Monday, June 24, 2013

Twelve years as an ordained priest

I celebrated twelve years of my priesthood last Thursday, and was given some time out of the hospital to celebrate a Mass in the evening with some familiar faces in the pews.  For this I am so grateful.  I thought that it would be good to list some of the things that I have learnt along the way which have taught me much, and to pen these down as reflection points.  These are not in any order of merit.

1.    There is never a moment that we can say that our work is done.  ‘Type A’ personalities have it tough if they tend to measure success and accomplishment by the projects and targets that they set for themselves.  Priests who are of the ‘Type A’ personality have it doubly hard because deep within, they may know that it is not about targets and ideals, and that the journey is more important than that destination, but may have a real problem living this out in their lives.  Yet the ‘Type A’ personality priest needs to constantly let go of this deep-seated need to reach a final end in all that he does.  It’s a double -edged sword that he is dealt with, and it can make or break him if he is not centered first on the Kingdom of God.

2.    That it is a rare diocese that has a bishop who makes it known to his priests that they are cherished and valued.  In my current diocese, I am richly blessed.  My experiences and encounters with priests from other dioceses in the world have shown me something that I only suspected was true.  Many priests do not feel valued and cherished and appreciated by their bishops.  Even if they are, they are not usually affirmed in this. The bitterness and even (sadly) the resentment that comes out as a result of this is that priests then become somewhat disgruntled in their priesthood.  While it is true that no one becomes a priest because of his bishop, a good and strong relationship with one’s bishop has never been the seedbed and genesis of a priest’s loss of his vocation and priesthood.  A good bishop-priest relationship can help a weak vocation, and can strengthen one’s resolve to become a better, holier and more prayerful priest.  Put a group of priests who have an issue with their bishop in a room together and it is always possible to have them seething with resentment and anger, and this helps no one. 

3.    No amount of preparedness can prevent a newly ordained from the experience of being disenchanted after ordination.  It’s par for the course of being a priest, much like it is for many a married couple entering into marriage.  One always has ideals and dreams about so many things – the perfect parish setting, the perfect parish priest, the model parishioners who make up the parish, the great relationship one will have with his bishop as his leader and guide, that great ministry where things will go smoothly with all on board thinking in the same way, etc.  A little down the road, the shattered reality sets in when one by one, the cracks start to show, with the further reality that the Kingdom of God isn’t what one thinks it should be.  It’s a painful reality, but in hindsight, the more one is aware that this is real, the more one can handle it well when the first crises show their face. 

4.    You may know many priests, but you are so blessed if you have one or two priest friends who you really can call a friend indeed.  Perhaps this is more because priests are such busy people that few have close priest-friends.  It takes time and effort to built a trusted and deep relationship with another.  There are certain things in life that are best broached with another person who has had a similar background and vision of life as well as a spiritual background and foundation.  It’s not that the lay person’s view is incomplete and of less value.  It is often just that – a lay person’s viewpoint.  An issue, especially one that is in itself of a priestly related nature, is best left to be shared and discussed openly with another priestly mind and heart within a prayerful and spiritual setting.  Sometimes, airing this openly with a well-intentioned lay-person could become the beginnings of the loss of one’s vocation.

5.    Like many of the laity, many priests also struggle with making prayer something that is constant and consistant.  While many may know that it is imperative that we pray daily, keeping that commitment is something that is a common challenge.  The easiest cop out is to say that our work is our prayer, and if we are truly honest with ourselves, we will know that our work cannot be our prayer if our work is not first a result of prayer.  A prayer-life doesn’t just happen, just like a good marriage doesn’t just happen.  It takes a commitment and dedication and steadfastness because most of the time, we will not be receiving consolations which make prayer sweet and appealing.

6.    Just like our fingers and thumb on one hand are each of different lengths, so too are there different kinds of priests.  There will be priests who are ‘our type’, and there will be ‘other types’.  As long as there is no moral compromise or issue at hand, sometimes we need to let others be themselves with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, and sometimes, seeing how they cause a reaction in us show us something about us more than it shows us something about them.  It takes a largess of heart and a truly giving spirit to see someone doing things in ways that we don’t agree with, and resist the urge to ‘change’ them.  Sometimes this is life-long struggle that one has to live with – a bit like a long haul penance.

7.    The laity will always have things to say about us priests.  We need to accept and expect this.  And they will always compare us with those who have come before us.  We will experience this at every change of parish appointments, and most will be wary of us when we first arrive.  How we live and relate with them as sheep of our flock will determine whether we will see tears of joy or sadness when we get our next assignment after that.

8.    Contrary to what some priests think, the laity generally do not have an aversion to a theologically sound homily.  What they have an allergy to is someone simply quoting theological snippets which are left unexplained and quizzical at best to their untrained ears.  Their interest is always peaked when we can give them solid examples of how such matters are extremely important to their faith lives and how relevant this is to their journey toward holiness and sainthood.

9.    We will see the evil of jealousy around us, and priests are not exempt from this evil.  Our friendship with some members of the laity can sometimes make others jealous.    Our talents and gifts used for God’s kingdom may also cause our less gifted brother priests to mumble beneath their breaths.  We will be tested time and again about how truly secure we are in our dependence on God and not on the affirmations of man which can often blow like the wind.

10.There’s one of you, and there’s a whole parish out there.  This fact affects so many areas of one’s priesthood in various ways.  It’s going to be almost impossible to remember everybody’s name.  Some will take offence that you forgot their names but only remembered their faces, and some will be forgiving for your absent mindedness.  Everyone appreciates your going the extra mile when they are in times of need, and this is going to apply across the board, from the poor to the rich.  When preaching on a Sunday morning, you may have prepared your homily so well, but always be aware that each person out there has a unique and personal situation that often affects how that message is heard.  Some will hear what you said, but not feel what you tried to impart.  Some will want to hear what you did not say, and get themselves in a tizzy over something that was not even intended.  But happy are you if they heard a hard message of gospel truth, took umbrage because it pricked the conscience, and they told you they didn’t like your homily.  Treat these moments as graced moments because you were prophetic without being fearful. 

11.Love is a decision.  If only it were that everything that we do as priests comes automatically as a result of love, and is obviously loving.  Most of the time, it is not.  A lot of our actions seems to be just that.  Actions.  What a prayer life does is that it remind us throughout the day that our lives become meaningful and our actions become Godly when we knowingly do them with a decision to love.  The more we are aware of this, the more the areas of our service will become centres of God’s love where charity and kindness prevail. 

12.Take a day off a week for some ‘me’ time.  I was advised to do this by my Spiritual Director from the days of my Diaconate.  Unless an emergency comes up at the last moment (and they do), we may need to be uncompromising about this necessary day of rest.  It enables priests to recollect themselves and ready their minds, hearts and souls to minister to other minds, hearts and souls.  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Visiting old familiar places

There are so many places in life that seem to be beckoning at us.  Those of us who have been blessed with the chance to have travelled much in life still never run short of places that tug at our heartstrings, where their lure and attraction spark the wanderlust in us.  Many find the sense of discovery and adventure of a new place always exciting, with the anticipation of a something new always awaiting us around a new corner of an unexplored world, hitherto unknown.  Yet, we do also know that life is not only all about the new and shiny, the unknown and unmet.  There is a large part of life that consists in also necessarily dealing with and living with the old, the familiar and the basic.  Man does not live on exotic bread alone, but also on the foundational, familiar and routine Word of God as well, if one could read into Scripture and bring what is essential into clearer perspective.

Perhaps the same could be said about reading and living with the Sacred Text.  We all have our routine favourites, and there are a host of people who love to ‘discover’ a new quote from scripture which perhaps is unfamiliar.  It perhaps reminds them that indeed, the Word of God is something really alive and active.  It’s a good way to being kept on one’s toes as far living the Word is concerned.  But is there a foundational text, a basic teaching that seems to be able to surpass others when it comes to our crisis points in life?  Is if fair to say that one particular text speaks more eloquently and even exquisitely in our times of dark need in ways that others may only hint at when it comes to telling us of God’s closeness to us in times of need?  I have a personal favourite and I have no means of saying without shadow of doubt that this should be it for you, my reader, but if you will bear with me, I will try to share with you why the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount (or the Plain) will always be a text that I return to over and over again in life, simply because the eternal truths of life and life’s challenges are found in and hidden in these gems which Jesus uses to usher in and establish the Father’s Kingdom and reign.  While Matthew give us eight blessings, Luke’s version has four blessings and four woes that are antithetical. 

An aerial view of the Church of the Beatitudes, where it stands on a mount overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
In the Beatitudes, we are affirmed by none other than God himself that we are living on the right track in life when our choices in life lead us to a certain suffering and place of discomfort.  All of us will find ourselves in this kind of position or predicament in life if we are serious in our Christian living.  Our moral choices set apart those of the world, when we are morally courageous, will put us in a position of disadvantage and we find ourselves in some corner alone.  Yet, we know that we are not alone because our choice was for God, and he is always with us.  We know as well that at the heart of it all, our spirits are poor and bereft of anything if not for God’s spirit dwelling in us.  When I know that in itself, my spirit is really nothing, and when my eyes are open to the fact that everything about my life is a result of God’s gift and grace, I not only know how poor I am, but also how incredibly and exceedingly rich (and blessed) I am, I begin to redefine true happiness, and this riches which I am given makes Midas look a poor cousin.

The reason we need to revisit this very familiar passage very often is because we want to truly live kingdom values and in the secure and providing arms of God.  This has to one of the most basic principles of the Christian life.  Moreover, the Beatitudes remind us to reclaim what true blessings are.

I have never quite steered away from a basic spiritual truth in my weekly spiritual musings, which is our need to live in a constant spirit of gratitude and receptivity of God’s mercy.  To be able to live this way is one of the greatest blessings in life because we will be aware that we rely on God in just about everything in life.  What is a blessing but a recognition of one’s goodness and value, where on is validated for one’s very being.  This explains why people love to be blessed and to experience a blessing.  I can understand why parents of children who have not reached the age of receiving Holy Communion like it when their priests are ‘illiturgical’ and ask that they go up to receiving a blessing instead.  This ‘abused’ act is something that is so rampant it has almost become a liturgical monster in itself.  But this is not a post to deal with how much I am against this at the Mass.

Being blessed at the right place and time affirms one that one is loved, that one is recognized as good, and it re-establishes one’s good value.  Being blessed gives one the strength and courage to continue to pursue the kingdom values that Jesus came to establish in spite of how difficult they will be in the face of earthly and temporal values like the measures of success, wealth, position and power.  So, when we read with our hearts that we are ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’ despite our apparent disadvantaged positions in life, we know that deep inside, there is a real truth that we are living.  The world with its dangers and lures still becomes a safe place.  It is not often going to be a happiness that is commensurate with a bounce in one’s steps and a lilt in one’s voice, though it may occur from time to time.  This happiness that Jesus speaks of is based on a certain acceptance of a vulnerability in the biblical sense.  This cannot be understood with the mind in its logical categories, but rather, with the heart of faith. 

When we take pains to revisit this familiar place in the Sacred Text, we re-ground ourselves in a fundamental truth that God supports us in all our difficulties and trials.  We reclaim our blessedness in our Christian living especially when we mistakenly think that as followers of Christ, we picked the short straws and others have it good.  In reality, have we really picked the short straw?

Blessed are those who have. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Wounds - our touch points with God

Wounds are a part of our lives.  Much as parents of newborn babes try so hard to prevent wounds from happening from the time of their births, we all know that this is a pointless exercise as there are bound to be moments where all eyes are off the baby and the precious little tot bumps the head or knocks into a chair corner and bruises himself or herself in the process.  There is very little that can be done (apart from living in a bubble) that can ensure that we do not get injured or wounded in our lives. 

I make this reflection on two connected points – last Friday, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where we look anew and worship the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, wounded out of love for all humanity – a woundedness that is taken on willingly and out of love for sinful humankind in response to the will of God the Father.  Connected to this is a reminder to me of my own woundedness that I physically bear as I live with an open wound in my chest in the form of a Subclavian Central Venous Catheter, also known as an open line that gives direct access to my subclavian vein so that medication like chemotherapy drugs and blood tests can be easily obtained without numerous piercings into my arms and hands.  It is still a medical marvel to me how this open wound can be in me for some 5 months how without it being infected, though I must admit that I take great care to prevent any forms of infection it is after all, an open would in my chest!

In our spiritual journey we too are bearers of many wounds.  Some may be self inflicted when we misunderstand Church teachings and think that we are marginalized and put of the sidelines.  A little good and clear catechesis, imparted with a great deal of charity, patience and love goes a long way in clearing most misunderstandings and imagined prejudices. 

But what of wounds that are given by God?  Some wounds are not a result of any misunderstandings or misconstrued notions.  These would be the innocent wounds which come about as a result of our faithfulness to God and living out what Mother Church teaches about transformative love and a suffering that comes with them as our training ground in deep spirituality. 

When I contemplate on this as part of my meditations, I often take with me the appearance of Jesus at the Upper Room after the Resurrection to the fear ridden apostles.  Why did Jesus appear with his wounds?  It was the connection point of his humanity with his divinity that the prevalence of his wounds, still visible in his glorious resurrected being, that gives us all great hope in our living with our wounds while we journey on this earth.  Isn’t this a sign that our wounds, when carried with love and non-violence (marked so clearly by Jesus’ own forgiving words while hanging on the Cross at Calvary) is what we too carry with us into heaven? 

But if we only harbour grudges, umbrage and bitterness in our hearts for our wounds inflicted on us by loved ones and life in general, we will have very little to take with us into glory as there is no room for such in an eternity with God.  We would only display much vehemence to those who had caused these wounds rather than look upon them with forgiveness and compassion, and vehemence and heaven are as compatible as chalk and cheese; gratitude and pride.

We don’t have to go very far to pin point the kinds of wounds that we bear in our heart.  A parent whose child is abusive and unfilial; a spouse who tries so hard to live out the pains of true committed marital love despite a seemingly loveless marriage; a parishioner of a church who has deep disagreement with the policies of the Parish Priest but still goes to Mass to the same parish without gossiping about his or her displeasures or insisting on things changing before having a change of heart; difficult and painful medical treatments that we have to go through to ensure our sustained health and lives; perennial troubles with the in-laws despite trying so hard to love and forgive.  These are all very real wounds that many innocently bear as a testimony of love.  But if the love is not directed to God, it can be something that wounds even further, deepening the hurt.

But isn’t it when we take our faith seriously and carry these wounds to God and surrender them to him in a similar spirit that Jesus did on the Cross, that these wounds actually do something good for our lives?  It makes the meaningless meaningful.  It makes meaningful the surrender that is required of the broken human soul.  That is because God can make something out of nothing, as the teaching ‘ex-nihilo’ teaches us.  We may think that our sufferings and wounds are nothing.  But God doesn’t.  Not when it is offered in love.  This is what we must take with us in our meditation on the Sacred Heart of Jesus, followed very theologically by the Immaculate Heart of Mary, where her heart was purely focused on the love that God had for her, and for humanity.

I do not like the fact that I have a wound in my chest.  It inhibits my movement, and it causes me to be unable to exercise as I used to.  I cannot swim, I cannot run, I can’t even go for brisk walks as any perspiration seeping into the gap between the tube and my open wound would be an open invitation for a bacteria party, causing all sorts of infections.  As a result, my muscle mass has begun to waste away, and I am pretty much out of shape.  It’s a blow to someone like me who has been an avid exerciser and loved to keep fit.  But I have also come to see that it is this very wound that has kept me alive through the arduous chemotherapy sessions these many months.  I need to be thankful for this wound that I have, as it is literally my lifeline.

Perhaps you, the reader, may have some wounds of your own and have prayed for God to take them away.  If he has allowed you to live up to now with these wounds, perhaps it is in a very hidden way, your lifeline to God through holy acceptance, difficult though it may be.  Sometimes we think that our prayer life should consist in eradicating all of our hurts and wounds in life.  Jesus did not make that the aim of his life.  Should we not learn from this too?

Monday, June 3, 2013

The challenge to be truly grateful for everything in life

It is relatively easy to be thankful with a heart filled with gratitude for life’s large blessings that come our way through the grace of God.  A job promotion, a salary increment, a new born member into the family, a windfall, good news of a clean bill of health from the doctor, and success in its myriad forms.  As Jesus stated in the scriptures, “even Pharisees do as much”, though there may be very few real Pharisees in our times. 

But interspersed between these obvious moments of blessings when ‘angels’ visit us, there are also many other moments when life gives us many other challenges and we are faced with the pains and struggles of life and its relationships.  That’s when just the opposite happens to us – when we may lose our job, when someone we love and cherish meets with illness and dies, when we suffer a huge loss in our investments, when a natural disaster strikes, when our doctor gives us a diagnosis of a malignant tumor, when we suffer some form of failure and dejection or when a loved one betrays us, leaving us wounded and limping.  At these moments which Richard Rohr would label as ‘liminal space’ moments (from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning threshold), many end up cursing God and foe, and perhaps ‘punish’ God by leaving the Church and stop praying altogether.  As a priest, it is so common to hear this happening from family members of such wounded people (usually mothers of children who no longer go to Sunday Eucharist), or as a lament from the very people themselves, often with a spirit of cynicism that can be easily detected from a sarcasm-laced critical attitude when speaking of God and religion.  Of course, if the Church had been a cause for scandal and reproach due to her own weak and sinful actions of the members of the Church or clergy, justice needs to be meted and wounds help to be healed.  But what if the suffering and pain has little or nothing to do with someone or some institution with regard to the suffering?  What if the suffering is part of life, which is God’s great gift to us?  Do we still become grateful?  How in the world do we do that?  Would we be labeled as die-hard masochists if we are grateful for life’s challenges and crosses?

A good friend of mine was just diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid recently, and in my conversation with her, I was quietly delighted to hear her say that she sees that cancer is a blessing from God.  Her positive attitude in life and toward God reveals a great trust and reliance on God whom she has a very real relationship with. Her family is still struggling to accept this piece of news, and that is to be expected perhaps because no two people can ever be at the same level of spirituality and spiritual growth as it is a very individual thing.  It is our spiritual preparation in life comprising  our daily prayer life, discipline and walk with God that often determines our ability to live with hands that are outstretched in gratitude for every little thing in life that comes our way, good or bad.  When we cannot live in this positive way, we only injure ourselves further by the two “C’s” which never lead to growth and maturity – Complain and Compare.

When we think that life has to be ‘fair’ and smooth sailing, and when we have expectations to be met – of God, of our families, of friends, of acquaintances, and others, we are setting ourselves for a hard time in life.  This is especially so when we have one eye constantly cast on the lives of others with the other on our own, and complain to God that life is unfair.  Little do we realize that when we do that, we are often mixing up God with life.  In one of his writings, American spiritual author Philip Yancey quotes a very deeply spiritual man whom he interviewed as saying that many confuse God with life.  He says “we tend to think that life should be fair because God is fair.”  But God is not life, and if we confuse God with the physical reality of life, by expecting good health and all its benefits, we are setting up ourselves for great disappointment.  This was coming from a person who went through great struggles and tragedies in life.  Yancey calls him a modern day Job.
James Finley, a former Trappist Monk, who was in the Trappist Monastery in Gethsemani Kentucky with Thomas Merton, says that “when we come to fork roads in life, there are two possibilities that face us, or two options that we can take.  We can choose to go deep, or we can choose to despair.”  What wise words.  Oftentimes, the latter is chosen more out of fear and desperation than out of a free choice.  But when one has been given a special grace by God, or when one has been quietly preparing oneself by maintaining and developing a strong relationship with God, one can take that bold step to go deep.  And it is in the depths of one’s being in tune with God’s Being that gives one begins to develop a grateful spirit no matter what happens. 

I just had a rather big disappointment last week with regard to my Leukemia journey that I’ve been on since the beginning of this year.  I was scheduled to receive a valuable gift – stem cells from a donor who has a perfect match with my stem cells was found by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme from Canada.  My doctor was very pleased with this 1 in 20,000 match, and I was supposed to get this gift sometime toward the end of June.  Last week, I was told that the donor had decided against the donation and for undisclosed reasons, was not proceeding with the arrangements. 

How did I take this piece of news?  I must say that I surprised myself.  I was and still am very calm about it.  I am certainly not angry about this change of decision of the donor.  She must have her reasons which I will respect as the prerogative to give her stem cells is totally hers.  That she signed on to be a potential donor in the first place shows that she was willing to give it a try.  Certainly, if she had completed the donation process and I received her stem cells for a hope of renewed life, I would be very grateful.  But would this not mean that my gratitude is conditional if I were to only be grateful for something completed and successful?  Didn’t Mother Theresa say that God doesn’t want success but faithfulness?  If our gratitude to others is only based on our measure of goodness and generosity, most people would fall short of getting our heartfelt thanks.  When God shows us his mercy, what makes his mercy so divine is that he steps into our shoes and sees our actions and decisions from our point of view before any judgment is made.  And when he asks that we be holy as he is holy, the command is that we try to do the same when dealing with others and their actions.  Sure this is hard, but it is not impossible. 

I may be disappointed, but I do not think that anyone owes us anything in life.  There are very few, if any, entitlements in life.  When we have that as our attitude towards others, we prevent ourselves from practicing gratitude.  We just don’t practice gratitude enough in our lives to become experts at doing it as part of our very being. I am a strong believer that the more we practice this, the more we will be able to be truly grateful for everything in life - even the disappointments that eventually teach us something about ourselves. 

So the search resumes by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme for another perfect match for my marrow and stem cell markers, and my marathon run of further lengthy and tiring chemotherapy sessions at the hospital continues, with the dreaded intrathecal injections, which I will try to receive with a growing heart that is being trained in living with gratitude and thanks.