Monday, November 25, 2013

The hiddenness of God's is ours too

I was listening passively to the radio a few days ago. The morning show was on, where most of the time the DJs talk about random topics just to ensure that there’s no ‘white noise’.  The topic of the moment was how to hide your Christmas presents from your children and loved ones.  There seems to be a need, apparently, for many people to not let the recipients of their Christmas presents know what they are going to get, and not to even let them see the actual wrapped gift.  I suppose for many people, that’s the ‘thrill’ of Christmas morning. 

I brought that thought further and somehow, it revealed something to me about the true nature of God and how he manifests himself in our lives.  Was not the first Christmas also very much a surprise?  Apart from the Holy Family and their close relatives, no one knew who or what this infant that Mary was carrying in her was going to be.  There was a hiddenness about the incredible plan of God in Jesus Christ.  The revelation of salvation in Christ was to be unfolded slowly, and it did not allow for anything hurried, rushed or premature. 

Our sinful and weak human nature, however, trends to the opposite.  The more advances we seem to make through technology and science, the shorter span of tolerance we have for patience and mystery and God’s hiddenness.  We want our things yesterday.  Just looking at the superficial way that so many Christians celebrate Christmas itself reveals an impatience and a great desire to reach the destination before the journey even starts.  It is only November and already Christmas decorations are up in full glory in the malls and streets.  People are already having Christmas parties at homes and in the office.  Granted, that is the vulgar side of commercialization, but aren’t so many Christians who are well catechized, who are aware of the period of Advent, which is a period of waiting, of preparation, of anticipation, also sucked up into this ‘dis-ease’?  Sure, it is going to be so difficult to change this, but if you are a leader of a Church group, a boss in the company, someone who is a decision-maker for such organised activities,  perhaps you can introduce a new (and proper) way to celebrate Christmas by having Christmas parties during the actually Christmas season (after Dec 25).  Would not that be an excellent moment of evangelisation where you take time to explain to a non-Christian how Advent leads to Christmas?  Perhaps we are not seizing these precious moments enough in our lives, and we find ourselves giving all sorts of justifiable excuses to refrain from speaking about our faith.  Maybe you can start by sharing your own experiences of the need to learn to wait, and one reason is because God often likes to take things slow.
Yes, God reveals slowly, and sometimes painfully so.  That is why the Church has Liturgical seasons to mirror life, so that we can relate this to our own lives in a very real way.  If one really thinks about it,  the celebration of the Sacraments are indeed a slow revelation of God’s plan for each one of us.  Each time we participate actively at the Eucharist, when we make that intrinsic connection with God in such a real way, he reveals a little more of his love for us.  Each time we truly enter into the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we touch a little more the tenderness of the one who is mercy himself.  The same goes for the when one is infirm and receives an anointing.  It’s never going to be a full and final encounter while we are still here on earth.  It’s a slow revelation because it is a revelation of love.  I am certain that married couples who are deeply in love know this.  They want to show just how deeply they love one another but they also do know that there is a limit of their ability to show this in any outward way.  So they try over and over in creative ways that hopefully say what is in their hearts and minds.  Woe be the day that they give up and take one another for granted.  The mystery is lost, and the hiddenness is given up. 

It may be easier for me to reflect and live out this hiddenness of life simply because I am physically hidden from the public in my convalescing at home for a year.  Imagine if I celebrated that I am cancer-free (for the moment) before I get news from the doctor, or before I even started that long journey through the many chemotherapy and radiation treatments!  It would have been totally premature and inappropriate, no matter how much faith I have.  

What is there to reflect and ponder at Advent for you?  Plenty.  You know you’d be fudging the truth if you say that there is nothing that you are anticipating in life, waiting for, hoping for, longing for and having some desire for.  Perhaps it is a doctor’s report, a response from a loved one, a change or conversion in either yourself or someone dear to you, a result, a job application, etc.  We can use this time of Advent to enter into that waiting as the Church waits for Christmas in the Advent period.  When we do this, our Sunday celebrations at Mass will be so much more connected with our daily living, and you will live and pray differently.

Christians who are reading this week’s reflection - perhaps you may want to really think about truly celebrating Christmas in a way that allows you to enter into that hiddenness that mirrors or imitates God’s in some way.  Observe Advent.  Fight that temptation to doll up your homes for Christmas before Christmas.  Instead of Christmas decorations, put up something purple instead, get an Advent wreath, and only begin to let Christmas come into your lives at Christmas and into the Christmas season.  Who knows?  If this is the first time you put yourself through this experience and ‘inconvenience’, you may just see a great change in the way that you and God meet at Christmas when Christmas truly arrives.

Then, at Christmas, you will not be like the millions who are already jaded of everything related to Christmas before the event itself and don't want to hear another Christmas carol, taste another Christmas cake, attend another party or rush to take down those month-old Christmas decorations on Dec 26.  This will help us to truly enter into that hiddenness that God is so familiar with, and we will truly celebrate Christmas for the Christmas season, from 25 Dec right up till the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  

May this week be a spiritual anticipation for the holy and hopeful season of Advent for all of you. 

Post Scriptum:  I wish to thank each of my kind readers for responding so positively to writing some comment to my blog post two weeks ago as a form of thanksgiving to God for the good news my doctor brought about not having found further Leukemia cells in my body.  There were 99 such responses!  I am so grateful for all your prayers.  May your efforts be a visible sign to others about the goodness and love of God.  God love you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A sure way to holiness - deep co-operation and seeking our deepest calling everyday in contemplation

Before you, my dear reader begin to read this blog entry, may I pray with you?  It will set the correct tone for not just a reading, but hopefully, a truly attentive and prayerful reading.  If you have not really prayed for the day, make this your offering to the Lord.

Heavenly Father, open not just my eyes but my heart that is your doorway to my soul.  Let these following few minutes spent in reading the honest reflections speak words of truth that I will hear without prejudice, without judgment and most importantly, with compassion and charity.  If I am in a place where distractions abound, allow me to still be aware that what I am doing now is a good and holy action, and always let me be aware of my deepest calling in life, which is to live fully as your child.  Amen.

Thank you.  It is without doubt that every one of us encounters many different challenges, difficulties, successes and failures almost every day of our lives.  The more we are ‘loaded’ with our targets and work, fill our days with the various important activities on hand, and do our best to fulfill the needs of the home, hearth and family, the more easily it is to forget that there is a fundamental ‘target’ that all of us baptized Christians should be constantly aiming for as we live out our lives.  That calling is that we become fulfilled as God’s living, sacramental presence in the world not only to all whom we encounter, but that we are fully aware of this great and noble calling that comes from the grace of God.

That we love God first before anything and anyone else becomes then the "Gold Standard" of correct Christian living.  Yes, even for married couples.  Their love for each other and their families will only be truly healthy if each of them loves God first before their love for one another in marriage.  What is the fruit of this kind of living in full awareness?  It is undoubtedly that we will become a sign for the world around us that there truly is another way to live – 'no dog eat dog world', no living for the ego, no selfishness, no fear (except for a great and holy fear of the Lord).  There will also be a undiminished need to stand for justice, to speak the truth and to accept the consequences of living in such a freedom that threatens the world and it’s false-hood.

Getting to live like this is always going to be a challenge unless one has the key.  The tradition of the Church has always been that giving ourselves over to deep contemplation and reflection on a regular and daily basis is that key, where we enter into a meditative space to ponder anew over and over again what our deepest calling in life is.  There, at the heart of our very selves we meet the heart of God who reminds us, shows us and gives us the courage to not only admit to our falseness, but more importantly, to repent of acknowledged false living where often our false selves had over-powered our true and authentic selves.  When we emerge from this kind of genuine prayer, slowly but surely, we will begin to live as if we were spotlights of God’s presence in the world, which is our deepest present calling in life.  Why present?  Because we aren’t dead yet, but are on the way to the life of Beatitude in Heaven.  We are all on-the-way.

To transform the world (the salvation of souls) and to show to unbelievers that God is real and that we have a Living God who loves and cares for us despite our difficulties and challenges in life.  That’s what we are all called to do as baptized Christians.  It’s also a call to make the world holy.  But as I live quietly in the confines of my convalescence in safety of my home, and go deep into daily contemplation each early morning, it came to me that not all priests and religious have the desire to co-operate with God’s grace to transform their parish to real places of holiness.  I somehow hesitate to 'share' this revelation given to me, because I know I can be misunderstood to somehow show myself as 'holier-than-thou', which is not the case.  Something mystical is happening to me in my silent healing.  

Lately, it was truly revealed to me that there are very many good administrator-priests, even good pastoral priests who do very good ‘work’, priests who have been specially chosen by the Bishop to assist him (including those in his Executive Committee) who have all very good administrative skills, in the arduous task of running the entire Archdiocese of Singapore, but there are also priests who are very lacking in awareness that their great administrative skills are actually confusing the laity, and are not leading their flock to real intimacy with the Lord, leading to a truly holy parish.  Some are so interested in a numbers game, where they pride themselves with the large numbers that show up for the Masses which they celebrate are attracting to the parish. Little do they realise that some of the policies they put into place totally confuse the parishioners.  Somehow, they have lost their hunger for true holiness for the entire parish.  Sometimes it is their ego that causes them to add unnecessary words to the Liturgy, causing another layer of confusion to the parishioners.  What is their reason for adding their own words to the Liturgy?  Apparently, for many, it is to make the Mass more 'personal'.  The Mass IS God's encounter with His people!  How more 'personal' can your own shallow little words make the Mass?  Isn't this, dear priest, one's ego talking?  How does the parish become a truly holy place then? 

I know, it looks as if I am judging my fellow priest, and that I seem to have a certain ‘advantage’ over them as I am living silently as a hermit at home for at least a year.  Yes, it is a gift from the Lord to be able to be ‘removed’ from the parish setting, but in my contemplation, it has truly been revealed to me that if every priest realizes how effective he can be to truly lead his parish to great holiness, there will be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, God’s special possession (1 Peter 2:9).  What is the laity's role in this?  Two main stumbling blocks are apparently in front of each lay person facing such challenges, and no lay person is spared.  Firstly, there is scandal.  If you, a member of the laity are scandalised and can only complain and gossip about this or that priest to your friends, you are not doing a holy deed to help that priest.  Secondly, pray for your priest if he is in any way causing you to resort to this uncharitable and unholy act.  Love him still, offer Masses for him, lift him up to the Lord often.  But do not gossip and hope that others also dislike or disdain him.  He may have lost his motivation, and he needs a grace to recover his first holy intention as a seminarian, a young and enthusiastic priest, and he must have had a true quest for holiness at one point in his life.

Not every priest gives of himself to a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, which is very much a gateway to true holiness.  No one can doubt this.  Not every priest prays the daily rosary for the souls in purgatory.  Not every priest is interested in true holiness either of himself, or his parish.  I felt so disconsolate when this was revealed to me in my contemplative hour.  But I also do know that this is a grace that was specially given to me and for this I am truly grateful to God.  It does seem that he wants me to be a certain 'conduit' but I am not certain how this is going to be worked out from my little 'corner' of my home.  God has his ways, and I am open to His grace.

So, I am praying at each Mass that I celebrate quietly on my own that more and more priests respond more and more positively to God’s deep calling to him to a life of real holiness.  There are many resistances to this, and the priest who is genuinely interested in becoming a conduit to the deep holiness of his flock will face loads of temptation and distractions.  He needs to overcome his own fragile ego, and if no one prays for him, it is going to be so easy for him to continue life ‘as is’, and there will be very little, if at all any real holiness of the parish and his flock. 

In the end, it is really about a holy co-operation, where the holy priest disregards his ego plans, and the laity truly live out their baptismal calling to the full.  This is what heaven-on-earth will look like, and we must strive for this, with God’s grace.  Where is your part as a baptised lay person?  You form the other very important part of the holiness equation where you pray for the desire to truly live the life of Grace.  It is not that you are second to the priest.  We are all priests through our Baptisms, and it is just that each of us have different roles.  No one better than the other.  No one higher or more important the the other.

Finally, apart from all that I have intimately shared in this blog, there really is nothing that is more important in life, if we are truly honest with ourselves.  All the other things that we face will simply become 'mere commentary'. Only attending to them in our lives will just mean that we are 'coasting along' in life, and have shallow, superficial earthly hope that we are just coping.  Is that kind of living truly fulfilling?  I think you know the answer.

May I ask for your continued prayers for me because I know that exposing my prayer life in this way will also mean that I will be misjudged especially by my brother priests.  I mean them no ill, no harm, I do not judge them, and only have their best at heart.  But we all know how evil works.  It must never have the upper hand in our shared quest for holiness and true transformation.

Monday, November 11, 2013

When the news the doctor brings is more than just good

When my journey into the world of cancer began sometime at December last year, I, like any other cancer patient, had no idea what this ‘adventure’ would entail.  Inevitably, it would include a suffering and what many would call a cancer-pain.  That never really caused me much worry as I knew that as a disciple of Christ, that pain and that suffering had a hidden purpose that goes beyond what is on the surface.  Carried well and with love, it can even save souls.  To be sure, there was actually very little actual pain in the first seven months of my diagnosis, and for this, I am grateful.  I haven’t really asked around, but in my own experience, perhaps for Leukemia patients, the pain is of a different kind. 

But it was only lately that the pain and suffering began to take on a new dimension.  That encounter with idiopathic pneumonia had totally weakened my entire body and my breathing for the past two months has been very labored and strained as I begin to re-train my lungs to work in their normal way.  The only way I can do this is to just to my breathing exercises each day, and this itself is such an energy sapping exercise. 

In the midst of all this that happens in the confines of my home, my doctor asked that I undergo a Bone Marrow Aspiration.  This invasive procedure was the very one that I had to undergo in February this year, where my bone marrow was cored and the sample was sent to the labs, the results showing that there were a lot of blast cells, showing the presence of a blood cancer in me.  That was when I became a cancer patient.

It had been more than 100 days since July 25, the Feast Day of St James, that I received so gratefully the stem-cells from my mystery perfect-match donor from America.  This gave the doctor reason to order the Bone Marrow Aspiration for the third time this year.  Last Wednesday, I went for the procedure and left the results to the Lord with great trust.  The very next day, the initial report came back and the kind doctor informed me that there are no longer any cancer cells in me, and I am henceforth cancer-free.

Cancer-free!  I now know the experience of truly being vindicated.  God has heard the prayer of his servant and has given him new life!  I have been truly transformed and offered life anew by my God.  No one is able to truly understand how liberating this experience is.  My faith handles this piece of news in ways that must be different from people who merely wanted to hear good news.  My experience of this causes me to truly enter into the mystery of new life, transformed life, and yes, even the resurrected life.  There is no gratitude strong enough, and thanksgiving is endless.  Easter has come early for me!

In my continuing convalescence at home, the suffering and pain still continues.  I still surprise myself at just how weakened my entire body is.  I wanted to 'celebrate' this piece of news by attempting a recipe at a simple dessert that entailed an entire packet of crushed Digestive Biscuits for its base.  I could only manage four pieces and found myself panting and unable to continue.  4 measly biscuits.  But I laughed silently to myself that if this is rock bottom, I am still in a good place.  I am still tired all the day long, just breathing.  But I know this will end and I will be slowly getting back my strength, even if it takes a whole year.  Being cancer-free gives me the confidence that I just have to discipline myself, take my time and respond to God’s daily prompting of how I can be used by him in the confines of my home to glorify his name and be useful to the Church through the silent walls of my home.

There are a plethora of places in the Psalms where the just man continues to stay faithful to the Lord somehow suffers in justice, while the sinful man seems to enjoy life, but all the while, the central message is to not give in, not give up and continue to be faithful to the Lord.  It may appear that the Lord is doing nothing, but that is only from our point of view, which is of course, a very very limited one.  My experience has been something very close to this, and Scripture has become something that is so alive for me.  The doctor's good news has become God's news.

I still offer daily Masses for the many who are still suffering in so many ways.  My prayer is often that those who are suffering never despair, never give up on loving their fellow man and woman in their pain and suffering, and most of all, that they never give up hope in life, especially if they are baptized Catholics whose greatest gift is that they have been given the Life of Christ at their baptism. 

Today’s blog is really for all of you who have been journeying with me for such a long time.  You and your prayers have become a great part of my transformation, and I am ever so grateful.  

I have a humble request from you my blog readers.  When I first broke the news to all of you in my February post that I had cancer, you literally poured out your hearts in writing very loving and heartfelt blog responses to that news, and I had a massive 81 comments, telling me that you were all going to be behind me in prayer.  This prayer has borne fruit, and one concrete way to give thanks to God in our Catholic Tradition is to write a letter of thanksgiving.  It's a common feature in Novenas to show everyone just how grateful we are for God's grace to be manifest in our lives and it is a witness to God's presence and power.  Can I request that you do this in this blog as your form of thanksgiving together with me?  And as you do this, may your heart and your lives be ever blessed, and may you continue to be effective witnesses to the glory, and the power of God.  God love you.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The value of silence in our search for God

We don’t do very well with silence very much as human beings, do we?  Generally just looking around, people seem to have an innate need to make their presence felt and known by the world around them.  The world of the social media has made it even more convenient and perhaps even enticing to let the world know not just that you are alive, but what you had for your last meal, your thoughts on any matter whatsoever and maybe even who is the last person who had upset, angered and disappointed you. 

Spiritual masters through the ages have always valued silence as a discipline and a doorway through which a disciple of Christ grows and matures.  And yet, it is also very clear that the place of silence in a healthy spirituality is hard to define and specify.  There are after all, different kinds of silence.  Just keeping to oneself and not associating with other is not just unhealthy, but it doesn’t do much in fostering that inner growth that comes from deep contemplation. 

Many do fear silence.  Good silence has a way of forming, teaching and revealing one’s true inner self, and many do not want to see their real, naked, exposed and vulnerable selves that require conversion, repentance and even a deep experience of compunction. 

Meister Eckhart, a great spiritual writer in advocating silence, once said “There is nothing in the world that resembles God as much as silence”.  Does this mean that God has nothing to say in our struggle to meet him, in our loneliness, in our suffering and in our darkness?  Does this also mean then that it is pointless for us to seek that God makes any sort of indication that he exists?  One way of looking at this positively is to see that there is really a privileged way through which a soul who is truly hungering and focused on finding God can locate that key to touch holiness and grace.  Silence, I believe has a lot to do with true spiritual hunger.

We all hunger for a lot of things.  Many people hunger for the wrong things in life, causing all sorts of problems and anxieties.  The book of Wisdom lists so many things that the human heart hungers wrongly for, and the consequences that come with an errant hunger.  Recently in the press, we have been reading how Singapore seems to be getting well known for its street food.  Reading these reports from my convalescing corner in my home, I can only dream of the day that I can once more savour these enticing flavours.  I now can only hunger for them in my fantasies.  Interestingly, there was a contest held in the heart of the city where contestants placed their hands on a particular position of a brand new car, and they could not move their hands one bit except for breaks of about a minute every few hours.  These participants hungered very much for the car and apparently the winner managed to succeed in not moving that hand for about 72 hours!  He must have really been hungry for that vehicle. 

When we are truly hungry for God, we will want to find that key, that privileged way through which we can enter into the heart of God.  The problem with many of us is that we just don’t hunger enough for God to use the time-tested key of spiritual silence.  Some of us are pushed into silence out of our situation, when a suffering or a pain or a disappointment in life forces a silence upon us.  But it takes a certain determination within to embrace this silence as God’s time tested way of allowing us to enter into his heart. 

Is there a language in heaven?  Of course the Church has always taught that there is the heavenly liturgy that doesn’t end, but language is something earthly.  In heaven, silence speaks plenty.  Lovers know this very well, where there is hardly ever a need to speak a word when two hearts are “beating as one”.  And if God is the ultimate lover of us all, isn’t the value of silence the greatest hallmark of God’s love?

A friend of mine recently lost her mother due to illness.  She said that she missed her mother everyday, and comes home to a silent home, and is so afraid that she might become depressed.  She calls out to her mother when she comes from work, and thinks that this is not healthy.  I, on the other hand think that this is healthy, but I encourage her to just keep silence in the home upon returning each day.  After all, when we are separated by either distance or death from our loved ones, we can be with them in silence.

When I was in active ministry, and visited the sick and homebound often, I would struggle much when seeing the pain and suffering of those I faced to bless and to give Holy Communion.  But I knew that my silent presence in the room did provide some kind of comfort, some kind of solace to the one who was suffering so much.  In those moments, silence provided an empathy as well as a certain healing of which I had nothing to do with.  It was the grace of God at work.

I am for the better part of the next 12 months of my life going to live in a silent corner to convalesce.  I hope to hunger well in my “silent corner”.