Monday, March 28, 2011

Opening doors – an unspoken task of Lent

Lent is often seen as a time to keep our spiritual houses clean, to do ‘spring cleaning’ for our souls, and to see where we need to readjust our sights so that our targets are truly set on the Lord and his will in our lives. All those are considered good in our classical Catholic spiritual tradition, and they are good spiritual exercises for us all. They put us in good stead to keep ourselves aligned onto “God’s beam”, as Fr Robert Barron likes to say.

Well, here’s my take on Lent. I have come to see that it is a time for opening doors. This is largely because as we grow physically in our lives, we seem to ironically close a whole series of doors that we think are either troublesome to keep opened, or are terribly frightening to see the things that lie on the other side of them. In retreats and with good spiritual guidance and direction, one is often led to the more difficult task of identifying these doors, and to open them. Often, it is the demons that supposedly lie behind these doors that become powerless once the doors are open. The interior life beckons us to do the harder task of finding the keys to these doors.

But the strange thing about opening these doors is that one cannot rush into the task as if it were a task to be completed within a predetermined span of time, like as if we were rushing to ‘beat the clock’. True spiritual transformation requires what is known as the ‘law of gradualness’. It’s a bit like physical development in a human being. The prima ballerina in a dance company has taken years of discipline and sacrifice to finally come to be able to dance with the kind of verve and panache that she does on stage. The violinist who plays with such vivacity and enthusiasm didn’t come to do that within a day, but only after years and years of drills and practices to make what he does now look so easy and effortless. The same goes for our quest for spiritual transformation. We are always a work-in-process, and are never quite finished with one Lent or one retreat. I believe that each of us awakens slowly.

Can we force inner maturity? Hardly. Those of us who are painful perfectionists can’t wait for the process to end. Each time we come to some groundbreaking point in our spiritual lives, we will inevitably see that somewhere in the background is something else that remains unaddressed. The problem lies in the fact that so many of us think that the goal is to get somewhere. Richard Rohr said it so well when he said that the goal is to be in harmony with the gifts that are already given, and that the goal is to fall in love with your life. No one who truly loves can say “I loved”, as if it were a perfected act that has reached completion. Love, as is life, is always something that is in the present, and ever evolving.

When the disciplines of Lent are seriously undertaken, with the correct disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, a metanoia or change is resulted. But we often want it to end by the time we celebrate Easter at the end of 40 days. Not only is this unrealistic, but also rather dangerous, because change that happens in a couple of weeks is only cosmetic at best. But true life-changing and spirit-shaping takes a far more longer time.

One of the most significant books on the Sacraments of the Catholic Church that I have come across was written by Joseph Martos, entitled Doors to the Sacred. I believe that it has come to be prescribed reading for many students in Sacred Liturgy, and it gives a detailed account of the historical and spiritual development of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, which are really doors that open the disciple of Christ to a transformed life. As we approach Easter and the post-Easter season through the discipline of Lent, we as Church are also asked to journey with the Elect in their approach towards the Sacraments of Initiation. We mustn’t fall into the mistake of just observing this from a distance, but rather, we should as Church re-visit these sacraments personally, to see how much further we have moved past these doorways in our own lives. And we can often miss this opportunity when we choose not to participate at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, aptly called the Mother of all Liturgies.

If we don’t, perhaps what has happened to many of us is that we have simply stayed at the jamb of the door, and have hesitated to go in through the opened doors to a deep and real relationship with God, and find him, and to also find ourselves.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Finding healing through our own wounds

One of the most enlightened titles of spiritual books that I have come across is The Wounded Healer by the late Henri Nouwen. It is a book primarily to encourage ministers to not negate their wounds, but to identify them so that it forms a compassionate starting point for ministry.

But most of us who do minister to the wounded tend to not want to do this. It comes from a (misunderstood) standpoint where we as ministers or priests have all the answers, hold all the positions of security, and think that it is ours to lead all the time. To be sure, there is a very necessary role for the minister tending to the wounded of their flock to be a leader and to show direction. But it is certainly not a truism that the perfect minister is the one who has no inner wounds, and is perfect before he can help others find their footing in life.

Perhaps it is something in our misunderstood or under-understood male psychology that prefers not to identify our own individual weakness and wounds. “I’m fine” is a very common response to an injury that one encounters in the game called life. And falsely, many of us do think that it requires the stoic and perfected counselor or spiritual director to lead one from woundedness to wholeness. I say that it is false, because there are no perfect counselors.

The most common way to deal with our woundedness is to deny it is there. Many people can go through life in denial. Of course, the talk-show mentality has surfaced in the past decade or so, where the other end of the wounded spectrum is seen. What I am referring to is the phenomenon where people with a wounded past almost take delight in doing some form of public exposition of their wounded past in front of millions of television viewers, thinking that this will somehow set things right. Certainly, mixed in there somewhere can be detected the person’s proverbial desire of five minutes of fame, but a healing hardly results, ending up with greater wounds than one began with.

What is required by everyone - counselor, counselee, minister and leader, is the sacred handling of these wounds. When carefully handled and with the proper salve given through loving and prayerful and charitable friendships and support systems, the very wounds that one had tried to deny and escape from can in fact become the very platforms that makes one a credible co-sojourner in life.
It brings to mind a quotation often attributed to French philosopher Albert Camus - Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

The perfect minister is myth. I believe that that is a myth because even Our Lord Jesus, the healer of all healers needed to be wounded before the world was healed of its own wounds. What we do need is great humility to see this in ourselves, and to allow ourselves to see the world through our own wounds.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Our search for what we have

There is a prevalent strain in many spiritual authors, both men and women that speak of the human need to go out and find oneself and this is not new. Early Church Fathers and monks and mystics have written about this quest for us to have to go out on a search.

But what is also very common is for us to write the corollary – which is the fact that after all the searching, all the exploration, wanderlusting, all the scaling of mountains both metaphorical and physical, man will come to realize that what he has been looking for, trying to find a meaning to, and what he deemed to have been elsewhere and ‘out there’, has been within him all along.

And it was a strange necessity for him to go out and find what he thought was to be attained by exiting, when all he really needed to do was to ‘enter into’ within.

It’s the other way of saying that the two halves of life are really existent in each one of us. The first half consists of our need to attain, collect, amass, strive for, conquer, climb and overtake. The second half sees us contented and secure enough to do just the opposite – to allow, to divest, to let go, to face defeat and failure, to descend and to yield.

But it doesn’t mean that the first half is unnecessary and a waste of time and energy. Neither is it futile, or something that should be avoided at all costs. If our human need for actualization doesn’t take place, it would be tantamount to not putting into use the gifts given us by a gracious God.

It only becomes problematic when we think that life is only about the first half, without coming to that crucial point of realizing that the outgoing energy is meant to reach a zenith, and return to find placidity and rest, as St Augustine said ‘to find rest in God’.

When we go out helter-skelter to find what we think is only out there, we may miss something deep and resonant, and that is that what we look for has been deep within all along.

In the tradition of the Church, one of the Stations of the Cross is “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus”. Nowhere in Sacred Scripture is this recorded that on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, that there was this encounter between Jesus and the said woman Veronica. The story goes that Veronica, so moved with pity for the tortured Jesus, goes out of her way to use her veil to wipe Jesus’ blood-stained and grime covered face. Her reward was that the image of the Divine Face was miraculously imprinted on that veil, as a gift and reward for an act of kindness shown. No one has seen this veil, and perhaps this is good.

Why? Because if there is such a veil that exists, millions may flock to it to admire it, to pay devotion to it and to revere it. That in itself is not a bad thing if it leads us to be remorseful of our sinfulness and to love God in a more intense way. But in only doing that, what we may miss out on is the fact that there is an image that exists not somewhere ‘out there’ on a veil, but rather, ‘inside’ each one of us.

We are, after all, made in the image and likeness of God, and we forget this all too easily. After all, the etymology of Veronica is “true image”, or in Latin “a vera icon”.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The struggle to let go

A couple of weeks ago, I encountered two funerals of people, both of whom died of cancer. In both cases, there was a painful parting of spouses at the point of death, as is usually the case. It was easy to feel much empathy for their loss. And in both cases, I was told that when the time for that parting came, the spouses who were going to be left behind told the one who was dying “it’s ok, you can go safely to Jesus who waits for you”, or in similar words. Both cases struggled with a difficult parting.

These sharings tugged at my heartstrings because they brought home the fact that this is something each one of us human beings struggle with throughout our lives – that tension between holding on, acquiring, attaining and the antitheses of these, which is a releasing, a loosening of one’s grip, and letting go. In the world of flora and fauna, there is a similar struggle that goes on. Only perhaps less dramatic and painful.

I remember having a potted Phalaenopsis on my desk a couple of years ago. This is the Orchid that also goes by the common name “Moth Orchid”. I acquired it at the height of its full blooming glory, and it had a most beautiful cascade of elegant flowers arching over my desk lamp. This bloom was very hardy, and it managed to keep its brilliance and beauty for slightly over seven weeks. By the eighth week, the flowers started to wilt, and one by one, the withered and shriveled blooms began dropping from the stem. But each one was clinging on tenaciously till the very last moment. If nature in its inchoate forms like plants show a resilience towards parting with life, what more when we humans are on top of the pyramid of creation?

Much as spiritual writers and life-teachers remind us often that life is not about acquiring, attaining, grasping, collecting and building up, but divesting, giving up, surrender and release, each one of us will find it a struggle, at least on some level, to make that final letting go. What makes it easier and less painful will be when the people around us give us their blessing to do this.

I believe that is what happened to the two dying people. What is a blessing in its deepest level? It is an acknowledgement; a permission; a validation; a giving of confidence and an assurance. Even a blessing of houses, medals, statues and holy cards have this at its deepest essence. A good blessing of a house gives one the confidence to live there, knowing that they are secure in God’s loving embrace and presence. A blessing of a statue imparts a sense of assurance that the saint whose image the statue bears will be praying for us, and that we are not alone in our struggles. A blessing of a crucifix gives us great hope that our carrying of our individual crosses of life is never something that we do alone, and that Jesus carried one too.

A blessing at death’s door by our loved ones does all that and more. It assures the one dying that they will not be forgotten; that they are loved, and that the ones remaining behind are in good hands – and give them permission and blessing to go into hands that love them far more ours ever can. The hands of God.