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.