Closing of the LSSAJ Lenten Retreat 2023

I have here two pointers for us to ponder at this closing of our common event, aware that every closing is a new beginning.

Firstly, the spiritual character of the retreat. It was necessary; it was good. For that let us all thank the Lord together.

We thank Him because his invitation for us to retreat periodically is constant and has not been revoked: “Come to me,” he said “all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” – all you who are so active (or want to be) and as a result, perhaps, have become bodily tired and mentally fatigued; stop, retreat into the realm of spirit, for you are not merely a human seeking to have a spiritual experience. More importantly, you are a spirit having a human experience.

As such, and if so, in your innermost and highest identity, you must know you are divine, made by God to be like God (“in His image and likeness,” ”you are Gods”).

Think of it: we were created to be eternal even after a short stint in time.

We do know, don’t we, that this earthly phase of eternal life is quite short (“vita brevis” – the ancients said) even as the many things we want to do are taking a longer time (“ars longa” – they added) – at times even longer than our earthly lifetime itself, a seeming contradiction often so difficult to accept.

Following Jesus, for instance, we want to make all things new. We want to create a new world, a new dispensation, a just and prosperous realm of peace – but we seem to never have time enough for it. We nonetheless continue to pray, “Thy Kingdom come; Thy Will be done on Earth” and not just in Heaven. “On Earth,” we pray, “as it is in Heaven.”  This was His prayer. This is our prayer.

I am sure all of us here today, without exception, have witnessed acquaintances and friends, dear ones, people so close to us who had always been with us, who then were suddenly no more.

They passed on – they died, as we say – even as we, queuing up in the same direction, continue to have a knowing that the dead live on, more than a dead caterpillar that lives on in the butterfly of a new way of being.

In our case this is more certainly so because we are not only made of the perishable matter of corruptible physical bodies, which we also are, but, more, we are made of imperishable stuff; we are made of spirit, a fact that we often forget.

Isn’t it the case, that we are not always conscious of this fundamental truth? In fact, our unconsciousness of who we really are – where we have come from and where we are called to -is the root cause of all the problems in the world.

Thus, given this propensity on our part, Jesus said, “Watch and pray.” Be conscious, be watchful, be mindful, pay attention, be altogether present there wherever you are; be here now: be not stuck in the past of fears or the future of worries because past and future do not exist (one is gone while the other is not yet); so, always be fully awake and present in the power and joy of now, in this present time which is all the time you have, if we’d only care to wake up.

To “watch and pray” we add “pray and work,” for prayer without work will tend to be empty, as work without prayer becomes robotic, getting us to drown in actions that lead nowhere.

But aside from this second injunction (“pray and work”), in these days of utmost speed we might add a third, “work and play.”

You and I know that all structures are unstable, all things are changing, and no forms are permanent.  “Todo se pasa,” said Santa Teresa.  “(Pero) Dios no se muda. (Por eso…) Solo Dios basta.” (All things are changing, but God does not change. Hence, God alone suffices.)

Therefore, we must not only work or co-create with the Creator but we must play – with the Creator and his creation; by “play” we mean letting go and letting be, trusting Him who is “our strength and our salvation.”

Play? Yes, to play is to be one with Life.  It is to surrender completely and attain peace…the peace which the world cannot give, which only the Word can share.

We had a two-day retreat. Have you ever gone for a thirty-day retreat? Some of you have. Jesus, we might note, had undergone a thirty-year retreat in preparation for a three-year “advance,” didn’t he? And even His mere three years of intense evangelizing activity were still characterized by constant retreat to contemplation and prayer.

Clearly, He was teaching us, his followers, constantly to regain the art of silence and insight, and the ability for non-activity as the necessary other side of a fruitful activist life – such as an evangelizer’s must be.

So, that’s the first pointer:  periodically retreat to gain consciousness of spirit. Always re-examine even your very prayers and thinking acts. Are they mechanistic, and automatic, – in short, “unconscious?” Or are they deliberate, accompanied by awareness? With the latter, hopefully, they lead to real joy of being and deeper consciousness of spirit.

Secondly, with spiritual consciousness or the realization of our spiritual nature, we ponder its necessary consequence, which is social consciousness or communion (in Greek, koinonia, in Latin, communio). What do I mean by “social consciousness?” 

I do not refer merely to the socio-political consciousness that is the result of conscientization and socio-structural analysis.

I am talking here, rather, of the overcoming of merely individual consciousness. More profoundly and affirmatively, it is the consciousness and realization of our forming one unity, constituting one living body, and evolving to be one “Christ.”

This, indeed, is the most challenging act of knowledge, for the contrary perception is more common –the perception that, whether few or many, we are all so different, distinct, and separate from each other.

We are many, we are not one. One might even ask: is there, in fact, any other way of grasping reality?

Our usual perception is that I am not you; you are not him or her; we are not each other. That, of course, is knowing from a merely physical and temporal standpoint whereas from a spiritual point of view, Saint Paul insists on the contrary, that all of us, howsoever few or many we are, constitute one Christ or one living body so that for you to love me is an act of loving yourself, in the same way that for me to love you, and all others and all creation is really an act of loving myself.

With that, you might then begin to understand the real meaning of the injunction: to love your neighbor “as yourself.” Have you ever thought of that before, what it really means, “as yourself”? It emphasizes your identity and unity together as one Christ, our being in fact one living body. Social consciousness accentuates this fact – that you are a living part of a bigger whole.

May I inform you, as an aside, a most relevant note that the most modern scientists are catching up at last with St. Paul – in a way. It is common to hear biologists say these days that viewing  humans as individual entities is only one traditional way of perceiving reality because if you go down to the size of an individual living cell and look at your body from that perspective, you might find it difficult to see yourself as an individual entity because suddenly before you is you, not a single-cell amoeba or paramecium, but you as a bustling community of more than 50 trillion individual cells – uniting and cooperating with each other to form muscles and tissues, and from tissues to form organs, and to further complexify the unity by creating interweaving systems of the nerves, the bones, the muscles, the veins – what have you – to form one living organism that is you. Go back to 1 Corinthians 12 and you might think St Paul is really a modern scientist of living bodies, in conversation  with, say, Dr.Bruce Lipton.

On the road to Damascus, Saul heard Jesus say: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Saul did not really know what he was doing.  He had not met or experienced Jesus before that. He had only seen Jews doing something different whenever they claimed to follow Jesus and he wanted to stop them by all means, even imprison and kill them. Jesus, however, who had long since died, risen from the dead and ascended to heaven, did not regard his followers as separate or distinct from Him but as identified with Him – forming one living body and one Christ. Such certitude is really something new, ever since, and now. Later Paul would not mince words when he said, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Think of this now. Saul was persecuting the followers of Jesus, but Jesus clarified the deeper reality: “Whom you are persecuting is me. I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” I am Jesus whom you are extra-judicially killing. I am Jesus whom you are lying to all the time. I am Jesus whom you keep in poverty, slavery and oppression. I am Jesus who, in the 20th Century alone you murdered more than a hundred million times in two world wars, in other major wars, and in economic systems that demand no end to war and oppression. 

By contrast, the Good Samaritan did not dwell on the obligatory perception of differences that had for the longest time engendered enmity between Samaritans and Jews. Transcending all such age-old details of discrimination, he only saw a human being in dire need and immediately acted out his compassion, even as a Jewish priest and a Levite, the institutionals, chose to ignore the stark reality of a dying man of their own kind.

For in fact the truth of this situation was this: it was not a Jew-and-Samaritan scenario but, rather, the scenario of choosing between human compassion or deliberate ignorance and neglect; choosing between seeing only the surface of things and our superficial differences or seeing the deeper truth of our one-ness in the spirit realm. Be watchful. When you get out of this retreat, you might find yourself in a similar situation and you will have to choose, freely, spontaneously, consciously as I have just explained.

The Good Samaritan saw and loved all, including the official enemy, as himself. So now we might understand why Jesus was clear in his statement, “Love your enemies” – love your critics, love those who despise you, love those who are different from you and who seem indifferent to you – for, incredibly, they and you are one; you love your true Self when you love them.

In fact, whatever you do or not do even to the very least of them – untouchables, sinners, the lame, the blind, the sick, the poor and the oppressed – you are actually doing, or not doing, to Him. Nothing could be clearer than His proclamation in Matthew 25, which you all know.

Is your compassion for real or is it only verbal? He spelt it out clear and concrete – are you or aren’t you feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and welcoming strangers? The spiritual act of compassion and love is tested at the material, political, economic and historical levels of existence on Earth. We are spirit. But you are not only spirit. You are embodied spirit. So, again: you may have heard that song made popular by the musicale, Les Miserables: to love another person is to see the face of God.

So, now, quickly go back to Scripture and listen: “He was moved with compassion for the crowds and he healed their sick” (Mt 14:14). “He was moved with compassion because they were distressed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36, compare Mk 6:34). He was moved with compassion by the plight and the tears of the widow of Nain. “Do not cry,” he says to her (Lk 7:13). We are told explicitly that he had compassion on lepers (Mk 1:41), on blind men (Mt 20:34) and on those who had nothing to eat (Mk 8:2 par).

Yes, throughout the gospels, even when the word is not used, we can feel the movement of compassion. Over and over again Jesus says to people, “Don’t cry,” “Don’t worry,” “Don’t be afraid” (e.g., Mk 5:36; 6:50; Mt 6:25-34; sec also Mk 4:40; Lk 10:41).

He was not moved by the grandeur of the great Temple buildings (Mk 13:1-2); he was moved by the poor widow who put her last cent into the Temple treasury (Mk 12:41-44).

While everyone else was excited about the “miracle” of Jairus’s daughter, he was concerned that she should be given something to eat (Mk 5:42-43).

Again, what made the Good Samaritan in the parable different was the compassion he felt for the man left half dead on the roadside (Lk 10:33). What made the loving father in the parable different was the excess of compassion he felt for his prodigal son (Lk15:20).

Indeed, what made Jesus different was the unrestrained compassion he felt for the poor, the deprived, and the oppressed.

If you make all this happen in politics, in the economy, in your little and bigger works of compassion then we’d be seeing evidence of social consciousness consequent on consciousness of our spiritual nature.

When people see at last how we love one another effectively and not just verbally, they will wonder what it is we know and realize to be true, whatever it is that is impelling us (“The love of Christ urges us on”) and will in turn desire the same gift of grace.

But this is also why, after 500 years, “Christian” Philippines has not been able to make “Christianity” desirable by other non-Christian countries. As missionaries, Filipino Christians are incredibly a big failure.  Why? Because living the Gospel, and not merely talking about it, is the only way to preach it effectively. Most of us Christians do not really live Christian lives. Compassion does not define our being. Maybe corruption and other forms of selfishness do.

Clerical missionaries have their role cut out for them and we support them but, bottom line: only the laity can be effective missionaries in our time by the way they conduct themselves and their society, their economy and their politics. Let’s make no mistake about that.

This is no longer the age of the clergy, be sure about that; this is, at last, the age of the laity. What a responsibility for you and me to realize that we are Church, to know that we are the Christ. Would it not take a miracle, you might now ask.

It would but we can work all miracles, as and when needed, because deep down we know – you know – we are divine; we are the evolving Christ. We are his people, the “la-os” or the “hoi polloi”; we are his lay society.

If we only have faith, no matter how small, our faith can transform life in all its reality without any disconnect.

So, that’s the second pointer I wish to share with you today: the necessary link of spiritual consciousness with social consciousness. These two – spiritual consciousness and social consciousness – are intimately united. If one is absent the other is endangered.

So, I offer all these for your concluding reflections, my brothers and sisters, quoting the line of Kipling in another context:

“God of our fathers, known of old,

Lord of our far-flung battle-line,

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!”

Yes, my brothers and sisters, let us be together yet, “lest we forget, lest we forget.”

Thank you. (Charles Avila, LSSAJ)