Monday, November 29, 2010

Real Presence on this side of the Eucharist

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a meal at a cafĂ© when I noticed a young couple seated at the table next to me. What made me take notice of them was the fact that for the entire duration of their meal, they hardly spoke to each other, but were furiously tapping away on their individual ‘smart’ phones, which is getting very common nowadays. What I saw made me lament silently – with the advent of modes of communication that are so advanced, where even phones can be given the title ‘smart’, we seem to be facing a deplorable lack of the real ability to communicate when we are in the presence of another, even when seated right in front of another person.

In the Catholic Church, we have always believed that Christ is truly present in the consecrated species of bread and wine. It is given the term ‘real presence’. Reserved in Monstrances around the world in chapels and adoration rooms, this real presence of Christ is on grand display for us to spend time with the Lord, to communicate with him, and for him to communicate with us.

His real presence invites us, on this side of the Eucharist, to ultimately be truly and really present to Him. This is needed, more and more these days, for various reasons, the chief one being that it prepares us for our ultimate and highest calling in life – to be eventually present to God in heaven, ‘face to face’. The more we hold this mystery and purposefully make the effort to spend quality time with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration, the more we ready our hearts for that real, present and endless encounter.

The ability to be present is being constantly compromised, and I daresay, threatened. Our minds just cannot seem to stay long on being present, but seek to constantly flit from thought to thought, image to image, thrill to thrill, and resists to be abiding in a presence, in the present. Our hearts truly are restless, till they rest in God, as St Augustine said.

Yet, we are still not convinced, and allow our hearts to continue to be tickled and teased, even when in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We would wish that with all the communication devices available, we would somehow find it easier to communicate with one another, and be more present to one another, but ironically, we are dumbing down in our ability to do so.

Does it mean that the solution is to completely do away with all this technology and turn back the clock of our intellectual advancement? Is the removal of a distraction, the banning of any one thing an answer that will make us communicate better? If so, would it not be tantamount to removal of the ability to sin, so that we are always living in a state of grace?

Underlying all overtures of love is the fundamental belief that love must be a decision, as the Marriage Encounter and Engagement Encounter movements have reiterated since their existence. In this short phrase lies the crux of love - that it is a decision. So is communication a decision. Removal of our gadgets and gizmos that are called communication devices is not a solution to this problem if our hearts are not first going to make communication a decision.

As I shared these thoughts with a parishioner, he sighed and said, “those were the days when there were no mobile phones, no pagers, no Internet, and we had to make the effort to either visit or write letters to communicate”. He feels that the advent of these communication devices is a bane to our human development.

I feel differently. In fact, when a decision to put down that phone is made, when we turn off the computer and sit down to talk, it makes that effort even more valuable as a deliberate act of love now because when that happens, it is not a matter of having ‘no choice’, but rather, ‘lots of choices’, making the choice to love a much higher value than before.

And while we develop our real presence before others, we must also allow ourselves to be fully present to God in a decided manner, especially before the Eucharist, so that our real presence meets the Real Presence, causing real presence on both sides of the Eucharist.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Where real strength lies

The phrase “be strong” are familiar words said at funeral wake visits, usually to the grieving members of the deceased family, who are in the darkness of the reality of being separated from their loved one.

Is this phrase meant to discourage the bereaved from shedding tears of sadness in public? If so, then we might as well ask that the bereaved to stop being human, because that is what is actually being advised. Lying deep in the heart of our humanity is the gift of emotional expression that allows one to be in touch with hurt, disappointment, sadness and grief. But it seems that allowing that to happen is something that is largely frowned upon, and it is deemed much more appropriate to keep up an appearance of stoicism, and present a front that is unmoved, almost statue-like.

Spiritual master and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has this to say about crying: the young man who cannot cry is a savage, and the old man who cannot laugh is a fool. A trove of wisdom lies there. Grief work is something that has long been seen as not only good, but also necessary. When one buries what hurts, what is unhealed and what requires mending, one only really postpones a real healing and true growth. But that is, sadly, the way a large majority of people seem to operate in the face of disappointment, pains, suffering and failure.

That must be the reason why when one is brought to the precipice of the ultimate end of life, when one is faced with the demise of a loved one, a family member, a life-partner, many have ill-advised the bereaved one to ‘be strong’ and not shed a tear. The question remains - Is this really strength? Or is this faux strength? Much closer to the latter, I suspect, because we do know that when there is no need to face a sea of people, when the door is closed, when one is alone and in touch with one’s raw emotions, the real shows itself, and we need to grieve.

Jesus must have been trying address this in his beatitude where he said “blessed are those who weep; they shall be comforted”. What do many of us try to do when we need comforting? We do anything but weep. It’s called escapism. Some plunge themselves into their work, many take to drink, gambling or drugs, and to the delight of marketers, many also take to retail therapy, which has hardly any long-term effects, save for the obscene interest rates that credit card companies slap on to the unsuspecting.

But when we really know how to weep, and learn how to ‘send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’, that is when true healing can come, and where we will really find comfort and balm for the soul.

When Jesus preached the beatitudes, he was embarking on his journey, which would eventually take him to the Cross, where he would be facing what would eventually be known as the Paschal mystery. And it is only in the light of the Paschal mystery, with its light thrown back on his teachings that we can make any sense of any of the beatitudes of Jesus. And for this particular beatitude on the blessedness of weeping, from and through which one can find comfort, it is no wonder that anyone with no sound appreciation of the Paschal mystery can only end up advising one to ‘be strong’ and not see the need to surrender one’s tears, but to instead hide behind a visage that has only gossamer strength.

So, should we or shouldn’t we say ‘be strong’ when giving solace to those in pain? Perhaps we should only choose to say it to someone who knows what the Paschal mystery is, and to only be strong in clinging on to the promises of Christ; strong in faith. And if tears are shed as a result of this, and emotions exposed to all, that would really be a show of strength.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Anger’s power

In many of the confessions that I have heard, one of the most common problems that people encounter is anger, or misdirected negative energies. Quite often, the remark that ‘so-and-so made me angry’ is made, almost justifying or exonerating one’s culpability. What the hidden statement means is that I wouldn’t have sinned if I was not pushed to do it.

Right off the bat, I’d like to say that anger itself is not a sin. Anger is energy, much like passion is energy. In fact, just saying that wrath or anger is one of the seven classical deadly sins, and from that, extrapolating that it is a ‘mortal’ sin would really be painting with an extremely broad brush. If anger is a sin, then Jesus cannot be said to be sinless as it is clearly stated that he was angry because the moneychangers had turned his father’s house into a market place, and that he drove them out with a lash of cords. Some would justify it by using the term “holy anger”.

Technically, we don’t find the word ‘anger’ in any of the passages of the four evangelists that describe this scene of Jesus and the cleansing of the temple. At most, we find the phrase ‘he drove them out’, or something similar. Certainly, one can argue that it is rather difficult to drive someone out of a place without a ‘fire in the belly’, and so, the conclusion is likely that Jesus was angry. In another passage, in Mark 11, Jesus curses the barren fig tree. I’d say that this is a far more direct and clear evidence of anger as one can hardly curse with a nary a hint of anger.

What can be said with a degree of certainty is that when we see a display of anger by Jesus in Scripture, it usually has to do with some evidence of an injustice. It is his passion for justice, notably God’s justice, to be done that results in his display of anger. This must give us an indication that we too should hunger for God’s justice to be carried out in this world, and that we need to be instrumental for it to happen.

We have all experienced anger in many of its forms. Some of us brood and are quiet when we are angry, some of us need to vent when we are vexed. Those living in the more enlightened stratosphere claim to be able to sublimate their anger. We don’t seem to need to learn how to be angry. Even an infant is said to display a certain ‘anger’ when deprived of milk when his belly cries for nourishment by crying with an uncanny ability to rouse even the heaviest of sleepers.

When I counsel penitents about anger, about what it is, and about what it isn’t, I try to get them to see that it is far more important to identify two things – what the anger was triggered by, and what it triggered off (meaning, the effects it had on our community). Being able to identify the first would help one to keep anger at bay when the warning signs appear on the horizon. And it could be a whole host of different things that initiate anger or worse, a hurtful rage.

Pondering on what anger triggers off is an invitation to see the effects our anger has on ourselves and the community or the body of Christ. The extreme end of this would be causing hurt, abuse, and even killing of a life. Most of the time, thankfully, the body of Christ is not so badly maimed, but it is definitely hurt, impaired and even sullied to a certain degree. It is when we are able to see the kind of wreckage left behind in the wake of our anger that we will slowly begin to see the wisdom of keeping anger in check.

One of the easiest things to do when confronted with a sin is to push the blame elsewhere. We only have to turn to chapter 3 of Genesis to see that this blame game is really the oldest game in our human history. And it is played out repeatedly in the course of history. There is an original sinfulness here that all of us share, because it makes our culpability so much lighter when we say ‘so-and-so’ made me angry. The other party would not be able to make us angry if we had not first allowed this kind of power to be given to him or her. In a similar way, no one can make one irritated if one is not irritable in the first place.

At the heart of an uncontrolled display of fury and rage is the loss of something deep within us. What we have lost in those moments are not so much our control and our precious face, but rather our secure stand that we are deeply loved by God who tells us repeatedly that it is alright even when things may turn nasty, when people misunderstand us, or when things don’t go our way. We have lost not so much our temper, but rather, our firm grip on God’s loving hands. And it wouldn’t help much if our cause for such displays of misdirected energies were not so much an upholding of God’s justice, but to protect or promote our own selves.

And when we humbly admit to those moments of stupidity, especially within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are placed back into God’s firm hold of love once more.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Living and enjoying the present

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer, he made it clear that when asking God to provide for our needs, in giving us bread, he did not say ‘give us always an over abundance; a never-ceasing flow; a copious excess of bread’, but limited it instead to a day’s portion. Some of us may have a problem with this. After all, isn’t he a God of abundance? He isn’t known to scrimp on goodness and grace, is he? Wasn’t that made clear when he fed the 5000 hungry hillside folk with an abundance that gave bountiful leftovers of twelve baskets full? One wonders what they did with those scraps. Yet, when he taught the Lord’s Prayer, he tells us to ask that God ‘give us today our daily bread’.

Why do we think that there is never enough? Largely because we are fearful and discontented. And it cuts across just about every level of our needs and wants. We fear that there is not enough food, not enough supplies, not enough money, not enough resources, not enough time, and the fear that grips us at our foundations, is the fear that there is never enough love. It is perhaps this innate fear that feeds a greed that is found alongside this fear that causes us to want to store and to hoard, be stingy and selfish, and look out for so many ways to preserve ourselves. This fear narrows our borders and draws distinctions as to where so many of our resources can and should be shared.

In teaching us to pray that God give us a daily portion of what we need, Jesus is not teaching us that God is a scrimpy giver. Jesus is teaching us something that so many of us have yet to learn due to our fear, which feeds our greed and neediness. We are taught contentment and how to live in the present. Don’t ask for too much right now. There is no need to store and to hoard. There are no need to build silos and storehouses.

In a recent random survey, a question was asked about which day of the week was seen as the worse day and why? The people who carried out the survey expected Monday to be the worst, as we know of many people who profess to hate Mondays. Even the popular US music group from the 80s, the Bangles, wrote a hit-song about Manic Monday. Mondays are generally known to be bleak, and the office email boxes are often jammed with enquiries requiring immediate replies, and the faces in the office and buses and trains are not the cheeriest. So, it was generally expected that Monday was going to be every respondent’s choice of the worse day. Or so it was thought.

The surprising thing about the answer was that it was not Monday. It was Sunday. And the reason behind the choice was even more telling, and more surprising. No, it had nothing to do with the fact that they felt that they had to go to Church on Sunday. It was not a religion-based survey. Many of the respondents felt that Sunday was the worst day of the week because they were dreading that Monday was just one day away, and all that they had in terms of leisure, rest, recreation, and a generally relaxing time with loved ones and friends was slipping away as Monday approaches. They could not enjoy the moment as it was presented to them.

There is a much deeper problem than what appears at the surface. In a certain hidden way, it shows that many of us have a great difficulty in being present and living in the present, about being contented, and as such, have a self-inflicted air of pessimistic gloominess about us. The Spiritual Fathers have always been advocates of living in the present, being present to the present, and this wisdom is found not only in the Christian tradition, but also in the other eastern religions like Zen Buddhism and Islamic Sufism. The awareness spiritual exercises that are found in many religions point to the need to be tuned-in to the present.

To just ask God for a day’s portion of what we need to get by for the day trains us not to be greedy, and not to live in fear. It also trains us to live in the present, and not project too far into the future. When we develop allergies to living in the present, when we cast our thoughts and fears into the future or carry them from the past, we will either live in fear or in regret, causing us innumerable neuroses. We will not want to forgive because the one who caused us anguish may hurt us in the future. We will not want to let go of a hurt, because we are carrying with us something akin to a huge baggage from the past, even though it may have been decades ago that we were hurt. We may not wish to be generous and deplete ourselves (and be blessedly poor, ref the beatitudes) because the future looks bleak and there are clouds looming on the horizon.

Is this kind of spirituality advocating a ‘live-for-today; to-hell-with-tomorrow’ mentality? Certainly not. Jesus doesn’t want us to be like the grasshopper in the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper. But if our entire life and work ethic is based on the fear that there is never enough, it will lead to a constriction of a generously pumping heart in not just individuals but also large corporations and countries, where resources will not be shared simply because of a fear that is often irrational or worse, simply protective of oneself.

When the Hebrew people were freed from the slavery of the Egyptians in their 40-year exodus in the desert, they were fed with manna from heaven. Apart from it appearing like hoarfrost, they were told that it would not keep for more than a day. Isn’t that telling us that God’s providence though wonderful and good, needs to be received with an attitude that decries any hoarding, and to be contented with the present?

Perhaps now, knowing this, it should spur us to being more aware of the need to be present when we say “give us today our daily bread”, and not be too worried that there may not be enough for tomorrow.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Saints and their role in our lives

There’s a certain maturity that is required of everything in life. Just look at nature, and you will see this evidence in abundance. It is only when seeds sprout, germinate, grow, develop and flower will we see the possibility of the fruit that gives new life. Cut a tree prematurely, and you will not see it grow, and not see it reach the necessary maturity to bear fruit.

Insects and animals all have the same pattern. There is a certain requirement for a maturity to develop, not so much for itself, but for the continuation of the species.

What is our ultimate aim in life? To work? To have a family? To be educated? Yes, these are good in themselves, but they don’t last eternally. There’s something that does last for eternity, and that is our life in God. We as baptized children of God have as our aim, to develop, grow and mature this relationship that we have with God. Every saint that is in heaven now, enjoying the beatific vision of God has reached maturity in his or her relationship with God. While we are on the way there in this life, the growth process is not yet where it should be. Our personal brokenness somehow stifles and prevents a full maturity and fruition of our lives.

Canonized saints have their feast days celebrated in the liturgical calendar year, but to be sure, there are many, many more saints than there are days in a calendar year. So, on this day, the church revels in the belief that these people are in that eternal embrace of God, and are not uncomfortable about it.

That’s what being in heaven can be described as. We all long for love in some ways, and the highest expression of love is when we are enfolded in the embrace of God who is love. Yes, we all long for that, but at the same time, we know that there could well be a lot of discomfort and uneasiness when we are embraced by the all-loving God. It’s just like some children who experience this embrace by loving parents or grandparents. Some of them squirm and fidget, feeling all so awkward and uncomfortable. Somehow, they know it’s a good thing, but at the same time, they know they feel unworthy of this grand display of love, and they want out. Some may feel that it’s not cool.

Couples having been married for years may also, strangely, have the same experience. Much as they want to be embraced in an unconditional love by the spouse, they know that somehow, it’s not complete even in this world. They know that somehow, the irony of love is that in this world, there are some loves that will always be left unfulfilled. Some feel unworthy, and some, because of a personal contribution to a friction in the relationship, know that this physical embrace is not as pure as it should be.

What is this discomfort? It is sin. It’s our inability to live maturely and respond maturely to the love that is being given, and we have to work this out before entering heaven’s eternal embrace. The saints who are in heaven have worked it out and purified this. Some in this life, and others (and this probably is the majority) in the purification of purgatory. But however the purification, the saints are now completely comfortable and no longer struggling in God’s eternal embrace. There is a complete giving and complete receiving of that love, which is God’s plan for love.

Why we need to celebrate All Saints’ Day is because we need to know for a fact that there are many whose lives bear testimony to living out love to its fullest. We need heroes who we can model after, and we need to know that there is a goal, a destination, a fulfilling and yes, a fruiting which many now are inside of, and this is where we are all hoping for ourselves too.

We need to remember that heaven is a reality, and that there are multitudes that are already in that mature relationship with God. The saints are the seeds that have been sown, germinated, grown, flowered and fruited, and leave us all a bit of their fruitfulness and shade so that we too can do the same for our lives and the lives of others. In them, we have models to teach us that not only is this kind of loving possible, but that it is also absolutely necessary.