Monday, July 30, 2012

Fire and light – a strong symbol for our faith life.

I was watching with great interest snippets of the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games, where it culminated with the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron in the heart of the stadium.  This moment has always held pride of place in the grand opening ceremonies, and understandably, each hosting country tries to outdo one another to think up of ways to be unique and original in the way that the flame finally reaches the cauldron, which will keep the fire burning for the entire duration of the games.  I must say that the way that cauldron itself was made up of many different smaller flames, each contributing to the enormous combined conflagration was highly symbolic of how the zest and verve of the games has to be result of the combined efforts of all the participating countries in this worldwide showcase of sporting talent that happens once every four years. 

The Olympic Cauldron of the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, England.
This fire has an origin, a starting point, and it begins months before this moment at the site of the ancient Olympic games in Olympia, Greece.  From that moment on, this flame, lit by the light of the Sun, is transferred through the passage of many hands, before finally reaching the final destination at the site of the present games.  Whenever I see this happening, I cannot help see great similarities in our living out of our faith as Christians. 

We too, as baptized Christians, hold a flame alive.  But it is not just a once-in-four-years event.  What we hold is the flame of faith, and it is symbolically given to us at our baptism, where the priest takes a taper and lights it from the flame that burns at the top of the Paschal Candle, which symbolically represents the resurrected Lord.  This smaller candle is handed over to the newly baptized (or in the case of an infant, to its parent or God-parent) in order for the faith to be kept burning and alive.  Commonly quoted at funerals and tombstone inscriptions is 2 Timothy 4:7 with the imagery of one having ‘fought the good fight, finished the race and having kept the faith’.  Our faith seems to be replete with such imagery that keeping the faith is an endurance endeavour, and in many cases, it is. 

When I see the OIympic flame being passed from torch-bearer to torch-bearer, it reminds me of how we too are called to pass on the faith to others long life’s long journey.  And just as the torch is sometimes photographed being carried through heavily populated towns and cities, it is also often carried in far quieter, less ceremonial and unnoticed narrow roads with nary a person giving words of encouragement and cheer.  Isn’t this also something that happens with our handling of the flame of our faith?  Going to the RCIA process as a sponsor and being in a sea of fellow sponsors and catechists does give one the moral uplift that one is doing something for the faith and something for one’s fellow pilgrim in life.  But there are also the many other times when at those one-on-one conversations in the office pantry, or the evening telephone conversation with no one else around becomes the very ground on which the small sparks of our faith can be shared and the faith-flame ignited in the heart of the one we are conversing with. 

The symbol of the flame is pregnant with images of a need to exercise great care and attentiveness as well.  Flames easily become mere embers if they are not tended to regularly with a watchful eye.  Fire exposed to wind and moisture can quickly be doused and extinguished.   Uncontrolled flames can also become hazardous infernos if we are not careful about what we feed these flames, especially when we are not diligent in promoting correct church teachings. 

Anyone going to a Catholic funeral service or Mass would notice that placed near the casket the burning Paschal Candle.  It is a reminder to all present that the deceased was a person who in life was baptized into the faith, and had held the flame of faith alive in his or her heart.  And it is now the time for us to pray that this flame, which is the light of Christ, becomes the one hope that grants divine forgiveness to the deceased who enters into the light of eternity.  It is also thus a striking reminder to all those who are present at the service to keep the flame of their faith alive as long as they are on this side of eternity.

I am sure that readers of this blog are going to tune into the telecasts of numerous sporting events of the Games of the 30th Olympiad.  And when you do, as you see the Olympic flame burning in the stadium, that you are reminded of the flame of faith that you have been given to nourish in your hearts and be recharged in your efforts in passing this faith on to your fellow pilgrim who needs light in a world that can sometimes seem dim and darkened by sin and evil.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why prayer seems to be so difficult to do well

Many people struggle with prayer.  This is a fact.  Statements like “This is boring”, “I don’t get it”, “Do I have to?” and “God doesn’t care if I pray at home or in a Church” are commonly made about prayer, and they all belie the fact that the makers of these comments all share one thing in common – a very one dimensional and often inadequate understanding of prayer and its many dimensions, causing a blasé approach to what is really important in life.
There are at least two major categories of prayer that we should be participating in on a regular basis.  When we understand what these two categories are, we will be mentally fitting in and helping ourselves to tune in to what is actually happening around us.  Let me explain.

Liturgical prayer is the first level.  This is when we gather as one body of believers in a church, often around a central altar, and make our prayer and presence an offering of a sacrifice to God for the love of him and as an act of love for the world.  At the Eucharist, we join in with the prayer and sacrifice of Christ, and it is really his prayer, not so much as it is ours.  When we pray the Office of the Church either as a community or privately on our own in the silence of our homes, at work desks or in a group in a chapel or a church, or even on a bus, we also pray liturgically.  These are not private prayers as such, but are our living out of the baptismal covenant that we share.  Because it is a prayer for the world, and not for individual members only, it becomes a salvific act, and a universal act as well. 

Contrast this with the other major category of prayer, which is personal, devotional prayer.  This kind of prayer serves to open our hearts to the God of love who longs for our yearning for him so that we can be intimate with the giver of life and love.
What makes prayer, especially liturgical prayer, both difficult to do and to appreciate is the common mistaking of one form of prayer for the other.  Many will naturally feel uncomfortable and even confused when the liturgical words and community actions are deemed to be an interference, and perhaps even a hindrance to what one thinks should be simply devotional.  When one is so completely happy with an empty silence of centering prayer, or praying in the solace and comforts of one’s living room, and brings this attitude into Liturgy and expects the same kind of still union on a Sunday Mass gathering, of course the ramblings of the Gloria or the badly articulated words of the Holy Holy Holy could cause inner turmoil and frustrations.  What one is not aware of, is that one is actually comparing apples with oranges.

The truth is, both are indeed necessary, and both need to be done, and done well.  The challenge many face is that often, only one of them is done in life, and worse is when it is only done occasionally and not on a frequent and habitual basis.  The priest who is a presider at Liturgy also needs to become one who is clear about not mixing up the two forms of prayer and mixes up the two by the choice and genre of music.  We need to be extra vigilant in not turning liturgical services into meditation sessions, and added challenge for any preacher is to go deep into scripture and to really pray for the world. 

Ultimately, the test of whether we are getting it right is whether we are getting all flustered when we find ourselves upset at Mass because the tune of the Gloria is not what we deem a ‘nice’ melody, or that the actions are rather stiff and artificial, and that they don’t make one feel comfortable.  It will show that we still think that the Mass is about us and how we feel as individuals.  The fact is that, it is not about us.
It is about what we can contribute to the well-being and holiness of the world, and how the Church continues to glorify God in worship. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

The challenge of being truly prophetic Christians

Regular readers to this weekly column of mine would know that in quite a few blog entries in the past, I have always reiterated Vatican II's call for each baptized person to live out as Priest, Prophet and King, something which seems to easily escape the mind of many a baptized Catholic.

The call to live out the priestly or kingly status is far less challenging and demanding than the call to be prophetic.  Of course the priestly and kingly dignity is not just a reminder that we are royalty and holy people.  At its depth is the call to be kingly with an option to serve those who have not yet found their dignity.  It is also a call to be holy while at the same time not brandish our holiness in any superior way making others feel belittled and sidelined.  These challenges within challenges are complex enough. 

But the call to live prophetically is the one which I reckon makes the most demands of anyone who is truly interested and longing to be a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Not only is the true prophet one who is often despised in his own home and in his own country, a true prophet needs to constantly put the will of God in front of his own will and desires.  True prophets do not only preach what is expected and generally accepted as 'nice' or PC (politically correct) messages to the crowd, but when the true need arises, bring to attention even the unpleasant truths, which will often make even those in family, and close circles squirm in their seats.

Of course this means that the prophet himself would have had his own fare share of self-squirming done before he set out to say and addresses what needed to be said and addressed.  I have come to see that the attitude with which one confronts and challenges positions of power and even authority can belie the level of maturity that one has or has not reached.

Thus, just going against the ruling regime for the sake of being a belligerent opposition to unsettle the status quo, would be a clear indication that one has some ways to go before reaching true spiritual maturity.  Similarly, just wanting to say things and make statements that have a "shock value” for listeners could also indicate that one is still new to the task of true prophecy.  Jesus the true prophet did many things that shocked and challenged, but that was never his intention.  People may have been shocked as a result of his actions and words, but his words were not primarily aimed at disturbing the peace for the sake of doing so.  When truth is said and love is shown, especially in a radical and godly level, the ripple effects would, very often, be that there will be people who will be disturbed and even provoked in response.  This is inevitable.  But if we do things and say things just so that we get a provoked response, we can be sure that we have not been truly prophetic.  It could even be a hidden way of being attention seeking, as bit like the media hungry celebrities who like to do anything outrageous just so that they can to get any form of publicity.

That is why if one truly is interested in living out one's call to be prophetic, it is also necessary that one learns first to listen to God's soft promptings in one's heart.  When this still, small voice is given the opportunity and space to be magnified properly and loudly, one will first of all hear how richly one is loved by God, and this will purify one's motives so that one does not need to do anything that would inflate any sense of the self that can come when a massive negative response emerges from one's prophetic words and actions.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Suicide and Christ’s ability to cross bolted barriers in life

Whenever we hear the news of anyone dying by suicide, a dark pall is cast over us.  The closer we are to the deceased, the more we fill our lives and minds with all sorts of questions that apparently do not have answers.  Could I have done anything to prevent this from happening?  Were there signs that were apparent, but were not within my mind’s attention?  And the most fundamental one would just boil down to one, monosyllabic word – why? 

The Church has, thankfully, changed and reformed its view of this mode of death and expressed this in the way that she gives the final rites for the deceased.  In times past, it was rather “cut and dry”, primarily because we tended to label suicide as the ultimate act of despair, where hope in God and his love and mercy was not at all considered by the victim before he or she succumbed to that fatal end of life.  Deaths by suicide were often denied Catholic funerals, and some bodies were not even allowed to be buried within Catholic cemeteries, which were often within the compounds of a church.  The idea was that the deceased chose to live outside of the mind and heart of the church, and as such, was not able to be buried within the physical compounds of church. 

Thankfully, with the advent of a broader understanding of human psychology and mental health, we have removed much of the ‘barrier’ mentality, principally because we have chosen to extend the greatest of compassion and mercy to the deceased, with the possible benefit of the doubt that even at the last moment of one’s consciousness and mental clarity, one may have had the faith enough to be penitent and sorrowful for this rash act, and asked for God’s forgiveness, and with all that was left of one’s will, handed oneself over to the loving hands of God.  The Church has very little reason now to deny any baptized Catholic the full burial rites for suicide cases. 

Yet, the fact remains that with each suicide, a whole trail of unanswered questions gnaws at the heart of those whom the deceased leaves behind.  It is of course, sad, when one had died of after a long illness or of old age.  Death always leaves a gaping wound.  But this gaping would is not only compounded, but also made deeper when it is apparent that the evidence shows clear signs of suicide.  What is the apt response that the baptized believer whose loved one dies in such a tragic way supposed to be?  How does one handle one’s own heart that has been broken and shattered?  Does one’s approach toward faith and God suffer? 

The answer to these questions varies.  In my encounter with the immediate family members of victims, anger with God is not uncommon, no matter how much faith one has in God.  It is a reaction, much like a knee-jerk.  After all, when one fully accepts that God is all powerful and almighty, one would hope that this same all powerful God would enter into the dark spaces that suicide victims often find themselves, and as a result, this same God would use his divine power to prevent the tragedy.  But what we need to hold on in our faith is the corollary in this belief, which is the deep understanding that it is because God loves us so much that he respects the desires and will of every one of his beloved children, even when they choose to brush away the divine hand that offers them mercy and compassion in the darkest of times. 

Yes, God is all-powerful.  Yes, God is almighty.  And this is, strangely, where the key to coping with such tragedy lies.  Our God is powerful and mighty enough to go to places where we cannot on the other side of this life.  Don’t we see in the resurrection episodes of Christ, that he entered into rooms, which had locked doors?  These are not just physical doors that the gospel writers refer to.  We have locked doors of all sorts, and the greatest bolts have been those that we placed on the doors of our hearts and minds.  The faithful person would be doing himself a great service by locating these bolts and ask God to come in and do what he did at the Cenacle room, where he breathed his divine breath of forgiveness and love, so that peace can enter and reign once more. 

On this side of life, there is often very little that we can do to prevent many things that others willfully choose to do.  The fact that the deceased chose to die when no one else was at home means that this was his or her plan.  The time was purposefully chosen such that no one could come to his or her aid. 

But there is, thankfully, much that we can still do for the victim who now stands on the ‘other side’ of this life.  We can keep presenting him or her to Christ, who knocks on each of the doors of our heart, and who never stops knocking to come in so that his divine light can flood the darkness and overcome it. 

One of the great sins of the faithful is that of presumption.  This means that we presume that God will redeem everything and everyone in the end, and so, it does not quite matter how we live our lives.  Often, the result of presumption is twofold – firstly, it can make one very complacent about one’s faith, and lackadaisical about any form of evangelization, because after all, everyone would be saved.  Secondly, it could make us stop praying for the deceased who go before us, because they are presumed to be in heaven no matter how they lived their lives. 

The belief that Jesus can enter into the locked doors to hearts must not lead to the sin of presumption.  It is based on the Christian virtue of hope, which is not just something that we need on this side of heaven, but that even souls who have gone before us and who need purification need as their means of ever attaining the beatific vision. 

The unmistakable thing about death is that it does not stop our relatedness to one another.  One does not stop being a son after one’s parents have passed on.  One does not stop being a mother after one’s son has committed suicide.  In our continued, though pained, relatedness, perhaps what we need to do is to continue to sustain and nourish this relationship by being committed no longer to suicide, but to something far more lasting and eternal – God’s mercy, forgiveness, and strength.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Our great challenge as Church

There is no doubt that we face many challenges as Church on different levels.  What makes ours a great challenge more than those which any other organizations face is the fact that our existence and raison d’etre permeates and affects everything that one experiences and encounters in life.  A baptized person’s very character as a disciple of the Lord has to influence and affect everything that one does in life, so much so that there is no area in life that should be off-limits to one’s Christian sense. 

As such, carrying and living out one’s Christian character is far more basic and pertinent to one’s life than one’s occupation, hobby, likes or dislikes, personal penchants or family.  It has to ‘flavour’ everything that one does, and for this reason, it also becomes extremely challenging at the same time.  It should influence one’s work ethic, selection of spouse, choice of entertainment, approach towards politics, family life and every other dimension of one’s personal life.  Perhaps it is for this very same reason too, that the true Christian is a very rare breed, because it is far easier to ‘compartmentalise’ one’s Christian life and live as a Christian only where it is ‘safe’ and ‘non-threatening’, like on Sundays for an hour or so, and when in the company of other Christians who share one’s similar beliefs, than to be a Christian 24/7.  Thus, it would come as no surprise that there might be many baptized Christians who conveniently leave their Christian identity outside the Boardroom door, the Bedroom door, or the door to the Cyberworld.  It is much more challenging, albeit necessary, to be ‘on one’s Christian toes’ all the time. 

Yet, this is the challenge that is posed to every Christian believer, without the term ‘fanatic’ attached to it.  No doubt, it takes practice, which never really reaches the point of perfection.  We are never ‘done’ as Christians.  One becomes, after baptism, a constant ‘practitioner’ of the faith, aware at each moment how the fact that one is an intimately beloved child of God impacts the way one approaches anything and everything else in life, be they joys or sorrows, successes or disappointments, life or death.  One never really perfects the faith, but just continues to practice it. This, combined with the unique personality of every human person which is just as unique, forms an incredibly complex and diverse matrix which makes the world such an interesting and beautiful, albeit sometimes difficult place to live in. 

There are catchphrases that one encounters often in life, and many of these catchphrases crossover from the secular world, infiltrating the spiritual and religious realm.  One of the most damaging ones is the phrase ‘being relevant’. 

This is touted freely, especially by churches and institutions that appeal to the masses by spreading a gospel message that promises material blessings, often laced with head-bobbing, fist-pumping pop music.  Those coming out of these gatherings very often say that their church is ‘being relevant’ in today’s culture.  No doubt, these ‘churches’ do draw in the crowds of the young, the hip, the tech-savvy and the easily distracted.  Why should it not?  Going to church becomes much like a concert event, because everything mirrors the intoxicating ambience of going to an event, where one escapes from the world and becomes inundated by the trappings and trimmings of a well-organized entertainment extravaganza.  They are so ‘relevant’.  Can anyone find the word ‘relevant’ in the New Testament?  Has Church ever been about being ‘relevant’? 

I would be the first to say that it is not.  We don’t need to go far to get biblical evidence for this.  Just go to Jesus’ sermon on the mount and you will get plenty of evidence to see that the true Christian’s life is going to become so irrelevant to the ways of the world.  One almost needs to stand on one’s head to see the sense of Jesus’ sermon.  It is a call to look at the world and its ways with a glance of caution, because the ways of the world are not what they are purported to be. 

Just looking at our Catholic liturgy alone will give ample evidence that church is not about becoming ‘relevant’.  The Eucharist does not conform to the norms and standards of the secular and popular world.  There is an organized dialogue and exchange that goes on between the presider and the people, and the words and phrases used in liturgy, especially in the New Roman Missal’s translation, which is faithful to the Latin in a very literal way, makes this markedly different from everyday speech.  One becomes almost purposefully ‘uncomfortable’ in the Mass, and for good reason.  It makes both the presider and the people aware that what is going on, what one has come into, is something that needs your utmost attention and not in a passive way, primarily because what is happening has a heavenly realm.  And if the preacher does his work well, the message that one gets from his ‘work’ often would be that the true Christian’s life is not going to be plain sailing, and that one’s mission is to become more and more Christ-centered in every sphere in life.  ‘Relevance’ is hardly ever the theme of the day. 

The fact remains that the true Christian life is going to be seen as unrealistic and even irrelevant to a world that wants you to be the centre of everything and everyone.  The well formed Catholic is one who dares to go against this very strong current and stand up to be different, not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of becoming another Christ.  If this is not somehow clearly made known to our flock, right from the incipient stages of one’s faith formation, they will always want to listen to a more ‘relevant’ message preached elsewhere.