Monday, May 30, 2011

Looking at the Ascension from a new vista

This Thursday, Catholics all over the world (except in those Dioceses where the Solemnity is moved to the following Sunday) will observe and celebrate the Ascension of the Lord. It is a day of obligation where we will gather once again on a weekday to be at Mass and to have a divine meal at the Lord’s Table with all and sundry. What does this Solemnity really celebrate? What is the Church trying to help her people to enter into with this observance? Do we find this something as meaningful?

On the most superficial level, it would be commemorating the day when Jesus left this earth in his post-resurrection form. When I was in the Holy Land on pilgrimage a couple of years back, we visited the supposed spot where Jesus literally ‘lifted off’ the ground on that day in history. The convoluted history of the Holy Land caused the site to be built and destroyed, built again and destroyed again by Christians and Muslims, till now, it is a holy site (to both the Muslims and the Christians) and the exact spot (supposed) of the ascension is now housed within an unused Mosque which welcomes Christian pilgrims who enter into the tiny octagonal structure for a nominal fee.

Our tour guide told us that the imprint on the stone is said to be that of Jesus’ right foot. Pilgrims can be seen removing their footwear to stand on that spot, and I suppose, image what it must have been like for Jesus.

Ascension Thursday cannot be just about the geographical spot, or about how Jesus left this world. It would be too facile to just celebrate it at that level, because we as Church are invited to reflect on what Jesus’ leaving us does for us who are his disciples, and to see how we can catch glimpses of the Ascension in our own lives and appreciate the wisdom and necessity of Jesus’ departure.

What the Ascension tries to help us to do is to identify with the times in our lives when our presence in the lives of others becomes more profound and to a certain extent, purified, when we are no longer hemmed in by our physicality. People who have lost very close loved ones will know what I am referring to. Their going away, through time, results in their being present to us in ways far more often and more intimate that when they were alive and physically present. This must have been what Jesus meant that his going away was something that would result in a joy for his disciples, because he was going to send them his spirit.

Those of us who have been away from home for a long period of time, be it for studies or work, will know that the fondness of family love and friendly bonding become far more intense in those times than when we were in close proximity. That old familiar saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder is never more true.

This applies very accurately to love, life and intimacy. What we want to control, what we want to be monitoring closely and giving very little freedom to often becomes stifled and smothered, hampered in growth and the ability to extend. We don’t have to look very far for examples. When our mentors and superiors are over controlling and don’t give us the scope to make mistakes and to learn from them, it can result in a negative growth.

So too for the spiritual life. Jesus can only send us his spirit if he leaves us. We would be far too dependent on his physical presence if he never did ascend, and with out his Holy Spirit, we would not be able to ‘perform even greater works’ than Jesus himself did. In fact, the Ascension really celebrates his great trust in us as his disciples, to carry on the legacy that he has left behind to continue to build his father’s kingdom.

Anyone who has lost a loved one will know the tears and heart-wrenching pain that separation causes. But there is a grace that also comes, albeit with the passing of time – a grace that, because of the mystery of love, our loved ones are more present to us than before.

Looking at the Ascension through this lens helps us to celebrate this solemnity with a deeper sense of joy and appreciation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Not all things legal are ethical

It is extremely easy and tempting for anyone (yes, even Catholics) to simply live life according to the laws laid down by the State. After all, the powers that be that govern any land are supposed to be the voice of justice and they have done the hard task of thinking of the repercussions of every law that is decreed. That leaves all the masses to just follow as told, and we should all be in a very happy state. Ah, if only it were so easy and clear. Ever since I have been a priest and have been hearing confessions, I realize that the general conscience of the penitents are formed (or deformed) more by what is legal than by what the Church declares to be moral and right.

“But Father, not every one is Catholic!” is something I can anticipate coming out from just about every reader’s lips. Granted, but herein lies the problem. The very word “Catholic” means far more than just a religion. It means Universal, and taken in the broadest sense of the word, how we form our conscience, how we make our decisions, have a common framework that covers all humanity and all life, regardless of race or religion. For instance, our high regard and utmost respect for life stays constant, and should not be different simply because one looks at life from a different religious lens.

I was in a conversation recently with an employer of a stay-in domestic helper and I casually asked about the maid and her weekly day off. I was told “she only gets one day off a month”, and when I asked why this was so, the answer that I got was “it’s in her contract, and within the Ministry of Manpower guidelines”.

This person is one of the many whose conscience seems to be confined and limited to what the state defines as legal and permissible, rather than what is ethical and just. Clearly, it didn’t disturb her one bit to give her maid one day a month of freedom and rest from work, when in her own working life, she would be loathe to be given anything less than a weekend off every week. ‘Protected’ behind what the state says is legal and equating this with being ethical is something that, sadly, has become commonplace even among us Catholics who are supposed to have sound consciences.

Yes, I agree that the pace in hectic Singapore is frenetic. Very often, both husband and wife are working to make ends meet, and looking after children and the elderly parents within the same household are difficult without help. This is where maids become almost de rigueur in every family. And I can understand that when the weekend comes, wanting the maid to do everything ‘because she is there’ becomes extremely tempting as an option. But there has to be an alternative because the maid is another human person with just as much dignity as you and I have, needing and appreciating just as much rest and recuperation for sound mind and body as you and I have, and yes, wanting social interaction as you and I would want. That maids are social human beings who really do have a need to mix around and have friends (yes, that includes boyfriends if they are not married back home) seems to be something that many employers simply cannot accept as humane and normal.

Perhaps we have not considered the possibility of taking turns to look after the sick and elderly during the weekends, where the different members of the family can sacrifice one weekend in rotation each so that everyone has a chance to care for the parent, giving the maid the needed rest, enabling her to do a much better and kinder job from Monday to Saturday.

This is just one very vivid example of taking advantage of something that is legal, and using it without wondering if it is ethical and just.

I am sure that this blog would disturb many who do employ maids and are giving them the ‘bare minimal’ in terms of benefits and living conditions. The role of the shepherd is to take care of the sheep under his care, and one of these ways is to heighten the conscience of the sheep.

This shepherd here is trying to get his sheep to think with both the mind and the heart.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Preparing for death by dining with the world

In the past two weeks, I have been having very close encounters with death in more ways than one. A dear friend from my primary school days who just entered a seminary in the Philippines as a late vocation died hours after a terrible automobile accident. The mini-van he in was hit by an on-coming bus. He suffered the worst injuries.

Just last week, I anointed an elderly parishioner in the hospital and it was only half an hour after I left the hospital that she passed away, with her family by her side.

A close friend’s mother has been in a coma after suffering a stroke whilst overseas, and lies in a hospital bed till today, hooked up to a machine that monitors her vitals constantly. Fed by a Ryle’s Tube daily, the family had been told to ‘be ready’ at various junctures.

When life presents itself with a variety of death and close-to-death scenarios, the inevitable question that flashes across the mind’s eye is something that prompts one to ask “how does one really prepare for death?”

For those of us who have constantly and consistently declared that Jesus is our way to eternal life, the answer must be found in looking at what Jesus did to prepare for his own death, as he has to be our model for life. We are told that before he died, he had supper with his disciples. Perhaps therein lies the key to the proper preparation for death, no matter how it may come to meet us.

But it is not simply the act of having a meal with loved ones that prepares us for death. It needs to be a meal within the context of a giving, where we, like Jesus, dare to give of ourselves in the most generous of ways. At that meal at the upper room, where the Eucharist was instituted, Jesus showed us the depth to which he was willing to go by giving us his body and blood. And he entrusted this to his disciples as an act to be kept giving and giving – to all, so that sins may be forgiven.

How does one become generous in the context of a meal? By eating with anyone and everyone, without reserve, and without condition. I have met wonderful examples of expansive sharing in people who dare to invite strangers to dine with them at feasts like the Chinese New Year reunion dinner and I have read about such families who offer a place at the family Thanksgiving dinner table to the homeless, simply because it is sad to be happy when someone is not.

The image of heaven that we get from scripture is often associated with a meal where, as Isaiah says, there is a banquet of rich food and fine wines. And if we are to really be prepared for this meal, we need to be also be prepared to eat with everybody. The good, the bad, the undeserving, the annoying, the irritating, all the different races, those of importune circumstance, and yes, those whom we do like and show favour to as well. The problem that most of us are plagued with is that we are not quite ready to sit down and eat with all. And that is when we are not quite ready for heaven.

I believe that it is when we are constantly pushing our limits and removing our borders to share with those who are the most difficult to share with, most difficult to love, and most difficult to understand that our lives become training ground for heaven.

How does keeping a comatose patient on a hospital bed make us ready? By not imposing the phrase ‘quality of life’ using worldly standards. It is when we dare to look beyond the Ryle’s Tube that brings liquid food through the patient’s gullet into the stomach, when we make that choice to speak to the infirm even though we get no answers back, and when we know that giving love means more than getting back love in return, and when we define ‘dignity’ in the broadest terms possible. These ready both the patient and we, the caregivers, for heaven’s banquet that will surely include people beyond our ken.

One more thing that really prepares us for heaven’s banquet is when we participate in the Mass regularly. At each Mass is a melting pot of people who come from all walks of life, and one can find at each Mass the pleasant and the peeved, the joyful and the cynical, the humble and the self-righteous, the holy and the holier-than-thou. But we don’t make judgements because we leave that to God. It is his meal anyway, and he invites all. It is when we make ourselves the judge that makes us not yet ready for heaven’s banquet.

I recall the story of how a priest once asked a young man why he wasn’t going in for Mass on Sunday and stood outside the Church instead. He said “Father, there are just so many in there who are sinful and prideful, pharisaical and hypocrites”, to which the priest said with a smile “oh, then please come on in – there’s always room for one more”.

Monday, May 9, 2011

When joy at someone's death can reveal how dead we are

Last Monday, the world learnt largely through the internet the unfolding of the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. This news was met by various groups of people, and the media showed how they reacted to it. The New York Times webpage showed many clips and photos of people who were jubilant and ecstatic, almost as if America had won some major international sporting event, with car horns blaring into the dawn. I must say that I was bothered and saddened as I saw what went on.

I tried putting myself into the shoes of the many millions of lives who had been badly affected by terrorism. Yes, I myself may not have been directly affected in large ways. Perhaps in small ways, I was. I have become more careful and vigilant about my surroundings, perhaps living in some degree of paranoia, and insecurity, and it is most apparent when I need to travel internationally. Visits to the States nowadays require us to remove all footwear, undergo scans and searches, and accept these as de rigueur. But I cannot say that I have lost a loved one in the collapse and destruction on the World Trade Centre in New York on Sept 11 2001, or even known anyone personally who did. Putting myself in their shoes, it would not be hard to feel the anger, resentment and bitterness that can envelope and darken one's world, and want some form of retribution. But when news of Bin Laden’s death is announced, would I rejoice and be happy?

The larger and more important question that every single one of us needs to ask ourselves is why would anyone's death make us happy? The fact that another human being who shares my very same dignity as God's child is no longer alive, no longer breathing and existing in this form must weaken my own existence. Of course, the greater the contribution that this person made to humanity, the more I will be aware of this, and feel a certain diminution of my own humanity.

But what if this other human being was an apparent mastermind behind some very heinous and egregious crimes against humanity? Can this justify extermination? The upholding of the dignity of every human person is a very Catholic (read UNIVERSAL) mind, which unfortunately, is not very universal. What seems to be much more universal is an 'eye-for-an-eye' mentality which makes us all live in a very inhumane way. Some of us may even argue quite convincingly that now that Osama bin Laden is dead, the world is a safer place. But doesn't this also mean that we who have sanctioned, supported and justified a man's murder have failed to make the world a safer place too?

The Blessed Karol Wojtyla, also known to the world as the late Pope John Paul II who was beatified only last week in Rome sent the world the key to universal peace and healing when he went to the prison cell to forgive his assassin Mehmet Ali Agca after he recovered from the assassination attempt in 1981.

Yes, it is true that Agca never plotted a wave of terror or sent planes into buildings killing thousands of innocent people. He never masterminded anything close to a network of terrorists in various parts of the world. But numbers alone cannot justify our sense of elation, jubilation and joy at the death of any one person. And it must not. It is because we think in terms of numbers and have a disjointed sense of justice that we find ourselves picketing for the upholding of the death penalty instead of a chance for reform or long-term incarceration to keep dangerous minds from harming innocent folk. And we think we are better off with one of us dead.

Two thousand years after the public cry for the release of Barabbas in exchange for the crucifixion of Jesus, we should have learnt the tremendous lesson of forgiveness when he said from the Cross "forgive them for they know not what they do". The Blessed Pope John Paul II put that into action in that jail visit to Agca in 1981.

Apparently, most of us haven't yet learnt that lesson well, and feel more or less justified with the deaths that we cause or feel jubilant over, all in the name of 'justice'.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The pure gift of Divine Mercy

The use of analogies to bring about a clearer and almost instant understanding of a viewpoint is a tool used by many throughout the ages. The more clearly the analogy parallels life and the material being discussed, the greater the effect.

Parodies do this too. Satires like George Orwell’s Animal Farm are classics which can be taken as plain and simple one dimensional stories, or, when brought to the world of politics of the time, spoke most eloquently in an allegorical way, of what was happening in a world power.

The mystery and wonder of Christ’s Divine Mercy is a most awesome and compelling truth to behold for us Catholics. The belief that St Faustina started this is as erroneous as saying that Singapore Airlines started aviation. What that holy Polish mystic did was to become a channel through which God’s continued revelation of his Divine Mercy, which is at the heart of Heaven, allows the lowliest among us any chance at all of enjoying the beatific vision after we die.

The term “Paschal mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and it really is also the Divine Mercy played out in slow motion. What? How can the cruel and torturous death of the Son of God be anything close to mercy? It seems much more cruel and cold-blooded than merciful. How can someone made to die for the world’s sin be a demonstration of mercy? How can what seems to be abandonment by even God the Father convey mercy? To be sure, it doesn’t immediately show it.

But that is why it is Divine Mercy. God’s mercy is so deep and so unfathomable that it is not something that the eye, mind or heart can readily perceive and absorb. We want Mercy to be so easily spelled out and often, we want to be able to deserve it, to work for it, to earn it and to even control it. Largely because, if we are honest with ourselves, we want others to deserve, work for, and even earn our mercy when they ask us for it.

Well, Divine Mercy is Divine because it is pure gift, and we don’t deserve it. Someone died in our place and we don’t deserve it. Someone took on our sins and we don’t deserve it. We can’t figure out the logic of it, because you can’t figure out the logic of love, especially if it is God’s love.

I always say that the wonder of our Christian religion is not that we love God, but that this God shows us just how crazy he is for us and he searches for us up and down the ages. And when we really get this, that is the moment we will truly begin to respond to the Divine Mercy that is open to us, and we will want to be agents of this mercy ourselves.

The problem that a lot of people have with this incredible abundance of God’s mercy is that they have developed a resistance towards giftedness and blessedness. And I think this is especially so in a meritocratic country like Singapore, where one needs to prove, to work towards, to attain, to earn and to be credible in order for one to get somewhere. And it cuts across so many levels in our society. From gaining entry to secondary schools, to universities, to getting jobs and even gaining places in Parliament. If you want a place, you have to earn it. You can’t ride on someone else’s name or position or track record. Well, at least not all the time.

So, in the last week and in the next week, we in this tiny island republic will see a lot of debate about who has the credentials, the smarts or the worthiness to be voted into Parliament at the May 7 General Election. If we are so shaped by what’s going on in the world of politics, and simply transfer this mind to the way that we think about God’s mercy and justice, then we will obviously also think that we need to work for Divine Mercy, and merit it, and earn it. And we will do a grave injustice to Divine Mercy because it has nothing at all to do with worthiness and merit.

There are many who are critical about how in Singapore, the GRC (Group Representation Constituencies) system allows into parliament people who if left on their own in single seat wards will have no chance in hell to get in. Actually, the mercy of God is like that kind of system too. Only in our case, GRC stands for God’s Redemptive Cross, where we literally ride on Jesus’ merciful and glorious wounds to get to heaven. Because left on our own merits, we will be dumb as sand, and unable to do much.

But only because of Divine Mercy and forgiveness can we ever hope for heaven. Yes, only because of Divine Mercy can we even say that salvation is in the bag, and when we see our sins, we will recognize our stupidity and no longer make any excuses for our silly sinful selves and will honestly call a spade a spade. The moment we see the splendour that awaits us, we will literally have nothing to say because in the light of amazing Divine Mercy, we will not know what to say.