Monday, September 27, 2010

Only the Pagans dance with the dead – or is that something we too should consider?

The New York Times featured an interesting read about Famadihana, which is a Madagascan ritual or tradition, practiced more widely by the Malagasy people. In this tradition, the bones and (probably completely petrified by then) remains of the dead ancestors are brought out of their crypts once every 2 to 7 years. The living family members then, in a joyous atmosphere featuring live music, will literally dance with their deceased forebears, honouring them and remembering them and the contributions that they made to their present lives. Fresh silk linen is then used to wrap the bones once again reverently, before placing them back into the crypts. Apparently, the main motive behind this tradition is to give honour to the dead, and to celebrate their connectedness with the living.

A macabre dance? Unthinkable in our modern era? Something leftover from a former time when people just followed tradition blindly? Perhaps. But the little research that I did about this event taught me that the Catholic Church in Madagascar no longer objects to this as she regards this as a purely cultural rather than a religious event. It is the peoples’ way of respecting the dead and a chance for the whole family to come together, a time for communion with the dead and the living, and a means of avoiding or reducing guilt or blame.

I couldn’t help but be happy for the Malagasy Catholic folk who have this event to help them to reconnect with and to celebrate life, and in the process, be in touch (very literally here) with death, which is something that all of us will have to encounter and accept. Often, fear is one of the leading factors people cling on to life, and sometimes, it is not life that one is clinging on to, but what they perceive as giving them life. And that is why many are clinging on to guilt, habits, egocentricities, idiosyncrasies, materialism, and control. A healthy approach to death and dying must be featured in any religion that hopes to bring its devotees to any kind of maturity and growth. The more we shun any talk of it, the more we put it at the fringes of our conversation and speak in ‘sotto voce’ anything that connects with death and dying, a very unhealthy message is sent out to our younger generation that prevents them from growing up with a fearlessness and courage that truly marks a mature person.

In our Catholic faith, we have celebrations and feasts that honour the deceased – our loved ones (All Souls’ Day), our heroes (any feast of the Martyrs) and even the dying (few actually have participated in the very beautiful prayers for the Commendation of the Dying). Being in touch with God and one another at these ‘border situations’ allow us all to foster and develop what is known as a ‘mellowness of heart’. And I believe that it is this mellowness that helps one to be more charitable, patient, outreaching and merciful when it is asked of by both loved ones and those who hate us.

One thing that struck me about Famadihana was that it is supposed to be done in a spirit of joy and celebration. When we observe rites and rituals about our deceased, don’t we often leave out that element? When we clean the gravesites or visit their columbaria where their remains are kept, we don’t often go with ‘celebration’ in our hearts, being thankful for the joy our connectedness gave us, and even continues to give us despite our physical separation? Even our funeral Masses are ‘celebrated’, aren’t they? We must come to a point in our lives when indeed, the lives of our deceased are truly celebrated and not just mourned.

Anyone who has participated in a funeral liturgy, and has known the deceased lying in the casket, will be moved. The irony that presents itself there is almost deafening – the one person who cannot move anymore, who cannot breath anymore and whose heart has stopped beating is the one person who can bring all who are present there to move in a new way, breathe in a new way, and for his or her heart to beat in a new way, and from there, walk in a new way, especially when we become reminded of our own mortality and promise that our lives can bring to others.

When our lives are moved in that way, aren’t we also doing a sort of ‘Famadihana’ of our kind, where we ‘dance’ with the dead?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Heaven - is it out of this world?

When I was in my teens, there was a song by the then popular singer Belinda Carlisle called “Heaven is a place on earth”. Someone asked me recently if this is something that the Church teaches, or if it is just some poetic phrasing that gives us all some sort of whimsical hope in the midst of much suffering and pain.

First of all, I suppose we have to ask how we’d define ‘heaven’. Is it a place where there is no suffering or pain, no disappointment or sadness? Is it a state where one is fully in divine union and as it were, seeing God ‘face to face’ and not die? Is it life with no end? If ‘heaven’ is any of these (or all of them), then I suppose it’s not too right to say that heaven is a place on earth.

Secondly, what is ‘place’? If by ‘place’ we mean a physical location, where all those mentioned above are experienced, then certainly, it would be akin to believing in the existence of the fictional Shangri-La featured in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon – a fabled city synonymous with an earthly paradise.

But if by ‘place’ we mean a place in time, a moment, a snatch of reality, then yes, perhaps it is more plausible that heaven is a place on earth.

Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray “your kingdom come”. Many of us don’t stop and linger enough on this phrase when we utter the Lord’s Prayer. Some may even harbour mental images of Armageddon and for this reason, want to gloss over any such thoughts as quickly as possible.

But what are the values and principles of the ‘kingdom of God’? Any of the beatitudes of Christ would be a good description. When one understands what blessedness is; when one embraces (not merely tolerates) poverty that opens one to an abundance; when one truly knows the gift of tears through which one’s own vision of life is cleansed or when one doesn’t stop living just because others are putting down life. These moments don’t last for a long time in this life as we know it. At most, we catch snippets and glimpses of these and are given insights to heaven.

Just taking Matthew 25 to heart, and knowing that in our outreach, we have clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the incarcerated allows us to see that the hidden Christ awaits us in these people and gives us a chance to experience a ‘place’ on earth where heaven can be touched.

Richard Rohr said it so well when he said that it is heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell. There is a certain ability that we have in us to make the choices to give others and ourselves that heavenly experience for albeit a brief moment in time. Conversely, I believe that we too hold in our choices a brief moment of hell every time we are party to the inflicting of suffering, pain, or any form of killing. And eternal extension of this would be hell to the hilt.

Yes, as much as heaven is and can be a place on earth, so too can hell. How real it is, I suppose, has a lot to do with how much I contribute consciously towards it and cooperate with the grace of God.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God's busy - can I help you?

I was in town last week, and spotted a man wearing a T-Shirt with a rather eye-catching phrase emblazoned across the front. It had the drawing of what was obviously the scowl of the Devil (in the typical fashion of a horned beast-like visage) in the middle part of the T-Shirt. On top of this was the phrase “God’s busy”, and on the bottom of it, the second part of the phrase was “Can I help you?”

Just on the level of words, or some other superficial level, there is some kind of humour involved there that might elicit a chuckle or two. But as all things are, if we can find the humour in it, it means that there is some relation, some connection to reality as we see it. That is what makes something funny. Like the old joke about what three priests did to chase away the pigeons that were making a mess of the parish grounds. They finally decided to baptize and confirm the pigeons because that would mean they would hardly come back again. If we find that funny (and it is on some level), it means that in reality, we do see this actually happening, where teenagers once confirmed hardly come back to church at all.

As I pondered further on the message of that T-Shirt, it became apparent that for many people, God is someone who is meant to be doing things all the time, and many people seem to find that they can hardly get God’s attention. God’s ‘job’ seems to be to be constantly running from person to person, making sure that his or her requests and wishes are met with efficiency – like some divine Concierge, so that he gets the love that he craves for. It’s like as if that was God’s job description.

But is that God’s principal task? The opposite seems to be the other common idea of God – that he is distant and uninvolved with our lives (that’s the Deist’s mis-understanding of God), and he is imaged like that great retired architect of the universe, who just stays in some corner after creation, and watches, from a distance, how we manage to get on till the end of time.

Truth be told, both extreme views are toxic, and leads us to a host of problems. The former will always make us God, and leave God becoming our slave and runner (or concierge). Our ‘job’ as human beings is then to “direct” God so that he knows what we need, and to get him to do our bidding through a series of holy transactions. If I fulfill X number of novenas, or if I don’t commit sin, or if I don’t miss Mass on Sundays, God will be happy, and grant what I want. And if he doesn’t, then, as the T-Shirt says, he’s probably busy with other peoples’ requests. (It seems that God cannot multi-task). And what’s worse is the suggestion that we seek the Devil’s assistance, which implies that the Devil has a greater ability and far greater resources than God.

The other extreme view is equally toxic - that God is almighty, God is creator, but he’s so far and distant from us. He’s hardly interested and is just waiting for it all to end. The incarnation, showing God’s deep interest in our well-being is totally ignored, and his stepping into our world concretely is totally rejected. God’s love has nothing at all to do with anything. People with this notion will be those who have no supreme pattern or blueprint of love (from God) to mirror, and would probably reject any suggestion that we should be loving beings, following the love of God that created us. They become the author of their own lives.

What most of us struggle with is the middle path between the two, where on the one hand, God is needy and simply hopes for our worship, obeisance and love, and the other, where God is disinterested and ambivalent towards us. Keeping that balance between the two extremes is thus the task of faith, where we allow God to unfold his divine plan in our lives in his time. It takes a lot of humility to be led (often in silence), and to not think that when he is silent, that he is busy, and to go to the Devil for help.

The problem is that if the Devil is only imaged in his most horrible, macabre and heinous form, we will outrightly reject him. But truth be told, he is also known as ‘the Deceiver’, ‘the Accuser’ and the ‘Father of Lies’. Every sin known to humankind is always seen as an attractive, sensible and justifiable option. That’s the way evil works, and that is the only way evil seems to operate. Evil will hardly present itself as a sinful, iniquitous and nefarious choice.

What a close walk with the Lord in prayer gives us is a deep inner sense to detect ‘what is’ from ‘what appears to be’. And we will then have eyes to differentiate between holiness and hatefulness, and between glorifying God and horrifying God.

Perhaps it’s not that God is too busy. We are. And most of the time, busy with the wrong things.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Restoring distorted views

A couple of weeks ago, I met a German Jesuit priest at a meeting in Malaysia. Fr Gunther has spent more than 40 years in Japan as a missionary. In one of my conversations with him, I was enlightened about quite a few things about Catholicism in the Land of the Rising Sun. Only about 0.5% of the population there are Catholics, which bring the number to slightly above the half million mark.

Apparently, there are Japanese who have absolutely no notion that Christmas has links to the Church, let alone anything to do with Christ! As is evident in many countries, hotels and department stores in Japan do brisk business at that time of the year. Hotels tout it as a season of love (somewhat akin to Valentine’s Day) and promote hotel room packages for couples to ‘shack up’ for Christmas Eve. Department stores have sales that slash prices to pack in the shoppers. Certainly, this is not a phenomenon unique to Japan, but his following comment floored me. He once invited some Japanese to his Jesuit church in the heart of Tokyo to experience Christmas Mass, and they sniggered at him and said (with hands covering a smile, in a typical Japanese fashion) “What? Christmas has even come to the Church now? What can you possibly be selling there?”

This may seem bizarre, and I found it highly amusing. However, I couldn’t help but see that we too have shades of this kind of ignorance on our own shores. Maybe not regarding Christmas, but many other areas of life.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI published the encyclical letter Humane Vitae. It served as a reminder to the world that life is sacred, and that God is the ultimate giver and creator of life. Any manipulation or prevention of the natural-ness of life becomes then man’s assertion of his will over that of God’s. One of the very common reactions that came from many Catholics (and understandably, many non-Catholics too) was “what right has the Church to come into my bedroom”.

When Fr Gunther related the comment the Japanese made about Christmas creeping into the Church, it immediately brought to mind this comment that many people had about Humane Vitae, and what right had the Church to enter peoples’ bedrooms. Just as some Japanese think that Christmas is only about sales and romancing in rented hotel rooms and celebrating love in a Valentine’s Day fashion, perhaps so too do many Catholics mistakenly think that sex is only about doing what we want, when we want, and in any way we want.

Only when Fr Gunther makes the effort to share with the Japanese people the true meaning of Christmas, that Christ’s incarnation was God’s greatest gift to humanity, will they begin to see that what they have now as a commercialization is really a misguided and distorted view of Christmas. It is the Christ event that has the priority, and from that all other celebrations and observances flow. In Philosophical language, the Christ event is thus the ‘a priori’, which is Latin for 'what comes before'.

Similarly, only when we as people of God make the effort to understand, respect and appreciate God’s original plan for life (that happiness is not about insisting on rights but in the deeper giving and sharing of life) will we begin to see that our comments about keeping the Church out of our bedrooms is really a misguided view. The common phrase ‘safe sex’ that is touted by so many people, from governments to prostitutes, signals an aberration and a departure from God’s original plan. It gives many the idea that sex is something dangerous and harmful and unsafe, if one needs to practice safety in its celebration. Isn’t it the truth that it is we who have taken something sacred and beautiful and desecrated it to the extent that it became something to be protected against?

We all struggle with many areas in life. Some of them may be because we have misguided and distorted views of God’s original intent for us. What would help us is when we pray for both wisdom and humility. Wisdom to see truth, and humility to accept change and conversion.