Monday, May 21, 2018

A prevailing “don’t judge me” culture may be making us soft, making us ill-prepared to meet God.

It is not uncommon to hear people beginning their conversations these days with the phrase “don’t judge me” these days.  Oftentimes, this phrase sets the tone of what is to come in the next sentence, which invariably is a revelation of oneself, one’s actions, one’s words used, or even what one has purchased recently.

The speaker seems to sense deep inside that what is going to be said, shown or revealed is something that would elicit a negative reaction, and that this would be frowned upon and deemed unacceptable.  

I wonder if, as a people, we are developing an allergy toward receiving anything negative in terms of comments or thoughts?  It does seem to be a real issue, and I’m afraid that it doesn’t bode well for us if we are truly interested in maturing and being adult in life.  

A person who only wants to hear the things that please, who makes sure that he surrounds himself with people who approve and hardly critique or correct in a fraternal way will only be living in a fantasy world and hardly develop character.  Anyone familiar with the life story of Gautama Buddha will know that he really began to develop spiritually and mature in real wisdom only when he saw impermanence and suffering in the world outside of his hitherto mollycoddled existence where he was only surrounded by pleasure and comfort. 

If we are only open to hearing good things about ourselves, or are not willing to hear things that in some way appraises us or measures us against some standard, we are really not allowing ourselves to become better, either at our work, our craft, or just better people. Of course, when our choices in life are objectively and morally wrong, when we say "don't judge me", we are really telling others to let us sin in peace.  But if we are true to our conscience, sin and peace are oxymorons.  One is never at peace when one sins.

Undoubtedly, pride is at the heart of this matter, because it really takes humility (and a large dose of it) to be willing to accept the fact that we can do things in a better way, or live life with a larger heart.  It takes a humble heart to say with conviction “I don’t know everything”.  The human ego has a natural aversion towards being commented or critiqued, often taking things personally rather than objectively.

Anyone who has been a novice in a convent, monastery or seminary will know that fraternal correction is par for the course.  This is partly due to the fact that if one manages to reach the point of final vows or priestly ordination, one is going to make the vow or promise of obedience to one’s Superior or the Bishop.  The formation that one undergoes is not something that happens overnight. Rather, it is a journey that takes several years, where one’s life is open to the comments, observations and correction of one’s superiors and formators.  Taking fraternal correction in the right way is always going to be challenging, because the quest for holiness requires of one to be shown and directed ultimately by the Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate director of our lives. Docility, suppleness of heart and humility are a sine qua non for one to mature spiritually.

Imagine if a novice enters the portals of a convent, and takes with her the inner disposition of “don’t judge me” during the coming years of her formation.  It won’t take any stretch of the imagination to see how unhappy she will be as a novice, and how hubristic one may end up after final profession.

Granted, I am sure that hardly anyone who is reading this week’s reflection is going to contemplate seriously going into the religious life.  A glance at the falling numbers of postulants and novices in convents and seminaries will back this statement.  But if we are going to take umbrage the words of those who disagree with us, or who are our detractors, telling them that they shouldn’t judge us, we may be the losers in the end, whether we are contemplating living the religious life or not. The virtue of humility is so attractive regardless of one’s state in life.

Being used to comments that are negative in this life and listening to others telling us that we could do better, and taking it well prepares us for something that none of us is going to escape from when we die – and that is the judgment that awaits us from God himself. 

Are we going to find ourselves telling God “don’t judge me” when we meet him after we die, because we had been constantly telling others this while we lived in this life?  It may seem to be something feisty and spunky now, but it certainly won’t set us up to be humble when we meet our maker.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Practicality, convenience and the faith life.

When our choices and decisions made in life are only based on practicality, we may not be always end up choosing or doing the things that are going to help us to flourish in life.

“It’s just not practical” is the response I often get whenever I am on a one-to-one discussion, giving spiritual direction to people who come to me for advice on living their spiritual lives.  I suppose that if I were to only use practicality or convenience as a guideline to carry out many of the Church’s spiritual norms, I wouldn’t be incorporating them into my daily schedule and life plan with any regularity – e.g. devoting one hour a day of my time before the Blessed Sacrament, or spending half an hour praying the Divine Office, praying the Rosary every day, or taking time to prepare a decent reflection to be shared at daily Mass.  In the eyes of the world, making sure that these are done every day come rain or shine, is simply not practical.  Our days are just full of activities and work as it is.  Aren’t these things just ‘getting in the way’ of so many truly important things in our lives?  What more if one is a parent of a family that has many children, each with their own needs? 

I will agree that all those practices I mentioned before are really not practical. And I am sure that the Church knows very well that they are indeed not practical, because practicality has never been and never will be the yardstick and measure of the acts and norms of the faith life that lead us to holiness and eventual sanctification.  Yet, despite this, we do know doing these with regularity bodes well for our lives.

In all of them, not only is effort needed on our part, but above all, love.  It seems trite to say this, but I am more and more convinced of this.  I see its truth in the very lives of the people I guide and give direction to.  Passivity seems to be the norm for us human beings, and this is seen in our collective human experience – that of preferring the path of least resistance, of choosing something easy rather than something challenging, of leaning towards something requiring less of ourselves in terms of applying ourselves than more, and in preferring to float along life’s lazy river than to swim upstream.  

Make no mistake about it – love really does require effort, and the more effort there is, the more love is needed.  Love in its purest form is always selfless, disinterested in any returns, and for the benefit of the other.  In married life, this will be experienced when one’s spouse cannot (or is unwilling or unable to) return this love in the way or extent that it is given.  

In my journey with engaged couples that I prepare for marriage, I have come to see that the matter of finance and money is often sensitive, and for justifiable reasons. I usually have just one piece of advice to give them, and this advice was not something that came out of my seminary training.  Rather, it was through my years of counselling married couples and seeing how marriages which had sweet beginnings, ended up being either sour, cold or bitter.  It isn’t about there not being enough money in the marriage, but that there isn’t transparency in the way money is either earned or kept.  

One way to prevent this from happening is to not have any secret or private bank accounts or sources of income in a marriage, but that all finances be brought into one joint account.  This way, all expenditures are fodder for conversation and dialogue, requiring there to be humility in the marriage.  Where one previously had complete freedom and independence before the marriage, there is now a certain limitation or curtailment of one’s absolute independence, and one humbly makes the request of the spouse if one fancies purchasing some item for oneself.  Anything that is a ‘secret’ is potentially toxic in a marriage.  In all marriages, there needs to to be transparency and honesty at all levels.  

The first response by the couples that I speak to is inevitably variations of “it’s not practical”.  No, it isn’t practical, nor is it convenient.  I always begin by agreeing with them.  Then again,, neither is marriage practical nor convenient.  It takes effort to make a marriage work and even more effort to make it last.  Neither is humility practical.  Being faithful, be it being faithful to prayer or being faithful to one’s marriage vows is also never going to be practical either.  

I know that what I am going to mention next could be misread as some form of horn-tooting, but I shall take the risk.  It is a real example of doing something without an eye toward practicality nor convenience - my writing of this weekly blog.  My keeping alive this weekly written reflection of mine on faith and life isn’t very practical.  Nobody keeps tabs on its regularity, no one has asked me to start it, I don’t get a cent from this practice, and oftentimes, I do find myself being tempted to stop writing these thoughts altogether, especially when the well of inspiration appears to be running dry.  

But this much I know – it is done with much love.  If the love and effort I put into this work ends up being read by someone who lacks an experience of love in an unconditional way, or needs some encouragement in life, it would have served its purpose.  I can understand how some regular bloggers  may be driven by the amount of money that can be earned from their craft.  It has proven to be a good source of income for some. However, the joy that comes from the fact that my work made a difference to the faith-life of one who took the trouble to read these weekly thoughts, impacting their lives positively, makes it worth the effort each week to extend myself to do this, and to do this with love.

What became very clear to me as I wrote this piece is that salvation itself was not practical at all.  It wasn't practical that God became man in Jesus Christ.  It wasn't practical for Jesus to live life as a human being, and it certainly wasn't practical nor convenient for Jesus on Good Friday to submit himself to the humiliation and debasement of the crucifixion on Golgotha.  But look what the impracticality and inconvenience resulted in for all of humanity - past, present and future.  

If we put aside notions of practicality and convenience in the activation of our faith lives, or in anything that we apply ourselves to, we will be setting up less and less resistance to the ways the Holy Spirit wants to work in our lives.  However, if we are only going to be practical in our faith lives, we could just end up being practically faithless.

Monday, May 7, 2018

When a generation of children cannot tell time on a clock face, we have problems. But there are worst problems.

A recent video clip from an American TV show called Jimmy Kimmel Live featured children on the streets of Los Angeles being asked if they could tell the time shown on an analogue clock face.  Only one could, out of about a dozen children, with the youngest probably around the age of 7 and the oldest a young teenager.  I was aghast.  Apparently, Jimmy did this to see if it was true that children these days lack this ability.  It made the news in the UK in late April that schools in Britain were changing the clocks in examination halls because students are not able to tell the time because they can only read digital clocks.

It isn’t rocket science by any means to say that what we are taught influences greatly what we know and how we live.  Worldly logic tells you that.  That these children of our times aren’t able to tell time by looking at a clock face is the result of their not being taught this skill.  It has somehow been removed from their early school curriculum, and the consequence is that we have a generation incapable of doing this simple task. 

I found myself asking if this state of affairs is also somehow reflected in the church. I believe that we do see a similar lack – not in terms of reading clock faces, but perhaps in the understanding of the rudiments of our faith.  Whether or not this is the result of modernity or an increase in agnosticism, as a preacher I have noticed that the laity are often unable to comprehend classic theology parlance and phrases that we sometimes use and refer to.  Would that those in the congregation not look perturbed or clueless when they hear references to terms like grace, the theological virtues, or the three states of the Church Triumphant, Suffering and Militant. Granted, maybe these are a bit unrelated to the life of the so-called moderns, but I have come to discover that it is far more dangerous and alarming when they have lost the ability to define and articulate what love is in the full Christian sense.  The consequence is that we are a generation that only defines love in one way, much like the generation that is only able to read time in the digital form.

I have spoken and written repeatedly about love.  And in my musings and reflections, I have always been challenging myself to make it clear that as Christians, we have a definition of love that is distinct and clear, with a very different texture and character from how the world sees love.  The purest love, which is God’s love, is willing the good of the other, and for the sake of the other.  Note that nowhere in this definition is there any mention of feelings or sentiments. It is completely selfless, altruistic, has an unmistakable element of self-donation, disinterested in returns of any form, and most importantly it is freely given and unconditional.  Because this is characteristic of the way God loves, it truly raises the bar and sets a very high standard for us when it comes to love.  For us Christians, to know that there is this bar that is set high and a standard that is gold is truly beneficial because it tells us what we are capable of, and it points the way that we should be loving.

It is when we do not teach this clearly and unequivocally to our young charges that they will in turn become unclear and ambivalent when it comes to love.  To be sure, there is a vast majority of humanity that defines love in less lofty terms, often associating it with romance, feelings, sentiments and emotions.  Of course, I do understand that just leaving love at the level of the will can give the impression that if we live out this kind of love as it is theologically defined, we may easily end up being as cold as a medical student’s cadaver.  But this is a wrong impression, and certainly not how the Church wants her members to live. Jesus, who personifies this kind of selfless love was truly human and no one would call Jesus cold and passionless.  Scripture speaks of him having human emotions like joy, sadness, fear, anger and hunger.

I’d be delighted to see innovative and engaging ways that are employed to impart to our children the need to always associate love with fidelity, sacrifice, long-suffering and delayed gratification.  Unfortunately, the Instagram and Twitter obsessed generation finds little attraction in cultivating these necessary virtues.  Couple this with a prevalent sense of entitlement, and there will be very little chance for one to even think of cultivating virtue.  Maybe this is why it is rare to find young people excited and joyful about living these virtues – they are probably clueless that one can live with these virtues and values in life, just like how so many are probably clueless about being able to tell the time off the face of a clock.  

Monday, April 30, 2018

How does faith look like?

To be sure, this is a very sensitive question, largely because faith at its core is personal. Let me clarify by stating from the onset that it doesn’t mean that it is personal and therefore it should be kept to oneself and no one outside of yourself should hear what you have to say about it.  It is personal because it takes shape in each person in a unique way, as unique as each person has his or her own individual set of fingerprints.

Our personal experience of faith is really a mélange or pastiche of each of our individual life experiences consisting of our joyful moments, our times of strife and anxieties, our very public moments, our ‘alone’ or extremely private moments, and most of all, it includes our saddest and most disconsolate of moments.  It is never one of these alone, though of course some of these may stand head and shoulders above the other moments. Because faith has everything to do with life, our faith takes on the very contours, the crests and troughs; the highs and lows of life.  

It usually isn’t difficult to say that God is at work when we are experiencing joys and successes in life.  Milestone events like births, weddings and college graduations are times when it is relatively easy to look up at the heavens and whisper a prayer of gratitude for these experiences of grace.  

But as a pastor of souls, I have come to see that faith is all the more needed and pivotal at those other times - moments when things are falling off the hinges. But the activation of our faith in these crucial moments is often never something that happens at the spur of the moment.  To believe that God is ultimately in control and has our best of intentions in his divine plan for each one of us is something that takes a very long time to build and strengthen.  

To be able to say that “it is ok” at heart-breaking moments we are standing beside the casket of a loved one who has died is an act of faith.  To be able to say this and mean it when the reason our loved one is in that casket because of a horrific traffic accident and was barely entering into life as a young adult is a very bold and courageous act of faith. In the same vein, to be able to say that God has my back when the doctor tells me that I have stage 4 cancer is as much an act of faith.  Faith at these moments takes a specific form – its form is the assurance that even though what is happening before our very eyes is seen to be a tragedy and even heart-wrenching, deeply troubling and most calamitous, there is a strength coming from outside of us, giving us the ability to say “it is indeed ok”.  This being ‘ok’ is not predicated on how good or lifted we are feeling inside, but that THE story isn’t over, even if the story of the person concerned seems to be.  The ground of this confidence comes from the belief that our individual stories are but threads that weave in and out of the warp and wefts of that enormous tapestry of God’s plan, and the one who deftly handles this loom is God. 

Unfortunately, faith at these times isn’t something that is summoned up at will or available at on speed dial a la Deliveroo or Food Panda.  It is, most of the time, the result of a long process of constantly being in touch with God’s divine presence in our lives, and this includes being familiar with Scripture from our younger days as school children, catechized consistently towards our Confirmation, being constant and dedicated in our prayer life in good times and in bad, and walking with God while being mindful of being in a state of grace.  While these may not guarantee that we will not quake in our shoes when the waves of tragedy or calamity reach the shores of our lives, they do the necessary work of ‘tilling the soil of our hearts’ and giving the seed of faith the nutrients to grow and mature.  

Here in Singapore, over the past few weeks, we have read of a few cruel and untimely deaths that have resulted from tragic road accidents.  I don’t have to have known these young lives personally to have an inkling of just how bereft their parents and family members and loved ones felt or are still feeling.  Words of comfort cannot reach where only faith can comfort and give strength. Courage at these times do not come in the form of stoicism and being able to stop the function of one’s tear ducts. 

Courage ultimately has to come in the form of our assured faith that our God has and still goes through our darkest moments because he went to Calvary’s cross for us, and that He does this because He loves us without condition.