Monday, September 26, 2011

The deserts of our lives – a place where God can speak to our hearts

The school that I am currently studying in as well as my accommodation (affectionately known as the Castle) which is just a stone’s throw from each other here in Washington DC, are within crawling distance from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have visited it on several occasions, and try to concelebrate the Sunday morning Mass there when the weekend comes. Entering this Basilica always gives me a sense of going into the heart of Mother Mary, where she places me together with her beloved Son, Jesus.
One interesting nugget of information that I found out about this shrine was that this was the place that Dorothy Day, the devout American Catholic convert and social worker, came to in the 1920s on a day trip out of her native New York City to get some help from the Lord. She was at her lowest, after having given birth to a baby girl, became Catholic, and an unwed mother. The man she was with at the time was a staunch opposer to all forms of religion. Dorothy chose God over this man (a very tough choice, as can be imagined), and found herself at this time very much alone. Apparently, in her biography, she told of how she spilled her very being out to the Lord in that particular shrine, and how she felt that she was in a desert all alone. Did the Lord take her out of the desert right there and then? You’d hope. But no, this was no Hollywood story. She had to hop back on the train to take her back to New York City (it’s about a four hour train ride from here) but it was only when she was back there that she met Peter Maurin who was to be the one who would help to start the Catholic Worker Movement with her in 1933.

What struck me about this story was that Dorothy Day described herself as being in a desert at that point. Desert moments occur in just about everybody’s life. When we are abandoned and lonely, we are in deserts. When we are betrayed and feel forlorn, we are in deserts. When we encounter failure and rejection, we are in deserts. When we get misjudged and abused, we are in deserts. Desert moments come also at the least expected of times. When loved ones get ill and their earthly end looms in the horizon; when we want to do God’s will and it seems the hardest thing to be happy to do; when those we put our faith and trust in, return it with infidelity and a whole basket of hurt feelings. These are desert moments that so many of us can connect with.

The difference between a faith-filled person and one who is faith-less, is the way that they handle their desert moments when they come. The faith-filled person will try to look beyond the pain and the sorrow of the moment, and open up to the Lord, like the way Dorothy Day did in the National Shrine back then when everything was breaking apart. The faithful person will try to not make her pain and her loneliness the heart of the universe, and dare to even ask God what is it that she should be learning from this whole experience. The faith-filled person will try one’s best not to blame and shame others, tempting though it may be. It is a tough decision to make, because it means not telling God what to do when the proverbial chips are down. It is very easy to make God our servant and give him a ‘to-do’ list and perhaps even have a ‘to-be-done-by’ date at the bottom.

People who lack faith will do one or more of the following – blame one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s parents, one’s employers, one’s superiors, one’s unhealed past memories, and perhaps the most common one of all, blame God. After all, he is the best scapegoat since he doesn’t retaliate in any violent way. At least not most of the time.

To be fair, I don't think any of us are totally one way or the other. I know I'm not. The reality is that we waver between these poles. Sometimes we do better at being faith-filled, and sometimes we are at the other end. Just as sometimes the desert can be a very hot place, and sometimes a freezing hell hole.

The desert in the scriptures is a place of great foreboding. In the Near Eastern mind, it is a place where the devil roams and inhabits. That is why Jesus was sent to the desert after his baptism – to encounter evil and to begin that great battle that was to be the story his life, and the greatest story ever told. But we need to also know that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus there. God did not send him there alone and without a comforter. His love for the Father and his Father’s will gave him the strength to go to the desert with a confidence and a trust that he would be alright despite the battles that would be fought there.

When we find ourselves in the desert alone, we need to reclaim our baptismal dignity and remember that firstly, we have never been without the Holy Spirit in our journey in life, and secondly, like Jesus after his third temptation, we too, have our Guardian Angels to ‘light and guard, to rule and guide’.

And of course, though I had made reference to this before, it bears repeating here. In the book of the Apocalypse, to escape the foreboding dragon, Mary was given refuge in a desert. That is not what a desert is for. No one in the right mind would flee to a desert for refuge from danger. Yet, God’s ways are often not ours. It is precisely in the most unlikely of places that we will find the most unexpected of graces.

I do have my bouts of surreal homesickness now and then. I find myself low in spirits when I realize just how far I am from home and family, or when I glance at my watch and realize that everyone in Singapore is fast asleep as I am warming up to a cup of tea in the afternoon in the cold DC weather. This is when I go to the roof of the Castle, and have a very good view of the dome of the National Shrine before getting my nose buried back in the books. Sure, it may not be much of desert experience compared to those of others, but the desert takes all forms when it comes. (That's what I see from the roof of my 'castle'. In the foreground is the back portion of my school)

One doesn’t need to have the Basilica as one’s neighbour to find comfort in desert moments. Rather, what one needs is really the faith to enter the desert with a new resolve, knowing that one is not alone.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mercy, death and dying – time to “up” the heat.

Death and dying are things that many people don’t like to talk about or think about very much. The saying that there are two things that are certain in life – taxes and death – is probably very true, but still, the topics of death and dying seem to be taboo. Yes, this holds true even for Catholics who believe in the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

As a priest who had been in the parish and active in ministry for the ten years before coming over to the States, I was constantly reminded of how fragile life really is, especially if I was the presider at a funeral liturgy, and even much more so if I had journeyed with the person before his death. If there is one thing that I miss in active ministry it is funeral masses. To be sure, weddings are lovely and beautiful, but I am still quite unconvinced that many couples really are deeply aware of the true vocation that marriage really is, and what God is really calling them to as a sacrament. It’s a common lament among priests – that much as we can talk and instruct and guide couples about marriage and its deep meaning, many of them are just too polite to ask further, or too caught up in the ‘romance’ to be awed by God’s part in this relationship. Most of the time, the deeper significance of how God is present to a couple in marriage comes much later in their married life. I guess this is where marriage enrichment programmes like Marriage Encounter come in. Apart from marriages, there are baptism liturgies and first communion liturgies, which are part and parcel of parish life that I do miss as well. But I must say that it is the funeral masses that I find most meaningful and also most challenging to ‘celebrate’ well, and yes, something that I do miss.

Why this is felt strongly by me is because I have come to see that very often (of course there are exceptions) it is when we are at these ‘life border’ situations that we come face to face with death, especially with the death of a close relative, a spouse, a child, a parent or a dear friend, that something opens up. At these liminal-space moments, one can hardly turn one’s gaze away from just how fragile life really is. Many a time, I have found that these are moments where a person becomes receptive to life, to love, and to reality. Life as it is lived now at this breakneck speed provides too many ways to escape from the depth and meaning of life. I am not a party pooper, but if our life is just one big party after another, one high after another, one thrill after another, one titillation after another, it is when these are brought to a halt that one begins to see another side of life that asks one to search for meaning and depth. These times are the tender entry points for God to enter through a portal of one’s life which hitherto may have been stubbornly closed shut, and where the words “mercy” and “forgiveness” had hardly been on the list of one’s everyday vocabulary.

I have found that when I spend some time at funeral wakes to speak to family members, that they begin to “loosen up” their view that the Church is ‘stuffy’ and ‘officious’, much more so when the death was a result of an apparent suicide. In a multi-cultural and multi-religious society like Singapore, particularly in some races, there will be a very mixed crowd that gathers at the funeral liturgy, and this becomes a most excellent time to broach the topic of the gift of Divine Mercy that Jesus is for all of us. There is bad form and good form at these liturgies, and bad form would include saying that the deceased is now an angel; or that God needs Grandma more than we do now; or that Aunt Sally is now a saint in heaven (because we are not the Congregation for the Cause of Saints), among other things. Good form is preaching about the promise of the resurrection, the need to continue to pray and offer up penance and petition for the soul of the deceased, the hope that our Christian faith gives us, and the meaning of the many liturgical symbols that one sees surrounding the casket and in the sanctuary. They all give great hope for us at the time of separation and grief.

Ultimately, it is mercy that we have been given by God to have enjoyed life (because God could very easily choose not to create us, but he did), and it is mercy that makes it all possible for us to be united with him after we have lived our lives on this earth.

Some of us are not as blessed as others. Most of us have been surrounded by friends who love and support us in life. But some of us may have people who are just bent on making our lives miserable and full of suffering. What does the Christian do when one is plagued with these “itches that cannot be scratched”? I think one of the greatest things we could ever do to those who do harm to us, those who hate us, those who curse us, those who wish evil on us, those who misjudge us, is to pray for these people that they will receive God’s mercy. Cursing them would be to lower ourselves to their level, and certainly not something worthy of Christian action. Jesus told us to bless those who curse us, and forgive those who curse us. This is perfection in God’s eyes, and we should all aim for perfection. Anything less would be an insult to the One whose image and likeness we are made in.

How should we best prepare for death? By being merciful, because this hones our ability to be appropriate receivers of Divine Mercy when it is shown to us. We can’t get ready overnight. We need a whole lifetime of priming so that when it comes our time to receive God’s Mercy, we will recognize it for the amazing grace that it is.

It’s a bit like getting the centralized heating working when the cold winter approaches. Now I know that this is something Singaporeans would never associate themselves with but bear with me. Here in DC, the warm summer days are over, and temperature is dropping each day. Mike, the Maintenance Manager of our “castle” shared with me how the central heat gets working in winter. There are miles of radiator pipes that send the steam generated from the boiler in the basement throughout each room, each hallway and each bathroom of this immense place. Apparently, this needs to be done slowly, in increments of half hour segments for about three weeks before it can be fully operated, because a sudden surge of super-hot steam through pipes that were not used for the past nine months would surely cause them to burst.

As Mike shared this with me, I immediately saw its link with mercy. We need to keep opening our pipes of mercy regularly, offering them to others, so that when God’s mercy comes full at the end of our lives, we are ready to receive all that God wants to give us.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Attracting God’s attention

On one of those rare occasions this week, I had a rare moment of rest time from my studies, and wandered into the common room of the castle of my residence. I fumbled with the switches and the TV’s remote control, I did the American thing – channel surfed. It was mind-boggling how many channels the cable TV has. Literally hundreds.

Of course, there were education channels where there were good history programs and documentaries, which were very interesting to watch, but at the other end of the spectrum was what I would call pure trash and offered nothing but visceral delights. But what I found most amusing were their infomercial channels, where product after product being sold offered promise after promise of making one a happy person in various areas of one’s life. Gadgets for the home promised a more convenient lifestyle, products for the body promised health with little or no discipline needed, and products for beauty promised the ability to get the attention of the opposite sex almost without even trying. Perhaps there should be a product that promised Americans jobs, which is something this country seems to be in dire need of. But the bottom line of so many of these products lies the selling point, sometimes clear as a bell, sometimes very subliminal – this is the way to get others to find you attractive, and you will be happy.

If we spend so much time and effort in trying to get others to accept and like us in life, by searching for that correct fragrance, wear that correct dress, have that accepted body shape, live in that correct address or drive that correct car, do we ever spend time pondering what it is in life that would make us become attractive to God. Well, to many, I suppose, this question would be nonsensical, but for various reasons.

The atheist would say God doesn’t exist, so it’s a non-question. The spiritual person would say that one doesn’t need to anything to be attractive to God because God loves us all, and has no condition to his love. And there would be the many between this spectrum who hold the view that some things we do can make us more attuned to God and some can lead us away from him.

In my “Inner Way” course that is one of my electives, one of the things that we have discussed is what our spiritual lives mean to us as human beings. The purpose or rationale of a Spiritual Director is to guide one to reach that path of life so that our deepest meaning can be uncovered, and our path to that can be less covered.

I was glad to hear Abbot Lee (that’s his title and name, and no, he is not Chinese) say that it is mercy that lies at the heart of God, and it is that merciful heart that we should ultimately be in union with. In other words, we come closest to God and his merciful heart when we honestly admit of our need for his mercy.

What comes to mind is the parable that Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14. In that story lies the secret to the heart of God, and what makes us attractive to him.

You see, it’s not all the ways that we have not sinned that makes us attractive in God’s eyes, because if that were the case, we will have merited heaven on our own accord, inflating in no small way our huge egos that would hinder us from entering the doorway to heaven (not that heaven has a doorway). But it is just the opposite, when we have sinned and realized that we have sinned, requiring us to ask nothing more from God but his tender mercy, allowing us to dip our parched souls in the pools of his life-giving waters that stream from his heart, that enables us to be ‘attractive’ to him. In fact, it is when we see who we are and stand ‘a distance away’, and not raise our eyes to heaven in a stance like that of the publican, that precisely brings us closer to heaven and let heaven come to our eyes.

I don’t think many of us get that at all. And so, we spend most of our time jumping the hoops, and trying to get God’s attention by our deeds and works and fulfilling of obligations. No, it’s not that these are bad. In themselves they are good and very needful, but if we forget why we do them, and fail to consistently remind ourselves the rationale for doing them, we can easily end up thinking that we are doing them SO THAT we get God, rather than BECAUSE God has ‘gotten’ us first.

And no, I am in no way advocating that we lead sin-filled and lives of debauchery either, erroneously reading Rom 5:20 to our seeming advantage. Just because where “sin abounds, grace abounds even greater” does not mean we should live in sin with wild abandon.

It must be the awareness of this that as Church, when we gather for the Eucharistic meal, we need to begin with that stark, honest and humble acknowledgement of “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison”. It is our universal cry for God’s infinite mercy that throws light on our darkened souls that enables us to enter correctly (and in the correct light) into the banquet hall of love.

And that makes us very very attractive to God.

Monday, September 5, 2011

100th Blog entry

Dear readers and friends

The blog entry that you read posted just before this one (scroll down please) marks the 100th blog entry in this endeavour that I started on October 8 2009. "One entry every Monday morning" - that was my aim. It is with God's grace that I have kept that up with a modicum of regularity . No, it was not about me. I wrote it to keep the Catholic mind thinking, and to invite readers to grow in their search for meaning and for God, a search that never really ends. It just gets deeper.

Thank you, dear readers, for making this both a joy and a challenge to me. There were great moments of insight and grace, comments of support and love, and I must admit, in the past few weeks, some abuse as well (for various reasons, I could not post those that were out rightly abusive and threatening) that was unbecoming of true Catholicism and rather upsetting. I must say that I had never thought it possible that a priest blogger who tries to be as gentle as possible with words in the blog can be vilified and targeted for abuse.

And no, I will not allow the use this blog to be a means to communicate to other readers any messages of hate and threat and violence of whose god is better or stronger than whose. We are not in kindergarten anymore. I simply will not post any comments that are seditious and inflammatory in nature. As most of you know, there are laws against this.

But if you are interested to adult dialogue, please give me your contact email, or identify yourselves, and I will be most pleased to communicate with you. Your identity will not be revealed in my blog. It is far too easy to hide behind anonymity in the cyber-world when one wants to throw stones. This blog space is not a place for violence of any nature. I hope you respect this. Yesterday morning’s Gospel text at Mass reminded me how to treat such persons – like tax collectors and Pharisees. Well, Jesus loved tax collectors, and called them to grace. Matthew himself was a converted one. This I believe I must do - imitate Jesus as far as possible.

But on to happier things - I had the intention of doing some sort of celebration gathering for the 100th blog anniversary, but alas, I had to be moved from Singapore and could not possibly hold any gathering with my readers. But I do hope that you will continue with your journey with me and come to re-appreciate in deeper and better ways a journey that takes us to God’s heart – a heart beating with love for us all.

Thank you once more for your kind and faithful readership. This is not my celebration. It is ours, and God love you all!

Happy 100th everyone!

Fr Luke

Communication - is it our stumbling block to God?

The 13th century Persian poet Mevlana, or more commonly known as Rumi, has a poem called Unseen Rain, where one of the stanzas reads “What I most want is to spring out of this personality, then to sit apart from that leaping. I’ve lived too long where I can be reached”. I do often wonder if we too, have lived too long where we can be reached.

When I came across this line, I felt my attention frozen somewhat, because I do personally feel that this is one of the greatest problems that affects all of us living in the era of the super-fast mass communication, aided by the advent and incessant use of the internet and the communication highways that we are on daily. Even if we are aware of its apparent drawbacks and negative impact to our soul, we are almost too deep into it to pull ourselves away from it to, as it were, recover from being too easily reached and to really rediscover our selves.

But I must begin by saying that there is a wonderful and positive side to the communication ease. In fact, this very blog that your eyes are reading through your computers or android phones is possible because of this information highway. Without it, there would be no blog, and nothing I have had to say would be read by people living halfway across the globe. The information superhighway has enabled us to gain so much more in terms of knowledge and to do research that hitherto would have taken a far longer time to complete. It allows us to communicate with ease and great economy with friends, loved ones and family who live thousands of miles away. It is so inexpensive to call my family members who live in Singapore from where I live in Washington DC that I can even call them just to check in on them daily, and to reassure them of my well being, and to get assurance of theirs, at the rate of about 2 cents a minute. It does make the world a much smaller place.

But having said that, I also believe that being too easily reached, as Rumi wrote, does have its downside, which we hardly reflect on. What amazes me is that Rumi wrote that in the 13th century, way before then advent of any form of advanced communication. He was not bewailing the speed of communication. What he was bemoaning was the fact that we human beings have a tendency to want to run or escape from things that give us depth, especially when we know that depth comes when one removes oneself from the noise and distraction that the world gives, whether one is immersed in the modern day helter-skelter world of gadgets and gizmos, or living in 13th century Persia. We have a certain allergy and hesitancy to reach our centre, and to come to love what is deepest inside of us.

I am currently reading a fascinating book entitled Poustinia – Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer by Catherine Doherty, the founder of the Madonna House Apostolate. It tells of the humble beginnings of this movement which tries to cater to the need for people to “stand still and allow the deadly restlessness of our tragic age to fall away like the worn-out, dusty cloak that it is”. No, she was neither a hater of modernity, nor an advocate against the cyber-age. But she was given a grace to see that we human beings share a certain yen for the search for God within, which the world without can easily block or remove from our consciousness.

In my Thomistic Seminar course that I am currently ploughing through, I am reminded once again that the aim of our moral and spiritual lives, which is not at all separated and distinct from our daily physical lives, is the final participation in God’s wisdom, where contemplation is reached. We forget this, and this is made even more easily forgotten when we only think that our world is about our work, our health, our families or our achievements. A whole lot of 'do, do, do', but very little 'be'. Not that these are bad in themselves, but our involvement in them need to lead us to appreciate where their geneses were from, and what they are leading us to. If God is not the reason and the answer for our 'doing', we may be in danger of losing our origins or our way back.

True, not many preachers speak convincingly of this enough. Perhaps it is because it necessarily means that the preacher himself is convinced of this, and it is a hard task – both to live and to witness to it. But if done well and celebrated well, the Liturgy of the Church itself speaks volumes about the need to displace ourselves from the centre of the universe. The very fact that we show up and participate despite our wanting to stay in bed; despite mouthing prayers that don’t particularly mean much to us personally that morning; praying for people who we don’t really know; bringing to our attention the “universal” church which is something that I can’t even wrap my mind around, in some ways, “forces” me to think outside of myself and make me a less selfish and self-centered person. I am not at Liturgy for myself. I am there for the ‘other’ that I cannot see, and this experience trains me to meet the great Other that I will one day see.

So, even if it is for a moment, or even an hour a day, it would be more than wise to go into ‘silent mode’, and appreciate God within, to, as Rumi said, go to where you cannot be reached. In that place, it is ultimately God who reaches us.