Monday, July 26, 2010

The quality of life is a shared responsibility

Sometime last week, an article in the paper highlighted the very sad story of a man in England who suffered a stroke 20 years ago while in Athens. Doctors there managed to save his life, but for the past 20 years, this man had been ‘trapped’ in a body that was left mostly paralyzed. He can only blink and nod in response to questions, and cannot even talk. He is cared for 24-hours a day for basic things like bathing and even his most personal needs. What the article highlighted was his appeal to the Court of Law in England to lift the ban on assisted suicide because he wants his wife to help him to die and to end his life which “has no quality”. He wanted to make sure that his wife would not land herself on the wrong side of the law for assisting him to die.

Cases like his abound, and each one centers around a person who is in a very dark place in life. Often, the circumstances are dire, and one would need to have the sensitivity of a rag doll to not have a smidgen of empathy when encountering such stories and plights. What this person wants is basically a “right” to end his life. This is something that the Church (which is the voice of God and reason) has great reason to denounce as morally wrong, and will never condone.

Is the church harsh, perhaps too harsh with people like this man and his wife? Can the Church not see that it is frustrating and perhaps even ‘meaningless’ to live this way – to be so highly dependent on others and thus placing emotional, financial and even physical strain on loved ones and care-givers?

At the heart of the matter is not so much the right to end life, but rather, the question of “who is the giver of life?” What must be upheld is that the ultimate giver of life is God, and that it is only God who can have the right to end it. He gave life to us out of love (and that is why life should only come out from a love-making situation, and not in a separated clinical way, where husband and wife are in a non-unitive state, and are assisted by clinicians and Petri-dishes in laboratories).

God’s love is at the heart of our life, and the mystery of God’s generosity is played out throughout our earth-bound years. It is clear that our human love is shown to our loved ones in various ways. Well, so too is God’s love for us. Our love for our children often is not readily perceived as “love”. We have only to think about the ways we discipline them, when we don’t give them everything they want whenever they want, and especially when we have to stomach the very heart-wrenching phrase every parent dreads to hear (“I HATE you”) as we show them love to see that our loving actions and choices towards them is often unperceived as love.

What more with God’s love? The problem with us is that we have wired ourselves to only see “love” with blinkers on, and in very limited ways – and usually only when it suits us, when it feels good, and often, only when there is immediacy in returns. And when we hardwire ourselves this way, we often end up insulating ourselves from other non-obvious ways of love, which can often include a suffering – not just in ourselves, but from the community around us.

Not many of us appreciate being dependent on others, even on loved ones. It takes a lot of humility to accept to being cared for by others. Since the beginning of man’s creation, that stretching out of the hand of Eve to grab of the proverbial fruit from the knowledge of good and evil showed our innate unwillingness to be led, to be patient, and to wait for an unfolding. We have vestiges of this inability and unwillingness whenever in our lives we want the answers here and now, and in ways that are crystal clear. And when it doesn’t seem to make sense to our limited minds, when we need to sit with our logical mind, when we are, as in Richard Rohr’s words, ‘dualistic’, we will want out. Many have lost their faith in the process of waiting, and perhaps like that man in England, seem to have come to the end of their tethers.

It would be too simplistic to say that the wrong lies only in the choice of the paralysed Englishman alone. Could it also be the shared fault of the community surrounding the man as well? Perhaps it has not done all it could to reach out to him. Proverbially, Eve reached out to take the forbidden fruit. Perhaps it would have been much better that she reached out instead to take Adam’s hand, and asked him to stay with her in her inability to stay in the mystery of unknowing? When the community of not just that Englishman, but all of us, who are ‘paralyzed’ in small and large ways refuse to reach out, or refrain for whatever reasons to reach out, we make it easy for many to reach the end of their tethers too.

Would it then not be unthinkable that the kind of life the Englishman has is defined as having no ‘quality’? In the true Christian sense of the word, quality is as much in the giving as it is in the receiving – of care, of charity, of patience, and of love. It would not be just the wife of the man who would be the one killing – the community actually started killing slowly many years ago.

We only need to look Luke 5:17-26 to see that it was really the faith of the community that saved the paralytic in that pericope. I believe that must be our call as well.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Stepping forward in love from our starting blocks

I’ve returned from the annual priests’ retreat, and thank the many who have prayed for me and my fellow priests for a fruitful time with the Lord. I went there with a “prayer list” of a few friends who seemed in need of some spiritual assistance in their lives right now. Serendipitously, the opening session by our retreat master made mention of one of the difficulties that the Catholics in his country (France) are facing now, and it echoed the sentiments of one of my friend’s as well. And that is the question of “where is God?”

The context of both questions were rather different. The retreat master’s question was made with reference to France’s dismal numbers turning up at Mass. As an opening meditation, we were prompted to go to places that seemed empty and uninhabited in our spiritual lives. Many retreats start this way – by urging retreatants to ‘go into the wilderness’, to ‘retreat’ as it were, so that we can be ‘re-treated’, just as Jesus did before his 3-year ministry began right after his baptism in the river Jordan, simply because as Scripture reveals in so many instances, God comes to us very often in the wilderness and not where it’s busy and full of distractions. The wilderness or the desert, as is common in Palestine, is a place where one is no longer able to be dependent on one’s own intellect and egocentric baggage in life, but where one has to rely on God’s presence in faith.

My friend’s context of the search for God is sadly different altogether. The life of the spouse of my friend was cruelly and violently taken away not long after marriage. This friend has since then been finding life very empty and has asked many a time since the incident “where is God?” and has been yearning (understandably) for some consolation by God. We shared a meal a few days before the retreat, and I felt once more the deep pain that seems to be imbedded in this person’s heart. I do hope that my readers notice that I am not even giving away the gender of this friend in my writing, so as to respect the person’s privacy.

I often take a spiritual book with me to retreats, and this year is no different. But instead of taking some of the well-known ‘classics’ with me this year, I picked up a book by titled ‘Disappointment with God’ by Philip Yancey (no, he’s not Catholic, in case you needed to know). The whole premise of this book was Yancey’s grappling with God’s seemingly absent way of making his presence experienced in the lives of billions and billions of people. Yancey tries to answer the question of why God doesn’t make his presence known in a much more tangible way instead of being distant and silent most of the time. With deft mastery, Yancey tries to marry the age old dilemma of faith verses proof, but what I admired was his way of weaving in personal life stories of many people who have faced this problem, juxtaposing it with Job’s own rather cruel and painful experience of a life that seemed vacant of God even though he was a righteous man. In short, Yancey grapples with the three questions: Is God silent? Is God hidden? And Is God unfair?

A short blog entry does not pretend to give trite and neat answers to this perennial question of why and how a God who loves the world chooses to remain silent in the midst of much pain and adversity, tests and trials. The wicked and the selfish often do seem to ‘get away with everything’, and if one were to just look at the material level of life, it does seem that bed-fellows of evil and crime are often having a better time in this life than many of us who choose the ‘narrow and less travelled road’.

We only have to look at what happened to Jesus, (God himself) on the cross of Calvary. On that day, God himself knew what it felt to be abandoned by God (seemingly), and to submit himself to a hidden, albeit higher plan. The easier thing for God to do was to make it all perfect and better, smiting the evil-doers, and exposing the fraud of those responsible for this injustice that was displayed on the mount of Calvary. But would that have permanently changed the way that the world believed in God from that point on?

Just looking at the way that so many times God showed himself to the Israelites and their enemies shows that an in-your-face majestic display of God’s omnipotence doesn’t seem to have effects that would last for generations. At best, the only ones who would believe in God’s existence would be that very generation. The next ones would somehow fall into the same “I-don’t-think-God-exists” spiel. God somehow knows that it is in his hidden-ness and silence that the really hungry people will begin to open their minds and hearts to hear him, not in the thunder, not in the fire, and not in the storm, but in the silent whispers of the breeze, as did the prophet Elijah.

What’s at the centre of our faith in God? It has to be our love for him. Perhaps the problem with many of us is that we don’t love God enough with “all our hearts, all our minds and all our strength”. Perhaps many of us love him (and serve him) because of an obligation, or because of a fear of hell, or because it’s something passed on to us by our forebears. But when we don’t own it ourselves, when we do not make that choice to love (despite not having signs, feelings, external obligations, etc), when we don’t decide to love, but are somehow obliged to love, our faith wouldn’t have moved off from its starting blocks. We have not made strides in growth and faith. In making those necessary strides towards God, we also make the necessary strides to another very important place - into our very selves.

Yes, the silence of God is real - as real as it is salient.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Discovering the ‘magical corners’ of our faith

Sarah Chang, world-class violinist, once remarked in an interview that she had the supreme advantage of playing on a Guaneri del Gesu, a violin made in 1717. She revealed that she had been making exquisite music with this instrument since she was 14 years old. In one of her interviews, she said that it is only now, many years later, that she is beginning to learn and understand ‘the magical corners and what it can or can’t do for her’, and ‘what we want from each other’.

Haring this interview and the way Ms Chang described her ‘journey’ with the instrument made me sit up and see that this mirrors what the Church wants us to mature into when we take pains to take our spiritual growth seriously.

Ms Chang’s virtuosity is a result of having gone through years and years of rigorous training and arduous, countless hours of drills and practice. When we see the present Sarah Chang so deep in concentration, giving her entire being to the performance in front of a full orchestra on stage, we see a mature musician, one who exudes confidence, and conveys and interprets the deep sentiments of the composer of the piece she performs.

The Christian also is one who needs to go through the rigors of training in the spiritual life. Our years of catechesis, maturing in the understanding of the fundamentals of our faith, familiarizing ourselves in the practices of the faith, steeping ourselves in the asceticism of prayer, seeing the deep link between life and the one who gives life, being people who are keen to do God’s will and being his instruments – they all have really one common aim, and that is to have us become mature children of God, confident, like the Sarah Changs, the Yo-Yo Mas and the Joshua Bells of the music world, able to stand confident and sanguine on life’s stage and convey the deep sentiments of God in our lives.

Perhaps the problem with many ‘lapsed’ Catholics is that they have arrested their ‘training’ at a very young age. Some of us have, out of choice, retarded and stunted our growth and stagnated ourselves in primary catechesis, stopped learning about God, refusing to enter into mystery, and perhaps stopped experiencing the praying community’s support at weekly Mass. This would be akin to someone who went to the first year of piano school and stopped learning after one year. They would have not been able to appreciate music at a deeper level, when they are older, and more maturely grasp the subtleties and profound beauty of music. Later, in their adult years,they may say that they are not musical when perhaps the real problem was they really didn’t allow the seed of musicianship in them to be adequately sown, sprout, develop and mature and finally bear fruit. Of course, the analog I am using here has certain shortcomings, as all analogs are wont to.

When we approach our relationship with God with hunger and zeal, marked with humility and patience, we too will be able to see life and God, like Ms Chang did with her Guaneri del Gesu violin. We will be able to discover the ‘magic corners’ of our faith, and what it can really do for us, and what great music God and us can do together. And it is then that we can say that in the end, true music happens when the musician and the instrument play each other.

PS - I will be on retreat for the next 5 days, and humbly ask for your prayers for a fruitful time with the Lord. But don't let that stop your very encouraging comments from coming. Many readers have been inspired by your comments. God love you.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Suicide and the Divine Mercy of God

The Catholic Church has always taught that suicide constitutes a grave injustice towards God, principally because God is the author of life, and all life belongs to Him. And it is also because of this belief that all forms of contraception also constitute a similar injustice to him. Just as we don’t control how life begins, neither do we control when we exit this world. We are not the masters of our own lives, and when rightly viewed, our lives (and everything, really) must be seen as gift. To purposely and willfully terminate our own lives is to falsely think that we have final control and complete dominion over our lives, which is to buy-in to a lie.

I am not a moral theologian by a long shot, and am not pretending to be one in penning my thoughts on this very sensitive and complex issue of suicide and its moral implications. There are, to be sure, many different layers and facets to this issue, where one can talk about positive and direct suicide, positive and indirect suicide, negative and direct suicide and negative and indirect suicide. Each has its nuances and the Church tries its best to logically and rationally present the moral implications of each kind of instance of suicide.

But pastorally, when faced with any event of a suicide death by people under our care, priests in general will face a vacuum of sorts. Suicide is death that is most unlike any other. Of course, each death is very different, and very personal. But suicide, without doubt, intensifies the anxiety. Priests will face the great issue of what best to say, and what can be done to address the deep cavern in the tormented hearts of those whom the victim leaves behind. People are impacted in many ways. To be sure, nothing one can say can assuage the pain of a loved one taken away by deliberate choice. But this is perhaps where what are needed may not be succinct theological answers (though these may very necessary), but rather, a heart that is willing to enter with and into.

Perhaps the only thing that can try to address the hearts that are rent with anger, sorrow, doubt and confusion (a very unsettling combination) is not so much to look at the victim’s heart or head, but at the heart of God instead. After all, after the moment of death, everything really lies at the heart of God.

Yes, suicide is indeed a moral issue at its core. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that for a sin to be mortal, three conditions have to be together met. This sin has to be one whose 1) object is a grave matter, which is 2) committed with full knowledge, and 3) with deliberate consent (free will).

And herein lies the crux of what many people have perhaps yet to fully appreciate. The mercy which lies at the heart of our God is so wide and expansive that it really is very difficult to commit a mortal sin in the actual sense of the word. It’s not that this is not possible, but it is very difficult. It is even more difficult to conclusively label a sin as mortal on this side of heaven. What is true is that every sin does separate us from God. The more serious it is, the wider the rift becomes. But perhaps even the suicides that we read about and encounter within our circles of friend and family may not fall into the “mortal sin” category, simply because in many instances, one’s freedom is very often never full.

A person suffering from depression, anxiety, fear (of being hurt by loan sharks, some scandal, habit, physical torture, suffering and pain caused by an illness, etc), and any combination of these, often result in his full freedom being impaired and compromised. When this happens, no one can say for sure that the three conditions are together met. We may have been far too quick as Church in the past to reach a conclusion that the death was a suicide, labeling it as mortal sin and denying a Funeral Mass for the victim. What we have now is much wisdom gained in the areas of psychology and sociology, where we know more about what we don’t know rather than stick with what we think we know. Often, the victim is very much in pain, suffering an illness, than someone who is in despair.

With this in mind, we can enter with a new vision and hope, into that place where closed minds cannot – which is deep in the heart of God. I believe, together with Ronald Rolheiser who writes and reflects very frequently on this important but difficult subject, that when we are helpless, God is not. Someone once asked him if God can unscramble an egg (referring to making right something as messy as perhaps a suicide), and he wisely said that perhaps one needn’t unscramble the egg in the first place. God’s love and God’s mercy reaches the depths that no human can. And it is there that the victim of suicide, together with the family that he or she leaves behind, will find great consolation and hope for redemption.