Of Signs and Motives

Fresh from our diaconal exposure to both the parish ministry and the educational apostolate, we were finally back to our very own Recollect theologate at Mira-nila Homes in Quezon City in early September of 1992.  

We barely had a week to finalize all the things we needed to do for our ordination.  Each passing day, the pressure was mounting up, even as we needed to calm down and get hold of ourselves.

Of course, we knew that the countdown to our ordination day on the 12th of September suddenly morphed itself into an emotional roller coaster for all of us. There was a delay in the design and printing of our invitation cards and prayer cards, because one of us suddenly became unsure of his decision, and we did not want to keep on asking him about his discernment to avoid heaping on him additional and unnecessary pressure.  His sudden uncertainty somehow affected us and backpedaled all our last-minute preparations.  Except for one who was so sure of himself, the rest of us were half-beginning to think we might just as well beg off and postpone everything.  

On the one hand, we felt the pressure.  But on the other hand, there was no more time to dilly-dally things.  We had to buy new vestments and order a new religious habit.  Of course, we needed to buy a new pair of shoes for each one of us.  On the other hand, we had to see to it that the official photographer would be reminded of our priestly ordination on the 12th of September. Thank God, one of our friends volunteered to prepare some rosaries for our souvenirs.  We needed to call up our parents, relatives, sponsors, benefactors, and friends, just so that we could get a more accurate estimate of the number of guests who were determined to attend our priestly ordination.  Our community treasurer, like a faithful Roman procurator, kept on asking us if we already had the rough estimate of the number of visitors.  We kept running back and forth to confirm the rate, date, and venue of our retreat.  We almost forgot to call up our retreat master and confirm with finality his availability.  There were changes of schedule here and there, and we needed to call up the retreat house all over again.

It was always with mixed emotions each time we got to meet each other in the refectory, or in the hallway.  In fact, the emotional pressure was such that one or two of us did not want to talk anymore about our ordination.

I needed to calm down, too.

To regain my sanity, I felt I had to visit my spiritual director one more time, and hear some words of wisdom from him to guide me back into my ideals.

So, one afternoon, I walked a kilometer or two to Centerville Subdivision to look for my American spiritual director, Father Matthew.  But that day, there were many children and teenagers inside the new compound of the Servants of Charity, also called, the Guanellian fathers.  There must have been a family gathering of some sort, or a special activity for them.  The Servants of Charity, with the intrepid leadership of Father Luigi, grew in leaps and bounds.  Their apostolate to all kinds of differently-abled children, youth, and the elderly, was abloom with life and joy.  In the background, I could hear them sing, dance, and clap their hands in mutual affirmation.

“Come on, let’s walk in that direction,” Father Matt pointed to the nearby cemetery—the Himalayang Pilipino.  I wanted to say, “no,” to him, but he suddenly quipped, “it’s more silent over there; they are all resting.”  I laughed. I never expected those words.

So, we started walking and discussing things about the consecrated life and the priestly life.  He patiently guided me once more to revisit the first day I entered the seminary, the years that followed, yes, year after year, and how vividly things just flashed back from sheer memory, and how ably he fielded questions which made me pause and reflect even more deeply on my initial inspirations, my childhood attraction to the priesthood, some indicators of human growth, the ups and downs of my vocational journey—all in the context of prayer, generosity, and commitment.

The cemetery was vast and green, with tall trees around, or within its walls. We walked past, tomb after tomb, oblivious of mortality, and, at one point, he paused and reminded me that the measurement of life was never about achievement and success, as culture and society wanted me to believe.  It was never about honors, awards, medals, and trophies.  “Look at those tombs.  Where are their medals and trophies now?  Look at those lofty trees, they know how to bow down, right?”  

I was like walking with Jesus, passing by a fig tree, and then he would stop, and walk back to see if there were some ripe figs. 

Father Matt stressed that if life was life, then it was meant to be alive, then it had to grow.  

“The measurement of life is growth.”

I nodded in agreement.

He continued by saying that beyond our physical growth, what really mattered was growth in wisdom and grace.  

“That should change your view of things.  Don’t worry if most of the people just want to acquire more and more wealth, property, power, and fame—just let them see for themselves how empty their life can be…without growth in wisdom and grace.”

“What can you say, Ferdinand?”

“Uhm, how can I be sure… I am really called to the priesthood?  Are there sure signs that God, indeed, calls me to it, so that, then, I could say it’s no longer my will that’s working now, not my desire anymore, but His?”

There I was at it again…asking for signs.

“Come on, let’s walk back.  We’re getting far.” 

“You see, Ferdinand.  If you were only as young as twelve years old, maybe, I would tell you the same thing that your formators had already told you.  What was that again—Eat well? Play well? Study well?  Pray well? And work well, right?  You know what? Our vocation director told us something similar when we were younger, too.  He talked about the 5H’s—that we should have the head, the heart, the hands, the holiness, and the humor.  Funny, right?”  He smiled and laughed a little.  “Well, that kind of stuff sells among the young.”

He continued, “but you are no longer that young.”

“You see, children live in the world of signs. A toy, a touch, a hug, or a piece of candy will always be interpreted as a sign of welcome, acceptance, love, friendship, and endearment.  And they constantly look for those signs, hungry as they are for affirmation and encouragement.  

“In the time of Jesus, the people kept asking for signs.  That happened because their faith was infantile.  They were like children.  But halfway through his ministry, Jesus stopped performing signs for them.  He went straight to their motives.  You want to follow me? Deny yourself, take up your cross, and come, follow me.  You want to do something more?  Go, sell your property, give the proceeds to the poor, and come, follow me.

“In a few days, you will be ordained to the priesthood.  And let me tell you, Ferdinand.  Stop asking for signs.

“The world of adults is characterized… not by signs, but by motives.

“In the time of Jesus, the scribes and the Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you’ (Mt 12:38).  Jesus knew their motives and he did not bend down to the level of the ill- motivated.

“If you continue asking for signs, your faith will always be weak.  Our motive for embracing the consecrated life and the priesthood should always be evangelical, it should flow from the Gospel, that is.  Nothing else.

“You love Jesus?  Why do you love him?

“You want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus?  Why do you want to follow in his footsteps?

“It’s the why, Ferdinand.  It’s the why.”

We stopped walking.  

He raised his hands and prayed over me, and blessed me.  And off I went.

As I walked back to our theologate, I knew right there and then, that God used Father Matt to do a commando-like rescue operation…to save this pusillanimous soul from implosion, and bring out the best in me—to burst in prayer, generosity, and commitment.  Yes, all vocations should burst…should burst in the priesthood of Christ!

Did not Augustine say love was diffusive?

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