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Saturday, November 05, 2005

St. Paul In Prison: A Retreat Patron

A Jesuit Provincial’s reflection on the transforming power of prayer

Homily during the launching of

Retreat in Daily Life
September 4, 2004
Sacred Heart Novitiate

I would like you to imagine a scene in prison in 30 of the first century; and there is a man on the later stage of middle age toward old age. And in prison, in the dim light of the prison, he is writing a very difficult letter to his friend whom we shall name A. It’s a difficult letter because he is writing it to A on behalf of B. B has hurt A very much and this man is writing the letter to convince A to forgive B. He is doing it by saying, “I am your friend and if you love me you have to take my friend B along with me, forgive him, be reconciled to him.”

The scene I have said is really the second reading of today's mass [Phlm 9-10. 12-17]. It’s the shortest part of the New Testament. The letter to Philemon has only one chapter. Paul wrote it when he was in prison in Ephesus to a friend of his in Colossus named Philemon. And Philemon has a slave named Onesimus—a name that literally means “useful.” And Paul is writing the letter to Philemon because Philemon’s slave Onesimus ran away. Somehow he ended up in prison with Paul and in prison Paul converted him, brought him to the Lord and now Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and him telling Philemon, “Accept this runaway slave, accept him because I love him. If you love me accept him and accept him as your brother.”

You know, if all the new testament were lost, if we lost all the Gospel, if we lost all the letters of Paul, if we lost the Book of Revelations and everything were lost and we only had that one sheet of paper—because the letter to Philemon can fill one sheet of paper, we would know that something had happened to transform the way human beings look at life and reality in Jesus.

Three dramatic ways or changes of the way we look at things:

1. The way human beings look at pain and suffering

There is a way by which suffering contracts us into ourselves. I’m lonely; my relationship is not working; I feel no one loves me; no one really cares for me; whatever is happening in the Philippines—the fiscal crisis—who cares, I’m lonely. We lose track of everything except our suffering. But you look at Paul, Paul is in prison. He has done nothing wrong and yet when you read his letter you do not see a bad twist. Here is a man who can take suffering with a certain amount of resignation, a certain amount of acceptance, even joy. He goes out, sees someone worse off than him, reaches out to him and brings him to the Gospel. Suffering has not contracted him into self-absorption and he accepted and made a reason for compassion.

2. A different attitude toward injury, toward offense

The normal attitude toward offense and injury is revenge or cutting of relations. Pag nasaktan ka either you get back or you cut off and that's what Philemon has done. I think you can try to imagine the situation if you have a very trusted household helper na ang tagal-tagal nang kasama ninyo, na itinuring 'nyo na kapamilyang-kapamilya ninyo then all of a sudden they run off and not only did they run off but kinuha pa ‘yong mga kubyiertos ninyo. How will you feel? But look at what Paul is doing, he is writing a letter to this man saying, “Whatever Onesimus has done to you, whatever trust he has destroyed in your relationship, take him back.” Injury is not responded to with revenge or with cutting of a relationship but with forgiveness.

3. The way we classify people or things

We do look at human beings by measuring each other usually without even thinking—by credentials, by position, by social class and so forth. Alam kong gumuwapo ako noong naging Provincial ako. I have received more respect than I have received in the past. All of a sudden Wow! Provincial! I still look the same but suddenly there seems to be an aura. Maybe it’s just the power that emanates but the moment people see that they treat you differently. Look at the way we classify people or things. You’ll be kind to a maid but you do not want to be considered a maid. Paul says to Philemon, “Here is your slave”—a slave in the ancient world is not just a maid but is worst than a maid. A slave is somebody who owes, scarcely human. Paul says, “Accept him no longer as a slave but as more than a slave. Accept him as a beloved lover. However you looked at him before you must look at him in a different way. You cannot see him as someone who is beneath you. You cannot see him or judge him by his educational attainment or his social class. You see him simply as a human being beloved of God; see him as one like you, your equal, your brother.” It is interesting because we do not have a letter of Philemon to Paul after this. I wonder how Philemon responded to Paul but, as I have said, if you only have this letter and we lost all the Gospel you will see in this one letter the difference Jesus has made. All made possible because Paul accepted Jesus and met him.

Paul was transformed in prayer

Paul in a certain sense is a Patron Saint of this retreat—18th and 19th annotation retreat. Paul was transformed completely but he never met Jesus personally like the other Apostles. Peter was transformed but Peter lived with Jesus for three years. Peter heard the voice of Jesus; he saw his face and Jesus even washed his feet. Paul never met Jesus that way. How did Paul meet Jesus in a transforming way? If he did not meet Jesus physically as we meet each other, then Paul can only meet Him in prayer. Paul was transformed because he met the living Christ. He met Him in a so powerful way that the way he looked at pain, at offense, at people changed. He met Jesus not by a physical contact but by a contact that, if you wish, was mystical, spiritual. It involves somehow meeting Jesus and experiencing Him, feeling His presence, feeling His absence, feeling His words and yet not feeling anything as well. In other words, this is the experience that we experience when we pray. He is there and He is not there. He is close and yet does not respond. We hear and we don’t hear and yet somehow, in the being there, something touches our heart and we are transformed.

I do not know why you have chosen to come to this program. I do not know what you are seeking. I do not know what has moved you to say I will try in 35 weeks to pray one hour a day and to meet with a retreat director every week. I do know that whatever your reason is, it is an invitation from the Lord that is hidden in that search and you would not be here if it was not He who was inviting you. Secondly, whatever your reason is, if it is He who invites you to this deeper encounter with Him in the joy and dryness of prayer then it is because He wants to meet you in His love, which will transform you in some way. The point of the retreat is not to ask really how He is going to transform you. That's up to Him. The point of the prayer is not to come to prayer and say, “What must I do?” The point is just to be there, to meet Him, to allow Him to enter into your life in the way that He chooses, in the intensity that He chooses, with the consolation He wants to give or with the desolation that He wants you to experience. I know that, somehow, by simply meeting you in that mix of presence and absence—which is our prayer, you will emerge transformed. You will be touched in a manner that will give you a new way of looking at your life, a new way of living your life.

We pray for the grace of the Gospel, the grace of commitment to continue what we have began, to endure the boredom at times, the drudgery at times, to accept both the high moments and the low moments, to keep on believing that the one who has invited us has the gift of surprising love for each one of us.

Rev. Fr. Daniel Patrick L. Huang, SJ was installed as new Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus, Philippine Province last June 12, 2004 at Loyola House of Studies.


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