Monday, August 27, 2012

More thoughts on prayer.

We all need to pray.  This is something that just about every Catholic knows in the very fibre of his/her being.  One only need sit in the confessional for a short time as a confessor, and one will inevitably hear the lament that a penitent had not ‘said’ his/her prayers, or prayed ‘enough’.  It does feature with great frequency as things that are oft mentioned in encountering God’s grace of forgiveness.

Why do we pray?  For a whole host of reasons. We pray because prayer allows us to forge, foster and develop our relationship with God and with each other.  We pray because we know that all that we have is gift, and prayer helps us to be grateful people for things that we could never deserve.  We also pray because it was something that Jesus taught his disciples, and through them, taught us as well.  We also need to pray because prayer centres us and helps us to conform to God’s will and design for us.  This list is in no way an exhaustive one, but generally, these are very good and sound reasons that we ought to dedicate some time to prayer each day.

Yet, despite knowing how important it is for us pray, many of us struggle and find it so difficult.  Rushing through prayers is something some of us have a propensity to do, perhaps so that we can ‘get it done over with’ and carry on with other ‘more important’ things on our daily agenda.  Some of us are also known to have a procrastinating attitude towards prayer, and leave prayer to the last moment of our day, before turning off the lights and switching off our minds.  When this becomes a daily routine, prayer becomes a bit like giving the last remaining scraps that we have on our plate to the dog who waits at the table with eager and hopeful longing.  We don’t really care what is left, as long as the dog gets something and is satisfied with what we have given it.  One of the more telling signs that one’s approach toward prayer is suffering is when one admits to not ‘saying’ one’s prayers.  When the verb ‘say’ is used, it tends to reduce deep heart-felt communication with God to the mumbling, recitation, incantation or regurgitation of a set of words and phrases. 

At the heart of true prayer is the desire to lift our consciousness to God and to let that part of our being which God holds dearest to become enjoined to him.  Doing this well entails a humbling that we don’t particularly like as ego-driven human beings who are often making ourselves the centre of the universe.  It requires of us to consciously set aside our agenda, our goals, our fears, our angers, our disappointments and our sadness so that we will not be weighed down with these matters when soaring to God in prayerful communion.  Having said this, we must not forget that there is an important part in prayer called intercession, where we bring to God the many forms of ‘lack’ which we find in our lives and in the world, and in the lives of those we love.  Unfortunately, too many of us make that the only part of our prayer, and in so doing, have made God into a divine wish-granter. 

When Jesus placed a child before his disciples and said that they needed to welcome a child in his name, there was more than meets the eye.  There’s indeed something special about a child and the way that he or she communicates with his or her parent.  There’s trust, innocence, openness, availability and in many cases, there isn’t even much that needs to be said to the parent.  The child can be very contented just staying the embrace of the loving parent.  But once our innocence dies away (and it can happen so quickly) the ‘child’ can easily become calculative, manipulative, scheming, plotting, combative, ill-intentioned, conniving and even disingenuous.  Those negative qualities were never in Jesus’ mind when he brought the child into his divine embrace. 

At the depth of contemplative prayer is communication, which is non-verbal and intuitive.  After all the supplication, praise and thanksgiving is done, one has to give oneself the time to ease into the loving presence that requires of us a silent presence and indeed, presence to presence, where we try to get back to that ‘child’ mode which allows us to want the divine embrace of God. 

The mystics will be quick to concur with the statement that God doesn’t need to say very much to love us.  The problem may be that one our part, we can’t seem to stop talking.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

When our children become atheists

One very common lament among Catholics is that their children have given up their faith in the course of time.  Often, these Catholic parents are themselves people who have been practicing their faith with fervent regularity, and are even people who have been active members of the church.  When they talk about their own children who have lapsed in their faith, what I am faced with are parents who hold within them a mixture of pain, anxiety, fear, anger, embarrassment, confusion and exasperation.  Coming to a priest to reveal this about their children, many hope to find an instant cure-all solution to the problem, and sometimes, it does seem as if their greatest wish was that a one-hour chat session or quick question-and-answer which they hope the priest will give to their unbelieving children will somehow automatically solve this problem and set things aright.  While I do believe in miracles, I am not sure even if a tête-à-tête with the Pope at this point in time would make for any significant changes.

When this happens, we are confronted with a discord at different levels, and among different people.  Within the parent, the discord or dissonance is strikingly clear.  When the parent is a firm believer of God, the unspoken question is usually one that is asking God why this gift of faith is not given in the same vein as was given to the parent.  Why is this inability or refusal to believe in God and his love so prevalent in one’s child when the parent has nary a shred of doubt and has faith like the rock of Gibraltar?  Of course, it would be even more upsetting if the parent concerned did do his or her Christian duty in being the first catechist to the child in his formative years, and faced such a stark refusal to believe in God after being dedicated and diligent.  Church catechists themselves also face a certain level of angst and disappointment too, because it may cause them to think that their work and efforts have somehow come undone.  There could be a sense of failure and an overall despondency when they see just how few post-Confirmation Catholic teens actually own their faith and live the mature Christian life that they should be living after receiving the Sacrament.
Is the general outlook of the faith-life of our youth and young adults simply one that is dismal and dreary?  It certainly looks that way in many countries.  The evil of relativism seems to be winning many over, and the demand for God to prove himself does not even seem to be rude or unreasonable. 

It would be naïve to think that one blog reflection or post would solve anything as complex and deep as this.  But I can offer to the parents who are suffering from such anxieties an assurance of my understanding and compassion.  Sometimes, there are no quick answers and solutions to these issues of life.  Often, it is precisely because these problems did not arise overnight that there is no overnight or quick solution.  Perhaps because it took such a long unfolding of time for the person to come to this point in his life to say that he does not now believe in God and his love and his existence, that it may take an equally long unfolding of time for God to be re-let into his heart once more.  What we as parents and caregivers can and must do is to put indignance at bay and stay steadfast in our prayers for God’s mercy. 

A different perspective of a familiar story
"Father, is prayer the only thing left do to?" is something that is asked in resignation at times like these.  My answer is that prayer is not the "only" thing, but rather, the "best" thing that one can do.  This is because staying firm in prayer attests to your firm belief in God's presence and power despite the circumstances that seem to prevail.  To say that prayer is the 'only' thing to do is to say that prayer is a last resort, and a bit like a fall-back plan in life, which it should never be.  Sometimes, our word choices reveal just how deep or meagre our faith is.

Have you ever noticed that when your eyes are accustomed to a darkened room or place for a long period of time, that any small light becomes immediately noticeable?  Its presence cannot seem to be ignored.  In an analogical way, this could be the same for our children who are living in darkness out of choice.  Our prayers and our staying in the faith become for them that small speck of light that they will not be able to switch off or ignore.  It may be that ours is that faint hope of God’s love that they need to see so that they will one day be inquisitive enough to go to that source to let in more and more of that light, lifting the darkness that surrounds their lives.  Moreover, some of us need to hit rock bottom in life before we realize that God is the rock at the bottom of life.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Also-rans – that’s us

We have come to the close of the Games of the XXX Olympiad, and it had its great moments of sporting history, as was expected.  It was often a grand stage on which was displayed the height of human achievement and the beauty of the human physique.  Lithe and agile, strong and insanely fast, swift and incredibly powerful – just some of the many adjectives that have been accurately used to describe the ways in which human beings strove to become more than they could.  As was expected, there were some who seemed to have ego-inflation issues, but that would be the matter of another blog entry.

There were approximately 10,960 athletes competing for the 602 sporting medals in all the different events.  Obviously, this means that only a very few, very able and very fit had their chance to have a medal hung on their necks, watching with great pride the hoisting of their nation’s flag.  Fewer would hear their country’s national anthem being played.  What would that mean for the thousands of other non-medal winners who would never have that experience of victory and triumph?  What goes on in the hearts and minds of the other ‘also-rans’? 

Hold the thought.

I was having a chat with an old teacher of mine sometime back, and she shared with me something that I had always heard as a common remark made by teachers.  “Of all the students that we have taught in our career, we teachers often only remember two kinds of students – those who were extremely diligent, attentive and obedient, and those who were just the opposite – the naughty, the mischievous and those who would often get into all sorts of trouble”. 

This gives us some hope, doesn’t it?  It means that our former teachers who taught us many of life’s important lessons do not only remember the prize winners.  Surely, it is good to be remembered for being high achievers and top scorers.  We see lots of accolades being heaped upon winners and recipients of scholarships of all kinds in the press, often with a nice picture of the scholar to show the world who it is who is going to which top academic institution to pursue further studies in some specialized field.  But that remark from old teachers also means that seared into the memory of the human mind are also the images of those who were on the other extreme.  What makes it all the more special is when those at the other end of the spectrum experience a turnaround or conversion later on in life, and these stories of their ‘wayward’ past only serve to emphasize the contrast of life-choices, situations and attitudes in life.  A scholar achieving greatness in life is to be expected.  A failure and trouble-maker in school overcoming obstacles in life to experience success and greatness later is inspirational.

To be sure, most of our lives are neither of these extremes.  Success and glory somehow belong to the few and far between.  To borrow a phrase from sporting parlance, most of us belong to the ‘also-ran’ category.  Nobody really remembers the also-rans.  Very few people recall the names of those other runners in the 100m final.  What about those who lagged behind in the heats leading up to the final?  On the other extreme end, neither can most of us identify fully with the recalcitrant, trouble-making and naughty in school.  Most of us fall in the ‘in-between’ category, and are not often remembered either fondly or infamously by our teachers and charges. 

Yet, our faith tells us a different story altogether.  God knows every ‘also-ran’ in life’s long race.  He assures us that ‘even the hairs of your head are all counted’ (Matt.10:30).  That’s a metaphorical way of assuring us that none of us is a disposable unit, or unimportant in God’s eyes and in God’s plan. 

A caveat is perhaps required here.  I do not advocate nor promote the attitude of being an under-achiever in life.  I fully believe that there is a lot of potential in the human mind and the human spirit that is endowed with the seed of God’s image.  Our lives bring glory to God when this seed is sown, nurtured and helped to grow to attain its maximum potential.  But if we only think of success in worldly terms, when we fall into the trap of the numbers game and only think of medals and attaining fame and honour and credit, we may end up greatly disappointed. 

Spiritual greatness is also a paradox.  Spiritual maturity assures us that it is indeed alright and perfectly acceptable to be one of life’s many ‘also-rans’, and that we don’t have to always be the greatest to experience greatness.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Living forever in this world - a common but unconscious mistaken notion.

How is it that so many of us are short tempered and have little patience with those around us?  I know that I am terribly guilty of this very often, and though I try to be a frequently praying person, this bugbear of mine doesn’t seem to get less airtime in my daily life.  Perhaps this is one of those things, like St Paul and his ‘thorn in the side’, which he prayed three times for it to be taken away, but the Lord said “my grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

We see this short temperedness being displayed in just about everywhere we turn.  It occurs on buses, on trains, in the airports, in cars, in the office, in the church car parks (especially after Sunday Eucharist, apparently), and in the home.  It takes the will of a giant to control this leviathan inside of us, and though it may be chained up and locked in a rather safe place inside of us most of the time, it can take a very small matter, a careless word, an unplanned reactive gesture, or an unexpected sound to ‘release the Kraken’ as Zeus would say (not that we believe in the existence of Zeus, but Greek mythology is charming to a fault).

Why is this so?  Why is this beast within something that we struggle with and fail to overcome so very often? 

While I don’t pretend to have any comprehensive answer to this perennial question that plagues so many of us (including the mystics), I have a small insight to share.  I think it has very much to do with the false belief that we will live forever.  Let me elucidate.

When we know that we are in a place for a limited time, or seeing people for a short time and do not have the pleasure to prolong our encounter with one another, we seem to be able to put our ‘best face forward’.  But it is when we think that we have such a long time to be with one another, or when we mistakenly think that what needs to be said or done can be infinitely postponed and placed in the proverbial back-burner, that we take others for granted.  When we do that, we procrastinate in becoming who we should be – loving, kind and generous children of God.  In my ministering to couples who have lost their spouses, a common lament is that they ‘should have said this, or should have done this’ while they had the opportunity.  When I ask them what held them back from doing this when they had the time, the answer is often one of “I thought we had more time together”. 

Could this then be the real reason behind a lot of our short-temperedness and unchecked anger?  We think that we have oodles of time left on our life-timer, but what we don’t realize often is that the sand in this timer keeps shifting. 

But I must put a caveat here.  You may be thinking that I am saying that we should live under a cloud of darkened fear that because we may die tomorrow, we become overnight pessimists.  This is not what I am advocating at all.  What I am driving at is that if at our short-tempered moments, that we are able, with the grace of God of course, to pull ourselves away from the situation at hand and realize that we will not live forever, that we have very limited time on this side of eternity as compared to what awaits us at the other side of it, we can perhaps do as John Keating, the character played by Robin William in the movie The Dead Poets Society encouraged his students to do and carpe diem or ‘seize the day’. 

What we will be able to ‘seize’ is that reality that our methods, our wills, our desires, and our designs are not the only ones that are legitimate and right.  We will be able to seize also the truth that our point of view is just that – a view from a point, which means that there are other points to view the same situation before us.  And more importantly, we will be able to grasp the reality that each of us is a fellow pilgrim on life’s journey to fulfill the will of God. 

Perhaps this will wake us from our small-minded stupors and live our lives in a new way, as we begin to know, like St Paul, that God’s grace is indeed sufficient for us.