Monday, March 23, 2015

Getting things blessed without being present for the blessing? Not a good idea.

Because the Catholic church has such a long history and is really an organic body that has been developed and shaped over a period of around two thousand years, there are many practices that have evolved over time, and their significance seem to take on a very different understanding in the mind of many of Christ’s followers.  We have the use of many sacramentals in the Church, which aid us in our being constantly aware of our connectedness to God and these sacramentals give us a physical reminder that we are all called to a life of holiness – a ‘sense of the sacred’, as some theologians would put it. 

So, we have in our church’s beautiful traditions many blessings that serve to remind us of God’s constant care for us, and that saints are always praying and interceding for us.  Statues of saints are meant to be a physical reminder of how we are in communion with them as we make our own often difficult and challenging journeys towards living more and more godly lives.  So should the wearing of medals and crucifixes help us not to lose sight of what our ultimate aim should be – a heavenly existence. 

But I also have seen, and continue to see, how so many well-intentioned Catholics seem to have a very narrow appreciation of what having such sacramentals do.  Why do we get sacramentals blessed?  Why do we get blessings at all? 


A blessing signifies several things.  Blessings serve to show that something has received an approval and a validation.  Don’t couples that plan to get married first seek their parents’ blessing?  They do this because they want their relationship to be approved and accepted by the parents of both parties.  There is a need to do this, not out of fear, but out of deep respect.  They are validated in their love for each other, and this does serve to strengthen them in many ways.  They need to hear the words of approval and blessing, because it assures them most of all that they are loved.  All blessings received, without exception, serve to strengthen the recipient’s connection with the authority of the one who truly blesses. 

When a blessing of a sacramental takes place, the same principles are at work.  The words of blessing serve to remind the one who is going to use the article how he or she is loved by God (the ultimate giver of the blessing) and how God is delighted with his or her faith.  The result should be that the one who hears these words becomes strengthened in his or her faith in God, and has a deeper resolve to live a life that mirrors Christ’s own life. 

Though this is the theology behind any blessings, I seem to find it a bothering truism that many Catholics prefer to have a rather ‘talisman’ mentality when it comes to blessings.  I have very often been presented with sacramentals like medals and holy pictures and crucifixes to be blessed, with the intention that these blessed articles given to someone else, often as gifts.  As a priest, who has the spiritual growth and maturity of his people in mind, this bothers me.  A lot. 

I do not wish to promote any superstitious beliefs, and I do know that I can end up doing just this if I simply bless ‘blindly’ everything that the faithful present to me.  I often ask a simple question – is this for you?  When the answer is in the negative, and I am told that the article is in fact for someone else, I often tell the person to give the article unblessed, and to ask the recipient to approach a priest for a blessing. 

The intention and purpose of this is to give the person an experience of a spiritual validation when he or she hears the words of blessing from the priest.  These are not just his words, but are words of validation and affirmation of God’s blessing upon him or her.  The words should serve to re-instill in the person that they are much loved by God.  Just presenting a sacramental to someone and saying “this is already blessed” doesn’t serve to bring this out.  In fact, it will inadvertently serve to promote a ‘talisman’ mentality, where the article is blessed (with the stilted notion that there is ‘power’ in the sacramental).  What should be far more ‘powerful’ is the knowledge that one is secure and affirmed in God’s love, because many of life’s insecurities stem from a craving and insecurity of one’s unconditional blessedness. 

This is one of the reasons why whenever I bless a home, that I will always insist that all of those living in the house or apartment have to be present at the blessing.  I will not bless a residence where only a hired helper is present to open the door, leaving me alone to ‘do the blessing’ when there are hardly any members of the household present.  Each family member needs to hear the words of the blessing to call to mind how their being loved unconditionally by God gives them the strength to live in and through the challenges faced by the daily ups and downs of family life. 

I am unsure that part of the issue lies in the unspoken truth that many of us much prefer to receive a blessing than to be a blessing.  Maybe it’s a negative upshot of what I would call an ‘entitlement’ mentality, where we think that it is better to receive than to give.  I also do know that I will probably not change this flawed thinking in a large body of Catholics, as I have come across priests who are loath to correct misinformed theology. 
But I am hopeful for those who do hear my explanation and understand my sincerity of wanting to banish superstition of any kind. 

Aren’t all blessings good?  Yes, but it does seem that some blessings are better than others when the blessings fall on our ears as well as on the sacramentals themselves. 


Monday, March 16, 2015

Seeking perfection - do we, or don't we?

There are some dysfunctions in my life that I enjoy having and living with and delight in occasionally taking self-deprecating pot-shots at.  One of them happen to be the prevalence of certain aspects of OCD (obsessive compulsive behaviour) in me.  I do not purport to suffer from it in some terribly neurotic and debilitating way, but I do think that there are things positive to be said about how being meticulous and punctilious can make the world neater and certainly more organized place to live in.


Problems may arise though, when we consider and ruminate on what place perfection has in the search for holiness.  The Church, especially in her recommendation for frequent confession, seems to promote the idea that we should try to make headways to holiness by seeking spiritual perfection.  It can appear that being thorough, detailed and  perhaps even particular can aid in our collective striving for that point of hagiographical existence. 

Even the language used in liturgy seems to foster this idea of sinless perfection.  The embolism at Mass after the Lord’s prayer has the celebrant praying “deliver us Lord from every evil, and graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be kept free from sin and safe from all distress”.  

Just looking more intently at the words used, it does appear that we should be seeking some sort of perfection whilst we are still alive on this planet, and while the blood is still coursing through our veins.  Yet, when we humbly accept the reality that perfection is rarely if ever attainable, it makes us wonder what we are in fact praying for.  Though sacred scripture does have evidence that Jesus asks us to be ‘perfect as our heavenly father is perfect’, we also do know that the just man sins ‘seven times a day’.  It does seem to be a quixotic dilemma at best, or a conundrum at worst.

Perhaps the main problem lies in the way that we define and interpret ‘perfection’ and ‘holiness’.  Though way easier to see them as end points and destinations, it does seem to suggest that they are in fact journeys, pathways and a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.  I believe that it was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who said with such insight that “holiness does not consist in not making mistakes and never sinning.  Holiness grows with capacity for conversion, repentance and willingness to begin again, and above all, with the capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness.” 

It would help greatly that this be something that we mull over as we celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in the coming weeks, fulfilling our ‘easter duties’ once again.  Just as Karl Rahner noted accurately that all symphonies in life remain unfinished, neither then is our communal yearning for holiness.  Indeed, it is only with the reliance on the mercy of God (something mentioned specifically in that embolism prayer after the Lord's prayer at Mass) that we can even hope for anything that hints of the perfection of holiness.  We can truly get a glimpse of this in the tender mercy that we encounter in any celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. 

On the confessor’s side of the confessional, it pains not only me but many of my fellow brother priests to see the struggle that some penitents cope with when their OCD creeps into their spiritual lives, causing them to be what the church deems as scrupulous.  Scrupulosity can become something that engenders one to have Pelagious (or semi-Pelagious) beliefs, which gives one the erroneous notion that one can make it to heaven by one’s own efforts.  In this case, it would be efforts of being perfect.  It is, as St Paul wrote, “by grace alone” that we attain godliness.

So while we do pray for the attainment of holiness on one hand, the reality is that we struggle with its being almost ephemeral and fleeting on the other.  Just as Peter may have wished to pitch those tents on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration to make the moment take on some permanence, our encounters with personal holiness may want us to do the same.  We may just lose the ‘moment’ if we do so. 



Monday, March 9, 2015

Emptiness and the spiritual life.

Being filled and fulfilled occupies a large part of our lives on quite many levels.  There is a basic instinct in each living being to continue to live by filling the body with its needs of fuel in terms of food and energy.  Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has become almost an enshrined framework in the study of sociology, and to a certain extent, is an accurate observation of the human person’s needs.  It charts the inner works of a person’s ladder of needs as one moves through the stages of human growth.

It is when one transfers these spoken and unspoken needs to the spiritual life and adopts blindly the same approach towards fulfillment to the inner life that one finds it so challenging to make inroads towards growth and maturity.  These days, it becomes even more of a challenge to even consider the possibility of happiness and contentment that is to be found in selflessness, emptiness and the need to die to the self because the social media puts great emphasis on self-promotion and creating ‘followers’ to one’s life.  Yet, there is much to be said and appreciated about the need to become comfortable and fulfilled through emptiness and finding strength through weakness and living through dying, which is the ultimate call to each serious disciple of Christ.

To be sure, many resist the call to emptiness and kenosis simply because it is counter-intuitive.  It is so easy to fall prey to the notion that the more we have, the more fulfilled and contented in life we will be.  Marketers seize on this insatiable need and create a host of needs that often are hardly real needs at all.  Sure, it drives the economy but it also creates a self that shuns any interior call to appreciate simplicity and even suffering.

It was when I was contemplating this that I chanced upon a precious observation of St John of the Cross that he made when he meditated on the spiritual value of emptiness.  He said:

“A sail can catch the wind and be used to manoeuver a boat only because it is so frail.  It is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.”


A simple observation, yet profound on a great many levels.  It should strike a rich chord in anyone who has that inkling that loneliness and anything that speaks of being empty and perhaps even useless, is in fact strength.  It is indeed a paradox, but a very common experience of the spiritual life is our coming face-to-face with paradox and find a contentment and equanimity there. 

What St John of the Cross speaks of is the need for the person to accept a rather extraordinary notion that emptiness and weakness was where real strength lay.  If I can use the image of a vessel that is to be filled, it has first to become empty before this can happen on any level.  I had a very personal experience of this truth when I had to be depleted of my own stem cells through extremely high dosages of chemotherapy and intensive irradiation of my bone marrow so that my body could accept the stem cells of my anonymous donor (at that time), which gave my whole system a life-saving reboot.  And those of us who do play any wind instrument will know that hollowness is required in order to receive the player’s breath so that sound can be produced.  Being empty is in a very paradoxical way, the pathway to being filled. 

When this truth is accepted and embraced, it becomes for us not only to live it out, but also to proclaim its truth as it will become apparent that only through this kenosis that true transformations can happen in our lives. 

The notion of being empty is filled with negativity and causes us to push it as far from ourselves as possible.  The disciplines of Lent that invites us to fast, pray and give alms become easily misunderstood and under-appreciated when they are in truth the Church’s way of inviting each member to undergo that very necessary pathway that sees richness in dying in its various dimensions. 

But it is when one truly undergoes a death or near-death experience and lives to reflect and ponder on it with regularity that one can begin to find such truth in things like the spiritual musings of St John of the Cross when he noted that it is “the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind”.  Suppleness is so necessary for the strength not only in terms of the physical life, but as I was to find out, for the interior life as well.


Perhaps this would seem to be balderdash to anyone who is still in what Fr Richard Rohr calls the ‘first half of life’, but one truly needs to go through that first half of accumulating, attaining, acquiring and filling before the requirements of the second half of life begin to make any sense.  In truth, it is the fact that it is beyond the senses that makes this truth all the more elusive to so many of us who are struggling with emptiness and what it can offer. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Getting back into full time ministry

It has been slightly over two years since my cancer was diagnosed, after which I underwent the rigours of chemotherapy, a stem-cell transplant, and making that slow recovery that enabled my donor’s stem cells to be fully engrafted into my own marrow.  I had a couple of close calls where pneumonia was something of deep concern to my doctor, with some bacterial infections and Graft Verses Host Disease issues along the way.  But it is with great joy that I was given the green light to get back to ministry work and began my parish involvement over the recent weekend.  It was a strange combination of joyful anticipation, coupled with a bit of healthy anxiety. 


It did seem like a strange confluence of similar circumstances that I read only last week on Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s weekly blog that he too just began to re-enter into his routine of teaching and lecturing after a hiatus where he himself underwent therapy to treat his cancer which had relapsed.  One could easily detect that Fr Ron was effusive and enthusiastic about putting his talents to good use, but was also very honest about how he was not too sure if being useful was something that pandered more to his own ego needs than if it was something that clearly gave God glory. 

I think it would be overly simplistic to make it entirely an ego issue, and wishful thinking that at every level of our lives that we are ready to say that we do things all for the glory of God.  The truth is more that most of our best intentions are a mixed bag, and we purify our motives along the way. 

I am also of the opinion that plunging headlong into the thick of parish life and its activities would be a sure recipe for the rising of stress levels in anyone recovering from something as debilitating as a cancer treatment.  I’d like to say with a sense of conviction that cancer has mellowed me somewhat and that I am beginning to take things easier, but with almost 50 years of life behind me, I also do realise that it may take a bit more than a cancer experience to really take things in a slower and deliberate way. 

One of the things that I have come to appreciate is the ability to let go of my plans and aspirations.  It is now no longer possible for me to continue the pursuit of my teaching license that I set out to attain when I went to Washington DC three years ago.  I am not physically able to live outside of my medical coverage and care which I am getting here in Singapore for any prolonged period of time, and I am also no longer insurable.  In truth, what I had been forced to live out is the reality that man can propose, but it is ultimately God who disposes. 

But what I can say for certain is that there is not a hint of bitterness or regret for what had taken place.  I am still very grateful for the entire experience of this illness which has given me a very rare and beautiful opportunity to fully rely on God’s grace and providence, and I am strangely confident that this will put me in good stead to minister to the infirm with an effectiveness that results from a personal experience. 

Going to the hematology centre at the hospital on a regular basis during my ongoing treatment and being monitored closely for signs of rejection and other health issues, I have been privileged to befriend quite a few fellow leukemia patients.  It was with a great sense of foreboding that I learnt just last week that one of them had just been told that she had a relapse of the illness and that new blasts were found in her blood.  Only 25 years old, this feisty and very cheerful young woman chose not to pursue being treated with chemotherapy drugs as it is her third relapse.  What struck me was the peace and calm with which she handled this.  When I thought about my path to recovery in the light of her own relapse, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of guilt that my transplant had been largely successful, and that hers seemed to be an ongoing struggle. 

Just as there is no reason why we get blood cancers, I suppose there are also no clear reasons why some transplants work well, while others encounter problems that seem insurmountable.  Much as I have learnt to let go of unfulfilled dreams and hopes, perhaps what needs to be learnt at a deeper level is that I need to learn to let go of any feelings of guilt of recovery in the light of the continued struggle faced by other patients in similar situations. 

Lent is commonly seen as a time of great grace, and for me, this is particularly true as I re-enter into ministry in Lent.  I only pray for the continued grace to live in a way that truly glorifies God with the gift of my new ministry.  I know that many people had been instrumental in praying for my recovery, and want to use today’s reflection to thank all who have prayed so fervently for my improved health.