fish now, Carpenter?”

But then they caught a big catch! Peter was shocked. Before this mystery he could fathom, Peter knelt before Jesus and pleaded, “Get away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” But Jesus seized the occasion to communicate his call to Peter: “Fear not, from now on you will become a fisher of people!”  It’s as if Jesus was inviting Peter to use his very gifts for the saving mission of the Lord to flourish.

I thought three points for reflection were in order, especially addressed to ministers and would be ministers in the Church:

First, the Lord calls us even while we are yet sinners. It is he who remains our redeemer and saviour. A call to ministry does not mean we have already succeeded in purifying ourselves. Like Paul, some “thorn in the flesh” remains. We remain “earthen vessels” through which God’s glorious light would shine forth. Jesus calls us and tells us “fear not! I am the one who calls you. I will heal you and bless you so you may bring my blessing to my people.”

Second, the Lord calls us not only with our weaknesses, he also calls us from our giftedness. After all these gifts also come from the Lord. So to Peter, he said, “Fear not, from now on you will be a fisher of people!” Peter aside from experiencing some healing, must also have experienced deep confirmation of his identity and giftedness. God lifts us up so in our gifted and wounded state, we can become his companions in mission.

Third, Jesus calls us to remain in him in order to bear fruit in our ministry. Recall that the disciples “were at it all night” and yet did not have any catch. But when Jesus was with them in the boat, and they released their net again into the deep at his word and bidding, then the miraculous catch came! Like a branch grafted into the vine who is Jesus, we anticipate greater fruitfulness as long as we remain in the Lord and remain faithful to his bidding and Word.

And so we sent off our formators that night with the invitation to look closely at themselves as they risk a response to the Lord’s calling: How are we able to surrender ourselves fully to the Lord who calls–lights and shadows and all–so that the Lord himself may heal us, bless us and purify us for mission? How conscious and intentional have we become in offering the gift of our persons to the Lord in his missions? How strong and steadfast have we remained in the Lord as we venture forth in ministry, “so that we may bear fruit and fruit that will last?” God Bless!

September 7, 2014  Leave a comment

24 August. Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time. On Knowing Jesus Intimately.

To Pray on and Ponder: Isaiah 22, 19-23; Romans 11, 33-36; Matthew 16, 13-20

Id quod volo (That which I desire most):  That the Lord may so dwell in my heart that I grow in my intimate knowledge of him, and his thoughts become my thoughts, his loves, my loves, his dreams, my own as well that the breadth and depth and height of all that God loves become the measure of my own values and choices in life.

Our Sunday readings all pertain to people who are entrusted with keys, i.e., people who are chosen to lead others and therefore carry the expectation of knowing who God is and what God desires. For God is the real leader of his people. From the various descriptions of the first, second and third readings, the key to the ministry of leadership has much to do with an intimate knowledge of the heart of God. I recall that at the heart of the Spiritual Exercises, especially of the more advanced exercises meant for those who are discerning God’s will for their lives, the core grace that we beg for is for an intimate knowledge of Jesus, so that seeing him more clearly, we may love him more ardently and follow him more closely. For ministry leaders, an interior knowledge of Jesus Christ, the True Shepherd of God’s people is a core gift to ask, because it is by intimate knowledge that we see the kind of person Jesus is, the values he upholds and cherishes, his ways with people, his single-minded focus on gathering everyone back to his Father’s embrace. It is by this passionate love of Jesus that we are able to surrender all to God’s project and dream.

While in the first reading, the key seems to have much more to do with externals: clothing one with the robe and sash of authority, and posting one in fixed spot which is also a place of honour for his family, we have to remember too that it is a prophet of God, in the person of Isaiah who performs these rituals of transfer of power or authority.  A real prophet will not proclaim nor perform anything if not according to the Word of God that he had previously received. Certainly, Eliakim, whom Isaiah anoints here, is a leader whom God knows and who knows God.

In our second reading, St. Paul argues for how God’s seemingly mysterious plan to have included the Gentiles in the plan of salvation originally focused but rejected by the Jews may really be part of God’s wisdom. This is in order to woo, by jealousy, his own people, the Jews, into renewed covenant of God. And then Paul waxes poetic about true knowledge of God:

“Oh the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counsellor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him, and for him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

In our Sunday Gospel text we are brought back to what to my mind is Jesus’ midterm examination of his disciples. He and his disciples are midway through the journey to Jerusalem, and in one of their journey’s breaks, he pauses to ask a confirming question to his disciples. They had been after all together for quite some time now and they had all been witnesses to the many wonderful things that God has accomplished to show his love for his people through the signs and wonders that Jesus had performed. So now two important midterm questions are in order: First Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? To this first question, it seems that the disciples could easily respond with what they have been hearing–”some say you are John the Baptist, others, Eijah, still others say you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus poses a second and more engaging question: “And you, who do YOU say that I AM?” Somehow the impact of the midterm exam changes in tone and intent. I imagine the disciples really thinking and reflecting hard. Their question deals with interior knowledge and commitment. What they say in their response would immediately reflect back on how they have been behaving thus far in community and how much they have received from Jesus’ teachings and examples. I myself would have cringed in giving an answer too quickly.

Then Father, now Cardinal Chito Tagle, once gave us Jesuit scholastics, our annual retreat. At that juncture when he was initiating us into the Second Week of the Exercises, he gave us prayer points focused on “Who do you say that I am?”  this second and more confirming question. And he said this kind of question is a classic question and like many classic questions, we never give a response which exhausts all possible meanings within the scope of the question. In the first place, the YOU, of the question, which of course pertains to myself who is struggling to respond to it, has an inexhaustible wealth of meaning. I can never reach a completeness which will not still change. I know I would have answered the question quite differently back when I was still in College and was aiming to graduate with decent credentials so I can pursue a career in agribusiness and earn my first million in due time. I would have responded differently too when I was in the thick of political seminars trying my best to contribute to social change, by raising consciousness among farmers and cooperative workers and building organized groups which would carry their agenda into the fora of good elections and advocacy in the legislature. And of course, I answer that question with greater substance now that I am a Jesuit priest who has embraced it as my personal mission to introduce Jesus to others and help others engage in intimate relationship with him.

But then Fr. Chito Tagle did not stop there as of yet. He said the other point where the question expands even more is with that latter part that says “I AM.” Even if we are gifted with a moment of consolation, when we feel that we have grasped some part of Jesus’ being and have somehow touched him where he communicates his love deeply to us, we still cannot rest and say, “yes I know him.” Even for some of us who have been in constant friendship with Jesus and have developed quite a deep familiarity with him and his values and his ways by sheer constancy and fidelity in conversation and exchange, Jesus who is “I AM” will continue to surprise us. If he stops surprising us, then we are probably relating with an idol and not with the person. For God’s ways will continue to be far removed from our ways. And so intimate knowledge will just keep on deepening as we continue engaging Jesus in relationship. It will continue to become that constantly moving target, and just like one philosopher of epistemology said of knowing as apprehending the Truth, it remains always an “almost already there” enterprise.

Peter, the would be leader of the disciples risked an answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Not only did Peter ascribe to Jesus the identity of the “Messiah,” an age-old redeemer, which is in the deepest imagination of every member of the Chosen People, but also as “Son of the Living God” which makes of this Messiah, a Divine figure, a person who is equal to God. Jesus immediately takes notice that such revelation may not have been a fruit only of human speculation but a revelation that originates directly from the Father. And so he blesses Peter and vests upon him the ministry of leadership. But even with these signs of deep interior knowledge of Jesus in the heart of Peter, we know that much, much more needed purification in the disciple. Jesus had to qualify the kind of Messiah that he is. And this qualification of suffering and death on the cross was something that Peter could not accept. And it is here where he falls quite as fast as he proclaimed his belief in Jesus’ messianic role. Pretty much like the Peter who walked on water for a moment, but instantly lost his focus on Jesus when the strong winds and big waves frightened him and made him sink.

And so we, who are certainly lesser mortals than Peter and the disciples, we ask Jesus for the grace of a genuine intimate knowledge of him the better that we might love him and follow him. We ask that in those moments when we catch ourselves risking an answer to Jesus’ confirming question, that we may be acutely aware where we are coming from when we give that answer. And that we may be clear as well to whom we are giving our response. For while Jesus so desires to pursue us and engage in intimate relationship with him, we also have to propensity to create false images of God that conveniently suits our needs and desires. In responding genuinely to this confirming question, the YOU and the I AM must be genuinely in dialogue, and the I AM must be the real focus and transforming partner in the conversation. God Bless!

 

August 26, 2014  Leave a comment

22 August. Feast of Our Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth. When Love Becomes Our Very Life.

To Pray on and Ponder: Ezekiel 37, 1-14; Matthew 22, 34-40

Id quod volo (That which I desire most):  To encounter anew my living God who brings new life to birth in me, moment by moment as he receives me and sustains me in his love and renders my heart more and more of an open channel of his love for his people.

I was at a loss at first, reading the Ezekiel story of the Valley of the Dry Bones and then the Gospel account of pharisees challenging Jesus with the question about which among the Jewish laws was the greatest, and with the Feast of Our Lady’s Queenship in mind too. Then slowly, themes emerged and coalesced in my mind.  Ezekiel’s God is a God of life whose breath can raise an army from a valley of dry bones.  Our Lord Jesus, with his deep insight into Jewish law and his sharp reading of the hearts of his manipulative debate opponents proclaims what is at the core of God’s law, and that is love–love of God and love of neighbour. And so there I was marvelling at God’s breath of life and God’s law of love, I contemplate these two themes of life and love and the figure of Our Lady, our Queen who has become crowned queen, because her heart just magnified this God of life and love. And so I remembered the first line of David Haas’ version of Our Lady’s “Magnificat,” and there was a surge of insight and light in my brief meditation. My queen and exemplar invites me, invites us all to her simple ways of surrender and availability before God . . . .

“All that I am sings of the God who brings new life to birth in me, my spirit soars on the wings of my Lord.”

How can I give all that I am to a God who has himself given all that God is to me? How can I render myself so transparent to God so God may gather my broken pieces into a whole, and my self-gift to God may be whole and not fragmented, complete and not withholding of any parts, fruitful and not blocked, dry or barren in some of its branches.

How can I give of myself to sing of the God who indeed brings new life to birth in me? When so many times I am wont to sing of myself or sing of that moment’s passing fad or that attachment or addiction? How can I allow the God of love to so draw me unto God’s heart so I can become more and more completely fixed on my gaze at his greatness, his magnanimity, his limitless and lavish providence? How can I notice the many subtle signs of new life birthing in me, when self-doubt and insecurity often hound me and whisper lies to my heart that says that the only thing that life can offer me at the moment is violence and death? It takes a heart filled with love and hope as well as eyes of faith to see this God who constantly labours within us and in the very fiber of our world to breath new life, to raise us and renew us constantly, so we can “live and move and have our being” animated only by Sacred Breath.

How can I allow myself to fly with the life and love that God offers me moment by moment, day after day? How can I have the Lord of life carry me through, my spirit soaring on his wings? When will I learn that only those who find shelter in the shelter of the Lord will be raised up on eagle’s wings to soar into the birth-ing dawn. Those who dwell in desires of this world and desires of the flesh may shoot up for sometime but so easily fall down into the abyss. Only in God can we find rest and joy and peace. Only God’s life and love can make us soar into the breadth of God’s great vision of things. Only God’s love can stretch our hearts deep so we may give space to people who need God’s care and compassion.

On this day when we proclaim Our Lady as our Queen, may we have her carry us to our Lord and our Father so we too may sing with her,

“All that I am sings of the God who brings new life to birth in me, my spirit soars on the wings of my Lord.” God bless and happy feast!

August 23, 2014  Leave a comment

21 August. The Second Conversion.

To Pray on and Ponder:  Ezekiel 36, 23-28; Psalm 51, 12-15.18-19; Matthew 22, 1-14.

Id quod volo (That which I desire most): To so commit myself to God that in my close friendship with Him, I open my heart for the renewal He desires to accomplish in me, that I may all the more love him and follow him in his love and service for his people.

The Gospel texts proclaimed yesterday and today portray for us a God who never tires in inviting people to join in his enterprise. In yesterday’s Gospel we encounter the figure of the vineyard who repeatedly goes out to hire labourers for his vineyard. Having seen more and more idle people in the later hours of the day, he continued to hire additional people, even on the last hour. Today we see a God who is playing host to a great feast and realizing that the original group he invited was not showing up for all sorts of reasons, decides not to cancel the feast but instead ordered his servants to go the highways and byways and invite new guests from all over the place. God offers the feast to others who might want to come. No rejection would stop him.

In today’s Gospel though, a detail in the final scenes strikes and disturbs me. When many new guests do come, the host singles out a person who is not in proper garb for the wedding, he excludes and punishes the guy for the impropriety. It helps a bit that some Scripture commentators say for big weddings such as these, even the garb is provided for the guests. So it really must have been with great stubbornness that this guest decided to come and not follow the protocols of dress. And so beyond this disturbing detail, the one point we might focus on in our reflection is this: before a God who never tires to invite us, we must notice two levels by which we respond in faith: the first, our simple, even naive first response of yes to the call and second, which is perhaps the more important and more potentially enduring, the second conversion that commitment asks of us. It is one thing to say yes to attend the wedding and it is quite another thing to commit to the consequences of following through our first yes and here it seems quite simple-put on the proper garb.

This second conversion seems to be the response of the mature disciple. The first yes seems to always come when following Christ is chosen amidst many consolations and motivating gifts. Honeymoons always have this dreamy tone. There is much “falling in love” sweetness in our hearts and often times it’s the easier parts of the yes that become clear to us. We have not seen the fine prints of the deal. This is not to say though that God manipulates us into a response despite all the “You jilted me, Lord” protestations of the prophet Jeremiah. In my experience God does not candy coat his call at all, it is more often the case that I choose not to see the “dying to self” part of the response or even the more difficult “self-sacrificing love” that following Jesus always includes.

When the moment of the second conversion comes, God often slows us down, makes us more attentive to the many gaps in our discipleship, fixes our gaze on him rather than on our weaknesses and with his loving eyes drawing much love from deep within us, he asks us with great seriousness, “who do you say that I am?” and with that God touches our hearts with love that invites from us great generosity and zeal. And great generosity that sees quite clearly the greater consequences that closer commitment entails. For myself it began with seeing the plate beneath a way-of-the-cross plaque: “Jesus carries the cross.” The scene just reminded me of all the real “labouring” that Christ has done for me. And then another moment came when Christ just makes it so clear to me that when he gave himself for me, there was no demand that I respond in kind. He just said he wants me by his side but only if I want that too. The freedom to give myself back was real freedom, and I had to make that choice with all the love and intent I can draw from my own heart and body, which are by the way his gifts too.

The only thing to my mind that gives this serious second conversion response some lightness to it is that the Lord continues to guarantee that the response will see completion also by his enabling grace . Never mind that the greater awareness has made me feel the deeper sinfulness I bring into this commitment. Never mind that I know better that what I am really being asked to give is not a calculated response but really a blank check for all intents and purposes. Never mind that I know more clearly now that this second response is on the level of Ignatius’ “to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds” type of response. However far this response takes me and however deep the loving it draws from me, the breadth and depth will still be guaranteed and confirmed by God’s love. Which is why I love to read our Gospel text today with the assurances that the first reading from Ezekiel gives:

“Thus the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when in their sight I prove my holiness through you. For I will take you from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you  and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your ancestors; you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

Somehow, with the weight of commitment that second conversions bring, this path to God does not seem too frightening, because it is with a God-given heart and with God’s spirit that we make it. I guess this is why the old spiritual masters call this path the illuminative path. We only have to surrender ourselves fully so God may do the heart transplant that will give us new life.  God Bless!

PS. I wonder on this Ninoy Aquino assassination commemoration day if we might consider too a second conversion in our love for country. For the freedoms many of us fought for seem really long-drawn and desirous of great enduring commitment before it sees fuller light.

 

August 21, 2014  Leave a comment

17 August (20th Sunday of Ordinary Time). When the Stranger Becomes God’s Epiphany.

To Pray on and Ponder:  Romans 11,13-15.29-32; Matthew 15, 21-28.

Id quod volo (That which I desire most): Greater attentiveness to God’s epiphanies, especially in peoples and places which are foreign and stranger to me, things which are beyond my usual comfort zones, and having a glimpse of God’s face, I receive God’s presence with a heart that is open and available.

The second reading offered to us at the Sunday Eucharist comes from the letter to the Romans, attributed to St. Paul. And here he talks about himself  sensing glory in his ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles in order to make his own race jealous. St. Paul feels deeply that his own people had rejected the Lord he had come to believe and proclaim. But he marvels at the good that all peoples draw from the rejection of the Jews of their own Messiah–”their rejection is the reconciliation of the world.” And he believes that any people’s disobedience before God is but a phase, for ultimately such disobedience becomes a graced time for God to show his mercy upon all peoples. But for now let us notice how the non-Jew draws a Messiah like Jesus to extend the mercies of God originally intended only for the so-called chosen people. Alas even the Messiah is invited by a stranger to some conversion of heart too.

Our Gospel features a Canaanite woman who pleaded before Jesus for some stray grace that would heal her daughter and save her from death. Jesus articulates the current prejudice (or favor) of the day: “It is not good to throw the food of the children to feed to the dogs.” (Israel as children vs. Canaanites as dogs?) A little too harsh a metaphor in fact. Yet the woman plays Jesus’ game. She embraces the dog identity humbly and holding Jesus’ argument by the horn, rebuts with much power in the exchange:  ”Yes my Lord, but you know too that the dogs can partake of the scraps that fall from their master’s table.”

When Jesus gives in to the woman’s request, it is not only because this woman is persistent and Jesus wants to accede to her to get rid of her fast. I’d like to believe that Jesus found her faith incredibly deeper and stronger than most Israelites he knew, deeper and stronger even than the best of his disciples. Jesus experiences a conversion of heart and would see his mission now opened up to new boundaries and horizons–he is no longer limited to one “sent to the lost children of Israel.” Now he can be as the Samaritan woman and her people called him: “the Savior of the World.”

And yes, God has spoken through the alien, the stranger, the other, the unfamiliar. Those people, places, works and experiences which challenge our limited notions and visions to prepare our soul’s eyes to carry the breadth of God’s vision for the world; those that deepen our hearts’ space for greater love, and for loving more people and for people who can be quite difficult to love; those that make real our commitments by choices that manifest generous and compassionate self-giving.

When we hear and respond to God speaking in the alien or stranger, it is not only that God’s love reaches greater breadth and depth and substance–but yes, that’s true too–it is also that God penetrates our person more deeply to work on those corners of our hearts that previously love has not touched or transformed. For in a very real sense, the people we fail or have not yet received and embraced in our hearts represent parts of our hearts that have not been embraced enough by God. God bless!

 

August 18, 2014  Leave a comment

August 10, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Memorial of St. Lawrence, Deacon) When God Visits in Unexpected Ways

 

To Pray on and Ponder:  1 Kings 19, 9a.11-13a; Romans 9, 1-5; Matthew 14, 22-33

Id quod volo (That which we most deeply desire): To receive from God the capacity to open our hearts to see Godself revealing to us even when God comes in the most unexpected and mysterious ways, especially in times of crises and suffering.

The readings offered to us on this Sunday’s eucharist comes to me as a confirmation of things we have been conversing about in our Formation for Formators Module: our encounters with God in ordinary life circumstances and our capacity to notice God and engage God where God invites us to go.

We can say that all our main protagonists in our readings were faced with suffering and painful experiences and were somehow at a loss in finding the God they seek in the midst of these experiences. But God somehow comes to them in unexpected ways, bringing light and calm, redemption and increased faith. Elijah in the first reading was trying to escape a queen who was plotting his death after he proclaimed the prophetic God precisely wanted him to proclaim. Was his escape simply like how we would normally react when we are faced with threat to our lives, or was Elijah’s escape somehow also a manifestation of a crisis of faith as he was grappling at God’s seeming absence in his life at this critical juncture of his mission? Was he in fact also escaping God somehow? But in the cave, Elijah was to learn to wait on God and to receive God in the form he wanted to take in God’s visit. He was not in the usual drama of life, not in the strong winds or the fire or the earthquakes but rather, God came in a gentle hush of a breeze, calming him, assuring him of love and protection.

And then we have St. Paul who seems to be lamenting the plight of his own people. Recall that despite his conversion to Christ, he was still after all a Jew and a pharisee at that. Paul must have been deeply pained that while gentiles were readily accepting Jesus Christ, his own people who were supposed to be God’s chosen, were rejecting the messiah they were supposed to wait for and receive. What went wrong? After deep prayer and thought, Paul rose to faith and saw through human history. God has indeed been constant with the People he forged a covenant with. He has been true to all his promises through and through, including that of raising the Messiah from the ranks of the Israelite peoples. Unfortunately it was the People of God who rejected Jesus Christ. But God has not thrown the gauntlet at his people. He keeps hoping. Now he draws the gentiles in a twist that will ultimately win all peoples back to God’s fold.  And Paul does a Jesus too in confirming his hope. Paul says with deep conviction that he was now willing to give up his very closeness with Jesus, his very life so that Israel, his own people might be saved.

Finally in our Gospel, we see Jesus walking on the waters to save his disciples who were all in panic in the boat while the lake was experiencing much turbulence in big waves and strong winds. This whole picture of a people in distress while in a boat plagued by big waves and strong winds, just reminds us of the ark of Noah, built to save God’s people in the midst of the big flood and storm. Biblical experts say this picture is a portrayal of a Church in crises, a Church in the midst of suffering and persecution. And Jesus does something beyond Moses who split the waters in two so that people may walk on dry land. Jesus who is above Moses walks on the water and even invites Peter, the leader of his disciples to walk on water with him. But the leader’s faith falters. Peter was able to walk some steps as he continued fixing his gaze on Jesus. When Peter looks at the big waves around him, he loses his stance of faith and he sinks into the mire of his crises. Only Jesus’ outstretched hand could save him.

Friends, we have to constantly check ourselves and ask do we really believe in God’s presence even when we are not able to notice and recognize him in the unexpected ways he visits us. Many times it is easier to detect God in the rich experiences of life–the happy moments, when we feel successful and fruitful; when we feel loved, forgiven; when we feel we belong to a community that accepts us; when life’s gifts come to us unasked, etc. but there are many other ways by which God comes to us which may be painful and limiting–in death for instance or in grief and loss; in failures; in the experience of senseless violence around us; in our sense of helplessness amidst evil or sin; in our sense of emptiness or fruitlessness, etc.

In moments of crises and suffering, we often stumble and even question if God really loves us and cares for us, especially when we are tempted to think that God is absent or worse that God has simply abandoned us in our suffering. Ironically, it is in these defining moments when our faith is tested that our faith is confirmed. God comes in the most unexpected places and when we learn to notice God in these new ways that may still seem foreign to us, then we have come to know God more deeply and more intimately. And the deeper love we discover stretches our hearts and empowers us to love more deeply as well. God bless!

August 10, 2014  Leave a comment

July 31 (Feast of St. Ignatius). Walking the Pilgrim’s Path, Second Moment: Being Claimed by God’s Light

Sacred Spaces:  The Mountain (Montserrat), the River (Cardoner) and the Cave (at Manresa)

To Pray on and Ponder:  Ignatius experience of “being claimed by God’s Light,” i.e., of being illuminated fully by a God who reveals Godself as light from whence descends manifold gifts for God’s beloved, gifts that come first and foremost through God’s coming in human form in Jesus and through Jesus all other redemptive gifts follow.

Id quod volo:  A grace-filled remembering and reflection on Ignatius’ Montserrat and Manresa experience and unpacking meanings of what it means to be “claimed by God’s Light” we locate experiences of resonance and dissonance in my own faith journey.

The sacred spaces that form the backdrop of the Montserrat and Manresa period in Ignatius’ journey give us a hint into the profound meanings of this stage in his life. Recall that in many sacred writings including our Sacred Scriptures, the space, mountain is a place where theophanies happen. A place where God reveals God’s face to people. Think Sinai, the place where the first covenant between Yahweh and his people were forged at the time Moses gave the tablets of the decalogue to the people. And then there is Horeb, where Elijah fled when he was being pursued by vicious enemies, Ahab and Jezebel, and where in seeking God, Elijah did not find him revealed in fire or wind or storm or in the shaking of the earth, but rather, found God in a still, small voice, whispering to him in a gentle breeze.  And of course there is the mountain of the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses who promulgates as it were, the new law that surpasses the first one given at Sinai. Of course Calvary makes this list as well, for it is here where we find the complete and radical outpouring of love in Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Then there is Tabor where Jesus launches into his ascension and from whence he missions his apostles to make disciples of all nation by baptizing them in name of the Triune God.

For us mountain will be a place of epiphany, a place of transcendence. And this sacred space becomes even more dramatic as in Ignatius’ case, the mountain we refer to, is Montserrat–the serrated mountain, on top of which we find the Benedictine monastery which must have been the place where Ignatius learned a more ordered way of praying. Recall that by this time, Ignatius has just experienced initial conversion. He was so passionate about penances and was so eager to learn to pray and to offer great sacrifices. He even decided to give away his fine clothes and armoury to a beggar, not mindful of how this will impact on the beggar. He did not foresee that the beggar would be arrested and reprimanded, for people knew this man could not afford such fine clothes. Ignatius also made a vigil before the Black Madonna of Montserrat and before her, he surrendered his sword. Was this the completion of his turning away from his life as a courtier and definitive transition into his life as a penitent and pilgrim?

We know that when he arrived in Montserrat and Manresa on March 25, 1522, he meant to make this simply a pit-stop on the way to his intended destination which was the Holy Lands. He must have wanted to make a brief retreat to prepare for his pilgrimage. But this sojourn became an extended period of intense prayer. And it is in this period where Ignatius received mystical graces that would propel him to a path of discipleship and ministry of accompaniment and the help of souls.

At first the prayer provoked intense desolation as he may have seen how far he was, mindful of the sins of his courtier’s life, from the ideals and demands of the life of a pilgrim and disciple. He must have seen how empty his penances were in cleaning himself up. He even contemplated on committing suicide because of great scruples and intense temptations which suggested to him that all his efforts at conversion were futile and without fruit. Such intense self-examination must have happened in those months he spent in solitude in the caves of Manresa.

I thought this second space also offers to us significant meanings. Recall that most epic heroes go through midstream their life story an experience of retreat in a cave, after some experience of defeat or disorientation. In the cave, the hero does some intense self-examen, goes through a period of healing from the wounds life has inflicted on him or her thus far, and sometimes, also face a wisdom figure, or a trainer or a mentor who helps transform the heroes life vision, exercise him in the virtuous path and readies him for more complex combat that the next part of the journey will surely bring. We’ve seen this in epic quests where the hero retreats to a cave which becomes something of a tomb and womb experience for the hero. Recall Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or even Superman and Batman.  The cave is pretty much a cocoon experience, where the caterpillar retreats and waits, as if dying in its worm-like existence and then transforms quite magically into a butterfly.

Ignatius himself had his cave (or cocoon) experience where intense prayer and self-examination must have happened. If its any indication, the core experience of the First Week of his Spiritual Exercises of a General Examen of ones experience of sinfulness from year to year since birth, just shows us how meticulously Ignatius must have wanted his retreatants to examine themselves and purge themselves of interior disorder. Yet he must have learned as well that light could never come from our efforts alone. Light can only come from God who is the Creator and Wellspring of Light.  And so we turn to a third sacred space of this second moment in Ignatius’ journey–the River of Mystical light.

Ignatius on several occasions was praying by the River Cardoner and in these periods of prayer he began to perceive various representations of the Trinity in ordinary things. He began to understand the activity of the Triune God, making manifold gifts to descend to his beloved people, where foremost of the gifts is the gift of the Eternal Word, made incarnate in Jesus who is Creator and Lord. Ignatius began to see this Eternal Word in the light of his humanity, sanctifying all, redeeming all in moment by moment creation.  Ignatius’ eyes were opened by the bright mystical lights he received, beginning to see even, the wiles of cunning serpent with bejewelled eyes. By this, Ignatius’ capacity for discernment was elevated a hundredfold as he becomes capable of detecting spurious consolations proposed by the evil one, the one he called “enemy of the human nature.”

And so with all these mystical lights, Ignatius would say he had seen in this period more than he would ever see in his subsequent life of studies. He felt claimed by the Light and the simple penitent who struggled through sin through a life of penances, began to rest in God who calls him to apostolic life and has gifted him with the sole power, light, loving mercy and exemplar of what genuine following of God entails–to see, to love and to follow Jesus Christ, the Son and our Creator and Lord.

After the experiences on the mountain, the cave and the river of light, Ignatius would emerge a new pilgrim, with a distinct apostolic direction and a radical trust in a God who has claimed him as God’s own, and made him a warrior of light in the service and help of souls.

There was definitely a qualitative shift in the soul of Ignatius. If in the past, he struggled more in the purgative way, struggling to free himself of disorder and sin in his heart, in Montserrat and Manresa, Ignatius shifted to a more illuminative path to spirituality–a space where he begins to surrender more radically and completely his life and person, making God the sole guarantee even of his life of conversion and service. His patient contemplations of the mysteries of Christ’s life and appropriation of Christ’s Spirit must have awakened an unmistakable call to ministry and service as the King’s companion and collaborator of Christ’s mission.  Rather than the penances of the purgative way, the illuminative way calls us to transfix our gaze from ourselves to Christ who is our Light, the better for us to see him clearly, love him ardently and follow him more closely.

And so we may ask ourselves in reflection: Of the three point experiences of this period, i.e., surrendering of the sword, the painful experience of futility in managing one’s conversion, and the grand illuminations by the river Cardoner, with which experience was your heart moved? Where are you at the moment? Have you entered into this phase of “being claimed by God’s Light?” If so what is this experience like for you?  If not, what could be blocking its occurrence? What might me the sword(s) you are called to surrender?

On this feast of our beloved Founder and Father of our soul, St. Ignatius of Loyola, we pray that we ourselves experience this wonderful “claiming of the Light!” So that we find ourselves walking the path of the pilgrim as he begins a more intentional life of service of souls following the will of his Creator and Lord, the sole source and wellspring of God’s Light. Happy Feast Day and God Bless!”

 

July 31, 2014  Leave a comment

July 30. Walking the Pilgrim’s Path, First Moment: Call and Conversion

Sacred Spaces:  Battlefield at Pamplona and the Bed of Convalescence in the Castle of Loyola

To Pray on and Ponder:  Call and Conversion:  From the Shattering of Dreams at Pamplona to the Embrace of New Dreams at the Castle of Loyola

Id quod volo:  To ponder and consider Ignatius’ moment of metanoia and contemplating the way God called him to radical conversion, I may reflect on my own experience of God also calling me out of an old life into a new one where God is the foundational value of my life.

The Battlefield at Pamplona and the Bed of Convalescence in the Castle of Loyola are the first two iconic and sacred spaces I propose we explore. But first, a look into “pre-conversion” Ignatius.

When our saint first looked back at his life in order to recount it to an appointed companion scribe, a young Jesuit named Luis Goncalvez da Camara, Ignatius would describe younger self in the following words:  ”Until the age of twenty-six, he was a man given over to vanities of the world; with a great and vain desire to win fame he delighted especially in the exercise of arms” [Autobiography, 1]. One author even described him as “Though he had the faith, he was not exactly virtuous. We will never know what precisely happened in Azpeitia, during the Carnival of 1515, when an accusation was brought against him which mentioned ‘terrible crimes, perpetrated at night, with premeditation, cunning and treachery. . .’ except that he got off scot-free” [Dhotel, "Who are you, Ignatius of Loyola?" Progressio Supplement N27].

Ignatius would summarily describe the personal sinfulness that he himself experienced in terms of “sensual love, carnal love and worldly love.” [SpEx 97] and he traced the root and fruit of such sinfulness in what he portrayed as the strategy of Satan in ensnaring humans: tempt them to covet riches so that they may the more easily attain the empty honours of the world, and then come to overweening pride” [SpEx 142].

In a sense what Ignatius experienced and later described in his Spiritual Exercises and Autobiography are experiences all too familiar to us. Contemporary descriptions of this dynamic of sinfulness can perhaps bring home Ignatius’ points a little more strongly. Contemporary moralists and theologians would say that at its core, sin is a breaking away from covenant relationship with God, and it seems that the consistent dynamic is that sinful patterns emerge and evolve from a deep sense of insecurity and fear within each person which pushes us to create security mechanisms that evolve into absolutized idols within each of us and further elaborate themselves into behaviour patterns of lack or excess which are ultimately destructive of self, neighbour and the world. When these selfish patterns harden in a person’s character core, sinful habits form and a core orientation that sucks away the person’s life and energy as well as his/her power to love develops, and this begins to possess the person, feeding itself by further perversions, deceptions and outright violence against others. This is a vicious cycle that only a genuine experience a God reaching out to he person with unconditional love and mercy can break. And we can discover only in wonder and awe: the greater the sinfulness we bring to God in repentance, the great love God pours out to lure us and win us back.

In Ignatius we see several stages in his experience of call and conversion. His cannonball experience in Pamplona was a deeper shattering than simply shattering of his leg. That cannonball experience was a wake-up call for Ignatius. More than simply his leg, his dreams of what his life could be and where life could be leading him were all shattered. An old envisioned world was as it were deconstructed. Especially when you past dreams earned your passionate application of self, defeat, failure, disillusionment, realization of its emptiness and futility–all these could have laid to question the past world he allowed himself to inhabit and nurture ideals and hopes. The long travel back to their family home in Loyola, carried in a litter by his very enemies while he was grimacing with pain, all these must have been an effective trigger of sorts for a radical shattering of his life world and life’s dreams. The two surgeries he experienced (and without anaesthesia too!) and the long period of convalescence that followed must have been the first moment of death and life for Ignatius: death to an old life’s dream so another may be reborn.

Ignatius’ shattering may have been cathartic and dramatic for comfort, but I suspect all of us have such moments in our lives. When an old envisioned world and an old comprehensive dream of what we want to become and how we want to bring it to fruition all fall into foundational doubt and are brought to question. We must have had our own moments of shattering. What were your triggers? What values and ideals came to question? How did you receive your experience of shattering? What helped you pause, take stock of things and count your real losses? In brief, what was your own Battlefront and Pamplona?

And then there was the bed of recovery at the Castle of Loyola. Surely, God will never leave us shattered, broken or undefined. “There is time to destroy and a time to rebuild,” says the wise one of Ecclesiastes. For Ignatius, it was alternate visions and alternating moods that helped him rebuild and come out a new man. While convalescing Ignatius asked for some books at the Castle so he may read and perhaps deal with boredom. Boredom in fact is a sign that something is beginning to stir. For in a sense, when one begins to feel boredom, it is because he or she has been cut off from the usual external stimuli which prevents him or her from looking squarely at himself or herself. Ignatius is limited to his bed. He is forced in isolation and solitude. And because of this, the two books that would come to him eventually would win much focus and attention from him because he must have wanted to while away his boredom. But lo and behold, God has other plans. Through out the castle only two books can be found for Ignatius’ entertainment and these were, the Vita Christi (Life of Christ) and the Flos Sanctorum or Lives of Saints. Reading these books, Ignatius began to reimagine his world and himself. And he found that he felt great and enduring joy imagining himself a soldier not of the Spanish King but of Christ, the heavenly king. He imagined himself as one of the saints serving the Lord. And he found the great ideals lived by the saints as challenges to his own honour and pride: “If Francis did it, I can do it . . . ”

Not only did he imagine new worlds for himself and new deeds, he also found that when the old and new alternated. It was in the new dreams that he found his heart really fired up with passion, filled with joy and life. By the time he had fully recovered and could walk albeit with a limp, Ignatius already knew what he wanted to do next. He wanted to become the best soldier for this Christ, his newfound King. And he would go to the Holy Lands to walk his path, still quite literally.  And the shattered old dreams were now a thing of the past. And this new life world and life’s dreams have emerged.

And so we have our turn to reflect again:  How does God call your attention when he wants to communicate a new call and new dream to  you? How does God use your own language so he may draw you close and attract you to positive and generous response? When did you experience God painting a new path for you and gifting you with a radically new self-description–one that honours your giftedness to the hilt and connects you with the people in great need?

As we continue to celebrate the gift of St. Ignatius of Loyola, may you awaken to the great gift of call and conversion that sets us forth to our own pilgrimage towards our loving God.  God Bless!

July 30, 2014  Leave a comment

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