One of the convictions that grew in me during my years at the Mother of Good Counsel parish is that the ten Augustinian values I have written about are best observed in people who are learning to make themselves into a community of faith, especially in the BEC cell groups I have known. This shouldn’t be surprising since the Ten Augustinian Values are Christian values that are meant for life in a Christian community. Values are caught, not taught we say. And one can be already living them without necessarily being able to talk about them or at least give them a name.
BEC cell group members are baptized Christians who come together to regularly listen to the Gospel and resolve to live the Gospel message received. When group members begin to gel together the first thing they say about themselves revolves around the friendships formed. The openness they show to one another as they share the Gospel message received in a particular meeting somehow develop in each one respect and acceptance of the other. In the atmosphere of trust that is thus created, friendships are formed and a fraternal community begins to built up.
The second value that BEC cell group members discover in themselves is that of service that is humble but generous. Some of the members of our cell groups have been serving the Church as members of mandated organizations. But it is in the weekly cell group meeting and through meditation on the Sunday gospel that they learn the motives and reasons for “doing something” for the Church. Most often, members of mandated organizations perform their assignments but without realizing that their tasks are somehow related to their life as Christians. This is so because mandated organizations have ceased to become centers of Christian formation that touch not only the heart but also the mind. In the BECs, further impetus for service is provided by the Gospel message itself. “He who wants to be great must be the servant of all”.
Filipinos readily understand the value of “humility.” In a country where the characters played by Fernando Poe Jr. and Nora Aunor are embraced, it is not difficult to recognize how people give importance to kababaang-loob. It is a component pagpapakatao, a Filipino word that is difficult to translate. Literally translated into English, it means “to be humane”. Humility is a social virtue among Filipinos, and is also allied with another virtue, “pakikisama” (roughly, “cooperation”). Our cell members realize that humility is required in any social transaction. But they are also learning that to be humble does not mean to be destitute. In their weekly encounter with the Word of God, they also learn from Him who is “meek and humble of heart”. Slowly but surely, they are being educated in the way of true humility and are learning to walk humbly with their God.
Cell group members may not be aware of it at first but their weekly encounters with the Word of God is also an encounter with the one who identifies Himself as “the Truth”. But it is immediately obvious to them that their listening to the Gospel and their effort to understand what it means in their daily lives can described in one word — “study”. The cell group leaders who have to prepare themselves for each meeting know the challenge of studying the Bible. The members involved in the process itself of learning: of listening, interiorizing,and verbalizing what has been learned know what kind of effort is required in receiving the Gospel message. It will take a long time for them to realize by themselves that they are already in pursuit of Wisdom and Truth as they come together to think about and dialogue with “the Truth.” But that doesn’t matter since they are already living the reality.
The process of the BEC meeting gives time for each member to enter into oneself and allow oneself to be engaged by the one Voice that echoes through the pages of Scriptures. The time for meditation that follows the three-fold reading of Scriptures allows them to “bask” as it were in the light of Christ so as to be clarified by His word. They enter into themselves to be engaged by the Word, not to be tied up in some thought from the past, so as to make a decision for Christ now. Therefore, they also learn to transcend themselves in the resolutions they make to move forward in the Christian life already begun. “Augustinian interiority” involves both movements: entering oneself and transcending oneself. Our cell group members do not know it. But each time they pause in silence and make a resolution regarding the Gospel message received, they are practicing it.
From the above, one can easily see how the BEC cell meeting becomes a school for “Prayer”. Even before they joined the BECs, our members already pray. Most of them are familiar with petitionary prayer. In our cell meetings, our members also learn to pray “as Church” when they intercede for others. It is obvious that the process of the cell meeting also gives them the opportunity for what St. Therese of Lisieux calls “mental prayer”. With some prompting, they can also learn to do Augustine’s “groaning of the heart”.
Community life in our cell groups extends beyond the time allotted for the BEC meeting. Most of our members are housewives who live near each other. Some of them are from the middle-class while others come from the squatter area. The dynamics of their relationship is governed by the unwritten principles of Filipino neighborliness, the chief of which is “pagpapakatao” and “pakikisama”. “Pagpapakatao” is the opposite of “pagiging plastik” (to be insincere). While this latter is the synthesis of all that is bad in a neighbor, “pagpapakatao” — together with “pakikisama” — constitute the attributes of the ideal neighbor. Because of their weekly immersion in the Gospel, our cell members are learning that the “good neighbor” and “being neighborly” should be the outward expression of a life transformed by Christ. It is not enough to be “good” to one another as “pagpapakatao” and “pakikisama” requires. One must be good to one another as required by our new life in Christ.
Our cell members make a tacit distinction between “life in the Church community” and “life in the neighborhood” between “Simbahan” and “pamayanan”. The “Simbahan” (Church) is where they spend some of their time; the “pamayanan” (the neighborhood) is where they spend their lives. Belongingness to the Church and to the neighborhood are therefore set apart. Even communion (community life) is treated differently, whether one refers to the Church or to the neighborhood. Even the concept of common good becomes nuanced.
One’s growth in spiritual maturity is measured by one’s commitment to the common good. This is what we find in the Augustinian rule. “Common good” is thus a value especially for monks and friars who live together in a convent under criteria set by the rule of St. Augustine. But when “common good” as a value is lived by lay people, they become leaven in the renewal of society. I would not say that our cell group members already have come to terms with the idea of “common good” as an integral element of their life as “salt and light of the earth.” Or that they have reached the level of the BECs that are engaged in the praxis of liberation. But they are realizing that when they participate well in their BEC meetings, they are actually working for the good of all their members.
For Augustine, God is everyone’s “common good”. But in social terms, Augustine also talks of “common good” as the sum of all the conditions that help men achieve their fulfillment (If I am not mistaken, one would find this meaning in his letters for civil intervention on the matter of the Circumcellions). This two meanings of “common good” can best be illustrated by the wish for a traveller to have a “bon voyage”. The wish is for one to arrive at his destination safely and perhaps even comfortably. Here, the end of the journey and the means to it is covered by the wish for a “bon voyage”. God is the “Common Good” (the destination, the ultimate goal of existence); but one’s commitment to sustain and maintain all the conditions that help one’s brothers and sisters achieve their ultimate goal is also a commitment for the Common Good. Our cell members see this within the context of their BEC meetings. It will still take some time before they understand that the same is also valid in their commitment to the project of building a just and peaceful “pamayanan”.
Our cell members are no philosophers. They are not even aware that “freedom” is a problem. They realize however that when they began to take their cell meetings seriously, they have become “un-free” for activities that used to give them pleasure. It may be watching a favorite TV melodrama or frequenting certain games. The fact is, once they get hooked on the once a week cell meeting, even their daily schedules have to be modified. This is especially true for the cell leaders. But it is also true for the other cell members, especially when they begin to heed and respond to the call of the Church for service.
Amor meus, pondus meum, Augustine wrote. Love is like the computer chip that guides a nuclear warhead to its target. It directs ones’ life. But love has to be educated and made to learn to discern between higher and lower goods. One has learned to love truly when one loves God above all, man in God, and all the rest below man. The BEC cell group, mirror as it is of the Church, is a school of love. In and with it, one learns and experiences the love by which the Father and the Son love each other in the bond of the Spirit. The BEC cell groups I have known are beginning to understand this. I hope that they also understand that the more they become like the Church, the more they’d become a source of renewal for the Filipino nation.
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