Tuesday, 31 January 2012

All Hail to St John Bosco!

Today, 31st January, the church celebrates the feast of St John Bosco. We, on the other hand, have already been celebrating this feast for nearly a week. Lessons ended on Wednesday to be followed by three days of events and activities with the students, Sunday was family day, and yesterday the whole staff headed to the beach to swim in the sea, eat (a lot) and play mad games. By comparison to the goings-on of the last few days, today is fairly quiet. Time perhaps, to reflect on this saint who we are celebrating.

There is no doubt about it, Don Bosco certainly gets his name about (partly owing to the Salesians' lack of originality in naming their projects - of the twenty or so in this province, I think all bar two are called Don Bosco something!) It is a name which, this time last year, I knew of vaguely, and in a short space of time has become incredibly familiar. Along with the name, I have come to know something of the story of this holy and pioneering spirit.

In the midst of the industrial revolution, John Bosco became a priest and dedicated his life to working with those most other clerics of the time wouldn't touch with a barge pole. He called to him the boys from the streets, brought to the cities in search of employment or wealth but finding instead only poverty, destitution and abandonment. He welcomed those who were unwelcome elsewhere, he offered them a place to call home, a chance of an education and skills. He invited them to play and have fun and be children. He offered them the gospel of a God who loves them just as they are.

Mixed up in his story are tales of magic and miracles, incidents we might doubt through our 21st century eyes, but which were perhaps much more easily accepted by the people of his day. Irrespective of whether they happened as written, or have a more rational explanation, there is no doubt in my mind that the true miracle of Don Bosco's life was his absolute commitment to the poor and destitute children, migrants to the growing industrialised cities, abandoned by society at large. The miracle of his life was to pray holding nothing back, and so be willing to give up everything to serve these kids whose existence everyone else would rather forget.

And the miracle to which he calls us, is not to perform feats or tricks but to place those who are most excluded by society at the very centre of our thoughts and lives.

The need he saw then, for someone to show these poor, destitute, unloved children that there was someone who cared is just as real today. There are still children displaced by poverty, damaged by abuse or abandonment, scarred by war. There are still children searching for a place to be themselves, to run and to play. There are still children who need to hear someone say "you are loved"

St John Bosco has left a legacy in his name plastered on schools and youth projects around the world: but a greater legacy will be the day when the rest of the world wakes up to the call to care enough so that no child dies of a disease that could easily be cured, no child starves on the streets, no child is dragged into the misery of war, no child is left abandoned and alone, no child descends into a spiral of depression and fear.

If we live in a civilized world, surely that shouldn't be beyond our reach?

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Filling the Void

After a short interlude for Santo Nino, this poem returns to a previous theme, that of silence. Melissa's comment forced me to reflect on my choice of the word empty and the meaning of emptiness. I do not withdraw my choice of the word empty in relation to peaceful silence, but I do agree that there is a huge difference between the emptiness of an opening up to the potential to be filled, from the emptiness which accompanies the lack of even a hope of fulfilment; between the creative emptiness of silence, and  the destructive emptiness of noise.

I would suggest that the latter type of emptiness is widely prevalent in our western societies. In spite of (or perhaps because of) being richer than ever, there remains a deep level of dissatisfaction and many people who struggle with finding and believing in their own worth and inherent value as individuals. Maybe the noise with which we surround ourselves is symptomatic of our attempts to fill a deeply felt void.

But perhaps it is only in seeking the first kind of emptiness, the creative peaceful emptiness of silence, that we find the possibility to overcome the second.

Filling The Void

Crushed and closed

A lonely despondency
The lethargy of nothingness

Fearful and frozen

Dashed dreams
And hopes unfilled

Chasing the pot of gold
At the end of an illusory rainbow

The empty void of what could have been
And isn’t

Breathing and being

Reaching depths
The silence of vitality

Open and alert

A window for light and air
Inspiring growth

Listening and believing

A space
Of new hope

Turning from shattering noise
To live and love and dare to dream

The empty depth only God can touch
With abundant life


Filling the void

With another emptiness

Of vitality and life.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Santo Nino 4 - Is this our God?

This poem is really a continuation of the ideas I explored in my previous post, but as that was already long enough I decided to offer this as a separate post, which delay, incidentally, gave me time to do a picture to go with it.

Baby eyes of a child’s wonderment
Discovering a world of joys and pains
Watching, waiting, hoping, fearing
Is this our God?

Tiny fingers reaching up
Crying out for another’s help
Living, breathing, loving, dying
Is this our God?

True Love hiding nothing in humanity
Breaking barriers and removing masks
Choosing, daring, feeling, being,
Is this our God?

The vulnerability of love
To the point of life
And death

And what is it we are asking for
As we pray to our vulnerable God?

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Santo Nino 3 - In praise of a vulnerable God

Last weekend's festivities are continuing to provide food for thought (and content for blog posts – apologies in advance for the length of this one!) Hot on the heels of Christmas, with its all too familiar images of the infant Jesus, comes this feast of the Santo Nino, where the image which is so venerated is that of a small child (albeit dressed in the rich costume of the Spanish courts, but we'll lay that aside for the moment). Reflecting on this celebration, it seems right to also reflect on the image at the centre of it. I invite you to join me as I meander through a few of my thoughts, and to share your own reflections. 

It seems to me we have sometimes become so accustomed to images of Jesus as a baby or small child, or in agony (or with a saccharine smile belying the agony) on the cross, that it is easy to forget just how revolutionary and challenging these images are.

The person of Jesus, and the affirmation that He is God, turns on its head the idea of the all-powerful nature of God. 

Here is a human being, born as a baby completely dependent on others, living his early life as a refugee, learning the meaning of inclusion and exclusion and community, growing up under a regime of military occupation experiencing firsthand the effects of oppression and violence and power, standing against the authorities of the day challenging his realities without ever resorting to the use of force, and who suffers and dies the agonising death of those who have dared to challenge the regime.

It is easy to identify how the person of Jesus reveals many facets of the identity of God: the creativity of a creator God, the journeying of a universal God, the forgiveness of a merciful God, the relationships of a loving God, but I think his life reveals a weak and vulnerable God rather than a powerful one.

To suggest that Jesus, in his human life is all powerful and all knowing is to deny his full humanity. Christianity has been quick to distance itself from denominations who deny the divinity of Jesus, and, in words at least, most mainstream Christian denominations would affirm that Jesus is both fully God and fully human; but maybe in practice it is the divinity of Jesus which, ultimately we find easier to believe, and less challenging, than his complete humanity.

The power of love is a very different kind of power. Can God do all things? Well actually, maybe not. God is love, and therefore he cannot "not love". Love never imposes itself, it never forces. So if God were to force us, if God were to impose Himself, he would cease to be Love, and, by definition, if God is Love, if he ceases to be Love, does he not cease to be God? If God can do all things, he must be able to force others to bow to his will, but if he does so, does he not deny his own deepest identity, that he is and only can be Love?

We know from our own human relationships that vulnerability, a willingness to be weak and an openness to the effect of the other on ourselves is an inherent part of true love. That is why those we care about the most have the most power to hurt us or to touch us. If God is all loving, by definition he has to also allow himself to be vulnerable and weak, in order to allow his very being to be touched by others.

So does believing in a God who is not all powerful, who cannot do all things, make Him any less God? Well no, I don't think it does. Maybe the idea of an all-loving and an all-powerful God are not compatible, and actually, I know which I would rather believe in. Maybe the image of an all-loving God is even more special and more amazing than the idea of an all-powerful one.

Amidst the complexity of the doctrine of the trinity, my understanding is it is affirmed that these are not three different facets of God, but that each reveals the full and true identity of God. The true and full identity of God, then, is not an all-powerful being, but a weak, vulnerable suffering servant. The slaughtered lamb is not one image of God, but is the fullness of God. The true identity of God, is that as well as being fully God, he is fully human. 

The problem is, of course, if God is fully human - then that makes for a very challenging call for the rest of us!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Santo Nino 2 - The culture of religion

As promised in the previous post, I have been reflecting a little more on the feast of Santo Nino and its meaning. This weekend was undoubtedly a memorable cultural experience, but Sinulog is also the celebration of a religious festival. I had a wonderful weekend, but have been asking myself the question, did I really live it as a religious experience? It has led me to think more widely about the interplay between religion and culture, two things which are invariably impossible to separate.

About thirty years ago, in Cebu, a decision was made to separate the "cultural" Sinulog parade, on the Sunday, from the "religious" Santo Nino procession on the Saturday: but to say one was religious and one cultural is a dramatic oversimplification of the reality. There is no doubt in my mind, that dancing through the streets, with a Santo Nino waved aloft in one hand, and a bottle of Red Horse beer in the other, is not purely religious to the exclusion of cultural elements. Nor would it be fair to say the dance presentations on Sunday, all of which involved images of the Santo Nino, were purely cultural with no thought to the religious origins of this celebration.

The experiences of this weekend were completely alien to the way I usually experience faith, and are from a religious culture very different to my own. I cannot pretend that I found it to be a particularly prayerful experience.

That said, I think there were elements of faith very much in evidence, elements which are often absent in my own experience of religious culture. Sinulog concerned the whole of Cebu (and many from further afield): it was a community experience of creating a shared identity, of coming together in a truly joyful celebration, a celebration which is inclusive of all comers, whatever their motivations, intentions, faith or life stories are. As we walked to the stadium on Sunday morning, people cooking in the streets invited us, who they had never met, to eat with them. I believe the idea of an inclusive, welcoming, shared joy is a central gospel value, and it was probably the living out of this aspect of faith which, for me, was the most “religious” part of the experience.

The interaction between religion and culture is not limited to festive celebrations. It is something I have been very conscious of here, as we live our faith in a very different religious culture, but it is not just an experience for here, nor is it something I have only become aware of here. The wider ramifications of the interweaving of cultural and religious experiences are felt on a local, national and global scale.

It is an easy temptation to identify as "faith" things which are loaded with cultural influences, and likewise, to identify as purely cultural, experiences which actually have a deeply religious or spiritual significance, even if they would not always be named as such. It is not as simple as identifying where faith ends, and culture begins, or of promoting one to the detriment of the other, or of trying to separate one from the other, but about acknowledging how our culture and our history and a million and one other things affect the way we live our faith.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Viva Pit Senor!

This weekend we have experienced Sinulog, and although I have generally avoided writing purely descriptive blog posts explaining things we have done, Sinulog probably merits just that, as it is something it is probably impossible to experience, without making a trip to the Philippines for the third Sunday in January.

Sinulog, or the festival of the Santo Nino, is Cebu's celebration of the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines; the image of the Santo Nino being a gift from Magellan to the queen of Cebu on her baptism in 1521. Magellan didn't last long, being killed by Lapu Lapu on nearby Mactan island, and the image was lost for a time but when the Spanish came back and stayed in the 1540s, the image was refound, and is still housed in a basilica in the city. It is a history, as the "cradle of Christianity in East Asia" of which Cebu is proud, notwithstanding the contradiction inherent in the arrival of their faith with an occupying force.

So, every January, they celebrate - and they do so in style! The Cebuanos certainly know how to throw a party. On Saturday we were up at 3 in order to join the fluvial procession, with hundreds of boats accompanying the Santo Nino back to the city from Mactan Island where he has spent the night before in the Shrine of Our Lady ("at his mum's house"!) We set off from Pasil before dawn and by about nine were back and, with thousands of others were dancing through the streets, with Santo Nino statues held aloft.

We had time for a short rest and some lunch before heading into the city for the main religious procession, a 6.8 kilometre route around the city, which took us about four hours. We had been warned in advance that if we joined the procession there would be little chance of joining the mass with which it ends - and we could see people were already queuing to get a space in the basilica before we had even begun the procession. I don't suppose anyone really knows, but the estimate was that about 2 million people joined the procession (and nearly as many Santo Ninos!)

On Sunday there were even more people out on the streets for the cultural parade, but apart from a short walk to get there (even just that was an experience in itself!), we watched it in the stadium: and it was quite a show! The portable scenery and costumes were spectacular and the choreography was outstanding: and Santo Nino appeared every time to the loudest cheers. We watched all 135 dance presentations and left after the fireworks finale at 9pm.

I hope my words, and the photos below, do some kind of justice to our experiences this weekend!

After two very full days, there are plenty of thoughts and reflections buzzing round my head, but they aren't in order yet, so that will be for another blog post perhaps!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Touch the Silence

You can probably spot that part of the inspiration for this latest poem is the peace of our Boholano holiday. But it is also about more than that.

This is the first new year for several years that I haven't boosted my Taize batteries in one European city or another, but, thanks to the wonders of the internet we were able to join the last evening prayer live by webcam, even if we did have to wait up to 2am to do so. Even from thousands of miles away, it is something very special to take part in.  

Anyone who knows me well, knows that Taize is a very important part of my life. I can (and often have) waxed lyrical about the merits of Taize, and one (of the many) things they do very well is create the space for silence. Few people would describe me as the quiet, retiring type, but I have certainly come to learn the value of silence, the importance of  emptiness. In our results driven world with its judgements based on what we achieve, the importance of time just to "be" is essential and life-giving. It is something which is often missing in life, where, by choice or not, we are constantly surrounded by both auditory and visual noise. We live in environments where filtering out noise, even, maybe, where really listening is very difficult.

I think silence is one of the gifts that Taize has given me, and is one of the gifts, perhaps, which the church has to offer to the world. The problem is, that even in the church, silence is something which is often missing. Others may have different experiences, of course, but it seems to me the average length of the silence between "let us pray in silence for our personal intentions" and the next words can often be counted in seconds rather than minutes. So why do we feel the need to fill every moment? Why this absence of silence and space? 

Do we think we are just too busy and don't have time to stop? That in this hi-tech, supersonic world we can't "waste" time doing nothing? Are we under so much pressure to "do" that we don't have time to "be"?

Or is it even more than that - are we afraid of silence? Afraid of this absence, this emptiness - and if so why? What might we "hear" in the silence that makes us avoid it? Are we avoiding really listening, because beautiful though the message we hear may be, we fear it may cost us just a little too much of our comfort?

References to palm trees and sandy beaches aside, it is that, really, which this poem is about.

Reach out and touch the silence

Gentle waves on an empty shoreline
Blue reflecting blue
Sun sparkles
Emptiness stretching beyond horizons

How many grains of sand sit in silence?

Reach out and touch the silence

Palm trees silhouetted against brightening skies
Gentle rain on fresh green leaves
Washing clean
A canopy of life

What price this living silence?

Surrounded by chattering voices without
And amidst incessant ones within
Amongst the shoulds, and musts and ought tos
And the scars of society’s demands

Why do we fear this silent place?

Reach in and touch the silence

There is a place
Deep inside
We see

The beauty
And its cost

Hidden in the soul
Not hiding but living

Reach in and touch the silence

In this silence a whisper speaks
More is possible
Life in all its fullness

There is a place
Deep inside

Reach out and touch the noise
From your silence

Friday, 6 January 2012

Revelation from above?

Now the time when we remember the arrival of the wise men at the place of Jesus’ birth, the feast of Epiphany apparently used to celebrate four moments in Jesus life – his birth, the visit of the magi, his baptism and the wedding at Cana. I have been reflecting on what links these moments and their “Theophany” – how they reveal the true nature of God. 

Epiphany means revelation from above, but it has struck me that one of the things which links the four events remembered is precisely that this is not a revelation from above, but that Jesus, God, takes the lowest place: in a stable in poverty, as a vulnerable baby in need of the care of others, going down into the river taking the lower place, and putting himself in the place of a servant. 

My ancient Greek isn’t good enough (being non-existent) to suggest an alternative name for the feast; but perhaps “Revelation from Below” would be a more appropriate name for this celebration. Perhaps it is not when we look up, but when we dare to look down that we see the revelation of the true nature of God.

A new king is coming!
Long awaited hope of change
Some wait for glory and chariots of gold
But this king was born in a stable dirty and dark
To an outcast teenage mother
Far from home

Some chose to look down
And they saw God

New hope in a vulnerable baby!
Worshipped by those from far away
Some search for him in the centres of power
But he broke through their assumptions
Of palaces, grandeur and pomp
A baby in a stable

Some chose to look down
And they saw God

And God took on flesh!
Living life with human joy and pain
Some hesitate to accept his closeness
But he chose to join us in humanity
To the earth and deeper still
Down into the waters

Some chose to look down
And they saw God

A feast where all are welcome!
The drawing in of those who are out
Some give of what they have
But He calls them to give of what they haven’t
Pouring out the joy of inclusion
From the place of a servant

Some chose to look down
And they saw God

Are we busy gazing skywards
Searching for God in the great out there?
Are we looking to the heavens
And feeling all alone?
Are we waiting for our epiphany moment
A revelation from above?

But some chose to look down
And they saw God

Dare we?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Holiday memories!

After a very enjoyable fortnight of celebrations and relaxation, we are now back in the classroom, back to the early starts, the day to day busy-ness, and the everyday highs and lows. Meanwhile, memories of our five days away, on the neighbouring island of Bohol are fresh in our minds.

This trip was the first time we had been away since our arrival at DBTC early in October - it is unheard of for us not to have been to stay somewhere else for so long! So, much as we are enjoying our time here, it was good to get away for a few days, for a change of scenery (and it was very good scenery!) and to step back and reflect on our experiences so far. Peace was the order of the day (in between the bus journeys anyway), with a couple of days with an idyllic beach virtually to ourselves and then a couple at a quirky resort hidden in the jungle.

We're looking forward to the cold, wind and rain next winter ... but in the meantime hope you enjoy the photos!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Celebrating Christmas!

With four days of Christmas left, I reckon it is not to late to still be posting about our Christmas celebrations here. It has been very different from any other Christmas I have celebrated. Christmas eve, as well as being the last day of the Misa de Gallo (so morning mass at 4.30am) was also the main day of celebration (so still up at 2am) No wonder not much happened on Christmas day itself, I guess we all needed to catch up on some lost sleep. 

I have no idea whether our celebration this year were typical of how Filipinos celebrate Christmas (although I suspect karaoke probably figures fairly widely), or typical of how Filipino Salesians celebrate Christmas, so I'm not going to trynto draw any conclusions from what we did: but whether this is a traditional Filipino Christmas, or just our Filipino Christmas, hopefully the photos capture that it was a lot of fun and a very joyful celebration!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Looking back, looking forward

As a New Year begins, it seems like a good moment to look back at 2011 and forward to 2012. I am a great believer in living in the moment and enjoying where I currently am (which given the number of new and exciting experiences I am currently in the midst of, isn't too difficult!) but that is not to the exclusion of also taking time to pause and reflect. Our first trip away from DBTC since our arrival here has also been a chance to step back and think about everything we are currently experiencing.

We are now three months, about one third, of our way into our time here, and because it is such an all encompassing experience, in some ways everything else feels quite distant. That being the case, it is perhaps strange to think that this time last year I hadn't even really begun to think about leaving France, the ideas of exploring life in community and volunteering in a poorer part of the world were certainly live questions, but with no specific ideas in sight, and the Salesians were a religious order I had vaguely heard of but knew next to nothing about.

I guess, looking back, I will probably remember 2011 as the year we went to the Philippines, but it was not until the end of July, a month after leaving my job in France, that we knew we would be seeing in 2012 in the Philippines (and not until October, several days after landing here, that we knew we'd be coming to DBTC) and plenty else had happened before that. Most of our other fabulous memories from this year have been time spent with so many different friends. Our 30th birthday party standing out as a very special time - and the humbling experience of feeling so loved is undoubtedly something we have brought with us here too.

And who knows what 2012 has in store? Half of it, of course, will be here, and although in some ways that means six months of "more of the same" I still feel there is plenty more to learn and experience. Beyond that, well, we don't yet know what will come next. A trip to Taize, no doubt, and probably this time next year we'll be in Rome. We're not expecting to receive many visitors, but I hope we'll get to visit some of you, because visiting lots of friends and family has definitely been among the highlights of 2011. In between all that, we're not sure where we'll be: but as 2011 seems to have worked out pretty well, I'm going to assume 2012 will turn out to be just fine too!