Monday, May 26, 2014

Helping the cancer-patient to bear the Cross of Christ

This week’s blog entry is dedicated to Bernice, an incredible lady of faith whom I have been blessed to know as a priest.  She enters into a new dimension of her faith in God this week as she begins her chemotherapy and journey with cancer, illness, and active cross-carrying.

As a cancer patient myself, I would never ever want anyone to have to go through the arduous treatment that chemotherapies and cancer-related treatments that we need to.  One of the things that we first look out for when told that this is the course which we have to undergo is to ask folk who have gone through similar treatments what to expect and how to deal with its pains and side effects.  While each patient takes each course of treatment as differently as body constitutions are different, there are certain similarities that abound and words of encouragement are always a boon.  I hope these following points will help to assuage any fears and calm the anxieties of people who may have to seek similar treatments for their illnesses.

1.   It helps to talk about your feelings to trusted friends and relations.
Bottling up your fears and sadness is going to be tempting, especially for people who deem themselves as quiet and reclusive.  But when we are blessed with a few close friends and trusted companions in life, know that these people are gifts from God at times like these when compassionate and listening ears are a blessing indeed.  I may be just the opposite where I shamelessly write about my struggles for the whole world to read, but I guess this has become part of my priesthood and ministry, and the writing had always had one thing in mind – to help those who need it most. 

2.   Try to always look at life not in isolated incidences but as a whole.
When given the news of any illness, especially those that have a recovery and treatment that is for the long haul, it is going to be tempting to only look at life from the point of the illness alone, and fill our minds and hearts with remorse, sadness and regret.  What can help to change the vista that leaves us stuck in melancholy is to take things in a much broader perspective.  The more experiences of life that we have had (hopefully this means that the older we are), the broader our life-horizons are to give us this perspective.  Always see the current situation as an added dimension to all that you have been blessed with in life so far.  Our life certainly is not demarcated by the illness.  It has been dotted with plenty of blessings, the presence of God’s grace and many joys that we have all had a share of.  Reflected on them, and thanking God for them can become a beautiful part of our living prayer each day, apart from only asking God to remove our suffering and pains.

3.   The burden of Cross-carrying is an invitation to be in close imitation of Christ.
Not to sound masochistic, but the reality is that no Christian is called to a cushy and rose-petal laden path of life.  Cross carrying is not only something necessary, but also a very hidden blessing that many do not appreciate nor understand.  What serious illness does to our faith can often be a point of contention, but the person of faith needs to try to see pains and suffering as an invitation to come as close to Christ as possible in this life.  Much as it can be a moment (or moments) of anger and regret, loneliness and darkness, with God’s grace and a heart full of faith, our illness and suffering can also be transformed into acts of mercy and purification for the Church and souls in need of acts of mercy from us.  This makes no sense at all to one who has not been introduced to the person of Christ, but for someone of deep faith like you, it makes all the difference.  I remember hearing for the first time my prognosis early last year, and the first thing that came to my mind was that this has to be a hidden blessing, because it will bring me that much closer to Christ who I am called to love and to make his presence known in the world.

4.   Take your time to reach this point in your journey.
As a human being, it may be very necessary to go through the various stages of grief when faced with such news as a long-term illness and recuperation.  It is ok to grieve and be sad, but know that there will be good days along with the bad ones.  Allow yourself to grieve if you have to, but also know that these rainy days do not last forever.  As Christ is by your side as your savior and friend, he too wants you to see the days when the mere sight of the rising sun in the morning gives us great hope to keep our faith and love intact.

5.   Hair will grow back. 
It may be one of the chief concerns of many patients who face chemotherapy that they will be shedding their manes soon.  Ok, so I speak as a male who doesn’t really mind the bald look, but it helps to see that our hair is not what defines us.  I recall one morning in hospital when I first started my series of chemotherapies when my room door was left open, and so was the one that was facing my room.  In the other room was a lady who sat on a chair by her bed, and with her head bowed down, was pulling clumps and clumps of her long hair dropping them on the floor in front of her.  I remember distinctively saying to myself “oh, is this how it happens?”  and tried doing it myself.  Clumps of my own hair stayed in both my hands at that same instant.  At that point, I identified myself closer and closer with all the cancer patients in the world than if I were to participate in any “Hair for hope” charity hair-shave.  I was blessed to be in close unity with them at least from a physical standpoint.  And besides, it was always good to be reminded that after the treatment ends, hair does grow back.  Sometimes in spades too!

6.   Pain medication is a gift from God.  Use it.
There will be times when we will experience the physical pains of our treatment as cancer patients.  These come in all forms, from nerve pain, to bone pain, to muscle aches.  Our illness is already a heavy cross to bear.  We do not need to add to it by tolerating our pains with a grin of resolve.  Be as descriptive of our pains to our doctors and caregivers as possible so that we may be given the adequate pain medication, which is very advanced these days.  It helps us sleep better and takes our minds off our illness and to use our energies for much more positive things like prayer, being in a positive disposition and people of good cheer. 

7.   There will be days when prayer seems to be the most difficult thing to do.
Just as there will be physically good days and bad days in our treatment journey, so too will we see a similar pattern in our prayer life.  Don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself facing those days when you find prayer so difficult for whatever reason.  Offer up your struggle as your prayer.  Sometimes, just looking at a holy picture placed near the hospital bed can become a prayer in itself when we feel furthest away from God in prayer.  This is the beauty of our Catholic tradition where sacramental are concerned.  Make the best use of them so that you can face these prayer-less days with fewer words, but more love.

8.   Have Romans 14:7 close to your heart.  It helps on those dark days.
This quote from Paul reminds us that we are not our own.  We of faith live and die for the Lord.  If our deaths is for the Lord, so too must our endurance through the trials and difficulties of life.  Besides, know that people from all walks of life look at us as Christian sufferers and many of them want to see a difference in the way we take on these life struggles.  When we do them with a style and class that is distinctively different, we become living testimonies of God’s presence in our life, and in the world. 

As much as these points seem long and arduous, I hope that these have not bored the regular reader of my weekly column.  If you are not a cancer patient, praise the Lord!  Perhaps you can use these points to give some one who needs a lift in their own journey.  As for Bernice, in the most positive way, I’d say, “welcome to the cancer club”.  It’s not for the dying.  It’s for the living.  Remember that we are not dying from cancer – we are living with cancer.   

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why it may be too simplistic to ask the WWJD question

Some of you may recall an oft-used phrase that was rather popular in the United States in the 1990s among the Evangelical Christians, to remind their members of the imperative to live and act in such ways as to be able to show their love of Jesus through their actions and perhaps even words.  It later went on to be printed on rubber wristbands that many Christian youths would wear, hopefully to remind them that in every moral situation that they faced, it would help greatly if they always asked themselves the all important question WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?).

While the notion of this movement may have good intentions, as in most things that become viral and widespread, parodies are bound to emerge.  This was no exception.  In fact, perhaps it is because of the fact that this was a ‘movement’ that was so closely associated with Christianity and the person of Jesus, anti-Christian parodies of this catch-phrase were almost expected to surface.  Soon, apparently even the advocates of peace would ask “Who would Jesus bomb” and place that on bumper stickers.

As phrases come and go, the phrase “WWJD?” seems to be the right question to ask so that the followers and disciples of Christ may replicate and literally follow Our Lord in the actions and movements of our daily lives.  And if one happened to be a Christian who doesn’t quite use his or her initiative in moral situations, the mindless adherence to the Gospel passages that feature what Jesus did in the various life-situations seemed easy enough to follow as the blue-print for right moral living.  The trouble is, Jesus faced much fewer morally questionable situations in his time (as far as those which were recorded in the Gospels) that many of us would in our far more advanced and sophisticated world.  The moral conundrum that faces so many of us in the various fields of life make the simplistic asking of this question alone a rather na├»ve way of living out our Christianity.

It’s not that it is the wrong question to ask.  But for one to be able to come to a conclusion that one is sure that one’s choices made are Christ-like in character and perhaps even execution, one has to ask a much more fundamental and necessary question before the “WWJD?” question.  This would be to understand and contemplate why Jesus would do what he did when faced with certain seeming moral dilemmas and difficulties.  If we do not do this, we will be merely mindless minions who unthinkingly follow a leader and leave all of our own necessary reflections and decisions aside.  Christian disciples are not meant to be ‘dumb sheep’ before a shepherd.  Here are some important things to remember as followers of Christ.

1.   We are configured to Christ at our baptism.
That is why it is so important for serious disciples of Christ to spend much of their time in contemplation of their identity in Christ and to remind themselves of what has set them aside from the world despite having to live in the world.  It begins with re-appreciating our shared dignity as the adopted sons and daughters of God and co-heirs with Christ at our baptism.  Nothing else gives us the reason why our actions and our lives should be that different from those of our friends who have not yet known Christ.  What happened at baptism is that we became new persons the moment we came out from the baptismal waters, leaving our old-self behind.  As Gal. 2:22 puts it so clearly, we live no longer we, but Christ who lives in us.  The more we are aware of the great dignity of our being configured anew in a most divine and powerful way, the more we can contemplate deeply this great gift of grace which only God could give.  Bishop Fulton Sheen wrote a wonderful book for priests entitled “A priest is not his own”, and in typical Sheen-fashion, he would breakdown what it meant for a an ordained priest to truly live out his priesthood as fully as he should, and as the title suggests, we achieve this only when we realise that we do not become priests to simply do our own ‘thing’ and live according to our agendas.  We are not our own.  In a similar way, perhaps for a baptized lay person, frequent contemplation about the way he or she has been configured to Christ at baptism reminds each one too, that before the simplistic “WWJD?” question, one has to remind what had made one become configured to Christ.

2.   Sin disfigures this configuration.
Much as we know that we should be leaving our old selves behind after the grace-filled sacrament of our baptism in Christ, we have to be humble enough to also acknowledge that we are still very much prone to sin and its effects.  After our baptism, none of us faces the world in a sin-free vacuum.  Nay, we re-enter it and become re-inserted into the world to begin to help restore what has been lost through sin and evil by our Christ-like ways of living.  But when we are weak and fall into sin, what actually happens is that our having been configured to Christ becomes disfigured and we no longer maintain our sanctifying grace that was given us at baptism.  In such a weakened state, just asking the questions “WWJD?” becomes almost unnecessary since one is no longer walking that close walk with Christ in a sanctified way.  What is our recourse?

3.   The sacrament of reconciliation re-configures us to Christ.
In our Catholic tradition, we have always believed that whenever we go to a priest in humble and contrite confession, we undergo a restoration of our lost relationship with God and our fellow man and woman.  Sanctifying grace makes us whole again, and it gives us the much needed hope to be able to carry on living Christ-like lives.  It removes our hypocrisy which paralyses a sinner from merely paying lip-service as a Christian to being a disciple who is truly alive in the Lord.  More importantly, it humbles everyone to know that no matter what one has done in life, that God is ever willing to forgive and re-strengthen this relationship begun at our baptisms.  It is prideful to say that there are certain sins that God cannot forgive.  I read somewhere once where a penitent came up to a confessor and said that even God cannot unscramble an egg (referring to his sin).  The wisdom of God must have filled this confessor at that point when he replied that though God may not unscramble an egg, God does not despise the scrambled state of the egg.  When we appreciate the extreme love of God shown to us in the sacrament of reconciliation, we will make a beeline for that confessional much more often that we do, and make sure that we re-configure ourselves to Christ each time we fall from sanctifying grace.

4.   We have to remember that our ultimate call in life is to Transfigured to Christ.
The ability to remember this constantly is what gives us the courage to go through the most difficult and arduous challenges that we may face in our daily lives.  Each of us will face various forms of these difficulties, and the temptation will always be either to take the easy way out (which is often the sin-laden way), or to be vacant of hope and to despair in life and become cynical and negative about everything around us.  But when we remember what our destiny really is – to be transfigured in Christ completely at the end of our lives, each challenge, each difficultly will be something that we face with a dignity and courage that brings forth Christ to the world waiting to see him in and through us.  We can only do this effectively if we are mindful of our first configuration in Christ (baptism).  Once we lose sight of this, and our deepest identity, we easily fall prey to the wiles of the devil and his nefarious ways.  When we lose this awareness, the asking of “WWJD?” is a question that at best becomes just a phrase we utter without understanding why.

To put it in a nutshell, What Jesus did came as a result of his consistent relationship which he had with his Father.  In John’s gospel that was a part of yesterday’s liturgy, we read how Jesus said “to see me is to see the Father”.  He could only say this because he was in constant contact with his Father in prayer and in a very real relationship. 

The phrase “WWJD?” should only be applied to our moral challenges when we have not failed to remember how we have been configured to Christ at our baptism, how sin disfigures this configuration, how the sacrament of reconciliation re-configures us to Christ, and that we are ultimately called to be transfigured in Christ for eternity.  Otherwise, it merely becomes a wrist-adornment that doesn’t amount to anything much.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Carrying our sufferings with class that is Christian in character

I have been toying with writing about this topic for quite a while now, and it has been interspersed with some fears, especially with the reader thinking that I am classifying myself as a living example.  From the ‘get go’, let me stress that in no way am I saying that I exemplify everything that I write in this entry, but there are certain theories, reference points and principles that will help all of us who suffer in one way or another.  It is not an anti-dote to suffering, and is not meant to be.  But it may well help the suffering one to do this with what a dear friend calls “dignity and class”.

1.   Our faith gives us good reason to hope
What is the main essence (or mystery) of faith?  We say it every time we celebrate Mass – We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again.  With variations of the same message, but in different words, the Liturgy offers the celebrant a choice of these responses.  In a nutshell, the mystery of faith gives us all great hope that not only will Jesus come again, but that when he does, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and life will be glorious, because He will come in glory. 

When we ponder and stay with this phrase in our deep suffering, it enables us to face our pains and sufferings in the company of Christ.  We are never alone in our pain.  Our faith brings companionship and promise. 

2.   Suffering has an often hidden salvific purpose
1 Peter 4:13 reminds the faithful that it is possible and almost necessary that we rejoice when we are called to be partakers in Christ’s suffering.  There are many parts in Peter’s first letter which speak not only of suffering being an inclusive part of God’s unfathomable plan, but that there is a glory in endurance that God’s grace engenders. 

3.   Our suffering continues something sacred – the suffering of Christ
1 Col. 24 may be contentious to some.  Wasn’t the Easter event something that conquered death, and a such, given us the power to overcome any suffering?  Yes and no.  It did conquer for us that supposedly last bastion called ‘death’, but as St Paul wrote to the Colossian Christians, the suffering is ‘incomplete’ and that there are still many trials and tests for the Christian to go through, for the sake of his body, the Church.  In other words, we are called to think and to live large with our various crosses.  The sufferings that you and I go through must never be seen in isolated individualism.  We are part of this ‘body’ called the Church, and especially when our sufferings are innocent and not brought on by evils that we may have participated in, we are called to believe in their salvific character.  Think of all the sins that have been caused by the Church to the faithful and even to priests and religious, and offer your sufferings for their healing and compassion.

4.   Learn to be silent in suffering, except for a few trusted friends
This is not a call to bottle up one’s emotions, or to take up some form of Dutch courage when facing suffering and pain.  But as Isaiah 53:7 tells us that “though he was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before his shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

There are so many different forms of being ‘led to the slaughter, and being sheep before our shearers’.  Think of personal betrayals, infidelities, having been cheated out of what is rightly ours, being wrongly judged and sidelined because of that.  These are just some life examples.  The ego that is so prone to thrusting itself in the spotlight will always want that last word in, demand to have our rights, and to be seen as innocent (sometimes even when we really are not!).  But the words of the prophet Isaiah give a value to silence.  It is difficult to achieve when one is in physical pain, but I have since found out that Tramadol with Panadol is a powerful mix that helps to manage pain.  We have to tell our doctors to provide sufficient pain medicine to help us to overcome or live with the physical pains that we may have, but we also need to be selective about to whom we share that we are indeed in pain.  If we only talk about our sufferings whenever others ask about us, they will easily tire and be exhausted from our incessant complaints.  But if we are of good cheer, and manage to look on the bright side of things, we can become bearers of what I would call “Christian classiness” when dealing with pain and suffering in our lives.  By all means, have those close friends who you can be freely expressive of the pains you are in, but know that they too, are human and can suffer from ‘compassion fatigue’ if their faith is not aligned with yours in Christ.

5.   Do something that broadens your horizons
When we are convalescing at home, or in a hospital, we have plenty of time on our hands.  After all, what are we doing apart from resting and recuperating?  But there will be times when we are faced with long periods of being alone and it is not ‘visiting hours’ yet.  This is where point 5 comes in – take up a hobby or learn something new so that you are always increasing your horizons.  Physically, it takes our minds off our suffering when we put our concentration fully on something other than our suffering.  The other plus point is that we become creative when we are active, and learned when we dispose ourselves to learning new things.  Instead of filling our minds with negative thought, replace it with a positivity that often is a gateway to a healing from the inside.

Are these 5 points easy to adopt when our life is fraught with pain and suffering?  Certainly not.  It takes more than mere will power to want this to happen.  It takes the grace of God.  That is why we pray.  The reader will be wondering why I didn’t mention ‘prayer’ as one of the ways.  Be not mistaken.  If we do not pray, we will not be able to any of the points well. 

And if we pray, and ‘embrace’ our sufferings in these Christ-like ways, it will be easily said that we are suffering with dignity and class – a Christ-like dignity and class.

Monday, May 5, 2014

When our children begin to lose their faith

I had a chance meeting with a friend who I came to know when I was just out of school last week, and the conversation was filled with memories and flashbacks.  However, when she came to talk about her children, though filled with joy and pride about them, she also did say that she is afraid that her young teenage son is at ‘that stage’ where he is beginning to doubt God’s existence, and may be losing his faith.

This is not an uncommon lament among parents who are God-fearing and wanting to form the developing faith of their children.  Those who are from my generation may have had their parents just pushing us along in the hope that the momentum created by the sheer physical presence at worship would help flagging spirits and doubting minds.  But these, days, it takes a lot more than that.  Much as we know that faith is what it is because it is belief in what is unseen and what is intangible, the developing minds that are steeped in a world of the result-oriented and the physical erroneously think that these standards should be similarly applied to God and to faith.  Showing them that this is erroneous is one thing.  Having them accept it, and change their orientation in life to live the life of faith is another.  So where does the parent who faces such a dilemma have recourse?

There are several things that parents can do.  One of them is not to fear questioning children.  I do sense that many parents feel so helpless in addressing anything that their children may raise when faith is a matter at hand.  One main reason for this is that the faith on which their own formation may be weak, and think that they cannot adequately answer any faith-based questions that their children may have.  Of course, the simple answer to this is to have the foundations of faith of the parents strengthened and solidified through assiduous re-learning, but that is a path that many simply do not seem to either want to do, or one that seems too difficult for whatever reasons.  So, the situation stymies and the unanswered questions begin to become a doorway towards unbelief that begins from a small crack, to become large opening that resists nothing that floods the doubting mind. 

The other thing that parents can and should do, is to remember that their example sets the tone for the development of the child’s faith.  As the child’s first catechist, the child from being a toddler with eyes opening to a bigger and bigger world around him, takes in all that is happening, and one of the things that he will notice is that there is a certain regularity and rhythm in the home.  The practices that are associated with the belief in God and the proper worship of him need to be seen to be something that is not strange but something that each day or week has to include to make it complete.  God is not something that happens outside of the regularity of life, but is the reason for life’s regularity.

I can sense that at the heart of the issue at hand for most parents is that they have let God down in the passing on of the faith to their young charges.  But we have to remember that faith, like life, is a developing process that surrounds us.  It is never a one-off item that is checked as a ‘done’ item of life.  And because of this, we may have to give our children that perceived liberty that they seem to be asking for, and risk letting them come back to God by God’s own ways.  Meanwhile, parents need to continue to be stalwart examples of faithfulness and as such, to be beacons of refuge for that moment when the heart filled with wanderlust begins to soften and comes back to the safe waters of the faith-filled family. 

There are no simple solutions to this very common problem faced by so many parents.  But perhaps a quip from Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen could help.  One of the lines he is known for is “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.  Fear not the crack.  Salvation came to us because of our brokenness.  Trust that God works in ways that are often beyond our ken, and that even in the seeming troubling dilemma we and our children face, light is still getting in.  And we can pray that the parts of their hearts that need more light is presented to that light so that minds can be truly enlightened eventually.