Monday, December 31, 2012

When suffering causes us to ask God if he exists.

The world has seen a whole slew of terrible violence reported in the media lately.  The word ‘mindless’ had often been used in these reports, and one can understand why.  After all, there is no mind that can wrap itself around an act of entering an Elementary School with a semi-automatic assault rifle and spraying bullets randomly, killing innocent children and teachers.  There is no mind that can fathom how one can plan to ambush volunteer firemen by setting a house on fire and shooting the firemen down like some hapless animals when they arrive on the scene to give help.  And there is no way a mind can even consider how a young 23 year old woman can be so brutally raped and attacked by a group of men and left to die.  These stories are just some of the many of awful and insane violence that has taken place in the past month alone on this planet we call earth, where human beings call home.  It is strange to call us human beings when from what appears in these stories, there are beings that are scarcely human. 

But my vocation as priest always seems to ask a more fundamental question – a question, which I am sure many atheists out there have asked at some point of time in their lives.  Where was God when these acts occurred?  The atheists have long come to a conclusion that because God had not acted to intervene directly when these massacres occurred, it is proof that God doesn’t exist.  Their premise is that a benevolent being cannot but show up and stop anything that doesn’t fit at all into the plan of goodness and life – like a holy Superman or Ironman.  But I wonder if they have ever considered that this view of God is flawed because it means that this God does not give us the freedom of our wills in giving us our lives, even when our wills are willfully against his.  While atheists claim to not believe in God, the God that they may want to have is actually a control-freak despot who can easily be upset and outraged.

But then, you may question why I am questioning as well, and whether it is a fair question to ask.  My question is not one of ‘where were you, God?’ but more of a ‘what is this teaching us?’.  Mindless violence and attacks are common occurrences.  But if nothing is learnt from them, they will continue and may even increase in intensity and mindlessness.  What we need is a new grace to be able to look not outside at these happenings, but inside where each of us becomes aware that we have a possibility to make a change and to cooperate with the grace of God to respond adequately to each challenge and invitation to live a godly life.  In the wake of the death of the Indian girl, there have been calls for a similar violent treatment to all of her murderers, and some have been pretty violent and graphic, to say the least.  But won’t reacting this way merely perpetuate violence, and put us on the same level as these depraved men who seemed to love violence?  It was Mahatma Ghandi, the sage from their own land who was famously quoted “an eye for an eye makes the world blind”.  Violence will never end violence.  Besides, which of us in conjuring up these torturous responses of revenge can claim to be without sin ourselves?  While it is noble and true that many have empathized with the victim and called her ‘sister’ or ‘daughter’, and indeed she is, we cannot have double standards to say that the rapists are not our ‘brothers’ and our ‘sons’.  If we are really true to our Christian calling, they are.  This is really the heart of the true Christmas message that we may have missed that Jesus underwent the incarnation to make ALL of us (sinners and saints) his brothers and sisters.  He did not just come for the good.  Psalm 85:10 speaks of a time when righteousness and peace will kiss, and steadfast love and faithfulness will meet.  What does this mean but that there is a new kind of justice in Christ when he comes – a justice that no longer screams for blood in return for blood, and revenge for a hurt caused.  As long as we want revenge, suffering, torture, blood and lives in return for lives, the spiral of violence continues and we are not at all ready for Christ’s coming and Christmas was a mere day off work.

Another thing that comes out of these stories is that there is an inevitable willingness for our God to wait.  He is in no hurry, or at least he seems not to be.  The fact that he doesn’t move much out of his holy throne to augment and turn things around doesn’t even seem to bother him that this ‘lackadaisical’ approach can end up making more and more atheists.  Apparently, it was a Czech writer named Thomas Halik who said that an atheist is someone who is not patient enough with God.

Perhaps he was right ‘on the money’, as some would say.  People of faith are people who display a lot of patience with God though I am certain that most of us struggle too when it comes to sufferings of our own.  Even the best of us is not without our heartache and crushing experiences in life where we would rather have had God intervene swiftly to resolve anxiety, tension and pain.  Which of us would not prefer a God who rescues us from dangers, who is the stalwart upholder of justice and righteousness, and who doesn’t permit us to suffer, grow feeble and finally die?  The difference between the Atheist and believing Christians is that we are still committedly in the waiting 'game'. 

Yes, I know we are on the cusp of the New Year, and many will make these things called New Year resolutions.  It’s fashionable, I suppose.  In some ways, to have resolutions gives the impression that you are still interested in life, and that you are not giving up on goodness and hope, and that there is the possibility of change for the better. 

So this is my two-cents’ worth of anything that may connect a resolution with faith.  Make that resolution to stay waiting, and to do it with a deep sense of joy.  Things can turn worse, and they probably will.  It’s not a waiting game that God is playing.  If Jesus came down from the Cross at his crucifixion, it would have changed so much they way we see God now.  God did let Jesus die even though he was being challenged and taunted.  And that saved us!  We will be challenged and perhaps even taunted in our sufferings this year.  We need to stay in the waiting and have our minds turned toward the resurrection, and in our thoughts and actions, try to let steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and righteousness and peace kiss.

Blessed 2013, everyone.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The real power of Christmas

I am sure that there are many people who have reflected on the true meaning of Christmas.  I cannot be the only one.  But I do believe that as a regular blogger who tries to put his two-cents’ worth of spiritual reflection online once a week, it behooves me to write on this topic as Christmas falls on us this week. 

Is this a season for children?  Some have made this comment, and I do remember my own father making this remark in my younger days.  He was possibly influenced by the advertising industry that he was in, and saw how much commercialization there was during the lead up to this day.  After all, it cannot be argued against that there is this whole toy culture that surrounds Christmas, though in this day and age, it is not just children who hanker after toys.  But the seeming innocence of the Christmas story and the fact that it is a child who is born in very dire circumstances may lead one to think that Christmas is a time that is for the child than for the adults.

But is it really?  On the surface it may appear to be so.  But the entire theology and spirituality behind the incarnation is anything but infantile or facile.  The juxtaposition of the powerful being subsumed and overpowered by the powerless, the overturning of the values of the world by the entering of the one who created the world, the contrast between the earthly kings against the supreme power of the heavenly king are things that are beyond the grasp of the mind of the child, and how non-violence in God is the only answer to the violence of humankind.  It is after all, the celebration of the greatest intellectual mystery of all time, when God’s justice comes into the world in such a hitherto unseen way. 

But isn’t the real power of Christmas in actual fact the real and unfathomable power of God?  It is the forgiving mercy of God that comes to us in a way that we could never have planned or prepared for.  That is what Advent is essentially – to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord into our lives.  That is why we need to experience at this time the forgiveness of God through either penitential services or the individual Sacrament of Reconciliation.  It is one concrete way that allows us to make that room for God to enter where before, there was only room for our selfish and individualistic ways.  But there are many who do not feel the need to make that confession before Christmas.  Perhaps it is because they have not seen the reality of God’s great desire to make that breakthrough into the hardened hearts of ours. 

There is a great innocence that surrounds Christmas that needs to be recaptured and re-appreciated.  We cannot hope to grasp a glimpse of this innocence if we have not sought God’s re-establishment of our individual innocence through his divine forgiveness that is bestowed on us at Confession.  Some parishes have elaborate Christmas cribs that bespeak of this innocence, and these will have little worth if the parishioners can only admire the detail of this work of art, and have not looked with as much detail at their own hearts.  All iconography and Church art has to have the purpose of leading one to experience and encounter the divine. 

It was, after all, our own sin that had caused the incarnation to take place.  For this reason alone, we ought to show gratitude for the fact by admitting the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

Whenever one truly meets God in his offering of forgiveness, the result is always the experience of a deep and abiding joy that comes to our hearts, principally because we are at our most vulnerable and least pretentious in the confession.  We present our truest, most raw self that God knows, and we seek God’s love in that state.  No one leaves the confession miserable and angry, resentful and bitter (at least no one should).  We come out with great hope for ourselves and for the world, and we come out with our faith restored and our souls touched and healed.  Christmas joy is very much connected to this. 

I wish each of my precious blog readers a most joyful Christmas that is filled with the real power of God’s healing love.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Naughty or nice?

It’s that time of the year when the incessant Christmas tunes are being played over the airwaves on the radio and in the stores.  You would find it a great challenge to go to any store or mall where you will not be hearing how “I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus” or songs about a crimsoned proboscis quadruped named Rudolf.  While they inevitably put some Christmas ‘spirit’ in the air, some of these seemingly harmless and saccharine-soaked songs can impart wrong messages and perhaps become the point where harmful theology surrounding the Christmas message can foment.  One particular song that most people know by heart comes to mind – “Santa Claus is coming to town”.

I am in no way suggesting that Santa Claus exists qua the image that most people have in their minds, although the person who he is supposed to take the moniker from did in fact exist in the person of St Nicholas, a third century Greek Bishop.  But when the image of Santa Claus becomes the most (at least commercially) recognized person of the Christmas season, and that message gets somehow interspersed with the fact that Christ came down to us to join us in our humanity on that first Christmas, what results could well become a mélange of mental images and ideas that are faulty, to say the least.  

When one gets inundated with a message that Santa Claus has a list, and is going to determine who gets a gift based on whether one had been naughty or nice, it is relatively harmless if it stays on that level – a simple song that at best, teaches that our actions have consequences.  However, the fact that this song is most heard around this time of the year, a time that celebrates the amazing goodness of God’s love for us, can give rise to a bad theology that will influence the way we live out our Christianity.  Let me explain.

One of the most insidious heresies that has affected Christianity from the moment it was identified is Pelagianism.  Pelagius was a British monk (some would debate on his country of origin) who lived in the 4th century, and one of the things that he taught was that the human will alone was sufficient to live a sinless life.  This meant that it was technically possible for one to attain heaven on one’s own merit, without any need for God’s grace and assistance.  The corollary of this would be that when one is good and lives rightly, it would be necessary for God to grant him or her heaven as a reward for a life well lived.  Pelagius and his theology was officially condemned at the Council of Carthage in the year 418, but sadly, vestiges of his poisonous theology continues in various forms right down to our time, often given the name semi-Pelagianism. 

Offshoots of this kind of erroneous theology result in the thought that one can earn God’s grace and mercy.  We see this in the mentality of the faithful who practice certain devotions so that they can earn or merit God’s grace in life.  Correct devotion will always steer clear of this heresy, but the Church has found it a very common human trait to either arm-twist or bargain with God in our acts of worship. 

When Catholic children at young impressionable ages are not taught the faith and its tenets well, and their minds are left to ‘figure’ things out themselves (or worse, to be left at the hands of hardly trained catechists) it is all too easy for them to enter into adulthood with a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian mind, carrying with them the erroneous belief that God himself has a list of who’s naughty and nice, and will only reward the ‘nice’ ones.  Having said this, it doesn’t mean that there will be no recompense required for transgressions committed on our part.

But the marvel and wonder of the incarnation is really an overturning of a quid-pro-quo or tit-for-tat idea, or anything close to it.  No one in humankind had been ‘nice’ to cause God to take on humanity in such a complete way.  In fact, it was just the opposite – because all of us had been ‘naughty’, that God came to save us all.  The result necessarily would be lifelong thanksgiving and praise for such an act of undeserved mercy shown by God who loves us, without our having to deserve it one bit. 

Perhaps it is in this light that we should really be thinking of giving Christmas presents to our enemies at this time of the year, and enter into the real meaning of Christmas.  In this way, we will be loving those who hate us, and those who make life a real challenge for us.  It is very easy to give Christmas to those whom we love and those who love us back, but let’s be honest – that was furthest from the true meaning of the first Christmas.    

Monday, December 10, 2012

Why does God speak in the deserts of our lives?

The Sacred text is replete with episodes that happen in the desert.  But I am sure that many would say that this would be expected since a large part of Palestine and the neighbouring areas have plenty of desert areas.  There is, however, much more to it than mere geography.  There’s something that a desert does to one who encounters it.  Many think that a desert is a lifeless place.  On one level, it is.  Yet, on many other levels, deserts do something to us when we enter into them with an openness and humility.

The message that was preached by John the Baptist was a heralding within the physical environs of a desert.  God was coming into the world and it was not going to be something proclaimed in the big ritzy cities where there was so much going on.  Instead, God wanted the proclamation of his entry into humanity to be made through a voice in the wilderness.  There seems to be no logic here.  What is the rationale for this absurd modus operandi?  It’s just not effective.  Or is it?

Deserts are more than mere physical places on the earth that are harsh and seemingly lifeless.  There are also deserts that we find ourselves in even though we may live hundreds of kilometers away from the piece of arid waste.  The situations that we find ourselves in life often have desert-like conditions.  Some would venture to say that the Church in some parts of the world are experiencing such conditions, where pews are empty, the faith of the believers are waning and these may have been precipitated by the scandals that have rocked the church.  Some would say that the Church is indeed in a desert time, and it is especially challenging when it is facing a wall of relativism that is influencing many. 

But this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.  Sure, the scandals were horrible and there is no doubt that they were sinful.  In no way can they be exonerated.  But this period of mourning and desert silence may not necessarily be a bad thing for us.  Aren’t there many instances where there have been such experiences where it does seem that God has been somewhat absent in life, leaving us ‘abandoned’ and our souls somewhat parched?  It could be a crisis of some form, perhaps financial, or something that has impacted our physical health like a cancer diagnosis or some other ailment, or some natural calamity.  These can often leave us bereft of faith for sometime, or, as in many cases, be the way through which God is given a path that is cleared into our hearts.  The images from the prophet Isaiah speak of one preparing the way of the Lord, where paths are made straight, and valleys filled, with the leveling of mountains and rough ways made smooth. 

The desert is indeed a tough place to survive in, but it is also a place where one can truly begin to listen to oneself.  There are little distractions, hardly any bright lights and sounds that can unsettle and disconcert us, and if we are really going to survive, there has to be a determination to rely on the Grace of God, and to set our sights on the route out.  One hardly goes into a desert to remain there forever.  It usually is a necessary route one takes to get to another safe haven. 

The Advent journey, when seen along those lines, can help us to prepare ourselves to welcome the Lord – not the infant Jesus at Christmas, as he has already come.  Rather, it reminds us to also prepare, far more importantly, for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, or of our lives whichever comes first.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

The season for waiting has come

There are quite a few images that come to mind when the season of Advent comes upon us.  Of course, the time-honoured images have to do with the spiritual themes of peace, hope and love (charity), and they all have in common the underlying element of joy, which permeates the entire Christmas season to come. 

But what really is the season of Advent in its essence about?  What does the Church really want us to experience and learn from during these four weeks that lead up to the celebration of the birth of the Son of God?  Is there something that the Church knows that the human condition has a certain aversion towards that she believes strongly that we need to re-learn this every year, simply because we are creatures of habit who have an aversion toward something that seems so difficult to overcome?  As I look around me, not just in Singapore but even here in America, I have come to the conclusion that it has a lot to do with waiting.

We human beings seem to have such an inbuilt intolerance towards waiting of any kind.  The technology that we have surrounded ourselves with has not helped but rather exacerbated this allergy in us by making so many things faster in our lives.  In the areas of information and communication, on almost all platforms of our lives, the availability of quick and relatively affordable means of technology has made us as a people more and more impatient and unable to wait.  For anything. 

We are in a hurry to do so much that we find it hard to slow down.  I came across an advertisement in the media on the morning after Thanksgiving here (that’s the last Thursday in November, for non-Americans) and it declared that the Christmas season has officially begun.  “Says who?” I found myself asking internally as my mind tried to comprehend what seemed insane.  Within a week, stores began putting up their Christmas decorations and people were declaring that Christmas was ‘in the air’.  Let me say first of all, that I am neither a humbug nor a wet blanket.  I do love Christmas, but like everything else in life, it has its time and place, and there needs to be a healthy respect for a proper celebration of it.  The problem is that when we cut short the preparation that includes a spiritual and liturgical element, we cheapen the experience and the true meaning of Christmas.  We have become a people who are in a rush to celebrate Christmas when it is not Christmas.

Offices, neighbours and church groups are often known to have Christmas parties weeks before Christmas.  Presents are exchanged and folk greet one another with Christmas joy before it is Christmas.  The irony is that because we have been in such a hurry to enjoy Christmas before Christmas actually arrived, by the time it really does come and it is the true time to celebrate the arrival of the Son of God into our broken humanity to lift it from its sinful state, we have been all but Christmassed-out.  We don’t want to hear another Christmas carol, and we cannot even look at a another log cake or a fruitcake because our bellies have had their fill of them before Christmas came.  We find dust gathered on the Christmas decorations because they had been out for a month already, and many can’t wait to clear them away on 26 December.  Most of us don’t even think we should leave the Christmas decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord in January, when Christmastide is officially over.  All this is because we have not learnt to wait.

But all this impatience didn’t happen overnight, to be sure.  We have become a product of so much impatience on so many other different areas of our lives, that we unthinkingly apply it to Christmas.  But there are very strong elements of impatience in many other areas of our lives.

The fact that the incarnation came through a Virgin is a teaching point for all of us.  It’s not that sex is bad, and that is why God had to come to us via a Virgin.  Apart from the fact that it pointed to God being the only Father of the child Jesus, virginity is itself a statement of a willingness to wait.  The whole sexual revolution came about because of a resistance and an inability to wait.  Many married couples are not able to genuinely celebrate their marriage with a consummation because the 'we did' came long before the 'I do'.  Indeed, there is a general intolerance towards waiting for anything in so many other areas of our lives.  Ronald Rolheiser once said that “Chastity is about proper waiting, and waiting is about patience in carrying the tensions and frustrations we suffer as we live the unfinished symphonies of our lives.”

What needs to be re-appreciated on a deep level is the beauty and virtue of waiting, and waiting well, which trains us for the ability to carry tensions well in our lives.  Aren’t most sins caused because we had no intention of waiting for things to unfold, and we had to have things our way and in our time? 

So, let us really try to wait well this Advent.  Let us not be too quick to organize those Christmas parties till Christmas really comes.  Let us wish each other Merry Christmas only on December 25 and don’t stop till Christmastide is over.  Refrain from playing those Christmas carols at home or on the car CD until Christmas so that you will sustain the joy and hope that Jesus’ birth came to give beyond Christmas day.  And make this Advent a true preparation in spirit and in truth for the one who comes at Christmas to lead us to worship God in spirit and in truth.  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Raising the glass of red or white to the heroes of our faith

The Church has in its rich and long history many heroes of our faith who suffered gloriously for the Kingdom of God.  The Liturgical calendar is replete with vivid stories, many of them highly embellished to be sure, of how strong in faith some of the martyrs were in the face of terrible and brutal persecution of the faith.

Deservedly, these who shed their blood for Christ and his Kingdom had their noble acts of bravery recognized and every so often in the Liturgical calendar, we will be reminded about their heroic lives and deeds.  But the point of these celebrations is not so much as to highlight their courage and valour, but to be reminded what they were courageous about.  While I am in no way watering down their grit and daring, we would be missing the point of all liturgy if we only stopped at what mere mortals have done in their lives.  What has to be constantly borne in mind is that all liturgies have but one purpose – to give glory, honour and laud to God in worship.  That was the central purpose of the lives of these martyrs.  It is their faith that we celebrate and hope to imitate in our journeys of faith, which have yet to find their last chapters.  That these men and women were so graced with such strength and tenacity in their love of God and their steadfastness in time of trials and even torture is something truly worth praising God for. 

But aren’t times of such barbaric persecution events of our distant past?  Surely, there is a vast majority of Christians who do not live in these kinds of situations that those martyrs did, especially when there is a clarion call for tolerance and freedom of religion in many countries.  Does that mean that the age of martyrdom is but a thing of history?  Do we as Church simply become nostalgic each time we celebrate a martyr’s feast day, and ‘reminisce’ about the ‘bad old times’?

The Church has always taught that there is a difference between a ‘Red Martyrdom’ and a ‘White Martyrdom’.  The red martyrs were the ones who had physically shed blood for their faith in Christ.  The familiar names that come readily to mind are Stephen, Laurence, Agatha, Cecilia, Maximilian Kolbe, Justin, and the Vietnamese martyrs Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, which we just observed on Saturday.  Of course this list is not legion.

White Martyrdom is one that is lived out without the shedding of blood or loss of life through violent means.  This is a different calling in life, but applicable to every Christian who is baptized in the Lord Jesus Christ.  These are martyrs who are willing to give up what takes them away from the Kingdom of God and instead, with great sacrifice and suffering, remain steadfast to the values of Christ. 

Let me give a few examples of where white martyrdom can be evinced.
  • When a pregnant mother refuses to abort her down-syndrome child in her womb despite knowing that the life ahead for the entire family is going to change in many ways.
  • When a married man resists temptation to have a fling with a very attractive business associate while outstation.
  • When a student makes the decision to not plagiarize in a term paper even though it will make for an easy ‘A’ grade.
  • When a sum of money found is returned to the owner even though it is something that is not going to be found out if it was kept.
  • When a chore is done without complaining and grumbling but rather with a certain joy and responsibility.
  • When care is given to people who are in need, especially when it involves a great sacrifice of energy, time and resources which one could have used for one’s own purposes.
  • When one does the right thing even though no one will know about the deed and no one around is looking.
  • When one who is ill or undergoing some medical treatment which is most uncomfortable and agonizing, but offers up the pain and discomfort to join others who are in similar situations of suffering.

Of course, these are just small examples of where white martyrdom can be exercised in our daily lives.  Each does have its own gradation of difficulty, but there is something else that cuts across all of them.  Each of them can be done simply for their own sakes – meaning that there is an intrinsic and inherent good that is in each act.  One doesn’t need to be a Christian to carry these out in life.  One can appeal to ‘civic mindedness’ or ‘good upbringing’.  But where the Christian is concerned, white martyrdom requires it of us to live this way as a demonstration of our love for God and our strong belief in the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.  Not out of fear, not with great unwillingness, but with zeal and love for the Lord, because a white martyr’s strength to live the right way requires of one to unite oneself to the sufferings of Christ, and to live as Christ would live.  To live that way requires of us a constant attentiveness to our call of discipleship which will not be there if we are people who only pray on occasion, because prayer is what develops and brings the love of God to fruition.

When one is looking down the barrel of a gun of a persecutor of the faith, in some ways, it seems to be a relatively easy choice to make to want to live for the Lord.  After all, suffering and pain seems to be over in a moment, and one can repeat what Jesus said on Calvary “into your hands, I commend my spirit”.  I am not saying it is an easy thing to die, because none of us really wants to die. 

But in a white martyr’s dying, it is more long and drawn out.  It requires of us constancy and a vision for the kingdom that is here and not yet.  The fruit is often not tasted with much immediacy, and the joy is, for the most part, one of delayed gratification.  But it is for certain something that is going to be asked of each of us at different moments of our day. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

How to fight for justice in a Christ-like way.

The way of the Christian should never be one of violence and anger.  Of course, there are numerous accounts of the history of Christendom which are flooded with bloody wars and violent battles in unenlightened times.  If I were given ten cents for every time that the horrors of the Crusades were thrown in my face, I’d have a sizeable kitty by now.  Christ is known as the Prince of Peace, and yet, there have been many who have used religion to start wars and cause strife and suffering.  But we don’t have to talk about outright violence in terms of actual wars.  Even on the level of peace-marches, one can have a violent and angry attitude that would serve the cause in a very bad and ineffective way. 

How can one be angry in a right way?  When the anger that is in us for a justice to be done is an anger that is fueled and motivated by our love for the opponent we are against and the one whom we have an issue with.  I remember being part of the March for Life earlier this year in Washington DC.  Though it is generally a peaceful protest march, there were some groups who had a certain anger, bitterness and resentment in them, fuelling their march.  These contrasted against the other groups who were clearly peaceful and non-aggressive in their approach towards the march.  It brought to mind the truth that though a cause may be one that is seen as a good, what also matters and makes a huge difference is what fuels the spirit and movement towards the cause.  A movement that is energized by outrage, wrath and hostility can hardly be something that can truly move the hearts of one’s opponents ending in any kind of conversion or different viewpoint.  It is always good to go to scripture to see how Jesus deals with his own anger when he sees his Father’s house turning into a market place.  His love for the Father is clearly evident, but also present is his love for the people who have misplaced interests and impure motives.  This is clearly portrayed on the Cross of Calvary where he asks that the Father forgive them for they knew not what they were doing.  This is a love that, as St Paul would put it, “does not accuse but excuses”. 

But how do we ‘use’ anger this way, and control it, when most of the time, it seems to be that anger is the thing that controls us?   What needs to be developed is what I would call the "second self" that allows us to look at our actions and our movements from an angle other than our own eyes.  This can only come about through concerted prayer and awareness.  If we look at St Paul and his life before his conversion through a powerful grace, he had only one way of looking - through his own self-righteous eyes.  But when he allowed the grace of God to work powerfully through is own self-surrender, he could see that his view was myopic, after the scales fell from his eyes.  The Greek origins of this word "myopic" means “to shut the eye” or to have a very narrow view.  When we are in touch with the spirit of God and his movement in our lives, our view becomes broadened in many ways, and often, it allows us to see beyond the horizons of our actions. 

Living this way is hard, because it often asks that we die to our old visions and ‘controlled’ way of dealing with issues.  There is a surrender that happens.  To admit that our ways of seeing things and doing things may not have been the only way is a real dying to the self.  It means that we also let the views of others count, and gives us the real need to walk in the shoes of others.  When this happens, there will inevitably be scales that will fall from our eyes and we will see life through the pains and struggles and fears of others, leading to true compassion, which is at the heart of all conversion.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

God happens when no one is looking

Why is it so difficult to fully articulate our experiences of our encounter with the sacred?  After all, we can talk about our faith in terms of articles and dogmatic teachings.  These give solid and rational grounds for our belief in the supernatural, and it is our responsibility to not live in any form of ignorance of our faith.  We owe it to ourselves to strengthen our belief so that our faith does not just stay on the level of a mere superficial understanding, but that it is given greater and greater depth for strong roots to grow and from this, gain a firm foundation.  This, we all know, is difficult but it is also something that requires a certain diligence and hard work.

But when it comes to our personal experiences of God, the difficulties appear to take on a whole different level.  Countless holy men and women through the ages who have been graced by God to have a sacred encounter with him in their mystical experiences.  But they have also often said that it was so difficult to put their experience into words.  They appear somewhat stymied in their language to be accurate and clear.  In fact, words seem to fall so far short from the reality of the encounter. Words tend to cheapen the experience, giving the listener the false impression that just to hear a second or third hand account of the experience is enough for him or her.  Famously, St Thomas Aquinas, a master theologian and truly gifted scholar who wrote tomes about God in a systematic manner, was gifted with what can only be described as a mystical experience toward the end of his life.  When he came out of that experience, he could only say that all that he wrote about God was “like straw” because rich and deep though his writings had been, they could not come close to the reality of the love of God.  And we can be sure that what St Thomas encountered was not even the full beatific vision, but just a fleeting glimpse of its eternal and ever-radiant beauty.  Contrary to what some may think, it does not mean that just because St Thomas saw his work “like straw” that we should not be studying theology or invest our time and resources in theological reflection.

Perhaps this “difficulty” is the very nature of every true God experience.  Experiences of deepest life and love have a certain hidden quality about it.  After all, how many of us can truly say what love is?  We can only talk or write words that somehow give the general idea of what it is, but we can never fully wrap our minds around it.  In fact, this is not what we are meant to do – to figure it out, and to ‘solve’ God in some logical and sensible way.  We in our limited spatial and time-bound existence want to do this, because it gives us a false sense of control, which could easily lead to a spiritual arrogance and the sin of pride.  God knows that there must be thousands of souls who have such inner experiences with Him who have chosen to remain silent about their graced encounters because such intimate moments with the creator are precisely that – intimate.  And to flaunt our intimate moments for all to see and seems to be the sin of our times.  A clear example of this is when people think it is a sign of bravado and maturity to put on the internet videos of their sexual exploits when it is in reality a public display of foolhardiness, egotism, immaturity and harebrained insouciance.

We may need to learn something from the silence in the pivotal moments of the life of Jesus Christ, where there was no audience, no big production, no publicity and no witnesses.  These moments are the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, and the moment of the resurrection in the tomb.  Sure, we have the account of the annunciation in Luke’s gospel but even that is not a first-hand encounter.  Scripture exegetes are wont to believe that St Luke personally spoke with the Blessed Virgin to get an account of the annunciation, but the language and the circumstances do not themselves give much away.  Even Mary is left wondering, “How can this happen?”  And of course, there is no eyewitness to the moment of the Resurrection of our Lord either.  What these two pivotal events have in common is that they are moments of God entering in a most supernatural way into the life of humanity.  They are indeed moments of great intimacy of divinity and humanity, which do not allow for displays of grandeur and curious attention, least of all fodder for the voyeuristic.

These are the characteristics of the interior life. Knowing this will remind us that if in our lives we find ourselves clamouring for attention, mass displays of hype, and with a predilection for the sensational, in the things we do, we may be tuning ourselves out from the ways which God often uses to draw us close to him.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mercy - entering into the chaos of others

I chanced upon an interesting interpretation of the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan this week.  The Venerable Bede, who was an English monk and a Doctor of the Church and died in 735AD, preached it.  He posited that it could be preached on two levels:  the first was what Christ accomplishes for the Church, and on the second, what we ought to do for others.  Bede saw the injured man lying helpless as Adam wounded by sin, and he is in exile outside the gates of Eden.  Who the priest and the Levite represent are tradition and the law, which were hitherto unable to do anything for Adam.  But it is then that the Samaritan (Christ) who comes by, nurses Adam’s wounds caused by sin, gives him salve, and even promises to return at a later date to make full payment for all costs incurred so that he can be restored to dwell once more within the eternal joys of the Kingdom. 

Taken in this understanding, the parable is not so much an instruction to us as to how we should be tending to those who are injured and hurt, but far more importantly, about what Christ has done for us.  Every time we imitate Christ in tending to others in a similar way, what we are doing is to make the gospel story retold and real.  We become the real neighbour to those in need.

In our Christian living, there is always an implicit call to live in a very large and selfless way.  There has always been the call to be loving and caring in a way that puts the other person and his/her needs way ahead of our own.  But there is something in our sinful nature to turn a deaf ear to this call, and to procrastinate action.  To live large and selflessly is at the heart of most civic living, where the root of harmony and social cohesion is the ability to think more of the other person in many ways.  But the truth is you don’t have to be a Christian to live this way.  But what makes Christianity so radically different, set apart from all other religions and civil demands is that we not only have a founder of our faith as the model and example of this kind of living, but that this person is God himself who has entered into our world to show just how this should be done. 

At the heart of it all is the willingness of God to enter so fully into our broken humanity to lift us up to heights of divinity.  There was absolutely no necessity for God to do this, and yet, out of pure grace and mercy, he has.  Because of this great act of grace, we have heaven to gain, and our entire lives are given a whole new aim and telos, which is the philosophical term to mean an end or ultimate object.  Of the many definitions of mercy, which I have come across, it was moral theologian James Keenan, a Jesuit priest, who said it so well.  He says that mercy is ‘entering into the chaos’ of someone else.  I think this says it so much better than what I have come across and written about before – “salvation is what turns a messy world into a mercy world.” 

No one would choose chaos of any kind willingly.  What would make anyone enter into the chaos of someone else’s life?  Isn’t the most common thing one can do is to run far from trouble and messiness when one sees it?  In the face of chaos, most choose flight rather than fight.  Yet, this is not what God does with those of us who lead ‘chaotic’ lives in measures big and small.  No, God does not run away, but rather, runs into chaos.  He does this with arms large and compassionate, so that the divine embrace lifts the down trodden, soothes the aching and enlivens the lifeless.  Most importantly, divine mercy offers the wounded soul the balm of forgiveness. 

Christian living in its most radical form is thus far more than just following rules and complying with liturgical norms.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who seem to have this idea that this is what Christian living is about.  Those are important, but their purpose is so that we have a foundation and a purpose for bringing Christianity into the world, where the call is for us to enter into the chaotic lives of others, extending the kind of compassion, mercy, healing, love and kindness that is the true hallmark of Christian living.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Our reluctance to put up with boredom

The human psyche has an aversion towards the mundane. We constantly search for activities that excite and titillate, thrill and delight us with new and novel experiences.  Marketers, knowing this, dedicate their time and resources just to give their customers what they want, thus creating an unending cycle of consumerism.

What lies at the heart of this yearning is what many moralists would call the fear of boredom.  We are dependent on distractions and entertainment, because it gives us a false sense of purpose.  The addiction to novelty is what causes us to use people and love things, when we should be loving people and using things.  The instant gratification culture, made even faster by the Internet and portable electronic devices, doesn’t help either. When we loathe developing a discipline of waiting and delaying gratification, the spillover effect becomes evident in other areas of our lives. 

To distract us from boredom, in an attempt to remove us from our aloneness, many have even turned to sex.  When this happens, it turns a sacred and Godly act into a recreational social activity, or worse, a means for fame and popularity, making it into something utilitarian, self-serving and life-sapping.  The fear of boredom can indeed enter into so many other areas of our lives and can even cause us to lose our moral compass.  

At the heart of it, we have lost the ability to stay in the boredom and dullness that, ironically, is necessary for true growth and maturity.  Mature married couples as well as mature chaste singles know this to be true.  What is fidelity but the willingness to ‘hang in there’ when all excitement and thrills of romance are a thing of the past?  Staying faithful to one person with their wrinkles and age-spots without wanting to be delighted by the younger and more attractive options is not an exciting thing.  Staying faithful to an hour of prayer in the adoration room where the Eucharist waits is hardly something that is called a ‘thrill’.  Many don’t see it, but even singles who are mature and stay chaste reflect an uncommon ability to live in the boredom and monotony of a disciplined waiting, and this too, is fidelity.  But the real virtue in fidelity despite the drab and familiar is that we are responding to God’s fidelity and we are imitating God’s faithfulness.

God, because he is complete in himself, has no need to be thrilled and delighted, enticed and titillated to remind him that he is alive and that he exists. When we go to the Adoration Room in faithful prayer, God has no need to make himself more than he is.  Jesus doesn’t need to break out of the Tabernacle and do a "Gangnam Style" dance to keep us entertained or to make himself “relevant” in any sort of empirical way.  God is not interested in entertaining us, because entertainment and excitement belong only to the level of our physicality.  We need to realize that we are far more than just our physicality. A maturity in our spiritual lives will help us discover that we are spiritual beings as well. 

It is when we are able to develop a taste for the silent, the mundane and the unvaried, that the other aspects of our lives to also start develop and mature.  The Missionaries of Charity (which Mother Theresa headed) begin their day with an hour of silent adoration before the Eucharist. There is an intrinsic connection between their prayer and their work for it is only after the hour of adoration that they start their day, with compassion and charity, to become Christ and to ‘adore’ him in the most rejected in society. When we discipline ourselves to sit with the mundane and ordinary, we allow our spirituality to develop and mature.

The discipline to stay in the unexciting, the ordinary and the drab changes the eyes of the heart to be able to see something healthy in the sick, something alive in the dying and something very rich in the poor.  A dedicated and regular prayer life is thus one of the best ways to readjust our vision – of life, of ourselves, and most importantly, of God.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament

While reading “In The Presence”, a book on Eucharistic adoration by Joan Ridley, OSB, I came across a few gems for spiritual reflection which I would like to share with my readers. 

Many churches around the world have adoration rooms where the faithful can spend time in adoration of the Eucharist.  The Church has always rightly encouraged us to the Eucharistic Lord to adore and to pray, and in the process of so doing, receive a grace that can only come about when we are in intimate contact with the giver of life. 

Unfortunately, it is a common lament that one doesn’t quite know what to do in the presence of the Lord in the Adoration Room. 

We often think that we are only as good as the things that we do in life.  The performance index that we are assessed by can easily be projected onto our spiritual life, and that can end up harming it in ways that we are unaware of.  Does the Lord really want us to “do” things when we are in his presence before the Blessed Sacrament?  Is there list that we need to check off certain acts and prayers after they are said or accomplished?  How can we fill up our time meaningfully in prayer if we don’t “do” much? 

Speak to any couple who are truly in love and they will tell you that some of the best moments are spent just being with each other, without saying or doing anything. Being in one another’s presence and knowing that one is giving all one’s attention in loving silence to the other is a very deep form of loving.  I hear this from couples who are very new to the dating scene, as well as from very old and mature couples who have gone through many years of married life. They don’t have to say much, but they know that their love is conveyed in loving gazes and silent presence. Perhaps it is this phenomenon of love that we need to appreciate and develop when we come before the Eucharistic Lord.    

We are easily captivated by things around us.  Lovely sunsets, alluring animals, or beautiful people can do this to us.  We are caught up in that moment with the object of beauty holding our gaze. 

Wasn’t Jesus “gazed upon” by the bystanders at his crucifixion?  We are also told that many different people “beheld” him on the Cross.  Not just the officials, but the bystanders and the women who were with Jesus as well.  Each had different reasons for doing so.  His persecutors mocked him, those watching beat their breasts, and the women watched intently.  Jesus, hanging on the cross, was open to their gaze.  He was exposed in the most giving way possible, and at the same time, he gave away his power in this act of surrender.  At the heart of this exposure was the display of his love and utter surrender to the Father. 

When we speak of being exposed, we tend to associate elements of vulnerability and risk.  We speak of being exposed to contamination, germs and disease.  When we are exposed to the elements, we need to protect ourselves.  In the Adoration Room, we also say that the Eucharist is exposed, and in a certain way, there is an element of vulnerability as well.  We are asked to gaze intently, with love, at the one who exposed himself in love for us.  Doesn’t the Lord take risks in being exposed this way for us sinful human beings?  Apart from the risk of possible theft or desecration, perhaps the far bigger risk would be that he would be once again rejected, mocked, ridiculed and given nary a hint of respect. 

As human beings, whenever we are exposed, we instinctively seek to cover ourselves, to minimize risk of shame and rejection.  But when we come before the Lord, we need to come before him with an attitude of surrender and humility. It is not so much that the Lord demands this of us, but rather, because we know that it is God we come before, that nothing really can be hidden from his gaze at our hearts.  I think we know this within the depths of our being, and that may be one reason why many fight shy of entering the sacred presence of God who sees and knows all.  But we need to know that it is because our Lord knows all, that he will also see the wounds that we bear.  When we allow his divine gaze to penetrate into our whole lives, we allow a healing grace to come upon our wounds, and only when we dare to bare all, can we become like the Samaritan woman at the well who said “He told me all that I ever did”, and allow a conversion after the encounter with the giver of life to change and mould us.

Gazing and allowing ourselves to be gazed at lovingly is at the heart of contemplative prayer, but this doesn’t happen overnight.  When we do learn to give of ourselves this way, we will realise that the real giver is not us, but God himself.