First Sunday of Advent 2011

There is something more disturbing these days aside from the political chaos that the case of the now under-arrest former President and now Congresswoman Gloria Arroyo has created. It is linear thinking that seems to operate even in Church circles and is playing safe on the side of legalism. When the Department of Justice Secretary Leila de Lima “defied”  (in virtue of her intuition that the Arroyos will eventually seek political asylum in other countries) the Supreme Court order to allow the Arroyos to leave the country for “medical emergency reason,” the staunchest critic of de Lima’s executive arrogance is no less the respectable Constitutionalist Fr. Joaquin Bernas, Jesuit, lawyer and former Dean of the Ateneo Law School. The venerable Cardinal Vidal also voiced out his opposition to the “defiance,” followed by the new Archbishop of Cebu Jose Palma. Clerics and laypeople also jumped into the fray, mostly fearful of the possible Constitutional crisis the “defiance” could trigger. Indeed, de Lima’s decision was very polarizing. But clearly, those who denounced de Lima’s very unpopular move of barring the Arroyos from leaving the airport castigated her for doing a perilous, illegal encroachment of the power of the Supreme Court whose 8 justices were ungraciously appointed by Congresswoman Arroyo a week before she stepped down from power.

With due deference to our well-intentioned bishops and Fr. Bernas, it is understandable where they were coming from – from the logic of the law. De Lima’s call shocked the nation’s common sense because it was almost unthinkable that a lone woman could almost singlehandedly blur the autonomy of both the Executive and the Judiciary. To make sense of the unthinkable which appears very dangerous to our “Constitutional survival,” basic human psychology would dictate us to anchor on a safe ground. This safe ground happens to be the logic of the law which is the law of linear thinking, the striving for consistency of one’s syllogisms, or the clarity of one’s arguments.

But linear thinking easily grinds against intuitive thinking, which was the main operational mode of De Lima’s intransigence. If linear thinking likes to play safe within allowed borders, intuitive thinking is more adventurous. If linear thinking is more closeted, boxed-in, intuitive thinking likes to venture into open seas.

This difference is not something new. More relevant for this blog, it is the same sea of difference between the Benedictines and those dominated by linear thinking (coincidentally, De Lima graduated from the Benedictine San Beda College of Law; ironically, the cleric-Dean of the College also joined Fr. Bernas), the difference between the medieval scholastics and the medieval monastics; the scholastics (whose spirit continues to dominate Roman Catholic theological schools) being the champion of linear thinking, whose commentaries for example on the Canticle of Canticles were doggedly written as clear and precise as possible, its doctrines stringently addressed to the intelligence; whereas monastic commentaries were addressed to the whole being; its aim is to touch the heart rather than instruct the mind.

“Scholastic commentary is almost always complete; it explains the entire “letter” of the sacred text. Monastic commentary is often incomplete; St. Bernard, in eighty-six sermons composed over a period of eighteen years, had reached only the beginning of the third chapter.”

The medieval monastics were more at home with incompleteness, with the open-ended meanings of sacred texts. The linear thinker among the scholastics, under the method of quaestio and disputatio, liked it secured in conclusive and convincing arguments at the expense of disregarding an essential component of one’s being like intuition or common sense. It was the medieval monastics openness’ rather than their rigid stance before sacred texts (Bible, Church Fathers, and the classics) that transformed them into the moral fiber of the medieval period, a period of unparalleled masters of waiting, men and women who in their desire for the truth grounded in the Holy, were less enslaved by the “letter” of the texts than by  its capacity to shock-to-transfigure. Their holiness apparently went beyond human beings’ capacity for linear thinking, no matter how valuable learning was for them.

Advent. Seems to be the “real time” for contemplative waiting and open-mindedness rather than for discursive, logical thinking for the coming of the Messiah. The medieval monastics used to be where we are now.

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Leclerq, J. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (Fordham University Press: New York, 1982, pp. 84-85).

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Between rituals and ceremonies…

“I feel the term ritual should not be squandered or loosely applied to inconsequential and habituated behavior. There the better word to use might be ceremony. Authentic ritual enactment concerns itself with transition and transformation; ceremony with the awarding and preservation of status.”

Bani Shorter, Susceptible to the Sacred: The Psychological Experience of Ritual (Routledge: London, 1996, p.30)

I’m tired of going to his mass, not that I’m tired of going to mass. Who is not (unless one doesn’t really care about the distinction above) when even in the closing of the Church’s liturgical year capped by Christ the King, all one hears during the homily is the perfunctory, repetitive, information-driven reminder of how a liturgical year looks like, the major seasons and its distinctive assigned colors, not to mention of the pending projects like the multipurpose building and the covered walkway aimed for the coming advent dawn masses and Christmas. I found it very anti-ritual, shallow, devoid of the kind of substance that a meditative homily is potent to transform the landscape of attention of the listeners. One could argue that perhaps more from among the congregation still need those information. But isn’t this spiritual consumerism at the expense of the depth of a ritual, Eucharist for this matter, where a homily is an opportunity to plunge deeper into the mystery of Christ’s humility, rather than get caught up in the pragmatics of liturgical legalism? Isn’t it theologically commendable that a homily part is where worshipers can “take off their sandals” as flesh and spirit plunge more deeply into Ember of the Unknowable?

“Brought to the crossroads, where creative freedom is a choice, at the juxtaposition of human and divine energies, space is required for contemplation of the mystery of revelation. This space will be imbued with symbolic presence and respect for that presence determines the outcome. For the symbol does not disguise; it reveals over time. Attentiveness is needed during the process of its unfolding, a certain patience and the willingness to relate to it as something more than oneself though belonging to oneself. Meaning follows.”

“Ritual is the name we give to what happens in that hazardous space, gives witness and pays homage to an encounter between human and divine forces, an exchange that involves a sharing of attributes, though not of essences. Precisely because of this what happens can only be expressed  in imaginative and metaphorical form.” (op.cit. p.119)

Are our liturgies too modern in losing a sense of “sacred space,” turning homilies into announcement boards, rituals into ceremonies, mythos and the symbolic life into the verbosity of the human logos?

I suspect that if people keep eating the bread of rituals and symbols, the multipurpose building follows by a “different route” like the Magi.

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Praying with Landforms and Waterforms

Collect for Landforms

LIFE-GIVER, we praise you for the many different kinds of landforms there are on the earth. Mother Earth has such a variety of features from the heights of Mt. Everest to the depths of the Grand Canyon and so much in between. We appreciate the landforms themselves and the life that each sustains, from the water lilies and alligators of the swamps, to the frogs of the fens, to the cacti and snakes of the mesas, deserts, and dry places. Whether the form is high or low, flat or round or craggy, whether it’s near water and wooded or in a dry barren place, all add to the health of the planet’s ecosystems. Guide us in being partners with the landforms that share the Earth with us.

Jensen, Jane Richardson & Watkins-Harris, Patricia. She Who Prays: A Woman’s Interfaith Prayer Book. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005, p. 117)

Collect for Waterforms

JESUS, you were baptized in the Jordan River as a sign of repentance and of birth into new life. We praise you for the many waterforms on the Earth. We treasure the life that lives in the salt water of the oceans and the fresh water of tiny creeks, huge rivers and waterways, and lakes. We thank you that there are bodies of fresh water large enough to give refuge to unknown creatures of the deep and wee lochs that come from rain filling a depression in the land. May we treat the waterforms of this Earth with respect, so they and all manner of life dependent on them are able to thrive. Amen.

Jensen, Jane Richardson & Watkins-Harris, Patricia. She Who Prays: A Woman’s Interfaith Prayer Book. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2005, p. 117)

Mt. Banahaw

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Photo credit: Bukisa

Storm signals, compassion signals

“When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist,
he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
The crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd,
his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.
When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said,
“This is a deserted place and it is already late;
dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages
and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away;
give them some food yourselves.”
But they said to him,
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.”
Then he said, “Bring them here to me, ”
and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing, broke the loaves,
and gave them to the disciples,
who in turn gave them to the crowds.
They all ate and were satisfied,
and they picked up the fragments left over—
twelve wicker baskets full.
Those who ate were about five thousand men,
not counting women and children.”

July is normally a typhoon month for the country, with an average of 5 of this kind of damaging wet weather. We got overloaded this July with 9 according to PAGASA. The consequences to human lives, communities and properties are tremendously burdensome – city and rural areas flooding, streets covered with mud or even lahar; people drowned in rivers or buried alive by landslides; houses gobbled up by the sudden monstrous rise of water; ricefields and fish farms devastated. Just when residents were about to finish fixing their houses, another storm would turn their effort into futility. How painful! How frustrating could it further get! The sense of devastation and loss are marked up in people’s faces like ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday; they are drawn in their wearied faces.

Pinoys are no strangers to storm-induced suffering. We are quite familiar with it. Or over-familiar with it enough to numb the human capacity for compassionate action.

That over-familiarity could also become an inhuman habit is something not unfamiliar – souring relationships, unfinished meal at fastfood restaurants, boredom over repetitive Sunday gospel readings or “old” laptops. It’s a creeping disease even in social networking like Facebook where people are over-familiar with each other with all the photographic evidence and details but fail to connect more deeply like two friends engaged and interested in each other in an other-centered conversation, hearts out the way compassion is other-centered by nature. I wonder if with over-familiarity, the choices are reduced to two – relational depth or simplistic connection? Compassionate, heartfelt connection, or the shallow self-gratification by way of information?

But then, the gospel injunction to become “true neighbors” in the parable of the good Samaritan is by way of mercy, through the networking of compassion rather than the gathering of information that the priest and the Levite had cognitively modelled in the parable.

Once again, I heard the same timeless call for compassion in the story of the feeding of the more than five thousand. I imagine the Son of Man traversing the dusty roads from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing by familiar faces of people in pain. Anytime, the Son of Man could have fallen into the trap of over-familiarity to become heedless to every Bartimaeus or women hemorrhaging more than a dozen years. Anytime, the Son of Man could have excused himself using our modern phrase of “compassion fatigue” (a symptom of our lack of courage to pursue solitude, the source of compassion). Yet, one more time, I heard the Son of Man, likely to have wept in silence, coming out from a painful solitude occasioned by the beheading of someone he looked up to – John the Baptist – sharing compassion to the hungry crowd and the sick. Scholars may explain to us the meaning of “miracle” in this passage from a scientific sociological perspective of the crowd bringing their own provision. But the scientific information is not the spiritual bread in this passage. It was the Son of Man’s compassion born out of his sorrowful solitude, set in a secluded place conducive for silence – a case of solitude chased by the desire for him. It was the Son of Man’s compassion likely unleashing what was in the heart of every wounded member of the crowd. The spiritual bread here is the sense that every Eucharist is a celebration of compassion – the Holy extending mercy, cajoling every attendee to stay and need not go somewhere, to simply sit in the open field of divine generosity to be joyfully satisfied. The spiritual bread here is the sense that every time I honestly admit before the Holy, alone or with others, offering my wounds or lack: “I have here five loaves of bread and two fish,” I am already sitting in the field of the Eucharist for every Eucharist is but the begging of the Holy’s mercy, the encounter of God’s tireless compassion with the human need for it. Eucharist is not so much the rubrics nor the repetitions but the meeting of two desires. Exodus of solitudes. Communion. The meeting of two loves until a “good measure, pressed down,shaken together, running over, is poured out into one’s garment.”

“…and they picked up the fragments left over— twelve wicker baskets full.”

In every storm that left people in pain, I am invited to become eucharistic. It can begin with the honest admission of the figurative “five loaves and two fish” I have and done as an act of oblation. The rest is for Him to multiply, His mercy to fill, and purify my complacency born out of over-familiarity. Amen.

Gibran and his 7 self-reprimands

Seven Reprimands

by Gibran

I reprimanded my soul seven times!

The first time: when I attempted to exalt myself by exploiting the weak.

The second time: when I feigned a limp before those were crippled.

The third time: when given a choice, I elected the easy rather than the difficult.

The fourth time: when I made a mistake, I consoled myself with the mistakes of others.

The fifth time: when I was docile because of fear and then claimed to be strong in patience.

The sixth time: when I held my garments upraised to avoid the mud of Life.

The seventh time: when I stood in hymnal to God and considered the singing a virtue.

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The Best of Kahlil Gibran. Book Palace: New Delhi, p.71. Gibran wrote in two languages: Arabic for Lebanon, Syria and the Arabic world; English for the West. Gibran’s mother was the daughter of a Maronite priest. The Maronite Church uses Syriac, or Aramaic, in its liturgy, the same language spoken by Christ. While his feet “were stumbling on the stones of Nazareth, he decided to write his book Jesus the Son of Man.” On the Church becoming feudal during his time and bishops and priests used their position to advance and enrich friends and relatives, he wrote 2 famous stories: “Kahlil the Heretic” (a novice tries to convince the monks to distribute all their possessions and to go preach among the poor)  and “John the Madman.”

“Life is not only merriment; Life is desire and determination.” K. Gibran

The fierce landscape, the “cedars of God,” the mountains of Lebanon that Gibran grew up with, the Wadi Qadisha that has a “mighty force that compels the mind to dwell upon the words we have for eternity.”

Holy Week, Easter and Sexuality

Quite ordinarily and punctuated by hours of solitude even within the household, we observed the  Holy Week.

After Palm Sunday, I prayed for the Holy Spirit to make me more attuned to the transforming message and power of the Holy Week. By Wednesday, I found myself fuming with anger while praying at the Chapel of St. Pio. The taxi driver stealthily snaked us through a long route to the Chapel for us to cash out what could have been half of the metered rate. Ironically, we talked about icons all the way to the place :-).

Thank God the place was really silent despite the number of pray-ers. There was nourishing silence that hovers the place, magnified by the framed testimonies of prayers for healing answered attached to the wall, the hospitable readiness of a number of wheelchairs at one door, the neat lines of votive candles, images of Padre Pio and St. Francis of Assisi. Silence was extended to the garden outside the Chapel where life size statues of Padre Pio, Jesus praying at Gethsemane and the Blessed Mother join this chorus of silence.

I was still collared by the noise of anger. But like other pilgrims, there are more important people to pray and ask Padre Pio’s intercession for either silently or through the prayer requests pad provided by the Center. I need not settle my anger right away; it will go away within the week was my little hope.

At home, I have to be realistic. Having a 3-year old kid is not the best time to totally fast from TV. But at the same time, something admirable is going on these days especially with one local channel. It is the way it consciously provides time for religious matters. It is the way the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) is negotiating with media these days, is trailblazing, not to mention its own vocational promotions, religious programs for the viewing public. It is the way it highlights the healing power of the Eucharist through the kind, presidential presence of its main person in Fr. Gerry Orbos, SVD. I was glued to the Holy Thursday mass he presided and despite his charismatic though gentle leadership, the homily on self-forgetfulness was truly contemplative. On behalf of the clergies, he apologized for their misdeeds. It was my first time to witness the ritual of foot-washing beautifully altered: after he washed the “apostles” feet, the latter followed suit for each other. Beautiful symbolism!

I know there is a downside to televised masses especially for those physically able to walk down to the church. So we came down to the real community, more or less charged by this virtual offering.

Good Friday. Not quite good for a woman neighbor, 4-month pregnant, alone and had been trapped for 20 minutes inside their suffocating bedroom because the doorknob malfunctioned. We came to her rescue by sapping part of the wooden door frame with a knife. The thin phone card didn’t work out. Good Friday relief for her.

Pregnancy seems an ordinary sight. But I brought the image as well to the Easter Vigil after re-reading Fr. Lovett’s liturgical plea for the return of this rich, sexual symbol for Easter Vigil:

“It makes sense to talk of an emasculation of the symbolism because the 1956 liturgy was strongly sexual. Only thus could it celebrate the transforming power of creation in us. All the symbols came from the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis. The font symbolizes the womb of mother Church fertilized by the phallic form of the lighted candle which is plunged ever deeper with rising tones by the celebrant. When the candle had reached its deepest point, the celebrant was instructed to breathe on the water in the form of the Greek letter psi, first letter of the term for life, psyche. The symbolism is of fecundity and regeneration. The fertilization of the virgin Church is related to the fertilization of the primeval waters, the waters of chaos. We are given a creation story centered on Christ. The birth of new members, the catechumens, is linked to the birth of the universe.”

Why this sexual symbolism? Fr. Lovett also provides the answer:

“There is a connection between sexuality and death. The message of both is one and the same: we do not have our lives for ourselves, we are not our own…Our habitual trivialization of sexuality is the sign of our inability to accept its true meaning. We creatively live sexuality by accepting the truth of our mutual belonging and by accepting it radically, my flesh for the life of the world.”

Children seem are faring better with the symbolic fertility of the Easter bunnies. In darkness and through the chaos of our lives, we have just been “fertilized” by Christ through his resurrection. Happy Easter to you…

Reference: It’s Not Over Yet: Christological Reflections on Holy Week (Claretian Publications: Quezon City, 1990, p. 66-67)

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