Monday, December 28, 2009

Compliment Christ. Don't compliment the season.

In my many Christmas visits and in my meeting many people who come for Mass or leave the church after Mass, I hear this very common yet, rather disturbing greeting of ‘Compliments of the Season'. I have heard it from many people, and I must say that more and more, through the years, it rankles my Christian sensitivities.

When I ask people, and it is usually to Christians whom I know for sure are followers of Christ, why they use this phrase to greet one another, their reply is often “it’s only on Christmas day that we greet with Merry Christmas, and from Boxing Day onwards, it’s Compliments of the Season”. Now where did they get this idea from? Their teachers in school during 'Colonial days'? Could it be that many are not aware that liturgically, we are still in the season of Christmas right up till the Baptism of the Lord? Could it be that they want to be PC (Politically Correct) and not offend anyone by mentioning Christ and appear to be evangelical in their speech? My suspicion is that it is a strange combination of all of the above.

Could we be unthinkingly drawn into the disease that is currently sweeping over North America, where Christ is deliberately left out of Christmas? Anywhere you go in North America these days, you will be able to hear a very ‘safe’ greeting of “happy holidays” because of a more and more diverse population, where not everyone celebrates Christmas, but everyone enjoys the holidays. I suppose, if you bring that mentality to Singapore, we are a diverse population, a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, and not everyone is a Christian. But my being disturbed by this usage is not by the non-Christians, but by Christians.

Singaporean Catholics tend to be very shy when it comes to sharing their faith with others. While I certainly don’t recommend them to stand on street corners to should scripture passages to strangers, I do try to persuade and encourage all to try to take baby steps in being evangelical. Inserting Christ into your greetings during the entire Christmastide is a simple way of bringing Christ into your conversations, especially when your friends and business associates ask you the questions “but isn’t Christmas over?”

I hope that the people who read this blog entry will begin to take ownership of their Christian faith and heritage that they have been blessed with, and also begin to omit from their vocabulary the generic greetings of either Happy Holidays or Compliments of the Season, and truly bring Christ back at Christmas. At the first Christmas, there was no room for Christ at the inn. Could we be also leaving him with just as little room now, 2000 years later? If Christ is no longer the reason we are joyful at Christmas, there will be very little to compliment us as disciples of the Lord, will there?

God love you, and blessed and holy Christmas to all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Life's border situations

One of the great privileges of being a priest is that we get involved in peoples’ lives at a level and in a way that most people in any other vocation or profession usually do not. I call these ‘border situations’, where we stand almost at life’s borders.

I prayed at the death bed (literally) of one of my parishioners yesterday. This lady had been suffering from cancer and had reached her final stages, and I went to her home to anoint her and give her Holy Communion just last week. Then yesterday, I received a call from her husband, asking me to go to their home as his wife was dying. I obliged immediately. I prayed this wonderful prayer that very few Christians get to hear at the deathbed of their beloved. It goes like this

“Go forth, Christian soul, from this world in the name of God the almighty Father, who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you, go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the angels and saints.”

In my 8 years as a priest, this was only the second time I had the opportunity to pray this prayer. It is meant to be prayed when the moment of death seems near. Most of the times, we priests are asked to pray at wakes, long after the event of death. But it struck me yesterday, that the words of this prayer are really beautiful and powerful. It almost seems like a sending off or commissioning of the person for a journey. It doesn’t seem at all like a death prayer. In fact, death is not at even mentioned in the prayer.

Perhaps this is where most of us get it wrong about death and life. About death, that it is the end, and that it signals a terminal point. Our faith constantly reminds us that this life is but a preparation and a readying for entering into eternal life. The words of this prayer remind us that we are meant to continue on this journey. It’s as if this life ‘commissions’ us, and ‘missions us’ to move on from this life into the next. There is interestingly no mention of rest as well. Instead, we are reminded that we are entering into life. It throws out of whack our preconceived ideas that we are not going to work anymore in the next life. What is far closer to the truth, I strongly suspect, is that we will most likely be finding such joy in living and working in the next life that we will not even crave for rest.
Another of life’s border situations is when life begins. A couple I have come to know are awaiting the arrival of a child anytime now, and the season of Advent seems to put a new perspective towards the whole waiting and anticipating for the baby’s birth. The couple has courageously decided to not induce the birth, but rather, choose consciously to let God’s time be their time.

I applaud people who dare to live in a way that allows them to surrender control to the one who is in charge of life. The world seems to forestall God’s acting when he deems fit, and the widespread use of contraceptives, birth-inducing procedures (for non-medical reasons), to euthanasia attest to inability and unwillingness to give up control. Terminally ill patients who refuse euthanasia and parents who don’t choose dates for a baby’s arrival into this world become for me, great and courageous defenders for God to lead in life’s journey. They become Adams and Eves who choose not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Is this a somber reflection for the Monday before Christmas? To many, I guess it is. But isn’t Christmas - the real meaning of Christmas-, the celebration that even the life of God in Jesus was something that had a long waiting, that couldn’t be hurried, that didn’t allow for the people involved to live in a certitude, and that involved inconvenience aplenty? Realising this, Christmas must give us all a new hope – yes, in all of life’s border situations.

Blessed Christmas to all, and God love you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Readying ourselves for the Sacrament of Reconciliation

Most of you reading this blog will be preparing for Christmas by going to either a penitential service or confession. Many seem to have the idea that this sacrament is something to be dreaded or feared, when in reality, it is a joyful celebration, bringing wholeness and healing. It could be the result of insufficient or forgotten catechesis or even a negative encounter with a confessor in the past, but holding onto such views of a sacrament just falsely promotes the belief in a wrathful and vengeful God who is more bent on inflicting pain and punishment rather than offering the soothing and healing hand of divine love and compassion.

This week, I’d like to help many out there who may have a ‘problem’ with this wonderful sacrament of love and healing, where we truly encounter God’s forgiveness in a sensorial way. The story that I am going to relate here in this blog is something that I have used at penitential services before, to prepare the penitents for a meaningful encounter. After all, aren’t the best teachings often those that come from within a story? It is not an original story of mine, but I can’t seem to find the source of it. Well, whoever wrote it, I trust that it is far more important THAT this story is shared with this purpose, than WHO wrote it. I shall call it “Sally and the pearls”.

Little Sally went to the corner store with her mum and saw a glittering string of fake pearls that caught her eye. She really wanted that bracelet and asked her mum for it. Her mum said that since she had some savings, Sally could use her money to buy it. She searched in her little purse and took out the $1.25 that she had been saving for several weeks now. She was so happy be the owner of a piece of jewelery.

Sally wore this everywhere she went. She would sleep with it, bathe with it, and she’d also swim with it. Soon, it began to lose its shine, and even began to leave green marks on her wrist. One night, her father came up to her and after reading her bedtime story, asked her if she would give him the bracelet. She looked at her father strangely and said “You don’t want my bracelet. You can have my toy horsey. It’s very pretty.” Her father smiled at her and said “it’s ok, honey – you can keep horsey.”

The next day, after reading the story at bedtime, he said “Darling, can daddy have your bracelet?” Sally looked puzzled again, and said “You can have my dolly. She can talk and she closes her eyes when she lies down.” Her father softly said “it’s ok dear, you can keep dolly.”

On the third day, at the same time, her father asked once more “Dearie, can daddy have the bracelet?” This time, Sally was quiet. She looked down, and was so sad, and a tear was beginning to roll down her soft cheek. She reluctantly removed the bracelet from her wrist, and handed it to her father silently. “Here daddy, you can have the bracelet.”

At this, her father took out of his pocket a little pouch and handed it to Sally. Inside was a string of cultured pearls that gleamed in the soft light of the room. Daddy helped Sally put it on, and said “I had this with me all along and wanted to give it to you, but only after you were willing to give me your fake and discoloured pearls which you were so attached to.” Sally couldn’t believe her father’s generosity.

At penitential services and confessions, we face without any pretentions and excuses the reality of sin in our lives which we may be holding on to stubbornly – a bit like Sally’s string of fake and discoloured pearls. There are sins that we are not willing to let go, habits that we fear to identify and give up. Perhaps we are looking at it from the wrong angle. Don’t see what you are giving up, but see what you stand to gain – a right relationship with God your maker who loves you in a way that is beyond your understanding. In the light of the Tiger Woods saga that is unfolding before our eyes, I suppose it is akin to Tiger's realization that if it is his family that he wants to save, it is golf that he has to give up. It's not that golf is a sin here (we all know what is), but that the family and his marriage are far more important. Tiger isn’t just giving up golf. He’s gaining back his life and his family, and his sanity. It could well be that he has reached that proverbial ‘rock bottom’ that all those in Alcoholics Anonymous programmes are so familiar with.

I usually do try to remind penitents to be less concerned with what they are going to say, and instead, focus on what they are going to receive and encounter – the God of love and compassion. God wants to free us from any kind of slavery that we may be in now. And some of us are heavily shackled without even realizing it.

The great thing is that when we ask for forgiveness from God, He not only forgives you, but He doesn’t store much in his memory with unnecessary things. It may be a tad simplistic to say this, but God much prefers to remember things worth remembering, and our sins are not one of them. Perhaps, when we truly realise this, we too, will be like little Sally, unable to believe in our Father's utter generosity.

May you have a most meaningful encounter with a forgiving and merciful God. God love you.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What is left, if we don’t have rights?

A few days ago, I had a most frustrating, albeit enlightening encounter with a dear friend. We were in the same room, just the both of us, and suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, he whips out his mobile phone, and begins to fidget with the buttons. I thought it was a message that he was replying, but it was taking unusually long. Then I asked him if he was playing a game. He said he was. At that instant, I made a beeline for the exit of the room, and couldn’t help but feel offended by what had happened. Throughout the remaining part of the day, I was rather disturbed. My initial reaction was to label my friend as rude, requiring some major remedial lessons in Manners 101. But as I cooled down and reflected on my reactions, I realized that this encounter had something to teach me, not about my friend, but more importantly about myself. I am a firm believer that it is not the joys and successes in life that mould and shape us, but what we feel offends us, and upsets us that bring us to the doorstep of true and converted living.

Most of the world’s problems actually have their genesis somewhere along these similar lines. Someone had either done or said something that made us feel either insignificant or unimportant. And we reacted simply because we felt that we deserve better. We feel that our rights had been violated, or our territorial boundaries trespassed, or our hard earned degree and diploma undervalued and under-appreciated, or our contributions ignored or worse, put down and denigrated. Think of the time when a motorist cuts into your lane, and you get all riled up simply because you felt that you had the RIGHT to that lane. What we do, in most cases, is to give back in a way that hurts the other person. And of course, this can cascade into a spiral of violence that ends up with our turbulent and troubled world. But the question remains – where and why did this all begin? Simply put, we feel that our “rights” had been violated and ignored, and we deserve better.

But is this something that is objectively true? Do we have rights, let alone inalienable rights, as the North Americans are wont to put it. Do we really own anything, is anything really ours to possess? Does everything that we have earned and worked for become ours for all time? If we really come to think about it seriously, and if we are truly and painfully honest, we will come to the conclusion that nothing that we have is our “right”. The writer of the Book of Genesis points this out when he shows how Adam and Eve “took” from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, all is grace, and all is gift, and not a right.

The problems of the world stem from the mistaken notion that what we have is our ‘right’, and that we ‘deserve’ things like love, respect, honour, forgiveness, and even patience from others, and instead of receiving them with gratitude, we ‘take’ or even ‘grab’ them.

The Beatitudes of Christ when he began his ministry had as its fundamental teaching that no one truly has rights and no one deserves anything. And that is because everything and everyone is gift. When we realize this, then yes, blessed are we when we know how to weep and mourn when there is death, either of dreams or of people, because at that moment of true weeping, we come to see that what we had was gift, and that it was all so undeserved. How can one not weep at the knowledge that one has been so graced in life?

The poor are the ones who are blessed because to them, everything is gift, and nothing is deserved. Same for those who hunger and thirst, the meek, etc. The true happiness and blessedness is hidden in plain sight when we mistakenly think that we deserve anything and have rights.

Perhaps there are some reading this blog entry who are shaking their heads, thinking that I am an idealist and don’t know a thing about how the economy is driven. The legal industry seems to be heavily based on what seems to be each human person’s rights. Would all this then be seen as redundant and my sharings a tad simplistic? Perhaps. But then, so was Jesus at his inaugural at the Sermon on the Mount. Most of us just don’t know what to do with those statements that seem to turn our world in a tizzy. Certainly, this blog is not meant in any way to promote or justify bad behaviour, but if all we can think of is protecting our rights, and doing as we please, we easily end up becoming not instruments of change, but agents of violence.

As we enter into the second week of Advent, perhaps we should take this seriously to prayer – that we had no right at all to expect God to do what he did – to come and live like one of us, to show us how to live, how to love, how to die, and from that, how to rise. Even the powers that be at the time of John the Baptist thought they had rights due to their power and position, but note that in Luke’s gospel, the Word of God (pure gift), came not to Tiberius Caesar, not to any of the Tetrachs, the governors or the chief priests, but to the beatnik-like person at the fringe of society, at the Jordan River.

And when we truly see that it is all gift, then even if good friends do things that may end up with us feeling unimportant, we can become thankful because at the incarnation, God himself became unimportant for us, making us SO important.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Praying for holiness

Have you ever prayed for holiness? What do people pray for? Many pray for other things– a job that which they hope to get, good grades in some important examination or a cure for some illness that has beleaguered one in life. And not all of them get answered in the way that they expect. To be sure, there are many who speak up and share about how God had not been listening to their prayers, or has been dawdling over answering such prayers.

Yet, by the same token, it makes me wonder how is it that I have yet to hear anyone speak about how loathe God seems to be in answering prayers imploring Him to bring one to heights of holiness. Of course, it could well be that such prayers have promptly been answered by God, negating any need for one to bring it up as a ‘problem’, but my gut feel is that I don’t think many people have thought it appropriate or even necessary to pray for holiness in life.

Why would this be the case? Perhaps the fear is that once a person begins to walk the path of holiness, one will begin to ‘lose out’ on life’s joys, thinking (erroneously, of course), that a holy person, or one who makes holiness a quest, rarely, if ever, is joy-filled in life. Could it be that for many, it is better to enjoy life sans holiness, before holiness becomes no longer a choice, but something mandatory. Someone put it so succinctly recently to me – “instead of praying for holiness, perhaps most of us are really praying for hollow-ness” in the things that we are asking of God, leading us to hollow lives, rather than holy lives. St Augustine’s famous prayer of “Lord, make me holy, but not today” comes to mind.

But isn’t this good to know? That if St Augustine, a GIANT of the Church and someone who reeks of holiness could think this way, so can many, many others too. I am wondering if many feel that goodness and holiness appear to be direct antitheses of wayward, carefree and joyful living. Who would want to lose out on what the world deems as ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’? But what we need to ask ourselves in the face of these ‘sacrifices’ is whether these are indeed what they purport themselves to be. In most cases, these thrills and joys are often fleeting and momentary, leaving us exhilarated albeit for a moment, and parched and wanting the very next. This being the case, then the ability to peer through the veneer of what doesn’t last must be a grace that helps us to enter into truth that lasts, and love that perdures.

The search for holiness is not something only for the elite. That is a misconception. It is for everybody. And if we have never prayed for this before, Advent is a good time to start on that search for holiness. And I am sure that it is one petition that God will never leave unanswered because it is a prayer that requests a closer walk with God, and to live and love like he does. It’s not the holiness bit that is difficult. It’s the ways in which God wants to lead us to the green pastures of holy living that are often problematic and a bit of a challenge for us. Sometimes it can be through a winding path of disappointments, failures, illnesses, death of loved ones, or some struggle in life. We’d rather a joyful and uplifting journey all the way, but hasn’t it been shown that failure and success are the ‘two hands of God’?

In our fervent prayer for holiness, which is a prayer for wholeness and Godliness, we will be stretched to live within expanded borders and greater unconditionality. It will be a ‘dangerous’ way to live, because you are allowing God to reveal mystery to you. May this be an Advent that is ‘dangerously blessed’ for all.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Usefulness in uselessness

I've just been appointed Spiritual Director to a group that gives Pastoral Care to the Sick. Helping me in this much needed ministry is a group of dedicated and prayerful lay people who visit the sick and the home bound, pray with them, and help to distribute Holy Communion. I go with them to two of the homes for the aged located nearby. My first visit there last month left me with a great sense of what I would call usefulness in uselessness.

In many of the ministries that I am a Spiritual Director to, I am required from time to time, to provide spiritual input and hence, directorship. I am tasked to guide, to help to pave the way for these groups towards a direction and goal of being Christ to the world in their various ways. One of the most important tasks of any priest is to be able to break the Word of God into smaller, easier digestible ‘pieces’ at each Mass, so that the faithful can come away from the Eucharistic celebration enabled to integrate the Word of God into their often hectic and busy lives. There is quite a lot of reflection, thinking and yes, even planning, in the active life of a priest. In a way, it does make us ‘useful’, and we do use our God-given talents and skills, and sometimes, those we minister to actually may get touched by what we say and do, and come up to us and give us words of encouragement. These would be days when we get that proverbial ‘shot in the arm’. We feel useful.

In this “Pastoral Care to the Sick” ministry, I go to these homes where the people are often unable to respond to my words and prayers. They are elderly, most are frail, immobile, and sometimes, speak only in dialects that I am not conversant in. I bring the Sacred Host with me, and in a simple liturgical setting, give them Holy Communion. I pray with them, and I like to lay my hands on them, assuring them of my prayers and God’s blessings. At these moments, I realize that all that I can say, all the theological and spiritual reflections that I may be capable of, and most of my personal skills and talents are rather redundant. I can see that what they need most is my presence and the physical touches that assure them of their being loved.

This is not the only time I minister to the sick and the aged, but when I do, I invariably get this insight - that there is a part of us that longs to be appreciated and loved and I daresay, even admired, for all the good things that we can do. For our usefulness. And this is not just for priests. It applies for every human being. But it is at moments like these, when it is not our skills and talents that are required, but our presence, that we get jolted to get a reality check about what really is important in life. And it has often nothing to do with what we can do. It has to do with who we are.

And when we see that it is alright to be useless, we will begin to take ourselves far less seriously for what we can do, what we own, what we possess, and far more seriously for who we are for one another.

At these moments, it helps me greatly to look with renewed eyes at Calvary and what happened there some 2000 years ago. Jesus’ most significant act was when he died for us. Isn’t it often deemed that dying is one of life’s most useless acts? All of us fight tooth and nail to put that act as far from us as possible. So here is the strange irony that stands before us - the world says that you are most useful when you are mobile, active, and able to achieve things. Yet, on that crucifix, God himself became immobile, inactive, and by the world’s standards, totally unable to achieve anything. Bruised, battered, bleeding, naked and left to die. Yet, hanging there apparently useless to the world, that very act became something that gave the world new life. Uselessness became usefulness, giving us a whole new vista to appreciate our own uselessness.

For this reason, I am beginning to see that I may need this ministry far more than it needs me. I am wondering if it could be the same for you in your areas of uselessness too?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Our shared insufficiency

I have come across a number of people who have shared with me that from time to time, the get swept by a wave of emotion that fills them with a feeling that they seem to be overwhelmed by life. And it’s not a case of being depressed, or “emo” as the youth of our time are wont to say. As I listen deeper into such ‘heart level’ sharings by these intuitive souls, it strikes me that what they are actually addressing is that there seems to be at the heart of so many people, a shared insufficiency.

What is this insufficiency? It can be summed up as “the recognition that I need another to make my world meaningful, and that I need to share in someone else’s lack”, or to use that famous line in the movie Jerry Maguire “to complete someone else”.

In our Catholic liturgy, this is lived out every time we gather in community to worship. No one celebrates the Eucharist alone. And it becomes apparent when we stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers, many of whom are unknown to us. The only thing we know is that we need to celebrate this life that we share, a life in Christ. On our own, we realize our insufficiency. But coming together, we complete one another.

That is one very strong reason why we need to come to celebrate together at least once a week. When we pull out from this celebration of life for no good reason, we are not only shortchanging ourselves, but we are also saying to the community “you can’t rely on my presence and prayers for you this week”.

It also gives us good reason to fully participate in each Eucharistic celebration. To sing with meaning, to be at one in our liturgical actions and gestures by kneeling together, standing together, and being in one spirit together. It reminds us that at least for one hour a week, we have to put aside ourselves, our fears, our inhibitions, our preferences, for someone else.

What we must realize is that as companions on life’s journey, we complete each other’s shared insufficiency. But our humanity exists on such a wide plane, that this connection cannot be something that is a “once and for all”. It needs a constant re-connection, and we need a constant reminder of our shared brokenness, and our shared ability to heal and restore. Thus the need for such weekly celebrations.

When we understand this intrinsic connection, our concern will no longer be to show up for Mass simply because the Church says so. It will be because I understand now my need to recognize my own insufficiency, and to be lifted from it. And I also recognize my brothers’ and sisters’ insufficiency too, and their need to be lifted from theirs. And perhaps, then we will begin to realize that it is with great wisdom that the Church said so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Clearing the path for those still on the journey heaven-ward.

Last week, I posted the reflection for All Saints’ Day. There were some who had asked for my reflection for All Souls’ Day. Somehow, the Church’s placing of these two celebrations side by side almost demands that we cannot speak about one and leave the other silent. I hope that this will help the many who are either coping with death of loved ones, or have had very negative images of what happens on the other side of this life. God love you all.

Fr Luke

All Souls’ Day (A homily delivered on 2 Nov 2009)
Just this morning, I went for a jog around the whole of Yishun Ring Road. When I turned the corner of Yishun Ave 11 and Yishun Ring Road, I came upon a group of foreign workers on their way to work, most likely China nationals, dressed in their blue work overalls. As I passed them, I noticed that one of the last men bend down to pick up a page of a newspaper that was littering the pavement. He crushed it up, and placed it in a bin. I couldn’t help but smile at him when our eyes met, and I gave him a thumbs up, and thanked him for his courteous act. I continued on my jog.

Why do I begin my homily for All Souls’ Day with that account? I shall return to it at the end of these few minutes of reflection, and hopefully, it will make sense. What do we observe on All Souls’ Day? We don’t celebrate this day as much as we really observe it, with care and concern. We come here to celebrate the Eucharist, but it is done in the light of the observance of a remembrance of our deceased brothers and sisters who have walked the path of life before us.

One of the things that we must never do in life, no matter if we are Catholic, or not, is to take things for granted. And if there is anything that shows that we are taking things for granted, it would be this - to presume that our deceased brothers and sisters, those who have gone before us, our elders, our friends who are no longer with us, are in heaven and no longer needing purification for their sins. But my suspicion is that if we take a random poll, and ask 10 people where they think their deceased mother or grand parents, or spouses are, they would very likely say “oh they are with Jesus in heaven”.

Well, I certainly do hope that they are in heaven, but to presume that they are saints would be what I would call taking God’s mercy for granted. The doctrine of Purgatory must never be forgotten or side-stepped by us who are on this side of eternity, simply because to think that we don’t need any purification for our sins after we die is to almost trivialize sin and sin’s terrible effect on our souls. So, what is the best attitude to have as Catholics? One of hope and desire - hope, that our deceased relatives and friends are in heaven, but also desire, that if they are still not ready for whatever reason for heaven, that they can be helped by us who can desire to do something for them.

In fact, at every Eucharistic celebration, we hold them in prayer at the Eucharistic Prayer after the memorial acclamation, where we pray for the Church. They may be gone from us, but they are still members of the Church.

Perhaps it makes sense here to speak about the word remember. One of the things that mark our humanity is the ability to remember. And that is why one of the saddest and hardest things for anyone to cope with is the loss of memory. It almost cuts one off from existence and one’s links with those that matter in life. Even Jesus made this so clear at the Last Supper where he instituted the Eucharist, asking that we do ‘this’ in memory of him. Not so much that he was afraid that he would be forgotten, but because he knew that everything that he stood for and was, would be the glue that holds everything together. Lose memory of him, and we lose the essence of life.

Whenever we remember the dead and loved ones who have gone before us, we are saying that they are still a part of the community. They are re-membered. Still members and still important. Their works, their deeds, their love have formed us for who we are, and we are grateful. And by praying for them, we are also asking that God’s mercy be accepted by them and that they forgive themselves. The only reason why anyone is not yet ready for heaven is not because God doesn’t forgive them. It’s far more likely that they are not forgiving themselves because of the way that see their choices in life that they have made, and because of that, are not ready for heaven. But our God is ever patient and loving. What we do on our part on this side of heaven is to pray for them, and help them to clear the path to heaven with our prayers and presence.

And this brings me to the reason I started with that account of the kind foreign worker who picked up that stray newspaper this morning. He was clearing the path for other pedestrians using the walkway, and it didn’t matter to him who they were. He was thinking of them, and he was doing a kind act with no thought of self or reward. No one around noticed it, but I did.

Our prayers and presence at this Eucharistic Celebration for All Souls are like that act. We are praying for all souls. Not just the souls of our friends and loved ones. All. We certainly don’t know who they are who need the prayers and graces most, but we do it anyway. And we are doing this as a kind act, with no thought of self or reward. We are clearing their path to heaven. And you know what the best part is? Like the act of the foreign worker that was noticed by me only, God notices your efforts and receives your prayers for the strangers you are praying for. And with hope, it is God’s smile that that the deceased will be seeing, welcoming them to eternal life. What’s more, who is to say that he won’t add in a Divine thumbs up too?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Saints are people who leave the light on - for life

One of the rooms in this parish is a large hall that has two doors at opposite ends. The light switches are located, as most light switches are, just next to the doors. I have come to realize that these are two-way switches, allowing us to switch on the lights no matter which door we enter the room by. Sometimes the switch appears to be in the ‘on’ position, but the lights remain off, and I have to switch that switch ‘off’ in order to have the lights come on. As long as both switches are at the same position, whether ‘off’ or ‘on’, the circuit is broken. I’ve known this for the longest time, but it somehow came to me in a new ‘light’(pardon the pun) in my meditation on the Solemnity of All Saints this morning.

Who are these Saints that the church holds aloft today? Simply put, they are the heroes of our faith, who have shown that it is possible to live a life of holiness, not without its challenges and tests. Through their life-choices and their loving ways, they have lighted their way to behold God ‘face to face’ at the end of their lives. Of course, this phrase “seeing God ‘face to face’” is simply another way of saying that there is no longer any barrier between them and God. In heaven, all barriers are lifted.

What have saints switched ‘off’ in their lives? It could be one of the following: sinful and selfish ways and views of life; acts of pride; being mean-spirited; ego centeredness; anything that panders to joys at the expense of their brothers and sisters, and the like. I don’t think they succeeded all the time, but by and large, they knew what needed to be done, and they strived to attain that. There’s a familiar phrase that sums this up. It’s called ‘dying to self’.

What did they switch ‘on’ in their lives? Anything that was of God, helping them to experience and encounter God in love. Their outreach to the troubled; their loving of their enemies and those who hated them; their insatiable thirst for the justice of God; their realization that they needed to rely on the mercy of God. There’s another familiar phrase that sums this up. It’s called the quest for holiness.

I believe that their journey in life towards God is something that all of us struggle with as well. Some of us are a bit more aware of this, and because of this, the struggle is a more conscious one than for others. I don’t think it’s hard to leave the “God” switch at the ‘on’ position. For baptized Christians, it’s almost a given. But the other switch is the problematic one. Part of us wants that off, and part of us wants that on.

On a solemnity like All Saints’ Day, the Church hails the heroes of our faith who fought that fight of the switches, and kept the light of their faith glowing brightly. Not just for themselves, but more importantly, for all of us on our journey of life. Left on our own, we’d probably be left in the dark. But with these partners of prayer, spiritual giants who pave the way and pray for us, our choices become a bit more enlightened and we are shown again and again that it is possible, and yes, even necessary to reach that goal of sainthood. After all, as American Theologian Fr Robert Barron has said so aptly, there is no greater disappointment in life than to not be a saint. Let us strive to make that our shared spiritual quest. Happy Feast Day everybody, and leave the light on because there are some of us still living in the dark.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On the road to Jerusalem

Dear readers of my blog

I will be on a 10 day hiatus as i will be on my first ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I won't be taking my computer with me, though it does seem tempting. But I do know that the quality of my pilgrimage could well be compromised if I am concerned about what I want to blog about each day. So, I shall depend on recording the experience in my mind's eye, and put 'pen to paper', and if I feel it's anything worth writing about, you may see it only after I return on 30 October. Meanwhile, may I ask that you pray for a spirit-filled pilgrimage? Thank you, and God love you.

Fr Luke

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mission Sunday

Mission Sunday comes round in our liturgical calendar in the month of October, and to be honest, I do feel that the invitation from the Church to get her people to awaken in her people the Missionary spirit, even at the most basic level of the word, seems to get harder and harder as the years go by. Of course, you may find this sentiment strange. After all, aren’t so many of us doing a lot these days, especially in the light of so many natural disasters happening around the world, where good spirited people, many of whom are our own Catholics, physically go out there and do the very hard and physical work of giving aid in so many forms? Isn’t this “mission in action”? So how is it that this priest is thinking this way – that it’s harder to get people to become mission minded?

This is where I should qualify what I just wrote. At the heart of the gospel message is the kerygma, which is the proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. Not just one great man among many. Not just one guru amidst many others. That’s the heart of the Christian message. That message and truth must be the heart of every baptized person, that he or she is motivated, spirited and energized by the very person of Christ. In every action, every word, every act of love that the Christian person conveys to the other, it isn’t just he or she who is doing the action, speaking the word or giving the act of love, but the “Christ in him or her”, as St Paul puts it so well in Gal. 2:20.

Let me put it in a rather mechanical way, and perhaps you can appreciate what I am saying. It’s an analogy, and as all analogies are wont to be, it’s got its flaws. I’m not a car fanatic. To me, a car is a car, is a car. Last weekend, a friend of mine paid me a visit here in Yishun. He took me for a ride in his Mazda RX8. It wasn’t a new car, but it was the first time I sat in one. He took me to town in it, and I never knew that a car that small could be that powerful. I think it was the first time I ever felt the G-force in a car. I asked him if the fuel that he put in it made a difference, and he said that he only puts in top grade petrol, so that the best performance can be obtained from his car. And this set me thinking as I pondered over this homily for Mission Sunday. What drives a car? Yes, the engine capacity is important, but at the heart of it all, no matter what kind of car one drives, isn’t it the fuel that moves the car? Take that out, and even if you have a super-powerful car engine, without the necessary fuel, you’re better off on a bicycle.

What I am saying is this – what drives a true missionary? Is it the work that they do – physically going out to give aid to the needy, or shelter the homeless? Sure that is important. If those kinds of hard physical work is not done, it’s all talk and no action. But what fuels these hands and hearts, and moves these legs to go to those places and reach those people? The Christian has to be “fueled” by the person of Christ, and the spirit of Christ. Many people, including Catholics, have this idea that all religions are the same? Are they? I’m afraid this not a correct view, as far as Christ being THE messiah is concerned. In fact, to say that all religions are the same is to almost make irrelevant the enormously profound Paschal Mystery that saves us from ourselves. It would be tantamount to saying that the incarnation was a waste of time. No, I’m afraid not all religions are the same. I suppose that one can say with some degree of confidence in a broad-sweeping sort of way that all, if not most religions teach one to do good.

As long as the Christian who goes out to do mission work is not first centered on Christ, knows Christ intimately, and depends on Christ and Christ’s spirit to become another Christ in the mission fields, it’s going to be very tough to be a Christ-centered missionary. He’s going to do good work, he’s going to educate the poor, he’s going give shelter to the homeless, but perhaps not become a conscious image of Christ.

It would be wonderful if more and more Catholics begin to have a close and intimate a relationship with Christ so as to become aware of their fuel of their mission. Many people have plenty of heart, and that’s good. That’s necessary. But when it comes to talking about Christ, praying with people in need, or to even pray grace before meals at hawker centres or public eating places seems to be so difficult. It’s like extracting teeth from them. Without anesthesia.

Notice what Jesus said in the gospel – proclaim the good news and then baptize. That’s the sequence. In my many encounters with adults journeying in the RCIA, there seems to be a reversal of the sequence. Baptism seems to be the most important thing on their minds, and once that is finished, not many find it necessary at all to either know Jesus, or to be his ambassadors in their lives. It does appear that for many, their hunger is for a ceremony or a Rite, instead of a relationship that leads to the Rite. Perhaps it had not been made clear in their journey that it is that deep encounter with the Lord Jesus that must fuel the desire for baptism, so that after baptism, this fuel becomes purified, and like a top grade fuel, drive your very lives to yes, even become missionary to all, and for some, even to far away lands.

Have you heard of the carbon footprint? It’s the total set of greenhouse gas emissions caused directly or indirectly by an individual, or organization, which is a result of their lifestyle choices. Everyone has a carbon footprint. The more electronic equipment used, the types of transportation one either drives or rides in, all contribute to the size of this carbon footprint. Of course, it means that we should be leaving smaller and smaller carbon footprints behind us as we live our lives, if we are conscious about being environmentally conscious. The more we conserve energy, save electricity, use less cars and burn less fossil fuel, the better our lives will be.

I’m just wondering if there could be a Jesus footprint in our lives too. This would be the measurement of how much of Jesus we have left behind us in the ways that we have lived our lives. It should then be our aim, that if we have been missionary in our lives, constantly aware that we need to maintain a deep relationship with Jesus, truly showing Christ to others in a conscious way, that instead of having smaller and smaller carbon footprints, we leave behind larger and larger bodies of evidence of having made Christ known and loved because we realize that we have first been known and loved by Christ. This, I believe, is our very first missionary calling. Once we know this, we will find it much less of a challenge to be actual missionaries in the world.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Keyhole Spirituality

There was an interesting article in the papers some time back, about how the phenomena of keyhole surgery is fast gaining popularity amongst patients who require invasive surgery. Basically, what this kind of surgery entails is the incision of one or two small holes (hence the term keyhole) near the area to be treated, allowing for an entry point of a plethora of instruments ranging from cameras, to other operating instruments to work on the organ that requires treatment. This article stated that more and more people are opting for this kind of procedure principally because of the small incisions made, resulting in less discomfort and a much better cosmetic result. In short, the benefits and advantages far outweigh the costs involved.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, don’t we sometimes wish that God would use a similar technique to reach into the ailing areas of our lives and perform a painless, transformative surgery with minimal discomfort and scarring, but with good cosmetic result? In other words, what most of us prefer is akin to keyhole spirituality, where we want God to make the smallest possible incision in our lives, with little pain, minimal suffering and hopefully no necessity to give up or change any of our negative attitudes in our own lives. And from this, expect to reap positive results like becoming a transformed people embodying the virtues of Christ.

However, the disconcerting truth is that the opposite is more a truism. It is the people who have done the hard work of really looking squarely at their own lives, recognizing their inner demons and personal weaknesses who are the ones who come out of it much closer to God. They have a deeper appreciation of a shared brokenness, and so, are no longer finger-pointing and mean spirited. It is often the very people who fight shy of doing the hard work of inner self-discovery, to take that necessary inward-journey who end up with little progress made in their spiritual lives. Indeed, what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians is so true – thin sowing does mean thin reaping.

Maybe, we need to see our pains and struggles in a new light, that it is God making some headway into our character formation through the major open wounds that we find so painful. And then perhaps it will finally dawn on us that it is we who have been looking at life through a keyhole, and missing the big picture of the Kingdom of God.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Of prophets and crowds

The human ego struggles constantly between the authentic self and the false self. The false self is the one which reacts to comments (positive or negative) made by others, and often, will find itself either saying things or doing things that pleases others, so that it receives favourable reviews and opinions of others. The authentic self is the one which is not reactive, but is more centered and stable, not because the opinions of others are not important, but because one knows that one’s deepest value and worth is not first found in the opinions of others, but at the core of one’s being. So, one becomes ‘active’ rather than ‘re-active’. And for Christians who have been ‘Christ-ed’, this core is the identity of being the loved Child of God.

In the gospels, we see many instances where Jesus was tempted to define himself by the opinions of others. The three temptations in the desert are reducible to a ‘test’ of how grounded he was in God as his father. And in today’s gospel text, Jesus is, in another way, also tempted, but by popularity and popular opinion. The opening line gives it away ever so subtly. We are told that the crowds got even bigger.

Isn’t that a great temptation to steer away from the harsh gospel message of the necessity of dying to the self? When the crowds get bigger, when you get a following, isn’t it far easier to give them a message that will either massage the egos, or pander to the crowd’s constant craving for success and riches? Surely, that would increase church attendance, and help one to develop a cult-like status.

But because Jesus was true to himself, he knew that it was because the crowd got bigger, that his platform was now ideal to really convey the message of conversion and repentance. So, to the swelling crowd, he daringly spoke about the wickedness of that generation. He didn’t need to be popular. He knew that popularity was a hindrance to God’s kingdom, rather than something that would enhance it.

So too for us – I believe that in our own ways, we are presented with our own versions of ‘crowds’ getting bigger. It takes a person truly in touch with his or her inner core of godly identity to know that it’s not about popularity, not about success, not about winning, that gives one a real stability in life. But I think most of us struggle a lot with that. When Jesus told that swelling crowd that the only sign it would get is the sign of Jonah, he was being prophetic – speaking the truth despite the consequences that would make him unpopular. But that’s our calling as well, isn’t it? We are, as Vatican II points out, baptized Priest, Prophet and King. Have we been prophetic lately?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Moved and Shaken

I am humbled by requests for my reflections and homilies to be made available on the expanse of the world wide web by my friends and parishioners. I realized that I could not just say ‘let me think about it’ and leave it at that. I had a few valid concerns, one of them being that sites like these are usually reserved for the cream, the erudite and the esoteric. Spiritual greats like Ronald Rolheiser, Robert Barron, Paul Coutinho or Joyce Rupp are the ones who have columns that people are interested in. But I am only a priest of 8 years of ministry experience! Wouldn’t that be considered over-confident, pompous or presumptuous at best? I brought this to prayer, and the peace in my heart prompted me to give this a try, and see if it works out. If not, and no one is really interested in it, it will die a natural death, and I can safely say that I gave it my best shot. So, here it is, the start of something that I only wish to offer up to God as something that can give him the ultimate glory, or as my Jesuit brothers say “ad majorem Dei gloriam”.

I have just completed the first part of my movement from the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to the parish of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. That’s the physical move. These are two parishes in the island republic of Singapore, and though only about 25 minutes of driving time separates the two, I have come to realize that any kind of movements affect us in ways small and big. Living out of my packing boxes still, rifling through stacks of clothing to finally find that the one I really wanted was in another box altogether, seems to a daily affair. I long to be settled in properly as soon as possible so that my life can be ordered, organized and tidy. Bringing this ‘untidiness’ up to God in prayer and meditation set me thinking - is getting things “ordered, organized and tidy” really what life is about? I realised then that apart from a physical move, there's a spiritual move that one is invited to address.

There’s a part of my family that upholds cleanliness and orderliness, and I’ve inherited it in my genes. Though it can be a virtue, oftentimes, I sit back and wonder if it could be the very thing that prevents me, and many other compulsively disordered people from “living in the moment”? Far from being perfect, tidy, orderly and organized, surely life should be seen as more than only about making sense of the messiness that most of us find ourselves in.

After all, most people I know do not have the luxury of getting things all ordered and tidy and organized before their ‘work’ starts. Appreciating this reality in my life is akin to the kind of counsel that I have offered many of the faithful who walk into my life and my office, seeking some sort of “direction” in their lives to get rid of their mess and clutter, which come in so many different forms. As I pray with them, guiding them and directing them, they often get to see the truth that getting out of the mess and getting things “perfected” is not the solution. Rather, it is the discovery of finding what it is that God is drawing them to, or drawing out of them, from the situation of ‘messiness’ that allows them a new insight to life, and ultimately, God.

This messiness could be an illness, or a relationship crisis, or a work-related issue. If our spiritual lives are entered into some depth via these often unpleasant and ‘untidy’ situations that we find ourselves in, perhaps I too, should be challenging myself to see what God is telling me about my present ‘disorganized’ situation that I find myself in, in this new assignment of mine.

I have titled this, my first entry as “Moved and Shaken”, not because of the recent earthquakes in Sumatra, but because the term ‘movers and shakers’ in the corporate world refer often to the bigwigs who create ripples by the decisions that they make at the top, moving and shaking all those under them. I certainly don’t count myself anywhere close to being a mover nor a shaker, but in this movement of mine from one parish to another, I am rather, “moved and shaken”, and in the process, I am invited to see once again my love for God and his people being further purified.

Sisters and brothers, if this struggle is something that resonates with your lives, join me in my slowness, in lifting this up to God, and declaring “ad majorem Dei gloriam”.