Monday, September 16, 2019

How our crosses can be holy crosses.

Each year on September 14, we Catholics are invited, by virtue of the arrangement of the liturgical calendar, to ponder and appreciate anew how important and unique our Christian faith is when we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross.  Inevitably, whenever people think about the Christian faith, the image of the Cross comes to mind.  We are people of the Cross, and Christians are readily identified by the crosses that adorn their necks, hang on the rear view mirrors of cars, or above our doors and on the walls of our homes.  

But the power of the cross and what it truly symbolizes can be something that is forgotten, taken for granted, side-stepped and perhaps put aside rather easily, and it will be to our disadvantage if we do that.  

I say this with much conviction because in truth, every one of us has some form of the cross in our lives.  These come in so many different forms and can take the form of ill health, failure, being victimized, experiencing setbacks, betrayal, or even being victims of natural disasters.  Each time we encounter these tough realities in life, we have an option before us, which basically falls into two categories of a positive option or a negative option.  The negative options are the options which see us getting upset, angry, bitter, regretful, acrimonious and being generally difficult to live with.  Unfortunately, this option is the one which we see many people taking, and it results in a very fractured and broken world.  Someone needs to be blamed and someone has to pay the price for the sufferings in life, and it’s not going to be me.  It’s largely a residue of original sin, where someone else is to take the blame.

The other option is to take these sufferings in a positive light.  I can say with some degree of certainty that this isn’t the default option that the human person is prone to.  I am certainly not advocating masochism when I say this.  Taking suffering and any form of the cross in life in a positive way comes in different forms as well.  It can range from being of good cheer in our disposition, being grateful for little things, and reaching out to others despite our lot in life.  These positives are not uniquely Christian. Even atheists and people of non-Christian faiths can choose to take these positive options.  

But there is yet another level of the positive that is unique to Christianity – almost a step-up, and that is to carry our crosses with an eye on the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Only when we are consciously doing this with our personal crosses can these crosses then share in the power of redemption that the Cross of Calvary uniquely has. This dynamic lies behind the often misunderstood Catholic language of “offering it up for souls”, “performing acts of mortification and sacrifice” and “living with heroic virtue”.  To be sure, this kind of language isn’t broadly shared by our separated brethren in the Christian world.  

We Catholics are firm believers in what St Paul mentions in Col. 1:24 when he says “in my sufferings for you, I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is the church.” It is only when we bear this in mind that we have the reason and obligation to carry our crosses with a certain willingness, eagerness and inner joy, because it is not just for ourselves and for our sins that we do this.  We are also doing it for the universal church of which we are members. We are doing this to benefit our brothers and sisters whom we don’t know, but who need some solidarity in carrying their crosses too.

What’s more, it opens up for us Catholics the wider dimension of what the phrase “body of Christ” means when we participate consciously at each Eucharistic celebration.  Whenever Catholics come up to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and say “Amen” to the priest’s “Body of Christ”, that “Amen” is not just a yes to the real presence of Christ in the consecrated species.  It is also a yes to the willingness to live out as fully as we can to the call to become a vibrant part of the universal Body of Christ, and part of this response of becoming a vibrant member is seen whenever we take up our crosses and follow Christ on our journey toward heaven.

I guess I am making this reflection with special emphasis because as I am confined to my convalescence quarters to regain usage of my replaced hip, I am made painfully aware that I am also carrying a cross.  Christ’s Holy Cross empowers me to carry this well, to carry this with a purpose bigger than myself, and to carry this with a Christian elegance.  When the going gets tough, I am reminded to imitate my Blessed Mother to stand silently at the foot of the Cross as well, and stands there with her Son, giving her the title of Stabat Mater.

The Feast of the Holy Cross which we celebrated just a few days ago reminds us not only of this need, but also of the value and power that our crosses in life have a potential for.  Yes, suffering is an energy and a power, but it is also easily left untapped. Like any source of power, it has immense potential – potential to change us and to change the world.  But when the only thing we do is to complain about it, ask incessantly “why me?” and make the world around us more miserable than we are feeling, this power is wasted, its potential unharnessed.  

We all have crosses.  We also have the choice to, with effortful love, turn them into holy ones as well.

Monday, September 9, 2019

In all forms of healing, the law of gradualness applies.

I have remained somewhat silent as far as postings to this blog is concerned, for reasons that I had given in the previous blog entry. I have since returned from my highly enjoyable and thoroughly eye-opening vacation, after which I underwent surgery to get a titanium/ceramic hip to replace my necrotized (dead) left femur which had been slowly dying and crumbling for a prolonged period of over a year.  

I am currently into my second week since the surgical procedure, and am convalescing in a home that is set up for retired elderly priests, as well as for priests such as myself, who need to have a place to recover and heal from serious surgery and medical afflictions.  I share the place with several other priests, all of whom are retired from active ministry, and each time we are at the meal table, the total number of years in priestly ministry among us easily goes into 200 and over, mine being the least contributing number of course.

Each time I emerge from surgery and find myself meandering that slow path toward some semblance of normalcy, it never fails that I also find myself reminding myself not to rush things.  There’s that part of me that feels very guilty in not tending to my ministerial duties in the parish, and I think (erroneously of course), that things will fall apart in my absence.  No such things have happened, and I’m sure things are in good hands because they are really in God’s hands.  This sense of guilt finds me in some way willing myself to quicken the route toward recovery and gaining strength, as if it could, by sheer will, be something that happens.  I had something explained to me by my physiotherapist who kindly tends to me every weekday morning at 9am.  

I shared with him the many stories which I had heard about how quickly many of my friends’ parents and even grandparents had returned to their regular lives after having had their hip replaced, and was a bit concerned that my pace of strength recovery seems to be somewhat moving at a glacial pace. I am certainly not as confident in placing more than toe-pressure when walking using the walking frame, and my turns at corners are extremely ginger and even a tad robotic, always sensing that the hip is a bit fragile and tender.  I am certainly not as old and fragile as the elderly parents and grandparents of my friends who have had the same operation, but my recovery seems to be so much slower, and the leg muscles so much weaker.  What gives?

He took pains to explain to me that the state of the muscles around the hip at the time before the operation has a lot to do with the rate of recovery of strength.  Many, if not most of the elderly who have had their hip replaced due to either an accidental fall or some similar incident had thigh and leg muscles that were working without much issue before the incident, probably even able to put their entire body weight on one leg with no issue.  Their reasons for needing a hip replaced was not because of necrosis or death of the femur, which is accompanied by the atrophy of the muscles around the dead or dying femur.  So, when the new hip is inserted, the muscles hardly needed much work to awaken them to functioning as they ought.  

But not in my case.  

I had the misfortune to experience my hip’s slow death, and with it, a slow atrophying of its muscles as well.  So it is only natural that even with a new artificial hip that is much stronger than the old decrepit and dead femoral head, its surrounding muscles are in the old atrophied state.  They need time to be toughened up and built up, to regain lost mass, and range of movement.  These do not come overnight because they were not lost overnight.  At that moment I smiled to myself, not because I felt rather silly, but because I could see how the law of gradualness applies to one’s physical returning to normalcy, as much as it applies to one’s soul returning to a state of holiness after a conversion experience.

I have encountered so many penitents who have had those “a-ha” enlightened moments of conversion, usually at some retreat where they are led to look at their lives with some degree of seriousness and to have their moral compass re-calibrated.  They went for those highly recommended “deathbed confessions” where every sin, mortal or venial, was verbally confessed, and emerged post-retreat with a new verve in their quest for holiness.

It’s often not too long after that their old habits come back to haunt them and they find themselves back to their old ways, sinning as before.  These who come back to the sacrament of reconciliation are often kicking themselves, and are rather way more unforgiving of themselves than God is of them.  They, like me, need to remember to apply the law of gradualness to their conversion, because conversion is never a one-off, or one-retreat, affair.  

Like my thigh and hip muscles, their muscles of moral strength and rectitude had probably slid into desuetude.  And like my thigh and hip muscles, they need to be re-built, re-stimulated, re-activated, and re-loaded with weight.  In the spiritual life, this would include, but not limited to, things like a sustained prayer life, a heart that is re-aligned to loving God in a whole new way, frequenting the sacraments of the Church with a new desire and aim, relating to God as never before, and looking at the past sins as something that were a lie that one fully believed in.  These changes don’t come overnight because they are changes on the heart, and one needs to allow the law of gradualness to be one’s teacher, just like my thigh and hip muscles won’t grow and strengthen overnight.  

Would that I gain strength as quickly as my hip as replaced. I would be bouncing back to parish work, and find it so easy to ambulate without aid in the sanctuary at Mass, and be able to once again lift the Book of Gospels aloft with both hands and bring the Word of God to the Ambo and break the Good News to my flock.  Would that I could.  But the reality is that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will the strength of those atrophied muscles be bulked up within a short span of time.  

Yes, in all things, the law of gradualness applies. Even to hips and thighs.

Monday, July 29, 2019

God is good - all the time. But do we truly mean it when we say it?

It’s a phrase that is tossed about ever so often by speakers and preachers.  Some of them use it as a way to engage the congregation or the audience, where the person on the stage or sometimes the pulpit bellows “God is good”, prompting the response from his or her audience with “All the time”.  Sometimes, this is immediately reversed, eliciting a response from the people with the affirmation that God is good.  

It’s certainly not untrue that God is good, and that he is good all the time.  But I think we don’t appreciate enough that our faith needs to also consider that God’s goodness doesn’t change, simply because God doesn’t change.  His goodness isn’t only there when our lives are on the up-beat, when things are going swimmingly well.  His goodness is also there and unchanged when our life is on the down-beat, and when things aren’t all that rosy either.  It is this unwavering part of God’s goodness that we need to exercise more faith in believing because it is what helps us face all the challenges that life gives to us, especially those that tend to make us think that God’s goodness has petered out somewhat.

St Paul tells the Ephesians (5:20) how they should be giving thanks to God for everything.  We don’t take seriously enough how important this ‘everything’ is, because when we do, we are in a win-win situation in life.  We win when are are experiencing joys (and give thanks to God for them), and we win when we are experiencing losses and humiliations and failures (and still give God thanks for them).  This is a clear demonstration of how steadfast our love for God is, and that our love for him isn’t predicated on us experiencing good times only.  

When we live our love with this much courage, we are in fact imitating Jesus’ love for the Father on the Calvary.  He didn’t diminish his love for God one bit as his own life was petering out.  To Jesus, even on Calvary, God was good, all the time.  

I can hear the protests of so many reading this blog saying almost in a chorus “it isn’t easy!”  No one said it was.  If it was, there’d be so many more saints in the world and in the church.  Love of that caliber is rare, and that is because love of that caliber takes tremendous effort.  

Calvary would not have its salvific effect on humanity if it was easy.  It was effortful love of herculean proportions that came from a heart that was bursting with love for us sinners.  

Life’s curve balls are many, and no one really gets by without experiencing them in life.  But what sets believers and lovers of God apart from others is that the lovers of God don’t let those curve balls undermine their love for God.  In fact, they will choose to carry their sufferings with great zeal and joy precisely because it is a testimony of just how deep their faith in God is.  

When this is understood and lived out, it becomes much more true that God is good, all the time.

Nota Bene:

This will be my last blog entry for a while.  I am going away for a much needed vacation to give myself some serious rest and to recreate.  After I return, I will be going for my hip-replacement which requires about 6 weeks of recuperation thereafter, to regain lost strength and muscle. Hopefully, after the rest that my mind and body needs, I will return to my ministry with greater zeal for my vocation, my ministry and for the work of God.  God bless you all.

Monday, July 22, 2019

A strange connection between the secret to great pastry and the secret to great holiness.

Being a person who had been schooled in F&B on a professional level before, I was lured by a click-bait on the internet last week on CNN’s website, which posted a news story entitled “There’s a reason the pastry in Paris is so darn good”.  I can attest to this truth because when I was in Paris about two years ago, I was enchanted and tantalized by the many offerings of viennoiseries that were available in the many patisseries or pastry shops which proudly displayed their mouth-watering wares all over the city.  

Before I went to the text of this short article, I presumed that the writer would attribute the high quality of breads and baked goods in Paris to the high quality of butter, the freshness of the ingredients, the low humidity of Paris or a combination of all these. But I was wrong.  The writer quoted one pastry chef as saying that all of the pastry chefs she knows share one thing in common, and it was this - they are totally passionate about their craft.

So it’s not the butter, not the flour, and not the availability of fresh ingredients, nor was it due to the low humidity.  In fact, even if all these are of superlative quality, and the patissier has little or no passion in the craft, the product will turn out mediocre or passable at best, but not extraordinary and exquisite.  It is true then, that as the accolade puts it, the most important ingredient in cooking is love.  

After having read this short article and putting it aside, my thoughts then went to the spiritual life. This is where my reflections on the spiritual life have the wacky and strange ability to be taken to places they ordinarily would not go.  I was given to see that the very same principles apply to our prayer life and our spiritual life as much as this principle applies to food preparation. For our prayer life to be more than pedestrian and mediocre, for it to not just exist, but to flourish, for it to be outstanding and stellar and not just ordinary and average, passion is absolutely necessary.

The prayer life, because it is very much connected to love and based on love, is also very much connected with effort.  Love, unfortunately, has been very much defined by and associated far too much with feelings, sentiments and emotions, and this is understandable.  The songs that we listen to and the many love stories that we read and see portrayed in the movies all tell us that having these experiences are the only indications that love is present.  There is a huge problem then when our feeling bank is running on empty and there seems to be nothing to draw out from.  

Romantic love is far more associated with receiving than it is with giving  whilst the giving of love requires far more effort, and isn’t predicated on how one feels, what mood one is in, and which side of the bed one got up on in the morning.  

It is this kind of love that we need to put into when we enter into prayer.  Without this effort and awareness, our worded prayers that we read off from some printed page hardly turns into words of love that we send to God.  

Yes, we need to truly believe that love (effortful, and not dependent on feelings) is the most important element that makes all the difference when it comes to prayer, just as the patissier’s passion is the most important element to make exquisite morsels that delight the tastebuds.  Even if one has the best ingredients, the most favourable of climatic conditions and the best equipment, lacking the passion the patissier needs to have will not guarantee a great finished baked product.