The sunrise in front of the imposing statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the highest number of Covid-19 infections have been recorded in South America.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
— Jesus Christ, Seven Last Words
LENT is a time when Christians focus on the invitation Jesus makes to us to repent—to be converted.
But what actually is conversion—what does it really mean? And what are the signs we should look for in our conversion, what gifts and graces should we pray for as we seek it?
These questions are especially important as we get closer to the pivotal feasts of the Christian year when we celebrate the essence of our faith—the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The early and simple version in our response will have us spend more time in prayer, do more to attend to the needs of those we know are suffering various afflictions, examine our consciences more thoroughly, and make extra efforts to support the material needs of those we know are deprived.
But these all come down to things that we do. Commendable as these worthy and genuine efforts may be, they are efforts by us that owe little to the energy and initiative of God. And real, lasting, and effective “conversion” is the work of God who initiates the process and brings it to completion.
But to see conversion that way really takes the experience of being helpless and deprived of any resources for transformation that then allows us to look to God as the transforming redeemer.
We don’t need to be threatened with the prospect of being martyred to appreciate what that can be. Actually, all of us at different times in our lives know exactly what that emptiness is like.
Any and all experiences of ‘unplanned losses’ can trigger these experiences that bring grief, anger, and usually depression too.
It can be a relationship break up and separation, job loss, the destruction of equilibrium, or a sense of direction and confidence in it that comes with the loss of basic resources like good health. It happens when people we have come to rely on simply disappear at just the time their support is needed.
It happens when any one of the essential pillars to an effective and successful life—in relationships, in bodily functions, professional capacities and operations simply cease or become dysfunctional.
It happens when illness and bodily frailty prevent us from assuming all the things we have regularly done about our resilience and robust good health that allows adaptation and endurance of physical challenges.
And what is ‘it? The emptiness and the depression that can come with knowing our luck has run out, our game is over, our resources are spent and we don’t know what the next will be.
These are the dark and dismal places in our lives that should not occur too often. But a human life without them is a most unusual thing and without them, we will lead superficial lives devoid of the experience that makes our empathy and compassion for others possible.
What are we to do? What on earth might we find in the stories and personalities of this time in the Christian year—Holy Week—to illuminate these experiences that are what old-time spiritual guides used to call our “share in the Cross of Jesus?”
What is to be done? And if we are Christian and have a relationship with God who promises us joy in abundance if we ask, what are we to do to trigger the flow of that goodness?
This is what I do: the first thing is to accept that nothing can happen if I am not ready to fall silent for some time—silent so I can hear the still, silent voice of the Spirit at the core of my being inviting me to the place of contemplative stillness where God’s Spirit can have a say in my life.
The next thing is, to be honest, and find out what I really need and usually, it is peace—the pervasive and presence-filled calm that lifts me from the driven, self-absorbed often panic-filled state of disturbance that can wreck my core being and keep me away from God.
The next step is to name what I really want from God—the gift I can’t will into life on my own to appear for me.
Then I let go into the emptiness of the knowledge That the desired outcome is beyond me to create, that I may well be kidding myself about God’s loving care.
Then I just listen.
After long waiting and once I have still the insistent clamor that indignation, anger, or any number of discordant emotions can stir, I often move to the simple exercise of counting my blessings.
Reflecting on it afterward, I always come back to the same things—the peace I really long for is better known as acceptance and the shortest way home to acceptance is to pray for the gift of gratitude, naming the gifts I’m grateful for.
Going back to our commemoration of Holy Week, many of our fellow Christians do not realize the true essence of Lent and how—year in and year out—we are given the opportunity to relive and contemplate on the suffering and hardships of the Son of God in order to save us from our sins and become truly the children of Our Almighty Father.
Today, for most of the faithful—who are busy living their miserable lives in an increasingly materialistic and unforgiving world and now occupied, too, with fighting a pandemic that has wrought havoc on the world’s economies and killed millions of people—Holy Week is considered unfortunately as a chance for vacation and a long rest from almost a year-long period of work and strife.
At this time of the year in the past (before the coronavirus pandemic), many Pinoy families would be trekking to the provinces—not to meditate deeply on the passion of Christ but rather to escape the heat by going to the beaches and have a party while feasting with delectable seafood since meat is prohibited as a form of penance and abstinence.
Should this be the way Christians commemorate Lent?
About thirty years ago, I recall a beautiful message delivered by Hollywood star Richard Harris. The veteran actor was speaking on behalf of Jesus and he explained how the Son of Man came to the world to convert people and save them from self-destruction through God’s Word and teachings. But instead of listening to the Divine Truth, Mankind (in Jesus/Harris’ words) converted Him into “a bullet to shoot into men’s hearts.”
Lent is truly a time of conversion because our ways deviate from the path that God has laid down before us to follow. But now, during this crisis brought about by the ongoing pandemic, most people have willingly walked afar—far from the path of truth—and into the Wilderness where Lucifer awaits the unwary and converts them to become his minions.
Filipinos in the past (or when I was younger some five decades ago) were compassionate, helpful, fearful of God, respectful, and understanding. But now in these troubled times, Filipinos have become greedy, selfish, materialistic, and boastful.
Despite the yearly commemoration of Christ’s Passion during Lent, we have failed to convert the way God wants so we could become His children. We have actually forsaken God’s path and have welcomed false prophets who profess that what they teach are the ways of the Savior—but if we look deeper are in reality the quickest path to Hell.
It is true that many of us still pray, attend Sunday mass and novenas and other devotions, do charitable work and give alms to the poor and needy—but do all these deeds come with a heart for conversion? Or are they just seemingly acts to fulfill some religious obligation so we can call ourselves Christians?
I once told my elder sister that “prayers without deeds are nothing.” Funny she got irked and blocked me on Facebook.
My sister is a Pentecostal and so is her son, who is a prosecutor in San Fernando and Mabalacat in Pampanga. They often reminded me to attend church service but I often declined because I was more content in conversing with God in my own feeble way.
It is rare that I pray in supplication because most of my prayers are in jubilation and gratitude for the many blessings that come my way every day. I know for a fact that these are God’s way of telling me that I am His child.
Long ago I thought there were times God was asleep because He did not listen to my request. Later I discovered that He did listen to my prayer but His answer to it was to “wait” or to expect something better.
One time I cried my heart out when I failed to get employment in a government office. Now I realize that God allowed this failure because I was about to get a profession that I would fall in love with until now—that of being a journalist.
So God truly has His ways for us to convert. If we allow this to happen then we become truly Christian and God’s children. (AI/MTVN)