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.


  1. I have realised that it is impossible to have a deep relationship with God if I'm just "zoning-out" on that train journey. It is far more rewarding to be an active contributor in that train journey. God does not necessarily call me to save the entire trainload of passengers from acts of terrorism but I can certainly do my part in little, inconsequential things like keeping the train compartments & carriages free from litter. & I can certainly do that with love.

    I take a lot of comfort that many of the known saints are very ordinary people who loved in extraordinary ways; they just consistently chose to love. & that is something I now always ask myself, "What is the loving thing to do?"

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  2. This morning was one of those dreary, grey beginnings, where an incipient drizzle made attending a Bible class ( even that of the popular Fr Vaz’s) somewhat of a challenge. But half-way through his session on Jesus’ Farewell Discourse ( Jn Gos ) he remarked that “ Holiness is a mark of God !” Somehow, that struck me as very beautiful and profound and I was reminded of what you wrote, .... ‘‘Holiness is something that allows us to be true to our deepest selves, and reminds us of the great dignity that we hold within....’’

    If this were so, then holiness is not something on the surface, something superficial, to be worn on the sleeve, that we can associate with observing certain rituals and ceremonies and or pietistic gestures ( not that all pious gestures are bad, insincere and do not reflect holiness.) Maybe it is this mis-understanding of holiness that produces our ‘warped sense of holiness ’ ?

    As a ‘mark’ of God, holiness is then in the depths, having the potential to inspire all our thoughts and actions. Thus it is centred in our attitude of soul and heart. Perhaps that’s why from time immemorial man quested for the Holy Grail – the holiness of truth, the purity of love , the holiness, which is - God ? In searching for this, perhaps- we are trying to see face to face what is marked inside of us? It is noteworthy too that Jesus taught in the beatitudes - ‘‘ Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’’
    God bless you Fr.


  3. Dearest Fr Luke,
    A few months ago, I wanted to attend evening mass and shared a cab with a colleague. She asked me why is it that I have to go church so frequently. And she advised me, not to neglect other areas of my life. This comment shocked me, as she is also a spiritual person whom I held in high regard. It made me reflect - Am I spending too much time in church instead of "living my life to the fullest?"
    That week itself, God gave me my answer - in a form of a story retold many times, but specifically struck my heart that day.
    There is this little girl who saved up her money to purchase a plastic pearl necklace.
    She loves her necklace very much and will wear it everywhere she goes.
    And her mummy told her not to wear to the shower or the metal chain of the necklace will rust and leave greenish stains.
    She simply loved her necklace and was never without it.
    Every night, her daddy will say night prayers with her and tuck her in bed.
    One night, her daddy asked her, "My darling daughter, do you love Daddy?"
    She replied without a doubt, "Of course I love you daddy!"

    He then asked her, “Will you then give me your necklace?"
    The little girl was horrified, “But daddy, that is my favourite! Can I give you my doll instead? I love my doll too, that is my second favourite."
    Her daddy sadly smiled and said "Its ok darling. l love you."

    Weeks later, after her daddy tucked her in, he asked her the same questions.
    Once again, the girl fingered her necklace and looked at her daddy, "No daddy, it is my favourite, I saved up for it. Can I give you my dumbo elephant instead?"
    Her daddy sadly smiled and said "Its ok darling. l love you."

    Then one night, as usual, after her daddy prayed with her and tucked her in, the little girl, with tears in her eyes, removed her plastic necklace and gave it to her daddy, saying "Daddy, here it is, my favourite necklace for you."

    Her daddy, taking her plastic necklace in one hand, reaching into his pocket with the other hand and took out a red velvet box.
    Opening it, it was a pearl necklace, made from genuine, real pearls.
    And gave it to his daughter and said," My darling daughter, this pearl necklace has been in my pocket for weeks since I first asked you to give me your rusting necklace."
    The little girl's eyes widen with amazement at the real pearls, for it was beautiful beyond expression; it really sparkled and is of TRUE VALUE.

    The message I got that day was that God will give me things of great value; if I will give Him what is of lesser value that I are holding on to. (My plastic pearls which represents areas of life what I/ the world deem as impt ).
    In response to the people out there who “lament that holiness (in their minds) means that one no longer has the ability to enjoy life."
    Only when we let go, then can we receive. We can trust God to give us the Best (not plastic pearls).
    Only when we Trust, can we love God, and only when we love God, can we be holy. (To make efforts to be pleasing to God till it becomes our second nature.) =) We are called to be saints. May God look kindly upon us.

  4. PS: Fr, I had a quick browse on the correspondences/comments from last week, and learned about your "attack emails" this week, indeed persecution comes in many forms.

    Thank you for your courage and compassion. I believe in the heart of your attempts, exposing "regards" was never to shame or scream at him in print but to stop him from sinning and traumatising poor pumpkin. I reckon, asking him to ID himself is to ensure his "cold turkey treatment" to his addiction. As I recall, even in sacramental confessional, your style is to help us to decide to make concrete actions to stop sinning as penance. (instead of the usual Our Fathers, Hail Marys etc...) - Your style is painful but necessary. =) Albeit telling an alcoholic to smash the bottle. Requires true repentance & determination.
    Will pray for all adversely affected in this episode, esp for "regards", for his recovery from bondage.

    Thank You Fr,
    God be with you always.

  5. Thanks, you read my mind almost every step of the way. I am a late Catholic and I think I wasn't properly formed till after I was baptized. Does that make sense? More and more now the mass is becoming fuller. Perhaps I am just lazy and prefer to learn through experience than through words.

    Thank you Fr Luke for striving to be so perfect and to be so insistent on "a pathway towards holiness". I express that in a different way because I was so confused by how I heard it from you in the first. It is a certain meaning and purpose to life, is it not? And also a vocation. Thank you for making yours a happy one!

  6. Also I do love the challenge of confessions.... For me it is a real need, not just to receive forgiveness but to talk and be cleansed in some way, if you understand what I mean. Thanks for being a priest!

  7. Dear Fr Luke,

    Remembered a priest asking the congregation if we wanted to be holy during his homily at a Sunset mass. There was dead silence.

    Personally, quite "malu" on my attempt at being holy...There's always a struggle on keeping up with my daily routine, getting enough rest for the next day's work/meetings, daily prayers, household chores...and the list goes on.

    I've pondered on "Seek ye the kingdom of God, and all will be yours" many a time. How do I incorporate that into my takes lots of discipline, persistence and perseverance. It has to sink in - that God loves me and will guide me no matter what lies ahead.

    Father, I think I'm still on that train...thank you for sharing.... always looking out for clarity and definition along the way.

    God bless. Stay away from falling branches...Mat.