Of Mustard Seeds and Mountain Walls – Pat Falguera, SJ

Matthew 17:14-20, Feast of St Dominic

Free Solo

If there is one edge-of-your seat documentary I would both encourage but still dissuade you from watching, it would be the one  produced by National Geographic entitled ‘Free Solo’.  It is a riveting and compelling narrative of Alex Honnold, the first man to climb – free solo – Yosemite Park’s alluring ‘El Capitan”. It is a story which would surely ensure your palms to sweat and heart to palpitate while watching it.

To give a brief background, free soloing is to be differentiated from free climbing. Both are arduous techniques whose calling and training are bestowed by the climbing gods only to the most elite climbers in the world. But while free climbing is rock climbing with harnesses in place as a safety net,  free soloing is rock climbing without ropes or other protective equipment. Thus, the main difference is that one slip in free climbing results in possible injury but one still gets to live; while one mistake in free soloing results in certain death. And for rock climbers all over the world, El Capitan is the holy grail of mountain quest. Previously perceived as unclimbable, El Cap is a formidable 3,000 foot wall of sheer slippery granite with nothing to hold one’s gravity except crevices at times equivalent to the width of one’s fingernails. Free soloing El Cap is like climbing Quezon City’s Memorial Circle Shrine barehanded but placed on top of New York’s Empire State Building which in turn is on top of Taipei’s 101 Tower, all without protective gear.

Accomplishing this incredibly amazing feat opened the Pandora’s box of ethical debates about life and death; about nature and nurture; about free will and determinism. Is a physical activity, which offers the terrifying option of either perfect execution or certain death, worth doing in the first place? Do our minds find the inexhaustible search for meaning as a choice, or as something already pre-determined within us? Does a leap of faith involve a free will or a necessity in believing someone or something greater than ourselves? And perhaps using these questions forged from centuries old debates, we can help frame the scriptural readings at this Eucharistic celebration.

For indeed what kind of, or how does, faith move mountains? Is it possible indeed to have faith like that of a mustard seed and literally transpose, moving a mountain wall out of the way?  Entering an initial portal to help seek answers to these words, we find the words of the first reading towards the end, “The rash man has no integrity, but the just man, because of faith, shall live.” These words are quite consoling, for these speak about faith and integrity. For one to be deemed a person of integrity, there is no disconnect between what one says and what one does. There is a harmony; there is an alignment, between/among the mind, the heart and the will; there is a direct flow between /among what the mind conceives, what the heart believes and what the will achieves.

We see a glimpse of this integrity epitomized, for example, in the story of Genesis. We see sublime integrity at the dawn of creation: When God proclaims, ‘Let there be light…” there becomes light. We also see the interplay of faith and integrity when God becomes one of us in the person of Jesus. For we see faith and integrity at work when Jesus asks the lepers, the blind and those with withered hands what their deepest desires are; and when they reply that they want to see and to be cleaned, Jesus sees their hearts full of faith; he deems them persons of integrity, and heals them.

But then a reality check. As this is easier said than done. For the Gospel tells us that disciples seem unable to do the same. They ask Jesus, “How come we could not heal the boy? How come we could not drive the evil and madness out of him?

And we too, like the disciples and like Habakkuk in the first reading can and do ask, “How come Lord, we are unable to drive darkness and evil out of our world? How is it that there is so much pain and suffering in the world? How is it that we cannot cast the madness out of selfishness and greed; out of narcissism and corruption? And gently, cast as a rebuke, born more out of loving concern rather than condemnation, the Lord answers by asking Habakkuk to write a vision which will not disappoint, a vision which will sure come. Faith and integrity. And this vision seem to echo in the words, in the response of Jesus as well to the disciples. “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able move mountains.”

But of course, with rationality,  the hidden assumption in this statement is that this will take some time; for faith is like a mustard seed being planted and it will take time to grow. And in the same way, the implication is that only with time, can we see this faith and integrity at work to move mountains.

Is it really possible for a faith to move mountains? Common sense tells us that literally it cannot be done in an instant. But figuratively, it is possible to do so with time and patience; with fortitude and preservation; with grit and determination. Brick by brick. Block by block. Day after day. Years into decades. Decades into centuries. We can only cite the feast of today’s saint as an example. Back in the 13th century, when most of the world believed that the world was flat, a farmer would have deemed it impossible when Dominican preachers would look at the stars and dare to pronounce: that someday, somehow, we would be able to reach the moon and back. That someday, somehow, people thousands of kilometers apart would be able to see and hear each other in an instant.

Back in the 13th century, St Dominic would have shared a vision of a band of brothers out to change the world, out to help shape the future; to help discern and determine history for the better. St Dominic then founded the congregation which gave birth to St Thomas Aquinas who radicalized the metaphysical thinking underpinning the rationality of our faith;  to St Catherine of Sienna who transformed a city and church to be more kind and merciful;  and to St Rose of Lima who converted a country and a people from perdition to faith. St Dominic was a figure who took Jesus’s words to heart of having a faith the size of a mustard seed to move the mountain of the seemingly impossible out of the way. But it took time.

For faith and integrity implies seeing the big picture from the perspective of time. But a caution – with it comes its fears and aspirations; with it comes the challenge to continue to dream; for as the previous Dominican master general Bruno Cadore encouraged the Jesuit fathers who were discerning to elect their own superior general: to have the audacity to dream the improbable. And perhaps although we are in the same precarious situation as Habbakkuk, a time of darkness and despair, a time of madness and demons lurking about, within and around us, we can muster faith. And if we listen amidst the noise of our fears, there is Jesus telling us, encouraging us, almost quietly, to have faith and to take courage; to have the audacity to dream and to dare the impossible.

Going back to the story of Alex Honnold conquering El Capitan, What seems poignant or remarkable – depending upon whose perspective it is being viewed – about his story is that he is a self-proclaimed atheist.  And as he shared in his TED talk, the narrative of panic and fear that he experienced at a previous climb led him to conquer El Cap. It was not really the fear of dying which made him accomplish this feat but a mastery of his fear. But it took time, 10 years in fact. At one point of the documentary, the camera focusing on Alex Honnold gradually pans out and Alex just becomes a tiny speck, almost invisible on the mountain. Faith and integrity.  And perhaps using this as an allegory, as a segue to the  mustard seed gradually moving up and beyond the mountain, we too can harness the faith within, which Alex  denies to have.

And in the battle between the mustard seed of affirmation and the mountain wall of denial, who wins? Perhaps if we focus only on a certain frame of horizon, it may seem that the battle is already lost. But St Dominic reminds us that this frame of horizon – if viewed in the context of time – makes us realize that the mustard seeds of faith first planted by the proto-martyrs of the early Christian church can combat the mountain walls of doubt and disbelief pervasive and endemic within us. This is perhaps best illustrated and proclaimed by Joanne Ruthsatz – child prodigy and  astro-physicist who famously debunked Stephen Hawking’s remark that there is really no evidence of God. Like a small mustard seed, Joanne explained matter and  given the evidence, boldly argued against the mountain wall of disbelief and the impossible; attesting that it takes more faith not to believe in God rather than to believe in Him.

And through the intercession of St Dominic, may we plant this mustard seed of faith and integrity within us. And somehow, some way – only kairos  will tell – we will harvest that monumental faith. This faith potentially to be harnessed in the integrity among us, which will see us through these times of darkness and despair.

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