Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving – there is always a reason and a season for us to be grateful.

Every fourth Thursday of November, a holiday called Thanksgiving is observed and celebrated in the North American continent (and a few other countries).  Originally, this holiday was set aside to be grateful for the harvest of the preceding year.  Through the passing of time and the advancement of technology, this spirit of gratitude has been, with good reason, broadened to include being thankful for all the experiences of goodness, kindness and love that one has been blessed with as well.

It is to be almost expected that when one has a love of a family, when one has health, and a life that is generally free from turmoil, that one should be grateful.  It is relatively easy to take these for granted, especially if one had been experiencing these throughout one’s life.  These things are then easily seen as the norm.  But when thanksgiving comes around once a year in our lives, it provides a good platform and reason to be extra mindful about these norms, and realise how these are not normal at all for so many other lives in the world.

Perhaps what is hardly ever done in life, and especially at such occasions as Thanksgiving, is to be thankful for the ways that life has been challenging for us.  The Christian is especially blessed in this regard because when we were baptized in Christ, we were also made his disciples.  And Jesus was very clear when he said that no one could call himself his disciples if he does not take up his cross and follow him. 

Crosses therefore are signs and evidence of our discipleship of Christ.  It is only when we see our challenges and struggles in life from the viewpoint and perspective of the cross that we can be bold enough to be thankful for both our blessings as well as our struggles and challenges in life.

Otherwise, our thanksgiving can be rather superficial, and even pallid, flat and lacking in depth, or removed somewhat from reality.  A painting of one colour, with no variance in shade and colour will only be a sheet of a single tone and not a picture.  Only when there are dark shades and differences in colour and tone can it be a picture or a portrait.  So too in life.

Maybe the reality is that we tend to complain too easily about our crosses in life and hardly give thanks to God for them.  Perhaps it is because we have a great predilection for what consoles and comforts us in life, and reject what causes us any form of suffering and trial.  But if crosses are necessary for meaningful discipleship, it must then mean that crosses are good in some way.

As I was meditating on this, I tried picturing myself as the very same block of marble that ended up being the finished masterpiece of Michelangelo’s Pieta.  If I hadn’t allowed the master sculptor to chisel and remove parts of me that were blocking or hiding the Pieta in me, this masterpiece would not have materialized.  I would only end up existing as a block of marble – with unrealized potential and hardly worth a second glance, and definitely not giving God nor the master sculptor the glory that I am capable of now as a carving of exquisite and stunning beauty.  Of course, a block of marble is inanimate, and doesn’t feel pain when being chiseled. 

But we are human, and we do feel the pain when we experience suffering and most experiences of carrying the cross.  Only faith allows us to see that these challenges as not only necessary but also good for us and our ultimate calling to holiness and sanctification.  Perhaps we need to augment our usual prayer of thanksgiving to God in a way that we haven’t before.

Thanksgiving is good and necessary for the things that delight and give us joy.  But if we are people of faith, and if we are aware that cross carrying is a sine qua non for discipleship, we should give thanks for them as well.  These will ultimately mould us, shape us, and form us into our best selves as God’s beloved.  Thanksgiving therefore should be something that is not just a day, but something that is celebrated throughout our lives and for everything that we have in our lives – both the good and the bad. 

Nota Bene:
This blog will take a much needed hiatus as I take some time away to recreate.  I always believe that there should be some periods of time in our life where we are unable to be reached.  The advancements of technology have almost demanded that we be contactable and in communication 24/7.  I would like to experience being incommunicado and hence this choice I am making.  With your prayers, and God-willing, my next post should be the week of Christmas.  God bless.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The main ‘problem’ with our Masses may lie in ourselves, rather than in what we see and hear.

There is a common lament that is oft heard, almost ad nauseam, that our Catholic Masses are boring, lame and dreary.  Our homilies preached by the clergy, are broad ranging both in topic and in delivery.  Whilst some preachers are clearly gifted with the oratory skills of Lacordaire, the renown and highly acclaimed pulpit orator of nineteenth century France, there are far more who struggle to make their weekly homily substantial and engaging, causing many to gripe about the quality of priestly formation and homiletic training.  Apart from the preaching of homilies, the other common complaint is that the music, which is an essential part of the Eucharistic celebration, just isn’t ‘engaging’, especially to the generation so used to a daily diet of Spotify and iTunes.

While these may be valid comments or complaints made about the way the Eucharist is celebrated, it may be revealing something else – not about the Eucharist, but about ourselves as Catholics.  It could be indicating that we are hardly bringing ourselves into the celebration in a real way.

Let’s just take a celebration of someone’s birthday for an example.  How much love we bring into the celebration very much makes or breaks how good or how uninteresting the celebration is.  The more we love the person whose birthday we are celebrating, the less we will allow the externals of the celebration to determine the quality of the celebration.  It is not that the externals are not important, but if we do not have much love in our hearts for the person whose life is being celebrated, those tangibles will be the only thing that we will evaluate the event’s significance by.

The same would apply, perhaps even more significantly so, where the celebration of the Eucharist is concerned.  It is not that good preaching or well-thought out liturgical music are not important.  They are, and I am all for homilies that are sound, theological and relatable, with relevant points for reflection.  But we may be missing the proverbial forest for the trees if we are only going to Mass to ‘get’ a good homily.  What happens at every Mass is a monumental and cosmic event that changed the entire course of history for humankind – God, in the Eucharist, has come to us in the most unimaginable form, in man and in food, to give us something that we could never dream of ourselves – a share in His own Divine life.  For this, we need to be ever grateful, which is what Eucharist means – a thanksgiving.  One can only be truly thankful if one has love in one’s heart.  The more love we have, the more grateful we will be.  It’s really as simple or as challenging as that. 

Besides bringing our love to the Mass, what many miss out in celebrating the Eucharist is the way that they often aren’t bringing their lives to the Mass.  The Mass isn’t only about what is joyful and mirthful and delightful.  The Mass, because it is really the life of Jesus celebrated, inclusive of those elements of Jesus’ life that are sorrowful, mournful and sad.  Our connection with what is going on at the Mass is therefore predicated on those similar elements in our lives that we are bringing together with us when we are at Mass.  The more we are aware of this, the more the Eucharistic celebration becomes something we can personally identify with. 

Ronald Rolheiser was astute when he said that “Worship must not just celebrate the heart that people feel they should bring to religious places, but the heart as it beats in ordinary places”.  This means that we bring our own experiences of not just joy and gratitude, but also the experiences where we are filled somewhat with what partially paralyses the joys of our hearts.  We then stand around the Eucharistic table with the wounds that we share with the other tables of our lives.  It requires of us to also be vulnerable before each other and so that there can also be healing. 

I don't think we are aware of this latter dimension of our worship enough, and that is why we are only critical of what lays at the surface, which comprises what we hear – the preaching and the singing. 

The next time we find ourselves critical about the liturgy, perhaps it is good to ask ourselves what we have brought to the table of the Lord, and how much love there was on our part.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How can one improve as a Catholic if one hasn’t infringed any of the 10 Commandments?

I was asked recently by someone who wrote to me via my blog this rather interesting question – “How can I improve as a Catholic if I haven’t transgressed the Ten Commandments?”  As I read the question, I imagined myself in Jesus’ shoes when he was approached by the rich young man in the Gospel of Luke, who asked him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It is indeed a good question, and especially so if the intention is not to trip me up, but to really want to get to the heart of what being a Christian is.  I say this is a ‘good’ question partly because I suspect that it is a question that exists in some nebulous form in the minds and hearts of so many Christians, both Catholics and non, but few get to articulate it in such a concise and clear way.

There exists in so many of us moderns the need to be performers.  I’m sure this doesn’t only apply to folk living in the First World, but generally speaking, this ‘performance principle’ is very evident in First World countries.  After all, many, if not most, are running on some form of meritocracy.  We are told from a very young age that we need to prove ourselves and to work hard in order to achieve ‘anything we want’.  While this may have its merits in instilling a sedulous work ethic, we may easily and falsely apply this to our spiritual lives, where we forget that our salvation in Christ has nothing at all to do with merit or achievement.  It is pure grace, and none of us deserves to be saved, no matter how virtuous and noble our lives may be. 

To think of the Christian life only in terms of a ‘performance’ of not sinning may reveal that we are missing something so intrinsic to the Christian life.  What may be missing could be the most important thing, which is the love that we put into everything that we do. 

As a confessor, I often hear penitents admitting that they aren’t faithful to their prayer life.  My next question often stumps them because I like to ask  them “when you pray, do you pray with love?”  I am used to getting silence as a reply, followed by “I am not sure what you mean, Father”.

Our prayer life cannot just be prayer that we are reading off a prayer card or the mere mumbling of a series of phrases that we have committed to memory.  If so, then we could be ‘saying’ our prayers, but we may be quite far from actually praying.  Prayer is, after all, an act of loving communication with God.  Love has to be the motivation for our prayer for it to be something that conveys our love for God.  Love changes and transforms the words, making the link between our heart and God.  And because we are so prone to distraction and having our attention pulled in 100 different directions all the time, love is then the act of the will to bring our attention to God as the object of our affection.  This moving of the will has very little to do with our feelings and sentiments.  In fact, love becomes purified when despite there being no feelings and sentiments and emotions, we activate our wills to love.

Why I am taking pains to expound a little about the need to love with our wills is precisely because our not infringing any of the Ten Commandments cannot be the only gauge we use in our lives when we are examining our spiritual lives.  A much better gauge or means of self-evaluation is to ask ourselves if we have put in much or any love into our relationship with God and with our neighbour.  This is concretely how we can improve in our spiritual lives despite not having transgressed the Commandments.

When this becomes our checklist and spiritual KPI, we will not fall into the mistake of merely being interested in whether we have broken laws, but more importantly, whether we could have loved and lived in more Christ-like ways.  This should give us plenty to bring to the confessional and at the same time, giving us a lot of indication where we can improve in living out our call to be the sons and daughters of God our Father.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bringing your kids to church – when is the right time?

The Church has always been strong in its advocacy of being pro-life.  When couples become serious in their plans for marriage in Church, apart from the preparations given through various courses and sessions, couples are required to sign what is known as a Marriage Pre-nuptial Enquiry.  This ensures the Church that the couple who are planning to get married are truly free to marry, and certain questions are asked of them, one of which is that they are going to welcome children in their marriage, and that they will do all they can to educate and bring up their children in the ways of Christ and his Church.

Education of a child in the ways of Christ and his Church is very broad based.  It is not just about ensuring that the child is registered and goes for his or her weekly Catechism classes after their 7th birthday or thereabouts.  “Education” encompasses that the child grows and matures in a Christ-centered environment of the family, which needs to be evidently Christian in character.  This includes, but is not limited to, things like making sure that the family makes time to pray together, participate in Church activities together, has a home altar with sacramentals like Crucifixes and holy images of saints, share and tell Bible stories together, and of course, go the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation together.  Having these as family activities provides for the growing child a Christian environment where prayer and spirituality become the norm.  If the child is hardly ever exposed to God and the reality of God through such practices, suddenly bringing him or her to church when they start their catechism classes will be like throwing a child into the deep end of the pool on the first day of swimming lessons without first having familiarized them with the concept of floating, treading water and having their heads submerged under water first. 

Many of these Christian ‘best practices’ can be a challenge for modern day families.  There seems to be a strong force that militates against these practices, and of course, the attraction of entertainment, the load of school work and the drive for academic excellence does make it difficult to ensure that some of these are even given some chance to be practiced on an infrequent basis. 

Of those practices mentioned, the one that should never be compromised on is going to Mass on Sundays and days of obligation.  Some parents have found it very difficult to start going regularly to Mass with their children when they are of school-going age.  I have been asked by parents at what age should they begin to bring their children to Mass on Sundays.  The simple answer is – from the time they can be brought out of the home.

However, these tips may help parents to make the weekly Mass outing less challenging – both for them and the rest of the congregation.

1.   Where to be seated should take into consideration the age of the children.

When you have newborn infants, it would be best to be seated at the back of the church, near the exit doors.  This way, when they are fidgety or break into their cries of hunger, you can make a quiet exit and tend to the situation at hand, without their cries piercing the chambers of the church.  As one who stands preaching at the Ambo weekly, I can attest to the fact that it is a great challenge engaging the congregation when they are simultaneously trying to listen to the preaching above the plaintive and lung-emptying cries of a tiny infant. 

If your children are younger than 7, the place to be seated will be right in front of the sanctuary where the Altar is.  There are two reasons for this – if you are a two-foot tall person, and when everybody in front of you is standing, all you see are the backs of much taller adults.  This is not interesting at all, and you will lose attention in no time.  Children at this age need visuals – they need to see the ‘action’ up front.  Let them see the colours of the vestments used, the ornate decorations around the sanctuary area, let them ask questions about what the Tabernacle is, the sanctuary lamp, and let them be curious about the servers.  These are small moments of catechesis that the parents can give, and they will be less prone to distraction and boredom.

There are some churches which have pews in a gallery located at an upper level.  These are not the ideal places for families with young children, simply because they are physically too far from the sanctuary to pique any interest. 

2.   Bring relevant and age-appropriate books to let them follow the Mass.

There are books available for the very purpose of teaching the Mass to children.  At each part of the Mass, there are often depictions of what is happening, together with clear and simple explanations.  The Mass is so different from what they see going on in life outside of Church, making explanations necessary.  Besides, being present at the Mass makes them comfortable with the supernatural life that faith gives.

3.   Come early to Mass.

Yes, I know that preparing the entire family for Mass can be as arduous and grueling as a Spartan race.  But if this is something that you know happens each and every Sunday, then perhaps what is necessary is a concerted effort put in to rouse the family up extra early to ensure that they are ready to worship God in the right frame of mind.  Getting early to Mass settles the family down well, rather than have them scrambling for seats, and usually settling for the ones that are furthest from the front, resulting in the young ones facing a wall of the backs of people. 

4.   Your interest and participation is an education by example.

Young people learn from the visual cues that they get from their parents.  If parents are engaged in worship, singing with passion and attentive at Mass, the children will learn.  When I see young people bored and fidgety, or worse, fingering their mobile devices playing games in church, I often cast an eye at their parents seated nearby.  It doesn’t surprise me when mum and dad are not giving good examples themselves.  Some parents tend to leave Mass right after receiving Holy Communion, before the dismissal and final blessing.  This may lead to the children thinking nothing of doing the same.  Unless there is a real pressing reason, fight the temptation to flee from Mass – we can all do with the blessing that we get at the end of Mass to face the challenges the coming week.  Parents, your posture and demeanor at Mass are a form of catechesis too. 

I hope that these pointers will help parents to fulfill their role of being their childrens’ first catechists in the faith.  I can appreciate the many challenges that raising children bring, but the result of having well catechized children who are well formed in their faith is priceless.