Ex 22:20-26; Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40
In January 2011, a picture of Dr. Richard Teo circulated in the internet. Together with it, a transcript of his talk on his life experiences went viral as well. He was a general medical practitioner turned cosmetic surgeon and he died of lung cancer on October 18, 2012, nine months after his talk.
Already suffering from cancer in January, he shared his life experiences with a class of students. In the beginning, just like many people, he thought of happiness in terms of success, and success was about wealth. As a young doctor, he saw that becoming a cosmetic surgeon was the fastest way to success and wealth. So instead of healing the sick and the ill, he shifted to glorifying aesthetic looks. True enough, after a year, he was raking in millions and could very well afford the luxuries of life. Then in March 2011, at the pinnacle of life according to the world’s standards, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He got very depressed and realized that his success and everything that he had acquired could not give him genuine happiness and joy.
Dr. Teo recalled a college friend named Jennifer. Whenever she saw a snail on the pathway, she would pick it up and put it along the grass path. At that time, he could not understand what Jennifer was doing, getting her hands dirty for the sake of a snail. It was just a snail. Besides, it deserved to be crushed if it went the pathway of humans.
Dr. Teo said that as a doctor, he should have been steeped in compassion even for non-human creatures, but he was not and could not. In fact, his exposure to sufferings and deaths in the cancer department as a young doctor deadened his feelings and capacity to empathize. Everything became simply a job for him. While he knew all the medical terms to describe the sufferings of people, how they felt and what they were struggling through, in truth, he did not really know how they felt – until he became a cancer patient himself. He said that if he could only relive his life, he would have been a different doctor – a truly compassionate one. A cancer patient himself, he began to understand how other patients felt, something that he learned the hard and irrevocable way.
Dr. Teo reminded his listeners never to lose their moral compass along the way of life and in the practice of their professions, something that he lost as he got obsessed with wealth, viewing his patients as merely sources of income. As doctors, they should serve people and have compassion on the sufferings of their patients. Society and media should not dictate on them how they should live.
True happiness does not come from serving oneself but from serving others. And it comes from knowing God, not simply knowing God but knowing God personally, and having a genuine relationship with God. He said that is the most important thing he learned: to set our priorities at an earlier stage of our lives – to trust in the Lord and to love and serve others, not just ourselves.
Dr. Richard Teo ended his talk with a quote from the book Tuesdays with Morrie. It says: “Everyone knows that they are going to die; every one of us knows that. The truth is none of us believe it because if we did, we will do things differently. When I faced death, when I had to, I stripped myself of all stuff totally and I focused only on what is essential. The irony is that a lot of times, only when we learn how to die then we learn how to live.”
On this 30th Sunday in the Ordinary Time, Jesus reminds us that love of God and neighbors is the summary of all the laws, commandments and teachings of the prophets, the summary of religion itself. It is very significant that we are hearing these two greatest commandments right after All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. The saints are known for the holiness of their lives. As Christians, this is our fundamental calling – this universal call to holiness, which consists in the practice of the love of God and neighbors.
Lumen Gentium, one of the Vatican II documents, tells us that all of us are called to holiness by virtue of baptism. Holiness consists in the perfection of charity – in other words, in the growth and practice of the love of God and neighbors according to our states and circumstances of life. Leon Bloy, a French writer, declares, “The only tragedy in life is not to be a saint.” We may not all become canonized saints, so All Saints’ Day is also for the countless holy men and women who are not officially declared saints of the Church.
A parishioner once remarked that All Souls’ Day is a good reminder to pray for our dead relatives and friends and also of our own mortality. Indeed, all of us will come to the point of our final surrender to the Lord, the final offering of our last breath, of our entire life, of all our deeds and personal history.
St. Francis of Assisi desired to die naked to dramatically show that, like Job of the Old Testament, he came into this world with nothing. He wanted to go back to the Lord in utter nakedness and complete dependence on Him and on His mercy. Everything is grace. Everything and everyone is a gift and there is nothing and nobody that we can really appropriate for ourselves. In Pilipino, “Hiram sa Diyos ang ating buhay.” In fact, “Hiram sa Diyos ang lahat-lahat.” We must be ready to make that final surrender of everything. It is in this light, that we can appreciate the reminders of Dr. Richard Teo, Jim Castle and of all the saints, especially that of St. John of the Cross who said: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love.”
The scribe in the Gospel was sincere in his questioning of Jesus. He was really searching for the truth that would guide him in living his life and in practicing religion. A total of 613 commandments had accumulated and developed through the years of interpretation of the Ten Commandments and other precepts of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus’ response to the scribe was an invitation to see what was already there in the Scriptures. All they needed to do was to practice them truthfully.
The love of God with all one’s heart, soul and strength is found in the Book of Deuteronomy, and constitutes the Shema, the most important prayer of the Israelite religion (cf. Dt 46:4-5). The love of neighbor as oneself is found in the Book of Leviticus (cf. Lv 19:18). What we find separated in the Old Testament has been put together by Jesus in the New Testament (cf. Mk 12:28-34; Mt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28).
Indeed, the love of God and the love of neighbors, though distinct, are interrelated and inseparable. The love of God takes priority over everything else, but it must flow into the love of neighbors, especially the needy, and those suffering and in pain.
When Blessed Mother Teresa accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1979, a part of her acceptance speech went like this: “It is not enough for us to say: ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.’ St. John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor (1 Jn 4:20). How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? And so this is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt.”
For Blessed Mother Teresa, love is something that is very concrete, something that begins where we are, without ending there. In this regard, she said: “Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next door neighbor… Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”
We end with some revealed insights of St. Catherine of Genoa on purgatory. Purgatory, according to the saint, has something to do with the cleaning and purifying love of God upon souls wherein stains of sin still remains. Only a soul purified from all sinfulness can be completely united with God who is Divine Love.