Monday, October 26, 2009

Lifting you in prayer with gratitude

“I do not cease giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.” – Eph 1:16

Today, about 70 of us begin the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day silent retreat outlined by St Ignatius of Loyola. Although I will not communicate via postings on this blog, be assured that I will lift you up to God in prayer throughout these days. With God’s grace, I hope to continue after Thanksgiving. Please keep us in your prayers.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Facing our problems but focus on God’s promise (Lesson #7)

“Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Lk 10:38-42)

The above passage was the Gospel at Mass the last day of our immersion in Navotas. Scholars often interpret this episode to mean that Jesus prefers passive prayer over busy work. They see Jesus reprimanding Martha while placing prayer over work. There is truth to this explanation. But through prayer, shaped by the six previous lessons, I am shown a different perspective.

Jesus does correct Mary, but mainly because she is “anxious and worried about many things.” She is not only focused on the challenges and problems of serving, but she is also intent on making sure that her sister is also likewise focused. In her genuine desire to deliver the best of Jewish hospitality, she is “overburdened” by the tasks. Moreover, she compares. She sees her active service as better than her sister’s work of attentive listening. So Jesus reprimands her, mainly because of her comparison and focus on the lesser part. He lovingly reminds her “Martha, Martha” to keep her gaze on him and not to berate her sister.

Through the lessons of these past weeks, Jesus is likewise correcting my vision. I am taught in a new way, to receive Jesus who desires to give himself to me much as possible, who humbles in washing my feet, who has a preference for the poor and least among us; to “waste” time with Jesus; to simply be myself; and to see myself honestly, patiently before God. It is not easy for me to look at myself, especially my own shadows, with patience while keeping my eyes on Jesus. It is not easy for the families of Navotas to face their family problems and innumerable concerns of daily living. It is not easy for the people of the Philippines to rebuild after two destructive typhoons (the worst in 40 years), especially when the damage is made more severe because of a lack of land reforms to resettle squatters away from the rivers, of continued logging which denudes nearby forests, of poor waste management that clogs the waterways, all sustained by corrupt governments. It is tempting to focus on our problems and forget God’s promise.

I am reminded by the wise humor of an elderly Irish nun: “Tri, God is not on time, but is never late. God always keeps promises.” Yes, Sister, God does not do things our way, nor abides by our schedules. God is not on time, but is never late, for God acts decisively when God’s time comes. The Bible, especially Luke’s Gospel, emphasizes that God keeps promises to God’s people, even when they repeatedly betray the covenant. God keeps promises to the remnant of Israel in captivity, to the poor family of Mary and Joseph, to the elders Anna and Simeon. When I asked our host families in Navotas during the homily if God has ever not kept any promises God has made to them, they responded “No!” When I asked if God always kept God’s promise to them, everyone nodded “Yes!” Resoundingly both times. My own family and I would also agree wholeheartedly!

Jesus reminded Martha to focus on him rather than her worries, concerns, or agendas. We are likewise invited to turn or gaze on God’s promises rather than our problems. I am called to rely more on God’s providential care and acceptance than on my tendencies toward greediness and judgment. We are taught, like Martha, to face our weakness, challenges, and problems but focus on God’s care. To listen to God while we work, God who is present and laboring through the difficulties that confront us, God who will lead us through the wilderness of our worries and bring about greater meaning and purpose to our lives and sufferings. When we focus on God’s love and care, we approach things differently, with deeper insight and strength. We will embrace the best of both Martha and Mary, and not dissipate our energies by comparing.

To see myself honestly, patiently before God (Lesson #6)

“If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.” Rom 8:11

The first few weeks of entering a foreign land or a different culture is fascinating and captivating. The newness and “otherness” of the place or lifestyle draws our attention and we are able to make connections and gain new insights. But gradually, novelty wanes. The freshness of the new culture and new people fades. The “otherness” ceases to be original and differences irritate rather than charm us.

If we allow ourselves to be fully immersed in a new culture, we will become more aware of our own value system, prejudices, and biases. They will bubble up. I am challenged to embrace my own greed and tendency to judge.

We live in a culture that subtly steers us toward a mindset of greed. Commercials slowly seduce us into thinking, “I need things.” I need this car, these clothes, that food, this vacation, these electronic toys. All of these things become so attractive to us. Commercials also make us feel that we are not complete until we have them. So in our desire to be happy and have all the things we need, we grab on to things. And pretty soon our whole lives can be immersed in the pursuit of things. It would be simple for me to place the blame on commercialism. But this drive “to have things” is not “out there’ in society. It is within me, often in my knee-jerk reactions and conscious mindset. Entering the world of the poor in Philippines, especially in Navotas, unmasks how greedy I can be, even as I rationalize that I need this thing or this “toy” for ministry. Whether in the form of commercialism or the insecurity of wanting a lot of things, the tentacles of greediness have taken a hold of me, more than I am ready to admit. More than ever, I am confronted by what I often caution people: “Things are meant to be used, while people are meant to be loved. Be careful not to love things and use people.”

I live with Jesuits from 7 different countries and 4 continents. We are very diverse in age, personality, training, and lived experiences. Such an international group living together in a developing country creates much opportunities and challenges. In the beginning, it was easy for me to celebrate our unique origins. Recently however, these differences grate at me. I find myself easily irritated by the way some of my brothers speak English, eat, do laundry, clean the bathrooms, comment on the Filipino culture, etc... The way they see the world, look at people, interpret cultural cues and bodily languages can annoy me. And I find myself quick to judge. Ultimately, this judgment is less about the biases and prejudices of my brother Jesuits. They are more about my own set of values, assumptions, and expectations of people, the world, God, and life. When I observe how ready I am to judge others, I am confronted by how easily I judge myself, and expect myself to be more generous, more noble, more open-minded, more free – in short, more perfect. On the one hand, I truly desire to have a heart of a child – to simply be myself before God. On the other hand, I realize how far I am from this lesson. I get impatient at myself for being such a slow student.

St Paul talks about this reality. Let me paraphrase him: “Why is it that I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want?” Whenever I strive toward good, I notice that within me the tendency to do the opposite increases? Within me are two principles at war with one another: life and death. “Who can deliver me from this miserable, mortal state? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 7:18-25)

This is a truth difficult to embrace: To see myself honestly, patiently before God. Each time we enter the world of another culture or the realm of prayer, this lesson of disguised grace unfolds.

Friday, October 23, 2009

“The Body of Christ” (Lesson #5)

Jesus desires “to give himself to us as much as possible.” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola)

Every day my Jesuit tertian brothers, our nine host families and their friends gathered for afternoon Mass in various small chapels throughout Navotas. The physical environment was less than ideal. It was crowded and hot, with dirt, smoke, street noise, insects and other distractions swarming our senses. Yet, each Eucharistic celebration had meaning for me. Three of those Masses stood out in particular.

On all three occasions, God’s presence was especially palpable. The first instance occurred after communion. I felt a strong sense of God’s love enveloping everyone. God, as father and mother, smiled with delight at all of us present. It was as if God said, “I am here. I will keep my promise to be with my people in Navotas, to bring about greater meaning and purpose.” Tears of gratitude streamed down my cheeks. As I continued listening, I also felt God promise: “I will guide your discernment and reveal your path.” I took deep breaths as more tears flowed. (I don’t really what God is doing in my life, but I sense that God is preparing me for a definite mission that will engage all that I am for the rest of my life).

The next two occasions also took place around communion. In a similar fashion, they confirmed what happened that first time. Although I did not see visions or heard voices, I am confident that God communicated with me, in a personal and unique way that God “speaks” to each of us. The ensuing deep peace and inner freedom, accompanied by a renewed trust, hope, and love are signs of genuine grace. Often we engage in autosuggestion, projecting into God our wishful thinking or what is on our minds. But only God can give grace that yields good, lasting fruits in our lives.

It has been three weeks since those experiences. Each time I celebrate Mass as the main celebrant or in the congregation, I have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus. Jesus who invites me to “waste” time with him; Jesus who calls me to simply be myself before him; Jesus who humbles himself to wash my feet, the dirtiest parts of myself; Jesus who is very near the poor. This is the same Jesus who desires “to give himself to us as much as possible” in the Eucharist – all that he is – his obedient love of God and self-giving love for us.

When I was in college, I struggled with the idea of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Now, twenty four years later, when I give communion to someone at Mass and say “The Body of Christ,” it is more than just a host or a symbol to me; it is Jesus inviting me to give of myself as much as possible. And in silence I respond with the one receiving communion, “Amen” – “So be it, let it be done.”

I invite you to celebrate Mass more often. And when you receive communion, take the time to let Jesus give himself to you as much as possible in “The Body of Christ.”

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Preferential love for Christ in the poor (Lesson #4)

“So great are the poor in the sight of God that it was especially for them that Jesus was sent into the world … Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the Eternal King.” (St. Ignatius of Loyola)

The hard lessons in living with poor families in Navotas helped me to experience the nearness of Jesus. I frequently sensed Jesus’ presence as I lived with host my families. One has to be careful not to romanticize poverty or idealize living among the poor and marginalized. In and of itself, poverty does not exalt. However, Jesus hides in the least of our brothers and sisters. He lived most of his life in Nazareth, a village in the backcountry of Galilee, among those who have less than more. Jesus’ love was inclusive of everyone, but he showed a consistent preference for the least and neglected in society. He shared their pain, loneliness, and desolation.

Jesus kept his promise to be present in his poor. He was “in disguised” as I spent time in Navotas and with the boys in the Tuklasan Center for street kids. I can’t really explain it, but the more I befriended my host families, the more I felt close to him. His face was revealed more clearly to me. Maybe it’s because generally poor people are more generous in sharing (as in the story of the widow’s mite); maybe because they live day by day and have a greater need to depend on God’s providential care; maybe because they don’t have the means to store unnecessary things. I really don’t know the reasons. But I do know that my friendship with him grew as I befriended members of my host families, especially the children.

This identification of Jesus with the poor is not new to me. But the lesson takes on a newness - at a level of truth - that captivates me, like the look of the little girl in the photo. For St Ignatius, to be a “friend of Jesus” is to be a friend of the poor.

How can you and I embrace this truth in our lives? How can we allow this truth to take hold of us?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Humbled by love: Foot washing (Lesson #3)

 Feet are often the dirtiest and smelliest parts of our bodies. In Navotas, feet carry the odor reeking from the mud of human sweat and street stench, especially because everyone uses sandals to wade through puddles of rain and sewage water.

Twice, members of my host families washed my feet before I entered the house. The first time I was shocked and resisted. The second time I acquiesced, yet I felt more humbled. I realized at the second occurrence how consistent my feet had been washed in other ways throughout my stay in Navotas. Both families constantly gave me their best: the best food, the most comfortable bed-sheet, the only mattress, the most efficient electric fan, the best place to sleep, etc... One family gave me their only working mosquito net, against my protest that they should save it for a newborn child. It may be true that Filipinos have a high regard for priests; they are renowned for their hospitality and religiosity. But the genuine goodness and joy that emanates from these sacrifices is beyond my understanding and moves me deeply.

I cannot help but recall the feet washing by Jesus in John 13 and the many times I have experienced this on retreats. Peter and the disciples were shocked that their Master and Teacher turned the roles upside down by lowering himself to perform a service that only the lowest of the lowest of the lowest of the slaves would do in 1st century Palestine. They did not understand at the time. Jesus had to remind them that sharing his inheritance involves having their feet washed. Like Jesus, my host families took attentive and thorough care of me, always giving their best, in ways that both puzzles and humbles me.

Genuine love humbles us, for we cannot earn it, deserve it, or make ourselves worthy of it. It humbles us because it “brings us to the ground.”All we can do is embrace it and allow ourselves to be humiliated by love, as we are. Once that happens, we will know how to response with the same extravagant or "wasteful" expressions of love. Albeit not easy to accept, I am deeply grateful to be humbled by love in Navotas.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Simply be oneself: Heart of a child (Lesson #2)

Children from my second host family, posted with their permission. In the right photo are Kim & Jessa.

The best way to learn a foreign language, or to enter a different culture, is to befriend children. My two host families had plenty of children, so there was playing, singing, dancing. Kyla, a 2 year-old girl, was particularly fond of dancing “Nobody” (the present rage in the Philippines). JR, a 7 year-old boy, especially loved dancing on my shoulders! Yet, it was the older children – two sisters in their teens – whom I befriended more. Jessa liked to sing Praise and Worship songs. She had a beautiful voice, yet was shy. I was able to convince her to sing “Heart of Worship” with me in front of 80 people. We agreed to do it for God. It was a first for me, as well as for her. My desire to help boost her self-confidence in turn helped me overcome my deep fear of performing in public. Her sister Kim, reminded me of myself in my self-conscious teenage years. Yet, there was a fire in Kim’s eyes and a passion in her heart that awaited something to trigger their spark. So we spoke of “emotional intelligence,” of developing inner habits that cultivates one’s sensitivity to understand and courage to tame one’s emotions. Although Kim and I had only begun talking about this journey of growth, I felt the work of the Holy Spirit through our interactions. And though Jessa and I only sang together in public once, the wind of change has begun to move through us.

During Mass on October 1st, Fr Paul Malvaux, a brother Jesuit Tertian from Belgium, preached the following: “Why did Jesus said, ‘Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Mt 18:3-4)? I don’t think it’s because children are perfect. I don’t know any perfect child. I don’t think it’s because they are innocent. I don’t know how you can say that a child is really innocent. But what I saw and what I know is that children are just the way they are. If a child is sad, he will just cry and run to his mother. If a child is happy, she will just smile and laugh and sing. And if a child needs something, he will just look at you and ask. So, similarly we have to be in our relationship with God: as simple and direct as a child. Just to be whatever, in the way that we are. Express ourselves simply, as we are to God. Thus, we can humbly be ourselves. And when we are so, the Lord is always at our side listening and supporting us in whatever we tell Him. I think it was also the way St Thérèse of Lisieux used to act. She was declared a Doctor of the Church not because she had theological skills or degrees. But she had the intelligence and simplicity of the heart. Which is the only thing God wants from us.”

So true: Kyla & RJ are not innocent; Jessa and Kim are not perfect, for they are very much growing in self-confidence. But they are just themselves with me. And they help me to be just myself with God – imperfect, insecure, selfish, fearful and often judgmental. This is St Thérèse’s “Little Way,” embracing the heart of a child before God.

Wasting time with Jesus (Lesson #1)

Albeit not the photos of my host families, these pictures depict the neighborhood where I lived for eight days.

My past three weeks in the Philippines have been marked by two devastating typhoons, deaths of Thuy & Sr Peg, and immersion in the lives of poor families in Navotas and Tondo. These experiences are teaching me a number of important lessons about life, God, and myself. St Ignatius shared in his Autobiography that God schools him like a teacher instructing her pupil. I feel the same way these past weeks. I share these lessons in seven parts, trusting that the Divine Teacher is schooling you in similar yet unique ways.

For eight days I lived with the two families in Navotas, one of the poorest cities in Metro Manila. One family has running water, the other does not. One lives within cement walls and steady tin roofs, the other lives in a makeshift 1,200 square feet compound with partial cement walls and pieces of blue tarps patching the roof and sides blown away by Ondoy Typhoon. This second edifice has 28 human occupants, three cats, several dogs, and plenty of rats, cockroaches, and other critters. You can fill in the rest with your imagination.

To be honest, these days were challenging in many ways. I have never lived and eaten as simply in my life, apart from backpacking trips in the wilderness. Every night I slept on the floor, alongside family members, often next to children, amidst buzzing mosquitoes. Besides the physical discomfort and constant noise, I had little personal space or time, nor the ability to communicate clearly. Moreover, the nine of us Jesuit tertains were instructed to let our host families care for us, and receive whatever is given. For priests with years of advanced schooling, accustomed to a private room with first world comforts, and trained to do things for people (to help if not to “save” them), this lesson was quite a challenge.

There was little to do during the day. I can only watch TV for so long in a foreign language or talk to people whose English is only slightly better than my broken Tagalog. (It helped that I had lived in the Philippines 14 years ago). Fortunately, both families had a college student or graduate whose command of English was good. Nevertheless, the slow pace of life was a hard adjustment.

I came to the Philippines prepared to “waste” time with Jesus. But I did not anticipate the depth of this “wasting.” In Navotas, I entered a world where my ideas of what it means to be productive, to be in control, to be self-sufficient had little foothold. I had to depend on someone to fetch or prepare clean water whenever I needed to brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, or take a bath. I could not “do” very much. Just “be”: sit with, watch, listen, humbly accept whatever comes, and trust in the care of the host families … in God’s Providence.

Even at times when I was not alone or intentionally praying, I am taught this lesson of “wasting time with Jesus.” It’s like learning to pray contemplatively. Whenever I first entered prayer or a retreat, my mind would be full of noise, of plans, of thoughts about doing this or that, of how things should be. The more I would continue with that mindset, the harder things became. The more I let go of such thinking and simply “be” and trust, the easer things flowed. New meanings emerged. Through this door-opening lesson of “wasting time” with God by simply being with and depending on my host families, I am taught a great deal. Beginning with this, other lessons came, much grace overflowed.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Each of us is a Word of God spoken once

“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” – Lk 11:28

I returned from Navotas to hear that Sr Peg, a saint in my life, has gone to God – to the other side of hope. Sr Peg is a remarkable woman of faith, of love, and of justice. She embodied the compassion of Jesus in very fruitful ways. She helped my sister and her family decisively at a crucial time in their lives and she has helped many California Jesuits for years, serving as a spiritual director on our Province Retreats and keeping us LMU Jesuits “honest” in our witness of Gospel and Ignatian values. She lived such values with a wholeness and contagious joy that inspires me!

“Each of us is a word of God spoken only once.” This is one of Sr Peg Dolan’s favorite phrases. She would often add: “And we have a word to speak with our lives, that if we do not speak it, it may never be heard.” Again and again I have seen this key grace flowing through her life of service: helping people, like myself, embrace and live out this truth that we are God’s unrepeatable masterpieces; that God has blessed each of us with gifts and talents to live life to the full, and to fulfill God’s dream for our lives. Her constant smile, peaceful presence, lively spirit, generous heart, and firm resilience were her unique gifts on her special mission.

Like Pope John Paul II, Sr Peg also showed me how to die with grace. That is, how to live the latter phase of one’s life with poise and integrity. She fought cancer for the last six years of her life with such peace and trust. She was able to integrate her illness into her active life of ministry. Throughout the last few months, she ministered at home, through her sickness. A novice Sister who lived with her remarked: “She was the most popular Sister here and had so many visitors! I hardly ever see her going a day without having somebody visiting her.”

Sister Peg, in prayer I saw you smile with Mary and Jesus in the presence of the angels. You are home now. Thank you for letting God’s word speak clearly, eloquently, and compassionately through your 75 years of life. You are dearly missed! Albeit on the other side of hope, you continue to be a living channel of grace to me and many others whose lives you’ve touched in your 35 years at LMU!