Monday, April 14, 2014

Leaning on the breast of Jesus when the days seem darker

In the account of the last supper in John’s gospel, we have a scene which unfolds before us that includes a tiny, intimate but important detail.  It is found in 13:23 where we are told that the beloved disciple was reclining next to him.  In some versions of the bible, this detail is given a more graphic description where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus.  Apparently, the way the Jewish people ate the Passover was not quite as Leonardo Da Vinci had pictured it in his Renaissance interpretation of the scene, as it is most likely that they dined on couches low to the ground, enabling one to lean on another.  It was thus indeed possible that the beloved disciple, who dined next to Jesus his master and Lord, physically leaned on Jesus’ breast in a loving way.  But why would this strange detail be included here?  Perhaps this reflection will give us some indication and hope for ourselves when dark times seem to be getting darker in our lives.

Experiencing or undergoing challenging and tough times is something that everyone without exception goes through in life.  But sometimes, these dark times can suddenly take an even darker hue and life can present itself to be a tougher challenge that it already is.  That turn of the corner, where things get better is not in sight, and the light that one hopes for to break upon the seemingly incessant darkness just does not seem to come.  Instead, things present themselves to make it become even darker and life to be even more of an already hard challenge.  Perhaps when one is already out of money and struggling to make ends meet, and a huge unexpected bill comes in the mail.  Or perhaps hot on the heels of the experience of a failed venture comes news of a betrayal from a trusted friend.  Or when the doctors deliver the news that one’s prolonged illness has now developed another complication that needs additional medical attention with yet more (and often expensive) drugs, painful procedures and treatments.  These are times when things undoubtedly get from shades of grey to sheets of black.  How does one still maintain faith in a loving God who sustains us at every level of our being? 

It would be extremely useful and comforting to go to that scene in John’s gospel where we see the beloved disciple leaning on the breast of Jesus and spend time just dwelling on that image.  Ignatian meditation teaches us the practice of fantasy prayer, where one paints a mental picture of the gospel scene in vivid imaginative detail.  This can help one greatly here.  We put ourselves in the position of the beloved disciple and see ourselves leaning on the breast of Jesus at that intimate Passover meal. 

Several things happen when we do this.  Firstly, coming into contact with the breast of Christ, our ears will be able to listen to the heartbeat of Our Lord.  Remember – this was a time for the Lord which was getting darker and darker and he knew of his foreboding suffering which was going to happen as the hours unfolded.  Yet, we do not see signs of tension or anxiety in Jesus.  His heartbeat remains calm and regular.  We need to let that calm and regular beating of the Sacred Heart resonate in our own anxiety-laden hearts when we think that things are getting so bad in life.  We need to lean in even further into the breast of Jesus to allow that Sacred Heart beat to beat in tandem with our racing and fearful hearts. 

With an ear to the breast of Jesus, one cannot but have one’s eyes looking not at Jesus, but out – out to the surrounding space, out into the world and out to the problems that loom on our darkened horizons.  For the one undergoing that deeper suffering and anxiety, one’s eyes often cannot but see without much clarity or joy.  But hearing the heartbeat of Christ at the same time is what enables one to look at the impending darkness now with a new hope and strength that comes from within, simply because it is now pulsating with not just one’s own strength, but calmed and supported by the heartbeat of the Sacred Heart. 

In a time when hope seems to be waning, and life appears to take on darker and darker shades of grey, one can pick up the Scriptures to revive one’s hope in many places gleaned from the Holy Word.  But what if words alone are not enough?  What can one do if the words of the Psalmist seem empty and devoid of a sense of comfort that they used to provide in the past?  This is what we can and must do – lean further into the breast of Jesus and like that beloved disciple, allow the heart beat of Jesus to become the strengthener of our ailing hearts and weakened hope. 

Nineteenth century American writer and poet Emily Dickinson, known for her poems dealing with death and mortality, is noted with this saying about hope – Hope, she says, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

Imaged as a songbird that enlivens a jaded or despondent soul,  Dickinson’s hope seems to be also static in that it doesn’t help the soul to move.  Real Christian hope not only gives the soul something to passively listen to, but more importantly, engenders the soul move – soaring to greater heights and deeper and more courageous acts of love despite the darkness that surrounds it.

In the darkening moments of life, leaning in closely to the breast of Jesus, and at the same time looking out at life can provide for this to happen. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Strength in weakness; wholeness in brokenness and power in powerlessness

In May 2012, Fr Ron Rolheiser wrote a column entitled The Power of Powerlessness.  Last week, another spiritual writer, Franciscan Richard Rohr, also wrote about power in powerlessness.   I wonder if their spiritual musings had anything to do with their own downward spiritual journeys, causing them to ponder on the irony of how Christianity turns the world’s definition of power and strength upside-down.  Whatever the reasons, I am most grateful  to have read their works as this had been a most physically draining and painful week for me, and I had found myself weakened more than ever as I had to be admitted into the hospital for a biopsy and a throat CT scan.

Both writers had very different approaches in their reflections.  Richard Rohr was very scriptural and used Paul as a vivid example of how he had to learn the hard way that the way of Christ was not one of being on top and leading by way of the world’s expectation of a military leader to oust the Romans who were occupying the land at that time.  He says that Paul encounters instead a “crucified loser”, and this turns Paul’s world and all he stood for upside-down.  From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on that road to Damascus, Paul begins to idealise powerlessness, and in his letters, we are given plenty of his personal examples of how he embraced suffering, persecution and trials for the sake of his Lord.  Furthermore, Paul is so convinced that he is to live as Christ lived, and as a disciple (some may argue that he was not an apostle in the technical sense of the word) he needed to imitate Christ in all ways possible (Phil. 1:19-21). 

Ever the erudite speaker and wordsmith that he is, Fr Rolheiser took an existential approach that even non-Christians could readily relate to.  Comparing four different people in a room – a powerful dictator, a gifted and muscular athlete, a rock-star and a tiny infant – he showed the reality that it was in fact the tiny and helpless baby who yielded the most power and influence of all four.  In its ironically powerless and weak way, this infant touches hearts and can transform a room in ways that the other three would have much trouble with.  He touches a moral core deep within each one of us.  He goes to the extent to say that the baby has the power of exorcism in him, capable of driving out the demons of self-absorption and selfishness in us, which is what Jesus does.

As expected, he then links this to how the incarnation does this to show God’s unfathomable plan of salvation and redemption. 

When we find ourselves in positions of vulnerability and perhaps even physical powerlessness, reflecting on this Christian reality gives one who is in a state of suffering much hope, strength and even a sense of purpose.  Much as we do not like it when we are weak and ill, and think that we can do much more things and live life if we have more energy and are more mentally alert, it is our suffering and weakness taken in the most positive way that becomes our link with God. 

But we fight this with all our might most of the time, don’t we?  That’s the constant struggle of every single person who is serious about being the disciple of Christ.  It’s not much of a problem with those who have not yet known Christ because being on top and yielding power with brute strength has always been the way of the world.  But for the serious disciple of Christ, the constant challenge will always be to find ways to live in ways that counter the call of the ego and the need to be superior and powerful. 

Those of us who have been afflicted with a physical weakness or some medical condition fight a different battle.  Our weapon for battling evil and the false self is given to us in the form of our sufferings and pains.  We can do two things with them – we can either be bitter and hold God (and just about everyone else) responsible for our state of afflictions, or we can surrender them to God in love and faith, and ask that he use our mellowed hearts for the transformation of the world and the salvation of souls.  It’s the ability to hand over our suffering in humility and self-surrender that reveals how much we are willing to be imitators of Christ.  

Only then can we say like St Paul, that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.

Monday, March 31, 2014

What do we do with God's unconditional love

Whenever we think of God’s love or speak about it, a common word that we would use is ‘unconditional’ to describe just how immensely different it is from our understanding of love as we know it.  While it is certainly not wrong, and unconditionally bears a certain divine specialness to it, we are often left with a holy ‘hot potato’ in our hands.  What do we do about it?  What is this supposed to do to me in the way that I live my life?  That God loves us unconditionally is certainly something wonderful to know, but little has been said or written about what I should do about it.  I am certain that if we realise what God wants us to do with this precious and unfathomable gift, we will live our lives differently.

Love given has to be returned.  Not as a command, not as a law, but as a response in love whose imperative originates from the depth of our very being.  Scripture puts it in the way of a command – that we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, our minds and our strength.  But this ‘command’ is often misunderstood, as if to say that God is an insecure being who is so desperate and needy for a return of love.  It is a command simply because it is something that we know we have to do, failing which we know that we have been untrue to ourselves.  It's in our DNA to love - after all, we are made in God's image.

If love is only received and is not given lovingly back to the giver, one becomes a storer, a hoarder, or a self-indulgent person.  We only need to look at the way the three persons of the Holy Trinity love one another.  Keeping nothing to himself, each person upon having received the total and complete love from the other totally depletes and exhausts that love in returning it in love to the giver, and that exchange continues endlessly through time, giving existence to all that there is.  This is something that we need to try to imitate as much as possible in the generous way that we extend love to one another.

But knowing this still hasn’t taught me what to do with my being loved unconditionally by God until I have some understanding of how I am to love my God unconditionally too.  Until we begin to love God as unconditionally as we can, we will be merely taking God’s love for granted and live out lives largely unchanged and untransformed.

Our unconditional love of God has a lot to do with the way we worship him.  When we only choose to worship him in good times and to thank him when things go our way, our worship has a certain conditionality attached to it.  Some of us may be afflicted with what I would call the ‘feelings dis-ease’ when we pray, which causes our personal prayer life to depend on how we feel.  But if we really come to think about it, isn’t real love something that cannot be simply based on feelings?  If married couples only depend on their loving feelings to be loving, they wouldn’t be loving for very long.  Real and lasting love is a decision, which stands the tests of good times and bad, sickness and health.  It has to be something that stands apart from our feelings.  If we only worship God and pray when we ‘feel’ like it, we may be worshipping our feelings without realizing it.  But when love is a decision, our love becomes purified and we move ourselves and our egos out of the central point of focus and begin to put God where he should be.

One concrete way of loving God unconditionally is when we stay steadfast to loving God despite the trials and hardships that come our way in life.  If our faith only tells us to love God when life is smooth and all problems are settled, our love for God can easily be conditional without our realizing it.  But faith becomes active when despite our dark horizons and hardships in life, where we are faced with challenges of various kinds, we do not waver in our worship and praise of God. 

I am certain that we will worship better as a community if there are more people who are joyful witnesses of unconditional love, both of God and of one’s fellowman and woman.  To the extent that we can love another human being unconditionally is the extent that we become holy, as God is holy.  One problem is that we think these examples of holy loving come only from the lives of the saints, which the Church has canonized.  But if we think about it, there are a lot of real people, people who we may know and live with, who despite great challenges in life, continue to love God and not be bitter and angry with him.  When these people dare to lift their broken and lives in humble worship, aren’t they trying to return their love to God in an unconditional way too? 

If I am only going to love God and truly worship him when I have no more illness and when my life as a priest is as normal as it was before I was ill, my love for God would be conditional.  And my life would not be a testimony of love.  Yes, a total recovery may be a sign of God’s marvelous work in my life, but perhaps not as strong a sign as the ability for a person carrying a cross or two to continue to love God and be of good cheer.  Some people have asked me how I can remain so positive despite my physical sufferings.  Herein lies some insight to my answer.

When we look at the various crosses that we have in life this way, we can begin to really thank God for them, because these may be the very things that will help us to purify our love for God and to love him back unconditionally. 

What are the crosses that God has blessed you with?

Monday, March 24, 2014

What our prayer is, and what it isn't.

It is not uncommon for any priest to have this scenario unfold before him – a person comes up to him and tells him of a friend who has faith issues at the moment, and would like the priest to speak to this person so that his faith can be strengthened and restored.  Oftentimes, this low point in the faith life of the person is accompanied by the fact that he or she is at the same time facing some kind of other crisis in life – it could be a broken relationship, a loss of a steady job or a health issue of a serious nature.  The unspoken request is actually this – please make God real for this person, so that he or she doesn’t live anymore in the dark, and remove this crisis from him/her.

 While it is not an unreasonable request, and one which mirrors some of the deepest pleas made by the faithful in the Gospels by people coming up to Jesus, it poses some problems for almost all of us who are journeying on in faith.  For the majority of us, faith is something which stands apart from receiving special blessings and favours from God.  Sure, we know that God in his goodness wants to give us the best things in life (as far as seeing life from his perspective is concerned), but most of the time, we do not get what we ask for principally because we have our own agendas as top priorities.  So, instead of asking for fish, we are asking for snakes, and instead of bread, we may be asking for stones. 

Tying up faith closely with getting our favours granted reduces very much religion and faith to any commercial quid-pro-quo transaction.  Would that God show me his immense prowess, I will have very little to do with him.  The more he manifests his divine presence in my life, the more I will be convinced that I am right about worshipping him and dedicating my life to him.  While not entirely wrong it itself, the element of faith is something which is clearly lacking.  The atheist will say that unless one sees, one will not believe.  Faith requires that we believe without seeing, as Jesus himself said that blessed is he who doesn’t see and yet believes. 

Does this mean that we are often in a spiritual quandary?  If we are addicts to positive feelings in our spiritual lives, and only are confident in God’s love and existence if things are going our way, where are we when the good feelings end and it seems as if God has turned a deaf ear to our pleas?  Spiritual masters like St Ignatius of Loyola have a lot to teach us about spiritual consolations and spiritual desolations.  Some of us may be surprised to find out that how we decide on the direction of our prayer lives in times of consolation or desolation affects very much our inner disposition in these times.  For instance, if I am in a particular low mood and do not feel like dedicating my time to either prayer or reading the Scriptures, or any spiritual, and instead use my time to satisfy my own boredom by engaging in pointless chatter and aimless web-surfing, I am contributing very much to the down-spiral of my being with God.  But on the other had, I may be in that same low mood but my inner being reminds me that loving God is a decision and not something that should be affected by my positive or good feelings, and continue to spend time in contemplation and praise God, I become conscious of my being with God. 

It then becomes clear that our faith is never linear, and ever alive.  And God always wants us to purify our love for Him in the ways that we pray, and love our fellow man and woman.  One of the hardest purifications that anyone can be given is the ‘gift’ of not receiving any consolations or insights or positive feelings in prayer.  A case in point would be the love and dedication that Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta experienced for the many years she did her work without ceasing.  We now know that she was in a spiritual darkness for a prolonged period, but that never stopped her from doing what she was doing.  What makes her faith both admirable and great is that she continued to love without having that assurance from God that makes such difficult work much easier.   In that darkness that she was in, God was allowing her to purify her love for him. 

Purification of this sort never feels good.  At the heart of it, when one is purified this way, God is in fact inviting the person to the prayer of helplessness.  No one likes to feel helpless.  Most of us like to be at the command control of life, get rid of helplessness, and then pray.  But for one who is given this kind of purification of silence and seeming emptiness, one is invited to stand before God with open arms and heart.  When one decides to pray in times like these, one loses oneself before God, and that becomes a very pure prayer of self-offering.

Scripture abounds with examples of people who came up to Jesus with varying degrees of helplessness.  Yesterday’s Gospel featured the helplessness of the Samaritan woman.  The crippled man who practically lived by the pool of Bethesda was helpless.  The widow of Nain represents those who were not able to help themselves in society.  So too was the man born blind.  Strange as it may seem, helplessness or the admission of our own human limits seems to be the way the Christian life works. 

Perhaps the insight to this is that this admission of our own limits and limitations is what makes prayer work in moments dark and silent.  It works because we are honest about our incapabilities.  It makes us aware of the limitations of our own powers.

Quick spiritual conversions may be wonderful to read about, and they may bolster our sometimes-wavering faith.  But it is often the long-term, dedicated life of a praying Christian who sticks to his relationship with God through a regular prayer pattern who prepares himself for any kinds of crises that could come his way.

Just as countries plan out defense stratagem or offence manoeuvres in peace times to ready themselves in times of emergency and social/political crises, and just as athletes train with dogged dedication outside of competition periods so that they are in top form during actual competition season, so too should the praying person prepare himself outside of crises situations in order to exercise his faith when these silent and seeming helpless moments occur in life.  Any honest pray-er will tell you that these moments are real.