Monday, August 18, 2014

Jesus descended into hell. Why the hell?

Much has been written, talked, tweeted and blogged about the topic of suicide in the past few days.  This comes especially strong in the wake of the apparent suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams who was found asphyxiated in his home.  Word has it that he had suffered from depression, and that he facing the fact that he had to live life with Parkinson’s Disease.  The world has since been mourning the loss of a comedic genius, and this has sparked off much thought and discussion about suicide. 

I believe that this is indeed a very important topic that needs periodic reflection and thought, especially in a blog that speaks of things that concern the spiritual life.  It may surprise some to know that of all the 250 blog entries since I began writing a weekly reflection in this blog site, one which featured suicide quite a long while ago and how a Church should respond to it, garnered one of the top readership numbers.  It does seem to be something that is of deep concern for many out there who are facing uncertainties in life, and would like to have some understanding of how to handle some of life’s unanswered questions regarding this seemingly taboo topic. 

The Church has indeed grown and matured in her way of handling deaths of her children who have succumbed to this illness.  And it is precisely because it is largely seen to be an illness that has changed the way the Church journeys with the person in his or her death when this appears to be the cause of the end of life as we know it on this earth. 

Suicide, to be truly labeled a suicide (derived from the Latin “sui cadere” or to kill oneself) and for it to be a mortal sin has to fulfill the basic three conditions of a true sin.  It has to be a grave or serious matter.  It has to be committed with a full knowledge of the gravity of the offence.  It has to be committed with a deliberate and complete consent of the fact that it is in opposition to God’s law. 

With this in mind, not only is it thus rather ‘difficult’ to truly commit a mortal sin, but more importantly, for those who succumb to death through apparent suicides and who have their freedom or knowledge impaired or diminished due to illness (mental or otherwise) are not closed to the saving and mercy of God.  It is because of this that the Church still continues, thankfully, to give the deceased who have died through seeming suicides, the dignity of the full Catholic funeral rites accorded to every one of her baptized. 
Where can we find solace when someone close to us has ended his or her life in this tragic way?  There seem to be two places, one from Scripture and the other from Tradition, which gives us great hope. 

Firstly, it helps for us to read the biblical accounts of Jesus appearing before his apostles after his resurrection from the dead.  He is able to walk through locked doors and into rooms that are shut.  An apparent little detail that Luke just put there?  I’m sure there is much more to it than that.  Luke is trying to tell us that the resurrection of Jesus has an amazing power to overcome and enter into places of our lives, which we think we cannot let anyone or anything else in.  Mental illnesses and depression often gives the sufferer reason to block out so many people – and often it is their nearest and dearest that are left out in the silence.  The power of the resurrection gives us all hope that Our Lord does and is able to enter into those locked doors of our lives so that we still have hope amidst the darkness that seem to bind and tie the infirm.  And he can do that precisely because he enters it with love, and not judgement, and bears us his saving wounds seen in his hands and his side.  These wounds are the doorways through which divine light can enter into the darkened and lonely worlds of those who are suffering in loneliness. 

Secondly, Tradition as seen in the Apostle’s Creed has a rather alarming phrase, telling us that Jesus “descended into hell”.  That God is willing to descend into hell must give those of us who are the hells of our own a lot of hope.  He need not have done that.  Yet, his Divine Mercy and love propels him to do the unthinkable so that perhaps even the unsave-able can be offered salvation.  The Church Fathers say that Jesus went into Hades to free those who had died before Christ’s salvific death and resurrection opened the gates of Paradise, freeing personalities like Moses, Abraham and of course Adam to bring them to heaven.  But the definition of hell has a much broader aspect.  Many who are confined to themselves in their inability to hold on to their sanity are also living in hells into which Jesus also wants to descend into and give hope. 

All said, it is ultimately the divine generosity and charity of God and his mercy that makes salvation and forgiveness possible.  In the incarnation, God not only lived for thirty over years in our world and in our human flesh, but he also witnessed often the vicissitudes of human living in meeting the broken, the sick, the possessed and the dying.  The compassion of Jesus didn’t end with his resurrection.  He does continue to be the one who has the unique ability to judge with compassion because he also sees the world from the side of the one being judged.  This will be Divine Mercy at work, and Jesus is Divine Mercy, writ large.

Finally, we must never forget the words of the Hail Mary, especially where we pray that she will pray for us “and at the hour of our death”.  Much of suicide not only is taboo, it is also something that we cannot understand.  Mary at the foot of the Cross of Jesus on Calvary gives us something to hold on to in our moments of apparent despair and unclear seeing.  She chose to stand under the cross instead of demanding to understand the cross.  When we make that choice to stand with Mary there, we too may not have all the answers, but in our action of faith and love just standing there with her, we too will open ourselves up to the mercy of God that is nailed to that cross, and take shelter in the shadow of the cross. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The treasure that is found in poverty

The Beatitudes or Sermon on the Mount give different people different things.  To those who are in fact weeping, hungry and impoverished, it gives lots of hope.  Yet, to those who use logical thinking to analyse and clarify using the mind only, it gives mainly headaches.  Perhaps that is the real beauty of Jesus’ teachings – we know that many of them are heart teachings that require of us much more of an expansion of the heart than the workings of the mind alone.  Take the strange yet challenging teaching that ‘blessed are the poor’ which is found in a more succinct way in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew, where there seems to be a tapering of intensity when he adds “in spirit”.  Whether we are physically poor, or come to God with a poverty of spirit, there is undoubtedly an extolling of poverty, which makes many of us uncomfortable.  I believe that Pope Francis’ desire for a ‘poor church’ does stem from an undiluted and clear understanding of the preference for poverty over riches, no matter how one chooses to define ‘riches’. 

Each year on August 10, the world celebrates the feast day of St Laurence the Martyr, one of the seven deacons of Rome who were in charge of the poor and needy in the city.  He served under Pope St. Sixtus who was killed for his faith in the early part of the second century.  The prefect of Rome at that time was a covetous pagan who demanded that the Church hand over their riches to him.  When St Laurence heard of his demand, he gathered the poor and the sick people whom the Church had been helping and supporting all along.  When confronted by the Prefect of Rome to fulfill his demands, St Laurence is said to have gestured to his poor and sick entourage declaring, “here – these are the riches treasures of the Church”.  Needless to say, this infuriated the Prefect and he ordered the execution of St Laurence by having him barbequed alive over a burning pit of coals. 

What this grisly story imparts is also a very real teaching of Jesus, of the Church and of what we know to be true despite what our constantly reasoning mind tells us.  There is something in poverty that teaches us and forms us from within, which riches and accumulation and being surrounded by great comforts simply cannot and will not.  Poverty, like experiencing major failures in life, seems to be able to open what I would call our ‘heart space’ where we truly begin to have our heartbeats beating in tandem with the heart of God, but only if we allow it to form us. 

I am thankful for a Church that is prophetic enough to put in her yearly liturgical calendar this feast of St Lawrence.  It serves many positive purposes as well as, valuable teaching to our generation, which seems to only see purpose and value in the healthy, fit, able-bodied and strong.  That the sick and the poor are seen in a totally different spectrum of values gives those of us who do not fall into that category much hope that God and his Church does not discard the marginalised, but instead, holds them in high regard – high enough to be called ‘treasures’.

Perhaps that could be the problem and the answer as well.  We have thus a need to constantly re-evaluate how we define what are real treasures in our lives, and separate them from the trinkets that dazzle and bewilder us.  Working with the poor and making them a regular feature in our ministerial outreach helps us to look anew at the ways we assess our values.  As in the parable that Jesus told, we have to be like the man who finds a treasure hidden in the field.  We will be fooling ourselves if we say that we have already found it and stop searching.  The Kingdom of God does not allow us to say with any finality that we have ‘found’ it because it is akin to saying that we have God figured out.  The wonder of this treasure is that it allows for a constant finding, because like God, his Kingdom is a constantly unfolding, wonderful mystery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Real love happens when it refuses to depend on feelings

A common comment made by newly baptized adults months into their baptism is quite often that the wonderful and warm feelings which they experienced at the Easter Vigil Mass are no longer there.  Some even wish that they had that experience each time Mass is celebrated, to which I would silently say to myself “for your sake, I hope you will not”.  Am I being a killjoy?  On a certain level, perhaps.  But on another level, I am hoping that they will reach a certain maturity in love that shows itself beyond one’s feelings.

In a similar way, I have also been rather pointed in my wedding homilies, where, though I wish the couple the blessings of God, I have also mentioned that I hope the good feelings that make the couple feel so much in love during the honeymoon would end very soon, so that love that is not hinged only on good feelings and romance can begin to be lived out in their everyday lives.

Like many spiritual masters, I do strongly believe that love and prayer share something in common – both of them need a ‘ritual’, which becomes a solid container on which to build a rhythm that can be sustained in the long run.  There has to be a certain routine and ritual which we willingly enter into with little irregularity or unusualness and with a certain constancy. 

One of the main problems with us human beings is that we are easily distracted in our best efforts.  We tire easily, many of us are not automatically or spontaneously creative, and even if we are, we are not often operating on that high level simply because we do not have that sustained high energy all the time.  Our minds are just not wired that way.

Many years ago, I was privileged to visit a Trappist Monastery in Massachusetts in North America, and followed their work and prayer timetable for about a week.  Their whole 24-hour day was broken up into three 8-hour segments, one for work (and study), one for prayer, and one for sleep.  There was plenty of routine for monks to follow, and it was not hard to perceive that there was a rhythm and a  purpose in this rule.  Part of the reason this seemed to be so ‘rigid’ is because monks know that following a discipline calls for the living out of love beyond feelings, and the living a deep prayer life also requires of one to pray even when one does not feel like praying.  The routine and the rhythm thus helps to keep the monk grounded in his commitment for the Lord expressed in his commitment for life. 

It is when love is largely dependent on fleeting feelings that one begins to give all sorts of seemingly legitimate reasons for not loving when those feelings are no longer present nor as strong as when the commitment was first made.  Those of us in the Marriage Encounter movement have always said that love is a decision, and decisions cannot be dependent on merely feelings.  When love is a decision, it goes beyond feelings and beyond romantic ambience.  It becomes something that is based on our will, which should be much more solid than our feelings alone.  This is the living out of being true to one’s spouse “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, all the days of one’s life”.  After all, there will be many days when one doesn't feel like being loving, when one doesn't feel very much like forgiving, and when one doesn't feel like sharing.  

There are many misconceptions regarding prayer, liturgy and yes, even love, which plague many a modern mind so used to being ‘relevant, engaged and entertained’.  But if prayer, like love, is to be lived out as it should, then it has to be something that is long term with certain rules that give us strong guidelines to follow.  If as persons we find it a great challenge to be engaging all the time, to be full of insights all the time, and to be interesting 24/7, we will slowly begin to realise with the advent of maturity, patience and mellowness of heart, that there is a virtue in routine and rhythm. 

Whenever I hear about the complaints coming from congregants that our Latin Rite’s celebration of the Eucharist is so staid and boring, compared to some of the newer ‘mega’ churches which will remain nameless, it pains me that I have not enough time to share with them the wisdom of consistency and routine in worship, which helps us all to be steadfast in the love of God in our daily routine of life.   When we forget that the basis and fundament of our celebration of the Eucharist is that of a divine sacrifice, we tend to make the mistake to think that it is the other 'feel good' factors that should make the Mass a 'solid' celebration, as some may wish to call it.  It was St John Paul II who once said "the mystery of the Eucharist is too great a gift to admit of ambiguities or reductions, above all when, 'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet."

How is love good when it is a routine?  How can it then be real?  Perhaps a personal example might explain it with some degree of clarity.  I have a dear aunt who is in a nursing home and who suffers from severe dementia, and doesn’t communicate with nor recognize her visitors.  When I was still healthy and strong before cancer came a-visiting, I would start my one off day a week from priestly duties each Thursday with a visit to the nursing home, and stay with her till her lunch time,  I did this with dogged regularity despite her not recognizing me.  What was more important was that I knew who she was, and that I recognized her for who she was.  I guess it was my living out of a decision to love and to be consistently routine in carrying this out. It was way beyond something that was based merely on feelings or emotion.  There was little chance of any deep conversation, nothing particularly cerebrally meaningful that could be seen with the eye, with little if any, emotional satisfaction.  But there was a connection which went beyond any of these, far more important than feelings can evoke.

Our celebration and dogged regularity at Sunday Eucharist and prayer needs this kind of routine as well, if only for the connection that it provides as well – where we give the chance for a divine connection made possible by the Divine Connecter who is God. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Asking for that one humiliation a day

Spiritual guides have often written and spoken about the great need for humility if one sincerely intends to advance and make inroads in the spiritual life.  It is almost a sine qua non for one who is serious in his or her search for holiness and saintliness.  Why is this so?  Possibly because its nemesis, which is pride, has often been seen as the very first sin that plagued humankind from the time when our first parents were living blissfully in the proverbial Garden of Eden.  To overcome this in any serious way, one has to thus make the quest for the virtue of humility life-long, where it will become a stepping-stone toward recovering one’s true and original face.

One of the most challenging talks about this which I have heard was given by a priest who walks this talk in a very real way.  He was bold in his expression of the importance of this and made a very strong and almost audacious statement about it.  He cited the need for us to ask for one humiliation a day to keep us grounded and not take ourselves too seriously.  Of course, this took many of his listeners by great surprise, and the more he elaborated on it, the more it really did make sense. 

Humiliations come in so many ways for so many of us.  It could be an incident where we were not ‘respected’ for whatever reasons, a failure, a fall, being misunderstood, being unjustly judged against, having a broken relationship, or even something as simple as someone cutting into our lane whilst driving on the road.  Having a serious illness in life at a most importunate moment of our lives can also be such a 'humiliation'.  How we react to these humiliations show how near or far we really may be from attaining any degree of spiritual maturity.  The more ‘practice’ we have from such encounters the better we will be in handling the real challenges in life when they present themselves to us. 

Some of you reading this entry may know that a year ago, I received the life-saving gift of a perfectly matching bag of precious stem cells from an anonymous donor from America.  What I have come to realise as of late is that my serious illness was one of these ‘humiliations’ which I had encountered, and which has since formed, shaped and mellowed my own spiritual growth and maturity.  Did I ask for it to happen to me?  Not in those stark terms, but perhaps deep inside of me, I did prepare myself for such an event in case it ever did happen.  There was a desire for real empathy in me, something which may need some explanation.

I had encountered many lay people in my ministry who were sufferers of illness, some of whom were seriously sick.  As a priest ministering to them, I realized that there was a certain limit beyond which my empathy and outreach could not go.  Much as I wanted to really be with them in their pain and sometimes utter helplessness at the situation unfolding before them, and know what their fears were, I could not.  I was still an outsider looking in, at best.  Often, after visiting the sick and ministering to them in their hospital bed or at home, it seemed rather easy to just get into my car and drive off back to the parish and tend to other matters, with my own life unaffected.  Perhaps it did seem rather perfunctory at times, and this was a silent lament.  Upon hindsight now, I can almost safely say that I did have some hidden desire to really and truly be with them in their suffering, and this silent desire was answered in the form of my own blood cancer almost a year and a half ago.

What made it bearable and not something to despair had to be my deep faith.  Without faith, without the deep belief in God’s all providing love and mercy, asking for or having a silent desire for such an affliction would be akin to asking for a death wish.  But when faith is something that we know is all-important, it makes a lot of sense to ask for such a serious ‘humiliation’ in one’s life.  It’s not that one is ungrateful for the gift of health.  It stems rather from a desire to minister, walk with and be one with from within and not just from without.  Each time I reflect on the mystery of the incarnation where God took on the form of weak and sinful man, and the great humility that this shows, the hidden and silent desire to want to be with the sick in their pain, uncertainties and sometimes unanswered questioning becomes something positive rather than negative, something meaningful rather than ludicrous.

By writing this reflection, I realise that I run the risk of sounding ‘boastful’ of my desire.  Make no mistake about it – I am not boasting of my faith, but if I seem to be boasting, let it be about the wonderful grace that has been bestowed upon me to want to take up this cross in life.  Mary’s own life had been a journey of great crosses, yet no one who prays the words of the Magnificat would say that Mary is an egomaniac when she says “henceforth all ages will call be blessed”.  She knows her blessedness is a boastfulness of the blessedness of God.  In a very small but imitated way, I too know that my journey of having had blood cancer and experiencing all the ups and downs of such a challenge and yet remaining positive about this is my way of blessing God.    Having had the ‘audacity’ to write about this seeming courage is a roundabout way of stating just how great my God is.

My desire for my readers of today’s blog is to encourage you to also dare to ask for that one humiliation a day to build up your strength to die to the self.  It’s not something to easily ask for with great sincerity, but when it becomes a regular feature in our prayer life, our fears will be mellowed and we will come to a state where we know we will be ready for some serious challenges in life to really show our God how much faith we have in him, and how real he is to us. 

Is it a death wish?  I suppose it is – only thing is that what we should be truly interested to ‘kill’ is the false self and the fragile thing that we call the ego.