Arms

Originally written on 17 October 2010
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

The Amorites are losing. If you cannot tell someone that he or she has body odor and thus in need of urgent deodorizing, you can say, “the Amorites are losing.” This can be convenient code, a diplomatic way to tell someone smelly. Let me explain.

In the first reading today, Moses tells Joshua to engage Amalek and the Amorites in battle. Moses assures Joshua that he will be “standing on top of the hill” with Aaron and Hur, and he will have his arms raised. In the heat of battle, the Israelites discover that “as long as Moses kept his hands raised up, Israel had the better of the fight, but when he let his hands rest, Amalek had the better of the fight.”

When Moses grew tired, Aaron and Hur sat him on a rock and “supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other, so that his hands remained steady till sunset.” The result?

“And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.”

What do arms outstretched have to do with winning battles? I don’t think it has anything to do with offensive odor. I must admit though it makes for good material for a deodorant commercial.

The raised arms seem to suggest that battles are won by interior resolve and persistence, and most importantly, by presence.

In the Gospel story today, an unjust and unwilling judge is bothered by a widow pounding relentlessly on his door, asking him to “render a just decision for [her] against [her] adversary.” The result?

The judge gives up. He gives in. The Amorite is mowed down by a widow by the sharp blade of her persistence and resolve and, best of all, presence.

The judge should have known better. In legalese, even pleadings are called “prayers.” (Yes, the legal profession has pious, prayerful people too.) He could have had the better of the fight had he clipped whoever it was who was raising arms in the first place. He could have dismissed the widow’s prayer had he known only how to break her persistence and resolve and presence.

But widows are a hardy lot. The Lord, who has a soft spot for them, praises this particular widow for the willfulness of her faith and for her steadfast conviction in the cause of justice and right.

Through these two stories, the Lord tells us how we are to pray. That is, with arms raised, and with friends to raise those arms lest we grow weary and disheartened. We are to pray with steadfast faith in God and in ourselves, and with unrelenting conviction in the goodness and fairness of our fight.

The danger here of course is when we begin to pray in a mechanistic and manipulative way. We can pray and pray until we get what we want. The risk here is when we give in to the delusion of entitlement or the illusion of our power to force the hand of God by our words and formulas and actions. Prayers uttered this way are no different from the brew and incantations of witches.

The next time you pray your novena or rosary, remember the sorrowful mystery of the agony in Gethsemani. That was a whole night of pleading and bargaining and tears. At the end of it all, the clasped hands gave way to an oblation of open arms. For the innocent and holy One, in the end there was only darkness and a contrite profession: not my will but Yours be done.

We can pray and pray until we get what we want. We can pray as if God were asleep or apathetic. Or we can listen time and again to what it is we are always praying for, until the judge in us gives in and we come to realize what is true and untrue, the things that are fair and unfair, the essential and the merely peripheral.

When we pray, it is not for God to listen. It is for us to listen to ourselves. We pray to be honest about what is always incomplete and broken in our lives. With Francis of Assisi, we pray not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be consoled as to console, not so much to be loved as to love. We pray to learn how to open our hands in surrender to the freedom of God.

If you go to Palanan, Isabela, the place where Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans, you will see a bust of the Filipino general. People quip that the bust only features the head and upper torso without the arms because they do not want to portray the general’s arms raised in surrender.

In Corcovado, the open arms of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) stretch over the city of Rio de Janeiro. Perhaps, when it comes to battles, the Brazilians know better than to place their hopes in arms that are raised till twilight. In wars they have to wage daily against the Amorities, they may have learned by now to turn their gaze to the Redeemer.

There he stands, on top of a hill, with arms that are raised tirelessly to the Father: our Redeemer, in loving oblation and open surrender.

About Jet Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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