I was having a bad week when September began. I had two recollections coming that weekend, but I hadn’t prepared a word of it, because of my teaching load. Exam week was coming and I was still two quizzes short. I had two stacks of papers to grade. For some mysterious reason, each of my spiritual directees wanted to talk to me that week. On top of that, I had an eye allergy that was bumming me out, and since I had run out of eye drops, I finally but grumpily went down to Marikina that day, and headed for Watson’s. Well, the sales lady there was apparently having a bad day too, because she was rude, inattentive, and dismissive, and in spite of my herculean effort at being SM-customer-service-lady pleasant, this one wasn’t about to let any sun shine on me. Why should she, it wasn’t shining on her! Because they wouldn’t sell anti-allergy eyedrops without a prescription, I walked away from Watson’s empty-handed and fuming. I was about to cross the street when God decided to let loose a raging downpour. Nope, I didn’t bring my umbrella. I always did before, but it never rained when I did! So I was stuck on that sidewalk for a good twenty minutes, with somebody else’s open umbrella dripping on my shoulder.
And then, a miracle. Very gently, very softly at first, the very weak and gravelly voice of an old man began to sing, “O holy night, the star brightly shining.” It was Mang Fred, the old, frail, sunburnt blind man who stood begging on that corner every single day, rain or shine. He’d usually sing some song from the sixties. But then, yes, it was the first week of September! So, as he shawled himself with a black garbage bag and held up an umbrella that had seen better days, he hoarsely sang, “O holy night, the star brightly shining.”
No amount of eye drops will ever make Mang Fred see again, I thought. And at the end of that day, he wasn’t going home to a nice seminary where a comfortable bedroom or dining room was waiting for him. But listen, I thought; just listen to how dear Mang Fred sings “O holy night, the star brightly shining.” He sounded like he meant every single darn word of that terribly unseasonable song. After all, it wasn’t Christmas yet, and I was having a bad week.
Isn’t it interesting how people who have very little in life, who do an honest day’s begging, how they could nevertheless be the very ones who’d shake us out of our rapt concentration over licking our own petty wounds. In that driving rain, I stood on that sidewalk eventually feeling ashamed of myself. Because I was going nowhere, I was Mang Fred’s captive listener. He was my savior that day. I felt Mang Fred actually saved my soul that day.
I have been thinking of Mang Fred all week long now, and my thoughts of him shuttle back and forth from the senate hearings that I watch on YouTube. Now, I usually hate talking about politics in my homilies, but please allow me to weigh in just today, just a little bit. I’d like to do this for the sake of Mang Fred, my sidewalk savior.
Those who have cheated Mang Fred of a nation’s benefits—for the disabled, for example—or those who have cheated people who could’ve helped Mang Fred to receive a nation’s benefits—like his children, for example, it’s very likely that those people have not the slightest idea of what it means to actually fight for survival. Or maybe they’ve forgotten how to, or maybe no longer want to. Most likely, those people haven’t the foggiest idea about what it takes to earn one’s keep in the best and most honest way that one’s physical and social capacities could allow. Or maybe they’ve had enough of honesty, because it’s just too darn slow at making an already good life even so much better.
But you know what, sisters and brothers, my deepest regret and embarrassment is that two of the four who figure critically in the scam are our alumni. I imagine, at some point in their lives, we Jesuits must’ve echoed the first reading to them: “You who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land, you who charge more for less, you who fix the scales for cheating—the Lord will never forget a thing you have done!” I imagine that at some recollection, or some mass, we must’ve “homilized” about today’s gospel, too: “Be trustworthy with the small, so that you could be trustworthy with the great.” And I’m sure that at some point in their lives, we had taught them to be—in St Ignatius’ very words—“generous,” and “to give and not to count the cost, fight and not heed the wounds, toil and not seek for rest, labor and not seek reward,” except to know that they are doing God’s holy will. I wonder if we can save them now.
That is our greatest fear and vulnerability, isn’t it? That we might be mauubusan, malalamangan, magugulangan, even when we are already blessed with so much. We want more. No, we want all of it. All. No matter what it takes, no matter whom it takes from. We want more because we do not want to be nobody’s who have very little. In fact, we are so scared of being nobody’s. To be a “nobody” is tantamount to being “nothing”.
And that “nothing” has always terrified us. We will do anything to not be nothing. It has very deep roots, this fear of being nothing. Remember creation? We were created out of nothing by God. So maybe, deep in our soul, we are averse to going back to where we began: from nothing.
And yet, the truth of the matter is, God has given us so much! In fact, he has given us everything, everything we decently need to go on. There is more than enough to go around if only those who are blessed with more shared more and feared less. But because many of us are terrified of mauubusan, malalamangan, magugulangan, gusto natin tayo ang unang uubos, ang unang manlalamang, at manggugulang! The reason why, as the gospel today says, we cannot be trusted with a lot is because we always think we have too little. So instead of being thankful for the largesse that we’ve been given already, we covet that which we still do not have, or cannot have, or should not have. We want it regardless of what it takes, regardless of whom it takes from. So as we have evolved from being made from nothing into being given everything—we also have devolved from gratitude to self-entitlement. “Self-entitlement” is just a really nice way of saying, “We’re spoiled, and we’ve become quite greedy.”
If the Jesuits can’t teach us about being grateful for the little that we have so that we may greatly love the more that is to come, maybe a man like Mang Fred can. If we can’t learn it in a classroom, as obviously we didn’t, we might just be able to learn it when we’re having a bad day, and we’re all self-absorbed, and we push ourselves from our desks and go down to where humanity crawls, and it starts to rain…and someone who has close to nothing begins to sing. Maybe that will save us.