Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ubi Caritas

Et Amor, Deus Ibi Est

There is a story often told about St. Francis of Assisi. As the story goes, the saint was visiting a certain Italian town where the Waldensian and Albigensian heresies were well represented. When Francis arrived, a group of villagers came to meet him, and having heard of his holy reputation, immediately proceeded to complain to him of their parish priest. The villagers told Francis how the local priest had despoiled his vows by living in concubinage for several years now. They told him how the priest would feign moral rectitude at day and how he lived with his mistress with wild abandon at night. And so the villagers wanted Francis to get rid of their morally decadent priest.

The next day, the saint had occasion to meet with the cleric. The villagers came with him in tow, and expected the saint to rebuke the erring priest and possibly chastize him in public. But to the utter surprise of all, Francis, upon seeing the priest, knelt down on his knees and kissed the other cleric's hands with great love and devotion. The saint told him in weeping: 'When you celebrate Mass, you are the holiest man on earth; continue to do so, for without the Eucharist, these people would die and be cast into eternal fire.'

Easter has come and gone, and I suspect that most of us would probably be back to our sinful ways. Berdugos who had themselves crucified on Good Friday would probably be back gambling, drinking and swearing right about now, just as filthy politicians who knelt and prostrated themselves inside their churches all day would be back to their corrupt and decadent lifestyles. Indeed, many of us begin to wonder, 'Just what is the point of Holy Week if we still return to sinning?' Is it all just for show? Even when the God-man still walked this earth, His own disciples would fall prey to various sins. Peter was brash, proud and stubborn. James the Greater was hotheaded, who confused his zeal for charity. John was an egocentrist who always referred to himself as 'the beloved disciple'. Paul, of course, was a murderer who viciously persecuted Christ's early followers, and Thomas doubted the words of his own Lord. What does all this say about us? Do the sins and imperfections of the very apostles themslves mean that we, in the end, are hopelessly doomed to a life of hypocrisy?

In my 18 years on this earth so far, I have had many ups and downs in my spiritual life; there were times when I felt like I was a melancholic Calvinist, a happy-clappy evangelical, an incorrigibly strict Irishman stuck in scary 1950s piety, and so much more that I've practically lost count. There were times when I thought I could never dispel with my predilections to the sins of the flesh, and times when I thought I could never humble myself and get rid of my pride. There were times when I lost hope, and times when I risked all that I had on novenas that 'have never been known to fail.' I am not going to deny the fact that, even though I have been a Roman Catholic all my life, I have been a pretty bad one throughout as well. Guilt is practically my best friend, and if it were a real person, we would probably have shared one too many beers by now.

Redemption is a pretty risky business: the trick is convincing yourself that there is hope yet in you. Perhaps this is the biggest problem I have with what passes for charity these days. To be 'charitable' is to be frank, and it has degenerated into nothing more than the ability to say to someone 'You're going to Hell, a**hole' with a straight face. It speaks only of hell, and never of heaven. But to be charitable to someone involves more than guts to say these things. When our Blessed Mother stood by Christ on His cross, it wasn't hatred that flowed in her veins. Even after seeing her own flesh and blood nailed to the tree, and after witnessing His being scourged--flayed seems to be a more apt word-- she never once uttered a curse upon the Roman soldiers or called for the blood of the Jews. Our Lady simply wept.

Our acts of charity are worthless if we do not show even a glimpse of heaven in them. Justice flows out of charity, yet how can this take place if the sinner is condemned too soon, too fast? Are we honestly doing what the Lord would have done in our stead, or are we following Caiaphas and his motley crew in going down the road to perdition? When Christ hung on the cross, His hands were not clenched like a fist, which is indicative of vengeance, nor was He flipping the bird at us and damning us in the process. Instead His hands were fixed in the sign of benediction: to this extent He has humbled Himself for you and for me. Can we honestly still castigate our neighbors with the same intensity in the face of the cross? Is this not reminiscent of the parable of the wicked servant who was justly condemned by his master?

One of the most humbling experiences I've had in my entire life occured after our Baccalaureate Mass last year. As it happened, we were having a chat with our chaplain when this old woman, beleaguered by having sold sampaguita necklaces all day, her back hunched from fatigue and sickness, came to us to beg what little spare money we had so she could eat her first meal that day. I didn't have any money with me, and neither did my parents. She hung around for some three minutes, and we ignored her the whole time. Finally, incensed at being ignored for so long, she shouted at us at the top of her lungs: 'Ang dadamot ninyo! Bakit pa kayo nagsisimba kung hindi naman kayo marunong magbigay?' (You people are so greedy! Why do you even bother going to church if you cannot even give alms to the poor?) Needless to say, I felt guilty the rest of the night. I was haunted by her comments, and the words of the Gospel ('What ye do to the least of your brethren ye also do unto Me'). I felt like a total wreck, and the memory of that incident still shames me to this day.

In the end, it is never about us, but Jesus. It is He, who, even when hanging from the cross, continued to bless sinful man with His own blood, and it was He who came to save us from our sins, not to condemn us in them. If there is any reason why I persist in being Catholic, it is because God Himself became man and died for us. It is because the suffering face of Jesus, bloody and bruised from our fists, spittle and whips, that is the synthesis of all theology and exegesis. Faith is a very difficult notion, even for those who have spent all their lives within the bosom of the Church. But to have faith in the midst of the surrounding darkness is not to invent a cocoon for ourselves, but rather it is an ongoing search for the Light that no shadow can ever touch or darken. To have Faith is to acknowledge that we have sinned, and at the same time to know that Christ, the God-man, has forever broken the bonds of slavery and death.

The Resurrection, as all Catholics know, was the greatest miracle performed by Our Lord. It is the conerstone of Christian belief, without which all Christians would be the most miserable lot on earth, as Paul tells us. The Resurrection gives hope to the dying, new life to the dead, and fills with joy the wrathful and the gloomy. It is the single greatest joy to have befallen our earth, the triumph of the angels, the glory of the saints. Whereas in Good Friday we weep over the wounds of our slain Lord, the Resurrection of Christ is God's gentle kiss to mankind. And it is the Resurrection that enables us to keep on hoping, in spite of the many sins we have committed in our past lives. Let us now rejoice, for the Lord has truly risen, as He said. A blessed Easter to all, alleluia, alleluia!

"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing!"

-- Apocalypse of St. John, 5:12

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