Monday, August 26, 2013

Limitless are the areas in our lives where God invites us to a life of holiness

Much of our lives are lived in some sort of dichotomy and dualism.  For many of us, we grew up with our parents or caregivers unknowingly indoctrinating us into this kind of either/or world.  While it is in in itself nothing absolutely wrong with this type of life-introductions when we are young and impressionable, and there are certain things that require us to have a strict black/white, right/wrong, often it easily forms the basis of the ways in which many of us approach our faith and religion later on in life.  In the light of a mature spirituality and approach toward our faith, an over-emphasis on right/wrong, and good/bad can lead to some issues which can cause us to become flummoxed and unhinged when our notion of how God should work doesn’t quite square with what we have been told and taught about God – that he is a God of love, and that he is a God of mercy and compassion. 

 One of the comments that came in my previous blog was from a family whom I was very much in close contact with way back in my first parish assignment as a very new priest.  At that time a very young Catholic family, they were very devout in their newfound faith, and I admired how fervent they were in their Christian living.  One thing that raised my eyebrows a little in their comment was that with my illness, this time God got it ‘wrong’.  While I can appreciate their love and concern for me, my inner instincts kicked into full gear when my eyes fell on that line, partly because I realized that while this family expressed their deep concern for me, that statement seemed to have made God out to be much smaller and too ‘contained’.  From a purely human and limited standpoint, when we see natural disasters occur, terrible accidents where a busload of travellers can plunge into a deep ravine killing almost all on board, or someone we know being told of a cancerous tumor growing in a certain part of the body, it is understandable for one to say that ‘God got it wrong’. 

I am wondering if having such a notion that God should only get it ‘right’ comes from our own projections of right/wrong, and good/bad with the way we were formed when we were young and impressionable.  I am almost certain that these imaginings and projections onto God have at its roots our first and fundamental notions of justice, of righteousness and of fairness.  It is when we are given the grace to truly encounter God not as we want to, but as he wants us to encounter him, often through the vicissitudes and strange turns of life, that our notions of God and how strangely he works in and through our very lives open new avenues in the way we walk with God.  This has to be, after all, the heart of what holiness and living a holistic life is all about.  It is as much about religion and formal ways of worship and community integration as it is about finding God (or rather, letting God find us) in the most unexpected and perhaps even mundane and boring times of our lives. 

When we lead a dualistic notion of God and transfer that on to the ways we live our spiritual lives, what becomes most damaging is when we determine when in our lives we should be ‘holy’ or ‘spiritual’ and when we should be ‘worldly’ or ‘unspiritual’.  A crude example of this would be when we are aware of our need to be close to God during our physical time spent in church at liturgy or when we raise our minds to God in prayer in the privacy of our homes.  But when we are out of this ‘mode’, we ‘switch’ God off and resume our other life that we are so used to – our business life, our family life, our crude/vulgar life, in short, that part of life which we shut God out, leaving us ‘comfortable’. 

While it many be acceptable to a certain extent to live this way when we are young and when we start cutting our spiritual teeth, it can become problematic when this is not challenged and pointed out to us by our parents, catechists and even our priests as we physically mature.  I suspect that many do not have this as a maturing process, leaving us with a stilted notion of God, who for all intents and purposes, is not a God of all things, but only in the good, the lovely, and the healthy. 

How does one make that necessary leap in life when one is middle-aged or perhaps even older, and one realizes that one had been stuck with that one-sided notion of God?  Is it a matter of willing it to happen?  Can one just ‘open’ one’s mind to accept in one moment that God is just as powerful and present in illness, in weakness, in failure and in suffering as God is present in good health, joys, strength, success and goodness?  Would that it be.  Rather, the hard truth is that often, we need to learn this the hard way – through our suffering (or that of others which can teach us a thing or two about ourselves), through the woundedness that sometimes love leaves us, and even through death.  Jesus has said so clearly that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that we need to go through him.  That he did not circumvent the pains, suffering and passion that led to his resurrection and ascension gives us clear indication that we too, in our weak and sinful humanity, have to also go through something similar in order to emerge whole on the ‘other side’ of life. 

When grace comes to us in our search for truth and for the God in all things, the lines that separate the ‘holy’ from the ‘ordinary’ become less distinct and clear.  That hug that you give your child, that smile that you give to a fellow human being on the morning commute, that ‘good morning’ that you answer the office phone with to whoever is on the other side of the line, or that generous act of allowing the car in front of you to cut into your lane without his indicator light flashing, become these strange ‘holy’ moments where we never thought God could be present and speaking to us.  This is when our ‘rights’ become much less of a matter than someone’s seeing God in and through our generosity, unexplained patience and seeming weakness.  This is when God becomes truly a God of all things.  This is when we not only encounter God in formal Liturgy in church, but our eyes become open to the world’s liturgy where the world is a grand display of God’s omnipresence. 

When we begin to live this way, truly limitless are the ways in which our lives can be holy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reset at 200 - what a joyful and blessed irony

Undoubtedly, what marks out a Christian’s life as a Christian is when he or she is able to mirror in small and large ways the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  Throughout our rich Christian history and heritage, being able to live out this kind of life as close to that of Our Lord in various dimensions of life had been the template of what differentiates an ordinary Christian from the Christ-follower par excellence, the cannonized Saint.  But much as some of us may have this wonderful and loving desire to truly follow the Lord by our lives, it will not be granted if not by the grace of God.  In short, no one gets to heaven by pulling his or her own bootstraps. 

It is when desire, passion and love are combined with the grace of God that something more than amazing happens.  We will realise that at an early point in time of our lives as dedicated Christians, there was a lot of ‘me’ in the dream.  But that is ok, because like almost everything from marriage to even the priesthood, we all have to purify our motives.  No one, I am absolutely certain, enters into something that requires a lifelong commitment with one set of emotions, dreams, hopes, and desires, and after a long time, has left these all unchanged, unchallenged, and wanting the bar set higher out of love. 

The pensiveness that is evident in today’s blog entry comes about due to a few factors that have seem to coalesce at a strange point in time in my life.  As some of you may know by now, the doctors who have taken such good care of me during my arduous stem-cell transplant ordeal deemed me healthy enough to be discharged from my 28 day confined hospital stay.  They want me to continue my recuperation in the comforts and love of home and family, though I have many more out-patient follow up visits to the doctor each week to monitor any infections or viri that could weaken my immunity at any time.  I am well aware that this ‘short’ time of 28 days is considered very quick, and it was largely due to God’s grace, and the faith of a large community that has been praying for me. 

As I lay so tired and exhausted from even small movements like walking from one part of the apartment to another, or even sitting at table for a meal of a small handful of food, I cannot help but realise that I have had a major ‘reset’ in life with the engraftment of the stem-cells in my marrow.  It is a very real experience of a ‘new life’, a ‘being born anew’, a ‘resuscitation’ that is as close to a resurrection that I could ever experience in this life.  In so many ways, I have become like a newborn all over again.  I eat at the speed of a toddler, I cannot quite taste my food, small simple tasks leave be panting and needing to sit and rest, I am bald as a babe, and I need to take small naps throughout the day.  This entire event has required of me to really slow down so much and to look at life from a new angle, very often one that is richly layered now with a new compassion, less haste, much less judgment, more patience, and a new heart of charity. 

But if we really think about it, should not these be also the notes that mark out each newly Baptised follower of Christ?  After truly accepting Christ as Lord and Saviour, as the neophyte steps out of the waters of new life and is ‘re-created’ in Christ, should not he or she also have a new vista from which to tend to each moment in life, now no longer just with the old eyes of the world, but from then on, through the lens and life of Christ?  Where each moral, ethical, social and political decision is viewed with a new dimension?  It is not something that is going to be automatic – each baptized person needs to learn in small, and sometimes painful steps, learning how to ‘taste’ life with new Christ-like taste-buds and applying Christian sensitivities with that touch of charity and love, in a prayerful dimension.  Perhaps this is not emphasized enough to the about-to-be Neophytes about the reality of true Christian living, and that is why many simply go about living post-baptism, in the same way that life was pre-baptism.  Christ in yesterday’s gospel passage had that deep desire that the world be on fire with the baptism that he had to go through.  It made full sense to me when I contemplated on this, but at the same time, I also see how God is so patient when it comes to one’s true and lasting conversion in life.  And if God is so patient, so too must we with those who are slow to truly ‘get’ what living the Christian life is at its core.  Some lessons just take a longer time to sink in.

In my days of younger innocence, I recall being read those heroic stories of how the Church martyrs bravely died to defend the faith, and how the glories of heaven awaited such courage borne of faith.  Silently in my heart and head, I would imagine how I would want to be able to imitate such an ardent love of Christ, without really thinking about how they really felt at that point in time of their torturous death and suffering.  But admittedly, I was much, much younger then and dreaming and fantasizing were not only allowed but encouraged, and played an important part of my young Christian childhood, especially when our teachers and some Christian Brothers would regale us with stories about these faith heroes.  Maybe we really should heed the old adage that we ‘beware what we wish for’!

In some ways, with my illness and the subsequent transplant and the struggle in the darkness to wait for the engraftment to take place, the ‘dream’ has become a reality.  Part of me had died with those mega doses of total body irradiation and conditioning Chemotherapy prior to receiving the donor’s stem-cells.  I was graced to go through the long period of time where all those complicated side effects set in which allowed me to share in some small way the suffering and passion of Christ.  And now, I live to be able to see each so much in a new light – a new light of gratitude, of thanksgiving, of charity, and of Christian hope. 

I hope I am clear about today’s blog.  It is not about me.  It is about inviting all my readers to still continue to want to live the Christian dream of imitating Christ in the various dimensions of life.  This ‘gift’ can come in so many different ways, but I noticed that often, it comes in and through a situation that somehow forces one to ‘stop and smell the roses’ of life.  I share my story in this concrete way because some of you have been wondering why I have been plagued with this illness.  Your faith may have been shaken.  I hope it does the opposite – that it will strengthen your belief that God works in and through different situations that are hidden blessings.  This is not a plague, not a curse, but in some strange way, a very rich and also hidden but deep blessing. 

It is also ironic that this blog entry is a milestone for me.  If you have been reading and following my blog from the day I started way back on October 9th, 2009, you will realise that this is my 200th blog entry.  For me, it is a celebration in more ways than one.  God has given me the grace to be able to faithfully and consistently write an essay a week for 200 weeks, with hardly a repetition in theme or content.  I have so much to be grateful for in my slow but steadily growing readership, some of whom are from parts of the world where I have never ever been to.  Many have told me how my ponderings on life and faith have moved and touched them, drawing them closer to loving God and a stronger faith.  This is only possible because God is good.  My blog site-meter counter tells me that this page gets about 3600 page view per week, and I am encouraged to ask for the grace to be able to continue this web ministry despite my weakened state.  I know it is nothing close to web sites which win awards and get sponsors, enabling them to make some money through their writings, but that is far from my aim.  My slowly growing readership tells me that there are people out there who are yearning for truth, for meaning and for life.  But many go to the wrong places to look for the answers, or to places which only give temporary distracted relief.  I only have one aim in writing this blog, and that is to be instrumental for others to get to know, to love and to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  Everything else, as they say, is commentary. 

So, my dear readers, do keep those comments coming in.  I am encouraged every time I get a response to my thoughts, and I do realise that some of you have stopped commenting for a long while.  Indeed we lead busy lives, but reading this page is also a spiritual moment that you dedicate to God.  Each comment tells me that you are thinking and reflecting deeply on what I am sharing, and that it is affecting you in some way.  It keeps my blogging desire alive and I am assured that I am not just writing to a ‘blank’ audience.  You are, each of you, a treasure of God, and there is so much potential in you to be co-builders of his Kingdom. 

Happy 200th everyone,  and God love you.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspired to be inspirational

It is always nice to be inspired in life.  Some companies seize on this desire to be inspired and have even made a nice business out of this by printing inspirational posters so that people reading them can become motivated in life.  You know what I am talking about – they usually feature a very well taken photograph, set within a very thick black border as a background, with a pithy, wise sentence that could read something like ‘Courage – It comes from a reserve of mind more powerful than outside circumstances’.  Reading something like that when your own ‘reserves’ are down can give one a temporary boost of morale when one is facing one's own private little battles.  Indeed, it is always nice to be inspired at these times.

Here tucked away and ensconced in the safety and seclusion of the hospital transplant ward, I have been able from time to time communicate with some friends and former parishioners just to give them some update on my slow state of recovery (which by the way, seems to have turned several positive corners in terms of improvements in blood counts and healing experienced in different parts of the body).  Invariably I have been given words of encouragement and love and support from a huge and unseen community of people who are praying for me.  One of the things that I have heard which puzzled me somewhat was how I have been an inspiration for many of them in their own lives just by my sharing of my pains and struggles to find meaning in suffering and using this as a means of our incessant search for holiness in life.  While I will openly admit that I have always believed (and have written about) in the need for each of us to search for and to attain holiness in life, I have never quite dared to set myself up as anything close to being an inspiration, the least of all when I seem to be at my weakest and least usable physically.  But perhaps this is where what St Paul said really rings true in 2 Cor. 12:10 – where Paul sees the two-fold pattern in the weakness/strength and death/resurrection dialectic which marks the life of an apostle of Christ.  Indeed, if this is so, then there must be something truly (but also silently) powerful in powerlessness when facing something as a debilitating suffering in life.  Right now, I may arguably be the most unusable priest in the diocese of Singapore, with no contact possible between any parishioner and myself, but yet, there seems to be something beyond me and my physicality that can even form and perhaps audaciously even ‘teach’ others.   Strangely, even if I do attain my STL (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) I may not be able to form and teach on such a scale as this.  And this is not at all something of my doing – the ultimate power of God and his mercy is at the helm of this ‘teaching’.  I am greatly humbled when I am given to look at things this way.

It is was with this in mind that I was given to read Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s weekly internet column last week where he wrote so eloquently of our need to give to the poor and become altruistic in life.  It comes from our very being where we participate in God’s own nature, whose very own giving away of himself in love and in death becomes our motivation to also give our wealth away.  Not because we are good, but more importantly because God is good. 

While it is nice to be inspired in life, what is more important is ultimately to be an inspiration for life and to life.  Only when we bear this in mind constantly, or perhaps have it reminded to us from time to time by some inspirational poster, or speaker, or yes, even a person in transplant recovery far from human contact, can we make sense of making the most of our lives by giving our deaths away.  

It is simply because God did this, so must we.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Trying not to extend myself in extenuating circumstances

“This is a life-changing experience”.  How many people you heard use this phrase?  I’ve heard people on game shows, beauty pageants, and talent quests use this in some predictable throwaway fashion.  Well, I suppose if one bases one’s measurement of ‘life-changing’ on criteria like one’s financial status, public popularity, and perhaps how many times one appears on the covers of People Magazine, then I wouldn’t argue that such an experience had changed one’s life. 

While I do not judge those who use such phrases loosely, I must say that what I have been through in the past two weeks have indeed for me, been truly life-changing.  Physically right now, my body is in a post-trauma state, as the most basic element in me, my stem cells, have been transplanted by a generous donor’s gift of new life – his stem cells.  My Blood type is slowly changing to become from what it was, to that of the donor’s blood type.  Yes that is possible.  Meanwhile, there is a whole host of pains and aches in other areas, namely the mucosa lining of various parts of the body.  The doctors have told me to patiently wait this out, the most arduous part of the healing process, where the donor’s stem cells begin to engraft onto my marrow, and starts of manufacture the necessary healthy white cells on its on.  This will be a sign that the worst is over, and that I can look forward to better days ahead.  But those days are still not here, and I believe that I should not write what pain has taught be before the lesson is over.

Where have I been to is difficult to describe, and the wordsmith in me fails to find words that have any sense of accuracy.  Hell would be an exaggeration, but I’d say it was very close on quite a few occasions.  I have still to ask the proverbial ‘why’ and I still see no need to.  However, I still do very often find myself asking the ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions – how can I make this suffering meaningful for others and myself?  Or what is it in suffering that makes something of a redemptive value, and something else as having very little value?  These will all have a more lasting impact on me and my readers once I do turn that corner and see a little more light at the end of the tunnel, which the doctors tell me should in within the week.

To this end, I still need to encapsulate myself in stillness and learn from silence, the great teacher of life.