Month: July 2014

On saying good words about others

This entry is from my book Collected Thoughts (2014). It was first a sermonette in honor of St. John Bosco whom I delivered when I was a novice (in 2007). I’m posting it here as my way of honoring St. Ignatius of Loyola whose feast day, the Church marks today.

From a splendid soldier to a faithful founder. A statue of St. Ignatius in front of the Manila Observatory. Photo by Itchan Decena

Once upon a time, I wanted to know whether God was calling me to be a Jesuit.

I shared this with my spiritual director and with the go signal from my Salesian formators, I found myself one day in the midst of young Jesuits who were explaining to me the process of how to become one.

This took place more than a decade ago.

One sweet after-taste of that encounter is the realization that they speak well of their confreres. I note that they only reserve the best and sweetest adjectives for each other.

And that feeling of awe I still carry up to now, now that I am already a Salesian.

I have learnt in my research that the SJs don’t put much emphasis on community life unlike the way we celebrate our fraternal community, but they are able to express their love through their good words for each other.

Scanning the pages of our very own Biographical Memoirs, I found out that it’s no less than the “Salesian Pope” himself in the person of Pius IX who advised Don Bosco when he visited the former in Rome to imitate the Jesuits in their ways of treating the confreres.

Don Bosco quoted Pius IX with these words:

You will never hear a Jesuit priest speak less than favorably of any of his confreres. Rather, they always highly praise any of them should their names come up in conversation. Should anything happen that might in any way stain or tarnish the name or reputation of your society, keep it hidden from the strangers. Do likewise.

BM IX pp. 262

These words of St. John Bosco stirred some sensitive chords in my heart. It has forced me to evaluate how the Salesians live well to the standards of the Jesuits in terms of fraternal charity. It asks me to assess each Salesian as regards his treatment of his brother Salesian.

Don  Peter Ricaldone, the fourth successor of Don Bosco, entitled his 1933 message “Think well, speak well and do well to all.” At a glance, it seemed that it’s written more for very young kids who are learning to “stop, look and listen,” however, the richness of his message written more than seventy years ago has never lost its essence.

He said that “Charity exhorts us in the first place to think well of all.” “Think” here means the proper use of the mind in forming judgments with regard to our neighbor. Uncharitableness is so detestable a vice that St. John Chrysostom compares it to the low occupation of cleaning out sewers and revealing the filth that is in them.”

St. Francis of Sales rightly points it out: Those who criticize others by making laudatory preambles and interweaving appealing clever remarks are the most subtle and poisonous slanderers of all.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed it or if you’re concerned at all, but the ill remarks toward others are spreading like wild fire; that it’s more satisfying to speak about the weakness of others rather than of their strength; it’s easier to put them down than to lift them up.

I say this especially because of two reasons: first, it contradicts charity; and second, it will not make the person change.

Possessed by the Treasure

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way,” writes Fr. Pedro Arrupe of the Jesuits.

Perhaps, this is a modern-day rendition of what Jesus, the Son of God, preached, thousands of years ago, about the Kingdom of the Father.

This Sunday’s Gospel features Jesus’ presentation of how one may approach the Kingdom of God: It may be accidentally (read: providentially) or an end result of a painstaking search.

But under any circumstance, the response is the same: there is the “going and selling” movement in order to possess the object of discovery.

However, this possession isn’t one way, for there is mutuality. The person who finds the object is possessed by it as well. Hence, he goes out of his way to let go of his other belongings in order for that object to belong to him.

However, it is rightful to conjecture that the object seized him first, thus, the action of “selling everything” just so he could pull in his resources in order to buy the object.

Hundreds of years ago, there was Augustine was in search for Truth (it’s one of God’s monicker). In doing so, he tried to seek Him in religious sects, and when he landed on one, his life proved that the search isn’t over yet.

He tried other stuff which he thought would wipe out his thirst for something, but he was not satisfied. Until finally, he found what’s he’s looking for.

When he wrote these classic lines below, he must have been sure that the search was indeed over.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new,
late have I loved you!
You were within me, but I was outside,
and it was there that I searched for you.
In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
Created things kept me from you;
yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.
You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.
You breathed your fragrance on me;
I drew in breath and now I pant for you.
I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.
You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

What he was in search of, he finally found. Or, did IT finally find him?

The discovery didn’t enrich only one aspect of his life. The effect of the treasure reached all its aspects.

I think that’s what a mark of a real treasure is: It transforms our lives. It makes us yearn for it, it makes us sell everything so that we could possess it.

As we consume it, it consumes us in return.

The Gardener’s Patience & Compassion

If there is one character in the Harry Potter series readers love to hate, that would be Snape.

As one of Harry’s teachers in Hogwarts, he terrorized the latter in the classroom; he would ask him the most difficult questions and train on him the most esoteric magical spells.

In the flashbacks, it was revealed that Snape had an axe to grind since Harry’s dad James Potter, bullied him when they themselves were once students—not to mention that Lily, Harry’s mom, was Snape’s love interest before, and even after, James entered the scene.

But even without these details, the mere physical appearance of Snape would send the readers of the book—and of its film version—into stereotyping him as nothing but evil.

His big black eyes, pallid complexion and heavily greased dark hair would remind one of Dracula; this characterization of Snape would make one easily conclude that he is not only cold, but he’s downright evil.

In the last installment however, came the surprising revelation. Readers would gasp at the exposition that he was a good guy after all. His playing ‘evil’ was necessary in order to achieve greater good, that is, in order to stop He-who-must-not-be-named from claiming back his full powers. In the book’s epilogue, Harry describes Snape as “one of the bravest men I knew.”

In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus points out at the striking mixture of wheat and weeds which look uncannily the same. Hence, his advice for the necessary leniency and patience so that in proper time, the wheat may be saved, and the weeds be disposed of.

I recall that years ago, when I was in practical training, I became the unofficial care-taker of the plants in the seminary. An aspirant came to me one afternoon, with a plucked out plant in his hand, asking me if it is possible if we could be take care of it in our greenhouse. I examined the plant and it took me sometime before I figured out that it’s merely weed.

My point here is that plants and weeds look the same—at some point—that one ought to know his plants very well so that one may be able to distinguish them from the weeds. But this does not entail mere expertise alone, it also highlights the importance of time—and with it—the virtue of patience.

It is in this regard that the Gardener par excellence gracefully does His job.

He gently waits for his plants to grow. He is patient enough to strike at the right time to eliminate the weeds so that no wheat may be compromised.

This reality leads me to see what the world looks like. There are good people and bad people alike living in just one neighborhood; saints and sinners abound in the church; there are decent people and dishonest people working in the government and even in private organizations. I need not to go farther since in the human body, there lies the existence of good cells, which are responsible for growth, and of bad cells, which account for the sickness.

God does wait. He doesn’t have that compulsion to pluck me out when I commit a mistake. He exercises patience to encourage me to grow, and respecting my freedom, gently prods me to make me realize that I need some shaping up.

This leads me to see the need to radiate His patience in the midst of my human family who is prone to frailty and sin. Owing to my acceptance that I am weak, I extend my hand of forgiveness to others, freeing them from the mental prison I jailed them in. Lies underneath each of them is a beautiful image of the Creator which beckons me to discover, appreciate and love.

But before I do just that, I remind myself to start the difficult work in chipping off the ugliness in me so that with God’s help, I may discern well to see the beauty He painstakingly crafted within me.

To extend my patience and to be compassionate to others, I ought to make myself first its primary recipient.




The Word is Alive

Finishing my class one afternoon, a young man asked me whether I still remember him. I immediately dredged up from the names in my head to match it with his face, but my brain cell responsible for this didn’t show up. I conceded defeat.

I told him that I could not remember him anymore but I consoled him that he “looked eerily familiar.

He shrugged it off and casually mentioned “Sir, ako po si ______.” In no time, I blurted out his first name which made me recall how he looked like the last time I saw him. If my calculations were correct, it was more than a decade ago. He has morphed into someone else far different from how he looked like, which is the culprit why I seemed to have forgotten his name.

He proudly tells me that he is now a teacher. This came as a surprise since I did not imagine that he’d end up to become one. I suspect that he did not register right away because he was neither unruly nor participative in my class. I recall that back then, he was part of the basketball varsity, but that’s about it.

His next line did not just surprise me, it also melted my heart: “I learned a lot from you.”

My brief encounter with that former student gave me some perspectives on the Gospel this Sunday.

A young confrere and a good friend, Br. Paul Dungca, carefully worked through the 23-verse Sunday Gospel into a beautifully-synthetic illustration of the sower’s method—and their eventual destinies.

In the parable account penned by Matthew, we are introduced to the sower who must have been uber hard-working in his task of spreading the seeds in various environments. Some of his seeds fell on a path, some on rocky ground, others along thorns, while the rest, in a rich soil.

Surely, it is a cinch to figure out that the rich soil will give an abundant yield that goes beyond our imagining. However, it is also fundamental to see how despite the other soils’ qualities, the sower still permitted that the seeds reach them; he permitted that they be wasted on them. He did not discriminate; he gave everyone equal chances.

But we know that only which is that receptive will be able to bear fruits.

In the explanation of the parables, Jesus pointed out that the seeds embody the Word of God. And truly, the Word of God has powers of its own. It does not just go beyond time, it also cuts across cultures. It surprises us to see how it flourishes despite difficult circumstances. It has a life of its own that does not just pass on ideas, but also molds one’s values.

The Word is alive inasmuch as it conveys life. It affects one’s life but in such a manner that one allows it to.







lifting up the lowly

Over the weekend, a good friend gave me a book Imitation of Christ, a classic in Spirituality written by a monk named Thomas Kempis, which I’ve been meaning to have since I entered the seminary.

When I came home from the apostolate, I leafed through its pages and decided to devour the first chapter (as what the author recommended).

Immediately, these lines jumped out of the page:

But it happens that many, by frequent hearing of the gospel, are very little affected, because they have not the spirit of Christ. But he, who would fully and with joy understand the words of Christ, must study to make his whole life conformable to that of Christ.

I mulled these over and found myself agreeing.

Come to think of it, why is it that some individuals appear to have been more adjusted to listening to Christ? By this, I am not just talking about the physical listening we give whenever the Word of God is proclaimed in the Church. This is about how certain individuals’ lives seem to have been more touched by God than others, how some people appear to be a tad kinder and nicer if not holier than the rest.

When I was in the seminary in Canlubang, one thing I fancied looking at are the slippers left outside the adoration chapel. The explanation is this simple: several pairs of slippers outside means several seminarians are praying inside. But what is also saddening is that, day in and day out, the same slippers are left outside that one would memorize whose slippers are those; they only belong to few individuals who consistently visit the Blessed Sacrament.

Six years ago, I had this encounter with a middle aged mother. She conveyed to me the news that one of her sons was to enter the seminary.  Although delighted with the news, she could not hide her concern since her son was   the breadwinner of the family, and his entry to the seminary did not only mean losing someone who earns for the family, worse, it’s an additional burden for them to support him financially.

I met her again last Sunday and I was thrilled to ask about her son. She proudly told me that he has persevered, he finished his bachelors’ degree last March, and is in a far-flung island now to continue his seminary formation. She calmly told me that she has singlehandedly supported her son in his seminary formation all these years since she did not know whom to ask for help.

She has kept her trust in the Lord and from the looks of it, He has not abandoned them.

This Sunday, we hear these intimate words of Jesus, praising the Father for He has hidden things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants (Matthew 11:35).

Truly, it is surprising to see that the little ones like that mother could be more attuned to the things that come from the Father. The littlest blessings that come their way are greatly appreciated. The smallest token of kindness is equaled with utmost gratitude. Setting aside self-entitlement, every good that happens in their lives comes alone from the goodness of God, and something that they do not merit.

If something bad finds their way, they know that the God whom they believe, love and pray to will do something to lift them up from that condition.

When I was assigned in a resettlement area, there was a young boy, perhaps about 7 years old or even younger who would join our nightly formation. One Saturday evening, I saw that he was already in the brink of tears. Sensing that something was not right, I inquired from him. He told me that he was already hungry. As luck would have it for him, the boy who was selling lumpia was just around. I bought some for him. His face lightened up in gratitude. He then asked me the question: Kuya, pwede po bang iulam ito? Hindi pa rin po kasi kumakain yung bunso namin.

This little boy and that mother taught me valuable lessons.

They showed me how to genuinely trust the Lord and think of the welfare of others even if I myself am also in desperate need of it. Their simplicity made me see how some people may not be properly educated and yet they surpass the knowledge of the learned, only because of the Father’s gracious will and their dependence into it.

Thoughts from the Seedbed: A review

MANILA June 29, 2014 — One occasionally hears the lament that we (Salesians) do not have the popular style writers we once had – a skill and a tradition that goes all the way back to the Founder himself. Is that really the case? There may be some truth to it. But it is good to recognize talent when we see it, and Thoughts from the Seedbed is clear evidence of young Salesian talent that is going somewhere.

Thoughts from the Seedbed is the work of a team – a talented writer and at least two, though possibly more, talented graphic artists; let’s just know them as Donnie (writer) and Jerome and Paul (artists). They are young Salesians in various stages of formation, Bro. Donnie Duchin Duya is a theological student while Bros. Jerome and Paul are in the postnovitiate.

A Screen Grab of AustralAsia

A Screen Grab of AustralAsia # 3458

They can be ‘followed’ in various ways, as is common today for the digitally-minded, and you pick up the flavor of all three of them, I think, from how one of them describes himself online: “I write. I read. I design. I speak. I play. I pray. But there is more than what you see in me. There is more than what I do …“.

And in keeping with the desire of today’s youth to share and share alike, the author of the text, in a brief note to austraLasia, says: “We are hoping that this output will also whet the appetite of confreres in the region to come up with materials which we could pass around that enrich and edify.”  To further this aim they have chosen to place the work under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike license, which means that they deserve and request appropriate credit but you may remix, transform or build upon this material, except for commercial purposes and so long as you put it under the same license.
But back to Donnie the writer. If Don Bosco made a tradition out of his mother’s nightly practice of a few words, then Bro. Donnie has turned the Goodnight into a literary genre.  You find umpteen dozen collections of homilies around, but not so many collections of Good nights!  This brief collection may be very helpful, mutatis mutandis, in various parts of the region and indeed elsewhere.

The genre requires, we know, that one be pithy and succinct, and these are not easy to maintain in a consistent way in a literary form, let alone in speech, but Donnie has achieved this across some 20 Good nights given to young aspirants and prenovices (known as ‘sems’ or ‘seminarians’ in Filipino Salesian lingo).

We find interesting and thoroughly imbibed doses of Salesianity – the sense that the author ‘knows’ his Salesian story and loves it – in each of these brief items, a handing on of the tradition that just suits the age and stage of young people aspiring to Salesian life. One notes, too, that they fulfill one of the other needs of a Goodnight in a youth context – the ability to hand out occasional bitter medicine in a palatable way. The item on New Media delicately prepares the aspirants for the fact that their internet ‘gate-keeping’, while still their responsibility, is also helped along by some judicious control! But they are left with a clear message: “Two words. Just two words. Authenticity and Transparency.”

Personal testimony has its place in the Goodnight. At one point Donnie tells his vocation story, describing himself as a ‘returnee’. There is some youthful, rueful good humor in the telling, but one learns a lot about the teller – his earlier experience in educational publishing for Korea and Japan, but more importantly, what drew him back to his Salesian senses, as we might put it: “The warm brand of brotherhood that bonded us as one batch.” There’s a hint of the gifted sentence there too.
There may be a few things yet to do. The ‘team’ is looking at publishing opportunities and will almost certainly produce an epub version, amongst others. There are one or two minor syntactic issues that can be fixed and a print version would benefit from a Table of Contents.  But this item as it stands will be of immediate interest and value to anyone who picks it up. No doubt we will be seeing/hearing more from this group.