Monday, July 16, 2018

Our need to see our works finished may be our stumbling block towards humility.

I know that what I am about to write will be somewhat controversial.  But I also do have a sense that there is a great truth in it. Understood wrongly, it may even think that I am somehow inimical towards finishing one’s work or completing one’s tasks in life.  I am not. There is a whole lot of virtue in making sure that one’s work and efforts in life get completed as far as possible, applying in all tasks that we set out to do the best that we can.  No successful project as been accomplished with efforts that are half-baked and sloppy.  This is a fact.

But there is also another aspect of the truth that there is also a virtue in accepting the fact that we sometimes do not see the end, result or success of our efforts and endeavours, and that all that matters is that we have done our small part in contributing to the final product, and be contented that we did not taste the fruits of our labours in our lifetime.  Nurturing this helps tremendously in developing in our lives the virtue of humility.

This reality hits me whenever I visit medieval Cathedrals in Europe.  Walking through the ancient portals into their magnificent interiors, often filled with brilliant and breathtaking stained glass windows depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, most eyes are looking at things above.  But I am also drawn to look at the things that are not all that breathtaking, like the flooring or the lower portions of columns and arches.  These Cathedrals were not built in a few years. In fact, many of the great ones like Chartres and Reims took more than 60 years to be completed.  The Notre Dame in Paris was only completed 200 years after its groundbreaking, and in Barcelona, Spain, the regal Familia Sagrada’s imposing structure hasn’t even been completed since construction began in 1882, and it is scheduled to be finished only in 2026, making it an estimated 144 year-long project.  The stone cutters and those workmen and labourers who laid the floorings and bottoms of those walls and pillars most probably didn’t see the end of the work that they began.  Yet, we see the fruit of their labours in their glory now.  In fact, the architect of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi himself died in 1926 and is buried within the Sagrada Familia itself.

There is a lot of humility that is unseen in these Cathedrals.  There is also a lot of the finished beauty, majesty and magnificence of the completed work that was not seen by those involved in the construction of those buildings themselves.  This truth was very likely in the minds of those many stone cutters, brick layers, artisans and architects as they undertook these long term projects. What drove them to just be contented with their small tasks must have been the knowledge (and faith) that all was required of them was to put in their best in the little tasks that lay before them.

We who live in an age of the ‘instant’ have developed a resistance to this mind that fosters humility of heart.  There is much to be lauded for the advancement of technology and science which has given rise to the speed at which projects that are massive are completed. 

But there is a downside to speed, which isn’t easily noticed.  It can become an obsession and an addiction and we begin to think that it is our right to see the fruits of all our labours in our lifetime. 

The greats of the Old Testament - Moses, Abraham, all of the Prophets - all of them experienced this 'incompletion' in their lives.  Moses was told that he would lead the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, but he himself didn't get to step into it.  But he did lead them there.  Abraham was promised that his descendants would number as many as the stars, yet he died with only one child.  Notice that God didn't promise him that he would see his descendants with his own eyes.  All the Prophets spoke about the Messiah in various ways, yet not one except John the Baptist saw him, but even then, didn't see how Jesus would realise the prophecies of old, as he died before Jesus fulfilled the Father's will.

I have met and ministered to so many people who have either struggled with or maybe even lost their faith in God's love and presence and guidance because in their lives they have not seen God's promises fulfilled.  Sick loved ones didn't get healed and succumbed to their illness and died.  Marriages have failed apart despite attempts at bridging the chasm that became bigger between the spouses.  Businesses have tanked and friends experienced betrayal.  Hearts have been broken and the wounds have been deep and raw.  These are just some of the ways in which people have believed that God had reneged on his covenant of love.

We need to have what is called a meta-narrative when we talk about God's being with us.  His being with us requires us to sometimes experience these Calvary moments, and to face them with faith requires of us to do at least two things - one, to always see Christ's passion as the model of how to face our struggles with pain, suffering and even disappointment, and two, to be humble and somehow be able to say with deep faith that I don't need to understand nor see the fruit of my faith in its completed glory with every happiness defined on my terms.  Our faith life is ultimately a call to enter into mystery.  Even when I die with my hopes and dreams unfinished, as long as I have put great love and effort in all that I have done, it is still ok.  My life is not the Cathedral.  It was just a small part of the cornice of God's Cathedral.

David Brooks wrote in his book ‘The Road to Character’ about two kinds of virtues that we develop in life – the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are those that one lists in one’s resume and these are attainable very often with due diligence, hard work and much effort.  These we bring to the marketplace.  The eulogy virtues are the ones that are others talk about or mention during our eulogies when we die.  They don’t normally have certificates or citations that show that we have them. They are seen writ large in the lives we lead – kindness, humility, compassion, honesty and longsuffering are but a few examples.  They are not projects to be accomplished, but ways in which we live.

These are the cathedrals that we leave behind unfinished when we die.  Many a time, when I speak to people about the life of holiness and sanctification, the idea I want to stress is that these are not short term projects that we see the completion of in our lifetime.  It’s always a work-in-process.  We often say that we are ‘practicing Catholics’ and there is a truth in that.  No one is a perfected Catholic.  We are all in some ways honing our skills and trying to attain some degree of mastery in the spiritual life, never becoming masters ourselves.  

I have mentioned in quite a few blogs in the past Karl Rahner’s quote that “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, all symphonies in life remain unfinished”.  Our accepting and understanding this, I believe, is one of the keys to developing a truly humble spirit and a tender heart.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Learning to admire ought to be the proper Christian response to envy and jealousy.

Envy and jealousy plagues a large majority of people, and I can say this with some certainty because it is one of the most confessed sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  It does seem that the human heart (and mind) is somehow wired to competition (which may not be all that bad a thing) and to envy and jealousy at the success of others (which is one of the cardinal sins).  

Whilst the sword of competitiveness pushes one to excel in a given field, it does have a proverbial double-edge which reveals itself in the feelings of envy, jealousy and even covetousness.  Envy is really a pointless and stupid sin, because it is the only sin where there is no outright benefit to anyone when it is committed.  Every other sin has at least some degree of perceived good to cause one to give in to it.  Even a heinous sin like murder has some twisted benefit to the one who perpetrates the killing because of the belief that one’s life will be a bit better with the death of the victim.  Envy benefits no one – neither the one who is envious nor the one who is envied.  It truly is a pointless and stupid sin. Yet, so many cave in to it so easily. Sometimes, being overtly critical of others is a sign of envy, and we cover it up so cleverly by telling ourselves that it is the sophisticated and the enlightened, and those who are refined that can critique and comment. Yet we know that deep inside, what sets this off is envy. 

So what should be the proper Christian response to this apparent dilemma?  What should we be cultivating in order to have a healthy and less sinful approach to this streak in us that appears to foil our quest for holiness and sanctification?  Is there a solution that helps us build up rather than to tear down? 

An article in the New York Times last Monday attempted to put a new spin on this very subject.  The author based his recommendation on a book entitled “The Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam, who says that these feelings are very real in the human person. Shankar recommends that one who is prone to jealousy when a friend has achieved some success that one could have, but didn’t, ought to find a complementary aspect of their achievement which discourages an implicit comparison.  In other words, look for the difference in the way your competition did it as compared to yours, and when you spot that difference, frame the success within that difference and begin to celebrate your friend’s achievement.  His achievement is different and his goal was different from yours, and this, he proffers, tames the prideful side of you and it can even increase your own self-evaluation, because you will be wanting different things.

Shankar’s observation and conclusion isn’t all that far from the wisdom that spiritual greats like Ronald Rolheiser tries to impart when he wrote something about this human dilemma of envy and jealousy sometime back, but with a difference of course. Shankar is a science reporter with a station called National Public Radio in the USA; Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who is a syndicated writer of a column who writes from a spiritual view of life.

Rolheiser’s key to being liberated from the sin of envy and jealousy of another’s success is to learn how to admire.  I tend to agree with Rolheiser that the human person in the 21stcentury has somehow lost the art of admiring.  Perhaps I would go one step further to say that the 21stcentury human being is unable to admire because he or she just hasn’t been taught to do that well.  The modern mind so bent on success and personal glory has not given much space to train that part of us that admires, appreciates and acclaims things like beauty, goodness and talent outside of oneself.  

I was in Paris late last year and managed to wander along the corridors of the cavernous Louvre Museum in the city of lights.  I learnt that it’s not just the breathtaking masterpieces that one observes in that magnificent setting.  One can also people-watch, something that I did while I was milling the passages of the museum.  Pressing round me were the thousands of tourists who just like me, were there gawking at the beauty of the works of Degas, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet.  I even overheard someone saying in louder-than whispered tones “I’m sure I can afford to buy this one and put it over our fire-place in our mansion back home”. “Surely they were jesting”, I thought to myself, but that thought was something I brought back home as I mused on the human heart, and the need to possess.

I recall asking myself at that point whether that was the measure of the person’s status or achievement in life – to be able to buy up anything one fancies – even a priceless artwork.  If it is so, it may be the result of not having nurtured the ability to admire without needing to possess.   

If we have only been seeing life as a competition where we must be the top dog and trump over all our opponents, their success in whatever form will always be seen as a failure or loss on our part, and we must, by hook or by crook, have what they have.  It will signal that we have structured pretty much everything achievement and standing out. 

Living out our Christian faith well requires of us to not compare ourselves with others, and feel threatened when we see others enjoying various forms of success and earthly glory.  The key to do this is to admire without coveting, and to praise without regretting that you are not the one receiving it.  In truth, we will never be truly happy in life if we cannot honestly admire.  

God, I believe, is never in a snit, frowning and brooding as he looks at the world. Sure, it does concern him that the world has turned its back on him and his call to sanctification, but because he is love, he is also full of admiration.  Scripture tells us that he approved what he created – he saw it, and it was good.  When we learn to admire, we learn to be like God in that regard.  And that will be a very good way to deal with envy – a most stupid and pointless sin.

Post Script:
The diocesan priests of Singapore will be on retreat this week, and as such, I will take a break from my weekly reflection.  Please pray for us that we will respond to God's grace in the retreat and return next week to our ministries refreshed, energised and recharged.  The next blog entry should be on 16 July 2018.

Monday, June 25, 2018

17 years in the Priesthood - a reflection

On 20thJune last week, I crossed yet another year as an ordained priest in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  In terms of numbers, it wasn’t significant by any means.  It marked by 17thyear in the priesthood, and it isn’t a milestone as far as traditional milestones are concerned.  But in all fairness, considering that five years back I could have succumbed to Leukemia, each day is viewed as a gift from God and each anniversary a visible and tangible work of the grace of God to me. 

In years past, when I cross this date, I have often taken time to view the journey that I my priesthood had taken me on.  I encourage married couples to do this when their anniversary is celebrated, and since the priesthood is akin to a marriage in some ways, I apply that advice to myself. 

One of the things that I ask married couples to do is to look back and see if and how their spouses had gone through changes since their wedding day.  I got this idea from a book on the meaning of marriage written by a Presbyterian pastor.  In one of the pages, he quotes Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes as saying that when he married his wife, he had hardly a smidgen of sense for what he was getting into with her.  How could he know how much she would change over 25 years?  How could he know how much he would change?  He said that his wife had lived with at least five different men since they were we – and each of the five had been him.

I found that reflection to be worthy of something to sit with as I pondered over the past 17 years of my priesthood.  Could I say the same thing for myself?  Although I am still the Fr Luke Fong who was ordained back in 2001 in the parish of St Anne’s in Sengkang, am I also in some ways a different Fr Luke Fong now in 2018?  Would people whom I ministered to back then see the same priest ministering to them now if I was still in that parish?  If not, where were the changes?  And as for the parts that are still strong and familiar, what is it about them that somehow has resisted change?  And why?

If nothing at all in me has changed in the past 17 years, then something must be terribly wrong.  I do believe that I am constantly being challenged to mellow, willingly or otherwise. God’s grace is always inviting me and beckoning me towards not just existing but flourishing, and he often sends people and situations my way in order for this to happen.  Some can be altercations with friends or even parishioners, and some come in the form of physical challenges, like mine was back in 2013 with the gift of Leukemia.  That one was really a defining point in my life when something truly shifted in my core. 

Since that episode, the mellowing process has since taken on a greater dimension of suppleness and less of a resistance.  That perennial call to holiness and sanctification is very much clearer and rings more like a siren now when it was for more muted in the past, when it was more comparable to chime in the background.  

One thing for sure, it has vastly improved my prayer life.  I had made a personal vow to make a dedicated Holy Hour in prayer each day of my priesthood since my ordination, and it has been unbroken, with the grace of God.  But it has, since 2013 taken on a new purpose and a new depth, and where it was previously carried out with an intention to keep going something out of a personal obligation on many occasions, it is now very much more focused and predicated on a love for God.   
And it is for this reason that a large portion of any kind of counselling that I give to people who approach me for direction and guidance in life often seeing me asking if there is an element of prayer in their life, and most importantly, if loving God is the aim and purpose of their prayer.  It has ceased to surprise me now that when I ask this question, I get either a puzzled look, or a revealing pregnant pause, indicating in some way that it had never really crossed their minds that loving God has anything to do with praying.  

I am more and more convinced that it is when we begin to love God as Jesus said, with all our heart, mind and soul, that we discover and use the most effective weapon to fight Satan and to foil his plan to wreak havoc on our souls.  Sin occurs when our love for God and his will is diluted, thinned out and adulterated.  When a heart increases in its capacity to love God and love what God loves, it will, by becoming like God, find offensive and distasteful what offends God and displeases God.  Sin happens when a soul loves what God deems an affront, and doesn’t see goodness, truth and beauty in what God delights in.  What made Jesus able to love without sin is precisely because he loved the Father with his entire being.  The less we love God, the more sin has its sway with our souls.  

Having been ordained for 17 years, and having spent an hour with God each day would have seen me giving God around 6200 hours thus far.  Author Malcolm Gladwell is known to have propounded the 10,000-hour rule, where he said that for anyone to achieve mastery in any given field, one has to put in 10,000 hours in practicing and training.  

While spirituality isn’t about mastery, it is about constancy and effort.  There have been some studies that have debunked Gladwell’s theory.  But if I am to follow this rule of his, it looks like I still have quite a long way off to reach that 10,000 mark, since I am still a teenager priest at 17 years.

And wouldn’t it be interesting to see what kind of priest I would be when that mark is reached.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Finding motivation in life

I recently came across an interview where world number one sprinter Usain Bolt was asked why he was retiring from sprinting at the early age of 31. His reply was interesting in that he said that he had reached his goal, which was to win three Olympic Golds in three consecutive Olympiads.  His last one was attained at Rio in 2017, and after that, he said that there was nothing to motivate him anymore, and it was all ‘downhill from there’.  

Surely, no one would begrudge him his well deserved accolade of being the fastest man on earth, with all the medals and titles he has achieved thus far in his illustrious career as a sprinter.  But in that interview, you could sense that there was a shade of disappointment in his demeanor when he said that it was all ‘downhill’.  He also did add that there was no longer any motivation for continuing to pursue goals in running.  

In the Christian perspective of life, as in the world of sport, motivation is just as, if not, even more important.  What motivates us to live out our discipleship of Christ in and through our lives is something that we should always be contemplating and pondering while our journey towards heaven’s eternal joys is not ended.  Even St Paul used for analogy the training for sports to convey this notion that it is akin to a race that we are running, but for a wreath that will not fade.  For us Christians, the ‘race’ cannot be seen as one that has a ‘retirement point’, unlike Bolt’s running career.  It is quite understandable that the mere physicality of Bolt’s craft depends very much on his physical fitness and muscle coordination ability.  These are very much connected to and affected by one’s physical age and health, and it is just a matter of time when younger, fitter, and more agile runners become the ones who stand on the winner’s podium.  It’s just that some world records are harder to break than others.

So what is our motivation for our Christian lives?  What is it about Christianity that doesn’t have a ‘reach-by’ or ‘use-by’ date?  The ability to define this goal as clearly as possible will serve us well in that it will give us the reason to keep pursuing it constantly, with the grace of God. This goal is of course heaven’s eternal joys where as Revelations tell us, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will no longer be any mourning, nor crying nor pain. What this also necessarily means that while we are in this life and part of the Church Militant, mourning, crying and pain are experiences that are inevitable for every single human being. Seen in a more positive light, these features of our human brokenness and imperfection are elements that make us long and yearn for not just our ‘moment in the sun’, but an eternity of being IN the Son.  

Extending from last week’s reflection on the fleeting nature of worldly success, setting our sights on a joy and a goal that is eternal and in the future is what prevents us from reaching a point of being jaded and lacking in motivation in our spiritual lives.  We need to remind ourselves that if our goals and aims in life are greatly connected to the material, the tangible and those that can be measured in terms of titles, awards, accolades and possessions, we have set the bar too low.  A goal that is heavenly and non-attainable in this life is a bar that is raised to such a level that no earthly recompense, honour and bounty can match.  

Regular participation in Sacraments the key to fight weariness

Catholic Christians are particularly advantaged in living with this goal because along the journey of this life, we are richly aided by God’s assuring presence and strength when we are given Sacramental grace.  Each time we participate at Holy Mass, and receive Holy Communion in a worthy manner, we get a foretaste of heaven by the very fact that we receive in us the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man.  Regular participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation keeps us grounded in humility and in a state of grace.  God knows how challenging it is for us to be constantly motivated for our heavenly goal in the sea of the world’s challenges and the turbulent sea of temptations that come fast and furious at us.  Receiving Jesus in Holy Communion is what strengthens not just our resolve, but above all, strengthens our faith in God’s constant love and presence in our lives. 

Many Catholics cannot make this important connection when they receive Holy Communion.  Receiving the Eucharist is much more than just getting a shot of Holy Red Bull or some Sacramental Energy Boosting drink.  I have heard the sad lament of many a Catholic who tell me that they wish they had a personal encounter with Jesus, and my response to them is that the Eucharist is precisely this.  In the Eucharist, God is giving each person a truly personal encounter.  Which friend do you know would say to you “I love you so much that I want to give you my flesh to eat so that you and I can have a deep bond established”?  Probably not a single friend can say this.  Yet, God has said this, and is constantly saying this at every Eucharistic celebration.  

Being ignorant of this and unappreciative of this results in what we see these days – thousands and thousands of Catholics forming long lines to receive Holy Communion at Masses throughout the world, but with scant attention paid to what is truly taking place – a dynamic and real encounter that goes way beyond personal between Jesus and the communicant.  Being incognizant of this truth is what probably make us think, erroneously of course, that we are left on our own in this life as we make our individual ways toward God in our daily lives.  What we fail to appreciate is that Holy Communion is what can truly take the travail out of our earthly travel.

As far as his running career is concerned, Usain Bolt is clear that it is ‘all downhill’ from here after his three Olympic Gold medal win.  For Mr. Bolt’s sake, I hope that he has other goals to keep him motivated in life, because though medal- chasing may have an expiry date, there are aspects of life that don’t.  

As, Christians, our race for the finish is far from over.  See you at the finish line!