Monday, February 8, 2016

When ashes are deliberately smeared on our foreheads once a year.

There are many rituals that we have in the Catholic Church which may seem strange or even bizarre to the uninitiated.  Looking from the outside, some of these rituals can perhaps come off looking a tad peculiar and almost anomalous to anything that proclaims to be rational and sound.  One of these may be the imposition of ashes on our foreheads once a year, when the liturgical season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

The very action of accepting with a willingness to have our faces smeared and smudged with dirt militates against all that the human person does and ensures to have an appearance that is pleasant and presentable to the world.  As a priest who has presided over this rite and have marred the visage of so many of my parishioners over the years each Ash Wednesday, it never fails to make me ponder over the significance of this action.  After the last parishioner walks back to the pew, and after I have washed my hands and turn to face the entire congregation, I am always a little startled and astounded to see each face looking at me, with a face carrying a blot of dirt.  Every person, baptized or not, young or old, geriatric or infant gets to come up to receive this smudge on their foreheads during this Mass.  It has a meaning that goes deep.  Symbolically, it reminds each one present that no matter what rank, status, title or background, we all share a commonality that we hardly care to acknowledge, but when we do, will go a long way towards our spiritual maturity.  It is the revelation that beneath all the fanciness that we use to cover up our shared inadequacies and insufficiencies, we are all made of dust, as we remember that ‘we are dust, and unto dust we shall return’. 

It makes me call to mind something that a Japanese Catholic priest I got to know many years ago shared with me about his culture.  Many of you readers may know about this, as I am sure you are well travelled and some have been to Japan to experience this firsthand.  I am referring to the ‘Onsen culture’ so prevalent in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

In Japan, the prevalence of public baths is well known.  From big cities to rustic and charming villages near natural and picturesque thermal hot springs, the Japanese people love these baths.  And one thing that no outsider or visitor is spared or given exception is that one has to go into these baths with not a stitch of clothing on.  Most of these, apparently, have specific areas for male and female bathing.  And the Japanese will willingly tell you that once in the baths, without a stitch on to hide behind or to give any false sense of superiority or rank to another human being, all persons are the same.  One could be a garbage collector and be seated in a large hot tub next to a high court judge or the chief of police, or even the Mayor of the city, but there is a shared commonality that levels rank and status. 

If nudity achieves this, my reflection is that so does the placing of ashes on the faces of every person at the Ash Wednesday liturgy.  It makes it crystal clear that every person in the church, including the presiding priest in the sanctuary, is a sinner who is constantly in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  At the heart of it all, each person, in big and small ways, has a predilection to pander to his or her own egos and selfish desires on so many levels, and it is a reminder to all that as a community, as a Church and as a people of God, we need to at least once a year to sit in those ashes to jolt us back to reality that we are really as good as our undiscovered sins due to our make-up and an outward appearance that shields our fragility.

The entering into the 40 days of Lent is not a time of maudlin melancholy either.  It is not a pity-party that starts right after Mardi Gras and ends when the Gloria bells are rung at the Holy Thursday Mass.  These days of penitence and simple living are really a retreat at a community level, a going-back to re-appreciate how our sins had given us the only chance of ever regaining entry into heaven through the passion and saving action of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.  As in wartime, retreats are times of reorganization and re-energizing to be enabled to make further advances later on.  So too does the season of Lent energize us for our constant battle with sin and evil.

Indeed, the Easter promise of the resurrection was, and is always going to be ours to share and enjoy, but it is also something that we must never take for granted either.  Lent readjusts our points of focus in life for all of us.  The ashes on our foreheads remind us that no one is exempt.  As St Paul said, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  Lent is a time of returning to humble beginnings and perhaps a reminder that for most of us, we may have been wearing too much make-up. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

How having a 'fear of God' can be helpful in our spiritual lives.

Scripture tells us that the fear of God is the first stage of wisdom, and this is found in Proverbs 9:10.  It does seem to be contrary to what Jesus came to reveal to us about God, and that God is love.  If God is love, and we do believe that he is, then where and how does fear have a part in love?  How do we understand this in our spiritual thirst and yen for holiness?  John’s epistle tells us that there is no fear in love, and that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).   These two passages from sacred scripture do seem to be antithetical to each other, resulting in us asking then, which one is right?

In essence, they both are.  Wisdom is after all, the ability to act and think using insight and understanding.  What we understand and what our insights give us about God ultimately has to be precipitated on the belief that at the heart of our fundament is that God is the very cause of our being, and that our universe ultimately has to orbit around him.  A man is then truly wise if all his actions and his motives in life demonstrate this in clear and vivid ways.  Coming before God is then akin to seeking an audience with a being who has so much above us in terms of authority and power.  Anyone who has had the experience of physically meeting a ‘larger than life’ figure would be unnerved by this prospect.  Taken in this light then, the ‘fear of God’ would be similar to be holding someone in complete awe.

But on the level of language alone, it is natural to think that the fear of God denotes a fear of being punished by him.  Spiritual writer Timothy Keller uses a refreshing analogy to have a healthy and helpful understanding of this ‘fear’.  Imagine, he says, that you are introduced to a person whom you have always held in great admiration.  You reach out to shake his/her hand, and it strikes you that you are actually in the process of meeting this person.  Think of someone who is totally star-struck and is at a loss for words.  You are trembling and sweating at the same time, and find yourself breathing to a point of being out of breath.  You are ‘suffering’ not because you are fearful of being punished by this person, but because you are very afraid of either doing or saying something that may spoil the moment or end up being inappropriate.  There is a combination of both a joyful admiration admixed with a fearfulness. 

If this is a common experience when it comes to meeting a human person, how much more is this then a proper response when it comes to God! 

As a priest, I have tried to help my congregation come to a healthy understanding of this fear of God by drawing on yet another analogy.  Think of a man and a woman living in the full knowledge of their marital love and the vows that they made on their wedding day – vows that would bring them strength when their times are tested, and vows that when kept and respected become powerful indications that God’s love for us all have an eternal and unconditional dimension.  When this ‘full knowledge’ of the severity of these vows is lived out, there is yet another dimension that is present – that of fear – a holy fear that causes each person in this covenant to never want to be untrue or unfaithful to a relationship that has such deep and abiding implications. 

Any unfaithfulness or dishonesty that occurs then truly will aggrieve and mar this beauty.  It is, as Keller also says, like the fear that we have when someone places an exquisite, utterly beautiful and priceless vase in our hands.  We tremble when we think of this, not because the vase can hurt us.  It can’t!  But we are terrified of the possibility of our hurting it!  In the same analogous way, God of course cannot be hurt by us, but we can, and often do, aggrieve God by our actions – the same God who has always been holding us in love, and has saved us from eternal damnation.

The modern mind will always find ways to skirt around the issue of needing to be in fear of God.  After all, isn’t the clarion call heard from so many that the ultimate liberation of the human heart is when one is totally free and lives with wild abandon and with no fear at all?  The very notion of fear in a relationship seems to show a weakness than strength, and powerlessness rather than a confidence. 

Words can only convey that much of a truth.  We all know that.  Yet, we also know that as much as words are limited, they convey a truth that goes deep.  The ‘fear of God’ suffers the same way.  Heard wrongly, it makes God out to be an ogre.  Taken positively, the relationship that we have with the Divine can only grow and blossom.

Monday, January 25, 2016

We start by getting it wrong, but God doesn't.

There is a commonality that we share in our humanity that reveals right from the start that we are born into a lack.  Much as it is true that we are born with nothing and that we return with nothing, this shows up in the way that everything about us that we have in life needs to be learnt, acquired, nurtured and grown.

In just about every dimension in life, we seem to begin by getting it wrong.  We stumble, we fumble, we stagger and often, make many mistakes and errors.  Why is it that we humans, who are made to take care of creation and be stewards over it begin to move first by rolling, then crawling backwards, then forwards.  Then we start by standing very unsteadily, falling many times over, and after about a year begin to finally walk on our two legs?  The animal kingdom, on the other hand, seem to be able to move on their own in a relatively short time after birth, and with much less of a struggle.  It does seem to be ironic. 

And of course, apart from movement, everything else about us begins with a struggle, and we do not always make the correct turns in life’s journey.  Learning something new at any age reveals a need for discipline, effort and training.  We are not (at least not the majority of us) gifted with such skills as to automatically do something well when we start.  I’m only now at age 50 taking up violin lessons, and I’m facing the reality that we begin anything serious by making mistake after mistake, by correcting acquired bad habits and by putting in the discipline of arduous practice.

As I grow in my vocation as a priest of God, counseling and guiding souls, this reality becomes evidently clear too in our spiritual lives.  We love God often by getting it wrong, and most of us do not have the grace to begin by getting it right.

Would that it was that we blast from the spiritual starting blocks by loving God correctly.  Actually our first parents did, but they botched it up soon after that perfect start.  Some would even venture to call that a false start.  And we have all paid the price for that with the need to satisfy the self in so many ways.  We also suffer in the way that our in-born human weaknesses (a.k.a. sin) often cause us to have a stilted notion of God, and many do begin by making him out to be some kind of divine fairy-godfather and wish-granter, or perhaps a protective shield against life’s trials and traumas. 

If our whole lives are a preparation for our final and eternal union with God, where heaven is our shared life’s goal, it necessarily means that we need to nurture a loving heart fit for the kingdom of God.  Any spiritual director of any credibility then has to have this as an aim for anyone coming to him or her for this important guidance in life.

To learn to love as God loves has to be this life-goal for us.  If the ways that we love are so strident when placed alongside God’s love, how could we ever even hope to have heaven, let alone truly be happy there?  For one whose definition of love is contrary to God’s love, heaven itself will be hell. 

John Piper, a Baptist theologian once asked very pointedly this question in one of his talks, and I think he struck gold with it.  He told his listeners to imagine that they were at the end of their lives, and after dying, find themselves in a place where they had every desire and wish fulfilled.  He asked them to imagine that they had the fit and healthy body that they always dreamed of, the intelligence of a Mensa member, the skill to play music instruments at a professional level, wealth and riches beyond imagination and are surrounded by all your loved ones and friends.  But Jesus is not there.  Would you still want to be there?

The answer to this can be terribly disturbing.  If we are honest about it and say that we will choose that place even though Jesus is not there, it may well reveal that in our spiritual quest, we have never really made it of prime importance to have that eternal relationship with God that will see us into everlasting happiness.  It may well reveal that we have gone after the things of God than knowing and loving the God of things.  It may also reveal that we have not even begun to love God at a deep and intrinsic level. 

But to be sure, I have also seen (yes, even in myself) that true growth in love of God is never linear.  Like learning anything, it happens with making mistakes, perhaps even repeating them ad nauseam, till we truly can say that we have made that ‘turn around’, and repented to live and love aright.  Indeed, we have, most of us, started by getting it wrong.  But it should never stop us from trying over and over to get it right. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

When children suffer.

In this blog of mine, I have reflected much about suffering and going through physical trials in life, but always from the vista of an adult.  Before my illness and subsequent therapy and transplant and the slow recovery, I had only an imagined concept of serious suffering brought on by illness, and could only empathize up to a certain point.  The gift of my cancer experience brought me into the realm of the patient, right into the depth of his condition, and allowed me a privileged access into the journey of a life-threatening illness.

Many have come up to me from time to time to express their gratitude for writing about the journey in a no-holds barred way, and to provide strength and hope for those whose lives had entered into a similar darkness.  While I am very happy to be able to give this darkness some light, I do feel rather handicapped in giving much relief to children who suffer in a debilitating way.  Adults (though not all of them) may be more equipped to handle suffering with a strength that comes from understanding the virtues of longsuffering and sacrifice.  Bringing people to see a higher purpose for their trials in life beyond themselves is always going to be a great challenge for any minister.  My aim and purpose in reaching out to those with such conditions is never primarily to ask for a direct and instant alleviation to their suffering, but always that the person begins to have a broader horizon of hope before them opening up.  And this horizon has to have the possibility of accepting the reality that life is not made worse by the presence of illness and darkness, but that these are seen now to be the hitherto unseen and unappreciated doorways through which God makes his presence, love and yes, even joy, known and real. 

This challenge is great for an adult and many are not ready to live in this large way.  And if adults find this to be a stumbling block towards an integral growth in faith, how more challenging is it to have children embrace suffering with a positive outlook, without their coming away from their brush with serious illness leaving them having a notion of God that dishes out suffering to innocent children?  Of course this would be a stilted notion of God, but doesn’t God bear a great amount of ‘risk’ when he allows little children to suffer this way? 

Children don’t easily have the experience in life to intuit that there is a virtue in bearing any form of crosses in life.  The natural instinct of parents is to make their childhood as stress-free and anxiety-free as possible, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Everyone wants the best for their children, but not every parent has the faith to believe that what is ‘best’ can also include what is hard to fathom as well.  In one’s formative years, going through a prolonged period of pain and suffering or having encountered vulnerability at a tender age that sets one apart from one’s peers and schoolmates can often shake one’s confidence later on in life.  At the same time, when I minister to such children, I do not want to be the one who brings false hope and ersatz happiness during a visit, just to have them re-enter into darkness and sadness after I leave the home or hospital. 

The real problem is not that children suffer, but that we (either as adults or ministers who tend to them) often think that we need to give them clear and direct answers.  These are the places of life that I often call ‘life’s border situations’, and answers to such questions never satisfy nor are ever enough.  What these situations give us are opportunities to demonstrate Christian compassion, either to the children or to their parents, to show them that through us, God sits with them in their darkness and pain. 

On Calvary, Jesus did just that.  No trite answers were given to, nor demanded by him from the Father.  Jesus hung there with a humanity filled with sin so that we would not have to despair despite our sinfulness.  We often resist being there with people at the level of their pain and confusion chiefly because we are very uncomfortable with merely giving presence to pain.  We are more ‘useful’ when we can give salve instead. 

I remember reading about a visit of Pope Francis’ to the Philippines early last year, where a young 12-year-old girl, weeping, asked the Pope why God allowed terrible things to happen to children.  The Pope said something rather profound when he replied that the nucleus of her question almost doesn’t have a reply.  He went on to say that it is only when we too can cry with her about the same things that we come close to answering the question.  Compassion is a great healer of wounds, and these situations of misfortune and unexplained suffering enable our hearts to soften and take on a Christ-like character. 

When I think of this, I become a lot more sensitive to the ways that I tell parents of suffering children that I will pray for them and their child.  I sit a little longer with them at the hospital bed, and when possible, hold their hands or heads a little more tenderly.  Words not only become cumbersome, but perhaps ineffective and get in the way. 

It brings to mind something that I read about and reflected on in a blog post a few months ago, where I wrote about a man who had intentions of bringing hope to those in a children’s section of a hospital.  He decided to go dressed as a clown, but realized that clowns can also frighten some children.  They had, after all, gone through so much that had caused them fear in their illness. 

So he decided to make his rounds bringing popcorn to them.  But he didn’t always give them the popcorn to eat.  When the children were in tears, he would take a popped corn, and mop up their tears and then, right away, toss this into his mouth. 

This may sound bizarre but I found this to be a demonstration of what compassion should do.  It may not stop the tears, it may not give answers, but it shows that someone is willing to absorb at least a little of the confusion, the wounds and the contusions of life.  Christ did this for us on Calvary.  He didn’t give answers from heaven.  His compassion and mercy gives reasons for us to do the same in ways big and small.