Monday, December 29, 2008

The spiral of egoism

I GOT into singing very early in life. As kids, my brothers and I would just pick up any song we would hear over the radio, and start singing it, often with fractured lyrics.

My father would be most amused. I remember a younger brother singing his version of Matt Monro’s “Born Free.” Completely without shame, he would sing, “Born tree, as tree as the window,” instead of “Born free, as free as the wind blows.”

I, of course, had my own blunders, but I’m not in the mood now to talk about them. But there was one song that I immediately fell in love with. I think it was sung by Sammy Davies—those in their 50s may still remember him—and its title was, “What kind of fool am I.”

It had a very soft, soothing melody, just right for my taste at that time, just enough for me to fly to the moon, and I must have sung it a million times. But there was a line there that always struck me—I remember relishing those words in my lips so much I’d go OA singing it—for it gave me an idea of what a fool is.

The line was: “It seems that I’m the only one that I’ve been thinking of.” I found the words very relevant, since I could relate them to my problem then. If I thought always of myself, I would end up quarreling always with the brothers, that’s 7 of them. If I thought less of myself, the quarrels also lessened.

Our clashes often erupted on the heels of the usual forms of egoistic foolishness—laziness, greed, envy, etc. Reflecting on those years, I find it amazing that these culprits didn’t come to us. They just seemed to have sprung from us—really, an intriguing aspect of our human condition.

So, eureka! I saw some connection, before I learned its original and distilled form from the Gospel or from any priest or nun in school. The secret to a more peaceful life for me, I sort of concluded, was to think less of myself!

Years passed quickly, and that seed of an insight also grew and developed. Of course, now it’s like an old acacia tree that looks like it will last till time’s end itself.

Now as priest, this is the advice I often give to many people who come to me telling me of their conflicts. Forget yourself, I would say. No matter how right you think you are and no matter how wrong you think the other party is, you have to think more of him or her, and love them, the way Our Lord loves all of us!

Of course, this is easier said than done. So I have to give some concrete indications with more immediate and direct effects. My favorite is to hold one’s horses, to control one’s emotions, to restrain one’s provoked feelings, to delay reacting to a problem until one is in better control of his senses.

And then to pray hard, think, study and try to discover those points in the conflict that can help in bridging the gap. There must be those points. Not everything can be bad and negative. Then offer sacrifices. Ask the intercession of saints, etc. In short, go to our Lord.

I think that idea is born directly from our Lord’s words: “Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart…” (Mt 11,28-29)

I think these words are not meant to apply only on some occasions. They are meant for all spells of difficulty we may find ourselves in.

In the first place, our nature and constitution, what with our spiritual aspect, requires us to set our sights and thoughts outside of ourselves. The moment we look too much into ourselves, we spin a spiral of egoism that can be very dangerous, even fatal, to us.

And then our Lord himself commanded us to love God with all our might and others as ourselves. We cannot remain simply loving our own selves.

The home where we truly can lay our hat, feel secure and most happy, is not in ourselves. It’s in our communion with God and with others. We need to get out of that spiral that plunges us deeper into ourselves, poisons our thoughts, and detaches us from others, and especially from God, the ultimate Other.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Money and religion

WE have to learn how to blend these two elements. We cannot be simplistic and put them always in conflict. Yes, there are dangers to avoid. But we have to distinguish the good from the evil involved in the use of money. Otherwise, we might throw the baby out with the bath water.

It’s true that the Gospel warns us to serve only one master. We cannot serve both God and Mammon, the false idol of material wealth that exercises bad influence on us. (cfr. Mt 6,24)

But this indication is not outright a condemnation of money. We always need money, since we are not angels. We are simply asked to avoid the extreme of considering money as our God, and the other extreme of regarding money as intrinsically evil.

Christ himself had to use some money. When asked if he also had to pay taxes, he told Peter, after alluding that strictly speaking he should be exempted from it, to go to the sea to get money from a fish to pay the taxes. (cfr. Mt 17,27)

Money has to be used with a growing sensibility to its moral dimensions. It has to fit our true human dignity. It has to be related to our conscience, and ultimately to religion. It has to serve both God and man. It can be a wonderful tool for our material and spiritual growth.

In other words, money should not just be used following exclusively practical and economic criteria. We also have to consider higher, spiritual values, since we are not purely economic creatures, but are persons and children of God.

There’s no doubt that money contributes to human progress. Imagine a world without money! We’d hardly advance from the Stone Age. And with population growing and the economy stagnant, there’s nothing much to expect other than chaos.

From my economics-for-dummies class, I learned that money has to circulate as fast as possible to generate economic activity, and thus affect more people and hopefully produce more satisfaction.

But obviously this is not only a matter of speed. There has to be proper direction, since as St. Augustine once said, no matter how fast one runs, if he is off-track, he will never reach the finish line.

We need to find the proper blend. It’s a continuing task requiring us to pray, study, observe, consult, and decide. It’s not easy, and never a perfect activity. We often can’t see the forest for its trees. It thrives more on trial and error. And so we have to be flexible also.

I remember that before I got ordained—this was in Rome —I was asked to buy a new pair of shoes. So I went around to look for the one I liked. When I finally found the pair, I asked the saleslady if those shoes would last long.

She stared at me, as if I was a Martian. Then she asked me, “But why would you like the shoes to last long?”

That question stunned me. I’ve always been taught to buy things that can last even as long as a lifetime. But that remark led me to thinking more deeply. Of course, if everyone would buy shoes only once in a rare while, how would the shoe industry fare?

I concluded that the lady had a very valid point. But I had to study things more comprehensively. I had to integrate it with the requirements of temperance and Christian poverty.

When I was in high school, I hardly bought anything. I always thought I had everything that I needed, since I was told not to create needs. I got this trait from my parents who were very Spartan.

My younger sister would remind me it was time to change my wardrobe, or would introduce me to products like skin lotions and colognes, and the new styles around. She prodded me to buy them.

I was afraid I would fall into consumerism and materialism which I thought would elude my sister’s understanding. But since I did not see these anomalies in her, I followed part of her suggestions. I concluded I exaggerated my fears.

Now I realize she was helping the economy, aside from making me look kind of good. She had more common sense, was more down-to-earth, while I tended to be cocooned with my books, often building castles in the air.

With all the recently discovered ugly schemes and scams in our complicated economic environment today, there’s a crying need to hone this skill of properly blending money and religion.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Good and evil reversed

WE have to be more aware of this tricky phenomenon, and more adept as well in handling it well. This can be an abiding challenge for all of us.

I mean, what is good can become evil, and what is evil can become good. What is right can become wrong, and vice-versa. This phenomenon, actually very common, is iconized in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. (cfr Lk 18,10-14)

The Pharisee was the epitome of goodness and correctness. He fasted twice a week, gave tithes of all what he possessed. But his righteousness converted his prayer into a boast, and it simply showed he was separated from God.

The publican considered himself the receptacle of all possible moral sewage. He could hardly lift up his eyes toward heaven. His prayer dripped with compunction, but it reconciled him with God.

We have to understand that good and evil is a matter of whether one is with God or not. Good is good because one is with God. Evil is evil because he is not with God. It’s as simple as that.

Our problem is that instead of referring things—our thoughts, words and actions—to God, we refer them only to our own idea of what is good and evil.

Not much wrong there really. After all, all things we do have to be referred to our own idea of good and evil. Except that it’s an idea that has been severed from its proper source and basis—God himself.

In short, we make ourselves our own God, our ultimate source of what is good and bad, what is correct and wrong. That’s where the problems come in, where the bugs and viruses enter to corrupt our otherwise good idea.

That is why, everyday and very often during the day we need to check whether our idea of good and evil is still vitally linked with God. We have to be wary with our tendency to just flow in a certain routine and inertia of goodness that has already deadened our living connection with God.

How many times have we observed people who are bright but are proud and vain, wise but sarcastic, bursting with good intentions but painfully lacking in charity? They have become self-righteous.

There have been cases where we see objectively good qualities, like their high intelligence, superb eloquence, admirable work habits, etc., ceasing to be a blessing but have become a curse to them and to others.

These qualities have become an occasion to dominate others, to so distort their proper use that they stop serving God and others but have become self-serving. They can even degenerate into sick obsessive-compulsive complexes (OC).

I like to think that the current American economic catastrophe is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The Americans’ frontiersman spirit and entrepreneurial ways have been misused and have led them to where they are now, since America ’s body politic can only take so much.

What can happen is that when wrongly grounded and directed, what made one rise, could also make him fall. Like a person who over-eats, it will have diarrhea. Like one who over-works, it will succumb to fatigue. The organism will find a way to signal its sickness and correct it.

Even the supposedly good and holy people, like priests, nuns, bishops, etc., can misuse their status, covering their malice with a façade of sanctity and goodness. These are the most dangerous scoundrels, since the anti-Christ can look and act like Christ!

For all that, we should not be completely pessimistic. There’s always a way to recover, and convert what is wrong and bad into something good, a source of genuine greatness.

Let’s always remember Christ’s words: “There shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner who does penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need no penance.” (Lk 15,5)

All that is needed is to say sorry to our Lord from the bottom of our heart. And what was bad can mutate into something good again. Let’s always learn the lessons that the lives of St. Paul and St. Augustine give us.

So, while we should be serious in our efforts to be consistently good and holy, let’s also learn to relax. There’s always hope. In the end, God not only has the first word. He also has the last. Evil always longs for the good from which it fled.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ending and beginning

NOW that we are again ending a year and beginning a new one, we have to remember that the event is not simply a matter of changing the calendar. We have to see the bigger picture. We should not be economical with the truth involved.

This ending-and-beginning routine strongly reminds us of the value of time, of its relation to eternity, of the kind of being we all are. These are the kind of truths—ultimate, some people call them—that seem dead and buried, victims of our daily grind of earthly and temporal concerns.

We need to resurrect them once in a while. In fact we need to have an abiding sense of them, as vividly as possible, for they play the crucial role of giving shape and direction to our life. They are like the rudder in a ship, unseen, insignificant in size, but completely indispensable.

Have you been in a rudderless boat? I once was. It was in a voyage from Manila to Cebu many years ago. I will not mention names, I will seal my lips until kingdom come, since it’s not public knowledge as of now, but at one point the captain realized the rudder fell off.

It was a nightmare for all of us, the passengers. A very messy operation of being towed and transferred in the middle of the sea to another boat got me praying like it was my last. I conditioned myself to have an early watery grave.

The New Year should bring us to considering more deeply, more seriously, questions like where did we come from, where are we going, and who and what really are we?

We cannot remain in the state of ignorance nor bound to the externals, the peripherals and the surficial. We need to touch base with the essential and even the eternal. We quite know we are not just material beings, nor purely social and economic creatures. Much less are we merely political animals.

There’s a lot more to us than meets the eye. Since we can think, reason out, plan, talk and communicate, since we can choose, love and be free and responsible, there must be something spiritual in us.

This is because we do things beyond the material natural laws of physics, chemistry and biology. We are governed more by moral law that recognizes our spiritual dimension and, in fact, our supernatural goal.

We are material, yes, but we are not supposed to be stuck in that dimension alone. And if we look more closely into our spiritual side, we realize that we are not just left in a kind of void for us to fill up in any way we want, nor in an infinite space for us to cruise in any direction we like to take.

Somehow deep in our heart, something tells us that all this infinity we are exposed to must have a beginning, purpose and meaning. It must have a creator. It’s hard to conclude that these things just came to exist spontaneously, since from nothing, nothing can come out.

This is where we can entertain the possibility of a God, completely supernatural. We somehow feel he’s around, but we cannot reach him, much less see him, precisely because he is supernatural.

This is where we can get entangled with our doubts and uncertainties. We can say that our mind is just playing tricks on us. But even that option cannot banish the doubts. It cannot dispel the darkness in our mind that will always try to penetrate that infinite space.

It’s just hoped that at this point we realize the need we have of the gift of faith, something given to us in a gratuitous way that strengthens, purifies and directs our spiritual powers, so they can run home and avoid getting lost in the infinite void.

That’s why religions rose over the years in different cultures and civilizations. The distinction of the Christian faith is that it is based on a revelation, a historical event that captures a supernatural phenomenon.

We don’t have space to discuss this point at length now. But the important thing to remember is that the New Year is supposed to bring us to back to the basics, so we don’t get lost in our daily activities, doing many and even great things that in the end will just be dust in the wind.

We need to develop the appropriate attitudes, skill and habits so we can have a rudder in our voyage through the vast ocean of life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Case-hardening the family

WITH the American financial crisis likely to affect us, we need to brace ourselves for the worst. Everyone has to be prepared. The government and other institutions have to do their part to at least mitigate the expected impact.

We are told that the worst has still to come. That’s scary. So far, we know that a good number of financial institutions have already gone bankrupt and are now being bailed out or rehabilitated.

The US auto industry is in ICU and in dire need of a bailout. Many banks have laid off thousands of their employees. And then, they have just arrested a respectable big shot who for decades have done good business, only to be found out that it was all a scam, a Ponzi scheme, involving $50 billion.

Whew, imagine the ramifications! It has been a long, rough episode for all of us, and it’s still rolling. My economist-friends talk about both collateral damage and benefit we in our country can derive from this situation. But we really do not know what the net balance will be. Black or red?

I just hope that we have leaders who are quick enough to understand the whole mess, grab the bull by the horns, and take control of its wild dynamics. We all need to be pacified and shown a clear way out of this screw-up.

There’s just one institution that has to be given special attention--the family. Since it plays a pivotal role in supporting the individual persons on the one hand, and society itself on the other, everything has to be done to strengthen it.

Whatever may be the gravity and scope of this crisis, we need to know the practical details of how the family can wrestle with this gathering storm, and make it the basic engine for our recovery.

Everything passes through the person and the family, before it reaches the economy and society at large. The effectiveness of the monetary and fiscal moves, the stimulus packages now planned or already put in play, will depend on the family.

Essential in strengthening the family is first and last its spiritual and moral strength. It may lack material resources, but if spiritually it is healthy, it can handle the problem and truly help the individual members and society itself.

When the family goes beat and weak, individual persons and society suffer. They’d be exposed to the elements, to all sorts of danger in their most vulnerable condition.

When the sense of family is anemic, everyone is left badly prepared to cope with any problem. We need to enrich our family with practices that truly strengthen family life. This is where spent energies are recovered.

For this, the conjugal love is crucial, since it’s the motor that keeps the family going strong and healthy. The spouses should keenly feel the need to deepen their love for one another.

Everyday they have to have a clear idea of how to make their love grow. This is a serious duty with serious consequences. They have to realize that their love has to become more spiritual and theological each day. It should never be allowed to remain in the purely human and material level.

Thus, we need to be wary of certain factors that can undermine family life—attachments to work, to social life, or pure pride, self-centeredness, laziness and other destructive vices and tendencies.

Parents should take the initiative to educate their children, understanding education as the process that goes beyond simply giving data, issuing rules and the like for the children. It has to be fully engaged in the task of leading their children to human and Christian maturity.

Family traditions should be fostered, like having meals together, spending time together, talking with each other, growing in mutual understanding, etc. There has to be a kind of plan to initiate and sustain the development of virtues in everyone.

Defects and deficiencies in each one should be noted and properly addressed. That’s the reason why parents, especially the mothers, need to spend a lot of time at home, since this is needed for an effective management of the family.

It might be good to avail of family-oriented groups that can help the family members to carry out their respective duties properly. These groups can also give families their appropriate continuing formation.

These can be some relevant considerations to make the family shock-proof for the rough times ahead.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas always survives

THERE’S really no question about Christmas being able to survive. It will, whether in good times or in bad. In fact, I think the bad times will make Christmas surface its true nature and spirit better than the good times. They can be a blessing in disguise.

The problem is how people are taking the drastic changes that seem to accompany this year’s economically challenged Christmas. What we really have to do is just to stay calm, and learn our precious if abject lessons.

Our problem is that we seem to be so obsessed with the cool, easy and heavily sentimental feel of Christmas that we have forgotten what Christmas is all about. Its external and commercial aspects have drained the true substance of Christmas.

Just take a quick look at the crop of Christmas songs and gimmicks lately. They seem to be meant to make us feel good only. They hardly lead us to pray. They don’t nourish our faith. They don’t improve our knowledge and love for Christ. To make sacrifices is rendered taboo.

We now have many generations of people for whom Christ has become a stranger to Christmas. The connection between Christ and Christmas has been broken, a result of an unchecked errant socio-cultural drift.

The phenomenon calls to mind to images. One, a structure that has become so top-heavy there is no other way but for it to collapse. Or, two, a balloon that has become so bloated and flighty that it gets detached from its foundation.

It’s about time, I think, that some deep correction be made. We should not be surprised that we have some disconcerting developments enveloping our Christmas this year. We have been building up these developments for years. The current crisis was just a matter of time.

If the correction is not done by us, then circumstances will make sure we get back to the original meaning of Christmas. That’s how I see the dramatic changes taking place now. That’s part of God’s providence. And the correction, the healing, will always involve pain.

These past few days, I and, I suppose, many others have been forced to revisit economic concepts and financial terms I have long ago left behind. Bailouts, layoffs, recession, bankruptcy, hedge fund, Ponzi scheme, etc. are making the top of the list in people’s vocabulary these days.

If only for this development alone, I think we already have benefited something substantial from the current global crisis. It has introduced us to the intricacies of the world of economics and finance that are now getting more complicated and sophisticated.

We need to get better acquainted with these realities, so we can improve our stewardship over them. I don’t think it’s part of the Christmas spirit to cling to the ancient order of things. What is essential to Christmas is for our heart to be firmly anchored on Christ even as we flow with the times.

And to be firmly rooted in Christ means to be good, simple and austere, honest, prudent. It means to have a spreading sense of justice and solidarity, a clear idea of the common good.

It means to fight against greed and deception, the temptation to dominate others, to be vain and given to purely worldly values. It is averse to self-enrichment at the expense of others.

It does not mean to be naïve, to stick to one rigid way of doing things, or to one unchangeable world order. In fact, it is open to anything. It delights in changes and progress. It respects and fosters variety of opinions and positions in our temporal affairs as long as they enrich our unity.

The only thing necessary is that everything be done with Christ and for Christ. His will and commandments should be followed. And achieving this goal will always entail sacrifice. Are we ready to face this challenge?

Unfortunately, this is the element that’s often forgotten or ignored these days. People fail to see the importance and relevance of Christ in their business. They don’t know how to relate Christ to their human affairs.

Christmas invites us to allow Christ to truly be born in us. That’s its ultimate significance. Christ wants to come to us, for we are actually meant to be with him. We need to correspond to this loving invitation effectively.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

To a new young priest

I RECENTLY had a chance to talk about the priesthood when I was asked to give a homily in the first Solemn Mass of a newly ordained young priest. It was an occasion for me to review my own priestly life of some 17 years. I realize it has been a very exciting part of my life.

The theory about the priesthood is, of course, well known, and every priest tries his best to abide by what is indicated. Life, however, has its continuing challenges and surprises that can severely test but hopefully progressively perfect one’s understanding of the priesthood as defined and described in the books.

No matter how well-intentioned one may be with respect to being faithful to one’s vocation, the reality of things has a way of bringing one back to earth, of realizing that what was studied to become a priest even with utmost diligence was just given a lick and a promise. Many, endless things still need to be learned.

Priesthood is a continuing and living affair with God and men. It’s akin to a contact sport, since it involves one to be so close and identified with the people he should be willing to get dirty with them. But it also requires him to be truly in contact with God. Otherwise, everything will look funny indeed!

I know that everyone, the laity included, has this kind of affair too. But the priesthood has that distinctive mark of being an active, not passive, bridge between God and men.

This is because the priest is configured to Christ as head of the Church. His share of Christ’s threefold function of sanctifying, teaching and governing the Church assumes an active character. He is at once a leader, and because of that, a servant. Thus, the hybrid term, almost an oxymoron, ‘servant-leader’, to refer to a priest.

Not so with the laity. It’s true that they do play a very active role in the Church. They live a common priesthood which is somehow a participation of Christ’s priesthood. They do some sanctifying, some teaching and some governing in the Church. But for all that, they depend on the clergy.

This is how Christ established his Church. The power to act in his person and in name as head of his Church up to the end of time was given not to all, but to Peter and the apostles, transmitted to the bishops and shared with the priests.

Thus the priestly identification with Christ is different from the identification with Christ the other faithful have. Everyone is configured to Christ, of course. Everyone has equal dignity and mission. But there is functional diversity, and the difference between ministerial and common priesthood is essential and not only in degrees.

The priesthood has to be exercised for the benefit of the other faithful in the Church. This is the purpose of the priesthood. Without this objective, the priesthood can be fatally handicapped. It crashes. It goes kaput.

Thus, the priest has to undertake a continuing process of transitions and adaptations in the different levels and aspects of life, since he has to link and reach both God and men. He cannot be just his own self. By definition, he has to be identified with God and men.

That is, he truly has to be another Christ, echoing St. Paul ’s words: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Or better still, echoing Christ’s words when he walked on the lake toward his disciples who suspected him to be a ghost: “Do not be afraid, it is I.”

He has to be both studious, prayerful, recollected, in fact, contemplative on the one hand, and active, immersed with the affairs of men and of the world, on the other. He has to have the mind of Christ, the sentiments and longing of Christ.

He also has to bear with him all the concerns of the men, since like Christ he has to be all things all men. In fact, he should carry within his heart the whole burden of the Church.

That is, he truly has to pray and to be willing to make sacrifices even to the extent of being crucified like Christ. Short of that, priesthood gets caricaturized into being a title only, or an office, or worse, a badge or costume to wear only on official functions. That’s when it deserves to be laughed at.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Loneliness even in a crowd

AT least two books on loneliness were reviewed recently in an American newspaper, indicating a rise of interest in this subject that seems to afflict a growing number of people.

It can’t be denied that a sense of loneliness can seize a person at any moment. It can come not only in a bleak, rainy evening, or when one so close just passed away. It can descend even when one is in a party, a family dinner or in the middle of a frenzied shopping.

Loneliness by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (Norton, 317 pages) and Loneliness as a Way of Life by Thomas Dumm (Harvard, 193 pages) try to dissect this intriguing phenomenon, analyzing its causes and even exploring its possible meaning and significance in our lives.

I’ve read some excerpts and there is no doubt that the book come as a result of thorough study and research. These things are always welcome. Data culled from these studies at least serve for something.

My only reservation is that with all the gargantuan effort to know about the subject as scientifically as possible, there is hardly any or no reference at all to the part that religion plays in it.

Certainly, there are physiological, psychological, personal and social factors that go into this disturbing trend. But to leave the spiritual aside is, I think, not just a matter of missing a button, but rather to discard the most important aspect.

Loneliness has its roots in the spiritual emptiness that people knowingly or unknowingly suffer. And spiritual emptiness is not just an absence of spiritual activities. A person may be deep in thinking, reflecting, willing, wanting, etc., but still feels empty.

This occurs when in spite of the vigorous spiritual activities, a person still fails to get to the irreducible foundation and the ultimate purpose of life and things.

Without this foundation and a sense of following a North Star in life, no amount of activities, physical or spiritual, can fill him with peace, joy and a sense of being in communion with others. They only cover but not fill the void inside. They can only give a quick fix but not a permanent answer to a human need.

Truth is we are not made to be alone. Our subjectivity—the fact that we can make our own conscious world—is not meant to make us alone, but rather to connect us with others, God especially, in the deepest, most intimate way.

Our togetherness, for sure, is not just a physical one or a mechanical one. It’s not even a socio-political one. It is a union of life and love, what is precisely called as communion, a term we need to be more familiar with.

That’s our goal. That’s where our perfection is achieved, where the deepest longing of our heart gets its ultimate reward. But what usually happens these days? We see a lot of people, smart and clever, using all their best powers to reinforce their self-seeking, self-assertion, and self-absorption.

People are walling themselves in their own world. Their forays and ventures outside their walled cities are done for no other purpose than to strengthen their own selfhood.

And this communion is possible only when it is anchored on God, the original and absolute other, the beginning, middle and end of our life. Short of this, any attempt to achieve communion and to avoid loneliness is doomed.

That’s the reason why Christ, when queried what the greatest commandment was, said: “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole mind.”

And he continued: “And the second is like to this—you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22,37.39)

The cure to loneliness is to love. But to love properly, the way God loves us. That’s why, Christ gave out the new commandment to perfect the old one: “A new commandment I give unto you—that you love one another, as I have loved you…” (Jn 13,34)

The love that conquers loneliness can only be the love of God that should be the pattern and spirit of whatever love we have in life—be it with a person, for our work and country, etc.

It’s a love in truth and goes all the way to the cross, to giving up one’s life here on earth!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Media responsibility

AN interesting study has just been reported in an American paper about the effects of media on children.

Distilled from some 173 researches done over a period of the past 30 years, the report said there’s strong and disturbing correlation between children spending a lot of time with TV, video games, Internet, etc. and a variety of negative health effects.

“In a clear majority of those studies, more time with television, films, video games, magazines, music and the Internet was linked to rises in childhood obesity, tobacco use and sexual behavior,” it said.

“A majority also showed strong correlations—what the researchers deemed statistically significant associations—with drug and alcohol use and low academic achievement,” it continued.

The report is expectedly done in a language considered as politically correct at the moment. When it said that children’s overexposure to media can affect their brain development, I think they mean it can deform their consciences. When it said such exposure leads children to risky sexual behavior, I think they mean immoral, that is, sinful sexual practices. But, ok, I understand.

Those behind the study vowed to continue monitoring and studying the developments in this area of concern. One of them was surprised to find an absence of research into the impact of new technologies.

He said, “Media has evolved at a dizzying pace, but there’s almost no research about Facebook, MySpace, cellphones, etc.” It’s good that such concern is now being raised. Our challenge is how to identify dangerous trends in things that offer many practical advantages. And of course, what to do with it.

Pertinent to this observation, I have seen adults, not just children, badly affected by these new gadgets. They show signs of obsession and addiction, as they forget even to eat, lose sleep, and neglect other duties to their families, not to mention the spiritual ones, like prayer.

In short, many have become couch potatoes, glued to their seats for hours, completely dominated by what’s before them on the screen, disoriented and practically dead to the outside world and even their immediate surrounding. They live virtual lives.

I myself am having difficulties in this area. I am now tempted to declare for myself some email bankruptcy, since I receive so many of them everyday, mostly spams, that just to erase them not only wastes my time, but also raises my blood pressure.

It’s about time that we take serious steps to know more about this trend and to do something, even something drastic, about it. Our future is at stake. Our danger is not only from wars and terrorism. It can come right from our own homes. These technologies are notoriously treacherous.

This is, of course, a responsibility of everyone. Parents have the primary and most direct role to play. Then the teachers and other elders. But the government and also the media should do their part.

And given the latter’s capabilities and resources, they should do something massive and abiding to support the parents’ delicate duties in this regard. They cannot anymore be naïve and play blind. They have to boldly face the issue.

Those behind the study are precisely recommending this. And I’m very happy about that proposal. Alas, it seems the time has arrived for this concern to be taken seriously, and not anymore treated as an idea so wild it has to be chased away. I hope I’m not wrong.

On many occasions, I get deeply but helplessly bothered by what I see especially on noontime TV shows that are greedily lapped up by the people, especially the young ones and those who are mostly idle.

There’s so much inanity and frivolity, so much twisted values being flaunted with almost total impunity. People are given a daily diet of toxic entertainment. Sooner or later, the effects will show. We are now building up a potential moral and social explosion.

We need to liberate ourselves from such foolishness, hiding behind the excuse that people just want to have fun and amusement. The idea is not to kill fun, but to make it fit for human consumption.

Though things vary from person to person, family to family, group to group, concrete plans of actions have to be made to guide everyone for a prudent use of the new media technologies.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Life is a journey

INDEED, it is. I even prefer to call it a pilgrimage, since this journey is not just a matter of going from one place to another. It is about going to our definitive home, not here, but in heaven. It has a strongly spiritual and religious character.

This life journey involves our whole being. It entails not just our physical and material aspects, our social and human sides. It covers the fullness of our nature and its intrinsic dignity that certainly goes beyond our earthly dimensions.

Remember St. Augustine ’s: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Our rest, our final repose, our ultimate place where we find endless peace and joy is not here. It’s in God.

We need to acquire the relevant attitudes and skills. Our problem is that our human condition usually gives us a very limited, partial and shallow view of life.

Aside from our natural limitations, we have what are called the infranatural limitations—our sins and their consequences—that further distort our vision and weaken our capacity to understand life in its entirety.

So, very often we get stuck with earthly affairs. If it’s not the good earthly things—our successes, our accomplishments and achievements, etc.—then it’s the earthly bad things—our failures, our problems and difficulties—that bind us to a time-and-space life frame.

We end up like pigs that’s always bent toward the ground, looking for food and comfort, with hardly any other terminus in mind.

We need to aim our eyes at a higher life object. We need to liberate our heart and senses from the improper confinement of our earthly conditions. We are meant for a greater goal.

And this is possible because, first of all, there’s God’s grace, and insofar as we are concerned, we have our spiritual nature that enables us to be raised to the supernatural destiny meant of us.

But we have to do our part. We have to enhance our spiritual faculties. We need to make our faith, hope and charity, which always go together and affect each other, grow strong everyday.

Without these, we cannot fly high and pursue the natural and supernatural consequences of our being persons and children of God.

We need to pray. We need to understand and live the objective value of sacrifices. We have to continually grow in the virtues. We have to learn how to be contemplatives even while being immersed in the things of this world.

All these will contribute to an abiding sense that we are journeying in this life. It’s true that at any given time, we’ll find ourselves in a certain place, in a certain situation. But we can’t stay there all the time. We have to move, not so much physically as spiritually. That’s the law that governs us.

So, no matter how exciting or depressing things may be at a given moment, we need to move on. We always have to have the mind of a traveler or a pilgrim. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “We have not here a lasting city, but we seek one that is to come.” (13-14)

We need to foster and reinforce this traveler’s attitude everyday. A prayer on the First Sunday of Advent can amply describe the proper attitude:

“Father in heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love and our minds are searching for the light of your Word. Increase our longing for Christ our Savior and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing at his presence and welcoming the light of his truth.”

We need to guard our senses and our spiritual powers. We cannot allow them to be fully dominated by earthly affairs, even as we are immersed in them. This will require a certain training and discipline.

We have to find a way to be recollected, to rectify our intention. In spite of our drama here, we need to have a way to return our focus on our spiritual and supernatural goal.

Our day should be a microcosm of our life. We need to see to it that at the end of each day, no matter what happened during the day, we get into a spiritual and supernatural mode.

Only one word, said from the heart, can settle everything. By saying “Sorry,” we somehow get reconciled with God and get into his bosom. It’s the skeleton key to heaven.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


IT’S good that the Vatican has issued some guidelines, mainly to government and economic leaders, about how to handle the current financial crisis gripping the US and now affecting many other countries, including ours.

Deserving to be lauded, the statements have so far been marked by both hope and restraint, optimism and realism, respect for the autonomy of our temporal affairs, with their inherent imperfections, and strong appeal to spiritual goodness that can always make do with anything no matter what.

They contain enough economic data to depict the gravity of the situation, indicating that the authors did their homework. But more than this, the statements presented the needed points for reflection, the moral and social principles to follow.

These are the values we need urgently these days, the template to be followed by leaders in the Church, government and civil society.

As much as possible we have to avoid making agitated calls to action that are not thoroughly thought out, consulted and discussed. We have more than enough problems without creating new, unnecessary ones, highly disruptive and counter-productive.

We have to avoid making reckless proposals whose outcomes and effects are not carefully researched. Calls for the so-called “People Power” are one of them. We already had it before, giving us euphoria for a while, but look at what happened soon after that!

It’s very disconcerting to hear some Church leaders making this kind of calls, placing themselves captives to a minority and militant group. They seem to specialize in developing wedge issues out of our problems.

In contrast, it’s nice to know that the Pope has called for a healthy secularity to approach this financial problem, calling for a spirit of collaboration, respect and dialogue with everyone no matter how sharp the differences.

Other Vatican officials have highlighted the proper relevant social doctrines, like the priority of the person, family and labor over capital and profit. They’re giving positive guidelines, not fuel for anger and division.

Even some laymen, experts in economics and finance, have more sense in proposing, for example, to give special attention to the poor since they will be the most adversely affected by the global crisis. Concrete proposals were made to do this, not just a declaration of good intention.

We have to understand that in our temporal affairs, as in our business and politics, there are no perfect situations, nor perfect solutions to problems. It’s good to be an idealist, but that should not be at the expense of being a realist too.

We have to learn to be flexible, to develop the knack of knowing when to be tolerant and intolerant, patient and impatient, what things to take seriously and what with a grain of salt. We have to learn to be broadminded, and not simplistic, to look at the bigger picture, rather than to get stuck with some irritating details.

Prudence is the virtue to learn urgently and to live well these days. We cannot, for example, propose for a sudden change of government without giving a clear alternative of what government to replace it with.

We have to be realistic enough to give due consideration to the way we are, given our culture and history, our national traits, both good and bad. If we are true Christians, we will strive always to be charitable and merciful, in our pursuit for truth and justice.

We need to be respectful of the systems—legal, juridical, economic--that are in place. No matter how imperfect, they just cannot be set aside without a workable alternative and the proper way to effect the transition.

We have to continue consulting and dialoguing with all parties, in great patience and magnanimity. Far be it from us to sow intrigues, if not hatred and bitterness around! These have strong corrosive and toxic effects on society.

For Church leaders especially, the need to set high and clear standard of charity and justice is a must. And to guarantee this, the usual way to do is to practice collegiality among themselves and always in union with the Pope.

It’s when one or some dare to stick to their own guns, no matter how well-intentioned, that we can expect far graver harm on everyone. That’s the way to weaken the Church, to undermine their own credibility and capability to lead and perform their prophetic mission

Monday, December 1, 2008

Expanding our sense of beauty

IT’S good that we revisit our idea of beauty from time to time. The Pope just made another reference to it recently. In effect, he once again wants us to expand our sense of beauty.

These were some of the things he said:

“The search for beauty without truth and goodness can drive young people to fly toward artificial paradises that simply hide interior emptiness.”

“There is currently a dramatic separation between the search for beauty, understood in a reductive way as an exterior form, as an appearance to be sought at all costs, and the search for truth and the goodness of actions.”

“It is needed to again link beauty with reason, since reason that would like to separate itself from beauty would be diminished, as also beauty deprived of reason would be reduced to an empty and illusory mask.”

“Beauty has always been considered a path to arrive to God…The man of today, though absorbed by a cultural climate that is not always adequate for welcoming beauty in full harmony with truth and goodness, still has a desire and nostalgia for an authentic beauty, not superficial and ephemeral.”

Our problem is that we are stuck with just the physical, material and external aspects of beauty. It’s as if beauty has no other dimension, a much deeper one, more proper to us as persons and children of God.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with beauty in those peripheral aspects. What’s wrong is when we fail to connect them vitally to their proper foundation and principle.

What’s wrong is when with the constant bombardment of these aspects in media and elsewhere, we are made to spin and firm up a deepening belief that beauty indeed has no other beginning and end. These are just all it has.

And we cannot deny that there’s a surge these days of more intemperate ways to luxuriate in this kind and level of beauty, dripping with its usual cabal of companions like vanity, pride, arrogance, sensuality, self-absorption, greed, etc.

In fact, we now have some kind of a body cult, an adoration to the body that exacts our full attention to its need for wellness and beauty. It’s a cult that competes and tends to replace the worship we owe to God.

It kills our impulses to pray and make sacrifices. It arouses our bodily instincts and powers while lulling our spiritual faculties to sleep.

We need to defang this trend. And the challenge is precisely how to make it more human, more Christian, more in keeping with our true dignity. It’s not to do away with it completely. It is to regulate it, to subject it to a higher guiding principle.

The main difficulty we have to contend with is the democratic and free market type of economy that actually needs to be infused with the proper spirit. Absent that, it becomes a cesspool of wild, raw and unprocessed tendencies.

This is what we sometimes see in the media. For example, it’s now not anymore a source of shame to strut one’s stuff. Modesty these days is a value violently mutilated by the new and notoriously flirty prophetesses and apostles of the body cult.

Of course, the mentalities of people are changing also. The other day, someone told me that a girl who was to turn 18 decided not to have a debut. Instead she asked her parents for a nose job, some nipping and tucking in parts of her body, and, sorry for this, a bloating of the boobs.

There are many other examples that cannot be mentioned here. Obviously, the whole affair breeds temptations and feeds sins, vices and other irregularities. Scandals have exploded. On second thought, it’s a good sign that we are still scandalized. Woe to us when we stop getting scandalized!

Again, we should not stop at lamenting. That will not take us anywhere. We have to offer the antidote to this sweet poison menacing our society. All of us should find ways of how to relate the attention and care we give to our bodies to our worship to God, to our duty to love God and all.

Those in the media, in the entertainment and body care industry—beauty parlors, spa and massage parlors, gyms, etc.—should be the primary experts on how to link their work to God.

We all have to expand our sense of beauty and body care.