This is the transcript of a talk that I delivered on 8 Jan 2011 in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to a group of students as part of a workshop in preparation for the new semester. I hope that you will take the time to read and be inspired by this.
Domine, quo vadis? These were the words of St. Peter to Jesus. According to tradition, when the Romans were actively persecuting the Christians, St. Peter left Rome to escape from death. As he was coming out of Rome, he met Jesus once again. Surprised, St. Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?”
Domine, quo vadis. Where, Lord, are you going? Where, Lord, should I go?
All of us are going somewhere. We are moving towards something. Yet, many of us are unclear about this journey called life. Some of us do not know where to go. Some of us know where to go, but do not know how to get there. Some of us are not even aware that we are going somewhere. St. Peter asked Jesus this question because he too was searching. He wanted to know where he should go; he wanted to know what he should do with his life.
Quo vadis? Where are you going?
Imagine an empty tea cup. Is there tea in it? No. But can tea be potentially put into it? Yes. When we ask, “Where are you going?” we ask a question about motion. One way of speaking about motion is in terms of movement from potentiality to actuality; from potential tea to actual tea.
Now, picture me making tea in that cup. What we have now is a cup with actual tea in it. But why did I make the tea? Maybe I was thirsty, or maybe I simply enjoy drinking tea. One can easily think of many reasons why I made the cup of tea, but if we were to keep asking why like a little child (Why do you enjoy drinking tea? Why must you enjoy it? Why drink? Why? Why? Why?), we arrive at a reason which is the same for all people – I want to be happy. I made that cup of tea because it makes me happy!
We all choose to be happy – in fact, none of us can choose to be unhappy! Though we have been endowed with the gift of free will, the one thing that we are not free to choose is to be unhappy. One may feel miserable, or do things which unintentionally result in unhappiness, but no one can intentionally choose to be unhappy unless he believes that being unhappy will make him happy (in which case, he is ironically, actually choosing to be happy).
What we realise then is that the human person’s actions are always motivated by the search for happiness. The human person therefore, when allowed to act freely, makes choices and performs actions in the belief that these would make him happy. When we ask “Where am I going?” we can partly understand this question in realising that we naturally desire to move towards happiness.
But it is also important to understand why we human beings cannot help but choose to be happy. All of creation strives to be God-like as far as it possibly can. A rock strives to be as God-like as possible by striving to be as eternal as God, by striving to continue being a rock until it can no longer resist other forces. A tree strives to be as God-like as possible by striving to be as perfect and eternal as God is, by being the best tree that it can possibly be despite its circumstances, and living for as long as it can until it is destroyed by the environment or by something stronger than itself. The same applies to animals too.
Likewise, a human person strives to be as God-like as possible. How? Like the rest of creation, the human person strives to be as eternal and perfect as God. But being made in the image and likeness of God, the human person is capable of other activities, and one of them is to be happy as God is perfectly happy.
Since all of creation strives to be as God-like as possible, we say that God is the Final End. He is the ultimate goal – the goal of all goals – which we all aim for. Where am I going? We are going to Him! God is the Final End of all we do in this life. But in order to get there, we need to plan; just as if one were to set-up a business or begin a project. We plan smaller goals that lead up to that ultimate goal, and then plan small steps to help you achieve each small goal. God is that ultimate goal in which all our other goals work towards – whether we are aware of it or not.
But God is not only the Final End; He is also the First Cause. All things derive their existence, their actuality, from Him. How is it that I have moved from a potential-me to an actual-me? Well, my parents did it. But what moved my parents from potential-people into actual-people? Their parents! And if we keep going back, we come to the source of all motion – God, who is nothing but pure actuality (He cannot have any potential in Him, otherwise He would require someone else to move Him from potentiality to actuality). Aristotle calls God the unmoved mover because no one else moves Him. And so it is God who moves us from nothingness into existence, from a potential-me to an actual-me, but not directly as how I would make a cup of tea, but as the final destination, the ultimate goal, of all motion.
Why is this important? Simply because: all things receive their actuality from God. Unless God moves X, X will not come into existence. He has moved us into existence, but this motion has not stopped. As a human person, living and breathing, I am still moving. I am still becoming. But before I can discover who I am becoming, it is important to know who, in the first place, am I?
Perhaps one of the answers that we are most in need of in our times is this: I am a human person. Well, that is a very obvious answer. So why are we most in need of this?
Well, let us imagine this scenario: You and I have a common friend. One day, that friend does something which makes me very upset. And so, I come to you to complain about him. What is the one answer you would give to make me excuse him for his misdeeds? More often than not, we tend to comfort each other by saying: “Well, he’s only human.” We may not think very much about this answer since it has been schooled in us by our culture, yet such an answer reveals an underlying belief about humanity: we have a negative outlook on our own humanity.
To be weak, to be sinful, and to be lousy – to us, these are the qualities of being human. Sometimes, we are so disgusted by the idea of how horrible humanity is that we may (unconsciously) despise our own humanity. It is perhaps this disdain that we have for our own humanity that we, as a society, are slowly losing our humanity. We are trading our humanity for something else – something that appears better only because we do not fully appreciate the goodness and beauty of our own humanity. We are giving up our humanity, and in exchange, we are settling for second best – to be valued and treated as machines.
We often unconsciously reduce ourselves and others into machines. We may or may not be aware, but we tend to value ourselves based on our usefulness, on our aesthetic qualities (how good-looking we are), and/or on our efficiency. Who I am is defined by the type and number of friends on Facebook. I am someone because I have done so much for this group. I am loved because I am sexy or useful to others. My purpose and meaning in life is defined by others and is not derived from anything within me. I am loved because of what I do and not for who I am. And just as how we expect others to treat us in this way, we treat others in like manner.
We experience this quite regularly in our daily lives. Many times, institutions and authorities look at us as nothing more than a figure in the statistics. You and I are treated as numbers – not human persons.
If we believe that to be human is to be weak, ugly and depressing, then to be valued as a thing that is useful, efficient, and attractive to the eyes, is probably a better trade-off. And so we live our lives, working hard to be as efficient and useful as we can, so that people may value us and not cast us out of society. We want to be loved, and so we work hard at making ourselves lovable.
Yet deep within us, we do not like the feeling of being used. We do not enjoy being treated as a number. We want to be treated as a human person and not as an object. We want love, but it is not about being loved for something that we do, we want to be loved for who we are; this is really what being human is about. We know it from the depths of our being. Yet, sometimes we are unable to put a finger on what is wrong about our daily experiences in life.
We are losing our humanity. Not only have we forgotten what it means to be human, we seem to have forgotten what it is that makes us human. Modern technology has made so many things convenient for us that we end up becoming too focused on the ends. In the past, the means were embedded in the end itself. Before the convenience of technology, getting water meant walking to the nearby well (or river), and meeting people along the way. It was about enjoying the walk, walking with nature, interacting with friends. Getting water was more than just getting water. Today, the entire process is cut off from the end. If I wanted water, I would just go to the nearest tap. I would usually not think twice about interacting with people along the way.
Today, we have a tendency to think only of the ends. If we act in this way, how different are we from machines? We have become so focused on the ends that we forget to enjoy the process. We have become so focused on the ends that we separate the ends from each other. Getting water is getting water. Food is food, and spending time with friends is just about spending time with friends. Our lives have become so compartmentalised. Work is work, and play is play. The idea of mixing work and play together may even abhor some of us as if it were a taboo. There is no unity of life!
This is why we feel estranged from our own work, and even from our own lives! I may be this person at work/school, another person with this group of friends, yet another person with another group of friends, and even a completely different person at home. This growing trend is what prevents us from having a fulfilling and meaningful life. It is a life that seems rather pointless. Why should I bother? Why should I keep doing this? I’m not even allowed to be myself, but then again, who am I? Is the real me the person at work, at home, or with that group of friends?
This is the culture which we live in – a culture which has forgotten what it means to be human and how to be human. But this problem is not unique to our culture. It is a problem which has plagued the whole of Mankind since the Fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve. It is precisely for this reason that Our Lord Jesus Christ came to reveal Man to himself (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), to teach us how to be human again, and more! He came and took upon Himself our humanity so that we may receive His divinity.
But before we look to the divine aspect of being human, let us first try to understand what it means to be human on a natural level. When somebody behaves in a rather cold-blooded, heartless manner, what do we say about that person? We say that he is a beast, not fit to be a human being. In our Asian culture (specifically the Chinese), we say that he is not a real man. He does not even know how to be a man. (他不懂怎樣做人。) Both Confucius and Mencius answer this question about humanity with a short and simple answer: To be human is to possess 仁 (ren, benevolence/human-heartedness). 二人為仁 (er ren wei ren, it takes two to achieve ren). To be human is to know how to live in harmony with others, to relate with others, and to love one another. This is what being human is about.
We say that a heartless person is what makes him unfit to be a human person. And it is precisely the heart that makes us human. But it is not just any ordinary heart. It is, as Mencius beautifully describes, 側隱之心 (ce yin zi xin) – the hidden side of the heart. It is hidden because it is the most vulnerable part of our hearts, but we unveil this hidden side of our hearts to the ones we love – to family members and friends who are close to us. It is this heart and its ability to love that makes us truly human.
Imagine this scenario: One day, God appears to you and offers you two choices: (1) A life filled with all the pleasures in the world, with power, success, and wealth, but you will never experience love at all, not even love for yourself; (2) A life of toil and suffering, but you will experience love at least once in your life time. Which option would you choose?
Or what if God allowed you to gain all the pleasures in the world, along with power, success and wealth, but your loved ones will all have to die? What will you choose?
Most (or in fact, all) of us will choose love over all those other things because we are aware that love is the basis of all human happiness. We may hold the belief that pleasure, power, success, and wealth are able to bring us happiness. Yet, we are aware that without love, these things will mean nothing to us.
But why is love so fundamental to our own happiness? As it was mentioned earlier, all of creation strives to be as God-like as possible. Since us humans have been made in the image and likeness of God, our motion is ordered towards being as happy as God is happy and to love as God is love. And because God is love, God’s happiness is deeply rooted on the fertile soil of love. Without that love, one’s happiness cannot be properly nourished. It will be a deficient happiness – a happiness (or rather, unhappiness) that is meaningless as illustrated by the two scenarios mentioned earlier. Since true and everlasting happiness finds its roots in love, one can only be as happy as God is happy by loving as God loves us.
The other thing that makes us truly human is our ability to work, and the capacity within us to work as God works. In the creation story of Genesis we read about how God is working. (Someone who studied Scripture shared with me that when we read the English translations, “God made X”. In Hebrew, the phrasing is rendered in the present continuous tense “God is making X”.) And just as how God works, He made us to work as He works.
Out of love, God creates. We too operate in a similar way. When we love someone, we make things for that person: a birthday card, a Christmas present, a Valentine’s Day gift, etc. Love is creative. But that’s not all. Being made in the image and likeness of God, we are co-creators! We have a share in the creative act of God. I have the power to create!
God as the First Cause and Final End joins us in every act of creation by moving things into actuality. It is a group effort! Even if we are doing something as mundane as making instant noodles for supper, we are sharing in God’s divine act of creation! The same thing applies to our work: every document we write, every essay we draft, every presentation we create – it is a sharing in that divine act of creation. But it is not enough to just work and to just create. It is only when we work with love and create with love, are we truly being as God-like as God had intended us to be. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. We have not yet covered the supernatural aspect of our humanity!
Imagine this scenario: one day, a messenger comes up to you and says, “At last, after so many years, I have finally found you. You are the child of the Royal Family, lost at birth because of a confusion that broke out due to a fire in the hospital where you were born. Come and return to your long-lost family.” How would you react to such news?
When Christ came to show us how to be fully human, He revealed to us the supernatural dignity of our humanity. We are meant for greatness. We are meant to dwell intimately with God, like Adam and Eve when they used to walk in the Garden of Eden with God. But we walk with God not as friends, but as children of God the Father, siblings of Jesus the Son, and as the spouse of the Holy Spirit! This is our supernatural dignity – a family member of the Holy Trinity – a dignity which had been lost and forgotten since the Fall of Mankind.
This Fall of Mankind contributes to a part of what it means to be human – I am broken. This is a part of ourselves, of our humanity, which many of us are unable to accept. How is it that a humanity so great and wonderful, so potentially divine, can have so much brokenness? It was precisely because of that one Fall that gave us a bad start in life – just like in the above scenario, where you were given a bad start in life because of the confusion at the hospital.
A bad start. A broken family, broken childhood, broken relationships. Insecurities, hurts, fears, and shame. We all have our sad story to tell. We all have our skeletons hid away in a closet. Yet, much as we may hate that part of ourselves (and of our humanity), it is that brokenness which forms a large part of our identity. We are who we are today and will be in the future because we have been moulded by our past. How we act, and how we perceive the world is a result of our past, and more so the result of our wounded history. This is why we are insecure about certain things, unable to trust certain people, and unable to love certain people. Unless we come to accept that this bad start, this brokenness, is part of our identity, we will find it hard to love ourselves.
But even if we find it hard to love ourselves; even if we find it hard to forgive ourselves, God will still love and forgive us.
According to Martin Luther, we will be forever broken. We are a weak and sinful humanity that cannot change for the better. There is no hope for humanity except for a God who will overlook our brokenness if we accept Him as our Saviour.
Catholic theology, on the other hand, says: Yes we can! We can change for the better. We are broken, but we can be redeemed and transformed by God’s grace. Our broken humanity can be redeemed and transformed by divine grace. Like the lost child of the royal family, God embraces us, takes us in, cleans us, washes us, heals our wounds, loves us, restores what we have lost, and gives us a fresh new start at life. We have received it once at the Sacrament of Baptism, and each time we lose it, God restores us again at the Sacrament of Penance each time Christ, through the priest says: Ego te absolvo, I absolve you.
Like King Midas who turns whatever he touches into gold, God’s grace allows us to make divine whatever we come into contact with. Whenever we work, we humanise things. We make food edible, we make clothes wearable, and we make houses liveable. But with divine grace, we do not just humanise these things, we divinise them. In so doing, people experience God in the things that we do. We do not just simply make food edible. Raised to a supernatural level, people see God at work through us. We do not simply attend lectures and do our assignments. Raised to a supernatural level, others are able to see God involved in the process of learning, illuminating our minds, raising knowledge from potential-knowledge to actual-knowledge within us! This is what it means to be fully human and fully alive.
On a cold winter day, St. Francis of Assisi saw an almond tree. As it was winter, the tree was all bare. Looking at the almond tree, St. Francis asked, “Oh tree, tell me what you know about God!” Immediately, in the midst of that harsh winter, the almond tree flourished and went into full bloom before his very eyes.
St. Irenaeus proclaimed, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive!” Regardless of how harsh or upsetting our conditions may be, whenever we are able to live our humanity to the full, naturally and supernaturally, people will see God in us.
No matter where we are, no matter what we do, every moment is an opportunity to raise whatever we do to a supernatural level with a supernatural effect. When we sanctify the temporal order by sanctifying everything around us, people begin to experience God. Hearts change, people change, and slowly but steadily, people become aware of the beauty of our humanity which all of us has been blessed with. Through us, people will come to see the divinity in our humanity much like how the Disciples of Christ saw his divinity in His humanity. When we live out our dignity as a member of the Holy Family, we become like the priest at the altar – the alter Christus – the other Christ.
It is interesting that in our lives, there are an infinite number of possibilities opened to us, and yet, of that vast range of possibilities, only some of them are moved into actuality. In our lives, there are many things that we want to do, yet only some of them have been actualised. Others may only actualise much later. There are even things that we never thought of doing which have come into actuality.
Many call it chance or a wonderful coincidence. Yet, if we remember how things receive their actuality from God, we will come to recognise that every moment of our lives is never a moment wasted – even if by the world’s standards, we encounter failure. Every moment has been given to us as an opportunity: an opportunity for learning, an opportunity for loving, an opportunity for purifying our love, an opportunity for sanctifying, an opportunity for mercy, and an opportunity for flourishing. It is therefore important for us to try our best to open our eyes of faith so as to understand what God intends for us in His divine plan. We may not understand it now, but one thing we can be certain is that opportunities are granted to us at every moment of our lives.
St. Peter left Rome to escape from death. As he was coming out of Rome, he met Jesus once again. Surprised, St. Peter asked him, “Domine, quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?” To which Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified once again.” It was at that very moment that St. Peter knew what he had to do. His purpose in life, his mission, his vocation, became clear to him. And so he returned to Rome and was martyred on that same day. His blood (and the blood of so many early Roman martyrs) made fertile the soil of faith which sprouted many conversions in Rome.
Every year we celebrate the birth of Our Lord on Christmas day. It is interesting to note that in the Christmas story (as presented by the various Gospel passages), each character had a crucial role to play in the story of salvation. The Blessed Virgin Mary was to be the Mother of Christ, St. Joseph was to protect and look after them. St. John the Baptist was born to make the way for Jesus and to baptise Him. Each of them had their special mission in the story of salvation.
Yet, it is interesting that there is no ending to the Christmas story. Why? Simply because the story continues on even till this very day. You and me – we are characters involved in this Christmas story. And just as how Our Lady’s fiat, her yes, set the story of salvation into motion, just as how every disciple of Christ went about continuing the story of salvation, bringing it to others, we too are part of this story, and called to set the story of salvation into motion in our own lives and in the lives of others.
St. Peter realised that he was part of this story and he understood what he had to do to continue the story. While I may not be able to tell you what you have to do to continue the Christmas story in your lives and in the lives of others, nonetheless, I hope that you will find the general direction given to be of use. What I can say is this: God has placed us here, in this historical time, in this geographical space, not just for our own flourishing but for our salvation and the salvation of others. Every opportunity should never be wasted, and we must do our best to raise everything we do to a supernatural level, and keep open our eyes of faith.
Love your humanity and live it to the fullest, naturally and supernaturally through the Sacraments and prayer!
As we earnestly pray and ask God, “Domine, quo vadis? Lord, where are you going?” Our Lord will, in the fullness of time, reveal to us where He is going, and where we are to go.
In the meantime, we must patiently learn to make the best of every moment, and follow the words of Mother Teresa who said, “Bloom where you’re planted.”