Monday, February 28, 2011

When Reality Shows Don’t Show Reality

Our current world seems to be obsessed with reality television. It takes form in so many different ways and the hunger for this kind of entertainment drives the moguls of the television world to up their ante and take their audience to higher levels of adrenalin rushes.

I was watching with reflective amusement at the latest American Idol telecast a couple of days ago and it showed hopeful contestants walking a dramatically long walkway to sit before the three judges to receive from them a verdict of whether they were going to be in the final 24 or sent home. From this point on in the contest, if they are in the group of finalists, they will no longer be judged by the three, but by the television viewers who will vote via the phone lines. Each time the contestant came before the judges, they reminded them that from this point on, it is the public who will decide who they want to pick for their next American Idol. The phrase that was constantly being used was “we are looking for someone who has the whole package”. Contestants were often asked, “do you have the entire package?”

I can only fathom a guess as to what this ‘entire package’ is. It probably means that the person needs to sing, look good, dance well, be friendly and amiable, be charming enough to win the hearts (and votes) of the public, and in the end sell the records or CDs that will be produced as part of the winning contract.

So, it is apparent that the winner is going to be decided and determined by how much they pander to and please their ‘idol worshippers’. If they don’t live up to their expectations, or meet with what they deem to be the standards that ‘idols’ should have, they won’t get their votes. Understandably, the contestants will do all that they can to ‘jump the hoops’ that their audience set and get them pleased as punch in order that they won’t be knocked out.

In many of my conversations with people who have stopped coming to Church or have stopped believing in God altogether, one of the very common reasons that they cite is that God had not answered their prayers. Inevitably, they will quote me Matthew 7:7-11, where Jesus says “ask and you will be given; seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you”. Having asked and not been given; having sought and not found, and having knocked and still have doors closed in the face could be rather discouraging, especially when times were desperate.

Could the ‘idol voter’ mentality could be working here, causing many to abandon their belief in God simply because God had not performed according to their expectations? After all, in remaining silent and not opening doors that had been rapped on, God has failed to ‘jump the hoops’, and had not delivered the ‘whole package’. It does seem then to legitimize a ‘vote’ against God out of the whole ‘idol’ contest, and put other ‘idols’ who can deliver.

I’m afraid that when this happens, we have begun to do the unthinkable – making ourselves judges of God himself, putting him on the spot and putting him out of the spotlight of our lives.

Do we do this consciously? Of course not. It’s unthinkable. Yet, if one reflects a bit deeper on the state of spiritual affairs, where many are no longer going to church and believing in God, it does appear that God is being punished, edged out, and banished from many lives simply because he has not met our expectations. It could well be that illness was not met with a healing, crises were not tended to, and broken hearts were not mended.

What does Matthew 7:7-11 have to say about this? Jesus doesn’t lie, so his promises do hold. Maybe we need to ask ourselves if we asked for the correct things to be given us, or sought what really needed seeking, and knocked on the correct doors. If we are only willing to worship a god who meets our standards and expectations, aren’t we then guilty of an egregious sin of idol worshipping? In humility, we need to vacate the judgment bench and ask God to take his rightful place.

And as we rely on his Divine Mercy, may we truly let reality show.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The benefit of pain

Most of us have heard of the phrase “no pain, no gain”. In the world of exercise and fitness, this is uttered by trainers who encourage their trainees who complain of pain as a result of having activated muscles which have otherwise been unused before. To avoid this pain, many choose not to exercise altogether.

In fact, avoidance of pain seems to be an unspoken quest by millions the world over. Some choose not to enter certain relationships so that ‘pain’ can be avoided. Married couples choose to raise certain ‘painful’ topics which can result in arguments with volcanic repercussions. Various addictions can result from finding in them ways to ‘escape’ facing pains in life.

In the medical world, there exists a condition called CIPA or Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis. This is an extremely rare medical condition where the sufferer is born without the ability to sense pain or extreme temperatures at all. At first glance, it does seem like a good thing, doesn’t it? One can imagine life to be so different and carefree, when one can live life with less care about getting injured, and move about as if one was invincible. No more fearing injections or maybe even going for operations without the need to have anesthesia.

But take it a step further and one can imagine all sorts of complications that can result of being unable to feel pain. Think of little children who walk into rough walls scraping skin and not feeling blood streaming from their forehead, or biting their lips till they bleed, and not stopping because they don’t feel the pain, or literally rubbing their eyes out, of plunging their hands into boiling water without thinking about the pain, but resulting in terrible scalding. Indeed, sensing pain is actually necessary for proper growth and protection in life.

So too for our spiritual lives. There are without doubt, many experiences of pain in our lives. Just go to any Novena session where petitions letters are read out, and you will see the various kinds of pains and sufferings that many are going through daily in their lives. Underlying the letters seems to be a request that these instances of pain be removed from their lives, so that happiness can be attained. I do empathise and do pray for people suffering from pain and have sufferings of various kinds, but I am suggesting that a different approach to suffering can help us in a way that many of us have not thought about. And that approach is to ask “what?” Not “why?”

Asking ‘why is this pain happening in my life’ is a very common question. One doesn’t need to be living on a higher plane of existence to ask this. Anybody experiencing suffering of any sort asks this. But when our spiritual lives begin maturing, we need to change that question to a ‘what’. ‘What can I learn from this pain?’ or ‘what is this suffering teaching me about myself, about life, and about God?’ In my encounter with people, this question is not often asked, but it is a transformative question.

To ask God to remove all our pain could be the worst thing that we can be asking from him. We could be asking him to prevent all possibilities of true growth that comes from our experience of pain and suffering. We could be asking God to give us a case of spiritual CIPA.

Our good Catholic spirituality must instead help us to embrace what is known as ‘Redemptive Suffering’ where suffering becomes transformative not just for ourselves but for the world as well. This is when our suffering is carried with a purpose and a decision to love. It is to offer our suffering to God and ask him to use this in an act of loving surrender.

“No pain; no gain” could thus then be applied to our spiritual lives as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Where are you?

In opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, after Adam sinned, Yahweh is heard asking Adam “where are you?”

It appears that God is clueless about Adam’s whereabouts. God seems to have lost sight of Adam, and is trying to ‘find’ him. The ensuing response from Adam was that he was afraid of God because he heard the sound of God in the garden. And that is very interesting.

Where was Adam? In reality, he was right inside of Eden, which was God’s place, where all was provided for, and where there was abundance. Eden was also God’s splendid creation, where man and woman were the crown of his creation. It’s not that God didn’t know where Adam was that he asked him that seemingly simple question. Rather, it was Adam who didn’t know where he was. And that was the crux (and has since been) of humankind’s bane.

When we are not clear about how loved we are, how secure we are held in God’s loving plan, we will run all about trying to find new thrills and spills in order to justify our existence. And as any sociologist will be able to tell you, this is a never ending, never fully satisfying and an always falling-short-of-complete-fulfillment enterprise of the human heart. In Rev Fr Rolheiser’s column on the internet last week he gave very clear examples of how our human mind and heart are on this never-ending quest for more and more, always afraid that there’s not enough. But that is illusory.

It was Adam’s fear that there was also not enough in Eden that caused him to stretch out his hand to take from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And it has been evil’s intent to always make us insecure and want more and more. And this brings me back to God’s first question to Adam “where are you?”

Adam didn’t realize that he was in Eden, where God’s providence was in abundance, and that there was no need of any fear. Adam didn’t know how good he had it, and to Eve’s discredit, neither did she.

Someone once said wisely that the difference between Christianity and other religions can be summed up this way – almost all other religions will have us human beings looking for God, but Christianity’s unique feature has God looking for us. Understood this way, then it opens us to the reality that we are in God’s ambit of love, and our struggles and problems are really precipitated by the fact that like Adam, we too don’t know where we are. Christianity wakes us up to the fact that God has been looking for us, and that we have been playing hide-and-go-seek with him.

What marks a holy person is evidenced that he or she has a certain confidence in God’s prevailing presence in the world despite the many evils that are present. Any saint whose life guides us on our way to heaven becomes a beacon of hope amidst the pains and turmoil that none of our lives are spared of. Our pride and quest for independence has us going our way without wanting any help. This will only get us deeper into our messes, causing us to ‘hide’ as Adam did because he was afraid of God, who was never meant to be feared in the first place.

In a real life analogy, I was driving in one of Singapore’s tunnels just last week, and this tunnel (KPE) is notorious for its may speed cameras that will photograph cars going above 70km/h. As it was in the middle of the afternoon, there were not many cars in the tunnel, and I was happily cruising along, not realizing that my foot was getting heavy on the pedal. A glance at the speedometer showed to my horror that I was hitting 85km/h. Instinctively I slowed down and saw that with no vehicles in front of me, there is a tendency to speed without even realizing it. What I did then was to make sure that I was driving behind a car that was keeping the speed limit.

It was then that I saw that even in our lives, if the moral road ahead of us is totally free and open, we have every tendency to speed out of control, to our detriment. But if we make that choice to ‘drive’ behind holy people and saints, not only are we assured of where we are heading towards, but also at the same time, we will be travel at a safe speed. They who go before us, lead the way, and remind us like Adam needed reminding, ‘where we are’ in God’s loving plan.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Why Mary is important to us as Church

Devotion to Mary is a very common Catholic tradition. Even people who don’t know anything deep or essential about Catholicism, the illiterate or the uneducated have been known to say that the difference between Protestant Christianity and Catholic Christianity is that the former is the ‘Jesus’ one, and latter is the one that has Mary in it.

But the essentials about why we have great devotion to Mary are lost to many because they hardly see that great connection between faith in Jesus, and the love of Mary. We all know that we don’t worship Mary, and neither do we adore her as a goddess. Besides, Mary would never want that from us, because only God alone deserves worship and adoration. But why then do we have this great devotion to Mary as Catholics?

In life, there are essentials and less-essentials. And it is found in almost every aspect of life. You name it – from things as mundane as clothing and personal grooming, to things as elaborate as cars and computers, there are the essentials and less-essentials. What is the essential in clothing? Basic covering and protection. Just cover up what needs to be covered up, and you have clothing. You can use bearskins, or fig leafs. But what is less-essentials would be the additions or decorations, or attachments, or adornments if you like. So skirts can have long trains, dresses can have long sleeves, huge collars, lace, sequins, appliquĂ©, one can wear hats, gloves and stockings to complete the look.

In the computer world, what is essential is the CPU, keyboard and monitor. But we all know that you can add so much to this combination, upgrade it, and soup it up and it can just about run the entire household.

In our faith, what is essential? The Word and the Eucharist. Those are non-negotiable. Our essence and our object are intimacy with Jesus and the Holy Trinity. Not Mary. The Word and the Eucharist are what brings Christians together. We should never substitute devotion for the Word and Eucharist. Thus, praying the Rosary during Mass is just bad form. When we are too caught up in devotion, we can lose sight of the essentials and end up missing the forest for the trees.

But why does the Church then have devotions, especially Marian devotion? Simply put, it appeals to the heart, that human side of us, that romantic side of us that makes us human. Devoid of this, we may have the essentials, but in the context of a meal, we may have just the main course, (the meat and potatoes, for those whose diet is largely of a western palate) but what completes a meal, what transforms a meal from being one of basic sustenance to become an experience, is when you have not just the basics, but the appetizers, the entrees, the salads, the wines and the desserts to complement the main course. And a meal is unbalanced with the other things overshadow and take the attention away from the main course.

Same for Marian devotion and any other devotion that is not Word or Eucharist. We need them also because not all of us are deep theologians and liturgists who understand every aspect of theology. I suppose the deep theologians can just receive spiritual nourishment from the basics. But having said that, if one were a deep and honest theologian, one would know that there is a great beauty and spiritual necessity for good Marian devotion too.

I believe that most of us are in need of a spirituality that has a humanism that speaks at least to the romantic side of us. Marian devotion in particular speaks to the side of us that longs to be touched and the feminine in Mary does that in ways that Eucharist does, but perhaps on the level of the cerebral. Mary touches us in the heart.

When we lose sight of Mary, we can end up being cold and wooden. Do you notice that in any Marian apparition in the world, she somehow doesn’t appear to the rich, the well educated and the theologians? Instead, she has always appeared to the poor, the uneducated, the children and those at the bottom. That tells us that if we lose Mary, we may lose our heart. A heart for the poor, a heart for the masses, and a heart that makes us human.