Be properly scared
An explosive device was hurled on the roof of the convent in Smokey Mountain while I was sleeping sometime in 1993. It was a Belgian fragmentation grenade. The hands of the policeman holding the grenade were trembling as he explained that a part of the firing pin broke so it failed to explode. I ran to Cardinal Jaime Sin and asked for advice. He told me to sleep in the SVD convent in Catholic Trade at night and do pastoral work in the garbage dump only in the daytime. I do not remember the counsel that he gave but I was so strengthened by the way he acted like spiritual father to me that I went back to face death, heart in my throat, knees quavering, waiting for the gunshot or the knife thrust that would end my life.
All the time that I was in the garbage dump, the anticipation of pain and dying created a frenzy of panic that went far beyond mere terror. Fear of death can wither the soul with its power and intensity – it reduces us to our elemental core. I just went on anyway, following Flannery O’Connor’s advice: “Be properly scared and go on doing what you have to do.”
I had to keep going because that is what I vowed to do to the best of my ability. I did not romanticize my fear, I did not idealize it. I simply focused on what I was doing and willed the fear away. Sometimes you can be as strong as you act. Sometimes how you live your life is as important as how you face your own dying. But it never goes away, the fear. Not for a moment. But the anguish I experienced helped me to become more intensely myself.
In the end, I realized that even if I was constantly afraid, I did not have to become my fear.
In the midst of crises, Jesus comes to restore peace and harmony in our life. But he comes in a form and manner in which he is easily mistaken as an object of fear. He comes in a way that makes many well-meaning Christians cry out in fear “It is a ghost!” (Matthew 14:26) as they try to keep him away, especially when he comes in the midst of storms and violence.
The endless cycle of violence and fear
Strangers coming to Smokey Mountain have to look down, because staring at someone might be a cause for having “a faucet placed in your abdomen” with an ice pick or a knife. I realized how easy it was for a crazed addict to stick a knife between my ribs in the darkened alleys. I would have joined the statistics of crime in the city—another victim of senseless, random, and sudden violence.
I was always terrified of catching a disease and passing it on to the confreres in the seminary, especially after I joined a wake for someone who died of an infectious disease. A few confreres who worked in the dump with me contracted life-threatening infections and had to leave. I was horrified when a dermatologist once suspected a blotch in my skin as the beginnings of leprosy.
I was always terrified of the undercurrent of violence in the garbage dump. Riots between gangs of scavengers were an ordinary occurrence. Sometimes, with heart on my throat, I had to wrest away the machetes and guns of gang members to prevent injury and death. I was always afraid, even if I tried my best to hide it.
Pure, visceral fear gripped my insides as I caught glimpses, beneath the placid exterior of a people who looked very gentle, of the potential for violence that their ready smiles denied, the capacity to inflict pain that lurked just beneath the surface of their laughter. The people across the two rivers bounding the dumpsite were considered mortal enemies by the scavengers. The cycle of violence and vengeance fueled hatred for decades and there were riots and fights on a regular basis.
The peace in the dumpsite would now and again be shattered by the blast of a home-made shotgun, or the commotion caused by another stabbing incident or by a platoon of policemen with Armalite rifles coming to seek and destroy, without benefit of due process, another suspect hiding in one of the hovels. Sometimes I collected the empty cartridges and placed these in the altar to remind myself always of the way Jesus died a violent death and the way I might die in the same manner.
Confront your fear with joyful hope
After years of mourning for children who died before their time, I have come to know life as a gift, especially since I did not expect to survive long in the dumpsite—I was sure to die by a bullet or an infectious disease. I have seen too many people in the trash heaps snatched away in a heartbeat with feelings left unspoken and dreams unrealized. Fear of being killed never abandoned me, I took it with me whenever I was in the dumpsite. I was forced to cherish the fear, to nurture it, embedding it in every cell of my body as I walked the tightrope of survival among the trash heaps.
I have been afraid so long that terror had become a friend, always at my side, never leaving me, keeping me vigilant, the bolts of electricity firing in bursts from the dopamine in my neurons whenever I sensed that danger was near. It helped me to pray and to foster mindfulness and gratefulness to have death always at my side.
Surprisingly though, despite the fear, I was at peace. Unlike Unamuno who professed that the effort to comprehend death caused him the most tormenting dizziness, the constant presence of death reminds me of the triune God who lives forever. Living in the garbage dump has taken me to the edge of the fear of death, taught me how to surrender to it, and finally be freed from it.
In the first reading today, we are told that though seeking shelter in a cave, Elijah hears God speaking, questioning him: “Why are you here?” He replies that he is hiding there, in fear for his life.
In the Gospel, the disciples are in the boat, tossed about by the waves with the wind against them. They see Jesus walking toward the boat, and they think he is a ghost; they cry out in fear, both for the storm, and for one they think is a ghost. Jesus offers assurance in saying: “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid.”
God is in the tiny whispering sound, and also in the midst of the wind and the waves. And we, we are called to be attentive to God’s presence within us, in whatever surprising way God may reveal himself to us amidst the storms of life —in the midst of problems brought on by global poverty, global conflict and global warming. Our fearful situations may not change, but we will change, because of the presence of God-with-us (Emmanuel).
We have to confront our fears with joyful hope.