Monday, June 28, 2010

Knowledge may be power, but strength lies in prayer

A holistic catechesis for any Catholic must always include a a deep appreciation of mystery and the slow unfolding of God’s plan in the world, and in our lives. When this is missing, especially in the process of adult catechesis, we can end up shortchanging and even robbing from our catechumens a preeminent feature that is essential in any true search for God and his will in our lives. To be sure, the history of our Catholic tradition has always upheld the importance of the mind, and reverenced the intellect. From St Paul whose writings are brilliantly crafted, to the early theologians like Justin the Martyr, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, Ambrose, and mystics like John of the Cross, right up to our present days in the writings of Karl Rahner. Mother Church has rightly shown a leaning towards theology, philosophy and the richness of the mind.

But when faith and religion mainly takes the gathering of facts and information as the sine qua non for formation, and runs courses and lectures as the primary focus of a journey of faith that leads the catechumen towards baptism (which essentially is a life of Christ), the church can end up with baptized Catholics who may only know a lot ABOUT the Church. They may have a lot to talk and discuss ABOUT the Church, and perhaps even have a sizeable storehouse of apologetic responses handy in a debate on theology, but may only have a smidgen of an appreciation for mystery and prayer, and are clueless about the need to mystically live the life of the Church.

This is a great bugbear of mine whenever enquirers of the RCIA process ‘shop around’ from church to church for the fastest “course” for baptism, unable or unwilling to appreciate that being inserted into the life of Christ requires far more than just the absorbing of facts and history; more than the assimilation of knowledge and a capacity for logic and reason, and the chalking up of an attendance sheet. A transformation requires most of all, a hunger for conversion of heart AND mind, where one no longer lives for oneself, but extends one’s living for the greater Body of Christ.

Perhaps what may be missing from true and adequate formation is the appreciation for prayer. The entire RCIA process has to be a school – not just of a mind-learning but a heart-learning as well, where one’s heart learns to beat in tandem with the heart of Christ. It has to somehow be also a school of asceticism, which is a hurdle that seems to be very difficult to cross even on the part of the Catholic Sponsors in the RCIA process, because I have encountered many sponsors who themselves are somewhat unacquainted with this very important part of the formative process. It would be wonderful if all priests guiding the process of formation are themselves living this out in their lives, and are hungry to instill this need in the catechumens while the intellect is formed simultaneously. Of course, I am not talking about saying and learning by heart the many Catholic prayers that we have as part of our tradition.

Why is this important? Largely because when one becomes a part of the living Body of Christ at baptism, one’s life becomes an open canvass on which one allows God, the master artist of life, to do as he wills. And it will be in his time that he will reveal himself in our lives. Prayer at its heart must always be something that gives us the ability to hand over our wills to God’s, where we meet God at his best. Where was his best? When he handed himself over to us at the Covenants he made with us, and chiefly, at the Incarnation and at Calvary. Prayer is the allowing of mystery. Prayer is far less the telling God of what to do, than for us to ask him to do to us what is necessary for our lives to be godly. When this becomes not just an option, but something de rigueur; something non-negotiable, and it is imparted as such right from the onset of our spiritual formation, then together with strong intellectual formation, what we develop is a much stronger threshold for mystery and a patience for the unfolding of the flower of our life in the Divine.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Micah 6:8 - 9 years on

On 20 June 2001, my Bishop laid his hands on my head in the Church of St Anne’s in Singapore, oiled my palms with Holy Chrism, and ordained me a priest. I celebrated my ninth anniversary of my sacerdotal priesthood yesterday, and it gave me cause to reminisce and ponder this path that my life has taken as a response to God’s call of love and service to him and his people.

I took as my ordination holy card scripture passage Micah 6:8, which reads “this is what Yahweh asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God”. I recall that it was at a retreat during my seminary days where this scripture passage stood out and was somehow seared into my mind. I took it somewhat courageously (or prophetically) as a personal motto and slogan for the rest of my priesthood. Looking back these nine years, I would love to say that I have lived this as boldly and truthfully as I would have wanted to, but truth be told, it has been wanting, especially at times when I seemed to be swimming against the current of what is known as the sea of weak, human, self-preserving tendencies.

But to be sure, Micah 6:8 is a passage that is equally fitting for both laity as well as the ordained to seriously reflect upon and perhaps to take as some type of spiritual gauge. Each of us, married, single or ordained who bear the dignity of being baptized into the life of Christ is essentially called to do that – to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God.

Acting justly is a very challenging task for anyone. I need to bear in mind constantly that my every action becomes an extension of God’s saving action in the world. The more I refuse to cooperate and collaborate with God’s grace to do this, the more I prevent God’s Kingdom from coming. Oh, how is it that there have been numerous times when a just act is an act that is just not received well? This must be the challenge of the Cross.

Loving tenderly is very easy when there is reciprocal love. It would be so easy if it was mutual all the time, but we only need to glace at the Cross of Christ to see that real love is always a decision, and not a reaction. Loving tenderly becomes then the call of every Christian to love even when hatred, harsh judgment and ingratitude are about the only things that one receives. That image of Christ on the Cross is a reminder of just how tender love can be – where every open wound becomes tender because of a love that is exposed and uncovered, as all wounds are wont to be tender.

And finally, to walk humbly with your God is a call to each one who is called God’s child. Actually, it is a promise of great hope and consolation because it is not a call to walk ahead of (where we lead the way), nor straggling behind (where we reluctantly need to be dragged and inveigled), but walking with. It takes a whole lot of humility to accede to the fact that God wants us to walk with him. It requires of us a heart that is mellow, malleable and also one that is constantly grateful for God’s divine ‘walking-with’ in our lives.

My heartfelt thanks go to my family, my brother priests, my friends and benefactors all these nine years for journeying with me in my priesthood. Through this blog now, I hope to touch the lives of many more, and I’d like to say a special thank you for those who take time to drop in for a read each Monday. Your support has encouraged me to keep up with this regularity. May God bless each of your paths towards holiness.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The impatient generation

One of the banes of our present generation is the inability for many to wait patiently for things to happen, or, as the spiritual fathers put it, to ‘bear the burden’. In the realm of technology and things that are profit driven, there is an insatiable need for speed and prompt action. When that is the only or largest platform that we operate on and operate from, we can end up demanding this from God and from our faith as well. But, as we all know, God often has very very different ways of being present in our lives.

When God is slow in answering our needs, one of the most common things that many people do is to stop believing in God, to stop going to Church, to stop praying and to give up on anything related to faith. I have seen this happening so often with members of families who I minister to. Some of them are children of the parents who are still fervent Catholics. Some of them are the parents of children who are active in church. While the circumstances of each case varies and truly is different, the mind that is in operation is speaking often of one common thing – that God exists to serve my needs, and if he does not, then I shall remove him from my life.

But is that what God is? A divine servant whose main role in our lives is to do our bidding and be at our beck and call? What kind of God is that? Can that be called God? Isn’t it his will that we should be doing, rather than the reverse? Another of our greatest challenges as priests, formators and catechists (and this includes all parents) is to correctly form in the hearts and minds of our young charges that our purpose in this life is to do God’s will. How do we do that effectively and in a pastorally imaginative way becomes even more challenging when there are opposing forces in everyday life that seem to tell us that our life is about us; that we should use every means we have to find our own happiness; and that happiness can be bought, even albeit on credit?

One of the most difficult things to impart to not just teenagers but to all people is the virtue of patience. What we have in the Catholic Church to aid this in a very visual way is the presence of images. In paintings and statues, especially of Our Lady and the Crucifixion scenes, we hardly ever see images of immediate gratification. The sight of a corpus of Our Lord nailed to the Cross becomes a visible reminder for us to literally ‘hang in there’ in the pain, in the inability to get the solution, and in the slow unfolding of God’s divine plan. So too are images of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross. That she chose not to understand, but to stand under the mystery of life, is her ability to ‘bear the burden’ in her heart.

When a church denounces all images as unholy and removes all images of Our Lord from their crucifixes, all images of Our Lady who bears burdens patiently and willingly, leaving only a bear cross somewhere in a hall, it somehow prevents our physical eyes to gaze on anything that reminds us of our own lives. What may even exacerbate the inability to bear any crosses in our lives is when messages preached don’t speak anything about the virtues of transformative suffering but only of God’s blessings through prosperity and wealth. Perhaps, the greatest damage done is when people are anesthetized from realizing the need to bear one another’s burden in life.

While I am not a sucker for punishment, I do carefully look often at my own crosses in life, and see in them God’s soft whispering of how these can become my pathways towards him each day.

Those of you who do have burdens and struggles, take some time to gaze lovingly at the images in many of our Churches and from that, bring home with you a renewed purpose to continue standing under the cross, even though you may not understand it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Meditation - Our invitation to commune with God

In the past week, I came across two different people who told me that they are either very cautious or confused about meditation. They also voiced concern about whether meditation is compatible within the Catholic tradition. Actually, I have heard many such comments from God-fearing folk as well as God-hating folk alike, and often, they come with a certain mental backdrop that somehow influences or determines why they think this way about meditation.

One of the more common comments about meditation is that nothing happens during the time of the prayer. Well, that’s the point. It’s not meant to be anything that excites and titillates our senses. It’s precisely because our senses seem to be running on overdrive in just about every area of our lives that we need some training or discipline to quell this buzz of hyper-activity to be able to have our heartbeats beating in tandem with the heartbeat of God. And meditation came way before the advent of the likes of Face book and Twitter, which incessantly keeps our minds occupied.

Kenosis, which is the Greek word for “the emptying of the self”, has always been at the heart of Christian discipleship. St Paul used this word to describe Christ’s taking on of humanity in his letter to the Philippians. In Christian spirituality, we are all urged to also empty ourselves of all that is not of God, and all that doesn’t auger well with the Christian life. Included in this list would be attitudes like selfishness, pride, the false self and the like. Sin in its various forms would find its heart in any one of these.

That is what meditation helps us to do – to become truly empty vessels so that God can ring out loudly in our lives. Mary has always been for us, the model empty vessel, who allowed God to resonate in and through her the greatest clarion call to all humanity of his love for humankind. And because she was so empty of herself, her ego, her agenda, she was filled so completely by God that she was full of grace.

One of the common fears or misconceptions about meditation is that when you empty yourself, the devil can somehow ‘fill’ that space. My response to this is that this means that there should be so many empty minds around the world for there to be so many people who seem to be filling their lives with ungodly pursuits. But the contrary is true, because evil has lurked in the lives of many people who were hardly empty of themselves. On the contrary – it is when we are so filled with our egos, with our own ideologies, and agenda that we can put so much focus on the self and so little on God. Besides, it would also necessarily mean that Mary would be the ideal vessel not for God, but for the devil. Yet, this is not true.

My suspicion is that many people actually fear facing what God ultimately wants to reveal to them in deep and intimate prayer - their raw naked selves. When the false self gets stripped away, when all the external trappings and d├ęcor and facades reveal themselves as cosmetic, the only thing that can emerge is the raw true self. It is at that raw level that we become aware of how silly, arrogant, egotistical, proud and fearful we really are. That is the self that meditation helps us to reach, to come to a conversion point and reach the need for metanoia – getting a new mind.

The fruits of meditation are never going to be during the prayer period. Perhaps that is what turns many novices off. We are too mired in a world of instant results, and we expect some feeling, some lights and some consolation during the prayer.

But in my experience with meditation through the years, it has been revealed that the fruit of meditation comes not during the silent moments, but after that – when the errant driver cuts into my lane in traffic; when someone keeps me waiting with no apology or explanation; when people around me display some degree of ignorance or when someone seems to be irascible. That is when the fruit of meditation will show itself. It may not always happen, as is the case with myself, but when it does, it becomes a true moment of kenosis and I know that the heartbeat of God has been felt.

In one of my travels, I remember seeing a very clever bumper sticker that said “Meditation – it’s not what you think”. How true.