Monday, June 25, 2007


Dear Readers,

I will be taking some time off from blogging starting Wednesday. It will probably be at least two to three weeks before I seiously update again. Rest assured, this break has nothing to do with depression or any of the sort; I am simply too tired and stressed out lately. I believe this has shown in the dearth of posts for the month of June. Additionally, school season has started here in this corner of the world, and with subjects like the dreaded Accounting 30 on the horizon... Let's just say it wouldn't do me good to be online most of the time. In the meantime, I will try to provide some anecdotes or even the occasional pictures during my absence. Until then, see you all!


Friday, June 22, 2007

Scenes From Yesterday

On Sunday afternoons, much of the children would already be lining up at the gates, coins in hand and parents in tow, awaiting the arrival of the ice cream man. Boys would bravely step out into the streets, daring cars to hit them, while the girls waited patiently to one side. As the singing bells and hoarse, staccato voice of the ice cream man made themselves heard, the children would whip themselves into frenzy and greet him as if he were a laurelled hero, a heroic Gideon ripped from the pages of the Old Testament.

In our apartment, things were cozy yet comfortable. There were drab, whitewashed walls where I used to draw figures of monsters and dinosaurs with crayons; a perennially humid bathroom with rubber tiles; polished, wooden floors creaking with age. All the rooms were locked in static mess, and occasionally reeked of milk, drool and uneaten sandwiches. The kitchen was small and utilitarian: there was an oven, a stove, a refrigerator, and nothing else. The foul reek of vinegar clung to it like mold.

Further down the street was my grandmother’s house. It was an ancient house, built in the 1960s, when much of that street was still grassland. My grandfather was one of the first settlers in that area. In front of them lived a wealthy Spanish couple, the Gamos, who had long been affiliated with the practice of law. They drove an old Ford; the Gamos were driven in a Mercedes. But despite the obvious difference, the Gamos never saw my grandparents as beneath them, but treated them as the closest of friends, a relationship which exists to this very day (my grandfather died in 1987).

I lived the first years of my life in my grandparents’ house. Before we moved into the cramped apartment, we lived in an even more cramped ‘house’ adjacent to the main house in the compound. Everyday, I would wake myself at eight in the morning, and greet the sun with a smile. I recall riding my bicycle in a never-ending Mobius strip in the garage, much to the consternation of the dogs (since I would always bother them). At five years of age, I went into my uncle’s bedroom and discovered a box full of chisels and an ancient rubber mallet. Thus, my ‘art phase’ began: I practiced on an old plank of wood, trying my damnedest to re-create the grimacing, bone-crunching maw of the Tyrannosaurus rex. It didn’t work out; the best I could muster was a crudely shaped, sideways facing letter ‘V’ with some triangles sticking out. Yes, I played with chisels before (luckily one of my aunts was always beside me).

Our old neighborhood was not without its quirks. At the Southern end was the elegant mansion of some apparently famous TV actress in the 1970s. At the Northern end, near the bend leading to the next street, was a house notorious for the events which happened there. A family of six had been brutally murdered there, including a seven year old girl. To this day, I still cannot fathom the depths of this incident; indeed, it is only now that I am beginning to realize its full implications. On some afternoons as well, we were always greeted by the sight of a grown man, probably in his 30s, walking the hot and barren streets on tiptoes. As it turned out, the man was mentally retarded. He always walked without any shirt on, and always dragged a bamboo stick with his right hand. I never once felt threatened by him, but I realized he may think of me as a threat. We confined our charity to giving him a glass of water and a ham sandwich occasionally.

There, too, was the ‘astronaut man’, who was dressed in several layers of clothing, face covered by a white towel, with the rusting skeleton of an umbrella serving as a hat. He would amuse himself by striking a pose and holding it for hours at a time. Were he not so creepy, I would probably have befriended him.

We moved into our new house exactly nine years, eleven months and twenty nine days ago. Though the house is definitely bigger, my ambition has shrunk, and my dreams shattered. I am much older now (though I’m not ancient, I’m only 18, just an old soul), and perhaps a bit wiser. Physically, I am no longer that skinny boy with broken teeth; I am now the tall and somewhat dashing kid obsessed with lawn tennis and scuba diving. The old, whitewashed walls which seemed to stretch on forever vertically now reveal themselves to be short, finite and dirty, covered in a writing entanglement of vines dead and dying. The backyard where I amused myself by baking mud pies now seems a cesspit, constricted and constricting. The trees which I once climbed had been cut down, the floor on which I played was now occupied by a grand piano.

As I look back on all these old memories, my mind struggles what to make out of them. Ten years is an incredibly insignificant amount of time on a geologic timescale, but it is the difference of lifetimes in our human years. I cannot help but launch into nostalgia sometimes. Seeing these old pictures of myself, my family, my old neighborhood, without the scars inflicted by age and without the cares and worries of the world, I wander into an age I had seemingly lost in the cascading of years. Memories from sitting in the hammock under the shade of the macopa tree would rouse themselves from slumber and fill my mind once more with the hopes and dreams and ambitions I had as a mere boy. Cynicism would vanish once again, and in its place flooded back wonder and enjoyment with renewed vigor. I was a kid once again.

At the end of the day, we would gather in the main house, the one that my grandfather had built. We would have a short program of sorts, of which I was always the emcee. Things were simpler back then, and by 8.30 in the evening, we would already be heading to bed. But before the festivities of the night ended, my grandmother would always play ‘O mio babbino caro’, the lullaby which sent me to sleep dreaming of flying cars and walking houses. And they were very good dreams.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Athanasius Contra Mundum

Emerging from the midst of a treacherous and cruel age, the Early Church was plagued by a variety of factors which threatened to unleash the legions of hell upon an as-of-yet groggy and scattered people. There were the Roman Emperors, skilled in the art of torture, who threw Christians to the lions and gave them up to be killed for the sport of their bloodthirsty soldiery. There, too, were the various heresies which assailed the Mystical Body from all manner of directions: the Arians, the Docestists, Pelagians and Monophysites; Caesaro-papists, Monotheletites, Tritheists and Manichaean Gnostics. Such was the environment that suckled the Church in her infancy. It was an age of barbarism and distress, far from the comforts that Christians of the modern world today enjoy.

It was in the middle of all the chaos and confusion when the hour of the Church Fathers dawned, and there was no more foul-tempered, irascible and thoroughly orthodox man than St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the lion of orthodoxy, who almost single-handedly crushed the Arian heresy. The life of this holy man is certainly the stuff of legend; if stories are to be believed, he and a handful of bishops were the only ones who still clung to orthodox Christology in those troubled times. His temper and stubbornness caused him to be exiled from his own diocese three times, earning for him the immortal words Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world.

I have met many people, Catholics specifically, who fancy themselves a modern day Athanasius. While certainly an admirable thing, I have always maintained a sense of suspicion about these people. Indeed, in this very secularized society of ours, one could not but help but pine for a little more peace and solitude—perhaps a garden somewhere to alleviate all those problems, or a quaint neighborhood where everyone minded their own business. Most of all, people clamor for beauty in their lives: the Church has always provided them with this, but in the years immediately after Vatican II, even this started to deteriorate. Gone are the days of brocade vestments lined with thread of gold and Baroque altars and their majestic theatre.

In retrospect, I find it harder and harder to blame people for wanting a little more peace and beauty in their lives. Is it because I have the luxury of living in a society that is still capable of bowing to the Divine that I am overly critical of most traditionalists sometimes? I admit, this thought has crossed my mind before. But then I am jolted back to reality by the sight of a stick-thin man, blind and festering with sores, walking the traffic-jammed streets of Manila like a doomed leper. He doesn’t have the time or the luxury to afford modest clothing or know the history and nuances of Eucharistic theology. Does this make him less of a Catholic then? Can he really be blamed for treating sacramentals like talismans?

Let us briefly recall that heresy starts not out of a theological dispute, but as a result of a dispute in livelihood. If you think about it, most of the times, it will be the simple—the unlettered and the uncatechized—who will sooner leave the Church and join another, more ‘sensible’ sect. In the Philippines, this is a social fact: to give you an idea, two of the most popular television stations here belong to two rival religious groups, who each have their hands upon each others’ necks. And as can be expected, there is occasional Catholic bashing as well (though admittedly not as much as their bashing of each other). I am not saying that the upper classes are not capable of being seduced into heresy. History tells us that they are often more vulnerable to such traps: it was the nobility that primarily supported Luther in his ‘Reformation’, and it was the established mestizo families that first started attending ‘Born Again’ fellowships in this country. I think the fundamental difference here is that we have no excuse at all. Most Protestants I know left Catholicism for the most trivial of reasons: a scandalous priest, an excess of devotion, spiritual dryness. The poor, on the other hand, have everything to lose.

We are all familiar with the story of Martin Luther, but we should also remember that it was Melancthon and the rest of his followers that started what we know as the Lutheran church today. Though Luther provided the impetus, he clung to many trappings of the Roman religion even after his heresy, among the most significant of which are his Marian spirituality and belief in the Mass (not as a proprietary sacrifice). What was going on in his head while sitting on his toilet, however, is an entirely different matter. Perhaps he was fancying himself an heir of St. Athanasius? It is an interesting thought; after all, all heresy essentially starts out as spiritual reform.

The main problem I have with most traditionalists today is that, for them, Tradition is something that necessitates a return to the grassroots level. It is thus turned into something that is fossilized, unchanging, rigid and untouchable. Of course, in most cases, it is frozen in the environment of Tridentine Catholicism, that epoch in history where the Church was more concerned with the apologia than actual praxis of the faith—so much so that it comes dangerously close of becoming the religion itself. It is the essence of a bully culture, where Tradition is wielded as an excuse to maintain a vicious hegemony of being willfully stuck in the past. Tradition does not work like that because it was never in the hands of men to decide it in the first place. At worst, Traditionalism seems nothing more than an excess of zeal gone awry; and in most cases, it is more akin to self-righteousness than actual charity. A return to Tradition does not guarantee a panacea from all the woes of this world because such a thing is simply impossible; as long as each man is born into original sin, we will always have need of God’s help. Frankly, it seems to me as if Tradition is fast becoming a byword for Utopia.

The essential flaw in assuming a contra mundum mindset is that it presumes that the one holding this ideology is the only one right. Not only that, it also facilitates a detachment from the world, but not the detachment willed by Our Lord in the Gospels, but one that is more akin to living under a rock. Thus, the person is cut off from the world, from his fellow human beings, from his fellow Christians. As we know, our religion is very much a social one, proof of which is the doctrine of the communion of saints. How can we honestly call ourselves in communion with St. Athanasius and the other great defenders of the Church if we ourselves cannot even begin to recognize other Christians outside the framework we are in? The Church is far greater than any of us; to think that it is contained within the network of a few time zones and area codes is an incredibly preposterous idea. It is a religion that is lonely and bitter, and one that shirks from challenges more than it does face them.

When St. Athanasius proclaimed his undying words, ‘They have the buildings; we have the Faith’, they were said in an entirely different situation than the one we are in right now. True, many bishops out there are scoundrels whose skulls would gladly fill a niche in the floor of hell, and it is also true that many priests today are being drawn into a life of selfishness and corruption. But let us at least be grateful that no Catholic bishop (at least, that I know of) has ever explicitly taught that Jesus was mere man, or that God is essentially metaphor and myth. Let us be thankful that Tradition is far greater than any of us: it has witnessed wars, schisms, heresies and other scandals in the past, surely, our situation is not confined to this day and age alone. In the saint’s day, everything was simply at stake: there was no Christendom to speak of back then. Had Arianism won out, there is no telling what treasures would have been lost to us forever.

It is true that it is necessary to thump some heads some time, and it is likewise true that Traditionalism has had some good results: without the ‘defiance’ of Archbishop Lefebvre, would Catholics today even have heard of Mass in Latin? I don’t think so, especially since the preceding generation (these baby-boomers) have asserted themselves as being far superior to their own fathers. It is this same pride that also manifests itself in the actions of many involved in traditionalism, though admittedly in a more muted way. Such is how the Devil works, when he turns even our genuine love for the Church’s heritage into a nest for his vipers.

So is it really possible to be traditional without isolating ourselves? Is it possible to appear more than just a theological clique, but as an actual, legitimate advocacy for a just and noble cause (and one that most of ‘us’, i.e., ‘them’, are content to disparage, anyway)? I do think so. But it will not be possible without a huge dose of humility first. It is only when we weep for it that our love for the timeless heritage of the Church will reveal itself to be true. Until such time that we realize Tradition is not ours to wield in whatever way we choose to, we will never cease to be bitter. ‘To whom much is given, much shall be expected in return’.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Good Shepherd

The theologian Karl Rahner describes the word heart as primordial in essence, that is, a concept which is repeated throughout the civilizations of the world, the point of commonality, as it were, among our great religions. It is a theme repeated time and time again to describe themes that go beyond our common understanding and reason, and as any cursory reading of poetry or religious scripture will reveal, the heart seems to occupy a place midway between the divine and human: at once revealing the limit of our understanding and evoking the depths of just what humanity is capable of.

As Catholics, almost all of us invariably grew up with the image of Christ, clothed in flaming red, and holding in His hand His beating, throbbing heart, wrapped in thorns, and surmounted with a cross set afire, in the sidelines. This is the image of the Sacred Heart, which is perhaps one of the most vulnerable depictions we have of the Son of God. My first encounter with the devotion to the Sacred Heart was in fourth grade. As it happened, our school happened to be within walking distance to this beautiful church, dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where we would attend without fail the First Friday Mass. I will be honest, I was never much of a devotee; for most of my life, the only devotion I had was the holy rosary, and even that I still have some trouble with. But I admired this image of the Sacred Heart, set in a quaint corner of the church, where throngs of old women would line up every Friday to kiss its hands and feet, and offer flowers of the rarest kind at its peana.

Considered through a historical perspective, the devotion to the Sacred Heart has had a somewhat unfortunate history, in my opinion. We know for a fact that this devotion arose in 17th century France, after the visions of a certain nun, whom the faithful now revere as St. Marguerite Mary Alacoque, said to have been especially favored by Our Lord Himself. It was also during this time when the first stirrings of the French Revolution—the crowning jewel upon the crown of the Enlightenment—began entrenching themselves in society. There too was a third party involved, the Jansenists, whose excessive pietism threatened to infect the very life of the Church.

It was during this time that this devotion was born, nurtured as if through fire and brimstone. Indeed, even today, I still encounter Catholics who look upon this practice as a sad remnant of superstitious days past, and nothing more. I have heard this argument countless times before: if the ways of God are infinitely beyond our ways and comprehension, how comes it that the Church allows such a flawed and human devotion? I confess that I myself still fall into this mindset from time to time. If there is any answer to this question, I am almost certain that the answer or answers have been staring me in the face for the longest time. I have been thinking about this lately, and I think I’ve finally arrived at a suitable answer.

As I’ve noted before in a previous post, most Catholics, while having an idea of what the Incarnation was all about, nevertheless have no clue whatsoever about its significance. We believe that God took on flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, thus effectively taking on a human nature, while remaining completely God at the same time. By condescending to this, God partook of our humanity, and it was such a glorious event, enough to momentarily stop the flow of eternity and make the angels themselves tremble in awe. But this is only the beginning, not the end; the Gospels make it a point to reiterate that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls each of us by our name, relating to us on an individual, personal level. We are no longer just sheep; we are His sheep. He has called us to partake of His life by descending to the depths of our humanity.

Of the messages communicated by Our Lord to St. Marguerite Alacoque, one in particular always struck me: ‘Behold this heart which has loved so many but is so little loved in return.’ Usually accompanied by an image of Our Lord holding His heart on one hand, it is a message that confronts us with the sad, unavoidable truth. Too often do we see Christ, yet do nothing about it: that beggar in the street, that pus-ridden, grease-bathed, homeless man wandering in dead ends, the poor mother habitually beaten by her husband. These people are a powerful witness to Christ, for like Him, they are disarmed, exposed for all the world to gloat at. We are content to voice our discontent, but continue on walking nevertheless. Sometimes I wonder why the Good Shepherd would even persevere in looking for us and calling us by our names when our very actions would shame Him before others.

I am of the opinion that real theology will always be above our capability to rationalize them. For that, we have only the heart with which to make sense of such things. I am not the biggest fan of Rahner out there, but I thought this sentiment from him expresses what I cannot otherwise say with eloquence: God’s self-utterance is humanity, plain and simple. It is in the language of our weaknesses and frailties that the power of God shines through the most; He is a God who shames the mighty and extols the weak, after all. When you look at a man, shriveled and shivering in some nameless street corner, with nothing but dirty rags to hide his nakedness, practically more dead than alive, one is tempted to cry out in disbelief in outrage. We cannot understand why we can feel such pity; even modern man, who has largely forgotten his own importance and is so convinced of his merely utilitarian existence, is still moved by such a sight. These are reasons of the heart, and as such, they defy wisdom and explanation. This is perhaps one of the greatest gifts God has given us.

God sees us, not as the sinner to be condemned, but as the individual who has no idea how to manage the graces he has been given. I think this is one of the most beautiful thoughts we can have; to know that God is always molding us with His hands, and that He will continue to work on us despite our own inability to change our ways and our lack of foresight and trust in God’s vision. One of the most striking moments in the Gospels is when the beloved apostle John was given the privilege to lay his head on the Master’s chest. It is striking in that John is essentially mimicking how a child would lay its head on its mother’s breast, putting all his trust in Jesus. And it was a heart that lay beneath the folds of sacred flesh, a heart that beats and throbs with love.

I used to think that Catholicism had the answer for every question I had; when I was younger and still inexperienced, I put my faith on every apologetic material I had, hoping that truth would eventually emerge victorious in the end. I now realize that the Church just doesn’t work that way; apologetics, for all their worth, are just that, an explanation. In real life, no amount of apologetic, doctrinal material or spiritual reading can ever help me get through my problems; it is only when one sees with the heart that we can ever hope to face the cruelties of life. I now see that I was just running away from the night, afraid to confront the massing darkness, and forgetting the promise of day. Jesus was sustained by His heart, weeping profusely for the sins of men, while He carried His cross, and it was with His heart that He was able to persevere in those trials. The heart has reasons the mind can never understand, and while I am concerned, I am glad this is the way it is.

The great St. Anselm, Doctor of the Church, and who many consider to be the founder of scholasticism, once described theology as fides quaerens intellectum-- faith seeking understanding. In many ways, I believe that only the human heart can truly fathom the deepest mysteries of theology, not because it readily has the answers to everything, but because it always seeks these answers. I am reminded of that oft-quoted line from St. Augustine, another pillar of the Church: 'My heart is restless until it rests n Thee, O God'. Yes, for the unbeliever, Catholicism will always be just a bundle of contradiction after contradiction and unending legalism, and our doctrines are at best kitschy. But seen through the eyes of faith, they are radiant with splendor. Seen through the eyes of the heart, they are enough to move mountains and part seas.

One of the most beautiful things about Catholicism is that God accepts even the most shabby and seemingly worthless trinkets we give Him. Every little gift, from the most insignificant mite, to a child’s knocking on a tabernacle door, are treasured by Him to Whose glory we can never add to. Yet He continues to accept our gifts, and treasures them, in spite of what we may think about their importance, or lack thereof. And even in the face of such sin, He continues to have faith in us. All of this is possible because of the Sacred Heart, which continues to this day to beat and throb for our salvation.

O Sacred Heart
O love divine
Do keep us near to Thee
And make our hearts
So like to Thine
That we may holy be

Heart of Jesus, hear!
O Heart of love divine!
Listen to our prayer!
Make us always Thine!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Communion and Connectivity

Recently, I have been noticing how more and more Catholics in the Philippines are becoming increasingly aware of just what exactly the Church teaches. While obviously a good thing, it has also sadly fed the pride of many, leaving them to abandon the Church. In this age of interconnectivity and fast information, it is easy to readily accept the onset of globalization; indeed, I've also noticed how many Overseas Filipino Workers take on the mannerisms of their Western employers in due time, and this is not contained in the secular sphere alone, but also in the area of religion. Nowadays, internet traffic is informing a growing number of Catholics about the crises in the Church, and the effects of such things. This is obviously a welcome occurence.

It seems a bit strange, but whenever I visit a church not in my own country, I always have the urge to genuflect as neatly as I can; most of the time, I tend to slouch my back a little and make funny fly-swatting gestures in the air, which is what crossing myself looks like. On the converse side, my brother always makes the best genuflections; but when he visits these churches, or even churches here in Manila that he has never been to, I notice that he cranes his neck a lot and tends to be a bit more absent minded than usual. I have been thinking about this lately, and I believe I have an explanation for this.

But first, let me recall a university lecture I attended for my social anthropology class back in January. It was entitled 'Culture Connect: Why Culture is Dying in the Information Age'. and was given with expert erudition by a graying, balding man in his mid-fifties, who had a noticeable beer gut and large, smiling eyes. Basically, the lecture said that the interconnectiveness that characterizes our present day is leading the way for the extinction of cultures worldwide. He cites, for example, how a Burger King in Papua New Guinea is unwittingly killing its host culture by introducing a novel and totally alien way of satisfying one's own hunger. He also cites how an excess of Western influence in Philippine society is effectively stifling time-honored values and traditions. But the crème de la crème of the entire lecture was when he put the blame, all of it, on the internet.

A prima facie consideration of the internet would lead one to disagree with the venerable professor. Certainly, the internet has been particularly helpful to religion and the defense thereof. It is almost certainly the herald of the new evangelization, as correcttly understood, that was idealized by the Second Vatican Council. So where do the problems start? I think the primary problem of an internet religion is its inhumanity. I don't honestly think that the internet provides the reader of an ample, let alone accurate, image of the blogger or pundit he reads. For most of us, the closest we may get to having a picture of someone on the internet is just that, a picture. They will never be anything more than the sharpness of someone's eyes, the curliness of one's hair, his height, weight, interests, preferred music. At best, it will probably a mutual acquaintance (and I've known bloggers who have become friends with other bloggers in real life); at worst, nothing more than psychological recall.

Christianity is a corporate, social religion. It is not a personal choice or mere intellectual conviction alone, but also the history of a people-- its intrigues, life, joys and sadness. As such, we cannot honestly be Christians if we are all alone, because this goes against the doctrine of the communion of saints. So why exactly is this doctrine so important? For the average Catholic, it is nothing more than the apologetic and excuse to pray to San Antonio de Padua or to have a grieving, ivory-carved image of the Mater Dolorosa. But the communion of saints, properly understood, is more than just that. It is the doctrine that seals our unity with one another, the doctrine that allows even the pious and virtuous dead to be loved and cherished even after having gone to their eternal rewards. A priest once described it as the sweet yoke of Christ, binding the people of God directly to Him. And what a joy it is to know that we are being prayed for by others!

I think the main problem with this virtual Church is its inability to provide a broad perspective of the problems that plague the people of God today. Yes, tou read that right: the internet is simply too big and unpredictable to take all that information in all at once. Thus, there are people who might think that the Church has practically been destroyed by the Council, and seek to form their own 'clique' to escape its ravages. And there are also some who are so blind to the irreverence and scandal being perpetrated in the Church today who vilify everyone else as old-fashioned and uneducated. Thus, we effectively sever communion--unity--amongst ourselves. I guess what I am trying to say is that the problems of a particular church themselves become the problem of many more. So it is not really a stretch to believe that the American church is incredibly influential on an unprecedented level, on both reform and ruin.

I used to think in a similar manner; my first serious encounter with traditionalism was through the controversial, which remains influential even to this day. The picture it presented me was that of a Church steeped in barbarity and scandal that could only herald the doom of this world. It gave a chilling picture of a Church that has lost the faith and become seat of the Anti-Christ, a false church, Babulon a megala itself. It is easy to be swept up by what the Fathers Moderator say: after all, how could one not believe them? Surely clown masses and halloween masses are the surest signs of the decadence and sinfulness of our age?

Thankfully, these are isolated cases, although admittedly blown out of proportion for the edification/schadenfreude of the faithful. I am most assuredly NOT sanctioning such liturgical abuses; they are the prodcuts of sick minds and a problem in the Church that DOES merit correction or chastisement, whichever you prefer. But to think that a return to the traditional praxis of the faith alone is sufficient to curb these abuses seems to me, at best, false hopes. Let us not forget that there is a possibility that the liturgy can become nothing more than theatricality and entertainment as well; the Renaissance is proof of that sentiment.

If we really want to see what the Church is like, the only way to do so is to accept all Her shortcomings and frailties: let us not forget that the Church, too, has a human element which we can never be rid off. On the postive side, I am grateful for the internet for providing me with the necessary material to inform myself about the Church, her laws of motion, development, and history. But it should not be our sole icon of the Mystical Body of Christ, because the internet is just a means to an end, and nothing else. God sees the world, after all, not through a webcam, but through His eyes, loving and tender. He looks back at us not as an observer, but as a participant.

Life itself can teach us more theology than a thousand years of constantly reading the Church Fathers and Aquinas ever can, because the world and all its multivalency and grace and beauty are themselves God's gift to us. We often hear of the anecdote about St. Augustine who met the boy in the beach, trying to drain the entire ocean through a sieve; this always struck me as a beautiful story, not only because it provides us with a good idea of God (that is, His ineffability and immanence) but also shows how man can be totally helpless alone. One can only posit an infinite number of possiblities if, say, all the Catholics in the world joined that boy. Faith, after all, can move even mountains, says Our Lord.

So what is my explanation? I think the answer lies in the fact that we sometimes forget that Our Lord is God of all the nations; and as such, each nation will express its reverence and devotion in different ways. But it is the same Jesus, the same God-man, but too often we neglect to see this fact in light of our own problems, perspectives or even prejudices. This is not an excuse to portray Jesus sitting on a lotus looking like Gautama Buddha for all the world to see, nor reason to imagine Him in a purely Caucasian light. Rather, this should serve as a reminder that the Church is bigger than any of us, and how God elects to run it is not our business, but His alone. We would do well to trust in His Divine Will, for His providence and guidance are never lacking.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Arguing With God

Reading the Psalms always leaves me with a profound insight into seemingly ordinary things. Aside from their wisdom I admire their beauty and poetry immensely; for me, they have always served as theology lessons dressed in the most elegant finery available. A cursory reading of any psalm, I have found, gives me something to think about for days, even weeks, whether it be the most exuberant shout of praise or the most dire and mournful of laments. They chronicle the life and times of the people who wrote and sang them with exceptional clarity and profundity, expressing in verse what no mere words can accomplish. It has been said that the two Old Testament books of the Psalms and of Job can take an entire lifetime just to exhaust the infinite possibilities of meaning that they have.

Yet the world of the Gospels and of the Bible in general was no walk in the park. It was a world of turmoil and distress, of conquest and diaspora. A quick glance at the books of the Old Testament reveals more chastisements and admonishments for the Israelites for their behavior than they do praise for that people’s virtue. Even Our Lord was born in such distressing times; born in a manger, with beasts and lowly men for companion. Upon His birth, instead of ambassadors and tributaries, He had soldiers hunting for Him. In place of a throne, He had a cross, in place of fearless warriors, He had a band of all too human disciples.

In the book of Psalms, one will notice a variety of themes that present themselves again and again. There is the theme of war, where God’s might and majesty are extolled; there is the theme of lamentation, where God’s mercy and consolation are seemingly absent; there is the theme of His greatness, where songs proclaim His supremacy and omnipotence; indeed, it seems that there is a psalm for almost any theme about God. I have often been intrigued by the psalms that speak of lamentation and despair; for me, they have always portrayed a world, however hypothetical, where the work and providence of God are absent. These psalms beg His mercy and intervention in a tone that is more than pleading, indeed, almost demanding. For modern, cosmopolitan man, such a situation is perplexing: if indeed God is Almighty, then why does He not help us in times of distress? Why is He absent when we most need Him?

Although almost always overlooked or forgotten, we should remember that these psalms were written in precisely such a tone of anger and resentment. In the world of the Old Testament, wars and conquests were decidedly common things; we hear of several great civilizations that rise to the height of their temporal power, only to be brought crashing down to earth after their brief stint atop the tower of Babel. Israel itself was not spared, and as I have said, God has chastised them more than He has blessed them. These psalms of lament, however beautiful and poetic they are, were nevertheless written amidst a bubble of fear and despair. They were written in anger, almost is if they were meant to be shouted at God.

This naturally poses a problem for most of us. As Christians, we believe God to be all-holy and all-powerful; as humans, however, we are more inclined to emphasize His tender mercy and love. For many, such a situation is problematic, because it seems to go against our rational understanding of God as opposed to how we view Him in daily life. I think this is one of the key problems that plagues Christians today: either God is too holy to be approachable, or He is too much like our best friend to be feared and respected. These polarities have divided many a good Christian for the last few decades. But what is God really like? Is he the insufferably just, bordering-on-sanctimonious Judge, or the all-tolerant, all-permissive drinking buddy that is becoming more and more a popular image these days?

I remember how an old priest once told us that God became man in order for man to remember how to become man, and consequently, become ‘deified’ in the process. It can be said that the significance of the Incarnation goes even beyond the salvific mission of Our Lord; by taking on a human nature, He is basically saying that man is important enough to be taken at an individual, personal level. It is one of the surest signs of His love for us. I have written many times over in this blog that Christianity is not about having the best house, a perfectly manicured lawn or the biggest car; often, it goes directly against this stereotype.

Many Catholics around the world abide in a world of extreme poverty and hardship; in the Philippines alone, a poor family on average has eight children (in many cases, too, there is also the mistress’s family to feed), and some, if not most of these families, subsist on literally less than a dollar a day. There is no room for any trappings of luxury—perfect modesty is almost impossible, and manners are rare. But sadly, that is life for many people out there. Were I put in that same situation, I would probably be an atheist right now.

I wrote in an earlier post that despair is often used by God to plant the seeds of eternal hope, and to paint a picture of what it is like to see the world without love, without hope, without God. I think the reason why more and more people are abandoning faith and turning to atheism in this day and age is that we have become too smart, too rational, for our own good. While we may believe in a just God, we sometimes forget that He, too, is a loving God. Conversely, we forget that God is also just in believing in an ‘exclusively inclusive’ icon of Him. There is a massive discordance between the mind and the heart, between reason and sentiment—and this is what is causing so much aggravation within the Christian community today. One of the bedrocks of Christianity is founded on the belief in a personal God. Could it be that the reason why there is so much confusion being sown among the faithful is that we have forgotten this fact? Is God then just an idea, a choice between sanctimony and excessive tolerance? Are we worshipping a god that is fashioned after our image and likeness?

Lest we forget, the word person is defined as a rational being; but most of all, a person is an individual. God is such—He is Three Persons in one God Trinity in Unity, after all. That He has willed to be called ‘Our Father’ is incontrovertible proof of His Personhood. I think this is something that most of us tend to forget these days. We confine God to a limited perspective and forget the fact that He is boundless, immanent, and ineffable. Scripture reminds us that ‘A clean and humble heart You will not despise, O Lord’. We cannot be truly honest before God when we harbor such doubts and insecurities—we must first learn what it truly means to humble ourselves before the Lord. Unless we are honest about our doubts and fears, we will never be free. Scripture itself, after all, was not written by angels, but written by (divinely inspired) men, who, while sinners, were nevertheless loved by God so much as to suffer for him.

The greatest mystery we can ponder on in this life is not about the reason why there is suffering in the world, but life itself: its simplicity, elegance and importance. Yes, life is simple, and modern man, isolated in his unshakable sphere of hyper reality, has forgotten this for too long. At the end of the day, all the suffering, the trials and tribulations are a reminder of God’s love and providence; they speak of a world without Him, a world plunged in the most inconceivable despair. It is proof that the love was real and worthwhile, of its truth and importance. Christianity is a religion that demands loyalty at least as great as our own loyalties to our families. It demands a filial relationship that goes beyond petty fights and earth-shattering crises and periods of loss and despair. For the Christian faith teaches us that God and the company of the angels in saints in heaven are also our family, and like a real family, they will always be there for us, no matter how sinful we are.

A certain Church Father once wrote that the Old Testament is shadow, while the New Testament is icon, that is to say, image. As we know, in Eastern theology, an icon, more than a mere pious image, is also a mystical representation of a certain truth, and in no way is this more personified than in Jesus Christ. I have always taken this thought to be an allegorical representation between the meeting of God and man; in Jesus, this is incarnated into truth and in Him, we see and perceive the love of God in ways previously unseen and unperceived. It shows us that God is, was, and always will be in control. God loves us in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend: the problem is with us, who are so convinced of our own unworthiness as to reject this gift, and wallow in our despair and lamentation.

My favorite line from the Psalms comes from the 46th psalm: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10). But this line comes not from the quiet of reflection and the stillness of prayer, but was born out of fears and anxieties. It is God’s answer to the warbling, heartfelt plea of a sinner, angry and confused, caught amidst a maelstrom of fear and trembling, trial and tribulation. And lest we forget, Jacob, too, once wrestled with God, and he certainly didn’t earn his stripes for nothing. Only by blood, sweat and tears will we truly know what it means to be loved by God.

What, then, are the psalms? For me the answer is life, pure and simple. It is the divine train wreck that is the beating heart of Christianity, the joyously chaotic intersection between the providence of God and the incompetence of man, and one of the most wonderful gifts we have been given. Our own lives must ultimately bear witness to this truth.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Per Ipsum Et Cum Ipso Et in Ipso

Some Random Thoughts

In the past few days, I have been reading more and more about Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Christianity in general, and so far, it has proven to be time very well spent. As a Roman Catholic, I am used to ‘concrete’ answers: things like the torments of hell and the degrees of heaven have been the subject of much speculative theology in Catholicism. For the Eastern Christians, however, there is a deeper sense of mystery about the things around us.

As Catholics, we are taught to believe that everything Christ did while on earth had a purpose, and therefore, are worthy of imitation. Thus, we follow His commands to disdain worldly pleasures in the quest to find spiritual perfection. We are obedient, or at least try to be, and are bound to worship Him in the Eucharist. Now, the Mass and the Divine Liturgy are essentially the same thing—but the modes in which the truths of the faith are expressed in both are so wildly different and far from each other that each is basically its own animal. Both major strands of Christianity—the Latin and Greek rites—believe the Eucharist to be the fons et culmen of the spiritual life. And how could it not be? It was, after all, instituted by Christ Himself, and it is Christ Himself that we celebrate, and celebrates (in the person of the priest), in the liturgy.

So what does it mean to imitate Christ? The answer lies in the Mass itself, I think. There can be no greater joy than to know that God is with us always in the most holy sacrament of the altar; this we believe to be undeniable and incontrovertible truth. I think what we need to remember most of all is that this act of divine condescension is not just the legal result of a promise made by Our Lord some two thousand or so years ago; rather, it is Our Lord Himself who takes delight in doing this action. The meeting between God and man is the most wondrous thing that can happen in this universe; as Gerardus van der Leuw once said (I paraphrase), it is the primary action to which our counter-action is naturally directed and without which we remain merely marionettes—a slave to strings, a puppet, incapable of moving independently of itself.

To imitate Christ, then, is more than merely doing a certain set of things; on the contrary, to imitate Our Lord, we must become the faith itself.

So what does it mean when we say that the Mass is the saving action of God projected through time and space? I often think that Western Christianity seems to suffer from a limited perspective of salvation history—we are stuck in the crucifixion alone—much to the detriment of other events in Our Lord’s earthly life. Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, holds that salvation does not come merely from the passion and death of Christ alone; for them, we are saved not by what He did—but by Who He was: God. We must remember that the Christian religion is primarily an encounter with a Person, and only secondly, and in an infinitely lower rung, Christendom (that is, global politics and worldviews). For the Easterners, Christ was the very real epitome of salvation history. So in the Divine Liturgy, they celebrate not only the crucifixion, which is the obvious coup de grace of the whole ordeal, but also the events of the Old Testament: when God appeared as a pillar of fire to Moses, when He led the Israelites to freedom in the crossing of the Red Sea, and when He brought the walls of Jericho crumbling into dust and ashes..

One of my favorite parts of the entire Mass, Tridentine or Novus Ordo, is the final acclamation, otherwise known as the part when the priest chants the words ‘Through Him, with Him, in Him….’ It’s strange, but I only realized the significance of those words now. When the priest chants those words, he is not so much recalling a past event—a mere psychological phenomenon—but confessing a certain truth as well: that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the Ages, the Ineffable, Who continues His work of salvation even now. He is the same God Who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Whose power brought down the might of nations, Who took flesh and dwelt amongst men, Who died the most ignominious death on the Cross, Who will come to judge the quick and the dead in the fullness of time. He is the same Jesus before Whom John the Divine and the patriarch Moses hid their faces from in the face of His glory.

The name Jesus means ‘God saves’, and there could be no better name to give the Savior of the world. I am a firm believer in the concreteness of the Mass as a propiatory sacrifice and as a commemoration of Calvary, but we must rediscover above all a sense of the longue duree because only then will we see the fullness of the glory of Our Lord and the sublimity of God’s plan of salvation. Gloria tibi, Domine, Gloria tibi!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Enemies of God

There is a story making the rounds among the many members of my family, of how a distant relative of ours, his atheist American friend, and a pregnant woman neither of them knew, all found redemption in what was surely the darkest hour known to any of them. If you are a fan of history, you will doubtless have encountered the Bataan Death March in your readings before. For many Filipinos, this was—and still is—the cruelest and most barbaric atrocity the Japanese perpetrated on Philippine soil: a journey on foot, lasting some three days, covering at least one hundred twenty miles, under the warped tropical heat that blistered upon the backs of the prisoners and burned them with impossible intensity. Some 72,000 prisoners, with at least 60,000 of them Filipinos, walked this path of despair.

There are many stories told of the cruelties and barbarism committed by the Japanese soldiers. Any sign of slowing down by the prisoners of war were dealt with extreme severity—seventy year old men who wobbled on their way were made to dig their own graves, in which they were later buried alive. Women were raped and ravaged at the whim of their captors; there are even stories of infants being ripped from their mothers’ hands for being too noisy. The Japanese soldiers would then toss them into the air with malicious glee, and impale them on their bayonets. This was their sole source of entertainment.

I have only met this relative, one of my mother’s third cousins, once, in 2002. I will never forget the stories he told me—of how he had served as an interpreter between the Filipinos and the Americans, being one of the few people who had mastered the English language then. His good friend, an American solider whose name escapes me right now, was supposed to have been married to a local woman, a scion of a parvenu yet increasingly prominent Chinese mestizo family, when, exactly six days when the marriage banns were first announced, the soldier was plucked from his life of bliss and plunged into a world of pain and suffering.

They were some of the few lucky enough to have eluded death at the hands of their captors, although there were very close instances. There was even a time when they witnessed (they were apparently forced to watch) a middle aged American nurse being gang raped by a group of Korean soldiers who were interred with the Japanese camp. Her screams of agony would haunt them until their twilight years; her scalp was ripped clean off her head, while her sex organs were branded by a burning hot bar of iron. They stuck bamboo shoots under her nails and forced her to eat the dung of wild beasts. It is a sight to shock and appall; that she was a mother only made the crime even worse.

One of the most dramatic incidents involved a pregnant woman—a Spanish mestiza—and a Japanese soldier. Now the soldier happened to be one of the most feared; he had apparently killed eleven men just some hours ago, six Americans, four Filipinos, and a Chinese man. The scent of freshly spilled blood clung to him with feverish intensity; as his bloodshot eyes gleaned with disturbing amorality. The woman stumbled, and fell at the officer’s feet, catching him off-balance. The solider, visibly annoyed, arose from his prone position, and grabbing a rock from the ground, smacked her face with it, splattering blood and gore across the ground. My uncle (let’s just call him that) and his friend were moved to anger; they slowly walked toward the officer, who had his back turned to them.

The fatigue was killing them; but the hatred that burned their hearts was greater than any physical stress they had encountered so far. My uncle picked up a rock, and cradled it in a torn piece of cloth, when the woman picked up what seemed to be a crumpled piece of paper off the ground, and with surprising alacrity, tugged at the officer’s boot. It was a picture. She handed it to him, eyes welling with tears. ‘I am a mother, too’, she said, as she embraced the officer’s ankles.

The officer was stunned. My uncle and his friend were shaken. Clearly, what they had just seen was beyond any barbarism, cruelty and torture they had encountered in those hellish hours. The officer remained as amoral as usual; he picked up the rock again, and as he was about to strike the woman’s head for the final time, by some miracle, it slipped from his hands and landed with barely a whimper of a thud on the ground. My uncle and his friend managed to escape that night; it was not an easy task, what with there being sentinels all around. The woman, sadly, did not make it. She died some two hours after the officer bashed her head. I do not know what happened to her; but I heard my uncle say once that the officer had her buried in a makeshift coffin he had personally built. For the woman, they were never enemies to begin with; and for my uncle and his friend, that incident turned their captors back to humans, though barely.

In our day and age, it is easy to assume who are the enemies of God. Heretics, schismatics and dissidents of all stripes and colors are all labeled as enemies of the kingdom of God. But what exactly makes them inimical to God Himself? Is it their sin? Their disobedience? Their arrogance? Or are we just finding an excuse to substantiate our fears and insecurities? Is every attempt to name a dissident an enemy of the Church merely a façade to maintain a hegemony of stuck-up, angry believers? This is not to say that the Church should do nothing about dissidents: as custodian of the truth, it is her sworn duty to do so. More to the point, we should not confuse charity with mean-spiritedness, and true religious zeal for bigotry. It is hard enough that the Church is extremely divided into different factions today: there are conservatives, liberals, dissidents, orthodox, nominal and devout. Must we add to the tension by introducing a new faction, and one that is self-righteous and incontrovertibly convinced of its own absolutism?

I have seen more so-called traditionalists in Stormfront than in most charities, however secular they are. I have seen more vicious, near-racialist rhetoric from self-confessed ultraconservative traditionalists than the doctrine of equality and dignity of the human person actually taught by the Church, and one that it has defended consistently throughout the ages. Who are the enemies of God? This question has been thrown around by all sides for as long as I can think. But when one considers the crucifixion and death of Our Lord, such vicious rhetoric comes off as whiny, arrogant and intensely inimical to the life of the Church itself. When Jesus died, He did not die for the virtuous alone; He died so that even the worst sinner may have a chance at redemption.

The problem with self-proclaimed virtuous men is that they are so convinced of their own sanctity that they decide to close of the gate of Heaven for others of less refinement than they. Yes, the gate is narrow, and it is full of trials and tribulations; but when it is closed off by an elite, who else can enter but them? One does not need a gate pass or a jeweled rosary entwined in manicured hands to enter heaven: it is a noisy place, full of life and joy, far from the vapidity and undue solemnity espoused by a few. Sanctity is turned to sanctimony, a show, and nothing else.

The fundamental bedrock of Christianity rests on a God, Who, out love for man, willed to be born as one of man, taking flesh from woman, and walking the earth as man—not to condemn it, but to save it. The depths of true love are a deeper mystery than what even the most magnificent of all the angels can fathom about God, and it transcends even the deepest hatred we may have. Love is the face of Christ, scarred and bloody, and His arms, embracing man even at his most wretched and barbarous. Love does not need explanation; it is its only explanation.

We have been exceedingly blessed that we have God to judge us, and not man or the angels to condemn us. In the human God, we have found our salvation; the problem with us now is that we need to stop thinking of ourselves as divine men, because that is a promise made in vain. Who then are the enemies of God? The answer is anyone and everyone we do not love, because our God is a god Who loves, even if we do not deserve to be loved some times. That is what it means to love: it is heart-wrenching, tragic, utterly beyond what mere words can express. We have so many things to be thankful for in this world, and we have forgotten most of them already