Monday, March 18, 2019

How we understand the term ‘glorifying the Lord by your life’ is revealed in the way our lives are lived.

“Glorify the Lord by your lives”. As Catholics, we hear it ever so often in our liturgical prayers, at the Collect at Holy Mass, in the hymns that we sing, and whenever we pray the “Glory Be” prayer, which is something that we as Catholics have learnt to pray from a very young age.  It has been almost drilled into us as Catholics that we should be glorifying the Lord, but as in so many things in life, even something that is correct, proper, and just, can end up merely being something that is passively uttered, leaving its truth at the doors of our lips without it making that necessary entry into the portals of our hearts, and transforming our lives from within.  So what does it really mean to glorify anything?  And far more importantly, what does it mean to glorify God?  What does a glorified life look like?

‘Glory’ is translated from the Greek doxa and the Hebrew kabod.  While the Hebrew has connotations of heaviness or weightiness, it also has ‘deference’ and ‘honour’ behind it as well.  The Greek doxa is a term that denotes the commanding of respect and magnificence.  In the New Testament, particularly in the transfiguration accounts of Jesus, this term becomes something that James, John and Peter get a direct and first-hand encounter of when they personally witness Jesus being glorified.  They are essentially bedazzled when the face and clothing of Jesus on that mountain become radiant and spectacular.  But this glory isn’t so much just something that happens to Jesus as something that emits from Jesus.  Perhaps the fact that Peter utters something as random as wanting to set up three tents in that moment reveals that he was too gob-smacked by the glory of what was manifested before him.  

That God deserves glory and that he is the source and origin of glory because of his divine being is something that goes without saying.  After all, the Creed that we recite each Sunday has us saying that God is ‘light from light’.  There is a lot packed into that phrase consisting of three simple words.  Can we add anything to God’s glory?  Can one add beauty to the essence of beauty itself? To do so would be even more audacious than gilding the proverbial lily.

So how do we understand that our lives ought to be lived such that God is glorified?  This is something that is truly right and just only if we get one thing right – our baptism in Jesus.  At the core of our baptism is that we are now adopted children of God, living not for ourselves alone, but ultimately as members of a people that have a divine inheritance and dignity.  It is for this reason that we apply a high standard of living and loving than just what our own hearts desire.  Indeed, our lives are therefore not about us.  If it is not about us, then what is it about?  It is essentially about God, and giving God the glory that he deserves.

In order to do this and to understand this well, an analogy is not just helpful but necessary.  The analogy I choose to use is that of a magnifying glass or a lens.

A magnifying glass is essentially a lens, and what it does is that it enlarges or magnifies the image whose light passes through the lens, and when this light lands on our eyes, or on a surface, like a screen, it enables us to see the image with greater clarity and greater light.  This is how we ought to see our lives viz-a-viz God and God’s glory, where God is the light of truth, beauty and goodness, and our lives are merely the lens through which this light of God becomes clear to the eyes of our brothers and sisters.  Without a doubt, it has been the result of centuries of theological reflection and discourse that has given us such insights, enriching the way that we live our Christian lives.

But what is much more remarkable is that long before such theological studies and reflection took place, this truth was already prophesied, lived out and proclaimed by none other than Mary, our Blessed Mother.  It is in her Magnificat uttered in her visit to her cousin Elizabeth that saw her intuiting this truth with such conviction where she said that her whole life was to be a magnification of God, where her soul would magnify the Lord.

Mary understood with such clarity that not only was this her mission in life, but the raison d’etre of her existence.  She was only interested in being the spotless magnifying lens that brought light and clarity to the world that looked upon her as mother and the model Christian disciple. Mary’s life was lived so selflessly and with such humility such that she was willing to be transparent and unnoticed, much like the way a magnifying glass or a lens is not noticed in itself, and needs to be transparent. Just look at the way we enter a cinema hall and watch a movie on the screen before us.  It really is the lens of the projector that makes the experience possible, but all the while, hardly anyone is grateful to the lens and what it is doing.  

If we are finding it hard to know what glorifying the Lord by our lives means, it could also reveal another truth – that we are placing far too much importance on ourselves and what we want in life as Christians, than on making God our reason for our lives.  And if we need a model to do this well, Mary is the model par excellence.

Monday, March 11, 2019

If there is something not right about the phrase “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”, there is also something just as wrong about the phrase “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious”.

There is a lot of talk about the increase in numbers among us of the ‘nones’ these days, especially in blog and vlog posts by Catholic commentators in the Western countries.  The ‘nones’ are the group of people who, when it comes to filling out personal particular forms asking for their religion or faith, check the boxes ‘none’. They make up a very large number in the West, and I believe that this is not just something that is restricted to the West alone.  What is more disturbing is that it has been noticed that the people that make up these ‘nones’ include people who have been baptized at birth, or perhaps even later on in life, and have at some point in time jettisoned or abandoned their faith.  We who are in Asia must not think that this is something that is not happening on our own shores. 

One of the very common things that ‘nones’ and those who do not profess to practice any formal religions say is that they are “spiritual, but not religious”.  On the surface, this oft-touted phrase can appear to be rather ‘cool’ and maybe even sophisticated, giving the impression that being religious isn’t as chic, enlightened or savvy as those of us who give ourselves over to formal religion and practice it with great dedication and regularity.  What is it that makes being ‘spiritual’ something that is appealing to anyone?  Conversely then, is being ‘religious’ something that is deemed shallow, na├»ve, and maybe even callow?  As Aristotle so correctly described the human person as a rational animal, I am wont to believe that no one really does anything without good reasons behind their decision, so the ‘nones’ too must have very good reason to say that they are spiritual, but not religious.  

One thing that sets religious people clearly apart from the non-religious, (and I am referring to those who assiduously practice their religion with great dedication and regularity, applying it to every sphere of their lives as possible) is that there is very often a discipline that is involved.  Whether one calls it discipline, effort, regularity, or commitment, it is clear that those who are religious are not those who blow hot one day, and cold on another.  It calls to mind what many consider the motto of the US Postal system which goes something like “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.  Encapsulated in that statement is a deep and serious commitment and dedication to the task at hand.  Where serious application of one’s religion to one’s life is concerned, this motto seems just as applicable.

Does the human person naturally apply oneself to a committed cause with such dedication?  In my encounter with many different people in my years both working in the secular world, and the many more years being a pastor of souls as a priest, I must say that this is a rare grace.  Many, if not most people, do not do very well when it comes to commitment and living lives with great dedication.  There is instead, a preference for simply ‘going with the flow’, or waxing and waning according to one’s moods and feelings.  The human heart is somehow hardwired to take the path of least resistance, and this preferential option mitigates against choosing something that requires moe effort than less.  I’m not sure if this could be the cause of the existence of the ‘hook up’ culture, where men and women prefer to live together without any commitment to marriage, because it is far more convenient for the self to be preserved, and furthermore, there is always the possibility of calling it quits when selfless loving becomes too challenging.  Merely being ‘spiritual’ doesn’t have any dimension of commitment and staying the course.

I am also wont to believe that this underlying current is what makes being spiritual far more attractive and convenient than being religious with any degree of seriousness.  This is because when one is merely spiritual, one doesn’t need to adjust one’s life, where there is a need to align one’s life with an aim that is greater than oneself and one’s principles.  A life that is just ‘spiritual’ has no codified commandments to live by, no specific rules to follow, and doesn’t have any particular need to give oneself over to discipline.  Being merely spiritual is really pretty much an ‘anything goes’ way of living one’s life with little need to face the challenges of a conversion that mellows one’s heart.

Of course, there are the other arguments that many will bring up to say that religion has been the primal cause of so many wars and violence in the world, but can one seriously attribute that to the existence of religion per se?  When one’s view of and approach to religion is fundamentalistic with leanings to violence and hatred, it is always a distortion of true religion.  While I would concede that it may appear to be the case where religions seems to have been the root of violence and wars, it is always far more accurate to attribute it to the false and erroneous way that religion had been understood and practiced that has caused it to become the scapegoat of world violence.  

Having said this, there is also a flip side of the “I am spiritual, but not religious” dictum that has a dark side to it as well.  This is when anyone simply says that they are religious, but are not spiritual.  This would describe someone who is a devotee to the practices of their religion, but hardly imbibing and living out what one’s religion teaches at its core.  This is when one brings one’s shell to Church on Sundays, but has little or no heart in lifting one’s mind and heart to loving God and neighbor, and when one ‘says’ prayers rather than entering intoprayer.  In this way, one can be assiduous in following ritual as an external form, but could really be a pagan in the depths of one’s being.  One could really then call oneself a Christian, but only because one physically goes to Church, or has one’s name appearing on a baptism certificate.

In truth, being spiritual alone is not enough, in the same way that being religious alone is not enough.  The truly holistic person is one who tries his best to do both to the best of his ability.  The fact that Jesus in the gospels is often seen berating the Pharisees for merely following rules as an external exhibition of religiosity reminds us that our practice of our faith needs to go deep.  As we Catholics enter into the season of Lent, let us make greater efforts in making sure that our Lenten practices help us to grow spiritually as well.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The challenge of bringing little children to Mass each Sunday.

If one goes by the letter of the law (as far as Canon Law is concerned), then parents would not be faulted if they simply come to Mass without their children because the laws of the Church are only binding for children who have reached the age of reason, which is around 7 years.

But this doesn’t exonerate Catholic parents from fulfilling a very binding parental duty of baptized children, which is something that every Catholic couple promises to at the Marriage Pre-nuptial Enquiry with their priest, where they promise to bring their children up and educate them in their faith.  This phrase “educating children in the faith” is as deep as it is broad, and the educating of children in the faith includes giving them the opportunities to be familiar with regularity at church and Mass attendance on a weekly basis. It is not to be only understood as making sure that the children attend weekly catechism classes in the parish. Properly understood the parents are the first catechists of their children, way before they get introduced to their catechism teachers at the age of seven.

Being regular at Mass on Sundays and being comfortable with prayer isn’t something that is easily caught like a flu bug. It requires training and it requires great effort.  I may not be a parent, but I am fully aware of the great challenges couples have when they bring their infants to church on Sundays.  If one were to merely follow the guidelines laid out by Canon Law alone, children would only start coming to Mass when they reach the age of seven. Which child would willingly do this at 7 years of age, if he or she had not been regularly exposed to this practice on a weekly basis for the first 6 years of his or her life?  It thus makes great sense to start this practice right from the beginning of our child’s earthly life.

Just getting these helpless babes ready to go out at a specific time and to meet a target that is out of one’s control is a feat in itself, partly because the call of nature ignores such schedules.  As a priest celebrant at Mass on Sundays, I look at these determined parents with full respect because I see such great effort to do this without fail each Sunday. Being on time at Mass for these parents is often a hit and miss event.  Sometimes they make it on time, and sometimes they don’t.  I give them and these families a very wide berth and extend truckloads of charity toward them.

I can see that they are trying hard to do what is best for their children, and they want their family’s presence at Mass to make a difference to the Body of Christ, and believe me, it does make a world of difference.  I have visited churches in many other countries where parents themselves aren’t regular at Sunday Mass, and the congregation is often void of the presence and sounds of little children.  The Body of Christ at such Masses are often mainly a geriatric gathering, and it makes for a weakened faith just by the physical absence of our younger brothers and sisters.

It doesn’t make it any easier for these parents when the community around them cannot appreciate all that they are doing to educate their children in the faith either.  Often, and this is not an exaggeration, I do get complaints from church goers about parents who do nothing to calm their crying babies in church, and get very upset that their plaintive cries at Mass are causing a distraction, and these parents get the death stare from their fellow Catholics in the surrounding pews.  

Whilst some Churches are blessed to have a space specially set aside as a ‘crying room’ for these parents, not all Churches have the luxury of space.  My parish certainly doesn’t.  Can anything be done to help assuage the situation?  While no solution can ever be a perfect solution, there is one thing that I do tell parents which I believe can help tremendously.  

Where you should be seated at Mass needs to take into consideration the age of your children.

When children are infants, the best place to be seated is at the back, near the exit doors.  This is because it gives you a quick way to bring your crying child out of the prayer hall, out of the earshot of the parishioners. Some churches have external speakers where people standing outside the main hall can still participate in the Mass. And once your child is calmed and contented, you can easily join your family back inside the church.  A seat that is near the doors of the church enables you to do that without disturbing the community too much.

If your child is a toddler, the back of the church is going to be the worst place to be seated, for the simple reason that toddlers need to be engaged.  They want to see what is going on in the front.  When they are small in stature, especially when the congregation stands, all that they are going to see is the backs of people, and there is nothing exciting nor engaging about staring at a wall made up of peoples’ backs.  They are sure to be bored silly, and begin to stir. They need to be right up in front, where the ‘action’ is.  Let them see Father as he receives the gifts, prepares the Altar, and raises the Paten and the Chalice containing the consecrated Lord.  Let them smell the incense, even if this finds them covering their noses as the smoke fills the air.  At least they are being engaged, and as all children are wont to be, they will begin to ask questions - why is Father doing this or that, why is he wearing such strange clothing.  Why is it green today, when last week it was white?  These are teaching moments for every parent, and it keeps them engaged even after the Mass is over.  

Many Churches also have an upper gallery and I do notice that many parents like to be seated there.  If you have infants or toddlers, those are the worst placesto be in, mainly because it is such a walk to get up there, and once your child starts getting cranky or starts to praise God in a language of his own (i.e. bawling), you are not likely to make that long walk downstairs, going past all the seated parishioners.  You are, and I have seen this constantly, going to just try to calm the child by carrying him in your arms and do the ‘bouncing movement’ and walk up and down the back of the gallery, thinking that this will either calm the child or make yourself invisible to the crowd and to the celebrant of the Mass.  Believe me, you won’t.  You are in fact making things harder for all concerned.  

The other thing that needs to be said, and regularly too, is this:  

Parishioners seated around or near families with young children need to extend great charity towards them

If you find yourself bothered terribly by the crying of children at Mass, there are two things that you can do. Firstly, you can always find another place to be seated at Mass, away from the distraction that believe these children are.  You are not obliged to always be seated at the same place each Sunday, but I do suspect that many parishioners are creatures of habit.  

Secondly, it would certainly help if all of us can walk a mile or two in the shoes of these parents before we start criticizing them and castigating them without words.  I am sure that with all things being equal, these parents too wouldn’t want to have crying children at Mass.  Our charity towards them needs to take this into consideration, and when we do, we will find our judgments on them evaporating rather quickly.  When we do this, our love for our brothers and sisters will be put into action, and we will strengthen the Body of Christ in a very powerful way.  

Just remember that Jesus always welcomed the little children, simply because it is to them that the Kingdom of God belongs.  If we make it difficult for the little ones and their families to come to Mass, can we really say that the Kingdom of God belongs to us as well?  

Monday, February 25, 2019

Can my pain, suffering, anxiety and affliction be beneficial to my spiritual life? You better believe it!

One of the thorniest issues in the spectrum of theodicy deal with the fact that if God is good, how then can there be evil in existence?  The offshoots of evil are many, and among them are pains, suffering, anxieties and various forms of afflictions.  I’ve met many an atheist whose chief reason for not being a believer in God and God's existence is based on the fact that there is evil in the world, and I would agree that some of the evil that exists is almost beyond heinous. Their common argument is that because evil is so real and prevalent in the world, it necessarily means that there is no God, because a God, especially one whom the Christians claim to be a loving God, must not and cannot permit sin to co-exist with good, and sometimes, it even appears that sin and evil has the upper hand.  

While today’s blog reflection isn’t one that probes the theodicy issue with some degree of depth, it does attempt to provide the Christian with a reason to live with the pains and struggles that every one of us must face in life, without exception. When a pain is one that is bodily and physical, the common way to deal with it is to look for medication, and the pharmaceutical industry thrives on the demand of the millions who seek treatment for their pain.  While seeking a medical solution isn’t bad in itself, the Christian who understands the value of the Cross would do well to not waste the opportunities present in the pain to turn it into something that has a high value.  How can pain be valuable?  What kind of value does it have, and what does it look like?

The Christian’s view of life is significantly different from one who isn’t a Christian. As St Paul puts it, the Christian is one who is ‘clothed in Christ’.  He takes on an identity apart from that of a human being.  If we understand that Jesus’ only aim and target in life was to glory his Father and to love him wholeheartedly, then our being clothed in Christ needs to see us having that same target and purpose in life.  Jesus’ love for his Father was so pure, so unsullied, and that enabled him to give of himself so excessively on Calvary.  Even though we are clothed in Christ, our love always remains sullied, partial, not fully committed, and impure.  A heart with a pure love for God is seen when the sufferings and failures in life do not negatively impact or affect this love. A heart with an impure love will see it waning and weakening when times are challenging, and strong and vibrant when times are good.  A love that is pure doesn’t fluctuate like the way the stock market tends to.

Understanding this will allow us to see the wisdom of spiritual gurus who have taught that every situation in life, good or bad, ought to be seen as opportunities for us to purify our love for God.  As intriguing as it sounds, it isn’t all that difficult to understand.  When we are in good times, and we find ourselves basking, as it were, in God’s grace and blessings, bearing this teaching in mind will remind us to continue to love God with the same intensity even if these blessings and consolations were absent from our lives.  And when we are in situations where we find ourselves tested, loaded with cares and worries, afflicted with weakness and illness, or when friends betray us and leave us in our Gardens of Gethsamanes, bearing this same teaching in mind gives us good reason to see goodness right there, because if our love for God in those times are just as strong, just as steadfast and just as robust and intense, then it is revealing that our love for God is passing the test of love, not unlike the way gold is purified through the application of intense heat.  And if despite the darkness that we are in, we can still say with honesty that God is indeed good all the time, it would show that not only have we passed the test of love, but that we have done so with flying colours.

Of course, living this way and thinking this way isn’t for the faint-hearted.  It is for those who are laser focused on heaven as their target, and sainthood as their aim.  But then, neither is Christianity for the faint-hearted. 

You, dear reader, are called to that same target, that same aim of holiness as I am. May you be renewed and strengthened in your quest for holiness, and when trials come our way in life, let us truly thank God for the golden opportunity to have our love for God purified.