Monday, December 15, 2014

Meeting God in a dark cloud.

In several places in the Exodus experience, Moses encounters God in a ‘dark cloud’.  In Exodus 19:9, the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

There is something here that is well worth deeper reflection because there is much more than meets the eye.  That God does not manifest himself in a very clear way, but chooses to come to Moses, his representative and spokesperson, in the form of something so nebulous and indefinite like a dense cloud, should give us some indication that when God does show himself to us in this life, oftentimes, it is not going to be something that is immediately perceptible and full of awe (I think we can use the very abused word ‘awesome’ here), but rather, may well choose to reveal himself through a circumstance that seems dark, dense and even a tad problematic.  Of course, there are the moments of great joy and wonder that we may be blessed with in life that give us real cause to believe in God’s loving presence, but I do believe that most of us have much more experiences of these ‘dark, dense cloud’ moments that give us doubts.  The trouble with those moments of joy is that our notoriously evanescent memories don’t seem to hold them in our hearts for any prolonged period of time, and when we are in times of desolation, we find it very hard to re-live them with much success.  Perhaps this is why many of my reflections tend to give the impression that I am rather ‘hung up’ on the Cross, redemptive suffering and transformative purgation.  Most people do not need help in experiencing joy.  What most people long for is the presence of God when times are dire and dismal.

Any form of suffering that we go through in life, be it a social, physical or psychological one, is easily seen as a certain darkness in our lives, causing a blight on our happiness.  But not all suffering is taken and handled with meaning that is transformative.  It is only when suffering is handled and experienced with a willingness to see it as a kind of Good Friday that leads to the resurrection of Easter Sunday, or a suffering that painfully burns away the dross that forms the impurities in unrefined gold, that one brings a new transformative meaning to suffering.  This takes a great amount of faith and conviction that is paved by grace.  Pain experienced with this kind of ‘graced suffering’ makes the attachment to the spiritual life a little easier, and gives one the ability to be in union with other suffering selves and their fellowman or woman.  It is often that when we fail to do this and do the necessary internal work that is needed, that we end up projecting this pain on to others, and even make them pay for our suffering.  But when we respond to the grace to do this with a blessed patience, the kind of learning that we receive is not of the cerebral type.  It provides a learning that brings one to the doorsteps of wisdom.

Moses must have had a taste of this divine truth when he too, had to enter into the dense cloud in order to meet God.  God presented himself to Moses in two rather problematic ways – first in the fire of the burning bush that was not consumed, and then in the darkness of a cloud.  Both do not permit of any form of containing and preserving whatsoever.  God was not to be encountered outside of this darkness, outside of mystery, and outside of a seeming chaos.  In fact, God was never hiding in the cloud.  In the cloudiness of it all, it was the darkness that enabled God to meet Moses in his soul. 

Someone recently asked me why it is so difficult to praise God when one is in a state of suffering, and if it is at all possible to be sincere when we praise him while suffering.  One of the things that define a saint is that he or she puts not himself or herself in the centre of life, but that he or she manages to place God at the centre, where he belongs.  This is what enabled Mary to praise God in the Magnificat when by all accounts, her life at that time was one which was full of uncertainties and looming problems.  This is the result of her being ‘full of grace’.

When we are plagued with any illness or pre-occupation with our own pains and disappointments, it is most tempting to put these in the heart of everything, and thereby displacing God from his rightful position.  This makes it difficult for us to praise God with much sincerity because a lot of our energies will be focused on ourselves.  True praise and worship can only come about when God is re-centered in our lives.  When that happens, true praise also happens.  And the amazing thing is that when we do lose ourselves in praising God with our whole being, we forget about ourselves and our neediness.  It is thus not only possible to praise God amidst our sufferings, it is actually something that is also strangely necessary.

In our rich Catholic tradition, we have the advantage of having sacramentals like statues and crucifixes to help us to turn our minds to God when we pray.  They help to focus our mental (and psychic) energies which can run helter-skelter when we find ourselves very distracted by our own worries.  We have been often wrongly accused of idol-worshipping when using these sacramental to pray, but it sure beats worshipping and giving undue attention to our own perturbations and anxieties, making them our false gods instead. 

If life has been an experience of being in a dark, dense cloud for any prolonged period of time, may I suggest entering into it with a renewed faith, with a renewed yearning to meet God there, and let your soul begin to magnify the Lord too.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Does God protect us even when we suffer and enter into trials?

There are many faithful, including Christians, who have a certain idea and pre-conceived notion of God that seems to hold that if God is all knowing and all loving, that we should then never have to undergo much sufferings in life.  This God of ours should constantly be on guard to prevent our entering into any darkness or trial which require of us to suffer.  Perhaps this notion of God is something that we began with when we were first introduced to God in our first introductions into the spiritual life, and this is understandable.  But if we do not make that necessary and difficult journey into life with its strange twists and turns, seeing us suffering in numerous ways which are often beyond our fathoming, and confront these with our first innocent notions of a nanny-like God, we may well end up with a stilted and warped theology of God’s love and omnipresence, giving us reason to walk away from our faith later on.

Whenever disasters (natural or otherwise) of epic proportions strike, leaving so many thousands suffering and wounded, with their lives torn asunder, a corresponding ‘natural’ question on the lips of many is “where is God in all this?”  This is understandable, especially when we hold on to a very sterile idea of divine care and providence that seems more to be passive than active, more inert than dynamic.  Events like the tsunami that hit many parts of South East Asia in 2004, and the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City in 2001 are two such examples.  Closer to home and much more personal is when one experiences a loss, a failed marriage, or when one gets a cancer with a prognosis that one has a certain number of months left to live.  Somehow, when these happen, and one has an undeveloped notion of God’s providence, we are not armed with the correct vocabulary to articulate just how God is still there, despite his seeming and disturbing silence.

But it is when one dares to broach these instances with a heart that allows one to persist in faith to still experience God as providential and loving despite what befalls one, that one begins to open a very important doorway of faith that leads to a ‘paradoxical wisdom’ that is rare but very needed.  What is this ‘paradoxical wisdom’ that spiritual masters like James Finley speaks about?  It is precisely the wisdom that allows suffering and unexplained turmoil to happen in our world and in our lives while at the same time also allowing a deep belief that God has not let us go in some abandonment of divine proportions. 

That God’s presence doesn’t mean an absence of suffering and trials, but are often the very means through which God shows us that he is ‘sustaining us in all things’ gives us new eyes and new hearts to look at these events not with our minds, but with a new heart.  God’s presence in our lives and in our world does not prevent tragedy.  It is what helps us go through the pains and tragedies themselves, much like the way that Jesus went through the pains and tragedies of the Cross.  Was God hidden in the event of Calvary?  Very much so.  Was God also hidden in the sad and heart-rending events of the tsunami and the downing of the World Trade Centre?  It certainly appears so.  We can ask an endless litany of “but why?” questions, shaking that proverbial fist heavenward, but there have also been many instances where years after the event, where there had been a slow rebuilding of lives and physical structures, that we realized that through the swell of the storm there had been a certain perceivable calm that had carried us along the very tragedy itself. 

Faith enables us to hold on to the belief that God doesn’t just carry us through the tragedy or sadness, but that he carries us through life all the way till he appears before us and when we see God ‘face to face’. 

Could this be what Jesus was hinting at when he said that ‘everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man building his house on rock’.  What is this ‘acting’ but an active living out of our faith in the very Word of God, who is the second person of the Trinity, and building our lives on this faith? The effects of nature that Jesus mentions like the rains coming down, floods rising and gales blowing affects both kinds of houses – those built on rock as well as those built on sand.  Obviously, this goes to show that regardless of its foundations, there will undoubtedly be tests and trials in life.

I’m not a builder of concrete structures, but it doesn’t take much intelligence to know that building on rock is far more arduous and requires much more effort (and equipment, cost and time) than building on sand.  The preparation for the groundwork is far from being a walk in the park.  Faith that is built not just on a saccharine notion of God’s providential presence but a willingness to hold this in and despite the adversities and calamaties in life is difficult and challenging – like building on rock.  This is our ultimate Christian calling to faith.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Good catechesis provides us with a good father tongue.

In an article which appeared in The Conversation, a website that carries analysis by academics and researchers in Australia and Britain, it was reported that memorization and rote learning are important classroom strategies which all teachers should be familiar with.  Apparently, seventy teachers from Britain studied the teaching ways of Chinese students (in China) and made comparative studies against the teaching methods which Britain had been veering away from for the past 40 years, emphasizing instead inquiry or discovery learning, as opposed to direct instruction.  The latter is known in academic circles as the “chalk and talk” approach, which includes the need to memorise things like multiplication tables and poems and ballads, enabling the child to recall them automatically and easily. 

I was rather intrigued by this article, which was reprinted in our daily local paper, because I couldn’t help but make this comparison to the ways in which the Catechism is taught to our children.  Walk into any Catechism class these days in any parish, and one would find not one way of teaching, but such a smorgasbord of methods intending to impart the topic of the day.  Affected and influenced by the current trends of education which encourage ‘experiential’ learning, where the result should be that the student studies less but learns more, the Catechist appears to need to be creative enough to use tools that will entice and hold the attention of the minds of their charges which seem to be as fleeting as ephemeral and transient as steam rising from the spout of a boiling kettle of water.

One of the drawbacks of such ‘creative’ teaching, especially for things as fundamental and basic as the tenets of our faith, is that we can sometimes be so creative and veer so far from the teaching point that the student ends up appreciating the analogy or method, leaving the main topic at hand behind in the classroom.  The result is that the foundations of the faith, which are fundamental, are only implicitly known in some amorphous or dim way, resulting in a sad inability for many to say off-hand anything succinct, sharp and precise about our faith.  Perhaps this is the reason why so many now fight shy about direct evangelization. 

In the days of the penny or Baltimore catechism, the three branches of the faith were imparted in a very systematic way.  Firstly, one was taught The Creed and its tenets.  This then paved the way for the teaching of the Commandments.  Thirdly, one was given the means to attain the aims of the spiritual life, which is mainly through prayer and the Sacraments. 

To be sure, there will probably be a strong disdain for such systematic teaching, as it also seems to imply that all students have (more or less) the same levels of intelligence, and that this “one size fits all” seems to ignore or put aside the fact that all children have their own unique learning styles.  The truth that education is about curiosity and innovation also seems to be put aside in favour of a rote and stiff learning.  I can almost hear the chorus of the lament that rote learning of any kind is “boring”.  The multiplication tables were hardly exciting by any means, but look at where it has led us.

In truth, education is indeed a very complex thing.  But there is no mistaking that we all came from some sort of rote learning as a foundation in our basic education.  Which child has never benefitted from memorizing the multiplication tables?  The result is that we can now without much thought about the fundamentals, endeavor to handle the more complex and difficult math problems.  Till this day, I can attribute my deep appreciation of the English language through the rote memorization of stanzas of poems like Robert Southey’s “Inchcape Rock” and certain sonnets and soliloquies of Shakespeare.  I don’t think we liked doing this at the time, but those drills certainly served us well.

I’m afraid that by the dispensing of the rote learning of our catechism and its basic fundaments, we may have spared the rod and spoiled the child.  Many cannot say with confidence why God made us, what grace is, the difference between sanctifying and actual grace, and what the marks of the Church are.  Not that these need to be rehashed to anyone when sharing of our faith, but when these are firmly set in our hearts, perhaps like the multiplication tables, it gives us a grounding to be as creative as we can to cull from our own experiences of these truths.  Without these well set in us, the result is often that we will waver and hem and haw and resort to the very toxic phrase “but this is how I feel” or “this is for me” or even the very commonly heard “this is how I see it” when it comes to talking about God.  Without disrespect to anyone, the Church and the truths of our faith does not depend on how we personally “feel” about truth. 

It is said of people with no feelings for anything that it is not that they are devoid of feelings, but that they are inept and handicapped when talking about their feelings, and have not been armed with the right vocabulary.  In a way, I am wondering if this also applies to God, spirituality and theology.  When we have the right vocabulary for God, based on good and sound theology, our later experiences in life become the canvas of life on which our portrait of God and life is depicted.  We take the paints made up of the well-grounded principle colours of a solid catechism which we had in our formative years and slowly paint the portrait of God working in and through our lives.  But if our basic palette of this is instead an inchoate admixture that is not lucid and coherent but instead something that is made up of a hodge-podge of vague allusions and implicit hints of a deeper reality, we can very well end up being invalid and even incapacitated later in life when we need to speak in words that convey our God experiences that confirm our faith, giving the impression that our faith is something vapid, trite, insipid and worst of all, subjective.  How can we then speak rationally and objectively when confronted by a world that is fast becoming allergic and oftentimes truculent when the topic of God or religion is brought up?

Perhaps I am a bit more passionate about this than the next man because I was on my way to becoming a lecturer in theology but got waylaid by my illness.  But because I had a firm grounding of my faith, was I able to enter into the more challenging ways of thinking about my faith later on in life, enabling me to wade through the different crises that I had to face in the landscape of my life.  It gave me a much needed vocabulary to articulate my experiences.

How much is our God-talk influenced by being familiar with our mother tongue, or in this case, a father tongue? 

Monday, November 24, 2014

The challenge of living in obscurity.

One of the things that many of us struggle with is to live contentedly in a state of being unknown and hidden.  Somehow, the ego that is often weak and insecure strives for that proverbial fifteen seconds of fame and erroneously thinks that once that is achieved, that we can live with more satisfaction, with the knowledge that we are no longer unknown and nobodies. 

Yet, we also do know that scripture is replete with examples of people who were nobodies and lived rather hidden and even obscure lives, and it was precisely because their lives were lived this way, that God was able to use them for the unfolding of his kingdom.  The Israelite people’s 40 year exodus in the wilderness saw them being nobodies for one generation.  The power of the widow’s mite tells of how much hidden power there is in the humble act of one’s total giving, despite the seeming inconsequential amount that was given.  That Jonah was hidden away for three days in the belly of the fish is highly symbolic that goodness does gestate in the state of darkness and an acceptance of a certain unknowing before one gets tossed out to land on unfamiliar shores which provide a new platform for the unfolding of God’s often unfathomable plans.  The genealogy of Christ even includes so many people who weren’t ‘famous’ but were in fact very usable by God to attain his final purposes.  And what about the way that the encounter of two unseen and gestating babies lying silent and hidden from plain view in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth were able to communicate their joy before they could even see the light of day, making that significant moment of encounter so powerful that it made it into the written word of Scripture and one of the mysteries of the Holy Rosary?  Indeed, there is a silent, and strangely hidden power that lies in obscurity and silence that makes of those hidden so usable in God’s eyes.  This had to be something that St Theresa of Liseux knew innately when she was so joyful in seeing herself as the smallest of flowers in God’s immense garden, and was totally contented in being so, something which gave rise to her much loved name of ‘the little flower’.

Perhaps we need to ponder anew the hidden power of obscurity whenever we feel the need to promote ourselves and to satisfy the false self.  Ronald Rolheiser once wrote about how a truly contented person is one who doesn’t find cause for sadness if he finds himself staying home on a Saturday night.  This simple statement speaks volumes about how the young or even the not-so-young mind tries so hard to not stay home on Saturday nights because doing so seems to conjure up images of being unpopular, uninvited, and thus, unliked and alone.  But the spiritually mature person is one who sees through the vapidity of such thoughts, and dares to enter willingly into the darkness of a deliberate choice to be alone perhaps because in that holy darkness, one allows God to speak to one’s deepest self.

Hopefully, this is something that speaks to my fellow brothers and sisters who are infirm and find themselves surrounded quite often not by crowds of gaiety and cacophony, but perhaps more often by the silence of hospital wards and constantly beeping medicine pumps and the discomfiting breathing sounds of their fellow room mates.  There can be a redemptive value in our seeming obscurity, but only if we are willing to offer this up as a kind of spiritual ‘raw material’ that God can use for the unfolding of his Kingdom.