Monday, July 22, 2013

The Gethsamanes that we experience in life

As the days progress towards my stem cell transplant which will take place on 25th of July (Feast day of St James), the grace of God has helped me to stay extremely calm and collected, with very little anxiety.  Those around me seem to be more anxious than I, and this is something I was prepared for.  I am writing this post in my transplant ward, and am told that I will be in this room for at least five to eight weeks.  That’s longer than my Ignatian Retreat of 30 days that I did in Chiangmai, Thailand when I was a seminarian in Theology!  I suppose this is also a retreat in another sense. 

One of the most memorable meditations that we had to do in Chiangmai was the one on death.  The retreat master (who has since passed away, bless his soul) asked us to do this meditation at midnight, and this was to allow us to experience darkness at its best, I suppose.  One may think that meditating on death at midnight would be something that only the maudlin do.  On the contrary.  Especially for those who have some knowledge of what St John of the Cross wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul, you will know that it is in this darkness that one begins to encounter the God of Silence.

As a child, I used to be terrified of the dark.  I needed some light in the room to sleep, and it would be best to have some company with me.  But I had to learn the hard way as I was to have my own room later on.  I would find ways to ease the anxieties and one of them was to play music from the cassette player till I fell asleep (yes, it was THAT long ago).  I know that I have come a long way since then, and I have come to almost embrace darkness now, largely because God is as present in darkness as he is in light.  We tend to forget that in the creation story in Genesis, before there was light, there was God.  The way that God speaks in silence, the way that he moves in stillness is similar to the way that he is brilliant in darkness.  We just fail to appreciate this God of immense diversity when our minds have fixed notions of how God can and should work. 

My night nurses in this ward have remarked how sensitive I am to any light in my room at night when I asked them to switch off all lights so that I can sleep better.  Perhaps this is a sign that I am really at peace in this stage of my treatment, awaiting the transplant.

Why does God choose to remain hidden, silent, to work so slowly (most of the time) and not show himself?  Theologically, we say that he is ineffable – meaning that he is too great to be expressed in words.  What this translates to is this – we only do ourselves much damage when we box up God into neat categories, delimiting him.  The truth is that God, being God, just cannot be limited.  Any form that we give him in our human terms becomes something that greatly reduces his majesty, power and glory.  Notice that only one person of the Holy Trinity has taken on a form that is perceivable to the human eye.  The other two remain unseen, with no form and no body.  This is problematic for many because of the human need for proof and tangibility before any assent is made.  

But even for those of us who do believe, when we reach the Gethsamanes of our lives, we can go one of two ways.  We can turn around.  We can refuse to enter and even give plenty of good and justifiable reasons for doing so.  Or we can do the more difficult but perhaps also the more loving thing – to willingly enter into the Gethsamanes of our lives with deep faith and trust and surrender.  However, Gethsamanes are not pretty places.  They are lonely, they are silent, and often, they are are also dark. 

What are these Gethsamanes but the times of our lives when things don’t quite work out as originally planned and hoped for.  They are the ‘spanner in the works’ moments – when we fail at our projects, when friends and loved ones betray and disappoint us, when we are bereft of things and people that give us happiness, or when illness strikes us at the most unexpected of times.  Often, requiring of us to die to the self in these moments, and it is very natural for us to fight this.  The irony of it is that God often chooses these moments of seeming emptiness and pain to fill our lives with his love, power and presence in ways that we cannot imagine.  The love that we have propels us to go through this period of trial and testing and when we are faithful and trusting, and God will fill our emptiness beyond our imaginings. 

Entering into darkness with trust requires of us a loving patience because we have been too entranced by the dizzying lights of day.  A crude example is when we go into a darkened room like a cinema, and it takes quite a while for our eyes to be adjusted to the dim lighting.  But as our eyes get accustomed to the low level of light, we begin to make out quite clearly what lies in front of us.  Analogously, so too is this in our spiritual lives.  St John of the Cross was extremely graced to be given this insight into our shared spiritual journey, which, unfortunately, not many are willing to appreciate and enter into willingly.  Most of the times, we get pushed into this darkness by some circumstances beyond our management.  But the wonderful thing about God is that he doesn’t mind how we enter into it.  We only need to be willing to be led once we are in that “Holy Darkness” where there is blessed light. 

I may not be able to put up a blog post next Monday, as I could be very weak by the strong chemotherapy and full body radiation prior to the stem cell infusion.  God-willing, I will be able to say something meaningful and something that will lift each reader’s spirits and enrich the faith of each of my readers. 

I leave you this week with a song that was written by Dan Schutte, and he puts what I have reflected on into music.  Just click on the "play" button in the centre of the YouTube screen below (not accessible on hand-held devices, however).  If you are in any form of Gethsamane now in your life, listen to it.  If you need to, do this several times – first with your ears, subsequently and more importantly, with your heart.  Let God speak to you there where if you let him, and he will speak the loudest.  May God touch you and comfort you in your time of need, bringing you light in your Gethsamane moments.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How not to fear when the horizon seems ominous

A rather amusing story goes thus: 

A ship is sailing across the oceans and before it lies a wide expanse of cobalt blue waters.  Suddenly, a pirate ship appears on the horizon, and the captain calls out “Men, bring me my red shirt!”  Hearing this, the first mate dutifully fetches the shirt and the captain successfully leads a courageous attack which sinks the pirate ship. 

One of the sailors then asks the captain “Why did you have the first mate fetch you the red shirt in battle?”  The captain said “because if I am wounded, you will not see blood and will continue fighting as if nothing had happened.”  This answer astounded the crew on the shrewdness of their captain. 

A few days later, a convoy of thirty pirate ships appeared on the horizon.  The men looked to their esteemed captain and waited with bated breath for the captain to ask for the shirt which gave them such confidence in the prior battle.  The captain looked at the horizon and then said, “Men, bring me my brown pants!” 

I still chuckle to myself whenever I think of this story, even though some may think of it as ‘off-colour’ humour.  But it has its teaching points.

In the past couple of weeks after I was discharged from my last chemotherapy session in the hospital, I have had the opportunity to meet up with friends and parishioners who inevitably assured me of their prayers for my upcoming stem cell transplant.  In almost the same breath, they would also tell me ‘not to be afraid’.  While I am very grateful for their prayers and well wishes, I also wonder why it is that these same wonderful people also want to advise me to not fear.  I am sure that I have not given any indication of any fear in my encounters with these people of faith, so I am also left wondering why it is that they seem to have the need to tell me not to fear.  Indeed, many of them even remarked how calm and cheerful I am despite my prognosis.  As far as I know, I have not feared anything related to my illness and medical treatment since it was diagnosed, and now that I am only days away from my transplant procedure, things have not changed as far as fear is concerned. 

In sacred Scripture, we are told that there is only one fear that is worth cultivating in our lives, and that is a fear of the Lord.  A misunderstanding of what this means has resulted in a lot of people treating God as some sort of troll-like ogre.  But in truth, a holy fear stems from a proper understanding of love at its purest.  When the basis and foundation of fear is love, one becomes extremely sensitive and attentive to the ways in which this love can be disrespected, transgressed and disappointed.  A holy fear ensures that we do not betray what has been given to us out of love, and we become more and more aware of this when we are aware that this love is nothing that we have deserved or earned on our own merits.  This is what holy fear really is, and to have this, is, as scripture tells us, the beginning of wisdom. 

When we understand this sufficiently, we will also see and appreciate how little there is a need to fear outside of this “good” fear.  All other fears will become secondary and even unnecessary.  When we have a healthy fear of God, and know that our biggest disappointment and failure in life is to end up not being with him for the rest of eternity, the other discomforts, pains, inconveniences, hardships, long sufferings and turmoils in life will have less and less hold on our lives.  It is not that these will suddenly disappear either.  We may well still have them, and even have them in abundance, but they will not hold us with any long-staying power. 

We only have to read what St Paul underwent in 2 Corinthians 11 about his experiences and encounters with sufferings to get a sense of what also must have empowered him to live on courageously in his missionary endeavours.  We are told that he was beaten three times with rods, stoned, shipwrecked a few times, faced numerous dangers, and faced daily pressure due to his anxiety for the churches.  Yet, we are never told that he was fearful.  We can only surmise that his encounter with a loving and merciful God was so real, so assuring, making him so secure, that there was no need to fear anything else in life. 

It is not that I do not have concerns at all when facing the horizon of my impending transplant.  A very useful book compiled by the hospital’s Haemotology department specially for transplant patients outlines in no small detail what we transplant patients will most likely be experiencing in terms of the drugs taken, the side effects to be expected and how serious the adverse effects of some Graft Versus Host Diseases (GVHD) can have on us.  In foresight, these may be good to know, it may even fill some patients with a fear of what is to come.  But when we have tried to cultivate a true and healthy fear of the Lord in our lives, we will realise that some irrational fears can make us crippled, preventing us to appreciate the ways that God often draws straight with crooked lines.

When we have this as our guiding light in life, it won’t matter much that the pants supplied by the hospital are not in any shade of brown. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Angels may leave us, but God does not

In the New Testament, there are three very distinctive places where we are told that the angel of the Lord comes so significantly into the lives of the individuals concerned, does something so clear and specific, and changes the directions of their lives henceforth.

In the twelfth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we see how the angel of the Lord comes to Peter who was held in chains in the prison, and how he was so dramatically freed.  The other personality who encountered an angel was Mary at her annunciation, where the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she was the chosen one to be the Mother of God.  Closely connected with this event was the appearance of the angels to the shepherds watching their flock in the fields by night to break the news of the birth of the Lord.  In these three episodes of the appearance of the divine messengers, what is very significant is that we are told that the angels left after they had done their appointed tasks. 

We don’t often say very much about the fact that the angels left them, do we?  That the angels made their appearance at the time and place that they did is much easier to ponder on.  But perhaps it is also important and even significant see the impact on the people involved what the departure of the angels had on their lives. 

 Firstly, I think we need to see the significance of how God doesn’t spoon-feed his people.  That the angel left Mary after the annunciation meant that she had to work out many things without what would be called very clear and specific instructions.  How does handle the bringing up of a divine child who decides to stay on in the temple unannounced at the age of twelve?  What does one do to ensure that one doesn’t make mistakes in the development of this child to adulthood?  Would that there be a clear road map for one to follow that is as clear as the angel Gabriel’s words at the annunciation.  Yet, we know that the angel did leave Mary, but God did not. 

If I got a dollar each time a recently baptized person (from the RCIA process) lamented that their baptism was so special but a year or two down the road, it just seems so flat and uninteresting, and so challenging, I would have with me a sizeable fortune.  Undoubtedly, unless one has the sensitivity of a tree bark, ceremony and ritual like that of a baptismal rite that is incorporated into the Easter Vigil Mass will touch and move a person to a greater or lesser degree.  Great as these moments are, like the angel at the annunciation, these moments will also ‘leave’ us.  It is at those crucial but also silent moments of our faith lives that require of us to exercise the tenacity of our faith.  These moments, trying though they may be, require us to look back in thanksgiving, and at the same time, to look to the future with our belief firmly held, and to also remember that God never intends to spoon-feed us at every step of life’s journey, simply because no spoon-fed person really matures.

Secondly, when we truly have had an encounter with the Lord (or his angel), we cannot but become co-messengers of the Good News for others who have yet to know this Good News.  Mary, Paul, the shepherds and undoubtedly, the Magi, became transmitters of the goodness of God.  They knew that in their hearts, this message was too good to be kept to themselves.  They had to make sure that others, through them, became the recipients of the Good News of salvation and the Good News of the Lord.  This was their mission.  That the angel left them meant for them that they now had to become the new harbingers of great joy to others whom they encountered.  Paul went to the missions, Mary visited her aged cousin Elizabeth, and the Magi went back by a different route.  Their lives were dramatically changed, and I daresay, challenged as well.  If angels stay with us all through our lives, we may never move our lives into action.

Thirdly, a true encounter with God that shapes and changes our lives has to lead us to become centered in prayer for the rest of our lives.  Prayer connects us to God, and it gives us the energy to fuel and sustain our belief in and love of God.  Mystics do not often get consolations in prayer, but yet, most true mystics remain faithful and committed to their prayer disciplines.  Many of these mystics only had to have one very real encounter in prayer, which gave them an unshakeable and unmistakable belief in the love of God.  What St John of the Cross considers the dark night of the soul is where there is an absence of consolation that plunges one deeper into the mystical pure love of God.  Some may use the term ‘dark night’ to mean a spiritual crisis in one’s journey toward a union with God, but it is something that even saintly folk like Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa of Calcutta encountered.  It was for them a purification of the senses that brought them to a purer love of God. 

Why am I writing about this strange topic?  It may have something to do with the fact that a second stem cell donor has been found for me, and I will be going into a ‘dark night’ as the transplant requires me to be in the hospital for anywhere between five to eight weeks, where I will not be able to step out of the room the entire time.  Medically, this is required to prevent me from getting any infections from the ‘outside’ world as my immunity will be greatly compromised as my bone marrow begin to accept the donor’s stem cells.  Spiritually, this is a time where I will be entering my own ‘dark night’ where it may feel as if the angel too has left. 

But it doesn’t at all mean that God has left.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Worship God, and not your emotions

I have heard it as a lament time and again that our Catholic Liturgy is staid, slow, repetitive and boring.  And these are just some of the repeatable adjectives that I am willing to put in writing.  Some are just rude, almost bordering on vulgar.  Oftentimes, these descriptions are used by the Catholics who have been baptized and confirmed in the faith, and some time down the road, left the Church for one of the glitzy mega churches, where each Sunday’s worship is a well produced and orchestrated affair of lights, camera and action.  While the patient, gentle (when I can restrain myself) and kind side of me listens to the litany of complaints of how our Catholic sense of worship is so ‘fuddy duddy’, slow and ‘lame’, the theologian in me often needs to pull all the reins to stop me from lambasting the complaining and sometimes whinging apostate that he or she ‘just doesn’t get it’ when it comes to the true spirit of worship.

 The truth is that our Catholic liturgy is so rich – in history, form and meaning.  However, this is something that is not easily appreciated by someone who is present at the Eucharist for the first time.  If I could use a metaphor to express this better, it would be akin to a non art-lover being taken to a Picasso or Gauguin exhibit for the first time, where even though the person could be standing in front of a masterpiece, there would be no appreciation at all for the depth of beauty and form of what is before him or her.  Rare would it be that an art newbie or greenhorn would immediately understand and fully appreciate Picasso’s Cubism or Gauguin’s Post-Impressionism.  But if one were to have paid attention to an art initiation class or have some exposure to art history, one’s appreciation of the wonderful works of art in the gallery would be so much the richer.  The same goes for any art for that matter, like the Opera, or the Ballet. 

But when one has not been well exposed to the Liturgy, and has not from a young and impressionable age been taught what the Liturgy does to us, does with us, and does to the participating community, it is no wonder that post confirmands have the tendency to leave the Catholic Church for something that appears far more engaging and ‘entertaining’ to the untrained heart.  That these teens were actually confirmed in their faith leaves me wondering what they understood as a confirmation and all that it signified.

I am of the opinion that the main problem is really a combination of secularism, relativism and egotism.  At the heart of these three evils that the Church faces is the overwhelming need for the unenlightened individual to worship not God but the self.  When I am at my charitable best, I can understand that there is an almost irrepressible need for one to put one’s needs and demands above all else.  It is a very prevalent evil, and is almost too easy to justify.  The self wants to be in control, to be engaged on all levels, to be doing something that appears ‘relevant’, and not to be told what to do.  This same self is also terribly impatient and allergic with anything that has rules or rubrics, perhaps because these things can cramp one’s personal style or worse, show up one’s weaknesses or one’s limited moral horizon.  Leaving the Catholic Church to go somewhere else where one is ‘entertained’ and ‘engaged’ at all sensorial levels throughout the service often reveals that one has given up the struggle to see our steadfast God working slowly and steadily.  Rarely have I heard that one has left the Catholic Church because another place of worship offers a more disciplined and contemplative approach to prayer and adoration.  Among Christian churches, ‘discipline’ and ‘contemplative’ seem to be something particular and unique to the Catholic faith.

It would be tempting to pin the blame for this kind of exodus on a single group – bad parenting, deficient catechesis, haphazard celebration of the Mass by the priest, or appalling preaching standards.  After all, doing that would easily exonerate those of us who do not fall into any of those blameworthy causes.  However, the painful truth is that we are all co-responsible for each Catholic’s exodus, because in truth, we are all members of the broken body of Christ.  Yes, the individual may have made the choice to leave the community, but this community is made up of you and me.  How we have lived, worshipped and cared for one another affects in no small way how each person encounters the living God in a real and true way. 

Is there a simple solution to this problem?  Would that there is one.  In reality, there is no simple solution because this kind of exodus took a lot of time to reach that critical point.  However, we do have one comfort and that is that it is only with God’s grace that one makes that turnaround in life to return to the broken community that one was baptized into, and to re-appreciate the faith with new eyes and a new heart.  Without God’s grace at work in a receptive heart, no matter how clever a theologian may be, no matter how clear one can explain the Liturgy with its depth of meaning and beauty, the individual concerned will only hear words that rests on the ears, but not a rediscovery that beckons the heart and stirs the soul. 

Linked to all that has been said of this issue thus far is the fact that for many who have left, and perhaps even for those who stay, the problem is that we have been largely worshipping our emotions and not God.  When we are so attached or addicted to our emotions, we may end up even being physically in Church at a Mass, but silently and secretly worship our emotions.  If we understand that our emotions are but a part of our humanity, and that we are not our emotions, we would have made that crucial and critical step toward the true worship of God who is so outside of ourselves, and at the same time, so much closer to our hearts than we even know.