Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Problem of Pain

Somehow these two incidents keep playing on in my mind, like an old VHS tape gone haywire..

Monday, 10/7/06, Seremban: She had written a letter, in which she apologised to her family, and kept it in her closet. Then, 30-year-old M. Sanggita took her four children to the railway tracks in Sungei Gadut and waited on the tracks for a train to arrive. She and two of her daughters were run over by a Singapore-bound express train

Tuesday, 5/12/06, Kuala Lumpur
: The deaths of three boys, allegedly from consuming bleach and inhaling cooking gas, at a Desa Sri Puteri flat here last Friday touched the hearts of many.

I tried putting myself in Sanggita's shoes and tried to understand her action and the possible reasons for it. The only thing that comes to mind is this - she was desperate, and desperate situations called for desperate actions. Similarly, with the Ong boys. As a father myself, I can't bear to think and feel what the parents are going through. I think of the boys. My mind goes numb. Why?

C.S. Lewis in "The Problem of Pain" gives a hint: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

Jesus in today's reading Mt. 15:29-37 shows us the way: to have compassion for our fellow beings. St. Nicholas, whose feast day we celebrate today showed the same compassion toward a poor farmer and his daughters.

What about us today? As we "enter" into Advent, we may need to do a spiritual "check-up"? Do our Christmas preparations merely begin and end with the externals? The decorations, the cleanings, the buying? Or do we take the path less travelled? Make a U-Turn? Take the same path that St. Nicholas took? The same one Jesus is asking us to?

Maybe this Stone Soup story will help us. There are many versions of it but they all carry the same message.

Three soldiers trudged down a road in a strange country. They were on their way home from the war. Besides being tired, they were hungry. In fact, they had eaten nothing for two days.

"How I would like a good dinner tonight," said the first. "And a bed to sleep in," added the second. "But that is impossible," said the third.

On they marched, until suddenly, ahead of them, they saw the lights of a village. "Maybe we'll find a bite to eat and a bed to sleep in," they thought.

Now the peasants of the place feared strangers. When they heard that three soldiers were coming down the road, they talked among themselves. "Here come three soldiers," they said. "Soldiers are always hungry. But we have so little for ourselves." And they hurried to hide their food. They hid the barley in hay lofts, carrots under quilts, and buckets of milk down the wells. They hid all they had to eat. Then they waited.

The soldiers stopped at the first house. "Good evening to you," they said. "Could you spare a bit of food for three hungry soldiers?" "We have no food for ourselves," the residents lied. "It has been a poor harvest."

The soldiers went to the next house. "Could you spare a bit of food?" they asked. "And do you have a corner where we could sleep for the night?" "Oh, no," the man said. "We gave all we could spare to the soldiers who came before you." "And our beds are full," lied the woman.

At each house, the response was the same -- no one had food or a place for the soldiers to stay. The peasants had very good reasons, like feeding the sick and children. The villagers stood in the street and sighed. They looked as hungry as they could.

The soldiers talked together. The first soldier called out, "Good people! We are three hungry soldiers in a strange land. We have asked you for food and you have no food. Well, we will have to make stone soup." The peasants stared.

The soldiers asked for a big iron pot, water to fill it, and a fire to heat it. "And now, if you please, three round smooth stones." The soldiers dropped the stones into the pot.

"Any soup needs salt and pepper," the first soldker said, so children ran to fetch salt and pepper.

"Stones make good soup, but carrots would make it so much better," the second soldier added. One woman said, "Why, I think I have a carrot or two!" She ran to get the carrots.

"A good stone soup should have some cabbage, but no use asking for what we don't have!" said the third soldier. Another woman said, "I think I can probably find some cabbage," and off she scurried.

"If only we had a bit of beef and some potatoes, this soup would be fit for a rich man's table." The peasants thought it over, then ran to fetch what they had hidden in their cellars. A rich man's soup, and all from a few stones! It seemed like magic!

The soldiers said, "If only we had a bit of barley and some milk, this soup would be fit for a king!" And so the peasants managed to retrieve some barley and milk.

"The soup is ready," said the cooks, "and all will taste it, but first we need to set the tables." Tables and torches were set up in the square, and all sat down to eat. Some of the peasants said, "Such a great soup would be better with bread and cider," so they brought forth the last two items and the banquet was enjoyed by all. Never had there been such a feast. Never had the peasants tasted such delicious soup, and all made from stones! They ate and drank and danced well into the night.

The soldiers asked again if there was a loft where they might sleep for the night. "Oh, no!" said the townfolk. "You wise men must have the best beds in the village!" So one soldier spent the night in the priest's house, one in the baker's house, and one in the mayor's house.

In the morning, the villagers gathered to say goodbye. "Many thanks to you," the people said, "for we shall never go hungry now that you have taught us how to make soup from stones!"

There are many Sanggitas and Ongs around us today. At our doorsteps. Maybe even within our homes. Do we recognise them? Can we see Jesus in them? In a paradox, while we await for His birth, He is already here. Hungry, and not necessarily for food. Maybe for a little love, understanding, financial help. What are we going to do?


Anonymous said...

hello again. been away at PD to facilitate a group in their search and planning for the next 6 years. christmas reminds me of the filipino proverb 'i eat less. you eat less. they eat more'. how nice it would be to see these happens. i guess 'the change begins with the man in the mirror'. the stone soup story is very 'ngam ngam'for always. fbp

Jude Manickam said...

no wonder very quiet! the man in the mirror - yep, that's where it all begins. attempting to do something a little different this advent as a family, with ann + rom. one step at a time.