Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lifestyle and Entertainment

THIS is a standard section in all papers, radio and TV. No matter how serious the press may be, there’s always this part that seeks to lighten people’s minds and hearts.

If only for that reason, it deserves not only a good space and airtime, but also praise from everyone. I have met many men and women, otherwise serious in their endeavors, who follow closely, either openly or secretly, the items there. It’s clear they enjoy it.

But precisely because of its immense popularity, everything has to be done that it properly serves its audience. This should always be in our mind. Its instant allure should not blind us to this concern.

That moral dangers and abuses abound there cannot be denied. First, the tendency to be frivolous, flippant, seems to be a permanent threat. Then there is the easy slide to vulgarity and bad taste that are getting to be more common these days.

Many people are complaining that values promoted in this section, not very openly, of course, but as it were, in hints and shadows, are rotten. It seems they advance all possible variations of the capital sins.

The spin of the stories, the celebrities placed in the limelight in all their luscious glory, at least subliminally hype vanity, pride, greed and gluttony, lust and sensuality, laziness, avarice, envy, etc. They tease and gratify the senses, while poisoning the spirit.

It appears that the now fashionable idea of lifestyle and entertainment includes the element of absolute freedom as to what can be done, said and shown in this section.

Any limitation set by whatever law or standard is considered against the very nature of that section. Talk about censorship, and you’re bound to provoke a blistering storm of protests!

I’m actually all out in support of literary or artistic freedom. The problem is that while freedom, artistic rights and privileges, and creativity are supposed to bring us to our potentials’ highest level, without any guiding law they bring us down instead, like water seeking its own lowest level.

This has always been the challenge. The passage of time, the great strides of progress, the accumulation of a wealth of experience, have hardly improved the picture. On the contrary, there are indications things are deteriorating.

We don’t have to eyeball our surrounding to see there is a glorification of the body, sex, and worldly values—materialistic, consumerist—at the expense of the spiritual values.

The problem is not only a matter of focus. It’s now a matter of a systematic negation and even war against anything that has to do with the spiritual and supernatural values that are supposed to govern us.

What’s happening there obviously is a mere reflection of a deeper crisis swamping our culture today. Without conscious effort to refer ourselves to God, we get lost about what true freedom is, or what comprises our authentic development.

Sadly, to many, freedom nowadays is purely a matter of choice. Artistic privileges and creative licenses are entirely a matter of self-expression. Any reference to any objective law or goal outside of the subjects concerned is considered a violation to their nature.

With this frame of mind, the idea of human development can go free-for-all, completely subjective and loose. Legitimate human and material values get spoiled as they are detached from their proper context and purpose.

Pope Benedict talks about a gripping relativism that is ailing the world these days. This is the sick ethos of considering everything as relative to oneself, to a culture, to time and place, etc. Nothing is held absolute and objective.

This, I think, is the core of the problem. And as the Pope says, there is a certain tyranny involved, since the only absolute rule relativism follows is precisely that everything is relative.

We should congratulate ourselves, since we are still in relativism’s beginning stage, still playing it coy and sweet. We are not yet in its ultimate, most rotten stage!

But there’s an inherent contradiction in this madness. It can’t last. But its exposure and untangling depend on us. Do we take the challenge?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The prodigal son’s brother

THIS came to mind when I recently attended a priestly gathering. A training officer of the Philippine National Police (PNP) gave us a presentation of what they were doing to form and reform their men. Always an intriguing topic.

The affair was meant to highlight the possibility of a kind of partnership among the clergy, police and a certain group to effect a greater participation of the people in the governance of our provinces, cities, towns, etc. So far, so good.

While the programs presented were based on accountability to God, family, colleagues and people in general, the discussion turned a bit too sentimental and lachrymose, sending many of us to feel some discomfort.

The training officer, a general who told us of his dramatic, edifying past, mentioned that their program for their scalawags and other morally unprincipled elements is producing good results. Conversions, changes for the better were noted.

He rattled off some data. These bad elements confessed publicly that 85% of them left their wives and family for at least 3 years before going back to them. Some admitted mulcting, getting involved in drug deals, even rapes, and a long etc.

But everyone changed. That’s the good news, enough to forget what happened in the past. With the requirements of justice met, mercy was given and reintegration attempted.

It was good that they stressed on the power of prayer. Conversion, more than anything else, is a matter of grace which is usually received in prayer. Not much psycho
ogizing was made, much less physical coercion. Mainly prayer!

Of course, prayer has to be sustained, because conversion is only a matter of a moment, and what we should achieve is sanctity, which is a matter of a lifetime.

Then the personal testimonies of two policemen were made. This was the teary part as we heard how the painful passage from darkness to light, from evil to goodness, from the pits to the surface, took place.

It was at the point that I remembered the story of the prodigal son. These erring cops are like the prodigal son who, abusing their power and authority, got their just deserts. But they repented.

But what about those in high positions, much smarter and more clever than these cops? They remind me of the prodigal son’s brother, who appeared good and faithful to his father, but actually was not attuned to his father’s heart.

These, more than the cops, need to repent and change. I wonder if some reformatory programs can also be designed for them. These are a much harder nut to crack. They are good in rationalizing, and in being a step or two ahead of the law.

In fact, between the prodigal son and his brother, the former is easier to handle, because he is simpler and his sins are obvious. The latter is a more complicated fellow, and can camouflage his faults well.

This is the bigger challenge. The erring cops, for all their malice and vileness, cannot compare with what the more intelligent, cleverer and better endowed, can commit. In fact, we have better prospects to reform drug addicts than these highly-placed scalawags.

And yet we need to care for them also. Like the father of the prodigal son who talked to his other offspring, we need to appeal to those in higher positions to change their ways, or simply to be better. They cannot be contented with what they may be now. They have to improve.

We can do this mainly through prayer and sacrifices. And to encourage all, hero or heel, to go to confession and spiritual direction. A more personal approach is needed. Different people need different ways of handling.

The brother of the prodigal son can also be an image of all of us when we just look good outside but are not truly so inside. Hypocrisy, which marked the behavior of the prodigal son’s brother, can also mark ours.

We need to shed this spiritual and moral pathology off. And this can be done if we go through a continuing conversion all our life.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pope and priestly concerns

SUMMER, in Europe, is taken seriously by everyone. Long before it arrives, families already make elaborate plans, making the necessary budget and itinerary. When it finally comes, cities slow down as people trek to beaches or mountain resorts.

The Pope is no exception to this annual phenomenon. From the Vatican he
goes to a town by the lake southeast of Rome. It’s called Castel Gandolfo.

But vacationing for him actually means a change of place more than a change of work pace, because he continues to work vigorously. Very little is spent
for excursions or things like that.

In his last summer vacation, for example, he managed to have a meeting with some priests where he answered questions reflecting the priests’ grave concerns. And what a fascinating encounter between the Pope and the priests it was!

As we already said many times before, this Pope can talk a lot. But that’s the least of the marvels. His words come out spontaneously and easily, covering a large range of considerations, and wonderfully making disparate pieces of information and data fit.

He seems to have gathered a good number of trends and mentalities, ideas
and attitudes all over the world, and to have thought them through to their last consequences. He has a powerful mind, thanks be to God!

He knows how to attune his thoughts and words to the level of his audience. Of course, with priests he knew he had a crowd tough to please, but he
managed to impress them all with his responses full of substance and affection.

The style certainly drips of high scholarship, but without being cut and dry. There is a certain warmth and charm to it, a touch of immediacy and relevance to it. It’s a truly disarming experience to listen to him.

Or to read him. His voluminous words on paper should not bewilder us. Once we start reading, we can readily detect a quality that is, yes, deep and broad but at the same time homey and fatherly. His words flow from his prayer

Yes, there may be some difficult moments. But he always manages to clarify himself further, making things, especially new and unfamiliar to most of us, easier for us to understand. I hope we can take the habit of reading him. We stand to benefit a lot.

In that meeting with the priests, the Pope had to confront several difficult questions. One priest asked about how to form people’s conscience, especially the youth’s, in an environment increasingly confusing and hostile to religion.

That in itself requires a lot of considerations, and the Pope gave them in a well synthesized and breezy way.

An elderly priest spoke of his slipping sense of serenity and a crawling sense of loneliness when many of his dreams he shared with those of his generation failed.

This was where the Holy Father showed more of his heart, but at the same time the firmness of faith and hope as he reassured the priest that Christ always triumphs in spite of apparent failures.

There were other questions about how to handle the increasing influx of migrants with different cultures, how to blend the priest’s human needs with his supernatural vocation, etc.

The one question that struck me most was about how a priest should prioritize his activities since he often finds himself with many things to do.

Here the Pope focused on the advice given by our Lord himself to his 72 disciples whom he just sent. That is: to pray, to tend to the needy, then to preach.

The Holy Father encouraged everyone to find a way to blend all these three
responsibilities, giving first priority to prayer, because as he said:

“Without a personal relationship with God nothing else can function, for we
cannot truly bring God, the divine reality or true human life to people unless we ourselves live them in a deep, true relationship of friendship with God in Jesus Christ.”

He recommended that priests take care of their daily celebration of the Mass, the prayer of the Hours, and personal prayer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Simple joys, ardent hopes

THE other day, a friend asked me to bless his new (his 5th) gas station. It’s a no-frill, bare-bones type of outfit, selling cheap diesel and liquefied petroleum gas and catering mainly to taxi and jeepney drivers. It reminded me of a mini people’s park.

Aside from his business partners who were young, looking dynamic and moneyed, those who attended the affair were simple folks. To complete the picture, there was even a vagrant who passed by and immediately felt invited, to the amusement of all.

It’s an environment I always like to be. If I can just escape from my duties and the other things my present station in life brings me to, I think I’ll always find myself in that kind of place.

It’s where I feel the elemental pulse of the people. It’s where I feel I am into something just beginning, a wellspring of possibilities, needing to develop. It’s where I invariably enjoy the home-spun ways of simple folks. It’s like being with children.

Isn’t this a form of regression? It certainly is, if done in obsession and swamped by sentimentalism. But if done in the proper frame of mind, I think it’s a healthy attitude to have.

It gives you an idea of how things were in their original, that is, what their pristine designs and purposes were, since aspects of civilization

often distort them. It gives you a sense of rootedness. I welcome every opportunity to be with simple people.

These occasions not only give me a measure of pure joy. It also fans, quite vigorously, the flames of hope. That’s because you can’t help but take part in their lives, their concerns and aspirations, and you surely would want to give some help.

Simple folks are quite transparent and earnest. In the technical school where I am chaplain of, which caters to students of modest means, I get high just listening to their spontaneous confidences of their situation.

I remember one student who’s living with his uncle, a “trisikad” driver, because his parents abandoned him as a little boy. After classes he would still sideline as a “trisikad” driver just to earn his P30 daily allowance he needs to go to school.

It’s very moving to see him chasing dreams even while certain harsh realities are chasing him too. He has vision, yet he knows how to grapple with his daily struggles. With a sporty attitude, he displays no hang-up of self-pity.

Thanks be to God, I am discovering more and more young people like this. A number of young men, just starting with their career or business, are now providing me with precious, inspiring stories.

I consider them hidden heroes, even saints, because their struggles and sacrifices, keeping the faith and hope in spite of severe trials, must be producing a lot of good to all of us in a hidden way.

Of course, I give them pieces of advice. And how they appreciate them, reinforcing my belief that man has in his heart, no matter how deeply buried in his heart, a genuine yearning for God. We should always be hopeful!

When you give them words of encouragement, when you open horizons or them, when you help them fight against despair, pessimism, self-doubt, bitterness, when you teach them to pray, they can unleash impulses to move on and get focused on the truly necessary in life.

But it’s actually me who learn a lot from them. When I see the initial signs of their faith acting up and witness the blossoming of such faith, I feel greatly blessed.

When you witness the conversion, the purification process, the gradual transformation of a person who tries to identify his will with God’s will, it’s an indescribably beautiful privilege.

They give me the embodiment of spiritual realities known through some spiritual considerations and similar practices. They dramatize things for me, giving flesh and blood to doctrine, principles and theories on spirituality.

We have to thank God for these developments. Hidden and quiet, these stirrings of spiritual life always leave tremendous effects on us all!

Monday, August 6, 2007

Freedom and obedience

IT’S good that from time to time we do some serious reflections, mustering
our intellectual and spiritual energies, since they enable us to go deep, get into the essence and integrate the data we gather through observations, insights, readings, studies...

Often the problem we have is precisely the lack of such reflections. The situation leads us to be shallow and merely Pavlovian in our responses to things. We hardly think. We just follow blindly. This is dangerous.

With the habit of reflecting, we can deepen and enlarge any data we have. We become aware of their implications and consequences, where they are coming from and where they are and should be heading to.

In other words, we expand our world, widen our perspectives, discern more
things when we reflect. We become open-minded, not narrow-minded; flexible, not rigid; caring and sociable, not self-centered.

Ultimately, we would be able to relate everything to God and everybody else. This is the best reason and purpose for learning how to reflect. Without reflections, we most likely will miss God and ignore everybody else.

Reflecting actually builds up our personhood. A person is an individual of a rational nature. He grows as a person to the extent that he manages, while remaining always as an individual, to establish living and close relationships with everyone, first with God, precisely through his rational and spiritual nature.

Otherwise, he is more of an object than a person. He undermines himself as
a person when he just confines himself to himself. A person is always an individual with vital links with everybody else. He is both an “I” and a “we”.

We need to deliberately develop this habit to reflect, because our strong tendency, often without realizing it, is to restrict ourselves to what is merely here and now, what is sensible and can be quickly understood. Reality is quickly reduced to “I-me-mine.”

We have to overcome any discomfort we may have when we start reflecting on finer realities, beyond what we can simply handle and understand by way of common sense. We have to develop the appropriate discipline for this.

Among these finer realities that we need to have a deep understanding of is the relationship between our freedom and the need for obedience. Around us is the common mentality that these two are odds with each other.

Hardly anything is farther than the truth. Freedom and obedience are actually two sides of the same coin. They are inseparable, for one without the other annuls itself.

That is to say, freedom without obedience is not freedom at all. And obedience without freedom is not true obedience either. The two should be together always. Our every action, to be worthy of being an action of a child of God, should bear the stamp of this reality.

This is because freedom has to be understood as God’s gift to us. It’s his best gift to us, what radically makes us his image and likeness. Freedom, in the end, is what enables us to love. And God is precisely love.

Freedom has love, and therefore, God, as its essence. It cannot be lived and exercised properly unless it is done in love, in God.

To put it bluntly, freedom cannot be other than obeying God. Thus freedom
cannot be without obedience to God. When the two get together, then we have true love.

Our Lord said it clearly, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (Jn 14,15) There is a certain synonymity among the terms “love”, “freedom” and “obedience”. Somehow they mean the same thing.

It’s love, God, who makes both freedom and obedience inseparable. It’s only in him that this beautiful reality breaks out into being.

This is not easy, of course, because we often find it hard to truly love as Christ loves us. We can have endless reasons to contrast freedom and obedience, precisely because we do not know how to love.

And often, one reason for the failure is that we do not know how to reflect on this finer reality about ourselves. How important to learn how to reflect!