Monday, February 24, 2014

Of spiritual conversions and blood conversions

As I continue my convalescence from the Stem Cell transplant which took place last July, I have come to see that there are several things, which a Stem Cell transplantation and a spiritual conversion have in common. 

 1.   The new life I have is pure gift.
This is what is pointed out to all neophytes at their baptism.  The new life that they have been given in Christ is pure grace and they could not have worked toward it on their own.  In being a recipient of the precious Stem Cells from my still-unknown donor, I am ever grateful to him (that’s about as much as I know about this mystery donor – his gender) I too have been given life, and I could not have worked to have it happen.  I am very blessed to have been given this new lease of life, without which I may not even be alive today, and I am very grateful for the altruism of my donor who has given out of the kindness of his heart.

2.   The new life that we have needs a lot of care and attention.
Any conversion that lasts and is not just a one-off, feel-good experience has to have an element of wardship, heedfulness and forethought.  It must not lead one to think that just because of the new life one has received, one can lead a carefree and careless existence.  The life of a person who has been converted to Christ requires a response, which sees the person being very careful of how he lives.  His entire life has changed, and everything has to be seen in the light of Christ.  From his choice of entertainment, to his hobbies and sometimes even his occupation, there needs to be a mindfulness of who he is now.  And sometimes, the choices he makes requires of him to make great changes in his life if he is going to truly conform to the image of Christ. 

Apparently, my blood type has changed with the Stem Cell transplant.  About a month ago, my doctor has confirmed that my former O+ blood has changed to the donor’s B+.  A change has happened within me.  Every transplant patient is briefed by doctors and dieticians about the things that are taboo for us.  There are foods that are forbidden either because they clash with our heavy medication, or because of the presence of live bacteria, which our systems cannot handle.  I have yet to eat a grape or an apple since I began my treatments a year ago.  Each meal I consume requires that I am mindful of the things that I cannot consume, and the conversion that I have undergone will be greatly compromised if I throw caution to the wind and eat all that my heart and stomach desires.

3.   True conversions do not happen overnight.
Spiritual conversions are prone to what I call the “two step forward, one step back” dance.  Much as the newly baptized or those who have undergone a spiritual conversion would like to hope that their positive change remains unchallenged and untrammelled, the very fact that each life is given the great gift of free-choice becomes the reason why one can fall from grace due to sin.  Responding to a call to repentance and a renewed and strengthened life in Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a real means to continue the journey of conversion.  Just as it did not happen overnight, neither will living a life of grace become automatic. 

It has been some seven months since my Stem Cell transplant, and on some days, it does seem that this entire process is taking forever.  Much as I would like to see my energy levels back to my pre-leukaemia days, I cannot rush things.  My stamina seems to be a thing of the past, and I find myself panting just walking to the top of slight slope.  The fact that on three occasions in the past I finished three marathon runs makes my current weakness and physical limitations something difficult to accept.  Doctors have told me that full recovery and the regaining of my former strength takes anywhere from a year to even three.  Just like a spiritual conversion, I have to allow the slow passage of time for a proper strengthening within.

4.   Not many people understand what a conversion entails.
Stories of spiritual conversion shared with unconverted friends and relatives sometimes have little or no impact on them.  Unless one shares this with a similarly graced person, one can literally talk till the proverbial cows come home, and what is heard are just words.  But talk to someone who has shared the same conversion journey, and one can even finish the sentence which the other person has started. 

In my now once-in-three-weeks visit to see my oncologist/haemotologist at the hospital, I have made several friends who are themselves patients with various types of blood cancers.  We understand each other’s frustrations and pains, and share openly about the side effects of some of the harsh medications that we are on.  When we talk about mucositis resulting from the necessary pre-transplantation ordeal of intensive chemotherapy and full-body irradiation, there’s a certain knowing that we all share without saying much.  We all have come very close to the gates of Sheol.  I have an inkling that even our kind doctors who treat us so well in our illness only have a head-knowledge of what we actually go through, through no fault of their own.  But what this experience gives us is a certain mindfulness and compassion when we see others undergoing what we ourselves have gone through.  The same should be said for those converted, where they become more patient and encourage others to bear the long suffering that is part of a true conversion.

John Bunyan, the noted English Christian writer and preacher known for his work “The Pilgrim’s Progress” had this to say about conversion :  “Conversion is not the smooth, easy-going process some men seem to think.  It is wounding work, this breaking of hearts, but without wounding, there is no saving.  Where there is grafting, there will always be a cutting, and the graft must be let in with a wound, to stick it onto the outside or to tie it on with a string would be of no use.  Heart must be set to heart and back to back or there will be no sap from root to branch.  And this, I say, must be done by a wound, by a cut.”

I believe the imagery speaks well for itself here. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Living a life of grace is 'hard work'

Did the martyrs and holy men and women live a somewhat different kind of life than we do?  Whenever we read about those wonderful and heroic lives of the saints, the picture that we often get in our heads is that these people were specially set aside by God to manifest a special love for him through the difficult and often painful times that they lived in.  It seemed as if they were born with a certain immunity to the ways of the world, and at the crucial point in time, were able to make that terribly difficult decision to remain steadfast in the faith and an option for God.

Much as I would like to believe it, the opposite is more the reality.  Each person who lives in a state of grace does not do this in any easy way.  To want to be steadfast in your faith, to live as a ‘friend of God’, is to respond positively to God’s constant outreach with purposefulness and a constant awareness.  And this requires a dedication that goes way beyond mere good feelings.  It requires a decision to love, which is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of any good and godly relationship. 

If living a life of grace and holiness is easy, it implies that one does no ‘work’ but is taken up along the currents of goodness without much effort.  But that is hogwash, and makes little sense in our world of the material.  If there is one thing that the spiritual life and the physical world have in common, it is that where there is ‘no pain’, there is ‘no gain’. 

What is the ‘pain’ in a life dedicated to God and holiness?  Among other things, it is generally a life of delayed gratification, a willingness to see the crosses in life as hidden blessings, an openness to letting hardship and defeat in life be teachers of deeper truths, and to not be too absorbed by the fact that our human lives are so imbued with the never ending thirst and yearning for status, companionship, thrill, sex, fame and pleasure.  This is not to say that the holy person is a boring oddball.  He or she just has a ‘graced’ intuition that these things have a very limited happiness value, and that there is a deeper, more lasting and even eternal quality to his or her existence.  Those who practice a religion will know that it is in God.  Those who do not, search far and wide for this.

As I look out at the congregation from the presider’s chair in the sanctuary on a Sunday Mass gathering, a whole sea of faces returns the gaze, and this sea of faces often give me the picture of a great mixture of people who are in different kinds of relationship with God and their fellowman and woman.  The “I-am-bored-and-wish-I-could-be-somewhere-else” look is ever prevalent on the faces of many who perhaps have not yet appreciated that their total presence in Church one hour a week is a very weak response to love God who continues to love us every second of every day. 

Then there are those who are showing signs of fear, anxiety, depression, worry and sadness.  Hoping to find an answer to their perplexities in life, they come to ask God for help. 

The other end of the spectrum are those who have come with a willing heart and a knowing that this is something that is right and good, though it may not always feel good and right.  They don’t only come before God once in a while when the feeling is there, but with a weekly (or even daily) consistency because they know that responding to a divine love (or any other love) is a decision that is very often exclusive from feelings. 

Are we ‘categorised’ in these boxes and remain stuck there?  The truth is that we are a mixture of all of them at various points in our lives, and if we recognize ourselves and know where we stand, we will ask ourselves why, and with God’s grace, want to live for a higher purpose than ourselves and our worries.  It takes a lot to want to live this way, because more and more, it will require us to put ourselves, our needs and our fears out of the centre of the equation, and put God there.  This is the main difficulty of living a life of grace.  It is this re-orientation that fills many with trepidation and fear, and we human beings will be the best procrastinators of deep change because we have a rather limited notion of what a life of grace provides.  Most of these notions are stilted and biased, but we will only realise this when God opens our minds in love and mercy.

Helen Keller is known for many sayings, and one about happiness had her saying, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose”.  Though the truth in this is deep, it does lack a key or answer for those seeking a ‘worthy purpose’ because much conflict and violence comes as a result of different people having different definitions of what a ‘worthy purpose’ is. 

But fellow Christian who is reading this, I hope that a mindfulness of what we have been graciously baptized into (a life of Christ) is your only real and lasting worthy purpose.  It takes hard work to respond to this at each moment of our lives, but you and I know that this brings with it a peace that nothing in the world can give.  It gives us strength to ride out the many difficult storms of life, and a willingness to be people of cheer despite the sacrifices that true living and loving often requires. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

The need to be protected from distress, anxiety and perturbations

We pray this at every Mass that we participate in, just before the embolism that follows the Lord’s Prayer.  It used to be a protection from ‘anxiety’ but the new Mass has changed it to something more relatable and recognizable.  Not many people may immediately know what anxiety is, but I think many more will be able to relate to feelings of distress.  It has been translated from the Latin ‘pertubationes’ which literally means ‘perturbations’.

Why does the Church see such a need for her members to kept safe from distress or anxiety?  In her wisdom, she knows that at the basis of many of our sins and transgressions is a hidden and subtle shade of distress that we all experience in our daily human living.  We have a natural inclination to not live fully in the present moment but instead, have our hearts and minds either harping on the past, longing for some unfulfilled past, or racing ahead to our unknown futures and planning incessantly to make them a reality.  We think that the present moment is just too slow and ‘boring’, and we are largely an impatient bunch. 

Where does this dis-ease come from?  The Book of Ecclesiastes gives us some indication.  At the end of that litany where we are told that there is a time to experience the different emotions in our lives, a time to be born, a time to die, a time to love, a time to refrain from loving, like as if our lives follows some kind of natural flow of seasons, it ends with the writer saying that God has put a ‘timelessness’ in our hearts.  Perhaps it is this timelessness that gives cause to the many ‘perturbations’ or distresses that, without exception, we all feel in various ways.

How then do we fully immerse ourselves into the present moment and not live too far in the past, and not too forward into the future?  Spiritual masters have always advocated the habit of contemplation, where we become aware of the present moment, its surroundings and our place in the present scheme of things.  It is that deliberate act to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enter into that ‘timelessness’ that the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes was trying to describe, where we find it a struggle to be in sync with the changes of times and seasons. 

When we are too anxious or perturbed about so many things in life, it inevitably leads to worry and fear.  Aren’t incidences of impatience, intolerance of the seeming inconsistencies of others, and outbursts of rage caused by our inability to wait?  Just take the act of driving as a simple example.  We are distressed at the slightest demand made of our time when the driver in front of us is a bit slow, or causes us to wait behind him when he alights a passenger or when the driver behind us wants to overtake us.  This distress is often a trigger that leads to outbursts of anger and resentment, and it is often a downward spiral from there, sometimes leading to acts of revenge and road rage where we turn from human beings to hardly being humans. 

The same happens when we are told of news that our lives are going to experience change – when the doctor tells us that we have some illness that involves a lot of care and medication, or when the stocks and shares that we have invested in takes a tumble leaving us with book losses that seem astronomical, or when our plans somehow don’t end up with what we had hoped for.  When we are not in the habit of entering into timelessness as a prayer, it will be just too easy to fall into any sort of distress or anxiety that turns our world topsy turvy.

When we are acutely aware of our timelessness, we are actually entering into the presence of the one who created time – God himself.  Isn’t it true that it is only when we are living lives that are “in God” that we are fully protected from all that causes us anxiety, distress and perturbations?  Putting our faith and hope in anything or anyone else may be a temporary salve from the wounds caused by the world. 

Anything long term and lasting has to be found in God, as St Augustine says “you have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

Monday, February 3, 2014

How do we understand sin?

It’s very seldom talked about, even in religious circles.  “Original Sin” has connotations of a concept that is something that was of the bygone era, and we modern people tend to put it aside when we broach the topic of religion.  Yet, at every baptism, we know that what is happening is that the one baptized is ‘washed clean’ of original sin.  I know many struggle with a good explanation of what this really is, and in my own catechetical presentations, have tried in so many different ways to bring its truth across to the people I taught, and sometimes, I wonder if it was with any degree of success.

In a rather graphic way, the story in Genesis gives us a dramatic account of Adam and Eve, our first parents, and their original sin.  The bottom line is that they took a forbidden fruit, and disobeyed a command by God to not do it.  It is not the fruit that was the sin.  It was what led to the eating.  It was the taking. 

Original sin encompasses everything that causes us to think of our needs and ourselves and wants as far more important that what anyone or anything else beyond ourselves.  It is that drive that spurs us on to what we think is greatness and self-satisfaction.  All sin begins with a drive and a need to satisfy oneself.  This was what Genesis tries to depict in a graphic and simple way, but perhaps to the modern mind, its simplicity makes many think about it as being simplistic.  But the greater truth is that this sin or inclination to sin affects every human person. 

So what does it mean when a person is ‘free from Original Sin’ like Mary?  Perhaps it will help if we look at how her life is different from ours, and from that perspective, we will be able to see what sin and the effects of Original Sin does to us. 

The gospel passages that do feature Mary teach us in a rather hidden way about the effect of original sin.   What Mary doesn’t do and how she doesn’t react gives us an indication of what the effects of original sin are because of our belief that Mary was born without original sin. 

The Annunciation
It is clear that Mary was not at all self-seeking when the annunciation took place.  There was no concern about how topsy-turvy Mary’s life would be from that moment on, and how her marriage to Joseph would be negatively impacted.  Original sin causes us to always think about ourselves first and what ‘others’ will say.  We have a very fragile ego to protect and perhaps promote.  Mary was free from this need, and this is clear in her free and willing acceptance of the will of God for her even though it was going to bring untold suffering and a great living in mystery.

The Visitation
Yet another clear example of putting her own needs aside is seen in the visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.  One of the hallmarks of sin is that of self-aggrandizement and the seeking of comfort and security at the expense of others.  Mary’s immediate journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s aid when she was told of her pregnancy is an indication that even though Mary was going to be mother of God, it was not something that inflated her ego.  Her great charity and compassion is writ large in her visitation.  This is something that all of us who have traces and effects of original sin constantly battle with.  On good days, we manage to show a little compassion and charity, but on bad days, we know we fail miserably.

The Presentation of the Lord
How do we sinners react to prophecies that are ominous?  The best of us would cast them aside to quell our anxieties and silently hope that they would not come true.  The worst of us would probably react badly and castigate the ‘prophet’ in our own ways.  But in the passages that show Mary’s encounter with Simeon and Anna in the temple, even though a dark message was given to Mary about her heart being pierced by a sword, we are given an indication of how her sinlessness gave her the ability to hold it all in faith and a willingness to allow things to happen in their due course.  How do we react when people cast aspersions on our projects and us in our lives?  Sin and its effects are always lurking nearby to cause us to react and want the last say, usually in a derogatory way.

The kindred of Jesus do not threaten Mary
In Luke 8:19-21, we are given a small but very important teaching about how when one is living in grace, one never feels threatened or insecure in life.  When Jesus mentioned to the crowd that whoever hears the word of God and does it is his mother, we do not see Mary in any sort of uproar of disapproval.  Her role as Jesus’ mother is not at all threatened.  Sin’s effect is just the opposite.  Our insecurities in life (which are numerous, for sure) are an effect of our sinfulness and often rears their ugly heads at the mere mention of anything that shows others are better or equal to us.  When one is ‘full of grace’, one has the ability to allow others into one’s life in ways that have no borders and limits.  Sin may always threat, but grace always treats.

The Wedding at Cana
Mary’s openness to God’s plan in difficult situations is on display here.  Mary was a special guest as we are told that the mother of Jesus was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also invited.  The fact that Mary uttered so few words to Jesus “they have no wine” is an indication of not only her trust in God’s providence but also her deference to God to work as he deems fit.  Grace accords one this rare ability.  Sin on the other hand causes us to constantly want to be in the driver’s seat and control people and situations, often without our needing to, leading to much unhappiness in our lives and those whom we seem to want to control.

Mary at the foot of the Cross
John (19:25) tells us that Mary was standing near the cross of Jesus at his crucifixion.  Far more than an indication of her physical position, this mention of John’s indicates something deep and mystical about Mary.  She did not rant and rave at the injustice that was unfolding before her.  She did not demand an explanation from God or the authorities.  She did not even demand to understand what was happening.  Instead of wanting to “understand”, she chose to “stand under” the great mystery of the Cross.  Grace does this to those who suffer much.  But when one is living with the terrible effects of sin, one cannot handle much mystery nor great suffering well.  We demand answers, and we want them yesterday.  We do not “stand under” any cross well and cannot stand much that is unexplained and unclear. 

In these five brief examples of Mary and how she handled the situations she found herself in, there is some indication of how she is so different from any of us who are living the effects of original sin and original shame (as Fr Richard Rohr often calls it).  Our baptism gives us a real antidote and weaponry against these weaknesses of ours, because it aligns our lives with Christ’s who only lived to do the Father’s will.  Being aware of what our baptism gives us in grace becomes then our ability to not let original sin and its effects master our lives. 

I hope that this reflection allows readers to re-appreciate what their baptism gave to them and the need to be constantly aware of sin’s proximity when we are confronted by the attitudes of a sinful world.  May these thoughts be aids towards our shared quest for sanctity and holiness.