Pippin, the Jesuits and the Pearl of Great Price – Mark Lopez, SJ

Matthew 13:44-52, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

pearl-oyster

One of the musicals I loved listening to as I was growing up was “Pippin.” This was about the quest of a young prince, son of King Charlemegne, to find the meaning of his life. (To be clear, I’m not yet THAT old. It’s just that this musical from the early 1970s was passed on to me by my older siblings. Thankfully a recent broadway re-staging has made this musical popular again, hopefully inspiring many more to think about the meaning of their lives. )

“Rivers belong where they can ramble / Eagles belong where they can fly / I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free / Gotta find my corner of the sky” sang Pippin and sang I for so long, as I wanted to become someone who could make a difference in the world.

Enter the Jesuits, with their prestigious schools being ranked as among the best in the Philippines, and with their ability to make serving God and others look cool, the attraction for me seemed natural. And so for University, I went to Ateneo de Manila, met fine Jesuit teachers and spiritual directors there, and immediately after University, joined their volunteer program – the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines (JVP). I was 19 then.

As a young man missioned by the JVP, I then thought I had found the pearl of great price, that for which I would not trade for any other treasure. This pearl was the sense of mission and the sense of purpose in life – serving God and others. I was assigned to work with fishers and Mangyans of Mindoro, marginalized indigenous groups in one of the poorest provinces back home. And sometimes trekking through the mountains to get to the communities we served, I felt such a strong sense of being exactly where the Lord wanted me to be.

Perhaps that feeling could be likened to Solomon in today’s first reading. Solomon who had such a keen sense of mission, that he literally passed on the chance to ask for riches or power as the Lord would have given him anything. Instead, he asked for wisdom since he knew that was what he needed to do his mission well.

This was what the JVP gave me. A passion for service, social justice, simplicity, spirituality and solidarity (as their 5 core values or 5 Ss go). And I really then thought that I had found the pearl of great price.

But then, things started to go awry. The NGO we were assigned to ran out of money. Our projects had to close down. As volunteers, we were abandoned by the people who originally invited and promised to support us, and thus had to fend for ourselves. Worst of all, vicious rumors were spread about me and my volunteer partner by the people we wanted to serve.

By the end of that volunteer year, I was of course broken. Angry. Frustrated. And wanting to have as little as possible to do with these Jesuits whom I thought had sold me a dud, a false God, a fake pearl. For if there really was a God, how cruel of him to set upon those who long to serve him, such misfortune, right?

So came many years of distancing myself from the possibility of not just being a Jesuit volunteer but a full fledged Jesuit. I still found meaning in service, though, with the music ministry and by working for other NGOs. But it felt more like I was plodding through life, through mud, and not enjoying it at all.

Six years later, at 25, and wondering about what to do with the rest of my life, I joined an Ignatian retreat. Thankfully it wasn’t led by a Jesuit, but by a lay person, a woman, in fact. And so I thought this retreat would be, well, “harmless.” Moreover, I thought it was the perfect chance for me to finally and definitively say “no” to the possibility of a Jesuit vocation, to close the book, so that I could get on with life.

But of course, God would have it otherwise. In that retreat, nothing about vocation came up. (Maybe God’s sneaky way of not giving me anything to say no to.) Instead, I was given a vision. It was one of somebody who looked like an artist, gazing and smiling at a painting or sculpture he had made, beaming with joy as if it was perfect in his eyes (no matter how imperfect in the eyes of others). It was an incredible vision, because the artist was God, and he was gazing and smiling at none other but me. And how he seemed to delight in me.

I don’t know if you can believe that a simple hour in meditative, imaginative prayer, can change a person and change the whole life of a person, but that is what that vision did for me. It made me see, for the first time, what God’s unconditional love really was. And for someone who for so long had so much bitterness and self-hatred, self-pity and insecurity about so many things about myself, for someone who had resented God for creating me the way He did, it was mind blowing to come before a God who loved everything about me, warts and all. And to this day, I cannot find the right words to describe such a spiritual breakthrough. For such, words truly fail.

But to cut the long story short, that is how God swept me off my feet – by showing me such a love. And true to whirlwind romance stories, I was applying for the Society, ready to make a life-long offering, only months after – because it felt like there was no other way for me to respond generously enough to such a wooing.

With some apology for getting too personal, I share my vocation story on the eve of his feast day, not only as my little tribute to Ignatius of Loyola whose Spiritual Exercises afforded me such a vision, but because that for me is what the pearl of great price can be.

The pearl of great price is not just a sense of mission, or meaning, or the sense of having a purpose driven life. No. Don’t be fooled as I was. While those things are good and important for us, they can burn you out, without a grounding in something far deeper. The pearl of great price is so much more than that. It is this mind-blowing vision of God’s love for us. It is that loving gaze of our artist-creator-God, smiling upon us, delighting in us. It is the personal experience of love untold. It is the experience of a God who loves us so much, he wants to build us a Kingdom.

I am willing to bet that many of the people of the Gospels would say their pearl of great price was the moment when Jesus gazed tenderly upon them. When he looked upon the sick with mercy and compassion and healed them. When he gazed upon the woman who anointed his feet or the woman about to be stoned, when he gazed upon them with love. When he looked upon the thief on the cross beside him with forgiveness and hope. When he looked upon the outcasts and invited them into his home for a meal. I am willing to bet that those moments of encounter with Jesus through his loving gaze would be their pearl of great price, which they would not trade for the world.

What is your pearl of great price, dear friends? What is your heart’s greatest treasure? Is it a person ? a moment? a vision? a dream? To rephrase the question, perhaps ask – How has God’s love become real and undeniable for you? Today will be a good day to treasure this in your heart and to truly give thanks.

And what of serving God and others? Not to worry, that comes naturally for those who are love-struck by God’s ways. Those who find God’s true treasures usually find that they cannot pay him back enough, and so simply have to pay it forward.

At the end of the musical, Pippin sings “I’m not a river or a giant bird / that soars to the sea / But if I’m never tied to anything / I’ll never be free…” You’ll have to watch the musical yourself to know how and where Pippin finds his pearl of great price, though. No spoilers here. But as you can easily guess, it wasn’t power, or glory or worldly pleasure, nor had it in anything to do with his father’s worldly kingdom. Instead, it had much more to do with the Kingdom in today’s Gospel, the one to which this great treasure is likened, the kind where love rules.

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