God’s peculiar grace

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by Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

As I lay in my bed late one night, I received an unexpected Facebook message from a good friend. When asked, he told me that he was “a bit tired, a bit perturbed, a bit sad.”

His message troubled me, so I stayed up to continue chatting with him. He shared with me how the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons make him feel sad and angry. His mother’s only sibling, his aunt, died on Christmas Day four years ago.

Then two years later, his dear grandmother suffered a car accident. They thought she would survive to be with them for Christmas. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be and his family had to make the difficult decision to remove his grandmother’s ventilator on Dec. 24. She passed away on Christmas Eve.

At that moment, I wished I had a thousand words that would bridge the thousands of miles between us. I can’t imagine the amount of pain his family feels because of these two losses. I completely understand his saying bluntly that he was angry.

I wished at that moment that I could provide my physical presence. We were on different sides of the world. Whilst he was just beginning the day in the United States, I was ending mine in Spain. I looked out of my bedroom window and saw the shining stars in the night sky.

My friend is like one of the stars that sparkle in the dark sky. In spite of grappling with the emotions in his heart—emotions that make him want to give up—he strives to keep the light of hope. Many people struggle with their anger, resentment and loneliness. They desperately try to nurture a hopeful and joyful spirit and experience the meaning of Advent in their lives.

Social conflicts throughout our world are weakening the spirit of hope among us. Our desire for peace, unity, and love is robbed from us by terrible events everywhere.

In the news, we read about arrogance, hate, racism and discrimination. We see powerful nations tyrannize defenseless ones. We see national leaders who advocate the use of violence to solve their nations’ epidemic social ills.

Some nations are closing their borders to victims of injustice, survivors fleeing from wars. Many displaced people are taking risks to find new homes while political leaders debate how to deal with increasing arrivals of refugees and migrants.

Many immigrants died from starvation, sickness and drowning as they traveled the ocean. We see evil in our world. We cry out, asking ourselves how much we truly value human dignity. Chaos enslaves us. We are lost in darkness. We are getting tired of waiting, preparing and hoping for the coming of that day when all suffering will be over.

Yet, the Advent season can be a source of peculiar grace for which each of us longs. Like me, you probably have heard a friend’s painful story. The daily news we hear from around the world keeps us informed about the disturbing and heartbreaking anguish of our fellow human beings. The suffering we all experience in various ways connects us to each other.

It urges us to pause and reflect, making us realize that we should not obey the dictates of darkness in society. We all seek for a day when we are filled with faith, hope and love. We wait for that day. We prepare for that day. We hope for that day.

When we live out the spirit of waiting, preparing and hoping for that God-given desire, we recognize and receive the peculiar grace of the Advent season.

It is said that the stars are like beacons of hope for all the lost souls of the world. They enable us to be enlightened if we seek the spark of God’s infinite mercy and love.

When embraced in times of sufferings, the love of God keeps us whole. It preserves human dignity when the world tries to mangle it. The season of Advent makes us believe that in the midst of the world’s sinfulness—envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath—we can help to restore humanity if we allow the Spirit of the Lord to rest upon us.

When we accept the Lord, we realize that through the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, we are able to overcome the trials and hardships before us.

The same Holy Spirit that blessed Mary by calling her to be the bearer of the Savior of the world lets us all welcome God into our lives. By learning from God’s words, ways and instructions, we will be transformed. And when we are transformed, we transform our chaotic world into a dwelling place of hope, peace and love. Could all this be possible? Yes! For nothing is impossible for God.

Editor’s note: Divine Word seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas writes from Spain, where he is fulfilling his overseas Cross-Cultural Training Program.

Trees planted by streams: Seeing God’s grace in the arbor

trees-in-spain_blog_for-webDivine Word seminarian Marlon Bobier Vargas is spending two years in Spain, fulfilling his overseas Cross-Cultural Training Program. As he acclimates to this new culture, he is surprised to see tree limbs being cut from trees to avoid leaves falling and having to be raked.

By Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

On a cold morning while waiting at the bus stop, I noticed something different about the trees that line the sidewalks. The columns of trees were like knights with swords raised, giving honor. The colorful leaves on the trees that I enjoyed were gone.

Then I recalled seeing three men on a truck. They cut the branches and removed the leaves from the trees a few days ago. I realized winter was coming. As part of preparation for the change of seasons, people in this part of western Spain cut tree branches.

Instead of letting the dry leaves fall to the ground by themselves, they cut the branches to avoid spending time and energy cleaning the fallen, dried leaves from the street.

I wondered if those trees have feelings. What would the trees be feeling with their bare branches and trunks, absent of their colorful and beautiful leaves? I wondered how they would feel knowing that, as the new season approaches, their branches would be cut to spare their owners the inconvenience of raking dried leaves. Would the trees feel that they were sacrificing their possessions for the sake of convenience?

The trees now are completely bare. They have lost their beauty. The rough surfaces and scars of their trunks are more visible—ugly in the eyes of many people. Perhaps they experience pain without the leaves that protect their trunks from the heat of the direct sunlight.

It is as if they are incomplete, imperfect, and weak, standing along the side streets. These feelings lingered inside of me as I passed the trees along the street.

trees-in-spain_blog_for-web_in-textOn another morning, I noticed something about the appearance of the bare trees that amused me. Each tree still had at least one branch that touched the branch of another tree. The columns of trees on each side of the street were connected to each other.

It looked like the trees were holding hands, standing and giving support to each other. This stirring image of the bare trees helped transform my feelings of incompleteness, imperfections, and weakness into joy, love, and hope. It gave me peace when I realized that in times when the trees were seemingly vulnerable in their stripped condition, they had each other. With their branches connected, they backed and supported each other.

We, too, experience nakedness and aloneness. There are moments in our lives when we realize our incompleteness, imperfections, and inner and hidden insecurities.

Those insecurities and uncertainties come in many forms. Some people are enslaved by their shamefulness of being part of a broken and dysfunctional family. There are a significant number of individuals who are afraid to admit and address their addictions to drugs, pornography, computer gaming, alcohol, etc. Some friends and co-workers fret about living as undocumented immigrants in our society.

We have abusive political authorities who exteriorly show a powerful stance but interiorly feel guilt for their unjust and oppressive leadership. In a multitude of ways, we hurt from the pain of racial and gender discrimination. Fear, judgment, criticism, condemnation, rejection, isolation, abandonment, and hopelessness—these strong and damaging realities can make people wicked, wounded, broken, weak, and impoverished as individuals and as a community.

Like the bare trees that appear ugly and unattractive, we are vulnerable. That vulnerability sometimes makes us uncomfortable, troubled, ashamed or afraid. Our vulnerabilities sometimes urge us to isolate ourselves from others.

Yet, facing our vulnerabilities is an opportunity to take the path of change—life transformation and conversion. As we gradually grow in relationship with God, we discover His revelation. We come to know His unconditional mercy that can only be experienced by having a deep and intimate relationship with Him. In the darkest and ugliest state of our nakedness, we see that sacred mercy and loving embrace of God. We realize that we are not alone. We feel that we do not have to face our vulnerabilities alone.

There is more to learn from those bare trees. Psalms 1:1-3 reads, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.”

The bare trees, as one of God’s creations, depend on the grace of their Creator. So do we. It is only through our God’s mercy that we are rescued from the power of darkness and brought into a life of freedom. As we continue to witness the greatness of the seasonal change around us, let us bring into our prayers our desire to seek God’s mercy.

La visita a los enfermos: Visit the sick

 

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Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang delivers Communion to Mrs. Francisca.

By Frater Viet Quoc Hoang SVD

As part of the formation process, Divine Word Missionaries spend one to three years in a Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP). Through CTP, they become immersed in a culture that is different from the one in which they were raised. The author of this reflection, Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang, lived as a missionary in Paraguay for two years. He returned to the United States this fall to resume studies at Catholic Theological Union. In this piece, he shares his thoughts on the importance of ministering with the sick and dying.

Everyone, at some time in life, experiences illness and suffering. At other times to a greater or lesser degree, we feel affected by the realities of other people’s illness and suffering. Most doctors often emphasize that abandonment during the time of illness can be worse than lack of medical care and medicines. Another person’s presence, proximity, and interest can be the best medicine.

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Volunteers Luis and Rocio check a patient’s blood pressures.

All Christians, according to their abilities, should take care of the sick—visiting and providing for their needs. The care of the sick and suffering, especially loved ones, is difficult. People sometimes flee from this responsibility to avoid feeling powerless; because to be near and see the pain of others—the suffering and tears—and being unable to do anything to help can be overwhelming. However, visiting the sick can help us to accept and cope with the suffering around us.

Reflecting on my two years in Paraguay, I found that the ministry of visiting the elderly and sick has deepened my understanding of the works of mercy, especially the importance of visiting the sick.

After my language studies in the capital city of Asuncion, I was placed at Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart of Jesus) parish in a city of about 22,000 people named after Doctor Juan León Mallorquín. It was a full-immersion pastoral experience. At first, I was overwhelmed by the need for pastoral visits, especially to the elderly and the sick.

The Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS), who run one of the local high schools, require their seniors to participate in social outreach projects as part of the graduation requirements. A few high school seniors asked me to help them with their projects. I hesitated to accept this invitation at first because my language skills were limited. But then, placing my trust in the Divine Word, I listened to the encouraging words of my pastor, vicar, and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and accepted the invitation to serve.

Oftentimes the visit, this small act of mercy, can give a breather to dedicated caregivers. Usually, not much is needed. Sometimes, it requires only a visit to an elderly or sick person—making conversation and offering assistance by helping with a blood pressure reading, grocery shopping, cleaning the house or reading a newspaper or book to them. If this simple task is done with love, a miracle usually happens. The sick person feels healthier.

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Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang offers Communion to a patient and her husband.

Sometimes to calm our conscience and avoid the feeling of powerlessness, we say, “What can I do? Others do so much better.” We might think , “The patient gets tired fast, and if another person has already visited her or him, why do I still need to go?”

But, we cannot escape our Christian responsibility. Anyone can be a volunteer and help the sick. Depending on availability, capacity and personal preferences, we can choose a volunteer opportunity that best fits the rhythm of our lives.

The CTP experience taught me an additional lesson: the difference between being a volunteer and being a missionary. As a Divine Word Missionary, I need to be mindful not only to be a servant for people but to be with them. God’s love, grace and presence are already among the people whom I have been blessed to know.

Missionary work, involves living among the people and seeing the grace of God within them. Through His grace, we are called to open our hearts and eyes to recognize that there are so many people around us who carry the burdens of illness and abandonment. They need our attention and loving care. Whether they are our own family members and neighbors or the people in the streets, we are called to give Christian witness.

Prayers for the departed

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By Father Lukas Batmomolin SVD

Novelist Chuck Palahniuk once wrote, “I don’t want to die without any scars.” This short and meaningful statement could describe our lives as Christians. Our faith in Christ impels us to fight for the good and well-being of ourselves and others. As Christians, we suffer for ourselves but also suffer to do good for others.

We strive to express our faith not only through meaningful words that come from our hearts but also through excellent deeds that reflects our good intentions. We who strive to serve will have to deal with some scars. Nevertheless, as Lailah Gifty Akita, founder of Smart Youth Volunteers Foundation, said, “The more we serve, the more strength we receive to keep the good deeds.”

Our Christian faith teaches us that good deeds are beyond the restraint of time and space; therefore, we continue to pray and offer good things to our beloved departed ones. We remember them dearly and try to help them through our personal prayers, individual almsgiving and Mass attendance.

Our Catholic faith instills in us the belief that our prayers can help the faithful departed, our beloved ones who died. Our prayers may help to cleanse their tainted soul so that they may enjoy the radiant glory eternally with God in Heaven.

About the author
Divine Word Father Lukas Batmomolin serves as superior delegate and communications coordinator for the Chicago Province. A native of Ambon, Indonesia, Father Batmomolin was ordained in 1991 and worked in Catholic publishing in Southeast Asia for several years before being assigned to the United States. Twice, he has been a guest lecturer for the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, helping to educate diplomats about the role of culture and religion in Indonesia.

A letter to all who want to change the world

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By Brother Luke Henkel SVD

I am a brother in temporary vows in the Missionary Society of the Divine Word. I’m an SVD. I am a newly-professed brother. I aspire to boldly foster justice, but as much as I would hope to be another Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am not.

I know that might sound obvious. It is so glaringly obvious to me that the thought takes my breath away. It’s like being on a roller coaster when it starts the drop. Trying to emulate the lives of St. Teresa of Calcutta or Mahatma Gandhi can be overwhelming.

All my life I’ve heard that no one person can save the world. I try to remember what St. Therese of Lisieux said, that we’re not called to do great things, only small things with great love.

We can’t all be heroes; we can only be ourselves, and somehow that’s the truest heroism. All God asks of us is that we are our truest selves—the loveliest gift we can give back to God is our lives, lived authentically.

And yet some part of me rails against that idea. I say, “Sure, sure, yes,” but it’s not enough. I say, we’re all called to greatness, and we all have to be great, so let’s get to work!

We have to do our part and then some. We have to be tireless because there’s so much work to be done. We have to keep striving, going and working because the world is hurting and look at Mother Teresa. She only got four hours of sleep a night. I say, me too.

God despises the complacent and spits the lukewarm out of his mouth, right? So, the real danger isn’t in failing; it’s in never trying or in not trying hard enough. It lies in being complacent, lazy or sub-par. The danger is in not being our BEST selves.

And then I hear that inner voice. I hear the stillness. I hear silence—I suddenly feel silence—and that silence urges me to join it.

Be quiet. Be still.

Suddenly, amid all the clamoring to do something about this broken world, amid all my rushing around to try to save everyone—someone, something—I am motionless.

I notice my breath, and I focus on it.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

Breathe in, I am calm. Breathe out, I smile.

Suddenly, amid all the chaos of this broken world, I see how broken I am. I am trying to fix the world—to fix everyone else— and yet here I am so very broken.

Here I am trying to fix the world for others, to try and make the world a perfect place—to  be with the homeless, stop global warming, pray for the sick and dying, prevent gun violence from getting worse and to find out how to be a religious brother. I struggle to find out what it means to properly represent the Divine Word Missionaries as a brother, and in all of that motion, I have forgotten to breathe.

Or perhaps I have forgotten to be-reathe.

Now I return to my breath. I return to be-reathing. Breathe in, I am here. Breathe out this is the present moment.

In, I acknowledge my brokenness. Out, I smile to my brokenness.

In, I am imperfect and weak. Out, that is okay.

Weak, imperfect, letting go.

Gradually like a slow fade, I see that this brokenness isn’t something to judge. It isn’t something to be upset about, to label as good or bad, or to hide from. It’s not something to try to fix. It just is.

I am not Mother Teresa. I am not Dorothy Day. I am not a perfect brother. That’s a fact.

My breathing slows. I’m not as aware of my breath as I am of the stillness. I don’t know what you’d call it. Peace? A deep silence? A profound stillness?

At times, words are inadequate. For now, I am just breathing. I am not doing anything else.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Breathe.

Be-reathe.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to read more about Brother Luke and his journey to the brotherhood, click here.

Facing Fears

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Author Jorge Zetino SVD (third from the right) professed religious vows with his novitiate class and trusted confreres on Aug. 6. They are (l to r) Divine Word Missionaries Hoc Tien Mai, Carl Gales, Luke Henkel, Hai Ngoc Pham, Derek Nguyen, Zachary Smith, Jorge, Theodore Vu Nguyen and Luis Panuco-Carmona.

By Jorge Zetino SVD

Wait, you still don’t have a driver’s license? What is wrong with you?

Over and over again, I heard these questions when people learned that at age 25 and still did not have a driver’s license. I understood their reaction. For many, not having a valid driver’s license is the eighth cardinal sin.

In a society that values freedom and independence, getting a driver’s license at a young age is a must. In fact, for most people, getting a driver’s license was the first taste of freedom.

To some extent, their reaction was justifiable. Contrary to the situation in my country of birth, Guatemala, here in the United States owning a vehicle and having driver’s license is a necessity—not a luxury.

In Guatemala, one can get around easily without owning a car. Public transportation is the most convenient and most affordable way of traveling. In this country, however, in order for one to get around one must own a car and have a valid driver’s license.

Unless a person lives in a big city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, public transportation in the United States is not always accessible – and one can argue that in some places it is not the safest way to travel. Or, as my uncle once told me, “Nephew, if you don’t have your own car and your driver’s license it is as if you don’t have legs because both equal a lack of mobility.”

For many years, fear of driving has been my greatest fear and my greatest obstacle in life. I’ve been terrified to get behind the wheel. And there is a reason for it—the same one I’ve given over and over in the course of six years.

I was involved in two car accidents—one while I was the driver, the other while I was in the passenger seat. These two experiences left me petrified, especially after spinning on Interstate-290 and having our car crash into the concrete barrier in the middle of the highway twice.

So after many years, I decided that getting a driver’s license was to be one of my goals last year. The Divine Word Novitiate program provided me with the time and resources to set goals and work towards achieving them throughout the year—learning to drive was one of them.

A quote by Mark Twain inspired me: “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.” I became determined that I would not allowed this fear to have dominion over my life. The only way to conquer the fear was by facing it. I put this theory to the test in December when I began my journey to Bay St. Louis, Miss., with fellow novices.

While in the car with three of them, one suggested that I get behind the wheel. Although I had my driver’s permit and was with other licensed drivers, I was hesitant at first. But, with the encouragement of my fellow novices, I got into the driver’s seat for the first time since the two accidents happened.

The encouragement of my friends helped me realized that I could actually face my fear. The beginning of the death of my fear began that cold December morning on the country roads of Illinois. Since that day, I made it a point to not only face fear but to conquer it.

After years of fear, eight months of driving lessons with a certified instructor, and practice with friends, I passed. Hearing those four magical words, “You passed the test” has been the most liberating moment of my life.

Two lessons became clear to me the day I got my driver’s license. One, we can conquer any fear no matter how big or small it might be. Two, we need the help and support of others in order to conquer our fears. We cannot do it alone. If it weren’t for the support of my novitiate community, I would have not been able to find the courage to conquer my fear once and for all.

Canadian author Robin Sharma once said, “The fears we don’t face become our limits.” This is indeed true! For most of my young adult life, my fear of driving became my greatest obstacle in life. It was the only thing holding me back. The moment that I grabbed that valuable piece of plastic, I felt free. I promised myself that I would never, ever, allow a fear to hold me captive again.

So allow me to pose the following questions: What is your biggest fear? Who could help you conquer it? I hope and pray that you find someone in your life who—like my community members—can help you gain the courage you need to face it.

Divine Word Frater Jorge Zetino, who professed religious vows in August, is studying for the priesthood at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. This post is his fourth reflection in “Just Words and Divine Word Action.” To check out his other writings, click on Know thy desires, Do you want to be well? and Defeating death is a matter of faith.

Home: renewing family relationships

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This piece continues Divine Word seminarian Marlon Vargas’s reflection on his recent home visit to the Philippines. After completing his second year of graduate studies at Catholic Theological Union, he spent part of the summer at home before leaving for his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain. While at home, he visited family and conducted retreats for youth, such as the group shown above. Here’s part two from the Philippines.

By Marlon Vargas SVD

My home leave would not be complete or as meaningful without spending quality time with my beloved family. I celebrated my first anniversary in religious vows with them. I enjoyed every minute that I spent with them. I felt great longing to catch up with them to fill up the five, long years we missed spending together, especially with my siblings. I had so much fun with my grown-up nieces and nephews. I now have a stronger admiration for my mom and stepfather who have persevered in their commitment of loving each other despite many challenges in their relationship.

I came to a deeper realization that, though I did not have the chance to choose the perfect family, I have many choices and chances to help my own family become a God-given blessing in my life.

All the learning experiences I gained while growing up with my family, such as values, behaviors, attitudes and abilities, have become gifts that I share with other families whom I serve in my ministry. My home leave gave me the chance to restore and renew my relationship with my family.

Coming home also was a completion of one of my missions in life—to meet and get to know my long lost biological father. T.S. Eliot once wrote that “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Finally, after more than 30 years of longing to know my father, my searching has come to an end. It was the hardest event during my vacation. Honestly, I have wished that the first and only time I met my father could have been just a simple and ordinary event. But, for me—someone who had been through a lot of pain and sufferings in life—it was not easy to face a person who made a decision in the past that I thought caused my life to be different and difficult.

Reconnecting with my father was emotionally challenging. Thanks to a good friend who accompanied and supported me in doing this life-changing encounter with my estranged father, I deeply and strongly believe that my meeting with my father was a particular grace.

It was a grace-filled moment of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. I do still have unanswered questions, but I don’t have to rush addressing those concerns. For it is true indeed that God will always answer our prayers according to His divine time and plan.

Right now, meeting my father was a concrete experience of finding and getting the missing piece of my being. It was a spiritual experience of rediscovering my self-identity and reaffirming my faith that God, the merciful and loving Father, called me to serve others.

My home visit fulfilled my expectations and hopes. They are all now a part of my joyful memories and meaningful life experiences; not just hoped for events about which I worry. It was such a God-given gift to spend vacation with many wonderful people. They have moved on with their lives, but I am grateful for being able to reconnect with them in ways that were very meaningful for me, ways that I needed to experience with them personally.

The two-and-a-half month vacation in my homeland was a break from my formation. I am deeply joyful and grateful that I had opportunities to be reunited with people who have been part of my vocation; be blessed with learning experiences through visits to significant places in my life; be renewed and restored in my relationships with my family; and be rediscovered in my identity and rejuvenated in my vocation as a Divine Word Missionary.

I am sad to again leave my home, especially my family. I feel what Jesus felt in Luke 4:38-44 when people sought him and would have kept him from leaving them. My heart urges me that I “must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose

I carry with me the joy, gratitude and hope that my home leave has given to me—the essentials that I need to fulfill my God-given mission. Home is where my missionary journey begins.

To read part one of Marlon’s reflection, click here.