Monday, December 30, 2013

Looking back and forward

In 1992, the monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II used a Latin phrase “annus horribilis” in her Christmas message.  Meaning “a horrible year”, the Queen made references to several events that happened in the United Kingdom that year, as well as a great personal and national loss when part of Windsor Castle caught fire.  It was that same year that saw the marriages of two of her sons, Charles and Andrew, break down.  In the light of such heartbreaking events, it would be considered excusable to lament that it was indeed an “annus horribilis”.

For many people all over the world, this is the time of the year when they find themselves spending some time in thought and reflection about what the past year presented them with, and at the same time, cast their hopeful eye on what the next calendar year may bring.  Journals and newspapers often feature a montage of the highlights of the past year, and these can evoke memories of incidents of both delight as well as sadness or melancholy when our eyes fall on stories and events which may have affected us in one way or another.

What should set us apart as Christians from mere worldly musings is the deeper and spiritual dimension of these experiences because we believe that God speaks to us through the circumstances that we have found ourselves immersed in.  Vatican II calls these the ‘signs of the times’.  If we do not contemplate on these life-stories of ours with an eye toward God and how he has been with us, guiding us and leading us, moulding us and loving us, our year-end musings and thoughts could just be vain exercises of mental recollections without allowing them to touch our soul and move us toward holiness and godliness.  Done in a spirit of faith, prayer, reflection and contemplation, it can help us to see the way in which the divine finger of God had been tracing lines across the landscape of our lives.

When our faith in God’s providence and love is deep and abiding, it would be hard to really name a year as one that is ‘horribilis’ and leave it at that.  Faith is what allows us to believe that there is no door that God has closed in our lives without leaving a window open.  Faith also reminds us that there is no one incident that we should be taking in isolation apart from the rest of the tapestry of our lives, where the myriad other strands of our lives criss cross and touch each other through the warps and wefts of the canvass that we can only see in limited form most of the time.

Incidents involving sadness, failure, illnesses and losses in their multifarious forms will abound in each of our lives.  Just because we had them in our lives this year does not make the year a horrible one.  What a truly horrible year would be one in which we would have been completely out of touch with God and lived as if we were the ultimate raison d’etre of our lives, where we have displaced God from his rightful place at the heart and centre of our lives.  It would be a year without soul, and a year of existence, rather than a year that saw us truly living.  At Christmas we are reminded that Emmanuel means “God with us”.  Though that reality has never changed, the corollary is often sadly lacking because we are often not with God. 

When we have the gift of faith and are deeply in touch with not just the miracles of God, but the God of miracles, every year can be seen as an “annus mirabilis” (year of wonders), giving us the ability to not just look askance at the darker moments that we have had to experience and encounter.  It is very tempting for many of us to dismiss those negative and anxiety-filled moments and to only thank God for the positive and happy moments that brought obvious delight.  Would not our love for God and our gratitude then be conditional, where we only thank God for the good things and silently curse the bad?  We would be living in a dualistic frame of mind where we are only willing to see blessings in their obvious forms, using our very limited line of worldly sight.  But when we are open to the myriad and unexpected ways of God, faith allows us to live non-dualistic lives where we dare to even give God thanks for the moments where we were in a dark space, and ironically, where God often speaks in loud whispers.  In our shared quest for holiness patterned after God’s holiness, it will be necessary to hold that tension of seeming opposites - the good as well as the bad, the successes as well as the failures, the joys as well as the sorrows, and the consolations together with the desolations. 

2013 will always be special for me.  Though cancer came a-visiting, causing me to put on hold so many things in my life, this ‘visitor’ will also be remembered as the catalyst for so many other graced moments where I had been deeply touched, motivated, and in a very paradoxical way, strengthened and fortified.  Despite my living with Leukemia and its harsh treatments and therapies, I have been blessed with the ability to minister to others in some strange and unexpected ways.  Never in my wildest imaginations had I ever thought that a hospital bed in isolation wards and a long and arduous convalescence could be a ministering platform, but yes, it has been proven again that God can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

With the New Year approaching in a few days’ time, the task at hand for all of us is to reach into the most generous depths of our hearts to really be grateful to God for the past year’s providence, no matter what the experiences have been.  When we can expand our hearts to take in and appreciate even the struggles and challenges that we had to go through and are willing to dare to thank God for them, even an “annus horribilis” can become an “annus mirabilis”. 

May you, my dear readers, have a year in which God draws you ever closer to him, giving you the grace to respond to him in love, charity and greater holiness.  God love you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Misconceptions about Christianity that even Christians have about their faith

This week’s reflection is partly influenced by a rather interesting article I came across a few weeks ago entitled ‘Seven lies about Christianity which Christians believe’ by an author named Stephen Mattson.  I have taken liberty to augment some of his very valid points, and to add in a few more of mine, which I have gleaned from my limited experience in active pastoral ministry. 

1.    Christianity gives you an edge over others in life.  No it doesn’t actually.  Especially if how you define success and personal progress is determined by worldly standards.  Unless you have new eyes and a new mind given by the grace of God to see all this as ‘rubbish’ as St Paul puts it, you will see yourself being overtaken by your worldly colleagues and friends, and wonder why your steadfast faith is not giving you the ‘success’ you thought God would have blessed you with.  One only needs to read Psalm 72/73 to see this reality.  It’s not that God doesn’t want you do succeed in life, but having a Christian mind entails that we have different aims and goals in life.  And that is where the real edge over others is!

2.    Being a baptized Christian will make me happy everyday.  Connected very much with the first point, this ‘misconception’ plagues just about every RCIA Neophyte at some time of his or her new life in Christ.  The ‘high’ that one experienced at baptism may be wonderful, but the reality is that there will have to be a ‘grounding’ when one faces the world of lived challenges and daily struggles.  The mindful Christian who is aware of his identity in Christ will realise that living out his Christian calling to the full will entail days of darkness, unknowing and a willingness to enter into the suffering of Christ.  In my own experience of my current illness, one of the more ‘disturbing’ comments I have come across is that as a priest, I should be the last one to become so ill with a blood cancer.  These well meaning comments belie the misconception that priests doing the work of God in active ministry should be well protected from any harm, illness or suffering, and be happy all the time.  Truth is, God had never promised us any rose garden, and even if he did, the rose garden is always full of thorns anyway.

3.    All Christians know how to be good people and the Church is where I can find the best of them.  The hard and sad truth is that oftentimes, it is just the opposite.  There are plenty of examples of baptized Catholics who scandalize others by their selfish, unthinking and unenlightened ways.  Bad behavior is a blanket statement that covers a multitude of transgressions from reserving seats at Masses, treating the Church pews like a picnic ground, using the phone to message or to play games during the Eucharist, habitually coming late for every Mass no matter what the time of the celebration to parking inconsiderately at lots meant specifically for handicapped worshippers even though no one in the car is handicapped.  And don't even start talking about the states of undress in Church that affects the holiness of everyone around, exposing body parts that even the sunshine should not be falling on, what more our eyes.  Of course this means that there are baptized Christians who have lost consciousness about how their behavior affects and influences their fellow Christians.  We just need to be aware that not just the world, but the Church too, is filled with broken people, and there is a need to pray for all – for them to be truly touched by God’s love, and for us to be patient with the deep and inner conversion that all of us require.  For those who are waiting for the perfect Church to exist before entering to worship, my response is "you're going to wait till Kingdom come", and I am not speaking figuratively here.  A Church that is perfect is not going to need God's mercy and compassion and forgiveness.  And if you think that the church is full of hypocrites, the reality is twofold - yes it is, and yes, we can always accommodate another one, so come right in!

4.    Once I am baptized, I am on the way to heaven.  Yes and no.  Yes it sets the movement of our souls towards our heavenly home in the eternal life of the Trinity, but it is not to be taken for granted that there would be no change in direction and our final destination in God.  It requires necessarily that we respond individually on not just a daily but moment-by-moment basis of what this being ‘in tune with God’ means and requires of us.  If we think that being baptized gives us carte blanche to live a carefree and unaccountable life, and assume that God’s infinite mercy will get us squeezing past the proverbial pearly gates, we have, as they say in teen speak, SO got it wrong.  We may be on our way to heaven, but this road can have lots of bandits and robbers who will waylay us.  As long as we are not going to steadfastly set our sights on Christ and his Kingdom, we will find ourselves making the wrong choices in life.

5.    Only our separated brethren need to read the Bible whilst we Catholics only need to ‘attend’ Masses.  A huge misconception, this one.  In fact, we need to have a good balance of both, as one without the other makes us ending up like a twin-engine plane flying on one of its engines only.  The Eucharist is supported, enriched and enlivened by the Word of God that precedes it.  But oftentimes, the excerpt that is proclaimed at Mass is so short and truncated that we don’t get a full picture of the entire account, giving us a deeper understanding of how God was speaking and working in the lives of the people concerned.  When we understand this, we can apply it to our lives in a much more meaningful way, and allow the Scripture to become a real and living word in our lives.  We only give ourselves a small peek into the richness of the Word of God if we are only going to rely on the readings proclaimed at the Eucharistic celebrations, and much less if we are only at Mass once a week on Sundays.

6.    Receiving blessings is not only good, but can assure us of a peaceful life, or worse, that it brings ‘luck’.  Indeed, the reception of blessings is a good thing, as all blessings impart an audible and often, a physical reminder of God’s love for us.  But that’s only half the truth.  The other half is actually just as if not more important.  We have to respond to this blessing that is bestowed upon us as well, in various ways.  For example, asking a priest to go to the home to have it blessed is a good and noble thing to do as a Catholic family.  But more important is the necessity to live out this blessing as a family, and to be blessing to one another within the family.  Fr Ronald Rolheiser in one of his books made a very meaningful reflection on what a house blessing essential is.  He said that when we bless a house, we also allow the house to ‘bless us’.  What this means is that the blessed house gives us a safe and loving environment to be a family in, to live out our daily struggles in, to fight in, to cry in, to argue in, and to pray in.  But nowadays, it is not uncommon for a member of the household to ask that the priest come to bless the house when no one is at home, reducing the act of the blessing to a rather superstitious act of making sure that the house is ‘clean’ than that the entire family experiences the love and presence of God when every member of the family is present and praying together with the priest at the blessing. 

7.    Once I am a Catholic Christian, I will have all the answers that I need in life.  This has to be one of the more common misconceptions that many Neophytes, and perhaps even long baptized Catholics have.  God never promised us omniscience.  Only he is omniscient.  When we are baptized, we enter into the mystery of Christ’s life, which actually had more questions than answers.  If that was for Christ, what more for us, who are not of two natures?  What we are given is a grace at baptism to enable us to enter deeper and deeper into mystery, and to be able to hold on to opposites and seeming paradoxes of life.  You will most probably not be given the proof you have always wanted of God’s existence in the way that you have always wanted.  You will not be able to understand the weakened and often unpredictable human condition that causes us as much happiness as it may cause stress and confusion.  But if we are faithful in prayer and daily contemplation, we will be able to open our hearts to the mystery of God hidden in our adversaries as well as our loved ones.  We will probably die having more questions than answers to our deepest and most longing questions, but we will also be able to say with a certain peace in our hearts ‘it is alright, because God is mystery as well’. 

8.    Evangelisation is only for the select few.  This is a misunderstanding of our basic Christian calling that either leads to a cop out or is caused by a cop out for many.  To spread the Gospel is every baptized person’s duty as a child of God.  To do it specifically in a way that is full of hardship and requiring one to pluck oneself out of one’s community to move elsewhere is something that is a vocation within a vocation, and it is not for everybody.  But make no mistake – that is only one way of evangelization.  We need to make Christ known and loved to the world around us who have yet to know and love him.  We just have to be creative in the ways that we do this so that our Christianity is more encouraging and engaging than it is off-putting and reeking of a false sense of superiority.  We need to take full advantage of the situations we are in to bring Christ up as a sign in our lives.  One very current example would be to wish your friends and relatives a blessed and holy Christmas right up to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which takes place in January, rather than the non-descript salutation of ‘seasons’ greetings’ or worse, ‘compliments of the season’.  Let the recipient of your blessed Christmas ask you why you still use the word ‘Christmas’ when Dec 25 is over, and use that as a Launchpad to share with them how we Catholics actually celebrate Christmas with a Christmas season that begins from Christmas, and why we end it with the Baptism of the Lord.  And if  you are still not sure, there’s always Google, isn’t there?  But don’t take everything you read on the internet as gospel truth.  Make sure you do sufficient and reliable research as well.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be.  Hopefully, it becomes fodder for thought as we enter into a new year and close this one with its abundance of memories, good and bad, joyful and sad, bright and dark.  As we welcome the Lord into our hearts anew at Christmas on Wednesday, we cast one eye on his second coming with a renewed vision of our faith in him and the ways that we have lived as Christians and as Church.  May we all look at our challenges as stepping-stones towards greater holiness and may each step we take move us closer to the sainthood that all of us share as our one deepest longing. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The basis of true Christian joy

Yes, it is indeed a time for joy as Christmas draws near.  This joyful atmosphere is felt and encountered almost worldwide.  In places that eschew anything spiritual for the ‘season’, the joy that is promoted and celebrated can dwell primarily on the mood or feeling that is being created, either by the weather (where cold Winters can engender sentiments of a Christmassy feel) or other artificial or worldly enhancements, accessories and trimmings.  It would take a stoic of great resolve to walk through any shopping street or mall at this time of the year and think that nothing special is happening in town.  I am, of course, not speaking from experience this year as I am still keeping well away from crowds as my low immunity can cause me to catch just about anything airborne.

Even Liturgically, the Church has a specific week in Advent that speaks of joy.  This week, we enter into Gaudete or Joyful Sunday, which is the third week in Advent.  However, is this joy that the Church celebrates the same as the secular joy that the world promotes and ‘sells’ at this time of the year?  If not, then what is it about our Christian definition of joy that sets us apart from the joy that women and men without faith seek and perhaps even promote in life?  This is appropriate fodder for reflection this week.

The joy that we speak of and celebrate is very intrinsically connected with the hope that we have.  Our Christian hope is not a pie-in-the-sky hope.  Hope, as our Catechism teaches us, is one of the Theological Virtues which adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature.  These are virtues which relate us directly with God, and set our sights and minds towards our shared heavenly (and saintly) goal in life. with the other two Theological Virtues being Faith and Charity.  What starts us all on this movement toward divinity is thus our baptism in Christ, where by God’s grace, our souls are ordered and disposed to live in relationship with the Holy Trinity. 

When this is the basis of deep and abiding Christian joy, and we are in a living awareness of how our basis of our joy founded on the hope of an eventual heavenly life, it should reconfigure and redefine what drives, dictates and motivates our daily lives.  In other words, when we are constantly bearing in mind our ultimate goal in life (which is full life in the Trinity), we are given eyes to see anew just how short-lived and temporary the joys that the world gives us are.  Put bluntly, the Christian knows that at the ‘end of the day’, all earthly joys, yes, even the joys of family life and spousal relationships, pale in comparison to that eternal joy that awaits us, and that everything literally dies.  All things material that we strive for on this earth, all positions of power and fame, all yearnings for success and glory, will come to an end when we die.  This does not mean, however, that we Christians are walking pessimists.  In fact, the reality is just the opposite, where we Christians are ever the optimists in the face of any adversity, troubles and sufferings.  Moreover, we are stewards of our given gifts and talents to influence, mould and transform the world so that our Christianity flavours it to bring the Kingdom of God to its fruition.  Yet, we are reminded that this world as we know it is not something that lasts, and that there is certain transience to everything that belongs to this world.

Where is the joy in this?  - Precisely in the realization that all our strivings and pains and struggles in this life will also come to an end.  This is the hidden and paradoxical joy that our faith gives us in the face of each of our own individual complexities of life.   But when one’s definition of joy is only something that is based on a mere good feeling, or a success in life that is largely material and ego-based, one becomes blinkered from seeing that one is living an ‘either-or’ life, where it’s either joyful or sad.  Most of us live this way, and this leads us to having erratic mood swings.  But in a true Christ-like non-dualistic life, where it’s a ‘both-and’ and not ‘either-or’, one’s life joys are no longer based on only success or glories, but one dares to even see failures, sickness, weakness, illness and yes, even death, as moments that give us a doorway towards eternity, our lasting joy, because even these moments do not last forever, and it is very often when we are really in the doldrums of life that we truly begin to look up to what really speaks to the soul.  I have often wondered if the Liturgical colour of the third Sunday of Advent, which is Rose, was chosen because the Rose colour’s base is red, which is symbolic of suffering, martyrdom and life. 

Does knowing this make our lives as Christ’s disciples complex and complicated?  Only if we think that we need to keep thinking about this as we live our lives.  It’s just too artificial for one to do this all the time, and frankly speaking, it can be tiring.  But if we were to, as it were, re-calibrate our hearts and minds for a moment or two each day, to re-set our targets on what really lasts, what really matters to our innermost being, in other words to pray, we can live in a dimension of joy that transcends even the most painful and seeming joy-less situations that we find ourselves is.  We will be able to say to ourselves, even in the face of seeming disaster and strife, that ‘it is alright’.  We will be able to have that confidence to see that the world is a good place despite the many sufferings that we see around us.  That peace that we find prevailing in our hearts will be the joy that is based on our lasting hope in God. 

There have been many people who have commended me on the way I have handled my illness this past year (it was on December last year when I first started getting the daily fevers of unknown origin), leading me to discover that I had cancer.  This confidence and hope that I have is not my doing.  Purely a gift and a grace from God, it is also attributed in a large part to this hidden joy based on my hope in God – that no matter what happens, our hope in God’s ultimate promises of eternal life remain.  If my joy only comes from a hope for a cure, the joy would only be temporary and short-lived. 

There’s an Italian phrase that is used in theology that bespeaks of what is ‘already and not yet’ – gia e non ancora.  Literally, it is used to describe the Kingdom of God as we know it.  It is here, but not fully realized yet.  We see glimpses of it, we experience moments of it, but never it its entirety and while we are alive, never in its fullness.  But we have tasting portions of it when we live out and experience the Theological Virtues.

But when my joy is based on eternity’s hope, there is joy in a ‘gia e ancora’ way.  I am given a broader horizon to appreciate the world and all it has to offer, in terms of both success and failure; glory and shame; wealth and poverty; health and illness, and perhaps most importantly, life and death. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

When the Lord is our integrity, our world is ordered.

Singapore held its annual marathon last weekend.  But apart from its usual hype and hoopla surrounding this well publicized event, something rather strange and awkward made the news as well.  A participant was caught cheating in the race, and it was revealed that he took some other mode of transport by-passing the various check-points and turned up at the finishing line in a time that was way ahead even of the fastest runners around.  His photo was taken (as would be anyone who breasts the finish line) and his stunt was splashed on the front page of the local newspaper.  Needless to say, this story raised the ire of many.  Apparently, all this pastry chef wanted was the finisher’s T-Shirt and the medal.  The vitriol that came from the public came fast a furious.  There were various points of discontent, anger and incredulity - from feeling sad for this person for having to stoop so low just for a T-Shirt and a medal, to the real hard-core marathoners who voiced that this person really doesn’t understand the meaning of a marathon and what it takes to be a marathoner.  But underlying it all was a general pervasive view that there was no integrity in this act.  Some were quoted as saying that if he could cheat so blatantly in such a public event, what was to prevent him from cutting corners in his work and use ingredients that are cheap and perhaps dangerous to the customer’s health?  My brother, ever the wordsmith, had a field day naming some baked items he may put up from now on – Cheat Cake (cheese cake), Cheat and Ham Buns, and pies baked with Short Cut pastry (short crust pastry). 

Yes, integrity seems to be something that so many struggle with.  It is a very loaded word that implies that a person who has integrity really knows what to do in all aspects of life, and does not cut corners, who stands for truth and justice, and does not bow to the pressures of those who have bad or evil intentions in their endeavours.  Even inanimate objects are said to have integrity when their structure is sound, solid, wholesome and strong, and do not give way to the pressures of nature and physics.  An interesting article in the local paper yesterday made mention about how integrity in people is a rare find because true integrity has to be found in all levels for someone to be a person of integrity, not only when others are looking, but moreso when no one is looking.  It is false integrity if one is only honest in one’s dealings with one’s clients at work and with one’s taxes, but on the side, has a mistress and treats one’s employed helper at home like a slave and is cruel mean to them.  Indeed, true and complete integrity is not only a wonderful virtue, but it is also something that is a rare as the Kohinoor diamond.

What is it that spurs one to live in a fully integrated state in life?  Is it just a personal conviction that one should be living right, not just for oneself but for the good of society?  If so, then it is a purely subjective thing, and we run into all sorts of slippery slope situations because our human condition is so clever to justify our actions, even the questionably moral ones.  What is the gauge or standard to be judged by?  The writer of yesterday’s article in our local paper seemed to leave this rather open-ended perhaps because this paper is a secular paper and (for obvious Singapore reasons) cannot be seen to be promoting any religious ideas or views.

For us Christians, our integrity has not only a focal point, but also a common starting point – Jesus Christ.  His is the ‘Gold Standard’, which we who are baptized in him are called to follow and imitate. In all aspects in life, this God-Man perfected the ways of being human, and showed that it is possible to live an upright, moral and virtuous life, only by the grace of God.  The integrated man par excellence, Jesus,  calls all to ‘follow him’ so that the Kingdom of God can be manifest here on earth.   

But is this clarion call by Our Lord really heeded by his baptized followers with all seriousness and whole-heartedness?  Granted, it his is a tough act to follow, especially when we do not depend on the grace of God, but only on our own ‘moral compass’, which can go haywire at times.  Besides, the ways of the world seem to be tugging at us from different directions in situations that sometimes catch us off-guard.  I am only too well aware that it can be spiritually and even mentally taxing to be kept all the time on one’s toes to ensure that evil and sin is kept at arm’s length.  Humbling us, Prov. 24:16 reminds us that even the just man sins seven times a day.  What more the unjust or unenlightened one?

It is into this messy, sin-filled and weakened world that God chose to enter to ‘save’ us from ourselves.  This is what the essence of salvation is.  The life that Jesus came to give us is a life that allows us to live in tandem and in harmony with God’s own life.  It truly integrates us with God and if we truly understand and appreciate this, we can also understand why St Athanasius said, “God became man so that man can become god”.  Choosing anything lesser as our life’s aim and quest is then not only a foolish choice, but a choice that denies our fullest potential as the children of God. 

As the days leading to Christmas draw near, Christmas cribs can be seen in various places, from shopping malls to the gathering spaces in Churches.  Come Christmas, the figurine of the baby Jesus will be inevitably placed in a central place within that crib.  I’ve always noticed that the scale of the newborn figurine is always out of proportion compared to the other figurines in the crib.  Check it out for yourselves.  Scale-wise, the figure of the newborn is often akin to the size of a toddler.  But the general sentiment upon seeing this scene is often that of pity and regret – that this baby is a 'poor thing', and that this family really had it tough.  I guess as far as sentiments are concerned, these ‘sentimental feelings’ are understandable.

However, what most of us do not realise is that what happened in the incarnation is that God looked at the world and saw just how broken, sin-filled and disintegrated we human beings were, and declared –"this is a poor world and the people are truly 'poor things'.  I want to love them into becoming whole and to show them the way to Me.  In my Son, I will show them a true and fully integrated way of living, tough though the challenges may be.  My grace will be sufficient for them".

When we pause to think about it seriously, we have so much to be thankful for in this incredible act of mercy in the Incarnation.  But we hardly do that enough.  We are so caught up in the demands of our daily lives, and are only attentive to this call to perfection (be holy a I am holy – Lev. 11:44 and 1 Pet. 1:16) for an hour on Sundays when we turn up at the Eucharist, if at all.  And if we are not attentive to the goings on and the words of the Liturgy, more is lost on us and our faith becomes a mere name-tag that we wear than something that we live by and aim for. 

This second week of Advent the spirit of the Liturgy is to ask that Christ move us into action so that we can prepare ourselves for his coming not only as a sentiment at Christmas looking back at his birth in Bethlehem, but more importantly, for his second coming.  The word ‘action’ is pregnant with images of a courageously lived Christian life, fully integrated, leading us to mission and evangelization.  Are we attentive at each moment of our lives to live out the calling of our baptism?  This is the indeed the basis of our shared integrity.  Apart from this, we will all be falling apart.