Monday, September 7, 2015

Missing the point about where spiritual maturity brings us.

A common teaching of spiritual masters in many disciplines is the importance to embrace an inclusive rather than an exclusive worldview.  Those of you who are reading this may think that I am advocating some sort of ‘anything goes’ mindset that decries being hemmed in or controlled by rules and any sort of borders and limits.  This is certainly not what I advocate. 

Often called the ‘both/and’ rather than the ‘either/or’ approach to reality, inclusiveness is something that has much more to do with how we face the various struggles and challenges in life than it has to do with how we should just do whatever we want to get the happiness that we think we deserve, especially so when what we want are determined by our feelings alone. 

This embracing of a ‘both/and’ mentality is a very fundamental requirement for anyone seriously wanting to attain spiritual maturity.  The inclusive mind attenuates the human need to think that it has to do away with all misery and suffering and to be happy all the time.  If we really come to think of it, isn’t that what a lot of people seek as a ‘magic pill’ in their pursuit of organized religion?  Don’t many people throw themselves into religious practices for the undeclared motivation that somehow, their practices and diligence will gain a big pay-off in their lives when they can push out and omit all forms of pains, misery, sufferings and anxieties, with the hopeful result of their live being for the most part happy and comfortable? 

Very much connected to this mindset is the shared human tendency to think in terms of ‘either/or’ where it’s 1) either I rid my life of all illness, pains, sufferings, longings and unfulfilled desires, or 2) I will be always hankering, complaining, bickering, querulous and dissatisfied.  Either I keep away sorrow, or I will never experience joy. 

How is it that each of us though are not taught these categories, yet end up more or less thinking this way?  The writer of the Book of Genesis must have intuited this in a very real and profound way when he was given the grace to write in parabolic form whence our shared brokenness originates.  That we think we have the solutions to our joys and happiness by our definitions of what harms us and what helps us is seen as a result of having eaten fruit that was taken from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  In one fell swoop, we became the determinants of what is good for us, and what is not.  We and we alone from that moment decide what brings us joy, and what brings us sorrow, and most of it is driven by our feelings and sentiments. 

The true spiritual journey is one which has to help us to uncover what is either lost or hidden, and in the process, to be able to identify the lies and untruths we have been telling ourselves in life.  Any spirituality worth pursuing will always have the element of this raw honesty where we are faced with the fact that in many ways, we have been living a lie, a fantasy, or perhaps even succumbing to an addiction.  Only when this is boldly and courageously admitted to can one make that necessary breakthrough in life to live in a new way, with a new worldview that resists being threatened.    

Does this then mean that one should no longer have sorrow in one’s life?  Most certainly not.  What it means is that when one has seen the lie for what it is, one will not see sorrow as sorrow alone.  One is able to see sorrow for what it is, and not stop at seeing it for where it can take us.  Even the short-lived and ephemeral joys that we think are ideal for us will be seen for what they are - temporary and even transient.  We can enjoy the “Disneyland moments” with the full knowledge that it is not reality.

Spiritual maturity will be something that holds us (as opposed to something that we hold) when the traditional terms of joy and sorrow are accepted as an essential lived paradox in life.  That we want only one, excluding the other, reveals just how far from wisdom we are.  It also reveals how we are still eating copiously by the bushels the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Jesus, the one who is Wisdom itself, alluded to this in his teachings on the Mount of Beatitudes when he said that happy or blessed are those who weep, those who mourn, those who are poor, and those who are persecuted in the pursuit of right.  But the ‘either/or’ mind cannot see this wisdom for what it is.   It fights it with a mind of logic and a rational line of reasoning.  Remember – I am not saying that these are wrong in and of themselves, but they certainly are the false hooks in life that so many of us latch on to and hold on to for dear life, when what is required for us to truly live requires of us to let go instead.

As a priest, I encounter many people in the faith who come up to me and seek help when their lives are falling apart.  Examples abound.  When one is diagnosed with a very serious ailment and when life’s horizon looks bleak, or when one is suffering from a troubled marriage because one of the spouses has begun to stray, or when one’s position at the top is either shaky or has been shattered and risks being taken away or lost altogether. 

What they often want is a quick-fix for their troubles.  The terminally ill patient and their loved ones want an end to this suffering or a miraculous cure, the faithful spouse wants the philandering one to suddenly come to his/her senses, and the soon-to-be bankrupt tycoon wants his riches restored.  But the solution to this isn’t a solution per se, but rather a whole change of mind where one begins to see life and its paradox for what it is, and this wisdom unfortunately doesn't come overnight.  Would that it were.  Certainly by no means through a said prayer over the person, like some incantation, as if wisdom will suddenly come from without. 

If one had not been previously open to the disciplines of taming one’s own spirit, little much can happen.  Spiritual disciplines develop the ‘eye’ that is able to adjust itself to the vicissitudes of life for any prolonged period in a stance of anticipation, to see life as one continuum of joys and sorrows, calmness and anxieties, successes and failures, failing which one will naturally be at sixes and sevens when one is suddenly confronted with challenges and trials.

I refer once again to the question so many people have asked me about how I could have taken the cancer prognosis so well and so joyfully when my doctors told me I was facing imminent death.  Yes, I would certainly attribute it to a grace, but this grace did not come all at once.  It was a training that I had been opening myself to on a daily basis for a prolonged period.  I truly believed that sitting for at least an hour a day before the Lord despite myself, despite my feelings of either laziness or tiredness, had put me in good stead to live life with both its joys and its sorrows, and to be equally happy when either showed up.  It was as if at that point of my prognosis, I was at the apogee of my spiritual training.  I was in a very good place to handle this news with an equanimity that was a result of a life-long inner quest for the true life of God.

This cannot be something that you give to someone when they tell you that their lives are falling apart at its seams.  While I am not denying the power of God, I also am an avid believer of grace flowing from nature.  For this reason, I feel often powerless and impotent when I see such desperation coming from the faithful who may be far more interested in the gifts of God than encountering the God of gifts.  Some oils that we have in our flasks just cannot be shared with those who have not, because they need to be internalized and personalized (Matt. 25:1-13).

Our spiritual disciplines of being present in Church at least once a week on a regular basis, and putting aside of our preferences, our feelings and our sentiments must in some small way train us for this eventuality.  I cannot seem to be able to impart this to my parishioners strong enough in a large way, but can only make brief references to it and hint to its importance in my preachings and homilies.  Many, I feel, are just sold on feelings of warmth and temporal happiness which are like the highs that chemical narcotics and intoxications provide, bringing with them side effects that are far more negative than positive. 

Feelings are real, but they are certainly not reality.  Animals can only follow their feelings, but we are not animals.  We have intelligence and conscience, coupled with the fact that we are called to participate in the life of God with 'all our heart, all our soul and all our might'.  This generation seems to have a toxic fixation with feelings and enshrines emotion excessively.  When we only listen to our feelings, we often cause much confusion to ourselves, especially at times when things are flying at us fast and furiously.  The ‘both/and’ worldview of reality will then easily be jettisoned in favour of the ‘either/or’.

A quotation from the wisdom of the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, Charles M Shultz is something that I will close this reflection with.  It may be a tad coarse, but I'm sure its truth rings clear.

Charlie Brown was in his usual self-pitying mode, sulking that he was not feeling happy and joyful all the time.  His friend Linus asks him pointedly “Do you want a shivery-warm feeling that makes you tingle all the way through your body?  Well, then… go pee in your pants.”


  1. “Spiritual disciplines develop the ‘eye’ that is able to adjust itself to the vicissitudes of life ……………………to see life as one continuum of joys and sorrows, calmness and anxieties, successes and failures, ………………….”

    The words of a song at tonight’s Holy Hour touched me in a profound way as I realized that it could actually be speaking about the substance or aim of the spiritual life that most of us are striving for. It’s about ..............letting God lead us to live our everyday life within the ambit of His Love. It dawned on me that notwithstanding the observances of spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer and faithful abstinence, (which are good in and of themselves) what seems to be the crux of the spiritual - is to be able to enjoy fully and live effectively in God’s love, sharing this joy with our Neighbours – all this done- in the daily rounds of our normal existence where we are placed.

    Sometimes, life seems to be made of crests and troughs caught in an ever flowing motion………....caught in the carousel of time ............... night following day. However, this is only the surface of life as it presents itself….…..each crest ending in a trough and each trough ascending to be a crest, just to die again in a trough. And so joy replaces sorrow, success, disillusionment or pain – the vicissitudes of life.

    But underneath this surface flow is a sturdy evenness that is undisturbed and calm, the spiritual eye – developed through the taming or disciplining of one’s base instincts where now the in-dwelling spirit abides. With this present, there is no need to try to control the waves of our lives.

    God bless you, Fr


  2. Dear fr Luke-thanks another sharing and reflecting on ways to help us on our Spiritual journey. You wouldn't believe how timely your article was. When my teenage boy told me that he was not going to attend mass that often anymore, I felt so helpless and asked God why this tragedy had to happened to me especially when his dad and I have been exemplary in our faith, if I may say so. We have an active church life and I attend mass every day. After reading n reflecting on your article, I now realize that it's ok and normal to have setbacks in our lives even if we have 'behaved' our best. I know that God will eventually answer my prayer for my son to appreciate and love the mass like I do but I shouldn't expect a quick-fix.