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Offline, online

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ST. AUGUSTINE, we are told, kept postponing his conversion. But his Christian mother, St. Monica, did not give up on him. Augustine kept telling her, “Not yet, mother, I am still enjoying my life.” He had this strange idea that the Christian God was a “killjoy” who demanded too much sacrifice. And yet, when he finally became a Christian, he looked back with a lot of regret and wrote in his journal, “Late have I loved you, o Beauty ever ancient, ever new. I was looking for you outside, only to realize you had been there waiting, inside of me.”

His mother seemed to him like a lamp that burned continuously even in the darkest moments of her life. Where she was getting all that extra oil that kept her burning was something that he secretly wanted to know. He shone brightly himself but only during better days, relying on his own youthful passion and energy. But when confronted by dark and stormy days, he tended to flicker and always feared burning out.

A few weeks ago, a young professional shared his story to me, which reminded me of St. Augustine’s experience. He said it all began with a request from his grandmother one day when something went wrong with their wifi at home. No wifi meant that his elderly grandmother and his senior parents, who had not left home since the pandemic began, were not going to be able to follow the livestreaming of the Sunday Mass in their home parish.

Like most seniors who are vulnerable, the elders in his family have depended on him for a lot of things since the pandemic began. He has had to do most of the chores that involve going out: to the supermarket, to the bank, to the pharmacy, etc. And like most seniors who are digitally challenged, they also rely on him for going online to be able to attend Mass virtually. He just connects them and then leaves them.

But he has observed how they really take this Sunday ritual seriously, according to him. They even prepare a little altar table covered with white linen, candles, and flowers. They join in the singing and answer the priest like they are really in Church. But on that day, the wifi was down and he could not connect them. His grandmother who looked really very sad that she was going to miss Sunday Mass suddenly raised a suggestion to him, “Since you’re going out anyway to buy some things for us in the market, why not pass by Church and ATTEND MASS FOR US?”

It suddenly reminded him that he used to say the same thing to them when he had transitioned from childhood into adolescence and just did not feel like going to Mass with them anymore. He said he started making excuses and say, “Lola, I am still sleepy, CAN YOU JUST ATTEND FOR ME?” By that, of course, he meant that maybe they were enough to represent him in Church and the Lord would understand. He said he did not realize that the day would come when his grandmother would return the request to him. “CAN YOU ATTEND FOR US?”

From high school until he became a young professional, he really did not go to Church anymore. His grandmother and his parents probably found it pointless pestering him about going to Mass. But his Lola continued to say, “We attended for you, here’s the blessing.” And she would extend her hand and he would make mano.

Now, for the first time, in the middle of the pandemic that has deprived them of the Eucharist for many months, she was suddenly making this request to him which she never made before. In his mind, it seemed perfectly logical because they could not even attend online while their wifi was down. “Can you please ATTEND FOR US?”

He said he himself had spent more time at home since the Covid19 broke out because he did all his work from home online anyway. Realizing that the Mass was literally a lifeline for his elders, he was moved by his grandma’s request. And he found himself saying, “Sige, Lola, habang wala tayong wifi, isisimba ko na lang muna kayo.” (No problem, grandma, while the wifi is down I will attend Mass for you.) It changed her frown into a smile.

And so, he really did attend for them. But according to him something wonderful happened to him inside the Church. Although the Mass was much shorter than he expected, although it was not very lively because there was very little singing and there were much less people who were masked and distanced from each other, he found himself really absorbed in prayer for the first time. He felt the Gospel spoke directly to him and the priest’s homily made the words of the Gospel linger on. He said the words flowed like fresh water into his dried-up soul. He even stayed longer after Mass to relish a profound spiritual experience he had never had before. He realized how long he had not prayed, and how deep his spiritual hunger and thirst had become.

Now, he says he continues to ATTEND FOR THEM, not just on Sundays but almost every day, and does not even tell them about it. At each time he comes home from Church he disinfects his hands before he makes mano to them, this time not to get a blessing but to extend to them the blessing he had just received in Church.

I am sure today’s Gospel will resonate well with that young man’s soul again. Especially now that he has realized, there are certain things he cannot just leave for others to do for him. The spiritual life is like that extra oil of the five virgins. There are certain things that cannot be borrowed, and certain things that cannot be obtained at the last minute.

This young man has realized that he could not rely on his parents and his lola’s “extra oil” and just make up for it at the last minute. Now, like St. Augustine, he regrets having missed the grace of the Eucharist too long. He is really making up for lost times, but never too late. He also realizes why it mattered so much to his grandmother that she was able to KEEP THE CONNECTIVITY, in spite of this pandemic. He realized that he had actually been spiritually OFFLINE too long and that there was really no better way of connecting than being physically present while he could, as well as physically receiving communion. Strangely, he feels that he is really able to ATTEND MASS FOR his elders because their spiritual connectivity remains very strong. It has also strengthened his connectedness to them.

(Homily for 8 Nov. 2020, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt 25:1-13)

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