Monday, September 24, 2012

Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t

The struggle that most of us face in our spiritual quest is not so much that sometimes we get it and that sometimes we don’t.  That’s, strangely, understandable.  After all, the teachings of the Gospel and the life-codes of the entire Bible are written in often-cryptic forms which incorporates story, analogue, idiom, poetry, parable, and also direct, cut-to-the-chase teachings.  And sometimes, it does depend on our state of mind, what crossed our paths during the day, or what our eyes happened to read prior to their landing on the sacred words, that influences our understanding of scripture.  To get it all the time would necessarily mean that we hold before us at each moment a comprehensive proficiency and mastery of revelation, theology and spirituality.  It would also mean that we are constantly aware of God’s unconditional love and mercy, his unabated presence inside of our twisted and convoluted humanity, how he is so hidden and yet identified in the poor, the sick, the hungry, the incarcerated and the dying, how he very often writes straight with crooked lines, how he speaks deep truths with the language of paradox, and that we are constantly aware of how dying to self is one of the surest ways to rising to new life.  All these are each in itself a deep truth, and at the same time so mystical; so beautiful and yet so challenging.  Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t.  That’s the truth, and it applies to the best of us.

Perhaps it is the ego-need in each of us that somewhat demands that we get it all the time.  We tend to treat spirituality as some sort of attainment quest, where we may even tend to silently boast  to ourselves that we get it most of the time.  But even the saint who finally manages to fully collapse into the immense sea of God’s divine love at the end of his or her life would have to tell you in all honesty that even reaching that point is getting it and not getting it.  What we can only do is to give ourselves (cooperating with God’s grace of course) moments throughout our day and throughout our lives where we glance at the reality of God’s presence in our lives and respond adequately in love and with the best of our generosity. 

Maybe a concrete example will be able to bring this about in a more lucid and coherent way. 

Slightly over month back, when I was back home in Singapore, there was in the sky above us a strange phenomenon.  The afternoon sun was surrounded by a circular rainbow.  I did some research and found out that it is indeed a rare sight, and that it is called a Sun Rainbow, or a Solar Halo.  Certain conditions had to come together in order  to have that happen.  There has to be high and thin cirrus clouds, above 20,000 feet, where these clouds can, due to the ice crystals in them, refract the sunlight like a prism that shows the colours of a rainbow.  It was a spectacular sight, and I took a few pictures of it with my phone, and sent it via my messenger app to some of my friends who were themselves rather amazed by what was happening right above them. 

While in downtown Singapore that afternoon, I kept looking up in the sky to see if this phenomenon was going to continue to happen.  Right in front of me was a sea of busy shoppers that thronged the Orchard Road pedestrian walkway.  They were either busy on the phone, or chatting with their company, lost in personal thoughts or just enjoying some time in the sun.  But hardly any of them realized that if they had only looked up, they would see something quite amazing and unusual.  Meanwhile, my friends to whom I sent the photos to were constantly updating me on what they were seeing in their ‘neck of the woods’.  I found this to be a very interesting experience.  The entire phenomenon lasted for only about half an hour.

Using this as an analogue, we can begin to see anew the reality of how in our spiritual lives that we too, sometimes see it (or realise it), and sometimes don’t.  The truths of the Gospel are never changing, and the fact that God loves us unconditionally is steadfast and unfailing.  That we are alive by the grace of God at each moment of our lives is something that we may not acknowledge, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a truth.  At certain moments of our lives, we are given special grace-moments to be aware of just how deep God’s love for us is, and we hear the clarion call to respond graciously, generously and with great love.  When these moments happen, and we are aware of them, it’s akin to someone telling us to look up and see for ourselves the Solar Halo above us.  It's not there because we looked up.  It is there whether we look up or not.    

On that sunny Saturday afternoon in Singapore, there were millions who were walking, eating, swimming, chatting, and sitting under that Solar Halo, but only a few realized it.  Indeed some were getting it, and some were not.  If only we could find a way to tell more people to raise their gaze to the heavens.  That must be our shared task as Christians.  

By the way, I only happened to know about it because a friend's son pointed it out to us.  Sometimes we just need to be recipients of good news and know that it should be spread because it's just too spectacular to keep it to ourselves.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Jesus shows us how to live in freedom

When St Augustine preached his 7th Homily on 1 John, he famously said, “love (God) and do what you please”.  This quote is, as in many other things in life, often misunderstood and even misused.  Taken in the wrong context and with the wrong meaning, it can be mistakenly read as a sanctioned carte blanche for misdemeanors and transgressions, and perhaps even peccadilloes.  It becomes even easier to misquote this Doctor of the Church when the word “God” is not part of the quote.  In fact, it was not part of the quote, causing the misconceptions.

Moral theologians will readily agree (and I am not referring to agnostic Ethicists who often view the ethical life purely through the secular lens) that it is when God is the raison d’ĂȘtre of our every thought, word and action, it is going to be very difficult to sin in the technical sense of the word.  After all, sin happens when God is further and further away from the centre of our very lives.  When we have displaced God and his will and his love for us and instead, replaced that vacant spot with our own desires and designs, sin easily results.  St Thomas would later make it clear that our ordered end as people created in the image and likeness of God is to be fully with God at the end of our lives.  This, taken in the light of St Augustine’s quote, it will help us understand what the Bishop of Hippo truly meant to say.

It is only when we know that our whole lives should be concerned with God’s pleasure that we will know what we should do, and not do what we should not.  Of course, having said that, loving God is not an obvious and simple thing.  Loving God requires of us to be aware of the many ways that we are distracted from our ‘ordered end’, and where the ways of the world pull us away from our love for God, and God’s love for us.

The Christian life has often been seen as a very clear way to know that God wants us to live freely.  Christ, the Son of God, is the visible love of God become man, and his whole life and quest was to make this clear to us – he spent his entire life to tell and show us how much the Father longs for our response in love, and that he wants us to live no longer under fear, but in a freedom that had not been hitherto seen.  It is often said that our God is never a needy God, and is in himself complete and lacking nothing.  Yet, this God is constantly waiting for our response to his constant overtures of love.  I think in many ways, we share this with God.  Aren’t there so many areas in our lives where we long for some kind of response to our various ways of outreach?  Think of the parent who thrills at the delight of communication with the child, or the teacher who feels fulfilled when what is taught is received and understood by the student, or perhaps even the lone blogger in cyberspace who experiences a sense of connection when readers bother to comment and respond to his efforts at communication and outreach.  Yet, we have to also say that God is free in the sense that our response to Him does not add to his fullness and completion. 

Indeed, God is free, and he wants us to be free as well.    Many Christians may be baptized, and yet, are living not in freedom but fear.  Many examples of fear exist in our daily lives, and the average Christian is quite often surrounded by fears of all sorts.  I was having a conversation with a couple who is currently expecting a child, and I was told how the mother’s family members had all sorts of advice to give on what the expectant mother should not do, so that the child can develop and grow “perfect and normal”.   Some of these ‘safety measures’ may have some common sense reasoning, but quite often, they are plain superstitious acts and beliefs that have been handed on from a former pre-Christian age.  And what is “perfect and normal”?   As far as I know, only God is perfect. 

One of the reasons that superstition needs to be identified and cast aside when we are dedicated disciples of the Lord, is because when we listen to superstitious beliefs more than we do to God and when we let fears rule our lives rather than letting God rule over our lives with his love, we are in small and hidden ways, idol worshipping and not being faithful to God.  We have a hidden fear that our God is not as powerful and omnipotent as the forces of evil and oppression.  That is at the bottom of our superstitions, if we really think about it.  But to arrive at that realization means that we have to first sift through the reasons for our actions and beliefs, which is something that many people do not like doing, or have not been taught to.  Doing this as a daily exercise takes the 'auto-pilot' out of Christian daily living.  

Do our relations have our best intentions at heart?  That goes without saying.  But intentions alone are insufficient.  Being aware of what drives our intentions is far more crucial.  Otherwise, we may be wearing a Christian label, whilst the core remains pagan or worse, atheist.  Sometimes, our label of "Catholic" hangs only on our Sunday Church activities and have very little evidence outside of the Church compound, where it becomes easy for us to become pagan in our ways, and it shows us just how much we are actually living in fear.

The reason I began with St Augustine’s quote is because when we are not aware of our love for God and God’s love for us constantly, we will end up doing ‘what we want’ in very un-Godly ways, without even thinking.  ‘What we want’ is often linked with or unspoken fears.

Indeed, being a true and dedicated Christian disciple is not an easy thing.  It requires of us to be on our toes all the time, and to develop a keen sense to sniff out what it is that is not godly that is in front of us at each moment.  Indeed, the true Christian life is not for the fainthearted.  But when we make it a life-quest to constantly want to hone and sharpen our Christian ‘skills’, we can depend on God’s grace to attain our common end in God.  This is the promise that we have from God, and on this, we can richly depend.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Spiritual unclogging and loosening

The Gospel text of yesterday’s Mass readings give us indications of what happens when the Word of God effectively works in our lives.  Symbols were rich in that short passage, and I thought that it would be apt for me to reflect on this in my blog space this week as there was no opportunity for me to preach this at liturgy.

At every Eucharistic celebration, what happens is that Our Lord comes right into our midst in various ways.  What should happen at the dismissal rite is clearly shown if the celebrant uses one of the alternative options “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”.  What this means at the deepest sense is that we as participants in the celebration would have been so touched, enlightened, graced and transformed by receiving the Lord in the entire celebration that we live in a radically changed and courageous way as people who live unmistakable Christ-centered lives.  Does this ever happen?  It is noted that this was what happened to Saint Anthony of Egypt.  It was at Mass that he heard the words of the Gospel where Jesus said “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  He did just that – literally.  He gave his family estate to his neighbours and sold some of it, donated the funds to the poor, and placed his sister (they were orphaned when Anthony was 18) with a group of Christian nuns, and he became the disciple of a local hermit. 

I haven’t seen any of that kind of radical action happening after any of the liturgies I have celebrated in my time as a priest, and it doesn’t surprise me at all.  But it should not surprise anybody to know that behind the words of that dismissal (a choice which for some strange reason many priests do not particularly fancy using) lie the spirit of the liturgy in its most basic state.  Every liturgy is a confluence of God coming into sinful human man and woman’s very existence, filling us up and enveloping us with his divine grace and energy.  And when we as participants give our entire selves, mind and heart and bodies, to this divine overture and outreach of love, a radical transformation happens.  Not that it has to happen without fail, but the onus is ours to cooperate with the grace of God which provides the possibilities of it happening to us. 

Instead of that kind of response happening, or anything remotely close to that kind of radicality, what we have is a whole range of other actions and reactions.  Examples abound – people drifting in after Mass has begun, jostling for seats and getting into arguments over seats which have been saved for friends who have not turned up, members of the congregation endlessly distracted by babies crying and wailing for lack of rest or food, people in various stages of brain activity, and of course those who are checking on phone messages or emails.  This is a common sight, and something which apparently plagues churches in many countries throughout the world. 

It’s far too easy to blame this on bad or insufficient catechesis, pallid and banal preaching or poor parenting.  What perhaps needs to be considered also is the reality that people are in different stages of openness and receptivity to God and his offer of love and grace.  I recall one of the songs in our seminary hymnal which I particularly disliked to play (I was the seminary organist) let alone sing, was one entitled “Great things happen when God mixes with man”.  This song had a very real message, but horrible melody with a tune without much body.  Indeed, great things, like what St Anthony of Egypt did, is a possibility, but it can only happen when man (and woman) go to the liturgy and go before God with unstopped ears and loosened tongues.

One of Vatican II’s teachings in Sacrosanctum Concillium is that Christ is present in the Liturgy in four modes or ways.  In the celebrating priest who is in persona Christi, in the consecrated species of bread and wine, in the gathered body of believers, and in the sacred word that is proclaimed.  If we only pay attention to the real presence of Christ in the consecrated species on the Altar, we are missing out so much in terms of grace and awareness of God’s love in the other ways he is present.  After all, this is the reason there are altar servers bearing lit torches flanking the ambo or lectern when the Gospel is proclaimed, and why we all rise at that point.  God is being revealed to us, just as the reason there is a Tabernacle lamp next to the Tabernacle in the sanctuary, indicating God’s real presence. 

The simple action of Jesus’ opening of the deaf man’s ears and loosening his tongue is not just something that he did once in history and in time to one particular man.  The living word of God reminds us that this action is alive too in our own time, and as long as we long for this same grace there is no limiting what we are capable of as our response to the dismissal words of the celebrant to “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”, assuming of course that we want to be transformed and changed and encouraged by God.

Yes, we have to dare to believe that “Great things happen when God mixes with man”.  Just don’t sing it or make me play it on the organ. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Eternal rest and why it eludes us here

“They are at peace”. 

These words feature prominently at funeral services and Masses.  It presupposes that before death, every one of us who is on this side of beatitude are always struggling to find peace and to find wholeness.  Sure, we do have our attempts at either creating peace or attaining it in our own ways, but we will always be falling short of the kind of peace that only comes when we fully behold God in all of his glory, contemplating the Blessed Trinity for eternity. 

Till then, every moment of earthly happiness and joy will bring us delight and elation because they are reflections, albeit in very small and diminutive ways, of the eternal joy that only heaven can give.  That explains why there is no lasting joy here in this life, and that as St Augustine put it so succinctly, our hearts are restless till they rest in God.

Why we are not at peace in this life is because we have the ability to lift our dreams and let our desires soar, and this is indeed a strange irony.  But at the same time, we are weighed down by so many limitations and shortcomings that find its roots in original sin.  This tension and struggle that we all experience in varying degrees either makes us pursue proper and godly dreams that are commensurate with our identity as God’s children, or can cause us to spiral downwards because we won’t even lift our heads to see beyond seemingly unattainable dreams and longings. 

Where do our tensions and struggles lie?  Where can we identify our sources of unhappiness that cause us to not be at peace?  It is often when we realise that there are differences between:

- our present small moments of ecstasy and the eternal joy that we want to attain.
- what we want to do, and have to do.
- where we want to go, and where we wish we were.
- who we want to be, and who we are.
- our dreams and those that are yet unfulfilled.

As long as we are alive and breathing and subject to gravity, these tensions will always be there, in varying degrees.  Which is why when we die, and when heaven in all its glory becomes the only thing that we hope for and want to embrace, tensions and struggles cease to exist and there we find the peace that we have been hoping for all our lives. 
Faith, when viewed at from this vantage point, becomes meaningless when we reduce it to just a set of commandments and principles.  Commandments alone are not altogether wrong, but they are just insufficient.  Creedal statements satisfy the logical Grecian mind that most of us have been brought up to nurture, where we rationalize so many things.  It makes entering into a religion ‘testable’ because we can categorise our statements of faith.  We can repeat the Creed, we can respond the correct words and phrases when asked the appropriate questions.  But those are good starting points.  They cannot be ends in themselves, because if we do not appropriate the ends of our faith in the love and beholding of God who is our fullest dreams and deepest longings, we are not worshipping God but perhaps just a set of principles and statements, which is just as good as idolatry. 

In my journey back to DC from Singapore, I had to cross 12 time zones – an arduous journey to say the least, and it messed up my body clock.  For about a week, this body clock seemed to be more of a cuckoo clock where the hourly cuckoo was out of sync.  It was a result of my mind being in one time zone when my body being in another.  It created tensions and anxieties, which I am glad to say is something that I have gotten over by now. 

Isn’t this one of the reasons our lives on this earth too have their share of tensions and anxieties?  As long as we are here, and our spirit has that deep longing for God in his fullness, we too will be in different “time zones”.  Every struggle and longing, every fear and grief is felt because we are here while that deepest and most honest part of us longs for God. 

And that makes the phrase “They are at peace” so deeply meaningful when we no longer live in this life, but fully in God.  That alone will make the phrase “Rest in Peace” something that we truly can and dare to look forward to.