Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Learning to pray from the Scriptures and the saints

THERE are just so many things, a plethora of them to be imprecise, in the Philippines and in the world that drive anyone to have recourse to prayer. Clear and present dangers and challenges, ongoing crises of every kind, patent uncertainties and bright opportunities etc., name it and we have it. But these are not the only reasons why we pray. In every moment and circumstance of a Christian disciple’s life prayer is of the essence. To say that I am a Christian but I don’t pray is to be a living contradiction. A Christian disciple is a person of prayer; or a Christian disciple he/she is not. I think praying, like living, is something we learn by doing. But it helps when the Word of God as well as those who have lived by it all their lives—the saints, to be exact—speak to us about prayer itself.
            So what do we need to know about our spirit’s way of breathing, i.e., prayer?
            1. It must be born of our union with the Master. “If you remain in me,” Jesus says in the gospel of John, “and my words stay part of you, you may ask what you will and it will be given you” (Jn 15:7). If I stay away from the Master through sin, how can my prayer ever be effective? Unless, of course, I repent and do a ‘metanoia’, a radical about-face from sin and plunge myself into the Lord’s mercy by asking for forgiveness and amending my life, my prayer would be of little use to me or to anyone. St. Ignatius speaks likewise: “We must speak to God as a friend speaks to his friend, a servant to his Master; now asking some favor, now acknowledging our faults, and communicating to Him all that concerns us, our thoughts, our fears, our projects, our desires, and in all things seeking is counsel.”
            2. It must be of faith. Even doctors attest to how necessary it is for patients to believe in their (doctor’s) credentials to the healing process. Jesus, in fact, promises positive results to prayer of faith: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, full of faith, you will receive” (Mt 21:22). St. James, in another context, makes the same point: “The prayer said in faith will save the sick person…” (Jas 5:15). This is why St. Augustine urges Christians: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
            3. It must aim at ultimately doing the Lord’s will. One obvious mistake we do in prayer, my Christology professor used to say, is to try to convert God to do our will in prayer when we should be converted to do his will as a result of praying. The example of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is most instructive. As he faces the specter of his crucifixion and death he prays: “Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but your will…” (Mt 26:39). Not content with saying it once, Jesus repeats this prayer, with a slight variation: “Father, if this cup cannot be taken away from me without my drinking it, let your will be done” (Mt 26:42). Blessed Mary McKillop teaches us in the same vein: “Let us all resign ourselves into His hands, and pray that in all things He may guide us to do His holy Will…When thoughts of this or that come I turn to Him and say, ‘Only what you will, my God. Use me as You will.”
            4. It must not be self-centered nor by oneself alone. This is not to say that private prayer is illegitimate. This is to say that all prayer, private or communal, must come out of love. It is in the context of a loving heart at prayer that St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori says: “He who prays most receives most.” St. Therese of Lisieux educates us as to why love is inseparable from prayer: “Prayer is an aspiration of the heart. It is a simple glance directed to heaven. It is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy…” Because of the love that characterizes the community of disciples that we call Church Jesus says, in fact: “For where two or three are gathered together in my Name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
            5. It must be humble. Scriptures in so many instances bear witness to how prayer uttered in humility pierces heaven more effectively than a superabundance of our words or good deeds. This is the lesson we learn from the humble publican who prays, not even raising his eyes to heaven: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13), to which Jesus exclaims: “I tell you, this man went home reconciled with God, unlike the other (the Pharisee who paraded his good deeds in prayer). For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:14). In fact, the psalmists affirm Jesus’ teaching: “O God, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit, a humble and contrite heart you will not spurn” (Ps 51:19). St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi concurs: “Prayer ought to be humble, fervent, resigned, persevering, and accompanied with great reverence. One should consider that he stands in the presence of God, and speaks with the Lord before whom the angels tremble from awe and fear.”
            6. It must be honest. When we pray from the heart, it cannot be untruthful. We are before the Truth himself and dishonesty and lying would not only be futile but also profoundly harmful to our spiritual health. We engage in dishonest prayer when we express words or thoughts that we do not mean and do not mean the words or thoughts we express. Which is why Jesus counsels us to avoid ostentation in prayer: “When you pray, go to your room, close your door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees what is kept in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6). What better room is there than our own heart where we pray to the Lord as truthfully as he sees our heart to be saying. After all, as John the Evangelist reminds us: “He [Jesus] didn’t need any evidence about anyone for himself, for he himself knew what there is in man” (Jn 2:25). St. Faustina Kowalska recounts of the words the Lord Jesus says to her in a private revelation: “My daughter…why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details?” When she protests that He knows everything, Jesus’ reply is a bit startling: “Yes, I do know; but you should not excuse yourself from the fact that I know, but with childhood simplicity talk to me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to me.”
            This brings us to the point of praying. We are “dear” to the Lord even before we see the way he sees us. “For love consists in this: Not that we have loved God but that God has loved us first, and has sent us his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10).

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A beleaguered leadership

“The Presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it.  It is more than an engineering job, efficient or inefficient. It is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, New York Times Magazine, September 11, 1932)

FIRST, a preface to my views. Being a member of the clergy, be he a bishop, priest or deacon, does not terminate that person’s a being Filipino and a citizen of the Republic. Like any other citizen, he has every right to form his ideas or opinions on the country’s political, economic and socio-cultural conditions. In addition, he has every right to express them as well. On the other hand, also like any other citizen, this gives him no right to violate any law.
No Filipino citizen today can ignore his country’s over-all conditions and, in particular, the way it is being run, and still maintain that he/she loves the Philippines. It is hard to miss the many discordant winds around us. Latest economic forecasts boldly say that the country will be second only to China in economic growth, and this the president’s supporters feel is enough reason to leave him alone and let him finish his term, at the least. But, despite efforts, at times valiant and creative, poverty is hardly dented. Growth has been anything but inclusive. It is understandable that the business sector and the upper echelons of the economic-socio-political ladder that benefit most from the economic gains insist on leaving things well enough alone. They believe that present indicators speak much for the president’s excellence in steering us to unheard-of heights according to solid economic fundamentals.
Alas, all this sounds hollow to the urban and rural poor who constantly worry about not having a roof over their heads, a meal or two to survive another day, a child or two being unable to continue schooling because of continuing military operations against rebel groups or because they simply cannot afford the costs of higher education or because two super typhoons and/or sporadic big fires in crowded places of residence have sapped the family’s resources. And their government, let alone their president, has seemed unable to truly help.
Then came the Mamasapano debacle. Forty-four valiant members of the national police Special Action Force, mostly members of the underclass of Philippine society, successfully neutralized an international terrorist, only to be ruthlessly massacred while attempting to exit the area by rebel groups. Seemingly to add salt to their family’s wounds, the Chief Executive was nowhere in sight when their bodies were brought back to Manila to waiting and wailing families. The reason? It was not on his schedule for the day, said MalacaƱang. At the same time, the media found him gracing the inaugural ceremonies of a Japanese car company operations in Laguna.
This insensitivity, however unintended and glossed over by official sources, stunned, shocked and drew the ire of many, especially among the victims’ families. Even as I write ripples of the anger surfaces now and then. Not even the long hours he spent talking to the fallen heroes’ families and relatives have dampened the clamor for him to come clean on the truth of his role and responsibility or irresponsibility that might have contributed in one way or another to the eventual carnage. Allowing a suspended PNP Chief’s continued involvement in an operation so sensitive and dangerous, while not informing his own DILG Secretary and the acting PNP Chief, is not exactly an exercise of good judgment and responsible leadership.
It is no secret that initially a good number of the Church hierarchy welcomed Pinoy’s presidency. The thought that a son of the heroic couple Ninoy and Cory Aquino would succeed the scam-ridden Arroyo administration raised hopes for a government of high moral ascendancy. The anti-wang-wang drive, the ousting of a Supreme Court Chief Justice, the unveiling of the PDAF and DAP scammers accompanied by the jailing of some prominent politicians and businessmen—to cite a few—have inspired some confidence. But once in a while we also notice disappointing cracks. While the president has kept himself largely untainted, the same can not be said of a few of the people he surrounds himself with. The way the Reproductive Law was passed, what with generous DAP amounts being dangled before lawmakers’ eyes and also being withdrawn from non-supporters, greatly disappointed bishops and priests. It did not take long for them to realize that the president’s moral compass was guided less by magisterial teaching than by what Pope Francis would later term as “ideological invasions” he and the people he listened to have already embraced. And which, as a priest friend of mine pointed out once, they are “hopelessly devoted to”.
Perhaps this is only one of the reasons behind calls from some prominent Shepherds of the Church for the president to step down. I believe their views have to be respected. But personally I believe we need to take the bigger picture. Our current president was elected on the crest of a massive outpouring of sympathy for his deceased mother, President Cory, a turn of events he himself did not anticipate nor initially wanted. If ever any blame game had to be pursued to its awkward roots, the final finger could point in our direction and in the direction of our voters.
To my mind I believe we must address, as decisively as we can, two urgent concerns.
One, in so many elections, we the Church have done so much except educate voters effectively.

Two, in so many elections, we Filipino citizens have done so many things except vote wisely.