To become like our self-emptying God

GOD'S WORD TODAY - Manuel V. Francisco, S.J. -

During reunions of our extended clan, we go through the ritual of greeting all our elders as we are introduced to them, “O hijo, magmano ka sa pamangkin ng asawa ng pinsan ng lola mo.” “Ah, kayo po pala,” we exclaim as we touch our forehead on the hand of our distant kin as though we fully understood how we are related.

In traditional cultures we are defined by our place in the tribe or the clan. Our identity is determined by our inter-connection to everyone else and the role we play in the larger community. Modern society has rebelled against the dictates of the community and the pressures of the clan to adapt a function and way of life against our wishes. Modern society has championed individuality, identity that is self-determined. As products of both traditional clans and modern societies, we grapple with the tension between our desire to determine ourselves and, on the other hand, our need to bond and belong to a community, to something larger than us.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Perhaps we can learn something about our human nature by reflecting on our faith in the Trinity, three divine persons in one God. Our God is a Triune God, a community of divine persons, each unique in terms of roles as Father, Son and Spirit, yet absolutely one in terms of their common substance, their divinity. Our God is not a monad, not perfection closed-in on itself, but three effusive divine persons giving themselves fully to one another from all eternity and sharing themselves, their life and love with us and all creation.

Individuality vs. individualism. What are the implications of our Triune God for our understanding of our human nature, about becoming fully human. First, neither are we monads but social beings. If we believe that we are created in the image of God and that our God is a community of divine persons, then we will not and cannot become fully human in isolation, but only in giving ourselves to others and allowing others to nourish us. We will only discover our true humanity in our relationality, in our mutual self-gift with others.

In relation to the modern ethos of overly stressing the individual over the community, we need to distinguish between individualism and individuality. Promoting individuality entails upholding the ultimate significance of every human person, the innate and inalienable rights of every human being, and the unrepeatable uniqueness of every person. Thus, every unborn child is infinitely precious, so is a convicted unrepentant serial killer. There are no dregs among human beings. Each and every one is absolutely valuable in God’s eyes.

On the other hand, we question the individualism that modern societies foster — this “to-heck-with-the-world” attitude, this unaccountability to anyone, this self-designed moral compass that throws to the wind the wisdom of the ages and lives by the dictum, “as long as it feels good, do it! As long as I am not hurting anyone, it can’t be wrong.”

Self-actualization vs. self-preoccupation. While we promote the development of the potentials of every individual, thus endorse the expansion of social services, the improvement of the quality of basic education for all, we caution against an inordinate preoccupation with the self. We question this obsession with self-perfection, whether it be never-ending cosmetic surgeries to beautify oneself or spending most of one’s waking hours in the gym to buff oneself. We caution against the modern ethos of self-actualization for its own sake — amassing as much knowledge as one can, absorbing as many rich experiences, taking as much as one can take from the world for one’s enrichment and that of one’s family, irrespective of one’s responsibilities to others and to society.

Here lies the mystery of becoming fully human. The Triune God reveals to us that we can only become fully and truly human in sharing the riches we have with others, in pouring ourselves out to others. Becoming the best I can be is not an end in itself, but serves a higher purpose — aiding others become fully human also; otherwise my process of self-actualization becomes self-centeredness — nihilism.

Self-emptying vs. self-aggrandizement. And so the three distinct persons in one God reveals to us our true nature — we are invited to relish our uniqueness, to develop all our potentials, to nurture our individuality, but at the same time give ourselves totally to others as others nourish us with the gift of themselves.

Last week, while conducting a retreat for our faculty in Sacred Heart School, Cebu, I was fortunate to have joined the 89th birthday celebration of Fr. Emmanuel Non, S.J., indefatigable founder of Sapak Farm which, since 1972, has provided a warm community, education and values formation for thousands of impoverished children in Cebu. Shrunken by age and toil, yet bubbly and energetic, Fr. Non was a delight to see as he greeted everyone and received everyone’s affection.

Is it any wonder that the happiest, most beautiful and attractive persons are, like the three divine persons in their eternal dance of mutual self-gift, also the most selfless? On the other hand, i it any wonder that we despise corrupt politicians who use money and influence to amass even more wealth and power, who thwart the law to further enrich themselves and ensconce themselves in their places of authority? As we contemplate our Triune God, we pray for the grace to appreciate our individuality and to discover our true humanity in giving ourselves selflessly, tirelessly, and joyfully to one another.

(Fr. Manoling Francisco, SJ is a prolific composer of liturgical music and serves on the faculty of the Loyola School of Theology. For feedback on this column, email tinigloyola@yahoo.com.)


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