Monday, January 25, 2010

We are as strong as our weakest link

At yesterday's Mass, we heard proclaimed St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (12:12-30). What stood out from that was the part which mentioned that the ‘parts of the body that seem to be the weakest are the indispensable ones, and it is the least honourable parts of the body that we clothe with the greatest care’.

Of course, St Paul was using the analogy of the body of Christ (the community) to highlight the fact that we are all members of that body. But it was something that stayed with me principally because of two things I encountered.

I chanced upon a nearby eatery called 18 Chefs. I was not too enticed by the menu that was displayed at the window, but what made me want to give it a try was the worker who stood outside and made the effort to explain the concept of the eatery. This place is run by a reformed convict who made a turn around in life, and has as its motto, the desire to give every former convict a chance to find work in a non-judgemental working environment. They believe in giving second chances to people with a record to their name, helping them to recover through a bond of friendship so that they can eventually allow them to be of service to the community.

The young lady who showed me to my table was very amiable, and spoke briefly of her own record, and I was won over by the fact that this place gave people like her such courage and hope. As I glanced at the kitchen, I saw many young people, some with colourful tattoos and piercings, working at their craft of bringing the best food possible to the table of the customers. Apparently, each one of them are the recipients of a second chance in life. Kudos to the owner of this chain, which apparently has three other outlets in Singapore right now after having opened in 2007.

Incidentally, I happened to watch a movie which also spoke of a second chance. The Blind Side is currently in the cinemas, and I was recommended it by two brother priests. Clearly, it carried this similar theme of the second chance in life in another dimension, and I could not help but see that God is speaking to me of how mercy is at the heart of life.

Don’t most of us find it so hard to extend second chances to people who have either failed us before, or done us some wrong? Perhaps, it is easier to extend this kind of compassion and kindness to family members or friends. But in each of the examples that I encountered, what moved me was that these second chances are given to strangers – people who had no ties to those who extended that compassion and mercy to. Most of us want some form of guarantee that those to whom we extend chances and mercy to will not fail us, and will not play us out in life. In other words, we want a sure thing in life. But is that really compassion? Those of us who have been moved by the story of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables will know that it was the mercy and compassion of the Bishop that changed and shaped him.

Many of us are influenced by the perfect, the strongest, the best and the smartest. While I certainly do not advocate that we should be slackers in life, if we are only interested in what is ‘best’, we may be dumbing down our capacity for true human living if we do not develop a patience and compassion for the slower ones who need a bit more from us.

This is why the Jewish laws and Jesus’ teachings always emphasized extending care to the widows and orphans. These were the weakest links in their society, and how these were treated, how these were given care and support were indications of how truly human the strongest and the most successful were. The presence of an establishment like 18 Chefs, incredibly strong people like Leigh Ann Tuohy (the character portrayed by Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side), become stark reminders that we as a society are only as strong as our weakest link and if we are giving such links the chances that they need.

We only need one person to do things differently, with a certain bravado and gumption to wake us to the fact that we too can make a difference in the lives of others. And it is only when our weakest link is strengthened, that the entire body of Christ benefits.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Balancing the community experience with a personal God-experience in Church

It is a necessary but difficult task of a priest to strike a sensible balance between doing what is right, and being pastorally sensitive enough to meet the laity at their level of need and receptivity.

Just yesterday, I encountered such a ‘sticky’ situations which is probably best understood if I were to first relate the situation as it unfolded.

Before we started the entrance procession, marking the start of the Eucharistic celebration yesterday, I was approached by a lady who was almost in tears asking why her friend (not a Catholic) was prevented from going into the Church with her simply because his feet were in slippers. In her frustration, I could sense that she was feeling terribly upset at having the doors of the Church literally closed to her friend, who in all likelihood, represents those who want to come to know Christ.

In our Church, we have been putting up posters and notices, informing visitors that certain forms of attire are inappropriate for this house of worship, and amongst these are short shorts, tank tops, spaghetti straps and strapless tops for ladies, and slippers or thongs. Behind all this is the intention of giving the respect that this house of God deserves. This kind of stipulation, whilst not unheard of in places of worship, seems to be for many Catholics, rather strange and even unnecessary. Yet, if we just take a look at the other places of worship in the other religions not just in Singapore but elsewhere around the world, it seems to be the norm.

I am full of respect for our Wardens who are at the front line of the ire of many Catholics who are the ones who are tasked to help the parishioners to adhere to the dress codes. Many a time, they get dirty looks and raised voices, and they realize that theirs is indeed a thankless task. As with many issues of the church, the angle from which one looks at the issues become the bone of contention. Each has its rationale, and it becomes very difficult to reach an objective solution simply because this is not just a dress code issue, but a human and social issue.

Compliance to dress code issues are easily solved if one were to remove God from the issue. After all, just take a look at places like fine dining restaurants, clubs and government agencies. When it is just a social issue, there is general tendency to follow (usually with much less difficulty and disgruntlement) the rules of the establishment. But in the local context, when the issue and venue has God as its central raison d’etre, it can become a thorny and knotty issue.

I suspect that that this is because we tend to think that how we view God, how we relate with him is something that seems very personal, involving just my views, my feelings, my freedom and my convenience, way before I expand my world to include the views, feelings, freedom and convenience of others in my community. How I worship and how I dress, how I bow and kneel, how I respond (or choose to remain silent and not sing hymns) becomes far more important than the contribution that I am making (or fail to make) in the praying life of the gathered community. I was reading an article in yesterday’s paper about how one journalist wrote about how he has learnt to love others on his own terms, as if it was a good thing. I recall distinctively that my heart skipped a beat when I read that. It is precisely this kind of love – on our own terms – that gives the world many of the problems that we are facing.

What then is the most sublime definition of love? St Thomas Aquinas defined love so succinctly when he said that love is willing the good of the other. If our definitions of love are very different from that, where there is more “I” and “me”, instead of “you” and “others”, it has a trickle down effect to all the other areas of our lives, which include our work attitude, the way we relate with our friends and colleagues, and yes, even the way that we turn up at Mass, dress for Mass, respond at Mass and care for one another at Mass.

This is at the heart of the ‘pastoral balance’ that I began this morning’s blog with. At the back of my head lies this need to help my parishioners and friends to come to appreciate this truth. At the same time, I must be fully aware that each person comes with a whole lifetime of experiences and life challenges that have shaped the way that they have come to see God and affected thus their result of placing the “I” in a far more important place than the “other”.

The problem remains though. Is putting up notices on Dress Code going to change things if the fundamental issue of the heart not first addressed? How do we address this? I am not of the opinion that preaching such things at homilies are platforms where heart issues are readily handled and accepted. It takes far more than that.

What is required of our front-line Wardens? Probably this – the patience, love and willingness to deal with each person with the kind of sensitivity and patience that each requires and deserves. Is this difficult? Immensely. Is this necessary? Undoubtedly if we really see ourselves as ministers of love, and not law enforcement.

In case you are wondering, I asked the lady to enter the church with her friend, incurring the ire of the Warden for I seemed to have ‘double standards’. Will the lady and her friend from now see something good in what we are trying to achieve as church?

I guess, only time will tell.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Our yearning for originality

There is within each one of us, a pining, and sometimes, even an obsession for originality. We don’t like it when our things are copied, or when we see things being copied. What we prize is creativity, and we see this evidenced in various ways.

There was an article in the paper sometime back that featured ways in which couples getting married strive for originality in their wedding photos. Lavish ones even brought their photographer to idyllic locations like Paris for the photo shoot. One couple were so "original" by having their photo taken in a hotel bathtub, with the both of them shoulder deep in a foam covered tub! Apparently this was so "memorable" that their friends and relatives were still talking about it years later. Youth are know to establish their original identity through their dressing and adornments. In the realm of the arts, originality in writings and composed music is far more respectable as an art than to do ‘cover’ versions.

Where is the basis of this need and this yearning?

It is deeply rooted in our humanity, to want to be remembered and not forgotten. I believe that our reason for wanting to put our stamp on the world, be it in the form of wedding photos, music, writing or dressing, ideas, inventions or for the esoteric, our thinking, is so that somehow, we become ‘preserved’. We fear being forgotten, and we are terrified of being seen as an ‘also-ran’. Even Olympic medal winners are loathe to have their records beaten because they want to be remembered at least for a long time, if not, forever.

Why is this so? I believe that every one of us are somewhat plagued with an insecurity that makes us want to preserve ourselves. It’s part of the original sin in each of us. It has at its deepest roots, our failure to believe that we are loved deeply by God, and not for anything that we can do, but for our very being. If we know that we are truly and deeply loved by God, the one who is Eternal, whose love for us is Eternal, then we will not need to put our mark on anything that ‘preserves’ us. We will live in a new freedom without fear of being an unknown, because we are never unknown by God.

Does this mean that we should not be creative, or ‘original’ in our work? Certainly not. It is also part of our godly nature (remember that we are made in the image of God) to participate in his creative-ness. What we need to do is to purify our motives and be conscious of why we are doing what we are doing. When it is out of vanity, for the ego, or for a self-centered act of preservation, we could be saying that we don’t believe that God loves us, and that we have to love ourselves more. But if it is an act of an extension of our God-given created-ness in us, we know that it is alright if our work is not given any human recognition. And the peace that we experience despite our non-recognition helps us not be frustrated, hungry and needy.

But at our core, we encounter an admixture of both drives, don't we. I know I do. While we know that we are loved unreservedly, there will be moments of human weakness and insecurity that finds us wanting more. But I believe the more we learn to encounter the God of love and mercy, the more we will be re-minded, re-modeled, given a new mind to love not just God, but our deepest and yes, flawed but still lovable selves, and from there, begin to love others who are just as 'also-ran' as we are.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Falsely worshipping God and worshipping false gods

One of the most pertinent and yet difficult tasks of a priest or any spiritual director is to lead the faithful to a better relationship with God and to broaden their appreciation of God’s often unfathomable ways. The task of any primary level catechist is to begin this in the mind of children, introducing God to them in ways that a child can appreciate and understand. As the child progresses into his teenage years, and then to adulthood, the relationship with God is meant to mature and develop along similar lines. The problem that many have is that this development somewhat gets stalled or remains stagnant at a late primary level, or for many, at the mid-secondary level, resulting in many adults who are 30, 40 or even in their late 50s having a very under-developed notion of God.

This often results in an idea of a God that seems more like an ogre or a ‘policeman’, one to be feared rather than loved; avoided rather than relating to; toxic instead of tender.

I suspect that this is why many seem to get angry with God whenever he seems to throw curved balls their way. These curved balls come in many forms, and usually, they are in the form of sufferings and failures, rejection and disappointments, illnesses and death. When these happen in life, and one is only rigidly holding on to an idea of a menacing or distanced God, hardly involved and loving in our lives, one can easily end up cursing God, hating God and placing a huge amount of blame on him.

Sometimes, I do get penitents telling me of their anger with God, and I often tell them that the only sin I see is that they have been worshipping a false God. Usually, they look at me puzzled, till I explain to them that the God that they have formed in their minds could well be so far from God himself. The god who inflicts pain arbitrarily; who enjoys seeing suffering and failures; who delights in harming creation by disasters and catastrophes simply does not exist. But does this mean that god does not exist? Not at all. In fact, the God who exists often works his love into our lives via entry points that are best accessible when we are unguarded and have let our defenses down. And most of the time, that is when we are most pained, weakened in suffering and failure, and hanging on by a thread.

Once we begin to open our eyes in a new way, to see God’s hand at work in ways that we never could before, we will be reminded of how God should be properly worshipped, and diminish our worship (or cursing) of a false and constructed god. Indeed, we truly will then be re-minded, having a new mind.