Monday, August 30, 2010

Faithfulness in spending time with the Eucharistic Lord

“What do we do with our time in the Adoration Room, Father?” is a question that I have been asked by both baptised Catholics and Catechumens alike. We all know that prayer is important, and it has been said by many spiritual greats that a most noble thing to do is to spend a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament daily. But some have shared with me that they feel a sense of boredom and tiredness after the first five or ten minutes in the silence of the adoration room. This shouldn’t surprise anybody.

In our spiritual lives, what we are developing is a relationship with God. The only thing that we have in this life that gives us any similar experience is our relationship with people (or animals for some). What sustains a marriage is not the fireworks or exciting moments in a marriage. They certainly do happen, but they are not the norm. Any marriage that has lasted more than ten years will attest that the moments of excitement that give us consolation and assurance are like ‘treats’. Dependence on ‘treats’ all the time can become ‘threats’ when they are missing. There is the phrase in the English language that when something lasts, it ‘stands the test of time’. We don’t say that it ‘stands the test of excitement’. A marriage that celebrates a milestone of 25 or 50 years is precisely that – half a century of staying in the boredom, the silence, the non-exciting moments and yes, even the fights and disagreements that grew the couple and matured their sacrificing love for each other.

My own parents are going to celebrate their 50 years of married life next year in December, and I will be the first to attest that these 50 years were not a bed of roses. Then again, perhaps it really has been a bed of roses – complete with the thorns. But I am very proud to say that mum and dad have stayed in their difficulties and stresses and strains, being an example for me to stay in my priesthood when there are great moments of stresses and strains too. Most couples only want the bliss in their marriage. There’s nothing wrong with that, but with the bliss come the blisters as well.

What a regular holy hour does for us is to train us for those moments when nothing is quite happening in our lives, in our marriages, and in our priesthood. When there are no fireworks, no affirmations, no great insights, and no excitement. But we stay in there for the full hour till the buzzer sounds because we want to be people of commitment, which leads to help us to become people of maturity and people of substance.

Moreover, we stick to our holy hour not so much for what it gives to us, but also for what it allows us to give to God, especially when it is done with love. When a couple stays in a marriage that isn’t exciting but because they love, it is a sign that they somehow know that loving embraces a suffering that comes in many ways.

So, to the question “what do I do with our time in the Adoration Room, Father?” my answer would be “just decide to stay there, in fidelity, and be present to Real Presence, and love will be really present in the decision”. After all, in order for love to be endearing, it has to be enduring as well.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Treating confession as a statin for sins.

In the 15 August issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, it was apparently reported that a Dr Darrel Francis and his colleagues calculated that the reduction in cardiovascular risk offered by a statin (a drug that acts to reduce the level of fats, including triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood) is enough to offset the increase in heart attack risk from eating a cheeseburger and a milkshake. They’ve worked out that in terms of the likelihood of one having a heart attack, taking a statin can reduce one’s risk to more or less the same degree as a fast food meal increases it. And here is the most uproarious suggestion – they are proposing that fast food outlets provide these statins free with the meal that they serve, and as such, allow their customers to eat with much less risks of heart attacks due to clogged arteries.

A strange piece of apparently irrelevant information in the medical world to be mentioned in my spiritual blog, you may think. After all, what do I know about medicine? I was actually listening to my radio while doing my morning run last week when I heard this commented on by the radio announcer in between songs, and then it dawned upon me that this is precisely the kind of mentality that doesn’t help us much to address what really needs to be addressed in our lives - by a proper attitude, mentality and overall approach.

While Dr Francis and his team did say in their report that it is better to avoid fatty food altogether, this is not what their report centered on. Instead, what they are proposing is that people should be able to eat their burgers and have it (the statins, to be precise). Literally.

In discussions and conversations regarding the Sacrament of Reconciliation and God’s mercy, I have often heard people remarking “It’s a good thing we have confession in the Catholic Church, because we can do what we want, and then after that, go for confession to get absolution”. With this view of God’s mercy and forgiveness, aren’t we a bit like Dr Francis and his team? The only difference is that the latter is connected to our physical health, while the former to our spiritual health.

The graces that we receive from encountering God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation must encourage us to want to make the needed changes in our lives to veer away from sin, to turn away – to be converted. It’s certainly not an excuse to allow us to sin in any carefree way. As Dr Francis pointed out, albeit briefly, it is better to avoid fatty food altogether. Health advocates have always said that it is better to change one’s lifestyle altogether rather than lean on the administration of a drug and think that it’s ok to continue a destructive or far less beneficial lifestyle and harmful eating habit. So too for the spiritual life.

But we seem to be obsessed with a ‘quick-fix’ world, where it is far easier and convenient to pop a pill, buy a diploma, buy on credit, hope for a strike in a visit to a casino, and get a strong and fast with steroids than to do the harder thing in life – change one’s lifestyle, learn by studying, save one’s salary, work hard and train and eat properly to get strong.

Have we as a people become so single-minded in our quest for getting what we want whenever we want and however we want? And when we find our plans and dreams for sustaining our defined happiness stymied, do we find ourselves finding loopholes and other openings just so that we can still get our ‘fix’ rather than look squarely at what may be harming us and say that it is those areas that need fixing instead? That’s whole area of life is called conversion, and I believe that it lies at the heart of every successful dieter, anyone who has truly made headways in making improvements to their health, and of course, anyone who has encountered God’s mercy and made the necessary changes that marks deep spiritual conversion.

Yes, it may be far easier to swallow a statin and eat that cheeseburger, but it would be wishful thinking that we have become healthier people. To be sure, the ability to change and experience true and lasting conversion doesn’t come overnight. It is a repeated “yes” to God and God’s will over and over and over again, with repeated falls and repeated experienced of his mercy and grace.

Just as no one becomes healthy overnight, neither does one become a saint overnight.

Monday, August 16, 2010

We all have a quest for God and transformation. Do we?

As a priest and a person who is deeply concerned in the spiritual development of his people, I come across a great number of people who seem not have the view that there is in us an inherent need for God, and that there is no real need to want any sort of transformation.

I am not talking about people outside of the faith or people who are unchurched. I am referring instead to those who are baptized, people who do come to weekly Mass on Sundays, and perhaps even people who are in active ministry. Herein lies a sad reality – that there are many who are just not interested in growth, in maturity, in seeing God’s surprising ways that he can show up at life’s doorstep, and what he is leading us to. There exists in a great many people the idea that God, religion and anything spiritual are simply items to be ticked from a list of other items on life’s agenda.

While I am not saying that we should simply become fanatics and abandon jobs, friends, or family to ‘follow Christ’, I have realized that many are not even considering that it is in the arena of life where God enters in and moves us. Perhaps that explains why so many simply get back to being irascible, argumentative, obstreperous, road bullies, abusive, and display a whole assortment of mean spirited behaviours right after the priest dismisses them at the close of Holy Mass on Sundays. One wonders if there was really any communion at any level when Holy Communion was received. For many, all that negativity seems to be far more real than the God whom they were supposed to encounter and worship.

Perhaps it is for the better that I don’t have a business-mind as I go about my quest for aiding spiritual transformation and trying to be the catalyst for this to happen in peoples’ lives. Just by sheer numbers alone, I am sure that I have not really succeeded in this proposition. Jaded fellow priests who have experienced many a disappointment in their priestly lives may even wonder why it took me so long to come to this realization. I must admit that sometimes, I do find myself wondering why too.

But this is where I have to look deeply and lovingly at Our Lord and allow myself to be with him on Calvary – alone and abandoned, save for a few faithful friends. Even then, was he even sure that they really got the message of living transformed lives, of embracing the beatitudes and of the true meaning of the Cross? And this is also when I need to recall what Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta so often said – what God wants is faithfulness, not success.

Post Script:
Dear blog readers - I have a simple request. I do notice that some of you tend to leave anonymous comments, and I do hesitate to post these, for various reasons. One of them is that I think it helps us in our spiritual growth to really stand up for what we say and be accountable. It's really a sign of maturity. So, can I ask that you identify yourselves, or at least say which country you are posting from. At least this way, I get to know if my blog is read by people outside of Singapore. Thank you so much and God bless.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Seeing through the eyes of Christ - a new empathy

Bishop Fulton J Sheen was once quoted as saying this about suffering – “Tears are not without value, provided one sees a purpose in their shedding. As the morning rose is sweetest when embalmed with dew, so love is loveliest when embalmed in tears. Many a person sees God through tears more often than in the sunlight; in fact, tears may leave the vision of the eyes clear for stars.”

Only a person who has struggled through years of tears and endured a prolonged period of pain of a wounded heart can speak of suffering in such an erudite way. Just about everybody has cried tears of sadness, rejection, failure and loneliness at some time or other. Yet not everyone carries in them a similar strength and depth of character through the pain. Could the answer lie in the ability to lift this woundedness up to God in faith and trust.

There are many who have come to see me carrying in them a lot of wounds. When these wounds are identified, the perfectionist in me often hopes to give the most assuaging counsel, offering the best solution. But as I grow in my priesthood, I have learnt to see that sometimes, it is not a solution that is best offered, but perhaps something else – a listening with depth. I have also found that this is strangely, one of the hardest things to do.

Just to hear is not hard. But to listen with empathy and to ‘get into the shoes of the other’ entails a lot more. It means putting aside my tasks, my agenda, and even my thoughts and correct pre-formed solutions. This takes a dying to self, which is something that almost all of us fight so hard not to do. But it is only when we do this that we can end up sharing a woundedness that can bring about a shared healing at the same time. Platitudes and model answers may be something that many of us priests are tempted to give, but it takes a lot of love to not rely on them, but to enter-into the woundedness of the wounded heart. Professional counselors will advise against too much of entering into, because one can lose objectivity. This is sound advice, but it can also end up making us very distant and cold.

This could well be the greatest difference between the professional counselor and the healing that comes from Christ. Christ is one who has let no wall or barrier come between the creature and the creator. In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we are told that the veil of the temple was torn right down the middle. A tiny detail, but a very important one. We are given a glimpse of the significance of Christ’s stepping into our humanity did – he removed all barriers and walls that hitherto existed between God and our sinful selves. By becoming man, God breaks all barriers to our woundedness and truly enters into our wounds, walking the walk of our sin and shame. He fought against giving us those pre-planned answers and platitudes. God no longer just listens from afar to our plaintive cries of our human suffering. This God of ours cries our tears and carries our crosses as well. Gal 2:22 gives us much hope because truly, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Our tears and our struggles are not just ours, but are now a shared sorrow that leads to a healing that is similarly shared.

When it is difficult to enter into the shoes of the wounded standing right in front of us, it becomes most necessary to cherish what the incarnation and the passion of Christ did. Because of the incarnation, God sees us through very human eyes, and he has a new empathy for us. What Bishop Sheen said about the value of human tears can perhaps also be said of God’s tears shed on Calvary as well – there was a great purpose in that shedding that day, and it left God with a ‘Christed’ vision for our broken humanity.

If because of Calvary, we can now see God through the eyes of Christ, would it be audacious to say that even God sees us now through those same eyes?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Finding God with dis-ease

Thomas Merton, the noted Cistercian writer and monk, was once quoted as saying “If you find God with great ease, perhaps it is not God that you have found”.

Coming across this quotation set me thinking this week, as I came across quite a few people who in passing, have mentioned to me that the Church with its rituals and rites have made it so difficult and tedious for us to come to God. “God is everywhere after all” seems to be a common remark, and indeed he is. “But do we really need all this ritual just to get to meet him?” Apparently, in many peoples’ minds, if God is so keen on us getting close to him, he should be the one who makes the effort to come and meet us, rather than making us go out of our way to meet him. And the Church should make it easier and more convenient for us to do this.

What has been an oversight is that God did make that great effort. And he not only did it once when creation began, he also did it much more magnificently in the incarnation when he became man, showing us how to really live. Jesus showed us so many times that God has a great hunger for us to come close to him, and that barriers have been removed, starting with the very affectionate way that we can address God as Abba, Father. But he did take a rather circuitous route.

The current secular mind seems to be steeped in the belief that things should be made easier and easier in every arena of our lives. After all, gadgets and gizmos are constantly being developed just so that we don’t have to really make much effort to even leave our homes as we have everything at our fingertips. More and more people work from home, and there are a whole lot of people who can earn a living working for years without needing to physically encounter another human being. For many, this arrangement seems to work just fine. But problems abound when this kind of convenience is wanted and even expected in the area of our spiritual lives.

The very word ‘disciple’ has the same root as the word ‘discipline’. We don’t have to look very hard to see that any discipline in life entails a training, a shaping and an adjustment of sorts. The spiritual life is precisely this – a lifelong training as a disciple of Christ. But perhaps this is not something that is readily acknowledged by many baptized Catholics. In my casual conversations with many adult Catholics, it has become clear to me the notion of Catholics being disciples of the Lord is hardly ever fathomed. Most are just contented to be baptized, almost as a form of membership. Where did this insufficient notion come from? How do we even begin to correct this, let alone point it out? Perhaps a mis-informed catechesis was what started the mal-formed adult Catholic mind and heart.

It is not much wonder then that when such a mind gets influenced by the secular mind , many of us can erroneously expect things of the faith to be reduced to quick sound bites and succinct paragraphs, and have us think that just because we have the one-paragraph answers, we are mature in our spirituality. This becomes evident when many become impatient and even intolerant of God who seems to make things inconvenient and difficult for his beloved people.

Scott M Peck’s book “The Road Less Travelled” comes to mind as I reflect on this, as indeed, it is often the more winding, arduous and discipline-required road that is far less chosen, but it can also be the one that leads us to God in a mature and patient way.