Monday, July 15, 2019

How should I be praying when I am struggling with prayer? Admitting it is itself prayer.

St Theresa of Avila is known to have written in her journals a very striking yet humble line referring to her prayer life.  She writes “Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”  

It delighted me to discover this because it really gives so many of us much hope when it comes to identifying what is challenging to so many of us when it comes to our prayer life.  We often find ourselves unable to articulate that we need help to make the time that we spend in prayer to be fruitful.  Perhaps articulating this is itself a very real prayer, and we may even need to begin our time in prayer by saying this out loud, not so much that God can hear us, but so that we can hear ourselves.

I believe that a lot of our prayer is centered on our lack, and that is why so many start their prayer with their needs, seeking God to hear them and fill the various voids in life.  But way beyond our material and physical needs, there is a need that is far more important to be addressed, and this is our need to increase our love for God.  I truly believe that the world is so full of dissension and discord, and our lives are so messy and turbulent and fear-filled because we have a systemic lack of love for God.  We may be obsessed with ourselves and our needs way more than we are concerned that we not loving God as we should.  St Theresa’s prayer is so radical in that it points this out in a very humble and real way, when she says that she wants to want to love God. The problem with us is that not only do we not love God, but that we don’t even want to want to love him.

It is important to want to love God because our hearts are made to love.  St Augustine’s quote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God” comes immediately to mind.  Each time I hear a penitent confessing that he or she is struggling to overcome a habitual sin, I always try to point out that just wanting to give up the sin itself is not the key to living life without being plagued by this sin. It’s a bit like telling you, my reader, to not think of a pink elephant right now.  Now be honest – you just thought of a pink elephant, didn’t you? That’s because your mind was filled with the notion of the pink elephant, ridiculous as it may have seemed. If you are going to fill your mind (and probably other areas of your life) with the sin that you are struggling with, you are actually still obsessing over it.  

It is for this reason that I always advise the penitent to put more effort into loving God, especially in prayer.  If the love for God doesn’t occupy a major part of our time spent in prayer, and if that part of our heart that is given over to God doesn’t expand and take over the other areas of our heart that we are keeping for ourselves and our own agenda, we will live largely unconverted lives.  

Who are saints? They are people who have sought to give their lives over in love to God in more and more expansive ways, striving to live the first and most important commandment which is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength.  Why do we need to strive for sainthood?  Because it makes us what we are made for.  The Church has, I believe, somehow watered down this aim for every Catholic, and the result is seen so glaringly in the many scandals that have plagued the Church as of late.  We need to reclaim this shared objective of sanctity that is given to us at our baptism, and loving God is key to making this a reality.

Of course prayer is difficult, and it is because love in its purest form will always entail effort.  But if we are willing to be honest and admit of what it is that we lack in prayer, and dare to articulate it, it becomes a very sincere prayer, and anything sincere will definitely delight God.

The Prayer of Sincerity
(composed by the author of this blog)

Dear God,
 I want to love you, but my love for you is so lacking in effort.  I admit this lack in my heart for you, and ask for the grace to help me love you more and more, and the grace to love you as I should.  If you deign to answer any one of my petitions and needs, I ask that you increase my love for you most of all, because when I love you as I ought, I will not delight in the things that do not glorify you. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Revisiting our priesthood.

The priests of the Archdiocese of Singapore just came out of our annual retreat, where we were given the luxury of being away from our parish assignments and to gather together in a comfortable location for five days.  With parish work kept on-hold for this period, we were able to spend time in prayer and reflection, recharging ourselves, as it were, for a re-entry into the many demands and challenges that the life of a priest naturally brings.

Respites of this kind are always welcome.  With no emails to respond to, or phone calls to be made and answered, no sick-calls to tend to, retreats help us do what they are meant to do.  They help us to re-charge.  In the arena of the battlefield, a commander calls for a retreat when he sees his soldiers wearied and fatigued from the frenetic action at the battle front, and gets them to go to a place where they are able to recuperate, recharge and re-strategize.  With this done, the soldiers are then in a better frame of mind, strengthened in body and spirit, and hence become more effective in their fight at the front line. Spiritual retreats aren’t all that different in purpose and intent.

Retreats are as varied as there are Retreat Directors who run them.  Each would have his own leanings as far as spirituality is concerned, but in general, any Retreat Master would reiterate that the one conducting the retreat is ultimately the Holy Spirit.  Like Spiritual Directors, Retreat Masters are but conduits for the Holy Spirit to use them as he wills.  

Of all the 18 years since my ordination, it was only at this recent one that we were given a dedicated time to meaningfully and purposefully go back to our Ordination Rite, and re-visit it in a very focused way.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if there were priests among us who may have baulked at such a simplistic exercise.  It really wasn’t simplistic at all.  In fact, I am quite certain that all of the current scandals that are now plaguing the Catholic Church with regard to abuse of minors and the like would have really been avoided if every one of those brother priests had, with great seriousness, taken their ordination vows to heart, and lived them out with great effort.  

But isn’t this also true of all marriages?  When a spouse in a marriage begins to forget and cast aside the vows made before the Church’s minister and witnesses on the day of the wedding, the spouse becomes sloppy and negligent in living them out with full intent. For this reason, I am extremely grateful that we priests have a canonical obligation to make a week’s retreat every year to re-enter into the work and the life that ministry calls us to. Spouses in marriages, unfortunately, don’t have such a requirement to make any annual examen of the state of their marital love.  But I have come to see that it is just as necessary for them as it is for us priests to give renewed purpose in living out those very serious and life-giving vows that were made so publically before.

The one thing that both rites (marriage and ordination) have in common is love.  For us, it is the love of God expressed in and through our ministry as his priests. If love does not lie at the foundation of our call to the priesthood, and if love is not the reason for the work that we do as shepherds of souls, it will merely be something that is perfunctory and at best, something that is clinically carried out without love. Just as I often tell married couples that their love cannot be predicated on feelings, emotions and sentiments but on effort and intent, neither should the love at the heart of our priesthood be predicated on how good we feel about our vocation when we rise from our beds in the morning.  I suppose it is somewhat easier to show joy in our ministries in the few weeks that immediately follow each annual retreat.  It’s natural, as we were more rested having large and luxurious pockets of time each day to take some physical rest.  

But the grind will come, and the incessant call to tend to so many things will be a feature that returns with immediacy soon enough. It is then that the effort to be faithful to prayer and to love needs to be constant and consistent.  It’s no-different from the need for married couples to be effortful in loving each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and to honour all the days of their lives.  

On the last day of our retreat, we were each given a wooden cross with a stylized Christ laser-cut into the wood.  It is a cross with no hard and sharp edges, and is made so for the purpose of holding comfortably in the hand in prayer, and perhaps even as a prayer.  It came with a card that had a very beautiful prayer printed on it.  The words are as applicable to a priest’s vocation as it is to any marriage vocation.  I share them with you in today’s blog entry.

Holding Cross Prayer

“As I hang onto this cross, Lord,
hang onto me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
fill me with your strength and peace.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I remember the cost of your great love for me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I rejoice in the knowledge that our evil
and sin do not have the last word,
and that your love is indestructible.”

Monday, July 1, 2019

Why is humility so absolutely necessary in the spiritual life?

It is often said that of all the virtues that are good, important and valuable for us to cultivate and nurture, humility is the one that takes the top spot.  Many saints have lived lives that are marked significantly by humility, and the biographies of numerous saints have shown that they struggled to cultivate this virtue with great effort.  I am convinced of humility’s importance as well as our great resistance to want to live humbly, and it is particularly because the first sin by Adam and Eve was precisely their refusal to live humble lives, wanting instead to let pride and the ego speak in volumes that drowned out the call to humility.  The writer of the book of Genesis must have seen that pride is at the radix of our proclivity to sin that gave him reason to portray it within the story of our beginnings that is seen in this work of his.

The incarnation of Jesus is humility on grand display.  We don’t often think about it much – that God really didn’t have to do this.  There was absolutely no obligation at all for God to go from divinity to humanity.  Yet, out of pure love and grace, this unbelievable outreach made the incarnation happen.  One saint I read about put it in such graphic words when he said “God, in the incarnation, you have gone too far”.  If we really sit and think about it in contemplation, God, seeing how we had chosen to turn our backs on him and his love could simply just have remained unmoved, unchanged and divine but it was because love as God loves isn’t static but dynamic, that caused the incarnation to happen.  

Sin through pride caused the tragedy and death of humankind, and its antithesis, humility, had to be the antidote to redeem us.  Because sin caused humanity’s downward spiral into perdition, humility was God’s similar downward entry into the depths of human depravity to allow us to regain lost entry back to Eden’s glory.  In salvation, God goes down into the depths of humanity to raise us to divinity.

It follows then that our own path toward heaven and holiness necessarily includes our efforts at cultivating humility and living lives marked by humility.  All efforts at humility then become our walking in the footsteps andfootprints of the humble Lamb of God.  The saints intuited this, and we would do well to live in the same way.

Even in the post resurrection encounters of Jesus with his disciples, we see such humility and patience on the part of Our Lord.  The encounter of the resurrected Lord with Peter by the lake is of great significance. Those three times he asked Peter “do you love me?” have so much humility when read in the original Koine Greek.  

Jesus raises the bar of love when he uses the verb “agapas” whilst Peter responds that he loves, but with the verb “phileo”.  Biblical scholar Raymond Brown takes pains to explain that in Jesus’ asking three times the same question, Jesus isn’t at all insecure or deaf to Peter’s answer, but is giving Peter the opportunity to raise his level of love to that of an agapelove.  But Peter realizes he isn’t capable of that.  It is in this light that Jesus finally goes down to Peter’s level of love and on the third offer of love, asks Peter if he can love with a phileolove, to which Peter answers in the affirmative.  It is with this love that the first Bishop fed Jesus’ sheep.

But we know that Peter’s love really didn’t remain at the level of phileo(associated with fondness – not deep and abiding).  As Peter’s realization of how loved he was by Jesus whom he betrayed in such a personal way, denying Jesus three times, that love that began as phileogrew and matured to finally end up being an agapelove, where it is love of the purest and most selfless type.  It took humility of Jesus to lower the bar to Peter’s level, and it was Peter’s humility to admit that he was not yet ready to love at that high level.

It is humility that brings any sinner to the sacrament of confession.  It doesn’t take much or any humility to raise our head to heaven in the privacy of our own room or where there is no one to hear us asking God for his mercy.  That’s the way most of our separated brethren do this when they know they have erred.  But it takes so much humility to want to stand in line outside a confessional box to wait our turn to confess our failures to a human being on the other side of the grille or curtain.  It is also humility to want to believe that the other person, weak and sinful though he may be as a human being, also is in persona Christior one who is in the person of Christ himself.  

Very often, it takes humility to accede to God’s will, particularly when doing God’s will means having our world somewhat falling apart right before our eyes.  When Jesus was nailed to that ignominious cross on Calvary, his whole world DID fall apart.  Yet, it was what saved us.  Not one bit of that was logical, but neither is love logical.  And it was love that saved us, and it was a great gift of love that was wrapped with a ribbon of humility.  

Such should be the gift of our lives as well.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Why our effort matters so much in our spiritual lives.

St Augustine is well known for many amazing quotes, and my personal favorite is this “God created us without us, but will not save us without us”, partly because it appeals to the theologian in me.

The depth and beauty of this quote conveys a truth about the utter generosity and grace of God’s love, and at the same time gives us a glimpse of the absolute freedom of this love.  

We need to be clear from the start that there was no necessity for God to create us, or even to create at all.  God, whom we call omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, was fully content and complete in himself.  He was, and always will be the unity of three divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The fullness of love between the three persons is so intrinsic that it is what undergirds all of existence as we know it.  Classical theology attempts to describe this unity or flow of love between the three persons of God as perichoresis, a Greek term which can best be described as a dance or movement.  Perhaps what should be the key question that needs to be asked about creation is “why?”. Why indeed did God create, especially if God didn’t need to.

It was not out of necessity that God created, but out of sheer love.  The love that God enjoyed in his three personhood has in itself a generativity and inclusivity about it.  Unlike our love, God’s love wants others to be included and to share in this love.  Not possessive in any way, this caused creation.  In simple terms, God’s love was too good to be just shared between the three persons, and creation had its being in order for this love to be experienced, enjoyed and included.  And as St Augustine so astutely surmised, God did not ask if creation wanted to be created, and so created without our participation in it.  It was, and needs to be seen as pure grace and pure gift.

But love cannot in any way be coerced or forced if it is to truly be love in its purest sense. The necessity of freedom to want to return the love given to the lover from the beloved is what makes the loving true and pure.  This is where God gives us, his beloved, the freedom to either love him back with all our heart, soul and mind (as in the first commandment), or to reject this and turn our backs on the love (i.e. to sin).  

Unless we understand this important aspect of love, we will always be stymied by why God allows so much suffering to happen, especially when suffering is the result of a deliberate choice to hurt, to be selfish and to be proud.  It is because God loves us so much that he allows us to choose not to return this love to him, the ultimate lover.  

It is into this mired world of sin that God made that unthinkable choice to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from certain death.  But this salvation, because it is primarily based on love, still requires a response from us.  We need to want to be saved from sin.  Augustine saw this clearly enough to say therefore that God will not save us without us.  God will not force anyone into heaven’s embrace, because if it is forced, the embrace will only be seen as a strangulation and a restriction.  

In all this movement and dynamic, we are not simply left to fend for ourselves.  The Church has always been clear that there is the primacy of grace, where even in our wanting to return God’s love to him, we are first led by God’s grace, and never just because we made the move out of our own goodness.  Our lives need to be simply a loving response to this offer of grace.

Is it all as complex and as simple as that?  In effect, it truly is.  Yet, so many of us struggle to want to return this love to God because we are too full of ourselves and prideful in so many ways.  

This reflection is not just for the sake of some theological acrobatics.  A theologian reading this may scoff at its simplicity, but it was not written with theologians in mind.  It was written for those who cannot understand why God would create, and may have harboured the thought that with all the turmoil and suffering that exists, it would be better if God hadn’t created at all. Those who have such opinions have failed to understand that creation is itself an expression of how God is loving. 

If God were to save us without our effort and cooperation, God would not be loving at all, but a control freak, a dictator and an ogre, making heaven a hell.