Sunday, August 7, 2022

Our lives will come with afflictions that may challenge our faith and trust in God.

All of us, without exception, want our lives to be lived with a steadiness and calm right to the very end of our earthly existence.  While that is a thought that is nice to have, it isn’t something that can be taken for granted.  Inevitably, there will be challenges to our health and state of life where we may find ourselves questioning if God is indeed there for us and with us throughout our lives.  This is especially so if we have been taught from our youngest years that our lives are cared for by God and that we do not exist without the benefit of having God looking after us.  While that may be true, it doesn’t mean at all that God won’t permit us to suffer pains and afflictions in the course of our lives.  And when those afflictions come, it may make us wonder why it is that God allows such sufferings to happen in our lives, and further, to wonder if he really loves and cares for us as taught.  

In my time since the accident happened to me in May of 2021, the road to recovery has been one that hasn’t been as smooth and free of worries as I had hoped to be.  Yes, I have had my experiences of Leukemia in my past, but that didn’t make me wonder if God had stopped caring for me.  But in this 15 months of ultra slow recovery from the accident, to say that there have been ups and downs is to say the least.  One of my latest experiences of afflictions has been a sudden pain that has struck my right gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and tensor fasciae latae.  I guess it could be summarised by calling it a problem I am facing with my hamstrings.  I have been keeping an account of my thoughts about this affliction, and I noticed that instead of being steadfast in pursuing the therapeutic exercises that I was taught to keep my muscles strong and flexible, I had been pondering why it was that God allowed this to afflict me in my path toward full and functional recovery since the accident.  It’s as if things weren’t bad enough, that I had to be given this new set of afflictions to slow down my full recovery and going back to live in the parish.  

But on a larger scale of things, it shows that many, if not most of us, can take our health and state of life for granted.  We complain a lot and don’t take it well if things come into our lives that cause us to slow down and examine if the way we are living needs some improvement and steadiness.  Being ungrateful is a simple way of putting this.  No one should be ungrateful in life, but no one is really prepared to accept readily the pains and sufferings that life can present to us.  It is the same for our spiritual lives.  That path of life that is free from moral sins and temptations is never one that one naturally experiences in life.  As long as we are free from one form of mortal sin, there is always the next one to handle in life.  Saints are not people who are only free from temptations in life.  They are people who have fought the battle for moral rectitude well and courageously and have shown by their lives how to overcome the wiles of the devil and his minions.  A positive way of looking at life is to keep a constant contact with God and be always grateful for his care and concern for us, serving him, loving him, and glorifying him every single day of our lives, whether there are afflictions and tests in our lives or not.  This will shape and strengthen our spiritual path of life to get us ready in various ways to face anything that will come in life.  

One good thing to do in life is to never fail to be thankful to God for the blessings we have had in life.  Keeping our eyes on the blessings we have been grateful to receive help us to not be thrown into a tizzy when small afflictions take place in our lives.  There are always things to be grateful for in life, and we will be absent minded when we quickly say that there are no good things in life to be grateful for.  Mindfulness is the keeping of an account of how we have been blessed by God, and ingratitude is a hallmark of how weak and easily afflicted we can be when things come and confuse us, especially when they are unplanned and surprise us easily.

I know that many people have been praying for my quick recovery, and I am thankful for their prayers and their faith.  You who are reading this blog may be one of them, and I thank you for your faith and perseverance.  But I am not being ungrateful for your faith when I have sudden unplanned for afflictions like this sudden pain in my hamstrings.  I had to show up as a celebrant for morning Masses in my parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary last week, and there were days when I was really tempted to use the help of my walking cane but thought that it would be a bit of a distraction for the congregants in the church so I endured the Mass with no aid of the cane.  But I do believe that with time and perseverance, the weakness in the hamstrings will be strengthened and I will overcome the pain.

Let this reflection remind my readers to never take for granted all the goodness and blessings that God has given to his beloved sons and daughters.  There are plenty of things to pray for each day, and if you happen to run out of things to pray for, pray for the grace of gratitude and thankfulness for all the goodness that God has given to you in life.  And may the grace of God be with you until the day when this earthly journey of life ends and God is summoning you to share with the saints and angels the everlasting glory of eternal paradise.  

Thursday, July 21, 2022

What makes a reflective Spirituality in life

It doesn’t necessarily take a spiritual person who answer the question “what is the goal of the spiritual life?”  Most people who are in touch with their thoughts in life would give an answer that says that the spiritual life is all about doing good things in life.  A person who has his eyes fixed on heaven would say something like “the spiritual life helps us to detect God’s presence in the world”, which is not that far from the truth.  But it was my experience in going through 30 days in a Jesuit Retreat Centre in Chiangmai, Thailand, that opened my eyes and heart to the inner core of the spirituality of the Jesuits.  This happened in the middle of my sixth year in the seminary where I was being trained for the Catholic priesthood, and to me, it was an experience of pure gold.  

It is a place that is tranquil and green, so idyllic to be in to be guided on a spiritual journey like an Ignatian 30-day silent retreat.  Those who have pursued such a journey in life would say without hesitation that a place would have to be quiet and remote for it to help one to attain a fruitful end when one decides to pursue good fruit at the end of the retreat.  Of course, a good retreat master would be desired to have in order to be led and directed in the journey of the soul.  This came as a gift to us seminarians who went to that month-long spiritual walk with God.  I believe that Seven Fountains has undergone some renovations since I was there so many years ago, but the people who have returned from there share with me that they loved the place and the experience.  

St Ignatius who wrote The Spiritual Exercises, had a deep and meaningful experience in his search for God in his life.  This book is the foundation of the 30-day Ignatian Retreat, and I don’t intend to ruin the experience of the Retreat for anyone who hasn’t made the retreat himself or herself.  Ultimately, we find out that the dynamic goal of the Spiritual Exercises is to choose.  To choose is to freely unite ourselves with God.  A spiritual person would be deeply interested to join with God in active work in the world.  

God, we are guided to see.  And Ignatian spirituality teaches us to discern the steps that God makes in our lives and in our experience.  The Spiritual Exercises gives us guidance on how to look back on our lives, and to sift through our experiences to see the way that God has been dealing with us over the years.  As Fr Rolheiser once wrote, a great many of us are far too absorbed in efficiency and cannot find time to pray, and this excuse robs us from being in touch with the spiritual experiences in our lives.  The world is mired with too much efficiency and stuff and it ends up making our world an endless search for new and exciting things to look out for.  Those who are internet connected will know that there are an endless number of channels to watch movies, sporting games and variety programmes.  News channels are no longer just the “Nine O’Clock News”, but an endless array of reports bringing the world’s happenings to our homes through the television.  Then there are the magazines that beckon with their glossy covers and distracting reports of sportsmen and celebrities.  After a full day of being stuck in traffic, public transportation, writing endless reports in the office, listening to lectures given to us by our teachers or professors in schools, exhaustive hours of research for our subjects in schools, there is always the attraction of the endless offerings on the internet and the many conversations that we want to be included in by our friends and colleagues.  All these take up our valuable time and they are made up of what the world calls efficiency and productivity.  While they may not be bad in themselves, they can easily rob us from the time that God would want to have us give him in prayer and attention.  This is the task of spirituality.

St Ignatius begins the retreat with the Principle and Foundation.  Ignatius sees the vision of God’s purpose in creating was to share life with us forever.  Besides, the purpose of the things he created was so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more easily.  Added to that, the goal of the retreat, he tells us, is to choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me than the other things.  The daily examen is a method of reflective prayer that to many appear to be a digression from the real business of the retreat.  

Ignatius wanted his Jesuits to make the examen a daily habit.  But the retreat is not only something that Jesuits can make.  The press of work or illness may often make it impossible for Jesuits to have an extended time of daily prayer.  They can end up saying that they are far too ‘busy’.  It was Ignatius’s insistence that the examen is never omitted from their lives.  Usually, one makes the examen twice a day, once at midday and again before retiring, to pause for a while and review the events of the day in prayerful reflection.  

Ignatius outlined that the examen has five points.  1) be grateful for God’s blessings; 2) ask the help of the Spirit; 3) review the day, looking for times when God has been present and times when you have left him out; 4) express sorrow for sin and ask God for his forgiving love; 5) pray for the grace to be more totally available to God who loves us so totally.  There are many versions of the examen written by Jesuits and others, and they are like successive editions of a great textbook.  

Undoubtedly, the word examen indicates a kind of introspection, and St Ignatius tries to emphasise this point by making his first point of the examen prayer one about gratitude to God.  One Jesuit, Fr David L Flemming, outlined the following examen prayer as follows:

The Examen of Consciousness

A Prayer to God

God, thank you.

I thank you, God, for always being with me, but especially I am grateful that you are with me right now.

God, send your Holy Spirit upon me.

God, let the Holy Spirit enlighten my mind and warm my heart that I may know where and how we have been together this day.

God, let me look at my day.

God, where have I felt your presence, seen your face, heard your word this day?

God, where have I ignored you, run from you, perhaps even rejected you this day?

God, let me be grateful and ask forgiveness.

God, I thank you for the times this day we have been together and worked together.

God, I am sorry for the ways that I have offended you by what I have done or what I did not do.

God, stay close.

God, I ask that you draw me ever closer to you this day and tomorrow.

God, you are the God of my life - thank you.

Yes, sometimes prayer can get formal and abstract.  This Daily Examen keeps us humble and our feet firmly on the ground.  It is reflective in nature, and as we are God’s sons and daughters living in the world that he loves and sustains, we can be assured that he hears our voices in this world of noise and busy-ness.

This examen helps us as we will never run out of things to pray about.  It is like a direction finder for our spiritual lives.  If we wonder what to say to God, having this list of examen reflections is a guide that one never gets tired of.  

All of us need to have a reflective spirituality in life, and this is one definitive list.  If it helps some of your readers of my blog to be so constantly reflective in your prayer, the aim of this blog will have been met.  I know many people have been praying for me, and in turn, I will pray for my readers of this blog.  May you have an endless experience of being loved and cared for by the same God who made you and this world, and may you always grow in your love of God in your lives.  

Monday, July 4, 2022

How does prayer really look like? Are we praying only when things are looking better in the world and for us as well?

This isn’t an original blog reflection on prayer by any means.  I’ve written on this several times in my blog’s existence, and I was thinking hard about what my next entry should be focused on.  Then I came across one of Fr Rolheiser’s blog entries and he entered it on what real prayer looks like.  His main point in the reflection was really about the situations that we are in when we utter God’s name when we don’t know how to deal with what life is presenting to us.  

In his essay, Fr Rolheiser detailed how a Jacques Loew, the founder of the Worker-Priest movement in France, was once working in a factory and saw how his fellow workers were hauling very heaving bags into a truck.  In this situation he sometimes saw how one of the bags would suddenly drop from the hands of the men, and as the bag landed on the ground would burst open and have all its contents spill out, creating a mess.  This was when a mini-blaspheme would escape from the lips of the men.  This made Loew point out that though what was heard was not something that was glorifying God as taught in the Lord’s Prayer, he felt that the men who uttered those phrases was saying a prayer as he was invoking God’s name in real honesty.  I was partly flabbergasted when I read this, and it stayed in my mind as I went through the day after that.  It takes a spiritual man of some depth to have discovered this.

When we were trained on prayer by our catechists, it didn’t include how we ought to be praying when things in life were not so calm and attractive to us.  We were mainly taught that when things were smooth going ons in the world and in our lives, that we ought to be raising our voices to God with great thanksgiving for the blessings we have been receiving.  This isn’t something hard to teach.  It is the imparting of gratitude for the goodness that God has blessed us with, and it is only right.

But what if the opposite is what faces us in life?  What if the news at night is bad news, and in an order that is one after another?  Or what if what happens to us in life isn’t what would consider as calm, goodness and comfort?  What if we accidentally stub our fingers as we make our way around the home or the office, or get stuck in a terrible traffic situation which leaves us late for our appointment?  At these moments, what comes out from our mouths could be described as a mini-blasphemy and even aesthetically offensive, no matter if the person who hears us is a senior convent nun who had been finally professed for several years.  Certainly it is not our aim to take God’s name in vain, but on several levels, just hearing what we uttered could constitute as a sinful act.

But Fr Rolheiser said that many of us take prayer far too seriously for our own sakes.  If we take what is happening to the world around us too seriously, we can lose heart and stop praying.  Fr Rolheiser then said what only a most astute praying person is able to say when he said that prayer is most important and most powerful precisely when we feel it is most hopeless, and when we feel that we are most helpless.

This is what being genuine is all about.  If you think about it, it is not often that when we turn on the news at night, all that is reported is primarily about the goodness and charity that is shared and experienced in many parts of this world.  And aren’t we all supposed to be channels through which God’s love and goodness can flow to the whole world?

It could be that we are filling our hearts and minds only with one aspect of God’s power - the power of health, wealth, politics and economics.  For us, God is only good when we have hope.  While it isn’t wrong, it is a far too narrow way to look at God’s power of his Divine love.  So if the news is good, we have hope.  But if we don’t have hope, why then do we pray?

When we pray though the world looks negative, we are emphasising the strength and the promise of God.  There are worse things that can happen to us than when things fall all over the floor when the bags drop on the floor.  The bags could also drop on our feet and injure out toes too.  When those things happen to us, things coming out of our mouths could be much morse than mini-expletives.

Let’s be honest - there will be moments in our lives when things aren’t looking good for us or for the world.  It is then that prayer is not only necessary, but utterly important.  Sometimes we do feel helpless, but prayer at these times show a real honest that is inside of us.  Prayer in tough times is a reminder to always seek God’s presence and power in life.

I felt very drawn to this reflection from Fr Rolheiser because I noticed that it was primarily in moments of prayer and adoration that I was more fully in touch with God’s presence in my life.  It has been slightly over a year since my accident while exercising and I have not attained that state of being fully recovered and restored to good health, and I am constantly seeking evidence that things are back on an even keel for me.  But that moment and those ideal conditions have still not been given to me, and I find it often that I am raising my eyes toward heaven and ask God the perennial question “why me?”  With Fr Rolheiser’s reflection, this prayer now changes to a more sensible “what is it, Lord, that you want of me in this situation that you have allowed me to undergo in life?”

It is a very real prayer and it comes from the depths of my heart.  I am not, and should not be, waiting for things to become fine and dandy before my prayer becomes real, heartfelt and relevant.

Of course, I do know that there are many friends and parishioners who have been praying or me to get better and recover fully after my trial, and to be restored back to parish life and ministry in work.  Your prayers mean so much to me, and have done me a whole lot of good.  Please know that thanksgiving rises from my heart to God whenever I think of the many who are still praying avidly for me.  I will be praying for God to bless you in your lives.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Prayer - it is much more than our conversation with God.

Today I celebrate my 21st Anniversary of my Ordination to the Priesthood.  It was back on 20 June 2001 that Archbishop Gregory Yong celebrated the Mass where I got ordained into the priesthood, and present there were a huge number of friends and parishioners who I had encountered in my weekly encounters with them when I was posted to their parishes as part of my priestly training and exposure.  

One of the things which I often stress in my spiritual exhortations to parishioners is that prayer in the spiritual life is something that is utterly important.  I do not doubt that parishioners know of the importance of prayer, but what many of them fail to understand is that prayer is not just us human beings lifting our minds and hearts to God and telling God what it is that we need from him.  Sure, it is undoubted that that forms a distinctive part of prayer, but it is not the only part.  The other part is how we listen to God communicating to us, either during the moments that we pray, or time that is outside of what we would call formal prayer.  That second part of prayer, which is God’s communication to us, is also what forms prayer.  God can remind us, enlighten us, and strengthen our resolve to live a life that glorifies God.  

A person who is in special need for grace from God could be receiving spiritual aid from God throughout the day, and when it does happen, it may not occur to him or her that the aid that is being given to him or her by the doctor or caregiver is aid that is in fact coming from the grace of God.  Many of you who read my blog may know that in May of last year I encountered an accident when I was out doing my morning exercise walk when I was hit by a motorist as I was crossing a pedestrian crossing at a traffic junction.  The doctor who tended to me in the hospital was very caring in making sure that I recover well from the accident, and it was in January this year that I received the necessary cranioplasty surgery where part of my skull was replaced after two parts of the skull were removed post accident.  

It is now June of this year, and though the trauma of the accident and surgery due to the accident have passed the one year mark, my overall alertness and awareness is still not fully recovered.  My prayer each day isn’t just the Eucharist that I celebrate in the morning in my mother’s residence where I am spending the days in my extended medial leave from parish presence.  That forms a major part of my prayer.  What fills the rest of my day is when I raise my awareness of how God is responding to my plea to him for his divine help to get me to a better reformed and strengthened way of living.  True, sometimes I forget that God is helping me in my post surgery recovery, and I can imagine that this period of time is just myself going through the daily grind of physical recovery and strengthening by my own will.  When I catch myself thinking this way, I am filled with remorse as I have turned away from the need to raise my attention to thank heaven for having been cared for in a supernatural way.  

Prayer of course, is more than just something that a person does by himself.  I have come across many friends and former parishioners who have heard of my accident and surgery, and have reassured me that they had been praying for me and for my speedy recovery.  In this way, prayer is something that is also aided by the loving and caring friends and neighbours whom I have come to know.  Seen in this way, prayer is more than a solo-action.  It is a team effort where the community one knows and shares one’s life with forms a praying effort that is more than something that one does alone.  Each day, part of my prayer is to thank God for these well meaning and generous people that are part of my life.  

In the human way of thinking, attaining 21 years of being or doing anything isn’t a small achievement.  A human reaching 21 years of age is when one reaches adulthood.  I look back at my life as a priest of God for 21 years, and I am filled with gratitude and am truly touched that God has allowed me to serve him and his people for 21 years, despite that some of the years were filled with illness and physical weakness.  I choose to not let those ‘down’ times to tell me that the priesthood is not a time that is exempt from suffering or tensions.  In fact, I have come to learn that these are the very precious experiences of the Cross which all of us are given by God, no matter whether we are ordained or otherwise.  Carrying the cross with elan and grace is an understandable challenge for many who are only interested in doing things that are commendable by others in life.  Jesus’ walk with the patibulum or the crossbar on the Via Dolorosa was not something that Jesus enjoyed doing, but it was definitely something that he did with love - love for humanity and his brothers and sisters.  If the cross you may be carrying in life is a burden and difficult, bear this in mind and do what is unthinkable - thank God for the cross that you carry and you will end up not dragging the cross but carrying it with the grace of God.

To all my friends and parishioners who have been praying for me in the years of my priesthood, I want to say a very big and heartfelt thank you for your charity and generosity.  May God continue to bless you each day as you live your days leading up to the day when it is your time to face the judgment of Jesus before we enter into our sharing the the everlasting joy of heaven.