Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eucharist – a demonstration of love in more ways than one

Yesterday, the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi in different ways. In countries where it is allowed (it is still not something that our governing authorities are keen to give us license to do here in my country) outdoor and public processions were held where the Consecrated Host was paraded in liturgical processions through the streets as a testimony to our Catholic belief in the Real Presence of the Lord in the sacred host. Some parishes organized Holy Hours in their premises for the same purpose. What we all shared in common was a celebration of faith in something that is simply too simplistic for the mind that constantly wants proof and empirical evidence for a belief, and too awesome for one who has faith - that the bread housed in the Monstrance is really and truly the Body of Christ the Lord.

Perhaps it was because we as Church were observing this solemnity since the 13th century in grand and elaborate ways around this time of the year, that I recently received in my email a video on YouTube that featured a Capuchin monk in downtown Preston, UK, lifting a Monstrance containing the Sacred Host and inviting passers by to kneel and worship in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. Apparently this took place only a couple of weeks ago, if the date at the beginning of the video is accurate. It was dated 2 June 2011.

For close to eight minutes, this monk, wearing a brown habit and donning a Stole, held aloft the Monstrance, whilst in the background, a fellow monk was reading from Sacred Scripture passages which made references to Jesus from the Old and New Testament. As in most flash mob videos, perceptably, more and more people gathered, not to dance, but to kneel around the raised Host in adoration. And as in most flash mob videos, the idea was to give the impression that this was totally uncoordinated and impromptu and unrehearsed event, with the hope that others who really were not part of the event would join in and kneel in adoration too. At the end of the 8 minutes or so, the priest promptly placed the monstrance back into his gym bag that he carried Jesus in, removed his stole, and disappeared into the crowd.

I must say that watching this video brought many thoughts to my priestly mind. There were, to be sure, two sides of me saying things to my two selves. One was saying “isn’t this a wonderful testimony to the real presence to a world which doesn’t want much to have much to do with God these days!” The same voice was saying “isn’t it sad that there were so many other pedestrians who just couldn’t be bothered one bit about God who was there in their midst in downtown Preston?”

But I must admit that the other voice won out in the end. This ‘voice’ found distasteful the stunt that the monks pulled in order to demonstrate our Catholic faith. Jesus out of a gym bag? It seemed more like a Felix-the-Cat moment gone terribly wrong. Yes, it was done in the light of the feast of Corpus Christi, where the Real Presence was brought out in a grand procession to demonstrate our faith, and at certain street corners, the entire procession would stop so that the faithful could adore in public. But this was not a procession and it certainly was not liturgical at all, save for a stole which the priest hung around his neck just before taking Jesus out of his gym bag.

But my gripe is not so much liturgical, but rather form and purpose. When Jesus gave himself to us in the form of bread and wine, they were meant for us to eat and nourish ourselves first, before adoring. Nowhere in the Scripture can you find Jesus telling his disciples to worship him. Not even when he was alive. He said “follow me” many times, but never directly “worship me”. This however, does not mean we should not be worshipping him. We need to. In fact, we will worship once we come to the realization of who Jesus is. He allowed us to develop in our appreciation of his presence to us. The law of gradualness applies.

One of the great problems that our church faces is that there are many who do worship Jesus, but only in the Eucharistic bread. Many hesitate to ‘worship’ him in neighbour, in service of the less advantaged, in carrying out acts of justice, and in forgiving the enemy. These are all very necessary and legitimate forms of ‘eucharistic worship’ too, which unfortunately, become forgotten when we over emphasise his presence only in the Eucharistic bread. Perhaps the fault lies in priests not emboldened enough to want to speak about these forms of Eucharistic worship and acts for fear of stirring the still but murky waters of our undisturbed consciences.

I pray that the curious on-lookers who saw such a spectacle that day in downtown Preston went further to ask the participants more about what that was all about. Apparently, leaflets about our faith were also handed out during the 8 minute drama. What we need is a good balance of both – proper (liturgical and otherwise) worship of Christ in the Eucharist, and proper efforts to live out his presence after worship.

These stunts may just end up stunting our lives as living members of the Body of Christ.

Monday, June 20, 2011

My Sacerdotal Anniversary – 10 years makes a good start

If this weekly blog of mine does continue with any consistent regularity into the future, every year, around 20 June, I plan to pen some reflections on the priesthood, in particular my priesthood, as it marks my sacerdotal anniversary. This year, I celebrate a mini milestone – it’s my tenth year as an ordained Roman Catholic priest.

Has it been happy? That’s a tough question. After all, happiness is relative. But someone said about money - that money is relative – the more money, the more relatives. That’s my feeble attempt at wry humour, in case you missed it.

But on a more serious note, we can generally agree that happiness is indeed relative. Happiness is fleeting, and it is also dependent upon so many different factors in different people that it becomes problematic when we gauge anything by the value of happiness. Most apparent of all is the fact that happiness is a feeling. You can’t measure feelings. And if there’s one thing about feelings that we simply must understand is that love is not and cannot be about feelings. The moment we allow our feelings to direct when we love, how we love, and whom we love, we easily become self-centered and selfish people.

I shall borrow once more from the erudite Fr Ronald Rolheiser who said recently that what matters most in life is not happiness but meaning. If our lives have been meaningful, if they have contributed to the meaning of the lives of others, if they have added meaning to the world and to the hard tasks in life like suffering, discomfort and misadventure, then our lives would have mattered much more than if they simply made us happy. Happiness is something that can be bought. You can, for a price of an admission ticket, go to some theme park and experience the ‘happiest place on earth’, but the ‘most meaningful place on earth’ has yet to be used as a marketing ploy because that would be literally choosing the narrow gate that to many remains the least preferred choice.

In my years as a priest, notably a ‘young’ priest as compared to my confreres who are wizened way beyond my years, a question that is often asked is why did I become a priest. I have always viewed that as somewhat of a trick question because it means that it has a one-off answer, and that it is in the past. I have noticed that any answer that I give indicates the struggles that I have been going through at those particular times that the question was posed. Bringing these to my spiritual director for reflection and direction, I realize that the motives for becoming a priest have a somewhat evolving texture, much like the ways that identifying the motives for becoming a seminarian had a similar evolving weave.

So for the present, I shall settle with ‘meaning’. Being a priest has not only added meaning to my life, but I do hope that it has also brought meaning to the lives of the many whom I have encountered, touched and hopefully, healed and motivated in these last ten years of active ministry. Happiness just doesn’t cut it, because not even Jesus was happy all the time in his ministry. I’m willing to wager that hanging on the cross hoisted above Calvary on that first Good Friday could not have been a very happy moment in Jesus’ life. In fact, his use of the Greek ‘makarios’ in Matthew’s Beatitudes has been translated into “happy are the …” has us standing on our heads to see how Jesus defines happiness.

No, it has not been happy all the time for me either as a priest these ten years past, but having said that I don’t think that any one of my friends, parishioners, former classmates and schoolmates can ever say that their choice of vocation in life has been one that has been happy at every single moment of their lives. If so, then the tapestry of their lives would be more like a flat sheet made up of one single shade.

But if our lives are indeed a picturesque tapestry on which not just we, but God the master weaver as well adjusts the warps and wefts of the loom of life, then the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows, successes and failures, the times of sickness and health, plenty and poverty, all add to the depth of meaning and beauty beyond adequate description.

Some of my brother priests are Golden Jubilarians this year, and have celebrated 50 years of their priesthood. In the shadow of their milestone, my ten years looks more like a kidney stone. I salute their commitment and courage, and their quest for holiness. But perhaps 10 years is a good beginning to look at things anew, and where possible, add more meaning to a world that is constantly searching for it, albeit in often the wrong places.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Choosing not to play the blame game

One of the most common games that we play as members of the human race is the blame game. There are no formal rules in this game. We learn to play this largely by osmosis. We see our elders and leaders in the community in which we live playing it so deftly and in large and small ways and we pick it up almost through instinct. And we ourselves start playing it from our very early years. We see its incipient traces when young children start using the phrase "it was not me", especially when some transgression was discovered and it became apparent that one and something to do about the situation.

We see this happening in our first parents in the unfolding of the Genesis creation story in the bible as well. When God asked Adam about having taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Eden, he started playing the blame game and finger-pointed Eve as well as God, when he said "it was the woman you put with me". In one deft move, Adam tried to exonerate himself. I guess one could call it crude self-preservation, but it doesn't take much to see that this was what was happening. And from that point, up and down the centuries, we haven't veered much from this 'original shame' that is the seedbed of our original sinfulness.

What could possibly 'save' us from this? Only if there be a human being who refuses to play this insidious game right from the start - to show that it is not only possible but downright necessary because this would be living life the way that it was intended to be by the one who gave us life. This Saviour must be the one who, when he sees that it is so easy to play this game and save himself, flatly refuses to be sucked into the life-sapping process that the downward spiral of sin takes us all into. And only God himself could do this.

But does God then change everyone's inherent desire to play this game? Yes and no. The instinct to play this game is still inherent in each one of us, but Jesus gives us the ability to fight against this self-saving and self-preserving spirit that you and I possess. And when we share this with others, we encourage them not to play the game too. When we divest and to share rather than hoard and possess, we don't play the game. When we own up to our weakness and refuse to blame others as a way to escape any finger pointing, we purposely lose at the blame game. And it becomes most apparent that we withdraw big time from the game when we boldly imitate Jesus on the cross and utter with deep sincerity "forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."

In just two separate instances this week, this game played in two different settings. One global, the other national. Spain is understandably upset that Germany had blamed them for the recent terrible E Coli outbreak that claimed the lives of 30 people in Germany, and leaving many others very ill. Their agriculture industry suffered a huge blow because of the blame, which has since proven to be untrue as the source of this deadly bacteria. On the home front, several areas in Singapore had been hit by floods and the water ministry and water agencies immediately said that they were working on the premise that the weather pattern has changed, rather than say that perhaps their ministries needed to rework the way they managed the drainage systems all these years.

If only we can begin by looking at ourselves first, as countries, as a ministry, and individually as human beings, perhaps we can do our bit to stop this spiral and step out of the game, and boldly refuse to take part in what often ends up not just being a blame game, but blood sport too.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why we need Mary in our lives and not just at our death

Of all the lines in the Hail Mary prayer that are beautiful and relevant to our lives, I consider the last one to be not only most significant but also highly necessary as we are people who are ‘in the vale of tears’, journeying from life here to the next. We say, “pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”

If we take this in the most literal sense, then we are asking Mary to intercede and pray for us at the last sixty minutes of our earthly existence before the ECG machine shows a flatline. Yes, this is good and even necessary, but that would be leaving things quite literally to the eleventh hour. We Catholics are not last minute people, and are known to take pride in the lost art of delayed gratification and remote preparation; so certainly, this must apply to things as exigent as death. What are we really praying for then?

The Catholic believes that at many many moments, dotted throughout each day, we face a choice of sometimes more than two options before us. This can be in things as simple and mundane like what to eat, and what to wear, to life altering options like what jobs to take or which life-partner we should be considering. At each of these junctures there is a need to discern. It would vex the mind to no end if we think that we need to do serious discernment at the food court to make the ‘proper’ choice between a bowl of noodles or a slice of pizza. Some things are best left to simple preference or the dictates of our growling stomachs.

But there will be moments when the choice bears far more consequences for our soul. For instance, when being faced with either speaking the truth resulting in being personally inconvenienced or fudging the facts so that our lives are not shifted out of our zones of comfort. Or when it becomes very obvious that living as disciples of Christ becomes the much harder thing to do especially when displaying such life options results in our being discriminated against. Speaking up for the truth and justice, especially when doing that can result in our being sidelined and bypassed for a promotion is a very hard choice to make. Making the choice for the harder and more selfless option results in a dying to the self.

It is this dying that we are asked to attune ourselves to as true disciples of the Lord. Our weak human selves will do all we can to want to justify the choice that serves the self more than it serves the overall good of humankind. And it will feel like a dying when we know that the choice we make doesn’t give us much room for earthly happiness. This is the ‘hour’ of death for which we need Mary’s prayers the most.

The problem becomes compounded when we do not even consider that these moments are moments of any form of ‘dying’. When we resist these little deaths each day, we become ill prepared for that great death that we will all have to face when our time here is up.

One of my spiritual gurus in my training once told us “only when have trained well for our daily little deaths will we be ready to face the great death.” But we are indeed blessed to not have to die these small deaths alone. We have the assured prayers of our Blessed Mother to aid us to die a little, at each of these hours of death, so that if we die before we die, we will not die when we die.