Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pray. Fast. Give.

Pray.  Fast.  Give.  These are essentially the three things that Catholics are asked to do during the season of Lent.  I know this is regarded as a waste of time and effort by some people, but I believe that this exhortation is for the benefit of the believer.

Prayer connects us to God.  Don't we all crave that, even if we choose lesser gods in our pursuit of our One True Love?  I will go deeper in my prayer, listen more, obey more.  It is time for a fresh restart in this area.

Fasting clears our mind, purifies our heart, and cleanses our soul.  It is not good to be in celebration all the time - endless partying, drinking, and eating fattens us up and makes us neglect our spiritual life, blurs our vision of our final destination, and makes us forget our love for the Lord.  When we give up these attachments that we identify, we create a space in our bodies, minds, and hearts, for more of the Lord.  His Holy Spirit can work more in our open hearts.  

Giving not only blesses the recipient, but the giver as well.  We let go of our excess, what we don't need, and recognize in the process the most valuable things in life.  More often than not, we accumulate more than our pockets can afford and our rooms can hold.  Lent is the time to purge, cleanse, and let go, because we know that we are not alone.  Millions of other believers are doing so.

Surprisingly enough, I looked forward to Lent this year.  I confess that in the past, I had dreaded it, because it was usually a time of purification and testing for me.  But I found myself, early this year, putting aside decisions until Lent, when I would have the proper mindset and disposition to discern.

I even started early.  I had already my points for discernment/ decision-making lined up.  I had already identified what I wanted to stay away or fast from.  I had gone to mass to lift these up earlier this evening.

I could have started my discernment the moment I recognized, about a month ago, that I had reached another crossroads in life, but I wanted to take advantage of the abundant grace of Lent.  This is my 40-day tithe (roughly 10% of 365 days) to God.  This is my private time with Him.  I will journal more, seek the Blessed Sacrament more, consult spiritual advisers more, and hopefully, sin less.

I will let go of bad habits, attachments, and patterns.  It is easier - Jesus inspires me to do so. I know I will falter in this, especially when it comes to my "addictions", but I am going to draw from the strength that Jesus gives.  He endured all those sufferings.  My mundane concerns are going to be bearable, I just know it.

Tomorrow I start my healing process anew.  And I am thankful to be part of the Church in this time of Lenten observance.  With Christ as the head, and my brothers and sisters in the faith as part of the Body, I trudge on into this with open arms and an expectant heart.

Let the observances begin.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Now Showing: Doubt

"Where's the love?", I asked myself after watching the movie "Doubt".  Since the Oscar Awards are coming, I made sure to post this blog even if I had other things I wanted to write about in my other blogs.

The film was set at a time in the Church when I was not yet born, and so I might not be able to accurately comment on the characters, their reactions, their emotions, and their actions.  The theme, however, is universal and still very much applicable to the Catholic Church as I know it.

Most of you who read this blog know that I don't exactly write movie reviews; instead I write movie reflections.

I have been a Meryl Streep fan since childhood, and I need not add to the chorus of praises for her outstanding performance in this film.  She set the pace, the tone, and the outcome of this film.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams held their own against her restless, doubtful character.  Philip as the very human priest Fr. Flynn was so convincing that I could relate more to his feelings, rather than to Meryl's character, Sr. Aloysius.  Amy Adams was perfect as the innocent, compassionate younger nun, that it reminded me of her character from the movie "Enchanted", which I also liked.  

The theme that struck me while watching, and even hours after, was not Doubt, but Love.  In particular, I was looking for it from Sr. Aloysius.  She had been so caught up in her desire to pursue truth and to "serve God", that she had turned Machiavellian.  She firmly believed that she could step away from God in order to do God's work.  I could not live with that.  I disagreed with that philosophy the more I thought about it.  I was shaking my head during many of her unbelievably complicated, yet subtle, scenes.

Just last Thursday, a couple of days before I watched the film, we had Bible Study in our office (yes, I am blessed to be in a workplace where the bosses support our spiritual growth) and the topic was the Fruit of the Spirit.  We studied three Scripture passages on Love: 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 14, and Colossians 3.  We wrote down what encompassed love and we each identified our strengths and weaknesses in loving.  

A friend texted me that he loved Sr. Aloysius' humanity in the end of the movie.  For me, it came too late, for somebody else had paid the price for her lack of compassion, gentleness, patience, obedience, and kindness.  

I was struck by the stark difference between the dinner table of the sisters - hardly any conversation, the only sound coming from the scraping of the spoons against the plates - and that of the priests - where there was laughter, some irreverent conversation, wine, and genuine interest in one another.  Sr. Aloysius must have had a loving side hidden deep inside her, but I wished she had revealed it sooner.  But then again, the movie would not be about Doubt, but Compassion.

The various themes of the film were as overwhelming for me as "The Secret Life of Bees", a book I had wanted to write a reflection on even before the film was shown.  Racism, to which I had never been exposed to, played a major part in how the characters were developed and dealt with.  I would not venture to dwell on this much, except to say that any form of exclusion, any assertion of superiority, or any form of oppression, seems to me to run counter to the very nature of agape love, to which we are all called.  

It is true, however, that Doubt binds us, and that is where the film succeeds in transcending time and exposing the hearts (and minds) of men.  The very servants of God could very well be the ones experiencing crisis of faith.  Zeal for His love could possibly blind a person towards the need to accept the weaknesses of others.  I asked with the priest's character, directed toSr. Aloysius, "Have you ever done anything wrong?"  Her response was chilling.

Sr. Aloysius did not approve of sugar.  Fr. Flynn loved four cubes in his tea.  He also smoked, drank, and joked around with the students.  Sr. Aloysius liked to live in the past, and to instill old-school discipline to the students.  It was easy to love Fr. Flynn and to hate Sr. Aloysius.  He was the victim and she the judge, jury, and executioner.  

What I took with me after watching this film was to ask myself how Jesus lived, and how as His disciple, servant, and friend, I was supposed to handle life and all its complications.  I did not want to become a modern-day Pharisee and to add to the law what God had not commanded.  I did not want to give Christianity a bad name by being a sad, bitter person.  

I wish for the winds of change to come again and blow the Holy Spirit's breath into the dark, doubting souls that permeate this earth.  I do not think it is Doubt that should bind us, but Faith - in the unseen, but certain, Love of our Father, revealed through His Son, and dwelling in us through His Holy Spirit.

Yes, what the world needs now is love.  I believe this without a doubt.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love, the Second Time Around

Was love lovelier the second time around?  That was what was running through my head last night.  I did something I had not done in a while, something I used to love with every ounce of my being:  I attended a Friday night prayer meeting.

For the long-time readers of this blog (meaning my aunt, my cousin, an in-law of my in-law, and about two other people, hehe), I am a passionate servant of God, an eager student of His word, and a bold proclaimer of His message.  Through the years, however, the expression of my relationship with God had gradually changed.  I had grown older and had sought to deepen such relationship, even though more often than not, I had ended up shutting the Lord out of my life and taking control once more.  The fact that this blog, and this relationship, is still alive after all those ups and downs, is a testament that though I struggled a lot, the Lord had been faithful, and as one brother commented to my previous post, I was still "in the race" to finish the prize.

For several years, Friday night prayer meetings were the highlight of my week.  I looked forward to the time of worship, the talk, the music, and the fellowship.  I could not survive without it, and it sustained my Christian life.  I exercised my spiritual gifts and experienced heaven on earth while doing so.  I had given my life to the Lord and there was no better way to live that out than through my prayer group, the community of single young professionals called Ang Lingkod ng Panginoon (now on its 25th year).

A couple of years ago, I felt the Lord calling me out of Lingkod.  It was not an abrupt call, but a product of discernment.  Alongside my Charismatic prayer life, I also went on constant silent, personal retreats, and sought spiritual direction, to listen more to God and learn to be still before Him.  I was at peace when I told my leaders that I would stop attending Lingkod prayer meetings, and I would concentrate more on my new ministry in our parish.

Life in the parish, compared to Lingkod, was radically different.  From a homogenous group where I was comfortable and understood, I met people of varying ages, backgrounds, and agendas.  Adjustment took time, but through the pastoral care and leadership of the Missionaries of God's Love, I slowly found my place in our parish.  Still, my heart longed for more - for teaching, for worship, for music, for fellowship.  I sought this out and shared it with my new found brothers and sisters as much as I could.  Fr Steve, our parish priest, told me that in time, we would build a real community in the parish.

Last night was the fulfillment of that promise.  We had our first prayer meeting, not just as a youth group, not just as guests of a Catholic charismatic community, but as a parish.  St. Benedict's would henceforth conduct a prayer meeting every second and fourth Friday of the month.  I stood there, lifted my hands in prayer, read Scripture from my bible, sang new songs, and prayed.  

I felt in my heart an invitation to find God in this new place.  It was an answer to my prayer, and yet I was not running to embrace it. I was different, and yet it was the same God.  I had disobeyed Him, hidden my gifts, held on to my hurts, and as a result, distanced myself from Him.  I was a reluctant worshipper, because I felt unworthy to stand before Him and to serve Him again. 

It was harder the second time around, but I did not expect it to be as exciting as the first time I joined a community.  I was grateful that I felt no internal pressure to excel at anything.  It was as if God had opened His arms wide for me and all who came to the prayer meeting last night.  I knew that the slowness, the hesitation, and the feelings of unworthiness, were all coming from my heart.  

God, with His infinite, unconditional Love, as I knew it was waiting for me.  I knew God to be patient and merciful, and I prayed that I would see His patience and mercy directed towards me, a returning and repentant daughter.  

Monday, February 09, 2009

Peace Over Destruction

I asked God this morning to let me get to know Him again.  To start over.  To see Him revealed to me, personally.  

I had a productive weekend.  I visited the dentist, got a haircut, did my laundry, brought the car to the shop.  Still, I was restless.  I knew then what I had to do.  It was something I had put off long enough because my regular confessor was away.  I had no more excuses.  My heart was crying out.

Recurring sins have a way of creeping back.  I thought that I was strong enough, but carelessly I fell into the same traps, until one day I started feeling bad about them.  Worse, even though I tried to avoid it, I had also inadvertently hurt other people, because of my unconfessed, unrepented, sin.

I decided I needed the comfort of a strange priest, one who had never heard my stories before.  I drove to U.P. hoping to make it before 7 p.m., and my prayer was answered.  I had little time to prepare, although I already knew the things that were killing my conscience.  Usually I wrote down what I wanted to say.  It helped me make a steadier confession.

I knelt down and the unknown priest heard me.  Pouring out how and when I did the things that I knew hurt Jesus unleashed my tears as well.  The priest said I explained myself fully and sounded like a smart girl.  In fact, listening to how I explained everything, he said I already knew the things that led to peace, and the things that led to destruction.  I only had to choose.

I only had to choose.  And it was something I had to do over and over again.  Like getting up from bed, combing my hair, brushing my teeth, eating my breakfast, and driving to work.  I had to choose Life.  Choose Peace.  Choose Jesus.  Every choice I had made that drove me away from Him broke my heart even further.  I knew I wanted to do as the priest said.  I should use my head more often.

I stepped out into the night.  There was a penumbral eclipse going on but I didn't know it then.  I felt the evening breeze and heard music blaring from a distance - the Sunken Garden.  It was the U.P. Fair and I was not even aware of it.  I remembered the few times I attended it, and all the fun I had in my youth.  

I had a choice - text people that I wished they were at the fair with me, or call up a friend who would support me in my decision to stay away from those people.  I chose the latter.

Tomorrow is a day full of fresh choices.  I am grateful for having been reconciled once again with my God.  I can do all things now, as He strengthens me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Lesson About Hope

I've been away from you for far too long...

I'm sorry for not updating this blog.  There was too much going on and I could not sit still enough to reflect.  Really.  I had a busy January, what with all my siblings and their respective spouses coming to Manila for a short holiday.  Suffice to say that it was their vacation, and my turn to drive.

So when a friend of mine, sounding distressed, called me to ask for "spiritual advice", I hesitated.  I doubted if I could offer anything to her at my state.  My prayer life was not as it had been due to many excuses, and I felt my friend was better off talking to a priest or a nun.  She insisted that I was the only who could talk some sense into her stubborn head, and so I relented.

Before seeing her today, I prayed for her.  I felt the Lord stirring my heart to be a friend and a listener, and not to worry about being her savior.  Of course.  That was Jesus' role.  I wanted to cancel our appointment several times, but I sensed something in her voice that made me forget my own troubles long enough to listen to her pain.

I knew that my friend was contemplating how to leave her husband of 12 years, who had been intermittently cheating her and beating her up.  I was afraid she was already suicidal, so I rushed to meet her.  I was shocked at her appearance - she was skin and bones, her hair, usually shiny, was unkempt, and she looked pale and distraught.  

Like a person in trauma, she updated me on her husband's latest escapades, but she spoke in broken sentences, and her story about her futile attempts to find concrete evidence that she could hold against him was not told chronologically.  I advised her to concentrate her energy on saving her career and taking care of her children, as there was no point in stressing herself over every indiscretion.  It was already creating a negative effect on her, and it could pose a danger to herself and her loved ones.

She asked me, "How come God is still blessing my husband?  Why doesn't he punish him?  What if I can't wait for God?  I want to catch my husband in bed with his girlfriend and to hurt him."

I looked at her body language to check if she was capable of violence.  She had shifty eyes and clasped and  unclasped her hands.  She told me that she was not satisfied with what a priest told her, that she was called to forgive.  She asked me if it was a sin to talk about her husband's philandering ways, and to be angry, for she was angry.

As a lawyer, I could only give her so much legal advice.  As a friend, I just listened to her ranting.  As her sister-in-Christ, I knew she needed my prayers and support.  Only prayers could save her from hurting herself and/or the people around her.  She had the classic battered wife syndrome - one minute hating her husband, the next minute talking about him proudly, and then the next minute saying she deserved how she was being treated because she was a bad wife, mother, and lover.

I almost did not want to let her drive home in that state, but it was late and we both had to work the next day.  She thanked me for giving her advice I did not remember giving.  Most of the time, people credit me for giving sound advice, when all I really did was to mirror back to them what they were saying, and what they knew to be the right thing to do all along.  

I had no answers for most of my friend's questions.  I, too, could not believe how a man who professed to love her till death could do the things he had been doing.  I wanted him to suffer the consequences of his actions.  But I had to rely on what I told my friend - that God sees everything, that He protects His children, and that He is already acting on the situation, though it may not be obvious yet how.  I cautioned her against taking matters into her own hands, and told her I would pray with her every step of the way.  

I got home still bothered by my friend's situation.  I prayed for her some more, and entrusted her to God, who, unlike me, was always with her.

I have never been cheated on like she had, but I know how it is to be lost.  I have seen how, when I was  in a state of darkness and confusion, it was so hard to pray, look up to God, and patiently wait for His answer, when all I wanted was for the pain to go away.  

I have learned during those times that survival lies on fixing my eyes on Him, the source of light and hope.  Sometimes I am afraid to ask for help, not knowing that others are more than willing to be by my side, and are in fact better at finding the words to pray on my behalf.  It was also good for me to be with my friend, for listening to her, and responding to her, made me realize my own values, and my need for God to fill me with hope in times of confusion.

I hope I am coming closer to the light at the end of a very dark tunnel that I have been trapped in for many years now.  For my own problems, I run to other friends for help.  And wait on God.  I continue to wait.