Monday, November 28, 2011

Getting out of God’s way

What is the ‘spirit’ of Advent? What does the Church want us to enter into each time we begin the new Liturgical Year? I am quite sure that this is a question that many, if not all parish pastoral councils and pastors ponder at some length each year when planning for the way that the parish should be directed towards Christmas. I was speaking to a priest who lives with me in the Castle, and he said that in a parish that he went to yesterday, the theme for Advent was “Simply Christmas”, alluding to the fact that Christmas has become so complex and complicated, that there is now a conscious need to whittle away those veneers so that the real simple and awe-full reality of God’s incarnation can come to the fore once again. In a shopping-commercial-material world that this has spiraled into, something that simple does seem to make a lot of sense.

Traditionally, the four weeks of Advent have always been broadly given the underlying sub-themes of peace, hope, love and joy. What these are, are the foundations, the rock-bottom essence of life that give us an abiding stability amid life’s surges and swells. And we know this to be true, because it is when we are tossed about by life’s sadnesses, seemingly overwhelmed by its challenges, shocked by news of illness, failure and brokenness, or riddled with pain and torment, these are the ‘basics’ that we seek so that our rudders of life are not ripped apart from our navigation through the sea called ‘life’.

The person of faith needs to hold on to these because one realizes that one just cannot live life according to one’s own dictates, whims and fancies. The wanting to live life according to one’s own fancies and invent one’s own rudder is, I believe, the start of the mess of individualism and advent of atheism or godlessness.

Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we have a base for our existence, and that it is God who has given us this foundation. When we have masked over God with so much of ourselves, we can easily end up thinking that we are our finances, our successes, our families, our businesses, our material possessions and our securities. And it works for the other way as well – we can just as easily end up thinking that we are our failures, our broken relationships, our poverty, our sadness, our misery and our rejected selves. They are both the opposite sides of a coin called ‘self absorption’.

What Advent reminds us to do is to put away our ‘selves’ to prepare the way for God who has put away himself for us. Admittedly, this is one of the hardest things for us to do, whether we are rich or poor, failures or successes, healthy or sick. So much of our time and energies are centered on making us the most important people in the world, drawing either attention or sympathy, praise or pity to ourselves. This does nothing to align ourselves with the God who took on humanity to show us that selflessness is our shared goal in life.

Every sin that you and I can name and be guilty of finds at its base a certain selfishness that caused us to want things our way instead of God’s. The more we are aware of this, the less we will easily fall into sin in its incipient and hidden forms. This must be one of the main fruits of the spiritual life, where we develop a keen sense to ‘sniff’ out sin and detect just how odoriferous it really is.

So, in the coming weeks, apart from putting ‘up’ a lot in our lives, be they in the form of decorations, long lines at the cash register and perhaps even doctors’ appointments, it’s a very apt time to also put ‘aside’ a lot of ourselves to get out of God’s way, so that he can have a clear path to our hearts. After all, Jesus did say that he was the way, the truth and the life. Since he is THE way, we need to get our agenda, our egos and ourselves out of the way, so that his way also becomes our way.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Kingship of Jesus in our lives

Today, the Roman Catholic Church observes the last Sunday in the liturgical year A, and we anticipate a couple of things in the coming Sunday. Firstly, we look forward to a new liturgical year B with the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent. Secondly, and rather historically, we will begin officially using the new translation of the Roman Missal, which will take effect throughout the English-speaking world. So, whether one is going to be participating in an English Eucharistic celebration in Sydney, Singapore, Seattle or Shanghai, the Order of Mass of the Roman Rite will be in the new translation.

To be sure, there are thousands, if not millions who are in a tizzy about this change. Many aren’t even clear about why this is happening, let alone that it is happening (for those who have not been going to Mass for the past 6 to 9 months).

It’s not that it is a new Mass Order. It is a new translation of the Mass Order. “A translation from what?” you may ask. Well, it is a third translation of the Mass of Pope Paul VI, which we have been using all this while it was promulgated in 1969, after the Second Vatican Council. The version that we had been so familiar with all these past years is the second translation (commonly referred to as the Novus Ordo). The original text was in Latin, and we had been using the official English translation of it.

“What’s wrong with the old one?” you may ask. The common response to this from official and quasi-official bodies have been that it is not so much that it had anything wrong, but that the second translation (which most of us had grown up with) was very much a watered-down version, putting aside and losing a lot of the richness in worship-lingo and analog that the Latin had.

In his website, American Theologian Rev Fr Robert Barron recently gave a commentary on this, and I liked what he said, particularly about how the richness of the Latin had been lost through the loose and free translation of the Mass of Paul VI. Apparently, the Novus Ordo was rather hastily put together after Vatican II, so that the English-speaking world could get access to the Mass in English.

The Latin language had the ability to bring the congregation into the ambience of the royal court. With the Latin, we were made aware of the courtliness of being in the presence of the King of the Universe. But this whole mentality is completely lost in the English translation of the Mass of Paul VI. We only see glimpses of this when the Eucharistic Preface introduces the Sanctus, where we are invited to join the choirs of angels in their unending hymn of praise, whereupon we break into spontaneous “Holy, holy, holy Lord”.

Is it important to bring back regality? Isn’t it good to introduce simplicity and familiarity? I’m won’t be too quick to jump to an affirmative answer to these questions. As a priest who has tried in so many ways to impart to the people just how rich the Mass is, I think that the people in general are just not convinced that it is meant to be rich. Some have suggested that priests like I have injected into it what was not there. Perhaps they need to see phrases like “we beg” or “we beseech” actually in print to come to some sort of realization that we are not using ordinary language, because we are not addressing someone ordinary.

Where does this allergy towards high authority come from? There are many possible reasons. Perhaps some of them have something to do with the fact that in the past 40 to 50 years, many countries had freed themselves out of imperialism or control by foreign powers. The struggle and craving for independence had caused many to disdain any vestiges of ‘foreign influence’, and I can understand how the fight had left many scarred, battered and bruised. So, when the Novus Ordo was released with a lot of ‘everyday language’, it was seen as something fresh, pleasing to the ear, and most importantly, no longer with any traces of the loftiness that a direct translation would have rendered.

What is the current sentiment towards the new translation that is going to be implemented? Often, they run into the area of feelings. “I don’t feel like I am praying”, or “This is just so unnatural for me”, or “Why are we reversing, when we should be going forward”, or the more telling “I believe that we are making a terrible step back instead of progressing”. These sentiments, though very real, are unfortunately also very revealing. It tells of a generation that wants things to be done according to how they are feeling, and almost demands that things be “relevant” to THEM.

Is it any wonder then, that the Church has had a great deal of problems with worshippers turning up for Mass slovenly dressed and with nary a care for how they comport themselves, let alone interact and respect their fellow worshipper? Does it surprise me or anyone else that there are thousands of parishioners the world over who would say that it is ok to turn up for Mass in shorts and slippers or a tank-top, because God loves us as we are, and that clothes do not maketh the man? No. It doesn’t surprise me, because we have made ourselves and our comfort and our standards (which are anything but high) the centre of everything, including worship at Mass.

We need to be reminded over and over again that every Mass is a great invitation to meet the King of the Universe. It requires of us a different mind, a different attitude and a different heart to dare to contemplate and to share in His Divine life. The language that is used at Mass needs to help us to awaken to the fact that God is not on our level, and instead, draws us toward him. We are not meeting a mere familiar friend (though He is that AND more), someone we pay scant attention to, or worse, an indifferent and aloof personage who seems to be needy of our attention and worship. The more we are aware of this awesome (the word used here is deliberate) reality, the less we will be irritated about how different our language is in church, and become increasingly thankful for entering into mystery, almost welcoming the fact that we are privy to participate in this kind of worship language that is of a special nature.

The common phrase people who are resistant to change often use is “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” Well, in this case, though it “ain’t broke”, it also wasn’t adequately done in the first place. That’s why it needs ‘fixing’.

The Solemnity that we celebrate today (yesterday for my Singaporean friends) is aptly called Christ the Universal King. We have been invited to kingship, but perhaps we have forgotten just how privileged we are. I pray that the spirit of the new translation of the Roman Missal will help ‘fix back’ our somewhat scattered royalty.

Monday, November 14, 2011

When leaving this life is seen as an invitation to be wowed

One of the most painful things that one should ever undergo has got to be the loss of a parent, especially if one had been close to one’s mother or father in life. I am blessed to have both of my parents still around. Skype is a wonderful blessing indeed to somehow shorten the distance of being half a world away from them and from the comforts of home.

Why am I re-visiting the much written-about topic of death? Someone I had come to know in the past years, a genial, astute, elderly lady, passed away very recently after a having suffered a debilitating, massive stroke some eight months ago. The mother of a dear friend, I had been praying for her incessantly since her illness. On Friday, I was informed that she had died of a heart attack. It is most unfortunate that I cannot be there at the funeral liturgy, but I am hoping that this open reflection will make up for my absence in some small way.

It does seem strange that in many of my blogs, there seems to be a preponderance of death and dying, and some of my regular readers have asked why is it that I don’t write about happier things. It’s not that I am overly morose and maudlin. I can only respond that I am a realist, and death is the most real thing that can ever happen to us in life. The unfortunate thing about death is that though it is very real, we find ourselves hesitating to face its reality until it comes a-knocking on our doors. And when that happens, it’s often a tad too late to do some last-minute revision or recaps on letting go and release, because like an exam, we cannot be too prepared for the visit of what St Francis of Assisi calls Sister Death.

It does take a whole lot of preparation to have that kind of affinity and familiarity with death to give her a familial nomenclature like Sister. It surely doesn’t come overnight. But when well trained, what will happen is that we no longer see death as alien, foreign or even something to be silenced. We don’t do that with family. We embrace family (at least most of us do), we welcome family, and mostly, we enjoy the company of family. In order to see death with such welcome and amity, it necessarily means that we are confident that death brings us not just away from, but also somewhere toward. In Latin, “death” or “mors” is a feminine noun, and perhaps that is why St Francis gave her the title of “sister”, and not “brother”.

In order to prepare well for death, I believe that we must learn how to live well. Much as Catholics seem to have won the laurel wreath hands down when it comes to being guilt-laden in life, we are also not foreign to enjoying life. Catholic guilt has a quality all of its own, and some of us handle this better than others. I’m quite OCD when it comes to the art of delayed gratification, so that makes me an exception rather than the norm. But generally, God’s purpose is to have us enjoy the life that he has given us, and to enjoy this in a way that respects life, respects others, and gives deference to God. It’s when we mess this order up that problems crop up in life.

Mary (that’s her name) never got to receive the Lord in Holy Communion as she was baptized whilst in a comatose state from which she never recovered. She was later confirmed, and had received the Sacrament of Holy Anointing on a couple of occasions as well. In an ironic, poignant, and bittersweet strange way, Mary’s first Mass where she will be present as a baptized Catholic will also be her last. But it’s not the end. Each Mass that we as a community celebrate becomes then our conscious efforts at joining not just Mary, but with all the others who have gone before us with the great hope of that eternal banquet that is prepared by God.

Our faith gives us that great hope that we will share a meal again, a meal that transcends all meals in the meal that does not end.

In my current place of residence here called ‘the Castle’, there is an old Redemptorist missionary priest who is ‘getting on in years’. He is slowing down in his movements. Fr Tom said that he is getting ‘sluggish’ as of late. He moves slowly, needs a walking cane, and is hard of hearing at times, but he lights up when he is asked about his thoughts of death. Not afraid of dying, he has said time and again that anything we can ever say about heaven now will pale in comparison to its reality when we behold it. He said the other day “I am sure that there will only be one word that we will be able to say when we get there. It’s ‘wow’!”

I’m practicing my ability to be wowed each day. This must be one of the paths toward sainthood. Care to join me?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Holiness – preparing us for life’s Northeasters

One of the questions that I have been asked about holiness and the quest for holiness was ‘why do we need to do this now?’

It comes from the mentality that since heaven is for eternity, that we would have eternity to do this, so what’s the rush? The following analogy has been used before – that we are all on a train heading toward a common destination, and we are in different carriages on that very long train called life. We can do all sorts of things on that train – some of us are maximizing our time doing a lot of good things, some of us are making sure that the train is well maintained, some are helping others on their journey, pointing out the various beautiful and interesting sights along the way, and some are just gazing, almost catatonically out into the passing world outside. And some of us are wondering what we are doing on the train. Of course, this analogy is full of theological problems, as it seems to imply that there is universal salvation for all no matter what happens (even for those who happen to jump off the train before it reaches its final destination). But if we were to put aside (albeit temporarily) this huge difficulty, the question of our individual need for holiness would be a good question to ponder.

Holiness is something that allows us to be true to our deepest selves, and reminds us of the great dignity that we hold within. It’s a bit like breathing. Without it, we would die. But we aren’t conscious of it all the time are we? Be honest – if your eyes hadn’t read that last line, you wouldn’t have suddenly made yourself conscious of the fact that you are breathing, or that breathing causes you to live. Our yen for holiness is like that, but on a level that is far more deep and intrinsic than merely being able to breathe. It is our reminder that we are images of not just humanity, but of divinity as well. When we are aware of the need to be holy, and to work toward eventual sainthood, we will slowly but surely, shrug off in our lives anything that detracts us from that goal.

But many people seem to have a warped sense of holiness. So many Christians I have met lament that holiness (in their minds) means that one no longer has the ability to enjoy life, while the truth is simply contrary to that. Proper holiness means that our choices in life become clearer and clearer – that we know that things that do not bring us to true life are precisely the choices that we should not be making. Holiness then is celebrating that we are shunning those choices rather than lamenting that we can’t choose them. Maturity is being truly able to celebrate this awareness. Immaturity is when we are still unhappy with this choice. A scriptural icon of this would be the elder brother of the prodigal son in the Story of the Prodigal Father.
Just as many have a warped sense of holiness, there are also who have a rather unclear understanding of forgiveness and mercy, which are crucial in our search for holiness in life, simply because unforgiveness puts a huge barrier between God and ourselves.

In my last blog, and the entire unfolding of what happened between two readers, there was a lack of understanding of what forgiveness is, what mercy is, and what the sacrament of reconciliation is, and is not. Some people even wrote personal emails to my email address to bemoan the fact that I have not kept private what was deemed to be ‘confession’ by some readers. From this episode, there is clearly a warped sense in many people about justice. Forgiveness is not a mere cheap cancelling out of a very necessary restitution. How convenient it seems to suddenly forget about having offended God in the first place! And this is even more glaring when scripture passages are almost slung at others so that what justice demands becomes ignored or conveniently side-stepped. Indeed, the best quotes from the bible do come from the devil himself.

I am aware that a blog of this nature can and is read by anyone from any part of the world (cyber or otherwise). The problem is that most people will be reading this from their ‘de’-formed catechesis, or what they think is Catholic teaching, and there is no way that I can address a commonly-held ignorance till it is brought up specifically. I suppose this is where I can address something as crucial as this.

A true sacramental confession is one where the penitent expresses a true contrition for the wrongs one has done, and goes before a priest physically (never in cyber space), and in the privacy of the confession which is a one-to-one encounter, whereupon one receives not only the absolution from the priest, but also a suitable penance to address the sinful act that had been committed i.e., made some form of restitution.

An email that is written anonymously to a priest, telling the priest what one has done (or worse, what one is heinously going to do the next day) does not a confession make. And it certainly is not something that the priest is held bound to silence, especially if its nature is evil and harmful to another human being. Of course, the classic situation posed in just about every course taught on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the seminary is when a murderer (or a terrorist) confesses to a killing, and the question would be what the confessor would do - withhold absolution till he surrenders to the authorities? Not give the absolution at all? These possibilities come to mind. But that is a totally different matter altogether. We cannot ever make a confession in anticipation of a sin that is going to be committed later on. It simply leaves out the very important contrition that is such an essential part of the sacrament.

I realize that I cannot single-handedly correct such misconstrued thoughts and notions about the sacrament of reconciliation that exist out there. But you can. Yes, you, the reader of this blog, especially if you are a Catholic. You can, after having been catechized, albeit a little, by this entry, become the one who corrects the wrongly held opinions of your office colleagues, your children, your neighbour, your spouse, or whoever you know has either an erroneous or ignorant opinion about the kind of life that the Church wants to help us to lead.

I come back to our shared quest for holiness, as an inclusion to this post. Holiness, when sought correctly, helps us to buffer the storms that well up in life, as storms are wont to. It helps us to address upheavals in that proverbial train of life that we are on while the train rolls towards our shared destination in life.

Last weekend, most of the cities in the north east of North American received what is known as a Northeaster. This is when a storm travels from the south, and, converging with the cold air mass from the north, brings in an extremely cold air system down from the Arctic. Because of this, some places had their first snow in autumn.

But something terrible happened. The trees are still not fully denuded as we are still in autumn. The sudden accumulated weight of the snowfall on the leaves caused so many branches of trees to snap and give way and snap under the unnatural added weight of the snow. Many of these felled power lines, causing more than a million Americans to be deprived of power for up to four days.

But this doesn’t happen that much in winter because all the leaves of the trees would have been fallen by then, and much less snow would have accumulated on the denuded branches. It’s nature’s way of dealing with the storms she brings.

So too in our human ‘nature’. Our yen for holiness is what prepares us for those sudden Northeasters that blow from time to time in our lives.

Just as holiness helps us to ‘shed’ the excess baggage and drop the things that lug us down in life, its upside is that it helps us to have free hands to react to the things that can come our way in the most unexpected of times, and unexpected of ways.