Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trying to live skillfully

Would it not be fantastic if we have a secretary beside us all the time checking and correcting every wrong word or act we do? Take for example anger. Sometimes we might explode in anger and feel sorry later. The secretary will be there to stop us immediately from exploding.

But in real life we do not have anybody else to check and correct us. We are in-charge of what we say and do. There are moments when we hurt others. There are moments when we make the wrong moves, the wrong actions. We are responsible. Some of what we say and do have lasting consequences.

I am an old man and many of the things I did before continue to hold influence over my life now. What I did when I was young have consequences even today. Of course I did good things too and I am happy for their influence in my life now. But there were the bad things. I look back and say that I wish I was more "skillful" in speaking and acting before. To give a very simple example, let me talk of health. I have some health issues today that need medical attention and medical expenses. Some of these issues are results of my neglect of my health when I was younger.

We cannot delete the past. We learn to be thankful for the good things that happened and we forgive the bad things that happened. We really cannot hope for a better past. 

But what about today, in the here-and-now. As we live now, how can be live a little bit more "skillfully"?

It would then be important to manage well our words and actions so that we can avoid hurting others and bring more peace and calm and joy to daily life.

There is a difference between a falling fruit from a tree and a bird flying from branch to branch. The falling fruit just falls straight down without guiding itself. The bird chooses the branches and decides on where it will go. In anger, sometimes, we can be like the falling fruit. We explode in anger and we cannot stop it from hurting others. If we can skillfully manage that anger and know what to do with it, guide it, we can be like that bird that decides on which branch to move to. The falling fruit gives us the idea of living unskillfully. The bird moving here and there tells us about living skillfully.

Here is one method that might help. If not, then put it aside. So what is this method? Let us call it the method of "silence in the zig zag". 

Remember that figure of a line going up and going down? That is the zig zag. For every zig, the line going up, thare will be, later, a zag, the downward line. Then, after a zag will be a zig. 
Oh we might say that there are times when there is neither zig nor zag; everything is just flat. Maybe. But even in that flat line we can see, upon closer inspection, some amount of zig zag. The ups and downs may not be wide; but they are there. 

Life is a cycle of zigs and zags. There are always the ups and the downs. Joy. Sadness. Bright. Dark. Good health. Illness. If you are in a zig, remember that it will later move to a zag. If you are in a zag, well, prepare for the next zig. 

So what do we do? We need to learn to pause regularly to check ourselves. Is this relationship zigging or zagging? Is this work zigging or zagging? We need to pause now and then to evaluate what is happening to us. We need a room of silence in our hearts that need not have to react at once for every zig or zag. In this room of silence we just watch. This is crucial. Look at some events in your life when you did not give yourself enough space for pause; when you acted upon impulse; when you were so filled with emotions that you had no room for thought and reflection.

Life is also a little bit like playing cards...just similar to playing cards. We read our cards; we check if our hand is strong or not; we check what cards have already been dealt, etc. Playing our cards will have to pass through a good amount of pause. Now, if a hand is weak, we drop the play and say, "No, I am not playing this deal". If our cards are weak and we still play, imagine the loss! Life is a bit like this; life needs a lot of pause; a room for silence. And as we move up and down the zig zag of life, we need to give ourselves sufficient pausing. Is this not like the bird selecting which branch to move in and out? 

The room of silence in our hearts has a "minimum" and a "maximum". The maximum is that it facilitates us to beam with joy and life; we can move in daily life bringing so much brightness around us. We bloom so much.

The "minimum" is that we avoid making situations dark and gloomy. We avoid adding dark matter to daily life. We may not be so jumping for joy and transforming beautifully the world around us, but at least we are not adding burden to life. That is the "minimum" that the room of silence can offer us.

Right now were are having fun and we are very fraternal to each other. It looks like we are in a zig, I am in a zig. Fine. But who knows, maybe next week we will be quarelling and misunderstanding each other, we will be zagging. In the room of silence we give time and space watch, to obeserve.

What do we watch and observe? 

First, we observe how we treat our experiences. In daily life we always interpret our experiences. We always have something to say about the things around us, the people around us, the things we do, the things we hear or see or taste. So we say many things. It is nice. It is not nice. It is cold. He is funny. She is smart. The work is hard. The walk is long. I like this. I do not like that. Etc. In every zig or zag we are always saying something. We are always interpreting.

In the room of silence we then watch the interpretations we make. Let us illustrate. Here comes a friend approaching me. Usually I just start talking and conversing. But I need a pause, a room of silence to watch how I interpret this friend and how I intepret our relationship. Note that maybe for me this person is a welcome presence; precisely a friend. But for someone else, this person is an irritant and not welcomed. That is another interpretation.

In daily life we put our experiences in boxes and we say, "I Iike this, I do not like that, this is ok, that is not, etc." Again, we interpret and very often we interpret according to what we like or dislike.

Without that room of silence we just face our experiences without noticing how we interpret them, without noticing how we like or dislike. We just move on carrying our baggage of interpretations. We typify people, situations, work, relationships; we have labels for them. We are not aware that we do that and we are not aware of the labels we make. So, now and then we need to pause. How do we look at things and people around us?

Then we watch our motivations. We speak or act in-order-to make something happen. We speak words so that, later, they will have an effect. A simple gesture like saying hello to someone already has a future sense to it. So I say hello to someone and I expect that this gesture will make that person say hello to me. That is my goal. Maybe I have more goals in mind. I say hello so that the other person will say hello to me...so that the other person will be stimulated in lending me money. Ah! We can add to this. If the person lends me money then I can buy the thing I need. Ah! So my simple gesture of saying hello has the future goal of buying something in a store...and maybe I want to give it as a gift to someone dear to me. A simple gesture has many branches jutting out in the future--branches of plans and goals! We are not always aware of that.

We may not notice that in the unskillfull mode. This is why we need to keep some space of silence to watch where we want to bring our words and actions. We need to pause to check what influence we might want to bring in the future--near future or far future. 

Of course we do not have full control of the future but we can at least be more aware of our motivations. We can check and say, "Oh, I think I aim for something bad" or "I can see that I want a good result in my action now". We may not be in control of the consequences of our motivations; but we can be aware of our responsibilities. We can be more skillful in making more objective responsibilities. (This can be helpful in the notion of redemption. In the footsteps of Christ we need to check if we are promoting light or dark, life or death in our world.) 

We need a room of silence so that we can check our goals that motivate us to do or say things. We need to cultivate a good amount of pause, just watching while we cycle in the zig and the zag of life. Some people may have well cultivated their room of silence in their hearts they resemble more the bird freely selecting the branches to fly in and out. Hopefully we can be more skillful and free. A falling piece of weight has no skill nor freedom to decide where it will drop.

See if the method helps. The main thing to do is to have that sufficient silence that will allow us to avoid speaking and acting unskillfully in the zig and zag of life. With that silence we can watch what is happening to us, the interpretations and goals we make in the zig zag of daily life.

Of course, we do not remove the guidance that the Holy Spirit can offer us. This is why we pray, "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, en kindle in us the fire of your love".   

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Like God we Die

Now, my thoughts may look lugubre... because they are about death....but, no, they rather are about life.

First of all, our Christian faith tells us that our God died. Yes, God in Christ died on the cross. Then he rose on the third day, of course. The death of Jesus was evidence of how serious he was about life--our life. He preached about his Father's love--in the form of "kingdom"--and no rejection of that message was strong enough to make him withdraw from his mission. In front of the threat of the authorities of his time, he did not flee.

One striking teaching of Jesus was his invitation for us to be LIKE his Father, to be as "perfect" as his Father. "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt5/48).This word "perfect" can be so misunderstood to mean something like a perfect geometrical shape. Jesus explained what being "perfect as the Father" meant. It meant a kind of dying. We tend to select those we respect and perhaps love from those we'd rather have nothing to do with. Take the example of human dignity. It is accorded to those who resemble me. Same class? Same ethnic group? Same language? Same political color? Those outside the sphere of resemblance do not deserve the same "dignity". We have to die from that. I may tend to limit "dignity" to my social class or ethnic group but I am told to respect the "other" whoever the "other" is and from whatever background the "other" may be.
Now, the Father of Jesus, "makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust" (Mt5/45). All have the same human dignity; all have the same dignity to be revered and respected.

This is not easy. This requires a certain death. I'd like to say, "death to being too full of myself". Look at the different passages in Matthew in chapter 5. Jesus speaks of death to anger, death to adultery, death to hatred, death to retaliation. But to die this way is to accept that the heavenly Father is my Father and I am a child of my Father. Hence Jesus says, "...that you may be children of your heavenly Father".

In Matthew we again find the same word "perfect" when Jesus talks about the poor. We read: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me (Mt19/21).” Imagine working for social economic equality! It means a lot of dying involved. This time, "perfection" is evidence of discipleship with Jesus.
Notice then that it is a dying in order to promote life. I die to my egoistic ways in order to promote authentic human dignity. I die to my hoarding in order to share.

The Father did the first step to die! The first creation story tells us that "he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation" (Gen2/2-3). Sabbath is a way of dying. The Almighty and Powerful God takes "absence" from that might and power. The Lord God, in this story, allows the created world "to be". One striking evidence is in the creature called the human being. The human being is to be LIKE the Lord God. How?

First of all, there is the move from being male/female to becoming man/woman. The human is more than just a biological creature; the human is to be properly human. Secondly, the human is to have "domination" over the created world. This word is so misunderstood. Luckily today some prefer the term "stewardship". Some biblists translate the word to "mastery". It is a mastery OVER MASTERY. LIKE God the human is also to go sabbath--take hold of one's own might and power, guide these to revere AND NOT DISFIGURE the created world. As steward therefore the human must operate with a sabbath distance FROM ONE'S OWN TENDENCY TO DISFIGURE THE WORLD AND SOCIETY. Remember the human is now man/woman. So to "dominate" is to be like God and learn to die--die from egoism and ursurping power and might!

In the Creation story the Lord God is telling the human, "if I can do it (the sabbath distance), you too can do it because you are LIKE me". This, I think, is authentic dying. God has no issues with his own ego, trying to be "big timer" over us human creatures. Already from the start--creation--God "humbled himself". Later, in the New Testament, we read that God "empited himself" in Christ: "he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness" (Ph2/7). God became like us to reaffirm that we are in the likeness of God. Like God we die so that life be.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

A pond “in the beginning”

The first verse of Genesis evokes faith in a God who offered creation with so much life in it. God then wanted to live in covenant with this life especially since God created a creature in God's likeness, humanity, so to speak.

Biblists say that creation itself is an act of covenant that continues over and over again. It perpetuates itself. God wishes to be in relationship with creation--with all creatures, big or small--and God wishes that creation participates in God's own life. This explains why many Church documents say that the real goal of our own life is communion with God. For the Christian this is a Triune God. God has designed our existence to be in communion with the Trinity.

Creation is an act that continues--just like a covenant that is constantly renewed. I remember a good friend, Fr. Joseph Larsen CICM who told me that conversion is a covenant we do each day, each week, each year. Hence the first phrase of Genesis, "in the beginning", makes sense. Each moment is creative, "covenantal"...a starting over again, always a beginning. Yves Becquart, my tough mentor in studies, explained that the notion of parousia--or the final coming of Christ--is about a future that is constantly available. There is always something to look forward to in life and God refuses to opt for end and death. This is why parousia also means presence. God never opts to be absent. In Christ God is always present. Hence parousia can also be in the now!

So creation, covenant and presence are three terms that intertwine. We are not stuck in a pond, dark and immobile. We can always flow out, engage in and with the presence of God who continually invites us to life. This is easier said than realized, and I am not perhaps really existentially sure of what this means. Still I am thankful for those who taught me this lesson. 

"In the beginning". It is a fascinating phrase. Sometimes one feels like really caught in that pond as if life has stopped moving. But, "the beginning"...is always available...and the pond is just a corner of the stream.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Grapes and the New Year Celebration

Ezekiel was a prophet on exile. He was among those deported to Babylon and he did his ministry in the foreign land.
Ezekiel was questioned by the Lord God, "What is the meaning of this proverb you recite in the land of Israel: Parents eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge?" (18/2). It was an expression indicating that the faults of parents pass on to the next generations. A parent eats grapes, the kids face the consequences, so to speak. People following the traditional thinking believed that their exile was a consequence of what their parents did. Ezekiel went against this tradition. No transmission is involved, he said. For him whoever was at fault must be the one to face the consequences. Remember that Ezekiel was a prophet on exile, so he had to assure the exiled people that their situation was not a consequence of the acts of their previous generations. Ezekiel had to bring the light of hope and not despair to the exiled population. It was a tough job because it involved re-forming a tradition.
So the prophet said, "As I live—oracle of the Lord GOD: I swear that none of you will ever repeat this proverb in Israel. Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father...." (18/3 & 20).
Jeremiah shared the same view. He too was doing his ministry around the exile period. He stated, "In those days they shall no longer say, “The parents ate unripe grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge, but all shall die because of their own iniquity: the teeth of anyone who eats unripe grapes shall be set on edge" (31/30). The verse has complicated twist and turns that biblists will like to decipher. For us the whole point is that Jeremiah was concerned with the restoration of the people of Judah with the hope of a new covenant, so he wanted to drop all that crap about making future generations answer the faults of their past generations. Start everything anew!
This New Year season may be an occasion to re-think things over and accept that there is hope. The past may be so crushing and exasperating...but can we start anew?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Hidden Life of Jesus?

During the 2nd century certain writings about the childhood of Jesus emerged. They had a strong influence in the minds of Christians. Mention The Gospel of James, also known as the Protoevangelium of James. Mention the Ascension of Isaiah. Mention the Apocalypse of Adam. Etc. They are considered "apocryphs", that is, they are stories of "questioned authenticity". They are not considered canonical. Yet they have influenced the mindset of many Christians. This is an interesting topic in Christology where the "historicity" of Jesus is discussed.

We cannot simply invalidate the role of imagination in representing the childhood of Jesus. Maybe the historical evidence is lacking there but imagination may contain the meaning and wisdom about Jesus. But do we really have solid historical evidence of the hidden life of Jesus?

Jesus was from Galilee. Archaeology shows that families during that time--1st century Palestine--lived in small houses with one or two rooms. In front of a house was a small court where other families would gather. In the court was a grinding wheel and a cistern shared by families. Villages had wine and olive presses. Galilee was an agricultural region. It was--and continues to be--a very green region. It is a lovely region today!

Jesus lived in Nazareth, in Galilee. The inhabitants of Nazareth were northerners--tribal people of the northern regions of Palestine. They were observing the Laws of Moses. The expectation for the coming of the Messiah was strong in the Galilee culture. But the region was also influenced by the Greek and Roman cultures. So some families had Greek names given to their infants. Remember Herod also from Galilee? His sons studied in Rome.

Now what about the family of Jesus. In Mark we read, "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?" (6/3). There is no Greek nor Roman name. The name of the father, Joseph, is from as son of the Patriarch Jacob. "Mary" was taken from the name of the sister of Moses. "James" is taken from "Jacob". "Joses" is from Joseph. Simon is, well, a Jewish name, Simon. "Judas" is from Judah. The name "Jesus" itself is so Jewish, which is Yeshua, coming from Joshua, the successor of Moses. Might we say that the family of Jesus was not so impregnated with the mode of the time--taking foreign names? Jesus may have been from a Hebraic family attached to the Jewish faith.

There is this story of Mary and Joseph needing to follow the census of Quirinius. But Quirinius was a 6th century Roman Governor of Syria. Somehow this found its way into the Luke account. The historicity is therefore not exact. But underneath, there may have been a historical fact: the family of Jesus was among the families subject to harsh Roman rules, including payment of taxes. Galilee felt the pressure and tried to reject it. The family of Jesus obeyed Roman pressure with the hope that liberation was not from political revolt but from...somewhere else.

We see this in Jesus who suggested patience (see the parable of weeds among wheat in Mt 13/24-30; see Lk 17/23; 19,11). Jesus avoided confronting the Roman authority and was taking distance from political messianic expectations  (see Mk 12/17; 35-37).

Jesus was a carpenter--a real muscled carpenter who just did not hammer, he carried heavy rocks and stones. A (touristic) visit to ancient village ruins of Galilee will convince us.  Much likely after the death of Joseph Jesus took over the workshop.

The "infancy narratives" of Jesus are not to be taken as historical evidences. They, however, presuppose something historical. Allow me to take a position: the narratives TRANSLATE the experience of HISTORICALLY encountering Jesus, an experience that led to the faith in the messianic identity of Jesus that will be in full bloom after Easter. Remember that the narratives were written way after Easter, so they "retro-spect" and narrate about the entire experience with Jesus.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

On Christmas and New Year: Some thoughts

A brief meditation on Christmas

The prologue of the 4th gospel mentions something about "camping". Well, not exactly camping beside the beach and having drinks and fun. It's a different kind of camping. The phrase goes this way: "The Word became flesh and pitched tent among us" (Jn1/14). The usual translation is: "...he dwelt among us". 
The creativity of God is revealed. First of all, there was the Incarnation. Secondly, this Incarnation involved the solidarity of God with all humanity. 
What exactly does "tent"mean here? Textbook Bible study will say that it is the place of encounter. So we see the image of Jesus playing the role of making it possible for us to encounter God, thanks to the Incarnation. Jesus entered in solidarity with us undergoing the same human conditions we have. Here is where we meet God. 
If we continue the phrase we read, "...we have seen his glory". Meeting Jesus we experience the glory of God. This has always intrigued me. There comes a point in Christian life when everything becomes routine and even meaningless. There's the routine of attending mass...the candles, the priests wearing this and that, the pictures, the statues, the moral codes, etc. It looks as if there is nothing so glorious in all this. It's all dry. 
But a brief pause makes me say that having seen the glory of God in Christ is what presupposes our faith. We are Christians because we have seen his glory--we have encountered him in the tent.  

A brief meditation on New Year

Let me recall things I learned from the classroom. Judaism has its own feast for the New Year. The Jews call it Roch Hachana. A friend of mine from Tel Aviv explained to me that Roch means "head" and it is already mentioned in the first verse of Genesis. "In the beginning" is a translation of "in the head". (B'reshit has the root word roch, head). Hachana is "year". So Roch Hachana is "head of the year". The celebration is said to be based on Nb 29/1-6. Bible experts (and those who can read well Biblical Hebrew) might need to correct me here, if in case I am in error.
First of all, the celebration is a kind of "shabbat" that recalls the creation of man and woman followed by the Lord's restday, the shabbat day. The Lord God took a distance from his own powers and domination to allow creation to "stand on its own feet", so to speak. Man and woman were to follow suit, being in God's likeness. God gave to humanity the opportunity to create too. So it's the "head" of a new path. 
Secondly, the celebration can also be associated with the sacrifice of Isaac. Fr. Barthelemy O.P. commented on this saying that Abraham was to get rid of his hold on Isaac and accept that the child--the future of Israel--was in God's design, not Abraham's. So the sacrifice was the "head" of a new path in history. God affirmed that the killing of Isaac was not in God's plan. What was to be killed was the egoism to destroy and dominate. I remember reading a curious rabbi commentary on this, saying that God ordered Abraham to go up the mountain with Isaac and BOTH WILL MAKE SACRIFICE. God never ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. So in a comic turn God may have said to Abraham, "Hey you stupid, who told you to kill the child?" And Abraham may have replied, "Ay mali". Very curious indeed and it was so different from what I learned in my younger days. Anyway...let the experts comment some more.
So "new year"--or Roch Hachana--has roots in creation and the Abraham cycle. Creation expresses the birth of life while the Abraham story expresses the capacity to kill life. So as we move from one year to a "new year" we are reminded of vigilance about life and vigilance about the capacity to kill and destroy. Roch Hachana is an occassion when we observe what we have done so far in order to determine what we should do next. Have we been destructive, violent, "too full of ourselves"? What is next then for this coming year? In a way we begin once more...just as the first verse of Genesis says, "in the beginning". In the beginning we be like God promoting life and rejecting death, destruction, violence. Roch Hachana is the occassion to re-evaluate the way we live, make an "inventory" of what makes us "create" and "destroy". Of course this also means evaluating ourselves and see if we are living according to God's hopes. 
St. Paul may have this to say. He was worried that members of the Church were dying one after the other--and the Kingdom just would not come. Those "falling asleep", have they "lost hope"? (See 1Thes 4). No. The dead in Christ will rise first, wrote St. Paul.
St. Paul had to assure people of the Church (of Thesalonica, actually) that a whole year did not determine the whole of existence. A whole year was just a fragment. It need not determine everything of who we are, including what we have done and what we expect. Ok, some may get sick, others may be killed in an accident, some may get rich and others go broke. Ok, that's what happened THIS YEAR. Do we then conclude that IN THIS YEAR everything has been said about life? No. Believing in the resurrection, St. Paul assured that we, still alive now, will rise after death. Meanwhile, let us "console each other". 
For St. Paul it is not THIS YEAR that says it all, it is God. The day of the new year is a "teaching" day when we can try re-orienting our lives in view of a good life willed by God, that we become a humanity of creation and not destruction. The new year celebration, again, is a time for inventory making. How can we, for the next year, correct ourselves, help each other, retain the vibrations of goodness and avoid whatever disfigures creation. 
Well, of course we do not forget Mary, the Mother of God. I remember reading from Caryll  Houselander the image of a dark and gloomy house that suddenly has its windows opened to bring in the light. Mary did this by allowing the Incarnation to occur. Her "yes" brought in the light to a rather gloomy way of living, so to speak. She started the new year. She was a kind of "head" of the year, so to speak. 
This is my take on the New Year.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Here is a quick note on certain things that may make us hesitate going full speed ahead with our Christian living.
1. There is the hesitation to be true and moral. There is a limit to what we would like to do. Morality sets a limit. Morality means that I am not the only person in this house room community, society. we need to limit our tendency to be "too full of myself". There are other people with their own feelings plans thoughts, pains and joys. To neglect that fact is to be full of myself, that it is always about me. My true self is discovered when I live in respect and reverence towards others and myself.
2. There is the hesitation to be challenged--to pick up the cross. In a world of injustice we cannot be lukewarm. We need to work for justice. We need to suffer! No we do not look for suffering. We suffer because we promote life--we promote human dignity we promote the fact that we are God's image. Christ came to show us fully this reality of being image of God. Christ came to promote the Kingdom--and he was willing to suffer for it by refusing to bow down to the rejection against the Kingdom. Our hesitation can be observed in our taking distance from acts that directly violate our humanity. We fear challenging that violation. We then flow with the trend.
3. There is the hesitation to accept that Christ is the unique mediator of redemption and salvation. We respect other traditions but we might go to the point of refusing to acknowledge our own tradition. We then dislocate Christ--and the Trinity--from the center in order to accommodate other traditions. Yet we dare not become members of other traditions. Let us put it this way. We met God in his revelation in Christ. This is how we knew God. Can we not be faithful to what this revelation has given us? If we want other people of other religions to be true to their beliefs and practices can we not require this of ourselves? If we want dialogue to be true and sincere, let us be who we really are: we are Christians and Christ is our one and only mediator.
4. There is the hesitation to condemn sin as if it does not exist. Sin is our refusal to be true to who God wants us to be. Hence it also involves our refusal to connect with God. We do this in our strength and with our strength. Today we might want to shift the axis and say that the problem is with our psychological weaknesses or socio-cultural backgrounds. But there is sin and darkness. The option to reject our humanity is so overwhelmingly present. Are we hesitating to call dehumanisation a sin?

There are random ideas that I reflect on now.