HE COULD NOT have chosen a better sabbatical. Advent being the prelude to Christmas, timing his talk therewith may have saved a lot of soul-searching for the otherwise world-weary mortals whose faith focuses on, or is rather waylaid by, pursuits commercial instead of spiritual. His profound message comes as a soothing respite from the heaviness of daily stress, compounded by the recent persecution of Christians in certain parts of the world. While he positively prescribed prayer as a surefire surcease from suffering, his words of wisdom underscored the inevitability of friendship with God, our ultimate refuge in the darkest of times.
I was not disappointed that Ate Marivic and Sis Veron were earlier than my punctual persona (I’m always heartened that my friends are developing habits that are ideal, if not decent, not because they know that tardiness is one pet peeve I am very vocal about, but because they, too, aim to be respected). They were already busy at the registration counter name-tagging the early arrivals. Ate Pilo was not yet at her bookstore adjunct so I responded to the query of how much were the calendars each. I was making brisk sale when Ate Bubbles found me, but not before we acknowledged the years that she shed by her new cropped do. The banter would include Ate Ofela little later, whose tidbits about her recent Holy Land caper offered help and humor at the counter. My earlier joke to Fr. Fed the latter quickly shared with her, it being about being mutually away for a while and her having influenced Ate Bubbles’ short hair.
Ate Marivic assumed leading the Little Crown after my request that she let me do only the emceeing. We joined the others in the chapel and, again, I dutifully welcomed the burgeoning crowd (more than a hundred but not quite the 150 target) and called on Sis Ana Marie to introduce the guest speaker, which she did making use of her cellphone (the day has yet to come when the genteel lady is caught unprepared). Conscious of time and austere in movement, Fr. Mario was quickly up to the task. He asked the audience not to mind his going up to the ambo, not to be above or apart from them, but to get a holistic view thereof. Then he asked what is the best alternative to Advent. Preparation, he answered himself, think of God’s feeling towards us, love, manifested in what form? Friendship? he asked again. And answering his question again, the word is revolutionary, if you think of God of the old testament, at least that’s how He was perceived then. But now it’s a turn-around, He says, “It’s not true what you say of Me, I’m not a God of earthquakes, fire, etc. who cries out for blood, but for friendship. I’m a God making friends with humanity.” He asks how many think it true, and answers, if Advent is to be truthful, we must turn it into a friendly affair, which other writer has written about this? His answer was predictable, of course. Montfort and his groundbreaking book on spirituality, and he read the saint’s love letter, in his book “Love of Eternal Wisdom,” numbers 64-66, which talked about the bond of friendship between God and man, about God being more in love with us than with angels.
Fr. Mario qualified that it was like God saying He feels nothing without our friendship. This is Advent, he continued, which starts and encompasses Christmas and all structures to make us feel the friendship of God. It is not enough to say “I love God” for if you feel God is a friend to you, that’s what fulfills, as he cited John 21:15-19, of the miraculous catch by the lake, after which Jesus invites Peter for them to have breakfast together. During their conversation, He could’ve asked so many different questions to Peter, like what happened after the resurrection, the miracles, his betrayal, if he is ready to organize but, instead, He asked about love, friendship with the Lord that is crucial, using key Greek words (claiming he is no expert in the language): fileo and agapao (friendship and love). It takes place with Jesus asking him if he loves Him more than these? Peter doesn’t say yes in the maximum way but, like a friend, Jesus understands his difficulty and asks again if Peter loves Him, without condition, lowering the level, and Peter replied like a friend. The third question, “Do you like me like a friend?” moves Peter to tears because Jesus went down to his level, the lowest He could get. This is what Jesus expects of us, to reduce our expectations to affection, at least, if love is too much to ask and frightens, not perfection but authenticity, something we can afford. Jesus becomes an unpretentious beggar, starting from what we can afford. When we think of the Lord as one who has everything, it is blasphemy, and the annunciation has been useless. We’re talking of friendship at a human level, and Fr. Mario segued to the philosopher Aristotle, who was not Christian but in touch with humanity. He was the one who said there are three kinds of friendship: one according to usefulness; another has to do with pleasure; and the third is defined by character. The first is centered around common tasks/projects, dependence on skills/talents; the second is a relationship where we enjoy being with each other and doing things together; but when we talk of character, we speak of spiritual significances as the center of a relationship for virtue and the mutual desire to be good together. God wants to journey with/accompany us, to make us good like Him. His desire is deliberately aimed at encouraging us to be with consecrated sources, grow and be good with them. And he cited as an example being moved to tears each time he reads office of reading Saints Basil and Cyril, who assisted each other, but it was difficult to affirm because rarely did they go beyond the friendship of usefulness. Affirmation is the guarantee of love, like what Jesus had with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Affirmation generates growth, new life, like John the Baptist’s joy in leading people to Jesus; like Mary Magdalene’s love of excellence by the cross, weeping beside the tomb; like the apostles, like His friend, Peter, after the third question, which was followed by “Follow Me”. Like He had sinners as friends, publicans, even Judas, which the synoptic Gospels addressed as friend, with an attitude of forgiveness, for He washed his feet, and Fr. Mario said he was going to include in his homily a prayer for pitiful Judas. This was where he hit me home.
Montfort’s “True Devotion” asks of us to be welcomed as friends during Advent and cultivate friendship. Fr. Mario read the prayer of Montfort to Jesus Christ as a recommendation of friendship with Mary.
His concluding reflection had to do with friendship with consecrated persons which guarantees salvation (if one falters one returns, because faltering is not grievous which is Montfort saying what he learns from friendship. And Fr. Mario assumed the saint’s person by saying friendship tells him (to his face) the deplorable things about him, his arrogance, and sends him to hell, unlike those who have no courage to tell him. And friendship draws the line at condemning him when he is terrible.
Finally, he left us to workshop the question: In what ways has my human friendship mediated in my life with Jesus and Mary and vice- versa?
He was saying friendship will pursue if it is crucial especially if it reaches the third stage. It is the nature of friendship to evolve, with no benefits, friendship affirms in accordance with the ministry of correction.
People who look up to God, he continued, should look at Him as beside, in and with them. He is friendship that is a benefit of consecration, embodying the graciousness of Mary. When people notice us with the cross even if it’s inside, our way of life, the call of Mary’s spirituality, God is in us, in our spirituality of graciousness.
The trouble with the West, he said, is that they identify Christianity with the institution, like they don’t have to do with our kind of God.
We divided ourselves into ten small groups and commenced with sharing our separate insights. My group had Bro Francois admitting to humility because of his human experiences which remind him to study better, deal with competition without jealousy, and pacify his clashes with a classmate by praying with him. Kuya Jowell was sorry he missed Fr. Mario’s message but because of his Focolare influence which derives out of Marian attributes, he was attracted to TTJ. Ate Lorna said she will try to be more humble especially towards an officemate. Ate Jo-Ann recalled her dream, which became an ongoing mission. Ate Car said the Jesus and Mary will carry you to kindred people or those who have potential to holiness. Ate Rose disclosed that she has been with TTJ for a while now and was touched by Fr. Mario’s declaration that Jesus is among us and so she will be kind, not judgmental, and share her character as the core of her friendships with people.
What surprised me was when it was time for the big group sharing and Ate Car, without so much as a prod, volunteered to sum us up. I must’ve been glowing as she changed and grew and shone in front of me!
Bro Oliver with a British accent succinctly said that Jesus is in every loss and cross which makes both worth carrying.
Bro Michael from Papua New Guinea was serious when he said that his group did their sharing in Tagalog (laughter) but shared anyway that he likens his prayer life to the papaya. Meaning that every time he wants to pick the fruit, because of its height, he looks for a tool or implement to get it, like plastic (or prayer) or Jesus because, he beamed, his Mom is a Legionary.
Not quite done yet, Fr. Mario celebrated Mass after his talk. I was heartened when Sis Gelly whispered for me to prepare a petition on behalf of AMQAH. Obedient, this ant did not need to be with sugar force feed. Amen.