Monday, December 29, 2014

Watching in the dark night for the brightness of dawn

In an article which I recently came across, I found out that Karl Rahner, the noted German theologian, once preached a series of Lenten reflections which gave him the platform to speak about the state of helplessness and loneliness.  He told his audience a couple of surprising, yet insightful things.  One of the things that he said was that we must not be surprised by our feelings of loneliness and those of being shackled in moments of our more poignant lives.

What he meant is that there will, as part of our varied landscapes of our lives will show, be moments, even prolonged moments, when we seem to be somewhat forced into periods of loneliness and some form of constriction.  I have known many couples in marriages where there are great periods of loneliness, even when two people are sharing the same bed.  Physical proximity is sometimes not the antidote to loneliness, as can be attested to by those who are strangers in the bond of marriage.  Certainly, other afflictions can bring about the experience of loneliness and being in some sort of bind or constraint as well.  Illnesses do this to us, and so do experiences of our own human limitations.  When Rahner told his audience that one must not be shocked by these moments, moments of powerlessness and hopelessness, he was saying that it is in confronting these moments that we actually begin to develop our own sensitivity and begin that often painful but necessary process of stretching our hearts that lead to our emotional health.

The one temptation that faces us at these times is to make a beeline for the door, to escape and run away from what we think will make life difficult and challenging.  What Rahner says next is ‘don’t’.  Fight this temptation to flee.  Instead, stay inside of this seeming emptiness and darkness.  There is much to learn from this, counter-intuitive though it may be.

Many of us will turn to our familiar distractions to find some sort of escape from what pains us.  Some will turn to being lost in some sort of busyness, moving from relationship to relationship, turning to drink, endless amusements and worldly distractions.  What these escapes an do is to convince us that there is no God around for us, and that we have to save ourselves. 

Staying inside of the pain and stilling ourselves within this turmoil is a courageous thing to do because it provides our inner selves the opportunity to get to that turning point and to see that God is doing something within this chaos.  I know now that this was the subconscious working within me when I was told by my doctors that I had a rare blood cancer almost two year ago.  I knew that I didn’t want to go into any sort of denial, to escape from this news, or to enter into a ‘pity-mode’.  Instead, embraced it because I knew that I would encounter God within this challenge and the constraints that I was being presented with.   I do, however, hesitate much in using myself as an example, simply because it has the rather distasteful tone of being a literary selfie snapshot.  I do apologise if this is not only inappropriate but perhaps even rather distasteful to my readers.

When we meet these moments of constraint, several things begin to happen, but only if we allow them.  One of these is that our thoughts about God begin to become purified.  We will see that our notions of God are often not those of the real God, but the God of our imaginings.  A lot of us have very narrow notions of God that he must not allow these things to happen in our lives.  But it is in the darkness of our lives that we purify these stilted notions, where we sit and wait patiently for some light to shine in the darkness.  It is only when we are surrounded by a deep night that the light of hope can come. 

The Christmas story that is told in gospels where the infancy narratives of Christ are written about mention shepherds watching in the night.  What were they watching for?  The first thing that comes to mind would be potential marauders and predators that would harm their sheep.  But another thing that any night watchman would wait for is the light.  The light of dawn signals the arrival of safety and the opportunity for rest.  It is in this dark night on the first Christmas night that a light did appear – that of the heavenly messengers in the form of an army of angels. 

It is common knowledge that the deeper and purer the night darkness, the brighter the stars appear.  That is because the skies are not brightened by the city lights that can make the viewing of stars not only challenging but almost impossible.  It’s not that the stars are not there.  Isn’t this the same thing that can be said of God?

When our lives are too filled with anxieties and worries, made worse possibly by the distractions that we choose to deal with them, we surround our lives by much more brightness than we should.  But Rahner’s recommendation makes sense here.  Spiritual sense.  Perhaps we need to have the courage to sit patiently in the darkness that our lives seem to be in, much like those shepherds at Bethlehem, and await there in the deep darkness so that the light of God’s hope can be seen with greater clarity.  Having the stance of the shepherds on that holy night allows us to be ready to receive the message and comforting presence of God.

Nota bene
I will be taking time to be away for about two weeks where I will be incommunicado.  As such, there will be a hiatus of my weekly blog entry till 19 Jan 2015.  With God's grace, I will be sufficiently recharged and energized thereafter to write and reflect with a new freshness.  I wish all my readers a very happy and holy new year, where we welcome all the ways through which God makes inroads into our lives, transforming us to be greater images of him.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The King Herod in all of us

One of the many personalities of the unfolding Christmas nativity story that we can readily identify with is that of King Herod, the appointed king of the Judea by the Roman authorities who was the occupying force in Israel at the time.  I do not refer to Herod’s notoriety of being capable of murder, including taking the lives of his blood relatives.  That kind of identification is, thankfully, only applicable to a very ‘select’ few.  I am referring to his insecurity and ego-centered fears.

Despots and people of power who emerge as a result of instilling any sort of fear or terror in others will always live with a sense of unrest within themselves because of the dread and anxiety that someone will emerge and take this away from them, pulling as it were, the rug from beneath their feet.  What the external demeanor displays often as confidence, control and influence often hide instead a sea of nervousness, worry and unease behind a gossamer wall that is strangely easily perceived with little discernment. 

But what is most arresting is the fact that powers who exert this kind of dominance cannot find it in them to fully appreciate the goodness, talents, skills and intelligence of others who are in their midst.  Instead of working well with those who are under their leadership, enabling what is known as a win-win situation to develop, those in these seats of power, title and authority often choose to silence them.  To those who are at the top of this shaky ladder, it appears that any person who is more talented, gifted, intelligent and popular is seen as a serious threat to one’s level of contentment.  One very obvious reason for this is that it is very easy to get used to the position that power accords.  One’s ego and one’s self worth then become easily associated with the fawnings and sycophantic behavior of those who serve them and report to them.  Little wonder that one can then believe in one’s press and want this to last for as long as possible.

When Herod was told of the intentions of the visiting Magi that they were looking for the infant King of the Jews, his insecurities were immediately revealed.  His actions and his intentions were far from pure when he asked them to help him locate this infant king.  His greatest fear was that he would be dethroned and lose his influence over the peoples. 

We have seen vignettes of this scenario played over and over again in history.  We may also have had personal encounters with such insecure leaders and figures of authority in our work places, parliaments, and sadly and scandalously, in many religious settings like religious congregations and houses.  Religious superiors can sometimes be negative examples of God’s presence in the ways that they carry out their appointments, and view the skills and talents of those under their charge with disdain and skepticism. 

How can one prevent oneself from falling into this kind of insidious and sinful behavior, where the very talents that one is surrounded by are so easily under-appreciated and under-valued and viewed through eyes filled with avarice and envy?  How does one view another’s talents with a spirit of welcome and appreciation, and look to their gifts as something that completes them rather than compete with them?  How does one remove the blinkers from one’s line of vision, so as to be well grounded?

One of the things that can help us to keep this monster at bay from taking over our selves is to always have an eye that is constantly cast on the divine.  That we are not our own makers, and that we will always have a power that is above us will keep us from becoming a power unto ourselves.  This is what regular worship and prayer helps us to do.  It is no wonder then that many despots and tyrants forbid any form of religion in their empires.  True religion will always help us to keep ourselves from taking ourselves too seriously because we are reminded that the greatness and majesty and grandeur of God is who we give our honour and ultimate obeisance to. 

The wonder of the wise men was that they knew where their wisdom came from, and it was not from themselves.  They who did not live in fear and insecurity were able to give true homage to divinity and deity whilst Herod who thought too highly of himself could only react in vexation and displeasure.  What the wise men saw as beauty and godliness, Herod could only see threat and peril.  When Mary proclaimed at the Magnificat that the ‘hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away’, she was an instrument of revelation of God’s way of overturning worldly and insecure powers.

In many of the tableaux and scenes of the Christmas crib set up in churches and even in shopping malls, there will inevitably be figurines of the holy family, farm animals, shepherds, the wise men and the obligatory angels.  It doesn’t take my effort to imagine ourselves as one of these ‘harmless’ personalities, but it also doesn’t give us much visual impetus to look deeper into ourselves where we may not be as hospitable to holiness and godliness as we should.  Perhaps somewhere in these tableaux and setttings there should be a corner where Herod lurks, giving those of us who visit the scene of the nativity an entry point to ponder in what ways we too have been Herods in our lives, and raise our need for God’s mercy.

In my very early years of my priesthood, I dabbled in some song writing and did a few recordings.  One of the songs that I penned came from such a reflection as today’s, when I realized that it is when we forget that we have been divinely loved since the beginning of time that we allow our insecurities to develop and cause anxieties within ourselves.  I have uploaded the recording of “I’m Secure” onto YouTube and it can be accessed here.  I know it’s not a Christmas song by any means, but if Christ can be reborn anew in our hearts that give us a renewed way of living and a godly consciousness in our lives, Christmas becomes truly real.  Consider this a gift from me to you, my reader, and have a truly blessed Christmas.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Meeting God in a dark cloud.

In several places in the Exodus experience, Moses encounters God in a ‘dark cloud’.  In Exodus 19:9, the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

There is something here that is well worth deeper reflection because there is much more than meets the eye.  That God does not manifest himself in a very clear way, but chooses to come to Moses, his representative and spokesperson, in the form of something so nebulous and indefinite like a dense cloud, should give us some indication that when God does show himself to us in this life, oftentimes, it is not going to be something that is immediately perceptible and full of awe (I think we can use the very abused word ‘awesome’ here), but rather, may well choose to reveal himself through a circumstance that seems dark, dense and even a tad problematic.  Of course, there are the moments of great joy and wonder that we may be blessed with in life that give us real cause to believe in God’s loving presence, but I do believe that most of us have much more experiences of these ‘dark, dense cloud’ moments that give us doubts.  The trouble with those moments of joy is that our notoriously evanescent memories don’t seem to hold them in our hearts for any prolonged period of time, and when we are in times of desolation, we find it very hard to re-live them with much success.  Perhaps this is why many of my reflections tend to give the impression that I am rather ‘hung up’ on the Cross, redemptive suffering and transformative purgation.  Most people do not need help in experiencing joy.  What most people long for is the presence of God when times are dire and dismal.

Any form of suffering that we go through in life, be it a social, physical or psychological one, is easily seen as a certain darkness in our lives, causing a blight on our happiness.  But not all suffering is taken and handled with meaning that is transformative.  It is only when suffering is handled and experienced with a willingness to see it as a kind of Good Friday that leads to the resurrection of Easter Sunday, or a suffering that painfully burns away the dross that forms the impurities in unrefined gold, that one brings a new transformative meaning to suffering.  This takes a great amount of faith and conviction that is paved by grace.  Pain experienced with this kind of ‘graced suffering’ makes the attachment to the spiritual life a little easier, and gives one the ability to be in union with other suffering selves and their fellowman or woman.  It is often that when we fail to do this and do the necessary internal work that is needed, that we end up projecting this pain on to others, and even make them pay for our suffering.  But when we respond to the grace to do this with a blessed patience, the kind of learning that we receive is not of the cerebral type.  It provides a learning that brings one to the doorsteps of wisdom.

Moses must have had a taste of this divine truth when he too, had to enter into the dense cloud in order to meet God.  God presented himself to Moses in two rather problematic ways – first in the fire of the burning bush that was not consumed, and then in the darkness of a cloud.  Both do not permit of any form of containing and preserving whatsoever.  God was not to be encountered outside of this darkness, outside of mystery, and outside of a seeming chaos.  In fact, God was never hiding in the cloud.  In the cloudiness of it all, it was the darkness that enabled God to meet Moses in his soul. 

Someone recently asked me why it is so difficult to praise God when one is in a state of suffering, and if it is at all possible to be sincere when we praise him while suffering.  One of the things that define a saint is that he or she puts not himself or herself in the centre of life, but that he or she manages to place God at the centre, where he belongs.  This is what enabled Mary to praise God in the Magnificat when by all accounts, her life at that time was one which was full of uncertainties and looming problems.  This is the result of her being ‘full of grace’.

When we are plagued with any illness or pre-occupation with our own pains and disappointments, it is most tempting to put these in the heart of everything, and thereby displacing God from his rightful position.  This makes it difficult for us to praise God with much sincerity because a lot of our energies will be focused on ourselves.  True praise and worship can only come about when God is re-centered in our lives.  When that happens, true praise also happens.  And the amazing thing is that when we do lose ourselves in praising God with our whole being, we forget about ourselves and our neediness.  It is thus not only possible to praise God amidst our sufferings, it is actually something that is also strangely necessary.

In our rich Catholic tradition, we have the advantage of having sacramentals like statues and crucifixes to help us to turn our minds to God when we pray.  They help to focus our mental (and psychic) energies which can run helter-skelter when we find ourselves very distracted by our own worries.  We have been often wrongly accused of idol-worshipping when using these sacramental to pray, but it sure beats worshipping and giving undue attention to our own perturbations and anxieties, making them our false gods instead. 

If life has been an experience of being in a dark, dense cloud for any prolonged period of time, may I suggest entering into it with a renewed faith, with a renewed yearning to meet God there, and let your soul begin to magnify the Lord too.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Does God protect us even when we suffer and enter into trials?

There are many faithful, including Christians, who have a certain idea and pre-conceived notion of God that seems to hold that if God is all knowing and all loving, that we should then never have to undergo much sufferings in life.  This God of ours should constantly be on guard to prevent our entering into any darkness or trial which require of us to suffer.  Perhaps this notion of God is something that we began with when we were first introduced to God in our first introductions into the spiritual life, and this is understandable.  But if we do not make that necessary and difficult journey into life with its strange twists and turns, seeing us suffering in numerous ways which are often beyond our fathoming, and confront these with our first innocent notions of a nanny-like God, we may well end up with a stilted and warped theology of God’s love and omnipresence, giving us reason to walk away from our faith later on.

Whenever disasters (natural or otherwise) of epic proportions strike, leaving so many thousands suffering and wounded, with their lives torn asunder, a corresponding ‘natural’ question on the lips of many is “where is God in all this?”  This is understandable, especially when we hold on to a very sterile idea of divine care and providence that seems more to be passive than active, more inert than dynamic.  Events like the tsunami that hit many parts of South East Asia in 2004, and the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City in 2001 are two such examples.  Closer to home and much more personal is when one experiences a loss, a failed marriage, or when one gets a cancer with a prognosis that one has a certain number of months left to live.  Somehow, when these happen, and one has an undeveloped notion of God’s providence, we are not armed with the correct vocabulary to articulate just how God is still there, despite his seeming and disturbing silence.

But it is when one dares to broach these instances with a heart that allows one to persist in faith to still experience God as providential and loving despite what befalls one, that one begins to open a very important doorway of faith that leads to a ‘paradoxical wisdom’ that is rare but very needed.  What is this ‘paradoxical wisdom’ that spiritual masters like James Finley speaks about?  It is precisely the wisdom that allows suffering and unexplained turmoil to happen in our world and in our lives while at the same time also allowing a deep belief that God has not let us go in some abandonment of divine proportions. 

That God’s presence doesn’t mean an absence of suffering and trials, but are often the very means through which God shows us that he is ‘sustaining us in all things’ gives us new eyes and new hearts to look at these events not with our minds, but with a new heart.  God’s presence in our lives and in our world does not prevent tragedy.  It is what helps us go through the pains and tragedies themselves, much like the way that Jesus went through the pains and tragedies of the Cross.  Was God hidden in the event of Calvary?  Very much so.  Was God also hidden in the sad and heart-rending events of the tsunami and the downing of the World Trade Centre?  It certainly appears so.  We can ask an endless litany of “but why?” questions, shaking that proverbial fist heavenward, but there have also been many instances where years after the event, where there had been a slow rebuilding of lives and physical structures, that we realized that through the swell of the storm there had been a certain perceivable calm that had carried us along the very tragedy itself. 

Faith enables us to hold on to the belief that God doesn’t just carry us through the tragedy or sadness, but that he carries us through life all the way till he appears before us and when we see God ‘face to face’. 

Could this be what Jesus was hinting at when he said that ‘everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man building his house on rock’.  What is this ‘acting’ but an active living out of our faith in the very Word of God, who is the second person of the Trinity, and building our lives on this faith? The effects of nature that Jesus mentions like the rains coming down, floods rising and gales blowing affects both kinds of houses – those built on rock as well as those built on sand.  Obviously, this goes to show that regardless of its foundations, there will undoubtedly be tests and trials in life.

I’m not a builder of concrete structures, but it doesn’t take much intelligence to know that building on rock is far more arduous and requires much more effort (and equipment, cost and time) than building on sand.  The preparation for the groundwork is far from being a walk in the park.  Faith that is built not just on a saccharine notion of God’s providential presence but a willingness to hold this in and despite the adversities and calamaties in life is difficult and challenging – like building on rock.  This is our ultimate Christian calling to faith.