The Pope and TED

The Pope gave a TED talk! It took a while for me to wrap my head around that as the two seemed worlds apart. What’s the spiritual leader of almost a quarter of the world’s population doing speaking to a popular technology and design conference? Would the people at the conference accept a message from a religious figure? A quick online search later, I found that the Dalai Lama spoke at a previous TED conference so Pope Francis was not the first religious leader to speak and neither will he be the last. But his presence, albeit via a recorded video clip, spoke volumes about how he truly seeks to bring the Lord’s light to all the world.

He spoke on three broad themes: the need to recognise that we are relational beings who rely on each other; the need for us to balance technological advancement with care for each other; and the need for tenderness and humility in all that we do. Simple messages spoken in a very simple manner but having a depth that, I hope, would cut many to the heart. His very presence in the TED talk showed his humility. It is consoling to see that he took the time and trouble to speak to this very secular but very popular conference, demonstrating also the wisdom of using such a platform to reach people whom he might otherwise not reach. That he addressed the science and technology community directly and called for more care from them was also a sign of his recognition of their importance and his willingness to be present to them.

I will let the message speak for itself – it was moving in many ways for me. But I was moved not just by the message but by the messenger too. He spoke with a vitality and energy that captivated; his talk was very simple yet very effective in its ability to cut right to the heart. He spoke with the full power of the Christian message, using examples from Scripture and the Christian life, bringing the true light of the Lord to a world badly in need of it. The simplicity of his language (simple enough for me to understand almost all of it without subtitles – yay!) gives a stark contrast with the technological bells and whistles that are usually found at TED. It was truly a message sorely needed, one that brings not just hope but the possibility of admitting that we aren’t as smart or strong as we think we are. Pope Francis ended with the need for tenderness – perhaps it’s also a call for us to be tender with ourselves too. To be gentle with our weaknesses, hoping that others too will be gentle with ours.

A better world has been painted. Dare we step into this new possibility?

Click on the ‘CC’ button on the bottom right to enable subtitles.


Lent V – Feeling

There’s much to be said about empathy, about feeling for others and being able to be with others in their times of need. Empathy is not just commiserating or trying to feel bad when others suffer – empathy is all about accompaniment. One shouldn’t force oneself to feel the same as others as that does no good to either person, comforter and sufferer. What one should do is to open oneself to the feelings of others which would allow for greater understanding and a willingness to share in whatever the emotions and lives. If we are open to others, we don’t change ourselves more than change our way of being with others – deepening our relationships and our connectedness as children of God.

Our senses connect us with our emotions. Opening to both allows us to open to God.

One thing that struck me about the Sunday gospel this week were the range of emotions that occurred during the episode of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45). The grief of Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha was quite evident as the latter even gently chided Jesus from taking a while to arrive. Jesus himself showed emotion when he wept at the death of Lazarus. This is significant because this late in his ministry, Jesus would be very well aware of his ability to work miracles but he still showed his emotional reaction to the death of his good friend. Even one who can overcome death is himself overcome by the emotions that are related with it. Our human condition is such that no matter how we try to remain stoic and unmoved, our relationships with others, especially if they are close, can reveal deep emotions within us.

We come to these emotions through our senses – we hear and see things going around us and allow ourselves to react. Jesus did the same – he heard the news and then wept. It’s interesting that in Italian, the same word sentire is used both to feel and to hear. There’s a very close relationship between our senses and our ability to feel (emotionally) and perhaps that’s the other thing that we’d want to be open to. Allowing ourselves to be more connected to the people and other things around us will in turn open us to a fuller range of emotions.

That’s where Lent seems to be bringing us – to be more aware of our own emotions through our own openness to the world around. By being more open to the world, we become more open to God. As we approach Holy Week and enter more deeply into the paschal mystery, we try to open ourselves to others so that we can be more open to our own feelings and what and where we feel God to be.

Lent IV – Liminality

Things take time. One of the older priests in our community had an operation some weeks back and returned feeling a little weak but on the mend. Just a few days ago he shared how he noticed himself healing slowly to the point where he now feels almost back to normal. ‘It’s amazing’, he said, ‘How the body heals itself slowly. We just have to give it time.’ Very wise words from a man whose spirituality and prayerfulness I am in awe of. Wise words for us too, especially during this difficult time in the middle of Lent. Things take time, we need time. We need to allow ourselves time to breath, to heal and to live.

There’s a certain beauty in waiting, just allowing for time to pass and time to heal as where we need it to. [Image link]

I remember a sharing that I did some time back with a group of young adults where I mentioned the concept of liminal space. A liminal space is a time of waiting and a time that’s in between two significant events or periods. It’s time where things are not quite certain and also a time of transition or change. It’s often a space where we try to rush through, wanting to get to the main event as quickly as we can because the in-between is rather uncomfortable. In Lent, we have a mandatory 40 days of liminal space, to prepare ourselves for Easter and to live and wait in this liminal space, uncomfortable as it may be.

It is within this space that we’re called to stay, but not to make ourselves feel miserable – far from that – but to make ourselves feel the little changes that happen within us, like the priest who felt his healing, and to realise that these changes happen not because of us but because of God who gives us life. I imagine that it is somewhat similar even the blind man in the gospel for this weekend (John 9:1-41). He was healed from blindness but not only had to learn to use his eyes again as he was blind from birth (we all know how disorientating it can be to suddenly go from darkness to light) but had to deal with unwanted attention from the religious authorities as well. His physical healing was quick but his reintegration into society and learning to use his newfound sight would definitely take time.

Time heals, life reveals. The number of ‘instant’ products around us is staggering and that just reminds us how waiting and patience are not quite the virtues they used to be. I feel that we’re invited to wait and allow ourselves to be healed by God in whatever ways that we need to be. We’re invited to wait and enter more deeply into life with God, to unite us more deeply with God. That’s all – wait, pray and listen.

Lent III – Conversation

The Gospel this Sunday (John 4:1-42) was all about a conversation – one that might have seemed very odd to many at the time but it was a conversation nonetheless. I was struck by the conversational intimacy that quickly developed between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – that the apparent distance in culture and gender quickly melted away when things of importance were brought up. The excitement with which she went back to tell the rest of the town was palpable towards the end of the passage, an excitement that came about because of the recognition of the new life that was offered to her and to everyone else.

When we converse, we exchange words and ideas but that’s not all that happens. Something deeper occurs between those in the conversation, a meeting of minds and hearts that often has the effect of bringing a person out of themselves. Without conversations, we can very easily sink into the swamps of our own thoughts, self-doubt and misery, not realising that there may be others who are in the same boat as us and some who can truly help us. Conversation opens up to possibilities beyond ourselves and more importantly, opens us to possibilities of reaching God.

I was shown this video clip several years ago and it still moves me. This very modern take on the woman at the well shows a woman struggling and hurting, speaking about all the things that have gone or are going wrong with her. The person of Jesus is visually absent but undeniably present as one hears the change in the tone and message of the woman as she slowly hears the voice of the Lord amidst her struggles. In the conversation that occurs unspoken, she feels like she is recognised as a person and loved solely because she is a person also. That was when the despair turned into hope.

‘To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.’ She repeats this so many times and in many ways, this phrase lies at the heart of why we make conversation, why we try to get to know each other. Because it allows us to be known to others and to be loved as a result. It allows us to know others whom we are called to love. The call to love others can be quite empty if we do not know who we are to love at all. During this time of Lent, I feel that we’re all called to reach out, to people whom we sort-of-know, to get to know them better so that we can truly love them as they deserve. To converse is to come to know, to come to know is to come to love. We see that in the Gospels, we can see that in our lives too. All we have to do is make it happen.

Lent II – Endurance

My legs are sore and I’m still feeling a little hungry after dinner. While this may sound like a common lament during Lent, I’ve a different reason for feeling so. Had the opportunity to participate in the Roma-Ostia half marathon this morning and slightly tired legs aside, it was a great experience. This is one of the oldest running races in Rome and the course takes one from near the middle of Rome to the ancient port city of Ostia, facing the Tyrrhenian Sea. I also found it to be one of the best organised running races I’ve been to so far and though the course wasn’t quite so easy, I enjoyed myself and got to feel and see parts of the city that many would not. Running is a wonderful way of getting to know a place.

Got the t-shirt, got the medal. Have I got the endurance?

The last four kilometres of the run gave me much matter for reflection. Not having studied the route properly and probably having gone a little too fast in the beginning, the gentle slopes in that part of the route seemed less than gentle. As I struggled up what seemed to be never ending slops, I dawned upon me what one learns from distance running. Endurance is one. Endurance means to stay with something, no matter how unpleasant, knowing that there’s something better that will come out of it. In running, it means sticking with something, putting one foot in front of the other and dragging oneself to the end if necessary. The other is faith. Faith in oneself and faith in God who called us to whatever we’re to do, knowing that we’re always given the things and abilities necessary to achieve what we’re called to do.

Endurance is important in times like Lent. Things usually start well and we begin our journey with great fervour. After some time, the fervour wears out and the observances and practices become less interesting and seem burdensome even. We’re called to stick it out, to stay with what we committed to before, knowing that there’s something better to be gained at the end of all that we do. The other thing about endurance is that it builds on itself. The more we are able to endure situations, the better we’re able to do so in the future.

Endurance is not an end in itself. We work on it because we know it works on us. St Paul wrote that endurance builds character and character produces hope (Romans 5:4) which indicates that endurance is a key virtue in the life of humans. Endurance produces hope because through it, we’re not content with settling for situations that are sub-optimal. We see the possibility of something beyond the sufferings of the present but there’s things to be endured in the meantime. Hope bolsters the sense of endurance that we have, giving us the strength to be able to get to where we know we need to.

We endure because we have faith – in the one who gave us the ability to endure and also in the possible fruits of the endurance itself. Faith comes along with the hope that endurance produces. We don’t endure for no reason and it is through faith in the Lord that we can endure. It’s a difficult relationship sometimes – enduring difficult situations when we’ve yet to feel the sense of hope and faith can be disheartening and futile even. But we’re always sure of one thing – that if we’re doing what the Lord’s called us to do, then the hope will ultimately emerge. We just have to stay and wait for it. Endure again.

I’ve been participating in endurance events for a while and at first, it was just proving things to myself – that I could actually achieve things beyond what I (or even others) though were possible. But as one gets deeper into the ‘whys’ of doing endurance sports, a more transformative reason emerges. Beyond just proving things to oneself, there’s a sense of transformation, of sublimating that into a means of engaging with God through the enduring self and of growing in faith and hope as one grows in endurance. Running may not be for everyone but everyone is on their own journey towards the Lord. How are we enduring, staying with the Lord during this season of Lent?

Lent I – Humanification

It’s interesting how learning a new language opens up new horizons as words that one purports to be familiar with take on new meanings. We began the season of Lent a few days ago and there are calls for prayer, fasting and alms-giving – acts of mortification that would allow us to enter more deeply into this season. I know the roots of the word ‘mortification’ but learning (and struggling to speak) a new language puts things into greater perspective. Mortification comes from the Latin mortem (morte in Italian) and refers to the acts of self-denial and how one has to die to oneself in order to rise with the Lord. That’s all integral to the spiritual life and our progress in it but sometimes we can take ourselves too seriously and go overboard with the ‘dying’ component of the mortification (and Lenten observances) and forget the living bits.

Humanity – to reach that and to live the life that the Lord gives us. [Image source]

I’d like to propose a different way of seeing Lent. Instead of dying to ourselves, why not live more fully the life that the Lord gives us? Instead of mortification, why not try humanification instead? This is not a call for laxity or removal of our Lenten observances but to do the same with a different and possibly more expansive point of view. The image of dying to oneself in one’s pursuit of God has its merits but may not be as palatable to many in this day and age. Humanification or the recovering of our true essence as created beings of the Lord can be an easier entry-point to the penances and observances of Lent that more can adopt before deepening the process with the dying to the self. Allow me to explain this in the light of the three calls of Ash Wednesday to prayer, fasting and alms-giving.

We start with the self and our need for dependency for God. That’s what fasting does to us. As we are deprived of something that we normally have or are used to, we’re forced to recognise our human frailty and strengthen our faith and trust in God our creator. We’re humanified here because we embrace our fallen humanity even more closely in the recognition of our weakness and are more desirous of the conversion that only God can bring us. We put ourselves in a position to be healed as only humans need to be and that in turn brings us closer to God who reaches out to us always.

Next, we move out of the self to our relationship with others. That’s where alms-giving comes in. We do not operate as islands and alms-giving points us in the direction of the other. By not confining ourselves to our own selfish needs, our vision of creation expands as we are better able to love and serve others from our own weakness. This practice of love of others helps to fulfil the command of the Lord to love others but also spreads the goodness and the humanity that is inherent within us to all around.

Finally, we move from the created to the creator. That’s where prayer comes in. We are made more human as we humble ourselves to seek God our creator. There is a part of all of us that wants to seek God, to improve our relationship with God and to move towards all that is divine. That’s the human in us that also seeks God who became human for us. We often stop ourselves with distractions and other things that intervene. During Lent, a clear commitment to prayer can bring us out of that rut towards repairing or deepening that relationship that we seek.

Humanify our Lent – be more human so that we can be more holy. Whatever way we like to see Lent, we embrace it as a time of grace that allows us to purify and sanctify ourselves in preparation for the mystery that is the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord. How are we being more human this Lent?

Three moments of Beauty

Winter’s come to Rome. The surest sign of this was felt last weekend during our Advent triduum (a three-day retreat) at a nice little retreat house on Rocca di Papa, a town on a hill not far from Rome. On the final morning of the triduum, I took a walk in the garden only to find that most of the grassy patches seemed to have been painted white overnight. ‘Snow?’, I thought to myself. On closer inspection, it wasn’t snow but frost on the grass and leaves that fell on the ground. The dew that fell on the grass froze overnight and left a fine dusting of frost on them. Held up to the light, the frost shimmered like little jewels on the surface of the leaves and grass, almost as if a clumsy thief had run through the fields overnight, dropping his loot of jewels willy-nilly on the grass.

I didn’t take this photo but it comes very close to what I saw. [Original]

I picked up a leaf, aflame with autumn red, to examine the little ice crystals that formed on the surface. As a result of the leaf’s proximity to me and the fact that I held it in the sun to see it sparkle, the ice began to melt. Beauty changed. The sharp angular edges of the crystals quickly softened into subtle curves which then turned into beautiful glistening globes of water. Diamonds turning into pearls almost, before the droplets rolled of the leaf, revealing its full autumn finery.

The beauty of the frosted leaf and the revelation of the fiery beauty beneath led me to realise that what we call beauty is something not just complex in itself but infinitesimally changeable both in space and time. Upon further reflection on this experience, I realised that I beheld three moments of beauty in that small little leaf. The first was the moment of temporary manifest beauty of the frost on the leaf. The second was the moment of transitory beauty of the red autumnal leaf. And the third was the permanent existential beauty of the leaf itself.

Beauty that is temporary and manifest happens in the moment and is special. It does not last long, as the frost on the leaf demonstrated, but it provides a momentary insight into the possibility of the sublime. It’s often fleeing and we thus have to be attentive to the world around us so that we don’t miss the opportunities to participate in this form of beauty. Given the temporality of this sort of beauty, we respond by relishing and savouring the moments that we can catch, enjoying and participating in it as much as we can. It’s catching the moment of joy in the laugh of a child, the depth of a note in a piece of music that touches our soul, the flicker of a candle in the gloom of a darkened chapel. These are moments that we sense, relish and remember.

Transitory beauty is all about change but change in itself is a moment of beauty. I’ve been reminded how beautiful autumn can be as the trees along my normal running route changed over the past months. The change has been almost imperceptible but when one does realise it, one cannot help but wonder at how change and the seasons bring beauty anew all the time. We appreciate the process, the transition itself. It’s all about sitting to watch the sunset, enjoying the transition from day to dusk to night. Watching the light fade, colours deepen and shadows lengthen until all that’s left is the shadow of day. It’s realising that we too are continually transformed, from golden evening through crimson dusk to indigo twilight, every day of our lives.

And then there’s the permanent, existential beauty that lasts and underlines everything that is temporary and transitory. It’s the inherent beauty of the leaf that goes beyond the autumnal reds and covering of frost. And it’s not just the physical beauty that’s involved here – it’s the existential beauty of the thing that’s in question. The leaf’s not just beautiful in its shape and form but beautiful in its ecological function and even more beautiful in it’s being part of the creation of God. It’s beautiful because it’s a leaf that’s created by God and not for any other external reason. Existential beauty drives our ability to love. We’re naturally drawn to beauty and more than just the externals, we’re drawn to beauty that’s deep within all things that we see. There’s a power in the simplicity of this moment of beauty – a power that we appreciate innately but may find difficult to express. This is why people fall in love and stay in love with each other for their entire lives. This is why works of art remain works of art for all ages. Beauty draws us to it and draws us to love.

There’s beauty in the world and there’s beauty in the Word made flesh. During these last days of Advent, we’re invited to contemplate the coming of the Lord into the world. We feel the beauty of transition as we live in this liminal space, quietly living in anticipation as we reflect on how we are changed and brought closer to the Lord in this time. Our anticipation reaches a climax in the singular event of the Nativity that, while momentary, is also infused with the permanence of the Word who is its centre. We celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world, the event of God becoming man to live among us. We also celebrate the permanence of this coming – of God’s continual presence among us now and for eternity.

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6 (KJV)

May this time of Advent be one of beautiful waiting and may the beauty of the Lord’s Nativity draw us into a deeper love for Him and His people around us. May the Prince of Peace bring true peace and joy into hearts so in need of consolation and may we have to courage to spread this joy to all. Amen.

about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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