Monday, September 22, 2014

The quest for sainthood and the perfect soba – attaining perfection is not possible.

One of my few “guilty pleasures” in my convalescence and time out from full time ministry is to watch episodes of meaningful food documentaries that take me to another land and another culture.  Not being able to travel in my condition to these exotic locations, I ‘visit’ them via the cable television programmes and some of them end up teaching me more than mere culinary secrets and skills.  Some of them impart a hidden doorway that also reveals similar truths to the spiritual life. 

In one of the episodes of the series “Destination Flavours”, the host of the programme takes us to Osaka and a segment features a simple and unassuming soba noodle maker who has dedicated his life to his craft.  For the uninitiated, soba is a noodle made of buckwheat flour, cooked in boiling water, chilled in an ice bath, and eaten with a dipping sauce that comprises flavour-imparting ingredients like kombu (a dried seaweed), dried sardines, dried bonito, soya sauce and honey.  Though this humble chef had been doing this everyday for years, and is noted for his attention to detail to the extent of grinding his own buckwheat to ensure that he gets the exact type of flour that he is contented to work with, and aging his own sauces, he said in the interview that he has not reached perfection.  When asked if he was trying to make the perfect soba, he humbly responded that yes, he was trying, but till the end of his life, he will not be able to reach perfection.  Just as long as he keeps trying, continuing to work toward it, he will get closer.  There was a palpable contentment in his response, and yet, something that was also very enduring in his humility.  One doesn’t feel any tension or frustration in his admission of his inability to reach perfection.  I couldn’t help but see in this quest something that we all can adapt and adopt in our own quest for spiritual perfection, which is sainthood.

The fact that the church never declares anyone a true living saint is testimony that our lives here on earth are always short of the perfection that we inwardly seek.  Our weakened state of beings as humans who are prone to falling into sin and giving in to temptation means that there is no one time that we can ever be contented with ourselves.  Even immediately after stepping out of the confessional, we will be facing seemingly facile temptations that makes us ‘miss the mark’ of perfection.  Those of us who are more prone to habitual sin and are humble enough to constantly seek God’s forgiveness and mercy will readily see the truth in this “two steps forward and one step back” movement that marks the life of any serious saint ‘wannabe’.

Despite the difficulties that we face in climbing this mountain toward holiness and sainthood, we know that deep within, we cannot but plod on.  It is not, as some would think, a futile and unavailing exercise.  Why?  Perhaps it is because if we are truly honest to ourselves, we know that deep within, we are made for a heavenly life, and that this desire for heavenly perfection will be our ultimate happiness.  It is the soft whispers of God’s prevenient grace working in our lives, to use a theological reference.  Yet, we also know that on this side of heaven, perfection is merely a concept, and something that we can only strive for, but never ever truly grasp or attain.  The strange and alluring thing about grace is that the moment we think we have grasped it in our hands and gained control of it, we don’t.  One wonders if lovers can compare this with what is often called the ‘thrill of the chase’. 

In our most humble admission, we can only say that we are merely striving for that perfection, but are happy to do so.  Just like the soba master and the perfection that he seeks.  He knows that deep inside, he will never ever attain it, but that does not make it a futile or idle exercise.  He has spent a large part of his life dedicated to his craft, making sure that each ingredient he uses, each measurement, each turn of his uncut dough, and the width of his hand-cut noodles are as perfect and exact as they can be, it will never reach perfection.  The entire exercise each day becomes something which he merely puts his whole being into, and this is where the parallels between spirituality and something as seemingly facile as soba-making come so close. 

If one can put in that much dedication and care for a craft that is as seemingly mundane and areligious as soba making, what more for our spiritual lives which have an end that is eternal?  If only we put in as much seriousness in the different ‘ingredients’ that contribute to our lives, I am sure we will go far in our thirst and desire for sacredness resulting in being spiritually (and perhaps even physically) wholesome.

The ingredients of our spiritual life are what fill our everyday lives.  How we react to the 6am alarm that calls us to face the breaking dawn; what is in our minds as we start that drive to work or take the public transport; the kind of internal comments that we make about the things we see around us; how we approach our fellow workers and family members; how we fill our God-given 24 hours in the day; the kind of things that we allow ourselves to be affected by; and of course, the judgments that we make throughout the day.  Knowing that each of these elements contribute to our search for the attainment of heavenly perfection makes it clear that though we may desire perfection, we will most just as likely fall short of it.  But we also know that we cannot just give up altogether because that will be denying our truest selves.  That true self inside of each of us only rests when we finally rest in Him.  St Augustine got that so right.

Just like the humble soba-maker who said that he was still trying to make the perfect soba even though he had been at his craft for years, so too should we as people striving toward sainthood also need to say that we are still trying - trying to get closer and closer to our ultimate aim but with less and less tension and frustration, and to never forget to give God thanks for each moment of grace for being able to make small steps in that ascent towards heaven.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why we need to praise God and glorify the Trinity as a constant practice.

One of the most common prayers that the Catholic prays, apart from the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary is the Glory Be.  In this simple and short prayer, we make a very simple statement, or as traditional Catholicism calls it an ejaculation, that gives glory to the three persons of the Blessed Trinity whom we acknowledge has always existed, and will always exist for all time.  Why is this a prayer?  After all, there is no formal petition in this prayer whilst in the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary there are obvious petitionary phrases.  What is at the heart of this prayer is a doxology with an origin that is traceable back to seventh century Christendom, and vestiges of it can be found in St Paul’s own writing.  What is the spirit behind this prayer?

Because it primarily serves to glorify God and nothing else, a good starting point would be to ask ourselves why does God need glorification?  Is he not satisfied with and in himself that he needs this seemingly ego-boosting utterance to reassure his dominance, power and majesty over his creation?  Without doubt, we have to contend that God has always been full in himself.  As the preface in the Eucharistic Prayer (Common Preface IV in the Roman Missal) states so clearly, “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but profit us for our salvation”, so God definitely has no need at all of our praises.  God doesn’t need us to glorify him.  He is not needy in any way.  He is always and has always been sufficient.  Yet, we still do glorify God and the Church is constantly calling us to do this as a unified body.  This is because doing this reminds us of who God is, and who we are.  We forget this so easily, and so often.

Our constantly moving and working minds are a living testimony that nothing in us is static and unchanged.  We are constantly moving, thinking, remembering (living in some kind of past) and imagining (hoping for some kind of future).  The self-unassured and oftentimes insecure ego is also on the constant watch for some sort of self aggrandizement that asserts our presence and importance in the world around us, perhaps in a way reminding us that we are alive.  We just seem to be wired this way.  Just look at how furious postings of photos of the self and what the self is either wearing, eating, where the self is staying, going, enjoying, hating, loving and thinking are put up constantly on the social media and one will find evidence of this in spades.  Though not morally wrong in itself, what can easily happen is that we think this is normal, and that the more we do this, the happier we will be, putting ourselves on grand display and at the centre of just about everything.
Doe God want us to be happy?  Without doubt.  But our definition of happiness narrows and diminishes when we displace God from the centre and put ourselves in his place. When we purposefully remind ourselves from time to time that this happiness, no matter how temporal or temporary it is in the ways that we promote ourselves has to also include glorifying the one who makes it all possible, we gain back our true centre in God and that redefines our happiness and our pursuits of all that we hope makes us happy.  From being eccentric (literally meaning “out of or off-centre), we put God where he should always be – at the centre of our lives and of our world.

If there is one reason alone for praying this prayer often it will be this that I have tried to put across in terms current and with examples that I hope most people can identify with. 

The other reason that we need to pray this prayer often is because of the fact that we are made in God’s divine image.  When we pray this with a regularity that is as familiar to us as the beating of our hearts, it aligns us once more to our great and humble origins as a people of God, made in his image, and made in love for love.  It will no longer be just about us – our lives, our purposes and our origins will be re-instilled in our very being that we live in order to glorify God who delights in bringing glory to our own lives when lived in his sight and in his love.  When we are aware of this constantly, it gives us a very firm foundation to face anything that life may give us in terms of challenges, failures, sickness and bad news in general.  Our oneness in God is not hampered nor adversely affected by anything negative because our very being is in God who is constant.  We stand then, on a very secure grounding.

Perhaps it is too idealistic to stop everything in our lives and direct our hearts and minds to God in prayer in the busyness of our day.  I can only imagine what kind of chaos it may cause.  But what could be done is that while we are busy with our lives, doing what we do on a daily basis on the social media, using the many means of communication and putting our God-given talents to good use, it is also good to have this prayer silently prayed in the depths of our hearts simultaneously.  This will help to ensure that we do everything “ad majoram dei gloriam”, or for the greater glory of God. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Imparting heavenly truth is good, but it can take a hell of a long time.

One of the regular blogs of spiritual writers which I very often read with great interest is one written by a priest, Msgr Charles Pope who ministers in the Washington DC diocese.  A very erudite and astute priest, he has orthodox views and is unabashedly bold in upholding the truths of the faith, but when doing so, usually manages to bring across his point clearly and without being wishy-washy.  An example of this is clear in the following quote from one of his recent blog entries where he wrote passionately about the absurdity of the Cross in a hedonistic world. 

He wrote: And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the Cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read “our”) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)”

It is a prophetic spirit that one is endowed with that enables a preacher and teacher to dare to be so clear about just how challenging the true Christian life is.  Yet, we also know that if we want our listeners to be won over to living a true life of a dedicated Christian, their defenses will have to be lowered, and this hardly happens when it is forced and commanded.  Msgr Pope may ‘tell it like it is’, but he is instructing the masses through the written media.  It is when we need to impart this kind of ‘hard’ teachings to another person, that we have to be mindful of so many other things, and one of them is the proclivity of resistance. 

Like many things in life, we resist it when we are forced to do it, and our strangely in-born resistance to change and conform becomes tested.  Where do we see this played out with great drama?  Teaching toddlers patience, trying to get them to eat vegetables and wanting them to learn that there are things that are bad and forbidden will show this aspect of our shared humanity very clearly.  It’s almost somehow encoded in our DNA.  I see this in two of my young but adorable godchildren. 

I was taught a valuable lesson by one of their mothers recently.  Children and young people share something in common – they often resent being told, but when something is shown and demonstrated in life by one’s parents and elders, something begins to happen – they will slowly (and the operative word here is S-L-O-W-L-Y) see the value in the discipline and teaching that is being lived by the example shown. 

Like the formation of values in our children, so too does the formation of Christian ideals in their lives take time.  Would that it could be imparted and accepted in one swift lesson!  Unfortunately, we also know that what is learnt overnight is also often unlearnt and forgotten in often the same span of time.  God knew that the Hebrew people had stubbornness in their hearts and perhaps this is why one whole generation (40 years in biblical terminology) had to pass before they actually entered the Promised Land.

But I can hear some parents lamenting with a worried heart – what if they still don’t learn when they are adults?  I know many parents of confirmed Catholics who have since left the Church and now are parents themselves, and have never thought of returning to the faith that they were baptized into.  It aches their hearts to no end to see their children (and even grand children) living this way.  But what seems to be a common denominator is their continued love of their children. 

Perhaps this is just a small representation of God’s immense love and mercy that is constantly shown to us in our lives.  His demands are tough, he minces not his words (how much clearer can the ten commandments be?) and he doesn’t want us to be lukewarm in living out our faith (ref Rev. 3:16).  Yet, God does not stop loving and giving his grace so necessary for our deeper and deeper conversion.  These divine overtures, I often say, never end but sometimes, they do get drowned out by the cacophony of the false teachings of the world.

To be patient in the way that God’s intricate plan pans out takes a lot of faith and to a large extent, wisdom.  We know that these two – faith and wisdom often take a long time to develop in us.  When I catch myself being impatient with the slowness to change in others, an important thing to do is to remind myself of just how slow my own journey towards maturity and mellowness has been, and is still on-going.  These very qualities which I wish to have, are evidenced in me far less frequently than I wish to admit. 

To want to be perfected in a short span of time is akin to spiritual suicide.  Like what Col. Nathan Jessup (the character played by Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men) said, many of us can’t yet “handle the truth”, so we have to learn in small steps along the way.  Perhaps this is what God meant when he said that one would die if one saw the face of God.  Many of us cannot take in that much light, truth and love in an instance, for we would most surely be blinded by the overwhelming presence of God’s abundant goodness when our hearts are just not ready for them.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The two natures that every priest possesses

Theologically we say that Christ has two natures in one person, the divine nature of God, and the human nature as man.  The ordained priest too, has two “natures”, though not in same understanding.  Bishop Fulton Sheen in a book on the Priesthood had an insight when he said that like Peter, every priest also has two “natures” – a human nature which links him to any other man, and a priestly nature, which makes him another Christ. 

This is highly and significantly symbolized in Christ’s choice of Simon as a Christian priest, given the new name of Peter to represent his new character.  But he wasn’t called to leave his old name behind.  Simon now had a double-barreled name of Simon Peter.  “Peter” came with his new vocation; his new calling.  Simon would always be Simon bar Jona (son of Jona), whilst the addition of Peter gave him the reminder that he was also the priest chosen by the Son of God.  Did this mean that he no longer was Simon, and that he was no longer ‘human’?  Not at all.  One name did not negate the other, just as one ‘nature’ did not overshadow or displace the other.  But the truth in the unfolding of the life of Simon Peter from that day on was that like many of us priests, sometimes Simon (or the human part of him) ruled, and at times, Peter (the priestly dimension) ruled.

At each point of time in our lives as priests, either Simon or Peter has mastery.  It was after the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Apostles at the Pentecost event that there was less evidence of Simon.  What can be surmised about this is that with the Holy Spirit’s influence and energy, Simon who had so many times in the past been so impetuous, compromising and cowardly is now given the strength to become steadfast and courageous. 

One of the most telling examples of the classic struggle between the two natures of a priest is seen in the conversation that Jesus had with Simon at Caesarea Philippi, the gospel passage that was encountered in last Sunday’s liturgy.  There was an almost divine illumination in Simon when he proclaimed Christ as the Messiah, but the very next moment when Jesus also mentioned about the imperative of his impending crucifixion, we see him remonstrating with this seeming inconceivable idea, causing him to be called Satan.  From being a rock to a stumbling stone in almost a blink of an eye.  Any priest who is honest enough about his human foibles will be able to commiserate with Peter how he too, has seen this scene played out in his own life, where at one moment he was Christ, and when he was unthinking and worldly, also became Satan (a deceiver)?

When we priests have a certain unwillingness and reluctance to imitate our Lord in accepting his ways of being crucified, and prefer to go the way of comfort, the elevated ego and maybe the preference of comfort at the expense of sacrifice for others and suffering souls, we also fail to imitate Christ as we should.  But the pattern does seem to have a certain wave of similarity in many vocation stories of the priesthood.  On our day of ordination, it seems so beautiful and rosy to want to go all out to become another Christ for the world.  Like many married couples have such rosy ideals at the Altar when they exchange their vows for life, the priest too, whether they like to admit it or not, have their ‘rosy’ pictures of the priesthood and how holy their lives can be.

Yet we also know that many of us priests have in our lives fallen short of these ideals.  Somewhere along the way of our living out our priesthood, this ideal and these rosy images began to take on a more sepia tone.  Why do priests fall?  Why do some of us become jaded?  How did our lustre for souls become tarnished and dull?  Some of us seem to have reduced the priesthood to one of ‘coasting’ along and the fires of devotion are hardly even embers that can give off any heat, let alone light other lives that need to see the Light of Christ and experience the flame of his love.

There are many possible reasons for this, and I tend to concur with Bishop Sheen’s observation that one of most common reasons for this is when the priest abandons his personal time with the Lord in the daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament. 

It’s not talked about often, but perhaps it is something that we need to.  We tell people of the need to pray but if we don’t commit to a dedicated prayer life ourselves, when we only pray when it is our ‘duty’ to celebrate the parish mass, or when it is our ‘turn’ to preside over the parish monthly Holy Hour or to lead the Rosary during the Marian months, we easily turn our lifeline to holiness into an entangled mess, and we slowly let go of what enables us to strive to be holy priests. 

In Luke 22:40, Jesus reminds them to “pray that you may not enter into temptation”.  Isn’t it significant that when Jesus saw his disciples sleeping in the garden of Gethsamane on the night prior to his passion, that he addressed Peter as Simon?  Simon was not willing to pray, and somehow lost the battle.  St Theresa of Avila said of prayer so significantly that he who omits prayer needs no devil to cast him into hell; he casts himself into it. 

We priests can give all sorts of apparently valid reasons why we don’t offer up an hour of our day before the Eucharistic Lord.  Our work is our prayer.  We have to visit the sick, prepare for talks, and go for endless meetings.  These all sound so valid, but deep inside, any priest will know that if it is not the Lord’s grace and energy that enables us to do all that, we are merely running on our own steam, and this steam will cool down sooner or later.  Our palate for the things spiritual soon become jaded and in an ironic twist, even the presence and talk of saintly priests can become annoying. 

In my convalescence since my transplant, I had a long period of about five months where I had absolutely no appetite nor desire to eat.  I lost quite a lot of weight as a result, but I knew that the only way to gain weight was to try to eat, difficult though it was.  I had to literally force myself to swallow food that was just not a simple task.  Part of what enabled me to do this was that I knew that it was good and beneficial for me. 

The same attitude perhaps needs to be taken on by us priests who seem to be jaded, and have somehow lost our appetite for prayer and being in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord.  We must know that what benefits us in the end is good not just for our souls and our priesthood, but also for the flock that we are entrusted with.  Our “Peter” vocation has to take on a more prominent role than our “Simon” nature.   We can be sure that as our Lord promised that he will be with us till the end of time, his grace and mercy will be strengthening us as we struggle between the natures.