Monday, September 21, 2020

Most people want to do what they like. But it takes effort to like what one does, especially when it isn’t gratifying in the short term.

The cultivation of virtue in life isn’t something that is taught well these days.  I don’t particularly remember being taught to want to lead a virtuous life in my school days, even up to the time when I was in my late teens.  If it was, virtue was something that was only at best hinted at. 


I lament about this lack of clear teachings about living lives of virtue because I can see that whenever I give counsel or any form of spiritual advice to members of the laity, the mention of virtue and any talk of living heroic lives is often met with furrowed brows, vacant looks and flummoxed faces.  


Most people have a misconstrued notion that living a life of virtue means that one will be missing out on many of life’s pleasures.  It gives way to what the millenials call FOMO these days. That would only be true if one associates life’s pleasures with things that are sinful and detrimental to the health of the soul.  The life that was experienced in Eden prior to the advent of sin was a life that was full and exuberant.  Giving in to and making our lives about the things that are sinful and cause us to distance our relationship with God and each other will always be attractive and enticing at first, but they also inevitably come with regret, anxiety, and a sense of “I could have done better than this”.  This would also mean that it isn’t true that life would only be delightful if one had no limits and no borders.  


I am certain that for those who do not know God or have a very diminished sense of God, life is only about getting the maximum benefit and enjoyment from it, and see that life is more to be obtained from, than it is for a medium through which we can encounter God.  The Christian doesn’t worship life, but worships the God who gives life to everything and everyone.


That life is to be used for one’s maximum benefit goes hand in hand with the notion that one should only pursue what one likes in life. In fact, many will start off in life along these lines, where they will do what they like.  With hardly any notion that all that we have in this world and in this life must come from a source that is responsible for existence itself, this is all one can do and believe that this is the best that one can do. But if we realize that all life has a source that comes from the giver of life, it would be insufficient to not go beyond the gift and just stay at the gift without raising our minds and hearts to the giver of life.  


Whilst living for what this life alone can give is not wrong in itself, it mayend up preventing one from living virtuously, because the virtue isn’t pursuing what one likes, but liking (or loving) what one pursues.  In a similar vein, there is much less virtue when one only gives one’s life over to what one likes, whereas great virtue is seen when one’s attitude is to like (or love) what one does in life.  


While I am not advocating in any shape or form that we should become masochistic in life to only pursue what gives us pain and suffering, I am inferring that especially where there seems to be no choice that gives us the option of doing what we would like to do, changing our attitude in these situations can result in us experiencing and entering in a peace that is seismic, to say the least.


A case in point would be many of the stories of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps who were able to see life through a different lens that gave them a sense of positivity even though their situation was far from tranquil.  They could not change their circumstance, and certainly were not doing what they liked. They were stripped of their freedom, and sometimes even of their thinnest shred of dignity.


Yet, an interior change in attitude to put joy into their hearts with an act of the will changed everything.  I would cite the heroism of St Maximilian Kolbe as a shining example. In giving his life for another prisoner, he made the death camp into his stepping-stone to his heavenly goal.  


St Therese of Lisieux is another great example for us, where even though she had yearned so much to be sent to the mission lands outside of France, her frail health prevented her from this dream.  Rather than being dismayed at her situation, she chose to offer up everything that she did behind the cloister walls for the missions, and did small things with massive shiploads of love.  Because she didn’t do what she loved, she realized that she only needed to love what she did, and that was the ‘game changer’.  The church’s decision to declare this physically weak and cloister-confined nun a Doctor of the Church and the Patroness of Missions is something that should inspire those of us who think that we are stuck in a rut with the ordinariness of our lives.


Monday, September 14, 2020

When Jesus tells the devil to keep silent, it’s not because he is making too much noise. It’s because his knowledge leads to nothing.

There are quite a few instances in the gospels where Jesus out rightly tells the demons who possess people to be quiet and to be silent.  This appears to be something random, and we often pay scant attention to this response of Jesus, though it really is revealing something of great importance to us.  Biblical scholars have named this the Messianic Secret, where by ‘secret’, it is implied that the demons know something about the Messiah in Jesus’ work and life that have yet to be revealed at that point in time.  In other words, they have no right to expose to the world how absolutely awesome and unthinkable God’s plan is to redeem souls lost to evil and sin through the paschal mystery.  Of course, this ‘secret’ is no longer a secret as the empty tomb has been the revelation of the salvific plan of God.


But could there be another reason for the silence that Jesus so clearly imposed on the demons that goes beyond that of just keeping the divine identity of Jesus a secret?  I believe that there is.   And once we understand this other ‘motive’, it has a power that can change the way we relate to God and live out our Christian discipleship and divine filiation.


Many Catholics who say that they no longer go to Church often follow up with an oft-repeated rhetoric that they believe that God exists.  This reveals quite a few things, the chief of which is that what is ultimately of importance in life is that one believes in one’s head that there is a God.  But the only thing that this gives any evidence of is that one is not an atheist, but nothing more.


Jesus was not interested in people acknowledging that God existed.  Nowhere in the gospel text do we see evidence that Jesus’ mission in life was to ensure that humans acknowledge God’s existence.  For the people in the time of Jesus in Palestine, God’s existence was a given.  Whether it was the God of Israel, or other deities of the non-Israelite nations, there was a sense of the supernatural. 


What has this got to do with Jesus’ silencing of the demons then if it wasn’t about theism?  It was all about relationship and adoration.  If it was merely about cerebral knowledge about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God the most high, then the original angels which the demons were would not have fallen and became what we know today as demons, because they knew who God was, even in a deeper way that any theologian could ever know God.  They had infused knowledge. 


What made demons demons and not angels was the fact that they refused to worship and adore and have that loving relationship with God that they were made fore.  With the knowledge of God that they had, they made the irreversible decision to choose not to worship, and not to serve, and this caused their eternal fall from grace. 


From this foundational understanding of what made the angels turn into demons and forever stay that way, we can see why it’s not knowledge of God that is of ultimate importance, or else they wouldn’t be demons.  What causes the demons to exist fathoms existentially beneath that of humans is the human’s ability to choose to love God together with the ability to have some cognizance of who God is (through learning about God through scripture and doctrine).  Knowledge alone is a dangerous thing, as it can cause us to be puffed up with pride and egoism.


But when knowledge of God is paired with loving God with a tender heart and affective devotion, our ability to reach our fullest potential as saints at the end of our earthly lives will be set on the right track. 


Jesus didn’t want the demons to give those around the possessed persons the false impression that just knowing who Jesus is, is sufficient for entering into the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  They could name Jesus as the Son of the Most High, but did not have one speck of devotion and love in return for their having been created out of love when they were angels. 


One of the most important, if not THE most important things we can do in life is to devote our hearts and lives to God in love.  It fulfills the first commandment, which is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind and our souls.  It is not just to know who God is, or that he exists. 


Remember – the demons have a much fuller knowledge of God than any human being, and the Kingdom of God is never going to be theirs.  Don’t just know about God.  To that knowledge, add love and devotion and adoration, and it will change everything.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Prayer and prayerfulness.

Whenever prayer is brought up as a topic in a conversation, the first thing that most commonly comes to mind is formulated prayer – the familiar and memorized phrases and words that have been composed and found in prayer books and manuals, and for the most part have been taught and handed down to us by our catechists, parents and teachers. 

And whenever I ask people (oftentimes during confession) to describe their prayer life, the first answer is that they “say prayers”, and go on naming the common ones like the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be.  While this may seem somewhat standard and rather rote for the Catholic, I hadn’t asked them what prayers they “say”.  So this can reveal that there is a common tendency to equate one’s prayer life to what one says or memorizes or reads when they pray.  While this is not wrong or bad in itself, there is a downside to restricting or limiting praying to these. 

It can cause us to think that anything that one does outside of those moments of reciting the rote prayers, that one is also then living in a non-praying mode.  This can lead us to live very separated and extracted lives, where we are in different zones, as it were.  While we are saying those prayers, we are in a zone of God’s presence and are reminded to lead somewhat holy lives, and outside of that time, we are in another zone – maybe a ‘secular’ or ‘worldly’ zone, where we are cut off from God and the awareness of being in the presence of the divine. 

Whilst this may be the reality that many people live out their lives, this is far from what the Church has always taught about prayer and spirituality.  Our prayers that we pray while praying are meant to lead us to live prayerfully. 

Being mindful during prayer is meant to lead us to mindfulness the rest of the day, just as our praying is meant to lead us to prayerful living.  It is when this link is missing in our lives that we easily fall into error and sin and choose instead to do things that hurt our relationship with God and with one another. 

A holy person isn’t one who is sitting in church 24/7, and isn’t necessarily one who is holding rosary beads even in one’s sleep.  A holy person is essentially one who lives out one’s prayer life outside of the times one is formally in prayer.  A jet plane can coast 33000 feet in the stratosphere only after it has engaged its engines at full throttle while still on land and has taken off as it faces a headwind. 

In the same way, our living well and mindfully in the busyness and hectic schedules of the day can only be done in holy awareness if we have begun the day with some time that has been set aside to consecrate the rest of the day that lies ahead and has yet to be lived.

That is why I always advocate and recommend that if only prays once a day, it should be the morning and not at night.  Certainly we should be doing both, where we hinge the day in the morning and evening, but where this is challenging due to various reasons, the morning is much more beneficial. 

This is because the rest of the day is still virginal, unexplored and is like a blank page that one has yet to write anything on.  Making a morning offering to God allows us to (at least with some intention) consecrate the remaining 16-17 hours ahead to live life in a way that is in line with how God would want us to live, and to relate with others in a way that would show love and charity.  This is where the Morning Offering charts the course of the rest of the day.

If the only time we pray is at night before we ‘hit the sack’, we are in effect squeezing out our last ounces of energy, attentiveness and love to God, and he really doesn’t get our best but our least and our last.  The day had been spent, and so are we. 

The essence and heart of prayer is to love God.  If the reason for our saying prayers is to get God to do things for us, and have not really set our hearts on fire with love for him, saying prayers is perhaps the only thing we have done, and have not yet really been praying. 

Monday, August 31, 2020

True freedom and having prophetic courage always comes at a price. If we have been paid, our silence would have been bought.

Someone came up to me recently and asked if I had made any money at all from the time that I had been maintaining this blog of mine for over ten years.  I thought that to be a rather strange question, and my immediate response was of course in the negative.  No, I didn’t start this blog endeavor of mine in order to make a few extra ‘bucks’ on the side, supplementing my monthly basic allowance that I get as a priest for the diocese of Singapore.  To be fair, I do have several motives for doing what I do in this blog.  The first and primary motive is to use this as a platform to catechize people (Catholics as well as non-Catholics) on the various aspects of the faith, and in so doing, I am able to help people to mature slowly in their spiritual lives.  One can never really say that one has learnt all that can be learnt about the faith, and at best, one can only say that one is on the way towards fuller development of one’s faith.  

The other reason I keep hacking at this at a regular basis is because I believe that writing requires thinking, and both of them need to be regularly done in order for one to experience growth and maturity.  Writing, because it is essentially a craft, also  requires discipline – the discipline of consistent practice if one wants to develop one’s writing character.  While the writing itself doesn’t really get easier with practice, what does get better is the confidence in forming the ideas that swim in one’s head.  Turning them into phrases that others can read when they are put into words requires effort, and as I have said ad nauseam, effort equals love.  

I have come to appreciate as well the fact that the freedom to write what I write has been made possible largely because I am beholden to no one but God.  I am not sponsored by anyone, and have not gotten a single cent by monetizing my writing efforts.  Let me state clearly here that I do not in any way denigrate nor view negatively the many other bloggers or vloggers who monetize their work.  To be fair, this is the only way some of them make their living, and many of them do contribute to the well-being of their 'followers'.  But I was very humbled to read one of Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s regular columns recently when he shared that it was because he was a syndicated writer who was paid for his contribution to the many publications that publish his writings on a weekly basis, that he somehow isn’t as free as he would like to be as a writer.  

He also reveals that somehow he has to ‘tow the line’ and be somewhat PC as a Catholic writer.  He admits that he would like to make a strong stand on things like social justice, but he has to be very measured as he doesn’t want to rub his readers up the wrong way, and to have multiple newspapers drop his columns as a result.  Prophetic courage always has a price to be paid, and as Rolheiser makes it clear, money and renown can be very powerful paymasters.

While I am not sure if my writings are at the level and quality that are worthy of being published by any newspapers or religious publications, but of this I am certain – that the moment I start to gain in some way, financial or otherwise from these weekly reflections, that accompanying it could well be a concern of whether or not my next piece or article will cause my readership to suffer.  Even being overly concerned with the numbers that read my reflections each week can work against a writer’s freedom.  As it is in the spiritual life, one has to constantly purify one’s motives if one wants to live with any degree of courage and tenacity. 

The same freedom applies to anyone who is serious in his being an evangelist at any serious level.  Our freedom to speak about Jesus and his truth can become very diminished if we are very concerned and worried about how our audience will treat us or view us as a result of our sharing of our faith, or if we are obsessed with numbers.  To be sure, the message of Jesus and his values are always going to be counter cultural and counter intuitive for the mind whose values are based on the things that this world has to offer.  

Of course, one can always just preach and share about the “safe” issues that almost everyone can agree upon – being kind, being generous, being faithful and sincere in all that we do.  I suppose, these “safe” issues will keep one safely maintaining one’s regular paycheck and strong readership numbers.  These are not, and will not be wrong in themselves.

Yet, it wasn’t these truths that Jesus was sentenced to death for on Calvary.  It was for the hard truths that he not only stood for, but for the truths - of who he was; that he was the Son of God, the only way to eternal life of heaven, and that he is the eternal King of a kingdom that will have no end.  Jesus didn’t stay on teaching only about the “safe” issues of life, but really pushed the envelope when he taught about loving one’s enemies, forgiving those who are sending us to our deaths, being washers of each others’ feet, that we need to eat of him in the Bread of Life that is the Eucharist, that he alone is the source of true life and that no one can come to the Father EXCEPT through him.  In fact, he doubled down on some of these hard truths when his followers began to walk away, rather than dialing it down just so that he could keep the numbers of his followers.

Jesus didn’t need any form of payment for his prophetic courage, because his courage came from knowing just how deeply his heavenly Father was always loving and sustaining him in his very being.  I am certain that we too will have much more prophetic and moral courage and authority in our discipleship if we also know how much we are just as loved by our heavenly Father.