Grace works in the present moment
Last Monday and Tuesday, we were running the final session of our Principals, Supervisors and Teachers’ Formation Program for five public schools from one city.
In one of the evaluation sheets, there was a recommendation that the formation session be given to other local government officials and employees so that the renewal and reform movement we were advocating in our program would truly be a community effort.
Our team processing the evaluations shared this with me Wednesday morning, and one of them commented, “Wow, they truly embraced what we are advocating!”
The Mass readings the next two weeks, especially the Gospel this Sunday, will begin to focus on the so-called end times. Much attention will be given to the second coming of Christ, and the signs that will accompany this.
It is interesting to note that at different stages or eras in the history of the church, we have, time and again, witnessed the so-called millennial movements or communities. These are communities formed around the belief that the second coming was imminent. People lived in communities—or more of communes—preparing themselves for the second coming; most evolved into cults.
Every year, as we come to the end of the liturgical year and approach Advent, I am reminded of these movements, and how such chapters in the history of the church remind us of the importance of genuine movements and authentic communities.
While I do not downplay the message of scripture passages referring to the second coming and the end times, the distorted views, such as those held by the millennial movements, is far from the Lord’s and scripture’s intentions.
Let me invite you to reflect on two points. First, there is what our spiritual director, the late Fr. Benny Calpotura, S.J., used to tell us, that grace works in the present moment. Second, there is Parker Palmer’s article on movements, “Divided No More.”
Grace working in the present moment seems like a simple logical statement. Yet it is a powerful point for reflection that helps people reintegrate. Distracting us from the present moment is an insidious tactic of the evil spirit. Anxiety makes us fret over the future, while resentment imprisons us in the past. Whether the root causes are real or imagined, anxiety and resentment both make us blind to what is in front of us, the grace and hope that is in our midst.
One of my favorite exercises in our formation sessions is asking a volunteer from among the participants to view a painting in the hall. I first ask the volunteer to stand from afar and describe the painting to us. The painting we look at is that of a town fiesta, so the description is always positive: happy, colorful, festive.
Then I request the volunteer to walk up close to the painting, then slowly I bring his/her face two or three inches away from the painting. Then I ask him/her to describe what he/she sees. The usual first response is, “nothing.” Then with a little bit more prodding they describe the rough strokes, the blob, that account for nothing.
This is a simple exercise that drives home the point that when we lose perspective, we tend to focus on the negative and lose sight of the whole, where everything makes more sense. I always say that at any given point in our life, if we weigh all things properly, there are always more things to be grateful for than to feel sorry about.
This is the same dynamics as not living in the present moment and getting too engrossed in the past or the future. We lose sight of the bigger picture or the horizon of our life, what Fr. Catalino Arevalo, S.J., called the dream larger than life.
The reference to the end times in scripture, I would like to think, is a reminder to us that God’s promise will be fulfilled. It is not to make us panic, but to make us live in hope. While the catastrophic signs are there, we must also not gloss over what comes after, “the new heavens and the new earth.” As we say in the vernacular, “May hustisya ang Diyos.” (God’s justice will prevail; the triumph of God’s will.”)
The real blessing of faith and hope is they make us live our day-to-day life and every moment in grace and gratitude. Grace and gratitude are always experienced in the present moment.
The second point for reflection: movements. Parker Palmer writes, “What is the logic of a movement? How does a movement unfold and progress? I see four definable stages in the movements I have studied—stages that do not unfold as neatly as this list suggests, but often overlap and circle back on each other: (1) isolated individuals decide to stop leading “divided lives”; (2) these people discover each other and form groups for mutual support; (3) empowered by community, they learn to translate ‘private problems’ into public issues; and (4) alternative rewards emerge to sustain the movement’s vision, which may force the conventional reward system to change.”
Palmer further emphasizes that movements happen in the present moment, in our present life. Movement is not, as Marxism critiques religion, a promise of a pie in the sky. If we become aware of these stages of movement, we will see that we live in a movement today. He says, “Some of us may see more clearly that we are engaged in a movement today, that we hold real power in our hands a form of power that has driven real change in recent times.”
This is what our faith, our religion and spirituality, promises us. The vision of faith must empower us. It must inspire movements that give life. It must inspire movements that make us feel whole again, and live life with integrity.
In our formation, programs are driven by a simple vision: to inspire a renewal and reform movement to build caring communities in our public schools, and to love students into excellence with teachers living a mission-inspired life. It is a movement to build caring communities that will allow people to be the best of who they are.
As the participant we referred to at the start saw it clearly, such movements must be a community effort. Not only must the movement build community, but it is community that also brings the vision and the hope of the movement to fulfillment.
This is what the end times remind us, that the vision of our faith has the power to make this life, the here and now, filled with hope and goodness. As the Lord always tells us, the Kingdom of God is in our midst. As theology puts it, the kingdom is proleptically present; it is already and not yet. We must believe that every moment of goodness, kindness, faith, hope and love lived out in the day-to-day makes the Kingdom of God more present in our midst.
We have the power to do this, to make our world a better place, here and now.