Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Secular Carmelite in the Media Profession

By Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS

NOTE: The following article was written with Secular Carmelites in mind, for the Jubilee Publication marking the Diamond Anniversary on July 16, 2006 of the St. Teresa of Jesus Community of Manila (STJC), the oldest Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites' community in the Philippines.

I am a Carmelite, and a media person. After my profession as a journalist has fed me, clothed me, paid my bills, etc. for nearly four decades, I can now say: this is where God wants me to be. Nay—intended me to be, long before I was a glint in my father’s eye.

Long before I “became a Carmelite”, even prior to college, I had what you might call a “private consecration.” I would “tell God” at prayer: “My teachers say I can write, but tatay says writing won’t feed me. If it’s true that I have a ‘gift’, only You could have given me that. So I want to use it for the good. I consecrate my pen to You. Use me.”

I said it, then forgot about it. I wasn’t even particularly zealous—and I doubt if by then I had already memorized the Ten Commandments. What would you expect from a teenager who couldn’t even decide what college course to take? But I did become a journalist in due time, and 25 years after that I became a Secular Carmelite—to the amazement of incredulous college mates who would hear of it.

But my life story is not the point of this exercise, although the above flashback gives me leverage to publicly thank God for—well, having led me to become what I am: a writer, journalist, editor, et al, who “happens to be” a Carmelite as well.

A Carmelite in the media profession—being one and the other dovetails perfectly. A Carmelite is supposed to be a prophet, a role that doubles its strength when the Carmelite is also in media. Mass media multiply the prophet’s voice millions of times over—radio, tv, print. Can you imagine the impact that could create? And the responsibility placed upon the prophet’s shoulder?

A writer should always be hungry

It is both challenging and frustrating to champion The Word in an industry that trades and thrives on words. I have always believed that a writer—a wordsmith—should never ever be “satisfied.” In order to bear good fruit for humanity, a writer should always be hungry, literally and figuratively hungry. Hungry for truth. Hungry for justice. Hungry for the good. Hungry for life. There should always be a thirst burning somewhere within him, a “lack” in his life that would spur the writer on to aspire for the highest ideals. He should never be content with the way things are, never be self-indulgent, never be the rich young man in the Bible—or he will lose his salt.

Media is one of the professions where being a Carmelite is put to acid test. For how else could one better grapple with the forces of darkness permeating every nook and cranny of the industry if not through a vigorous interior life? What forces of darkness? Why, the gifts, the payola, the bribes, the power trip, the ego massage, the applause, the subtle whoring going on “in the pursuit of truth”! Because the Carmelite prays, he knows that The Enemy of Truth is not the Abu Sayyaf, nor the government, the NPA, GMA, the military, overzealous clergymen or whoever else media points its finger at in today’s headlines—it is the Prince of Lies himself who worms his way into our hearts and minds to sow confusion, to deceive and mislead, to divide us, to spread evil in the guise of good through mass media. Because the Carmelite prays, he is given the grace to resist temptation and to fight these forces of darkness. But let a reporter tell that to his editor and he’ll be dismissed as stupid—and maybe transferred to the obituary page.


Technical skills, praying skills


Thus, the Carmelite in media would do well to water down his “Repent! Repent!” script and learn to package The Word in a language acceptable both to the masses and to the editors. Sometimes he even has to use gutter talk in order to link man with God, to "de-bone" theology and make it palatable for the masses. Doing this takes much more than technical skills; it’s not just a matter of using the right language for a certain audience, or the right words on the right occasions. It is enveloping the right ideas with the right words on the right occasions—somewhat like sugarcoating a bitter pill. To arm oneself for that, one needs “praying skills” as well. Opening up and listening to God, and hanging on even when God refuses to talk. How else would one know the right ideas if one does not listen to God?

It is said that one who doesn’t listen to God can have nothing worthwhile to say to man. This truth, a Carmelite media person knows by heart, just as he knows that his boss is not the publisher, the editor-in-chief, the show’s producer or the advertisers—his boss is Jesus. His superiors may be human, but his boss is the carpenter from Nazareth. By believing and living this truth, the Carmelite media person preserves his integrity and freedom as servant of The Word. But to walk your talk here, again, calls for a deep connectedness to the Beloved Master who admonishes His followers to “Seek first the kingdom of God…” This is easier said than done.

It is tempting to think that Jesus does reign in your heart simply because you say so. Your public can see through your lip service. And even when they don’t, your conscience will disturb you if you’re a true Carmelite. Allow me to cite two concrete examples, my own trials.

The two trials by fire

First, when I left my post as Editor of Mabuhay, the inflight magazine of Philippine Airlines. Everybody said I was stupid for resigning because it was a plum position, something that some colleagues might have clung to until death for the glamour and the perks it gave: salary in US dollars, international travel every other month for free (with $250 per diem to boot), a gold American Express Credit Card for unlimited representational expenses (which I never needed to use because others were always footing the bill), etc. The reason I resigned? I was enjoying it so much I was beginning to neglect my own “baby”, Blue Collar, a value-formation magazine for marginalized youth which didn’t give me money but which fulfilled me as His servant. To keep me, the Mabuhay management offered to hire a Managing Editor for Blue Collar at their expense, but my conscience wouldn’t allow it—it was my presence that Blue Collar needed to survive, and so I resigned. This happened four years before I joined Carmel.


Nine years after I joined Carmel, something similar took place. I resigned as Editor-in-Chief of Woman Today, then the strongest women’s weekly magazine in the country, turning my back on the Three Ps—Prestige, Power, Perks. I was enjoying a hefty salary, a company car for my personal use, a vibrant social life, gifts overflowing—but I saw the signs, the writing on the wall, and resigned, again, causing everybody to think I was stupid. If I didn’t let go when I did, I would have fallen, ensnared by worldly glitter, serving the gods of consumerism and fattening my own ego. Where would God be in my life then?

In both instances, I made my choice after much agonizing over an uncertain future. But each time brought me calm after the storm, a peace that is beyond words. I know Carmel sustained me, for though I was “not yet a Carmelite” while in Mabuhay, Teresa de Avila and Juan de la Cruz were already my "idols" (since college days). At Woman Today, I as a professed Carmelite was by then aware of the solidarity we enjoy with Carmel’s saints and the graces obtained by the intense desire to be united with God.

How our Carmelite Saints inspire me

Now these two great saints Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross continue to be my inspiration and guide as a media person. On light moments I imagine our Holy Mother Teresa to be the ultimate 21st century Carmelite journalist with her uncommon common sense, self-confidence, scintillating personality, devil-may-care ways that disguise her holiness. Street-smart but docile to the Spirit, St. Teresa of Jesus stands witness to the truth—so sorely needed today—that yes, it is possible to be one with God without looking or behaving like a sour-faced, wilting medieval nun. Her social savvy and a Christ-centered pragmatism would get things done, perhaps in unorthodox ways at times, but no one could find fault with her for she is, in her heart of hearts, of Jesus, living up to her name.

Our Holy Father John is my quiet strength, particularly when I’m making ethical or moral decisions. His asceticism, capacity for suffering in times of trial, and unassailable love for God are there to goad me until I am empowered to enter the silence of nada and emerge from it free to be nothing and nobody. When faced with a choice between two morally-correct paths, St. John of the Cross inspires me to take the one that is more difficult to tread. And that is perhaps why my abovementioned crucial decisions in my media career made me look stupid: the world can not embrace John of the Cross. People tend to avoid the rough road—sacrifices, sufferings, anonymity—especially in media where many practitioners can be vicious in their pursuit of power and influence. This frail-looking saint who suffered in the hands of his brother priests is a giant in my eyes, a model of steadfastness and detachment.

Media work is never “ordinary”. By its very nature it makes of the media practitioner a special person. Whether or not the media person deserves being seen as special is beside the point; the fact remains that he or she stands to be intoxicated by the attention or esteem the public tends to reserve for media people. In order not to succumb to such temptations to vanity, I look to St. Therese of the Child Jesus who was perfectly content being unknown, loving God and enduring neighbor through the myriad trials of ordinary life. Moved by her example, I occasionally drop all deadlines, leave all “important concerns” behind, put on my grimiest sneakers and nondescript clothes so I can be lost in places like Quiapo, Baclaran and Divisoria. It is so good to rub elbows with the masses—to eat lugaw with the tricycle drivers, chat with the tinderas, hear of their woes or joys, to do something nice to people who can’t give me anything in return. For me, this down-time—a break from a world where relationships are mostly utilitarian—is both humbling and elating, keeping me attuned to the public pulse, and therefore to the heartbeat of God.

The fire of Elijah

And when even John of the Cross can’t help me, there’s one more great saint to count on—Elijah. Yes, I do get moments of exasperation especially now that my work as a media officer at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines exposes me to vulnerabilities and eccentricities of men of the cloth. It’s tough dealing with tri-media reporters and their demands and prejudices on a daily basis, to be there to facilitate understanding between two parties (media and Church) who sing a tune and speak a language different from each other's. Specifically on days when media men misrepresent bishops’ thoughts or misquote them, put words in the latter’s mouth, I feel like throwing in the towel. My inner devil would nudge me, Why bother? Why the heck can’t you just take off and enjoy life?

So I sometimes waver, not from lack of conviction but from the thought that no matter how hard I kcik and scream, my voice will just be drowned by the booming and screeching noises of The Enemy anyway. This job no longer occupies me with travel, celebrities and the frothy elements of living, but The Enemy is even more ferocious here as Truth itself is at stake and the fight throws me directly into the arena with the false prophets of our day. And let me tell you false prophets abound in both media and Church. I question myself, "Am I up to the job? " and I get cold feet. Then, Elijah’s fire heats me up—the fire God sent upon the prophet’s water-drenched sacrifice on Mount Carmel. I enter the fire and let the flame surround me—I should not even think of myself, whether or not I’m up to the job, I should just do it like a real descendant of the zealous Lolo Elijah and leave the rest to God!

For the Carmelite in the media profession, the only surrender must be the surrender of self to God in order to be used as a channel of His love for man. Here I am, Lord, use me. Long long before I discovered Carmel, in that “private consecration,” I offered my pen to God and asked Him to use me. Now that I’m in Carmel—scapular, pin, mantle and all—it’s no longer a “private” thing. I ask you now, fellow Carmelites: In the practice of my media profession, am I being a true Carmelite?