Rest, retreat, re-energize with God

Homily for 16th Sunday in Ordinary time year B

2012-01-06_13-08-59_19Two of the many stresses I had on my training to the priesthood are writing essays and exams. Getting over those things are very stressful for me I felt that once I finished them, I could really felt a big burden was lifted up  from me. My friend and I used to celebrate the after-exam and after-essays moments- regardless of our marks– by going to the movies. I used to book the movie online to choose a good seat in the cinema. I remember one time, I was so excited when I booked the movie that I didn’t realize I booked in the cinema some 600 kilometres from where we were. I said to my friend: “I think, we’ve got a situation here. I’ve booked in Bathurst (NSW), when we were in Melbourne (VIC). I don’t think, we’ll get there on time for the movie.” I was just making light of the situation of course, after learning I have to wait for another couple of days for my booking to be refunded.

Another time, having not learned from my previous mistake, out of excitement once again, I booked for the movie in Adelaide, South Australia. Anyhow, we’ve sorted it out in the end and we still ended up going to the films. We really enjoyed those times, though the bookings at first gave me stress.

Friends, to get on with life, we need more than just doing many things, even good or even amazing things we do. We need to find ways to get out of our ‘busyness’. As a motivational writer Dr. Wayne Dyer would wisely say: ‘I am a human BEING, not a human DOING.

Jesus in the gospel ( Mk 6:30-34) would recommend to his disciples more or less the same thing. After sending his disciples for a mission, they had come back, happy, excited and eager to report to him what they had done. Obviously they must have done a lot, amazing things perhaps, preaching, healing, being with the people. The people even loved them because, they were following them still as the gospel today suggests.

Jesus must have been very happy and even  ‘proud’ of them. Yet, he understood  that his disciples are not just human ‘doings’. They are also human ‘beings’. So, he urged them: ‘You must go away to a lonely place.’ In effect, he is saying to them: ‘Go, make a little retreat. Reflect on your lives. Put your mission into perspective. Reflect on who you are now, rather than just thinking on what you have done recently.’

Jesus also said to them: ‘Go by yourselves.’ This is an invitation to re-energize, to rest and to draw positive energy either on our own or with positive, like-minded people, with those people we are familiar and comfortable with- our friends. It’s amazing how much moments like these get the stresses out of ourselves.

I remember in one of those after-exam moments, I rang my friend, who was then assigned in a parish (Mount Gambier, some hundreds of kilometres away from Melbourne) for his pastoral placement, if he liked to go to the movies. Coincidentally, he had also some things to do in Melbourne the following day, so he obliged and drove all the way from Mount Gambier and we went to see Avatar. Though he was late, we still went to see the film an hour after it started. The attendant there said to us: ‘Sir, are you sure you still want to go in? The movie started an hour ago.’ My friend said: ‘Not a problem. It’s a three-hour movie anyway and besides, I drove all the way from Mount Gambier to be here.’ That was really a good way to relieve our stress.

The other thing Jesus would tell his disciples after their mission is to go and spend quality time with God in prayer, as he himself would always do. ‘Prayer may not be everything’, as the late Bishop Joe Grech would say, ‘but it is the first thing.’ In prayer, we can experience in a more real and personal way the hand of the Lord at work in us. Prayer assures us of the hand of the Lord, our Good Shepherd guiding us to the right path, the path that is restful, the path of peace and serenity, the path of life and love (cf Psalm 22/23).

It is always a challenge for us to spend some times with God, especially when we think we still got plenty of things to do or to attend to. But even when we go on a holiday, we also tend to give God a break by not taking an effort to attend mass or to pray.

Few weeks ago, a woman came to me and said: ‘Father, my family is going on a holiday in the outback Australia. I don’t know if there is Catholic Church or a mass available nearby. What could we do if we can’t find a Catholic Church there?’ I said to her: ‘If it is really impossible (note: impossible), to attend mass, just remember the time you usually attend mass here and use that time, half-an hour perhaps, to gather together as a family in prayer, as a spiritual communion with the parish.’

I am just  so inspired by this mother’s motive to  make sure God is part of their family holiday. It is very inspiring to see people really making an effort to spend time with God amidst busyness in life.

There is a poem about not giving time for God in worship or prayer and it is worth reflecting. We may have fallen into this few times before. The title is ‘No time to pray

I knelt to pray but not for long,
I had too much to do.
I had to hurry and get to work
For bills would soon be due.

So I knelt and said a hurried prayer,
And jumped up off my knees.
My Christian duty was now done
My soul could rest at ease.

All day long I had no time
To spread a word of cheer.
No time to speak of Christ to friends,
They’d laugh at me I’d fear.

No time, no time, too much to do,
That was my constant cry,
No time to give to souls in need
But at last the time, the time to die.

I went before the Lord,
I came, I stood with downcast eyes.
For in his hands God held a book;
It was the book of life.

God looked into his book and said
“Your name I cannot find.
I once was going to write it down… 
But never found the time.”

(source: http://www.ellenbailey.com/poems/ellen_345.htm)

One reason not to pray, I sometimes hear from people is that God is  boring,  irrelevant, out of touch, deaf to our prayers, etc. Yes, it is indeed a challenge. Yet as my good friend said: ‘God is like a healthy food. You may not like it, because it is dull, boring, tasteless. But if you take it, it is good for you.’

Today, Jesus is inviting us to do less, and be more. For Jesus it is not about how much we have done, no matter how amazing they may be. Rather for him, it is how much love we put in what we do. We can only realize this, if we step back from the busyness of our lives, make a retreat and see where is God and where is the love in all that we do. Let us do this and our stress be lessened and our life becomes more worth-living. Amen.

 

 

 

 

At the office with St Benedict

The 11th of July is the feast of St Benedict. Three years ago on this day, I had a chat  with him (in my prayer and reflection) and posted it in my Faithbook. I am re-posting this conversation today to remind us of this great saint in the 5th century, whose example, legacy and spirit, are still of great relevance for us in the 21st century.

Junjun Faithbook: St Benedict, it is indeed a great privilege for me to have this opportunity of chatting with you. It is always very affirming to my faith to be able to have a glimpse of someone who lived out the gospel in a more real, personal and practical way.  Could you please tell us something about yourself?

St Benedict: Certainly. Well, I was born around the year 480 at Norcia in Italy. My parents were in a manner of saying coming from a distinguished family. But enough of that. I was born just four years after Romulus Augustulus, the last of the emperors of the Western Roman Empire was deposed in 1976.

Junjun Faithbook: Wow! You are indeed  part of the great moments in our human history.

St Benedict: By the grace of God, yes.

Junjun Faithbook: Anyhow, could you tell us about your Educational background?

St Benedict: Well,  I was on my teenage years when I was sent to Rome to get ‘liberal education’, that included literature and law, and you won’t believe this, I was accompanied by my own ‘nurse’ or perhaps you would call it now ‘a housekeeper.’

Junjun Faithbook: Fancy that! You’re spoiled! And how is it like being in Rome?

St Benedict: It wasn’t really that consoling.

Junjun Faithbook: What do you mean?

St Benedict: I don’t like the influences around me.  My companions were living in such a low moral standard, that I decided to leave Rome for good.

Junjun Faithbook: How did you get out of there?

St Benedict: With the help of my ‘housekeeper’ or ‘nurse’ I escaped without telling anyone.

Junjun Faithbook: And where did you go?

St Benedict: We went to the village of Affile, in the mountains about 30 miles from Rome.

Junjun Faithbook: Did you find peace there?

St Benedict: At first yes. Only because I thought then that if I could get away from the temptations of Rome, I would be alright. However, I realized  I was called to something deeper.

Junjun Faithbook: You felt you have discovered your vocation then?

St Benedict: Sort of. So I went alone to a much higher place, on the hills of Subiaco.

Junjun Faithbook: And did you found peace in that wild and rocky country at last?

St Benedict: Not that immediately, I would say. I met a monk there by the name of Romanus. I told him everything my heart desired. I also told him then that I wanted to live a life of a hermit.

Junjun Faithbook: Did he help you in discerning about it?

St Benedict: Absolutely! He assisted me. He even ‘clothed’ me with a sheepskin habit and led me to a cave in the mountain. There I lived on my own.

Junjun Faithbook: So the monk Romanus left you on your own since then?

St Benedict: Not really. For three years, he was the only one who knew my whereabouts. He kept it secret from anyone.

Junjun Faithbook: And how did you  get your daily sustenance?

St Benedict: The monk Romanus brought bread to me daily who drew it up in a basket let down by a rope over the rock.

Junjun Faithbook: That’s what I would call  fraternal dedication and concern.

St Benedict: Indeed! And I am always thankful to God for that.

Junjun Faithbook: And so, you must have enjoyed the solitude there?

St Benedict: At the beginning, yes. But people started coming to gather around me. Their reason was that as they confided to me,  they were attracted by my holiness and by miraculous powers.

Junjun Faithbook: Saints always shine indeed. And you just can’t deny yourself of that privilege so to speak. By the way, who were these people who came to you?

St Benedict: Some of them were just wanting to flee from the world. And some were solitaries who were living among the mountains.

Junjun Faithbook: Did you gather them then as one community?

St Benedict: I tested them if they would obey me. I asked them to settle in ‘twelves’ into a twelve wood-built monasteries, and assigned a prior to each of those monasteries.

Junjun Faithbook: So you didn’t really have to oversee all of them?

St Benedict: No, except those monks I have trained especially for something, so they were under my direction.

Junjun Faithbook: So in that way,  you’ve established your monastery there as a firm and stable community?

St Benedict: In a way, yes. But I actually just set things in order.

Junjun Faithbook: What do you mean?

St Benedict: When I saw it certain that they could manage, I withdrew from Subiaco to Monte Cassino.

Junjun Faithbook: Why there?

St Benedict: It is a solitary elevation on the boundaries of the Campania, commanding on three sides, narrow valleys running up towards the mountains.

Junjun Faithbook: It really sounds very convenient for solitude.

St Benedict: Certainly! In fact, I initiated the building of the two chapels there, around which lay the foundation of a great Abbey.

 Junjun Faithbook: And what year was this built?

St Benedict: Around the year 530.

Junjun Faithbook: You must have been in your middle age by then? And you must have enjoyed being a hermit there?

St Benedict: For a certain time, yes, but then people who wanted to follow my lifestyle started coming to Monte Cassino too.

Junjun Faithbook: And you welcomed them?

St Benedict: I couldn’t turn them away. So I gathered them together in one community, appointed a prior over them and deans as well. Yet they still looked up to me for general supervision.

Junjun Faithbook: And besides your disciples, did you also take other people into your Monastery? As guests perhaps?

St Benedict: Yes,  hospitality is one of our major works. And indeed, it had become necessary for us to build more guest rooms to accommodate those people?

Junjun Faithbook: Are they basically lay people who were attracted to your simple and well-ordered lifestyle?

St Benedict: There were also dignitaries of the Church who would come and ask advice at times.

Junjun Faithbook: People would come to you because of your reputation of holiness, wisdom and even miracles.  Have you realized that?

St Benedict: I just did what God wants me to, and I was just being myself as a channel of God’s graces.

Junjun Faithbook: How about the famous Rule of St Benedict that is being followed now by Benedictines and Cistercians around the world, did you compose that  around your time in Monte Cassino?

St Benedict: Around that time yes.

Junjun Faithbook: It really had made such an impact to people. The people  in your time then, especially those who were living in the surrounding country would testify that you cured their sick, relieved their distress, distributed alms and food to the poor, and even said that you raised the dead on more than one occasion, did not all these make you proud of yourself?

St Benedict: It is God who made all those things to happen through me. So what am I to be proud of?

Junjun Faithbook: How about the story that you even told your disciples your imminent death six days before it actually happened to you, and thus you asked them to make a grave ready for you?

St Benedict: Again, it is God’s doing.

Junjun Faithbook:  Let’s praise God for his great love revealed in you St Benedict. Thank you so much for your life and example.  Through your famous Rule, we have learned so much how to balance prayer and work, charity and moderation, and how to make these basic elements of our life, a way for our sanctification. And please pray for us always that like you we may end up in heaven too.

On the last day of St Benedict’s life, he received the Body and Blood of the Lord. With the help of his brothers in the monastery, he was able to stand up in the chapel, with his hands uplifted towards heaven, and breathed his last on the year 547. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared him Patron Saint of Europe.

St Benedict of Nurcia, pray for us.

 

 

The beauty of God as a friend

Homily for Easter Vigil 2015

A priest friend of mine shared with me recently an amazing story about his friend, a priest in a certain missionary country. This priest went to a meeting one day. One of those who were there was a man who is blind and he had his guide dog with him sitting by his feet. Upon seeing the dog, the priest tried to pat it but the owner said: ‘No, don’t touch him, he’s working.’ If the priest would have touched the dog, he would have been attacked. Such was the loyalty of the dog to its owner that his attention is solely focused to master. After the meeting though, the owner patted the dog, and said: ‘You can relax now, your work is finished.’ And the dog began to roam around the room and would now allow other people there to touch him.

The priest was amazed of the dog’s dedication to his master. But what the owner said was even more amazing. The blind man said: ‘You know Father, if God would let me choose whether to have perfect eyesight or my dog, I would still choose the dog.’

It’s just an amazing thing that the master would rather still choose to have his personal defects than missing the company of his dog.

In a way, this is a kind of Easter story.

God, the master, the creator of all the universe, most holy, and the source of all perfections,  would rather be one like us through Jesus Christ- a subject to death, taking on our imperfect and sinful conditions, than leaving us die in our own sins and imperfections.

God has it all you know. In fact, God could have chosen not to have anything to do with us. Yet, when he found us in sin, abusing his goodness, disrespecting his creation, denying him at times, not believing him, or disappoint him at times, he didn’t abandon us. It’s not that He can’t. He just won’t abandon us forever.

If I were God, I would have decided: “Okay, it’s not my loss anyway. You people go on your own sinful ways. I don’t care about you anymore. I’ll focus now my attention to something else, somewhere.”

But no, God would even do much more that we can imagine. Through Jesus Christ, his own Son, He would rather take on the ultimate punishment of our sins- death, in order for us to live, in order to enjoy our company with him forever in heaven.

This is one message of Easter- that God enjoys our company so much so that he would break down the enormity of our sins, the gates of hell and the power of death- those things that would separate us from him.

Yes, God, as we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, enjoys our company, that he would never give up on us even if at times we try to give up on him in exchange of temporary happiness, greed, false security and worldly honour.

Furthermore, Jesus would never let us down even if at times we let him down. Jesus never came down from the cross even if his closest disciples, let him down. See, they had been with him for three years, seeing every wonderful thing he, did, hearing every comforting word he said, witnessed and experienced amazing events he was in, yet they left him on his own to face his imminent death- his death on the cross, all except John and his mother- Mary. How disappointing would it have been for Jesus not to see his disciples in his final moments.

But, no he didn’t back off. He loves us so much that not only he would take on himself the punishment due to us for our sins, he would also justify us before God the Father as he prayed while hanging on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’ Wow! Amazing God!

This one of the final words of Jesus on the cross is one of the most comforting passages in the gospels, in fact in the whole of Scriptures. This just assures us that God, our God is a loving God, a forgiving God, a God of mercy. He is the kind of God- the father of the prodigal son, who was looking out the window day by day for the coming back of his son. This God is that father who would rather take on the ridiculous situation of running towards his son and threw his arms around his son, despite what his son had done to him previously.

As Pope Francis would say: “God never tires of forgiving us, never… The problem is that we get tired, we don’t want to, we get tired of asking forgiveness. Let us never get tired. He is the loving Father who always forgives, who has that heart of mercy for all of us.”

Moreover, God enjoys our friendship that he would take all that it costs for this friendship to work out. As Jesus has shown, He lay down his life for his friends.

In addition, God never stops believing us, even if at times we stop believing in him. I just like this beautiful statement I found on our kitchen table this morning that says: ‘Though I’m not perfect, but Jesus thinks I am to die for.’ Wow!

That’s how much we meant for our God. That’s how much Jesus cares for us.

It is just right and fitting that we celebrate this Holy Week, more particularly the Easter triduum with such solemnity, with prayerful reflections, and with ceremonies full of symbolism.

As we just had it- we started the blessings of the fire outside. Then we lit the paschal candle. Then we lit our little candles from the Paschal candle- to remind ourselves of God’s intervention into the story of our salvation as the light of Christ that drives the darkness away. Then we heard the beautiful chant- the Exultet, a summary of the history of our journey with God from the slavery to freedom, inviting us Church to rejoice, because in Christ, God has assured us of our salvation. Then we re-called the history of our salvation through the many readings that tell us of God’s care for us and intervention into our human story. Then we blessed the water, the symbol of our Christian baptism, wherein we not only die with Christ but also rise with him in glory.

We do all these and we celebrate these holy days with such solemnity, because these days remind us that God enjoys our company and that he wants to be part of his circle of friends in heaven.

As we celebrate this Easter season with renewed heart and renewed life, let us also remember those people who courageously spoke up as friends of God- as Christians, especially the victims of the recent massacre in Kenya and in many parts of the world. As we pray for their eternal rest in God, let us learn from their courage in proclaiming the faith.

Let us always remember: In Jesus, we see God that enjoys our company and friendship that He would rather be not only in company with us sinners but really that He would pay the price of our sins in full- through his death on the cross- thus assuring us of eternal life, happiness, peace and friendship with him forever in heaven.

I hope and pray, you all have a holy and a happy Easter.

Amen.