Monday, January 26, 2015

Getting God out of our minds

Featured in one of last week’s liturgies, the gospel text provided us with a very short but profound insight into the spiritual life.  It came Mark 3:21-22.  It consists of only two sentences, the second of which reveals that the relatives of Jesus were convinced that he was out of his mind. 

This was said in the context of him having healed so many people such that his life seemed to be so overwhelmed with people who were in need of a touch of the divine.  This obviously concerned Jesus’ relatives to the point of their thinking that there was something not quite right about him, causing them to make this remark about his being out of his mind.

Is this not the essence of true spirituality - where one is no longer merely a logic-centered and empirically controlled person, but is able to look beyond what lies before one in life?  Coming hot on the heels of the previous gospel texts in the days before was the term ‘repentance’.  This English term is a very poor translation of the Greek ‘metanoia’ which has a much deeper implication than being sorry for one’s transgressions.  ‘Metanoia’ or ‘metanoiete’ calls for one to go beyond the mind, or to enter into another platform of realization, where one not only grasps truth and reality in a new way, but rather that one allows oneself to be grasped by truth and reality.  No longer just the work of the mind, it is encounter with the eternity of the divine. 

The problem with most of humanity is that it is often purely centered on the mind and nothing else.  One can look back in history and blame it on the advent of the modern philosophy with the work of Rene Descartes and friends, but in truth, I believe that it is something that has been somewhat hardwired in our broken humanity.  We are ‘rational animals’, as Aristotle is often quoted as saying, and he was not wrong.  Neither was he fully right.  He got it half right.

It is a common saying that the longest journey that anyone can make is that from the head to the heart.  Some do not even begin to make that long journey, and prefer to stay on the level of the mind, trying to figure out God and conceptualize God as one being among other beings, instead of the one who is the ground of our very being.  Problems will obviously ensue when we see God as just another being (though with much more power and strength) as he will be constantly competing against other beings that we deal with in life.  This erroneous and diminished view of God weakens our sense of him in his very being, and so, many of us end up looking for ways to give God our time, outside of what other items of our lives demand of our time and energy.  So, for instance, giving God time in prayer can end up being something that we do when we are doing nothing else that is considered profane or worldly, as if God is not in the world. 

Of course, the danger of writing about this is that one can just exonerate oneself from the very act of praying by saying that one is now doing everything with a heightened awareness of God’s pervasive presence in all things.  The temptation would then be to say that there is thus no need to give God dedicated tine in prayer.  Unfortunately, this may well be an indication that one has missed the point of the spiritual life. 

In fact, knowing that God is ever-present and the ground of our very being requires of us a much deeper response to his invitation to be in union with him in prayer, surrendering ourselves more and more, to be soaked deeper and deeper in his pool of divine love.  This will enable us to be more aware of how God can be encountered in our normal everyday activities.  An analogy of this would be how so many people tend to say that as long as they live justly and honestly, that there is no need to be people who worship and pray to God and be religious. 

Timothy Keller, an author whose book I am currently reading, gives a very good response to this, and gives an image of a widow having a son whom she raises and puts through good schools and a good university at great sacrifice to herself, as she is a woman of slender means.  As he grows, his mother imparts wise advice, reminding him to always tell the truth, work hard, and be sensitive to the poor.  This man graduates from his studies and goes on to establish his career and life, but hardly spends time with his mother, hardly even giving her one phone call a month.  If asked about his relationship with his mother, this man would say, “I don’t have anything to do with her personally, but I always tell the truth, I work hard, I have a keen sense of right and wrong, and I do care for the poor.”  In essence, he is saying that he is living a good life (like many atheists do) and would argue that that is all that matters.  Or is it?

The obvious truth is that there is a lack in this man’s life and approach to life, which goes beyond his living a mere moral life that his mother set in his conscience.  This man in actual fact owes his mother far more than just living a ‘good life’.  He owes his mother his love, and his loyalty, and a dedicated relationship with her.

So too for us, when we want to find some good reason to be faithful in prayer, difficult and inconvenient though it may be.  We owe it to God who is the very ground of our being, and to always put him in the centre of our very lives.  This is not a case of logic, which is mind-centered, but a case of the heart, which is being-centered.  Where God is concerned, perhaps we need to be ‘out of our minds’ too.

The truth is, not only was Jesus truly ‘out of his mind’, but that we as Christ’s brothers and sisters, also need to learn how to live ‘out of our minds’ and make that long but oh so necessary journey to the heart.  Only a true metanoia allows us to begin this journey, which I am quite sure doesn’t ever end, even after our physical deaths. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Back from silence

Having spent almost two years in semi-hibernation as I convalesced at home and in the hospital, with the grace of God I was able to spend about 12 days away to be by myself for some ‘me time’, which explains my two week hiatus from my weekly blog posts.  Somehow, when one has been given a new lease of life from something as amazing as a stem-cell transplant, one becomes very much more appreciative for even the smallest thing in life.  In those days away from home, each day brought about a new gratitude for the new vistas before me, the daily dramatic sunsets and sun rises, and a new thankfulness for the wonder of life itself.

I chose to be incommunicado for those 12 days just to be able to be as cut off as I could from the world.  Not that I have any disdain for it, but like any retreat or chosen period of silence and reflection, it is often after that experience that one gets a refreshed look at all that is presented before one’s horizon in life.  I suppose this is especially true when one gets the rare opportunity to have a new scene unfold each day being on a ship at sea.

I had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading on my time away, and took a few books with me, some of which were precious Christmas gifts from well meaning friends.  I was delightfully re-introduced to the late Henri Nouwen’s writings.  The one I read with much interest emerged as a result of his seven months spent in a monastery where he was a temporary monk.  This privilege is hardly given to people, as the Christian monastic life is a life-long commitment.  But I suppose that Nouwen being who he was in the spiritual literary and academia circle was given a rare privilege of experiencing life as a temporary monk.  It is indeed a blessing for all of us that he had put into the written word his many and varied experiences of those months in silence. 

Strange as it may seem, my chosen time of a short two weeks of silence saw me reading about someone’s experience of seven months of spiritual silence, where he delved deeper into himself and struggled to understand his own psyche.  Ever the person who wants to truly know himself as much as he could, unveiling all the falseness that he was so ready to face and uncover with unabashed courage and directness, Nouwen does a fine job in inviting his readers not just to do the same, but to want to do this with a fresh willingness, and without the fear that many would associate with such an audacious idea.  He revealed himself to be someone who constantly seemed to struggle with a hidden and unhealthy sense of self importance weighted against knowing how much each of us needs to live in humility and strive for egolessness and selflessness which is so necessary for one who is serious about holiness and eventual sainthood.

It made me very aware that my time of convalescence had in actual fact mellowed and tempered my spirit in ways that I would not have had thought about without the gift and opportunity of my illness and its slow but steady recovery.  I can fully appreciate the frustrations and anxieties which Nouwen experienced in his daily monotonous work of washing huge amounts of raisins each day and greasing the unending line of baking tins for the bread which the monastery made for its means of income. 

One of the most refreshing and yet poignant things that he writes about unabashedly was his struggle to accept that happiness has to be an inside job that begins when one dares to face the reality of the uselessness of recognition, fame, the inflated ego, and a false sense of self importance.  That a notable cleric and academician like Nouwen at many times longed and ached to be noticed, appreciated and acknowledged challenges any reader to humbly admit that there are shades of this in all of us, and that our sense of stability and happiness, or lack of it, is often the root of so many of our problems in life. 

Nouwen struggled much with prayer.  I do not think that I am off the mark when I say that many people think that priests and monks have it easy when they pray.  We do not.  But what plagues us a lot is identifying the difference between praying and talking or writing about prayer.  It is so tempting for one to have a spiritual agenda when praying, to gain insights, to get fresh ideas, to piece together items for a talk or a presentation, to formulate a structured homily or sermon, so much so that one doesn’t really end up praying.  That emptiness that one so desperately needs to grow in the spiritual life then becomes avoided in a very hidden way, and one can even end up comforting oneself that one has prayed, when one has actually been formulating ideas about prayer.  If a spiritual giant like Nouwen could be so frank about his spiritual foibles and personal weaknesses, it gives so many of us so much hope that when we confront ourselves with our own issues of self-worth and hunger for some sort of validation in life, we can begin to identify these stumbling blocks (with a self deprecating honesty) towards real spiritual growth and maturity.  One never really reaches a point where one is fully grown in the spiritual life – one is always merely on the way.

I did meet quite a few people during my time away, people whom I had never met before, and were somehow very interested in my life.  Interestingly, when I revealed that I was a priest, they were intrigued.  But when I said that I was a cancer patient in recovery, they were fascinated, especially when I shared with them just how miraculous my stem cell transplant came about with an anonymous donation of a bag of perfectly matching stem cells from a generous stranger from halfway round the world. 

I returned from my hiatus with a sense of being recharged, and slightly heavier from some weight that I managed to gain from eating in unfamiliar surroundings.  What is more important is that I return to life with a new and fuller appreciation of not just what it can do for me, but what I can further contribute to life. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Watching in the dark night for the brightness of dawn

In an article which I recently came across, I found out that Karl Rahner, the noted German theologian, once preached a series of Lenten reflections which gave him the platform to speak about the state of helplessness and loneliness.  He told his audience a couple of surprising, yet insightful things.  One of the things that he said was that we must not be surprised by our feelings of loneliness and those of being shackled in moments of our more poignant lives.

What he meant is that there will, as part of our varied landscapes of our lives will show, be moments, even prolonged moments, when we seem to be somewhat forced into periods of loneliness and some form of constriction.  I have known many couples in marriages where there are great periods of loneliness, even when two people are sharing the same bed.  Physical proximity is sometimes not the antidote to loneliness, as can be attested to by those who are strangers in the bond of marriage.  Certainly, other afflictions can bring about the experience of loneliness and being in some sort of bind or constraint as well.  Illnesses do this to us, and so do experiences of our own human limitations.  When Rahner told his audience that one must not be shocked by these moments, moments of powerlessness and hopelessness, he was saying that it is in confronting these moments that we actually begin to develop our own sensitivity and begin that often painful but necessary process of stretching our hearts that lead to our emotional health.

The one temptation that faces us at these times is to make a beeline for the door, to escape and run away from what we think will make life difficult and challenging.  What Rahner says next is ‘don’t’.  Fight this temptation to flee.  Instead, stay inside of this seeming emptiness and darkness.  There is much to learn from this, counter-intuitive though it may be.

Many of us will turn to our familiar distractions to find some sort of escape from what pains us.  Some will turn to being lost in some sort of busyness, moving from relationship to relationship, turning to drink, endless amusements and worldly distractions.  What these escapes an do is to convince us that there is no God around for us, and that we have to save ourselves. 

Staying inside of the pain and stilling ourselves within this turmoil is a courageous thing to do because it provides our inner selves the opportunity to get to that turning point and to see that God is doing something within this chaos.  I know now that this was the subconscious working within me when I was told by my doctors that I had a rare blood cancer almost two year ago.  I knew that I didn’t want to go into any sort of denial, to escape from this news, or to enter into a ‘pity-mode’.  Instead, embraced it because I knew that I would encounter God within this challenge and the constraints that I was being presented with.   I do, however, hesitate much in using myself as an example, simply because it has the rather distasteful tone of being a literary selfie snapshot.  I do apologise if this is not only inappropriate but perhaps even rather distasteful to my readers.

When we meet these moments of constraint, several things begin to happen, but only if we allow them.  One of these is that our thoughts about God begin to become purified.  We will see that our notions of God are often not those of the real God, but the God of our imaginings.  A lot of us have very narrow notions of God that he must not allow these things to happen in our lives.  But it is in the darkness of our lives that we purify these stilted notions, where we sit and wait patiently for some light to shine in the darkness.  It is only when we are surrounded by a deep night that the light of hope can come. 

The Christmas story that is told in gospels where the infancy narratives of Christ are written about mention shepherds watching in the night.  What were they watching for?  The first thing that comes to mind would be potential marauders and predators that would harm their sheep.  But another thing that any night watchman would wait for is the light.  The light of dawn signals the arrival of safety and the opportunity for rest.  It is in this dark night on the first Christmas night that a light did appear – that of the heavenly messengers in the form of an army of angels. 

It is common knowledge that the deeper and purer the night darkness, the brighter the stars appear.  That is because the skies are not brightened by the city lights that can make the viewing of stars not only challenging but almost impossible.  It’s not that the stars are not there.  Isn’t this the same thing that can be said of God?

When our lives are too filled with anxieties and worries, made worse possibly by the distractions that we choose to deal with them, we surround our lives by much more brightness than we should.  But Rahner’s recommendation makes sense here.  Spiritual sense.  Perhaps we need to have the courage to sit patiently in the darkness that our lives seem to be in, much like those shepherds at Bethlehem, and await there in the deep darkness so that the light of God’s hope can be seen with greater clarity.  Having the stance of the shepherds on that holy night allows us to be ready to receive the message and comforting presence of God.

Nota bene
I will be taking time to be away for about two weeks where I will be incommunicado.  As such, there will be a hiatus of my weekly blog entry till 19 Jan 2015.  With God's grace, I will be sufficiently recharged and energized thereafter to write and reflect with a new freshness.  I wish all my readers a very happy and holy new year, where we welcome all the ways through which God makes inroads into our lives, transforming us to be greater images of him.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The King Herod in all of us

One of the many personalities of the unfolding Christmas nativity story that we can readily identify with is that of King Herod, the appointed king of the Judea by the Roman authorities who was the occupying force in Israel at the time.  I do not refer to Herod’s notoriety of being capable of murder, including taking the lives of his blood relatives.  That kind of identification is, thankfully, only applicable to a very ‘select’ few.  I am referring to his insecurity and ego-centered fears.

Despots and people of power who emerge as a result of instilling any sort of fear or terror in others will always live with a sense of unrest within themselves because of the dread and anxiety that someone will emerge and take this away from them, pulling as it were, the rug from beneath their feet.  What the external demeanor displays often as confidence, control and influence often hide instead a sea of nervousness, worry and unease behind a gossamer wall that is strangely easily perceived with little discernment. 

But what is most arresting is the fact that powers who exert this kind of dominance cannot find it in them to fully appreciate the goodness, talents, skills and intelligence of others who are in their midst.  Instead of working well with those who are under their leadership, enabling what is known as a win-win situation to develop, those in these seats of power, title and authority often choose to silence them.  To those who are at the top of this shaky ladder, it appears that any person who is more talented, gifted, intelligent and popular is seen as a serious threat to one’s level of contentment.  One very obvious reason for this is that it is very easy to get used to the position that power accords.  One’s ego and one’s self worth then become easily associated with the fawnings and sycophantic behavior of those who serve them and report to them.  Little wonder that one can then believe in one’s press and want this to last for as long as possible.

When Herod was told of the intentions of the visiting Magi that they were looking for the infant King of the Jews, his insecurities were immediately revealed.  His actions and his intentions were far from pure when he asked them to help him locate this infant king.  His greatest fear was that he would be dethroned and lose his influence over the peoples. 

We have seen vignettes of this scenario played over and over again in history.  We may also have had personal encounters with such insecure leaders and figures of authority in our work places, parliaments, and sadly and scandalously, in many religious settings like religious congregations and houses.  Religious superiors can sometimes be negative examples of God’s presence in the ways that they carry out their appointments, and view the skills and talents of those under their charge with disdain and skepticism. 

How can one prevent oneself from falling into this kind of insidious and sinful behavior, where the very talents that one is surrounded by are so easily under-appreciated and under-valued and viewed through eyes filled with avarice and envy?  How does one view another’s talents with a spirit of welcome and appreciation, and look to their gifts as something that completes them rather than compete with them?  How does one remove the blinkers from one’s line of vision, so as to be well grounded?

One of the things that can help us to keep this monster at bay from taking over our selves is to always have an eye that is constantly cast on the divine.  That we are not our own makers, and that we will always have a power that is above us will keep us from becoming a power unto ourselves.  This is what regular worship and prayer helps us to do.  It is no wonder then that many despots and tyrants forbid any form of religion in their empires.  True religion will always help us to keep ourselves from taking ourselves too seriously because we are reminded that the greatness and majesty and grandeur of God is who we give our honour and ultimate obeisance to. 

The wonder of the wise men was that they knew where their wisdom came from, and it was not from themselves.  They who did not live in fear and insecurity were able to give true homage to divinity and deity whilst Herod who thought too highly of himself could only react in vexation and displeasure.  What the wise men saw as beauty and godliness, Herod could only see threat and peril.  When Mary proclaimed at the Magnificat that the ‘hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away’, she was an instrument of revelation of God’s way of overturning worldly and insecure powers.

In many of the tableaux and scenes of the Christmas crib set up in churches and even in shopping malls, there will inevitably be figurines of the holy family, farm animals, shepherds, the wise men and the obligatory angels.  It doesn’t take my effort to imagine ourselves as one of these ‘harmless’ personalities, but it also doesn’t give us much visual impetus to look deeper into ourselves where we may not be as hospitable to holiness and godliness as we should.  Perhaps somewhere in these tableaux and setttings there should be a corner where Herod lurks, giving those of us who visit the scene of the nativity an entry point to ponder in what ways we too have been Herods in our lives, and raise our need for God’s mercy.

In my very early years of my priesthood, I dabbled in some song writing and did a few recordings.  One of the songs that I penned came from such a reflection as today’s, when I realized that it is when we forget that we have been divinely loved since the beginning of time that we allow our insecurities to develop and cause anxieties within ourselves.  I have uploaded the recording of “I’m Secure” onto YouTube and it can be accessed here.  I know it’s not a Christmas song by any means, but if Christ can be reborn anew in our hearts that give us a renewed way of living and a godly consciousness in our lives, Christmas becomes truly real.  Consider this a gift from me to you, my reader, and have a truly blessed Christmas.