Monday, September 30, 2013

Building up the body and the Church

In my very slow recuperation from the stem cell transplant, I have seen days that were just completely tiring for me.  It’s not that I had been actively moving about, causing me to feel fatigued.  I have that gut feel that when I am feeling nothing but weak, that one of my blood counts must be low, and thus the body is not operating at its maximum.  By reports of stem cell transplant recipients themselves, I am to only expect a return to my previous levels of energy and strength after a year, if not longer.  To think that I ran marathons in the past! 

Each time I visit the hospital on my weekly visit, I pay a huge bill, which thankfully, I can claim from the insurance that the Archdiocese bought for its priests.  From the hospital, I make my way to the Cathedral office, where I submit my receipt for the insurance company to reimburse my payment.  Every time I look at the dilapidated state of the back of the Sacristy of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, my heart sinks a bit, because I feel that we are somewhat in the same state of (dis)repair. 

It saddens me that our Mother Church, the place where the Bishop has his cathedra, is in such a state of shambles.  The construction of the buildings around the Cathedral had caused much structural damage to our Mother Church and it is being propped up by external buttresses and doesn’t look safe at all from the outside.  The rector of the Cathedral has been sourcing for funds to the tune of about SGD$35 million.  Yes, it is not a paltry sum, but it is a known fact that restorative work always costs more than building up something from scratch. 

Nothing will happen to this building in terms of being restored if there is nothing coming from the people who make up the Body of Christ.  In the same way that I would not have been given a second chance at life if not for the completely altruistic and generous donation of the stem cells who was my perfect match when the transplant took place. 

Let’s face it.  No corporation or company is going to help rebuild the Cathedral.  There is nothing in it for them, and even if they do have funds for such purposes, there is always going to be the counter argument that there are other religious sites that are also worth conserving.  The harsh fact is that this has to be an internal funding, and we are the folk who can and must make the difference.  It’s easy to lament about how terrible the state of the Cathedral is, each time one passes it.  But how much are we really putting of ourselves and our resources to see that something is done to improve things? 

In a way, yesterday’s reading of the rich man and Lazarus reminds us of not just what we can do to better the lot of others with all that we are blessed with, but that we MUST realise that we are not mere individuals but are in this together as Church and as the Body of Christ. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful of each parish could contribute out of its surplus a sizeable amount that would make the restoration a reality?  Sure, every parish has renovation plans of their own, and they have heard appeals aplenty for generous donations from the ambo.  But have we really given of ourselves and stretched ourselves in ways that require us to tighten our belts and live a little less comfortably?  Most of us give out of our excesses.  It is not wrong, but the nagging question that should haunt us is “is it all we can do”?

Just as the presence of Lazarus must have been a sore-point for the rich man each day as he passed him by outside his house, the presence of Lazarus was actually a reminder, perhaps like an itch he could not scratch, of how much larger he should be living.  I wonder whether the visible sight of a church that is propped up by external beams and pillars is like a similar reminder to each of us as well.

Perhaps in my convalescence, I have become wistful of my past, when I was a student of SJI which was then located across the road from the Cathedral.  Each morning, I would join two other friends for the morning Mass celebrated by the Archbishop, and thereafter head across the road to begin classes.  Not only was it our routine, it was something that we cherished that we could do.  And if for any reason the Mass extended causing us to be late for school, those of us who were at the Cathedral for the Eucharist would be allowed through the school gates with no questions asked whatsoever.  I am sure my vocation began as far back as then.

I am one who fully believes that our generosity in dealing with others is in direct relation to the mercy that we have encountered in the living God.  Why so many Catholics seem ambivalent and even nonplussed at the many projects that require funding and generous hearts is not that they are tight-fisted.  I firmly believe that they have just not been touched by the love of God, who makes all things possible.  When people have been truly converted and moved toward real Christian living, money is hardly seen as something that one needs to hoard.  It will be seen as a gift from God that is meant to be shared.  You can always tell the difference between one who is giving because one has been touched, and one who gives in order to receive a further blessing.  

Our Mass readings last week saw how important it was for the Jews to see the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  There was so much pride that they took in doing this act.  Of course, we are not Jews, and the Cathedral is not a place of central worship for many of us.  But symbolically it is a reminder that we have a Mother Church and that we are led and shepherded by a bishop who tends his sheep with love and care.  Doing very little to contribute to her rebuilding is akin to being satisfied seeing a very dear family member crumble before our eyes and just lamenting each time “look how frail he/she is!” 

My building up of my energy and strength was dependent very much on the generosity of my donor who doesn’t know me at all.  I believe that the re-building of the Cathedral is very much dependent on the generosity of the members of the Body of Christ whom the Church knows.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Our faith may make dying more difficult than we think

As a priest, I have encountered death in many of my parishioners.  Most of the time, I only get to know them either when they are very ill and close to dying, or only after their death, when their next-of-kin requests a Catholic funeral for their loved one.  Very rarely have I been privileged to journey intimately with a person who had been progressively weakened, where his or her body shows signs of breakdown, and finally, when the person is at death’s door, there is a revelation of a struggle and a general resistance to let go of life.  I have been there at those dying moments, but if I had not journeyed with the person in the months or weeks leading up to that point of death, nothing much is revealed to me (or the family or the caregivers) of what goes on in the heart and mind of a disciple of Christ at the moment of death. 

So I was intrigued when I came across an article written years ago by Fr Rolheiser about the death of Fr Henri Nouwen’s own mother and how when he had great expectations of his deeply faith-filled mother accepting and welcoming death when she was dying, that instead of finding a woman who was happy to embrace death and be moments away from meeting her maker, was instead someone who showed much resistance, fear and a sense of atheism that baffled him. 

Ideally, a mature faith should lead one to be at peace at life’s edge when one comes to it.  Even St Francis of Assisi called death ‘sister death’, giving it such an intimate title and an image that is far from frightening and something that we should resist.  Yet, how many believing Christians who are death’s door are really that accepting and happy to die?  Do any of us harbour the secret wish to die like Jesus, and have ever prayed to be given that grace to imitate Our Lord in his moment of glory?  Perhaps this is where we may have got it wrong.  If we are clear about scripture and what it reveals to us about Jesus’ dying moments, it was not a ‘happy’ moment, but in fact, a time that was somewhat filled with uncertainty as he mouthed out “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me”.  Jesus did not run to the Cross, nor did he make it disappear when it came time for him to die.  I believe that he struggled too.  He loved his humanity even though he was God, and therein lays the struggle. 

If Jesus was a God-Man and he didn’t embrace the suffering and death in a courageous way that showed an unflinching brave front to the world, how much more would we mere mortals even though we may think we have a mature and developed faith? 

This may be what mystics describe the struggle within as the ‘dark night of faith’.  It’s not an altogether bad thing, but it bears explanation.  When one is so convinced of the promise of the afterlife, one can also experience at that split moment an overwhelming presence of God that denies all of one’s feelings and sentiments and emotions and consolations at the thought of God, be it a God of mercy or a God of love.  God becomes too large for one’s heart and one’s universe that one cannot for a moment imagine God’s existence. 

I was intrigued when I came across this meditation.  It appears that for some souls, God’s intention for the person who has loved him for all his or her life, is that this moment of being brought to life’s edge becomes the last chance or opportunity to really submit to God in total faith, without the grace of any good feeling or sentimentality.  Instead, some mystics have reached this point in their lives when all they could do is to see themselves as terrible sinners in need to God’s mercy, but no consolation was given.  It was an invitation to truly leap into faith and this has to be something so fearful and frightening. 

At this point, what the person had all along been thinking was faith becomes something that he or she questions, and this gives rise to the doubt that could fill one’s heart at the ‘hour of our death’.  This is where we really need the prayers and presence of Our Blessed Mother, to guide us on our way in true faith.

But if we really have made that secret desire to follow Christ right to the end, we will also know that his final words were that of a loving submission of his life into his Father’s hands.  The struggle was there before that, but it came to a very difficult and perhaps even painful resolve to commit his spirit to the Father.  I’m not even sure if we can call this a consolation that he was given, because I am sure that it didn’t feel good to die at that point.  There was nothing that felt good about Good Friday.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each time, don’t we also ask that God does not put us to the test?  What is the ultimate test but the test of our faith in a God of love, a test that wants us to go beyond our feelings, emotions, sentiments and moods?  It is a test of final and total submission.    In the light of this reflection, it will also be a test of undergoing the dark night of doubt. 

It shouldn’t surprise us that our deep faith (or what we think is deep) can also become something that brings us to the edge of dark doubt, but we are led by the hand of God which we are unable to see, intuit or sense in any way, shape or form.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Allowing God's mercy to prevail ultimately

The gospel text of yesterday’s Liturgy is one that is redolent with teachings of God’s unfathomable grace and mercy, which is constantly being offered to us sinful human beings.  Prodigal indeed is the carefree younger son, and so is the father in the story, who is constantly on the rise to go out and seek both his sons – the elder and the younger.  This father cuts a fine figure of a patient and forgiving, generous and lavish father who cares very much that his children experience his giving, non-judgmental nature.  Jesus was breaking the Jewish traditional mindset of how important it was that justice (demonstrated by right living and being law-abiding) made one worthy of God’s favour and mercy.

 This parable never fails to stir hearts through the centuries simply because in each one of us, there is an admixture of opposites.  We are on our best days people who do show the mercy of God in our patient ways with those around us who can make life a bit stressful.  At the same time, on our worst days, we seem to align ourselves with Satan and make the stupidest of choices where we come so close to denying the grace of our baptized life in Christ.  When facing issues of justice and fairness, it depends on what stirs our hearts, and we can easily put aside kindness and compassion simply because we fight for our ‘rights’ and what we think is ‘fair’.  

I was intrigued when I watched a short recorded lab experiment of how two very intelligent monkeys were given the same task to do – to give the lab assistant a stone from within his or her own cage which was placed next to one another.  Each time the stone was given when asked, a reward was given.  The reward for the first monkey was a slice of cucumber, which he took and ate happily.  But when the stone was asked of the second monkey, he was rewarded with a grape. 

When the lab assistant went back to the first cage and asked for the stone, this was given her, and the reward was again, a slice of cucumber.  This time, the monkey took the cucumber and threw it at the assistant, simply because the monkey in the next cage was given a grape instead.  I mused to myself that if primates have such an instinctual concept of justice and fairness, what more we sinful human beings when we are at our worst ‘animal-like’ behavior and are not aware of our call to consciousness to live at a higher, enlightened level?  Do we react like animals, or are we conscious that at all times, we are invited to act with thought, reflection and in response to our being made in the image and likeness of God?

When we read the story of the Prodigal Father, are we somewhat angry and resentful that the younger son ‘got away with everything’?  He didn’t even get a tongue-lashing!  What if this was Jesus’ way of preparing all of us for what awaits us in heaven?  Who we may meet in heaven may be the Hitlers, the Pol Pots and the Sadam Husseins who have made life absolutely miserable for millions but who were shown a tremendous dose of God’s infinite mercy, or on a much smaller scale, perhaps that annoying Catholic neighbour who had been living in such a selfish and even scandalous way each day, making the practice of charity something that was so challenging while on earth. 

We have to be prepared for the ‘worst’ in allowing God to be at his ‘best’ when it comes to whom he offers mercy and forgiveness to. 

Or perhaps we can identify so much with the older sibling who was already living in all that the father had, but wasn’t joyful at all.  I wonder if this could be reflective of the many unhappy Catholics (lay as well as consecrated) who although are already in possession of the kingdom of heaven in many ways, are still having a great difficulty in truly being happy simply because one eye is cast on their non-Catholic colleague or friend who seems to be ‘having it all’ and doesn’t have to live by Catholic rules and obligations. 

By no means am I a Universalist who thinks that at the end of it all, hell would be empty and even the devil will repent.  We have to respect the fact that for some die-hard atheists, the very thought of God being real can become for them something so contemptible that even the thought of heaven becomes repulsive.  For such people, heaven would be hell.  God would never force anyone to acknowledge and worship him. God is much bigger than that, and in his largess, he has to allow for weak human beings to want to remain weak and insist on making the wrong choices. 

In many ways, this rich parable is very close in meaning and teaching to the one in Matthew 20 where the kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who went out to hire labourers for his vineyard.  The twist in the end becomes the barometer of our sense of ‘justice’ when we react to what we think is fair or unfair.  It all boils down to allowing God’s mercy and kindness to prevail and that it is finally not about us. 

In our daily living, if we keep reminding ourselves that this world, our lives and our purpose of living is not about us, and that we have a task to glorify God in all that we do, it really will not matter much who gets ahead of us in terms of a ‘better life’. 

I am sure none of us wants to really live like that first monkey in the experiment.  Yet, I suspect that many of us haven’t quite fully evolved.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Not letting bitterness embitter our world

It should come as no surprise that there are many, many people in the world who have bitter hearts caused by disappointments, hurts, disillusionments and acrimonious encounters with their fellow human beings.  Moreover, quite a number of these negative encounters may have occurred years or decades ago, and there seems to be a certain unwillingness to let go of these past hurts, leaving the one holding the memory stunted, in pain, wanting some sort of revenge and if the Church was involved, very skeptical and negative toward the community of the Body of Christ.

First of all, nobody ever promised us a perfect Church or community.  We are so broken as individuals and even as a community that it should come as no surprise that there will be experiences of much negativity and perhaps even scandal simply because each of us, though on The Way (an ancient term that referred to Christianity), we are also travelling at different speeds, moving with different motivations and perhaps constantly being distracted by the little side roads and lanes that cause us to deviate from really following The Way of Christ and The Cross.

Secondly, I think we need to realise that the Christian way has a lot to do with living with large and giving hearts.  There would be many who would say that the Christian way is about following Liturgy and getting our Theology right.  While I wouldn’t deny that those are important, what is far more important is transferring all that we pray and study about into a lived experience.  How do we live with heart that are large and are willing to excuse rather than accuse?  How do we become freer and more liberated from our past wounds?  Do we know what it is that makes us want to hold on to our hurts like some prized trophy of life which we put on proud display and often take out and dust and polish them to make sure that the hurt and the pain and anger and unforgiveness shine and gleam even after ten or twenty years?  Are we willing to want to move and grow in the real image of Christ? 

Thirdly, I have come across some Christians who have been hurt by others who have a very negative and strange notion of life and death.  One person I met said to me “Father, I am so unwilling to forgive so-and-so for the hurt he caused my family, and me I am sure I will go to hell after I die”, and this person was no nonchalant about just what hell for eternity was!  While I can commiserate with a person’s feeling of hurt and pain and how terrible the scars of the past must be, I am puzzled to see how being present weekly at receiving Holy Communion and being present at the community’s liturgical prayer can numb one from being aware that one needs to become who one consumes. 

To be truly honest, living large and with a large heart requires much training and practice.  No one get to the point of being a perfect disciple while one is truly “On the Way”.  We take baby steps in the direction of goodness, honesty, truth and forgiveness.  Sometimes these ‘tests’ are small and easy to spot, and rather easy to handle.  But at other times, these ‘tests’ come at a time when our defenses are down and we are caught unawares.  The Church is such a huge organization that we are not always at our best when the lives of our parishioners have needs to be met.  Sometimes we make the mark, and sometimes, we fail.  Asking the question “why did you fail me?” can be a pointless question as there are myriad possibilities that can emerge as answers, and when we have bitterness in our hearts, we are hardly willing to listen or to even give the benefit of the doubt to the injuring party. 

Rather, perhaps the better question to ask ourselves is “why am I so willing to live with an embittered and small heart?”  Part of the answer lies in the fact that most of the time, we are unaware of what Kierkegaard commented once – Jesus is meant to be imitated and not just admired.  What many cynical and embittered people do not realise is that when they hold a grudge against others, they are really handing over their power and gateway to happiness to the very person who they are harbouring a grudge against.  Ironical as it may seem, they have enchained and impoverished themselves from living a truly liberated life as a follower of Christ.  What they think makes them ‘happy’ when they polish their trophies of hurt and past pains so often become instead the very thing that constricts their hearts, preventing them from truly living large.

The wonder of Christianity is that the key towards living freely is to look frequently at the Crucifix, where Jesus paid the ultimate price for our small hearts and sinfulness.  The irony there writ large is that Jesus may have been nailed to that Cross, with no ability to move any limb, becomes through his love of the Father’s will and his largess of heart nurtured through years of intimate communication with the Father, the most free person in all of history, when he mouthed the precious words “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. 

When we are reminded of the adage “To err is human, to forgive divine”, we are really reminded that each of us baptized in Christ has that divine image and that we need to recover, embolden and show forth this image as disciples of Christ.  Again, I am reminded too of a misconception of forgiveness when I am told, “I can forgive but I cannot forget”.  Since when did forgiveness require dementia?  Unless I have missed something in Scripture, I have not come across Jesus instructing his disciples to pray for forgetfulness.  A hallmark of true forgiveness is when we are willing to see the incident or person who has hurt us as something that happened, without that quickening in the heart that nurses the wounded heart, and decides there and then that one wants to live large, become another Christ, and say with conviction “Father, forgive them for they knew not what they did”. 

No, I know it is not easy.  That is because living this way sometimes opens us up to further opportunities of vulnerability.  But living this way means that we have to often imitate Christ in the way that he too often fell to his knees, imploring the Father to do in us what we can never possibly do for ourselves.