Monday, March 26, 2012

Going fishing in the confessional

It’s that time of the year again for penitential services organized in parishes dotted all around the globe.  Every year, several weeks before Holy Week, these are organized in a large way so that parishioners can fulfill their ‘Easter duties’ before the solemnity of Easter comes upon us.  My experience has been that there is always a certain sense of dread hanging in the air on both sides of the confessional – on the part of the penitents as well as the confessor priests, and for different reasons.

If one were just to use one’s rational faculties, it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with reasons for the feeling of dread in the penitents.  No one likes to ‘fess up to another human person for their personal foibles in life.  It takes a whole truckload of honesty and humility to do that, and it just goes against the grain of the self-preserving ego.  And for those who have a weak understanding of the Church’s teaching on grace and mercy, as well as a misunderstanding of the ministerial priesthood and its role in the sacramental life, confessing to a mere human person in order to encounter God’s mercy can seem to be just inconceivable.  If one were to only have a secular, worldly or perhaps an irreligious mindset, it really isn’t hard to see why there could be a certain sense of dread each time this sacrament is encountered.
And for priests, it’s a slightly different story.  I recall there being a certain sense of foreboding whenever the penitential services were around the corner back home in Singapore.  The long queues, the hardly audible and understandable mumblings of the penitents, the back aches from either standing or sitting in one posture for such prolonged periods, and the need to be constantly alert to listen out carefully to what was being said from what was either deliberately or unintentionally left out.  Each penitent needs to be seen as a person in dire need of God’s mercy, and it is ever so humbling as a priest to be of service to a soul knocking on the portals of grace.  And it really takes a lot to give it one's all in the confessional, especially if it is going to be at least 90 minutes at a go, for two sessions a day.  By the end of the week and a half of these non-stop services, we would all silently be relieved it was over.  I recall having told myself just after being ordained that I would always approach the sacrament of reconciliation with a sense of joy because I was going to aid someone's quest for sainthood.  But alas, I was to be humbled to discover that even the best of intentions can be laid waste simply because we are not at our 'peak' all the time.

Thus, there could easily be 'problems' on the sides of the penitent as well as the confessor.  We often fail very miserably in truly understanding what the sacrament really is trying to provide.  What it essentially is,  is a true encounter with the mercy of God, and each moment is a celebration in the deepest sense of the word.  But the moment either side sees it as a ‘chore’, a ‘drag’, ‘work’, ‘something that one is forced to do by mum or dad’, or ‘because the church said so’, it automatically brings the greatness of the sacrament down several hundred notches. 

If one really thinks of it in the broadest possible sense, each celebration of the sacrament of the reconciliation is a prelude to heaven’s gate.  What the soul needs most at the hour of death is mercy.  What gets one to ‘enter into’ the eternal love of heaven is mercy.  What one needs from God ultimately is mercy.  When this is forgotten or displaced from the celebration of the sacrament, it easily becomes relegated to what it is often perceived to be a ‘drag’, a ‘chore’, and even a ‘job’, and we do such an injustice to this beautiful sacrament of love and healing.

Reading how great confessor saints like St Pio and St Jean Vianney could spend such long hours in the confessional availing of themselves so selflessly to this sacrament’s meaningful celebration makes one see how differently they saw this sacrament as something that every soul is in great need of.   Apparently, the devil often rankled Jean Vianney on the eve of a ‘big fish’.  His presbytery would shake and rumble, and it was evident that it was something that was diabolical, but he thought that it was only because the devil hated what this saintly man was doing in terms of living a holy life.  But after a while, he noticed a pattern.  Each time he was disturbed by such events in the night, when he went to the confessional the next day, there would be a penitent who would confess to having been away from the sacrament of mercy for a long period – something that the saint would refer to as a ‘big fish’.  In fact, the greater the previous night’s disturbance, the bigger the ‘fish’ the next day.

This made the saint rather "happy" and "excited" whenever his house would rock and rumble in the silent evenings in the village of Ars, because he knew that it was a harbinger of a big ‘fish’ showing up in the confessional the next day, and that a long-lost soul would be won for God. 

Would that confessor priests be similarly disturbed.  I’d say – bring in the rumbles, because someone will be brought to heaven’s gates, because Satan is the one who is feeling a real sense of dread. 

A soul saved is definitely worth a night of troubled sleep. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Participating in the insipid and the dull in this life

There’s something inside each of us that disdains the bland, the insipid and the drab.  Almost each of our senses craves for and hankers after what delights, fires the imagination and excites.  We perk up our ears to new sounds, we look at vivid colours and beauty with intense gazes, our olfactory senses send thrilling impulses to the brain when we inspire new fragrances, and our taste-buds delight in tasting things that fire the imagination.  But give us the bland, the insipid and the drab, and we shut down. 

One of the reasons that the Jews celebrate the feast of the Passover with unleavened bread was, we are traditionally told, because it allowed the bread to travel well.  Because it had no rising agent in the recipe, it was flat.  This lack of yeast also helped it to keep well without going bad or moldy easily.  Another thing about matzo bread is that it is rather tasteless.  So much so, apparently, that there are some kosher gourmet places in New York that make chocolate covered matzo, especially for the children who participate in the Passover festive ritual meals. 

Matzo, the unleavened flatbread that the Jews use at this meal, has a deeper significance than just practicality.  It is basic sustenance, and it keeps one on the edge for a deeper fulfilling, for a time when there will be a more fulfilling meal, when the hunger will be taken not just to the edge, but over the edge.  It makes one somewhat aware that in this life, there is no finished symphony, to put it in Karl Rahner’s words.

When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he took elements and the spirituality of the Jewish Passover and became the new Passover.  He didn’t just formulate something new fangled from thin air.  He knew his Jewish roots, and from there, he launched it into a new dimension that was unheard of.  No Jew prayed it the way he did.  His disciples must have been flabbergasted, but somehow, they also knew that this was a very significant and momentous event.  They probably didn’t know what to make out of it at that time.

At every Eucharistic celebration after that one, the Church has used the same matter – unleavened bread that Jesus used.  Yes, I have heard so many people say that it tastes like cardboard, that it is insipid, that they wish (in a jocular fashion) that Jesus had used prata, or some sweet bun, or that the Passover was a ten-course exotic meal (Kosher, albeit).  But in the historical context of the Passover being what it is, the elements are understandably flat, dull, and rather tasteless.  They were on a long journey.  It was escape food.  It was not something that they were to luxuriate in. 

Somehow, when we take in all those elements, the communion host begins to have good reason to also be someone insipid, dull and flat to the taste.  It is food for the journey, and it makes us hanker for a greater fulfillment that awaits us not in this life, but in eternity, where the symphony of life is played in all its glory.

Is the Liturgy sometimes experienced as bland, not too exciting, flat and rather lifeless?  Heaven knows how many of these I have been a participant at in my 47 years of going to Masses.  I am sure that you, the reader, have also experienced these too.  Perhaps the hymns were rather drab.  Maybe the preacher could have done better work at his craft.  The lectors may have really messed up the reading and read the Letter of Saint Paul to the Theologians.  And when we are told that XXXX mega church downtown as a ‘lively’ and ‘vibrant’ celebration every Sunday, we compare it with what we have, it can make our celebration look rather ‘dirgey’.  But the ‘fault’ may also be on the participants, where they didn’t bring their best there too – their best attention, their best mind, their best presence, making it their best participation. 

I remember reading a liturgy textbook once where it said very memorably that on this side of heaven, there is no perfect liturgy.  And I think this is very true.  Every liturgy will have something lacking.  That’s because perfect liturgy requires the full giving of everyone and everything present, and it is never about “me” but “us”.  I may have prepared the best homily ever and preached with the flair of Lacordiare, the cantor may have sung with great passion and lovely diction, the lector may have read with such flawless precision, but because each one on the congregation has a vital part to play, it will never be perfect here.  We are not in heaven yet.  This will still be just a glimpse, a shade, or smidgen of what heaven really is.  Right now, we are just to do our best.

Just as the flat, tasteless and insipid host makes us long for a greater fulfillment of its consummation in heaven, so too is every Liturgy meant to make us hunger and thirst that much more for it to be sated and slaked. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dying well is a dying art

I have actual proof to say that one of the things that people are most interested and intrigued with is death.  Since I began this weekly blog in 2009, I have written about three blogs that deal specifically with the topic of death and dying.  The visits to each blog is tracked by a blog counter, and it shows undeniable proof that these three blogs have garnered the most visits.  It’s in the thousands.  The one on suicide is a chart-topper.  Death is something that so many of us want to know more about, are fascinated about, or are just very afraid to face.  Either that, or it’s a combination of all three.

Could there be a difference in the way that people have faced sickness and death from times past, as compared to the way that we deal with them now?  I am currently reading an insightful book on “Sin, Death and the Devil”, a book written by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson.   In the chapter ‘Sinsick’, by contributor Stanley Hauerwas, he astutely posits that most people, even those who are religious, seem to betray the hidden fact that deep inside of us, a lot of us are atheists.

Asking people how they want to die, he says, can prove this.  Almost all of the people he asked said that they want to die quickly, painlessly, in their sleep, and without being a burden.  And what was even more insightful was that he said that we do not want to be a burden because we can no longer trust our children.  He says, “we want to die quickly, painlessly, and in our sleep because when we die, we do not want to know we are dying”.

And there I think, Hauerwas has struck gold.  In my own conversations about death and dying with practicing, believing Catholics, this was the same kind of response that I got.  But I hadn’t made that connection with atheism in the rather bold way that Hauerwas does.  All of them seem to want to die almost invisibly.  Most of them want a sudden death.  But contrast this to a not too distant past, and we will realize that a sudden death was one of the most feared thing for our ancestors.  They prayed to St Joseph incessantly that they would die a happy death, which does not mean an instant, sudden and painless death.  Our elders would fear a sudden death because it meant that they would die without having had the chance of a reconciliation with their fellow man, neighbours, the church, and with God.  With the way that so many want to suddenly die, it’s either most of us are living such upright and just lives already, making us so ready to meet God the way we are, or we no longer fear the judgment of God.  I would love to think it’s the former, but alas, I really think it’s the latter.

When we really know who we are in the sight of who God is, we will never ever want a sudden death, and to die without trusted friends and family around.  We have been trained almost in a bad way, that it is wrong to burden our family and friends in any way, and this has led to so many people keeping silent about their cancer prognosis from their loved ones, when often, it is really the community that makes the transition from this life to the next a smooth one.  The Christian sense of charity becomes much heightened when we are given the golden opportunity to bring someone to the threshold of life. 

 Why has the world become the way it is?  I think any of you reading this can come up with a whole host of reasons why we have degenerated into being so ensconced with our selves, our egos and our individualism.  Some may even quote (albeit wrongly) that we come into the world alone, and we leave alone, so why bother the community?  When we put the phrase “bother” and “community” in the same sentence, we show a terribly twisted and warped understanding of what true community is. 

But a hidden truth (albeit an irony) is that after one dies, there seems to be a silent hope that there will be a large turnout at the wakes and funeral services and Masses for the deceased.  There is a silent knowing that one needs the prayers of the community at this ‘border situation’ in life, but just cannot bare to ask them to stay around when one is really at the borders of life itself.  Some even go through all sorts of troubles to lay great plans as to how one must be dressed and made-up in the casket, the ‘theme’ of the flowers, and of course, that ubiquitous framed photo at the foot of the casket which has to somehow make one look at least ten years younger than one really is.  At funeral wakes, I sometimes wonder if a wrong photograph had been on display, or that the ‘make-over’ was more a case of being ‘over-made’.  But what is far more important and pressing at such poignant moments is actually the community’s praying and faithful presence help one to be present before God.  

In truth, the Catholic sense of life and death are really not separated that much.  We see so much connection between the two that we are constantly either remembering the dead in our liturgy, or praying that we die to ourselves and to sinfulness.  Because the liturgy is the community at prayer, we are really entrusting our well-being with the community, though we may not be aware of it.

Indeed, Hauerwas has a point.  We need to really begin to trust our children more if we are to change the way we look at death (and life).  Had there been more active hand-holding in life, we would be more willing to be handed over to life at death.  Those of us who truly trust our children and our community enough, will never hope to die in secret.  Just as it takes a village to raise a child, the church also believes strongly that it takes a village to bring one to God.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Learning to appreciate mystery

When the term ‘transubstantiation’ was coined, the church framed it in philosophical categories.  Thus, an essential transformation takes place to change the essence (what a thing is) while the accidents (what a thing appears to be) remain unchanged.  The substance, what literally ‘stands under’ the appearance becomes the body and blood of Christ.

The term had become de rigueur in religious parlance from then, and it has led many priests and seminarians to simply rely on the usage of that word to say that something extraordinary happens at the consecration.  The reliance on the use of a coined phrase somehow relieves the human mind of any further need to ponder on the reality of what one is confronted with, and it can be a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it leaves the ‘nuts and bolts’ to God, and engenders the priest to be aware that it is not he who is doing anything great.  It humbles one greatly.

On the other hand, it could lead one to a case of being somewhat jaded because it is mystery that one is not meant to understand but instead, to behold in awe.  Beholding is not something that comes automatically to the average human person whose patience and tolerance for a gentle unfolding is becoming shorter and shorter as the centuries go by.  One needs a certain innocence to know how to behold and a certain willingness to be awestruck.  One needs a certain docility in order to be led.  But the average person living in this day and age is one that resists being led and formed, but instead wants to lead and form, and to chart one’s own course in life.

Actually, this ‘problem’ is not new.  Even when the phrase ‘transubstantiation’ was applied, questions were asked about when exactly did the transubstantiation take place.  Was it when the phrase was uttered?  Or was it the placement of the consecrated hands of the priest over the gifts?  However, the more important question to be asked to these questioners, which I am not sure if they were asked or not, was “why is there a need to know”? 

What we do with knowledge somehow reveals our inner disposition.  By knowing this, can we can pin it down to the exact moment of the exact word and the precise moment of the specific liturgical hand action that ‘nails’ down the transubstantiation moment, would we be better disciples of Christ and fellow transformers of the world and people who are willing to live the values of the Kingdom of God in the world?  I'm not sure.

Or is this information going to allow us to ‘switch off’ and do our own ‘stuff’ till the important moment comes, so that we will then suddenly sit up and pay attention?  In those days, it would have meant stopping our fingering of our rosary beads, or in our current-day situation, to put our phones down and stop checking on our Facebook accounts on our iPhones because ‘God’ is happening now.

When we live separated and compartmentalized lives in our spirituality, we are only tuned in to God when we think we should be.  We dictate when we ‘allow’ God to come into and ‘disturb’ our lives.  Indeed, too much detailed knowledge about God and how he works, can ruin our ability to be awed by God.

I have been asked by so many Catholics – when is the cut-off moment when it is considered that one has actually missed Mass?  Is it at the start of the first reading, or the end of it?  Or is it at the start of the proclamation of the Gospel? 

These kinds of questions are considered reductionist in nature, because it reduces very much our ability to behold in its entirety what God really wants to offer us in life. 

When we find ourselves unable to appreciate mystery, unwilling to ponder anew or are irritable with any form of waiting and contemplation, we do our spiritual lives more harm than good.  Pithy, trite and short answers to the ‘why’s’ of life do not form the heart of a person to make one wise.  No one goes through any book that has the phrase ‘for dummies’ on the cover ever has a comprehensive and wide understanding of anything that requires discipline and sedulous patience, serious reading that leads to an unfolding of something that is rich and deep.  Yet, we do seem to want quick fixes for tough mysteries. 

I have realized in my years as a confessor that it is the people who are willing to really sit and talk about their lives rather than just listing out their sins that are the ones who are most able to experience transformation.  It doesn’t mean that those who opt to just list the sins do not receive God’s forgiveness.  They both do, without a doubt.  But there is something to be said about the willingness of a soul to want to really address an issue that keeps one from living a life of grace that helps one to experience a deep conversion. 

So, I keep reminding myself - 40 days of Lent may be a bit long and arduous, but experiences that are rushed through are hardly transformative. Thank God that there is no "Lent for dummies".