Monday, November 17, 2014

Allowing healing to begin when illness and brokenness are embraced.

There’s something in the whole experience of being ill in a serious way that augments and enlarges one’s world beyond expectations.  No one realistically wants to be ill.  The body naturally wants to be whole and healthy, yet it is almost a universal truth that this body that we have breaks down and is in a constant fight within against free radicals which do battle against the healthy cells of the body.  Complications arise when our own immune systems get weakened and the free radicals grow in an abnormal and destructive way.

It is easy to take for granted the victories that our own bodies win over these often unseen and unfelt battles.  Even right now as you are reading this reflection, our own bodies are in a certain ‘fight’.  It is often only when something goes awry in this battle that these free radicals become highly reactive, giving them the potential to cause damage leading to things like cancers.  When things have reached this stage, one begins the onset of actually dealing with the issue of cancer and illness and a body that is broken in some way. 

On the medical side of things, the doctors have all sorts of armory to deal with these issues and to stem the illness.  But it is on the spiritual side that there is also a silent but necessary struggle with how one should face this ongoing tussle between life as we have known it all along, and what life is going to become, now that one has an illness to live with and a brokenness that is clearly on the horizon of life. 

I have come to see in a rather painful way (literal and allegorical) that denial comes in different forms. In my naiveté, I had thought that denial simply meant that one didn’t acknowledge (or at least had a great difficulty with acknowledging) the existence of one’s illness or condition.  Denial has in fact many facets and faces, and in my very slow process of recovery, which is a real test for someone who has a predilection for busying oneself with work and a dedicated sense of purpose in life, I have come to see that denial can in fact be a resistance to facing the fact that life is going to be very different.  I have tried hard to want to bounce back and to condition my body to its former physical level of fitness and stamina, but it does seem that it is really going to be an uphill task.  I might never even get to where I once was, when I was at my peak.  I am often torn between accepting the permanent changes, and striving to achieve what so many people who have survived cancer purport as a returning to normal life. 

The pain of cancer is not just something that is experienced in a physical way.  Some cancers are rather pain-free.  But in truth, there is another pain dimension that we have to deal with, and that is the pain of the realization that things would change in the future.  That kind of pain doesn’t seem to have painkillers that doctors can easily prescribe medication for.  That kind of pain is something that only the divine doctor can help us deal with.  Cancer patients like myself may want to come back to life as we have known it with a vigour and vengeance, but perhaps what we also need to know and accept is that embracing the illness is when another kind of healing is allowed to take place – a healing that is beyond the physical. 

The Christian response to illness and suffering has this dimension that easily escapes many of us faced with illness and suffering.  Perhaps this is because the world’s response often calls for a fighting back, and to be stronger (mentally, physically and sometimes socially) than the illness.  The way that many are told at funerals to ‘be strong and not cry’ has to find its roots in this kind of pseudo strength.  But the real Christian response of one who is a disciple of Christ is found when we look at how Christ embraced the Cross in that salvific act of redemption and salvation as an indication of where and how real healing can actually come about.  Only when we ponder deeply about this can the phrase “take up your cross and follow me” make spiritual sense.

The mystery of suffering has to include then the struggle between acknowledging our incapacity to make things happen ourselves, and the handing over of our suffering or even our deaths to the power of God.  This creates a tension that often stymies us at our roots.  We want the clarity of knowing that it is healthy to fight, versus the wisdom of letting go and to surrender with a peace and serenity that Christ had when he ‘gave up the spirit’ on the Cross.  For Christ, it was a struggle that lasted about six hours.  Ours is one which is often much more prolonged. 

When we learn to slowly embrace this mystery, I believe something happens to us within.  We begin to embrace also the fact that we are not as whole and well as we should be, and where we are is how God speaks to us loudest.  I will always remember what Catholic priest and poet Daniel Berrigan once said when asked where spirituality lies, and whether it dwells in the head or in the heart.  His reply is classic in so many ways.  He said it’s neither in the head nor in the heart.  It’s in the ass.  This meant that God speaks to us loudest where our ass is at – where we find ourselves seated in in life, be it in a state of flux, a state of contentment or even in a state of anger, denial or suffering in whatever form it may take. In the stillness of prayer, where we simply allow ourselves to be before God and behold his fullness of life and fullness of love, and become present with a full acknowledgement of our own limitations, imperfections, illnesses and yes, even our sinfulness, where we can truly seek God’s mercy and accept that divine embrace without any demands made on our side.  That Jesus did not ask that things be immediately made better on that Cross teaches us something about the power of humility and docility in the face of human suffering. 

Even as I write this, I am clearly aware that what I am writing about is entering into the area of mystery, and that words can be more of a stumbling block than the conveying of an inner truth.  Yet, it is my hope that there is someone who is suffering with faith, and finding it a constant struggle that this truth, mystical as it is, does have a redemptive value.  It is until and unless we have dared to embrace our sufferings, our illnesses and our brokenness that these become our doorways to holiness that leads to a redemption and salvation.  It is not that our sufferings and pains become lessened.  Often it doesn’t.  We just receive, sometimes even if just momentarily, that connection with the divine.

This is why prayer is so important, especially when we face the unexplainable sufferings that we go through in life.  Without it, I am sure that I will become easily frustrated, angry and impatient.  But with prayer and a confidence in God’s ever loving presence, I am given the strength to embrace everything that I face in life, making it possible to thank God even for the crosses that land on my shoulders. 

But these shoulders aren’t just mine.  The cross also seems to land on divine shoulders as well as we can trust in Jesus’ words that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The great hope that biblical imagery gives us.

As I was sitting in the sanctuary at Sunday’s liturgy yesterday, listening intently to the wonderfully detailed description of the river of life as described in the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, I relished in the detail that was unfolding before us, and really hoped that the listening congregation would pay active (as opposed to passive) attention to the great hope that lay in this portrayal of divine intervention leading to a renewal beyond imagination.

This water that passed from under the Temple flowed, as we are told, into the eastern district down upon the Arabah, making it fresh.  This simple statement would make little impression on anyone if there were not first a basic lesson of geography, which exposes something miraculous taking place in this biblical passage.  The Arabah is a section of the Jordan rift valley with one end being the Sea of Galilee in the north (an inland large lake, actually) and the Dead Sea at the other southern end.   A well known fact is that the Dead Sea is thus named simply because it is a salt saturated lake in which no living being can live, let alone sink.  Anyone having the wonderful opportunity to visit the area and blessed with the chance of physically entering the Dead Sea should take advantage of this if only to test out the claims that one’s buoyancy become greatly enhanced in a body of water that is extremely dense due to its salinity.  I have always had trouble with floating naturally in the swimming pool, and have envied people who could just fall asleep lying on their backs in the water.  But when I had the opportunity to enter the waters of the Dead Sea, I found myself floating on my back without any trouble, save that of being sedulous that not a drop of that saturated saline water should enter my eyes.  Woe to you should you have the slightest broken skin if you enter these waters.  The sting is almost unbearable.

It is with this very vivid experience that anyone encountering the text from Ezekiel would be amazed and awed at the promise of hope and a great reversal of what is found in the physical geography of the region.  That the waters that emerge from the temple should be so life-giving that it makes these waters of the Arabah not only teem with life, but that these waters themselves should become something which give growth to the surrounding flora, making their leaves medicinal.  There is no sign of life in these parts of the land.  To hold firmly to the hope that scripture brings not only to the land, but more significantly, to the parched and lifeless hearts that many of us have is the hope that God gives those who dare to trust in him despite what befalls us in life.

There are far more lifeless deserts within us than there are in the Arabah.  Those areas in our lives where we have seen relationships dry up and shrivel due to our unwillingness to forgive and bury hatchets are only a small but real example.  We may have been so unwilling to give up past hurts with the false pretext that keeping these wounds alive gives us a sense of superiority.  But if we are to live in the promise of new life that Our Lord gives us in his incarnation and good news of salvation, we should be able to wait with great anticipation for that stream of fresh waters that flow out from him into the Arabahs of our hearts. 

And once these waters renew our hitherto lifeless deserts within us, we can become sources of life for those around us where our fruit will be good to eat, and the plants around our hearts, medicinal. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

How the church reminds us of our common destiny for eternity.

Having been blessed with the experience of living for almost two years in a place where the change of seasons is distinct, I had the opportunity to see for myself how much the Liturgical seasons are in sync with the changes in the times and seasons of the land.  It was also clear that the Latin Rite has a lot of its seasons matching the movements of the seasons of the Northern Hemisphere, something which those of us having lived all our lives either near the Equator or in the Southern Hemisphere would only have a conceptual idea of. 

This became very clear to me whenever autumn or fall arrived.  It signaled the start of shorter days and longer nights, and most noticeable would be the change of the colours of the surrounding foliage.  The leaves that were alive in hues of green would begin to change with the onset of the cooler weather, causing them to turn to breathtaking shades of amber, yellow, red and ochre.  With their very life being drawn out of them by nature’s hand, each leaf seems to be holding on with as much tenacity as it can till gravity and the wind prove to be too much and that break from the branches causes it to depart into the equally barren land below.  It is in such a life-changing environment that the Church chooses to observe in her liturgical life our shared experiences of a limited mortality when the celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day follow one after the other in the beginning of the month of November.

While the liturgical emphasis of All Saints’ Day is one of great joy and celebration, that of All Souls’ Day has a distinctively subdued, softened and muted character.  All Saints’ Day is a day of festivity and joy because we who are living and form the Church Militant give honour and pray for the continued intercessions of the Church Triumphant, made up of the millions of canonized as well as non-canonized saints who stand ‘facing God face to face’ in eternity.  Of course, these terms seem rather ecclesiastical to many, to the extent that many may have the notion that the heavenly existence is more of the result of an overactive imagination than a portrayal of heaven’s rich realities.  What we are saying in essence is that there is a great life in God that has fullness beyond what our tiny and limited minds can grasp, and there are those who have undergone the purification either in this life or in purgatory to enable one to fully be embraced by God. 

A tapestry of the Communion of Saints that can be seen in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in the city of Los Angeles by artist John Nava.  Each of these huge murals flank the walls of the Cathedral, pictorially depicting each saint's movement in life toward Christ and the Altar in the sanctuary.
Any Christian who has a notion of what his baptism calls us all toward will always hope to attain this permanent and eternal state in life.  Celebrating this Solemnity well, both liturgically and theologically reaffirms and re-instills this hope that all of us share, reminding us that no happiness and no suffering in this life lasts forever.  The attainment of heaven is something that almost requires a change, a conversion, and an enlightenment that re-orientates what drives most of us at our core.  This is a dying to the self that is part and parcel of the Christian journey, putting into practice what Jesus said about shouldering his yoke and learning from him.  These saints who go before us show us what a life lived in a forward looking hope ends in, and pave the way for us who have yet to complete our pilgrimage in this life.

Balancing this celebration is what the observance of All Souls’ Day does.  Bringing to mind the lives of those who have ended their lives here, it reminds us that the journey towards heaven requires us to still be somewhat connected with our deceased relations and friends who make up the Church Penitent.  The mystery of our shared mortality is given a liturgical reminder when we actively call to mind the many lives of those who still await a purification before they can fully receive God’s eternal embrace of love.  Not that God doesn’t want them in heaven, but that by their unblinkered and unprejudiced view of their own choices made in this life, they come to the honest conclusion that they are not yet ready for the one who is love.  Loving on our own often small terms makes us live with constricted hearts that are not yet ready to have our hearts beat fully in tandem with the heart of God.  All Souls’ Day reminds us all that we have a duty and a holy obligation to pray and offer penances for the many souls who are undergoing the searing pain of this honesty that one cannot hide from once our lives here are at their end.  It also reminds us to always have our eyes cast on what is eternal, especially when faced with the many choices that often ask us to put aside our fundamental option in life.

It is not surprising that many are not comfortable with the observance of All Souls’ Day, given that it reminds us of our own mortality.  But when it is observed with sound theology and dignified liturgy, it allows us to make that very important connection with those who have lived this life and are no longer physically with us.  It also reminds us that they are actually still alive in our prayers, in our memories, and in our hearts, and that this life and its joys are only a prelude of much greater joys to come.

Celebrating and observing these two days in the liturgical calendar is ample evidence that our worship and our faith are very organic in nature.  Our connectedness binds us beyond life’s borders gives us all great hope, simply because we are never alone in our journey toward God.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The call for dying well and a happy death lies deep within each of us.

There are many spiritual writers who have posited that embedded in our DNA there is, as it were, a yearning for and a longing toward greatness.  Gurus like Teilhard de Chardin and thinkers like Simone Weil have said that we have inside of us a very deep longing to submit ourselves in obedience to a higher power.  If we do not do this, we will end up the other way – being pompous, self-interested, self-serving, and living in a very small world.  It is when we endeavor to submit ourselves in humble adoration of true greatness that is beyond the self, that we can overcome the constant temptation to live only for the self, and to secretly yearn to be adored through our stories of success and recognition.

The early Christians may not have developed this notion well in terms of pithy statements, but they certainly lived it well.  Many of them got it right when they longed for martyrdom as an aim of their Christian living.  For them, apparently, martyrdom was something normal, and not extraordinary.  It was a sure-fire way to show how determined one was to attain heaven at all costs, even to the extent of losing one’s earthly life in the process.  Psychologists these days will have plenty to say about what martyrdom complex in an individual may reveal in terms of achievements and personal grandiosity, but by and large, it has always been acknowledged that the foundation of the Church had been laid by the blood of the martyrs. 

Martyrdom when understood in a healthy way and lived out in our current times often does not need to include the shedding of blood.  Perhaps one of the least appreciated and easily misunderstood martyrdoms is that of dying a happy death.  I have written and pondered in this blog-site about what dying a happy death encompasses, largely because our Catholic culture has its patron saint, St Joseph, who is the patron of a happy death.  But it bears repetition and a re-visiting to appreciate in a new way what in essence a truly happy death is as far as the Christian mind is concerned.

Perhaps what needs to be debunked first is that a happy death excludes tragedy, suffering and pain of any sort.  A superficial understanding of a happy death seems to have the misguided notion that one should just fall into a deep slumber and without the slightest experience of suffering or pain, have one’s heart stop beating and drift off into the bliss of heavenly eternity.  If this is what marks a happy death, then perhaps the majority of the human race, and definitely very very few canonized saints had not had a happy death at all.  It’s more a rarity than a reality, which then makes the prayer for such a happy death something closer to a figment of our imagination, or wishful thinking.

But a happy death needs to be seen in what has to be the blueprint of what a truly human life is, and for us, this is the life of Jesus our Lord and Saviour.  His death a blueprint?  Does this mean that I should be dying after being beaten and scourged, stripped and bleeding, hanging and shamefully naked from a cross? 

Lest we get carried away with our imagination, it is what Jesus bore in his heart and what he carried deep within that marks what his death gave us.  His amazing ability to not blame and shame and victimize those who hated him is what gave him the ability to surrender everything back to the Father in love and humility.  In that grace-filled act, Jesus handed over his death for the salvation of the world.  One spiritual writer describes it so well when he said that one of the things that makes Christ’s death is so special and saving is that he didn’t carry the cross and then send them the bill. 

A happy death is thus marked by what we do not do, rather than what we do.  Suffering is part of the package of life that we have been given, and how we handle it exposes where we get our energies from.  If we are bitter, angry and want to make others pay for this, we will emit out from our hearts a bitter energy, an angry disposition and the need to send everybody the bill for our pains and sufferings and anguish.  But when we become transformers of these energies and instead of bitterness send out kindness, instead of anger give out forgiveness, and instead of sending others the bill of our sufferings give out love and charity, we truly become the presence of divinity in the world around us.

To want to live this way answers the deep and often silent heart deep within each of our authentic selves that bears the divine DNA of God through our baptismal identity.  We may not realise this, but to want to hand over our deaths in a life-giving way and to end our lives in holy surrender and not with bitter regret is something that we all share as God’s children.  This is what handing our deaths over to others means at its deepest level.  It means that we are willing to let our own deaths, firstly our little deaths each day, and then our one great act of dying at the end of our lives, to be something that energizes others and empowers others to love and live well.  But as Christians, we need to do this with a consciousness that shows that we are richly influenced by Christ and not by our own egos and vanity.  This is perhaps the real hard task of dying well, and dying happy.  It requires us to put our faith at the forefront of both our living and our dying. 

When done well, we give over our lives to those we leave behind an energy and a vigour that has a lasting value and power that is beyond ourselves.  The ‘happiness’ becomes something that is passed on to those who live on in this world so that they are similarly empowered to be co-transformers of the world to help to make ‘God’s kingdom come’.

Being aware of this constantly means that it doesn’t matter if we die of a debilitating illness, a traffic or industrial accident, or through the sheer carelessness of another human being.  These things do happen in fact.  

One parting note about dying well also necessarily means that we leave very little unfinished business tended to in our lives.  This ‘business’ refers to words and gestures that we know should be shared with those who will stand to benefit from them most, and these parties often are not necessarily our loved ones, but includes those who are also the thorns in our sides.  Our dying well necessitates a deliberate reaching out to them in love, charity and patience – acts that will no doubt stretch our hearts in love.  But we will only be able to do this with a conscious choice because Jesus first stretched out his arms on the Cross becoming the saving conduit between heaven and earth.