Today is Ash Wednesday. On this day I would like to share with you a profound experience with Gina Lopez.
I consider it one of the privileges of my life to have conferred the honorary doctorate of the Ateneo de Naga University on the environmentalist, Gina Lopez. This was in 2011. Our Board of Trustees had decided on the award because of her outstanding commitments to the environment as a private citizen. She’d returned the trees to La Mesa Dam. She’d cleaned up the Pasig. She’d spearheaded a campaign for no mining in environmentally-rich Palawan. In Bicol she’d helped our university and our Bikolano stakeholders fight a mine in Rapu-Rapu that had been responsible for a huge fish kill due to heavy metals dumped into the sea.
So when she got up to give her response, everyone thought that she’d naturally speak about the environment. Eventually she did. But not without first sharing with our graduates what she styled as a great secret.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she announced. “Do not forget it. If you do, I will ask Fr. Joel to take away your diplomas!” When she had everyone’s attention, when she had everyone thinking they were going to learn Gina Lopez’s special formula for energetic advocacy for the environment, she said – practically in a whisper:
“There is a God.”
And there being a God, she enjoined each ADNU graduate – no matter his religion, no matter her chosen profession – to get in personal contact with that God. On that contact, no matter how achieved, the meaningful life would depend.
Next, she said: there being a God, everyone must find time for silence in one’s life – deep personal silence. “Without silence,” she said, “forces in the world will pull you in different directions and tear you apart. Then you will no longer know who you are.”
Finally, only in the context of a deep personal relationship with God and of silence in one’s life is one able to appreciate the gift of the environment, given to us all as God’s gift. Only from there do we experience the imperative to care for it.
On this Ash Wednesday, these three points of Gina Lopez may provide us precious food for thought.
Some are so full of themselves, they forget Gina’s first message. It strikes the sadly ignorant or the crassly arrogant as a great secret: “There is a God.” It is God who sets the absolutes. There is life; there is death. There is truth; there is untruth. There is heaven; there is hell. It is not man, no matter how powerful, who is the Lord of these absolutes. God is.
Then, silence. We spend so much time trying to escape silence, filling our lives with the noise that drowns out the silence and makes the communication with loved ones, including God, near to impossible. We are afraid of silence; we fear its demands. But silence has a way of breaking through in our lives. Or, in time, we finally break through to the silence of our lives. This silence is not a void; it is the fullness, the truth, that makes all the difference. In this silence, we may more deeply appreciate a central message of this day, “Remember, Man, remember, Woman, you are dust. Unto dust you shall return.” “Turn away from sin. Believe in God’s Good News.” In this silence, we may more clearly hear the voice of conscience. Many of us don’t like that voice. But it is there, deep within.
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment….For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God….His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et spes, 16)
Only in acknowledging God and in obedience to the silent imperatives of our conscience can we navigate the challenges of our contemporary environment: news and fake news, facts and alternative facts, political expediencies and moral imperatives, right and wrong, good and evil. We are called to do good, and avoid evil. Not to do evil to do good. We are called to protect life, not kill it. There is no politician who is God, and no party discipline that silences conscience. We are called to live before God in silent consolation, not in self-condemning shame.
Only in taking silent responsibility for our common home, which is not only in fresh air and clean water, but in rational national leaders of conscience, can we lift up our heads to our God in joy.