Monday, January 30, 2012

My first protest march

Last Monday, I did something that I would never have had the opportunity to do back home in Singapore.  I joined over 200,000 people in downtown Washington DC to march in protest against legalized abortion.  This huge and very organized event takes place every year in January in the nation’s capital on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made it legal to procure abortions since 1973.  Apparently, it is one of the largest protests in this place where protests are commonplace activities.  Prior to the protest march per se, there was a Mass that was celebrated in the enormous Verizon centre in downtown Chinatown, and on the night before, in the Basilica right across the street from my residence, a pre-protest day Mass was also celebrated with thousands in attendance.  I only managed to march for a small part of the route, and apparently, it was so huge a turnout, despite the freezing and wet weather, it took almost two hours for the crowd to finish walking by any one spot of Constitution Avenue to end up at the Capitol Hill.
The official March for Life banner stretching across the entire width of Constitution Avenue

What draws so many people, largely Catholics (with pockets of protesters from other denomination, to be sure) to this annual event, many coming by overnight buses and trains from states that are as far away from DC as Singapore is from Thailand and Vietnam?  Mostly, it is our concerted belief that life is sacred, and that abortion is a heinous and murderous act, which must not be legalized.  Did my stand on this issue only appear on my moral compass only because I am currently living in the country where since 1973, an approximate 54.5 million lives (try wrapping your head around that number) had been denied life legally?  No.  I have always held that life is sacred, and that abortion is evil in every way.  It’s just that there has been no opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow pro-life brothers and sisters (at Hong Lim Green back home in Singapore?) to show how strongly we think about this.  Yes, I have preached about this from the Ambo before, but I also do know that it can become very emotional for someone listening in the pew, especially if that person had undergone an abortion before.   Besides, it is because this evil is so rampant and so easily procured that the moral issue is hardly given serious thought about by the people who seek this easy exit from a ‘problem pregnancy’.  Yet, this must not silence us from preaching against this egregious act that it is.  We need to name it for what it is, and murder is its name.  Funding for healthcare that is channeled to abortions in this country is another crazy matter.  How in the world does ‘murder’ come under ‘healthcare’? 

The issue that is before us is much larger than we think.  It has a lot to do with how people (young AND old) approach sex and how sacred a gift it is.  Many, unfortunately, do not see it as a gift from God.  In fact, it is one of the most precious gifts that God ever gave us because in giving it to us, he invited us to be part of the process of creation itself, something that only God has the right to do, and the ability to do as well.  He wants to share life and to share the act of life with us.  That is a privilege that we don’t even think much about.  It was with deep insight that a spiritual writer once remarked that pornography is wrong simply because it puts on public display something that is Godly.  What is happening at every sacred conjugal act is a couple is cooperating with God at the level of creation.  God is displaying himself, and no one (biblically speaking) can see God and live.  Remember Moses, and how his face was brilliantly white and dazzling after he met God?  It was a figurative way of conveying that in such intimate moments of divine encounter, there is something that just needs to be wrapped in mystery and is not meant for public display, and certainly not for entertainment or worse, recreation.  It is certainly not a right, but a gift.  The marital bed is really an altar of sacrifice, where God is present because there is a total giving and a total receiving – of lives to one another, and to God as well.  Imagine Simmons, Serta, or Omazz advertising for their mattresses this way – what prophetic teaching!

When we put aside these thoughts, and think that sex is a rite of passage to adulthood, we distort something beautiful.  When we think that sex is recreation, we adulterate something sacred.  And when we teach our children to be ‘protected’ or teach them ‘protected sex’, we are telling them that sex is dangerous, when in fact, it was (and still is) one of God’s most beautiful gifts that he bestows on humankind because it shares in his divine act of creation.  God doesn’t give us dangerous things.  We have made it dangerous, and have distorted it and disfigured it.  The words “safe” and “sex” put together certainly connotes that it is not a gift, and certainly not something precious to be handled with care and respect.  We have gone so far wrong in this that it seems a herculean task to undo it. 

Yet, we still can rely on the grace of God that we have the hope of good parenting, which dares to be prophetic.  I agree that it seems an uphill task for parents (especially Catholic ones) to speak a different language than what schools and educators tell our children about sex education.  I will continue to pray for courage for both parents and children to not only speak the right thing, but to also dare to do the right thing, and yes, to also march to a different drumbeat of life, for life.

Monday, January 23, 2012

When going back is the most important thing

Let's be clear about one thing first.  I am not homesick (at least not terribly).  Nor am I pining to celebrate the Lunar New Year with my fellow Singaporeans and family, though it would be a nice thing to do.  I am writing on this theme of ‘going back’ because of something that I came across in one of my required readings. 

It is a quote from the great T.S. Eliot, from his poem entitled ‘Little Gidding’, from the fourth and final of his “Four Quartets” series.  It reads:

With the drawing of this Love, and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

A great deal of our human quests and aspirations, though at first appearing to lead us away from our simple beginnings, are in fact huge detours, excursions and side trips that bring delights galore.  But when we are satisfied and fully sated with exhilaration, we often realize that what we long for is a return to where we began, or as T.S. Eliot says, to ‘arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time’.

In my study of theology and seemingly esoteric academic pursuits which pose such a challenge for this no-longer nimble mind of mine, so many of my readings have this undergirding discovery that it is often not a newness that academics and teachers are really trying to impart, but a recovery, and a deeper appreciation and a harking back to what the Church has always taught.  Yes, there have been new developments of theological and spiritual thought through the ages, but the undergirding truth is that the reality that grounds it all has never and will never change – simply because it is truth and love itself – God. 

At the same time, our human nature loves to explore new things and experience delight in them.  Traveling to new lands thrills and excites many, and being introduced to things unseen and un-tasted before somehow jolts one into the realization that we are more alive than ever before.  But after one has tasted and drunk so much, read so much and experienced thrills ad nauseam, newness can reach a saturation point and ennui creeps up upon us, often unannounced. 

It is at this point that the human person becomes most attentive, most willing and even pliable to cooperate with the grace of God that constantly beckons one to return to one’s origins and ‘home-base’ in Him.

That’s the amazing and truly subtle nature of how the grace of God works.  The grace of God is one of the most important things that we humans can ever have in our lives, and at the same time, it is also one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated gifts that we can ever have.  Up and down the centuries, there have been people who have been determined to believe (and even heretically teach) that grace can be earned and merited.  Though the father of this heresy is generally known to be Pelagius, who lived in the early part of the fifth century, his way of thinking about grace has somehow persisted in various forms right up till now in the ways that many Catholics erroneously think that they can earn the goodness or the blessings of God, simply by being good.  I have heard these people being called semi-Pelagians, but that’s just a name or category until we can readily identify which part of their theology has shades of Pelagianism. 

But this much is certain.  Once a person has been touched by the unmistakable grace of God, once that hard heart is softened, readied and prepared, he or she is then ready to return to that place of settlement and solace.  St Augustine’s famous line from his Confessions echoes something of a familiar strain that almost parallels T.S. Eliot’s in the first part of this reflection.  “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in you”. 

Indeed then, 'going back' will be the most important journey that we make in life.  Most of us will struggle against it at first.  We may protest and fuss.  It may be a very long journey and it could be a very hard task, but it undoubtedly, it will also be the most important things we do in life, because we will be doing it for life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Kindness and the Christian life

Is un-kindness a trait that is so totally foreign, alien and incompatible with Christianity?  Many think that it is.  After all, Jesus himself has never been unkind and he is the prototype for all of humanity.  And there are a huge number of people who are loath to see any traits of unkindness in people who are supposed to be leaders, especially those in ecclesial leadership, and are ever-so-quick to point out that such-and-such acts and words are unkind, and ought not to be practiced if one were purported to be a disciple of Christ.

But herein lies the problem of our individual humanity being such an admixture of human and spirit.  As St Paul is so humble to point out and admit, so many of us do what we should not do, and are not doing what we should.  It comes from Rom 7:5.  Paul saw in himself that similar trait and so do we. 

I have found myself facing this conundrum ever-so-often, and I realize that the more I am regular in my prayer and meditation, the more I see it clearly when the situation manifests itself.  It is as if prayer and our concerted effort in cooperating with God’s grace in life develops another being of ourselves that sees our works and actions from a third-party distance, and we get insights into our lives from a vantage point that would not have been developed had we just lived life in a carefree attitude.  Prayer helps us do this – it develops our third person vista which some prefer to call a hightened conscience or state of awareness.

There are always ways in which we could have done things better.  Most of the time, we don’t have the luxury of a time so that we can analyse which approach is most kind, and most effective, and most Christlike before the act.  We act on instinct.  And that, unfortunately, is the crux of the problem.  Most of our instincts are animalistic, not those of rational animals, as Aristotle defines our shared genus. 

When I have followed that instinct, I know that it had led me to skip the pleasantries, to discount the other’s needs and weaknesses, to think more of myself and what I want to achieve, and to get things done in only one way – mine.  And there are times when it shows how slow I am to suffer fools. 

I am sure that some toes would have been stepped upon and even crushed in so doing.  I was reminded of this in an anonymous comment that came in my blog two days ago.  Someone back in Singapore must have been reminded of a time when unkindness and impatience was shown to him or her by me, most probably in the course of my ministry.  I would have loved to engage the person in conversation and find out how this could be rectified, but alas, at most times, anonymity neither allows this, nor does it show that the person is at all interested in any amicable restoration. 

It behooves me then to offer an olive branch of an apology to this person.  Thank you for having pointed out that you are a hurt person, but it would have helped much more if the specific incident were referred to, to make this apology more specific and a healing experience. 

In closing, I guess I will refer to my opening statement.  Unkindness is unreservedly incompatible with Christianity. 

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Magi(c) of a real God experience

There always seems to be something apparently ethereal about the feast of the Epiphany that the church celebrated yesterday. Here, we read of an insecure and scheming despot, men of mysterious origins looking at the heavens for signs and directions, receiving communications via dreams to go to somewhere there is something to discover, and our minds are filled with images that are unearthly and unnerving; and something perhaps subtle and sublime. The creative minds of artists have been moved to conjure up graphic images that evoke the sense that there is something more than meets the eye.

While the scriptures say nothing of three men, but only of three gifts that were presented, tradition seems to favour the idea that three different men carried the three symbolic gifts. But we lose the significance of the event of this meeting if we focus on the little periphery details, which is often the case. What is THE significance then? It is this - The Epiphany, which literally means the “manifestation”. What was being manifested, which was hitherto hidden and kept rather silent, was the wonder of the incarnation when God and man met in Jesus’ birth. That God deemed humankind the necessary conduit and recipient of salvation was now something that needed to be proclaimed to all and sundry, no longer something that was reserved for an elite few. That, is the “matter” of the Epiphany.

The command and invitation given to all at the end of every Mass is precisely this – to dare to imitate the courageous and prophetic Magi to first of all encounter the holy, and then from here, to bring the wonder of salvation to every heart and soul that has yet to encounter the salvation which we have just received unworthily at the Holy Communion given to us. In this sense, the Epiphany is not just a feast that we observe and celebrate one day a year, but at every moment that we are aware that we bring with us from the Altar of Sacrifice something much more precious than Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. We bring with us the one who was the recipient of these gifts of deep significance himself. We bring the Christ.

It is far easier to want to stay at the warm and safe place where the infant king is found and not depart from the presence of the Lord. After all, the outside world poses threats aplenty and few appreciate the ways that the Lord displaces their self-centered universes. Later in his adult years, the grown infant would remind his disciples that no prophet is accepted in his own country. And if we really have been prophetic in our actions, we would have experienced just how painfully true this is.

What makes one ready to be like the Magi after every Eucharist? Perhaps we have overlooked one thing about the Magi and their actions when they came before the infant King. We are told that they opened their treasures. They didn’t give just a little of what they brought. They emptied the entire contents of what they had been carrying with them for the journey thus far. What they had with them, they gave of the fullest. How much we need to learn from this kenotic act.

Much of our hearts, yours and mine, are often filled with so many preoccupations and thoughts of the self and needless worries when we come to celebrate the Eucharist. Surely, we could learn a thing or two from the Magi about how to open these bags and satchels and duffel bags of our worldly preoccupations so that they can be filled with the grace that a true encounter with the Lord can provide.

I believe that if we have truly encountered the Lord, be it at Mass or in some other way, we will naturally want to share this wonderful experience with another so that the joy can be expanded, so that there is a larger experience of the reality of salvation. This the Magi did in an extraordinary way. They “epiphanized”.

And this is what we too need to do. Now, like the Magi, we need to go back to our lives in ways that are new and with eyes that see the ordinary in an extraordinary way.  Who knows - we will probably see paths that we never saw before and see beauty and life and love anew.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Approaching newness with an old caution

The feelings that the dawn of a new year brings are varied, to be sure. It will be different for a married person with a family just as it will be different for a single person who is newly employed. It will be challenging for those embarking on a new adventure or enterprise, and it will also be akin to walking on eggshells for those who have come from a former year that had been fraught with pains, disappointments and perhaps failure. As I write this first blog entry of 2012, I realize that there are some strange feelings within me, putting my thoughts in words for a readership that is largely 9000 km away from me, alone in the winter night of Washington DC. What are these feelings? It’s a strange hamper – of wistful longing, of hope, of deep appreciation and perhaps not too surprisingly, of melancholy.

I am sure that I am not alone in recognizing this gamut of emotions as the earth that we are on slowly turns to face the sun for the final time of 2011. What cannot be changed is the fact that a new year will be dawning (or, depending on when you get to read this entry – has dawned) upon us. But what can be affected, governed and influenced will be how we do what we do in the coming year. Many no doubt, will wish one another a Happy New Year. But it is also very true that happiness is an inside job. If our happiness depends on external factors alone, then our familiar greeting of “Happy New Year” is akin to being fatalists, or believing in pre-destination, that each of our lives is set on a pre-determined course. But we Catholics are not fatalists, nor have we ever believed that our lives are moving on a pre-set course that we can do nothing about.

Rom 14:7 is a familiar text to many who have participated attentively at funeral liturgies. It reads “The life and death of each of us has its influence on others”. That we influence one another in an organically connected way within the Body of Christ has to bear great weight on how we live our lives, especially on the cusp of a new year.

I watched a rather interesting documentary on the life of Harper Lee, the renowned literary award-winning author of the classic “To Kill A Mockingbird”, a book very dear to me, and came away with the idea of this blog’s reflection. I was surprised to learn that when Ms Lee wrote that book, when she met her publishers for the first time in their office in New York City back in 1957, she didn’t think very much of her work. In fact, she was hoping for a ‘quick and merciful death’ at the hands of the reviewers. But many authors have since named her classic as the one work that had influenced their vision and made them the authors that they are now.

Isn’t that what each of us secretly harbours in our heart of hearts? That our lives, our direction in life, our hopes and dreams actually bear a positive and generative influence for others who are members of the Body of Christ? Which parent doesn’t want her child to see her actions as examples of shining lights in a world darkened by selfishness and sin? Which teacher doesn’t want his charges to absorb the best that he can share through the dissemination of knowledge and experience? Which leader doesn’t want those under her leadership to become just as if not even greater leaders with vision and foresight? And, I suppose, on a more personal note, which priest doesn’t pray that his flock and those he is entrusted with become saints through his direction and care?

Is the ego on grand display here? It will certainly be an element in the whole works, but what we need to realize is that when it becomes the overriding impetus for our why we are doing what we are doing, that is when we need to take a step back and calm the torrential waters of the false self that can cause a myriad of problems of our lives.

This is also the best time to go back to Rom 14:7, and continue to read the remaining parts of that verse, which tell us just how we should be influencing others. It goes thus - “if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead, we belong to the Lord.” The fact remains for us Christians, that as long as we are Christ-centered in our lives, the weight and extent of our influence should not have much negative impact on others, but lead them to greater heights of wholeness and holiness.

Yes, we do like new things don’t we? We look forward to new experiences, new relationships, new business ventures, new opportunities and new hopes in the coming year. When I am given these, I need to be mindful that I should be handling them with an old caution, not to make the same stupid mistakes that I did in the past. And if I were truly honest with myself, I’d have to admit that Christ was hardly at my centre when those adventures became misadventures.

Do I wish every one of my readers a Happy New Year? Without a doubt. But it comes with a qualification – that in 2012, the paths that each of us takes towards happiness is greatly formed and influenced first by having the Lord in the centre of our lives.