Thursday, February 12, 2009

Remembering Fr. Abe and TLJ

Last Feb. 1, I was at a special gathering of friends, comrades, colleagues and fellow sojourners and seekers. The occasion was a celebration of the life of Fr. Carlos Abesamis SJ whose first death anniversary was on Jan. 31. The venue was the new chapel and the cool environs of the Religious of the Good Shepherd in Quezon City.

It was also the occasion to launch the book “Fr. Abe: A Scrapbook”, a compilation of personal recollections and reflections of those who knew Fr. Abe. The book was edited by Fr. Abe’s younger siblings Willie and Marilen who also wrote their own pieces on their kuya (elder brother) who was also kuya to a countless many who were seeking or already walking the road less traveled.

My first close look at Fr. Abe was as a participant in a seminar on—hold your breath—“Marx and the Bible” more than 20 years ago. I had just come from a long Asian “spiritual sojourn” at that time and I needed to get back on the ground. I still have the Bible that I used for that seminar. We had two days of Fr. Abe and no one ended up a Marxist.

Fr. Abe was known as a grassroots theologian. He came down from his perch and got involved with the poor and those who worked among the poor. Church worker Jess Agustin recalled: “Long before it became fashionable to talk about a theology of the grassroots, Fr. Abe’s theology dared proclaim that the real theologians are not perched on the hills of Loyola School of Theology or in the Gregorian University in Rome, but people who are in the thick of things struggling, promoting justice and human dignity, fighting and dying for basic human rights.”

Fr. Abe, a Jesuit, was one of the founders of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians and as such, he popularized grassroots theology, backpacking so to speak, with farmers, the urban poor, workers, women and church workers. If he were a doctor (his father was), he would be called a barefoot doctor.

Church worker Bert Cacayan remembers: “…this was Martial Law time, many people were suffering from injustice and impoverishment, and my Christian faith, or my institutionalized religion, was orientated heavenward. Abe was instrumental in my embracing this new way of thinking: the understanding that faith and life in its totality are one; that the Christian faith seeks for a holistic total salvation for all creatures; and that the Reign of God begins in the here and now, and the building of the Reign invites the participation of all people, of all beings, of the whole cosmos.”

As “Fr. Abe: A Scrapbook” tells it, “He advocated…a kind of activism that came from the depths of a person’s core. Without doubt, many expected Fr. Abe to join the UG or the underground movement, as many priests did… The role he chose to play was to give guidance and direction to those who were waging the war out in the mountains, the farms and the factories. Many had lost their faith and found no meaning in the Church they felt had betrayed them in many ways. Fr. Abe provided them with the physical presence of the Church. He brought Jesus to them no matter where they were, in the sacraments, the Mass and confession…
“Constantly counseling and meeting with them, he showed them the real meaning of their struggle…He told them that to fight for justice and life was spiritual because the Spirit was there. Many were blessed with a renewed faith.”

Soft spoken and refined in his ways, Fr. Abe was not a rabble rouser. Maryknoll Sr. Helen Graham, a theologian, called Fr. Abe “Old Bedroom Eyes”. “We used to argue whether we could go from Bible directly to the Third World experience or whether we had to pass through European theology,” Graham recalled. “We never reached agreement on that subject!”

Fr. Abe wrote a lot. Among the fruits of his immersion in the grassroots are two books “A Third Look at Jesus”, now popularly known as TLJ and “Backpack of a Jesus-seeker” both of which I had taken up in this space.

In TLJ, Fr. Abe said there are at least three ways of looking at Jesus—the First Look which is as Jesus looked at himself, The Second Look which is as Western theology has looked at Jesus, and the Third Look which is how the poor look at Jesus.

Fr. Abe explained that the First Look was how Jesus looked at his own life and his work. Many first generation Christians had this outlook.

The Second Look was the Graeco-Roman and the Western way of seeing. Explained Fr. Abe: “…while Jesus' concern was the total well-being of the total human person, the Second Look tended to make redemption of souls Jesus' concern. While Jesus liked to talk in terms of food, the Second Look spoke in terms of sanctifying grace.

“This Second Look lasted from approximately 50 C.E (Common Era) to the 1960s! A very long segment of Church history. It is the view which early missionaries from Europe and North America…taught us.”

So what is this Third Look? It is the view of “the awakened, struggling and selfless poor who want to create a just, humane and sustainable world. It is also the view of people who themselves are not poor but are in genuine solidarity with the poor.”

To the question “Where are we finally going?” the Second Look would answer, “Heaven.” The First and Third Looks would cry out: “A new heaven and a new earth!”

Fr. Abe hailed the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines for presenting that Jesus of the Third Look, and not the “dessicated Jesus, abstracted from real life, preserved in immobile theological formulas, but rather a Jesus that has life and motion and story.”

A Jesus with a human face, I dare to add.