Monday, October 29, 2012

Our reluctance to put up with boredom

The human psyche has an aversion towards the mundane. We constantly search for activities that excite and titillate, thrill and delight us with new and novel experiences.  Marketers, knowing this, dedicate their time and resources just to give their customers what they want, thus creating an unending cycle of consumerism.

What lies at the heart of this yearning is what many moralists would call the fear of boredom.  We are dependent on distractions and entertainment, because it gives us a false sense of purpose.  The addiction to novelty is what causes us to use people and love things, when we should be loving people and using things.  The instant gratification culture, made even faster by the Internet and portable electronic devices, doesn’t help either. When we loathe developing a discipline of waiting and delaying gratification, the spillover effect becomes evident in other areas of our lives. 

To distract us from boredom, in an attempt to remove us from our aloneness, many have even turned to sex.  When this happens, it turns a sacred and Godly act into a recreational social activity, or worse, a means for fame and popularity, making it into something utilitarian, self-serving and life-sapping.  The fear of boredom can indeed enter into so many other areas of our lives and can even cause us to lose our moral compass.  

At the heart of it, we have lost the ability to stay in the boredom and dullness that, ironically, is necessary for true growth and maturity.  Mature married couples as well as mature chaste singles know this to be true.  What is fidelity but the willingness to ‘hang in there’ when all excitement and thrills of romance are a thing of the past?  Staying faithful to one person with their wrinkles and age-spots without wanting to be delighted by the younger and more attractive options is not an exciting thing.  Staying faithful to an hour of prayer in the adoration room where the Eucharist waits is hardly something that is called a ‘thrill’.  Many don’t see it, but even singles who are mature and stay chaste reflect an uncommon ability to live in the boredom and monotony of a disciplined waiting, and this too, is fidelity.  But the real virtue in fidelity despite the drab and familiar is that we are responding to God’s fidelity and we are imitating God’s faithfulness.

God, because he is complete in himself, has no need to be thrilled and delighted, enticed and titillated to remind him that he is alive and that he exists. When we go to the Adoration Room in faithful prayer, God has no need to make himself more than he is.  Jesus doesn’t need to break out of the Tabernacle and do a "Gangnam Style" dance to keep us entertained or to make himself “relevant” in any sort of empirical way.  God is not interested in entertaining us, because entertainment and excitement belong only to the level of our physicality.  We need to realize that we are far more than just our physicality. A maturity in our spiritual lives will help us discover that we are spiritual beings as well. 

It is when we are able to develop a taste for the silent, the mundane and the unvaried, that the other aspects of our lives to also start develop and mature.  The Missionaries of Charity (which Mother Theresa headed) begin their day with an hour of silent adoration before the Eucharist. There is an intrinsic connection between their prayer and their work for it is only after the hour of adoration that they start their day, with compassion and charity, to become Christ and to ‘adore’ him in the most rejected in society. When we discipline ourselves to sit with the mundane and ordinary, we allow our spirituality to develop and mature.

The discipline to stay in the unexciting, the ordinary and the drab changes the eyes of the heart to be able to see something healthy in the sick, something alive in the dying and something very rich in the poor.  A dedicated and regular prayer life is thus one of the best ways to readjust our vision – of life, of ourselves, and most importantly, of God.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Adoration of the exposed Blessed Sacrament

While reading “In The Presence”, a book on Eucharistic adoration by Joan Ridley, OSB, I came across a few gems for spiritual reflection which I would like to share with my readers. 

Many churches around the world have adoration rooms where the faithful can spend time in adoration of the Eucharist.  The Church has always rightly encouraged us to the Eucharistic Lord to adore and to pray, and in the process of so doing, receive a grace that can only come about when we are in intimate contact with the giver of life. 

Unfortunately, it is a common lament that one doesn’t quite know what to do in the presence of the Lord in the Adoration Room. 

We often think that we are only as good as the things that we do in life.  The performance index that we are assessed by can easily be projected onto our spiritual life, and that can end up harming it in ways that we are unaware of.  Does the Lord really want us to “do” things when we are in his presence before the Blessed Sacrament?  Is there list that we need to check off certain acts and prayers after they are said or accomplished?  How can we fill up our time meaningfully in prayer if we don’t “do” much? 

Speak to any couple who are truly in love and they will tell you that some of the best moments are spent just being with each other, without saying or doing anything. Being in one another’s presence and knowing that one is giving all one’s attention in loving silence to the other is a very deep form of loving.  I hear this from couples who are very new to the dating scene, as well as from very old and mature couples who have gone through many years of married life. They don’t have to say much, but they know that their love is conveyed in loving gazes and silent presence. Perhaps it is this phenomenon of love that we need to appreciate and develop when we come before the Eucharistic Lord.    

We are easily captivated by things around us.  Lovely sunsets, alluring animals, or beautiful people can do this to us.  We are caught up in that moment with the object of beauty holding our gaze. 

Wasn’t Jesus “gazed upon” by the bystanders at his crucifixion?  We are also told that many different people “beheld” him on the Cross.  Not just the officials, but the bystanders and the women who were with Jesus as well.  Each had different reasons for doing so.  His persecutors mocked him, those watching beat their breasts, and the women watched intently.  Jesus, hanging on the cross, was open to their gaze.  He was exposed in the most giving way possible, and at the same time, he gave away his power in this act of surrender.  At the heart of this exposure was the display of his love and utter surrender to the Father. 

When we speak of being exposed, we tend to associate elements of vulnerability and risk.  We speak of being exposed to contamination, germs and disease.  When we are exposed to the elements, we need to protect ourselves.  In the Adoration Room, we also say that the Eucharist is exposed, and in a certain way, there is an element of vulnerability as well.  We are asked to gaze intently, with love, at the one who exposed himself in love for us.  Doesn’t the Lord take risks in being exposed this way for us sinful human beings?  Apart from the risk of possible theft or desecration, perhaps the far bigger risk would be that he would be once again rejected, mocked, ridiculed and given nary a hint of respect. 

As human beings, whenever we are exposed, we instinctively seek to cover ourselves, to minimize risk of shame and rejection.  But when we come before the Lord, we need to come before him with an attitude of surrender and humility. It is not so much that the Lord demands this of us, but rather, because we know that it is God we come before, that nothing really can be hidden from his gaze at our hearts.  I think we know this within the depths of our being, and that may be one reason why many fight shy of entering the sacred presence of God who sees and knows all.  But we need to know that it is because our Lord knows all, that he will also see the wounds that we bear.  When we allow his divine gaze to penetrate into our whole lives, we allow a healing grace to come upon our wounds, and only when we dare to bare all, can we become like the Samaritan woman at the well who said “He told me all that I ever did”, and allow a conversion after the encounter with the giver of life to change and mould us.

Gazing and allowing ourselves to be gazed at lovingly is at the heart of contemplative prayer, but this doesn’t happen overnight.  When we do learn to give of ourselves this way, we will realise that the real giver is not us, but God himself.    

Monday, October 15, 2012

The importance of the incarnation for our salvation

With Advent coming in about a month and a half, perhaps it is timely that we start to ponder anew what the coming of Jesus into our world really means for us.  We seldom give the incarnation and its implications serious thought.  We may become better Christians when we think anew about this mystery of God becoming one of us for our sake.

In my Christology class, we have been looking at the many theories of the natures of Christ which had been discussed extensively throughout the history of the Church.  That he is human and divine and undivided had been the reason of great and stormy debates in the early church years. 

I asked the professor in class whether this debate and misunderstanding of the natures of Christ are something to be of concern to the person in the pew in this day and age, and the answer he gave was something that I believed to be very relevant, especially for the coming Advent season. 

He believes that many Catholics have a rather heretical understanding of how Jesus is both human and divine.  One heretical understanding of Jesus being fully human was that there was a point when his divine nature came upon his humanity, probably at the time of his baptism in the river Jordan.  This heresy is given the term ‘adoptionism’. This is the erroneous belief that God ‘adopted’ Jesus at some point in time of his life.  Stretched this belief to its limit, an extreme form of ‘adoptionism’ would be when man believes that things can be divinized.

The other heresy is that Jesus is divine, but he only appeared to be a man.  The term for this heresy is ‘docetism’, which comes from the Greek word ‘dokein’ meaning “to seem’.  These are just two of the many wrong views of Christ’s two natures which have gotten theologians through the ages in all sorts of knots. 

What implications do they have for us?  A misconstrued understanding of how Jesus is God and man will affect the way we pray and the way we define and talk about Jesus as the Son of God.  If he only ‘seems’ to be human, the result would be that in whatever difficulties or challenges which we find ourselves facing, which will inevitably involve some form of suffering, it would be only lip-service when we say ‘Jesus, you suffered as man in order to give us the strength to cope with our own sufferings’. It would mean that he was only putting on a show on Calvary, and only ‘seem’ to suffer when he really did not. 

If we think in terms of adoptionist theories, it would mean that any created being can be ‘divinised’ and made into God just by the Father’s adoption.  The result of this belief is that everything that is in nature can also then be divinized and worshipped if God wants it to be, or if we choose to believe so.  That would make Jesus only slightly different, if at all, from every other person.  Or worse, that a tree, an animal or some element could become something that can be worshipped. 

I like a story written by G K Chesterton about how a man who wasn’t too spiritual in life died and went to hell.  Missed by his friends who were still alive, they made attempts to see if there was any chance of getting him back.  First was his business agent, who rapped on the gates of hell for it to be opened, but to no avail.  Next, his priest went down and pleaded his case, saying “he wasn’t all that bad when he was alive.  I am sure, given the time and the opportunity, he would have repented and changed.  Please, let him out”.  But still, the gate remained tightly shut.  Finally, his own mother went down, but her approach was very different.  Instead of begging for his release, or giving reasons for leniency, she spoke as only a mother could and said to Satan: “Let me in.” Immediately the gate swung open.  Chesterton goes on to say, “For love goes down through the gates of hell and there redeems the dead”.

A proper and healthy understanding of the incarnation will help us draw a parallel between that loving and sacrificial act by the man’s mother to Jesus’ becoming one us in our humanity, to suffer and die for us.  It turns many things on its head, and hopefully, one of them is the belief that there is a limit to God’s love for us. 

If we really believe that God’s love for us is unlimited and unconditional, there is then so much that we can do for one another when we see others trapped in the hells of their own creation.  

Monday, October 8, 2012

The place of the Lord’s Prayer in the Eucharistic Celebration

It is a known fact among those who have gone through the RCIA process that there is a special place in the journey where the catechumens are handed the Lord’s Prayer.  It is symbolically done in ceremonial form when either the celebrant in the Mass hands it to them in a printed form, or when the sponsors speak it aloud to them line by line, and have them repeat it in front of the gathered community.  There are various ways this can be done, and some have done this with much meaning and depth.  But why is this very well known prayer something that is given such a special treatment?  After all, there are many who are not Christians who can recite this prayer by heart, perhaps because they came from Catholic or Missions schools where this was part of the morning prayer in the school assembly.  Besides, even Sir Cliff Richard made it a #1 hit by singing it to the tune of Auld Lang Syne back in 1999 (horrors!) So isn’t this ‘ceremony’ rather contrived or unnecessary?  Is it adding pomp to something that doesn’t seem to require it?

We have to understand that historically, this prayer holds a pride of place in the life of a Christian worth his baptism.  It is after all, the Lord’s Prayer, meaning that he taught it to his disciples.  There is a divine handing over of something of deep significance.  Jesus was teaching his disciples how to truly live, and true life, is not just for the moment, but for eternal beatitude with God the Father. 

At every Mass, just before the entire congregation launches into this prayer, there is a very important introduction that the priest says.  He says (or intones): “At the Saviour’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say”.  This means that in the prayer’s original setting, it required a certain formation of the heart and soul before one could publicly recite it.  It was not meant to be recited or prayed by simply anyone who wished to say it.  If one truly takes some time to look at the words of the prayer, it gives the one praying a direction to take in life. It also ‘displaces’ one from the ways of the world and causes one to re-evaluate one’s priorities and aims in life.  It is among other instructions, a call to put God first in life; to seek holiness in our daily living; to seek his will and his kingdom; to yearn for what truly feeds the person and not just the body; and to make forgiveness of others something that we strive to carry out.  Life seems hard enough as it is, and these instructions that Jesus gives us through this prayer can be very challenging to make real in our lives.

Without adequate instruction and without the help of a community which strives to live this out as much as they can, living out just one of those instructions is hard enough.  The early Church knew that it was extremely important that this kind of ‘subversive’ teaching requires a long process of formation of the heart and mind, in order for the catechumens to truly live out the hard teachings of the prayer.  This is why I am keen to agree with some spiritual writers who say that the underlying meaning of the phrase “… formed by divine teaching, we dare to say” actually refers to baptism.  This prayer in its deepest roots makes the most sense when it is prayed by the baptized who want to live the Christ-ed life. 

Having said that, does it mean that we should ‘restrict’ this prayer henceforth?  Of course not.  That would not only be silly, but also literally impossible.  But if we know and can re-appreciate the historical and liturgical context of the prayer, perhaps we can pray it with a better consciousness, live out the words with a little more awareness, and more importantly, be able to share with others the deep meaning of this prayer which we so often mouth throughout the course of the day.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

A church tax. How outrageous is this?

Last week, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany issued a bishop’s decree stating that anyone failing to pay a special church tax amounting to 8% of his or her income tax bill would be denied the right to Holy Communion or a religious burial upon death.  Apparently, this tax is something that all Germans, regardless of whether they are Protestants or Jews, pay.  Introduced in the 19th century, this was something that was meant to compensate for the nationalization of religious property.  I can only conjecture that this means that the monies collected would go into the upkeep and maintenance of church-owned properties.  These would include kindergartens, homes for the aged, and other church affiliated properties.

More apparently, the report stated that ‘without a sign of repentance before death, a religious burial can be refused’, and opting out of the tax would bar people from becoming godparents to Catholic children.

Understandably, this announcement caused a stir amongst the Catholics not only in Germany, but outside the country as well.  Many were livid at the way the Church in Germany seemed to put a monetary value on Sacraments and hence, the grace of God.  Some Germans said that though they did not want to pay the tax, they still wanted to receive the Sacraments and to go to Mass. 

Is this a wrong move to make, especially in a country that has Mass ‘attendances’ hardly in the healthy range?  I am wondering if this is the very reason the authorities had to take this seemingly drastic measure, because the active and contributing numbers alone are insufficient to meet the fiscal needs of the Church.  But is it really a simple case of ‘chicken or egg’, or is there more than meets the eye?

There has always been an unspoken understanding that when a person accepts Christ in baptism, that there is a complete re-orientation of one’s entire way of life and value system.  While it doesn’t mean that one automatically lives the life of a pauper, it somewhat requires (at least implicitly) that one learns to dispossess of oneself from that moment onward.  The first and easiest thing that one can do to activate and demonstrate this road toward selflessness and dispossession would be in a monetary and material way.  This works at a first level consciousness, and what would be noticed would be the ‘pain’ or ‘pinch’ that one feels when making that conscious choice to part with one’s hard earned money and drops it into the poor box or the collection plates that come around on Sunday before the offertory procession. 

But that is just the first level.  What should progress from there would be the further levels of selflessness and other-centeredness that are intrinsic in being disciples of the Lord.  For example, being generous with our time, being kind with our words, exercising forgiveness, developing our sense of community where we put aside our personal needs and wants for the good of the other, etc.  These are all the other necessary hallmarks of Christian living that the Gospel promotes.  They do not come easily, and one needs to constantly remind oneself (with the grace of God, of course) that at each moment, one is asked to die a little to oneself. 

While it is not a systematic and chronological flow, where one moves from a level 1 monetary giving, to a level 100 total self giving which sees a person imitating Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, there is some connection.  One cannot deny this. 

I am wondering if the great uproar that people are making about this tax issue is somewhat connected with the fact that Catholics have somehow lost the understanding that the Christian life does entail a payment on many many levels.  If it is not a payment in monetary terms, it certainly is in other ways.  The very act of being immersed in a pool of water at baptism symbolizes that our lives are surrendered over to God, allowing us to take on a new identity.  That first dramatic act of handing over our lives to God is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  From that point on, there’s a whole life of giving that awaits us.  Perhaps the problem is that many of us tend to see the giving of anything – be it our time, our talents, our attention, our assets or our good disposition as something that the Church demands or ‘extorts’ unreasonably.  But isn’t the truth just the opposite, where if we really and truly understand and appreciate our new life in Christ and where he wants us to be at the end of our lives, i.e. heaven, that we will begin to see all these acts of giving as a mere response to what was first offered to us by God?  Truth be told, there is nothing that we can ever give that can equal or be worth anything near the tremendous gift of salvation and eternal beatitude.  It’s just beyond us.  Seen in this light, what is 8% of our income?  Everything else should in fact be seen in the light of salvation as gift, and gifts are meant never to be hoarded, but shared and distributed to those who are without them.

Yes, this is an ideal, but what is wrong with ideals?  Aren’t most of the problems in Church and the rest of life surrounding the fact that most of us are settling for mediocrity, the prosaic and the pedestrian?  There was an interesting article in a health supplement of the local (Singapore) paper last week about ‘Entering the discomfort zone’ in life, and the author insightfully showed how the greatest gains come only when we push ourselves beyond what our bodies are ordinarily used to do.  He gave the interesting examples of musicians who simply play easy, familiar pieces with the same old well-worn techniques, compared with the excellent musicians who push themselves harder, relentlessly honing their techniques eliminating their bad habits and ingrained faults with dedication and diligence.  This is hard work indeed, and analogously, so is our spiritual life. 

Most of us would prefer a ‘free lunch’ handed out to us in life, and sadly, a lot of us do think that the Christian life, initiated in baptism, is a kind of a ‘free lunch’.  Well, it isn’t.  We spend our entire lives responding to this call to spiritual perfection and it entails a dying to the self each day, and perhaps even each given moment. 

Is the Church in Germany wrong to peg an 8% minimum tax?  It does seem a tad drastic, and to be honest, I did feel rather uncomfortable with this setting of a number to ‘salvation’, though I am sure it is not meant to be the case.  It can easily misread as that, and I am sure that if it is not explained well, and to connect it to the basics of Christian living and the converted life, it probably will remain at that – a tax, and nothing more.  But if we take the trouble to re-examine what our baptismal calling is, and where it is really taking us to in the end, we may in fact be opening not just our purses more, but far more importantly, our hearts as well.