“Wandering Fire”

SAN  FRANCISCO — The  question bugs me years after it was asked. At our United Nations office in Bangkok, the puzzled Malaysian economist tossed a newspaper clipping on my desk.  “Eight centuries after his death, this man is still honored,” he said. “But even before we’re a year in our graves, you and I will be forgotten.. Why?”

He’d snipped a Herald Tribune column by George Will. Titled “Memories of a Wandering Fire.” It commented on the eight centennial of Francis Bernardone’s death.

Francis —  who?

Francis of Assisi. The North Umbrian  gave away a vast inheritance. Instead, he crafted  an uncluttered  lifestyle  the world today   calls  “Franciscan simplicity.”

“Francis catalyzed  the “Renaissance”, which is older than many European states. He saw that Faith “is not made more credible by arranging its institutional furniture”. The  personality of this 43-year old  friar  sent thousands  practicing evangelical poverty   He was a “wandering fire,”  G.K. Chesterton marveled.

Today,  we seek  “wandering fires”: men and women whose  values  “endure even after the sun goes out”  Or  do harsh times only rediscover them. “Is there anything new under the sun?” Ecclesiastes asks.

Never before did we have a population of  90 million  plus. In 1940, there were 19 million Filipinos. By 2015, we could be 111.5 million, unless growth rates alter radically. That’s new.

The Asian Development Bank’s study. “Poverty in Asia,” reveals that people in “extreme poverty” (with incomes of P56 a day) are fewer.  In  1990,  out of every 100, there were 19  locked into penury . This dropped to  15 — before the current recession  hit.. That’s the good news.

The bad news is: paupers increased due  to population growth. On this demographic treadmill, disparities in wealth aggravate tensions, especially when  alleviation programs falter.  “The few who are rich exact what they want. And  the many who are poor grant what they must.”

Consider consumption data.  Our  richest 10 per cent, in their  mansions, with four-wheel drives and  bodyguards,  consume 31 centavos out of every peso, “Philippine  Human Development Report  2009”  reveals.  In contrast, the poorest  10 per cent, often huddled in slums,  must make do with three centavos. When  a crisis hits, the poor pare that  down to two centavos. The rich rearrange their menus.

“There are only two families in the world”,  Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quijote,” would muse. “The haves and the have-nots.”

In   this skewed setting, cash makes for right.  “Here, net worth equals self-worth,” a banker says. Bank balances and car models set the pecking order at dinner tables.

They call that “pecuniary decency”. And poverty becomes the original sin. Transporting gold to the grave is the end-all and be-all.  Official  position evolves into a tool for conserving perks of the elite.

Good Shepherd nun Christine Tan served and lived among Malate’s poor until her death. She told the Estradas to their faces: To  corral sweepstakes funds and ambulances, for political ends, was wrong.   Erap’s minions smeared this “wandering fire.”
Hundreds of  ordinary  citizens quietly share with the needy. They give of their time, funds, skills, from teaching to legal aid. They, too, are “wandering fires”.  

In contrast,  Erap’s Muslim Youth Foundation never had a single student.. It clones  the  Marcoses’ shell  foundations in Leichtenstein foundations  and other places. This shabby track record pales beside that of Charles Feeney.

Charles who?

He is a  self-effacing  New Jersey businessman  in his  70s’s, writes New York Times Maureen Dowd,  But Frenzy give away anonymously more than $610 million for “life’s wounded,” in Pope John Paul II’s phrase “

“Feeney’s checks have cleared,” Dowd writes. Yet, he takes the subway, flies economy, shops for his  own groceries. Feeney “doesn’t own a house, car, or a Rolex.”  (Remember our martial law  “Rolex 12”? ).

“Feeney gives away a lot of his money  because, as he puts it, “you can  wear only one of shoes at a time,” Dowd adds. ( Silly, Imelda with her 1,080 pairs of shoes, would say,)  Feeney “acts on the idea that our great pursuit of more stuff is silly.  People need only what they need.”  

“The use of property bears a social function,” the  Constitution declares.  The  goods of this earth – from cash, food, water talents—are meant for all.   ”A  man’s  life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” the Teacher from Galilee stressed. Does First Gentleman Mike Arroyo work by a different standard?

For  2009, our legislators  helped themselves to over P8billion in pork barrel. “One liners” in the budget  — items without  plans —  came up to 16 percent of  the total budget of P1.42 trillion.  Radical informs —  from fairer tax laws to curbing of  graft – is just not on the agenda. There are no “wandering fires.”

In  his “Canticle to Brother Sun,” Francis wrote:  ”All praise be to you, my Lord, through Sister Death, from whose embrace no mortal can escape.”   All we need, at day’s end, is an urn or a grave.

Francis “was the rarest of radicals,” Columnist Will noted. “He  never had the slightest sense of alienation from his setting,” Columnist Will noted.  That may answer my Malaysian friend query.

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