Bernardo M. Villegas
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Just Pray

           We can thank Nike for the very practical advice, especially to Filipinos who talk things to death, “Just Do It.”  Every time I attend a Round Table Discussion (RTD), which is quite often because of my work in the policy think tank, Center for Research and Communication (CRC), I never fail to remind the participants that no one should aspire to be members of NATO (No Action Talk Only).  As the Christian world prepares for the beginning of Lent this coming February 10, which is Ash Wednesday, what usually comes to mind is the need to do penance.  That is very well and indeed, we have to think of some acts of self-denial that we can regularly offer during this important liturgical season that leads us to Holy Week on March 21 to 27.  I would like to suggest, however, that even more important than penance or sacrifice is prayer.  St. Josemaria Escriva, Founder of Opus Dei, always advised the Christian faithful about the priority of prayer:  First, prayer; second, sacrifice; and in the third place, very much in the third place, action! 

          For a change, I will not write about business or economics, but about how the readers of this column should take their Christian faith more seriously in their daily affairs, not as an “extra-curricular activity,” but as an intrinsic part of their very work, family and social lives.   No matter how fixated we may be on the pursuit of material things—which in themselves are good—there is always a hunger within us for the supernatural.  In a homily delivered by St. Josemaria on April 4, 1955, he precisely referred to this heart’s desire:  “Whenever we feel in our hearts a desire to improve, a desire to respond more generously to our Lord, and we look for something to guide us, a north star to guide our lives as Christians, the Holy Spirit will remind us of the words of the Gospel that we ‘ought to pray continually and never be discouraged.’  Prayer is the foundation of any supernatural endeavour.  With prayer we are all powerful; without it, if we were to neglect it, we would accomplish nothing.”

          I still remember the first conversation with a priest of Opus Dei in a student residence in the middle of the campus of Harvard University in the autumn of 1959, my first year in graduate school.  Despite the very heavy load of classes and reading assignments that Ph.D. students at Harvard had to carry, I wanted to continue being active in some form of Catholic action in which I was very much involved during my undergraduate years at De La Salle College.  The priest I was talking to was at that time the Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Club.  Instead of suggesting a list of activities in which I could participate, he echoed the advice of St. Josemaria:  “I have never gotten tired of talking about prayer and with God’s grace I never will.  I remember back in the thirties, as a young priest, people of all kinds used to come to me looking for ways of getting closer to our Lord.  To all of them, university students and workers, healthy and sick, rich and poor, priests and laymen, I gave the same advice:  ‘Pray.’ If anyone replied, “I don’t even know how to begin,’ I would advise him to put himself in God’s presence and tell him of his desires and anxiety, with that very same complaint:  ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’  Often, humble admissions like that were the beginning of an intimate relationship with Christ, a lasting friendship with him.”

          Of course, having gone to Catholic schools all my life (Holy Infant Academy run by Holy Ghost sisters in Calapan; St. Paul’s College in Dumaguete; and De La Salle College), I knew how to pray.  My prayer, though, was limited to vocal prayers, especially the Holy Rosary.  It was at Harvard that I learned about the importance of mental prayer.  My spiritual director just relayed to me what he in turn learned from St. Josemaria:  “Each day without fail we should devote some time especially to God, raising our minds to him, without any need for the words to come to our lips, for they are being sung in our heart.  Let us give enough time to this devout practice, at a fixed time, if possible.  Before the tabernacle, close to him who has remained there out of Love.  If this is not possible, we can pray anywhere because our God is ineffably present in the heart of every soul in grace.”

          The same advice was given to all my classmates and friends who were attending activities in that Residence Hall on Follen St., almost in front of the Harvard Law School.  We were not given any fixed formula; we were told to follow our own style:  “Each of you, if he wants, can find his own way to converse with God.  I do not like to talk about methods or formulas, because I have never wished to straitjacket anyone.  What I have always tried to do is to encourage everyone to come closer to our Lord, respecting each soul as it is, each with its own characteristics.  Ask Him to introduce His ideas and plans into our lives:  not only into our heads, but also into the depths of our hearts and into all our outward actions.  I assure you that you will, thus, be spared many of the disappointments and sorrows of selfishness, and you will find you have the strength to do good to all around you.  How many obstacles vanish when in our hearts we place ourselves next to this God of ours, who never abandons us!”

          This year is the Jubilee Year of Mercy, as declared by Pope Francis.  It will also be a milestone in our political history as we elect a new set of national and local officials on May 9.  God knows all the challenges and uncertainties facing us.  According to some, we may be facing the beginning of the Third World War.  At a less important level, we may witness another serious recession in the global economy as China and other leading emerging markets suffer a slow down.  What should a business leader do?  St. Josemaria gave us the answer many decades ago:  Just Pray!   For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.