Monday, March 29, 2010

Getting out of our minds in the Garden of Gethsamane

There is a Catholic tradition to spend quality time (preferably one hour) before the Lord on Holy Thursday in churches throughout the world, where a place other than the Tabernacle is set up called the Altar of Repose, where we stay with the Lord in his agony in the Garden of Gethsamane. For Our Lord, that time spent in the Garden was when it was all falling apart. His closest disciples were heavy with sleep, and he went periodically to rouse them up, asking them to ‘stay with him’, but they couldn’t. Our Lord’s agony was a combination of human fear, aloneness, abandonment, betrayal, being misunderstood and desolation. Yet, what he did was extraordinary. He stayed there. He didn’t run away.

All of us at various times of our lives are faced with these emotions and fears. When we are ill, when we encounter failure, when we are victimized, when we are betrayed and when our loves fail us. Relying on just our own strength, most of us will run away and find some sort of escape. Our various addictions are often the results of running away or finding distractions from our moments in the Garden. After all, for many of us who are ‘out of our minds’ with pent up anxiety and an inchoate despondency, we will only think of saving ourselves.

There are various moments in Jesus’ Passion that are his saving actions revealed in ‘bit pieces’, and his staying in the Garden is, I believe, one of them. In staying resolutely in the Garden in his Agony in prayer, Jesus was truly able to get ‘out of his mind’ and into the mind of God, his beloved Father. When we are only in our mind, mired in our self-hatred, beating up ourselves, and feeling sorry for ourselves, we will run away. We need at that moment to ‘get out of our minds’ and live not in our narrow mindsets and get into the mind and heart of one who is has a bigger mind and heart. We must get to and stay in the heart of God.

Where do we get the strength to do that when ‘push comes to shove’ and when we are in the depths of hellish living? Perhaps it helps if we look at the chronology of what happened that night. Before Jesus went to the Garden, where was he? He was celebrating the Passover with his disciples, where he instituted the Eucharist.

Herein lies the key to being able to stay in the Gardens of our Agony. When we heed the words of Christ to ‘do this in memory of me’, we extend the saving action of Christ not just in participating at Mass, but bring it effectively outside of Holy Mass, where the Gardens of our Agony become an extension of Eucharist. Receiving Eucharist mindfully helps us at those crucial moments in our lives to stay in the Garden and not run away, and not fall asleep, heavy with sorrow.

This must give us all great encouragement and reason to spend a quality hour with Jesus at the Altar of Repose this Maundy Thursday night. And as we do this as a community, as a body of Christ, we will experience the presence and prayer of each other, comforting us in the same way that Jesus was comforted by the angel when he chose to stay, and not run away.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why we need regular confession

We’ve come to that time of the year again, when parishes all over the world organize penitential services (aka confessions) for parishioners before Easter. It’s a very busy time for us priests, and we literally hear confessions non-stop every night for about a week. Many of the penitents begin with saying that their last confession was at Advent, and when it comes to the penitential service for Advent, the very common phrase we hear is “my last confession was in Lent”. So, for many Catholics, this seems to be a biannual affair. As a priest, I cannot help but wonder what this shows. It could be one of the following:

1) It seems to be sufficient to admit of one’s transgressions only twice a year. Other than that, one is deemed to be living ‘at rights’ with God and with one’s fellowman.
2) Without the Church organizing such penitential services, there would be no compulsion to make some serious search into our souls.
3) Our lives are rather unaffected by this sacrament, because if it is, we would truly become more regular in this practice.
4) We are only doing this because the Church says so, and not because we truly believe that something wonderful and life-giving happens when God forgives us in audible words.
5) Many Catholics may believe that they are sinners, but don’t want to vocalize this in front of a priest, as he is no longer seen as someone giving the presence of Christ at the celebration of this sacrament. It flies in the face of the rational thinker.
6) Confessing to God directly is enough.

The list above is not at all exhaustive. It could well be one, or all of the above that applies to the many Catholics who have ceased to make confession a regular feature in their spiritual lives.

If the reality was that we have less and less sinners, and that is why fewer are making use of this sacred encounter with God’s mercy, it would be a wonderful sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. But I am sure that no one would be able to say this with confidence, as sin seems to have its grips on so many lives. I seem to, as a priest, have a difficult challenge in drawing the faithful to the mercy of God on a regular basis, so that the God of Mercy can be encountered.

Perhaps the Pope said it most succinctly in his address to 700 priests at the conclusion of a confessors’ course recently when he said that these times are marked by “a hedonistic and relativistic mentality that cancels God from peoples’ lives”. I’d just prĂ©cis that sentence to say that many of us have become self-centered and no longer other-centered.

After all, isn’t the root of many sins that of selfishness? Most, if not all sins can find their basis in promoting or protecting the self. Cut away all the trimmings and the trappings, and it will be revealed that one was putting oneself and one’s needs, one’s ego and one’s pride in the forefront when the sin was committed. “This is how I see it”; “it’s according to MY opinion”. “I think that I can go to God directly”.

A good confessor must be one who can help the penitent to come to that ‘rock bottom’ admission that one was selfish in his or her choices, and to openly admit that God needs to be replaced at the center and the self be moved aside. If one takes the analogy of the potter and the clay, it’s a lot like getting started on the flywheel, where the moldable clay is thrown and ‘forced’ into the dead centre. It is only when the clay is no longer wobbly, no longer ‘out of control’, that the master potter can shape and mould the clay to become the masterpiece according to the will and hands of the potter. Our ‘self’ however, wants to go all over the place and refuse to yield to get to the centre.

I get a sense that there is an unspoken fear in many penitents that if they are really sincere about their confession, and reveal their most raw wounds, that something wonderful and enticing will be taken away from them. Sin never presents itself as something as a bad choice. It always masks itself as a good, as something thrilling and as something that is beneficial (usually in an instant gratification sort of way). But if as a confessor, I can help just one penitent to realize that confession doesn’t take anything away from them, but instead will make them richer, I would have done my part.

I don’t have a proper platform to speak about this openly, apart from this weekly blog, but I do hope that somehow, this message will spread. And when more and more people will see that mercy is what is needed by the world, and the only thing that makes this world a more merciful place is when more people are touched by God’s mercy, less and less Catholics will only encounter the tender mercy of God only twice a year, and become co-transformers of the world.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The rise of the individual - the fall of the community

This blog will take a hiatus of one week after this, and will resume on 22 March.

“I stopped getting anything from Mass, so I stopped going X number of years ago”.

“I don’t like the kind of songs that we have in Church these days, so I refuse to sing with the others”.

“I agree with most of the teachings of the Church, but there are some which I feel are outdated and are out of touch with reality. So, I pick and choose what I want to follow. I still call myself a Catholic”.

Do any of these statements sound familiar? I am sure that no matter which part of the world you are reading this blog from, you would probably have known someone who has said/felt this way, or perhaps have found yourself thinking this way at some point in time. Why do we think this way? What is the Church’s view of this mentality that seems to be rather prevalent amongst the faithful? Is there something not quite right with the Church, or could it be that we are not quite ‘getting it’ as the jargon of the younger generation tends to put it?

French philosopher Rene Descartes who lived in the early 17th century is hailed as the “Father of modern philosophy”. The ‘individualistic’ revolution is generally attributed to his thought of ‘cogito ergo sum’ or ‘I think therefore I am’. It made the world sit up and believe, erroneously, of course, that the “I” is what everything should revolve around. So, as long as “I” am not pleased, if “I” am not made to feel interested, or if “I” am not entertained or feeling good, whatever it is that I am doing would not serve me well in the long run. This philosophy has its spill over effects into so many areas of our lives, religion and faith not withstanding. And it is because of this mentality that many (not just the young) think that even religion and God needs to serve them.

When the “I” becomes the dominant subject, it is expected that everything should revolve around the self. And one doesn’t have to be a king or an emperor to have this kind of thought process. Even to a simple person with basic education, this kind of thought becomes the seedbed of a problematic society. One begins to negate the need to respect elders, neighbours, and the larger society.

When this is brought to the realm of faith, the problem persists. When God and God’s Will should be what everything and everyone revolves around, we become rightly ordered. But many think that the self should be what everything revolves around. So, when I am not longer finding it interesting to participate at Mass, or when rites and ritual ceases to keep me engaged, or when Church laws (which are expressions of God’s will and guidance) make MY life difficult and inconvenient, I will abandon them. We become dis-ordered.

But is it really all about the “I”? Perhaps we need something like a Copernican revolution, to look at things anew. It’s really not we who the world should be revolving around, and it has always been God’s invitation to invite us into his ambit of love and grace. It’s not ours to call the shots in life, but only to respond with grateful hearts.

Once we come to that true enlightenment, we may be able to change our original self-centered stand on Church, and re-think our original thoughts. Maybe then, we can hear ourselves say: “Even though I may not be getting anything from Mass, even though the hymns aren’t lively, even though I may view some of the Church laws as archaic and infringing on my individual freedom, I still go to Mass, still sing hymns, and still abide by Church laws. Because it’s really not about me.”

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why we bless our homes and holy articles

There is a Catholic tradition for our homes to be blessed. Not just our homes, but a lot of other things. In fact, the Book of Blessings has a whole list of places and things and people that not only can be blessed, but should be. However, there seems to be a strange misunderstanding of why we get things blessed. A lot of this misunderstanding stems from a rather stilted spirituality that implies that when we bless (whether it is things, places or even people), we seem to be bringing God into a place where God was not before. And when God ‘enters’ into that place, it therefore becomes ‘holy’. Very often, when I am invited to bless a house, especially a new house, I get the impression that the new owners want to invite God to come and live with them, as if he was not there in the first place. Either that, or the family or homeowner feels that with God in that place, he ‘chases’ away what is not of God.

I usually like to begin my house blessing by sharing with the family what a house blessing is not. It is not primarily a time of ‘ghost busting’, if I can put it in a term that many are familiar with. What it is, is a time for prayer. A dedicated time where the family has set aside to be mindful of God’s presence which already is in their lives. A time set aside for a purposeful blessing becomes then a re-awakened awareness that God has already been in their lives, and continues to bless them from that point onwards.

It is not that I don’t believe in the power of evil, or that evil exists. But to even think that evil seems to have an earlier prominence in our homes, even before a blessing is invoked, seems to give evil an edge over God, which is a very weakened theology. Moreover, if we think that a priest can ‘bring’ God into a home by his blessings invoked, we make God out to be a very small person, and rather powerless at that. Would that not also imply then, that the priest is somehow more powerful and bigger than God, if he can ‘bring’ God to a place where he was not before?

Yet, in saying this, I don’t mean to undermine the value of a blessing, nor imply that I don’t believe in blessing homes, offices or cars. What I am most interested in is that the people whom I bless these for become more aware of their need to respond to God’s presence once these blessings are imparted. I am certain that if we realize what a blessing is, then we become stronger in our faith that God has always loved us, and continues to. Isn’t that what faith is in its essence? Faith is the belief that God is always journeying with us in life, loving us, be it in good times or in bad?

That is also one reason why I hesitate to bless articles and holy cards that do no belong to the person presenting them to me for the blessing. I always like to ask if this article, this medal or this rosary belongs to the person. When I bless these things, what I am doing, is I am praying with the person, and invoking the blessing not just on the article, but on the person as well. And I do believe that every person needs to hear the words of blessing because they need to hear that they are loved. All blessings give us reassurances of love. And we need to hear this with our own ears. The problem with many of us leading such dysfunctional lives stems from the belief that we are not sufficiently loved. Simply handing to someone a cross or a medal that 'has been blessed' can inadvertently propagate a 'talisman' mentality, where the wearer of the medal or crucifix becomes 'protected' because of the holy medal, and not because the person himself now sees a need to live a holy life. Isn't a holy life the best 'protection' against anything evil?

It may be simplistic for me to think that just hearing it once from a priest or anyone can change one’s poor self-image, but at least it is a start. So, I remind the person who holds up the rosary, the medal, the crucifix or the holy card that God’s love, God’s support and presence in their lives will be made more present to them when they look at these sacramentals, and use them with faith and love, to give them the ability to live in sacred space, so that they can then become bearers of God’s image to the world.

And it is the church's hope that having invoked these blessings, the people now know that they are blessed (even more than their homes and their medals), according them courage to now make the world a more holy place by their very lives.