Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Canfranc International Railway Station

Years before the inception of the European Union, a dream to unite France and Spain across the Pyrenees was born and the railway station at Canfranc in northern Spain was built. It is the second largest station in Europe (after Leipzig), a beautiful complex of buildings in the French chateaux style with art nouveau interiors. Sadly, it fell into disuse when a bridge connection on the railway collapsed, isolating the station in its Aragonese valley.

Today, a project is underway to revive the station and there are lovely, haunting photos and more information at the Canfranc website. It stands as a monument to the collapse of grand visions and a latent potential for a renewed future... rather like the current state of the European Constitution, I think!

Bread Broken for Others

The readings for this Sunday's Liturgy are beautiful and so rich, one barely knows what to focus on, but the overall impression that one is left with is the overwhelmingly gratuitous love of God who provides for all our needs, spiritual and material. In this Year of the Eucharist, I wish to emphasise the Eucharistic elements of the Readings and suggest how they may give us an impetus to be Eucharistic people.

The account in St Matthew of the feeding of the five thousand (Mt 14:13-21) is often seen as a Eucharistic text. In St John's gospel, the account of the multiplication of loaves is followed by the unique discourse on the Bread of Life (cf Jn 6). As such, the five loaves and two fish was an Eucharistic symbol utilised in early Christian art. The most famous example is the 6th century mosaic shown here, found on the floor of the church in Tabgha - which by ancient tradition is where Jesus performed this miracle - which depicts two fish and only four loaves in a basket... The fifth loaf is the Eucharistic bread which is Christ broken for others. This mosaic is situated directly in front of the altar of this ancient church, showing clearly the understanding of the early Church that the miracle in today's Gospel is an allusion to the Eucharist. Other images of the church in Tabgha which is in the care of the Benedictines may be viewed here.

As such, the Eucharist fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, recounted in today's First Reading (55:1-3), for it is the Food that satisfies our hunger and thirst for life. Moreover, the Eucharist is a renewal of the "everlasting covenant" (Isa 55:3) promised to David. There are resonances in St John's gospel to this passage, wherein Jesus compares the Bread of Life which satisfies to that which does not: "Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever" (Jn 6:57-58). As such, Jesus, the Bread of Life, is He who satisfies the "desire of every living thing" (Ps 145:16). That fact that one need only call on the Lord of compassion to be filled and need not earn this bounty nor give renumeration for It tells us how of the gratuity and goodness of Christ's love for us. This love of Christ is abiding and conquers our every fear and adversity, as St Paul says in the Second Reading. Moreover, the providence of God is over-abundant, for after all have been satisfied, twelve full baskets are left over. Is it significant that there are twelve baskets? I would suggest that it is. Perhaps they allude to the Church which is founded on the Twelve apostles and it is often said that the Church makes the Eucharist and vice versa. Or perhaps they allude to the heavenly Jerusalem which is founded on the Twelve and has Twelve gates (cf Rev 21:12-14) and the Eucharist is that foretaste of the heavenly banquet within the heavenly city. As such, these twelve baskets contribute to the Eucharistic imagery and our understanding of the Eucharist.

But returning to our Gospel, we see clearly the concern of Christ and his compassion for people. The Lord has rather touchingly sought some quiet and time alone after the death of his cousin, St John the Baptist, perhaps to grieve the loss of his kinsman and to pray. As such, "he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself". However, this is not possible. The crowds follow him and seeing them and their need, the Lord is moved by pity to cure them, feed them and instruct them; he gives them what they need, satisfying their desires. How ineffable is God's love for us! How wonderful the example of Christ! I have known too of priests who simply are unable to find time to even grieve or find time for themselves, so great are the demands of their ministry. Like the Lord they serve and imitate, these priests give of themselves out of compassion and love for their flock.

The Lord's concern for the people extends to fulfilling their physical needs too. He not only heals them of their ailments, he also feeds them for they are hungry. Thus, while we rightly give the miracle a spiritual and Eucharistic interpretation, one must not lose sight of the very practical reality of the situation. This unity of matter and spirit is integral to the Eucharist and indeed, the sacramentality of the Church and the Incarnation of Christ. Therefore the Church cannot simply be satisfied with giving spiritual solutions to life's problems and dilemmas. One is not being called upon to satisfy one's physical hunger on the Eucharist alone (although this impression may be falsely gleaned from the First Reading!) As such, the Church has always sought to feed the poor and starving, alleviate the pains and sufferings of humanity and serve the material needs of humanity alongside her preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls. This unity of body and spirit is essential. The example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta comes to mind, who strived to meet the practical needs of the poor while staying grounded in the spirituality of her mission, which was to encounter Christ in them and to save them by loving them as Christ does. It is this reaching out in love to others that serves (in part) to remind our suffering brothers and sisters of the constant love of Christ proclaimed so resoundingly in the Second Reading (Rom 8:35, 37-39).

This two-fold dynamic of being fed by the Eucharist and the Word and thus to be enabled to serve the poor and needy is expressed by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter 'Dies Domini'. I therefore end by quoting His Holiness:

"Receiving the Bread of Life, the disciples of Christ ready themselves to undertake with the strength of the Risen Lord and his Spirit the tasks which await them in their ordinary life. For the faithful who have understood the meaning of what they have done, the Eucharistic celebration does not stop at the church door. Like the first witnesses of the Resurrection, Christians who gather each Sunday to experience and proclaim the presence of the Risen Lord are called to evangelize and bear witness in their daily lives. Given this, the Prayer after Communion and the Concluding Rite — the Final Blessing and the Dismissal — need to be better valued and appreciated, so that all who have shared in the Eucharist may come to a deeper sense of the responsibility which is entrusted to them. Once the assembly disperses, Christ's disciples return to their everyday surroundings with the commitment to make their whole life a gift, a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God (cf. Rom 12:1). They feel indebted to their brothers and sisters because of what they have received in the celebration, not unlike the disciples of Emmaus who, once they had recognized the Risen Christ "in the breaking of the bread" (cf. Lk 24:30-32), felt the need to return immediately to share with their brothers and sisters the joy of meeting the Lord (cf. Lk 24:33-35)."
Dies Domini, 45

Therefore, this Sunday's Liturgy offers me and indeed, every Christian, a challenge: Do I truly appreciate the great gift that God has given me in His Eucharist, the loving gift of Himself? Do I dare to become a truly Eucharistic person, thanking God for his gratuitous bounty, by giving of myself to others with similar compassion, mercy and kindness? Will I allow myself to be bread broken for others?

The photo above shows students from my class in the Philippines distributing porridge to the neighbourhood poor as part of a Lenten project. They had fasted and saved money for this project.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Joy of the Incarnation

Among the major world religions, Christianity is unique for the very bold claim it makes that in Jesus Christ, God Himself took on the human condition in all its bodiliness and thus became like us in every way but sin; feeling pain, suffering, hurt, joy etc. Perhaps we now take this idea for granted or we become so accustomed to it that we hardly pause to consider what we assent to when we say in the Creed: Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine: et homo factus est.

This accord was not easily reached, as the Church struggled for centuries to fathom the mystery of Christ, the Eternal Word made Flesh. The irruption of the Godhead into human existence was (and perhaps in some quarters still is) controversial and a dramatic site of such struggles between the Arians (who denied the divinity of Christ) and the Church was Ravenna. It was to this see, the imperial capital of the Ostrogoths, that St Peter Chrysologus, whose feast we commemorate today, was chosen as bishop in 424. As such, St Peter the 'Golden-worded', a renowned preacher, was significantly involved in defending the doctrine of Christ's incarnation (cf the Opening prayer for today's Mass).

From the Office of Readings, St Peter Chrysologus says:

"It was not from necessity but rather from power that Christ was born; it was the mystery of our religion, the salvation of mankind restored... Therefore the fact that the Creator is found in his creature, and that God is found in flesh, is an honour for the creature and not a humiliation for the Creator. Man why do you have such a low opinion of yourself, when you are so precious to God? Why do you so dishonour yourself when you are so honoured by God?"

These words of St Peter Chrysologus are significant, for they are an antidote to any who think Christianity to be a pessimistic or human-denying or even anti-world religion. On the contrary, because of the Christian belief in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we have a religion that brings hope and joy to humanity, proclaims the dignity of humankind - thanks to God's unfathomable love for us - and extols something never dreamt of:

"And so Christ is born, that being born he may renew our corrupt nature... he bears human nature lest man still fall. Man, whom he made an earthly creature, he now made a heavenly creature; one who was animated by a human spirit he quickens into a divine spirit. Thus he assumes him wholly into God so that he leaves nothing in him of sin, of death, of toil, of sorrow, of earth..."

What wondrous good news! What ineffable delight this brings to humankind riven by war, violence, disease, malice, selfishness, greed and evil; these are the facts of the human condition that we find ourselves in. Thus, such news of redemption surpasses even the joy of creation, of life for it speaks of the promise of something greater still, thanks to Christ. It speaks of a true participation and sharing in the divine life of our Triune God Himself. This is more than we deserve and more than any other religion can imagine. Other religions are annihilistic, pessimistic, trapped in the despair of human sinfulness, needful of a Redeemer. No wonder then that St Peter Chrysologous fought so hard to maintain and defend this truth; for the very destiny and joy of the human race was at stake.

And ever since this great doctrine was at last grasped (even if still by mere faith in the face of so great a mystery) the Church has celebrated the Incarnation in a myriad ways. In fact, the very existence of the Church speaks of Incarnation, for she is the living presence of Christ, His Body present throughout history in every place. The sacraments and sacramentals are possible because of the Incarnation, as God uses matter and words to convey His very Presence and grace, especially in the most holy Eucharist. Our Lady is honoured and the saints are venerated on account of Christ's Incarnation. The Church adopts a richly sensual Liturgy and artistic culture made possible because of the wonder of the Incarnation, which sanctifies all matter and figurative art as holy to the Lord, even as Christ was the 'icon' of the invisible God.

It is noteworthy that the 'Angelus' was recited twice a day, a tangible reminder of the Incarnation, as we paused from our daily work to marvel at this great gift. There is a similar pause of awestruck wonder in the Creed, at the words cited above. The Church knelt in adoration of the Incarnation, that event when God came down and dwelt among us. It is a great pity that this gesture is no longer mandated by the Liturgy and few clergy and people even perform the mandatory solemn bow during the recitation of the Creed.

Let today's feast day be a chance to pause and contemplate the wonder of the Incarnation, and to thank God for His great love and regard for us, that He would deign to take on human flesh and so deliver us from sin and re-fashion us in His likeness. And perhaps, as we consider this beautiful and affirming doctrine, we would kneel and adore Him, as the wise men did when they beheld the Child in the Virgin Mother's arms at Bethlehem (cf Mt 2:11).

The photos above depict Christ with the Virgin Mother enthroned among angels, from San Appolinare Nuovo in Ravenna; and St Peter Chrysologus.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Ora et labora

The picture above from Quarr Abbey shows Our Lord with St Mary and St Martha, whose memorial the Church celebrates today. The altar piece depicts the account given in Luke 10:38-42, wherein Martha rebukes Mary for not helping her in serving Christ at the table but the Lord responds: "Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things. But only a few things are necessary, really only one. For Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

It would be a regretable misunderstanding if this is taken to mean that Mary's listening, contemplative attitude was better than Martha's service and the distractions that hospitality and work sometimes entail. Indeed, if there were no one to serve and work, it would be impossible to contemplate. Both are needed. As such, the ancient Benedictine maxim: ora et labora unites prayer and work as necessary and St Benedict's rule strives to combine these two elements of a balanced human life; monasteries are models of the importance of both these complementary elements.

I think what the Lord means is that Mary had chosen well. She chose the "good part" because she chose to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to him. Jesus obviously did not come often to visit, so when he did, she chose to spend time with him and listening to him.

It's ironic that often when I invite friends for a dinner party, rather than to relax and enjoy their company, I am so busy and distracted about the food etc that I can't actually sit and enjoy their presence. My friends travel to come and see me, talk to me and catch up. And yet, I am so concerned about providing them a gourmet meal that I fail to give them the very thing they came for: my company! In fact, a simple take away meal would suffice, if only we could sit and chat together... I suspect the Lord felt similarly when He entered Mary and Martha's home and the latter was so busy fussing about Him that she could not sit and spend time with Him. In this sense, Mary chose well. For even now, busy-ness keeps us from listening and even hearing the Lord.

In life, we have to make many decisions and more often that not we choose wrongly, upsetting the balance that should exist. Very often, given the chance to waste a few hours in Adoration, we choose instead to do a chore which may not be truly necessary. Or in the example above, it was not necessary to go through all the stress of cooking such a lavish meal; a simple one would suffice. Hence the Lord says that "only a few things are necessary..." Indeed, he says only one is: prayer.

Why? Because prayer grounds us; it is the foundation of our lives. Lives without prayer are without direction. And yet, modern capitalist societies are so obsessed by work that there is no room for prayer, thus making for a very unbalanced human experience of life, indeed many work-obsessed cultures seem directionless. All too many young people, my peers, are so caught up in the 'rat race' that they start to wonder why and what their place in life is... Work gives dignity to mankind but only when it is seen in the right perspective, along with prayer, family life, recreation etc; otherwise, our work becomes an idol dominating and excluding all else. Workers trapped in this cycle then become no more than cogs in a huge capitalist, corporate, greedy machine.

St Martha's day reminds us that prayer is a necessary corrective to this. The Benedictine monks down tools immediately upon hearing the bells that summon them to prayer, and they rush to pray, contemplate and spend time with God. This is instructive: it says that work is not all -important nor so urgent that it comes in the way of prayer. The Dominican tradition is slightly different because the work of the Order is nothing short of the preaching of the Gospel which is always urgent. But even so, Dominicans place contemplation at the heart and as the source of their work of preaching.

But let the last work on the unity of prayer and work, the role of work in the balanced Christian life go to Pope John Paul the Great:

"In these present reflections devoted to human work we have tried to emphasize everything that seemed essential to it, since it is through man's labour that not only "the fruits of our activity" but also "human dignity, brotherhood and freedom" must increase on earth. Let the Christian who listens to the word of the living God, uniting work with prayer, know the place that his work has not only in earthly progress but also in the development ot the Kingdom of God, to which we are all called through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the word of the Gospel" (Laborem exercens, 27).

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Medieval books online

Not everyone can make it to Cambridge... I personally look forward to viewing the University's current exhibition of 200 medieval illuminated manuscripts in September when I get there, but don't despair. There are 65 manuscripts available online here from the Fitzwilliam Museum's exhibition: The Cambridge Illuminations.

Advice for Tourists in London...

If you're getting on the Tube this summer in London, especially non-white tourists, please note this sign reportedly posted at Notting Hill Gate station:

It's sad but true... Yes, no one wants to be shot eight times in the head as that Brazilian was last week! Of course this photo which is making the rounds on the internet may just be a joke, Let's hope so, but it is a sad comment on the state of affairs in London nevertheless...

Kyrie eleison! Oops, I mean, "Lord have mercy"! I don't want to be shot for speaking a foreign tongue!!

Via London Underground Tube Diary

A Precarious Vocation

Being in a place like Dagat-dagatan, which is on one of the frontiers of Dominican preaching today, is a stimulating place; it raises many questions. Present in my mind is the need to grapple with the nature and challenge of the Dominican, and indeed Christian, vocation in a place of dire poverty like this. How is one to be a preacher of grace, of hope, of joy and love in this situation, this place?

Two days ago, I quoted fr Chrys McVey, OP's reflection on preaching and compassion which was approved by the General Chapter 2004 in Krakow. I wish to quote him yet again, this time from a document called 'The Dying that is Mission' which was appended to the Acts of the General Chapter 2004. It is full of insight and a beautiful but challenging reflection but one which I think will be fruitful if we attend to it with prayerful attention. It certainly speaks to me as I find myself here in Manila (even if only for 2 more weeks) and reflect with my fellow Dominican Volunteer and the Dominican Fathers here.

"The Latin word, precarius, the root of the word, ‘prayer,’ refers to something ‘obtained by begging.’ Our word, ‘precarious,’ from the same Latin root – since it suggests dependence on the will of another person – has the added note of insecurity and risk. What we religious do, at our ‘profession,’ is openly declare that this is the kind of life we want to lead: dependent, insecure, and at risk.

Our brother, Claude Geffré, has defined Christianity as ‘a religion of otherness,’ and he sees today’s challenge of religious pluralism as inviting us ‘to return to the heart of the Christian paradox as the religion of the Incarnation and the religion of the kenosis of God.’ This is a challenge that invites us to return to ourselves, to our true identity as people for others. It is a challenge that is stimulating, provocative, and demanding. Most significant is how this emphasis on the ‘otherness’ of Christianity, even before affecting our theology and how we think about mission, can – and indeed, must – affect the way we relate to others.

To be oneself is to be for others. This ‘being for others’ is what we Dominicans are supposed to be good at doing. Dominic was inspired to respond to real needs. He was a great ‘weeper’ and his tears and groanings over what would happen to sinners were so loud that he kept the brothers awake at night. Described as a man of great compassion, Dominic wept – and the Order was born! Honorius III, acknowledging our origins, declared the Order established ‘to be useful’ to others. For us, then, there is this demanding criterion: everything is for the sake of these others; everything is for the sake of the mission.

‘Like Dominic, we are not afraid to listen to God’s Word as it unfold in today’s changing world. We are called by our preaching to aid in the building of a culture of truth and relationship to replace a culture of lies… to discern what is dying and what is coming to life, what is salvation and what is not, what is truth and what is illusion or lie.’ The chapter ‘accepts the consequences of living dialogically in a pluriform world…’ and recognises study of this world to be of utmost necessity: ‘It is a world that invites us…’ For an American, these words about truth, illusion and lies are particularly apt now, when, as in George Orwell’s great prophetic work, 1984, three slogans dominate society: ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is truth.’ We Dominicans have many examples of the price one pays for speaking the truth...

Christians go to church precisely to put our lives at risk – otherwise the Eucharist makes no sense at all. This is our life too, but it is a life, as Yves Congar wrote, that ‘necessarily tears us apart. This is its pain and the source of its fertility. For the Word of God, whose life the apostles share, reaches out to all that is farthest from God and embraces it… The life of God is stretched open to find a space for all that we are; he becomes like us in all things but sin. He takes upon himself our doubts and fears; he enters into our experience of absurdity, that wilderness in which all meaning is lost. So for us to live the apostolic life fully is to find that we too are torn open, stretched out. To be a preacher… is to bear within our lives that distance between the life of God and that which is furthest away, alienated and hurt…We have no word which offers meaning to people’s lives, unless we have been touched by their doubts and glimpsed the abyss.’

Jesus becomes Saviour out of compassion, by embodying the hurts of all those others: ‘He himself bore out infirmities and took upon himself our diseases’ (Mt 8.17). This is so prominent in Jesus’ ministry that the work he hands on to us has this same characteristic of paraklesis, of ‘comforting appeal.’ I have often thought that the best description of mission is found not in the commissioning passages at the end of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, about ‘going into the whole world to preach and baptize all nations…’ but rather in a passage like 2 Cor 1.5-7: ‘All praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the source of every mercy and the God who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. You can be sure that the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. So when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your benefit and salvation!’"
Perhaps this is enough for today! It's definitely very challenging but inspiring, these words of Fr McVey. Finding myself here in the mission that is San Lorenzo Ruiz Parish in Dagat-dagatan, I believe his words have much to say to those who wish to preach - not just to the poor but to the world, a world broken and hurt, riven by terrorism and uncertainty.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

An End to Water Wastage

The phenomenon of modern art and performance art is surely a travesty and a scourge on the very concept of art. This kind of nonsense which seeks to provoke and stir controversy is devoid of any artistic merit because it lacks beauty. Its' self-aggrandizement as a social commentary or conversation piece is vain-glorious. For years, people like Tracy Emin and her prurient interests have been foisted on the public as art. Who can forget the antics of Chris Ofili in New York whose depiction of Our Blessed Mother utilising elephant dung and pornography was designed to be offensive, blasphemous and plain stupid?

Just before I left England this summer, I read about a ridiculous stunt by 'artist', Mark McGowan who turned on a tap on 28 June and decided to leave it running for an entire year to highlight the wastage of water! It's as insane, pointless and plain scandalous as if one were to walk into a room and shoot people dead to highlight the slaughter of innocents. Fine, that's a hyperbole but you get my point! This kind of 'art' lacks any logic or sense apart from the nonsense that fills the deluded 'artists' mind. Bear in mind too that this stunt is happening during a period of water shortage in England and parts of Europe.

I was pleased to see that the authorities have finally decided to put an end to this. The Guardian reported today that Thames Water has stepped in after he let 800,000 litres of water run down the sink, a crying shame when one considers that millions on our planet do not have access to potable water, to say nothing of water for lawns, agriculture etc. Do refer to the UN Water for Life site for more information. If Mr McGowan really wished to highlight the waste of water that occurs daily - and this is a matter I am intimately familiar with here in Manila as we struggle with our water supply daily - I suggest he collaborate with the UN and other international bodies rather than indulge his selfish fantasies of so-called art.

I'm glad someone has seen the sense to end his indulgence and the sooner his peers are put in their place (and regarded as talentless pretenders) the better!

Natural running water is true art... The photo above shows spring water flowing from a giant ceramic pitcher in Laguna, the Philippines.

The Christian reclamation of Martyrdom

Just over a week ago, in Kuala Lumpur, I was having lunch with a friend who is an evangelical pastor. We discussed his forthcoming trip to Israel and the political and terrorist problems in the Holy Land and other countries, this being in the aftermath of 7/7 in London. I commented on how fanaticism for any cause - be it religion, or animal rights or political freedom - which would stop at nothing and even resort to violence to be heard was a terrible scourge...

Anyway, this led me to reflect on the use of the word 'martyrdom' which is often used with regard to suicide bombers and other fanatics who are prepared to die and kill for their beliefs. This is a dreadful abuse of the essentially Christian concept of martyrdom. I believe that words and etymology are important and help us to understand the very concepts expressed by these words.

It is time we understood the Christian roots of the word, martyr, and reclaimed it as our own. One who dies for a belief, even a religious one, is not a martyr. More accurately, the martyr witnesses to someone: Jesus Christ... and that is fundamentally a witness of self-emptying love.

Read on at Catholic Blogic's post on True Martyrdom which has said just about everything I wanted to say on the matter, and sooner than I myself was moved to write on the issue. I commend his blog and this matter of reclaiming the word 'martyrdom' to you.

The photo above is of St Stephen, the proto-martyr, as depicted in a stained glass window in St Stephen's Church in Skipton.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Truth and Compassion

While visiting a Dominican-run school today, I glanced at their 'Vision-Mission Statement' and was drawn to its commitment to teach students to have a zeal for Truth coupled with Compassion. Both these, according to the Statement, are at the core of the Dominican vocation.

I was particularly moved to reflect upon Compassion as a core value because over lunch today, mention was made of the recent spate of bomb attacks in London, Egypt, Iraq etc and I wondered aloud if perhaps we were sadly being numbed by these suicide-attacks happening on an almost daily basis. Someone said to me that it was natural to be numbed and I said that we should not allow ourselves to be... The person then replied that I had too high expectations, a comment which irked me somewhat. In response, I said that this is only to be expected of me because the Gospel calls us to high ideals; I can't just capitulate to indifference, like the rest of the world... I then mused (in my mind) over my lunch that Compassion is precisely that virtue which prevents us from feeling numbed and inured to the pain and sufferings of others.

It is all too easy, even if one were to live among the poor and suffering, to be immune to their plight; one has eyes and ears but neither sees nor listens to the cries of the poor. I recall a friend who came to Dagat-dagatan last year and as we walked about the parish, this friend seemed more interested in chatting with me and did not appear to take in any of the harsh sights that surrounded us. I felt this was extraordinary...

Another possible response, faced with difference in our lives and the great challenge that living in a place like Dagat-dagatan can bring, living with true poverty, is to become judgmental. I found myself doing that, thinking that my way was better, that my country or culture was superior or worst of all, I was superior. But as I read and re-read the Dominican Volunteers' Handbook and prayed and reflected, I realised this was not right. I also realised that what I could cultivate during my time in Dagat-dagatan was Compassion, which is quintessentially Godly. In particular, these words of Henri Nouwen, from his book, The Way of the Heart touched me:

"Compassion can never co-exist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevent us from really being with each other."

On the contrary, Compassion is not about distancing ourselves from others but placing ourselves along side and with others, in their hearts, sharing their joys, pains and concerns. It is profoundly incarnational for God loved us so much as to take on the human condition and become Man; this desire to share our condition, to be like us in every way but sin, to become one of us is essentially Compassion (misericordia). God's mercy and love extends to us from the very depths of His being; it moves Him to undertake radical acts of love.

In like manner, Compassion wells up from our hearts and moves us to action. In the case of St Dominic, he was moved to bring relief from error and sin to his contemporaries, to pray unceasingly for sinners and undergo physical mortification for their salvation. The Dominican zeal for Truth has its roots in Compassion. As Fr Simon Gaines, OP says:

"St.Dominic was just such a man, just such a preacher, known for his mercy and compassion, known for his devotion to wisdom and truth. When Dominic heard that people had been taken captive by the Moors, his compassion for them was so great that he wanted to go off and sell himself into slavery to obtain release for others. In the end, he had to be restrained from doing so. His desire to preach was equally the fruit of mercy and compassion. His desire was to obtain release for men and women bound by the chains of lies and falsehood.

Christ redeems us from sin; he liberates us from death and he frees us from lies. Anyone with a Dominican vocation is called to participitate somehow in the whole meaning of Christ's mission. Yet for us, as with all kinds of religious, there is some aspect of Christ's mission that leaps out at us for our special attention. And for Dominicans this is wisdom and truth, the liberation of captives from falsehood, the fact that it is truth which sets us free. It is compassion that motivates a Dominican calling to delve deeper into divine wisdom and truth, and to have it not just for ourselves, but for others."
Thus it is vital that the desire for Truth, for wisdom and knowledge is linked to Compassion. Otherwise, all one's learning can lead one down the path of self-righteousness, superiority or hubris; we become blind to the needs and concerns of the people we purport to preach to. As the current Master of the Order, fr Carlos Azpiroz Costa, OP said in 2002, in a letter outlining the Dominican way of Preaching:

"Only compassion can cure our blindness and make it possible that we see the signs of the times. Compassion brings humility to our preaching - humility for which we are willing to listen and speak, to receive and give, that we may influence and be influenced, to be evangelized and to evangelize. Compassion and humility come only from a profound union with God in Christ. We are united to God when we imitate the compassion and humble service of Christ. Compassion and humility are fountains from which emanate the knowledge of the signs of the times, pervading prayer and contemplation. This is how we contemplate God, who has revealed himself to us through Sacred Scripture and who manifests his will in the signs of the times."
Almost a year ago, I listened to Fr Chris McVey, OP read a beautiful meditation on preaching that was adopted by the General Chapter 2004 in Krakow. He shared this with the delegates of the 7th International Dominican Youth Movement (IDYM) Gathering in Caleruega, Philippines and the words scared me, challenged me and moved me to tears:

"To preach in this world is to share the life, the hope, and the promise that lives in the world of the other. To preach in this world is to walk on the frontier between sharing the lives of all those others and sharing the promise of salvation, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to them and discovering that he has gone before us into Galilee.

In this world we will have something to say, but only if it is a word for which we have suffered, a word we have fought for, and a word for which we have prayed. And this response – like that of the trumpeter of Krakow, whose hourly call ends abruptly – might be a word that ends in silence as the only adequate response before suffering humanity or before the immensity of the mystery."
[The trumpeter, atop the tower, was the town watchman who warned of danger. This he did in 1241 when the Mongolian Tatars advanced against Krakow. As he sounded the alarm, he was struck in the throat by a Tatar arrow. In commemoration of this, from the 16th century, on the hour, the tune ends suddenly. It is also said only the Mongols know how the tune ends.]

It is precisely this kind of preaching - this Dominican love and desire for the Truth that sets us free, rooted in a deep seated Compassion that wells up into action for peace and justice, humbly listens to the poor and the needy and speaks the Word of God into their hearts - that moves me to join the Order of Preachers.

For without Compassion, "I am like a noisy gong or a clashing symbol" (cf 1 Cor 13:1), a learned speaker who may well speak the Truth but not a Preacher of the Word, who is Compassion and Love. And ultimately, it is Compassion that will open our eyes to the suffering and pain of the poor, the victimised and the oppressed around us and motivate us to reach out in Love. Perhaps by way of an ending, I may quote these words of Bishop Legaspi, OP who addressed us in Caleruega last year:

"As preachers, we cannot remain in ivory towers high above the reach of the joys and pains, the celebrations and disasters of men and women. Our word must also - take flesh."

I commend to you the entire text of his homily, found here.

The Grandparents of Christ!

Holy Mother Church exults so profoundly in her redemption in Christ that she is not satisfied with just extolling the Saviour; she honours the Mother of the Saviour, whose womb bore God-made-Man. But even this is not sufficient, for the Church goes back yet another generation to praise the parents of Our Blessed Mother Mary: St Joachim and St Anne.

By tradition dating back to the 2nd century, these are the names attributed to the earthly grandparents of Christ. This interest in the parents of Mary is very important for it reminds us that our family roots and our grandparents are important in our lives. The image shown here of St Anne teaching Our Lady clearly indicates the influence of grandparents on their own children and as such on their grandchildren.

I am blessed with a close relationship with both sets of grandparents. They have always and still do play an important role in my life. They have loved me and cared for me so much and I respect and love them very much in turn. As such, it is wonderful for me to see that the Church gives us this feast to recall the grandparents of Our Lord, and in so doing, to remember our own grandparents.

My paternal grandparents shall be celebrating their 80th birthdays and 60th wedding anniversary later next month in Kuala Lumpur and I look forward to that celebration of their lives.

I ask Our Lady and Ss Joachim and Anne to intercede for all my grandparents and to grant them good health and much joy in their golden years...

In reflection for today, I leave you these resounding words of St John Damascene, taken from the Office of Readings:

"O blessed couple Joachim and Anne! All creation is in your debt. For through you it presented the noblest of gifts to the Creator, namely a spotless mother, who alone was worthy for the Creator.

Be glad, Anne, O barren one who do not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail. Rejoice, Joachim, because from your daughter, to us a child is born, to us a son is given... That child is God.

O blessed couple, certainly the most free from sin, Joachim and Anne! O couple most pure, Joachim and Anne!"

The photo above of St Anne and Our Lady is of a stained glass window in St Stephen's Church, Skipton. The iconography is rather quaint as the saints are depicted in medieval garb, perhaps to fit in with the early English style of the church. Such 'in-temporisation' in church art was not unusual; it was an incarnational flair, setting Christ and His contemporaries in our time-frame and culture. I rather think this mindset should be more widely adopted in modern Christian art!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Some respite from the heat and work

Today was an unexpected boon for us as the President of the Philippines, last week declared today a public holiday. This was in view of the 'State of the Nation' address which was delivered and broadcast this afternoon. For most of us, it was a chance to enjoy a long weekend!

The observant among my readers may recall that a few months ago, I established a scholarship fund in honour of St John Macias to assist poor students in Dagat-dagatan with their education, providing anything from tuition to book allowances. Upon my return to the parish this month, I decided to use some of the money I had made from the sale of some of my CDs last month in the UK to take the scholars out on an excursion. It was also a chance for me to meet them and see them informally. So, this morning, we set off in that quaint Filipino public utility vehicle, a jeepney (which we hired for the day) to Laguna de Bay, to a 'garden resort' called Dona Jovita. This has become one of my favourite swimming resorts in Laguna as it is surrounded by lush trees and flowering shrubs and is fed by hot springs.

Armed with food, a rudimentary barbecue kit and our swimming gear, we enjoyed six hours of swimming and games. I am quite exhausted now, as I spent hours playing catch with three of my former students in the pools! Altogether, it was a wonderful day and I think it was well spent because it brought a pleasant respite from the dust, heat and odours of Dagat-dagatan to these poor students.

Personally, I find a lot of joy in spending time with these teenagers. Many of the children here are separated from their fathers or parents for extended periods (years at a time) because their parents work overseas to earn a living. Thus, when I am here spending time with them, I become a surrogate father to them and it's a real joy that the love we show to children is reciprocated so expressively. Only last night I received some touching text messages from one of the children I spent time with. Often, I find, all these children want is some attention, love and time; they want to be treated as a friend and not a kid... In fact, is this not what any human being longs for in life? In the vocation that God has given me, I shall never have children of my own, but I don't feel too great a loss, because I realize this frees me to give myself to the many children who need me, as a friend, a brother or even a father-figure.

I offer them this friendship and love and hope that in this way, they will also be drawn to the love of Christ and ultimately befriend Him.

The photo above shows Fr Allan Lopez, OP, Daniel Jeffries (DVI) and some of our scholars relaxing in a pool; the photo below shows the entire group who went to Laguna today.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Value of the Gospel

The notion of value is essentially one of perception. If something is perceived of and regarded as valuable, then it becomes so, it attains a certain value attributed to it. Real estate is but mud and soil, pearls are but solidified oyster saliva, gold but a shiny metal and money is but printed paper. These have no intrinsic value apart from what we attribute to it; how we perceive it. In all these cases, usefulness or beauty denotes their worth.

Today's Sunday Liturgy invites us to meditate upon the value of the Word of God and the Kingdom which unlike land, pearls, gold and silver has an intrinsic value. As such, it surpasses all these material things (cf Ps 119). The value of God's precepts and his Word is found in Truth. Thus, God's Word is inherently worthy of our attention because it is true. At the centre of this claim to Truth is He who is "the Way, the Truth and the Life", Jesus Christ (cf Jn 14:6). Jesus is the "pearl of great price" and the "treasure in the field" whom we should give up all in exchange for. If the Gospel were not true, it would have no real value at all - beautiful stories perhaps, edifying morality tales maybe, interesting myths mayhaps, but not true and hence not real. The force of the Gospel as a witness to the true deeds of the Incarnate Word has always lain in its veracity. Hence, any ideology or theological system which weakens this fundamental fact or implicitly denies the truth of Christian revelation leeches the power of the Gospel and diminishes its value in the eyes of humankind.

Recent attempts to grapple with world religions in relation to Christianity have focused on the role of Christ as Saviour. It is fundamental that Christ alone is the One who saves, redeems and unites humanity. As such, He is unique; none other may approximate His role in the economy of salvation. However, it is noteworthy that "the salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity. Speaking of the paschal mystery, in which Christ even now associates the believer to himself in a living manner in the Spirit and gives him the hope of resurrection, the Council states: 'All this holds true not only for Christians but also for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery' " (Dominus Iesus, 12)

I am drawn to this because it seems to me that relativism and a certain indifference to the value and uniqueness of Christ as Saviour of all has emasculated the Church of her preaching and missionary impetus. Because some no longer perceive the intrinsic value of Christ, they no longer see any need to make Him known to others.

This dynamic may be observed in the free-market economy or the stock markets. When a commodity is no longer perceived as valuable or profitable, its value (price) falls, weakening the attraction of the commodity itself as an object of value. No one buys a stock that is seen to be in free-fall, or invests in a corporation that is losing value dramatically - not unless it is perceived to be still of use and can be made profitable again. Such mercenary talk of profit, sales and value is evident in the Gospel, where the person who seeks the Kingdom is seen as a merchant (cf Mt 13:46). Hence, the question of Christ rings out: "What does it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world and lose his soul?" (Mk 8:36).

On a purely mercenary level, this implies that profitability is to be found in the Gospel, in upholding the Word and observing the commandments of God. In like manner, Pascal wagers on the existence of God, for one has nothing to lose in living the virtuous life but all to lose by rejecting God.

There is an irony that in our consumerist world, we place such value on passing trends and fads. Electronic gadgetry, fashion, jewellery etc are all transient, the marketer's racket. Mobile phones which entice us and are seemingly so valuable this week are superceded in months. Even real estate and gold, oil and bonds fail in value. All these things which capitalism values so much, as if they had some kind of intrinsic value are in fact figments of our collective imagination; valueless apart from what we dream up for them and what we are fooled into believing. And we are so thoroughly deluded that we'd do anything to possess these objects of materialist desire, be it the latest iPod or notebook computer or car. In contrast, the Gospel has a perennial, everlasting value, an endless worth which is inherent, Truth that is "more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces" (Ps 119:72). It is a value that is predestined to be ours in Christ for all time (cf Rom 8:28-30).

The tragedy is that this value is not perceived by the masses who are seduced by passing fancies, who actually do the opposite of the psalmist, valuing gold and silver above the Gospel; who give all to attain material splendours and ignore God's Word. All too often, I feel people lapse from the Faith because they have never realised the true value of what they give up; they perceive the Faith as being of little attraction or usefulness in their lives. It is not 'relevant', they say! Why? The First Reading illuminates the situation: He who has not divine wisdom fails to recognise the value of God and His ways. But the person who implores such wisdom from God not only receives "wisdom and understanding" (cf 1 Kgs 3:12), but like Solomon, may well receive also the blessings of riches. So, we actually have to desire to understand God's teachings, as mediated by Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and ask for the Spirit of understanding.

Some people may fear that all this talk of objective Truth may lead to religious conflict and fundamentalism. I can only stress that the Gospel precludes all fundamentalism, violence and rhetoric, calling above all for a witness to Christ precisely through love, hope and faith, the examples of the Cross and the Eucharist. It is Christian joy and love that will attract others to the Faith; this speaks for itself.

As such, today's Liturgy calls on us to re-discover, by the light of the Holy Spirit, the value of the Gospel and to re-dedicate our lives to seeking God's will and to doing it, giving all we possess, all we otherwise value to gain this. And this happens primarily when we believe that God's Word, Jesus Christ, is the Truth, the Way and the Life. So long as we harbour latent relativistic notions, we are unlikely to commit all to Christ, investing our all in Him. We seek divine wisdom to open the eyes of our minds and hearts so as to perceive the Gospel with spiritual eyes and to see its true beauty, value and worth, which surpasses all else. And when we have seen these for ourselves, we have to become merchants for God, 'selling' the Gospel and its values to all people, advertising the lasting joy of life in Christ to all and drawing them to Him, by the gentle persuasion of the Spirit of love and unity in Christ.

The photo above shows St Dominic de Guzman, Founder of the Order of Preachers and God's 'merchant'. The statue is at Caleruega, the Philippines.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Model of the Church Quiz

You scored as Mystical Communion Model. Your model of the church is Mystical Communion, which includes both People of God and Body of Christ. The church is essentially people in union with Christ and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Both lay people and clergy are drawn together in a family of faith. This model can exalt the church beyond what is appropriate, but can be supplemented with other models.

Mystical Communion Model


Servant Model


Sacrament model


Herald Model


Institutional Model


What is your model of the church? [Dulles]
created with

For fans of St Thomas Aquinas

Cnytr has posted some lovely engravings from a late medieval codex on the life of St Thomas Aquinas. Kudos!

A Tale of Two Rivers

The Singapore river is a hub of commercial activity and trendy bars, pubs and restaurants now line the riverbanks, occupying the premises of revamped warehouses. The riverbank is now shored up by granite and tourist tug-boats ply up and down between Boat Quay and Robinson Quay. It is quite typical of most re-vitalised water fronts in major cities; an efficient place for business and leisure.

If one were to cruise down the river, the sculpture shown at left may catch one's eye. It shows children jumping into the river. Although the Singapore river is not too polluted, such a scene is pure nostalgia, from a by-gone era. No one jumps into the river to cool off and play now, and even if one would wish too, I suspect it's illegal! It is a scene that contrasts starkly with the reality of the Singapore river today. The Central Business District which fronts the river is a world away from the idyll of that sculpture. One speaks of childhood innocence and play; the other of stress, work and hard-nosed business.

Something about that sculpture really appeals to me: it seems to harken to a more care-free time, when children had simple pleasures and delighted in play. It was a time where iPods, PSP2s and such paraphernalia were not necessary; fun was to be had in just playing with and in water... and the nearest river was the best place to do this. When I was a child, I remember going fishing for catfish in a river, playing with cousins and friends. I recall my school excursion to a national reserve park and our daily trips to the river there to play and splash around. It was idyllic and possessed a simple, rural charm. In a hot tropical country, there can be no better way to cool off than to jump into a body of water!

Here in the Philippines, children still delight in such simple pleasures. Only yesterday morning, I observed many children playing in the flood waters and jumping into the Navotas river (photo below). It is certainly polluted but the children have an amazing immunity! With abandon, they splash about and play, frolicking in the waters. And the sight brought me much joy - it reminded me of my care-free childhood, showed me that life still offers us simple pleasures that no amount of technological wizardry or money can match. For many, the floods here are an inconvenience and even a hazard but for these street children, it is a chance for play and fun. While the practical side in me wondered about their safety, I could not help but admire their abandon. Without a care in the world, they played in the river and the flood water for hours! Given the hard life many of these children have, it was wonderful for me to see that they were so happy and had this simple pleasure, at least. And it reminded me, that I should take the time to find joy in simple things too...

Friday, July 22, 2005

Dic nobis Maria, quid vidisti in via?

Since 1297 at least, St Mary Magdalene has been venerated as one of the patrons of the Order of Preachers. This is right and fitting, for she was the apostola apostororum, the apostle to the apostles. As the title above, taken from the Sequence of Easter, the Victimae Paschali Laudes, says: "Tell us Mary, what did you see on the way?" And she answers that she has beheld the Resurrected Lord and the empty tomb. It was this privileged first encounter with the Risen Lord that she bears witness to and she proclaims that good news to the apostles. As such, all who aspire to preach the Gospel follow in her example and preach Christ risen and triumphant over all our sins, ills and woes.

The beautiful fresco above by Beato Angelico, a Dominican friar who lived in Florence and Rome depicts that famed encounter of Mary Magdalene and the Risen Lord, the empty tomb behind him. This picture is especially beloved by me because many years ago, a La Salle brother at my secondary school in Singapore gave me an old lithograph of it on Easter Sunday to remind me that sometimes God requires us to let go of people, things, situations in order to move on and grow in life. Thus this 'Noli me tangere' scene has long given me inspiration and food for thought and space for reflection and prayer.

It is a shame that in recent years St Mary Magdalene has become a focus for extreme feminist ideologies and heretical ideas about Christ. The ill-deserved bestselling Da Vinci Code only served to popularise such nonsense. A fair, un-emotional summary of such views may be found at National Geographic. In response, do refer to Catholic Answers or Ignatius Press.

On this day when we celebrate the apostle to the apostles, we can do her no greater justice than to reflect on the true accounts of her life given in the Scriptures, encounter the Risen Christ in the Holy Eucharist and follow her example by preaching the Gospel to others, perhaps bringing a word of hope and love to fellow Christians who are feeling despondent and uncertain of their faith? I also commend to you this page from the Australian Dominicans and the fascinating account of the Seignadou which occured on this day in 1206 from 'Moniales OP'.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Explosions hit London again...

Our Lady of Walsingham, bless and protect England, your Dowry!

Protect her people from harm, spiritual and physical.

Safeguard her from attacks of terrorists and the devil.

Guide the Queen and her government, that they may lead with wisdom, prudence and right judgment.

Give strength and courage to all who devote their lives to serving others; those in the police, emergency and medical services.

Lead the Church that she may be a beacon of light, salvation and peace for the people of Britain.

Comfort the sorrowful, allay the fears of the panic-stricken and bring the faithful departed into the embrace of your Son in your company with all the saints.

O Mother, we come to you and pray that peace and concord may be granted to London and to the realm. May all terrible attacks on innocent life cease, and may love colour our relationships and dialogue, that we may attain unity of purpose and intention by the inspiration of the Spirit.

O Lord Jesus Christ, in thee have I trusted; let us never be confounded!

The floods have lifted up...

"The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice, the floods have lifted up their pounding waves" - Psalm 92(93):3

That became a reality this morning as the floods in Dagat-dagatan reached an unprecedented high, breaching the flood barriers around the parish compound and entering the church. Fortunately, it wasn't raining today... but the high tide levels are predicted to go up over the next few days yet! The waters are extremely polluted, a putrid black and emit a foul stench. Scum and debris float on the surface and people desperately wade through it to get to school. A planned trip to town this morning was cancelled on account of the flooding. But life goes on, cheerily and resolutely and the waters have already begun to recede!

The photos above, taken hours ago show a flooded street, the local High School where I taught (flooded) and a unique taxi-conveyance for high tides, called a "styro-boat"!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Truly Lost in Translation

Leaving aside the morality and legality of pirated DVDs which are in abundance here in South East Asia, one must applaud them for sheer humour value. Check out 'Backstroke of the West' on this blog, a translation from Chinese of Star Wars: Episode III. Very funny... Via Edward.

My 1p on the Harry Potter furore...

It's amazing that a children's book series can cause such media excitement and make so many tongues wag. But of course, when it comes to the Harry Potter books, it's not just any book series but one that has made J.K. Rowling the richest woman in Britain, surpassing Her Majesty! The books appear to seriously divide the Christian world, and even prelates find cause to comment on them. Opinions for and against them can be found among Christians of all persuasions and theological opinions. It's quite bewildering and now Pope Benedict XVI, has been said to have slammed them.

As ever, a superlative and comprehensive summary and guide to the issues and opinions involved can be found at 'Against the Grain'. This is a must-read!

As for me, I was and remain a fan of the series. I expect those who oppose the books to read them with an open mind before passing comment... I have met far too many people who refuse to read the books and then slam them as an attack of the devil! The latest book has an amazinng declaration of the power of Love to conquer all evil; Love as the one thing that selfish, ego-maniacs simply overlook and don't understand. There were other Christian ideas that came to the fore too but that stands out. This theme and the decisions that Harry and his friends make, independent of magic etc dominate the series. As for good and evil, it is soon clear which is which and that the good side is the nobler, purer and better. And obviously anyone who reads them (children and adults) roots for the good side! I rest here on this and I leave you, the reader, to decide for yourselves whether or not these are edifying books, enlightened by your conscience and the articles highlighted by 'Against the Grain'.

The Noblest Human Act

"Joy is the noblest human act". This axiom attributed to St Thomas Aquinas has been pasted in the refectory of the Dominican convent here, as a reminder to all who eat there of the importance of joy!

It is vital that we do not confuse joy with mere happiness. The attainment of a million dollars or one's heart's desire may bring us euphoria, fleeting happiness and glee but it will not necessarily (and often does not) bring us joy. Joy is something more fundamental and deep-seated. It is founded on God and His bright promise of salvation and eternal beatitude, the goal of human existence in St Thomas's modality.

In praying the Breviary, these lines from the Canticle of Habakkuk often strike me as characteristic of religious and authentic Joy:

"For even though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit grow on our
vines, even though the olive crop fail and fields produce no harvest, even
though flocks vanish from the folds and stalls stand empty of cattle, yet I will
rejoice in the Lord and exult in God my saviour."

Those words of the prophet remind us that true joy is not predicate with material attainment. This strikes me as obvious and true here in the Philippines. The people exude a joie de vivre in spite of innumerable problems. One may read in the international press of political unrest in Manila but this is hardly felt at the grassroots level. The people are not agitated, angry or troubled. Instead, there is a real joy - people smile, sing, and laugh as they go about their daily tasks. It's a definite contrast to what we see in the most prosperous nations where people are simple unsmiling and seemingly devoid of joy.

This is not a naive nor idealistic view which I wish to present. I realise that the happy-go-lucky attitude one sees here can be problematic in the long-term and that joy is not necessarily expressed in smiles etc. Nonetheless, I am confident that anyone who has lived here and learnt to be open to the Filipino people, as they are, will wonder at their seemingly innate joy and envy their happiness and resilience. Somehow, it would appear, that all this joy is built on a solid foundation of faith and child-like trust in God. Thus, like a Joy-filled child, they are full of song, trust and hope. This is truly something noble in the human spirit and itself a joy to behold... I am enriched by this witness of joy.

"Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

My Fourth Home

It is a blessing that in my life, there are actually several places I can call home - places where I am accepted, loved and helped to grow as a person. It's the kind of place, where you return after a period away and you're welcomed back. A parishioner in Skipton always greets me when she sees me after some time away: "Welcome home!" she says and she hugs me.

Coming back to Dagat-dagatan has been like that. Within minutes, I felt like I had never left, sitting down for an afternoon merienda (snack) after which my former students came to greet me and we spent some time together. It was very pleasant, although I did feel rather exhausted having been up since 5am to catch an early plane to Clark airbase, 90 km from Manila.

There is something beautiful about certain friendships that one can leave and come back to it and pick up where we left off... I suppose if that person resides in one's heart, one has truly never really parted! It is a blessing to have friendships like that and I thank God that there are at least four such places I can call home.

The photo above is from Fr Allan Lopez, OP's collection and shows the parish church of San Lorenzo Ruiz being demolished for reconstruction.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Return to the Philippines et al.

By this time tomorrow, I shall be in Manila, the Philippines! It's been almost three months since I left and I am looking forward to my return visit. The purpose of the trip is to renew friendships and say final good-byes to people. Once I enter the Novitiate and the Order, I don't know when I will be able to visit the good people of San Lorenzo Ruiz parish in Dagat-dagatan again... I am also looking forward to meeting Daniel Jeffries, the Dominican Volunteer who has taken my place there and also to celebrating the feast of our Holy Father, St Dominic with so many young and happy Dominicans friars and sisters and laity.

I set off early tomorrow morning (5am) to catch my budget flight to the Philippines and I expect to be met at the airport by Fr Allan Lopez, OP, whose birthday is today! And... to keep me occupied on the plane journey, I think I shall finish reading, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Yes, I was one of many who went to buy the book on Saturday morning, although not at the break of dawn. It's been a fun read so far and that's just how I like to view it - an entertaining book that's light and easy to read, not to be taken too seriously, taking me back to my own childhood reading about boarding schools and adventures ala Enid Blyton.

Just a final thought: asceticism. This past weekend, I saw at least two Buddhist monks swathed in saffron robes and discalced begging for alms with a large wooden begging bowl. It made me think of the mendicant and itinerant roots of the Dominicans. These monks clearly looked like beggars to me... their bowl, their shaved head and walking barefoot on a filthy and pot-holed road. They were a real witness to poverty, mendicancy, reliance on Providence and the charity of others. I guess few would look at the Dominicans today and classify them as such. Beggars for Truth, it has been said, but certainly not begging for bread and lodging... I wonder, have we lost something in terms of a witness to true poverty? Perhaps my time in Manila will bring me fresh insight into this issue.

These humble Buddhist monks gave me, a Christian, pause for thought; their sign value challenged me to think about my way of life. I pray that Christian religious would likewise point to Christ and give others pause for thought and challenge them with the Gospel.

I commend my time in the Philippines to Our Lady of La Naval, patroness of the Philippine islands (shown on the right here).

The photo above of fishermen on the Navotas river was taken in the parish which I shall visit in Dagat-dagatan.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Saints and Sinners

NB: This is posted in advance of the date given above.

In many ways, this Sunday's Liturgy builds on the readings we heard last Sunday. You may recall that last Sunday, we considered the patience of God, like a farmer who awaits the fruit of his labour (cf James 5:7 ff). Moreover, this patience was in order that we may have time in which to repent and return to our loving and expectant God. A similar vein is expressed this Sunday.

Sometimes, we hear of Christians who express their faith in rather exclusive ways... lapsed or non-practising Catholics are frowned upon, divorced Catholics are barred from Communion and the current buzz is that all homosexually inclined men may be barred from ordination. In most cases, I assume there are sound theological arguments put forward but I am somewhat discomfited by the undercurrent of elitism that seems to thrive in such conditions. It's almost like a sort of gnosticism: one has to be pure and learned in their faith in order to serve as a Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion or a lay Reader or even in order to receive certain sacraments. In Evangelical church circles this kind of exclusivity is exacerbated and I have known people who feel cast out because they have sinned publicly in someway or another. Thus abandoned by God (in their perception), they fall still deeper into despair and sin. There can be a certain degree of this too in the Catholic Church: a young Catholic girl in a 'conservative' youth group is shunned because she falls pregnant, a young man is avoided for writing something considered at best, unconventional, and at worst, heretical. Surely though, it is when one sins that one is most dreadfully in need of the Church's healing, teaching and ministry of salvation in Christ?

Now, I am certainly in favour of striving for a holy Church, a virtuous people of God, the baptised in their white garments gathered around the Lamb and in praise of Him. The Church deserves and Christ demands a holy priesthood of the baptised and the Ordained. Of this I have no doubt. Moreover, I would uphold the need of the Church to stand firm in the Truth given her by Christ and the apostles, no matter how difficult and painful it is to do so.

However, sometimes, when we are too quick to judge, to condemn, to cast out and to shun the sinner in our midst we don't give time for the healing action of God's grace in their lives. Already too many people feel cast out by the Church and even if they were to repent, they don't seem to do so in the embrace of the Church, nor do they feel inclined to come home; their first experience was so traumatic and wounding. The current proposal to bar all and even chaste homosexuals from ordination runs the terrible risk of sending a signal (even if this is unintended) that such people afflicted with same-sex attraction are just hopelessly impure and beyond redemption and without the grace to live chaste, Christian lives. The difficulty is that the Catechism teaches that by pure friendships, prayer and sacramental grace homosexuals "can and should... approach Christian perfection" (cf CCC, 2359). This suggests that homosexuals can be saints and yet, some would propose, they can't be priests or deacons. Are priests and deacons uber-saints?! There needs to be more informed thinking on this and other issues which touch the hearts of too many Catholics to run the risk of inadvertently alienating them, of pulling up the weeds which may well have the potential to be wheat...

Yet more importantly, we ourselves are sinners. If we require mercy and compassion from God, who are we to look with hardness of heart on our brothers and sisters. I recall my first visit to Armley Prison in Leeds and I went to speak to the sex offenders, who were segregated. No one dared to go speak with them so I made the first move. They looked and sounded so friendly and 'normal', like any one of us there visiting them. I shuddered internally and I thought: "There but for the grace of God, go I". We all have the potential to sin boldly and spectacularly... Perhaps we have, and what separates us from these others is that we have managed to keep our peccadillos a secret!

For the mystery of sin is that it does not ever overwhelm God's grace, just as the weeds do not choke the wheat in today's Gospel parable. As St Paul said, "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Rom 5:20). As such, the First Reading extols God who gives us "good ground for hope, that [He] would permit repentance for [our] sins." (Wis 12:19). This clearly brings to mind last week's post on Christian hope and God's patience as he awaits our return to Him. As such, the Responsorial Psalm is a meditation on God who is "slow to anger, abounding in kindness and fidelity" (Ps 86:15). God is slow to act, simply because He hopes in our repentance and redemption and is patient with us who haltingly respond to His grace. We too should be like him, slow to condemn those considered 'bad Catholics' or 'heretics', awaiting with hope and patience the day of their return. This is precisely the mystery of the Church: that although the Church is called to be eschatologically pure, although her very reality and being is the Spotless Bride of Christ, while she is in peregrination on earth, she is composed of saints and sinners; and these the Lord will allow to grow and flourish side-by-side.

This kind of inclusivity is seen in the next two parables in today's Gospel. The mustard tree accepts all kinds of birds to nest in its branches. The thieving magpie, the murderous cuckoo is no more discriminated against than the virtuous pelican and the humble dove. All find a dwelling place in its branches. This is the image of God's kingdom and by extension, the Church. Similarly, the image of the leavened dough is ambiguous. Yeast is a Biblical image of corruption (as well as of good influence). This suggests that the corruption of the yeast is allowed to exist within the pure white flour of the dough; yet another image of saints and sinners in the Church.

Why is this so? Primarily, I believe it speaks of the awesome love and patience of God; itself the very mystery of God who is Love. Who are we to place limits on this? If God in His loving mercy waits for sinners to repent, and constantly woos us with His grace and blessings and even sending His beloved Son, why do we dare to stop hoping and praying and wooing the sinner, the apostate, the heretic to return? The wisdom of this world writes people off as hopeless causes, and sees death as the end... But the Wisdom of God makes possible a Resurrection. Redemption is precisely that act of God which is more wondrous, undeserved and impossible than the initial act of creation; why then do we doubt God's power to convert and save the hardened sinner, the criminal and the dissenting theologian?

For St Paul, in today's Second Reading makes it clear how this is not only possible but almost inevitably so: the Holy Spirit pleads for our cause and intercedes for us. This same Spirit, the grace of God, causes us to repent, to come back to Him. This is why only those who "sin against the Holy Spirit" (cf Mt 12:32) are not forgiven. Quite simply, these are the ones who do not want to repent, who ignore the "inexpressible groanings" of the Spirit; even God cannot force us to repent. But for those of us who are weak and "do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26), the Holy Spirit is powerfully present with his grace to aid us.

So, before we adopt the attitude of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (cf Lk 15:25-32), let us adopt the attitude of Christ which is to wait patiently, lovingly and hopefully until the harvest time, when He (and He alone) will sit in judgment. In the meantime, His Body on earth must surely humbly mirror Him: "O Lord, you are good and forgiving, abounding in kindness to all who call upon you... a God merciful and gracious" (Ps 86:5, 15).

Indeed, as St Paul wisely exhorted the Galatians: "Even if one of you is caught doing something wrong, those of you who are spiritual should set that person right in a spirit of gentleness; and watch yourselves that you are not put to the test in the same way" (6:1). We are advised to support one another and the "strong are to bear with the susceptibilities of the weaker ones" (Rom 15:1) and so to outdo one another in charity. Let this be our goal, our Christian vocation of love, even as we await the harvest when then alone the wheat will be separated from the weeds. Let us hope that our love and faith, by God's grace, will find us worthy to be gathered into the barn (cf Mt 13:30)!

The photos above were taken in Banaue at the vilage of Bangaan in the Philippines.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

O Decor Carmelis!

NB: This has been posted in advance of the date above.

In the Philippines, the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is seen on almost everyone, especially children. As a sacramental, it is a potent sign of Our Lady's protection, of being cared for by her, just as every child is first clothed by their mother. However, this beautiful sacramental can also be viewed superstitiously as a kind of talisman, which denigrates this gift of Mary to the Carmelite Order and through them, to us. There is certainly a delicate balance between faith in Mary's intercession and the scapular as a sign of her motherly love and protection and a superstitious faith in the scapular itself as an almost magical charm or object or even a ticket to heaven!

The former is precisely what the donning of the scapular (with its attendant responsibilities of prayer and chastity of life) invites us to and in return we are granted the Sabbatine Privilege, that is to say, Our Lady herself will retrieve us from purgatory on the first Saturday after our death if we worthily wear the scapular throughout our lives. I personally feel this does not mean we can never ever take off the scapular (because this makes one prone to superstition) although it is noteworthy that Pope John Paul II reputedly insisted that he wore it even during his operation in 1981 after the assasination attempt on his life. Moreover, the Carmelites have many stories of miraculous rescues from death for those who wore the scapular.

A scapular is in essence a garment worn by medieval labourers to protect their clothes from being soiled. As such, we too may be reminded that when we take on the scapular (much truncated in form) we are to keep our souls free from the stain of sin. It also came to symbolize the gentle yoke of Christ, thus we are reminded in wearing it to learn from him to be gentle and humble of heart.

According to Carmelite tradtions on this day in 1251, the scapular was given to the English Carmelite, St Simon Stock (C.1165 - 1265) by Our Lady in a vision where upon she promised that: "Hoc erit tibi et cunctis Carmelitis privilegium, in hoc habitu moriens salvabitur" (This shall be the privilege for you and for all the Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall be saved). Certainly this was initially understood to mean just the habit of the Carmelites but this was extended to anyone who is now 'enrolled' as an associate of the Order by means of the imposition of the scapular. It is a marked broadening of the original promise but not objectionably so, for God desires salvation for all people.

A final word about Carmel: this is the mountain on which Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (cf 1 Kings 18). It rises from the plain of Esdraelon about 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It's Hebrew name means 'orchard' and the Arabs call it Jabal Mar Elias, the mount of the prophet Elijah. On this great mount of victory, hermits gathered and monastery was founded sometime before 570 aD. In 1156, the Carmelites were formed, due in part by the many Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. After the fall of Jerusalem, they had to retreat to Christian countries but their roots are still firmly founded on that Holy Mountain, in Christ and Our Lady.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Is Novationism a new brand name?

The early Church was challenged by all kinds of heresies, some of which still linger today. Kenneth Whitehead's quick glossary to heresies in the early Church is now avaliable via Ignatius Press, so check out this site: A Short Guide to Ancient Heresies. Fantastic stuff and just the thing to befuddle the next liberal to cross you path or impress your friends!!!

St Bonaventure and the art of Writing

Today, Holy Mother Church celebrates St Bonaventure (c1217-1274), one-time Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, a theologian, cardinal-bishop of Albano and contemporary of St Thomas Aquinas. In fact, he died in the same year as the Angelic Doctor and is himself known as the 'Seraphic Doctor' for his mystical contemplation and ardent love of God. He is regarded as a key exponent of Franciscan theology, Aquinas's counterpart in family of St Francis of Assisi.

A prolific writer, teacher and a worthy Doctor of the Church, it is interesting to note St Bonaventure's own understanding of the work and art of writing. He spoke of four variants: the writer as scribe (copyist), as compiler of anthologies, as commentator on older texts and finally as 'auctor'. However, this latter classification is not understood in the manner predominant today. For St Bonaventure, an author did not write a text that was purely original, he merely produced "his own work in principal place adding others for purposes of confirmation." In doing this, there is a great sense that he was a 'vir Ecclesiae', a man of the Church, standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were. In my opinion, this manner of writing frees one from intellectual pride and hubris, but I am sure it would be alien to many of today's academics who pride themselves on self-discovery and research and originality. It is noteworthy that someone like Fr Raniero Cantalamessa OFM Cap, Franciscan Preacher to the Papal Household of John Paul II very much writes in the tradition of St Bonaventure.

It is hoped that more of our contemporary theologians and teachers would write in the manner of this saint, always conscious of one's roots and home within the Church.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bridging the Digital Divide

One of the books I am currently reading is '50 Facts That Should Change the World' by Jessica Williams. It is a fascinating book that chronicles the woes and injustices of our current state of the world and is a clarion call for change, activism and social justice. Very thought provoking and I would recommend it to all who seek to bring about a better, more just world. It's like the best of the Guardian!

Recently I have been bemoaning the lack of broadband access at my grandparents' home in Kuala Lumpur. It seems I have been rather accustomed to having a high-speed internet connection - we had it in Manila, at the parish computer centre, DOM-Net (shown above), in also in the parish in Skipton, at home in Singapore (the wonder of wi-fi)... It makes blogging a breeze and a delight. My grandparents' neighbours have a wi-fi connection which my computer picks up but the signal strength is not good and the connection is erratic. So... last night I was left rather frustrated as I wanted to download some e-mail.

However, as God would have it, I opened the book mentioned above and came across Fact No. 36 (p156 ff): "More than 70% of the World's Population have never heard a dial tone." This came as a surprise to me; I never expected such a high percentage. Here in high-tech Singapore and even Malaysia, one takes for granted the pace and penetration of communications technology. Yesterday, for example, I went to have my Malaysian Identity Card (IC) renewed. By law, the new ICs have to be 'upgraded' before the end of 2005 and they will incorporate a computer chip with our personal information and can also be used as a cash-card and for travel to East Malaysia. It is hoped that one day it will replace our passports! I noted that if I supplied the government with my mobile phone number, they would SMS me to inform me that my IC was ready and could be picked up from their offices. Given this state of technology and the prevalent use of it, I took it somewhat for granted that everyone had some access to the telephone at the very least. Thus, that statistic surprised me somewhat...

It is sad and ironic that communications which aims to bring people together is the very thing that will divide the rich and the poor in the 21st century. Interestingly, the article in the book also claims that the "digital divide" is not just a rich-poor divide. She writes:

"If you're a young wealthy man, highly educated and living in the city in an industrialised country, chances are you're on the right side of the digital divide. If you're older, poorer, female, living in a developing country... you'll be on the other side."

Certainly, I feel there is some truth in that, although my fellow bloggers, many of whom are female, some in a developing country, may have other voices to add to the debate. However, I think that as a broad generalisation there is truth in what Williams writes.

It is humbling for me to realize that even as I moan about not having broadband at home (which I have now, sitting in the family offices), billions of people don't even have access to a basic telephone line. In a huge continent like Africa one would have thought that this would be vital! And yet as governments struggle to provide food, housing, education, health services, the telecommunications network falls to the bottom of the list. And this can be a shame not just for the people but for the nation. For as the industrialised world hurtles forward with e-commerce, digital communications etc they ignore the nations that do not have such infrastruture prepared. That's why Singapore so aggressively promotes itself as a telecommunications hub, an intelligent island-city-state. It's also why Malaysia has established a 'Multi-media Super Corridor'; to boost IT investments.

In the Philippines last year, I had the privilege of assisting the parish of San Lorenzo Ruiz to establish a computer centre as a means to bridging the digital divide. We were aware that in this parish where tens of thousands of students lived, studied, worked and played, there was very little access to a computer and the internet. Even computer science students had no access to an actual computer! The Dagat-dagatan Omni-Media Networking Hub (DOM-Net) was an investment in the future of these students. It aimed to provide computer access and then educate them in the use of the technology for their benefit and education. For the problem we faced was not just to provide the infrastructure but to educate the students in how to use the technology.

Here in the tech-savvy and educated world we take this for granted, turning to the Net for news, opinions, cheap fares, travel maps and directions, books, etc. But in the less educated world, the computer (and the Internet) is just an expensive multi-media toy, like an interactive television. It is seen (and used) as a gaming console! As such education is a great need in bridging the digital divide and this is the greater challenge. We may invest in computers and telephones, broadband and mobiles for the poor but if it is just a means for them to waste time and money on games it is of no use. For ultimately, communication is about not just building social skills but exchanging ideas and challenging young minds to build a better, more educated future. When a farmer in India has a crop-disease and needs help, he can post a question on a forum or look up the matter on the Net, find an answer and improve his harvest. That is a true bridging of the digital divide for it secures a brighter future for the dis-advantaged.