Monday, December 27, 2010

Our Bucket List

I just watched a rather interesting movie called “The Bucket List”, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. I know it is a rather old movie, made in 2007, but I hardly have many opportunities to watch movies when they are released. It’s one of those things that I wish I had time for, but my days off seem to be peppered with so many other things to accomplish.

The story revolves around two people (the characters played by Nicholson and Freeman) and how they end up sharing the same hospital room to undergo intensive chemotherapy for their cancer. A friendship develops between them and they both find out that their days are numbered. The rest of the story involves their ‘bucket list’ of things to do, and places to visit before they ‘kick-the-bucket’, thus the title. It’s one of those ‘feel good’ movies, where I suppose the intention of the director is to make the viewers walk out of the cinema hall with a new zeal to face and tackle the vicissitudes and challenges of daily living.

It would not be so bad an idea if we write our own bucket list as well, even though we may be alive and well, without the threat of an end of our lives anywhere in sight. What would this bucket list contain?

If we are idealistic and really hopeful, I am sure that it would include visiting many places that we would only read about or visit through the world of the television or the Internet. But it would be sad if the list were only full of physical places and nothing to do at all with visiting hearts and touching them as well.

What would we use as our gauge? The Wonders of the World? The Eyewitness Travel guides? Maybe the Michelin Guide to the Restaurants of the World. If money were no object, these may well be the lists that would influence our choices. But would they bring us to any sense of real fulfillment and achievement when we finally do lie on our deathbed?

From time to time, it would be good if we revisit Matthew 25. I daresay that it will bring us to places far more important and impactful than any of the above guides may recommend, because it speaks of visiting not places but lives.

Perhaps another gauge that will guide our list is to ask ourselves what our dearest and nearest will be thankful for to us when we are at our life’s end. Will our employees thank us for teaching them greed and how to be power hungry, or will they thank us for imparting honesty and integrity in the workplace? Will our spouses thank us for taking us around the world and to fine restaurants or will they thank us for not taking them for granted? Will our children thank us for giving them a wealthy family to belong to, or do they have a sense to know that true wealth comes because dad and mum have imparted to them a great love for God and how to do his will?

The New Year is just round the corner, and lots of people will be making resolutions. If you are one of those who do take part in this ritual, perhaps after reading this blog entry, you will think a bit deeper, reach a bit further, and love with a larger heart.

One of the best lines of the movie comes at the beginning and at the end, when the narrator reminds us how to die with closed eyes but an open heart.

May you have a blessed, holy and grace-filled 2011.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The mercy of the messy first Christmas

Throughout the world, in just about every Church ground, or near the Sanctuary area around Christmas time, there will be a manger scene or Christmas crib on display. Some are life-size, some in miniature. They will inevitably feature the images of the holy couple Joseph and Mary, some shepherds, and the obligatory animals in the form of oxen or sheep. The prime spot of attention will undoubtedly be a tiny baby lying on some straw. Strangely, this baby is hardly ever in the proper scale of how a newborn should be, in relation to the scale of the images of his parents, Joseph and Mary. You don’t have to take my word for it. Just look carefully the next time you see the crib. The baby is always enormously out of proportion. I find this to be a pity, because if the baby is really in proportion to the size of the other figures, it will really bring home the point of how vulnerable God made himself through the incarnation.

Whether the figure of Jesus is out of proportion or not, the sentiment when viewing the crib, the feeling that sweeps over one’s heart, is often “look at the poor baby Jesus”. Yes, his surroundings are indeed poor and barren – after all, mangers are feeding areas for farm animals, and they would hardly be the place considered sanitized enough to be a place to give birth to a child. These areas must be habitats of bacteria and are places that are fit only to give birth to animals at best.

What should strike us at the heart about Christmas and the Christmas Crib is not a “poor Jesus” sentiment, but rather that God looked on at humanity and saw the way we needed to be saved and said “you poor people”, causing him to take on our frail and mortal human nature to show us how to truly be human.

That crib, that state of poverty, that visual diorama of unavailability and being closed for anything divine - is representative of our hearts and minds. We are in dire need of God’s entry point to give us a new direction in life apart from ourselves, and when we can’t see that, we miss the point of each Christmas Crib. When sentimentality is all we have when viewing the Crib, we are blinded to the fact that the Crib is in fact the state of our world and our lives. And the wonderful news about Christmas is that no place is too foreign, too dirty, too unhygienic, too dark, too dank and too smelly for God to enter in.

A priest once said so wisely at Christmas Mass that in the incarnation, God has changed a messy world into a mercy world. He didn’t wait for it to become perfect and sanitized before coming. In fact, it was because it was that messy that he came. But that’s not us, is it? We will only wait for something to be perfect before moving, wait until someone deserves forgiveness before we offer it, and wait for love to be appreciated before giving our hearts. Christmas (and the Paschal mystery) shows us how we constantly miss the point.

And for that, we have to be truly grateful at Christmas Eucharist. May all my weekly readers have a blessed and transformed Christmas.

God love you all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Real Presence on this side of the Eucharist

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a meal at a cafĂ© when I noticed a young couple seated at the table next to me. What made me take notice of them was the fact that for the entire duration of their meal, they hardly spoke to each other, but were furiously tapping away on their individual ‘smart’ phones, which is getting very common nowadays. What I saw made me lament silently – with the advent of modes of communication that are so advanced, where even phones can be given the title ‘smart’, we seem to be facing a deplorable lack of the real ability to communicate when we are in the presence of another, even when seated right in front of another person.

In the Catholic Church, we have always believed that Christ is truly present in the consecrated species of bread and wine. It is given the term ‘real presence’. Reserved in Monstrances around the world in chapels and adoration rooms, this real presence of Christ is on grand display for us to spend time with the Lord, to communicate with him, and for him to communicate with us.

His real presence invites us, on this side of the Eucharist, to ultimately be truly and really present to Him. This is needed, more and more these days, for various reasons, the chief one being that it prepares us for our ultimate and highest calling in life – to be eventually present to God in heaven, ‘face to face’. The more we hold this mystery and purposefully make the effort to spend quality time with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration, the more we ready our hearts for that real, present and endless encounter.

The ability to be present is being constantly compromised, and I daresay, threatened. Our minds just cannot seem to stay long on being present, but seek to constantly flit from thought to thought, image to image, thrill to thrill, and resists to be abiding in a presence, in the present. Our hearts truly are restless, till they rest in God, as St Augustine said.

Yet, we are still not convinced, and allow our hearts to continue to be tickled and teased, even when in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We would wish that with all the communication devices available, we would somehow find it easier to communicate with one another, and be more present to one another, but ironically, we are dumbing down in our ability to do so.

Does it mean that the solution is to completely do away with all this technology and turn back the clock of our intellectual advancement? Is the removal of a distraction, the banning of any one thing an answer that will make us communicate better? If so, would it not be tantamount to removal of the ability to sin, so that we are always living in a state of grace?

Underlying all overtures of love is the fundamental belief that love must be a decision, as the Marriage Encounter and Engagement Encounter movements have reiterated since their existence. In this short phrase lies the crux of love - that it is a decision. So is communication a decision. Removal of our gadgets and gizmos that are called communication devices is not a solution to this problem if our hearts are not first going to make communication a decision.

As I shared these thoughts with a parishioner, he sighed and said, “those were the days when there were no mobile phones, no pagers, no Internet, and we had to make the effort to either visit or write letters to communicate”. He feels that the advent of these communication devices is a bane to our human development.

I feel differently. In fact, when a decision to put down that phone is made, when we turn off the computer and sit down to talk, it makes that effort even more valuable as a deliberate act of love now because when that happens, it is not a matter of having ‘no choice’, but rather, ‘lots of choices’, making the choice to love a much higher value than before.

And while we develop our real presence before others, we must also allow ourselves to be fully present to God in a decided manner, especially before the Eucharist, so that our real presence meets the Real Presence, causing real presence on both sides of the Eucharist.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where real strength lies

The phrase “be strong” are familiar words said at funeral wake visits, usually to the grieving members of the deceased family, who are in the darkness of the reality of being separated from their loved one.

Is this phrase meant to discourage the bereaved from shedding tears of sadness in public? If so, then we might as well ask that the bereaved to stop being human, because that is what is actually being advised. Lying deep in the heart of our humanity is the gift of emotional expression that allows one to be in touch with hurt, disappointment, sadness and grief. But it seems that allowing that to happen is something that is largely frowned upon, and it is deemed much more appropriate to keep up an appearance of stoicism, and present a front that is unmoved, almost statue-like.

Spiritual master and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has this to say about crying: the young man who cannot cry is a savage, and the old man who cannot laugh is a fool. A trove of wisdom lies there. Grief work is something that has long been seen as not only good, but also necessary. When one buries what hurts, what is unhealed and what requires mending, one only really postpones a real healing and true growth. But that is, sadly, the way a large majority of people seem to operate in the face of disappointment, pains, suffering and failure.

That must be the reason why when one is brought to the precipice of the ultimate end of life, when one is faced with the demise of a loved one, a family member, a life-partner, many have ill-advised the bereaved one to ‘be strong’ and not shed a tear. The question remains - Is this really strength? Or is this faux strength? Much closer to the latter, I suspect, because we do know that when there is no need to face a sea of people, when the door is closed, when one is alone and in touch with one’s raw emotions, the real shows itself, and we need to grieve.

Jesus must have been trying address this in his beatitude where he said “blessed are those who weep; they shall be comforted”. What do many of us try to do when we need comforting? We do anything but weep. It’s called escapism. Some plunge themselves into their work, many take to drink, gambling or drugs, and to the delight of marketers, many also take to retail therapy, which has hardly any long-term effects, save for the obscene interest rates that credit card companies slap on to the unsuspecting.

But when we really know how to weep, and learn how to ‘send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’, that is when true healing can come, and where we will really find comfort and balm for the soul.

When Jesus preached the beatitudes, he was embarking on his journey, which would eventually take him to the Cross, where he would be facing what would eventually be known as the Paschal mystery. And it is only in the light of the Paschal mystery, with its light thrown back on his teachings that we can make any sense of any of the beatitudes of Jesus. And for this particular beatitude on the blessedness of weeping, from and through which one can find comfort, it is no wonder that anyone with no sound appreciation of the Paschal mystery can only end up advising one to ‘be strong’ and not see the need to surrender one’s tears, but to instead hide behind a visage that has only gossamer strength.

So, should we or shouldn’t we say ‘be strong’ when giving solace to those in pain? Perhaps we should only choose to say it to someone who knows what the Paschal mystery is, and to only be strong in clinging on to the promises of Christ; strong in faith. And if tears are shed as a result of this, and emotions exposed to all, that would really be a show of strength.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anger’s power

In many of the confessions that I have heard, one of the most common problems that people encounter is anger, or misdirected negative energies. Quite often, the remark that ‘so-and-so made me angry’ is made, almost justifying or exonerating one’s culpability. What the hidden statement means is that I wouldn’t have sinned if I was not pushed to do it.

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that anger itself is not a sin. Anger is energy, much like passion is energy. In fact, just saying that wrath or anger is one of the seven classical deadly sins, and from that, extrapolating that it is a ‘mortal’ sin would really be painting with an extremely broad brush. If anger is a sin, then Jesus cannot be said to be sinless as it is clearly stated that he was angry because the moneychangers had turned his father’s house into a market place, and that he drove them out with a lash of cords. Some would justify it by using the term “holy anger”.

Technically, we don’t find the word ‘anger’ in any of the passages of the four evangelists that describe this scene of Jesus and the cleansing of the temple. At most, we find the phrase ‘he drove them out’, or something similar. Certainly, one can argue that it is rather difficult to drive someone out of a place without a ‘fire in the belly’, and so, the conclusion is likely that Jesus was angry. In another passage, in Mark 11, Jesus curses the barren fig tree. I’d say that this is a far more direct and clear evidence of anger as one can hardly curse with a nary a hint of anger.

What can be said with a degree of certainty is that when we see a display of anger by Jesus in Scripture, it usually has to do with some evidence of an injustice. It is his passion for justice, notably God’s justice, to be done that results in his display of anger. This must give us an indication that we too should hunger for God’s justice to be carried out in this world, and that we need to be instrumental for it to happen.

We have all experienced anger in many of its forms. Some of us brood and are quiet when we are angry, some of us need to vent when we are vexed. Those living in the more enlightened stratosphere claim to be able to sublimate their anger. We don’t seem to need to learn how to be angry. Even an infant is said to display a certain ‘anger’ when deprived of milk when his belly cries for nourishment by crying with an uncanny ability to rouse even the heaviest of sleepers.

When I counsel penitents about anger, about what it is, and about what it isn’t, I try to get them to see that it is far more important to identify two things – what the anger was triggered by, and what it triggered off (meaning, the effects it had on our community). Being able to identify the first would help one to keep anger at bay when the warning signs appear on the horizon. And it could be a whole host of different things that initiate anger or worse, a hurtful rage.

Pondering on what anger triggers off is an invitation to see the effects our anger has on ourselves and the community or the body of Christ. The extreme end of this would be causing hurt, abuse, and even killing of a life. Most of the time, thankfully, the body of Christ is not so badly maimed, but it is definitely hurt, impaired and even sullied to a certain degree. It is when we are able to see the kind of wreckage left behind in the wake of our anger that we will slowly begin to see the wisdom of keeping anger in check.

One of the easiest things to do when confronted with a sin is to push the blame elsewhere. We only have to turn to chapter 3 of Genesis to see that this blame game is really the oldest game in our human history. And it is played out repeatedly in the course of history. There is an original sinfulness here that all of us share, because it makes our culpability so much lighter when we say ‘so-and-so’ made me angry. The other party would not be able to make us angry if we had not first allowed this kind of power to be given to him or her. In a similar way, no one can make one irritated if one is not irritable in the first place.

At the heart of an uncontrolled display of fury and rage is the loss of something deep within us. What we have lost in those moments are not so much our control and our precious face, but rather our secure stand that we are deeply loved by God who tells us repeatedly that it is alright even when things may turn nasty, when people misunderstand us, or when things don’t go our way. We have lost not so much our temper, but rather, our firm grip on God’s loving hands. And it wouldn’t help much if our cause for such displays of misdirected energies were not so much an upholding of God’s justice, but to protect or promote our own selves.

And when we humbly admit to those moments of stupidity, especially within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are placed back into God’s firm hold of love once more.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Living and enjoying the present

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer, he made it clear that when asking God to provide for our needs, in giving us bread, he did not say ‘give us always an over abundance; a never-ceasing flow; a copious excess of bread’, but limited it instead to a day’s portion. Some of us may have a problem with this. After all, isn’t he a God of abundance? He isn’t known to scrimp on goodness and grace, is he? Wasn’t that made clear when he fed the 5000 hungry hillside folk with an abundance that gave bountiful leftovers of twelve baskets full? One wonders what they did with those scraps. Yet, when he taught the Lord’s Prayer, he tells us to ask that God ‘give us today our daily bread’.

Why do we think that there is never enough? Largely because we are fearful and discontented. And it cuts across just about every level of our needs and wants. We fear that there is not enough food, not enough supplies, not enough money, not enough resources, not enough time, and the fear that grips us at our foundations, is the fear that there is never enough love. It is perhaps this innate fear that feeds a greed that is found alongside this fear that causes us to want to store and to hoard, be stingy and selfish, and look out for so many ways to preserve ourselves. This fear narrows our borders and draws distinctions as to where so many of our resources can and should be shared.

In teaching us to pray that God give us a daily portion of what we need, Jesus is not teaching us that God is a scrimpy giver. Jesus is teaching us something that so many of us have yet to learn due to our fear, which feeds our greed and neediness. We are taught contentment and how to live in the present. Don’t ask for too much right now. There is no need to store and to hoard. There are no need to build silos and storehouses.

In a recent random survey, a question was asked about which day of the week was seen as the worse day and why? The people who carried out the survey expected Monday to be the worst, as we know of many people who profess to hate Mondays. Even the popular US music group from the 80s, the Bangles, wrote a hit-song about Manic Monday. Mondays are generally known to be bleak, and the office email boxes are often jammed with enquiries requiring immediate replies, and the faces in the office and buses and trains are not the cheeriest. So, it was generally expected that Monday was going to be every respondent’s choice of the worse day. Or so it was thought.

The surprising thing about the answer was that it was not Monday. It was Sunday. And the reason behind the choice was even more telling, and more surprising. No, it had nothing to do with the fact that they felt that they had to go to Church on Sunday. It was not a religion-based survey. Many of the respondents felt that Sunday was the worst day of the week because they were dreading that Monday was just one day away, and all that they had in terms of leisure, rest, recreation, and a generally relaxing time with loved ones and friends was slipping away as Monday approaches. They could not enjoy the moment as it was presented to them.

There is a much deeper problem than what appears at the surface. In a certain hidden way, it shows that many of us have a great difficulty in being present and living in the present, about being contented, and as such, have a self-inflicted air of pessimistic gloominess about us. The Spiritual Fathers have always been advocates of living in the present, being present to the present, and this wisdom is found not only in the Christian tradition, but also in the other eastern religions like Zen Buddhism and Islamic Sufism. The awareness spiritual exercises that are found in many religions point to the need to be tuned-in to the present.

To just ask God for a day’s portion of what we need to get by for the day trains us not to be greedy, and not to live in fear. It also trains us to live in the present, and not project too far into the future. When we develop allergies to living in the present, when we cast our thoughts and fears into the future or carry them from the past, we will either live in fear or in regret, causing us innumerable neuroses. We will not want to forgive because the one who caused us anguish may hurt us in the future. We will not want to let go of a hurt, because we are carrying with us something akin to a huge baggage from the past, even though it may have been decades ago that we were hurt. We may not wish to be generous and deplete ourselves (and be blessedly poor, ref the beatitudes) because the future looks bleak and there are clouds looming on the horizon.

Is this kind of spirituality advocating a ‘live-for-today; to-hell-with-tomorrow’ mentality? Certainly not. Jesus doesn’t want us to be like the grasshopper in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. But if our entire life and work ethic is based on the fear that there is never enough, it will lead to a constriction of a generously pumping heart in not just individuals but also large corporations and countries, where resources will not be shared simply because of a fear that is often irrational or worse, simply protective of oneself.

When the Hebrew people were freed from the slavery of the Egyptians in their 40-year exodus in the desert, they were fed with manna from heaven. Apart from it appearing like hoarfrost, they were told that it would not keep for more than a day. Isn’t that telling us that God’s providence though wonderful and good, needs to be received with an attitude that decries any hoarding, and to be contented with the present?

Perhaps now, knowing this, it should spur us to being more aware of the need to be present when we say “give us today our daily bread”, and not be too worried that there may not be enough for tomorrow.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Saints and their role in our lives

There’s a certain maturity that is required of everything in life. Just look at nature, and you will see this evidence in abundance. It is only when seeds sprout, germinate, grow, develop and flower will we see the possibility of the fruit that gives new life. Cut a tree prematurely, and you will not see it grow, and not see it reach the necessary maturity to bear fruit.

Insects and animals all have the same pattern. There is a certain requirement for a maturity to develop, not so much for itself, but for the continuation of the species.

What is our ultimate aim in life? To work? To have a family? To be educated? Yes, these are good in themselves, but they don’t last eternally. There’s something that does last for eternity, and that is our life in God. We as baptized children of God have as our aim, to develop, grow and mature this relationship that we have with God. Every saint that is in heaven now, enjoying the beatific vision of God has reached maturity in his or her relationship with God. While we are on the way there in this life, the growth process is not yet where it should be. Our personal brokenness somehow stifles and prevents a full maturity and fruition of our lives.

Canonized saints have their feast days celebrated in the liturgical calendar year, but to be sure, there are many, many more saints than there are days in a calendar year. So, on this day, the church revels in the belief that these people are in that eternal embrace of God, and are not uncomfortable about it.

That’s what being in heaven can be described as. We all long for love in some ways, and the highest expression of love is when we are enfolded in the embrace of God who is love. Yes, we all long for that, but at the same time, we know that there could well be a lot of discomfort and uneasiness when we are embraced by the all-loving God. It’s just like some children who experience this embrace by loving parents or grandparents. Some of them squirm and fidget, feeling all so awkward and uncomfortable. Somehow, they know it’s a good thing, but at the same time, they know they feel unworthy of this grand display of love, and they want out. Some may feel that it’s not cool.

Couples having been married for years may also, strangely, have the same experience. Much as they want to be embraced in an unconditional love by the spouse, they know that somehow, it’s not complete even in this world. They know that somehow, the irony of love is that in this world, there are some loves that will always be left unfulfilled. Some feel unworthy, and some, because of a personal contribution to a friction in the relationship, know that this physical embrace is not as pure as it should be.

What is this discomfort? It is sin. It’s our inability to live maturely and respond maturely to the love that is being given, and we have to work this out before entering heaven’s eternal embrace. The saints who are in heaven have worked it out and purified this. Some in this life, and others (and this probably is the majority) in the purification of purgatory. But however the purification, the saints are now completely comfortable and no longer struggling in God’s eternal embrace. There is a complete giving and complete receiving of that love, which is God’s plan for love.

Why we need to celebrate All Saints’ Day is because we need to know for a fact that there are many whose lives bear testimony to living out love to its fullest. We need heroes who we can model after, and we need to know that there is a goal, a destination, a fulfilling and yes, a fruiting which many now are inside of, and this is where we are all hoping for ourselves too.

We need to remember that heaven is a reality, and that there are multitudes that are already in that mature relationship with God. The saints are the seeds that have been sown, germinated, grown, flowered and fruited, and leave us all a bit of their fruitfulness and shade so that we too can do the same for our lives and the lives of others. In them, we have models to teach us that not only is this kind of loving possible, but that it is also absolutely necessary.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The attitude of gratitude

In her column in yesterday’s national paper, the daughter of the Minister Mentor of our island republic of Singapore gave a timely reminder, very obviously in the light of her mother’s recent demise, to be thankful and grateful to many people who are often behind the scenes of the events of our lives.

In her article she went on at length to name and described some of the ways in which many other political figures helped to shape the way that Singapore has turned out. Some of the names she mentioned were lesser known, but they obviously were featured in the recesses of her memory. After reading her article, and closing the paper, I did feel something was amiss. Perhaps it was never her intention, but she did leave out an obvious group of people, and those are the people who are our adversaries in life.

It doesn’t take a lot of civility and good upbringing to be thankful in life for the people who have positively shaped our thinking and character. Teachers, life-trainers and caregivers come to mind. But I have come to realize that if in our lives, we only thank those who are contributors in a positive way, we may only become grateful when things go our way, or when we encounter obvious blessings, or when we are successful. Does this mean then that Ms Lee was wrong? Not really. What it means is that perhaps the depth and meaning of the Cross in life is something that has never really been pondered by not just Ms Lee, but by many who have yet to truly know Christ and how he saves.

To run to the Cross, and to seek out pain and suffering in life is not what being a Christian is all about. That’s neurosis. But to acknowledge one’s crosses in life, and to not hate them, not blame anyone for them, not victimizing them, and not locking them up, is maturity. It’s living wide. Catholics have long been labeled as suckers for suffering, guilt and punishment, and it’s not necessarily a bad label. We are supposed to be able to see a purpose in suffering, and that there is a virtue to shoulder our crosses, as well as each other’s crosses in life, because these are the very things that lead us through the passion of our lives, into the glory and resurrection. We have always been loath to advocate cheap grace, and there are shiploads of hawkers of cheap grace out there.

One of the ways in which we resist the offer of cheap grace is to even dare to be thankful for the pains and struggles in life, and for the seeming obstacles that are put in our way in life. To be fair, it takes a lot of purification in one’s life to come to that sort of living. This is living with a wide expanse.

Author Paula D’Arcy seems to be one such person. She had gone through so much pain and suffering in life, and in one fell swoop, in a very tragic automobile accident, her husband, together with their 21 month old daughter perished. She is a well-travelled inspirational speaker, and from her writings, I’d call her a person deeply in touch with the value of the Cross. She has come through her great cross in life, and it becomes for her the very thing that has brought her so close to God, and to see meaning in suffering and the Cross. When Jesus showed Thomas the holes in his hands after the resurrection, I am certain that looking at life through those holes must have been a very deep theology of salvation just in that one simple action. Jesus invites us always to do the same – see new life through those holes, a great symbol of redemptive suffering.

When you hear Ms D’Arcy speak in person, you cannot help but feel a very daring gratitude coming from her demeanor when she speaks of the tragedy that she went through. She knows that without the cross that she bore, seen under the shadow of the Cross of Christ, there is no real resurrection and glory. To be thankful for tragedies and struggles in themselves is not a good thing. Only masochists do that. But to literally shoulder the cross with others, in community, is a very powerful way to encounter heaven on earth.

When we are ungrateful, or insufficiently grateful in life, it can send out waves of discontent, especially when those looking at us know that we are Catholic, called to be images of Christ in the world. I read with an admixture of joy and sadness how the 33 Chilean trapped miners (most of whom are Catholic) were rescued from being entombed 700 over feet below the ground for 72 days. I saw human tenacity and cooperation at work. That brought joy. But it was only about three days later that reports came in about how some of the rescued miners were asking for money (and not paltry sums, apparently) for their story. If one has really been plucked from the jaws of death in a deep tomb and given a new lease of life, should gratitude come with a price tag? By placing any price, we immediately cheapen our lives, especially when it is a second chance that has been graciously and freely given.

It similarly saddened me to read how Celine Dion, a Catholic, is now awaiting the birth of her twins, which are the result of IVF. It’s such a pity that Ms Dion needs more reason to be grateful to God other than for her phenomenal voice and worldwide success. Her voice is undoubtedly a tremendous gift from God. Her first son was also a result of IVF, a process that the Church has always decried as putting us in the position of God. Apparently, getting one child through this method didn’t really satisfy, and it could well be a case of not having enough of a good thing.

If Ms Dion knows how Catholics need a model of faithfulness and tenacity in Cross bearing, her willingness to live in the mystery of an ‘empty womb’ borne with joy and faithfulness could bring her even more praise and peace from a world needing images of Christ, and not images of self-created joy. Ms Dion and her husband I am sure, will be very grateful when the twins are born, but could this hamper their ability to thank God for trials, crosses and unanswered prayers?

The two stories of the trapped miners and Ms Dion may seem unconnected, but what ties them together is that the world knows that they are Catholics. When the world’s eyes are on us, the effects of our actions become something that has repercussions beyond what we can imagine. Didn’t Jesus say ‘when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him’? Plenty indeed has been given to these two people. St Paul said that the life and death of each of us has an effect on others. Perhaps we forget this too easily when faced with moments of our own created joys.

The strength of our faith is seen at work not just when we are thankful when things go our way or when we have helpers who have worked behind the scenes in the unfolding of our tapestry of life. That is good manners. The strength of our faith must lie in the very difficult but necessary act of being thankful and grateful for even the crosses that we have in life, as it is often these, which bring us to the glory of the resurrection.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Suffering and surrender

As priests, our pastoral encounters with our faithful include our sharing in their joys and sorrows, where there is also a sharing both in the tears of celebration and of sadness. We don’t often have to try to make some sense of a gathering when there is joy overflowing, like at weddings, birthdays and other similar occasions of happiness. But when we come to what I would call life’s border situations, quite often, what is asked of us is that some sense be made out of suffering in life. Sometimes this is explicitly asked of us, and at other times, it is asked implicitly, in the silence of the one suffering.

To be sure, it is a perennial question in life. Why is there suffering? The atheists would pounce of this as a clear sign that an all-benevolent God just doesn’t exist. And an insufficient picture of God’s immensity will naturally result in a refusal to see that suffering can exist within a loving heart of God. To expand our idea of God becomes then one of our lifelong spiritual challenges.

In just one afternoon this week, I presided at the cremation of a mother of two daughters who are young adults. She had suffered greatly for the last 32 days in the hospital ICU due to many infections, which resulted in a failure of her major organs. Later on in the same day, I visited a bedridden parishioner, another lady, who has multiple sclerosis. I could sense that there was a hanging question in the air about the meaning of suffering in the case of the dying woman’s family. Perhaps they were too distraught to formulate the question. But in the second case, there was a direct pondering over the question of the ‘why’ of suffering.

We can never get to the bottom of this question. And most of the time, we will come to a dead end, and perhaps even end up with our faith bruised and weakening if we fail to go further than ourselves. What can really help in these ‘border situations’ is to join our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ writ large on Calvary. There is a reason why we need to display large crucifixes, with the suffering Lord hanging on it. We are visual people, and we need our senses to be jolted every now and then to the reality of God’s love displayed in that immense show of love through a willing suffering. A pretty cross without any corpus on it may simplify too easily the reality of God’s love through suffering. When our going begins to get tough, when we are faced with real life suffering, the image of a suffering God who suffers with us makes our suffering a little easier to handle. Emmanuel, or ‘God-with-us’ then takes on a different dimension; a suffering dimension that is borne out of love.

I often like to encourage the infirm and those suffering in various ways, to lift their suffering to God in an act of surrender. Not so much as an act of hopelessness, but at act of faith, where we believe that God can make something beautiful and salvific and transformative out of something as inconceivable as a ‘gift’ of one’s suffering. After all, if God can make something out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo, a very basic theological principle), certainly, he can also make something wonderful out of an offered suffering. The problem is that most of us don’t think that God can ‘creatively’ use a suffering. We throw our sufferings to God, we complain about it to him, but many of us don’t lift it up as an offering, with an air of loving surrender.

When we do that, we join Mary under the Cross of her Son, our Lord. Mary’s strength lay in the fact that she didn’t ask the question ‘why’? In the light of suffering, that question is just too common and too easily asked. It doesn’t take faith to ask that question. Non-believers ask that question all the time.

The transformative question that we need to learn to ask in the light of suffering is not ‘why’ but ‘how’. How can I contribute to the world’s salvation through this suffering? How is God speaking to me here? How can I help my faith to grow through this pain? How can I join Christ on the Cross, and from there, have the great hope of the resurrection as a personal experience?

To this end, Mary serves as our prime example because she didn’t ask to understand God’s plan. She just chose instead to stand under God’s plan.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Celebrating and not just attending the Eucharist

One of the quotes of the Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta was addressed to priests, and it was to “celebrate each Mass as if it were your first Mass, and your last Mass”.

As a priest, it does make a lot of sense, and it strikes to the very core of my priesthood to read this. The Eucharist is unmistakably the highest form of worship anyone could ever partake in, and it is pure grace that allows us to be present at Mass. An act of utter and supreme thanksgiving, we join our sacrifice with Christ’s on Calvary, which becomes a gift most pleasing to God. Eucharistia is literally ‘thanksgiving’.

God gives of himself at each Mass, and when we are literally drawn into the act of love that goes on, we cannot but be awed and overwhelmed by what goes on. It is as if one is being included in a very intimate moment when the Son gives of himself so completely, so totally to the Father simply because the Father gave of himself so totally to the Son. And the exchange that happens is the Holy Spirit of love. It is consummation at its best, and we become invited, as it were, to this holy of holy exchanges. We are not observers, we are not by-standers, certainly not voyeurs, but we are literally drawn right into ‘the action’. We really don’t deserve to be present, but we are, and this exchange is made for our benefit, and yes, for our salvation.

But we have a great problem because this love that is given and received becomes very easily watered down and under-appreciated, as most loves are wont to be. Our human nature tends to take for granted things that we see too often, and encounter with great ease. Oft quoted is the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”, though I wonder if ‘contempt’ may be too strong a word here.

The candles that are used at every Mass even though incandescent lights are easily available, is to remind all who are present that our sacred Mass was once celebrated in secret, almost in clandestine circumstances in the catacombs, right on the very tombs of the martyrs of our faith. It is a silent reminder to never take our faith, and the Holy Mass for granted, especially in places where religion is freely practiced.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit some beautiful atolls in the Indian Ocean. What really took my breath away was the beautiful flora and fauna that was so prevalent just meters outside of my sleeping quarters. Chatting with the boatmen who were natives of the place, I asked if they held a similar awe about the beauty just beneath them. Apparently, it was just too abundant for them to be struck by the beauty any more. It may seem strange that anyone could be blasé about such wondrous beauty lying literally at his or her doorsteps. Perhaps there is something in our humanity that requires of us a constant reminder to be present, and to allow ourselves to be enthralled afresh.

What then, should we be looking out for at each Mass? At which points should I be more present to? What should we then be attentive to?

This list is not comprehensive to say the least, but we should at least try to:
1) Be aware that the person sitting next to me, behind me and in front of me is God’s image to behold, respect and to love.
2) Truly be contrite for my brokenness when I pray the Confiteor (I confess), and knowing how undeserving I am of God’s infinite mercy, and then truly sing out with great joy the Gloria with an air of gratitude and praise because I am received with such Divine Mercy.
3) Mean my response when I am invited to chant it at the invitation of the Cantor, who is really the proclaimer of God’s word of life.
4) At the Creed, be aware that each creedal statement is an official response from the Magisterium about the truth of our faith as revealed by God, and be thankful that through the unfolding of history, there have been men and women who have fought so hard for the truth to be conveyed at the risk of their own lives, showing me that in life, some battles are really worth fighting for, and perhaps, some are really unnecessary.
5) Come to appreciate that at the Sanctus, I am invited to really join all the choirs of angels in heaven who are praising and adoring God as they behold him ‘face to face’. And when I know this, that it would be a travesty to keep mum, fold my arms and be indifferent when the priest ends his preface with “… we join the choirs of angels as they sing…”
6) When the priest, in Jesus’ words says “do this in memory of me”, recall all the acts of kindness and mercy that I have done in my life, and seen these not as my acts, but things done out of response to bring the memory of Jesus alive in my world. And when I remember that some of those times were really heartbreaking and sacrificial, that I joined Jesus in breaking the body, and pouring the blood for the good of the entire world.
7) Be fully present at the Doxology, which is the high point of the Mass, where the celebrant raises the consecrated bread and wine in a supreme act of sacrifice of Christ to the Father, and be brought present to Calvary where supreme surrender of love saved creation. And my “AMEN” then truly affirms and acknowledges this divine act of love.
8) Be in awe of the fact that when I receive Holy Communion, God wants to literally enter into me, a most unworthy host to the most Sacred Host.
9) And after receiving Communion, dare to be ‘lost’ a bit in true gratitude for this nourishment which strengthens me and beckons me to become further broken for others.

If just one person participating at Mass after reading this blog will do so with a new vision and purpose, with a new attentiveness and presence, this entry would have been worth the writing and the reading.

And when that happens, it really will not really matter even if that Mass were the first, and last Mass of his life, were he a celebrant, or laity.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hold on to the Cross to win in life

There is an annual contest here in Singapore where a radio station together with a car company as the main sponsor give away a brand new car to the person who can keep his or her hand on a specific spot on the car for the longest time without moving it. Apparently the record so far for this ‘feat’ is 81 hours, which works out to slightly over three days. Final contestants are decided randomly by a lucky draw, and this ‘challenge’ takes place in the piazza of a mall in downtown Singapore, where it is (so I am told) hyped up in a carnival-like atmosphere, where friends and relatives of the contestants come to support them and cheer them on, especially into the wee hours of the night, or when the torrential rains come.

It’s one of those ‘survivor’ type of contests, and the rules are stringent. One 5 minute break every 6 hours of standing, no moving of the hand off the car, no relieving of oneself while standing, no caps, sunglasses, drinks or food (except during that 5 minute break) and no communicating with any friend or family member either. I have never witnessed this but apparently, many people are interested in taking part in it, as the prize is rather attractive. After all, in Singapore, where owning a car is an unrealized dream for many, this seems to be a rather ‘simple’ way to get ownership of a brand new vehicle. Or so many seem to think.

While I don’t scoff or sniff at such events that are obviously drawn up to excite the masses, these things do set me thinking about the other more pressing and needful areas in life. And being a priest, one of them would be our spiritual lives and holding on to what really gives life.

Aren’t a lot of problems in our lives connected to the fact that at the critical moments of our lives, we have chosen to let go of faith and to choose the option that gives us the least problems? Or perhaps when we choose to hold on to what should be let go of, and let go what we should be holding on to? Right off the bat, a few come to mind.

A married woman ‘let’s go’ of her marriage and engages in an affair with someone who she feels ‘understands’ her, and gives her ‘love’; a couple is told by the gynaecologist that their unborn child has evidence of down syndrome, and choose to ‘let go’ of this child; a teen, just after Confirmation ‘let’s go’ of her faith and decides that going to church for Mass on Sundays is just not cool; a priest ‘let’s go’ of his vows of celibacy and finds someone to comfort him in his loneliness.

Are these surprising and far-fetched examples? Not really. They are instances (and there are many, many more) where there is a resistance to hold on to what really matters in life.

The contest that I referred to at the beginning of this morning’s reflection was for a car. Yes, in Singapore, this is a luxury item, and many would want to own one. But if just for a car, one is willing to not move one’s hand from the car, and stand in the blazing sun and the pouring rain, risk harm to one’s kidneys and bladder, deprive oneself of sleep, face starvation and dehydration, and experience moments of hallucination (it has been known to happen), it shows just how serious one is about the car.

What more for our faith, which is for ETERNITY? Dare we to say that we are equally or even remotely just as serious about faith as about a car? Our faith is often linked (and well it should) to the Cross of Christ, and it can be applied to all of life’s difficulties and challenges, especially those that have no direct answers for us. What we are meant to do as Christ’s disciples is to never let go of the Cross, because it is the Cross that saves us. (I shall not delve deeper into soteriology here, as theses galore have been written on it)

If we have been formed well in our faith in our early years, then it prepares us well for the times when we will encounter very tempting options to let go of the Cross for what appears to be more sensible, loss-cutting, comfort-bringing, logical and temporal options. When we do that, it would be akin to the contestants lifting their hands from car, and forfeiting the winning of the car.

Only in the case of our faith, we would have lifted our hands from the very cross that will save us. In the many challenges that we face in life, we would be circumspect to look carefully what we are literally holding on to, and what we should be letting go of.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Only the Pagans dance with the dead – or is that something we too should consider?

The New York Times featured an interesting read about Famadihana, which is a Madagascan ritual or tradition, practiced more widely by the Malagasy people. In this tradition, the bones and (probably completely petrified by then) remains of the dead ancestors are brought out of their crypts once every 2 to 7 years. The living family members then, in a joyous atmosphere featuring live music, will literally dance with their deceased forebears, honouring them and remembering them and the contributions that they made to their present lives. Fresh silk linen is then used to wrap the bones once again reverently, before placing them back into the crypts. Apparently, the main motive behind this tradition is to give honour to the dead, and to celebrate their connectedness with the living.

A macabre dance? Unthinkable in our modern era? Something leftover from a former time when people just followed tradition blindly? Perhaps. But the little research that I did about this event taught me that the Catholic Church in Madagascar no longer objects to this as she regards this as a purely cultural rather than a religious event. It is the peoples’ way of respecting the dead and a chance for the whole family to come together, a time for communion with the dead and the living, and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame.

I couldn’t help but be happy for the Malagasy Catholic folk who have this event to help them to reconnect with and to celebrate life, and in the process, be in touch (very literally here) with death, which is something that all of us will have to encounter and accept. Often, fear is one of the leading factors people cling on to life, and sometimes, it is not life that one is clinging on to, but what they perceive as giving them life. And that is why many are clinging on to guilt, habits, egocentricities, idiosyncrasies, materialism, and control. A healthy approach to death and dying must be featured in any religion that hopes to bring its devotees to any kind of maturity and growth. The more we shun any talk of it, the more we put it at the fringes of our conversation and speak in ‘sotto voce’ anything that connects with death and dying, a very unhealthy message is sent out to our younger generation that prevents them from growing up with a fearlessness and courage that truly marks a mature person.

In our Catholic faith, we have celebrations and feasts that honour the deceased – our loved ones (All Souls’ Day), our heroes (any feast of the Martyrs) and even the dying (few actually have participated in the very beautiful prayers for the Commendation of the Dying). Being in touch with God and one another at these ‘border situations’ allow us all to foster and develop what is known as a ‘mellowness of heart’. And I believe that it is this mellowness that helps one to be more charitable, patient, outreaching and merciful when it is asked of by both loved ones and those who hate us.

One thing that struck me about Famadihana was that it is supposed to be done in a spirit of joy and celebration. When we observe rites and rituals about our deceased, don’t we often leave out that element? When we clean the gravesites or visit their columbaria where their remains are kept, we don’t often go with ‘celebration’ in our hearts, being thankful for the joy our connectedness gave us, and even continues to give us despite our physical separation? Even our funeral Masses are ‘celebrated’, aren’t they? We must come to a point in our lives when indeed, the lives of our deceased are truly celebrated and not just mourned.

Anyone who has participated in a funeral liturgy, and has known the deceased lying in the casket, will be moved. The irony that presents itself there is almost deafening – the one person who cannot move anymore, who cannot breath anymore and whose heart has stopped beating is the one person who can bring all who are present there to move in a new way, breathe in a new way, and for his or her heart to beat in a new way, and from there, walk in a new way, especially when we become reminded of our own mortality and promise that our lives can bring to others.

When our lives are moved in that way, aren’t we also doing a sort of ‘Famadihana’ of our kind, where we ‘dance’ with the dead?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Heaven - is it out of this world?

When I was in my teens, there was a song by the then popular singer Belinda Carlisle called “Heaven is a place on earth”. Someone asked me recently if this is something that the Church teaches, or if it is just some poetic phrasing that gives us all some sort of whimsical hope in the midst of much suffering and pain.

First of all, I suppose we have to ask how we’d define ‘heaven’. Is it a place where there is no suffering or pain, no disappointment or sadness? Is it a state where one is fully in divine union and as it were, seeing God ‘face to face’ and not die? Is it life with no end? If ‘heaven’ is any of these (or all of them), then I suppose it’s not too right to say that heaven is a place on earth.

Secondly, what is ‘place’? If by ‘place’ we mean a physical location, where all those mentioned above are experienced, then certainly, it would be akin to believing in the existence of the fictional Shangri-La featured in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon – a fabled city synonymous with an earthly paradise.

But if by ‘place’ we mean a place in time, a moment, a snatch of reality, then yes, perhaps it is more plausible that heaven is a place on earth.

Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come”. Many of us don’t stop and linger enough on this phrase when we utter the Lord’s Prayer. Some may even harbour mental images of Armageddon and for this reason, want to gloss over any such thoughts as quickly as possible.

But what are the values and principles of the ‘kingdom of God’? Any of the beatitudes of Christ would be a good description. When one understands what blessedness is; when one embraces (not merely tolerates) poverty that opens one to an abundance; when one truly knows the gift of tears through which one’s own vision of life is cleansed or when one doesn’t stop living just because others are putting down life. These moments don’t last for a long time in this life as we know it. At most, we catch snippets and glimpses of these and are given insights to heaven.

Just taking Matthew 25 to heart, and knowing that in our outreach, we have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the incarcerated allows us to see that the hidden Christ awaits us in these people and gives us a chance to experience a ‘place’ on earth where heaven can be touched.

Richard Rohr said it so well when he said that it is heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell. There is a certain ability that we have in us to make the choices to give others and ourselves that heavenly experience for albeit a brief moment in time. Conversely, I believe that we too hold in our choices a brief moment of hell every time we are party to the inflicting of suffering, pain, or any form of killing. And eternal extension of this would be hell to the hilt.

Yes, as much as heaven is and can be a place on earth, so too can hell. How real it is, I suppose, has a lot to do with how much I contribute consciously towards it and cooperate with the grace of God.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God's busy - can I help you?

I was in town last week, and spotted a man wearing a T-Shirt with a rather eye-catching phrase emblazoned across the front. It had the drawing of what was obviously the scowl of the Devil (in the typical fashion of a horned beast-like visage) in the middle part of the T-Shirt. On top of this was the phrase “God’s busy”, and on the bottom of it, the second part of the phrase was “Can I help you?”

Just on the level of words, or some other superficial level, there is some kind of humour involved there that might elicit a chuckle or two. But as all things are, if we can find the humour in it, it means that there is some relation, some connection to reality as we see it. That is what makes something funny. Like the old joke about what three priests did to chase away the pigeons that were making a mess of the parish grounds. They finally decided to baptize and confirm the pigeons because that would mean they would hardly come back again. If we find that funny (and it is on some level), it means that in reality, we do see this actually happening, where teenagers once confirmed hardly come back to church at all.

As I pondered further on the message of that T-Shirt, it became apparent that for many people, God is someone who is meant to be doing things all the time, and many people seem to find that they can hardly get God’s attention. God’s ‘job’ seems to be to be constantly running from person to person, making sure that his or her requests and wishes are met with efficiency – like some divine Concierge, so that he gets the love that he craves for. It’s like as if that was God’s job description.

But is that God’s principal task? The opposite seems to be the other common idea of God – that he is distant and uninvolved with our lives (that’s the Deist’s mis-understanding of God), and he is imaged like that great retired architect of the universe, who just stays in some corner after creation, and watches, from a distance, how we manage to get on till the end of time.

Truth be told, both extreme views are toxic, and leads us to a host of problems. The former will always make us God, and leave God becoming our slave and runner (or concierge). Our ‘job’ as human beings is then to “direct” God so that he knows what we need, and to get him to do our bidding through a series of holy transactions. If I fulfill X number of novenas, or if I don’t commit sin, or if I don’t miss Mass on Sundays, God will be happy, and grant what I want. And if he doesn’t, then, as the T-Shirt says, he’s probably busy with other peoples’ requests. (It seems that God cannot multi-task). And what’s worse is the suggestion that we seek the Devil’s assistance, which implies that the Devil has a greater ability and far greater resources than God.

The other extreme view is equally toxic - that God is almighty, God is creator, but he’s so far and distant from us. He’s hardly interested and is just waiting for it all to end. The incarnation, showing God’s deep interest in our well-being is totally ignored, and his stepping into our world concretely is totally rejected. God’s love has nothing at all to do with anything. People with this notion will be those who have no supreme pattern or blueprint of love (from God) to mirror, and would probably reject any suggestion that we should be loving beings, following the love of God that created us. They become the author of their own lives.

What most of us struggle with is the middle path between the two, where on the one hand, God is needy and simply hopes for our worship, obeisance and love, and the other, where God is disinterested and ambivalent towards us. Keeping that balance between the two extremes is thus the task of faith, where we allow God to unfold his divine plan in our lives in his time. It takes a lot of humility to be led (often in silence), and to not think that when he is silent, that he is busy, and to go to the Devil for help.

The problem is that if the Devil is only imaged in his most horrible, macabre and heinous form, we will outrightly reject him. But truth be told, he is also known as ‘the Deceiver’, ‘the Accuser’ and the ‘Father of Lies’. Every sin known to humankind is always seen as an attractive, sensible and justifiable option. That’s the way evil works, and that is the only way evil seems to operate. Evil will hardly present itself as a sinful, iniquitous and nefarious choice.

What a close walk with the Lord in prayer gives us is a deep inner sense to detect ‘what is’ from ‘what appears to be’. And we will then have eyes to differentiate between holiness and hatefulness, and between glorifying God and horrifying God.

Perhaps it’s not that God is too busy. We are. And most of the time, busy with the wrong things.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Restoring distorted views

A couple of weeks ago, I met a German Jesuit priest at a meeting in Malaysia. Fr Gunther has spent more than 40 years in Japan as a missionary. In one of my conversations with him, I was enlightened about quite a few things about Catholicism in the Land of the Rising Sun. Only about 0.5% of the population there are Catholics, which bring the number to slightly above the half million mark.

Apparently, there are Japanese who have absolutely no notion that Christmas has links to the Church, let alone anything to do with Christ! As is evident in many countries, hotels and department stores in Japan do brisk business at that time of the year. Hotels tout it as a season of love (somewhat akin to Valentine’s Day) and promote hotel room packages for couples to ‘shack up’ for Christmas Eve. Department stores have sales that slash prices to pack in the shoppers. Certainly, this is not a phenomenon unique to Japan, but his following comment floored me. He once invited some Japanese to his Jesuit church in the heart of Tokyo to experience Christmas Mass, and they sniggered at him and said (with hands covering a smile, in a typical Japanese fashion) “What? Christmas has even come to the Church now? What can you possibly be selling there?”

This may seem bizarre, and I found it highly amusing. However, I couldn’t help but see that we too have shades of this kind of ignorance on our own shores. Maybe not regarding Christmas, but many other areas of life.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical letter Humane Vitae. It served as a reminder to the world that life is sacred, and that God is the ultimate giver and creator of life. Any manipulation or prevention of the natural-ness of life becomes then man’s assertion of his will over that of God’s. One of the very common reactions that came from many Catholics (and understandably, many non-Catholics too) was “what right has the Church to come into my bedroom”.

When Fr Gunther related the comment the Japanese made about Christmas creeping into the Church, it immediately brought to mind this comment that many people had about Humane Vitae, and what right had the Church to enter peoples’ bedrooms. Just as some Japanese think that Christmas is only about sales and romancing in rented hotel rooms and celebrating love in a Valentine’s Day fashion, perhaps so too do many Catholics mistakenly think that sex is only about doing what we want, when we want, and in any way we want.

Only when Fr Gunther makes the effort to share with the Japanese people the true meaning of Christmas, that Christ’s incarnation was God’s greatest gift to humanity, will they begin to see that what they have now as a commercialization is really a misguided and distorted view of Christmas. It is the Christ event that has the priority, and from that all other celebrations and observances flow. In Philosophical language, the Christ event is thus the ‘a priori’, which is Latin for 'what comes before'.

Similarly, only when we as people of God make the effort to understand, respect and appreciate God’s original plan for life (that happiness is not about insisting on rights but in the deeper giving and sharing of life) will we begin to see that our comments about keeping the Church out of our bedrooms is really a misguided view. The common phrase ‘safe sex’ that is touted by so many people, from governments to prostitutes, signals an aberration and a departure from God’s original plan. It gives many the idea that sex is something dangerous and harmful and unsafe, if one needs to practice safety in its celebration. Isn’t it the truth that it is we who have taken something sacred and beautiful and desecrated it to the extent that it became something to be protected against?

We all struggle with many areas in life. Some of them may be because we have misguided and distorted views of God’s original intent for us. What would help us is when we pray for both wisdom and humility. Wisdom to see truth, and humility to accept change and conversion.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Faithfulness in spending time with the Eucharistic Lord

“What do we do with our time in the Adoration Room, Father?” is a question that I have been asked by both baptised Catholics and Catechumens alike. We all know that prayer is important, and it has been said by many spiritual greats that a most noble thing to do is to spend a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament daily. But some have shared with me that they feel a sense of boredom and tiredness after the first five or ten minutes in the silence of the adoration room. This shouldn’t surprise anybody.

In our spiritual lives, what we are developing is a relationship with God. The only thing that we have in this life that gives us any similar experience is our relationship with people (or animals for some). What sustains a marriage is not the fireworks or exciting moments in a marriage. They certainly do happen, but they are not the norm. Any marriage that has lasted more than ten years will attest that the moments of excitement that give us consolation and assurance are like ‘treats’. Dependence on ‘treats’ all the time can become ‘threats’ when they are missing. There is the phrase in the English language that when something lasts, it ‘stands the test of time’. We don’t say that it ‘stands the test of excitement’. A marriage that celebrates a milestone of 25 or 50 years is precisely that – half a century of staying in the boredom, the silence, the non-exciting moments and yes, even the fights and disagreements that grew the couple and matured their sacrificing love for each other.

My own parents are going to celebrate their 50 years of married life next year in December, and I will be the first to attest that these 50 years were not a bed of roses. Then again, perhaps it really has been a bed of roses – complete with the thorns. But I am very proud to say that mum and dad have stayed in their difficulties and stresses and strains, being an example for me to stay in my priesthood when there are great moments of stresses and strains too. Most couples only want the bliss in their marriage. There’s nothing wrong with that, but with the bliss come the blisters as well.

What a regular holy hour does for us is to train us for those moments when nothing is quite happening in our lives, in our marriages, and in our priesthood. When there are no fireworks, no affirmations, no great insights, and no excitement. But we stay in there for the full hour till the buzzer sounds because we want to be people of commitment, which leads to help us to become people of maturity and people of substance.

Moreover, we stick to our holy hour not so much for what it gives to us, but also for what it allows us to give to God, especially when it is done with love. When a couple stays in a marriage that isn’t exciting but because they love, it is a sign that they somehow know that loving embraces a suffering that comes in many ways.

So, to the question “what do I do with our time in the Adoration Room, Father?” my answer would be “just decide to stay there, in fidelity, and be present to Real Presence, and love will be really present in the decision”. After all, in order for love to be endearing, it has to be enduring as well.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Treating confession as a statin for sins.

In the 15 August issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, it was apparently reported that a Dr Darrel Francis and his colleagues calculated that the reduction in cardiovascular risk offered by a statin (a drug that acts to reduce the level of fats, including triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood) is enough to offset the increase in heart attack risk from eating a cheeseburger and a milkshake. They’ve worked out that in terms of the likelihood of one having a heart attack, taking a statin can reduce one’s risk to more or less the same degree as a fast food meal increases it. And here is the most uproarious suggestion – they are proposing that fast food outlets provide these statins free with the meal that they serve, and as such, allow their customers to eat with much less risks of heart attacks due to clogged arteries.

A strange piece of apparently irrelevant information in the medical world to be mentioned in my spiritual blog, you may think. After all, what do I know about medicine? I was actually listening to my radio while doing my morning run last week when I heard this commented on by the radio announcer in between songs, and then it dawned upon me that this is precisely the kind of mentality that doesn’t help us much to address what really needs to be addressed in our lives - by a proper attitude, mentality and overall approach.

While Dr Francis and his team did say in their report that it is better to avoid fatty food altogether, this is not what their report centered on. Instead, what they are proposing is that people should be able to eat their burgers and have it (the statins, to be precise). Literally.

In discussions and conversations regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God’s mercy, I have often heard people remarking “It’s a good thing we have confession in the Catholic Church, because we can do what we want, and then after that, go for confession to get absolution”. With this view of God’s mercy and forgiveness, aren’t we a bit like Dr Francis and his team? The only difference is that the latter is connected to our physical health, while the former to our spiritual health.

The graces that we receive from encountering God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation must encourage us to want to make the needed changes in our lives to veer away from sin, to turn away – to be converted. It’s certainly not an excuse to allow us to sin in any carefree way. As Dr Francis pointed out, albeit briefly, it is better to avoid fatty food altogether. Health advocates have always said that it is better to change one’s lifestyle altogether rather than lean on the administration of a drug and think that it’s ok to continue a destructive or far less beneficial lifestyle and harmful eating habit. So too for the spiritual life.

But we seem to be obsessed with a ‘quick-fix’ world, where it is far easier and convenient to pop a pill, buy a diploma, buy on credit, hope for a strike in a visit to a casino, and get a strong and fast with steroids than to do the harder thing in life – change one’s lifestyle, learn by studying, save one’s salary, work hard and train and eat properly to get strong.

Have we as a people become so single-minded in our quest for getting what we want whenever we want and however we want? And when we find our plans and dreams for sustaining our defined happiness stymied, do we find ourselves finding loopholes and other openings just so that we can still get our ‘fix’ rather than look squarely at what may be harming us and say that it is those areas that need fixing instead? That’s whole area of life is called conversion, and I believe that it lies at the heart of every successful dieter, anyone who has truly made headways in making improvements to their health, and of course, anyone who has encountered God’s mercy and made the necessary changes that marks deep spiritual conversion.

Yes, it may be far easier to swallow a statin and eat that cheeseburger, but it would be wishful thinking that we have become healthier people. To be sure, the ability to change and experience true and lasting conversion doesn’t come overnight. It is a repeated “yes” to God and God’s will over and over and over again, with repeated falls and repeated experienced of his mercy and grace.

Just as no one becomes healthy overnight, neither does one become a saint overnight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

We all have a quest for God and transformation. Do we?

As a priest and a person who is deeply concerned in the spiritual development of his people, I come across a great number of people who seem not have the view that there is in us an inherent need for God, and that there is no real need to want any sort of transformation.

I am not talking about people outside of the faith or people who are unchurched. I am referring instead to those who are baptized, people who do come to weekly Mass on Sundays, and perhaps even people who are in active ministry. Herein lies a sad reality – that there are many who are just not interested in growth, in maturity, in seeing God’s surprising ways that he can show up at life’s doorstep, and what he is leading us to. There exists in a great many people the idea that God, religion and anything spiritual are simply items to be ticked from a list of other items on life’s agenda.

While I am not saying that we should simply become fanatics and abandon jobs, friends, or family to ‘follow Christ’, I have realized that many are not even considering that it is in the arena of life where God enters in and moves us. Perhaps that explains why so many simply get back to being irascible, argumentative, obstreperous, road bullies, abusive, and display a whole assortment of mean spirited behaviours right after the priest dismisses them at the close of Holy Mass on Sundays. One wonders if there was really any communion at any level when Holy Communion was received. For many, all that negativity seems to be far more real than the God whom they were supposed to encounter and worship.

Perhaps it is for the better that I don’t have a business-mind as I go about my quest for aiding spiritual transformation and trying to be the catalyst for this to happen in peoples’ lives. Just by sheer numbers alone, I am sure that I have not really succeeded in this proposition. Jaded fellow priests who have experienced many a disappointment in their priestly lives may even wonder why it took me so long to come to this realization. I must admit that sometimes, I do find myself wondering why too.

But this is where I have to look deeply and lovingly at Our Lord and allow myself to be with him on Calvary – alone and abandoned, save for a few faithful friends. Even then, was he even sure that they really got the message of living transformed lives, of embracing the beatitudes and of the true meaning of the Cross? And this is also when I need to recall what Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta so often said – what God wants is faithfulness, not success.

Post Script:
Dear blog readers - I have a simple request. I do notice that some of you tend to leave anonymous comments, and I do hesitate to post these, for various reasons. One of them is that I think it helps us in our spiritual growth to really stand up for what we say and be accountable. It's really a sign of maturity. So, can I ask that you identify yourselves, or at least say which country you are posting from. At least this way, I get to know if my blog is read by people outside of Singapore. Thank you so much and God bless.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Seeing through the eyes of Christ - a new empathy

Bishop Fulton J Sheen was once quoted as saying this about suffering – “Tears are not without value, provided one sees a purpose in their shedding. As the morning rose is sweetest when embalmed with dew, so love is loveliest when embalmed in tears. Many a person sees God through tears more often than in the sunlight; in fact, tears may leave the vision of the eyes clear for stars.”

Only a person who has struggled through years of tears and endured a prolonged period of pain of a wounded heart can speak of suffering in such an erudite way. Just about everybody has cried tears of sadness, rejection, failure and loneliness at some time or other. Yet not everyone carries in them a similar strength and depth of character through the pain. Could the answer lie in the ability to lift this woundedness up to God in faith and trust.

There are many who have come to see me carrying in them a lot of wounds. When these wounds are identified, the perfectionist in me often hopes to give the most assuaging counsel, offering the best solution. But as I grow in my priesthood, I have learnt to see that sometimes, it is not a solution that is best offered, but perhaps something else – a listening with depth. I have also found that this is strangely, one of the hardest things to do.

Just to hear is not hard. But to listen with empathy and to ‘get into the shoes of the other’ entails a lot more. It means putting aside my tasks, my agenda, and even my thoughts and correct pre-formed solutions. This takes a dying to self, which is something that almost all of us fight so hard not to do. But it is only when we do this that we can end up sharing a woundedness that can bring about a shared healing at the same time. Platitudes and model answers may be something that many of us priests are tempted to give, but it takes a lot of love to not rely on them, but to enter-into the woundedness of the wounded heart. Professional counselors will advise against too much of entering into, because one can lose objectivity. This is sound advice, but it can also end up making us very distant and cold.

This could well be the greatest difference between the professional counselor and the healing that comes from Christ. Christ is one who has let no wall or barrier come between the creature and the creator. In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we are told that the veil of the temple was torn right down the middle. A tiny detail, but a very important one. We are given a glimpse of the significance of Christ’s stepping into our humanity did – he removed all barriers and walls that hitherto existed between God and our sinful selves. By becoming man, God breaks all barriers to our woundedness and truly enters into our wounds, walking the walk of our sin and shame. He fought against giving us those pre-planned answers and platitudes. God no longer just listens from afar to our plaintive cries of our human suffering. This God of ours cries our tears and carries our crosses as well. Gal 2:22 gives us much hope because truly, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Our tears and our struggles are not just ours, but are now a shared sorrow that leads to a healing that is similarly shared.

When it is difficult to enter into the shoes of the wounded standing right in front of us, it becomes most necessary to cherish what the incarnation and the passion of Christ did. Because of the incarnation, God sees us through very human eyes, and he has a new empathy for us. What Bishop Sheen said about the value of human tears can perhaps also be said of God’s tears shed on Calvary as well – there was a great purpose in that shedding that day, and it left God with a ‘Christed’ vision for our broken humanity.

If because of Calvary, we can now see God through the eyes of Christ, would it be audacious to say that even God sees us now through those same eyes?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Finding God with dis-ease

Thomas Merton, the noted Cistercian writer and monk, was once quoted as saying “If you find God with great ease, perhaps it is not God that you have found”.

Coming across this quotation set me thinking this week, as I came across quite a few people who in passing, have mentioned to me that the Church with its rituals and rites have made it so difficult and tedious for us to come to God. “God is everywhere after all” seems to be a common remark, and indeed he is. “But do we really need all this ritual just to get to meet him?” Apparently, in many peoples’ minds, if God is so keen on us getting close to him, he should be the one who makes the effort to come and meet us, rather than making us go out of our way to meet him. And the Church should make it easier and more convenient for us to do this.

What has been an oversight is that God did make that great effort. And he not only did it once when creation began, he also did it much more magnificently in the incarnation when he became man, showing us how to really live. Jesus showed us so many times that God has a great hunger for us to come close to him, and that barriers have been removed, starting with the very affectionate way that we can address God as Abba, Father. But he did take a rather circuitous route.

The current secular mind seems to be steeped in the belief that things should be made easier and easier in every arena of our lives. After all, gadgets and gizmos are constantly being developed just so that we don’t have to really make much effort to even leave our homes as we have everything at our fingertips. More and more people work from home, and there are a whole lot of people who can earn a living working for years without needing to physically encounter another human being. For many, this arrangement seems to work just fine. But problems abound when this kind of convenience is wanted and even expected in the area of our spiritual lives.

The very word ‘disciple’ has the same root as the word ‘discipline’. We don’t have to look very hard to see that any discipline in life entails a training, a shaping and an adjustment of sorts. The spiritual life is precisely this – a lifelong training as a disciple of Christ. But perhaps this is not something that is readily acknowledged by many baptized Catholics. In my casual conversations with many adult Catholics, it has become clear to me the notion of Catholics being disciples of the Lord is hardly ever fathomed. Most are just contented to be baptized, almost as a form of membership. Where did this insufficient notion come from? How do we even begin to correct this, let alone point it out? Perhaps a mis-informed catechesis was what started the mal-formed adult Catholic mind and heart.

It is not much wonder then that when such a mind gets influenced by the secular mind , many of us can erroneously expect things of the faith to be reduced to quick sound bites and succinct paragraphs, and have us think that just because we have the one-paragraph answers, we are mature in our spirituality. This becomes evident when many become impatient and even intolerant of God who seems to make things inconvenient and difficult for his beloved people.

Scott M Peck’s book “The Road Less Travelled” comes to mind as I reflect on this, as indeed, it is often the more winding, arduous and discipline-required road that is far less chosen, but it can also be the one that leads us to God in a mature and patient way.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The quality of life is a shared responsibility

Sometime last week, an article in the paper highlighted the very sad story of a man in England who suffered a stroke 20 years ago while in Athens. Doctors there managed to save his life, but for the past 20 years, this man had been ‘trapped’ in a body that was left mostly paralyzed. He can only blink and nod in response to questions, and cannot even talk. He is cared for 24-hours a day for basic things like bathing and even his most personal needs. What the article highlighted was his appeal to the Court of Law in England to lift the ban on assisted suicide because he wants his wife to help him to die and to end his life which “has no quality”. He wanted to make sure that his wife would not land herself on the wrong side of the law for assisting him to die.

Cases like his abound, and each one centers around a person who is in a very dark place in life. Often, the circumstances are dire, and one would need to have the sensitivity of a rag doll to not have a smidgen of empathy when encountering such stories and plights. What this person wants is basically a “right” to end his life. This is something that the Church (which is the voice of God and reason) has great reason to denounce as morally wrong, and will never condone.

Is the church harsh, perhaps too harsh with people like this man and his wife? Can the Church not see that it is frustrating and perhaps even ‘meaningless’ to live this way – to be so highly dependent on others and thus placing emotional, financial and even physical strain on loved ones and care-givers?

At the heart of the matter is not so much the right to end life, but rather, the question of “who is the giver of life?” What must be upheld is that the ultimate giver of life is God, and that it is only God who can have the right to end it. He gave life to us out of love (and that is why life should only come out from a love-making situation, and not in a separated clinical way, where husband and wife are in a non-unitive state, and are assisted by clinicians and Petri-dishes in laboratories).

God’s love is at the heart of our life, and the mystery of God’s generosity is played out throughout our earth-bound years. It is clear that our human love is shown to our loved ones in various ways. Well, so too is God’s love for us. Our love for our children often is not readily perceived as “love”. We have only to think about the ways we discipline them, when we don’t give them everything they want whenever they want, and especially when we have to stomach the very heart-wrenching phrase every parent dreads to hear (“I HATE you”) as we show them love to see that our loving actions and choices towards them is often unperceived as love.

What more with God’s love? The problem with us is that we have wired ourselves to only see “love” with blinkers on, and in very limited ways – and usually only when it suits us, when it feels good, and often, only when there is immediacy in returns. And when we hardwire ourselves this way, we often end up insulating ourselves from other non-obvious ways of love, which can often include a suffering – not just in ourselves, but from the community around us.

Not many of us appreciate being dependent on others, even on loved ones. It takes a lot of humility to accept to being cared for by others. Since the beginning of man’s creation, that stretching out of the hand of Eve to grab of the proverbial fruit from the knowledge of good and evil showed our innate unwillingness to be led, to be patient, and to wait for an unfolding. We have vestiges of this inability and unwillingness whenever in our lives we want the answers here and now, and in ways that are crystal clear. And when it doesn’t seem to make sense to our limited minds, when we need to sit with our logical mind, when we are, as in Richard Rohr’s words, ‘dualistic’, we will want out. Many have lost their faith in the process of waiting, and perhaps like that man in England, seem to have come to the end of their tethers.

It would be too simplistic to say that the wrong lies only in the choice of the paralysed Englishman alone. Could it also be the shared fault of the community surrounding the man as well? Perhaps it has not done all it could to reach out to him. Proverbially, Eve reached out to take the forbidden fruit. Perhaps it would have been much better that she reached out instead to take Adam’s hand, and asked him to stay with her in her inability to stay in the mystery of unknowing? When the community of not just that Englishman, but all of us, who are ‘paralyzed’ in small and large ways refuse to reach out, or refrain for whatever reasons to reach out, we make it easy for many to reach the end of their tethers too.

Would it then not be unthinkable that the kind of life the Englishman has is defined as having no ‘quality’? In the true Christian sense of the word, quality is as much in the giving as it is in the receiving – of care, of charity, of patience, and of love. It would not be just the wife of the man who would be the one killing – the community actually started killing slowly many years ago.

We only need to look Luke 5:17-26 to see that it was really the faith of the community that saved the paralytic in that pericope. I believe that must be our call as well.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stepping forward in love from our starting blocks

I’ve returned from the annual priests’ retreat, and thank the many who have prayed for me and my fellow priests for a fruitful time with the Lord. I went there with a “prayer list” of a few friends who seemed in need of some spiritual assistance in their lives right now. Serendipitously, the opening session by our retreat master made mention of one of the difficulties that the Catholics in his country (France) are facing now, and it echoed the sentiments of one of my friend’s as well. And that is the question of “where is God?”

The context of both questions were rather different. The retreat master’s question was made with reference to France’s dismal numbers turning up at Mass. As an opening meditation, we were prompted to go to places that seemed empty and uninhabited in our spiritual lives. Many retreats start this way – by urging retreatants to ‘go into the wilderness’, to ‘retreat’ as it were, so that we can be ‘re-treated’, just as Jesus did before his 3-year ministry began right after his baptism in the river Jordan, simply because as Scripture reveals in so many instances, God comes to us very often in the wilderness and not where it’s busy and full of distractions. The wilderness or the desert, as is common in Palestine, is a place where one is no longer able to be dependent on one’s own intellect and egocentric baggage in life, but where one has to rely on God’s presence in faith.

My friend’s context of the search for God is sadly different altogether. The life of the spouse of my friend was cruelly and violently taken away not long after marriage. This friend has since then been finding life very empty and has asked many a time since the incident “where is God?” and has been yearning (understandably) for some consolation by God. We shared a meal a few days before the retreat, and I felt once more the deep pain that seems to be imbedded in this person’s heart. I do hope that my readers notice that I am not even giving away the gender of this friend in my writing, so as to respect the person’s privacy.

I often take a spiritual book with me to retreats, and this year is no different. But instead of taking some of the well-known ‘classics’ with me this year, I picked up a book by titled ‘Disappointment with God’ by Philip Yancey (no, he’s not Catholic, in case you needed to know). The whole premise of this book was Yancey’s grappling with God’s seemingly absent way of making his presence experienced in the lives of billions and billions of people. Yancey tries to answer the question of why God doesn’t make his presence known in a much more tangible way instead of being distant and silent most of the time. With deft mastery, Yancey tries to marry the age old dilemma of faith verses proof, but what I admired was his way of weaving in personal life stories of many people who have faced this problem, juxtaposing it with Job’s own rather cruel and painful experience of a life that seemed vacant of God even though he was a righteous man. In short, Yancey grapples with the three questions: Is God silent? Is God hidden? And Is God unfair?

A short blog entry does not pretend to give trite and neat answers to this perennial question of why and how a God who loves the world chooses to remain silent in the midst of much pain and adversity, tests and trials. The wicked and the selfish often do seem to ‘get away with everything’, and if one were to just look at the material level of life, it does seem that bed-fellows of evil and crime are often having a better time in this life than many of us who choose the ‘narrow and less travelled road’.

We only have to look at what happened to Jesus, (God himself) on the cross of Calvary. On that day, God himself knew what it felt to be abandoned by God (seemingly), and to submit himself to a hidden, albeit higher plan. The easier thing for God to do was to make it all perfect and better, smiting the evil-doers, and exposing the fraud of those responsible for this injustice that was displayed on the mount of Calvary. But would that have permanently changed the way that the world believed in God from that point on?

Just looking at the way that so many times God showed himself to the Israelites and their enemies shows that an in-your-face majestic display of God’s omnipotence doesn’t seem to have effects that would last for generations. At best, the only ones who would believe in God’s existence would be that very generation. The next ones would somehow fall into the same “I-don’t-think-God-exists” spiel. God somehow knows that it is in his hidden-ness and silence that the really hungry people will begin to open their minds and hearts to hear him, not in the thunder, not in the fire, and not in the storm, but in the silent whispers of the breeze, as did the prophet Elijah.

What’s at the centre of our faith in God? It has to be our love for him. Perhaps the problem with many of us is that we don’t love God enough with “all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength”. Perhaps many of us love him (and serve him) because of an obligation, or because of a fear of hell, or because it’s something passed on to us by our forebears. But when we don’t own it ourselves, when we do not make that choice to love (despite not having signs, feelings, external obligations, etc), when we don’t decide to love, but are somehow obliged to love, our faith wouldn’t have moved off from its starting blocks. We have not made strides in growth and faith. In making those necessary strides towards God, we also make the necessary strides to another very important place - into our very selves.

Yes, the silence of God is real - as real as it is salient.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Discovering the ‘magical corners’ of our faith

Sarah Chang, world-class violinist, once remarked in an interview that she had the supreme advantage of playing on a Guaneri del Gesu, a violin made in 1717. She revealed that she had been making exquisite music with this instrument since she was 14 years old. In one of her interviews, she said that it is only now, many years later, that she is beginning to learn and understand ‘the magical corners and what it can or can’t do for her’, and ‘what we want from each other’.

Haring this interview and the way Ms Chang described her ‘journey’ with the instrument made me sit up and see that this mirrors what the Church wants us to mature into when we take pains to take our spiritual growth seriously.

Ms Chang’s virtuosity is a result of having gone through years and years of rigorous training and arduous, countless hours of drills and practice. When we see the present Sarah Chang so deep in concentration, giving her entire being to the performance in front of a full orchestra on stage, we see a mature musician, one who exudes confidence, and conveys and interprets the deep sentiments of the composer of the piece she performs.

The Christian also is one who needs to go through the rigors of training in the spiritual life. Our years of catechesis, maturing in the understanding of the fundamentals of our faith, familiarizing ourselves in the practices of the faith, steeping ourselves in the asceticism of prayer, seeing the deep link between life and the one who gives life, being people who are keen to do God’s will and being his instruments – they all have really one common aim, and that is to have us become mature children of God, confident, like the Sarah Changs, the Yo-Yo Mas and the Joshua Bells of the music world, able to stand confident and sanguine on life’s stage and convey the deep sentiments of God in our lives.

Perhaps the problem with many ‘lapsed’ Catholics is that they have arrested their ‘training’ at a very young age. Some of us have, out of choice, retarded and stunted our growth and stagnated ourselves in primary catechesis, stopped learning about God, refusing to enter into mystery, and perhaps stopped experiencing the praying community’s support at weekly Mass. This would be akin to someone who went to the first year of piano school and stopped learning after one year. They would have not been able to appreciate music at a deeper level, when they are older, and more maturely grasp the subtleties and profound beauty of music. Later, in their adult years,they may say that they are not musical when perhaps the real problem was they really didn’t allow the seed of musicianship in them to be adequately sown, sprout, develop and mature and finally bear fruit. Of course, the analog I am using here has certain shortcomings, as all analogs are wont to.

When we approach our relationship with God with hunger and zeal, marked with humility and patience, we too will be able to see life and God, like Ms Chang did with her Guaneri del Gesu violin. We will be able to discover the ‘magic corners’ of our faith, and what it can really do for us, and what great music God and us can do together. And it is then that we can say that in the end, true music happens when the musician and the instrument play each other.

PS - I will be on retreat for the next 5 days, and humbly ask for your prayers for a fruitful time with the Lord. But don't let that stop your very encouraging comments from coming. Many readers have been inspired by your comments. God love you.