Monday, October 5, 2015

When mercy and justice embrace.

Pope Francis has been a ‘hot topic’ in the news lately, with his visit to the United States being reported extensively and followed on many different media platforms.  It was also reported that during his visit to Washington, he had met up with an old student of his back in the mid-sixties when he was teaching literature and psychology in Argentina.  It’s nothing unusual when old students and teachers meet up with each other after a long lapse.  Even I had a primary class reunion this year to mark our shared 50th birthday.  But what was interesting was that it was revealed that this former student brought along his same sex partner to meet his former teacher who is now the Bishop of Rome.

One would think that this kind of meeting would be something surreptitious, given the Church’s firm stand on marriage as something that is to be only between a man and a woman.  But the article was very clear to quote the Vatican spokesman saying that the Pope, as pastor, has maintained many personal relationships with people in a spirit of kindness, welcome and dialogue. 

This kind of balance is something that is akin to wisdom that is forged through years of training.  One doesn’t achieve this kind of equanimity overnight, and I can attest to this by my own personal experience.  To be able to hold firm to the Church’s clear and unequivocal teachings of sexuality and marriage, and at the same time to display a keen sense of kindness and charity in loving and patient dialogue when encountering people with clearly strident beliefs is a skill only few master in life.  Too much of one will always lead to the closing out of the other.  It will always be way easier to fly one flag high and unfurled than to try to enter into dialogue with an opposing viewpoint. 

To balance things out, it was also reported that the Pope had also met with now-famed county clerk Kim Davis who was lambasted for being anti-gay in refusing to obey a federal court order that she was to issue marriage licenses to both same-sex and opposite sex couples.  Was the Pope, in meeting up with these two opposing personalities and beliefs playing a political game?  Did he have a hidden agenda? 

To say that the Pope had an agenda is to say that he had something to hide.  But I think what Pope Francis displayed was not hidden.  It was bold and loud, and it was the living out of something lifted from Scripture.  Psalm 85:10 is something that I think many of us struggle with.  That “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; and righteousness and peace will kiss each other” is something our often narrow minds cannot begin to wrap around.  It is the prophetic act of non-dualism.

Steadfast love and faithfulness – these seeming opposites are not easy to reconcile, let alone having them meet.  It does seem that if we are truly faithful to God’s love and his teaching, that there are going to be many things that either are taboo or outside of the OB markers of life as God would have it.  Yet, love that is steadfast seems to need to even go to those extremities. 

Did the Pope risk being misread and judged?  Certainly.  Did he open himself to the castigating finger-wagging from the conservatives?  Without a doubt.  Perhaps he went to places that opened him up to being read either way because I think he knew that if he was to be the true Vicar of Christ, someone who represented Christ to the best of his abilities, he also had to live the Scripture especially where it is hardest.  We don’t do this with enough courage most of the time.  At least, I don’t think I do.  Sometimes I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place when I see myself as a deputized guardian, caretaker and teacher of the Sacraments and at the same time a face that many want to see the compassion and charity of Christ in.  In most circumstances, only one aspect of this is asked of me, and it is rather easy to deliver, and to deliver it well.  But it is when things are flying at us fast and furious, and we as priests are forced to, as it were, think on our feet, that I sometimes find myself walking on eggshells and even breaking some of them in my well-intentioned endeavours.

I have come to see that we only do this well when we step outside of convention.  That the second person of the Trinity stepped outside of heaven and entered willingly into the chaos of humanity tells us that becoming the Good News to people sometimes entails of us a willingness to do the same – to enter into the messiness of life itself.  Pope Francis seems to have flair to do this, and does this with what I would call a “Christian classiness”.   He has a sense that there are right moments to teach and carry out moral formation, and there are times when it is not opportune nor prudent to do so.  In my almost 15 years of priesthood, I know I have lacked this wisdom to sense which cap I needed to wear at which appropriate moment.  His Holiness would have been a priest for 46 years this December.  Maybe it will take all of another 31 years of experience to be able to learn how to allow righteousness and peace to kiss through my own Calvary encounters.

But this is what I have learnt in ministry and through the mistakes I may have made when I was over enthusiastic to get things right (both in myself and with others) – and this is a quote from St Augustine who lived in the fifth century.  The Latin is “necesariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas”, and it translates into “Unity in necessary (things), liberty in doubtful (things) and charity in all things.”  Thomas Aquinas too has always been a champion of charity.  Yet, it is precisely when things are most difficult, when there is no calm and when one is lacking objectivity that charity is often the first thing out of the window.  But we all know that charity is often the very thing that brings love into a place that true healing can take place.

It reminds me of something that I came across recently, which I shared with some of my parishioners at the ambo on a weekday Mass, and with some dear friends in my correspondences.  It is a story told by a volunteer who works with terminally ill children.  That willingness to enter so closely into the pain and turmoil and to sit with them embodies incarnational theology in a life situation, and charity made so clear in action.

My idea was pretty simple at the beginning.  I started to volunteer in wards with terminally ill children or burn victims – just to go in there to cheer them up a little, (and to) spread around some giggles.  Gradually, it developed that I was going to come in as a clown.

First, somebody gave me a red rubber nose, and I put that to work.  Then I started doing some elementary makeup.  Then I got a yellow, red and green clown suit.  Finally, some tremendous and dandy wing-tip shoes, two and half feet long with green tips and heels, and white spats. 

It’s rather tricky coming in to see these kids.  Some kids are even fearful of clowns, thinking that the clown is going to eat them up.  And kids in hospitals and burn units are often shaky and traumatised.

Looking around, you see burnt skin and bald heads.  Not something that kids should be having.  But what can one do in these wards, other than to face them courageously?  When kids are really hurting so bad, they are so afraid, maybe even dying, and everybody’s heart seems to be breaking.  But we face it and see what happens after that, without a clear plan of what to do next.

Then I got the idea of traveling with popcorn.  When a kid is crying, I dab up the tears with the popcorn and pop it into my mouth or into his or hers.  We sit around together and eat the tears.  (Excerpt from Ernest and Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection, pg 226).

In Jesus' incarnation, God sits with us and eats our tears with us.  Many see the Pope as a rather full figure of a man.  I wonder if his rotund frame is a result of having eaten bagfuls of tear-soaked popcorn. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Our sufferings make sense only when we realise that there is nothing God cannot ask of us.

It does not take an astute observer to see that life is full of heavy demands made on us.  Much as we hope that it is, our lives are dotted, sometimes very densely, with things that take us to terribly dark and scary places.  Misfortunes, losses (both financial and otherwise), when we fall in life (in literal and metaphorical terms) and ill health.  In the face of what we have as idealistic lives free from all of the above, it is when we are plagued with these troubling and stressful moments or phases in our lives that we struggle to make sense of them and hope for an easy way out.  Religion used wrongly will often be seen as escape routes from these ‘mired moments’ as I would like to call them.

But the Judeo-Christian religion, when understood in the most holistic and healthy way, is never an escape route or a means to find a solution to life’s challenges.  Perhaps the one thing that many cannot accept or comprehend is that God actually uses these moments, difficult thought they may be, to truly enter into our lives and give us a new vision both of life and of him.  Praying ourselves out of these in any quick way could often be the very thing that prevents us from truly becoming better people, and having eyes that see God’s love in ways that we were unable hitherto.

The entire drama of Abraham taking that painful journey with Isaac his beloved son who was to be the sacrifice Yahweh asked of him is our story as well.  But most of us just read it as something that happened to one unfortunate man in history, and hardly take the time or the effort to put ourselves in Abraham’s position.  I am certain that when we do this and do it frequently enough, we will come away with much more confidence to trust and obey God when difficult things are asked of us in life. 

When Abraham was on the mountain which he later named Jehovah Jireh, he must have had a truly transformational moment when he was about to raise his hand to offer up his son Isaac in answer to God’s request.  Abraham didn’t have the entire plan of God’s laid out in front of him before going up that mountain.  Certainly things would have worked out far differently if the Lord’s messenger had told him even before he started that ascent that his son would be replaced by another sacrifice that will be provided.  But as things turned out, it was only when Abraham was about to use that knife to slaughter his son that salvation came.  Our minds struggle hard to wrap around this very bizarre story.  The hard truth is that faith requires and even necessitates an ascent, and it does make heavy demands on our lives and what we hold on to so dearly because when faith is removed and isolated from love, faith becomes removed from life. 

It cannot be just a tiny detail when the author of Genesis tells us that Abraham tied up his son Isaac before the intended offering.  In our struggle with what we need to offer up to God in deep devotion and love, especially when they are things that we are so attached to and clinging on so tenaciously in life, there necessitates a binding and a tying up.  Our faith concretized when we can clearly and identify what it is that we need to offer up to God.  Not that he needs it, but that we need it – we need that honest act of fully identifying our sorrows, our struggles, our incapacities not in some generic way, but to be able to name our inabilities in an upfront way.  Articulating this becomes our way of tying up what we need God to receive from us.

Our faith is made real when heavy things are asked of us, largely because there is no salvation in cheap grace.  Yet, isn’t it true that this is what most of us want?  We don’t say it out loud, because it makes us sound crass and shallow to admit that for most of us, we are in the faith so that hard things will not be asked of us in our lives and from God.  The ‘hard work’ of faith is not so much in loving God when things are smooth and plain sailing.  The ‘hard work’ of faith is when we willingly make those ascents up the mountain and take those burdens and struggles which seem to make no sense in life, and believe that this is something good for us. 

When God is asking something so seemingly difficult and painful of us, perhaps what we need to ask is this “is there anything that is too great for God to ask of me?” or “Does God have any right to demand so much of my own life?”  These are the raw and honest questions that I am quite convinced that any serious disciple of Christ needs to ask himself or herself at some time in our faith journey.  In peaceful times, when there are no demands made on us and when the doctor gives us a clean bill of health, when we are acing those exams and we are having those ‘blue sky’ days, these necessary questions don’t even need to be addressed.  But notice how things change and how poignant the answers and emotions are when the times are tough. 

When the chips are down and when there are no clear answers to our dark horizons, when the cancer markers are all up and we experience terrible losses in life, these questions are the questions that we need to ask and dare to articulate.  “If this is what God is asking me to go through, does he have a right to demand so much from my life?” Any answer that steers clear of an unambiguous “yes” will show that the God that we claim to believe in is not really God at all, but some notion of a deity that we only partially submit our lives to.  He is not the “most high” that we boldly say that he is in the Gloria on Sundays.  He is somewhere near there, but not the one to whom we are willing to place all our trust and all our hopes on.  In short, he is not truly our ‘salvation’.  Instead, we are our own salvation, and it makes us at best, nominal followers of Christ. 

When Jonah was in the belly of the fish, at his darkest moment of his life, he prays not a prayer of petition and deliverance, but instead, a prayer of thanksgiving.  Why thanksgiving?  He was in a time of darkness and uncertainty and he prayed a prayer of thanksgiving.  He was doing what a man of faith does.  In thanking God in such a time, he is displaying great faith, and actually is saying that there is no demand that God cannot make in his life.  The last line of his prayer is extremely telling.  He says “deliverance is from the Lord”. 

In other words, he knows that it is not anything that he does in life that brings salvation, brings wholeness and healing, but such an amazing thing as deliverance is always grace, and always something from God, simply because in God’s hand is life itself.  And because God is our ultimate cause for salvation, there is nothing too much that he can ask of us.  Not in Abraham’s case, not in Jonah’s, and certainly not in ours.  If we are truly men and women of faith, when that piece of bad news comes, when that time of trial and suffering comes in life, when our children do not make the wisest of choicest but instead seem to be bringing the family name down a few notches because of foolish behavior, in short, when we find ourselves climbing up that mountain of sacrifice, we are actually given the golden opportunity to show just how real our faith is.  God appears to want so much from us not because God is bloodthirsty, but because God wants us to display in our lives a willingness to give of ourselves what we hold most tenaciously on to in life.  When we are able to do this with love, with a willingness to let go, we are, in a word, so much like God, and begin to fulfill Jesus’ instruction to be holy as God is holy.  When we show a bold refusal to be bitter, we cannot but become better.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Accepting God’s love in the face of hardship and sorrow in life.

In my outreach to people who seek counsel for their experiences of darkness in their lives, it is just natural that many of them reach a point where they question the goodness of God and the holiness of God in the face of their afflictions, and the age-old conundrum will be asked, often phrased in a statement like “if God is such a God of love and goodness, why am I in this mired situation in life?” 

This is a very upfront and honest question that even atheists encounter, but the only difference being their ultimate intention is that of disproving either God’s ineffable goodness or his very existence altogether.  But to the one who is struggling with his or her faith, and who has no intention to disbelieve in God or in his goodness, charity on my part is always to assume the unspoken narrative behind this question.  In fact, it is more akin to a plea – a cry to help the person with faith the size of a quarter of a mustard seed to see that God’s goodness is so large, so ineffable and so broad that no sorrow or pain or suffering is beyond the confines or limits to his love, and that faith always asks us to have eyes that see love beyond the ‘warm fuzzies’ that we are so addicted to in life.

Sound theological statements at moments like these are at best platitudes.  They are not wrong, but what theology doesn’t often do is to get to the heart that is aching with emptiness.  If the aim of any good and effective preacher is to touch the heart of the listener and find the heart at a state that is mellow and malleable, softened and willing to be re-moulded, I am convinced that good counsel and pastoral care at times like these need to bring God’s tenderness and paternal outreach to hearts that are in a similar state.  It is a tough call, because one cannot anticipate whether the person suffering is at that point having a heart that is tender through patience and longsuffering or forcibly softened and even scarred via experiences that have left one embittered, angry, resentful and hardened. 

There are no magic formulas that a priest or any person bringing counsel to a patient’s bedside can take with him that can immediately calm hearts that have been hitherto racing with anxiety and fraught with angst.  Much as it does seem that bringing a strong light into a world of a mind that has been through such dark times is a good thing, part of me also knows that when the eye has been too long used to very dim surroundings will find it almost too painful to be directly brought into the bright light that the one who is the “Light of the World” is.  The eye that has been too relaxed by being in the dark will struggle to adjust immediately to the light.  So too, in my opinion, is the spiritual ‘eye’ of the self.

But one thing that has served me well, one spiritual narrative that one can safely take with him in such tense moments is something that I have learnt from Fr Ronald Rolheiser that I learnt in a reflection I read some five years back I think.

He broached the topic about whether God loved some people more than others.  In fact, any question that is connected to theodicy, which is the defense of God’s goodness in the presence of evil in the world, can be rephrased the same way – If there is evil in the world, and there is, and God is love, then it does seem to show that God does love some people more than others, and that his love is biased.  God certainly doesn’t love normal healthy people more than he does people who have bodies filled with cancers that have multiple metastasis.  God doesn’t also love couples that have many children more than he does couples that find it just so difficult to conceive naturally.  And God does not love heterosexual people more than he loves people who are living with same-sex attractions in life. 

To the mind that can only think in absolute categories, those few examples just given are concrete examples that show that God and his outpouring of grace and love have some sort of preference or biasedness.  Yet, we also know that Jesus in Matt.5:44 reveals something almost hitherto unknown about the Father’s love and mercy – that it is given to the bad and the good ALIKE.  Again, dualistic thinking will never bring us to this enlightened way of viewing the world around us, and we will always struggle with the erroneous belief that so long as we are suffering, so long as we are in some kind of torment in our lives, and struggling with some issues that take us to a dark place, that God and his love are absent from us. 

But to be fair, even great and noted saints have struggled with this.  This limited way of looking at God’s blessings is not new.  Even giants and doctors of the Church like St Teresa of Avila who lived in the 1500s made such comments as “if this is how God treats his friends, no wonder he has so few of them”.  Another spiritual giant of the same name, but living some four centuries later in Calcutta India, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta despite knowing that God is love had spent not just a few months but years and years in some sort of spiritual vacuum where she was not experiencing any consolations from this same God.  Teresa of Avila had the faith to believe that it is precisely because God loved his friends that he does not molly-coddle them and end up spoiling them by only giving them consolations in life.

Ultimately, what enables one to see goodness even in a bad situation, to see light despite being steeped in darkness and to allow one to believe in God’s unconditional love despite not having a direct taste of this love for oneself has to be faith.  It is the faith (and humility) to acknowledge that one is not God and that one doesn’t see as God sees, and thus cannot ever begin to love as God loves, and to forgive as God forgives.  Yet, the call to one who is a disciple of Christ is to be holy as God is holy.  We forget this easily when we are in the thick of the battle in our afflictions and strife. 

Your life right now, dear reader, may not be one that is mired in suffering and steeped in pain.  God be praised if this blog finds you in this state in life.  But as for the reader who, when her eyes landed on these words, find the struggle that I strained to make explicit and even graphic something that she can definitely resonate with and identify as real in her life, my prayer is that these words act like a salve to a wound that she may be nursing.  And may that hardened and calloused heart that has covered a once-loving and docile heart begin to beat anew with the hope and the knowledge that even in suffering and trial, God is still a loving God, who does make his sun rise on both the bad and the good in equal amounts. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

On the wisdom of the folly of the Cross

The Catholic Church calendar marks 14 September each year to celebrate the Triumph of the Cross.  This most ignominious sign of shame and disgrace in the age of the Roman Empire is probably the most misunderstood and under-appreciated display of God’s inside-out and upside-down approach towards enlightenment, actualization and salvation. 

It didn’t take much (and still doesn’t) for people to reject any notions of cross-carrying in life.  Yet, Jesus couldn’t make it clearer that all serious followers of his had to renounce the self, and then take up his or her cross, and then follow Jesus.  In other words, there is no cheap and easy discipleship.  Each determined step of being a disciple of Jesus requires an honest apprehension and cognizance of what one finds most difficult to live life the way Christ wants us to.  Perhaps for this reason alone, Christianity can never be called an escapism from life simply because Jesus makes it clear that it is most likely the very things that we run away from, hide from and find most shameful and embarrassing that will end up saving us, because we choose the very difficult option of admitting of our absolutely powerlessness over them on our own, and take them resolutely with us with the strength that comes from Christ.  It’s not that he will condone them, or rationalize them for us, but the very wisdom of God is often shown when our greatest failures become our greatest strengths.

This truth is very much in line with a lot of teachings that have a spiritual background.  It is found in the paradoxes that cannot be understood or comprehended from a mind that uses pure logic and intuition.  That is why Jesus had always spoken of the need for a conversion – a metanoia in the minds of his disciples, because it requires very much of any serious disciple to apprehend reality with a different mind which is ‘beyond’ the mind. 

In the Catholic tradition, when a priest blesses with the Cross, there is a lot in that one simple action.  That the Church chooses to use this instrument of torture and shame to ‘bless’ us in any assembly says a lot more than meets the eye.  It reminds us that our own crosses in life can truly be our hidden blessings if we but use them toward our sanctification.  It would seem illogical that our failures and hardships and weaknesses can ‘bless’ us, but this is what the Cross on Calvary boldly showed to be true. 

When I bless Crosses for the lay faithful, or when I bless them with a Cross, my prayer is always that the person never runs away from their crosses, their fears and their weaknesses in life.  My heartfelt prayer is that they take courage to face their challenges in life, whatever they may be, because this is the hidden wisdom behind the triumph of the Cross. 

But much as I try to impart this through the prayers I formulate, I get a sense that oftentimes, the person much prefers to use the cross as a means to keep at bay (or at least at a comfortable distance) the things that make living both a challenge and a struggle.  Using the Cross as a sort of a talisman to ward off evil will hardly lead one to living a transformed life, if one does not heed Jesus’ advice to take up one’s cross and follow him.