Monday, January 28, 2013

Les Miserables - a rich tapestry of grace and mercy in each warp and weft.

(Please note - this is a spoiler alert for those who don't care to know endings of stories before they encounter them - you may prefer not to read this post.)

There’s a movie that has been out since Christmas that has been creating a lot of buzz, and it is Victor Hugo’s epic work Les Miserables.  Of course, if one is a theatre fan, one will swear by the stage musical version for its authenticity and perhaps even (arguably in some cases) singing quality.  But the movie version now gives easy access to millions who would otherwise not get a chance to encounter this very Christian story, a story that every one of us can identify with on many levels.

At the heart of the story is the central message of mercy and grace, which many of the characters struggle with.  At the heart of each of our lives is also the message and act of God’s mercy, which admittedly, many of us struggle with too.  In the opening scene, we meet the pivotal characters of the story, Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean.  Both are bitter about life, but for different reasons.  Javert refuses to see that a person can actually change, and it is significant that he also refuses to refer to Jean Valjean by his name but only by his prisoner number 24601.  Why is this significant to us?  We all have a name given to us at our baptism, and it is closely connected with our relationship with God – where we find our greatest hope in life, where we know that we can turn to when everyone and everything in life has rejected us, and where we established our identity as God’s beloved.  Javert’s obstinate refusal to refer to Jean Valjean by his name is a strong sign that he doesn’t give this released prisoner any hope in life, and that he will always be a criminal.  Throughout the story, Javert lurks waiting for Jean Valjean to turn against the law.

Even Jean Valjean himself shows an internal struggle between responding to grace and turning from grace.  In a wonderful scene that is set in the chapel of the Bishop’s house, as he sings of this struggle in his life, he physically moves towards and away from the Altar.  When he is closer to the Altar, his decisions are for godliness and a converted life.  But when he turns his back to the Altar and walks away, the lines of the song turn to his being embittered with what life seems to have dealt him, and he becomes cynical.  But of course, at the end of the song, we know that he decides to cooperate with grace.

There are a multitude of other characters that have a depth which we can all relate to, but this blog is not about the entire story.  Besides, a commentary like this cannot do justice to such a masterpiece. 

There are so many different definitions of grace that abound in and even outside of the Church’s teachings.  Just this week there was the March for Life in Washington DC, where tens of thousands of Catholics descend on the capital of the United States of America and in a show of unity and total support for the right to life, protest against legalized abortion, which statistics show has resulted in 50 million aborted babies in this country alone since 1973.  That’s the population of a large country.  I have been struggling to recover from my illness, and so reluctantly decided to stay home during the March, while those at the March were in freezing and snowing conditions.  At breakfast the morning after, someone remarked that because the conditions were so harsh, there must have been plenty of ‘graces’ that were given by God on the entire event.  One priest later spoke to me “that really depends on what you mean by grace”.  I wonder if the reason he made that remark to me was because I am the only one in this house who is studying Systematic Theology, which has a very important tract on Grace.  I was too tired and weak to respond either positively or negatively.

Everything that we encounter in life is grace, and this is a safe statement to make, because nothing in our lives can actually happen without God willing it.  Since God is grace, we become partakers of God’s grace whenever we respond positively to his offer of Grace in life. 

The character of Javert is poignant in that he refuses to cooperate with grace and he doesn’t know what to do when grace presents itself to him.  He is absolutely confused, dumbfounded and flummoxed when the very man who he cannot wait to incarcerate again shows goodness and mercy to him.  (Spoiler alert)   In the scene of his dramatic suicide where he falls into the swollen River Seine, Javert is seen literally walking between life and death on a narrow ledge.  The words of his swan song are haunting as they define what must go through the minds of those who refuse to cooperate with grace no matter how grace is presented to them in life. 

“I am reaching, but I fail, and the stars are black and cold.  As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.  I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean, there is nowhere I can turn, there is no way to go on!” are Javert's memorable lines before he plunges into despair because he finds himself unwilling to respond to grace.  

In a strange turn of events, at this point he acknowledges that prisoner 24601 has a God-given name, and yet he still cannot see the God that is reaching to him through his nemesis. 

Presented to us in our lives are plenty of experiences of grace, and all God needs is for us to freely cooperate and respond to his constant offer of love and life.  He doesn’t force or coerce because our positive response doesn’t make God one bit happier or more full.  What he wants is for our fullness in life, where we become more and more godly in our ways of living. 

Blog readers who have yet to watch this movie - after reading this brief commentary, I do hope that you look out for these wonderfully humane and stirring scenes in the movie, and when you do, become aware that in each of us can be a strange mix of both Javert and Jean Valjean, and that our lives are always surrounded by grace.  The challenge is to respond appropriately to God even when it is difficult and challenging.

Monday, January 21, 2013

When the practice of our faith begins to wane – a parent’s dilemma.

It is not an uncommon story – a family that has been going to Church every Sunday together somehow find themselves struggling to keep this practice sustained and regular.  As the children mature and reach the age of Confirmation, it appears that something has unhinged.  The Confirmation seems to have confirmed one thing – that the teenager now wants to exercise his or her freedom in deciding whether or not to go to Mass, and in many cases, has decided to not be involved at all in any Church related activities.  What has gone wrong?  Isn’t this the antithesis of what Confirmation was a sign of?  Has something ‘gone into’ these children who have decided to live secular, humanists and relativistic lives?  Is this cause for worry and fear? 

There are many factors that can contribute to this sad but familiar situation.  The environment in which the children or the family had been immersed in does play a contributory role.  Young, impressionable minds will be influenced by the ways their peers and role models live out (or don’t live out) their faith lives.  The family setting is unarguably one of the prime settings for a firm faith foundation, where parents are open to learning, discussing and sharing their own faith experiences, and where prayer is nothing alien and foreign to the home.  After all, it is a truth that the child’s first catechists are his parents, years before the Church catechists appear on the horizon of their lives. 

But is this something that the Church envisions (where the family unit prays together and lives out their faith in a deep sharing) something that is a difficult task?  In many ways, yes.  The family is fighting to be holy and spiritual on so many fronts that it is easy to give in and ‘let the world take over’.  It is after all, far easier to be ‘sacramentalised’ than to be ‘evangelized’.  Let me elaborate.

Receiving the sacraments is not a deep challenge.  After all, one only need fulfill the attendance at formation sessions with some degree of regularity, give the correct answers to questions that may be posed either by the catechists or some person of authority, and one can be ‘ready’ to receive the sacraments of initiation.  From the moment of that all important First Holy Communion, receiving the Eucharist at Sunday Mass easily becomes the ‘norm’, and it is very easy to receive Holy Communion with nary a thought about the state of grace that one’s soul is in before receiving Our Lord.  Many parents of children who have been lapsed Catholics simply keep silent when these children decide to turn up one day at Mass and join the congregation in receiving Holy Communion.  Could it stem from an entitlement mentality, simply because one had been ‘sacramentalised’ before?  Is there a sense that something is wrong and needs to be addressed but at the same time, one is facing a great reluctance to do something?  What are the biggest fears that these parents face when their own children adopt an “I’ll come when I feel like” attitude?

But when there is proper evangelization and not just sacramentalisation, one curtails an individualism that can emerge from a formation of the soul that is either insufficient or inadequate.  To be fair, the former is a far harder task.  It requires each soul to be cared for, nurtured, loved and grown to become an ardent lover of God and of man.  The person of Jesus Christ has to become real for each individual and this, unfortunately cannot come out of any cookie cutter programme alone.  The person of Christ has to be the foundation of any endeavour of sacramentalisation because a sacrament is really not just meeting something, but encountering someone. 

As an administrator of the Sacraments, I cannot but be concerned about whether or not the people of God are concerned about their search for holiness.  It is not in my position to judge, but often, my deep yearning and longing for their holiness is misconstrued as a judgment.  It is not.  I suppose, like any concerned parent for the well-being of their children, so am I but on another level.  I commiserate with the parents’ fears and concerns.  I can sense their anxiety, and it often happens on many levels.  Perhaps this concern stems from the fact that I am pursuing a course of study that has as its ultimate aim, the formation of souls who will ultimately be in charge of other souls, and the task ahead seems terribly onerous and challenging.  I do not have any quick answers to this quandary that we seem to be facing as church, but what I do know is that this is something that we will have to handle with prayer, love and great sensitivity. 

If Jesus could make excellent wine at Cana when there was hardly any left, there will always be hope.  Our wine hasn’t quite run out yet.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

When faith is the only thing we have going for us.

I must say that I have been very blessed with good health – at least for the most of my life.  I do try to eat well, exercise right, and I generally take a long-term view that this is an investment.  Instead of looking after my flock, if I am sickly, it will be the flock that will have to look after me.  God has blessed be with good health and I am tremendously grateful for that.

But things took a turn for the worse two days before Christmas last year.  Chills and fevers started coming over me, and I was in a foreign land with hardly any idea of how to get help.  I was in New York, and I was alone.  I had to cut short my stay there and quickly returned to DC to get proper medical care.  It was not pretty.  Altogether I made one visit to the doctor, and two visits to the Hospital ER department.  It was confirmed that I have Bronchitis, and it is sapping so much energy from me.  I haven’t had undisturbed, restful sleep for three weeks, and my mental pictures of my healthy days seem to be only a figment of my imagination, and just climbing three floors to the dining room is a struggle and a chore.  To think that I have completed two marathons in my life.

I had to miss the first day of the semester, and I forced myself to class on the second day.  It was no party.  Truth be told, I have never been forced to look at my own mortality with such a strong reality check.  I know that I have to eat to get nourishment into my body but what if one has no appetite whatsoever?  My prayers for a healing have been coming from a place that seems desperate and sadly, hollow at times. 

The absence of last week’s blog entry caused some concerned readers to try to contact me to see if everything was all right.  It wasn’t, and it isn’t.  I didn’t want to make a big deal out of my illness, but it does appear that feigning that all is fine by putting up a usual blog post would be akin to putting on a mask.  I have been forced to look squarely in the eye of my humanity, and it hasn’t been something that I would have wished for. 

But is there any good that comes from an experience such as this painful and debilitating one?  Frustrations and anxiety abound in spades when one has a thesis to write and every waking moment is filled with the awareness that breathing is a chore.  My thesis director had been so kind as to give me an extension to submit my corrected first chapter.  The end looks so long indeed.    But apart from those ‘material’ inconveniences, there is something strangely spiritually beneficial about this unpleasant episode that doesn’t seem to end in the near future. 

As a priest, I have had many opportunities to visit and bless the infirm either at home or in the hospital, and I had always made it a point to give them a sacramental encounter with Christ who heals and makes whole.  I would make sure I said the ‘right’ things, and it was most important that a visit and a prayer would give them hope. 

But when the minister has only seen the healthiest of times and has only been in the pink of health, somehow the words of encouragement and hope can end up being pallid, especially when on essential element is evidently missing – that of real empathy. 

Of course, empathy is a grace.  It allows one to enter as much into the dark, tight and narrow confines of a fellow human being’s heart as possible.  It has very much to do with how St Thomas would define love – willing the good of the other as other.  Some caregivers are naturally predisposed with this grace.  But I think the majority of others don’t really think much about it, and perhaps may even think that it is a burden than a blessing – isn’t life hard for oneself as it is?  You mean I have to now enter into another’s suffering?  When it is seen as anything close to a “have to”, it will be seen as a burden and an unnecessary chore.  But it is when “have to” becomes a “want to” that an internal attitudinal change begins to take place.  One becomes transformed to become more than what one is.  Grace helps one to become larger as a person.  One becomes living truly as a child of God.

I know I don’t have to ask for your prayers, dear readers.  I know that many of you are already praying, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Knowing that I am so far from home and loved ones, and that this doesn’t cause me to be ‘dropped’ from your radar of care and prayer is such a blessing.  It makes the ‘body of Christ’ so real and beautiful indeed.

It is in dark (and cold) times that faith seems to be the only rope one can hold on to.  When the medications have ended, when one cannot imagine yet another doctor or ER visit, and when even eating is a chore.  But it is not a rope of hopelessness.  It causes one to reflect over and over again how strong is one’s faith in the love, the power and the healing of God, and of course, that everything happens under the permissive will of God.