Monday, April 26, 2010

"My kingdom is not of this world"

Up and down the centuries, men and women have fought great battles with the view to expand their kingdoms. It was largely assumed that power, might and glory were associated closely with the accumulation of physical land, power, subjects and resources. And the more that one could claim as one’s own, the better.

On the level of the individual, these ‘battles’ are now still being fought. A casual glance at the myriad of advertisements across all media will see the touting of the latest, most exclusive, most unique item that will accord us the most attention and (perceived) respect. This feeds on the same hunger as the one that made our ancestors expand their kingdoms in centuries past. So, while we may not be interested now in kingdom expansion, we are still, albeit in a more subtle way, seeing a continued need to expand our egos.

In the passion narrative of Christ in John’s gospel, Jesus has a very interesting dialogue with Pilate, where we are given an important insight of the key of how to live life in a truly liberating and enlightened way. In the discourse, Jesus informs Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.

Our being disciples of Christ has largely missed this point. But when only understood in a narrow way, we may think that in saying this, Jesus is renouncing anything to do with this world. The early church had fought against many dualistic heresies, where advocates or devotees of dualism would deny anything good to the physical, material world. They would uphold only that which is spiritual. The Church has never denied the goodness, truth and beauty of the physical world. Neither does it condemn movements that promote personal growth and betterment of the person. We would only be very cautious when movements to pursue personal growth were made at the expense of and detriment of spiritual growth.

When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he isn’t saying that the world is not good. Why would he, when right at the start of Genesis, we are told over and over and over again “it is good, it is good, it is VERY good”? At the heart of his statement, what Jesus is saying is that this world, as we know it, the materiality of things, is not eternal. It will end. There is finitude to this world. Don’t love it as if this is the ONLY ultimate reality, because it isn’t. If there were a phrase that I could borrow from today’s lingo, it would be “don’t sweat the small stuff”. But I guess Jesus would be saying in fact “don’t even sweat the world”.

We just observed Earth Day on 22 April, and we know that we should be doing all that we can to ‘save the earth’. I am all for conservation and preservation efforts. But as Christians, could we be missing the point if our efforts at being ‘green’ are done without caring if our souls are becoming ‘scarlet’? Could our concern about the size of our carbon footprints far overshadow the way we step over so many peoples’ lives and hearts? We may be reducing toxic emissions into the atmosphere to clear our vistas and skylines but at the same time, perhaps we should be seeing how our view of God is at toxicity levels that stifle growth and maturity.

“My kingdom is not of this world” does not mean that we should live carelessly and with wild abandon. Our great struggle as Christians is really to handle the delicate balance – to not be dualists, to not be extremists or puritans. We should not be reckless or going into free-fall either. This must be the challenge that faces every enlightened, dedicated and true disciple of Christ.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Novena to St Jude and other spiritual chain letters

I found myself last week getting flustered over something that seems to be a common ‘phenomenon’ in Singapore churches. I discovered stacks of photocopied “Novena to St Jude” placed conspicuously amongst the other brochures, forms and parish bulletins.

St Jude is one saint who is often called the Patron Saint of Hopeless Cases, and was one of the 12 apostles of Christ. St Jude is often invoked when times are desperate because of his New Testament letter that encourages the faithful to persevere when times are harsh or when circumstances are tough.

I have no problems with devotions and novenas, when prayed properly and understood with a mature faith. However, I find my spiritual blood pressure rising when I read some of these devotions and find that their original intention (which is always good) have been twisted or deformed into something that reeks of superstition and something that enchains rather than frees. And the stack of the Novena to St Jude was one such glaring example.

The prayer asks that the person make 9 copies of the prayer and leave it in church for 9 consecutive days, before the petition will be granted. That means leaving 81 (at least) photocopied sheets in a public place. Imagine if there are 10 such people observing the same thing? Wouldn’t that litter our churches to no end?

I discarded the stack of paper immediately to be recycled, and after I cooled down a bit, I chose to look at the heart of the person who resorted to this act, and what must have driven him or her to comply with such a strange request. Obviously, this person was desperate, but over what, no one but God would know.

9 copies of a prayer, for 9 days in a church? What gives? I can only think of one thing that this kind of diligence is trying to do, but it involves not the use of our modern technology of printing or photocopying, but actually using our hands to write each long novena prayer out.

It doesn’t take long for us to press “9 copies” on the photocopy machine. But try writing those long prayers out by hand, and meditating on your request and your needs with each stroke of the pen. Perhaps what this novena was actually trying to do was to make the writer or petitioner think deeply about what his or her needs were, and why he or she has been led to that point of time in his or her life.

I imagined someone having a very difficult relationship with his spouse or her mother-in-law, and was desperate to get to a better ‘space’ in the relationship. He or she has tried so many ways to get them to change, but has failed. In actually writing this out 81 times, one will inevitably think about one’s own choices, one’s actions, one’s own reactions and yes, even how one may have contributed to the situation at hand. And this is where the grace of God comes is. When one’s heart and mind becomes supple and yes, even malleable, conversion can happen. This is when God and man’s path meet. This must be the miracle point.

But when one simply uses the photocopy machine and churns out 81 (or more, just in case) there is hardly any space or time for that conversion experience that unfortunately, requires of us so much more in terms of heart and will. In some ways, we really have become victims of technological advancement, haven’t we?

And why place these in a church? I can only see that the person has to invoke the prayers of a gathered community who is willing to spend some time and heart with a fellow Christian who is pining for God’s grace in life.

Will I ever see 81 handwritten prayers like this? I doubt it. Why? Not because I don’t think people can be desperate, but because I believe in God’s mercy on brokenness. When one really articulate one’s needs and brokenness on paper, revealing oneself to the community at prayer, one will definitely find another heart, another person who will walk that journey with you, and conversion will begin to take place.

Having said this, I don’t think I will have seen the last of the photocopied novenas to St Jude in my parish.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why we need to participate at Mass weekly

It appears to be a common occurrence among priests. I have met many priests who share the same experience on various occasions. And often, it begins with us meeting people who get introduced to us at social events. It could be at a birthday party, or at a wedding dinner, or when we go to someone’s home for Christmas or a simple get-together. As the conversation moves to what we do for a living, and it gets revealed that we are priests, the person we speak to says in a hushed tone “I’m Catholic too, but I’m afraid I haven’t been to Mass in a long time”. Of course, this would only happen if the person were a Catholic who has taken ‘time off’. It’s as if our mere presence appears to be a castigating presence to them, and it compels them to ‘confess’ their absence from the praying community on Sunday.

To be fair, there are many many reasons why Catholics stop going to Mass regularly. Some may have been scandalized by priests who have had scarred childhood memories, whilst others may have been poorly catechized and were never properly taught what the Mass was actually bringing us into. Some have said that they don’t get anything out of the Mass. I wince internally when I hear this, as this seems to imply that the Mass is just one among the many other ‘things and services’ in life where it only makes sense when one ‘gets’ something out of it. We seem to be suffering subconsciously from a consumerist mentality, where we need to squeeze out our maximum benefit from everything, even from something as sacred as the Lord’s supper where he gives us his very self.

While I do acknowledge that a well thought out, planned and meditated-upon homily with a clear message, engagingly delivered that ‘hits home’ is something that every Mass participant desires, not all of us may be gifted the same way. Besides, the homily is not the heart of the Eucharistic Celebration.

Whatever the reasons, I believe that when those of us who have left for a time, no matter how long, are honest about it to ourselves, we will most likely come to the realization that we have left not because of a priest, not because of not ‘getting it’, not because of a certain anger or bitterness, but because we were selfish and placed ourselves at the heart of the universe. Certainly, a priest who was abusive in the past and who did not show Christ’s face could the reason for one’s absence at Mass. But could the heart of that reason be that one was either punishing the Church or even God?

To admit honestly that perhaps one was selfish about one’s motives is something that doesn’t come easily. It takes a very, very big person to see this. But here is where it gets good. To reach that, I believe, is to reach ‘rock bottom’. That is the ‘rock bottom’ that all people in AA programmes talk about where one can only climb up and recover. Actually, ‘rock bottom’ is where one begins to find the gold nuggets.

Why we need the Mass and why we need it weekly is because God wants to touch our lives intimately and give us grace to go and become transformers of the world. Perhaps the reason why most of us are so slow to be generous, forgiving, gentle, compassionate, just and unconditionally loving is because many of us who go to Mass just don’t see that at each Eucharist, God is giving us his generous self, his forgiving self, his compassionate self and his unconditionally loving self. God doesn’t need slaves and servants. God needs images. And the more we realize this, the more we become thinking participants at Mass, and the more we become co-transformers of the world in need of so much.

The admission of “Father, I don’t go to Church anymore” is a good start. My next question usually goes along the lines of “do you know why?” And if the person takes time to go deep into his heart, to get to that sacred space where he has locked away God (and himself too, perhaps), he can begin to find that proverbial rock bottom where God’s golden nuggets can be rediscovered.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The challenge to celebrate Easter well

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! Our 40 days of Lenten observance ended on Holy Thursday, and after three days of intense prayer and liturgical ritual, we now enter into the prolonged celebration of Eastertide. Liturgically, we will be celebrating this till Pentecost, giving us seven weeks of living the life of the Risen Lord.

One doesn’t need to be astute to observe that between Christmas and Easter, the general sense (and this is not just among Christians) is that there appears to be a greater willingness to celebrate Christmas than Easter. Even the shopping malls have hardly a hint of Easter decorations, and you’d be hard pressed to find streets lit specially for the Easter season in the major cities of the world. I suppose that just looking at the commercial appeal alone, it may not be a good financial investment to spend so much on Easter just comparing on what Christmas can reap into the tills.

But I am not at all interested in the commercial viability of things in this reflection. As a priest, and someone who is placed in charge of nurturing souls, I am far more interested in forming hearts that pattern themselves after the heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And the challenge that many of my brother priests and I experience is that it is far more difficult to help our Catholics see that it really is the Lent-Easter period that gives us the raison d’ĂȘtre of our faith.

The fact is that most of us prefer not to face the hard task of looking at suffering with much depth of honesty. Christmas presents us with a tender infant wrapped in swaddling cloths. How threatening can that be? But the events unfolding from Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday are anything but comforting and tender. We only can face those days of heaviness with a certain degree of purposefulness if we have done our Lenten ‘homework’ well. And what our Lenten observances help us do, is to look into the deeper parts of our lives to see what are the things that we may have been avoiding that prevented us from truly being alive in Christ.

Only when we do that well, with diligence and raw honesty, will going into the depths of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday become truly life-giving to us, enabling us to come out of some of our tombs which had not one, but many stones covering their entrances.

But I am sure that many of us want that Easter Sunday experience of emerging from our empty tombs. But this is hardly possible if we haven’t made much attempts to die to ourselves before the Easter experience. Generally, parishioners coming for Easter Sunday Masses are far more than those who come to journey with the praying community in the Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday liturgies.

Last evening, after all the parishioners have left, when the church was darkened, and the sweet smell of incense was left hanging in the air in the church, I pondered if we could have done better as Church, to help the people become more alive in the life of the Risen Christ. There was a strange mix of Easter joy with the physical tiredness of the last three days of heaviness and busy-ness. Yet, I am sure we could have done more. Will we as Church ever reach that point when we are all truly living that rich aliveness in all aspects of our Christian lives? Where we are all in pursuit of divine justice, givers of unconditional love and forgiveness, lovers of God and mankind who will the good of the other, and who are not afraid to admit of our shortcomings that can only find balm in God’s mercy?

To be sure, living like this means we have reached heaven. But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, because that is why Jesus rose from the dead. And I think that because the truth is that a meaningful celebration of Easter will always entail a willingness to face our inner demons and enter our tombs, a meaningful celebration of Easter will always be a great, but necessary challenge.

Once again, blessed Easter to all.