Monday, September 18, 2017

The power of intercession and why we ought to always pray for others.

Most of us have at the heart of our prayer life our own personal needs.  There is nothing wrong in this, and when we were children, we were often taught (by well-meaning parents and catechists) to bring these personal needs to God in prayer.  It often resulted that we blurred the lines between seeing God as a loving Father and God as some sort of Santa Claus.  He was the ‘go-to’ person for anything that we needed, and the one who would help us if we found ourselves in any sort of trouble in life. 

While I am not suggesting that as we mature into adulthood that we stop seeing God as the provider of our needs in life, I am asking our older, more mature selves if our petitionary prayers knowingly include space for the needs of others - those who are outside of our selves and even those to whom we are not directly in contact with.  The Church has always taught that there is a need to include in our prayer-life the needs and concerns of others, which is a command that is summarized by the great instruction to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Mother Church has always asked that as members of the body of Christ, we see our neighbour and his needs, concerns and problems as an extension of ourselves.  This is the deeper meaning behind the command to love others as ourselves. 

Wherein lies the power of intercession?  Its power is in the power of love.  This is the force behind the many miraculous cures and even the bodily resuscitations in Sacred Scripture.  When the father of the possessed son goes up to Jesus to ask for him to heal his son, what was it that spurred him to do this?  When the centurion asked that his servant who was ill be seen by Jesus, what lay behind this petition?  When the friends of the paralytic broke the roof to lower him in front of Jesus, what was it that made them so brazen?  After Jesus cured Simon’s Mother-in-Law, Mark tells us that many brought to Jesus all who were ill or possessed by demons.  There is something, apart from faith, that threads through each of these, and it is love.  Love itself has a motivational force.

We don’t pause enough to think about this – that the centurion loved his servant, that the friends of that paralytic on that stretcher loved their friend.  The faith that was required by them was fueled by love.  Love brought them to act in those ways, and in some ways, rather unconventionally. 

I think we underestimate very often this dynamic power of love.  When we raise to God the needs of others, or mouth out our intercessions for them at the designated part of the liturgy at Sunday Mass, how much of our attention is given over to truly loving those for whom we are praying for?  If anything makes a difference, it has to be love. 

After all, when we tell someone that we are praying for them, what we are assuring them is that we love them – love them enough to want to also feel their pain, touch their anxieties, experience their uncertainties, fears and concerns.  And part of the power of intercessory prayers for others is precisely the unspoken power of love.  In doing this, we are also exercising compassion.  The root of this word ‘compassion’ is to ‘suffer with’.  We are suffering with them, even when it is not enunciated.  We are telling them that they are not alone.  In his classic ‘Inferno’, Dante’s image of hell was not one of a place of fire and eternal burnings, but rather a place of frozen isolation, where each soul was trapped in a frozen spot, unable and unwilling to touch another soul because each one was so self-absorbed, self-centered and too egotistic with his own concerns. 

I was listening to a podcast of a spiritual meditation given by a priest who wanted to inspire his listeners to persist in their intercessory prayers for others.  He shared that when he was in the University, he had a very holy and wise priest/lecturer who once shared that the sincere prayer of an 8 year-old child can lead to the conversion of the most hardened criminal behind bars, and this is because of the effectiveness of grace which can move mountains. 

When we pray for others, we are asking that God, through his grace, love the person whom we are praying for.  We are in effect asking that God’s love be the essential add-on to our love – our very limited love for others. 

In our Catholic tradition, we have always looked upon Mary as a tremendous intercessor.  It is not because she has some secret passkey that helps us to get to Jesus by queue-jumping, the way that some nightspots have bouncers outside the club monitoring who gets preferential treatment and who does not.  Rather, intercessions through Mary are efficacious precisely because her love for us and her love for Jesus are unsurpassed.  Our love for Jesus is so limited and so frail, fading off at the slightest hint of trial and turmoil.  But when Mary’s prayers and Mary’s faith are what our prayers are riding on, we are literally in good hands – the hands of a blessed Mother. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Our problem with prayer is often a problem with growing in spiritual maturity.

This scenario is not an uncommon one – you have very clear memories of the time when you prayed and it was so easy to feel the presence of God in your life.  Prayer was never a problem, and you could look all around you and the very sight of nature spoke volumes about God and his creative energy.  It was as if God was constantly speaking to you in many different ways, being present to you, and you wondered how anyone could say that there was no such thing as God.  And then, it somehow all went away. 

Now, you struggle to make it through 10 minutes of contemplation when before, you could bask in it for an hour without your mind drifting off to a million different places.  When before you were so full of confidence and faithful trust in God’s presence and love, now, you seem to be in some sort of a void, and it really seems as if God has decided to stop being present to you.  You now wonder what is wrong with you or your spiritual life.  If the desert is a dry place, your spirit is comparable to the Sahara.  Prayer is truly now a struggle for you.  “Is there anything wrong with me?” you ask.  “And if there is, what is wrong?” 

The simple answer is that there is nothing wrong, but even that is not the full truth.  There is, at the same time, something that IS wrong, and it has to do with your inability to conjure God and his presence and love in a more mature way. 

A person facing this dilemma is really showing signs that he or she is in a state of growth, and any young person will tell you that the phenomena of ‘growing pains’ is very real.  Any person who is sincere in wanting to develop a deep faith relationship with God and who wants to be a spiritually mature person will encounter this in life.  God, it is clear, is not a candy-giver.  While he may give what the spiritual writers call ‘consolations’ as we start out in our faith life, this is not what our faith life should consist of.  Just as a mother knows that giving treats once in a while to her young child can be a motivation or a reward, just thriving on treats alone ends up leaving the child undernourished, with a very unbalanced diet.  Any long-married couple will tell you that the honeymoon period of marriage is not sustainable, and that sooner or later, reality needs to set in and this is where the real hard task of loving with selflessness and generosity comes in.  A spouse in a marriage that constantly longs for that honeymoon experience to never end has not truly matured to live out what constitutes marital sacrifice and unconditional love.

In our initial movements toward God, it is only natural to feel easily motivated, with positive and affective images in prayer.  Neophytes in the faith journey will share this easily.  But when the desolation periods come, and they inevitably will, it doesn’t mean that God has taken a hiatus or turned his back on you.  In fact, it often means that God wants you to grow in the type and quality of your love for him. 

One thing that is undeniable is that one of the true hallmarks of a love that is pure is that it is unconditional.  It is, as the theological definition of love states, “the willing of the good of the other as other”.  In bringing us into the desert, God is really asking of us, his beloved, to purify our love for him and to love him unconditionally too.  Can we love him without asking, hoping and pining for that consolation, insight, and spiritual treat?  Our not experiencing those spiritual highs in our prayer needs to be seen as God’s trust in our love for him, where he has an interior knowing that we can love him unconditionally too. 

Franciscan Richard Rohr says that the way through is always much more difficult than the way around.  Cheap religion, he says, always takes us the way around, whilst true religion beckons us to go into and through the darkness rather than avoid it, or to find a way to explain it away.  Stepping into that darkness where feelings are no longer held out like bait dangled in front of us is stepping into mystery, and also stepping into love.  Only the truly spiritual mature will desire to step into mystery without an eye cast on what he left behind.

Jesus did say those who put their hand on the plough and look back are not fit for the kingdom of God.  Our ‘fitness’ for the kingdom of God requires a conscious and engaged willingness to look at God, and it may require that we image God and his love anew as well.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A truly ‘Christed’ person’s private and public self should not be in much conflict.

Is the Christian life only marked by activity and how ‘productive’ our lives as Christians have been?  The world does seem to hold productivity in high esteem and it gives a lot of credit and emphasis to being productive, as it rewards and recognizes it handsomely with remunerations and accolades.  We have, as a result, become rather addicted to the idea of accumulation, be it accumulating wealth, property, fame, or even ‘likes’ on the social media.  While there is nothing wrong with these in themselves, they somehow prevent us from seeing the positive side in passivity. 

But is there a case for passivity in life?  Is it to be dismissed so easily?  What about parts of our lives where we are not so actively conscious about our ‘doing’?  Will they be counted as anything if we are sometimes just passive and not completely conscious about the things that we do, carrying out our tasks in some sort of knee-jerk, mechanical or even unthinking way?  In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus in speaking about the end times and the final judgment gives us a rather unsettling indication that we will be judged in both our conscious acts of love and charity, as well as the acts of love and charity that were done in a sub-conscious or passive way.  In other words, each moment of our lives are the lens through which God sees our hearts.

Is this unsettling?  For many of us, I believe it is.  Most of us ‘behave’ our best when we are very conscious that we are being watched, or when the spotlight is directly over our heads.  It has very close connection with our very fragile and sensitive egos, as we want to be seen as ‘proper’, ‘dignified’ and ‘moral’ by all and sundry.  But what Jesus alludes to is that we will be judged just as fairly in our sub-conscious and unthinking actions in our closed, private moments in the same way that we are judged in our public and open moments.  In God, there are no ‘closed door’ actions or ‘private moments’ that do not impact or affect the larger body of Christ.  It is not that God is a divine control freak, or some Orwellian “big brother”. 

Rather, what many of us miss when we read this passage of Matthew’s gospel is the imperative of having our entire hearts being turned over to Christ in our efforts of living out our Christian discipleship.  The underlying message or teaching is that the true Christian disciple is one whose entire life is given over to Christ and whose identity becomes truly Christed.  This Christ-like character needs to influence every fiber of our being, such that even in our sub-conscious and unthinking level of existence, there is a call to live out the virtues of our divine filiation.  It permeates our very selves, leaving no part un-Christed. 

This, I believe, is the main struggle with most of our lives.  That we live somewhat compartmentalized lives, and there is a public Christian self that is so safe for all to see or Instagram, and there is the other part – that self that we hide and only a very select group see – it’s what we are ashamed of, what we are embarrassed to make public about, what we aren’t particularly proud of. 

To live in a way that we are not one bit afraid of judgment is to live in a way that there really is nothing to hide.  This is to die a truly happy death.  One spiritual writer once wrote that there is no private morality.  There is only morality.  And he challenged himself by reminding himself daily whether he is living in such a way that if there was a check done on his computer surfing history, his phone messages and chat groups, his locked drawers, will he stand up to scrutiny on all the histories that can be retrieved and searched on it?  In other words, he was alluding to the fact that he was going to be judged not just by his public side, but by his most private side as well. 

This won’t be much of a problem if we are truly and fully identified in Christ.  That’s what a baptism essentially is – a soaking.  When one is soaked in something, nothing is dry.  Hurricane Harvey which drenched the larger part of Houston, Texas last week left so many homes inundated with water.  In many of those homes, nothing was left dry.  Everything was soaked.  Admittedly, using a hurricane as a metaphor for a baptismal soaking has its limits and can raise eyebrows.  Here is where they are distinctively different. 

While a hurricane is a bringer of devastation, baptism is bringer of life.  Being baptized in Christ gives us a whole new identity and hence, a whole new way of living.  The character of Christ permeates our thinking, our attitudes and our behaviour.  Not in a robotic and controlling way, but where we want to cooperate in full freedom because it is good and necessary, showing that we want our baptisms to truly be a sign that we have a new and eternal identity.

Living any other way will mean that we are living compartmentalized lives, and because of this, we will definitely end up being conflicted or even somewhat duplicitous. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

In practicing our faith, we could learn a thing or two from the commercial world – just do it.

One of the virtues and qualities that we admire and appreciate as human beings are faithfulness and fidelity.  There is a sense of admiration and quiet respect that is accorded to people who have stuck with one job for their entire lives, and among the unspoken qualities that these people carry are stability, dedication and reliability.  Dog lovers around the globe share a deep appreciation of their dogs, citing very often that among the great qualities of dogs are their undying loyalty and faithfulness to their masters.  I have personally known of employers of domestic helpers who have had the same helper in their home for over twenty years, and amongst other qualities, trust and faith in the person had been praised and appreciated in the helper.  In one particular case, the helper became so much a part of the family that she became the Godmother of one of the children when he was confirmed in the Sacrament of Confirmation at the age of 15.  Loyalty had been in this case so well received.

Fidelity and faithfulness cannot be bought but have to be earned.  Like anything organic, they do not manifest themselves overnight.  They need to be desired from the beginning, with great intention, and as time passes, they slowly take root and begin building upward.  These very same qualities so easily admired and appreciated in the social and professional life should be just as easily admired and appreciated in our faith life.

When one is spoken of as being loyal, faithful and possessing a sense of fidelity, especially in a marriage covenant, it is taken to mean that one has been unstinting and unwavering in living out the vows one had taken with a deep sense of seriousness.  It’s the living out of the lyrics of the song “Come what may”, the song from the musical Moulin Rouge. 

If this is what human beings appreciate in other human beings as qualities of virtue, we can be quite certain that God too appreciates our acts of fidelity and faithfulness to him.  Fidelity embraces the will to do something and to live out something no matter what, and come what may.  In marriage vows, it is the staying in the marriage covenant “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death do you part”.  This same sentiment has to be applied just as assiduously and conscientiously in the living out of our practices of our faith as Christians.

One of the things that I know many Catholics struggle with, especially the millennials, is the weekly Sunday Mass.  There are many who find it a great challenge to find themselves in the church pews week in and week out, when so many of their peers have far more engaging and ‘enjoyable’ ways of spending their Sunday mornings – at cafes sipping their artisanal cappuccinos, lounging in their pyjamas in front of the television, sleeping in after a tiring night out drinking and partying with friends, or exercising at gyms or participating in some sporting event.  One thing that all of the aforementioned activities share in common is that they satisfy and benefit the self in a rather self-absorbed way. 

But the choice one makes to be faithful to the obligation to the weekly Mass often sees one making the choice to be self-less and other-centered.  Our presence at every Mass strengthens the faith of our fellow brother and sister who is also at Mass.  One’s act of fidelity encourages another’s call to faithfulness to God.  One thing for sure is that when the choice to come to Mass is a deliberate one, where one has willed oneself to do something because it needs to be done, its value in terms of fidelity is increased exponentially.  Even if one doesn’t feel like it, and one does it regardless of the sentiments and feelings, one is building up the foundations of what constitutes fidelity and loyalty. 

Perhaps the biggest thing that bedevils so many of the millennials in the practice of their faith is that the underlying unspoken narrative that so many of them fall prey to is to only do things that serve themselves and put them and their needs first.  It doesn’t sit well with the call to fidelity and faithfulness where there are things in life that just should be done with a consistency that goes beyond how it benefits the self. 

Indeed, there are things that we ought to be doing, and with a consistency and constancy that stands the test of time.  Should I exercise regularly even if the couch and television look far more appealing?  If I truly believe that the long-term benefits will serve me well, I will just do it.  Should I pray even if I don’t feel like it?  If I believe with all my heart that I should, I will myself to just do it.  Should I go to Mass even if I don’t find that it interests me and my mind is running all over the place?  I believe that I should, and so I just do it. 

There is a well-known sporting giant that may have something deeper in their slogan than meets the eye.  Their well-known slogan is “Just do it”.  We will do well to apply this just as diligently to the practice of our faith.  It builds fidelity and faithfulness in more ways than we know.