Monday, June 25, 2012

Greatness - do we have it, or do we not?

There is no surprise that the dilemma that many people struggle with is a healthy sense of self-love and self-esteem.  To many psychologists, it seems that having an adequate sense of either of these is magical key to most of life’s successes.  From Henry David Thoreau to Carl Jung, from Benjamin Franklin to Lao Tzu, many have exhorted the need to establish a good self-image or self-confidence in order to achieve some sort of greatness or self-stability in life.  No doubt, there is some truth to this, as we have seen so many broken people who have caused brokenness in the lives of so many other people, and in the world around them, often because of a lack of self-love and self-esteem.

In order to counter this, many parents and educational institutions have made it a point to go to the other extreme, and I take some risks in generalizing here.  This is prevalent especially in Western countries, where it is not uncommon to see parents who are extremely quick to encourage, support, and mutter words of praise to their children with the hope that they will grow up with a positive (and hopefully healthy) sense of self, and to know that they are good people.  Thus it would be fairly easy to see parents who are mindfully slow in disciplining their charges when they have done something wrong, because of the fear that harsh words or disciplinary actions meted out on their children will turn them into self-loathing or worse, parent-hating children. 

Over the past few weeks, here in America, High Schools, Colleges and Universities have been holding their graduation ceremonies.  These “Commencement” ceremonies, as they are called, mark a starting point in the lives of those who receive their diplomas and degrees, and it is typical at these ceremonies that someone of renown delivers a speech to mark the occasion.  Two weeks ago, one rather interesting speech which was delivered by an English teacher of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, became viral after the media took notice of it.  What made it unusual and attention worthy was its message.  In most commencement speeches, the graduates are often lauded and praised for having done well in school, and it is often seen as a proverbial pat on the back.  But this English teacher did just the opposite.  He told the graduates that they are not that special.  His statistics supported his point.  Every year, in America alone, there are 37,000 Valedictorians, one from each High School.  So, being given the title of Valedictorian is not really a big deal.    The were many other valid points in Mr McCullough’s speech that were enlightening, like how our planet is not the centre of its galaxy, and that the galaxy we belong to is not at the centre of the universe, and how astrophysicists assure us that the universe has no centre, so no one can be it.  If only we keep reminding ourselves this at every moment of our lives. 

Mr McCullough’s speech had one main point, put in various ways.  The problem with society, he says, is that we tend to think that we are so special, and this is not one sole person’s fault.  Parents and educators been molly-coddling their charges, and as a result, when they enter the workforce, the reality check that the graduates get is often shocking because often, no one in the workforce will give them the proverbial ‘leg-up’ in life. 

We don’t really need an educator to tell us that too much pampering in life actually handicaps us for the rest of our lives.  Sometimes, parents and educators do their charges a great disservice when the only thing that they tell them is that they are good, and that they are ‘awesome’ or worse, become offended when the school or their teachers discipline them for bad behaviour or work attitude.

The Church in her liturgy steers clear from this kind of molly-coddling mentality.  We do not start by saying that we have gathered together as special, unblemished and sinless people on Sunday.  It is not a ‘feel-good’ time when we pray the Confiteor.  What that part of the Mass is doing to all of us, and helping us to do for ourselves, is to admit and recognize that not one of us gathered in that assembly – not a single person, is not in need of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  In current-day parlance, it is just the opposite of the “I’m good and you’re good” mentality.  It’s rather “I’m a sinner and you’re a sinner”, so that is our common-ground before we start glorifying God.  Later on in the Mass, just before we receive Holy Communion, we make a unified declaration how as a body that we are “not worthy to receive you (Jesus) under our roof”.  Yet another honest statement that makes some feel uncomfortable.  Some priests have even shared with me how some parishioners do not like to say that statement out loud because it’s just ‘not nice’.  Nice?  Since when is Liturgy about nice? 

But this doesn’t mean that as Church, we do not view each person as special and unique.  We do.  Jesus came to show us just how special and unique and cherished and abundantly loved each one of us is.  His death and resurrection is this very fact, writ large.  But what we as Church do, albeit never in a perfect way, is strike a balance between the two apparently opposite poles.  One pole being the fact that we are broken sinners needing mercy and redemption, and the other, that we are so deeply and specially loved.  It is when we forsake one for the other that we get into all sorts of troubles with our approach to God and the Church.

So are we great?  No.  Not on our own merit.  But it is when we are fully aware of this, do we realise that we are, in fact, very great.  Because God is great first.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What lies beneath affects the later blossoms in life

I have never been a person with what avid gardeners call ‘green thumbs’, even though I do have a penchant for plants and flowers.  Back home in Singapore, I had very little time to care for plants in the parish setting.  Some kind parishioners having been generous, once gave me a few pots of Gloxinia when I mentioned that I loved their vibrant hues, but I could never quite make them bloom a second time after their first flowering. 

Having lived in Washington DC for almost a year now, I have come to appreciate how the seasons affect the flora in a way that I have only read about in books and seen in the movies.  Spring has been a most spectacular time, where I have seen the magnificent blossoming Cherry trees ushering in the start of a whole cascade of vibrant colours from the multitudinous plants that can be found in gardens and parks.  If at all there is an upside to my time away from the familiarity and comforts of home, it would be the experience of the joys and breathtaking beauty that Spring presents, almost surreptitiously, to a soul that had been hitherto chilled by the utterly pallid and charmless character of Winter. 

A few doors down from my residence here in DC, along the same street, I have made an acquaintance with Mr Brown, a kindly gentleman whose garden has been a most delightful distraction for my daily walk to school.  Ewan, as he insists I address him, is a retired journalist with the local Washington Post, a fellow Catholic, who lives alone in a very charming and elegantly refurbished late 19th century house.  At the back of his house stands a plot of land, in which Ewan uses to cultivate vegetables and fruit bearing plants.  In the front of the house is a very well tended to garden in which I saw, for the first time in my life, a pink Peony bush in full bloom.  These fleeting beauties have since passed their prime, and it is Hydrangea season now.  I passed Ewan’s cottage-like house recently and stopped to chat with him about this plants, with me in the sidewalk and him in his garden.  A low white wooden fence separated us.  The setting was as idyllic as could be. 

The topic of conversation turned to his stunning Hydrangeas in the prime of their blossoming.  I noticed that some of them were pink and some were violet, almost blue-ish, and asked Ewan if they were different strains or breeds.  It’s rather amazing what interesting nuggets of information one can be a recipient of in chance meetings like these across garden fences.  I found out that if one desires violet or blue-hued Hydrangeas instead of pink ones, one needs only put a handful of copper coins in the ground where the Hydrangeas are, and in the following year, the desired-for colour would appear.  Apparently, the copper leaches into the soil, and affects the colour of the blooms.  The Hydrangea flowers, apparently, are nature’s litmus.

Thankful for this piece of garden-trivia, I bade Ewan a good day, and headed back to the castle down the street, which I call home.  It slowly dawned on me in the days following our conversation, that our spiritual life, and indeed, almost every other aspect of our lives behaves much like Hydrangea plants.

Spiritual Masters have always been quick to point out that our lives are very much influenced by what we expose them to.  A mind and heart that is exposed to mainly wholesome stories, good examples and godliness in its multifarious forms will end up with a much greater chance of being an image or even a replica of what it was exposed to than if it were to be exposed instead to examples of selfishness, evil, anger, lust and greed.  But here is where the paradigm of the copper coins affecting the Hydrangea finds its limits.

What has been planted in our hearts are not copper coins that turns our later blooms blue or violet, but is the Holy Spirit through baptism.  It is not magic, though.  God requires very much our cooperation so that our lives will bear the fruit that glorifies Him through the lives that we will lead.  Like what I mentioned a few weeks ago, every parent becomes a great influence for the soul he or she is a caretaker of.  But this is never an easy task because the human heart is hardly ever easily conditioned and guided.  The gift of the free-will is that proverbial double-edged sword which can become the cause of a soul’s sanctification or its downfall and eventual fall from grace.  It is a great gift to know that this freedom is a precious gift that comes from God. 

And it is a greater gift and grace to want to cooperate with this gift for an outcome that glorifies the giver of the gifts, rather than to bite the hand that has given the gift.  Or the ‘green-thumb’ that gives life to the blooming lives that are ours.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Allowing others to witness our sufferings in life

American poet and author Ella Wheeler Wilcox who died in earlier part of the 20th century is arguably best known for her work “Solitude”, which was first published in Feb 25, 1883.  
Many readers of this blog would be familiar with the first two lines of this poem:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.

Actually, this thought is not highly original.  In fact, it appears to be something that multitudes of people concur with, causing these lines to be widely accepted as true and reflective of the human spirit, heart and mind.  Wheeler’s work seems to put in words the attitude that many people have when broaching situations of joy, hope, celebration, and festivity, as opposed to situations of pain, sorrow, suffering and sadness.  It has something to do with the ego, where we don’t want others to know about what pains us, what kind of failures we have gone through, and the sufferings that are filling our lives.  But when it comes to life’s successes and achievements, where ‘good news’ is obvious, we have not much problems in shouting it out to the whole world. 

Perhaps two examples would make this clear. 

About a month ago, a young married couple for whom I had the privilege of officiating at their Sacrament of Holy Matrimony miscarried their first child at its first trimester.  I was notified of the news of the wife’s pregnancy when she first knew about it, but at their request kept mum about it.  Part of me wondered why they wanted to keep this good news quiet, but was later to find out that it was because they wanted to be ‘secure’ and ‘sure’ about the baby’s health till it the mother had reached the second trimester of her pregnancy.  However, just before that, the wife miscarried.  Needless to say, the both of them were devastated.  In my conversation with them, I asked them to continue to pray, but also to ask for the community’s prayer the moment they know that they are expecting the next time, and not wait till they had the all-clear from their gynaecologist. 

I have in my experience with parishioners and friends, also come across many elderly and physically ill, who have said that they do not want to be a burden on their families and loved ones, especially when they became old and sick.  As such, many of them wanted to keep their illnesses to themselves, and keep up appearances in public where hardly anyone knew of their suffering.  Some of the elderly sick go to the extent of, apparently, staging and planning it so that at their moment of death, none of their relatives would be around them.  Of course, this can never be ascertained, but the families and loved ones of these deceased ‘planners’ are confident that the circumstances around the person’s final moments of death (usually in a hospital) were made such that they would not be seen at the final moments of their lives on earth.

Before I continue, perhaps a caveat is required here.  I am not saying that we should advertise our suffering in a loud and even boastful way, so that we gain the pity and attention of every person around us, a-la many American television talk-show programmes where a person decides to do a 'tell-it-all', usually in the name of claiming their proverbial 15 seconds of 'fame'.  Neither am I saying that we should make sure that everyone we know surrounds our deathbeds and sees us taking our final breath of life. 

But the essence of this reflection is this - that even though the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox are poetic, the true Christian is one who deeply knows the power of a praying community, and needs to be careful when applying Wheeler's words to all of that our lives have to offer. 

The expectant couple needed the strength of the praying community around them from the moment that they knew that they were going to be facing the next nine months with some anxiety and stress.  An expecting couple waiting only until the gynaecologist were to give them the all-clear after the first trimester was over, before telling their friends to pray for them, would be akin to saying that prayers were unnecessary in the first trimester.  Would this not make prayers a bit like ‘window dressing’ after the fact?  If the first trimester of foetal development is considered to be the one that requires most care, concern and attention, should that not include the spiritual care and attention as well? 

There are a lot of myths, especially where the Chinese are concerned, surrounding death.  The faithful Christian needs to be aware that some of these actually do border on superstition, which has no place in the life of the Christian.  Death is not taboo to a Christian.  In fact, a well prepared-for death should be life’s sweetest and most exciting moments, because it will be the time to prove that our faith is indeed true, and that all that we have lived for is going to be encountered in all its richness and glory – the mercy of Christ.  As such, we should not be afraid to give our loved ones the golden opportunity to pray for us at the ‘hour of our death’, as we pray the words of the beloved Hail Mary prayer.  In fact, it would be a great privilege and honour.  It could make our great desire to die alone and with no one around seeing us breathe our last, a sign instead, of our great pride, egotism, and even selfishness which many of us allow to die only after we die. 

The Catholic Church has beautiful prayers that are meant to be prayed at the point of death, and as a priest, I have only been asked to do this once in my eleven years of priesthood.  Nothing is more beautiful than having a family around the bed of a dying family member, responding to the litany of saints asking for their concerted efforts in imploring the mercy of the Lord, and the one dying seeing and hearing this community’s act of faith.  It is a sacred moment which few have readily embraced.

The Church celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi yesterday, and there are multifarious dimensions of this rich mystery which we are slow to appreciate and behold as Catholics.  It goes far deeper than just Christ’s real presence in the consecrated host.  Christ’s real presence is also lived out in our lives, in our very being after we communicate with him at Mass.  The two examples of today's reflection are very real ways in which the presence of the body of Christ becomes real outside of the Eucharist. 

By all means, laugh, knowing that the world laughs with you, but when we know that our weeping is also a very real human condition, we must join willingly with our weeping brothers and sisters too, so that when they weep, they will have the confidence that we are weeping with them too.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Broaching the Holy Trinity and Mystery

The solemnity of the Holy Trinity which the Church celebrated yesterday has often been known to be a preacher’s bane.  Understandably so, for the simple fact that it celebrates what and who God is in his essence, and one finds oneself being very limited in one’s usage of analogues and metaphors to try to bring across something which is much larger than life.

The Icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rublev circa 1411-1425
Perhaps the greatest mistake that preachers do is to do just that – focusing on just the analogy.  It is in doing so that one ‘shrinks’ or minimalises one’s theology-talk about God because one finds it much more comfortable to wrap one’s mind around any given topic than for the topic or subject matter to expand one's mind.  Herein lies what would be man’s greatest stumbling block - if we think about it objectively.  When one is an expert, specialist or scholar on any subject, the immediate reaction is to think that since there is so much that one knows about it, there is an expectation for one to be able to ‘shrink’ the matter into comfortable, easily digestible pieces.  If humility is lacking in the person,  it would be a great temptation to say that one can do that with some degree of ease, and that one is fully capable of bring others to understand something which in fact takes many years of study, research, discipline and reflection.

The difference here, is that when we are dealing with God, we cannot approach anything Godly with the same attitude and expectations, as compared to other scientific disciplines, for example medicine or law or engineering.  And it is for this reason that it is pertinent for a theologian to keep maintaining an attitude of humility when broaching his ‘subject’, because one needs to keep remembering that no one ever masters God. 

But how about the 'average' person in the pew?  I hold the view, with quite many of my brother priests, that there is a certain lack of humility which borders on arrogance, among a large number of laity when it comes to matters of theology.  Perhaps an explanation is needed here.  These would be the people who, when broaching topics that are mystical, a bit deep in theology or matters that require some thinking beyond what they are generally accustomed to, tend to sniff at them and say ‘oh, that is too difficult for me, so I won’t even bother with it’.  It is different when one’s attitude is ‘this is really deep and mystical, so I really need to sit with it for a long while to allow it to bring me somewhere with it’.   While the former has a somewhat hidden smugness and arrogance couched within, the latter displays a willingness to be shaped, moulded and stretched, resulting from a humility that is also somewhat hidden.

Being told something to believe in and believing in it as a result is far less transformative than beholding a truth and allowing it form and shape one’s very being.  A good theologian does the latter (or allows it to be done to him), whilst a mere lecturer may only be adept at being the former. 

Me?  I am neither.  But I am hoping that this little reflection will concretize my aims and goals as a graduate student of theology.  On the very theological celebration of Holy Trinity Sunday, perhaps what should remain on our minds and hearts is that the mystery of God and the community of his persons is something that should never be reduced, but on the contrary, a reality that constantly invites us to an ever-expanded and stretched and outreaching reality of who God really is.  This is because God is love, and love being love is never going to really be love if it is reduced and minimalised or made ‘easy’.  Love, which is at the heart of the Holy Trinity, has to be Mystery.

Love is always going to be expanded and stretched to be ever inviting, always encompassing and willing to be embraced.