Earlier this week, a family which has been a close partner in our work for public schools invited me to dinner. The father asked me what it is that keeps me going, given the many demands I encounter daily.
The question brought back 20 years ago when I was a school principal. Back then I kept a 14- to 16-hour work day: in the office by 3 or 4 a.m. praying and working on matters that needed more study and thought; and by 7 a.m. I was in the school chapel to join the daily Mass.
The rest of the day was a frenzy of activities: meetings, consultations, being with the students in the cafeteria during breaks, seeing parents and guests.
Then in the evenings I would be out meeting with alumni or benefactors, or seeing former students and friends for spiritual conversation.
It was also packed on weekends. Sleep was an average of four hours a day. But each morning I woke up to a sense of newness and the prodding of the spirit was: another day to do what God wants me to do.
The grace was, from the moment of waking up I was driven by this inspiration. I was 36 years old and doing what I loved to do, high school work— not teaching, but pretty close to it.
Sense of wholeness
This is why I identified much with the Nescafé ad a few years ago about the public school teacher and the traffic aide starting their work day with the tagline, “Para kanino ka bumabangon (For whom do you get out of bed in the morning)?”
This Sunday’s Gospel talks about holiness, a sense of wholeness expressed in the alignment of one’s exterior and interior self—one’s actions and what is in one’s heart.
Let me share a simple story that is indicative of a deeper reality. When I was principal, I would take a shower before going to bed late in the evening, and then another shower early in the morning. There was sheer temptation to keep the shower running once I got the right temperature.
But I would tell myself, how could I tell my students to conserve water, take care of nature, etc. if, in private, I was doing the opposite? This was the same thing that motivated me not to even consider buying anything pirated or fake.
Two Holy Weeks ago, one of the persons who went to confession expressed gratitude for my homilies during Mass. Every time I get this compliment, my reply is, “Please pray for me to be able to continue to deliver meaningful homilies.”
Then I found myself telling this person, “Please pray for me. You do not know how much I struggle trying to choose what to say in my homilies, because when I want to say something I always ask myself if I live by what I say. And sometimes the struggle can be painful.”
The same is true for my teaching and running seminars. One often goes through a painful struggle to come to an alignment between what one says and does. Perhaps it is easy to say something eloquent, but I suppose it is only through integrity that people will feel the inspiration of the reality and truth that words try to express.
Holiness, wholeness, integrity do not mean perfection. Far from perfect are our attempts to do God’s will or to do good, but we can always do our best, each day becoming better than our best.
The more I am convinced that our best includes our handicaps and shortcomings, even our failed attempts. As Parker Palmer puts it, “By choosing integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.”
This is the invitation in this Sunday’s readings, to choose to live a life of integrity. Integrity lies in our mission, why we were sent or came into this world. This is what gives meaning to our lives.
If we are not here for a mission, then what is the meaning of our day-to-day life? There is—there must be—one moment when, with great clarity, we discover this mission that will give us our integrity, not just who we are, but also why.
Years ago, one of the personalities prominent now in the political scene, one of those aspiring for higher office, was asked in an informal gathering if he would eventually run for higher office. He was then already an elected official.
He said he definitely is considering it. Then he was asked what is his vision for the country. To the dismay and horror of the one who asked, the politician said it depends on what the issues are when he runs for higher office.
This is similar to what the Lord condemns in today’s Gospel— the hypocrisy, the lack of integrity of the supposed leaders of the people.
In the same way the Pharisees and scribes manipulated the law for their personal gain, so it is with that politician who seems to have a win-at-all-costs attitude, but cannot even commit to a vision and a sense of mission. To say he is “opportunistic” is putting it mildly.
In the end, it’s not how great or simple the task and the mission are. It is not even whether we succeed or fail in our mission. It is about living a life of integrity—not perfection, but the wholeness of who we are and why we are here, including our failed attempts, our shortcomings and our brokenness.