Monday, October 25, 2010

The attitude of gratitude

In her column in yesterday’s national paper, the daughter of the Minister Mentor of our island republic of Singapore gave a timely reminder, very obviously in the light of her mother’s recent demise, to be thankful and grateful to many people who are often behind the scenes of the events of our lives.

In her article she went on at length to name and described some of the ways in which many other political figures helped to shape the way that Singapore has turned out. Some of the names she mentioned were lesser known, but they obviously were featured in the recesses of her memory. After reading her article, and closing the paper, I did feel something was amiss. Perhaps it was never her intention, but she did leave out an obvious group of people, and those are the people who are our adversaries in life.

It doesn’t take a lot of civility and good upbringing to be thankful in life for the people who have positively shaped our thinking and character. Teachers, life-trainers and caregivers come to mind. But I have come to realize that if in our lives, we only thank those who are contributors in a positive way, we may only become grateful when things go our way, or when we encounter obvious blessings, or when we are successful. Does this mean then that Ms Lee was wrong? Not really. What it means is that perhaps the depth and meaning of the Cross in life is something that has never really been pondered by not just Ms Lee, but by many who have yet to truly know Christ and how he saves.

To run to the Cross, and to seek out pain and suffering in life is not what being a Christian is all about. That’s neurosis. But to acknowledge one’s crosses in life, and to not hate them, not blame anyone for them, not victimizing them, and not locking them up, is maturity. It’s living wide. Catholics have long been labeled as suckers for suffering, guilt and punishment, and it’s not necessarily a bad label. We are supposed to be able to see a purpose in suffering, and that there is a virtue to shoulder our crosses, as well as each other’s crosses in life, because these are the very things that lead us through the passion of our lives, into the glory and resurrection. We have always been loath to advocate cheap grace, and there are shiploads of hawkers of cheap grace out there.

One of the ways in which we resist the offer of cheap grace is to even dare to be thankful for the pains and struggles in life, and for the seeming obstacles that are put in our way in life. To be fair, it takes a lot of purification in one’s life to come to that sort of living. This is living with a wide expanse.

Author Paula D’Arcy seems to be one such person. She had gone through so much pain and suffering in life, and in one fell swoop, in a very tragic automobile accident, her husband, together with their 21 month old daughter perished. She is a well-travelled inspirational speaker, and from her writings, I’d call her a person deeply in touch with the value of the Cross. She has come through her great cross in life, and it becomes for her the very thing that has brought her so close to God, and to see meaning in suffering and the Cross. When Jesus showed Thomas the holes in his hands after the resurrection, I am certain that looking at life through those holes must have been a very deep theology of salvation just in that one simple action. Jesus invites us always to do the same – see new life through those holes, a great symbol of redemptive suffering.

When you hear Ms D’Arcy speak in person, you cannot help but feel a very daring gratitude coming from her demeanor when she speaks of the tragedy that she went through. She knows that without the cross that she bore, seen under the shadow of the Cross of Christ, there is no real resurrection and glory. To be thankful for tragedies and struggles in themselves is not a good thing. Only masochists do that. But to literally shoulder the cross with others, in community, is a very powerful way to encounter heaven on earth.

When we are ungrateful, or insufficiently grateful in life, it can send out waves of discontent, especially when those looking at us know that we are Catholic, called to be images of Christ in the world. I read with an admixture of joy and sadness how the 33 Chilean trapped miners (most of whom are Catholic) were rescued from being entombed 700 over feet below the ground for 72 days. I saw human tenacity and cooperation at work. That brought joy. But it was only about three days later that reports came in about how some of the rescued miners were asking for money (and not paltry sums, apparently) for their story. If one has really been plucked from the jaws of death in a deep tomb and given a new lease of life, should gratitude come with a price tag? By placing any price, we immediately cheapen our lives, especially when it is a second chance that has been graciously and freely given.

It similarly saddened me to read how Celine Dion, a Catholic, is now awaiting the birth of her twins, which are the result of IVF. It’s such a pity that Ms Dion needs more reason to be grateful to God other than for her phenomenal voice and worldwide success. Her voice is undoubtedly a tremendous gift from God. Her first son was also a result of IVF, a process that the Church has always decried as putting us in the position of God. Apparently, getting one child through this method didn’t really satisfy, and it could well be a case of not having enough of a good thing.

If Ms Dion knows how Catholics need a model of faithfulness and tenacity in Cross bearing, her willingness to live in the mystery of an ‘empty womb’ borne with joy and faithfulness could bring her even more praise and peace from a world needing images of Christ, and not images of self-created joy. Ms Dion and her husband I am sure, will be very grateful when the twins are born, but could this hamper their ability to thank God for trials, crosses and unanswered prayers?

The two stories of the trapped miners and Ms Dion may seem unconnected, but what ties them together is that the world knows that they are Catholics. When the world’s eyes are on us, the effects of our actions become something that has repercussions beyond what we can imagine. Didn’t Jesus say ‘when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him’? Plenty indeed has been given to these two people. St Paul said that the life and death of each of us has an effect on others. Perhaps we forget this too easily when faced with moments of our own created joys.

The strength of our faith is seen at work not just when we are thankful when things go our way or when we have helpers who have worked behind the scenes in the unfolding of our tapestry of life. That is good manners. The strength of our faith must lie in the very difficult but necessary act of being thankful and grateful for even the crosses that we have in life, as it is often these, which bring us to the glory of the resurrection.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Suffering and surrender

As priests, our pastoral encounters with our faithful include our sharing in their joys and sorrows, where there is also a sharing both in the tears of celebration and of sadness. We don’t often have to try to make some sense of a gathering when there is joy overflowing, like at weddings, birthdays and other similar occasions of happiness. But when we come to what I would call life’s border situations, quite often, what is asked of us is that some sense be made out of suffering in life. Sometimes this is explicitly asked of us, and at other times, it is asked implicitly, in the silence of the one suffering.

To be sure, it is a perennial question in life. Why is there suffering? The atheists would pounce of this as a clear sign that an all-benevolent God just doesn’t exist. And an insufficient picture of God’s immensity will naturally result in a refusal to see that suffering can exist within a loving heart of God. To expand our idea of God becomes then one of our lifelong spiritual challenges.

In just one afternoon this week, I presided at the cremation of a mother of two daughters who are young adults. She had suffered greatly for the last 32 days in the hospital ICU due to many infections, which resulted in a failure of her major organs. Later on in the same day, I visited a bedridden parishioner, another lady, who has multiple sclerosis. I could sense that there was a hanging question in the air about the meaning of suffering in the case of the dying woman’s family. Perhaps they were too distraught to formulate the question. But in the second case, there was a direct pondering over the question of the ‘why’ of suffering.

We can never get to the bottom of this question. And most of the time, we will come to a dead end, and perhaps even end up with our faith bruised and weakening if we fail to go further than ourselves. What can really help in these ‘border situations’ is to join our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ writ large on Calvary. There is a reason why we need to display large crucifixes, with the suffering Lord hanging on it. We are visual people, and we need our senses to be jolted every now and then to the reality of God’s love displayed in that immense show of love through a willing suffering. A pretty cross without any corpus on it may simplify too easily the reality of God’s love through suffering. When our going begins to get tough, when we are faced with real life suffering, the image of a suffering God who suffers with us makes our suffering a little easier to handle. Emmanuel, or ‘God-with-us’ then takes on a different dimension; a suffering dimension that is borne out of love.

I often like to encourage the infirm and those suffering in various ways, to lift their suffering to God in an act of surrender. Not so much as an act of hopelessness, but at act of faith, where we believe that God can make something beautiful and salvific and transformative out of something as inconceivable as a ‘gift’ of one’s suffering. After all, if God can make something out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo, a very basic theological principle), certainly, he can also make something wonderful out of an offered suffering. The problem is that most of us don’t think that God can ‘creatively’ use a suffering. We throw our sufferings to God, we complain about it to him, but many of us don’t lift it up as an offering, with an air of loving surrender.

When we do that, we join Mary under the Cross of her Son, our Lord. Mary’s strength lay in the fact that she didn’t ask the question ‘why’? In the light of suffering, that question is just too common and too easily asked. It doesn’t take faith to ask that question. Non-believers ask that question all the time.

The transformative question that we need to learn to ask in the light of suffering is not ‘why’ but ‘how’. How can I contribute to the world’s salvation through this suffering? How is God speaking to me here? How can I help my faith to grow through this pain? How can I join Christ on the Cross, and from there, have the great hope of the resurrection as a personal experience?

To this end, Mary serves as our prime example because she didn’t ask to understand God’s plan. She just chose instead to stand under God’s plan.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Celebrating and not just attending the Eucharist

One of the quotes of the Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta was addressed to priests, and it was to “celebrate each Mass as if it were your first Mass, and your last Mass”.

As a priest, it does make a lot of sense, and it strikes to the very core of my priesthood to read this. The Eucharist is unmistakably the highest form of worship anyone could ever partake in, and it is pure grace that allows us to be present at Mass. An act of utter and supreme thanksgiving, we join our sacrifice with Christ’s on Calvary, which becomes a gift most pleasing to God. Eucharistia is literally ‘thanksgiving’.

God gives of himself at each Mass, and when we are literally drawn into the act of love that goes on, we cannot but be awed and overwhelmed by what goes on. It is as if one is being included in a very intimate moment when the Son gives of himself so completely, so totally to the Father simply because the Father gave of himself so totally to the Son. And the exchange that happens is the Holy Spirit of love. It is consummation at its best, and we become invited, as it were, to this holy of holy exchanges. We are not observers, we are not by-standers, certainly not voyeurs, but we are literally drawn right into ‘the action’. We really don’t deserve to be present, but we are, and this exchange is made for our benefit, and yes, for our salvation.

But we have a great problem because this love that is given and received becomes very easily watered down and under-appreciated, as most loves are wont to be. Our human nature tends to take for granted things that we see too often, and encounter with great ease. Oft quoted is the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt”, though I wonder if ‘contempt’ may be too strong a word here.

The candles that are used at every Mass even though incandescent lights are easily available, is to remind all who are present that our sacred Mass was once celebrated in secret, almost in clandestine circumstances in the catacombs, right on the very tombs of the martyrs of our faith. It is a silent reminder to never take our faith, and the Holy Mass for granted, especially in places where religion is freely practiced.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit some beautiful atolls in the Indian Ocean. What really took my breath away was the beautiful flora and fauna that was so prevalent just meters outside of my sleeping quarters. Chatting with the boatmen who were natives of the place, I asked if they held a similar awe about the beauty just beneath them. Apparently, it was just too abundant for them to be struck by the beauty any more. It may seem strange that anyone could be blasé about such wondrous beauty lying literally at his or her doorsteps. Perhaps there is something in our humanity that requires of us a constant reminder to be present, and to allow ourselves to be enthralled afresh.

What then, should we be looking out for at each Mass? At which points should I be more present to? What should we then be attentive to?

This list is not comprehensive to say the least, but we should at least try to:
1) Be aware that the person sitting next to me, behind me and in front of me is God’s image to behold, respect and to love.
2) Truly be contrite for my brokenness when I pray the Confiteor (I confess), and knowing how undeserving I am of God’s infinite mercy, and then truly sing out with great joy the Gloria with an air of gratitude and praise because I am received with such Divine Mercy.
3) Mean my response when I am invited to chant it at the invitation of the Cantor, who is really the proclaimer of God’s word of life.
4) At the Creed, be aware that each creedal statement is an official response from the Magisterium about the truth of our faith as revealed by God, and be thankful that through the unfolding of history, there have been men and women who have fought so hard for the truth to be conveyed at the risk of their own lives, showing me that in life, some battles are really worth fighting for, and perhaps, some are really unnecessary.
5) Come to appreciate that at the Sanctus, I am invited to really join all the choirs of angels in heaven who are praising and adoring God as they behold him ‘face to face’. And when I know this, that it would be a travesty to keep mum, fold my arms and be indifferent when the priest ends his preface with “… we join the choirs of angels as they sing…”
6) When the priest, in Jesus’ words says “do this in memory of me”, recall all the acts of kindness and mercy that I have done in my life, and seen these not as my acts, but things done out of response to bring the memory of Jesus alive in my world. And when I remember that some of those times were really heartbreaking and sacrificial, that I joined Jesus in breaking the body, and pouring the blood for the good of the entire world.
7) Be fully present at the Doxology, which is the high point of the Mass, where the celebrant raises the consecrated bread and wine in a supreme act of sacrifice of Christ to the Father, and be brought present to Calvary where supreme surrender of love saved creation. And my “AMEN” then truly affirms and acknowledges this divine act of love.
8) Be in awe of the fact that when I receive Holy Communion, God wants to literally enter into me, a most unworthy host to the most Sacred Host.
9) And after receiving Communion, dare to be ‘lost’ a bit in true gratitude for this nourishment which strengthens me and beckons me to become further broken for others.

If just one person participating at Mass after reading this blog will do so with a new vision and purpose, with a new attentiveness and presence, this entry would have been worth the writing and the reading.

And when that happens, it really will not really matter even if that Mass were the first, and last Mass of his life, were he a celebrant, or laity.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Hold on to the Cross to win in life

There is an annual contest here in Singapore where a radio station together with a car company as the main sponsor give away a brand new car to the person who can keep his or her hand on a specific spot on the car for the longest time without moving it. Apparently the record so far for this ‘feat’ is 81 hours, which works out to slightly over three days. Final contestants are decided randomly by a lucky draw, and this ‘challenge’ takes place in the piazza of a mall in downtown Singapore, where it is (so I am told) hyped up in a carnival-like atmosphere, where friends and relatives of the contestants come to support them and cheer them on, especially into the wee hours of the night, or when the torrential rains come.

It’s one of those ‘survivor’ type of contests, and the rules are stringent. One 5 minute break every 6 hours of standing, no moving of the hand off the car, no relieving of oneself while standing, no caps, sunglasses, drinks or food (except during that 5 minute break) and no communicating with any friend or family member either. I have never witnessed this but apparently, many people are interested in taking part in it, as the prize is rather attractive. After all, in Singapore, where owning a car is an unrealized dream for many, this seems to be a rather ‘simple’ way to get ownership of a brand new vehicle. Or so many seem to think.

While I don’t scoff or sniff at such events that are obviously drawn up to excite the masses, these things do set me thinking about the other more pressing and needful areas in life. And being a priest, one of them would be our spiritual lives and holding on to what really gives life.

Aren’t a lot of problems in our lives connected to the fact that at the critical moments of our lives, we have chosen to let go of faith and to choose the option that gives us the least problems? Or perhaps when we choose to hold on to what should be let go of, and let go what we should be holding on to? Right off the bat, a few come to mind.

A married woman ‘let’s go’ of her marriage and engages in an affair with someone who she feels ‘understands’ her, and gives her ‘love’; a couple is told by the gynaecologist that their unborn child has evidence of down syndrome, and choose to ‘let go’ of this child; a teen, just after Confirmation ‘let’s go’ of her faith and decides that going to church for Mass on Sundays is just not cool; a priest ‘let’s go’ of his vows of celibacy and finds someone to comfort him in his loneliness.

Are these surprising and far-fetched examples? Not really. They are instances (and there are many, many more) where there is a resistance to hold on to what really matters in life.

The contest that I referred to at the beginning of this morning’s reflection was for a car. Yes, in Singapore, this is a luxury item, and many would want to own one. But if just for a car, one is willing to not move one’s hand from the car, and stand in the blazing sun and the pouring rain, risk harm to one’s kidneys and bladder, deprive oneself of sleep, face starvation and dehydration, and experience moments of hallucination (it has been known to happen), it shows just how serious one is about the car.

What more for our faith, which is for ETERNITY? Dare we to say that we are equally or even remotely just as serious about faith as about a car? Our faith is often linked (and well it should) to the Cross of Christ, and it can be applied to all of life’s difficulties and challenges, especially those that have no direct answers for us. What we are meant to do as Christ’s disciples is to never let go of the Cross, because it is the Cross that saves us. (I shall not delve deeper into soteriology here, as theses galore have been written on it)

If we have been formed well in our faith in our early years, then it prepares us well for the times when we will encounter very tempting options to let go of the Cross for what appears to be more sensible, loss-cutting, comfort-bringing, logical and temporal options. When we do that, it would be akin to the contestants lifting their hands from car, and forfeiting the winning of the car.

Only in the case of our faith, we would have lifted our hands from the very cross that will save us. In the many challenges that we face in life, we would be circumspect to look carefully what we are literally holding on to, and what we should be letting go of.