Monday, July 25, 2011

Stretching our hearts for greater love

I recently came across this very touching story during our recent priests’ retreat, showing the immense faith that some people have in God.

In his ministry in India, our retreat master had the opportunity to meet a married couple, both of which were active in ministry. They were learned university professors, and had three children. Apparently, their youngest son was born with a rib cage that somehow stopped growing, meaning that as he grew, his chest would be constricted more and more, and the prognosis was that he would die by the age of 18. This sadly did happen. They also had a daughter who had earned two doctorate degrees by the time she was in her mid twenties. But it was also at this time that she tragically met with a road accident that claimed her life.

What made me sit up and listen to the story of this couple was not so much their double tragedies in life, which I am sure were heartbreaking in themselves, but the fact that our retreat master said that never once did he hear them ask God “why”? He said that they were a deeply faithful couple that loved God and submitted humbly to a plan that was not theirs to determine or to direct. This couple were not simpletons nor ignorant about matters of the faith either. Highly learned, they were also highly spiritual. In fact, they are now running a free college for poor students who cannot afford an education, equipping them with degrees for life.

How is it that some people can encounter such tragedies and not be angry with God and walk away from their faith? I personally know of many who have had lesser pains in life, and took the very first exit out of the church in anger and resentment. I am sure that there are many who are reading this post who personally know of people who have either blamed God for afflictions in their lives, or are punishing God in some unspoken way.

The largess of one’s heart is not something that one is automatically born with. Most of the time, it takes a careful nurturing spirit and a willingness to be formed. What most of us struggle with is that the real lessons that magnify the chambers of our hearts to love God for who he is, are lessons that come very often through tears, sorrow and pain. Whoever wrote the words of the Salve Regina prayer during the Middle Ages must have known this to be true, when he spoke about the ‘lacrimarum vale’, or the valley of tears. Many a faithful pilgrim in life have walked this valley, and this couple seems to have made repeat visits there.

Does God delight in ‘testing’ our faith? A very interesting question but also a very commonly asked one. Does it mean that when people are already walking very closely with God in life that they should be spared from suffering and trials? That certainly cannot be true. Even holy people suffer much. Think of Padre Pio and Therese of Lisieux. These are just two examples of holy people who suffered much. Just last week, I found out with sadness that my spiritual ‘mentor’ Fr Ronald Rolheiser is being treated for colon cancer.

Maybe it is a false question to ask if God takes delight in testing our faith. A more relevant question to ask ourselves is what limits are we willing to take our faith to when our hearts are asked to stretch to accommodate God’s love that often takes on so many different forms that we are not prepared for. After all, that is the main task of our spiritual life – to keep enlarging our hearts and stretching ourselves we are made in God’s image and likeness. Most of our lives bear terrible scars because when our tragedies struck, our hearts of love were stiff and not supple. A great hallmark of a true athlete is one who doesn’t easily get injured because his muscles, ligaments and tendons have been repeatedly stretched and can take the stresses that pushing one’s limits causes.

One of our common tasks in life is to become spiritually lithe, to allow our very selves to take on not just our load, but to share the loads of others along life’s journey. ‘No pain; no gain’ is a phrase many trainers like to use to encourage their charges. Perhaps this is true for our spiritual lives as well.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Reaching out to hands that can’t reach back

Our human tendency seems to gravitate towards being rewarded and recognized, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t need trained psychologists to tell us that when we receive a positive stroke for good work done, when our sedulousness has been recognized, or when we receive a note of thanks, our self-esteem is given a shot in the arm, enabling us to be more positive in our outlook and increase our productivity.

But the ‘high’ that this brings can sometimes become a very hidden narcotic that is not easily recognized and we are loath to admit it. So, while the public, outward and expressed self does magnanimous, generous and generally noteworthy acts of kindness and mercy, the hidden, inward and unexpressed self waits in the shadows of the inner corridors of our hearts, anticipating the next ‘fix’ of the ego boost. If we are truly honest with ourselves, the best of us has seen that side of our personality, and it is not something we are proud of. In fact, the more we personally admit to it, the more real it becomes. If others ‘uncover’ it, our defense mechanism automatically kicks into high gear and often, our first words of retaliation would be ‘are you sure’?

St Paul’s haunting phrase in Rom 7:15 comes to mind when he says so honestly “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” All us, if we are deathly honest with ourselves will resonate with the apostle in his human struggle. It seems to be ingrained in our shared broken humanity.

One of the more effective ways to address this is to practice acts of mercy, and to do that often. Visit the sick, give alms to the poor, attend to those who are worse off than yourself, stoop to speak to the little ones. I can almost hear my detractors saying “but can’t we end up doing these for the sake of being thanked, seen as humble and in that way, being worse off than when we first started?” Of course that is possible but it doesn’t mean that we should not try.

When we do this often enough, when it is part of our schedule, when it is not a once-a-year affair, but purposefully done, it can weaken the hidden self that lurks in those chambers of our hearts. To be sure, that self will never be completely removed. At least not while we are alive. But that self can be given less food to grow, and his condition can be stifled and his development stunted.

I find this true in my own life. I have an aunt who has been slipping into dementia for the past couple of years, and is now in nursing care in a home for the aged. I have made it a point to visit her every week on my day off and she cannot remember my name even though she may try. I have lost count of the times she calls me Dominic, which gives credit to the real Dominic, a very genial and caring man who works full time in the said home. Dominic has a heart of gold. Sometimes, when I share with others that my aunt never remembers my name when I visit her, their reaction has sometimes been “and you do this so often?”

When a person slips into dementia, and when we visit them regularly, it is not for them to remember us, but for us to show that they are remembered. Whether aunt Michelle calls me Dominic, Terence or even Shirley matters not as much as my calling her “Ee Mah” (that, for my non Cantonese-speaking readers, means eldest maternal aunt). The same goes for people who visit patients who have had severe strokes and are in a comatose state who have no response at all. Doing these regularly with a dedication makes us weaken that part of us that hopes for some ‘recognition’ or ‘thank you’ simply because they cannot. It is times like these that show that hands reaching out to others are far more important than the hands that are unable to respond and reach back. These acts of mercy really can help us to nurture that part of us that recognizes God’s mercy when we it comes to us at the most unexpected and unrecognizable times.

As most of my readers know, I am being sent to Washington DC for further studies for two years, and I leave shortly. Friends and parishioners have asked me what I will miss most. Some think it is food, some think the warm weather, others my links to a parish community. Actually it is none of them.

But among the things that I will definitely miss are my weekly visits to my aunt as well as to one other comatose patient in another home. In fact, they probably don’t realize that what they do for me is more than anything I could have done for them, because each time my visits end, I gain more strength and determination to slay that hidden, lurking self.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Making God a priority with our magna anima

In this life, no one is free from tension. In fact, just on the level of physics, tension creates energy. It affects and has a bearing on force, causing the effect of momentum, which affects movement. So too in life. Our very being experiences tension on very many levels, and these often remind us that we are alive and not dead. Advocates of a stress-free lifestyle recommend that we should have as little tension as possible if we want to live in a happy state. But tension is not always a bad thing. In fact, healthy tension, when balanced well, gives us a sense of being in touch with reality and with life.

The spiritual fathers of the Church have noted this in their writings. Inside each one of us lie the magna anima (great soul) and the pusilla anima (the little soul). What is the magna anima but that part of us which endears and envisions the doing of good, great and godly things in life. Just read any of the biographies of the saints, and you will easily see the magna anima on grand display. It’s the part of St Francis of Assisi which spoke of the possibility of living perfect joy; it’s the stalwart courage of Maximilian Kolbe which gave him the strength to give up his life so that another prisoner could have life instead of him; it’s the amazing prophetic action of Bishop Oscar Romero who dared to speak for justice and human rights, and ended up giving up his life rather dramatically. In short, it’s that part of us that dares to live big, and do big things for God and for our fellow man.

The pusilla anima or little soul is just the opposite. That’s the part of us which hides away from living the Christian life; from being prophetic in our life, and instead, wants to either save the self, or hide in the shadows of anonymity. The times when this part of us shows itself are many –when we prefer not stand up for the underdog; when we give in to temptation and the lure to satisfy the self at the expense of others; and when our own plans, conveniences and comforts become more important than the other person’s. In short, it’s when we are selfish and self-centered.

No one, short of those born without original sin, has not given in to these temptations. Is this tension a bad thing? Not necessarily. It is the presence of this tension in us, and the awareness that there are these poles that exist in us that can make us want to strive for holiness. Of course, the opposite is true, where many give in to despair and think that fighting this is of no use at all, because this tension will always be there without dissipating.
What causes one to live large and not in a small way? Apart from God’s grace without which nothing is possible, it is that part of us that yearns to make God a priority in life.

To be sure, there are many things that pull us away from making God a priority in our lives. I have heard confessions galore that tell me that there are many who place job, leisure, pleasure, money, rest, family and education way above God when it comes to Sunday worship. If that happens on a Sunday where coming to Mass for one hour is an obligation, what more when placing God in the top spot in life is not “obligatory” on the other days of the week? Or when no one is looking?

But this is understandable. Putting God anywhere near one’s list of priorities in life will always seem challenging, counter intuitive and somehow impractical. After all, Jesus never said that living the Beatitudes was going to be a walk in the park. God, it seems, doesn’t make it particularly easy for us to want to love him – at least this is what many tell me when they are at their most honest.

But loving God has to be a commitment, like loving our spouses. I am sure that most of the time, one does not feel like loving one’s spouse. One is not in a mood for romance most of the time. One is not in a particularly forgiving spirit most of the time, and one is usually not in a gentle and communicative mood most of the time. But when these are done out of a decision and not as a response to a feeling, they raise the value of one’s actions, because they become a commitment that is palpable and tangible.

Loving God because he has been showing particular grand evidence of providence and grace in our lives is not big deal. Like when we do well in our careers, or when we seem blessed with financial or social success. But choosing to love God despite the fact that our lives are difficult, despite not ‘feeling’ his presence, despite not getting ‘what we ask for’, becomes for many of us lived out examples of living in the magna anima.

That is what the heroes of our faith did, and that is what we need to do in lives as well.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Blessings and being blessings

Within each of us, there is an innate awareness that to be blessed is a good thing. For example, one doesn’t need to be a Christian to know that it is good for couples to receive the ‘blessings’ of their parents before getting married. In fact, in our Catholic culture, we have blessings for so many things that we have formal written prayers suited for just about every occasion that needs a blessing. One of my earliest recollections of experiencing a blessing was when my parents bought me my very first rosary in a church store and thereafter, asked me to go up to the priest to get it blessed. It was a special moment, as if with a special wave of his hand and some mutterings, the simple plastic glow-in-the-dark rosary became something precious, more valued and gave me a ‘connect’ with God.

But it has also been my experience as a priest that there are many Catholics who are not quite bothered about the ‘why’ of blessings. And because many do not attempt to ask the necessary questions, they can often end up with a rather pagan mentality when it comes to blessings, both of things, and of people.

I have yet to find the appropriate time or setting to address the prevalent practice of the faithful coming up to the priest (or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) distributing Holy Communion during Mass, and asking for a blessing. I am not quite sure where this ‘practice’ started, but I can appreciate that it probably stems from the interior desire to receive something good from God. This is always done by people who are not able to receive Holy Communion for various reasons. Some have yet to make their First Holy Communion, some are catechumens, some are in irregular marriages, and some are not even baptized.

I have no qualms about giving blessings. I have no reason to. But as in most things in life, there are appropriate places and times for this to be done. After all, the time for Holy Communion is precisely meant for that – to receive Holy Communion. It is within the part of the Liturgy called "Communion Rite", and not "Blessing Rite". In our Liturgy, each moment has a specific, significant purpose. There are parts where we seek reconciliation, there are parts where we pray for our needs and those of the world, there are parts where we pray in silence, there are parts to listen to prayers, and there are parts to receive blessings. It is understood to be bad liturgical form to have an action with two intentions.

My 'issue' is with the non-communicants who join the line for a blessing together with communicants who are in the line for the reception of Holy Communion. With these two 'options' seemingly open to the people, it appears to be something like a spiritual smorgasbord or buffet, where if one cannot receive Holy Communion, one can choose to go for option two, which is to receive a blessing. And this has never been in the intention of the liturgy.

Perhaps what is an even deeper ‘problem’ is what this practice tends to breed – a mentality of getting not what the Church wants to give, but instead, making the Church give us what we want, when we want, and how we want. Again, the insidious mentality of "I, Me and Mine" or "my-rights-are-not-being-met".

Isn't the blessing at the end of Mass valid and efficacious? The blessing given at that point of the Mass is THE time for the congregation to be blessed as a whole. In fact, everything in the Mass is for the body of Christ as a whole, rather than for individuals. The Church has always been quick to address any ‘private’ devotions and overly individualistic pious practices during public liturgical celebrations. That is why we should refrain as far as possible from praying the rosary while the Mass is going on, and why individual ‘private’ baptisms are discouraged. We are there as a body of believers, fed and nourished and blessed as a body of believers and sent on mission as a body of believers. Coming up to receive a personal blessing at a time when everyone else is receiving Holy Communion tends to reduce a public act to a ‘private time’.

Is this a small issue? Not to the individual concerned, I am sure. Each individual will always ‘fight’ for his or her case to be addressed and served, but Liturgy is not a private matter. The very definition and etymology of Liturgy is a “public act of service”. Not realizing this will get us into all sorts of ‘personal’ demands that really have very little ground.

Maybe there is another issue at hand which is even more pressing, and has greater repercussions for the community, and it is this - we may be becoming a people who are far more interested to receive blessings than to become blessings to a world that needs to be blessed by our very lives.