by Fr. Colm Meaney, CSsR
Me? I made a mistake?
It was 6am and I was making the daily crossing between the gentle, entertaining reveries of the land of Orpheus (i.e., sleep) and the more serious responsibilities of our quotidian Alphonsian existence (i.e., giving a homily). The first reading was from the Second Book of Kings, describing the exile to Babylon. In my short talk I was holding forth, with appropriate solemnity, on the cruelties imposed on the unfortunate Israelite king. As I described how his children were slaughtered as he was forced to watch, and then how he had his eyes gouged out, I saw a churchgoer move his head from side to side. Generally (apart from India) this means one of two things: either he was nodding in sad sympathy at the dire straits of the hapless monarch, or else he was signalling that I was wrong in what I was sharing.
A Lay Person knew his Scripture!
As soon as I reached my room I opened the Old Testament: he was right and I was wrong! I had mixed up Zedekiah (who indeed did suffer such cruelties) with Jehoakin (who, taken into captivity, was treated pretty well, all things considered). Was I disappointed at being so caught out, “corrected”? Not at all; his simple nodding gesture was like a little pin near the big balloon of any pretentions I may have, any presumptions of infallibility that are apt to tempt me (and maybe you, dear reader). In fact, far from any negative sensation at all, I was thrilled to discover a layperson so informed with the scriptures, and especially so familiar with the more obscure passages. In the mission areas in the province, whether mountain or highway, the scriptures, both Old and New testaments, are almost as foreign as the Koran. I mention Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (not to mention Peter, James and John), and they are as familiar to the Catholics of Dumaguete diocese as the presidents of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Uruguay. So for a churchgoer, at 6.15am, to nod his accurate awareness of my Old Testament regal mix-up was altogether good news for me.
Trials of Modern Counsellors and Baby Talk!
I’ve written before of the minor inconveniences the missionary of today has to endure – not deserving of the word “hardship”, such as undergone by the giants of yore, but mildly frustrating nonetheless. For me, the quintessential example is the adulation offered to infants in this culture, at times bordering on child worship. There you are, listening attentively to the parent who has asked your advice: it could be because they are on the brink of a personal crisis, or the marriage has reached breaking-point. You’re listening carefully, attentive to words, silences and body language, searching for the right word of comfort or advice (or wishing you were somewhere else). Then it happens: in the middle of pouring forth their anguish, worry and near-hopelessness, one of two things occurs: either their celphone rings, which demands immediate attention; or their child enters the room, or raises an eyebrow or moves its little finger. That’s it, the spell is broken. Personal and conjugal crises take a back seat because Junior has to be attended to. Apparently it doesn’t occur to the parent to tell the kid to wait a while or even to administer a gentle slap on the baby’s backside to inculcate even a modicum of discipline. No, the child reigns supreme, and that can only lead to spoilt youngsters – and later, spoilt adults.
Which brings me nicely to my latest gripe (!) – not kids this time, but child-related nonetheless. If there’s one thing that really grates on my ears it’s what I call “Baby Talk”. It has nothing to do with the content expressed, but with how it’s said. Baby talk in a baby is fine, it’s natural, to be expected, welcomed in fact. But in an adult? Quite painful, quite ear-piercing! This is a condition wherein an educated adult speaks with the voice of a five-year old, with the baby-talk pronunciation often accompanied by baby-face expressions: the fawn-like eyes and the pout, and that feel-sorry-for-me tone of voice! The woman of the house where I stayed recently was a Siliman graduate teacher; a gracious hostess, a model teacher and very active and responsive at the mission activities. She’s also a perfect example of a baby-talking, baby-expression adult. Having a conversation with her is something of an ordeal; the words may make perfect sense, but the tone is so unbecoming of an educated, articulate middle-aged mother, that I have to summon all my meagre skills of self-control so as not to say: “speak like an adult, for goodness’ sake!”
Based on my observations, it seems to be an exclusively female condition, but the bad news is that it appears to be either hereditary or contagious or both. My hostess’ Grade 5 daughter speaks with the intonation of a 5-year old; if a pre-emptive strike is not made soon, she’ll turn out just like her mother: a middle-aged woman speaking like a toddler. I would sooner submit to the rack of a Torquemada (Spanish Inquisition) or the savage cruelties of a Stalin, or even undergo the almost unspeakable mental duress induced by a Dumaguete community meeting (which is as close as this province gets to a crime against humanity) – all of these I would endure, to be spared the horrors of baby-talk.
Machete wielding and all is Forgiven!
Divine mercy is one of the hallmarks of our congregation. One of the nicest evenings I have on the mission is a celebration of forgiveness. It’s a simple ceremony. I begin by emphasising that the core, over-riding message of our gathering is God’s mercy, which is offered freely. God’s grace, however, may be free but it is not cheap. Christ highlighted the incongruity and unacceptability of asking for God’s mercy while denying that same mercy to our own enemies. Nonetheless, God’s overflowing, inexhaustible forgiveness is the focus of our evening’s ceremony.
I try to highlight the social nature of sin, how it affects others. In fact, as Aquinas wrote: “God is not offended by us except through that by which we act against our good” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.122). I use visual aids to make my points graphic: I wield a machete to highlight the various types of violence which scar, maim or kill – physically, verbally, emotionally. I display a plastic bag of sugar (shabu substitute) to focus on the prevalence of drug abuse and the damage and destruction caused by it. I place a cloth over someone’s eyes as a sign of “sins of omission”, how we shut out eyes to situations which cry out for comment or condemnation. Then time is given for each to reflect on what they need to change in their lives. I encourage them to try and identify one habit or weakness that could be the focus of both their penitence and renewal.
The actual meeting of penitent and minister is based on an article I read years ago in Chicago Studies magazine. Simply said, sinfulness and sorrow for sin are communicated in silence, through the clenching of both hands. The fists represent hardness and being closed: the fist is used to fight, the palm to caress; a closed fist cannot receive a gift, only an open hand can. The priest then opens the hands and says the words of absolution. From the priest, the forgiven then proceeds to have oil smeared on their open palms. The oil is actually Johnson’s baby oil, blessed to be used as the balm of healing. Finally they proceed to kiss a crucifix, expressing their gratitude to the Lord for his goodness.
The entire event is celebrated slowly and solemnly (apart from the machete wielding), with nice background music, dimmed lighting, and good use of the Bahandi! I’ve used this format many times, in diverse places, with various groups. The response has invariably been positive and encouraging – people find it meaningful and moving.