Monday, July 17, 2017

Living fully in the present – we need to do this, but so of us few really do.

To be told that we cannot change the past nor anticipate a worrisome future is a given.  As a sentence in written form, it makes perfect sense.  Anyone using logic will agree with this statement.  Yet, there are millions of people who live each day with much needless anxiety and worry because of some event or events that had occurred in their past, or because they are fearful and apprehensive about something that has yet to occur. 

Some well-meaning Christians may even have the idea that carrying a burden of an injured past is what Jesus meant when he said that we should take up our crosses and follow him.  I’m afraid he didn't mean that at all.  Crosses are not our injured past, especially when they are our sins and mistakes that we had made in our unenlightened youth.  Moreover, if we had confessed these in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, seeing these sins as our crosses to be carried for the rest of our lives only shows that we may not believe that God’s mercy was effective and real. 

Perhaps what needs to be made clear is that our memories of our mistakes and transgressions do not mean that God holds these sins against us.  That we remember them are indicative of healthy memory cells and that we are not demented.  The phrase that is often tossed with hardly any thought about our injured past is that we should ‘forgive and forget’.  This is not only wrong, but also something that is truly inhuman.  

My family had a bereavement recently.  I had an unmarried aunt who passed away just last week.  She had been a dementia patient for about six years and she had been very well cared for in a nursing home until she died.  She could hardly respond to our weekly visits and words of comfort to her, and she was not (physically at least) present to us when we were there.  Dementia patients are not able to recall their past because their neurological function is impaired.  That she had forgotten her past was a sign that she was not as healthy as she ought to be.  Wouldn’t it then be a sign of great health, when we say over and over again that we forgive, but are struggling to forget?  It means that our memory cells are working, as they should.  To want to forget, I’m afraid, is to also want some form of dementia.  That cannot be what God wants.  Besides, if we forget the event and because of that, we say that we have forgiven, it doesn’t raise the bar of forgiveness high at all.  But when we remember the event vividly, and at that instant make the conscious decision to forgive, the bar of forgiveness is set very high.  Its value as a virtue is intensified tremendously.  This is why God’s mercy is so amazing.  He looks at us, knows what we have done, but still loves and forgives us. 

True forgiveness must not include memory loss.  Rather, true forgiveness is when we can recall the entire incident that was painful when it occurred, but now, whenever the memory is played out in our minds, the pain and the need for revenge and hankering for our own brand of justice is no longer harboured in our hearts.  We can truly let go of the need to punish (others or even ourselves) and learn from our past.  The memory is not accompanied with a need to hurt anybody, including ourselves.

There is a theological problem with God forgetting anything.  If God is perfect, he has no fault.   Forgetting is a fault, and it is a flaw, and as such, it is also a shortcoming.  God has no shortcomings, as he is perfect.  God is perfect - in beauty, in truth and in love.  God doesn’t so much as erase our past as he forgives it.  After we confess our sins, God doesn’t forget that we had made those errors, no matter how heinous and stupid they were.  Instead, he sees them, but because he also sees how sincere we were in repenting for having committed them, overlooks them with his love.  That is the true part of loving that most of us cannot understand because we do not allow ourselves to practice it in our lives.  We hold with some degree of ransom in our hearts the wrongs that others have done to us in our lives as an edge that we have over them when we forgive them.  It even becomes a ‘bargaining chip’ that we keep stashed away in our hearts ‘just in case’ we need to wield it in the face of those whom we had shown mercy and forgiveness, like some Joker card up our sleeve.  We just find it so hard to see their wrongdoing while at the same time, love them and forgive them for what they have done.  It’s either/or for us.  Either we forget that they have hurt us and we forgive them, or we remember that they have hurt us, and therefore do not forgive them.

But God’s love has the amazing ability to be not either/or, but both/and.  So does his divine mercy.  He sees that we have made mistakes, AND he decides to forgive us at the same time. 

I have encountered myriad instances of people coming to me, telling me that they have been so burdened by their past sins or the wounds of having been sinned against by their nearest and dearest before.  Some have been guilty of having had abortions, some have been betrayed by their spouses, some have betrayed their spouses, some have been dishonest and because of their dishonesty have left a trail of destruction and become destructive themselves. 

Many of them are pained and struggle with peace now because they are still living in the past.  Peace, as far as they are concerned, is predicated on the removal of such struggles and afflictions.  Holding grudges and hurts of the past is living in the past.  Fearing the unrealized outcomes of what has yet to happen is living in the future.  Some cancer patients (as well as those looking after them) project so much into their unrealized future and because they see their future as nothing but a slate of grey, are already living anxiety-filled lives now. 

That is why Jesus tells us not to worry, as tomorrow has enough troubles of its own.  There is so much wisdom there, but so few of us are ready to live it out. 

If you are truly pragmatic, living fully in the present should be the only way to live.  Unfortunately, most of us are only nominal pragmatists.  A great number of us are more like time travellers – living in the past or in the future, and as a result, never happy living this way.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The silence that we are uncomfortable with speaks volumes to our hearts.

I have just come out of a most refreshingly unusual retreat.  Each year, the diocesan priests in Singapore take five days out of our busy and active schedules to come together to make a 5-day retreat.  Apart from fulfilling this requirement of Canon Law, it had also been an occasion for us priests to encounter one another without the agenda of doing any parish-related work.  For years, this diocesan retreat struggled with the element of silence.  It was something that was a challenge to address by our bishop because he is a contemplative at heart.  He knows how important it is for silence if one is truly intent in allowing God to speak to the heart.  Many priests also preach about how golden silence in the spiritual life, but unfortunately, few seem to be able to maintain this at our annual retreat.  The bishop, compassionately, has also seen that his priests only come together this way once a year, and are very happy to meet their brothers in a non-parochial setting.  It is natural for many to want to ‘catch up’ with each other, and because of this, silence had become an issue.  The bishop could only encourage his priests to observe silence and to speak about its virtue.  Being the bishop that he is, he has been fighting the temptation to make this a strict requirement, enforcing it by his power as a bishop, even though he could have if he wanted to.

But it was a true act of grace that something different seemd to happen this year.  There was a very concerted attempt by every priest to strive to maintain silence this time.  I am not sure if it was because the venue was a very different one, given the fact that we no longer had the use of our own seminary which had been the somewhat de riguer venue for our retreat in past years.  A very kind and generous Christian corporation was our benefactor for this year’s retreat venue, and this could have contributed to our response by being generous with our silence as well.  It made a huge difference.

One of the meditations that our retreat master led us on was the ‘woman caught in adultery’ from John’s gospel.  Our retreat master brought home to us an unwritten yet crucial aspect of this familiar episode.  After having been questioned by his accusers of whether to stone the woman as prescribed by the Law of Moses or not, John tells us that Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. 

Much has been speculated on what Jesus wrote, but this was not what we were led to ponder.  That Jesus said nothing as a response had a great teaching lesson for those of us who are perhaps too prone to give answers that are pithy, trite or even scathing and cutting.  After all, Jesus could have easily silenced his interlocutors and adversaries if he wanted to.  But this would be to deal with violence using the same violence of the enemy. He had a counter-intuitive response. Instead, he let his silence be the sword of conscience that revealed the innermost intentions of the heart. 

Silence has the amazing ability to do that.  When one doesn’t hear the words of admonition for a wrongful act, one isn’t given an instruction or accusation from without.  When one is given only silence as a response, it leaves the wrongdoer himself to be his own judge, and one is then forced in a most unthreatened way to be honest and strict with oneself without shame and without the fear of embarrassment. 

This was mercy at its best, and it gave the woman’s accusers the freedom that they needed to walk away, one by one, beginning with the eldest. 

Perhaps the silence that so many priests in our presbyterium seemed to struggle with was due to the fact that they couldn’t appreciate the freedom that a freely-willed silence gives.  I cannot be sure of this, but I have the inkling that the bishop knew this as well, and thus didn’t use his position as a bishop to insist on this.  He must have known that we had to really own it and do it willingly with love if we were to attain the benefit of silence as a free and willing response.  Well, it certainly took a long time for it to happen.

If this bodes true for us priests, it must certainly do the same for our laity, the sheep we are given to lead in our role as their shepherds.  We need to not only tell them that silence has great benefit in a world that is becoming increasingly loud and terribly noisy.  Silence aids the maturing of the interior life that so many pay scant attention to develop and grow.  Our worship of God in our communal celebrations need to have within it an appreciation of the element of silence as well, where God speaks to the depths of our hearts, revealing to us not just himself, but our truest selves, stripped of our myriad pretenses and masks that often fool even ourselves. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

The difference between not going to church and leaving it.

I once came upon a very interesting statement made by a priest, known for his great insights.  He said that there is a prevailing sentiment that there are so many people, both young and old, who are leaving the church.  This prevailing statement or belief, he said, may not be accurate at all.  He surmised that it could be rather that they are simply not going to church.  Their absence from the Sunday congregation, large though they may be in some countries, may not be indicative of their leaving it. 

What this writer said got me thinking this week, as I met quite a few people who were baptized Catholics but were not frequent churchgoers.  They were what some would call the ‘carry, marry, bury’ Catholics – those who would be carried to the baptismal font as infants, marry dutifully in church, and when their lives come to an end, have a funeral Mass or service in the church.  Technically, these people have not actually left the church per se.  To leave the church entails one to denounce the faith and to state somewhat categorically - that one no longer believes that one is saved by Jesus Christ.  I don’t think I have met any Catholic who has renounced his or her faith with such clarity and vehemence.  It is a very bold statement to make, akin to someone wanting to cut off oneself from all family ties.

Even if one chooses to live outside of the Church’s moral teachings and the life of grace, one doesn’t technically get severed from the love and care of the Church.  In choosing a lifestyle that is incongruous to the Church’s moral teachings, one may not have, with full intent and full will, turned one’s back on wanting the life of grace.  In truth, only God can see what goes on in the person’s heart, and who is to say that there is not even one shard of one’s heart that still loves God and wants to honour him?  This, I think, is where the grace of Divine Mercy will always be the thread that one can use to be pulled back into the loving embrace of God. 

Perhaps what lies at the heart of not going to Church is that most people are unaware of what going to Church does to one.  I am quite certain that most people are ignorant of the treasure that God bestows on each person who assiduously avails himself whenever he fulfills what the Church calls the ‘obligation’ of weekly Mass.  Understanding it as an obligation is different from appreciating it as an obligation to receive something from God.  What the Church is really saying is that we need God’s grace in order to be the best possible versions of ourselves that God had always wanted us to be.  Only living in God’s grace can we ever hope to attain that state. 

Perhaps the one problem about catechesis and anything catechetical is that it doesn’t have an automatic mass appeal.  Its truths and its beauty may be real, but it is not something that is ‘viral’.  It definitely needs the work of grace to be one who is somehow more tuned in to God and the call to holiness than the average person. 

But there is also good that the truths of the faith are not going ‘viral’.  The downside to anything viral is that it dies off as quickly as it caught fire.  The truths of our faith are never going to die off.  If it does, it simply means that it was never the truth.

If one has left the church because one had not had an adequate understanding of faith and its fundamentals, one would be guiltier of ignorance than of genuine apostasy.

If you are a parent reading this reflection, and have a child or maybe even a few children who have stopped going to Church, my advice is that you do not give up on praying for them.  Just as a parent doesn’t stop loving their children even if they don’t return the love given, neither should our praying for them cease.  It will be their continued link to the body of Christ, which I am glad to say, isn’t so easily severed.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Is the God we are often angry with really God? Or is he a being of our own construct?

The things that we hear in the confession as confessors often do several things to us.  Many, if not most of history’s well-known confessors have admitted that hearing confessions have humbled them to a great degree.  This is true.  It always humbles us to see how hardened sinners have come to the realization that the God of mercy had been waiting so long for them to come to that point in their lives to admit that they had strayed and drifted so far off course.  It further humbles us to be used by God in the celebration of the Sacrament to impart God’s mercy so lavishly. 

The other thing that is often revealed to us is how stilted and underdeveloped many Catholics are in their notion of God.  While it is lamentably true that many of the faithful have a very simple and basic theology (if at all), what they reveal about how they feel about God, his mercy and his justice give us the impression that so much of their so-called ‘sins’ are really an unnecessary burden that they are carrying around with them, sometimes for a huge part of their Christian lives.

Let me explicate.  Let’s say that a penitent confesses that he is very angry with God because there is so much violence in the world.  In this one line, he is saying much more than he articulates.  First of all, there is the reason for his anger.  When asked why he is angry, he could reply by saying that a loving God, and a God who is just, will not let such injustices happen in the world.  It is also very possible that he is saying that if he were God, he would do a much better job at being God.  There’s a hidden pride in this, if we get to the ‘brass tracks’ of things.  This person may have prayed with great fervor that the violence be stopped by some divine act, and this would solve problems at so many levels, one of them being that angry atheists who don’t believe in God’s existence would then have to rescind their stand.  However, God doesn’t operate this way, and so it gives one some reason to be infuriated with this god.  Again, the hidden or unseen arrogance would be that God’s ways appear to fail, especially when put against the scrutiny of man’s very limited judgments and standards. 

Getting back to being angry with God, putting all that was considered into perspective, it becomes clear on such occasions that the real sin isn’t so much anger with God, but that one’s idea of God was faulty and erroneous.  The penitent was, to be fair, guilty of worshipping a self-created or false god, than of being angry with God per se.

I’ll try to use a metaphor from mathematics to make this clear – if we get the fundamentals of a mathematical formula right, we will be able to apply this to the problems that we are trying to solve, and come to an acceptable answer.  But if we get it wrong from the level of the formula itself, the correct or acceptable answer will never be reached.  We will need to address the formula and right what was wrong in the first place to reach a correct solution.

I am not saying that faith is like math.  It is far more complex and delicate, with more mystery than epistemology.  But just like math, the basics often affect the end with results that are grave and alarming.

I try to spend some time counseling my penitents in the confessional whenever I see signs of this in their confession.  Though it is often appreciated, I am sure what is not appreciated are the very slow moving lines outside my confessional room, resulting in causing penitents in line being angry or impatient with the line that moves with the speed of molasses.  A wise priest once told me – as a confessor, treat each person in the confession as the most important person in the world.  Doing this will always mean that time cannot be hurried.  But if I have helped to open the eyes and mind of a person who had been worshipping a God of his or her own construct, it would have been worth the wait.