Sunday, October 21, 2007


Breaking the Word will be taking another break till the end of November for a short vacation and a long retreat. Your prayers will be much appreciated. Blessings!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Saturday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
An Acquired Taste?

Readings: Romans 4:13, 1-18; Psalm 105:6-7, 8-9, 42-43; Luke 12:8-12

Probably few, if any, of those who read this blog (including its author) will have had the experience of actually being taken before synagogues and before rulers and authorities in order to speak in defence of the faith. Thankfully, most of us live in environments that are not explicitly hostile to Christianity. Even so, we cannot deny that to live truly Christian lives, to truly acknowledge Christ in our daily living, often requires that we think and act in ways that can best be described as counter-cultural. At work, for example, when everyone seems to be looking out for number one, do we not find ourselves invited to heed a different call, to run a different race? But how do we know how to run this alternative race? How do we learn to recognize this divine call? How do we know what is the Christian thing to do in any particular situation in which we find ourselves?

One common approach is to try to learn more about what the rules say. We try, for example, to read up and even to teach others what is the church’s current teaching on various issues, such as living wills, or homosexuality, divorce and remarriage... This emphasis on norms is, of course, important. But it’s not the whole story. I’m reminded of an experience of mine, some years ago, when I was asked to share a short reflection with some university students. Perhaps imprudently, I chose to illustrate my point by referring to a movie, and an R(A) movie at that. After I’d said my piece, a student, whom I later discovered was a member of a rather conservative religious group, questioned me thus: Do you mean to say that your religious superiors allow you to watch movies? Don’t you think movies are an occasion for sin? I was rather flabbergasted at the time, and was led to reflect further upon the experience. Can movies be the occasion for sin? Probably. Are all movies always an occasion for sin and so to be avoided by everyone, on every occasion, and at all costs? I wonder…

To overemphasize the adherence to norms over and above all else is to fail to see the whole picture. For, as Paul continues to remind us in the first reading, it was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants… but through the righteousness that comes from faith… What does this imply? What’s the difference between the law and faith? Jesus’ words in the gospel highlight for us one crucial difference. To live by the law is to always be concerned with having all the answers before hand. It is to think that we can respond adequately to life simply by clinging rigidly to certain norms of conduct. But notice what Jesus says in the gospel: Do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say… The inspiration to do and say the right thing is given in the Spirit at the particular moment and in the particular situation of need.

Does this mean that norms are unimportant in living a truly Christian life? By no means. To quote Dean Brackley again:

Norms have a part in this, but not the most important part. Authentic freedom is about responding to reality under the guidance of the Spirit. There are three dimensions, or “poles,” of moral experience to which we must attend: ‘reality’ itself, the world outside us; ‘norms,’ which signal what is at stake in a given situation; and the action of the Spirit on our interior life. As we mature beyond moral minimums, we follow the Spirit more than we are guided by norms or abstract ideals in responding to the world. For Christians, Christ is the norm of norms and his Spirit guides them…

But all this implies that we Christians are continually learning to be more and more attuned to the voice of the Spirit, that we are gradually acquiring the taste for the Spirit's inspirations.

How might we continue to acquire this taste today?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Friday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Ss. John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues, Priests and Martyrs, and Their Companions, Martyrs
Losing Our Grip

Readings: Romans 4:1-8; Psalm 32:1b-2, 5, 11; Luke 12:1-7

Once again, the third gospel tells us of a time when so many people were crowding together to see Jesus and hear what he had to say that they were trampling one another underfoot. Yet Jesus seems oblivious to the presence of all these hungry souls. Instead of immediately ministering to them, we’re told that he began to speak first to his disciples. He warns them about the leaven of the Pharisees. What’s so important about this teaching that it can’t wait till Jesus has seen to the needs of the crowds? What’s so dangerous about the leaven of the Pharisees? Is their hypocrisy really so deadly?

To appreciate the gravity of Jesus’ warning, we need to consider again what he is talking about. The problem seems to be not so much the isolated actions of the Pharisees, as their whole approach to life and to God, as well as the reason why they do the things they do. Why do they obsess over minute details of the Law? Why do they like to show off their good works while covering up their own shortcomings? Why do they tend to judge others so mercilessly? In doing all these things, are they not trying desperately to maintain a tight grip on life? And not just life on this earth, but even in the hereafter? And why do they feel the need to do all this? Jesus gets to the heart of their motivation when he speaks to his disciples about fear. The Pharisees, and all like them, are driven by a deep anxiety born of a lack of trust. They find it difficult to let go, to lose their grip on life, because they cannot be sure that there will be anyone to catch them if they do. They cling desperately to things that are within their control – the Law, their own pious observances – in the hope that these will justify them.

But, as Paul tells the Romans in the first reading, we are justified not on the basis of our works but through faith. Christianity is not a matter of clinging tightly to life, even eternal life, but of losing one’s grip in order to fall into God’s embrace. And we can only learn to do this when we take to heart what Jesus says about God in today’s gospel. We only learn to loosen our grip on life when we begin to realize that God is truly on our side, that even the hairs on our heads are counted… This realization comes to us not only through hearing what Jesus says, but also especially through witnessing what he does when he mounts the Cross on Calvary.

And in the martyrs whom we celebrate today, we see extreme illustrations of the awesome power of this trust in God that bears fruit in a willingness to let go. St. Isaac Jogues, for example, had returned from North America to his native France bearing the hideous marks of unbelievably cruel torture at the hands of the Indians with whom he had sought to share the Good News. His fingers were so mangled that he needed a dispensation to allow him to continue to celebrate Mass. Yet he volunteered to return to North America to continue working among the Indians there. And it was on his return trip that he won the crown of martyrdom. As Jesus did before him, St. Isaac trusted in the providence of God to the extent that he was willing to lose his grip on life.

Probably few of us will be called to the same degree of renunciation. Even so, whatever our situation, each of us is called to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, to let go of our anxieties, and to place our trust in God.

How are we being invited to do this today?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Wednesday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Antioch, bishop and martyr
Painting Portraits

Readings: Romans 2:1-11; Psalm 62:2-3, 6-7, 9; Luke 11:42-46

Taken together, both our readings today paint for us a portrait of a particular type of person. Certain characteristics of this type are quite clearly spelt out. Such a person is judgmental. S/he expects a certain standard of behaviour or performance from others. And it would seem that most people tend to fall short of that standard. In Jesus’ words, this type of person imposes on people burdens too hard to carry… What’s more, this judgmental attitude seems to go hand in hand with a certain degree of hypocrisy. As Paul puts it: you… judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself… Clearly this type of person suffers from a certain blindness that hinders them from making accurate evaluations of self. This is because they are blissful unaware of the fact that they are focused on the wrong things. They obsess over the inconsequential things at the expense of the essentials. As Jesus says: you pay tithes of mint and of rue… but pay no attention to judgment and to love for God… This blindness allows them to enjoy a certain misplaced self-confidence or pride, which leads them to think that they are a cut above others, that they are members of an elite group.

In contrast, it may be useful for us to consider yet another portrait. What follows is taken from a book that I happen to be reading at the moment. It’s a book on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, written by Dean Brackley, and entitled The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times. Here we find a portrait, not of elitism, but of solidarity.

Solidarity is the social meaning of humility. Just as humility leads individuals to all other virtues, humility as solidarity is the foundation of a just society. In short, the standard of Christ today is “downward mobility.” That means entering the world of the poor, assuming their cause, and, to some degree, their condition. Solidarity shapes our lifestyle, which will depend on each one’s vocation. Solidarity does not necessarily mean destitution. It has nothing to do with denying our training or neglecting our talents. Special obligations, for example, to family and benefactors, carry weight in deliberating about lifestyle. We should beware of dogmatizing about having a car or a computer, about whether to save for old age or where to educate our children. These are legitimate matters for discernment, but not for one-sized-fits-all formulas. At the same time, the objective criterion of our “poverty” is solidarity with the poor. We will feel uncomfortable with superfluities when poor friends lack essentials. Attachment to them will detach us from luxuries, and even necessities. As the New Testament and Christian tradition tells us, possessions are resources entrusted to us, to be administered for the good of all, especially those in need. This logic extends to other resources. What about pursuing higher education in a world of hunger? If we have that opportunity, then studying means storing up cultural capital to be administered later on behalf of those who need us. How much should we have? Better to reframe the question: Do we feel at home among the poor? Do they feel comfortable in our homes? Or do our furnishings and possessions make them feel like unimportant people? Solidarity leads to sharing the obscurity, misunderstanding, and contempt experienced by the poor….

To combat world poverty and environmental decay, we need to make this the Century of Solidarity, especially international solidarity. As elites extend their power through globalized markets, finance, and communications, the response can only be to globalize the practice of love. We need to enlist the Internet, e-mail, and discount air fares in the cause. But more than anything else, we need “new human beings” who identify with the poor majority of the planet – including people in rich countries who know about trade, finance, and human rights law and can help address the complex causes of misery. Many such people are stepping forward, especially from colleges and universities and from the churches, with their unique potential to connect people across borders and a wealth of experience on the ground…

Today, if someone were to paint portraits of us, of our society, of our children, which would they resemble more closely, that of solidarity or that of elitism?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tuesday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, Virgin
Soaking the Rice Pot

Readings: Romans 1:16-25; Psalm 19:2-3, 4-5; Luke 11:37-41

As to what is within, give alms… and everything will be clean for you.

The Pharisee in today’s gospel is not wrong in emphasizing the importance of purity or cleanliness. From the point of view of personal hygiene, we all know how important it is to wash one’s hands before a meal. And cleanliness of a sort is also of paramount importance in the spiritual life. We see in the first reading, for example, the connection between purity and the ability to know God. Paul accuses the impious of not according glory to God even though God has made God’s presence evident to them in all of creation. In their vanity, they preferred to acknowledge other things as their gods. As a result, God handed them over to impurity. They lost their ability to savour God’s presence in their midst. What we have here is but the opposite of what Jesus proclaims in the beatitudes: blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God.

No, the Pharisee’s mistake lies not so much in his concern for cleanliness as in his obsession with the exterior at the expense of the interior. Indeed, his preoccupation with external rituals becomes simply another expression of the vanity that blinds people to God’s presence. Looking at Jesus, he sees not the presence of God but only someone who has not washed before a meal.

But perhaps we shouldn’t blame him too much. For the kind of purity that Jesus is emphasizing is not something that we can achieve through our own ascetical practices. We might think, for example, of how difficult it is to clean the inside of a rice-pot immediately after it has been emptied of its contents. We often need to soak it in water, or even detergent, for a while. And this is probably how we might understand Jesus’ advice to the Pharisee: give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you. What does Jesus mean? Is it simply a matter of setting aside for the poor some coins that one has left over? Surely, the Pharisee was no stranger to this sort of almsgiving.

Or was Jesus not rather inviting the Pharisee to embark on a process of soaking? For to truly give alms, one must first allow oneself to become aware of, and even to be affected by, the plight of those to whom one is giving. Just as a used rice-pot has to be soaked in detergent in order to be cleaned, so must the Pharisee allow his heart to be softened by contact with the needy. And, as often happens, in these waters of compassion, one encounters the same God that our saint for today, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque encountered. One sees the heart of Christ pierced through for all our sakes.

How is Jesus inviting us to experience this kind of soaking, this kind of interior cleansing process, today?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Monday in the 28th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of St. Teresa of Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church
The Evil of Apathy

Readings: Romans 1:1-7; Psalm 98:1bcde, 2-3ab, 3cd-4; Luke 11:29-32

This generation is an evil generation…

In the gospel, Jesus addresses his listeners with these very strong words at a time when more people gathered in the crowd. We may wonder at the reactions he might have evoked. You are evil! Me? Evil? How? Why? Why, indeed! Were they murderers or terrorists? Were they fornicators or paedophiles? Perhaps there were some among them who were guilty of these things. And yet, when we consider Jesus words more carefully, we see that he considers his generation evil not so much because of what it is doing as much as for what it fails to do. In contrast to the queen of the south who came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, in contrast to the people of Nineveh, who repented when they heard the preaching of Jonah, Jesus’ generation does nothing, it fails to respond. Instead, it seeks a sign.

It fails to appreciate what Paul appreciates in the first reading. Here, we see Paul expressing his deep conviction on two crucial points: his own identity and the identity of Jesus. Paul sees himself as the slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God. And this Jesus Christ, this master whom he serves, is nothing less than the Son of God. It is out of this sense of who he is in relation to Christ that conditions everything that Paul says and does, including the writing of the letter to the Romans. Paul’s life is a response to the one who called him.

Isn’t this what’s so singularly striking about Jesus’ accusation: that it contrasts so starkly with what we might traditionally think of as evil? For Jesus, evil seems to consist less in doing bad things than it does in failing to appreciate who we are in the sight of God, and consequently failing to respond to the call of God, the call to be members, labourers, even slaves in God’s vineyard.

And what of us? What of our generation? In a world plagued by the evils of poverty and war and environmental degradation, what kind of response are we being called to make?

If today Jesus were to cast his eyes on us, on our generation, what verdict would he pass?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Special Guest

In case you haven't already noticed, do check out the comments to this Thursday's post. There you will find a homily by a special guest. Many thanks to Fr. Luke Fong for sharing, and to all those who took the trouble to leave a comment. Have a great weekend!

Saturday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)

Readings: Joel 4:12-21; Psalm 97:1-2, 5-6, 11-12; Luke 11:27-28

One of the jokes that we’ve been sharing among ourselves since returning from Navotas has been that we miss the processions. There’s more than a tinge of sarcasm in this statement. During our time there, we used to meet for Mass with the people every evening. And after Mass, without fail, we would be expected to follow the people as they walked through the streets in procession from one neighbourhood chapel to the next, reverently carrying an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front of them. Never mind if it was raining. Never mind if the streets were flooded. Never mind if we had to dodge traffic and other less savoury objects along the way. Every evening, we walked through the streets together, sometimes singing and sometimes quiet, sometimes holding candles and sometimes in darkness. No, I think I can probably speak for my companions, even the most pious among us, when I say that the processions are probably among the things we miss least in Navotas.

And yet, this six-month program in which my companions and I find ourselves is also something of a procession. It involves quite a bit of moving around. We have just returned from Navotas, and in a week’s time we will be out again. And not only are we moving in space but we are also moving in time. We have been reflecting on and sharing our own life histories. We have been rereading the life of our founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and recalling the beginnings of the Society of Jesus. Like it or not, this program is really one big procession (as is life). But what, we may wonder, is the point of all this moving around? Where, we might ask, is the destination of our procession?

The Mass readings offer us an answer to this question. They speak to us of a possible destination for all our moving around. They speak of a time that is not really a time, and of a place that is not really a place. This time is the day of the Lord. And this place is the valley of decision. This is that time and that place where God makes known to us what God wants. And it is also that time and place where we come face to face with the need to make a choice, to decide whether or not to do what God wants of us in each concrete situation of each passing day. It is that time and place that our founder Ignatius spoke about when he ended his letters, as he often did, with the following prayer: may God our Lord grant us his abundant grace so that we might know his most holy will and entirely to fulfill it…

Isn’t this the point of all our moving around? Isn’t this the destination of our procession? We are preparing our hearts, our minds, our wills to hear the word of God and keep it. For, as Jesus tells us in today’s gospel, it is those who do this who are blessed by God. And we know that those who receive this blessing do so in order to become blessings for others. It was so for Ignatius of Loyola, just as it was for Mary our blessed mother. Isn’t this why it is fitting that the people of Navotas carry Mary’s image with such reverence and piety? They hope for a blessing from the one who was blessed for receiving God’s most holy will and entirely fulfilling it in her life.

Where and how are you processing today?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Friday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Inside or Outside

Readings: Joel 1:13-15; 2:1-2; Psalm 9:2-3, 6 and 16, 8-9; Luke 11:15-26

Some say the way something looks depends very much on where one is standing. If this is true, it might help to explain the rather strange situations described in our readings today. The first reading presents us with a puzzling description of the day of the Lord. On the one hand, we are told that it comes as ruin from the Almighty… a day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and somberness! And yet, immediately after this, we are also told that the coming of this day will involve the advent of a people numerous and mighty, who will spread over the mountains like dawn. So which is it? Will the day of the Lord be ruinous or glorious? Will it come as the darkness or the dawn? Perhaps it depends on where we’re standing. It will look one way if we are standing within the household of God, if we are numbered among the people of the Lord. And it will look quite another way if we’re outside looking in.

We find something similar in the gospel. Here the day of the Lord comes in the person and ministry of Jesus. And yet, when he expels a demon, there are those who say that it is by the power of Beelzebul that he does this great work. So which is it? Does Jesus rely on the power of the prince or demons or on the finger of God? Again, how something looks depends on where one is standing. Quite obviously, it is those who are on the outside looking in, those who do not acknowledge Jesus as master and Lord, who view his ministry in a negative, even demonic, light.

And there’s more. From what Jesus says in the gospel, we learn that how something looks depends not only on whether we are outside looking in or inside looking out, but also on what is inside us. For to stand with Jesus, to commit our lives to following him, is to have his spirit within us. On the contrary, to shy away from Jesus is to run the risk of being inhabited by evil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

How something looks depends on where we are standing.

The day of the Lord is coming among us everyday. How does it look like to us? Where are we standing?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thursday in the 27th Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Awaiting the Dawn

Readings: Malachi 3:13-20b; Psalm 1:1-2, 3, 4 and 6; Luke 11:5-13

My nine companions and I spent this past week living in a district called Navotas, comprising fourteen neighbourhoods, most of them very poor. The exposure experience was organized by the Pag-Aalay Ng Puso Foundation (offering of the heart), or PPF for short, a local NGO that has been working in the area since 1988. Almost twenty years have passed since PPF began working for and with the people of Navotas. And yet it’s so easy, especially for an undiscerning and overly critical eye, to miss the good that has been achieved thus far. For in many ways the people of Navotas are still living in the darkness of poverty and squalor.

One morning, my host brought me to the cemetery next to where her neighbourhood was located, to show me the final resting place of a relative. But we were prevented from reaching our destination because the way was strewn with human faecal matter. Indeed, although our host families were chosen partly because their houses are equipped with toilets, many other households in the area do not yet enjoy the same luxury.

Later we were told that although public toilets were built some years ago, with contributions from benefactors, the PPF had had to spend a whole year educating people about the importance of modern sanitation. It was only gradually that people were won over and began spontaneously to build toilets in their own homes. Even so, not all have heard the message, as my aborted cemetery visit made clear. Much more needs to be done. In this and in many other ways, the PPF and the people of Navotas continue to await the dawn of a new day.

And yet theirs is not a waiting of total passivity but of perseverance, the same perseverance that we find spoken about in our readings today. In the gospel, Jesus highlights the importance and efficacy of perseverance in prayer: ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you… And in the first reading, we find a perseverance not just of personal prayer but also of communal dialogue and collaboration. Faced with a situation where the innocent suffer while the guilty seem to prosper, the people who fear the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord listened attentively…

Quite inexplicably, in spite of the challenges we had to face, this past week spent in Navotas has been a very happy one for me. How could this be? Perhaps it is because in the apparent hopelessness, there are yet people who are persevering. Perhaps it is because in the apparent darkness of the night, dawn is already breaking, the sun of justice is already beginning to shine with healing rays.

How are we being called to persevere as we await the dawn?