Monday, May 27, 2013

Faith - where the rubber of courage meets the road.

In the past week or so, there has been a lot of news and reports of how actress Angelina Jolie underwent a double mastectomy.  Though she didn’t have cancer, doctors have told her that she was 87% more likely to develop breast cancer in comparison to the rest of the population because she carries the breast cancer gene.  What she did was thus seen medically as something prophylactic, precautionary or protective, and one of the reasons she did this was because she wanted to be around for her children.  Seen in this light, it is a noble thing to do.  She is also (to many) a symbol of modern feminine beauty, and being an actress, choosing to remove a very obvious physical part of her femininity is deemed a very courageous act, though with the advances of modern medicine and plastic surgery, she would be physically restored such that there would be little visible difference between the pre-op Angelina and the post-op Angelina.  Indeed, so many have hailed her choice as a very courageous act, with some saying that this brave choice gives much hope to other women around the world.

This is not a medical blog, and has never meant to be.  It is a blog of personal reflection of a spiritual nature, and I try to be as personal and at the same time, spiritually positive and even instructive as possible (after all, I am in the process of being trained to be a teacher of the faith to others), hoping to be able to form the minds and consciences of my readers. 

What I’d like to base this week’s reflection on is how we should define courage in the light of faith.  I don’t know what the faith of Ms Jolie is, but I can only surmise that she doesn’t make any reference to it in her op-ed (a term meaning “opposite the editorial page”, written by someone not on the editorial team of the paper) in the New York Times.  That she has children without being married may give us some indication that she is not of the Catholic faith, but these days, even that is something that we cannot ascertain.  But whether she is or is not a Catholic, is not a moot point in this week’s reflection.  What I would like to reflect upon is whether what she has done is something that is to be admired and perhaps even emulated by faith-filled Christians, or whether there are other approaches to such situations in life that are equally or even more courageous.

Where does this admired courage of Ms Jolie lie?  There are many, to be sure.  That she is willing to be physically scarred and diminished as a model of beauty is one.  That she is willing to talk and write about her difficult decision is another.  That she is grabbing life by its horns and beating death and illness, keeping one step ahead of cancer could be another.  That she is doing this for her children certainly can be seen as altruistic and selfless.  Viewed from these stands, it is a courageous act.  After all, it is her own words that we should “take on and take control of life’s challenges”.

Do I think any less of this?  Putting myself in her shoes, perhaps I too would do the same.  But I am not in her shoes, and one thing that sets me apart is that I have my faith and am willing to write about it.  That much is clear.  What does faith have to do with anything?  Plenty.

Does it mean that faithful people who are trying to live out their faith in God should not go for the best medical care?  Certainly not.  After all, the intelligence of doctors is something that only God can give.  But is this option that Ms Jolie has taken something that is open and available to every person who is as susceptible to breast cancer as she is?  Just by looking at the financial costs alone, this drastic step is something that only a few can take.  However, is there something to be said about courage in another form?  Could people with faith display perhaps an even deeper courage than ‘grabbing the bull by the horns’ and being one step ahead of cancer by trying to eliminate all (or as much as possible) the chances of it happening to them?  What can we learn about suffering and illness and give ourselves a chance to grow and mature from it that we forego when we pre-empt too much on our part and rid ourselves from its teaching presence in our lives?  We only need to look at none other than the Cross of Christ on Calvary for some clear direction.

This is where faith in God’s providence marks in a believer a clear distinction that sets us apart from those of us who face such ‘border situations’ with only a clearly practical and logical mind.  The kind of courage that faith elicits in us invites us to dare to allow God to reveal his love and providence even in and despite situations of apparent hopelessness, suffering, pain and sorrow.  While the world tries its very best to eliminate suffering, delay death, look good and stave off anything that speaks of pain in all its myriad forms, it is faith in the loving providence of God and his grace that opens one to the possibilities of God’s voice that is spoken in and through these situations that so many try to put as far away from themselves as possible.  Christ on the Cross did not run away from the suffering that was to come, but neither did he masochistically run toward it.  He knew that it had a great redemptive value that was beyond what was apparent to the physical eye.   Instead of ‘taking control’ of the challenges of life as Ms Jolie advocates so loudly, Jesus in his humble act of surrender is saying that there is great spiritual value in giving up control of life’s challenges too.  Imitating and living out this kind of faith allows for one to become courageous in a very different way, simply because it is a courage that is born of faith. 

Living and struggling with a difficult load in life is seen as something that is much more edifying and transforming than doing without its teaching and formative dimension.  Origen, a second century theologian and Father of the Church (more edified in the Eastern Church than the Latin West) was noted by Eusebius, a Roman historian, to have castrated or emasculated himself.  His primary motive was to avoid possible scandal due to his private instruction to women.  He may have done this as a result of reading Matt. 19:12 literally.  But it was later in life that Origen thought better of this drastic act.  It was in his Commentary on Matthew that he wrote disparagingly about taking 19:12 literally, deeming such an act as an ‘outrage’.  Why is this so?  We may not have it clearly in writing from him, but perhaps it is that he saw later on in life (his second half of life?) that removing a possibility to sin just so that one does not ever fall into sin may not mean that one is a holy and spiritually mature person.  It only means that one no longer has it as a source of holiness and transformation in one’s journey of life. 

This is the point I am trying to make about Ms Jolie’s ‘courage’.  Would it be seen as a courageous act to not have the operation and live on daring to face the consequences of a cancer prognosis down the road, and with a resolve, go through the different kinds of treatments that will inevitably be painful and a physical struggle?  Only with the eyes of faith would it be seen as such.  It would definitely be a deeper sign of courage born of faith.  And I am sure that there are plenty of women who have chosen to go that way, but these ‘heroes’ and their act of courage go unsung and unpublished and they may not have the same opportunity to write op-eds that are featured in the likes of The New York Times. 

I stress that I am not condemning Ms Jolie’s act.  What she did was practical and pragmatic.  It was preventive and prophylactic.  But we who are of the faith have a deeper dimension to consider, and are asked to become images of Christ in the world have something more asked of us than mere practicality and pragmatism.  We are required to also give God a possible chance to use our lives as a canvass on which he can reveal his love, often through a redemptive suffering that many run immediately away from.  As  far as courage is concerned, this is perhaps where proverbial rubber meets the road.

Could this be a courage that God is asking of some of us in life?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Letting our stories be changed

During one of my home leave periods from the hospital, I had the privilege to visit with one of my godchildren.  This three year-old precocious and lovely child was delighted to see me as I was to see her, and I took the opportunity to read some stories to her while she paid rapt attention.  That playful side of me decided to spice things up and I changed a few of the details to some of her well known and loved fairy tales that her parents had been familiarizing her with, and to my delight and amazement, she picked up on each change, looked at me with eyebrows furrowed, and exclaimed loudly that I was wrong.  She knew the stories only too well to be hoodwinked with my little changes in the story.  She knew what she wanted to hear, and made sure that she heard it, as she knew it.  She had no desire for anything unfamiliar.

It made me think about our spiritual lives in much the same way.  The way that many of us encounter life and its challenges seem to mimic the way that my godchild almost silently demands that the story doesn’t go off track, and that the stories of our lives stick to some kind of time-tested routine and rhythm. 

To be sure, there is a general pattern that life does follow, from birth to growth to pre-maturity to maturity, and a peak, with perhaps a plateau-like phase, and then a slow descent when the body begins to be worn down and tired and finally to decease.  Yet, within this very familiar and common cycle, very few of us are even ready for those curve balls and surprises that really are par for the course.  These, I suppose, to use my story-telling analogy, is God’s way of ‘tweaking’ the story of our lives, simply because there is no one life that is the same as the other.  One phrase which I came across recently said that the biggest test that we can all take is life itself, and many fail because they end up copying others, and don’t realize that each person has a different question. 

Sometimes I wonder for whom it is that I am writing this blog, something that I started some 4 years ago and have been doggedly at it as a personal commitment once a week every Monday morning, Singapore time.  Certainly, the first person whom I am writing for is myself.  Not for vainglory or self-seeking reasons, but rather that I see in writing a certain reflection that I make of life and its spiritual challenges that come, sometimes at breakneck speed and without much warning.  It gives me space and the opportunity to speak first to myself and then to others that no matter what happens, it is alright when the script of life changes and things happen around the corner which no one could really foresee, simply because God has and always will be in charge.  It is a constant reminder that it is really all right to surrender our lives as fully as we can and fall into the hands of a loving God. 

The other ‘person’ or ‘persons’ whom I write for, are readers who can perhaps resonate with the seeming complexities of life, and struggle with life’s often unanswered questions, especially when our words, no matter how erudite we may be, leave us somewhat mute.  Didn’t Jesus himself say that he didn’t come for those who were healthy, but the sick?  I don’t mean to imply that all my readers and visitors to my weekly blog are sick and infirm in any physical way.  You may be, and if you are, you have my constant prayers.  But at the heart of it all, the real and honest truth is that none of us is perfectly healthy, and all of us are in need of the Divine physician who alone can heal all ills.  Some may think that the spiritual life has its aim the healing of all infirmities so that we can get on with life in the best possible way.  If so, then aren’t most of us only interested in the grace of God rather than meeting the God of grace?  Our faith and our spiritual journey could end up being yet another dimension of self-seeking utilitarianism. 

Charming and endearing though my godchild’s precociousness and attentiveness to well-known detail as far as her stories may be, there will come a time when she will begin to toy and chance with creativity and fantasy, where she dares to move into adventure, the unknown and the unfamiliar.  That she does this within the safe ambit of knowing how much she is loved by God remains the untiring work of her loving and prayerful parents (and godparent) is a shared responsibility that never quite ends.  When this is done well, it should be something that prepares a person to receive all that life can and will offer, and this includes curve balls of all shapes and forms.  Her ‘container of life’ needs to be filled with all the care and love in her first half of life so that by the time her second half comes, there is a certain willingness to empty that very container for God.

Allowing God to lead and guide is, I believe, one of the hardest things to do well, largely because it entails surrender.  We don’t get there automatically, and we need a large training ground on an almost endless horizon called life.  We like to call the shots, hold the steering wheel and go where we want.  And if life brings changes to our ‘story’, many of us are like my attentive godchild and demand that the familiar be reinstated. 

In those times, we need to re-read John 21:18, where Jesus tells Simon “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.  But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 

It is only when our containers are sufficiently filled and willingly emptied that we will go to where we do not wish to go.  But when we do get there, we will also realize to our utter amazement that those will be the places which we needed to go.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Power of Suffering

Paradoxical though it may seem, the title of this week’s blog entry/reflection has a truth to it that goes beyond sense.  When it comes to matters of faith, indeed, most attempts at explanations are ‘senseless’ to a certain degree, though not without being rational.  Suffering, or going through something akin to Christ’s Passion, and dying – can they really be things that are powerful?  We have to almost put on a new mind to try to fathom what our faith is teaching us in order to see how these weak, debilitating and physically enfeebling moments of our lives are ‘powerful’ in a world that demands and expects some form of physical strength and power and authority in order to be a force to be reckoned with and given respect to.  Indeed, a ‘new mind’ is required for one to really enter into the realm of faith, as that is what ‘metanoia’ or a ‘changed mind’ really means.  True faith requires true metanoia – a mind change.

My physical experience this time round in hospital had been an eye opener in more ways than one.  My body’s reactions to the sixth interthrecal spinal injection that sent a dose of cytotoxins to my brain fluid caused much lethargy and listlessness such that I had to just lie in bed for days on end.  One doesn’t feel very much that one is doing anything productive with one’s life when all one can do is lie there and wait for the day to be over, and for the nagging ache at the back of the head to subside, coupled with bouts of nausea and dizziness.  I have come to realize that this is especially so for one who has made it a point to be productive and useful in one’s waking moments. 

This made me ponder if, and how, this lying in a hospital bed can be anything that bore any semblance to being something that was powerful.  Our faith is something that is paradoxical at many levels, and here I was facing the paradox for almost a week.  It gave me lots of food for thought and it was clear where the basis for this paradox of power.  It is in the very being of God himself. 

The early Greek Fathers of the Church in the eighth century used the term “perichoresis” to express the relationship of the Triune God and how the three person of the Holy Trinity relate to one another.  There is an intense giving and loving that ceaselessly co-penetrates the persons of the Trinity, and their relationship, and at the heart of it is something that can only be humanly described as intimacy at its purest form. 

What is intimacy, but a total giving and which necessarily includes a total dying.  Real intimacy is intimacy that has to mirror God’s intimacy in his very Being.  Think of it this way – what is the most intense, most generous and most loving act of intimacy that human beings can ever participate in?  It is in the marital, conjugal union of husband and wife.  There is a great sacrifice that is given in that one is giving oneself totally to the other, without condition.  It is at that near participation in divine living that gives the Church the basis for her teaching that any form of contraception is a sinful act.  Seen in this light, contraception is a sign of being conditional, and it is a giving that is limited.  It doesn’t mirror the divine way of loving that we are made for.  We have ‘missed the mark’ of holy living.  But it is when one is totally giving, giving of one’s whole body AND self, that one becomes able to cooperate with God in receiving the possibility of a new life in the child within the conjugal marital union.  With dying (of self), there comes the possibility of a new gift of life.  I have often told married couples that the marital bed is really an altar of sacrifice, and I get strange looks. 

Parables abound about the link between dying and rising, the need to die (of the seed) before the new germination of life can begin, and of course, the greatest witness to this is Christ’s own dying and resurrection, which we are called not just to believe in but to also participate in. 

St Paul’s quote from 2 Cor 12:9 where he stresses that his strength is made perfect in weakness is something that Paul must have intuited way before the later Greek Fathers came up with anything like perichoresis.  

Granted, it is strange and almost difficult to theologize and spiritualize when one is in the pit of a seeming vacant suffering in a hospital bed.  One usually only thinks of one’s uselessness and one’s powerlessness.  On most of the ‘bad’ days, I did just that.  But when that happened, I’ve come to realize that I’d only centered and focused on my own singular pain, boredom and seemingly uselessness.  To want to expand my sufferings and see them as having a unique power to transform not just me, but a world waiting for a paradoxical one required me to step out of myself.  That itself is a dying that is so hard to do when often all you want to do is nothing.  I surmise that this is something mystical that tugs at the heartstrings of anyone facing any kind of real dying, and that it is the something that is so close to the heart of the love that the Triune God has for each other in the persons of the Holy Trinity. 

We can only try to mirror that as much as we can while we are alive, and pray that we can join in that perichoretic dance when we finally die.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Why I love the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

One of the greatest challenges that any preacher faces is to make that connection between the celebrations of the Liturgy with the very lives of the people who gather around the church sanctuary in the act of liturgical worship.  He leads the people in the act of prayer and worship, and in the breaking of the Word, leads them to see the great hope that lies before them as they also at the same time lead their daily, seemingly mundane and routine lives.  Right worship is never two things – an act of entertainment that gives some sort of ‘escape’ like going to a million-dollar production concert where we lose ourselves for a couple of hours, nor an escapism from our lives of daily chores, work and family living.

The Ascension of the Lord which we celebrate as Church today can give us one of those images where we physically focus on the actual moving or going up of the body of Christ, standing atop a hill in Palestine some slightly more than 2000 years ago, and just being lifted off into the clouds and going further and further up.  That is the scriptural way of saying that something beyond the physical has happened.  It is a ‘meta’physical way of being that Christ has now entered into.  He is no longer bound by space and time, and goes beyond.  Not a physical beyond – a spiritual beyond where he is now so fully joined with the Father and the Holy Spirit. 

“Well this is good for him”, you may say.  Yes it is, but this is also supremely good for us.  You see, we do not, through our baptism, ever exist only for ourselves.  We exist in Christ now.  It means necessarily that what is good for Christ is also good for us.  We have the great hope that we too will enter into this same Divine dimension of being that goes beyond space, and beyond time, to live in the life of God himself so fully. 

This also means that Christ has given us all a great commission by his leaving.  And I think this has not been emphasized too much in the liturgical preaching of this Solemnity, and it is a pity.  Have you ever seen leaders who are just so reluctant to leave their seats and positions of power just because of insecurity and fears that someone else would take their place?  And don’t just look at political leaders because they are just too numerous to name.  We see them all around us – leaders of companies, those “A” stars in Hollywood, university professors, and yes, even the doyens of large (or small) families who demand the servitude of their younger family members in some demanding and superior, know-it-all way.  What this does to the younger generation is that it often handicaps them from growing and stretching themselves in their own leadership skills that are left sadly undeveloped and inhibited and stunted. 

But good and mature leaders do the opposite.  They not only groom and spot talent that is developing, but also help them to develop.  Beyond good and mature leaders, excellent leaders actually make way (physically) for the space for their successors to take their place and to continue the work that they did in ways that perhaps they did not, our could not in their time and in their way. 

One dimension of the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is this very dimension of Church.  The Lord Jesus left that precious space for us to take over, so that so many other ways of being Christ can be opened up for the world awaiting for his presence.  If he had still been here, do you think that there would be the dynamic ways that people like the Father of the Church, the wonderful Popes who shaped our ways of thinking and worshipping, and brave and courageous saints who gave their very lives for the faith would have existed?  Christ’s leaving us paved the way for great creativity and thinking that gives us the dynamism to lead our present daily Christian lives in ways that are open to us.  We would be greatly stunted in our Christian and Human living if Christ had not left the 'world' to us.  Of course, the great courage that he gave us culminated when he gave us his very Spirit on Pentecost which we will celebrate a little later on.

It also means that even the smallest and unseen ways of Christian living can become means whereby I can participate in the very life of Christ because he gives me the hope that this life has a ‘beyond’ that I can always have hope in.  It makes my lying in a hospital bed recovering now much better from my chemo reactions something which is not meaningless, but can actually empower others with hope as I write something about it in this blog!  Well, some priests have the privilege of a stone or wooded ambo to preach from.  Me?  Mine is a hospital bed, confined in a concrete room.  But there is great hope beyond.  That is what Christ’s Ascension gives to me today.  That is why I love this Solemnity.

Have a blessed and most holy celebration of your very own hope of being Christian in a ascended way today!  God love you!

Monday, May 6, 2013

No post this week

This week's entry is held over.  This round of chemotherapy has been particularly tough and challenging.