(Going back to "the fervor of my first love")
I.Day One: All Roads Lead to Buendia Ext. There's something about this new officemate of yours. He looks ordinary, but he exudes a brighter aura than most people. You are intrigued when you learn that he's an active member of a religious organization you've never heard of. Before long, he invites you to attend his Community's charismatic prayer meeting on Friday at a penthouse chapel somewhere along Buendia Ext. "Whaat? Charismatic? Prayer meeting?" You hear alarm bells ringing, which sound like "born again," "fundamentalist," "new sect," etc. But off you go with him anyway, driven more by curiosity, together with about five other officemates who are just as curious and equally searching for the meaning of it all.
II. Curious onlooker. You plop wearily on a monobloc chair, careful to stay as inconspicuous as possible, lest someone you know is in it too. Remember you came here only as kibitzer. You find out there are about a hundred other guests. After some introduction by a leader, the assembly starts rising to sing songs of praise to God. From the corner of your eye, you see your officemate singing with his eyes closed, or his hands clapping. Then you see other members raising their hands and shouting in adoration, uttering strange syllables which come off to you as plain gibberish. But everything has a ring of authenticity to what is going on. They are 'speaking in tongues'! You get a bit frightened. Before long, people are shouting "Amen!," "Hallelujah!," "Praise the Lord!." You say to yourself, "My God, how did I find myself here with a bunch of crazy fanatics?!" But on second thought, the people look every bit normal: typical Makati office employees - prim and proper, friendly, and otherwise exhibiting no trace of mental disorder.
It's the leaders' time to talk, and you eagerly await what they are about to say. You wait for that one big mistake, enough for you to dismiss everything as cr*p, so you can go home and get on with your life. You try to detect a Peter Popoff-like con-man tricks like what Steve Martin portrayed in the movie Leap of Faith.
But the minute each leader opens his mouth, your ears are glued to every word. Wait a minute, they are talking about things you yourself believe in: life after death, God's love, the plan of salvation, etc. And they are, what, just plain laymen! (The only member-priest serves as spiritual director.) At the end, you find yourself clapping for the speaker. One thing notably mentioned is the Community's twin mission: witnessing to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After a word of exhortation from the presiding elder, whom you think to have impressive credentials and talent, the community begins praying the "Our Father," "Hail Mary" and "Glory Be." "It's Catholic, it turns out," you exclaim. This conviction seals your fate to become "one of them crazies." You have a sense of something new coming your way big-time, yet some things are so traditional just the same.
III. The CLP Proper. Why, you find yourself agreeing to attend and finish the Christian Life Program (CLP, also known as Life in the Spirit Seminar or LSS), a rather long course like a master's (every Friday night for about 8 weeks) to prepare you to become a member. In the CLP, you listen to the teachers of the community, who deliver talks in an experiential way, i.e., they share very personal experiences in relation to the Bible-based teachings being discussed for the night. You also listen to personal testimonies, called "sharings," that further urge you to finish the CLP and become a bona fide member of the Community. After the talks, you CLP participants are grouped according to sex, age, and if possible, profession, for the purpose of small group discussions.
You join all the activities heartily, albeit not without some caution. You participate in the group discussions, which delve on topics that interest anyone who want to learn more about God and His plan of salvation. You are touched by the speakers' talks and testimonies which, if analyzed, boil down to the same bottom line: "God exists. Jesus is alive. All we are required to do is believe and accept, to have faith." You draw parallels from their experiences to your own personal life.
In the CLP, you learn an avalanche of Christian songs. You're overwhelmed by it all; you've never learned so many songs in so short a time. And these songs are not exactly what you'd categorize under 'bad taste.'
IV. Opposition from the Enemy. Like the CLP coordinator encourages the participants the last Friday, you choose to be more open in order to reap the greatest benefit. You try to share your own views, experiences, and questions if there are things that remain unclear to you. You try to do as you are told: go to confession; have a regular prayer time; put order in your life; know God better by reading His word, the Bible, reading it not in a chronological manner as reading a novel, but reading by the verse, depending on your current state of mind; etc. You find it hard to change your lifestyle overnight, but you know that God's hands are guiding you along the way. You encounter obstacles, but you take everything in faith. There are even times when you feel attacks from the devil by its inciting irrational fear in your heart.
V. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit. And the time comes for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Much surprised, you find this to be one of the most memorable moments in your life; when you decide to surrender to the Lord completely, to give your life to Him through the Community. When you open yourself up, to conversion, to love, to service. Oh, how you rejoice! Wearing a white formal shirt, you are in tears when CLP servants lay their hands over you, where you instantly feel an amazing surge of warmth that you couldn't explain as to where it comes from, except that you believe it is the Holy Spirit touching you. Others report seeing visions, or feel like they are floating (levitating). You are seized with inexplicable joy and peace. You've never felt so loved, so cleansed, so close to God that you almost see Him face-to-face. You've never felt so holy. And you seem so brave. You are now different, a new creation, thanks be to Jesus Christ's mercy and the Holy Spirit. Your numerous problems seem more bearable, because you have an advocate Whom, you sadly realize, you have long neglected as a nominal, Sunday Mass Catholic.
VI. Proof of the Spirit. It doesn't take long before you find yourself: "speaking in tongues" after being prayed over; cutting the Bible to a page where you read God's message to you for the day, where words seem to jump out of the page; spontaneously praising God whether in your thought, speech or singing; shedding copious tears at odd moments which you believe are a form of cleansing. You learn all these things to be "the convincing proof of the Spirit," unexplainable to those who do not believe and even to believers who have not gone through the whole process. Yet there could be no more real experience to you than this phenomenal encounter with God, this "personal relationship" with a Higher Power Whom you are only now beginning to understand. Somehow, you regret that it's only now that you do.
VII. Fresh Grad. The culmination of the CLP is the Community Weekend, where you sign a card of commitment to lead a Christian way of life.
You need not say a word before everyone around you (at home, at work, etc.) notices the difference in you. Those who can discern say you have changed in aura. Naturally, you're only too glad to share about what you've been through. You're at the height of Christian zeal, you're in an evangelistic mode without even realizing it. Overnight you have changed certain aspects of your life: vices you find hard to quit because you are practically in bondage, other sins you are virtually powerless against, a regular prayer time, Christian music (you get acquainted, for instance, with Don Moen's songs and other - to your surprise - non-Catholic evangelists), Christian publications (for instance, Bo Sanchez's Didache and Kerygma magazines, His Word Among Us, etc.). You even go to the extent of throwing away things like 'worldly' music and books, pornographic materials, etc.
All these demonstrate how God no longer belongs to the sidelines but takes center stage in your life. Normally, it hurts to see your priorities revamped, but as the cliche goes, love conquers all, your fears of the future, the feeling that you may miss out on life, the feeling that your saying yes to God so early in life might deprive you of a lot of things, etc.
But nothing beats having the sense of being free. Yes, you find there's only one true freedom, and that is, as Pope John Paul II said, "the freedom to do what [you] ought," the freedom to love God with your all.
VIII. A Whole New World. In consequence, you open your eyes to a whole new world. You realize that you're not alone and you're not the first in it. You learn that this charismatic renewal movement thing has been going on silently since the mid-80s (or even earlier if one traces it back to the Pentecostals), exploding especially in the US and the Philippines. Because this is not newsworthy to the trimedia, it is seldom, if ever, given the amount of coverage you think it deserves.
You begin to understand the workings around once-strange organizations like the Elim Community, founded by Willy Nakar; Ang Ligaya ng Panginoon Community, founded by Vic Gutierrez, Fr. Herbs Schneider, Tony Vasquez (who incidentally helped found Ligaya, the Risen Christ Catholic Community, and the Couples for Christ, among other groups), et al.; the El Shaddai by Mike Velarde; and a host of other "communities."
You are called "brother", which gets you tickled or amused at first, and you respond in the same way ("brother", "sister"), though with some hesitation.
You meet a lot of people from all walks as you faithfully attend the weekly "prayer meeting" or "assembly." You further learn about the "community way of life" through more teachings (the Growth Series). You are inspired by the sharings, then you surprise even your reticent, introvert self as you find the courage to volunteer a "testimony" or two. You learn to say "Lord'" without being ashamed of the sentimentality or being sarcastic. Worse, you don't even hesitate to proclaim in your sharing "I love you, Lord." And you've never been the verbal type of person when it comes to expressing how you feel.
You decide to do the things you'd rather not do. You go out of your comfort zone: you sing to strange hymns, dance the L.A .walk if not - horrors - the swing, do the one-hour adoration in front of the Holy Eucharist, arrange monobloc chairs, do funny stage props, and - beat the drums, bang the bongos - give a talk to kids you barely know. But you are able to do them all out of love and through God's grace.
You get to share your life with others in your pastoral/cell/action group in which you are assigned - where, together with fellow single men/women, you are guided spiritually by an appointed pastoral leader. You join Bible studies, the "Lord's Day" celebrations and other fellowship activities, intercessory/healing/deliverance sessions, etc.
You are given a chance to serve and you're only too glad to do so. Even something as mundane as stacking up monobloc chairs feels so significant because it's done out of love and the desire to serve the brothers and sisters in community. Everything becomes a token of gratitude for that love.
IX. Blessings Galore. Daily you are touched more and more. You receive messages from the Lord for your spiritual upliftment, which you duly write down in a journal of sorts. You could almost talk to Him in person; "He's just a fervent prayer away." You experience other enormous blessings and unbelievable "coincidences" and "consequences" and realize that the God of love is a God of surprises as well. A lot of things get ironed out in His time. You experience His providence and protection. You wonder about when all these would last. You haven't done anything to merit anything. You somehow feel shamed by His generosity. You realize that everything is grace.
By this time, too, some people have absolutely no idea what you're going through, and you are easily dismissed as a wacko. You experience how it is to be a true follower of Christ: you share in His cross. You are constantly faced with the dilemma of being branded as self-righteous when all you ever wanted is to please God and follow His commandments. Persecution from friends and loved ones are the hardest to endure. But through God's grace, you are able to endure them all.
X. And Now, the Hard Part. The honeymoon period being over, you also realize that not all problems are solved right away. Not all sins are banished in a period of hours or days. You see the need for vigilance. The community way of life is not just a friendly pat on the back, singing and praising, smiling, feasting, etc. Community life can also take the form of fraternal correction, trials, etc. If taken with the right attitude, you find these things to be of ultimate benefit to you. You learn to rejoice in your afflictions. You learn the value of sacrificing out of love. You mature in the knowledge that, indeed, all Christians must suffer persecutions, if they are to participate in Christ's redemptive mission. You learn that our purpose in life is to love unconditionally, to aspire for a "civilization of love." We are here to serve one another, to give one's life to God through a community dedicated to Him, to be Christ-like. You learn as St. Augustine has learned: that only when we rest in God can we attain true peace.
XI. The Community as Bulwark. You believe the Community's presiding elder when he say that the community has a purpose greater than the obvious ones: It has been established by God Himself to serve as bulwark in this day and age when the concept of community is all but dead, and for our perverse generation, where others outside the bulwark and who are tired of life's vicissitudes can enter and find solace.
By this time, you have gotten used to a lot of things. You've acquired a whole new mindset. You agree, for instance, that Santa Claus and Valentine's Day have devolved into embarrassing commercial holidays. Emerging feminist ideas are flawed because they are not based on Scripture. Halloween and horror movies are not exactly from God. Swearing, gossip, negative speech and green jokes are a no-no. The pervading unisex fashion fad somewhat violates the purpose for which God created the sexes. Sexual sins are grievous sins. If you believe that Jesus is King, then treat Him as King, like it's necessary to dress up or at least wear something decent during the Mass and worship. Much of the philosophies guiding today's culture are secular humanist in nature (based on the gospel of selfism with man as the center of the universe). Whereas you were absolutely clueless before, with your conscience, you develop a clear and strong conviction about certain things: death penalty, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, pornography, divorce, gay sex. Etc. Etc.
Apparently, a charismatic's life is counter-cultural, but, hey, in the eyes of God, it's the height of cool.
XII. Further Outpouring of the Spirit. Time and again, you are privileged to experience the Holy Spirit's renewed outpouring via relatively novel manifestations: dormition (a state of being at rest after being prayed over while seated or lying down, whereupon you feel that familiar yet unexplainable warmth), levitation (the strange feeling of floating or of physical lightness), mirth or exuberance (a kind of laughter - elicited during worship or after a pray-over - that comes from the belly up which renders you completely at peace thereafter), cleansing (accompanied by a usually loud cry and copious tears), visions (usually during dormition), etc.
You experience further growth in the Spirit; your soul is carried "from glory to glory" for there's no stopping God's amazing ways. You witness sadness turn into joy, defeat into victory, disease into healing, doubt into faith.
You appreciate the fact that everyone in community is a work in progress, "a struggling saint", as the spiritual director said. You experience the real Emmanuel, a God who is "actively involved in our lives"; one who is there in our joys and sorrows, in every moment, even at times when we doubt, stumble and fall. But this early, each one is a pure miracle, thanks to God's generosity.
You realize the importance of changing from a Catolico cerrado to an open-minded one, that is, one who is not afraid to accept that God is a God of all, meaning just about everyone - all being a child of God whether they be Catholic, non-Catholic, Protestant, non-Christians, believers, or non-believers. It's a paradoxical experience: as you've become more Catholic, you've also become more open-minded. You believe that God also works outside the Church; that God can do anything in ways we don't understand. He is, after all, beyond the constraints of time and space.
Presently, you have mellowed in your cynicism early in life. Instead of asking those questions you once asked aloud, you now have an entirely new set of questions. What kind of God is He who would not condemn us? (It's us who condemn ourselves.) What kind of God is this who would forgive all sins except our refusal to recognize them? What kind of God is He who would risk Himself to an abuse of love?
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