Monday, May 13, 2019

Vulnerability may be counter-intuitive to us, but it is so necessary for real love to happen.

There is a strong ideology in our shared human DNA that believes that we will only be loved and respected if we are impressive and strong.  From a very young age, children are taught, not without good reason, that they need to grow up to be strong and even supreme in some way, so that they will have the upper hand in life.  Apart from health reasons, it easy to see that there are people who frequent the gym and resort to inject steroids in their bodies in order to project a very impressive appearance to the world.  The subliminal projection of this message lies behind the glossy covers of the many health and fitness publications that line the shelves of bookstores and newsstands.  Even if it is not physical strength that one seeks, being impressive to the world comes in other forms, like popularity and physical beauty, and having a huge following on social media.  

The human person has various reasons to do this, and it can be reduced to our desire for others to love us. In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, we see a group of people who endeavor to do something rather strange – they set out to build a tower, attempting to reach the heavens.  This metaphor is deep as it is ridiculous. Behind it is man’s inner desire to make himself a stronghold that makes him tower over everything and everyone else. It is hubris in action.  Its antithesis is something that we humans have a tendency to reject and overcome, which is vulnerability and humility.  But in truth, it is vulnerability, seen clearly in the virtue of the practice of humility that really has lasting beauty, that does win not just friendship and real admiration, but also ultimately, love.  

But we need to be very careful to differentiate between the development of skills, talent and human gifts for true goodness and the building up of these same things, and for the building up of weapons that promote war, jealousy and a sense of superiority over others.  While one serves to endear ourselves in a good way to others and to society, the other only causes us to alienate ourselves from others, and to promote a sense of fear rather than love and healthy admiration.  This is indeed a fine art that few are automatically born or graced with, and its development lies within the purview of seeking spiritual maturity.  

This will only make sense if we begin to see both the wisdom and beauty of vulnerability, which is displayed magnificently on Calvary.  But without wisdom, vulnerability will only be seen as a stance in life that asks that we become doormats for others to step on, and sometimes repeatedly so.  In John’s gospel, which is the latest of the four gospels to be written, there is a very developed theology in its portrayal of the Son of God.  He is in total control of everything that happens right from the start with the Word becoming flesh, and we see him having power over all forces of the natural and the supernatural world in the fourth gospel. One interesting example of this is when Jesus is arrested in the Garden on the night of his trial, and John writes that when Jesus responds, “I am he” to the question who it is they are looking for, they “moved back and fell to the ground”.  There is a lot packed in this strange line.  John is reminding the reader that this Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the very same “I am who am” as revealed by Yahweh to Moses in the burning bush.  That omnipotent God and this Jesus are one and the same.  Ultimately, all creation will fall on its knees in worship.  It is at this revelation and reminder that the soldiers fall to the ground in a collective act of humility before the Divine.  

Yet, despite this, the events of the arrest, trial and eventual crucifixion take place.  The divine takes on the very important virtue of vulnerability in order for our salvation to happen.  It certainly isn’t to be confused nor associated with Jesus being a doormat at all.  

When there is a wrong or unhealthy idea of vulnerability, especially when it is confused with allowing others to know absolutely everything about us, it doesn’t become attractive either. We see this happening when there are ‘confessions’ at talk shows, where someone sits in front of an audience or on national television, and, as it were, lets it all “hang out”.  In a very twisted way, there is hubris in it because the person can be almost demanding that the world love and accept him and has used his “coming out” to buy their love and acceptance, almost demanding it in a crude way.  This isn’t love but a perverted trade-off.  This is so different from Calvary’s true power of vulnerability.

True vulnerability always needs to have a very clear sense of humility that has traits of honesty and tenderness at the same time, and this is where powerlessness gets its true power. It will always be a paradox that we have to struggle with in life.  

If you find yourself in a relationship that is very often in conflict with the other person, especially when you are perplexed by a lack of intimacy that is the fruit of honest and humble vulnerability, it could be a sign that there is still a lot to be learnt and discovered in the department where power in vulnerability is the motto.  It could be that you have been too busy building your own Tower of Babel in that relationship, and haven’t yet learnt how to be vulnerable in a godly way.

Monday, May 6, 2019

We may be self-sabotaging our efforts for holiness without knowing it.

I came across a story recently, which tickled my funny bone but had the amazing ability to satirize the way I see many well-meaning people struggling to live a holy life.  I’m quite sure it wasn’t true, but won’t be one bit surprised if it was.  The story follows:

My sister had been ill, so I called to see how she was doing.  My ten-year-old niece answered the phone.  

“Hello,” she whispered.

“Hi, Honey.  How’s your mom doing?”  I asked.

“She’s sleeping,” my niece answered, again in a very whispered tone.

“Did she go to the doctor?” I asked.

“Yes.  She did, and got some medicine,” the little girl said softly.

“Well, don’t wake her.  Just tell her I called.  By the way, what are you doing?”

In a very soft whisper, she said, “I’m practicing my trumpet.”

Picturing just how sincere the little girl was in making sure she was not waking her sleeping mother by her conversation with her aunt, the girl had no idea at all how her trumpet playing is louder than her whisperings by many decibels.  

After my chuckling subsided, it struck me that this serves very well as a caricature of how I notice many penitents may be having good and even excellent intentions of leading holy, pure and virtuous lives, but can at the same time be sabotaging their good intentions by doing things that bring their efforts the opposite effects.  

If you keep confessing that you are not chaste in your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend, one of the most important things to not do is to bring yourselves to situations and places that invite you to take risks with improper behviour and activity. This necessarily means that you need to have that important but perhaps awkward conversation that deals with the issue of only meeting each other in very public and open places.  

If you find yourselves always tempted to look at inappropriate websites that you find arousing on the internet, one of the things that is a sine qua non is to use your computer in the privacy of your own room, and ensure that you only have access to the web when in the living room or dining room, where members of the house are in full view of what you are doing.

If you say you have no time to pray in the night when you come home from a busy day at work or in school, then nighttime is certainly not the correct time for you to pray.  You’d do well to set your alarm clock twenty to thirty minutes earlier, get up before everyone else in the house, and devote that quite thirty minutes to God as a morning offering, consecrating the coming 16 to 18 hours to God, telling God that you want to make sure that from this moment till the end of your day, you want to glorify him with everything you do, say and think.  That way, it doesn’t become such an issue if you do not manage to pray before you go to bed, because you had begun the day with that good intention, though of course, it would be good to hinge your day with prayer in the morning and in the night.

If you keep confessing that you don’t put God at the centre of your life, but make very little actual effort throughout the day to make an examination of conscience, and only do so while you are in the confessional line perhaps once a month, it shouldn’t surprise you that your good intentions didn’t bear much fruit.  This putting of God in the centre of our lives cannot be a reflection that we do every month or two, but rather, every hour or two. While I certainly don’t wish for anyone to become obsessed with scrupulosity (which is unhealthy and not something that leads to true holiness), we must not be so lax in our self-examination that it is only something that we do minutes before we enter the confessional and land our knees on the kneeler inside.

A habitual gambler will be putting temptation to the test if he keeps going to the casino even though he admits that he needs to stop gambling.  That crucial but painful decision to register himself on the exclusion list at the casinos needs to be something he has to consider and to finally actually do if his words of repentance are to mean anything.  

Is there a magic pill that makes one automatically holy and make the right decisions all the time?  Would that there were.  One thing that the existence of such a pill excludes is the very important aspect of freedom of the individual.  What is at the heart of every sin is the inordinate and inappropriate love of self, and the lack of love of God.  Sure, we may say that the devil made us sin, but for sin to happen, there has to be cooperation and consent on our part.  The more we apply ourselves to loving God, the less we will have the resources (or the desire) to want to apply ourselves to loving things that injure or lessen our love for God.  

That choice to want to do good and to be holy in all that we do is an expression of how deep and true our love for God is.  Every holy man and woman who is a saint in heaven shares this as a common thread in their lives, and have either lived lives that showed great love for God, or have been purified their love for God in purgatory’s flames of purification.  

The girl in the story may have been effortful in speaking in hushed toned on the phone, but didn't apply this effort to everything outside of a phone conversation.  We too may be careful in only certain parts of our moral lives, but have not been effortful in applying this to the other parts of our lives.  We need to apply ourselves with great awareness if we are not to end up like that little girl, blasting the trumpet despite being so careful in speaking in hushed whispers when on the phone with her aunt.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Original sin is such a misunderstood doctrine among many, and that includes Catholics.

Whenever I prepare talks on doctrine and theology especially meant for the average lay person, I try my best to put myself into their shoes for various reasons, the chief one being that I want to bring across a certain teaching and truth of the faith in a way that not only appeals to their sensibilities, but also to try to address the common misconceptions and misguided prejudices that are prevalent in the majority of people.  This is not only necessary, but also something that is challenging, to say the least.  I need to imagine what it is like to broach a certain teaching with a mind and a biasness that has leanings toward atheism and the buffered self, where one is harbouring certain resentments toward God because of how he has been portrayed in and through the writings of the books of the Old and New Testaments of Sacred Scripture.

Perhaps one of the more challenging doctrines to teach and be received with little objection in our Catholic faith has to be that of Original Sin.  I have found that many non-Catholics who come into the faith or make efforts at wanting to learn about our faith struggle with this.  Many baulk at the fact that every human being, no matter how young, even a newborn infant, is born into sin.  After all, the theological definition of sin is an action that is something that is committed which is a transgression against God’s law, and something that is willfully and knowingly done.  Can a newborn child do this?  Does he or she have the capacity to do this?  Obviously not.  What is this Original Sin that everyone is mired and burdened with then, something that doesn’t even require one’s will to commit?  Adults who embark on the RCIA journey too may think that sin only applies to the big-ticket items on the sin-list like murder and theft and adultery, giving them the idea that confession (especially regular confession after baptism) is highly unnecessary for the average Joe.

Original sin needs to be understood as a condition more than an act.  It is every human being’s urge or tendency toward doing bad things and thereby offending God.  Human beings do not need any training or coercion toward sins like lying and being guileful and wily in life.  As a confessor, I see this in little children who know that they have wronged their parents when they have been untruthful to their parents, doing things that they ought not.  They don’t need to be taught to do such things.  It seems to be an automatic and built-in default that lies in the human DNA. St Augustine explains that because this is a spiritual disease, it is therefore also a fault, and faults deserve judgement and subsequently, condemnation.  It is this condemnation that needs to be forgiven.  This original fault, which is attached to our physical origins, is what baptism forgives.  

I always find it challenging to put this across without a sea of furrowed brows and looks of discomfort in the faces of those to whom I impart this teaching.  The human being is naturally resistant toward being judged and worse, being condemned, especially for a fault that one had been saddled with, and not something that one willingly chose to do. 

Christian doctrine therefore teaches that the only way a human person so mired in a sinful condition can saved from such consequences is through the sheer grace of God, given through the sacrament of Baptism, which comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and no other name.

I had a conversation with someone this week, and this person was not a baptized Christian, but had married a Catholic spouse, and they are parents of a child who is now about 30 years of age.  This child was baptized at birth, and the Catholic parent had been faithfully bringing the child up in the faith, basically fulfilling the Catholic’s spouse’s duty to baptize all the children that the marriage is blessed with.  The technical term for such a marriage is a mixed marriage.

As a priest, I was very pleased to know that the child in this marriage was brought up in the faith, received first Holy Communion and Confirmation. In my conversation with the non-Catholic parent, somehow the topic of baptism and original sin came up, I was told that this parent made it clear that there was no such thing as original sin, and that every person is born with no sin at all.  I held my tongue which was itching to say something, and with great effort, stepped into the shoes of my interlocutor.  In so doing, I was trying to see this view from the vista of a person who had no notion of God, and whose idea of God (and religion) was most likely one that was greatly influenced by secularism, subjectivism, the dominance of individualism, rationalism and even the social media. All these are great promoters of the idea that there is no such thing as an objective sin, and advocates of this philosophy of the central “I” have a great resistance to the fact that anyone needs to be saved, especially from sin that one hasn’t personally committed, which is what Original Sin is.

I will have to accept the fact that my task as a priest and an educator of the faith will always see me being ready to give a response to such ideas and objections with clarity and charity.  It’s not the clarity-part that is challenging.  I have come to realise that it is often the charity-part that needs the greatest effort.  It is the need to step into the shoes of the other, even walking around for a while in them, and to understand (often with compassion) the views and opinions of the other before saying a word.  And the only thing that makes this possible to do is humility.  I have also come to realise that once humility is lacking, hard truths of the Church will be very much resisted, and if accepted, will only be accepted with great reluctance and hearts that are hard.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Easter joy, and what Easter helps us to do.

One of the greatest joys of Easter is that it gives us the ability to be joyful despite the fact that our lives may be immersed in darkness and in states of non-resolution.  The fact that our faith is predicated on the resurrection of Jesus gives us ample reason to continue in our pursuit of love and righteousness and truth, even if these don’t appear to be given any form of vindication whatsoever in our lives.  

Why I say this is because on Calvary, as Jesus was left hanging on the ignominious cross, everything that Jesus stood for, and lived for, appeared to have been in vain.  Abandoned by his disciples save one, he experienced deep betrayal and rejection, and heard the clamour of the crowds wanting to spare the life of a brigand instead of his.  He was accused of blasphemy when he was merely speaking the truth, and he had no intention of seeking revenge on his abusers, and sought instead to forgive them.  On the surface of things, it did seem that all that he believed in, lived for and stood for, made not a scintilla of difference.

But his greatest vindication was yet to come.

His resurrection from the dead, leaving the tomb empty with just the grave cloths as its contents made all that he stood for truly worth it, even though at the time, it really did not make any sense.

We need to take this truth for our faith and apply it each time when in our lives we want to pursue anything with faith, love, honesty, integrity, righteousness and with truth, especially when our efforts at staying the course makes little or no difference.  

Examples of these abound. Think of the times when a spouse makes the decision to stay in a loveless marriage, and chooses to forgive a philandering spouse over and over again; or when one does not stop being kind and charitable to one’s office colleagues despite being betrayed by the blanket term ‘office politics’; or when one strives to be positive and of good cheer despite being told one is in stage-four cancer and that the tumor markers are off the charts; or simply when one faces opposition and an icy situation at work or even in the parish setting where even the slightest gesture of cordialness is met with the coldness of a granite obelisk.  To keep positive and to not give up and throw in the proverbial towel at such times can be so tempting.  

This is when Easter’s resurrection and the empty tomb holds the greatest promise for us.  We need to remember that all the fruits of what Jesus stood for in terms of love and truth and fidelity to the Father’s will were not tasted on Calvary.  The sweetness of their fruit only came at the resurrection.

A culture of instant gratification militates against this, and does it so strongly.  Our vindication will, for most of us, come only after we die. We need to know that our efforts while we are still alive, to pursue all that we do with the virtues of Christ, will, because of evil, be either stymied or blocked in our lifetime.  

But living in faithfulness and hope will only make any sense if we imbue the attitude of delayed gratification and apply the virtue of patience.  The promise of the resurrection is certainly not one of instant results, and that also isn’t the message of the gospel.  The Italians have a phrase that sums it up – gia ma non ancora.  It means “already, but not yet”.

Indeed, Easter’s great joy, celebrated so intensely each year, is a reminder to all of us to never give up hope despite all that may be against us.  Alleluia needs to be our war cry when we battle the forces of evil in life.

A blessed Easter to all.