Monday, November 26, 2012

Raising the glass of red or white to the heroes of our faith

The Church has in its rich and long history many heroes of our faith who suffered gloriously for the Kingdom of God.  The Liturgical calendar is replete with vivid stories, many of them highly embellished to be sure, of how strong in faith some of the martyrs were in the face of terrible and brutal persecution of the faith.

Deservedly, these who shed their blood for Christ and his Kingdom had their noble acts of bravery recognized and every so often in the Liturgical calendar, we will be reminded about their heroic lives and deeds.  But the point of these celebrations is not so much as to highlight their courage and valour, but to be reminded what they were courageous about.  While I am in no way watering down their grit and daring, we would be missing the point of all liturgy if we only stopped at what mere mortals have done in their lives.  What has to be constantly borne in mind is that all liturgies have but one purpose – to give glory, honour and laud to God in worship.  That was the central purpose of the lives of these martyrs.  It is their faith that we celebrate and hope to imitate in our journeys of faith, which have yet to find their last chapters.  That these men and women were so graced with such strength and tenacity in their love of God and their steadfastness in time of trials and even torture is something truly worth praising God for. 

But aren’t times of such barbaric persecution events of our distant past?  Surely, there is a vast majority of Christians who do not live in these kinds of situations that those martyrs did, especially when there is a clarion call for tolerance and freedom of religion in many countries.  Does that mean that the age of martyrdom is but a thing of history?  Do we as Church simply become nostalgic each time we celebrate a martyr’s feast day, and ‘reminisce’ about the ‘bad old times’?

The Church has always taught that there is a difference between a ‘Red Martyrdom’ and a ‘White Martyrdom’.  The red martyrs were the ones who had physically shed blood for their faith in Christ.  The familiar names that come readily to mind are Stephen, Laurence, Agatha, Cecilia, Maximilian Kolbe, Justin, and the Vietnamese martyrs Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions, which we just observed on Saturday.  Of course this list is not legion.

White Martyrdom is one that is lived out without the shedding of blood or loss of life through violent means.  This is a different calling in life, but applicable to every Christian who is baptized in the Lord Jesus Christ.  These are martyrs who are willing to give up what takes them away from the Kingdom of God and instead, with great sacrifice and suffering, remain steadfast to the values of Christ. 

Let me give a few examples of where white martyrdom can be evinced.
  • When a pregnant mother refuses to abort her down-syndrome child in her womb despite knowing that the life ahead for the entire family is going to change in many ways.
  • When a married man resists temptation to have a fling with a very attractive business associate while outstation.
  • When a student makes the decision to not plagiarize in a term paper even though it will make for an easy ‘A’ grade.
  • When a sum of money found is returned to the owner even though it is something that is not going to be found out if it was kept.
  • When a chore is done without complaining and grumbling but rather with a certain joy and responsibility.
  • When care is given to people who are in need, especially when it involves a great sacrifice of energy, time and resources which one could have used for one’s own purposes.
  • When one does the right thing even though no one will know about the deed and no one around is looking.
  • When one who is ill or undergoing some medical treatment which is most uncomfortable and agonizing, but offers up the pain and discomfort to join others who are in similar situations of suffering.

Of course, these are just small examples of where white martyrdom can be exercised in our daily lives.  Each does have its own gradation of difficulty, but there is something else that cuts across all of them.  Each of them can be done simply for their own sakes – meaning that there is an intrinsic and inherent good that is in each act.  One doesn’t need to be a Christian to carry these out in life.  One can appeal to ‘civic mindedness’ or ‘good upbringing’.  But where the Christian is concerned, white martyrdom requires it of us to live this way as a demonstration of our love for God and our strong belief in the Kingdom of God as revealed by Jesus.  Not out of fear, not with great unwillingness, but with zeal and love for the Lord, because a white martyr’s strength to live the right way requires of one to unite oneself to the sufferings of Christ, and to live as Christ would live.  To live that way requires of us a constant attentiveness to our call of discipleship which will not be there if we are people who only pray on occasion, because prayer is what develops and brings the love of God to fruition.

When one is looking down the barrel of a gun of a persecutor of the faith, in some ways, it seems to be a relatively easy choice to make to want to live for the Lord.  After all, suffering and pain seems to be over in a moment, and one can repeat what Jesus said on Calvary “into your hands, I commend my spirit”.  I am not saying it is an easy thing to die, because none of us really wants to die. 

But in a white martyr’s dying, it is more long and drawn out.  It requires of us constancy and a vision for the kingdom that is here and not yet.  The fruit is often not tasted with much immediacy, and the joy is, for the most part, one of delayed gratification.  But it is for certain something that is going to be asked of each of us at different moments of our day. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

How to fight for justice in a Christ-like way.

The way of the Christian should never be one of violence and anger.  Of course, there are numerous accounts of the history of Christendom which are flooded with bloody wars and violent battles in unenlightened times.  If I were given ten cents for every time that the horrors of the Crusades were thrown in my face, I’d have a sizeable kitty by now.  Christ is known as the Prince of Peace, and yet, there have been many who have used religion to start wars and cause strife and suffering.  But we don’t have to talk about outright violence in terms of actual wars.  Even on the level of peace-marches, one can have a violent and angry attitude that would serve the cause in a very bad and ineffective way. 

How can one be angry in a right way?  When the anger that is in us for a justice to be done is an anger that is fueled and motivated by our love for the opponent we are against and the one whom we have an issue with.  I remember being part of the March for Life earlier this year in Washington DC.  Though it is generally a peaceful protest march, there were some groups who had a certain anger, bitterness and resentment in them, fuelling their march.  These contrasted against the other groups who were clearly peaceful and non-aggressive in their approach towards the march.  It brought to mind the truth that though a cause may be one that is seen as a good, what also matters and makes a huge difference is what fuels the spirit and movement towards the cause.  A movement that is energized by outrage, wrath and hostility can hardly be something that can truly move the hearts of one’s opponents ending in any kind of conversion or different viewpoint.  It is always good to go to scripture to see how Jesus deals with his own anger when he sees his Father’s house turning into a market place.  His love for the Father is clearly evident, but also present is his love for the people who have misplaced interests and impure motives.  This is clearly portrayed on the Cross of Calvary where he asks that the Father forgive them for they knew not what they were doing.  This is a love that, as St Paul would put it, “does not accuse but excuses”. 

But how do we ‘use’ anger this way, and control it, when most of the time, it seems to be that anger is the thing that controls us?   What needs to be developed is what I would call the "second self" that allows us to look at our actions and our movements from an angle other than our own eyes.  This can only come about through concerted prayer and awareness.  If we look at St Paul and his life before his conversion through a powerful grace, he had only one way of looking - through his own self-righteous eyes.  But when he allowed the grace of God to work powerfully through is own self-surrender, he could see that his view was myopic, after the scales fell from his eyes.  The Greek origins of this word "myopic" means “to shut the eye” or to have a very narrow view.  When we are in touch with the spirit of God and his movement in our lives, our view becomes broadened in many ways, and often, it allows us to see beyond the horizons of our actions. 

Living this way is hard, because it often asks that we die to our old visions and ‘controlled’ way of dealing with issues.  There is a surrender that happens.  To admit that our ways of seeing things and doing things may not have been the only way is a real dying to the self.  It means that we also let the views of others count, and gives us the real need to walk in the shoes of others.  When this happens, there will inevitably be scales that will fall from our eyes and we will see life through the pains and struggles and fears of others, leading to true compassion, which is at the heart of all conversion.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

God happens when no one is looking

Why is it so difficult to fully articulate our experiences of our encounter with the sacred?  After all, we can talk about our faith in terms of articles and dogmatic teachings.  These give solid and rational grounds for our belief in the supernatural, and it is our responsibility to not live in any form of ignorance of our faith.  We owe it to ourselves to strengthen our belief so that our faith does not just stay on the level of a mere superficial understanding, but that it is given greater and greater depth for strong roots to grow and from this, gain a firm foundation.  This, we all know, is difficult but it is also something that requires a certain diligence and hard work.

But when it comes to our personal experiences of God, the difficulties appear to take on a whole different level.  Countless holy men and women through the ages who have been graced by God to have a sacred encounter with him in their mystical experiences.  But they have also often said that it was so difficult to put their experience into words.  They appear somewhat stymied in their language to be accurate and clear.  In fact, words seem to fall so far short from the reality of the encounter. Words tend to cheapen the experience, giving the listener the false impression that just to hear a second or third hand account of the experience is enough for him or her.  Famously, St Thomas Aquinas, a master theologian and truly gifted scholar who wrote tomes about God in a systematic manner, was gifted with what can only be described as a mystical experience toward the end of his life.  When he came out of that experience, he could only say that all that he wrote about God was “like straw” because rich and deep though his writings had been, they could not come close to the reality of the love of God.  And we can be sure that what St Thomas encountered was not even the full beatific vision, but just a fleeting glimpse of its eternal and ever-radiant beauty.  Contrary to what some may think, it does not mean that just because St Thomas saw his work “like straw” that we should not be studying theology or invest our time and resources in theological reflection.

Perhaps this “difficulty” is the very nature of every true God experience.  Experiences of deepest life and love have a certain hidden quality about it.  After all, how many of us can truly say what love is?  We can only talk or write words that somehow give the general idea of what it is, but we can never fully wrap our minds around it.  In fact, this is not what we are meant to do – to figure it out, and to ‘solve’ God in some logical and sensible way.  We in our limited spatial and time-bound existence want to do this, because it gives us a false sense of control, which could easily lead to a spiritual arrogance and the sin of pride.  God knows that there must be thousands of souls who have such inner experiences with Him who have chosen to remain silent about their graced encounters because such intimate moments with the creator are precisely that – intimate.  And to flaunt our intimate moments for all to see and seems to be the sin of our times.  A clear example of this is when people think it is a sign of bravado and maturity to put on the internet videos of their sexual exploits when it is in reality a public display of foolhardiness, egotism, immaturity and harebrained insouciance.

We may need to learn something from the silence in the pivotal moments of the life of Jesus Christ, where there was no audience, no big production, no publicity and no witnesses.  These moments are the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary, and the moment of the resurrection in the tomb.  Sure, we have the account of the annunciation in Luke’s gospel but even that is not a first-hand encounter.  Scripture exegetes are wont to believe that St Luke personally spoke with the Blessed Virgin to get an account of the annunciation, but the language and the circumstances do not themselves give much away.  Even Mary is left wondering, “How can this happen?”  And of course, there is no eyewitness to the moment of the Resurrection of our Lord either.  What these two pivotal events have in common is that they are moments of God entering in a most supernatural way into the life of humanity.  They are indeed moments of great intimacy of divinity and humanity, which do not allow for displays of grandeur and curious attention, least of all fodder for the voyeuristic.

These are the characteristics of the interior life. Knowing this will remind us that if in our lives we find ourselves clamouring for attention, mass displays of hype, and with a predilection for the sensational, in the things we do, we may be tuning ourselves out from the ways which God often uses to draw us close to him.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mercy - entering into the chaos of others

I chanced upon an interesting interpretation of the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan this week.  The Venerable Bede, who was an English monk and a Doctor of the Church and died in 735AD, preached it.  He posited that it could be preached on two levels:  the first was what Christ accomplishes for the Church, and on the second, what we ought to do for others.  Bede saw the injured man lying helpless as Adam wounded by sin, and he is in exile outside the gates of Eden.  Who the priest and the Levite represent are tradition and the law, which were hitherto unable to do anything for Adam.  But it is then that the Samaritan (Christ) who comes by, nurses Adam’s wounds caused by sin, gives him salve, and even promises to return at a later date to make full payment for all costs incurred so that he can be restored to dwell once more within the eternal joys of the Kingdom. 

Taken in this understanding, the parable is not so much an instruction to us as to how we should be tending to those who are injured and hurt, but far more importantly, about what Christ has done for us.  Every time we imitate Christ in tending to others in a similar way, what we are doing is to make the gospel story retold and real.  We become the real neighbour to those in need.

In our Christian living, there is always an implicit call to live in a very large and selfless way.  There has always been the call to be loving and caring in a way that puts the other person and his/her needs way ahead of our own.  But there is something in our sinful nature to turn a deaf ear to this call, and to procrastinate action.  To live large and selflessly is at the heart of most civic living, where the root of harmony and social cohesion is the ability to think more of the other person in many ways.  But the truth is you don’t have to be a Christian to live this way.  But what makes Christianity so radically different, set apart from all other religions and civil demands is that we not only have a founder of our faith as the model and example of this kind of living, but that this person is God himself who has entered into our world to show just how this should be done. 

At the heart of it all is the willingness of God to enter so fully into our broken humanity to lift us up to heights of divinity.  There was absolutely no necessity for God to do this, and yet, out of pure grace and mercy, he has.  Because of this great act of grace, we have heaven to gain, and our entire lives are given a whole new aim and telos, which is the philosophical term to mean an end or ultimate object.  Of the many definitions of mercy, which I have come across, it was moral theologian James Keenan, a Jesuit priest, who said it so well.  He says that mercy is ‘entering into the chaos’ of someone else.  I think this says it so much better than what I have come across and written about before – “salvation is what turns a messy world into a mercy world.” 

No one would choose chaos of any kind willingly.  What would make anyone enter into the chaos of someone else’s life?  Isn’t the most common thing one can do is to run far from trouble and messiness when one sees it?  In the face of chaos, most choose flight rather than fight.  Yet, this is not what God does with those of us who lead ‘chaotic’ lives in measures big and small.  No, God does not run away, but rather, runs into chaos.  He does this with arms large and compassionate, so that the divine embrace lifts the down trodden, soothes the aching and enlivens the lifeless.  Most importantly, divine mercy offers the wounded soul the balm of forgiveness. 

Christian living in its most radical form is thus far more than just following rules and complying with liturgical norms.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians who seem to have this idea that this is what Christian living is about.  Those are important, but their purpose is so that we have a foundation and a purpose for bringing Christianity into the world, where the call is for us to enter into the chaotic lives of others, extending the kind of compassion, mercy, healing, love and kindness that is the true hallmark of Christian living.