Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flunking to love God

“CONGRATULATIONS, James!” I shook the hand of the brilliant new high school graduate.

“You’re welcome, Father,” he said. He took out a handful of shiny gold medals from his pocket and asked, “Oh, Father. I was wondering if you can bless my medals.”

“Sure!” I was also happy that besides being their school’s valedictorian he also received numerous leadership awards. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…,” I blessed his medals.

“Thanks, Father,” he smiled while pocketing the medals.

“Strange,” I said, “shouldn’t you be wearing them instead of hiding them in your pocket?”

“You’re right, Father,” the medals jingled as he slowly pulled them out again. “But you see, Father, I didn’t get our school’s highest award.”

“What would it be then?” I asked.

“It’s called the Most Distinguished Student Award,” he said while staring blankly at the medals.
“So how’s that supposed to be more special than being valedictorian?” I said shrugging my shoulders.

“It’s supposed to be for the student who has never flunked any subject during his entire high school. So even if you average highest, but had some failing marks then you can no longer deserve such a much coveted award.”

I was trying to figure out in my mind what subject it could have been that James could have failed. The boy was a born winner, except that –it dawned upon me– he wasn’t much into sports. So I asked, “Was it P.E.?”

“That was back in first year when there was no other sport ‘cept basketball,” he gave me a smile expressing that it was something obvious.

“That’s alright dude. Guess you’re dad would have said that…,”

“You can’t have everything,” he completed exactly what I was about to say.

“You got me there, James,” I chuckled.

“Mom and dad understand and are very proud with what I’ve already achieved. Dad just told me to learn from my failures or limitations.”

“You know James?” I said.

“Yeah?” he noticed I was speaking in a more serious tone.

“There’s nothing wrong with flunking in the many good things of life, but we have to know how to flunk out of the bad ones.”

“I don’t get you there, Father,” he frowned at me.

“Let’s say, you expected to get a good grade for a project you really invested a lot of time for. But then in the end you get a low grade because you may have overlooked something. You shouldn’t really worry about this, especially when you’ve done the best you could.”

“Okay, so what?”

“Where you and I should learn and be ready to flunk would be in the things that separate us from God. Since we’re all ‘experts in sinning,’ we ought to aim for getting ‘Fs’ in pride, vanity, anger, greed and lust.”

“Isn’t this approach a bit negative, Father?”

“It may seem like that at first, but flunking out of these vices actually means struggling to get A’s in the virtue oppose to them. It would be wrong to over focus on what one does wrong or what one ought to avoid. It would be more positive and fruitful to consider what good one can concretize each day out of love for God and fellowmen.”

“How about the occasions when our weaknesses do come up once in a while, Father?”

“Well, even though they may seem like failures, they are actually only apparent failures. This is true if the person resolves to immediately go back to God with the humility like that of the Prodigal Son. And he manages to even learn from his mistakes and his conversion becomes more firm and sincere.”

“You mean to say, Father… that…,” he smiled as he came upon a realization.

“Yes, James! That one can really never fail in the spiritual life as long as he struggles with the sincere resolve to begin again, use the supernatural means and to find –like St. Paul– strength and joy in his own weaknesses. In this way, he no longer struggles alone, but always in and with the grace and love of God.”

Monday, May 4, 2009

'Risus Paschalis’

THE expression Easter Laughter (risus paschalis) caught my eyes as I read Benedict XVI’s reflections on the symbolisms of Easter. (Found in his book Behold the Pierced One: an Approach to a Spiritual Christology, which is a collection of Christological meditations and reflections, Ignatius Press. Quoted parts are italicized.) It amused me to learn that in the Baroque period, the Easter homily had to include something to deliberately make the faithful laugh. This was done to invite them to literally express and share the joy of Jesus’ Resurrection.

The history of this unique and interesting tradition is found in the Jewish reflection on the figure of Isaac. The name Isaac contains various meanings which contains the root “laughter”. It refers to the unbelieving laughter of Abraham and Sarah who doubted they could still have a son in their old age, and also their happiness when Isaac was born to them as God promised.

Later on this joyful response was applied to Isaac himself. Isaac did not know that God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son. When he asked his father what they would sacrifice, all he was told was, “God will provide.” Once on the sacrificial pyre Isaac was filled with sorrow. His sad plight, however, was turned to ‘laughter’ when he escaped death after Abraham caught sight of the ram entangled in the thistles and offered the animal instead.

The Church Fathers deepened the implications of these Jewish reflections by applying it to the person of Christ. Jesus was the Lamb caught in the brambles, and who was sacrificed for our sins. He was also like Isaac when He suffered the agony before and during His Passion, and experienced joy (laughter) in His Resurrection when He conquered death, sin and the devil.

Benedict XVI further observes how this idea of being saved by the image of the Lamb is reiterated in the fifth chapter of the Book of Revelation. "And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain....” Our life, the Pope reflects, would be meaningless and sad if we climb the “mountain of time” [his limited life] “bearing with us the instruments of our own death” [his sinfulness] without any sight to God. At first, man isn’t aware of the dangers that lurk within and without, but as he journeys he then experiences his solitariness and begins to doubt in God and exclude Him from his existence. “(…) talk of ‘God’ is no longer believable, humor dies. In such a case man has nothing to laugh about anymore; all that is left is a cruel sarcasm or that rage against God and the world with which we are all acquainted.”

On the other hand, he says that “the person who has seen the Lamb—Christ on the Cross—knows that God has provided. (…) But this sight of the Lamb—the crucified Christ—is in fact our glimpse of heaven, of what God has eternally provided for us. In this Lamb we actually do glimpse heaven, and we see God's gentleness, which is neither indifference nor weakness but power of the highest order. It is in this way, and only thus, that we see the mysteries of creation and catch a little of the song of the angels—indeed, we can try to join with them, somewhat, in singing the Alleluia of Easter Day. Since we see the Lamb, we can laugh and give thanks.”

We also have to learn how to laugh with God while we live. A man who laughs alone is a sad or a foolish man. Only in God, by possessing Him and trusting in His designs—sometimes beyond our comprehension—will we be able to capture a glimpse and enjoy the divine comedy of our life. It is when we will experience a joyful conversion in life.

Every person’s conversion is a spiritual resurrection in preparation for the final one. This happens each time he turns his gaze at the Lamb—at Christ Resurrected—as he experiences the joys, trials and falls in life. Rising from one’s falls and miseries without seeking for and looking at Christ would be simply a change rooted in personal perfection and pride. It would be an empty and sad conversion.

Thus, Pope Benedict XVI says: “If we comprehend the message of the Resurrection, we recognize that heaven is not completely sealed off above the earth. Then—gently and yet with immense power—something of the light of God penetrates our life. Then we shall feel the surge of joy for which, otherwise, we wait in vain. Everyone who is penetrated by something of this joy can be, in his own way, a window through which heaven can look upon earth and visit it.”

By constantly having Jesus Christ as our point of reference our daily beginnings to be “glimpses of heaven” which will fill our souls with a “joy that the world cannot give”. This will be our source of strength and purification. We shall become “windows of heaven” here on earth through which others can encounter the love, peace and laughter of Christ.