Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sunflowers

The entry to the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City is lined by sunflowers in full bloom in mid April at about the time when the university sends out its latest graduates into the world. Not surprisingly not a few commencement speakers in the various colleges and the university as a whole commented on the appropriateness of the metaphor that these flowers represent the graduates themselves. One unusual touch this year is that the commencement speaker Professor Emeritus Edgardo D Gomez, a scientist who almost single handedly raised the marine science academic department from academic mediocrity to world class scientific excellence, wore a garland of sunflowers.

The sunflower is the national flower of the Ukraine, a country that has suffered Czarist, fascist and communist agression in the last century, and this year, in April, Ukraine and the world marks the 20th year anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And today the country is split on whether to fully intergrate with Europe or be trapped in its lamentable past as a Russian client state.

While I was in Australia, I attended at times a nearby Ukrainian Catholic Church for Mass (That’s when I missed the Latin Rite Mass for a variety of reasons and I was in predominantly Ukrainian neighbourhood). The Ukrainian Catholics always grew sunflowers during summer. This is where I learned about sunflowers and how to grow them. The Ukrainian Church follows Greek traditions rather than the Latin that most Filipino Catholics are familiar with and are fully Catholic as my church. I also learned about the history of their Church, a church that was savagely persecuted by the Czars and then by Hitler and Stalin and that this church produced countless martyrs and mystics. And they remained loyal to the Bishop of Rome all that time. During Gorbachev’s Glastnost, the Ukrainian Catholics literally came out of the catacombs. Today Czar Nicholas, Stalin and Hitler are gone. Communism is gone and discredited. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is flourishing and Ukraine is free and Ukraine is still clothed with sunflowers in summer as to remind her people of the suffering and hope of their shared history.

To Ukrainians the sunflower is a metaphor for suffering and eventual salvation of the Ukrainian people. What does the Sunflower represent for the University of the Philippines? It seems that this year the flowers have become emblematic of the university as the Oblation is.

I am an alumnus of the University of the Philippines. With a PhD, I came back to teach here two years ago. There has been a lot of changes in the university since I left it. In some ways the university has slid into mediocrity because it is stuck in a 20th century ideological rut while in many ways it is striving for world class excellence by being open to new ideas. But still I always await the time when the gardeners plant the sunflower plant and when it blooms. A science buff that I am, I take notice of how big the blooms are for this is related to the prevailing summer temperatures. I learned from the Ukrainian priest that consistently warm and sunny conditions make for large blooms. Two years ago, the blooms were huge. This year with La NiƱa, the blooms are smaller since this summer is not as sunny or warm as in the past.

The sunflowers only will grow in a nurturing environment. And given the right climate and soil conditions, will produce big blooms that bring cheer to anyone who sees them. But as the Ukrainians have long realized in their history, these blooms and their beauty are also product of suffering and should remind us, most especially the students of the university about the price to be paid whether this is for one’s ideals, faith, family or country.

Professor Gomez retelling essentially the story of his department and career can also be represented by the sunflowers. The potential of the marine science department may be likened to sunflower seeds. If that department will be expected to bloom then the right conditions should be provided. But as the professor recounted, the department faced almost insurmountable obstacles at first. But by choosing the right people and working hard the department achived the fame it has now. The whole process required a lot of sacrifice on his part and of the first researchers.

The new graduates who have been challenged to look at the sunflowers will have to realize too that the sunflowers will die with the coming of the rain. This event is just as amazing as the time they first come into bloom. With the first monsoon rains, the yellow heads turn brown and seed and I have seen this happen in one day. The cheerful and pretty sights turn into ugly brown scarecrow like beings.

I don’t know if I can extend this metaphor to the graduates. Perhaps this may represent the almost immediate death of student idealism as one steps out into the workplace. And even if students decide to stay in the university as graduate students or junior instructors idealism will die with the politics of academe. I got this welcoming message from a email I received from then UP President Dodong Nemenzo when I assumed the UP professorial appointment. But if course my flower head had died and seeded a long time ago when I was into PhD studies.

The new alums will have to make compromises and some of the compromises may seem ugly and distasteful (like the sunflower turned into a scarecrow). But as one commencement speaker also said, the inevitable compromises must be for a greater good and how the one does this is a test of a person’s moral courage and humanity. And if we can no longer compromise we have to leave everything to God who has brought us here. We have to have faith that God will sustain us and be with us all the way.

Even with unsuitable weather, the sunflowers can still bloom but with small heads. And even after death in the rain, other flowers will take their place. They will eventually fade with the coming of summer next year. But sunflowers will always be blooming in summer, small or big headed. And so for the Ukrainian Catholics, the sunflowers represent Christ, his death and his rising from the dead. For a seed has to die for it to live. A central theme in the Ukrainian national identity is the hope contained in the sunflower seed.

And for UP alums like me, may I be like a sunflower, bright and cheerful, optimistic and knowing of the sacrifice and hard work needed to produce me and also if my idealism dies with the coming of the rains, may I be reminded that it will always bloom next summer.

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