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”.