Monday, August 22, 2016

A happy death has to include making a good and heartfelt confession.

It could well be due the fact that I have been celebrating numerous funeral Masses so close to each other lately that I have been given in to thinking and reflecting about the fleetingness of life or the inevitability of death more than the average person does.  Many people seem to have the idea that thinking of death is such a morbid thing.  The moment the topic of death is mentioned, some become strangely silent, suggesting a change of topic or become awkwardly uncomfortable.  One of my first spiritual directors had been sedulous in promoting his strong belief of the necessity of a regular meditation on death.  I have since been convinced of its benefits, the chief of which is gratitude. 

Catholics of a generation past would often have prayed for a happy death, and the patron of this is St Joseph.  Perhaps it is because St Joseph’s demise has never been mentioned in the pages of Sacred Scripture that it was believed that he died a naturally happy death, and that he would be the model and patron of this grace.  Some traditions of our faith are still open to healthy and respectful questioning.  But one question that remains, and not often addressed is ‘what constitutes a happy death’? 

In my numerous pastoral encounters with persons whose deaths were imminent and foreseeable, I have noticed one thing – that a good heart-searing confession doth maketh a restful spirit.  As much as the Sacrament of Anointing includes the absolution of sins, the quality of a restful soul is clearly evident when the one experiencing the anointing has had that opportunity to truthfully speak about what had weighed most heavily on his or her heart for the longest period of time.  It certainly takes a lot of soul work to articulate the ways in which one had been living falsely.  Identifying where in life one had been callous and selfish requires a humility that knows that it is simply not good to take these with him or her to meet God.  A general absolution of sins objectively does take these sins away, but there is also the element of divine justice that awaits one who hasn’t died to oneself in raw honesty.  I truly believe that a happy death has very much to do with dying with an honesty, especially one that requires articulation.

It is true that oftentimes, when a person who had been battling illness for a considerable period of time comes to that stage where the mind is no longer quite as lucid, nor able to communicate with clarity. This is when the grace of the sacrament takes over and one’s sins are absolved without one’s actual confession having been made.  But we should not wait for that moment to come simply because it might not happen the way we would prefer it to.

As a priest, I do ‘get it’ that so many people are very reticent when it comes to bringing their transgressions to confession.  The common excuse given is that God knows what is in our hearts and the darkness that lurks there.  I have no doubt that he knows.  He is God, after all.  We have to first of all understand that God’s forgiveness stems from God’s love.  Our human forgiveness sometimes can be given outside of love, and that is where our forgiveness falls short of it being a mirror of godliness.  When we forgive reluctantly, and are clear that this would be the very last time it is given, we forgive with a grudge and not with love.  God doesn’t.  And this is one of the great reasons we need to experience this in the sacrament of reconciliation.

There is really no place for pride in encountering God’s grace of mercy in the Confession, and for that matter, there is no place for pride in heaven as well.  Just wanting the forgiveness of God without the effort to name our shortcomings may be akin to wanting a set of clean clothes to wear but refusing to take a good bath first. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why God invites us to make a sacrifice of praise.

Heb. 13:15 tells us that we ought to offer God an unending sacrifice of praise.  How do we understand this phrase “sacrifice of praise”?  How can praise be a sacrifice?  It seems to be a contradiction of terms, but in truth, it really isn’t. 

When do most of us give God praise and thanks?  Most likely, it is when things are going well for us.  When we get that raise or promotion that we had been eying all this while, or when thing are going swimmingly our way in life, or when the doctors give us the report that there are no parts in our bodies that appear to be wearing down or riddled with tumors.  In other words, when life is good, when there are no afflictions and tribulations, directing our gratitude and praise to God is, as they say, a no-brainer – at least for those of us with faith.  There’s really not much merit in doing this, because it is something that we really should be doing.

While it is good to know that we should be giving thanks to God for all that we have but do not deserve in life, in themselves, these do not constitute a ‘sacrifice’ per se.  There is not much of a ‘dying’ that happens to cause this gratitude to emote from our hearts.  For a sacrifice to be sacrificial, something has to be offered up, put aside, entailing some kind of death.  How is this applicable to us?

I have said it in many past reflections in this blog that ultimately, our lives are not about us.  If we understand this to be so, then praise given to God should also not be about us.  If it is only when our lives are good and when our lot in life has abundance and isn’t filled with challenges that we give God praise, aren’t we also making praise about us?  But if our lives are riddled with crosses big and small, when we are faced with challenges and trials galore and have worries and anxieties aplenty, and despite these, we come to God and praise him still, then our praise would have a ‘sacrificial’ element in it.

Mindfully wanting to cast aside our pains and problems that may be rife in our lives and willfully praise God with a selfless purpose will always be a sacrifice simply because it takes effort.  It entails some form of a dying in us, and it reminds us that our lives are truly not about us, and neither is our praise of God contingent and predicated on his blessing our lives with goodness. 

Maybe that report from the doctor came back with a positive result, revealing a cancer that requires treatment.  It could be that you lost your job due to a downturn of the economy.  It may well be that you have just lost your spouse or best friend after a long battle with a debilitating illness that he or she finally succumbed to, leaving you without a spouse or a parent to your children.  Making that effort to still give God praise while experiencing these very real agonies in our lives adds a tremendous value to the quality of praise that we are sending to God.  It may well feel like a death that you are going through at that time.  But to lay them aside and thank God for his sake, and not for ours, raises the quality of our faith to another level altogether. 

Part of the reason may well be that we are just so conditional in our love – for others and for God.  If we find ourselves only being grateful to others and thanking them for being in our lives when they do extra special things for us, or being forgiving to them only when we see strong evidence of their repentance and change, and not because forgiveness comes from our hearts and because we love them, our love for them is actually conditional and fear based.  We may also extend this conditionality onto our relationship with God.  We may believe (erroneously of course) that he deserves thanks and praise only if he is extra ‘godly’ in giving us more than what he should already be giving us in life. 

In encouraging us to give God a ‘sacrifice of praise’, the writer to the Hebrews is actually asking us to imitate God in his unconditional love for us.  He is beckoning us to live with enlarged and expansive hearts.  God sent us His son to save us not because we deserved salvation or as a reward for being good.  In fact, it was just the contrary.  God gave us salvation despite our not deserving it, and is not predicated on any sense of quid pro quo or some zero-sum game.  The author of Hebrews had a deep sense of this, and is encouraging us to love as God loves, and be as unconditional as he is unconditional. 

I believe that all of us have the ability to offer beautiful sacrifices of praise to God that He alone deserves.  Truth be told, I’m afraid that if we are honest about it, it may reveal that even in our praise of God, we could in actual fact be conditional, calculative and parsimonious.   

Monday, August 8, 2016

Keying in to life

Most of us celebrate with some greater degree of ‘specialness’ our 21st birthday.  Back in the day, we often celebrated it by the cutting of a cake on the shape of a key.  In this day and age of hipster cafes and multitudinous bakeries that make some incredible looking cakes, I do realise that practically no one has cakes made in the shape of keys anymore.  But in my time, it was common to mark our 21st birthdays with a cake that took this shape.  Why such a strange shape?  What was the mind behind this symbol?  Many people I have asked said that it was supposed to symbolize one’s coming of age, where the person was now given, as it were, the ‘keys’ to unlock doors that were hitherto locked before.  The unspoken message was that all doors could now be opened; all pleasures tasted, nothing was prohibited or verboten.  One could now enjoy life to the hilt. 

But we know this to not be true.  Our lives will be chaotic if not for rules and laws. The reason laws were given to the Hebrew people through Moses, was to show them Godly living and to guide them in Godly living.  Parameters were thus set and put in place so that the "game" of life could be played out well and be enjoyable at the same time. These rules or laws for life serve as life's boundary markers for the orderly and safe living out of one's life.  Beyond these markers, one inadvertently enters into the twilight zone of uncertainty, with a lot more doubt and endless anxieties- hence inviting confusion, misery and suffering.  In any game, rules are necessary in order for delight to take place while at play.  Similarly then, laws are very necessary in life to help each player in life's game to recognize where one’s  personal boundaries lie and in so doing, respect those of others as well.

I think we have never really appreciated rules in this light.  We find them hemming us in, curtailing and limiting our freedom.  Instead, we think that there should be absolute freedom.  But the truth is that in life, there are no unlimited freedoms, because living that way brings with it unspeakable chaos.  Whilst I am quite sure that a key-shaped cake is considered passé at 21st birthday celebrations now, I am quite certain that there is still a silent desire for freedom  in each teen entering their twenties. 

Too many well-meaning parents have given unrestricted freedom to their children before they have reached an age of discernment and maturity, and in so doing make the symbol of a key at 21 redundant.  Perhaps keys have been given out too freely before it was appropriate, and as a community, we suffer the consequences now.  Maybe we have only thought of keys as instruments to open doors, but aren’t they also just as necessary for locking them up too?  It is only with adequate discernment that one will know just what doors to secure tightly, and what doors should be freely left open.

Monday, August 1, 2016

When we have lived out our Christian calling, our deaths ought to be celebrated more than mourned.

Over the week, the tragic and gruesome killing of an 84-year-old Catholic Priest made the news.  Fr Jacques Hamel was midway through celebrating the Eucharist in town of St. Etienne-du-Rouvray situated Northeast of Paris, France, when two men with knives entered the church and slit his throat in front of the parishioners who were present at the Mass.  The two assailants were members of ISIS who claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving much of the world and the church reeling.  Some reports say that he was beheaded in the sanctuary.

Many people, especially angry atheists, often attribute violence to religion.  History appears to have shown the veracity in this accusation, as can be seen from the many wars that have been fought up and down the centuries with religion as their raison d’etre, with the crusades often cited as a prime example.  I use the phrase ‘appears to have shown’ because I strongly believe that it is not religion or God per se, but man’s interpretation or ignorance of both true religion and God. 

 Many of the bible accounts of God appearing to be violent with intent to cause harm to humanity are anthropomorphisms.  Bible writers, using lore and story, are telling of the consequences of our actions (or inactions in some instances) resulting in suffering and loss.  In our primitive or ancient existence and early understanding of nature, these could only be attributable to the Divine, partly because we had an innate visceral awareness that our world was not only made up of what was visual and empirical, but there was more to our existence than meets the eye.  We allowed God to speak to us outside of our known and heuristic world. 

As humankind developed and as the mind took on sophistication, we somehow lost the ability to wonder at.  We only wonder why.  And because of this, we have also sadly stunted our growth.  We only know how to grow outwards, but have lost the need to maintain a growing inwards.  This is the contemplative in every one of us that has atrophied significantly, and we are lesser beings because of it. 

If we had nurtured the contemplative dimension of our being, we would have been able to see that in the progression of the Bible itself, there actually has been a revelation of a less and less violent God in the unfolding of Salvation History. 

I came across an insightful reflection from a spiritual writer and author on the gospel passage in John 8.  This is the passage where the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery.  They bring not just her, but the law of Moses as well to Jesus, justifying a stoning of a human being.  Needless to say, this was a very violent action, and according to the law of Moses, it appeared to be lawful.  Jesus, the non-violent one, seemed to be caught in a quandary.

What Jesus does then is so cryptic that it almost defies explanation and immediate understanding.  He bends down and writes on the ground.  They persist in their questioning and after asking them a probing question himself, he again bends down and writes on the ground again.  Why does Jesus write twice on the ground?

In all my years of hearing homilies and studying scripture, teachers, professors and homilists had always seem to dwell on what it could have been that Jesus scribbled on the ground that day, causing the people, one by one, to walk away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus.  Some have speculated that he wrote out their sins, leaving them embarrassed, causing them to flee the place.  This doesn’t auger well with the heart of Jesus, as listing the sins of others is hardly a charitable action.

Then I came across a breakthrough.  It was not so much what Jesus wrote, but that he wrote, and that he wrote twice.  Who in the history of the Bible had ever written twice, using his finger?  It was God himself when he gave Moses (and us) the Ten Commandments.  The first time the tablets were given to Moses, he broke them when he came down from the mountain, livid to find Aaron and the people worshipping the golden calf.  The second time was when Moses went back up to the mountain and after being with God, a second set of tablets was inscribed, again by God’s finger.  Pardon and mercy, not violence, was what brought about the second chance by God.  Could Jesus’ action that day in writing twice on the ground be something that was suddenly dawned on the scribes and Pharisees?  Could it be the revelation of the great mercy of God himself?

If so, then the scribes and the Pharisees got it.  At least at for that moment.  Strangely, Moses didn’t seem to.  The adulteress that day experienced this in spades.  Our God is not violent, and Jesus came to show this by his very life.  The heinous crucifixion on Calvary was God’s testimony of how serious he was about not being a violent God because he took the world’s violence on himself. 

I’m afraid that religious devotees have missed this point by a mile and have instead projected onto God their own shadows and undefined hostility and self-hate, and this is evidenced when the violence they commit has a religious agenda.

If there was a clear victor in the bloody and gruesome incident at St Etienne-du-Rouvray last week, it was God and Fr Jacques Hamel.  I met a layperson a few days ago who shared with me her sentiments about the entire incident.  She lamented aloud that it was such a waste that a man like Fr Hamel who studied all his life and gave his life for God would die such a horrible and grisly death.  Her sentiments are, to be sure, not just hers alone.  Many have expressed similar expressions of his life being ‘wasted’ by barbarians.

I tend to have a different view though.  It’s not that I am unfeeling and numbed by the escalating violence that fills the pages of our news each day.  I asked myself what are we priests for?  If not to be another Christ, then we have missed the point of our vocation and our calling.  Professionals who study for their degrees in their fields go out to the world to apply their knowledge in the fields where they had gained some level of mastery.  Engineers become engineers and they build bridges and construct complexes.  Doctors practice medicine, endeavoring to save and improve lives.  Accountants use their knowledge of finance and economic entities to bring order through systems and methods and processes.  When they apply these to the best of their abilities, their education becomes ‘worth the while’. 

What about priests?  Our vocation to be priests and the training to reach the priesthood is rather arduous.  Apart from the constant need to study, far more important is the transformation of the person who is called.  He is called to become another Christ in a very true way, and there is no truer way than to imitate the Master in both life and in death.  At every Altar during the celebration of the Eucharist, the passion and death of Christ is realized in a non-bloody way.  The celebrant is “Alter Christus” or another Christ.  To physically die at the Altar during Mass – must be the closest any priest could ever be in imitating the Lord Jesus. 

The Cross of Calvary was God’s answer to mankind’s sin and proclivity to violence.  I don’t think his death is ‘wasted’.  If so, then Christ’s death on Calvary is also a waste.  We know it wasn’t.  We stand as beneficiaries of a supreme act of sacrifice and God’s mercy.  As a body of Christ and as Church, we cannot use Fr Hamel’s death as a reason to react violently.  If we do, we would have missed the point of Calvary.

I believe Fr Hamel’s death is not ‘wasted’ as such.  Such a sacrifice needs to be celebrated with great honour because Fr Hamel truly became another Christ in death.