Monday, February 22, 2010

Forgiveness – a gift that is never finished

The comments and questions about forgiveness since my last blog entry on the topic have been not only interesting, but also very revealing. I realise that it is a topic that touches many lives, and many find it a great challenge to practice it, because it has so many facets and yet, is something that is necessary if we are to live authentic lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Here is another take on this subject, which I believe, is something that I will return to again and again.

The Tiger Woods scandal that has rocked the golfing community has sent its ripples outward, affecting even people who have never stepped on a golf course nor held a golf club. That is because the issue here is not about golf. Now, it is about his numerous infidelities that have been brought to light since the scandal broke in late 2009 that have kept him in the spotlight.

A few days back, Mr Woods came out of his self-imposed silence, and held a press conference (I have not, and don’t really intend to see this), in which he apparently apologized repeatedly, and admitted that he had only himself to blame. In our local paper yesterday, there was a full-page article about this, and in the usual press style, numerous people from Singapore as well as noted celebrities were quoted, giving their views on the public apology.

What is at the heart of the whole matter now is, I believe, forgiveness for a wrong (or a series of wrongs) that have been done. It’s far deeper than just a golfing matter. The man has asked for forgiveness from many people, and whether he makes a comeback in golf or in life, or in his marriage, depends to some extent, on whether forgiveness going to be given to him. But this morning’s blog entry is not about Mr Woods. This has never meant to be a ‘celebrity blog’, and never will be. It will always be about helping people on their spiritual journey in life.

I am wondering if the problem with many people and their inability to forgive (be it Tiger, or their own spouses) such a transgression lies in wanting proof and assurance that this will never happen again. As a priest who has counseled numerous couples who have had such issues or problems in their marital life, it does seem that our ability to forgive hinges very much on wanting concrete proof that our hearts will never be torn, wrenched asunder and left bleeding again. And I can understand why such conditions want to be given before forgiveness is extended. The mending of a heart is no joke. It takes years, or decades for some, because the wounded heart has a memory.

And herein lies the paradox of forgiveness. We want it to be a one-off event (at least most of us do). We seem to be want to be able to say that on a certain day, at a certain time, in such a situation, I FORGAVE that person, and have now moved on. And we hope to never go back to that painful time, that wounded memory ever again. We want to close the books on that tumultuous and testing event, and live as if that had never happened. And unless God deems it necessary to give us amnesia or dementia, most of us do not forget that easily. I say it again – forgetting does not mean forgiving. Forgetting is merely proof that our memory cells have died or degenerated. Forgiveness doesn’t kill cells. Forgiveness gives life, because forgiveness is very much connected and stems from love. All love gives life.

Whether one is Elin Woods (Tiger’s wounded wife), his children, the extended family, the country or the world, the forgiveness that Mr Woods is asking for requires from the wounded ones, not just a one-time forgiveness, but an on-going forgiveness. Not because Mr Woods is going to renege on his promise of renewed fidelity, but because we are gifted with memory.

Each time we think of his philandering ways, or any of our own past hurts, something happens to us. And it’s not just Tiger Woods. It could be your own spouse, your recalcitrant children, the undermining office co-worker, the selfish and egotistical superior, or the dishonest employee. Think about the surviving family members of the Holocaust. Our forgiveness has to be on going, as long as our memory lasts. Each time we think of their acts which have hurt us, we may notice our pulse rising, perhaps nostrils flaring, blood pressure rising and us getting irritable. Those moments are precisely the moments when forgiveness has to be given again and again and again.

I am quite certain that this is the wisdom behind Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to forgive seventy seven times seven, meaning without limit. Forgiveness not to a whole host of people, but perhaps, even to one single person, over and over again. And each time the memory comes back, it is an invitation to make that decision to forgive again, anew, and with a certain deliberateness.

I think this is one aspect of God’s forgiveness of our sins that we don’t really think much about. It’s skewed theology to say that God forgets our sins the moment he forgives. I prefer to extend the mercy of God to such an infinite magnitude that sees him forgiving us over and over again each time he sees us, and our entire lives are before him, played out with our foibles and wrong choices, and he makes that decision to love us and forgive us each time. That must be the wonder of heaven that awaits us. And our giving each person here on this earth that ‘touch of heaven’ is the call to every disciple of Christ.

And that is why forgiveness is never a one-off act. Forgiveness is a gift that like love, is never a finished act. Because we never say “I loved you”. It’s always in the present tense if it is a love that mirrors God’s love for us.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Are there terms when we love?

Sometime last month, there was an article that I came across in the local paper written by a columnist in which he spoke about his resolutions for the New Year. There was a line in his column that made me sit up with a great deal of interest. Among the things that he decided to do in the New Year, one of them was that he has decided, “to love on his own terms”. I sat on this phrase for a while, and I saw in that phrase, one of the major reasons why there seems to be so many problematic relationships. I daresay that it is likely that when we love on our own terms, that our relationships end up dysfunctional, injured, and broken.

When we love only on our own terms, aren’t we ultimately setting our relationships for failure, in about the same way that drawing up marriage pre-nups also set marriages up for ultimate failure. Especially in the Christian context, loving is completely misunderstood when the “I” becomes far more important than the ‘other’, or the ‘you’. When we love on our own terms, we will be far more concerned with protecting ourselves from getting hurt, than in the process of developing the relationship and growing it to its fullest potential.

Perhaps many people, including the columnist who wrote that article, have had their fingers ‘burnt’ in past relationships, and have reacted by adopting this defensive stance towards love. And I can understand how someone who has had his or heart rent apart may choose to love on one’s own terms, because the heart has a certain memory. But if self-preservation is the impetus that causes us to want to be self-protective in love, where is its recourse? Is there a blueprint for love?

The Christian who is a disciple of Christ has, thankfully, a blueprint for love in Jesus Christ, whose entire life ethic was to usher in the Kingdom of God. He not only tells us what love is (that utter self-giving and self-emptying love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father, i.e. Trinitarian love), but he shows it concretely by his selfless loving act on display on Calvary. On Calvary, we see love writ large. The fact that Jesus died for sinners is testimony that love never has terms and conditions. Jesus didn’t wait to ensure that we creatures deserved God’s love. In fact, he died for us in love while we were still sinners. Simply put, there are no terms and conditions in love. And this was shown to us by the one who IS love.

From this, it is clear that anyone who only wants to love on his or her own terms is falling far short of his or her true potential, because we are all “made in the image of God”, capable in loving also, without terms and conditions. That we are all made in God’s image is not just a Christian belief. We are made in God’s image whether we are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslim, Atheists or Agnostics. That is just how great our God is. Ours is to respond to this image that we are made in.

While it may sound a tad simplistic, the world has known very few people who have reached that potential. But it doesn’t mean that we should not even try. I believe that each time we try to remove our terms and condition towards love, we become more and more like God, whose image we bear.

Every marriage is called to be a walking testimony of God’s love revealed to the world. And this holds especially true for sacramental marriages. What is the secret to a truly sacramental marriage? It is when two people love God, and not each other first of all. And when we let the love of God and God’s love for us mould and shape our character and we become well developed images of God individually, then the marriage partner who is also conscious of his God-image will love the other in a god-like way – without barriers and terms, beyond what makes one feel like loving, because love must never be reduced to mere feelings.

When two people are just as serious and intense in loving God as they love each other, there is a ‘blessed assurance’ existing in the marriage bond that lifts the relationship beyond just the couple themselves. It becomes truly a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence of unconditional love in the world.

Loving without terms, we love truly for the other, while loving with terms terminates loving.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How do we get over grief?

In my vocation as a priest, it is common to meet different people in the span of one day who are going through different emotional phases. In just one day, I can be sharing the joy of a newly married couple in the morning, baptizing an infant in the early afternoon, and in the later part of the day, preside over a funeral. While it is very easy to share the joy of the couples in marriage and the families of the newly baptized infants, handling the grief that comes with the departure of a loved one or a family member entails a different set of skills and sensitivity that not only is difficult, but also something that I have realized can’t really be learned from books.

The pastoral challenge of any pastor is not just to preside over such ceremonies, but in the longer term, to help the living to continue living with hope and in some way, to ‘get over’ the grief. I put that phrase in inverted commas, simply because in the current youth lingo, to tell someone to ‘get over it’ is actually a blatant verbal blast of churlishness. In no way am I suggesting that, especially when wounds are raw and memories still fresh.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that many of us associate too readily with our bodies and feelings, and that for many of us, we have a rather distorted mental image of “my body”. From a very young age, a lot of us, through the media and well thinking friends and family, get readily identified with either good looks (or trying to get there), physical strength (think of sports jocks and the like), or abilities (intellectual greatness, business acumen, and related savvy). But there comes a time in life when these attributes begin to fade and disappear. If our happiness in life has always been too closely associated with these, then there will be a collapse in life, and a ‘grief’ that comes with it.

But I think the opposite is strangely, just as true. It is not just the good looking, the strong and the smart who very often end up living to maintain this mental image, there are also those with a ‘problematic’ body, the imperfect, the ill, and the disabled who can just as easily identify themselves with their ‘suffering’. Some people do gain a lot of ‘satisfaction’ by getting attention from doctors and caregivers simply because their ‘suffering’ is the only thing that they seem to identify themselves with. They cling onto this image just as tenaciously as the ‘well’ can be erroneously clinging on to their successes, joys and economic triumphs. In both cases, it really is a case of the wrongly fed ego at work.

My Christian sensitivities become heightened when such situations unfold before me. Whether in joy or in grief, in celebration or when someone tells me that he or she is crushed because the doctor has just told them that they are having Stage 4 cancer, there’s something in me that wants to share with them something that is fundamental – that the joy you are experiencing, the grief you are undergoing, the fear that you may be feeling, is not you. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that we be the killjoy at parties or the wet blanket at celebrations. Neither should we be the heartless oafs when someone is grieving.

The key to getting over grief is to be able to get to the point where we know that WE ARE NOT our feelings. When a loved one dies, and grief is experienced, what overwhelms us is that we will not be loved again. But that is not true. We may not be loved by that person in that way, but it doesn’t mean that we will not be loved again. That is because there is an ultimate lover. For us who believe, this ultimate lover is God.

Jesus has come to show me this, and that is why he is the key to living life to the full now. In the Gospel text of the Sunday that just passed, the last line is revelatory. We are told that Simon Peter and his companions left their boats full of their miraculous catch to follow him. Notice that they did not follow Jesus because they had empty nets. It was just the opposite. Jesus gave them that large haul. And it was when this haul was opened that their eyes were also opened to see that this abundance is really nothing if not for God who provides the abundance.

I believe that any counseling that I can do as a priest and a guide to life, must help one to reach this realization. That is when we can live life anew, despite all that we may be facing. And then, we can not only get over grief and loss, but also begin to live, truly live anew.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Forgive, but don't forget

“Father, I can forgive, but I cannot forget”.

This is a very common lament made by many people who have experiences of being hurt, often by loved ones, and seem to come to a wall or a roadblock in their spiritual growth, even when the guilty parties have expressed contrition and sought forgiveness. To me, that one cannot forget simply indicates that the person has no sign of dementia, and is not suffering from any form of memory loss. And this is could be good.

It is a misconception that when we forgive, it means that we should automatically forget. If this is the case, there is very little true forgiveness in the world, because our history books are filled with records of past hurts, violence and hatred that has caused much suffering and turmoil in the generations before us.

It is nowhere stated in the Sacred Scriptures that we are to forget either, when we forgive. Jesus never taught that, and the very fact that as Catholics, one of our greatest symbols of God’s love for us is the crucifix, where we carry around our necks the image of a bleeding, bruised, bloodied and dying man, shows that not only should we remember, but that we NEED to remember just what true love and forgiveness is. And while bejeweled crosses, adorned with precious stones may be pretty, it doesn’t strike one as something that was once used to publicly execute and shame an innocent man who was nailed to it for our sake. No, we need to remember, and if we don’t, we become lesser people for it.

So what is forgiveness then? In a nutshell, I’d say that forgiveness is when I can look at the whole memory of what had happened in the past, and there is an ability within me to not hold this against the person or persons involved. It’s not a denial of what had happened. Denial always has a negative impact on us, and in time, it will surface and cause us new problems in different aspects of our lives. But healthy forgiveness is when I can see the landscape of what had happened, and look with new eyes at the person with whom I had that issue. I look with the eyes of compassion, and see a new possibility of living from that point on with a newness and with hope.

Perhaps an example would help. In this tiny island republic of Singapore, we have insufficient fresh water to cater to our population. To supplement our water supply, we have what is called NEWater, which is purified water. Used water undergoes stringent purification and treatment process using advanced dual-membrane (microfiltration and reverse osmosis) and ultraviolet technologies. Singapore is not the only country in the world to do this, as this is already practiced in some places in the United States for some 20 years already.

Many Singaporeans have an aversion to NEWater. They tend to only see what the water was before it was purified. So, in their minds, they see the water’s past, which in our case, is water from our sewage. There seems to be a psychological block that prevents them from looking at the purified water (which is extremely clean and pure) separate from its past. In other words, they have not ‘forgiven’ the water’s past.

But if we see the potential of this purified water from the moment of its purification, there is a lot of ‘hope’ for it. It can be made into unlimited other types of beverages, sustaining life and providing hydration, which is vital to anything living.

While I am not advocating that drinkers of NEWater always have the image of putrid and stinking sewers in their minds when they hold a bottle in their hands, it may help if we see the potential that this water has from the time its purification ended and it was bottled. That something from an almost toxic past could become good and usable for us now, must give us a newness in embracing it in its present form.

The same goes for forgiveness of others and their past. Perhaps many people harbouring a hurt past are still stuck in their ‘sewers’. To see a new potential, especially when there is sincere remorse and a heartfelt conversion in others is to get mired in an unpurified past that doesn’t give life and certainly is toxic.

I know all analogies are imperfect, and this one must count as one of them. But at the heart of it is our shared need to take in with compassion the past, present and the future of everyone with new eyes of faith. Only this will allow us to truly be people who usher in the Kingdom of God.

So, should we forgive? Certainly. But forgetting may endanger our committing the same horrors and pains to others.