Where is God?

Quiet Storm by Fr. Nicanor F. Lalog II, 23 May 2019
Our fellow pilgrims to the Holy Land who made it to the top of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, 06 May 2019. Photo by Atty. Grace Polaris Rivas-Beron.

A catechist asked her class, “where is God?”

A small boy right away raised his hand and boldly answered “God is in our toilet!”

The catechist was shocked with the boy’s answer but did not want to put him on the spot so she asked, “how did you know God is in your toilet?”

And he said, “every morning I see my dad knocking at our toilet door, asking, ‘my God, are you still there?'”

The shore of Lake of Galilee in Capernaum where Jesus used to visit the synagogue nearby. Photo by author, 02 May 2019.

Main reason I always encourage people to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land is to experience God.

The Franciscans who safeguard the holy sites in Jordan, Israel, and Egypt teach that the Holy Land is the “fifth gospel” after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John found in our bible. In the Holy Land, one can surely experience God speaking and conversing with you in the very places where he had appeared to the great prophets or had come in Christ Jesus and did wondrous deeds to his people. There is a different level of understanding and appreciation of the many stories found in our bible when you go to the Holy Land that can really be life-changing depending on your personal disposition.

There are two instances where we experience God in the Holy Land: first in the country of Israel and second in the churches at the holy sites.

Israel, the Promised Land.

How could God call this country “the Promised Land” when it is so small and sits on a vast tract of limestone and desert? Technically speaking, a desert is an area that receives an average rainfall of 25 centimeters or ten inches annually. That is why it is barren and desolate.

But not Israel.

Once you see the greenery abounding at Israel’s desert, you immediately feel God’s presence there, fulfilling his promise of blessing the land “flowing with milk and honey” as the bible says. Aside from their local date and fig trees with so many other varieties that are the best in the world, plants and trees imported from abroad like bougainvillea and acacia thrive so well in the Israeli desert. From the Philippines, they have imported and improved our mango trees that bear more fruits, yielding higher income to their farmers. Interspersing the greenery on their desert are the colonies of greenhouses that shine in their silvery color during the day while producing many varieties of fruits and vegetables inside. Likewise, exports of Israeli wines and dairy products are steadily growing due to increasing demand from abroad.

All these produced at the desert!

Resort at the Dead Sea area, April 2017.

Like any Filipino pilgrim to the Holy Land, one then remembers what foreigners say that our country is literally a paradise with the right amount of rain and sunshine throughout the year with very fertile soil when we cannot even have enough rice to feed our people? How tragic that we have to import rice from Vietnam and Thailand, our two neighbors in Asia that sent their farmers to Los Banos 40 years ago to learn growing rice scientifically! And it is not only rice that we import but even other basic food stuffs like onions, garlic, and fruits that include cut flowers lately. Drive for two hours outside Manila and you find vast tracts of land with so much grass but we have to import beef, chicken and pork to satisfy our local cravings even for the simple chicharon (pork cracklings) because our local farmers cannot meet the demands.

Where is God?

God has blessed our country with wide arrays of flora and fauna, more amazing beaches and mountains, and friendlier climate and weather. But, God is nowhere to be found because we have lost him in ourselves. We have lost him in our hearts that we took our country for granted, molesting and abusing her like Boracay or the Manila Bay. God dwells among the people, not on the land. Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical about the care for the environment “Laudato Si” that “we have only one heart and every act of cruelty against nature is contrary to human dignity.”

If we wish to find and experience God blessing our own land, we have to be like the people in Israel who kept him alive in their hearts by thinking bigger than themselves.

Our group posing with two 19-year old Israeli female soldiers at the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. It used to be a part of Jordan that Israel had occupied after the 1967 Six-Day War.

God in the noble simplicity of a church.

For us Catholics, God is truly experienced present in the Holy Land through the many churches – all beautiful – spread out throughout Israel. But, what really makes the churches and chapels or oratories in the Holy Land so special and unique is not only the fact they are on the very sites or near the areas where Jesus had stood to preach or performed a miracle. Aside from the aesthetic factors that make these churches so beautiful and moving that you experience God inside is because of their “noble simplicity”.

The inside of the modern main chapel of Our Lady of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, 05 May 2019.

Unlike the churches here in our country that have become so kitschy that look like cheap cakes with too much decorations and scandalous colors, those in the Holy Land are definitely clean cut, no clutter whatsoever. There is always the sense of the holy right upon entering every church and chapel despite the great crowd present. Most of all, with the church’s noble simplicity, there is always that sacred space for God to be encountered.

When the church is so cluttered and so mixed up, signs that should point to God fail miserably, leaving the church banal and empty of any transcendence or sense of the holy. And I must confess we priests are so guilty of this liturgical abuses when we have made our churches the extensions of our very selves and eccentricities, totally disregarding Jesus Christ. We have evicted God from our church as we priests lorded it over among people with us becoming more known and popular than Jesus Christ.

Can you really feel God present in your parish with all the tarpaulins and giant flat screens around with matching giant fans above? What would Jesus do if he comes today in our churches and finds all kinds of stores, not only those selling religious articles that are sanctioned and even maintained by priests right inside our church premises?

Inside the beautiful Church of the Beatitudes, April 2017.

What a church looks like indicates the kind of pastor and parishioners it has. No matter how big or small a church is, its true beauty lies on the sense and feeling of sanctity or sacredness it creates, not popularity or mass appeal. And as always, like anywhere else, holiness comes only from God who dwells on his people who pray together, moving as one body in the Holy Spirit.

Recently I guested in a radio talk show hosted by some former colleagues in the news who lamented at how our churches have become very “showbiz” with all the pomp and pageantry of telenovelas. So true! It is a reality that unconsciously shows how we in the Church are slowly losing that touch with the holy when everything has gone down to human level despite our pretentious claims of artistic expressions.

When God appeared in a burning bush at the Sinai desert, he asked Moses to take off his sandals for he was standing on sacred ground.

The whole Earth is a sacred ground, a holy land created by God. The challenge is for us to let go of ourselves and let God. And that is when we discover where God is.

A blessed day to you!

Facade of the St. Katherine Monastery of the Greek Orthodox at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Egypt. Inside is a chapel built on the site of the burning bush of Moses. At the back is the staging point of pilgrims’ ascent to Mt. Sinai where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

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