Monday, February 27, 2012

Whither this desert experience of Lent?

Last Wednesday, we began our 40-day Lenten journey with the universal Church by getting our faces smeared with dirt at Mass.  Some of us may have been dreading it, and some of us actually do look forward to this time of austere living.  But I am sure that there are many who are ambivalent about Lent, seeing it as just another liturgical season that we drift into, and drift out of year after year. 

In yesterday’s Gospel text at Mass, we would have heard how Jesus was driven to the desert to be tempted for 40 days after his baptism in the river Jordan.  Our Lenten journey is just as long, and in a way, we too are to join Jesus in the desert. 

Why the desert?  In the Semitic mind, the desert conjures up all sorts if images.  For the most part, the desert is seen as a foreboding place where danger lurks and where evil is present - hardly a place which one willingly goes into.  Yet we are to willingly do just that – enter the symbolic desert of our lives by acts of penance and fasts, so that we can encounter what we fear most – our true selves, with masks and pretenses removed.

Our lives can easily be filled with distractions of various sorts each day.  From the moment we wake up till the moment we close our eyes at the end of the day, our senses are constantly filled with a barrage of sights, sounds and smells.  As if this is not enough, millions go through the day with their ears plugged with earphones pumping sounds and noises to supplement what seems to already be the cacophony of an audio overload.  It amazes me still, how 'innovative' inventors constantly come up with gadgets that make us more and more busy and multi-tasking, filling up almost every waking hour with sensory overloads, as if we are not already overloaded.

With these self-created distractions, we can easily be misled into thinking that we are in that world where there is perfectly nothing wrong with us, simply because we don’t have any pressing need to face ourselves, and with hardly any need to strip ourselves of our distractions and illusions.

In a desert, especially when one is alone, there is nothing to hear and see but our own heartbeat and our own thoughts.  The desert had always been a place where the Desert Fathers of old would retreat to for the sole purpose of getting in touch with the God within themselves.  It also helped them to face their own demons and to exorcise them through facing them directly with no false pretenses.  To be sure, it is one of the hardest and arduous journeys one can ever make in life, as well as one of the most necessary.

Notice that we are told in the passage that the angels came and ministered to Jesus in the desert, but only after he had been tempted.  When we dare to go deep in our Lenten journey of self-discipline and self re-discovery, we will undoubtedly encounter our dark sides if we are really honest with ourselves.  We may even see sides of ourselves that we don’t recognize or prefer not to admit. 

However, we do not go there alone.  If we are in the right spirit of Lent, we enter to that place within not alone, but with the Spirit of God as our guiding light and strength.  Those of us who are blessed with spouses or good soul friends who really know us and have seen our darkest sides can do a very courageous thing - Ask them to name a few of the dark areas of our lives which we need to encounter this Lent. 

Why is this a courageous thing to do?  Because if we are honest enough, we know that it is our spouses who can name the one or two things which are most hidden from ourselves, areas which we never knew was our Achilles' heel(s).  It’s being vulnerable with a new twist.  I personally know of a couple who asks each other to name their sins for them before they go for a Sacramental confession.  Apparently, it’s always a surprise to find out that such-and-such a sin was something that caused a friction in their relationship, principally because they had easily glossed it over from their own personal point of view - that quadrant in the Johari window that is know to others, but which is also in our own blind spot.

Our willingness to go into our private deserts gives us new ears to hear and new eyes to see – both the world, and ourselves.  Then, when we reach Easter, may we all see a brighter and better world with our senses refreshed and hearts renewed. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Loving your neighbour as yourself

The sentimentalist in me came out last week upon learning of the sudden demise of the singer Whitney Houston.  I grew up listening to her music.  Searching my iTunes playlist, I listened wistfully to her powerful and emotive singing, and tried to understand how someone who shot to stardom and riches in such a meteoric way could end up falling the same way. 

When my ears landed on the words of “The Greatest Love of All”, the phrase that caught my attention was “… learning to love yourself, is the greatest love of all.”  In a way, that is the truth of life in a nutshell, apart from the fact that this love has to stem from the fact that we know that we are first loved by God and love him as our first love.  The royal rule of “love your neighbour as yourself” is a corollary to loving God first.  If this love is inordinate in any way, it can easily turn into a very egocentric and self-serving love.  The problem I have with Ms Houston is that I am not truly convinced that she meant what she was singing.  True, her rendition was flawless.  All emoted at the right places, and with a tone that was rich and velvety at the same time.  Besides, she had the armfuls of Grammy Awards to prove it.  But whether she loved herself in a healthy and positive way is something that many struggle to believe. 

Why do we need to love ourselves?  For the simple reason that God finds us lovable.  The "Choice" programme, an offshoot of the Worldwide Marriage Encounter movement, has a very pithy but real statement that says, “God does not make junk”.  It was one of the first things that I recall being fundamental when I took part in my  Choice weekend about three decades ago.  I am sure that the writers and founders of the programme knew that teenagers often grow up in an environment where there is so much self-doubt and negative self-image.  Today’s youth are not that much a different bunch.  I have seen this with my own eyes. 

When we do not grow up with a healthy self-love, based on the fact that we are first loved unconditionally by God and given the grace to love, it becomes very easy for us to look to anyone, anything or substance to find the validation that our human nature seems to crave.  Good parenting is evidently at work when children grow up confident (and this is different from being arrogant and cocky) that they are loved, and it gives them the strength and ability to love others with a confidence that doesn’t demand a return of love.  This is rare in people, both in youth and in adults, and even great saints struggle with altruistic love. 

Truth be told, as Henri Nouwen said, our lives seem to be a moving from living in a house of fear, to living in house of love.  In this regard then, a saint is the one who dares to make that determined albeit difficult move from one house to the other without looking back at what he or she has left behind.

But most of our lives are instead a constant shifting between the two houses.  While we hope that there is some magical formula or easy way to help us to attain that healthy love that Jesus talks about, unfortunately, that is wishful thinking.  Loving ourselves healthily is never automatic.  Moving to that second house is a hard task.  It takes hard work, and it helps when our parents and the village that it took to raise us up are demonstrative examples of how to love both God and neighbour. 

Then and only then, can we really sing the last line of Ms Houston’s song when we can “… find (y)our strength in love”.

Monday, February 13, 2012

What’s in a name? A community.

There are quite a lot of things in our practice of our Catholic faith that we take for granted, or seldom ponder over in any prolonged sort of way.  Making the sign of the Cross, having our crucifixes blessed, dipping our fingers into a holy water stoup or font, and choosing of a Saint’s name for our children’s baptism.  We just ‘do it’, maybe not in a Nike sort of way, but we hardly question why.  But in all our traditions, both cultural and religious, one of the things that can result in our lives if we don’t take time to pause and reflect on our actions (or non-actions), is that we can easily end up just doing it for the sake of doing it, or in some cases, jettison it altogether, without knowing that we have jettisoned something very deep and beautiful and rich.  A bit like throwing the baby with the bathwater.

One of the things that have given me cause to reflect lately is the long-standing practice of naming our children after the saints of the Church at their baptisms.  I have been ministering to many couples in my years as a priest in the various parish postings that I had been assigned to, and one rather common occurrence in recent years seems to have parents making up names for their children.  Laquisha.  Perstwick.  Golf.  Fermyn.  La-La (pronounced Ladashla, so I am told). My deep sense of Christian charity prevents me from commenting on these ‘interesting’ choices, and when I asked the parents why these names were chosen, the answer inevitably boiled down to ‘because it’s original’.  I suppose the quest to make our personal mark on society, to leave something on it that is ‘our own’, stems from a silent need within the human psyche that refuses to be lost in the crowd of common human ordinariness.  Perhaps most parents know that not every child will grow up a prodigy, or a genius, or some scholar, or an Academy/Pulitzer/Nobel/Booker/Golden Globe/Golden Horse Award winner, so the least they can do is to give them something unique that marks them out from the common crowd.  And their name seems to be an innocuous place to start.  I can understand that kind of reasoning.  Not that I fully agree.  I understand.

But if I am wondering if we do a little reflection on the rich background of our religious tradition behind the naming of our children after the Saints, that parents would back-pedal a bit and appreciate the rationale of this strong recommendation.  It really is founded on the firm Christian belief that the world is not about us, and that we are part of a much bigger body to which we belong and from which we draw life.  The body of Christ.

There are landmark/milestone points in our human/social/religious life where something happens to our names.  We see something happening to our names at birth, at our Confirmation, at our Marriage/Vows/Religious Professions/ and at our death.  In every one of these high points of our lives, we are given a mission from the Church and the Community to which we belong.  The Jewish tradition of naming a newborn to the family requires that his/her name comes from someone else in the family having that name before.  This child is thus in a sense, given something that comes from the forebears of the community that he or she came from.  Just from the name itself one detects a sense of a community connection and involvement.

We are also given a mission at these special points of our lives -  baptism (becoming an anointed child of God with sins forgiven to make holy the world); confirmation (to be active cooperators with the Holy Spirit to sanctify the world in a conscious and purposeful way); marriage (to be a co-partner with our spouse to further expand the kingdom of God physically and spiritually); Holy Orders (one can also include Religious Vows and Professions here), and the reason for this should be self-explanatory; and at our deaths (where if we have been living as we should truly have, our names become immortalized with the Saints that have gone before us).  Each of these aforementioned points are mission points for us.  And very significantly, at each of these points, our names show a deepening of our human relationships within the matrix of humanity.  Something happens to our names.  We either get them, change them, or add something to them.  No one goes to a mission alone, not even a lone-missioner to any mission land. Such a person has the support of a huge praying community behind him or her.

I am wondering if this is what many parents are missing in the bigger picture of our faith when naming their children.  If the reason behind an ‘original’ name is to ‘stand out from the crowd’ or ‘to be unique’, perhaps it shows that the intrinsic link between baptism and mission is no longer acknowledged, or worse, completely lost.  What seems to be missing would be a certain sense of gravitas in life.  Life simply becomes ‘my story’, or ‘my way’, as Frank Sinatra would vaingloriously croon.  And if this attenuated way of looking at life begins at baptism, it easily then sets the tone for the rest of life from then on to have the same proclivity, causing Confirmation and Marriage (heaven forbid, Holy Orders) to have a similar exclusion of any form of mission or community link or involvement. 

Yes, I have heard many ‘arguments’ of people saying that if we recycle all these names of canonized saints, there would never be a St Ah Kow, or St Laquisha, or St Golf (?).  While I can understand that argument, it does seem to have only featherweight strength in the light of our united call to mission that has a community behind us, and a larger community that waits before us.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

Learning to heal with wounds

It’s a given that our human nature comes with many experiences of pain, suffering and woundedness.  No one is spared from this reality.  We don’t have to look outside of ourselves. We will (if we are humble and honest enough) see that within our very selves is a landscape of wounds, some inflicted by others, but many caused by ourselves.

But what separates the ‘men/women from the boys/girls” is what we do with our wounds.  Some have chosen to ignore them, and many have caused even more wounds in others because of them.  It’s called victimizing.  But there are also those (not too many of them, apparently) who dare to use them to transform themselves, and in so doing, transform also the world around them. 

The secular society calls it by a few names.  Some call it recovery, some call it therapy.  But in the Christian tradition, there is a specific name to it.  It’s called redemption through forgiveness.  And it’s one of the hardest things that each of us needs to do, as well as the most important thing that we can ever do – for ourselves and for the world.

"The Incredulity of St Thomas" by Italian Baroque master Carravagio c.1601-1602

The demonstrative point of this happens after the resurrection event, where the terrified apostles are found huddled in the room where there resurrected Lord walks right in and greets them with nary a castigation, but rather, with a greeting of peace, and shows them his glorious wounds.

We don’t often speak about those wounds do we?  Few priests will venture to preach about the wounds of Christ, and what makes these wounds glorious.  Maybe it’s the way our culture has evolved.  The medical and beauty/aesthetics industries have come up with all sorts of methods to enable people to hide/mask/disguise and almost make disappear physical wounds from injuries and operations.  Perhaps this has given us the idea that we should be making disappear all our wounds, the physical as well as the emotional ones.  But not Christ.  In fact, what he does is that he extends his hands and his side to his friends who abandoned him on Calvary as a definitive display and proof of his divine forgiveness.  This forgiveness has a two-fold effect.  Not only are they forgiven, they are also now to be similar instruments of forgiveness for others, through a similar wounded-healed-forgiven-forgiver process.  In short, no one truly receives forgiveness if he himself is unwilling to extend a similar forgiveness. 

But handling our woundedness well is an art and skill that requires us to maintain a delicate balance.  Too much unthinking display easily turns ourselves into ego-clamoring maniacs.  We only have to look at the brazen displays of talk-show guests who want their 15 minutes of fame on national television, spilling out their broken history of who did what to whom in the past, shaming and discrediting others, sometimes turning themselves from being the injured party to becoming the one causing a new injury in the process.  Many new hurts can come forth from an impoverished sense of justice and righteousness. 

The other side of this balance spectrum can cause people to go into pity-parties, and that is I think, more common than the former case.  In both cases, problems abound. 

The balance is to know when to reveal, what to reveal, and to whom one should reveal.  Jesus didn’t go out to the town and do a massive show-and-tell, did he?  He knew that it was these huddled people who needed healing, and it was these very people who could spread the truth of divine love and forgiveness. 

The only way that we can handle our wounds well is when we mirror our lives as closely as possible with the Lord himself through prayer and contemplation.  The doxology at the Eucharistic Celebration gives us the essence.  It is Through Him, With Him and In Him that we gain access to God the Father union with the Holy Spirit.  But I have a suspicion that many Christians think that that (Jesus' complete and utter submission to the Father) was a one-off thing, and that we only need to view it from a distance, and appreciate it like as if we were respectfully admiring a beautiful piece of artwork in an art museum, standing at the velvet cord bollards. 

I’m currently reading “Models of the Eucharist” by Fr Kevin Irwin.  I was most glad to see him say very clearly that one of the purposes of celebrating the Eucharist is to “place paschal lenses on our eyes”.  "Paschal lenses" - what a beautiful image.  I caught that image immediately.  Along with Irwin, I believe that it is only when we allow the dying and rising of Christ to become the prism through which we view our lives, that the paschal mystery can then become the true measure of who we are and what we are about.

Most of us are unwilling to do that.  We want a perfect Church that has no problems, no scandals, no slow-acting authorities and no painful experiences.  We think that only then does worship become ‘good’.  We want sanitized worship.  How wrong we are.  Sometimes we forget that real life is truly messy and full of unexpected curve-balls being thrown at us.  So, we prefer to stand and observe (maybe even with arms akimbo) at the goings on at Eucharist from a safe, clinical distance.

But that is not true Catholic worship.  That’s being an observer or a spectator.  Catholicism is no spectator sport.  It requires of us to enter (yes, sometimes dragging our feet) into the mystery with Christ, so that everything can be seen through the eyes of Christ, and everything can be lived through the life of Christ within us.  And in doing so, we pray that all wounds, ours as well as those who have caused our wounds, can be healed through the wounds of Christ.