Thursday, 23 August 2007

LEYSIN

I have branded the trip “exhausting, terribly lengthy, hassle-filled”. And indeed, I had reason to do so, and still it would be an understatement.

Our ordeal began with the usual rituals that we do in airports, on the early morning of Sunday, August 19. Fr. Paul, Fr. Mike and myself were brought to the airport from Don Bosco Makati. The ticket and passport check, the baggages through the X-ray machines, the walk through the metal detector (they didn’t detect my braces!), the checking in, the airport fee, the immigration officer, the X-ray part 2, the body check, and the dull span of time before boarding the plane.

Our flight was supposed to be 10:45am: KLM Manila-Amsterdam-Zurich. The plane was there but there was no sign that we would board. Then it was announced: the flight was cancelled due to engine trouble (another long story told to us which I would skip). We were billeted at the Manila Hotel. We have lost a day.

The next day at the counter we were told that there would still be no flight. After some intercessions from people connected with the airlines as well as some persistence from us, we left Manila on August 21, 12:20am: Korean Airlines-Air France with a new itinerary: Manila-Seoul-Paris-Zurich—a long trip of about 24 hours including the stopovers.

We reached Zurich at 7:00pm of August 21. It was the longest trip I’ve had so far in my life. If we counted since Sunday (with the limbo at Manila Hotel), it would come up to more than two and a half days. We stayed the night in Zurich with Fr. Johan Dumandan and a Filipino family as our gracious hosts. Exhaustion set in as we began to lose the adrenalin that powered us the preceding days.

The long trip to Leysin resumed yesterday morning with our train trip from Zurich. It extended to more than three hours: Zurich-Lausanne-Aigle-Leysin. And what a trip the last leg was. It was an ascent that was rewarding: very pleasant weather in a scenic village among the Alps: the destination a real consoling blessing. Thus is life: through adversity to glory.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

The Final and Ultimate Critic

The prelude was an unexpected private meeting in the afternoon of August 4. I was browsing through the shelves of Solidaridad, the bookstore at Padre Faura, as has always been my wont whenever I passed by that area in Ermita. I looked at the books written by F. Sionil Jose and saw his latest—the novel Vibora! among those displayed. There were new translations to his novels, particularly one that caught my eye—the Italian version of Viajero. I bought several titles: Vibora!, Olvidon, Ermita, Sin, Three Filipino Women and Gagamba. I reminded myself that I was teaching fiction in my creative writing class and thus needed to get familiar once again with the genre by reading. As I paid for the books, just out of curiosity, I asked the cashier whether it was possible to have my books signed by Mr. Jose himself who owned the book shop. I was delighted when I heard the affirmative. In a few minutes, I was asked to enter his study and after a short while I was face to face with the literary giant, our very own best bet for the Nobel in Literature; the 1980 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Literature; our 2001 National Artist and 2004 Pablo Neruda Centennial Awardee bestowed by the government of Chile; the Filipino novelist translated into 28 languages…

Our meeting lasted for about an hour. I had an interesting chat with him on his works that I read. What impresses me right now about that particular conversation besides the great person himself was the tone of familiarity that pervaded in that quiet interlocution.

And I realized the reason for this familiarity: it was because I have known the author through his writings; I read them and have savored the words and the experiences that they represented. In the end I asked for the possibility of him giving a short lecture to my class in creative writing and he gladly acceded to my request.

And so the next week I brought the whole class to meet the man. It was an important day for these aspiring writers. They saw the literary giant and heard him speak about himself, about his writings and about aspiring to be a writer—different themes each of which deserves a whole essay or reflection.

He mentioned that there are certain professions which are more properly called vocations: the priesthood, teaching, the medical profession, and, he added with great emphasis, writing. He affirmed with solemnity: writing is a vocation because it is meant to serve. He says that a writer must be passionate. Writers, he said, are probably the most egoistic of people since what they write is about things as viewed by themselves. However, he said, the celebration of the self must lead to a celebration that is much, much greater than the writer, something bigger, more meaningful than the self. It is this that will make the writing endure, that will make it stand the test of time. In this line, F. Sionil Jose adds that the final and ultimate critic is time. The greatness of a work will be seen if it withstands this test.

This is true for any other work, great or small. In the last analysis, little failures would not count so much because of the good that we have done consistently.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Empathy

Each year, sandwiched between the feast of two great saints (St. Dominic on August 8 and St. Lawrence on August 10), we celebrate that of a great woman: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross—more popularly known in philosophical circles as Edith Stein.

Her life had many turning points as it had many facets. Edith Stein was a philosopher, a convert from Judaism, a Carmelite nun, a martyr, and a saint. She was a disciple of the great phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. So awestruck was I by all this that once I thought of taking her as the philosopher of my choice for my licentiate thesis. Though this thought did not materialize, as I instead wrote on Ernst Bloch. However, my admiration for this philosopher-martyr has never faded. I continue to dream about her deep insights.


Her doctoral dissertation was entitled
On the Problem of Empathy. It is a philosophical work and therefore uses categories that are beyond the great majority who have not pursued the vocation to be a philosopher. However, I find it interesting that this was the topic of her choice. Sympathy for a person means feeling with that person. Empathy is much deeper than that: it is feeling in, that is, really experiencing the joy or the sorrow of the other person.

Perhaps it is this thought of empathy that paved the way for the major turning points in her life. Experiencing the rewarding life of a fulfilled philosopher who sought for truth was not enough for her: she sought the Truth who was God himself and thus went deeper—into contemplation—as she entered the walls of Carmel. It was empathy that made her endure the dread of entering the gates of Auschwitz and facing death. In what she preached she was tested and passed with flying colors.


Dear friends, empathy is not an easy thing. To sympathize is hard enough (though it is non-committal); to empathize is even more tedious as it will demands a lot from us. Yet empathy is one more way of going the extra mile, of being convinced that in the sense of living comes with doing things wholeheartedly.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Thought


L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature, mais c’est un roseau pensant.” (“Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed.”) - Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

The human being is great because of thought. This sums up Blaise Pascal’s treatise on the human being. It was proper of the times he was in—the age of reason which began with the “Cogito, ergo sum” of Descartes.


Some days ago, I showed to my philosophy students the film Inherit the Wind
, starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, and Gene Kelly. The movie features the famous case of a school teacher who was charged for violating a law against teaching evolution. While the issues that it touched are quite diverse, with themes on Biblical fundamentalism versus evolutionism or religion versus science, I was struck by the fact that it is the thinking human being who was actually on trial. The following lines are worth remembering:

“Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one thing that sets above the other animals? What other merit have we? The elephant is larger, the horse stronger and swifter, the butterfly more beautiful, the mosquito more prolific, even the sponge is more durable.”


Without prejudice to the reality that it was God himself who has given us dignity, I would tend to hold that the capacity to think is among these gifts that are part of the “glory and honor” that God has crowned the human being. It is that which sets us apart from all creation.


It is my conviction that thinking is a sacred act. It is thus in making our students think that sanctifies education, when we let them share in this divine gift. It is that which bestows durability to the feeble reed. It is “teaching how to fish rather that giving the fish.”


The human mind is a well that never runs dry. Even in an environment of anti-intellectualism, the champions of thought will prevail: for God has plagued us with this capacity to think.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

“I will show you the way to Heaven”


“Tu m’as montré le chemin d’Ars; moi, je te montrerai le chemin du ciel.”
(St. John Vianney to a young shepherd who showed him the way to Ars)

Ars is a tiny village—one can see that even to these days. However, it is famous for the parish priest it once had: St. John Mary Vianney, patron of priests (especially parish priests), whose memorial we just celebrated (Aug. 4).

Ars is likewise special for me. I have been there twice—Dec. 26, 2002 and April 25, 2003. The impact of the visit to the place has been equally tremendous each of the times I was there. I always marveled at how the Saint lived his simple life with the rigors it entailed. It was a privilege to see his heart, and his remains (the body was still intact, minus the head which was replaced by a wax figure).

The first time I was there, I asked the sacristan (a certain Frére Michel) whether I could say Mass and he said yes, but he asked for my celebret (an identification which is a proof that I was a priest). Seeing the date of my ordination which was barely six months before, he told me that new priests are given the privilege to say Mass using the chalice of the Saint. And so I had that chance. And I celebrated Mass in the side altar of our Lady where St. John himself said his daily Mass.

The epigraph above is a quote from the Saint when a boy indicated to him where is the road that led to Ars when he went from Lyons to the village which was his new assignment. He told the boy: “You have shown me the way to Ars. I will show you the way to Heaven.” These words of the Curate of Ars recall one meaning that we put into the word education: leading others into a higher realm, as in drawing them from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth and knowledge. As a Christian and Salesian educator, I can say that we not only teach our young the basics of our own field of knowledge but we also prepare them for life, nay more, even the life that comes after this. Little do we see it at times, but our contact with them is “showing them the way to Heaven.” Sometimes, we may not see the change that we effect in the young people and children who seem to be unmoved by the love we pour into our work, but dear friends, it will never be a waste: it will always be—even for us—a way to heaven.
(photo taken at Ars in Dec. 26, 2002 as I celebrated mass in St. John Vianney's favorite altar. Inset: a icon of St. John Marie Vianney)