Startling realizations in a book of Gospel reflections

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Beginning with the title, the book is immediately eye-catching and unusual. “Startle: Gathering Light from the Word of God” by José Ramon “Fr. Jett” T. Villarin, SJ (Jesuit Communications Foundation, Inc., Quezon City, 2012, 199 pages), gathers Villarin’s written reflections on the Sunday Gospel and, in a fine sampling of the book’s language and logic, explains itself.

“We see starlight and are no longer startled,” Villarin writes of the cynical and ever-shifting world we live in. He speaks of the wonder St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, felt upon looking up at a star-filled sky.

It is a kind of wonder Villarin wishes to share with his readers: “That the Word may awaken you, that love may startle you and lead you to unexpected openings and to some surprising space in your life. And when you are startled by love, may you find the courage and the quiet to decide.”

President of Ateneo de Manila University, Villarin spent time as a Jesuit scholastic but is also a scientist by training. This figures in “Startle,” because the essays often involve a different, distinctive realization that comes from Villarin’s diverse background.

For example, he connects the Nativity with the space-time continuum. He finds a link between the feast of the Sto. Niño and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Villarin juxtaposes the landowner from Matthew 20 with his experience trying to get a seat on a Bukidnon bus. He links science with religion, the everyday with the eternal.

Short and smart

There are many things we seek from the homilies given on Sunday. We wish they be short and smart. Villarin’s essays smoothly meet those requirements. His writing is elegantly simple and compact, with the pieces averaging just three pages each, including the weekly Gospel passage.

The book’s 52 essays are divided into three sections for easy reference: Manger (For Advent and Christmas); Crown (for Lent and Easter); and Woodwork (for Ordinary Time), making “Startle” a worthy weekly companion for Catholic readers.

But one does not have to be Catholic to appreciate the  craft and the insight behind the essays. Villarin often grounds the Gospel lesson on personal experiences, making them accessible. Then, he unwraps his take on the passage, and we find out we now want our homilies to be startling, as well.

In the essay “Word,” Villarin speaks of our fear of silence. “We are afraid because, even if we do not hear it, we know it is there. It is the silence of our loneliness, our poverty; the silence of our not being known or understood or forgiven; the silence of lovelessness.”

In “N-Dimensional,” Villarin ponders the meaning of Easter: “Simply this. That because of tonight, we now know that all the world is charged with the life and love of God, as it has always been, although we may not have known it.”

Sacramental moments

To maximize “Startle’s” effect, one should follow the advice of Jesuit Philippine Provincial superior Fr. José J. Magadia, SJ, in the book’s foreword: “The best way to go through this book is to read each reflection slowly, and then pause.”

In these essays one will find affinity with the sterling qualities that many people have found in the ministry of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle: humble, modern, faithful, dynamic and accessible.

In “Startle,” Fr. Jett Villarin illuminates through the rich mix of the real world and the Word of God, leaving you changed and inspired through the brightness of his writing, reminding us that faith is, indeed, a wonderful thing: “The lines of our lives have arrows that point to infinity. The sacramental moments that give depth to our lives are carried on to infinity. Blessed, indeed, are we who have yet to see all this, and have somehow come to believe.”

Available at leading bookstores

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