Called to listen and to respond to the cry of the poor
Bld. Titus Brandsma, our brother who suffered persecution and oppression for being a prophet – standing and speaking for what is right according to Gospel values, said:
“Without (poverty) the religious is a Pharisee – a gentleman in the monastery dressed like a poor man, but without a true love for poverty…. The poor are of us, but we do not wish to be of them. We thereby make ourselves ridiculous before God who accepted our vows.”
When Titus Brandsma was assigned in Oss, the place was in so much poverty. He noticed that literacy was low and so what he did was he started a public library and eventually a trade school, which later on was transformed into a high school. He helped address poverty in the place that eventually he was recognized as an honorary citizen, posthumously in 2015.
This is but one example on how he valued, lived, and helped address the problem of poverty, not just as a concerned citizen or as a Christian, but as a Carmelite.
“We Carmelites are called to listen and respond to the cry of the poor.”
Such big words – simple, yet heavy and, in essence, very big words.
We are not just called to LISTEN – to LISTEN – but we are, more importantly, called to RESPOND. To RESPOND to what? To the CRY of the POOR. The CRY of the POOR.
Hey, wait, aren’t we Carmelites? Aren’t we contemplatives? Aren’t we the quiet ones who are supposed to be staying in our cells, day and night, reading and praying, contemplating, pondering, meditating on the Law of the Lord day and night while keeping watch, being vigilant of our prayers?
Come to think of it, our Rule, seems to highlight three tasks that we should be devoted to – the Word of God, which we should be pondering on day and night and even listening to during meals; the Eucharist, which is the coming together of God’s people to celebrate the Word and the salvation that we have been afforded with despite our unworthiness; and the Liturgy of the Hours, where, together with the Universal Church, we say the Psalms, reminding us of the goodness of God.
All of these say one thing – we are to be devoted to the Word. The Word should be intertwined with every fabric of our very life.
“The sword of the spirit, the word of God, must abound in your mouths and hearts. Let all you do have the Lord’s word for accompaniment.”
In fact, our very Rule of Life itself is seamlessly stitched with the Word with at least 42 direct references to scripture not to mention the indirect references to it, making it, somewhat a collection of Biblical verses.
We are to be devoted to the Word, the Word who was the beginning, who was with God, who was God; the Word who became flesh and lived with us. And so with this, we are to live our life in allegiance to this very Word – Jesus Christ.
But what does it mean to live in allegiance to Christ?
Allegiance is from the Anglo-French word “Liege” which means a loyal subject who is obligated to render service to his lord. It is a very feudal term originating from the 14th century. Allegiance, therefore, means, “the obligation of a feudal vassal to his liege lord.” Since this is a medieval term and was used in the medieval sense of the word, it means to be faithful to one’s landlord, who in turn would promise him protection. It is complete and exclusive dependence on the lord.
The original Latin word used by St. Albert was obsequio… In Obsequio Iesu Christi… Obsequio which could also mean obedient, compliant, servitude… So what does it really mean if we are to be in allegiance to Jesus Christ?
Another translation to this phrase, which we commonly use and are all too familiar with, would be to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
To be in allegiance to Christ is to follow Christ, and who would be the best model for this but Jesus Christ himself, of course. So if we follow the footsteps of Christ, what did he do? While he was alive, what did he do? When he was persecuted, what did he do? When he was killed, murdered, what did he do? When he resurrected, what did he do? What did he do?
Alive, Christ proclaimed the good news to the poor, the jubilee year – forgiveness of debts… Alive, Christ fed the hungry… Alive, Christ healed the sick and liberated the captives… Alive, Christ chose to be poor, not just to be in solidarity with the poor, but to literally be poor…
He told a teacher who wanted to follow him, “Are you sure you want to follow me, when foxes are luckier than me for they have holes and the birds for they have nests, but me, I have no place where I could put my head to rest.”
Alive, Jesus was poor. He was God incarnate, God who in his greatness chose to embody the weakness of taking a body, of becoming human… Alive, Christ taught us to love, to care, to share, to be the keepers of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the last, and the lost…
So, what does following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ mean to us, as Carmelites? To you, as a Christian?
Gaudium et Spes, known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in its introductions says, “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the poor, are our joys, are our hopes, are our griefs, are our anxieties.
The Asian Bishops in 1974 pointed out that for the Church to be in dialogue with the poor, she has to identify and truly experience poverty. She has to learn from the poor and to help them, to allow them to participate in making decisions that would affect their lives. In other words, we should empower them to decide on what is beneficial for them.
The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) recognizes that the poor is not just those to whom we are to do mission. They are not merely the beneficiaries of some charitable work that would make the rich feel good because they have done something good for the poor. Rather, it recognizes the role of the poor in life and the mission of the Church. The poor themselves are the evangelizers. Of course, it also made special mention that the Church should be in solidarity with the poor, that it should defend the rights of the poor.
Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium or the Joy of the Gospel, states: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid.”
It continues: A mere glance at the Scriptures is enough to make us see how our gracious Father wants to hear the cry of the poor…. We also see how he is concerned for their needs…. If we, who are God’s means of hearing the poor, turn deaf ears to this plea, we oppose the Father’s will and his plan; that poor person “might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt” (Dt 15:9). A lack of solidarity towards his or her needs will directly affect our relationship with God: “For if in bitterness of soul he calls down a curse upon you, his Creator will hear his prayer” (Sir 4:6). The old question always returns: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods, and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 Jn 3:17). Let us recall also how bluntly the apostle James speaks of the cry of the oppressed: “The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4).”
From this, as Christians, we are made to realize our obligation not just to listen to the cry of the poor, but to respond to it.
Now, taking from this, I remember what Bld. Titus Brandsma said about being a Carmelite. He wrote in the Dictionary of Spirituality:
“To a Carmelite, it lies in dedicating oneself completely to contemplation. Contemplation should only be interrupted when necessity compels one to go out and speak to men of the things of God. The only motive for leaving God for the cause of God…should be obedience of the love of one’s neighbor.”
He adds: “To a Carmelite, contemplation is the better part. In practice, the difference between the two points of view is not very noticeable. The Carmelites have realized the necessity of interrupting contemplation for the care of souls and the Popes have called them to the pulpit, to the mission field and to various apostolic activities. Love of their neighbor and obedience to the Head of the Church have made them accept the vita mixta; they too are passing on to others the fruit of their contemplation. It is an ideal dictated by circumstances.”
He further writes: “Their task in the world completed, they are asked to return as speedily as may be to the first and direct object of their vocation.”
As Carmelites, yes, we are contemplatives, but we are also part of a bigger church, a Church that asks us to listen to the poor, to be a brother to our neighbors. To be the Samaritan who made effort to help the distressed traveler.
We are called to follow Christ.
In the time of Christ, his was a church of the poor. He was a poor man, born and raised poor. He was born in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes, because there was no room for them. When he was presented in the temple as part of their religious obligation, they went to the temple to offer two turtledoves and two pigeons for purification – an offering of the poor, since the rich and those who could afford are to offer lambs. When he did his ministry, he preached, did his miracles, and proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom outside of the temple, by the sea, on the hills, in the houses of people, mostly poor people, who welcomed Him because they experienced Him, because they believed in Him. Christ ministered to the poor, because the poor is God’s people.
We Carmelites chose to be Carmelites, they say, because we hear God’s call from Carmel. We hear his voice calling our name, echoing from the caves and caverns to the hills and valleys of Carmel. We heard his call and we responded.
We responded like our dearest mother, Mary, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who said, “May it be done to me according to your Word.”
As Carmelites, we take inspiration from the prophet Elijah who said, “God lives, in whose presence I stand,” as he boldly pointed out to the King of Israel, Ahab, God’s displeasure of him for his wicked ways.
A wonderful story that our Prior General, Fr. Fernando Millan Romeral, O.Carm., shared with us goes. There was once a 16-year old beggar boy, who was so hungry because he has not eaten for days. One time, he passed by the baker, and seeing bread by the window, he snatched one and ran away. Of course he was caught, brought to the judge, and the judge sentenced him to death, by hanging. The next day, so early in the morning, a large crowd gathered in the courtyard to witness the hanging. It was an event for them, every hanging was an event, apparently it was the only exciting thing in town, which doesn’t happen often, hopefully. So anyway, the boy was brought to the platform, the rope tied around his neck, and the executioner released the trapdoor. But the boy, young as he was, was very, should we say, he had a somewhat sturdy body and he didn’t die immediately. He was squirming for almost an hour, obviously in total pain, unable breath, trying to hold on to life. He squirming like a worm, in so much pain. One old lady could not take the pain anymore and she shouted, “Where is God?”
So, where is God? In the poor who continues to suffer, who continues to be exploited; in the majority of the sugar workers who seems to have no way out from their condition because the system does not give them the opportunity they need; in the sick, the widow, the orphans; in the victims and the family of the victims of extrajudicial killings; in the suffering of the poor people, where is God?
Then somewhere from the back, a voice of a man was heard, saying, “God is in the boy.”
God is in the boy. God is in our poor brothers and sisters who continue to suffer from an unfair economic system that seems to continue to pull them down instead of raising them up. God is in our poor brothers and sisters who continue to struggle day and night, hoping that one day they would be able to provide their family with a comfortable life. Is it wrong to want to have a better life? Is it wrong to ask for a wage that is reasonable and would actually meet the needs of the family? Is it wrong to ask for better working conditions that would minimize the hazards in the workplace? Is it wrong to ask for better opportunities? For a land that they can till and call their own?
Titus Brandsma asks us to be the other theotokos, to be bearers of Christ. Our devotion and love for Mary, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, must take fruit in our ability to bring Christ to all, to reveal Christ to the world most especially to the hopeless, those in distress, those in need, and who are these people? The poor, the lost, the last, and the least. We are to bring hope to them, to show to them and to help them realize that in their suffering Christ is with them.
We Carmelites are called to listen and to respond to the cry of the poor.
Today, as Carmelites we discern God’s presence in the poor, the least, the last, the lost. We hold on to what Jesus said that what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to Him, for He is in them – in the least, the last, the lost.
We Carmelites are truly called to listen and to genuinely respond to the cry of the poor.
This reflection was shared during the Negros Carmelite Family Day in Escalante, Negros Occidental last 6 October 2018.