Monday, August 31, 2015

Loving till it hurts - an arrival or departure point?

In a by-now famed quote, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said that in our Christian living, we are not just called to love, but to love till it hurts. 

On the mere level of language alone, this quote seems to be something akin to masochism, self-loathing and even craziness.  But then, so do many other quotes when taken out of context.  What is the context of Blessed Teresa?  Undoubtedly, it is the context of the love of God, where we not only demonstrate our love of God, but also become channels of the love of God to a world that is aching, longing and hungering for his love.  Oftentimes, we will readily see that loving those who are easy to love isn’t much of an issue.  These people are those whom we are already probably comfortable with in life, or what I would call our ‘pew sharers’ – the folk who we share the Church pews with each Sunday.  These could be, but are not limited to our spouses, our children and our fellow Christian families to whom we exchange that sign of peace with before we sing or say the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God at Mass. 



Doing this is indeed good and even necessary, but it is in the Church’s mind that this action is something that is carried outside of the pews, where we become the vulnerable lamb at challenging places.  These are the streets and junctions of our lives where signs of Christ’s peace and love are as endangered as the giant panda or the snow leopard.  If we really and truly understand the etymology of the word “Mass”, we will see its great importance.  Shortened from the Latin “missa” it means dismissal or the state of being sent.  Realizing this, just ‘attending’ Mass does nothing to encourage our being Eucharistic once we step outside of safe confines of a prayer hall’s concrete walls.  If at all, the ‘attendance’ becomes a necessary empowerment that enables us to be ‘sent’ out to the mission fields of the often agnostic and atheistic world like our neighbourhoods, our work places, where we enjoy our meals and where we recreate and recharge. 

It is most likely that it is in these ‘pagan’ areas of our lives that true loving which comes from a formed decision to love becomes so difficult and challenging.  Oftentimes, even pondering whether or not to bring up the name of Christ or sharing how our faith affects our daily lives in a positive way makes us feel awkward and edgy.  But being real about it is what requires a certain element of prudence, where we have a sense that the person whom we are with has a certain softened foundation in the heart that is not hardened and cold, but has instead a softness that is open to having some seed sown in the form of a direct sharing of Christ’s saving truths.  This, I believe, takes prudence that comes with practice and prayer.  It will always be challenging, but a decision to love is what makes the essential difference.  Decisions to love are sometimes the more painful thing to do because it stretches us beyond what we are comfortable with.

I think this is the essence of what Blessed Teresa meant when she tells us to love till it hurts.  When we are willing to undergo an embarrassment, perhaps being misjudged for our good intentions, when we are far more interested Christ touches the person we are present to as compared to how we look or sound, it will always be painful in some way.  But the decision to still continue loving is when that hurt becomes holy because it is no longer about us.  We have displaced ourselves in that situation and placed the other person centrally in our midst.

I would venture to add something to Blessed Teresa’s famous axiom of love.  Love till it hurts, but do not stop loving when it hurts.  Because that is when it truly counts.

Our human instinct is to stop when things are hurting, and for the most part, it is a good instinct.  This is why we have pain receptors in our bodies.  It protects us from causing injuries to ourselves, and it helps to preserve our lives.  In a blog quite a few years back, I recall reflecting on how persons born with the condition of Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy (HSAN) are a danger unto themselves simply because they lack the ability to feel any sensation of pain.  They are totally insensitive to any bruises and cuts that they suffer, even if the wounds become infected.  They bite their tongues and can end up scratching out their eyes simply because they cannot feel pain.  Yet the very notion of being impervious to pain seems to be a boon rather than bane.  But the reality is that the ability to feel pain is in fact something good and beneficial for us.

Blessed Teresa’s call to love till it hurts, and my addendum to it to continue to love when it does hurt is thus counter intuitive.  Yet, we know that it is when love is not a reaction to love received, but rather when it is a decision made in the face of it being either rejected or unacknowledged or appreciated that it comes close to being redemptive - resembling the saving love of Calvary’s cross where Jesus, the Lamb of God was slain and a divine choice to love was made despite not receiving love in return.  That God goes beyond the pain and chooses to love despite the pain makes this decision to love truly redemptive and salvific at the same time.

Apparently, even sporting legend and boxing heavyweight Mohamed Ali held similar views, albeit applying it to his punishing exercise regiment. 

When a sports reporter asked Mohammed Ali how many sit-ups he did when he trained, his response is as legendary as the man himself.  He said: “I don’t count my sit-ups.  I just do it repeatedly until it begins to hurt.  That is when I start counting, because when it hurts is when it really counts”.

Loving till it hurts brings the pain.  But loving after it hurts makes it count too.



Monday, August 24, 2015

Attaining emotional and spiritual maturity is an arduous yet necessary task

If the salmon is to be the model of how one should be living life and expending energy, it will not be a surprise to see that there is something in the nature of this fish that isn’t quite natural. For a significant moment of time in its life cycle, the salmon doesn’t move with the current that it is in but rather swims against it.  It goes upstream against gravity, often navigating around obstacles like rocks and boulders, escaping from the clutches of predators like bears and birds of prey to finally reach the very spot where they were born.  This does make this animal an oddity.  Here, the female salmon will lay her eggs and the male salmon will guard the fertilized eggs, and after expending so much of themselves in this process, worn out and starving, the parents of the fertilized eggs end up dead.  As their bodies decompose, they provide nutrients for the next generation.  After a period of about 4 months, the salmon eggs hatch, and the young fish remain in the fresh water river before heading into the salty seawater, where the incredible cycle repeats itself. 

There is definitely something that is almost noble in its life cycle, and something that we can learn from this strange nature of this fish.  At its peak time of its life, it has the need to go against the current, to expend itself, and to give of itself so that the community and next generation can live and grow find its strong echoes in the emotional and spiritual quest for maturity in our human lives. 



The narrative of the times keeps masses of people drifting along the current of popular thinking.  While the phrase used to describe what is popular and trendy is synonymous with what is ‘current’, a ‘current’ is also used to describe what pulls one along in its wake.  The Christian call to authentic human living and loving in ways that are specifically Christ-like in orientation are most definitely not current.  In fact, many of the truly Christ-like tenets of life like the call to honesty, chastity, selflessness, unconditional forgiveness, altruism, charity and other-centeredness are so counter-cultural that there seems to be a great reticence in preachers speaking strongly about these largely because the average listener will find it so hard to accept these as the values that a Christian disciple are called to uphold and to live by. 

To survive as a Christian requires one to be constantly mindful of the hard task of authentic Christian living.  It is, to use the salmon analogy, to nurture inside each one of us a certain willingness to swim against the current that so many others are being swept by.  And as the salmon swims from the salt water sea through the brackish waters and finally into the fresh water streams, it is actually locating through some sort of inbuilt homing device which biologists have associated with their sense of smell, their place of birth – where their lives originally started.

Isn’t this too our common search in life?  The paths that we find ourselves meandering through in life, from the unchartered open waters of the sea of life where so much is alluring and delightfully distracting at the same time, to the calmer lives of midlife where the waters more insipid and the tastes of life are less exhilarating.  Brackish water, which is where seawater and fresh water mix give us this experience.  And when we finally are ready for giving ourselves over to what has given us our deepest selves we give over not our lives but our deaths to the next generation in faith that they too can feed off our entire life energies and hopes. 

I have received numerous comments that oftentimes, my reflections on life are a tad idealistic and that it is very hard to live with a life that is always indicative of our awareness of our deepest calling to authenticity and grounded character.  I would be remiss if I do not stress the need for living the authentic Christian life with moral courage, especially if I am using such a medium such as a weekly blog, a platform that is open to many but taken seriously by few.  Much as each week’s topic stretches my mind in all directions, I also bear the hope that each reader who drops by and follows my thoughts also does the same to his or her way of living out the life of Christ, where there is a constant need to stretch the heart to love in ways that are beyond mere sentiments and to live for more than just the self.

Make no mistake - these are also very real challenges for me, both as a priest and as a human being.  Strangely, they have become clearer to me ever since I have had the second wind in life after my life-saving stem cell transplant, and I do find myself writing and speaking about this with renewed ardor, zeal and with a veracity that is backed with a certain energy.  I also do know that this is a tremendous grace given me by God for a purpose.

My compassion and charity also makes me bear in mind that it is not possible for us to be bringing our A game to life all the time.  What’s the A game?  It’s that peak performance that all sportsmen and women train to attain, where their muscles are at their most conditioned, and where their bodies have reached the pinnacle of their strength.  Coaches know that this “A game” state is not one that is maintained for a long period, and so they have to work with the cycles of the bodies of their protégés to be able to attain this peak state of their talents to coincide with the sporting competitions when they will pit their strengths and skills with other fellow sportsmen in the same field.  Every athlete or sportsperson who has won a gold medal at any of the games of the Olympiad would know that they had brought their A game on the day they won the medal.   

Much as it may seem to allude, but our spiritual lives is not a game.  It is far more than just a game.  It is a matter of life and death.  How we live in this life determines very much how we live in the next.  Who we live for and whose precepts and creed we live by are strong indicators of how we give our deaths over when we die.  Our A game in our spiritual lives are not for a mere moment, but a never-ending call to want to die trying. 

Jesus gave his entire life for our eternal hope and the call to live with a Christian character that embodies Christ’s very life is the grace-energy that each baptized person responds to from within.  Having Christ as our chief model in life to pattern after, is the only energy that we can effectively rely on to want to give ourselves over in this selfless and generative way.  A salmon may swim upstream with an inbuilt instinct, but Christians, we know why we are counter-cultural.  That call to emotional and spiritual maturity is always going to be an uphill climb.  But for us, it is far more than a mere instinct.  It is our deepest selves calling us to authenticity that defies logic.  It is our Christ-selves calling us from within.  Perhaps this explains why regimes and despots who ruled by might always felt insecure by the presence of Christians who knew where real power and lasting strength really came from. 

Are we responding well to this call to emotional and spiritual maturity as a disciple and follower of our Lord Jesus Christ?  May this week see us bringing our Christian A game to every sphere of our lives. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

The insufficiency of a privatised faith


As a priest, I have opportunities to meet many people, in and outside of my capacity as a priest of God.  Sometimes, I have chance meetings with people who reveal that they are baptized Catholics.  There are generally two reactions when it is revealed that I am a priest – 1) surprise accompanied by a certain sense of ease, and 2) surprise which is accompanied by a sense of unease and discomfort, revealed often by facial expressions or mere body language.  The former would often reveal that the person is a practicing Catholic, church going and could be actively involved in the parish life.  The latter however, often reveals that the person has been struggling with regular Sunday worship, maybe not at all going to Eucharist, but takes comfort in the fact that s/he has been baptized.  These same people also often in the same breath reveal that they do pray privately at home, in front of their home altars, and may even say with some degree of confidence that “God and me, we’re ok!”. 

It is not at every one of these instances that I get these men and women to share with me their reasons for this privatized faith, but when I manage to remove their reservations which may prevent an honest sharing on their part, the reasons are quite similar, though not always the same.  They feel that praying at home is ‘better’, and that the Church is so full of hypocrites.  Sometimes they also say that it is much more convenient for them to do so.


I don’t think that many of my blog readers share the same feelings.  But I am very sure that each of my church-going readers would have friends and even family members who share similar sentiments, and who have a certain reticence in either going to Church, or being regular with their showing up at Mass each Sunday.  Someone even once said to me that we should do everything in moderation, and that includes going to Church.  It was later shared with me that this person goes to Mass about 4 times a year.

Is it hard to understand the preferences for a privatized faith?  Looking at the way that the social media seems to be touting ad nauseam the ‘I, me and my’ culture, coupled with a certain disdain for any authority outside of the self that is imposed by any moral code, I can understand why people may have such preferences.  Understanding is, however, not to be confused with approval or agreement.  I can understand how a drug addict can be so trapped and enslaved by the need for fix after fix, but I certainly do not approve nor would recommend that anybody become a junkie. 

What is the narrative that cuts across so many people of this generation, and which many baptized Catholics also seem to adopt and live by?  There are many differing reasons, to be sure, but I am inclined to see much truth in what Timothy Keller, a writer and thinker who is also a Presbyterian pastor, calls the narrative of the “sovereign self”. 

In his book “Preaching”, he deftly makes a convincing case that broaches what I would call the ‘elephant in the room’ when he goes for the jugular and hones in to the main problem that modernity has caused in the promotion not just of the self, but the self that sees itself as sovereign.  When the self and its passions are enthroned, it ends up with even animated characters like Elsa in Disney’s Frozen making that convincing case to just follow her feelings and ‘let it go’, singing almost with an aggression that is admired that because she is not holding anything back inside, there is no right or wrong, and no rules for her.

When the narrative of the inflated and sovereign self is blindly followed, it easily ends up making our needs and our feelings and our hungers far more important than the good of family, and people and society.  The hidden stilted philosophy behind this runs like this – I know what I want, and because society has told me to discover my deepest desire at all costs, I will.  It even applauds and affirms such actions and calls it ‘courageous’.  One only needs to see how much affirmation Caitlyn (or otherwise known as the former Bruce) Jenner has been called courageous to see evidence of this writ large.  Courage is no longer a term that is accorded to people who have listened to a higher voice of truth, and have a moral centre that is outside of themselves, but rather used to describe people who have identify fully with their inner feelings and preferences.  The modern poison is that unless you identify your dreams, and especially those most vivid ones, moreso if they are audacious and counter-culture, you should fulfill them or end up a loser and a failure.  It is no wonder then that categories like money, appearances, measureable and visible success, power and recognition, and of course romantic love become categories that are necessary for one to achieve perceived happiness. 

When this is the drive for a misguided self, it is no wonder then that even something like faith becomes driven by how the individual chooses to pray.  The community that one belongs to as a body of Christ is nary a concept that is on one’s horizon and the fact that one’s presence in a gathered community has a direct effect on one’s fellow Catholic at the Mass is at best missing, at worst absurd.  Much further off the radar of one’s awareness of community is how sin (no matter how personal) has an effect on wounding the community one belongs to.  An adulterous affair that I may be having on the side of my marriage is my business, and nothing at all to do with how this affects the state of holiness of the Sunday gathering in church!

Of course, no one would be willing to admit to this with a hurry, because admitting to this would be tantamount to admitting that I had been misled all the while, and that my sight had been off-target.  But when this is finally admitted to the self, and one truly becomes courageous, one can make that very challenging re-sighting in life to not make one’s preferences and one’s own standards the center of one’s life.  A re-alignment will be made albeit slowly.  There is a word for this in the Christian tradition.  It’s called metanoia.  It takes place when one is ‘born again’, as Jesus told Nicodemus.  It is to reconfigure oneself to be ‘in Christ’ and to finally truly be able to say that it is only in Christ that “God and me, we’re ok”. 

Short of that, we’re still pretty much our sovereign selves and we will continue with our privatized faith.  A privatized and insufficient faith.




Monday, August 10, 2015

300 - looking back with gratitude.

It is with a strange admixture of gratitude and trepidation that I write this blog entry this week.  Yes, it is a milestone of sorts – my 300th blog entry after having written assiduously for almost 6 years, every Monday morning, save for perhaps three or four entries.  I do not have any bloggers’ similar experiences to compare with, as I am not a regular reader or subscriber to any particular blog writer, except maybe for Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s weekly blog which I often glean some inspiration from.  But he is a real writer – one who is not only published, but has also done it many times over with resounding success.  So, much of what I am about to share about this experience is something that comes from a personal and honest point of view. 


When I started this blog in August of 2009, I had no preconceived thought-out plan about how long it would last, and how deeply I would take my readers (if I had any).  It was very out of character for me, one who is far more accustomed to doing things with a clear cut blueprint, replete with plan Bs in case anything would no go according to plan.  It was a proverbial leap into the unknown, and when it began, I delighted in being able to use a medium which allowed me the opportunities to expand my reflections on life and see them through the lens of Sacred Scripture and Church teachings.  I purposefully did not want to be hemmed in by the Liturgical readings at Sunday’s Eucharistic celebrations because it would too easily narrow my horizon before me.  I took circumstances from life itself, and looking back at some of my earlier reflections, I smile quietly to myself that I was even willing to let simple things like slogans seen on a T-Shirt or a TV screen on a gym treadmill to be a segue to a reflection on how God can be speaking to us about life.

I don’t like to pat myself on my back.  It’s just bad taste and form on so many levels.  Perhaps that was why it was rather difficult to tell my readers last week that today may be the last entry of Reflections and Ruminations.  I wondered if it would be out of character for me to just fade into the silence of a blog page that no longer had any new entries, and let it die a somewhat natural death.  I wondered if blogs that ‘die’ this way go into some kind of blog cemetery in cyber-space.  No fanfare, no farewell.  Just a sudden and silent non-existence.

But I realized this would not give any sort of closure – not to my readers, and not to myself.  I needed some sort of assurance that this was not an action that was going to be met with disappointment or disagreement with whoever reads my musings.  I asked for prayers to make the right decision, and I received more than prayers.  I received almost 30 comments to the blog which I chose not to post because I didn’t want to put on display some of the ways that my readers were effusive of their gratitude for my years of writing.  Every single one of those comments and pleas to continue were taken seriously and brought to prayer.  I thank every one of you for taking the time and effort to write what you did.  I know many of you do not usually write comments and are the ‘silent’ type of readers.  You stepped out of what you are normally used to, to make sure that I was exposed to at least a little of your thoughts, your feelings and your heart and your mind.  Any writer who manages to elicit this from his readers without any coercion or compulsion on his part will treasure this kind of energy and affirmation.  I know I do.

This made it all the harder to make the decision of whether to stop my blog or to continue it into the unknown future. 

My rationale for my decision are based on several things.  The list is probably longer than what I am about to list, but these are the pertinent ones.

1.   I am a firm believer that gratitude must never be simply something that is expressed passively.  One does not and cannot sit in languid silence and just be grateful.  Gratitude has to have an active expression, especially demonstrated to the people who have shown goodness, kindness and appreciation. 

2.   My amazing and grace-filled recovery from my near death encounter with Leukemia more than two years ago was in part attributable to many of you who have prayed for me in your own ways.  Your outpouring of encouraging comments for my blog dated 25 February 2013 gave me that boost of confidence which told me that it was really not an issue that I was so sick and probably near death's door.  That I had so many people assuring me of their prayers and silent support was enough to allow me to see my hospital bed as a different kind of ambo from which I could give life to others despite my deteriorating condition.  And I am sure that it was because of your enthused and deep faith that Peter Mui of Chicago was found to be my perfect match to start me on the slow road to recovery.  Peter has even mentioned to me that it is truly amazing to realise that he could be the answer to so many peoples’ prayers.  Our journey (mine and Peter’s) has been life-changing in so many ways - literally and metaphorically.

3.   I have always believed and taught that the grace of God is what gives us life and sustains us.  I may be running on dry (or think that I am), getting into what some call the “writers’ block”.  Could it be that I am a tad afraid to truly rely on God’s grace to see me through this dry spell?  Perhaps this is the time when I put my ‘faith where my mouth is’ and dare to make that step once more into the unknown and allow that belt to be put around me and to lead me to where I would rather not go on my own? 

4.   I don’t like to appraise myself for so many reasons.  One would be bumptious and filled with hubris to name one’s talents and gifts.  The 30-odd comments that came in to last week’s entry were lyrical in their compliments of my writing skills.  I know that I have said that keeping one’s gifts under wraps and under utilized is akin to being ungrateful to the giver of the gift.  Many of you have assured me that I do have some writing skills, and I report this with much reticence and humble reserve.  If I apply what I preach to myself, then stopping this blog at this point would be akin to putting this ‘skill’ under a tub.  However, I do apologise for my occasional verbiage and seek your indulgence.  I have never gone to any writing school, and only have the books that I read as my constant teachers and guide.

5.   Finally, and perhaps the most pertinent rationale for this option to be taken, is that my weekly ponderings on the spiritual life and its seeming vagaries do seem to serve a purpose and fulfil a need in the lives of people.  This reason alone should be good enough for one to make an act or a deed something that is not short lived but sustained and regular.  I have always maintained that prayer has to be continual and not sporadically given over to in life, because it fulfils a need inside the human heart in a positive and nurturing way.  So many of the comments that came in last week revealed something about my posts.  They seem to have been given the permission and privilege to touch the lives and hearts of those who do take time to stop by and read, if but for only 5 minutes a week.  I am not sure if 5 minutes of a person's cyber time is long, but if this time is another person's sacred 'walk' with God because of my reflections, my work does not only fill a need but makes space in another person's heart and life for God to enter.  

I suppose that after ploughing through these thoughts of mine thus far, you my reader can surmise the course of action that I have decided on.  I referred to a feeling of trepidation at the beginning of today’s blog, and 300 blogs ago, I leapt into the unknown and started the blog despite the fear of falling flat on my face.  I hope to be able, with your continued prayers, faith and support, to make a new and dedicated leap into a continued attempt to give you the weekly spiritual fodder which I was privileged to do so for the past 6 years.  I just pray for God's inspiration to write with care and a renewed purpose each time I do so, and humbly ask that you do this with me.

Thank you for your vote of confidence, and your valuable feedback.  May God use this simple instrument of His to reach out to hearts that are willing to be shaped and touched by his continued, amazing grace.  I chose the title of today's blog "300 - looking back with gratitude".  Perhaps now that I have decided to continue this in some way, I should change the title to "300 - looking back with gratitude and looking forward with hope".

Your comments will be faithfully posted from this week on.