Monday, October 31, 2011

On death and dying

Every once in a while, it is healthy to set aside some time to ponder about where our lives are heading, and to really appreciate the fact that our life here on this earth is going to end some day. I think it was Woody Allen that said that he’s not afraid of dying. He just doesn’t want to be around when it happens. I wonder if he speaks not just for himself but for quite a lot of other people as well.

I’ve read about it in books and other people’s reflection when they describe the change in the seasons from Autumn to Winter, how the seasons themselves are nature’s reminder to everyone that life doesn’t remain static, but is on a constant change, where one season gives way to another. I guess, I am blessed to be able to experience this for myself now that I am in Washington DC, where we are in the middle of Autumn, and everywhere I turn, I see nature’s reminder that life is in transition. The leaves are all turning colour, as can be seen from the enclosed photograph of a tree that I passed on the way to school on Friday. The cold that is seeping into the north east of America is telling the leaves that it is time to stop the chlorophyll manufacturing that goes on in the leaves. This withdrawal causes the green chlorophyll to be stored in the trees, leaving behind the other non-green chlorophyll that gives autumn its characteristic colours of gold, red and orange. Soon, all these leaves will fall too, leaving nothing but the denuded branches to survive the harsh and cruel cold of winter.

The Church also has her own ways of reminding us of the transience of life around this time. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we celebrate two very special liturgies that serve as timely reminders of our fragility. On November 1, we observe the Solemnity of All Saints. It never fails to remind me that this is what we are all ultimately called to become, and this is really God’s grand plan for us all. We celebrate that there are millions who have gone before us who really have gone through life’s arduous journey and passed with flying colours. We don’t know how many such saints there are, but we know that there are many. Many more than there are canonized saints, for sure. For all we know, some of them are our very own blood ancestors who in God’s eyes, have lived the faith well, and have joined their lives with the life of Christ in the most concrete of ways.

Is it a high celebration? It certainly is, and there is great call for it to be. It is a celebration of heaven’s entire population whose cause for its existence is the generous and overflowing love of God. And it also reminds us that we are not alone in this journey of ours, no matter how few friends we may actually have. These unseen friends of ours are the saints who are constantly in God’s presence, and are praying for us so that our journey in life becomes as fruitful as theirs. They pray that we will make the right choices in life; that we will choose to love rather than hate; to respect rather than disdain; uplift rather than trod down; that we will put God before all else in life, and to know that no life on earth is not worth living. And they know that these choices are not easy choices because they consciously made those choices in their lives. So, though they are no longer with us, All Saints’ Day is really a celebration of life; a celebration of the Church Triumphant, as the Fathers of the Church called them.

The next day is another celebration of the Church as well, but that of the Church suffering or Church Expectant. These souls are in their purgative way to be readied for the beatific vision that awaits them. Too little has, in my opinion, been preached about the beauty and richness of the theology of Purgatory. If heaven is sublime, and it is, purgatory is next in terms of sublimity. It gives all who are there in that state of purification the greatest promise that heaven is indeed a blessed assurance. It is a day to remember at Mass all our deceased relations and friends whom we have shared many things with. With some of them we have shared joys, sorrows, meals, interests, surnames (as family) and our beds (as spouses) as well. Their passing from this life has left us with many a lacunae in our own lives. Our prayers and works of mercy carried out with their intentions become them our way of joining hands and hearts across the barriers that life and death have formed.
Some say that the Catholic Church is rather morose, citing these celebrations as dark and somber. I suppose if one were to use the wrong lenses to look at these celebrations, one could be left with a searing sense of ennui and languor. But what we need are the correct lenses so that the image of life that we get from these celebrations are uplifted and enlightened. I hope this blog entry gives this hope to all its readers.

Indeed, as the leaves on the branches of the trees outside my window turn from green to amber to gold, they will soon all fall to the ground when the last vestiges of life get sapped from them. The season is truly changing here. It was German theologian Karl Rahner who said that in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.

To Rahner's erudite reflection I venture to add this - as we we live our lives, let us try as best as we can to harmonise with those unfinished symphonies so that the completed chords can join with the choruses of angels in their unending symphony of praise.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Discerning God’s will

“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a line from the Lord’s Prayer that millions and millions say, sometimes many times a day. We have heard the phrase “it’s God’s will” tossed around carelessly by people who have not even stopped to ponder what God’s will really is, and where we stand in the light of the will of God Almighty. Most of the time, the phrase “God’s will” is used as a cover-all when something becomes unexplainable and when the situation seems to demand that we make some sense of what lies before us, usually when a tragedy or calamity strikes. And uttering it in such a throw-away manner often may not bring anyone a step closer to where carrying out God’s will should – greater contemplation of God.

God really has only one will – that all creation respond positively to his invitation to eternal life and love with him for eternity. God wants all of creation to find our final home in him. That’s his ultimate will. Anything else that doesn’t lead us home, that distracts us from home, which makes us turn our backs toward home also turns us away from God’s will.

Jesus made it clear in the gospel passage where his disciples come to him and tell him that his family is ‘outside’ looking for him. We are told that Jesus looked at those seated around him ‘inside’ the house, and says, “Who is my mother? Who are my brother and sister?” And continues, referring to those seated around him, saying, “Here are my mother and sister and brother. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my mother and sister and brother.”

Cryptic? Not really. He certainly was not dissing his beloved mother waiting ‘outside’. In fact, if you really think about it, he was giving great hope to all who were in that circle that they have a hope – that there is way in which those whom Jesus preached to, the ‘outsiders’, can also become as close as family to him – those on the ‘inside’ of his life. He in fact is saying, “you (i.e. tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, etc) have a great hope that awaits you because if you listen to the will of God and do it, you are part of my family, and can find your way home”. What is family but a place where home really makes the heart grow fonder.

God’s will is about a home-coming. And it is much less about specifically naming what it is one needs to do concretely than about getting our ‘homing’ devices calibrated well. The less that we train ourselves to point our hearts and minds toward that home in God, the more we will find ourselves in all sorts of problems and difficulties in life.

What then is the antithesis of God’s will? Our will, especially when we are ‘will-full’. One of the greatest, if not THE greatest gift that God ever could give us is our free will. That he doesn’t force us or arm-twist us to love him, to worship him and to adore him shows that he is most secure. But that also shows us that our free and non-coerced response to love him, to worship him and to adore him becomes OUR best gift that we can ever give him, who has no need of any gifts.

Some people have asked me – “Father, how would I know if by choosing this path of life (e.g. taking this person to be my spouse, or accepting this job, or moving into this address, or taking this course of study, etc) I am doing God’s will”? There is no specific yes or no to such answers. It appears to some that seeking God’s will is akin to some kind of crystal ball gazing. It really isn’t.

Certainly, if there are a myriad of choices before us, we need to make some sort of decision, but this is where discerning comes in. With the help of a prayerful spiritual director, and being really honest with him, we can slowly whittle down the choices to a few which are more or less equally ‘good’, paring away those which are obviously wrong and immoral options.

What does honesty have to do with it? Plenty. We need to ask ourselves – in my choice of this ‘thing’ or this ‘task’ or this ‘pursuit’, am I out-rightly making a choice that is immoral and evil? Is it harmful to another person? Is it disrespecting human freedom, human life and human dignity or is it harming, stripping away of dignity, and curtailing the freedom of another person? Am I doing evil and not good? Obviously, if the answer to any of these basic questions is ‘yes’, it is clear as daylight that we are not going anywhere near ‘home’ but completely away from God’s will. The problem is that there are many people out there whose moral compass are out of whack and in dire need for recalibration, but are in complete denial about it. These are the people who are not only out to hurt and deform others, but are also hurting and deforming themselves.

In fact, the gospel text at Mass yesterday hearkens us to be mindful of the call to love God in the way that every Jew is to love the Lord our God - with all our mind (ie, with a clear and knowing conscience), with all our soul (ie, from our deepest depth of our being) and with all our strength (ie, with a determination that sees us purposefully choosing to love, and not be led by feelings and fleeting emotions).

I just came across a funny story where the father was commenting on his son’s handyman skills as he watched his son using a hammer to bang in a nail into a wall. He said, “wow, you use that hammer like lightning!” to which the son beamed with pride, thinking the father commended him on his speed. The father smiled and said “and like lightning, you never strike the same place twice!” Helping one another to do God’s will is also like helping one another to strike for ‘home’ all the time.

Am I being nostalgic when I write that doing God’s will is ultimately about finding our way ‘home’? Perhaps. After all, I am some 15,600km away from home and it does make me think of home on a frequent basis. But the physical distance from Singapore is really nothing compared to how far I really am from my real home in God if I am not constantly re-examining if I am doing God’s will with all my mind, my soul and my strength.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Ending up the real losers when we want pain to end too fast

We share in our human psyche an energy that repels, abhors and rejects pain, trauma and suffering. It’s something that all of us share as human beings. Of course, there are the minority who actually like suffering and pain, and look for ways not only to have pain in their lives, but to have it in ways that are bizarre and totally unconventional. While calling these people psychologically maladjusted and weird seems a tad unkind and generalising, a lot of these behaviours are no doubt really self-destructing. I recall watching a documentary some months back about people who subject themselves to strange rituals that inflict pain, and the conclusion was that those people were actually sought the ‘high’ that comes from the pain, and had not really sought the pain for pain’s sake.

Here in the States, one only needs to watch one segment any television commercials, and one will encounter a slew of ads for painkillers offering some form of pain relief, from back-pain, to muscle-aches to headaches. It makes me wonder if this nation is obsessed with numbing or escaping some sort of pain and discomfort as a whole. It’s not necessarily a bad thing I guess. After all, people are known to work or studies better if they are rid of their stabbing nerve aches or back pain. I cannot but laugh silently to myself whenever I see these commercials, because half of the commercial is spent on spewing out at breakneck speed the possible side-effects that these pills and medicines can have on the consumer, often with the words ‘cancer’, or ‘high blood pressure’ or ‘death’ mentioned. It is obvious that medication is never without its risks. But the caveat emptor is always there to protect the seller.

But there are, to be sure, other kinds of pains that are not easily treatable with medication - oral or otherwise. These are the pains that come with life. The disappointments of broken friendship and relationships, the failures of endeavours that started out with every good intention, the reality that a good outcome in most things necessarily entails hard work and sacrifice, and the fact that in life, one is not going to be loved and accepted by everybody. From our Catholic vista or perspective, I guess there is one phrase that is a cover-all for this – redemptive suffering. It gives us as a Body of Christ, a sacred way of dealing with these pains when they come along. And it entails that we constantly remind ourselves that this life is not just for ourselves, and that we are not in the world, existent in the universe for ourselves. There is a bigger and far more immense reality than meets our tiny eye.

That Jesus came into our humanity to share in it in the most real and vivid way shows us that each of our sufferings can have a transformative character, if only we would have the same attitude that Christ had. Our sufferings won’t be transformative (for ourselves or for anyone else, for that matter) if we are not willing to consciously join our sufferings with sufferings of Christ. Because his suffering was universally redemptive, our sufferings would also have (at least in some tiny way) some redemptive value for the world. But sitting in pool of self-pitying mud and wallowing in it has little if no redemptive value at all.

Of course this is far easier said than done. Even when I am in a period of pain and uncertainty, when it is dark (perhaps even literally, as in the coming long dark winter months), I do sometimes want it to end, and to end swiftly. What we often cannot appreciate is that there is a learning that comes with staying in that pain, with journeying with that load, and with the sitting in the darkness in patience and solitude. Strangely, it is when we expedite our exit from these moments too quickly with whatever panacea we can get our hands on, that we really end up cheating ourselves from a much better result if we had only waited and learnt patience and some form of ascesis. That’s when we need to pray as Jesus did at Gethsemane ‘Father, take this cup away from me, but if it is your will, let it be done, not mine’. We have not learnt deeply enough that in life, quick fixes are often only a temporary solution (or welcome distraction) that do not bring much conversion and metanoia to our lives.

Most of us do not live in the luxury of being pain-free in all areas of our lives. We struggle and cope with some form of pain and discomfort on some level, but some of us just either don’t admit it, or talk about it. Whether we do or not does not matter. What really matters is that we challenge ourselves to grow more and more spiritually mature when faced with these pains and sufferings.

Each 40-day period of Lent and the 5 weeks of Advent are a very real reminder to us that there is going to be a period of waiting, a period of ‘gestation’, and a period of patience-learning in life before life really can be celebrated in its fullest joy.

No, life as a Catholic Christian is not about being a self-inflicting, pain-seeking masochist. In fact, it is just the other way around. It is learning to see with a different set of eyes what goodness can be seen in dimness when we adjust to a new level of light, illumined by the light of Christ.

Monday, October 10, 2011

How badly do we want this?

On the television right now are several talent shows from different continents. I think they are both called the X-Factor, with one being held in the UK, and the other, here in the USA. After the huge audition rounds, the next step is what is called ‘boot camp’ followed by ‘judges’ houses’, where the competitors are jetted to some exotic location somewhere far from where they live, and go through yet another round of very tough judging from another group of judges together with the usual four. When these competitors come to face the judges in their houses, they are often asked one question before launching into their song, and it is this – ‘tell us, how bad(ly) do you want this’, to which the contestants are wont to say “oh, you wouldn’t believe just how much!”

Much as it is a predictable response from these celebrity hopefuls, what lies behind the question is the fact that wanting all the trappings of success on the celebrity scene comes with it a truckload of difficulties, challenges and heartbreaks that no one seems to envisage before they get it. As I study theology, and deepen my spiritual insights on life and the great challenge that Christianity poses to every one her believers, it is clearer and clearer to me that this question is also asked of each believer at various times of one’s life.

What is our ultimate aim in life? What are all our hopes and aspirations and dreams and endeavours as we live this life? Oh, I am sure that many will respond that it really depends on what we want in life – some of us are family centered, and want that to be the ultimate aim in life; some are so contented to be married and to have each other as spouses to see them through the days of their lives; some are career minded and want to really go as far as they can to succeed in their jobs. And I am sure there are many, many other ‘options’.

Though these are not bad per se, for us Christians, we cannot but remember that beyond these things, which are good and wholesome (at least we hope they are), we all have one common aim and goal in life, and that is to love and serve God first and to be with him in the next life. That familiar first question of the Baltimore Catechism puts it in the proverbial nutshell.

Knowing that well and having it engrained in us will set us right in our relationships with one another, and with the way in which we interact with nature and the world, and all that is in it. The problem is that even as Christians, not all of us are convinced that this is the fundamental imperative and so, we set all sorts of different priorities and agendas in our lives, oftentimes clashing one with the other, causing a whole gamut of stresses and anxieties. Yesterday’s gospel text of the rejected invitation to the wedding banquet uses those excuses as an analogue for our own excuses why we often find ourselves not wanting to respond wholeheartedly to the offer of the divine life by the one who is Divine.

But I can also see that an inadequate understanding of what it means to love God as the number one love can do to many who think they understand what this entails. Many think that it means that they have to abandon their families, be underachievers in their workplaces, and live consecrated lives, and to forego happiness and pleasure in life. That is a false or misunderstood definition of what holiness is. Holiness is not saying “I can’t do that, or do this now”. It is “I can see the pleasure that this gives me, but I can also see that there is a greater, more perduring pleasure that I should be aiming for, and I will take great efforts to choose that with my will and intellect”. Of course, that ‘struggle’ is what each one of us faces every time our lives come to any sort of crossroads that requires of us to make a decision of where we should be going; what road we should be taking.

I would certainly hope that catechumens in the RCIA would be as enthused as some of those X-Factor contestants before significant moments in their journey of metanoia and formation. Would they respond with such deep conviction that those contestants have and say “Oh, I want this so much! I eat, sleep, and drink this – it means my life”.

Because that would be what loving God with one’s whole mind, whole soul and whole strength means.

So, how badly do you want this?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Forgetfulness – the reason why many fall into sin and error

What sets us apart from the other animals and sentient beings are the gift of our intellect and our wills. This is an undeniable fact. This combination sets us head and shoulders above the animals.

What is our greatest gift is really also a double-edged sword. Whilst our intellect can grasp and comprehend in ways that are deep and profound, it is when we forget our giftedness that we sometimes end up living beneath our dignity as well. Forgetfulness can often be one of the root causes of sin.

What makes a saint is not that one has been sinless. What makes a saint is the realization that one is a sinner who needs to be standing under the brilliance of God’s mercy, and one has never allowed the self to forget that. The unrepentant sinner, however, is one who has forgotten how to be grateful for life, and harbours grudges and ill-will to many around oneself, being callous with words and unthinking in actions that end up hurting and wounding. Sometimes, the innocent parties in one’s life suffer the most from such actions. The saint is one who sees and realizes that nothing is possible without the tender mercy of God, and is constantly reminding oneself of how much grace awaits one if one only asks for it.

The forgiven sinner constantly remembers. The unrepentant sinner easily forgets. The former needs no particular reason to be thankful. The other only waits till a ‘good enough’ occasion comes about to do so.

It is a fact that the Internet has made our world a much smaller place, and my experience of being half a world away from home has made me appreciate this in a concrete way daily. Each evening at 6pm here in Washington DC, I get to download a copy of the Straits Times onto my iPad, and I am able to receive the day’s news at the very same time that Singaporeans get theirs in print form. I am not sure if it was coincidental, but I did notice that in both Saturday’s and Sunday’s edition, that there were two articles that featured the element of death and love.

While Saturday’s edition spoke of Rose Parties, Sunday’s edition featured an article written by Lee Wei Ling reminiscing about her mother. Cutting across both Rose Parties and Ms Lee’s stories are the elements of mortality, emotion and love – three things that feature richly in our human living experiences, three things which are often the fundament of what constitutes a deep and meaningful life, and three things which many do not really know how to deal with adequately and appropriately either.

I do not intend to critique these two articles in any way. I am sure that many have been touched by them, and want to do something about their relationships with their loved ones after reading them. If so, that would be something good that has come out of such articles. But there is something else that lies much deeper that causes most of us to need something like death to remind us the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of our lives and our loves. It is this – our shared sense of forgetfulness and how easy it is for us to be ungrateful in life.

The Catholic faith has always been helping her members to cultivate an ongoing sense of gratitude for above all things, God himself. It is called the Eucharist. Its etymology is from the Greek Eucharistia, which means ‘thanksgiving’. But I wonder how many Catholics enter a Church for the celebration of Mass with that purpose in mind – to be thankful. Many do go with petitions of some sort on their minds and in their hearts. And with the approaching of the school exams in Singapore, it’s a safe wager to make that good examination results are a common unsaid petition.

But one doesn’t need to have had one’s prayers answered in order to be thankful. Could our ‘business’ or ‘quid-pro-quo’ attitude in life cause us to see that only if God does something extraordinary for us that causes him to ‘deserve’ our thanks after that? It would be sad if we need constant reminder after constant reminder to be people of gratitude. I suppose, articles like the two mentioned can jolt our selective memory. Some are reminded to be grateful after attending retreats, reading spiritual books, having good ‘soul’ friends, reading meaningful articles or even getting a doctor’s prognosis that doesn’t seem terrible positive. But if these remind us to be grateful people for the kindness shown to us in life, they will go a long way to help us to be saints, or at least, be saints in the making.

So, why should we be thankful at Mass? Not just for what God has done, certainly. For who he is, and for who we are. We forget that too easily, and that is the cause of most of our sinfulness. We share a certain spiritual dementia that causes us forget we are made in the image and likeness of the one who gave us life in the first place. If going for daily Mass doesn’t inculcate in us a spirit of gratitude for everything (and everyone) in life, we would have been missing the forest for the proverbial trees.