Recollection in a time of intolerance

They used to be called “spiritual retreats”—communal gatherings governed by silence and led by retreat masters who offer personal reflections aimed at stimulating a review of one’s inner life. When I was young, I slept through most of them, finding little in them that was worth keeping. The intensification of guilt was what they seemed to specialize in, rather than the elaboration of a faith based on love.

These occasions acquired a new meaning for me, however, when one of my brothers became a priest. Father Ambo (Auxiliary Bishop Pablo Virgilio David) initiated a Lenten activity that has become very much a part of the tradition in our family. He calls it a “recollection”—in the two senses of the word: a regathering and a remembering. For some years now, we have been holding these recollections on Black Saturday, that unique day between the death and resurrection of Christ when nothing momentous happens.

Far from being solemn and formal, the recollections have been, for us, cheerful and intimate affairs. My brother, a biblical scholar, carefully chooses the texts from the gospels and assigns a nephew or a niece to read them. He then proceeds to uncover the layers of meanings they contain, but with a wonderful twist. He weaves the gospels’ timeless truths into the vignettes that constitute the narrative we share as a family. These are stories, experiences and observations we used to tell one another as siblings, that we have passed on to our children and grandchildren.

Their recollection and retelling in the context of our current lives never fail to trigger new realizations and reflections that enrich our understanding of what we are going through as individuals, as a growing family, and as part of a nation in transition. Most of the time, we find ourselves laughing our hearts out, or quietly shedding tears, over things that once tested our values, our integrity, our patience and our love for one another. Father Ambo closes each session with an open forum, in which everyone gets to talk—to add nuance to the evolving family lore, or to offer new interpretations, or draw new resolutions. There are times when these sessions begin to take the form of a family council, at which point Father Ambo or I, as the eldest of the siblings, suggest we go back to the original point of the discussion.

One of the most memorable recollections we had a couple of years back centered on what it meant to be a member of the David family. I can’t recall now which gospel reading sparked the animated discussion. But, the ensuing exchange touched on a wide range of topics—the mannerisms we shared, our annoying traits and volcanic temper, our physical vulnerabilities, strengths and weaknesses, food preferences and allergies, and all the other things that the poet Philip Larkin once beautifully summed up as “the blind impress all our behavings bear.”

It was a humbling realization. For the first time, we felt we understood our elders. Then, as if with new eyes, we turned to each other, and quietly forgave one another for our blind spots, our chronic failings, and the harsh words we spoke but were too proud to take back. We all went away from that recollection awed by the mystery of genetic transference, but also determined to override the tendency to let our genes have their way.

While Larkin’s poem (“Continuing to live”) dwelt on the ultimate emptiness of being able to “half-identify” that “blind impress” just “when our death begins,” the realization of “what it was” produced a different effect on us. I put it this way: It is one thing to exist under the contingency of your genes, and quite another to live with the knowledge of what makes you the kind of person you are. Such knowledge, born of reflection, summons an ethic of humility.

Here is how the Chilean cognitive biologist Humberto Maturana sees the consequences of this kind of knowledge: “It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It compels us to recognize that certainty is not a proof of truth. It compels us to realize that the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others. It compels us to see that the world will be different only if we live differently.” [“The Tree of Knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding,” coauthored with Francisco Varela]

Living differently will not begin by stubbornly insisting on our own certitudes. “If we want to co-exist with the other person,” writes Maturana, “we must see that his certainty—however undesirable it may seem to us—is as legitimate and valid as our own” because it merely expresses his relationship to his own domain of existence. “This act is called love, or, if we prefer a milder expression, the acceptance of the other person beside us in our daily living.”

When I hear a natural scientist talk about love, I become skeptical and wonder how much of what he says has basis in his own science. But, with Maturana, the shift from the biology of cognition to the sociological necessity of love appears seamless. Here is what he reports at the end of his study: “This is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness.”

We have preempted many conflicts in our family through the collective introspection made possible by our Black Saturday recollections. I have often wondered what it would take to nudge an entire society to reflect upon its own existence and to see beyond the curtain of intolerance that divides its people against one another. The conflict in Mindanao poses that kind of challenge.

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