Monday, December 26, 2011

The Soul's worth shown by the Word made Flesh

As members of the human race, we share a lot of common experiences and emotions. We have our moments of joys and triumphs, our moments of happiness and elation. On the flip side, we also do know that we have encountered sadness and sorrow as well. One of the most damaging things that a human person can go through in life in terms of feelings is to feel worthless and without value. This is when a person’s dignity is stripped away and left with little or nothing to cherish or love.

I hope that it has never happened to you, but maybe there have been times when you were told by either your parents or your teachers, in their moments of anger and fury, that you are useless or hopeless as a person. Hearing these things does nothing to see ourselves as persons of value and worth. But the truth is that each one of us is of great value and has an immense worth – not for the things that we can do, but for the persons that you and I are.

What we are celebrating today – the incarnation of God, where God became one of us, is precisely this. God is not telling us that we have worth. God is showing us this in concrete, physical, tangible form. My Christmas reflection has been partly inspired by something I came across when I read something from a spiritual great, Fr Richard Rohr.

It was back in 1847 in France, that a parish priest asked a wine merchant and poet by the name of Placede Cappeau to write a poem for Christmas. He came up with a poem entitled “Midnight, Christians”, and it was later that these words were put to music by Adolphe Charles Adam, another Frenchman, to become immortalized as the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”. One of the most theologically and spiritually sound lines in the hymn tells us what happened when the incarnation took place – Till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth. Some translations have it as the “spirit” felt its worth. They essentially mean the same thing.

You see, none of us is worthless and without value. Cappeau must have had a deep sense of this. No matter what we may have been told by angry parents or disenchanted employers and no matter what we may have done in our stupidest of times. And all of us have met them in our lives.

A lot of us have been told by stores, advertising agencies and misguided friends and relations about what they think Christmas is about. Some songs have even done that rather successfully. It’s not about giving or receiving gifts, it’s not about reindeer, or snow (especially not in hot and humid Singapore), and it’s certainly not about mommy kissing Santa Claus. These have been added on through the years and for various reasons, and what they tend to do is to take away or mask the one reason for Christmas, and if we don’t strip that all away, we can end up thinking year after year, that Christmas is about those things. Well, if you want a good reason for coming to Church on Christmas day, it is to be able to take away all those trimmings and décor, take away all those layers and layers of added meanings, to come to the one main reason for Christmas so that we can leave Church with something that is basic, something that is at the very heart of the Christmas message.

And that message, that story, that truth, is that God wanted our humanity which we share in a broken and sinful way, to know that it is worth loving, that it is worth saving, and that it is has worth. Now if that present that you were given tells you that message, then it has done what it’s supposed to do. If that Christmas hug that you give, or have received imparts that message to you or from you, then you have given or have received Christmas. But do remember that it all started first with God giving us himself, embracing our humanity with his divinity on a very holy night, slightly more than 2000 years ago. This is the marvel of Christmas, and this is what we need to remember not just at Christmastime, but hopefully, every moment of our lives.

The incarnation was inconceivable before Christmas. God mixing right in with humanity was simply unheard of. But that which was unheard of, that which was so silently hoped for, was something that was made possible only by the grace of God when the Word, the hitherto silent Word, was made flesh. Back in 1947, when US Air Force test pilot Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time, many thought that it was something to be marveled at.

What many don’t realize is that long before that, when the Word was made flesh, the sound barrier was broken by the Word himself - in a more incredible, inconceivable and, yes, silent way.

Blessed and Holy Christmas everybody.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What to do when there is no love

Love makes the world go round. This can be a mushy sentiment carelessly tossed out by hopeless romantics, but it does have a certain truth in it.

Of course, they way that many people choose to define “love” can also be the cause of a lot of the world’s troubles and turmoils, but I won’t get into that in this blog reflection. But on many levels, the seasons of Advent and Christmas are indeed the seasons of love. However, I wonder if there are many out there who think this way.

After all, what was the world waiting for when it was being prepared for the coming of the Messiah, but arrival of someone who would change the world. Change what? Among many things, the way the world loved before. It needed a model of selfless love that would be the ultimate overturning of sin and selfishness that was the root cause of mankind’s miseries in life.

It was St John of the Cross, whose feast we celebrated sometime last week who said one of the most poignant things that one could say about love. In one of his writings, he said so profoundly “where there is no love, put love, and then you will find love”.

That is what God did in the incarnation. This is what Advent and the continuing season of Advent celebrates, if we want a succinct spirituality behind it. In our weak and selfish ways, we had been incapable of loving as God created us to love, and this required of God to show us just how to do it through an example par excellent. It was as if God was looking on in the world and could not find love in its pristine form. Dismayed and wanting to lead the world out of its mess, out of mercy, God decidedly put love into the world, and there found love.

While the world seems to be more intent on taking love, God reverses it and puts it in - in Christ. It’s as if the cogs of love were suddenly made to turn in the opposite direction, and it changed everything. The incarnation then becomes the love overturning everything that is the antithesis of love - hatred, envy, violence, revenge, selfishness, sloth, greed, and most of all, fear.

This then, has to be our shared quest as disciples of Christ. There are many places, I am sure, where you and I find little or no love. It’s far too easy to complain, criticize or to be cynical about it. If we do find love lacking there, our call is to, as John of the Cross said, put love in.

Then we will find love. Like God did. Have a blessed last week of Advent joy, everybody!

Monday, December 12, 2011

What happens when God keeps silent?

One thing that our faith has always assured us of is God’s constant and unceasing love for us, his beloved. The last line of Matthew’s gospel (28:20) has Jesus reassuring the disciples before the great commission that he is with us always, yes, to the end of time.

That God protects and comforts us in our moments of need is a belief that we grow up with all our lives, if we have been baptized from birth. The sacraments of the Church are our physical signs of God’s presence in our lives, giving us assurance that in our deep moments of need, he is there to heal, feed, forgive, strengthen, bathe and minister to us. And because we are physical beings, these forms of God’s tangible presence gives us the assurance that we need in our darkest moments in a very real way.

But what if these are not enough? How do we handle it when our weak faith begs and yearns for an overturning of evil that seems to overcome us, and in a way, God has not delivered? I have come across many who in their faithful Christian lives, have had God remain so distant, almost cold and uninvolved in their dark moments of need. These are the times when the God of assurance and comfort appears to be something that has been taught about well, but when the real time of need comes, when there is unexplainable darkness, and when left to fend for oneself alone, when fear is a gripping reality, when all the ‘chips’ are down, the God of Jesus Christ speaks in a deafening silence that can break the strongest of hearts. What happens then?

At these tumultuous moments, almost anything that one says will sound trite and platitudinous, with hardly much to show viz-a-viz comfort and solace. Can God be playing games with us? Have we been believing in someone or something that had been a figment of our imagination? How is it that so many claim to really experience his saving help in their moments of need, but when we need God to make manifest his mercy, power and love, he seems to have gone to the Bahamas for a very long vacation?

Perhaps that is why we need to be constant in our definition of “faith”. Faith in God and his power and mercy is not that he will show up when summoned, or that he will overturn and overcome evil when petitioned for, but that deep within ourselves, we know that God and goodness prevails. Faith allows me to see that it may not be right now that God will show his divine triumph, but that he will. Faith doesn’t make me demand for a showing of the power of God, but that I believe in the power of God, despite what I see happening before my eyes. Faith assures me that I don’t have to see great things happening in my time, but rather, that I allow God to make great things happen in his time.

It dawned on me as I joined the congregation to profess our faith in the Creed at Mass this morning, that nowhere in the Creed, is there a profession that we believe in God who makes our life smooth, or that we believe in God who comes to our rescue when in trouble, or that we believe in God who cures all our illnesses and removes all our pains and hurts. Yet, the strange thing is that so many of us actually seem to make these demands on God, either outrightly, or tacitly. When we are 'faithful' in the truest literal sense of the word, we express how we define and clarify our faith. I am sometimes inclined to see that for many of us, when we say that we are 'faithful', what we could mean is that we have confidence that God will deliver. Which is it for you, the reader of this blog?

What is faith after all, but the ability to go beyond and to look beyond – beyond the disappointment, beyond the pain, beyond the failure, beyond the broken heart, beyond the unexplainable retarded inaction of those in authority, and beyond results. Faith is actually then made unnecessary when we see things happening in our time and in our way when it is petitioned for.

We can be sure that this kind of exercise of faith is going to be one of the toughest things we can ever experience in life, because it runs counter to our nature to want results and proof. Just like building on rock, it’s going to take time. The ability to live in this large way does not come overnight. It sees its foundations laid when we are toddlers in our faith life, and strengthened day-by-day, bit-by-bit, through an assiduous and committed prayer life. Then, when the wind blows, when the lights dim and the ground quivers, we will have terra firma to stand our faith on. It has been built on rock. But it is when we have done very little to lay those foundation blocks, that when crises loom on the horizon, that we find it so hard to call forth a faith that had hardly been built.

That last line in Matthew’s gospel is God’s assurance that he will be with us, not that he will show himself to us, and not that he will give us a life without trials and tension. Perhaps it is we who have read too much into it, and have made unreasonable demands on God.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Celebrating well requires great discipline

The Christmas lights are up in the malls (much more so in Singapore than here in the USA, I am sure), the carols are incessantly being played through the Public Address system, the radio stations are churning out familiar Christmas tunes, the Salvation Army personnel stationed at the entrances of shopping malls are already ringing that little bell asking for your Christmas contribution into that tin, and the streets are decked out in the familiar red and green. It doesn’t take much to detect that Christmas is ‘in the air’.

But are we really in the Christmas season? One of my annual lamentations at this time of the year is how we fail miserably at being a people who really know how to celebrate something meaningfully and deeply. By the time 25th of December comes round, most of us would already have been to quite a few Christmas parties, eaten our fill of Christmas festive foods, politely turned down offers of Christmas Fruitcake for the umpteenth time, sung many Christmas carols, and perhaps even opened up our Christmas presents, so much so that when Christmas really comes, we tell ourselves we have indeed overeaten, and need to fast in order to lose some of those dreaded added kilos or pounds. The irony that most of us do not see is that we have actually feasted when we should have fasted, causing us to fast when we should in actual fact be feasting.

The problem that I see perhaps stems from the fact that we have developed a very poor sense of healthy anticipation and adequate spiritual preparation. We may call ourselves disciples, but there seems to be very little ‘disciplining’ in our lives. And this is not just for Christmas, but for so many other things or events in life. We have this tendency to short-circuit the waiting, training, anticipating and ‘mystery’ period of life, and because of this, often we end up being the cause of our own undoing when we find ourselves underwhelmed at the moments that we should be overwhelmed, blasé when we should be in awe, and struck dumb when we should be dumbstruck. The Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 gives us a scriptural framework from which we should order our lives. Those of us who remember songs from the 60s should be able to recall the song Turn! Turn! Turn! by the group The Byrds. They based their song on these verses from Scripture, which remind us that there is a season for everything in life. A time for giving birth, a time for dying, for tears, for laughter, etc. When we respect the time that we have for the proper things in life, we will know how to live well. But it is when we have dispensed all too happily (and too hastily) with any form of proper and adequate preparation, we are the ones who end up suffering and wondering why we are out of sorts at certain junctures of our lives.

One thing comes to mind immediately is how couples very often are too eager to live as if they are already married when they are in fact still single and not Mr and Mrs. Play or make-believe consummation has much more far-reaching negative effects than meets the eye. I sometimes refer to this as the act of opening of Christmas presents in June. When couples make no effort at all in refraining from physical intimacy during their courtship days, it cheapens the delight and surprise and specialness that they should be celebrating when consummation should actually be taking place (after the wedding). When Christmas presents are opened in June, and in July, August, and September, right up till Christmas, what happens on Christmas day is at best, going to be a sham or mock celebration, a put-on specialness, and feigned delight, cheapening not only the other and the self, but much more than that, making a mockery of the delight that God wants the union of man and woman to be.

When so many things are done in anticipation and brought to fulfillment in advance, our progeny will only pick up and learn from example. One erudite spiritual writer once said “presence depends on absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work”. There is a certain pentameter or rhythmic pattern that once broken and disrespected, causes a jarring not just to our ears, but to the minds of our spirits and indeed, our whole lives as well.

Training in this ability to wait comes from our earliest days. Parents need to impart the importance of learning how to wait well, to fast adequately, to dare to enter into uncomfortable silence and to dare to teach our children delayed gratification by example. Only when this is imbibed well can we truly celebrate well when it comes for time to respond with a joy that wells up from within.

So, perhaps for the coming two weeks before Christmas should actually be celebrated, fight the temptation – have that Christmas party during Christmastide instead, open the presents only after 25th December, and keep doing that right up till we observe the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord next year, when Christmastide really should end. And show the world that we really know how to celebrate Christmas, simply because we have also learnt to prepare well.

We have to learn how not to empty the well before its time. Because if that well is being emptied, drunk from and delighted in way ahead of time, we will be hard pressed to present anything to the Lord for him to change so that it can be the best tasting wine.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Getting out of God’s way

What is the ‘spirit’ of Advent? What does the Church want us to enter into each time we begin the new Liturgical Year? I am quite sure that this is a question that many, if not all parish pastoral councils and pastors ponder at some length each year when planning for the way that the parish should be directed towards Christmas. I was speaking to a priest who lives with me in the Castle, and he said that in a parish that he went to yesterday, the theme for Advent was “Simply Christmas”, alluding to the fact that Christmas has become so complex and complicated, that there is now a conscious need to whittle away those veneers so that the real simple and awe-full reality of God’s incarnation can come to the fore once again. In a shopping-commercial-material world that this has spiraled into, something that simple does seem to make a lot of sense.

Traditionally, the four weeks of Advent have always been broadly given the underlying sub-themes of peace, hope, love and joy. What these are, are the foundations, the rock-bottom essence of life that give us an abiding stability amid life’s surges and swells. And we know this to be true, because it is when we are tossed about by life’s sadnesses, seemingly overwhelmed by its challenges, shocked by news of illness, failure and brokenness, or riddled with pain and torment, these are the ‘basics’ that we seek so that our rudders of life are not ripped apart from our navigation through the sea called ‘life’.

The person of faith needs to hold on to these because one realizes that one just cannot live life according to one’s own dictates, whims and fancies. The wanting to live life according to one’s own fancies and invent one’s own rudder is, I believe, the start of the mess of individualism and advent of atheism or godlessness.

Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we have a base for our existence, and that it is God who has given us this foundation. When we have masked over God with so much of ourselves, we can easily end up thinking that we are our finances, our successes, our families, our businesses, our material possessions and our securities. And it works for the other way as well – we can just as easily end up thinking that we are our failures, our broken relationships, our poverty, our sadness, our misery and our rejected selves. They are both the opposite sides of a coin called ‘self absorption’.

What Advent reminds us to do is to put away our ‘selves’ to prepare the way for God who has put away himself for us. Admittedly, this is one of the hardest things for us to do, whether we are rich or poor, failures or successes, healthy or sick. So much of our time and energies are centered on making us the most important people in the world, drawing either attention or sympathy, praise or pity to ourselves. This does nothing to align ourselves with the God who took on humanity to show us that selflessness is our shared goal in life.

Every sin that you and I can name and be guilty of finds at its base a certain selfishness that caused us to want things our way instead of God’s. The more we are aware of this, the less we will easily fall into sin in its incipient and hidden forms. This must be one of the main fruits of the spiritual life, where we develop a keen sense to ‘sniff’ out sin and detect just how odoriferous it really is.

So, in the coming weeks, apart from putting ‘up’ a lot in our lives, be they in the form of decorations, long lines at the cash register and perhaps even doctors’ appointments, it’s a very apt time to also put ‘aside’ a lot of ourselves to get out of God’s way, so that he can have a clear path to our hearts. After all, Jesus did say that he was the way, the truth and the life. Since he is THE way, we need to get our agenda, our egos and ourselves out of the way, so that his way also becomes our way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Kingship of Jesus in our lives

Today, the Roman Catholic Church observes the last Sunday in the liturgical year A, and we anticipate a couple of things in the coming Sunday. Firstly, we look forward to a new liturgical year B with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent. Secondly, and rather historically, we will begin officially using the new translation of the Roman Missal, which will take effect throughout the English-speaking world. So, whether one is going to be participating in an English Eucharistic celebration in Sydney, Singapore, Seattle or Shanghai, the Order of Mass of the Roman Rite will be in the new translation.

To be sure, there are thousands, if not millions who are in a tizzy about this change. Many aren’t even clear about why this is happening, let alone that it is happening (for those who have not been going to Mass for the past 6 to 9 months).

It’s not that it is a new Mass Order. It is a new translation of the Mass Order. “A translation from what?” you may ask. Well, it is a third translation of the Mass of Pope Paul VI, which we have been using all this while it was promulgated in 1969, after the Second Vatican Council. The version that we had been so familiar with all these past years is the second translation (commonly referred to as the Novus Ordo). The original text was in Latin, and we had been using the official English translation of it.

“What’s wrong with the old one?” you may ask. The common response to this from official and quasi-official bodies have been that it is not so much that it had anything wrong, but that the second translation (which most of us had grown up with) was very much a watered-down version, putting aside and losing a lot of the richness in worship-lingo and analog that the Latin had.

In his website, American Theologian Rev Fr Robert Barron recently gave a commentary on this, and I liked what he said, particularly about how the richness of the Latin had been lost through the loose and free translation of the Mass of Paul VI. Apparently, the Novus Ordo was rather hastily put together after Vatican II, so that the English-speaking world could get access to the Mass in English.

The Latin language had the ability to bring the congregation into the ambience of the royal court. With the Latin, we were made aware of the courtliness of being in the presence of the King of the Universe. But this whole mentality is completely lost in the English translation of the Mass of Paul VI. We only see glimpses of this when the Eucharistic Preface introduces the Sanctus, where we are invited to join the choirs of angels in their unending hymn of praise, whereupon we break into spontaneous “Holy, holy, holy Lord”.

Is it important to bring back regality? Isn’t it good to introduce simplicity and familiarity? I’m won’t be too quick to jump to an affirmative answer to these questions. As a priest who has tried in so many ways to impart to the people just how rich the Mass is, I think that the people in general are just not convinced that it is meant to be rich. Some have suggested that priests like I have injected into it what was not there. Perhaps they need to see phrases like “we beg” or “we beseech” actually in print to come to some sort of realization that we are not using ordinary language, because we are not addressing someone ordinary.

Where does this allergy towards high authority come from? There are many possible reasons. Perhaps some of them have something to do with the fact that in the past 40 to 50 years, many countries had freed themselves out of imperialism or control by foreign powers. The struggle and craving for independence had caused many to disdain any vestiges of ‘foreign influence’, and I can understand how the fight had left many scarred, battered and bruised. So, when the Novus Ordo was released with a lot of ‘everyday language’, it was seen as something fresh, pleasing to the ear, and most importantly, no longer with any traces of the loftiness that a direct translation would have rendered.

What is the current sentiment towards the new translation that is going to be implemented? Often, they run into the area of feelings. “I don’t feel like I am praying”, or “This is just so unnatural for me”, or “Why are we reversing, when we should be going forward”, or the more telling “I believe that we are making a terrible step back instead of progressing”. These sentiments, though very real, are unfortunately also very revealing. It tells of a generation that wants things to be done according to how they are feeling, and almost demands that things be “relevant” to THEM.

Is it any wonder then, that the Church has had a great deal of problems with worshippers turning up for Mass slovenly dressed and with nary a care for how they comport themselves, let alone interact and respect their fellow worshipper? Does it surprise me or anyone else that there are thousands of parishioners the world over who would say that it is ok to turn up for Mass in shorts and slippers or a tank-top, because God loves us as we are, and that clothes do not maketh the man? No. It doesn’t surprise me, because we have made ourselves and our comfort and our standards (which are anything but high) the centre of everything, including worship at Mass.

We need to be reminded over and over again that every Mass is a great invitation to meet the King of the Universe. It requires of us a different mind, a different attitude and a different heart to dare to contemplate and to share in His Divine life. The language that is used at Mass needs to help us to awaken to the fact that God is not on our level, and instead, draws us toward him. We are not meeting a mere familiar friend (though He is that AND more), someone we pay scant attention to, or worse, an indifferent and aloof personage who seems to be needy of our attention and worship. The more we are aware of this awesome (the word used here is deliberate) reality, the less we will be irritated about how different our language is in church, and become increasingly thankful for entering into mystery, almost welcoming the fact that we are privy to participate in this kind of worship language that is of a special nature.

The common phrase people who are resistant to change often use is “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Well, in this case, though it “ain’t broke”, it also wasn’t adequately done in the first place. That’s why it needs ‘fixing’.

The Solemnity that we celebrate today (yesterday for my Singaporean friends) is aptly called Christ the Universal King. We have been invited to kingship, but perhaps we have forgotten just how privileged we are. I pray that the spirit of the new translation of the Roman Missal will help ‘fix back’ our somewhat scattered royalty.

Monday, November 14, 2011

When leaving this life is seen as an invitation to be wowed

One of the most painful things that one should ever undergo has got to be the loss of a parent, especially if one had been close to one’s mother or father in life. I am blessed to have both of my parents still around. Skype is a wonderful blessing indeed to somehow shorten the distance of being half a world away from them and from the comforts of home.

Why am I re-visiting the much written-about topic of death? Someone I had come to know in the past years, a genial, astute, elderly lady, passed away very recently after a having suffered a debilitating, massive stroke some eight months ago. The mother of a dear friend, I had been praying for her incessantly since her illness. On Friday, I was informed that she had died of a heart attack. It is most unfortunate that I cannot be there at the funeral liturgy, but I am hoping that this open reflection will make up for my absence in some small way.

It does seem strange that in many of my blogs, there seems to be a preponderance of death and dying, and some of my regular readers have asked why is it that I don’t write about happier things. It’s not that I am overly morose and maudlin. I can only respond that I am a realist, and death is the most real thing that can ever happen to us in life. The unfortunate thing about death is that though it is very real, we find ourselves hesitating to face its reality until it comes a-knocking on our doors. And when that happens, it’s often a tad too late to do some last-minute revision or recaps on letting go and release, because like an exam, we cannot be too prepared for the visit of what St Francis of Assisi calls Sister Death.

It does take a whole lot of preparation to have that kind of affinity and familiarity with death to give her a familial nomenclature like Sister. It surely doesn’t come overnight. But when well trained, what will happen is that we no longer see death as alien, foreign or even something to be silenced. We don’t do that with family. We embrace family (at least most of us do), we welcome family, and mostly, we enjoy the company of family. In order to see death with such welcome and amity, it necessarily means that we are confident that death brings us not just away from, but also somewhere toward. In Latin, “death” or “mors” is a feminine noun, and perhaps that is why St Francis gave her the title of “sister”, and not “brother”.

In order to prepare well for death, I believe that we must learn how to live well. Much as Catholics seem to have won the laurel wreath hands down when it comes to being guilt-laden in life, we are also not foreign to enjoying life. Catholic guilt has a quality all of its own, and some of us handle this better than others. I’m quite OCD when it comes to the art of delayed gratification, so that makes me an exception rather than the norm. But generally, God’s purpose is to have us enjoy the life that he has given us, and to enjoy this in a way that respects life, respects others, and gives deference to God. It’s when we mess this order up that problems crop up in life.

Mary (that’s her name) never got to receive the Lord in Holy Communion as she was baptized whilst in a comatose state from which she never recovered. She was later confirmed, and had received the Sacrament of Holy Anointing on a couple of occasions as well. In an ironic, poignant, and bittersweet strange way, Mary’s first Mass where she will be present as a baptized Catholic will also be her last. But it’s not the end. Each Mass that we as a community celebrate becomes then our conscious efforts at joining not just Mary, but with all the others who have gone before us with the great hope of that eternal banquet that is prepared by God.

Our faith gives us that great hope that we will share a meal again, a meal that transcends all meals in the meal that does not end.

In my current place of residence here called ‘the Castle’, there is an old Redemptorist missionary priest who is ‘getting on in years’. He is slowing down in his movements. Fr Tom said that he is getting ‘sluggish’ as of late. He moves slowly, needs a walking cane, and is hard of hearing at times, but he lights up when he is asked about his thoughts of death. Not afraid of dying, he has said time and again that anything we can ever say about heaven now will pale in comparison to its reality when we behold it. He said the other day “I am sure that there will only be one word that we will be able to say when we get there. It’s ‘wow’!”

I’m practicing my ability to be wowed each day. This must be one of the paths toward sainthood. Care to join me?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Holiness – preparing us for life’s Northeasters

One of the questions that I have been asked about holiness and the quest for holiness was ‘why do we need to do this now?’

It comes from the mentality that since heaven is for eternity, that we would have eternity to do this, so what’s the rush? The following analogy has been used before – that we are all on a train heading toward a common destination, and we are in different carriages on that very long train called life. We can do all sorts of things on that train – some of us are maximizing our time doing a lot of good things, some of us are making sure that the train is well maintained, some are helping others on their journey, pointing out the various beautiful and interesting sights along the way, and some are just gazing, almost catatonically out into the passing world outside. And some of us are wondering what we are doing on the train. Of course, this analogy is full of theological problems, as it seems to imply that there is universal salvation for all no matter what happens (even for those who happen to jump off the train before it reaches its final destination). But if we were to put aside (albeit temporarily) this huge difficulty, the question of our individual need for holiness would be a good question to ponder.

Holiness is something that allows us to be true to our deepest selves, and reminds us of the great dignity that we hold within. It’s a bit like breathing. Without it, we would die. But we aren’t conscious of it all the time are we? Be honest – if your eyes hadn’t read that last line, you wouldn’t have suddenly made yourself conscious of the fact that you are breathing, or that breathing causes you to live. Our yen for holiness is like that, but on a level that is far more deep and intrinsic than merely being able to breathe. It is our reminder that we are images of not just humanity, but of divinity as well. When we are aware of the need to be holy, and to work toward eventual sainthood, we will slowly but surely, shrug off in our lives anything that detracts us from that goal.

But many people seem to have a warped sense of holiness. So many Christians I have met lament that holiness (in their minds) means that one no longer has the ability to enjoy life, while the truth is simply contrary to that. Proper holiness means that our choices in life become clearer and clearer – that we know that things that do not bring us to true life are precisely the choices that we should not be making. Holiness then is celebrating that we are shunning those choices rather than lamenting that we can’t choose them. Maturity is being truly able to celebrate this awareness. Immaturity is when we are still unhappy with this choice. A scriptural icon of this would be the elder brother of the prodigal son in the Story of the Prodigal Father.
Just as many have a warped sense of holiness, there are also who have a rather unclear understanding of forgiveness and mercy, which are crucial in our search for holiness in life, simply because unforgiveness puts a huge barrier between God and ourselves.

In my last blog, and the entire unfolding of what happened between two readers, there was a lack of understanding of what forgiveness is, what mercy is, and what the sacrament of reconciliation is, and is not. Some people even wrote personal emails to my email address to bemoan the fact that I have not kept private what was deemed to be ‘confession’ by some readers. From this episode, there is clearly a warped sense in many people about justice. Forgiveness is not a mere cheap cancelling out of a very necessary restitution. How convenient it seems to suddenly forget about having offended God in the first place! And this is even more glaring when scripture passages are almost slung at others so that what justice demands becomes ignored or conveniently side-stepped. Indeed, the best quotes from the bible do come from the devil himself.

I am aware that a blog of this nature can and is read by anyone from any part of the world (cyber or otherwise). The problem is that most people will be reading this from their ‘de’-formed catechesis, or what they think is Catholic teaching, and there is no way that I can address a commonly-held ignorance till it is brought up specifically. I suppose this is where I can address something as crucial as this.

A true sacramental confession is one where the penitent expresses a true contrition for the wrongs one has done, and goes before a priest physically (never in cyber space), and in the privacy of the confession which is a one-to-one encounter, whereupon one receives not only the absolution from the priest, but also a suitable penance to address the sinful act that had been committed i.e., made some form of restitution.

An email that is written anonymously to a priest, telling the priest what one has done (or worse, what one is heinously going to do the next day) does not a confession make. And it certainly is not something that the priest is held bound to silence, especially if its nature is evil and harmful to another human being. Of course, the classic situation posed in just about every course taught on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the seminary is when a murderer (or a terrorist) confesses to a killing, and the question would be what the confessor would do - withhold absolution till he surrenders to the authorities? Not give the absolution at all? These possibilities come to mind. But that is a totally different matter altogether. We cannot ever make a confession in anticipation of a sin that is going to be committed later on. It simply leaves out the very important contrition that is such an essential part of the sacrament.

I realize that I cannot single-handedly correct such misconstrued thoughts and notions about the sacrament of reconciliation that exist out there. But you can. Yes, you, the reader of this blog, especially if you are a Catholic. You can, after having been catechized, albeit a little, by this entry, become the one who corrects the wrongly held opinions of your office colleagues, your children, your neighbour, your spouse, or whoever you know has either an erroneous or ignorant opinion about the kind of life that the Church wants to help us to lead.

I come back to our shared quest for holiness, as an inclusion to this post. Holiness, when sought correctly, helps us to buffer the storms that well up in life, as storms are wont to. It helps us to address upheavals in that proverbial train of life that we are on while the train rolls towards our shared destination in life.

Last weekend, most of the cities in the north east of North American received what is known as a Northeaster. This is when a storm travels from the south, and, converging with the cold air mass from the north, brings in an extremely cold air system down from the Arctic. Because of this, some places had their first snow in autumn.

But something terrible happened. The trees are still not fully denuded as we are still in autumn. The sudden accumulated weight of the snowfall on the leaves caused so many branches of trees to snap and give way and snap under the unnatural added weight of the snow. Many of these felled power lines, causing more than a million Americans to be deprived of power for up to four days.

But this doesn’t happen that much in winter because all the leaves of the trees would have been fallen by then, and much less snow would have accumulated on the denuded branches. It’s nature’s way of dealing with the storms she brings.

So too in our human ‘nature’. Our yen for holiness is what prepares us for those sudden Northeasters that blow from time to time in our lives.

Just as holiness helps us to ‘shed’ the excess baggage and drop the things that lug us down in life, its upside is that it helps us to have free hands to react to the things that can come our way in the most unexpected of times, and unexpected of ways.

Monday, October 31, 2011

On death and dying

Every once in a while, it is healthy to set aside some time to ponder about where our lives are heading, and to really appreciate the fact that our life here on this earth is going to end some day. I think it was Woody Allen that said that he’s not afraid of dying. He just doesn’t want to be around when it happens. I wonder if he speaks not just for himself but for quite a lot of other people as well.

I’ve read about it in books and other people’s reflection when they describe the change in the seasons from Autumn to Winter, how the seasons themselves are nature’s reminder to everyone that life doesn’t remain static, but is on a constant change, where one season gives way to another. I guess, I am blessed to be able to experience this for myself now that I am in Washington DC, where we are in the middle of Autumn, and everywhere I turn, I see nature’s reminder that life is in transition. The leaves are all turning colour, as can be seen from the enclosed photograph of a tree that I passed on the way to school on Friday. The cold that is seeping into the north east of America is telling the leaves that it is time to stop the chlorophyll manufacturing that goes on in the leaves. This withdrawal causes the green chlorophyll to be stored in the trees, leaving behind the other non-green chlorophyll that gives autumn its characteristic colours of gold, red and orange. Soon, all these leaves will fall too, leaving nothing but the denuded branches to survive the harsh and cruel cold of winter.

The Church also has her own ways of reminding us of the transience of life around this time. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we celebrate two very special liturgies that serve as timely reminders of our fragility. On November 1, we observe the Solemnity of All Saints. It never fails to remind me that this is what we are all ultimately called to become, and this is really God’s grand plan for us all. We celebrate that there are millions who have gone before us who really have gone through life’s arduous journey and passed with flying colours. We don’t know how many such saints there are, but we know that there are many. Many more than there are canonized saints, for sure. For all we know, some of them are our very own blood ancestors who in God’s eyes, have lived the faith well, and have joined their lives with the life of Christ in the most concrete of ways.

Is it a high celebration? It certainly is, and there is great call for it to be. It is a celebration of heaven’s entire population whose cause for its existence is the generous and overflowing love of God. And it also reminds us that we are not alone in this journey of ours, no matter how few friends we may actually have. These unseen friends of ours are the saints who are constantly in God’s presence, and are praying for us so that our journey in life becomes as fruitful as theirs. They pray that we will make the right choices in life; that we will choose to love rather than hate; to respect rather than disdain; uplift rather than trod down; that we will put God before all else in life, and to know that no life on earth is not worth living. And they know that these choices are not easy choices because they consciously made those choices in their lives. So, though they are no longer with us, All Saints’ Day is really a celebration of life; a celebration of the Church Triumphant, as the Fathers of the Church called them.

The next day is another celebration of the Church as well, but that of the Church suffering or Church Expectant. These souls are in their purgative way to be readied for the beatific vision that awaits them. Too little has, in my opinion, been preached about the beauty and richness of the theology of Purgatory. If heaven is sublime, and it is, purgatory is next in terms of sublimity. It gives all who are there in that state of purification the greatest promise that heaven is indeed a blessed assurance. It is a day to remember at Mass all our deceased relations and friends whom we have shared many things with. With some of them we have shared joys, sorrows, meals, interests, surnames (as family) and our beds (as spouses) as well. Their passing from this life has left us with many a lacunae in our own lives. Our prayers and works of mercy carried out with their intentions become them our way of joining hands and hearts across the barriers that life and death have formed.
Some say that the Catholic Church is rather morose, citing these celebrations as dark and somber. I suppose if one were to use the wrong lenses to look at these celebrations, one could be left with a searing sense of ennui and languor. But what we need are the correct lenses so that the image of life that we get from these celebrations are uplifted and enlightened. I hope this blog entry gives this hope to all its readers.

Indeed, as the leaves on the branches of the trees outside my window turn from green to amber to gold, they will soon all fall to the ground when the last vestiges of life get sapped from them. The season is truly changing here. It was German theologian Karl Rahner who said that in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.

To Rahner's erudite reflection I venture to add this - as we we live our lives, let us try as best as we can to harmonise with those unfinished symphonies so that the completed chords can join with the choruses of angels in their unending symphony of praise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Discerning God’s will

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a line from the Lord’s Prayer that millions and millions say, sometimes many times a day. We have heard the phrase “it’s God’s will” tossed around carelessly by people who have not even stopped to ponder what God’s will really is, and where we stand in the light of the will of God Almighty. Most of the time, the phrase “God’s will” is used as a cover-all when something becomes unexplainable and when the situation seems to demand that we make some sense of what lies before us, usually when a tragedy or calamity strikes. And uttering it in such a throw-away manner often may not bring anyone a step closer to where carrying out God’s will should – greater contemplation of God.

God really has only one will – that all creation respond positively to his invitation to eternal life and love with him for eternity. God wants all of creation to find our final home in him. That’s his ultimate will. Anything else that doesn’t lead us home, that distracts us from home, which makes us turn our backs toward home also turns us away from God’s will.

Jesus made it clear in the gospel passage where his disciples come to him and tell him that his family is ‘outside’ looking for him. We are told that Jesus looked at those seated around him ‘inside’ the house, and says, “Who is my mother? Who are my brother and sister?” And continues, referring to those seated around him, saying, “Here are my mother and sister and brother. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my mother and sister and brother.”

Cryptic? Not really. He certainly was not dissing his beloved mother waiting ‘outside’. In fact, if you really think about it, he was giving great hope to all who were in that circle that they have a hope – that there is way in which those whom Jesus preached to, the ‘outsiders’, can also become as close as family to him – those on the ‘inside’ of his life. He in fact is saying, “you (i.e. tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, etc) have a great hope that awaits you because if you listen to the will of God and do it, you are part of my family, and can find your way home”. What is family but a place where home really makes the heart grow fonder.

God’s will is about a home-coming. And it is much less about specifically naming what it is one needs to do concretely than about getting our ‘homing’ devices calibrated well. The less that we train ourselves to point our hearts and minds toward that home in God, the more we will find ourselves in all sorts of problems and difficulties in life.

What then is the antithesis of God’s will? Our will, especially when we are ‘will-full’. One of the greatest, if not THE greatest gift that God ever could give us is our free will. That he doesn’t force us or arm-twist us to love him, to worship him and to adore him shows that he is most secure. But that also shows us that our free and non-coerced response to love him, to worship him and to adore him becomes OUR best gift that we can ever give him, who has no need of any gifts.

Some people have asked me – “Father, how would I know if by choosing this path of life (e.g. taking this person to be my spouse, or accepting this job, or moving into this address, or taking this course of study, etc) I am doing God’s will”? There is no specific yes or no to such answers. It appears to some that seeking God’s will is akin to some kind of crystal ball gazing. It really isn’t.

Certainly, if there are a myriad of choices before us, we need to make some sort of decision, but this is where discerning comes in. With the help of a prayerful spiritual director, and being really honest with him, we can slowly whittle down the choices to a few which are more or less equally ‘good’, paring away those which are obviously wrong and immoral options.

What does honesty have to do with it? Plenty. We need to ask ourselves – in my choice of this ‘thing’ or this ‘task’ or this ‘pursuit’, am I out-rightly making a choice that is immoral and evil? Is it harmful to another person? Is it disrespecting human freedom, human life and human dignity or is it harming, stripping away of dignity, and curtailing the freedom of another person? Am I doing evil and not good? Obviously, if the answer to any of these basic questions is ‘yes’, it is clear as daylight that we are not going anywhere near ‘home’ but completely away from God’s will. The problem is that there are many people out there whose moral compass are out of whack and in dire need for recalibration, but are in complete denial about it. These are the people who are not only out to hurt and deform others, but are also hurting and deforming themselves.

In fact, the gospel text at Mass yesterday hearkens us to be mindful of the call to love God in the way that every Jew is to love the Lord our God - with all our mind (ie, with a clear and knowing conscience), with all our soul (ie, from our deepest depth of our being) and with all our strength (ie, with a determination that sees us purposefully choosing to love, and not be led by feelings and fleeting emotions).

I just came across a funny story where the father was commenting on his son’s handyman skills as he watched his son using a hammer to bang in a nail into a wall. He said, “wow, you use that hammer like lightning!” to which the son beamed with pride, thinking the father commended him on his speed. The father smiled and said “and like lightning, you never strike the same place twice!” Helping one another to do God’s will is also like helping one another to strike for ‘home’ all the time.

Am I being nostalgic when I write that doing God’s will is ultimately about finding our way ‘home’? Perhaps. After all, I am some 15,600km away from home and it does make me think of home on a frequent basis. But the physical distance from Singapore is really nothing compared to how far I really am from my real home in God if I am not constantly re-examining if I am doing God’s will with all my mind, my soul and my strength.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ending up the real losers when we want pain to end too fast

We share in our human psyche an energy that repels, abhors and rejects pain, trauma and suffering. It’s something that all of us share as human beings. Of course, there are the minority who actually like suffering and pain, and look for ways not only to have pain in their lives, but to have it in ways that are bizarre and totally unconventional. While calling these people psychologically maladjusted and weird seems a tad unkind and generalising, a lot of these behaviours are no doubt really self-destructing. I recall watching a documentary some months back about people who subject themselves to strange rituals that inflict pain, and the conclusion was that those people were actually sought the ‘high’ that comes from the pain, and had not really sought the pain for pain’s sake.

Here in the States, one only needs to watch one segment any television commercials, and one will encounter a slew of ads for painkillers offering some form of pain relief, from back-pain, to muscle-aches to headaches. It makes me wonder if this nation is obsessed with numbing or escaping some sort of pain and discomfort as a whole. It’s not necessarily a bad thing I guess. After all, people are known to work or studies better if they are rid of their stabbing nerve aches or back pain. I cannot but laugh silently to myself whenever I see these commercials, because half of the commercial is spent on spewing out at breakneck speed the possible side-effects that these pills and medicines can have on the consumer, often with the words ‘cancer’, or ‘high blood pressure’ or ‘death’ mentioned. It is obvious that medication is never without its risks. But the caveat emptor is always there to protect the seller.

But there are, to be sure, other kinds of pains that are not easily treatable with medication - oral or otherwise. These are the pains that come with life. The disappointments of broken friendship and relationships, the failures of endeavours that started out with every good intention, the reality that a good outcome in most things necessarily entails hard work and sacrifice, and the fact that in life, one is not going to be loved and accepted by everybody. From our Catholic vista or perspective, I guess there is one phrase that is a cover-all for this – redemptive suffering. It gives us as a Body of Christ, a sacred way of dealing with these pains when they come along. And it entails that we constantly remind ourselves that this life is not just for ourselves, and that we are not in the world, existent in the universe for ourselves. There is a bigger and far more immense reality than meets our tiny eye.

That Jesus came into our humanity to share in it in the most real and vivid way shows us that each of our sufferings can have a transformative character, if only we would have the same attitude that Christ had. Our sufferings won’t be transformative (for ourselves or for anyone else, for that matter) if we are not willing to consciously join our sufferings with sufferings of Christ. Because his suffering was universally redemptive, our sufferings would also have (at least in some tiny way) some redemptive value for the world. But sitting in pool of self-pitying mud and wallowing in it has little if no redemptive value at all.

Of course this is far easier said than done. Even when I am in a period of pain and uncertainty, when it is dark (perhaps even literally, as in the coming long dark winter months), I do sometimes want it to end, and to end swiftly. What we often cannot appreciate is that there is a learning that comes with staying in that pain, with journeying with that load, and with the sitting in the darkness in patience and solitude. Strangely, it is when we expedite our exit from these moments too quickly with whatever panacea we can get our hands on, that we really end up cheating ourselves from a much better result if we had only waited and learnt patience and some form of ascesis. That’s when we need to pray as Jesus did at Gethsemane ‘Father, take this cup away from me, but if it is your will, let it be done, not mine’. We have not learnt deeply enough that in life, quick fixes are often only a temporary solution (or welcome distraction) that do not bring much conversion and metanoia to our lives.

Most of us do not live in the luxury of being pain-free in all areas of our lives. We struggle and cope with some form of pain and discomfort on some level, but some of us just either don’t admit it, or talk about it. Whether we do or not does not matter. What really matters is that we challenge ourselves to grow more and more spiritually mature when faced with these pains and sufferings.

Each 40-day period of Lent and the 5 weeks of Advent are a very real reminder to us that there is going to be a period of waiting, a period of ‘gestation’, and a period of patience-learning in life before life really can be celebrated in its fullest joy.

No, life as a Catholic Christian is not about being a self-inflicting, pain-seeking masochist. In fact, it is just the other way around. It is learning to see with a different set of eyes what goodness can be seen in dimness when we adjust to a new level of light, illumined by the light of Christ.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How badly do we want this?

On the television right now are several talent shows from different continents. I think they are both called the X-Factor, with one being held in the UK, and the other, here in the USA. After the huge audition rounds, the next step is what is called ‘boot camp’ followed by ‘judges’ houses’, where the competitors are jetted to some exotic location somewhere far from where they live, and go through yet another round of very tough judging from another group of judges together with the usual four. When these competitors come to face the judges in their houses, they are often asked one question before launching into their song, and it is this – ‘tell us, how bad(ly) do you want this’, to which the contestants are wont to say “oh, you wouldn’t believe just how much!”

Much as it is a predictable response from these celebrity hopefuls, what lies behind the question is the fact that wanting all the trappings of success on the celebrity scene comes with it a truckload of difficulties, challenges and heartbreaks that no one seems to envisage before they get it. As I study theology, and deepen my spiritual insights on life and the great challenge that Christianity poses to every one her believers, it is clearer and clearer to me that this question is also asked of each believer at various times of one’s life.

What is our ultimate aim in life? What are all our hopes and aspirations and dreams and endeavours as we live this life? Oh, I am sure that many will respond that it really depends on what we want in life – some of us are family centered, and want that to be the ultimate aim in life; some are so contented to be married and to have each other as spouses to see them through the days of their lives; some are career minded and want to really go as far as they can to succeed in their jobs. And I am sure there are many, many other ‘options’.

Though these are not bad per se, for us Christians, we cannot but remember that beyond these things, which are good and wholesome (at least we hope they are), we all have one common aim and goal in life, and that is to love and serve God first and to be with him in the next life. That familiar first question of the Baltimore Catechism puts it in the proverbial nutshell.

Knowing that well and having it engrained in us will set us right in our relationships with one another, and with the way in which we interact with nature and the world, and all that is in it. The problem is that even as Christians, not all of us are convinced that this is the fundamental imperative and so, we set all sorts of different priorities and agendas in our lives, oftentimes clashing one with the other, causing a whole gamut of stresses and anxieties. Yesterday’s gospel text of the rejected invitation to the wedding banquet uses those excuses as an analogue for our own excuses why we often find ourselves not wanting to respond wholeheartedly to the offer of the divine life by the one who is Divine.

But I can also see that an inadequate understanding of what it means to love God as the number one love can do to many who think they understand what this entails. Many think that it means that they have to abandon their families, be underachievers in their workplaces, and live consecrated lives, and to forego happiness and pleasure in life. That is a false or misunderstood definition of what holiness is. Holiness is not saying “I can’t do that, or do this now”. It is “I can see the pleasure that this gives me, but I can also see that there is a greater, more perduring pleasure that I should be aiming for, and I will take great efforts to choose that with my will and intellect”. Of course, that ‘struggle’ is what each one of us faces every time our lives come to any sort of crossroads that requires of us to make a decision of where we should be going; what road we should be taking.

I would certainly hope that catechumens in the RCIA would be as enthused as some of those X-Factor contestants before significant moments in their journey of metanoia and formation. Would they respond with such deep conviction that those contestants have and say “Oh, I want this so much! I eat, sleep, and drink this – it means my life”.

Because that would be what loving God with one’s whole mind, whole soul and whole strength means.

So, how badly do you want this?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Forgetfulness – the reason why many fall into sin and error

What sets us apart from the other animals and sentient beings are the gift of our intellect and our wills. This is an undeniable fact. This combination sets us head and shoulders above the animals.

What is our greatest gift is really also a double-edged sword. Whilst our intellect can grasp and comprehend in ways that are deep and profound, it is when we forget our giftedness that we sometimes end up living beneath our dignity as well. Forgetfulness can often be one of the root causes of sin.

What makes a saint is not that one has been sinless. What makes a saint is the realization that one is a sinner who needs to be standing under the brilliance of God’s mercy, and one has never allowed the self to forget that. The unrepentant sinner, however, is one who has forgotten how to be grateful for life, and harbours grudges and ill-will to many around oneself, being callous with words and unthinking in actions that end up hurting and wounding. Sometimes, the innocent parties in one’s life suffer the most from such actions. The saint is one who sees and realizes that nothing is possible without the tender mercy of God, and is constantly reminding oneself of how much grace awaits one if one only asks for it.

The forgiven sinner constantly remembers. The unrepentant sinner easily forgets. The former needs no particular reason to be thankful. The other only waits till a ‘good enough’ occasion comes about to do so.

It is a fact that the Internet has made our world a much smaller place, and my experience of being half a world away from home has made me appreciate this in a concrete way daily. Each evening at 6pm here in Washington DC, I get to download a copy of the Straits Times onto my iPad, and I am able to receive the day’s news at the very same time that Singaporeans get theirs in print form. I am not sure if it was coincidental, but I did notice that in both Saturday’s and Sunday’s edition, that there were two articles that featured the element of death and love.

While Saturday’s edition spoke of Rose Parties, Sunday’s edition featured an article written by Lee Wei Ling reminiscing about her mother. Cutting across both Rose Parties and Ms Lee’s stories are the elements of mortality, emotion and love – three things that feature richly in our human living experiences, three things which are often the fundament of what constitutes a deep and meaningful life, and three things which many do not really know how to deal with adequately and appropriately either.

I do not intend to critique these two articles in any way. I am sure that many have been touched by them, and want to do something about their relationships with their loved ones after reading them. If so, that would be something good that has come out of such articles. But there is something else that lies much deeper that causes most of us to need something like death to remind us the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of our lives and our loves. It is this – our shared sense of forgetfulness and how easy it is for us to be ungrateful in life.

The Catholic faith has always been helping her members to cultivate an ongoing sense of gratitude for above all things, God himself. It is called the Eucharist. Its etymology is from the Greek Eucharistia, which means ‘thanksgiving’. But I wonder how many Catholics enter a Church for the celebration of Mass with that purpose in mind – to be thankful. Many do go with petitions of some sort on their minds and in their hearts. And with the approaching of the school exams in Singapore, it’s a safe wager to make that good examination results are a common unsaid petition.

But one doesn’t need to have had one’s prayers answered in order to be thankful. Could our ‘business’ or ‘quid-pro-quo’ attitude in life cause us to see that only if God does something extraordinary for us that causes him to ‘deserve’ our thanks after that? It would be sad if we need constant reminder after constant reminder to be people of gratitude. I suppose, articles like the two mentioned can jolt our selective memory. Some are reminded to be grateful after attending retreats, reading spiritual books, having good ‘soul’ friends, reading meaningful articles or even getting a doctor’s prognosis that doesn’t seem terrible positive. But if these remind us to be grateful people for the kindness shown to us in life, they will go a long way to help us to be saints, or at least, be saints in the making.

So, why should we be thankful at Mass? Not just for what God has done, certainly. For who he is, and for who we are. We forget that too easily, and that is the cause of most of our sinfulness. We share a certain spiritual dementia that causes us forget we are made in the image and likeness of the one who gave us life in the first place. If going for daily Mass doesn’t inculcate in us a spirit of gratitude for everything (and everyone) in life, we would have been missing the forest for the proverbial trees.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The deserts of our lives – a place where God can speak to our hearts

The school that I am currently studying in as well as my accommodation (affectionately known as the Castle) which is just a stone’s throw from each other here in Washington DC, are within crawling distance from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have visited it on several occasions, and try to concelebrate the Sunday morning Mass there when the weekend comes. Entering this Basilica always gives me a sense of going into the heart of Mother Mary, where she places me together with her beloved Son, Jesus.
One interesting nugget of information that I found out about this shrine was that this was the place that Dorothy Day, the devout American Catholic convert and social worker, came to in the 1920s on a day trip out of her native New York City to get some help from the Lord. She was at her lowest, after having given birth to a baby girl, became Catholic, and an unwed mother. The man she was with at the time was a staunch opposer to all forms of religion. Dorothy chose God over this man (a very tough choice, as can be imagined), and found herself at this time very much alone. Apparently, in her biography, she told of how she spilled her very being out to the Lord in that particular shrine, and how she felt that she was in a desert all alone. Did the Lord take her out of the desert right there and then? You’d hope. But no, this was no Hollywood story. She had to hop back on the train to take her back to New York City (it’s about a four hour train ride from here) but it was only when she was back there that she met Peter Maurin who was to be the one who would help to start the Catholic Worker Movement with her in 1933.

What struck me about this story was that Dorothy Day described herself as being in a desert at that point. Desert moments occur in just about everybody’s life. When we are abandoned and lonely, we are in deserts. When we are betrayed and feel forlorn, we are in deserts. When we encounter failure and rejection, we are in deserts. When we get misjudged and abused, we are in deserts. Desert moments come also at the least expected of times. When loved ones get ill and their earthly end looms in the horizon; when we want to do God’s will and it seems the hardest thing to be happy to do; when those we put our faith and trust in, return it with infidelity and a whole basket of hurt feelings. These are desert moments that so many of us can connect with.

The difference between a faith-filled person and one who is faith-less, is the way that they handle their desert moments when they come. The faith-filled person will try to look beyond the pain and the sorrow of the moment, and open up to the Lord, like the way Dorothy Day did in the National Shrine back then when everything was breaking apart. The faithful person will try to not make her pain and her loneliness the heart of the universe, and dare to even ask God what is it that she should be learning from this whole experience. The faith-filled person will try one’s best not to blame and shame others, tempting though it may be. It is a tough decision to make, because it means not telling God what to do when the proverbial chips are down. It is very easy to make God our servant and give him a ‘to-do’ list and perhaps even have a ‘to-be-done-by’ date at the bottom.

People who lack faith will do one or more of the following – blame one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s parents, one’s employers, one’s superiors, one’s unhealed past memories, and perhaps the most common one of all, blame God. After all, he is the best scapegoat since he doesn’t retaliate in any violent way. At least not most of the time.

To be fair, I don't think any of us are totally one way or the other. I know I'm not. The reality is that we waver between these poles. Sometimes we do better at being faith-filled, and sometimes we are at the other end. Just as sometimes the desert can be a very hot place, and sometimes a freezing hell hole.

The desert in the scriptures is a place of great foreboding. In the Near Eastern mind, it is a place where the devil roams and inhabits. That is why Jesus was sent to the desert after his baptism – to encounter evil and to begin that great battle that was to be the story his life, and the greatest story ever told. But we need to also know that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus there. God did not send him there alone and without a comforter. His love for the Father and his Father’s will gave him the strength to go to the desert with a confidence and a trust that he would be alright despite the battles that would be fought there.

When we find ourselves in the desert alone, we need to reclaim our baptismal dignity and remember that firstly, we have never been without the Holy Spirit in our journey in life, and secondly, like Jesus after his third temptation, we too, have our Guardian Angels to ‘light and guard, to rule and guide’.

And of course, though I had made reference to this before, it bears repeating here. In the book of the Apocalypse, to escape the foreboding dragon, Mary was given refuge in a desert. That is not what a desert is for. No one in the right mind would flee to a desert for refuge from danger. Yet, God’s ways are often not ours. It is precisely in the most unlikely of places that we will find the most unexpected of graces.

I do have my bouts of surreal homesickness now and then. I find myself low in spirits when I realize just how far I am from home and family, or when I glance at my watch and realize that everyone in Singapore is fast asleep as I am warming up to a cup of tea in the afternoon in the cold DC weather. This is when I go to the roof of the Castle, and have a very good view of the dome of the National Shrine before getting my nose buried back in the books. Sure, it may not be much of desert experience compared to those of others, but the desert takes all forms when it comes. (That's what I see from the roof of my 'castle'. In the foreground is the back portion of my school)

One doesn’t need to have the Basilica as one’s neighbour to find comfort in desert moments. Rather, what one needs is really the faith to enter the desert with a new resolve, knowing that one is not alone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mercy, death and dying – time to “up” the heat.

Death and dying are things that many people don’t like to talk about or think about very much. The saying that there are two things that are certain in life – taxes and death – is probably very true, but still, the topics of death and dying seem to be taboo. Yes, this holds true even for Catholics who believe in the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

As a priest who had been in the parish and active in ministry for the ten years before coming over to the States, I was constantly reminded of how fragile life really is, especially if I was the presider at a funeral liturgy, and even much more so if I had journeyed with the person before his death. If there is one thing that I miss in active ministry it is funeral masses. To be sure, weddings are lovely and beautiful, but I am still quite unconvinced that many couples really are deeply aware of the true vocation that marriage really is, and what God is really calling them to as a sacrament. It’s a common lament among priests – that much as we can talk and instruct and guide couples about marriage and its deep meaning, many of them are just too polite to ask further, or too caught up in the ‘romance’ to be awed by God’s part in this relationship. Most of the time, the deeper significance of how God is present to a couple in marriage comes much later in their married life. I guess this is where marriage enrichment programmes like Marriage Encounter come in. Apart from marriages, there are baptism liturgies and first communion liturgies, which are part and parcel of parish life that I do miss as well. But I must say that it is the funeral masses that I find most meaningful and also most challenging to ‘celebrate’ well, and yes, something that I do miss.

Why this is felt strongly by me is because I have come to see that very often (of course there are exceptions) it is when we are at these ‘life border’ situations that we come face to face with death, especially with the death of a close relative, a spouse, a child, a parent or a dear friend, that something opens up. At these liminal-space moments, one can hardly turn one’s gaze away from just how fragile life really is. Many a time, I have found that these are moments where a person becomes receptive to life, to love, and to reality. Life as it is lived now at this breakneck speed provides too many ways to escape from the depth and meaning of life. I am not a party pooper, but if our life is just one big party after another, one high after another, one thrill after another, one titillation after another, it is when these are brought to a halt that one begins to see another side of life that asks one to search for meaning and depth. These times are the tender entry points for God to enter through a portal of one’s life which hitherto may have been stubbornly closed shut, and where the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” had hardly been on the list of one’s everyday vocabulary.

I have found that when I spend some time at funeral wakes to speak to family members, that they begin to “loosen up” their view that the Church is ‘stuffy’ and ‘officious’, much more so when the death was a result of an apparent suicide. In a multi-cultural and multi-religious society like Singapore, particularly in some races, there will be a very mixed crowd that gathers at the funeral liturgy, and this becomes a most excellent time to broach the topic of the gift of Divine Mercy that Jesus is for all of us. There is bad form and good form at these liturgies, and bad form would include saying that the deceased is now an angel; or that God needs Grandma more than we do now; or that Aunt Sally is now a saint in heaven (because we are not the Congregation for the Cause of Saints), among other things. Good form is preaching about the promise of the resurrection, the need to continue to pray and offer up penance and petition for the soul of the deceased, the hope that our Christian faith gives us, and the meaning of the many liturgical symbols that one sees surrounding the casket and in the sanctuary. They all give great hope for us at the time of separation and grief.

Ultimately, it is mercy that we have been given by God to have enjoyed life (because God could very easily choose not to create us, but he did), and it is mercy that makes it all possible for us to be united with him after we have lived our lives on this earth.

Some of us are not as blessed as others. Most of us have been surrounded by friends who love and support us in life. But some of us may have people who are just bent on making our lives miserable and full of suffering. What does the Christian do when one is plagued with these “itches that cannot be scratched”? I think one of the greatest things we could ever do to those who do harm to us, those who hate us, those who curse us, those who wish evil on us, those who misjudge us, is to pray for these people that they will receive God’s mercy. Cursing them would be to lower ourselves to their level, and certainly not something worthy of Christian action. Jesus told us to bless those who curse us, and forgive those who curse us. This is perfection in God’s eyes, and we should all aim for perfection. Anything less would be an insult to the One whose image and likeness we are made in.

How should we best prepare for death? By being merciful, because this hones our ability to be appropriate receivers of Divine Mercy when it is shown to us. We can’t get ready overnight. We need a whole lifetime of priming so that when it comes our time to receive God’s Mercy, we will recognize it for the amazing grace that it is.

It’s a bit like getting the centralized heating working when the cold winter approaches. Now I know that this is something Singaporeans would never associate themselves with but bear with me. Here in DC, the warm summer days are over, and temperature is dropping each day. Mike, the Maintenance Manager of our “castle” shared with me how the central heat gets working in winter. There are miles of radiator pipes that send the steam generated from the boiler in the basement throughout each room, each hallway and each bathroom of this immense place. Apparently, this needs to be done slowly, in increments of half hour segments for about three weeks before it can be fully operated, because a sudden surge of super-hot steam through pipes that were not used for the past nine months would surely cause them to burst.

As Mike shared this with me, I immediately saw its link with mercy. We need to keep opening our pipes of mercy regularly, offering them to others, so that when God’s mercy comes full at the end of our lives, we are ready to receive all that God wants to give us.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Attracting God’s attention

On one of those rare occasions this week, I had a rare moment of rest time from my studies, and wandered into the common room of the castle of my residence. I fumbled with the switches and the TV’s remote control, I did the American thing – channel surfed. It was mind-boggling how many channels the cable TV has. Literally hundreds.

Of course, there were education channels where there were good history programs and documentaries, which were very interesting to watch, but at the other end of the spectrum was what I would call pure trash and offered nothing but visceral delights. But what I found most amusing were their infomercial channels, where product after product being sold offered promise after promise of making one a happy person in various areas of one’s life. Gadgets for the home promised a more convenient lifestyle, products for the body promised health with little or no discipline needed, and products for beauty promised the ability to get the attention of the opposite sex almost without even trying. Perhaps there should be a product that promised Americans jobs, which is something this country seems to be in dire need of. But the bottom line of so many of these products lies the selling point, sometimes clear as a bell, sometimes very subliminal – this is the way to get others to find you attractive, and you will be happy.

If we spend so much time and effort in trying to get others to accept and like us in life, by searching for that correct fragrance, wear that correct dress, have that accepted body shape, live in that correct address or drive that correct car, do we ever spend time pondering what it is in life that would make us become attractive to God. Well, to many, I suppose, this question would be nonsensical, but for various reasons.

The atheist would say God doesn’t exist, so it’s a non-question. The spiritual person would say that one doesn’t need to anything to be attractive to God because God loves us all, and has no condition to his love. And there would be the many between this spectrum who hold the view that some things we do can make us more attuned to God and some can lead us away from him.

In my “Inner Way” course that is one of my electives, one of the things that we have discussed is what our spiritual lives mean to us as human beings. The purpose or rationale of a Spiritual Director is to guide one to reach that path of life so that our deepest meaning can be uncovered, and our path to that can be less covered.

I was glad to hear Abbot Lee (that’s his title and name, and no, he is not Chinese) say that it is mercy that lies at the heart of God, and it is that merciful heart that we should ultimately be in union with. In other words, we come closest to God and his merciful heart when we honestly admit of our need for his mercy.

What comes to mind is the parable that Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14. In that story lies the secret to the heart of God, and what makes us attractive to him.

You see, it’s not all the ways that we have not sinned that makes us attractive in God’s eyes, because if that were the case, we will have merited heaven on our own accord, inflating in no small way our huge egos that would hinder us from entering the doorway to heaven (not that heaven has a doorway). But it is just the opposite, when we have sinned and realized that we have sinned, requiring us to ask nothing more from God but his tender mercy, allowing us to dip our parched souls in the pools of his life-giving waters that stream from his heart, that enables us to be ‘attractive’ to him. In fact, it is when we see who we are and stand ‘a distance away’, and not raise our eyes to heaven in a stance like that of the publican, that precisely brings us closer to heaven and let heaven come to our eyes.

I don’t think many of us get that at all. And so, we spend most of our time jumping the hoops, and trying to get God’s attention by our deeds and works and fulfilling of obligations. No, it’s not that these are bad. In themselves they are good and very needful, but if we forget why we do them, and fail to consistently remind ourselves the rationale for doing them, we can easily end up thinking that we are doing them SO THAT we get God, rather than BECAUSE God has ‘gotten’ us first.

And no, I am in no way advocating that we lead sin-filled and lives of debauchery either, erroneously reading Rom 5:20 to our seeming advantage. Just because where “sin abounds, grace abounds even greater” does not mean we should live in sin with wild abandon.

It must be the awareness of this that as Church, when we gather for the Eucharistic meal, we need to begin with that stark, honest and humble acknowledgement of “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison”. It is our universal cry for God’s infinite mercy that throws light on our darkened souls that enables us to enter correctly (and in the correct light) into the banquet hall of love.

And that makes us very very attractive to God.

Monday, September 5, 2011

100th Blog entry

Dear readers and friends

The blog entry that you read posted just before this one (scroll down please) marks the 100th blog entry in this endeavour that I started on October 8 2009. "One entry every Monday morning" - that was my aim. It is with God's grace that I have kept that up with a modicum of regularity . No, it was not about me. I wrote it to keep the Catholic mind thinking, and to invite readers to grow in their search for meaning and for God, a search that never really ends. It just gets deeper.

Thank you, dear readers, for making this both a joy and a challenge to me. There were great moments of insight and grace, comments of support and love, and I must admit, in the past few weeks, some abuse as well (for various reasons, I could not post those that were out rightly abusive and threatening) that was unbecoming of true Catholicism and rather upsetting. I must say that I had never thought it possible that a priest blogger who tries to be as gentle as possible with words in the blog can be vilified and targeted for abuse.

And no, I will not allow the use this blog to be a means to communicate to other readers any messages of hate and threat and violence of whose god is better or stronger than whose. We are not in kindergarten anymore. I simply will not post any comments that are seditious and inflammatory in nature. As most of you know, there are laws against this.

But if you are interested to adult dialogue, please give me your contact email, or identify yourselves, and I will be most pleased to communicate with you. Your identity will not be revealed in my blog. It is far too easy to hide behind anonymity in the cyber-world when one wants to throw stones. This blog space is not a place for violence of any nature. I hope you respect this. Yesterday morning’s Gospel text at Mass reminded me how to treat such persons – like tax collectors and Pharisees. Well, Jesus loved tax collectors, and called them to grace. Matthew himself was a converted one. This I believe I must do - imitate Jesus as far as possible.

But on to happier things - I had the intention of doing some sort of celebration gathering for the 100th blog anniversary, but alas, I had to be moved from Singapore and could not possibly hold any gathering with my readers. But I do hope that you will continue with your journey with me and come to re-appreciate in deeper and better ways a journey that takes us to God’s heart – a heart beating with love for us all.

Thank you once more for your kind and faithful readership. This is not my celebration. It is ours, and God love you all!

Happy 100th everyone!

Fr Luke

Communication - is it our stumbling block to God?

The 13th century Persian poet Mevlana, or more commonly known as Rumi, has a poem called Unseen Rain, where one of the stanzas reads “What I most want is to spring out of this personality, then to sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached”. I do often wonder if we too, have lived too long where we can be reached.

When I came across this line, I felt my attention frozen somewhat, because I do personally feel that this is one of the greatest problems that affects all of us living in the era of the super-fast mass communication, aided by the advent and incessant use of the internet and the communication highways that we are on daily. Even if we are aware of its apparent drawbacks and negative impact to our soul, we are almost too deep into it to pull ourselves away from it to, as it were, recover from being too easily reached and to really rediscover our selves.

But I must begin by saying that there is a wonderful and positive side to the communication ease. In fact, this very blog that your eyes are reading through your computers or android phones is possible because of this information highway. Without it, there would be no blog, and nothing I have had to say would be read by people living halfway across the globe. The information superhighway has enabled us to gain so much more in terms of knowledge and to do research that hitherto would have taken a far longer time to complete. It allows us to communicate with ease and great economy with friends, loved ones and family who live thousands of miles away. It is so inexpensive to call my family members who live in Singapore from where I live in Washington DC that I can even call them just to check in on them daily, and to reassure them of my well being, and to get assurance of theirs, at the rate of about 2 cents a minute. It does make the world a much smaller place.

But having said that, I also believe that being too easily reached, as Rumi wrote, does have its downside, which we hardly reflect on. What amazes me is that Rumi wrote that in the 13th century, way before then advent of any form of advanced communication. He was not bewailing the speed of communication. What he was bemoaning was the fact that we human beings have a tendency to want to run or escape from things that give us depth, especially when we know that depth comes when one removes oneself from the noise and distraction that the world gives, whether one is immersed in the modern day helter-skelter world of gadgets and gizmos, or living in 13th century Persia. We have a certain allergy and hesitancy to reach our centre, and to come to love what is deepest inside of us.

I am currently reading a fascinating book entitled Poustinia – Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer by Catherine Doherty, the founder of the Madonna House Apostolate. It tells of the humble beginnings of this movement which tries to cater to the need for people to “stand still and allow the deadly restlessness of our tragic age to fall away like the worn-out, dusty cloak that it is”. No, she was neither a hater of modernity, nor an advocate against the cyber-age. But she was given a grace to see that we human beings share a certain yen for the search for God within, which the world without can easily block or remove from our consciousness.

In my Thomistic Seminar course that I am currently ploughing through, I am reminded once again that the aim of our moral and spiritual lives, which is not at all separated and distinct from our daily physical lives, is the final participation in God’s wisdom, where contemplation is reached. We forget this, and this is made even more easily forgotten when we only think that our world is about our work, our health, our families or our achievements. A whole lot of 'do, do, do', but very little 'be'. Not that these are bad in themselves, but our involvement in them need to lead us to appreciate where their geneses were from, and what they are leading us to. If God is not the reason and the answer for our 'doing', we may be in danger of losing our origins or our way back.

True, not many preachers speak convincingly of this enough. Perhaps it is because it necessarily means that the preacher himself is convinced of this, and it is a hard task – both to live and to witness to it. But if done well and celebrated well, the Liturgy of the Church itself speaks volumes about the need to displace ourselves from the centre of the universe. The very fact that we show up and participate despite our wanting to stay in bed; despite mouthing prayers that don’t particularly mean much to us personally that morning; praying for people who we don’t really know; bringing to our attention the “universal” church which is something that I can’t even wrap my mind around, in some ways, “forces” me to think outside of myself and make me a less selfish and self-centered person. I am not at Liturgy for myself. I am there for the ‘other’ that I cannot see, and this experience trains me to meet the great Other that I will one day see.

So, even if it is for a moment, or even an hour a day, it would be more than wise to go into ‘silent mode’, and appreciate God within, to, as Rumi said, go to where you cannot be reached. In that place, it is ultimately God who reaches us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are we Christian disciples or would Jesus call us Satan?

As I was reflecting on yesterday’s gospel passage, it was the fact that Jesus called Simon Peter ‘Satan’ that seemed become a point of prolonged contemplation. Jesus, we know, had a real soft spot for Simon Peter, but at the same time, when it was clear to Jesus that he really missed the point of what Jesus was all about, Jesus did not hesitate to say it as it was, even to the extent of calling him ‘Satan’. It’s not that Peter was satanic by a long shot, but it was precisely that he missed the point of Jesus’ very purpose, which was to usher in the kingdom of God.

Peter had his own take on what the kingdom of God was about. For him, it was something that could not, should not and must not entail suffering of any kind, let alone being killed in the most gruesome and cruel way.

But I think this was not just Peter’s problem alone. In fact, there are a lot of Peter’s in the world. We are Peters whenever we want a plain sailing Christian life, and have a notion that the Christian life is one in which suffering and pain and anything that reminds us of the cross should be vanquished from our lives the moment we become baptized.

When I was in Singapore ministering as a priest, I often encountered many converts to Catholicism from the Taoist or Ancestral Worship background, and often, it was clear to me that though they had gone through the RCIA journey and had received the sacraments of initiation and were sacramentally living the Catholic life, in hidden reality, their view of God was still rather Taoist or steeped in Ancestral Worship categories.

It is most convenient to have God at our beck and call, and to have him answer all of our human needs. Perhaps the background that some had come from gave the idea that God will always answer prayers, especially if one were to ‘jump the hoops’ or do whatever one was instructed to do to appease the gods. When insufficiently catechized, the convert to Catholicism may be totally unaware that they have brought those categories of how god operates, and as it were, simply changed the face of their former deity to now have a Jewish appearance of Jesus, albeit with some Palestinian facial images, as would be expected of someone coming from Jewish stock.

This then becomes problematic when as a convert, God does not seem to answer prayers as ‘powerfully’ as when one was in one’s former religious belief. And I can fully appreciate the confusion and perhaps even disappointment one can experience when in the throes of suffering and pain and seeming hopelessness, one looks at the heavens and with fists clenched in rage, shout out “you are not as powerful as I thought you were, Jesus!” Indeed, in some of the responses to last week’s blog, there were some rather disappointed and pained Catholic converts who came to that conclusion that being Catholic turned out to be a disappointment that they had never anticipated.

In the gospel text of yesterday’s liturgy, Simon Peter clearly didn’t get it. For many of us, the process of catechesis and formation tries to help us to get it, to fully embrace the reality that God’s kingdom is really a process that involves a necessary struggle and a training, as some spiritual masters have put it. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known for coining the phrase ‘cheap grace’, when he reminds us that the grace of God requires a sort of a suffering on our part. This must be the cross that Jesus is speaking of. But we, unfortunately, want cheap grace.

In almost all areas of our lives, there is suffering and a carrying of some cross in some form. Think of the mother who sacrifices much for her family, or the artist who goes through blocks and blocks of marble to come to that block that finally enables him to carve out the perfect image in his mind; or the athlete who goes through months and months of rigorous training, enduring mind-numbing pain to be able to at the Olympics break a record and have that opportunity to stand at the top podium of the Gold Medalist; or the student who goes through the daily grind of study discipline and diligent work to finally make that breakthrough in understanding tough Theological arguments and concepts in order to make them real and relevant for the laity. These are sufferings, and it would be tempting to want to have them cheap.

I believe that many may want baptism to be the key to the magic door that makes everything smooth and easy, and all things to come our way. But when we think this way, unfortunately, Satan may be our hidden middle name.