Monday, February 25, 2013

Faithfulness and faith

When the chips are down, and when life is hard for various reasons, it is relatively easy to lose one’s grip on faith and the fact that God has not taken a holy hiatus.  It is often when things are going well, when one’s life-boat is not shaken and rocked, that it becomes easy to be either lackadaisical or complacent with one’s faith, or worse, one’s relationship with God who makes all things possible.

Where do we get our faith strengthened when the going gets bleak?  When we believe in a God who loves and creates out of love and nothing else, it becomes necessary to go back to scriptural evidence of how God himself is faithful despite the fact that we, the people he made the various covenants with have not been faithful.

Just last week, in the first reading at Mass, we saw how God made the covenant with Abram.  It’s one of my personal favourites within the Bible.  So much is revealed about just how God loves in this treaty that mirrors many other treaties in those times.  The fact that God doesn’t want Abram to walk with him through the split carcasses of the animals meant that God was going to bear the brunt of a treaty that was dishonoured and broken.  In God’s great love and wisdom, he knew that man was not going to be faithful to the covenant, thus the slumber that he put Abram to.  But in his greater love and wisdom, God walked himself through the split carcasses and this was a prophetic action that foretold of the passion of the Son of God on Calvary. God takes upon himself the suffering that we deserve, and this is seen writ large when we gaze upon the crucified Messiah on the Cross.  

When faithfulness is borne to such an extent, and shown in such a grand display, it becomes for us a backbone and a firm foundation for our own faithfulness, especially when we are put to the test and our backs are against the wall.  But I have to admit that it is human to find our faith on wobbly ground from time to time, especially when what we have trained for, prayed so much about, and lived out in our lives is challenged and perhaps even taken away for a moment.

It may not surprise most of my readers by now that the illness that I have been struggling with in DC was more than just bronchitis and a persistent fever that would not go away.  My decision to come back to Singapore to get myself treated by local doctors has borne some ‘fruit’ in that they have discovered the cause of my illness.  I have been diagnosed with the cancer Leukemia, and I have a long haul of treatment to face.  I have always wondered what it would be like to receive such debilitating news such as a cancer prognosis, but now I need wonder no more.  While it is not pretty and exciting as news goes, there has been a certain grace that has embraced me from the moment that it was confirmed and told to me.  I don’t think I am in denial, as I am well aware of just how much pain and suffering there is to endure.  But there is no fear, no anger, no regret and most importantly, no bitterness. 

One of the things that still keeps me strong is my constant reflection on just how great God’s faithfulness is.  And because he is faithful to such a degree, and calls us to be holy as he is holy, he is also constantly calling each one of us to become like him in our ways of living.  I can say confidently that at this point of time in my life, the way to live a holy life that imitates God’s is to not let go of my faith despite this news of my illness. 

I spoke with a priest-friend over the phone last evening, and he was so upset that I had to comfort and cheer him up.  He called it a ‘death-sentence’.  I call it a “hidden blessing”.  And it is a blessing because it draws us constantly closer to God and to rely on him and his strength in all the different trials and difficulties that will come our way in the treatment that we choose when we are ill.  I believe that it is a blessing because it will allow me to truly be at one with the many other people who have had to walk this same journey too.  

Today I should begin my chemo journey, and I believe that much will be revealed to me.  Times will be tough, and there will be much to endure.  I only need to be attuned to the way that my God speaks to me through various circumstances, and hope to become an effective channel of his love and mercy to the many who need to hear the Good News – of God’s unending faithfulness.  I ask for your prayers and I too will pray for you my dear readers.  Because of the unknown element of how I will take to the therapy, I may not be able to write as regularly as I would like to.  I ask for your patience in this.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lenten Spirituality

With the coming of Ash Wednesday in a couple of days’ time, Catholics all over the world will find themselves turning up in Church for Mass, and mid-way through the celebration, line up to get dirt smeared on our foreheads.  Apparently, in some parts of the United States, many people who are not Catholics turn up in droves throughout the day on Ash Wednesday to ‘get’ this ash and purposefully have their faces smudged with a mark of dirt.  It is a mark indeed, but much more than just one that is observed on the forehead of our faces.

The mark of Lent has always been a very prominent feature in the life of a Catholic, so prominent that our brothers and sisters who are not of the faith often make references to this liturgical season in speaking to us about our faith life.  The loud, lewd and bawdy ‘celebration’ of Mardi Gras or ‘fat Tuesday’ in French have given the unfortunate impression that Lent marks the beginning of an ‘all or nothing’ season, where we feast in all ways possible right before we fast on all things thinkable for the next forty days.  For good reason, I am happy to note that such ‘traditions’ are largely confined to certain parts of the world, because for the large part, these ‘traditions’ tend to warp and misrepresent the deeper spirituality that lies in the rich season of Lent.

An old English word, Lent really comes from ‘lengthen’, referring to the time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere where the short days of winter give way to the slowly lengthening of the coming spring season.  Having lived in the Northern Hemisphere where I have experienced the four seasons, I can fully appreciate the change that takes place when winter gives way to spring.  Literally, it has nothing to do with penance, almsgiving or a more austere prayer life.  However, liturgically, it demarcates for us that it is a time to look toward an inward change, a conversion and a metanoia.

Why must we keep coming back to this ‘change’ event in our yearly calendar of our faith?  I have even come across folk who ‘complain’ that this annual season is a drag, and that we are too obsessed with our sins and the fact that we are sinners in need of mercy and conversion, so much so that we make it a public event for 40 days each year.  Indeed, looking on from the outside of the discipline and deep meaning of our faith, it can appear that we are ‘wet blankets’ in a culture that often decries the promotion of instant gratification, personal pleasure and living a life of wild abandon.

The point of Lent is not so much about purposefully taking on a harsh life for 40 days (which can make us just masochistic), but to remind ourselves that our lives have a deep spiritual purpose and aim, and that often, we miss the mark of that aim.  It’s a timely, communitarian reminder to the entire Church to not take all that we have for granted, and that above all, God’s mercy that he has shown in the Passion and Death of Christ is something that we need to be mindful of in our daily Christian living.  What Christ did for us in his Passion and Death is not something that we merely look on as an event from a disengaged distance.  It is something that necessarily elicits a response from us whose lives have been greatly impacted by Christ’s great act of sacrificial love. 

The traditional disciplines of Lent where we fast, give alms and pray are the physical manifestations of what should be going on within our deepest selves as we make that journey inward with Christ.  It’s a reminder to not make ourselves the very centre of our lives and that our joys, our sense of what is important, and what should drive us in life has to be outside of us. 
Of course, it is not easy to arrive at this spiritual attitude, which is never an arrival point, but a never-ending journey.  That is why we need to begin forming proper attitudes early in our Christian lives.  As children, we are often taught to ‘give up’ on foods and treats that we love, and this is a good start.  What will be even more important is to teach our children the why of our actions.  When this is not taught properly, we will think that it is just the act of giving up, and can easily end up being resentful and disgruntled with Lent. 

Analogously, I like to tell children that there is so much that our arms can hold on to, and the most important thing to hold on to in life is Christ.  But when our arms hold nothing else but what makes us fulfilled, happy and contented in life, we won’t be able to hold on to Christ even if he were next to us.  So, Lent is a time to let go of things that we have been holding tightly on to, especially things that have not been too good for our souls, SO THAT we can begin to freely hold on to Christ who is constantly reaching out to us. 
This analogy may be a tad simplistic, but it can be applied to all our spiritual lives no matter how young or old we are.  After all, each of the disciplines of lent that we take on willingly are meant to help us to walk closer with Christ not just on the way to Calvary, but also beyond, where we rise with him to new life. 

So, this Wednesday, when we present our foreheads to be smudged with dirt, let us bear in mind that indeed, we are dust and unto dust we will return, but that it is our souls that, after a constant seeking of change and conversion, will be touched and transformed into images of God. 

Lent not only helps us identify what is burdening us in life, but also reminds us to travel light on our spiritual journey.   

Nothing helps one rise better than when one is truly traveling light in life.