Monday, June 30, 2014

Daring to dance freely in life

As we ponder frequently and deeply about what really matters in life during our moments spent in meditation, something about life can sometimes pop up giving us fodder for further contemplation – and this is whether or not life has truly mellowed us to be able to enjoy the dance of life as it is presented to us, or have we been perhaps a tad too rigid and stiff.  And I am not just making references to our physical selves. 

Spiritual gurus and directors who are truly in touch with themselves seem to share one thing in common – and this is the struggle to maintain some semblance of balance in their lives – a balance between living out a righteous life, and knowing when to enter into the flow of life itself to as it were, enjoy the dance of life.  It is not so much a carte blanche to live as if one needs to fall from grace or perhaps beneath one’s dignity and thus sully one’s quest for holiness.  Just the opposite – it is rather that at these times, when faced with the options of preserving the self and risking the consequences of a truly loving and life-giving act, that one courageously chooses the latter, and the result would be that God is revealed in ways much clearer and more real than if the former choice was made.  Jesus showed great examples of such ways of courageous living when he went out of the traditional ways that a Rabbi was supposed to live when he worked miracles on the Sabbath and dared to dine with prostitutes and touch lepers. 

We all have limited experiences of life and its seeming vagaries.  Those of us who are schooled and trained in the virtues of steadfastness, accuracy, discipline and safety, tend to be the ones who find it hard to respond with any degree of spontaneity when such moments surprise us when people and situations appear out of the blue, without our being prepared for them.  Like images that emerge from out of the blind spots in the rear-view mirror of our cars, these moments not only require of us to be on full alert to respond with love, charity and kindness, but also will reveal to us our truest and most raw of selves simply because we were not able to be on our guard to be at our seemingly perfect best.

When Ronald Rolheiser asked that poignant question “Are our lives driven more by fear than by love?” he was asking if in fact if we are far too interested in protecting our selves (and our egos) than living in right response to God’s often hidden and unplanned overtures of love.  But to be sure, it often takes an awakening of sorts to arrive at that level of living and loving.  Not that it means that we are called to some kind of wild and uncontrolled debaucherous and ecstatic living with no limit and borders, but that we will know when and what is appropriate and when it is necessary for us to go beyond borders and socially accepted “OB markers”.  This calls for an extremely heightened awareness of what and who we are made for, and it is also extremely difficult to live all the time at that level.  For many, it would be like breathing rarified air 24/7. 

Jesus has always shown us that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear, and for most of us unenlightened ones, it is fear that keeps us from being loving, kind, charitable, patient and generous when they are asked of us.  Instead, fear can often end up making us just the opposite – hateful, despicable, judgmental, selfish, unkind, impatient and even cantankerous without trying.   

Ultimately, we need to constantly ask ourselves what God really takes pleasure and delight in – is it our concern for safety, our scrupulous concern for the world’s moral failings, or in symbolic terms, the keeping of our baptismal garments in its pristine condition at the expense of every thing else?  Or does God in fact take far more delight in the fact that we are keeping our eyes open to see his outstretched hand, inviting us to dance with spontaneity the joyful dance of life? 

It’s never going to be clear cut, and we will make some wrong choices, but we must never tire of that great learning curve of how to love as God loves.  

And train our lungs to breathe rarified air.

Monday, June 23, 2014

We are what we eat - a reflection on the Eucharist.

Depending on which country you are living in, you would have either celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi either on Thursday or yesterday.  Once a year, the Church would put the Eucharist literally on grand display in large processions in some countries, demonstrating the faith that we all share as members of the Catholic church our deep (and multivalent) faith that the God we worship comes to us in the form of humble bread (and wine). 

Why do I say multivalent?  Is not our understanding of Eucharist so fundamental that we all agree what the Eucharist is for us?  At its most basic, it should be the ideal reality.  What we Catholics acknowledge and boldly believe is that the consecrated host is the sacred body of Christ, the same Jesus who once lived and walked on the face of this earth as a human being, and who died lovingly for us on the cross of Calvary.  But what this knowledge and belief does for us individually and how each of us responds does vary, strange though it may seem.

This would be the strongest reason why there are so many different ways in which Catholics respond to the Eucharist.  For some, it seems to be sufficient that they partake of the Eucharist occasionally, and for some, it is so essential that it has to be something that is experienced on a daily basis.  That God himself awaits for us each time Mass is celebrated gives some of us real reason to wake up early and be present at daily Eucharist - far more pressing, urgent and compelling than the setting of our alarm clocks to drag our sleepily sorrowful selves up from bed to catch a live World Cup soccer match during the feverish soccer season that seems to rule many of our lives right now.  For some, the entire celebration of the Eucharist seems to be something that seems to be segmented, giving us the perceived excuse to miss certain parts of the celebration and only be present at the more important moments like the consecration of the species of bread and wine that becomes the body and blood of Christ.

If we all have a shared and deep understanding of just how significant the Eucharist is for each one of us, I believe that none of us will be late for Mass, and our lives will be unified in ways that are beyond our ken.  But as in so many things in life, we come to anything deep and significant in small, baby steps, don’t we?  The wonderful truth is that God allows each of us to see him revealing his love for us through the turns and vicissitudes of our journey called life.  My limited experience with brothers and sisters in the faith has revealed that we seem to have peaks and troughs in our shared response to being Church, and at our charitable best, we do not overtly criticize and comment too strongly about how feeble the response of our fellow pilgrims may be towards God’s presence in the Eucharist. 

God took a great risk in wanting to give us himself so clearly by being so fully present to us in the Eucharist.  Sadly, it is open to much abuse and even to a compromised understanding for the faithful, but then, so is love is it not?  Love is always open to being misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused by those upon whom it is lavished on.  Yet, when we do love in the most pure of ways, what matters is that we love, and much less that we are loved back in return.  Sometimes when we do not get a response to our overtures in loving others, we say that we have ‘wasted’ our time and our love.  These statements may reveal one thing - that we had impure motives in our loving in the first place. 

Is there unrequited love in the Holy Eucharist?  I have no doubt that there is.  But the closer that our understanding of the Eucharist is equated with God’s untiring and undying love for us in its purest of forms, the more we will be able to respond in love to the one who is love, and become loving in slow and progressive steps.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and we need to be patient – with God and with our frail and sinful selves.  The phrase ‘real presence’ is often used, sometimes ever so loosely with the term ‘Eucharist’.  While it is true that God is really present to us in the consecrated species, what is sadly lacking is the corollary – that we are sometimes not really present to God’s real presence there before us.  But when real presence meets our real presence, that is when something far more significant than a mere symbiosis occurs.  God becomes unified in us.

How does one begin to get to appreciate the Eucharist at this level?  Though there were the necessary courses of the Eucharist which were part of my seminary formation and education for the priesthood, they did not really impress these aspects of the Eucharist.  Sure, there were some good courses in the Sacraments classes that gave important theological foundations for our understanding of the Eucharist, but I can see the main problem now – no one course can give us an all encompassing appreciation of something that is so deep and yet simple at the same time, so complex and yet so sublime at the same time, or so clear and yet so mystically hidden at the same time.  It is strangely paradoxical and also paradisiacal at the same time. 

All these ways of understanding the Eucharist resulted from my now 13 years of journeying in the priesthood, and my constant reflection on how to make the Eucharist a central part of by very being.  It was a happy combination of an inner desire and the all-important grace of God.  Sure, we can learn cerebrally about the Eucharist, but it also has to be integrated to allow it to become the foundation of our lives, particularly as priests of the Lord.

Because the Eucharist is very fundamentally a meal, perhaps it is useful to always remember that just as what we eat on a physical level results in what we become, so too does our understanding and belief in what the Eucharist does for our very lives.  “You are what you eat” our doctors and dieticians tell us.  The same statement has to be said of our spiritual lives.  The more we broaden and deepen our appreciation of God’s mercy and love as revealed in the amazing miracle of the Eucharist, the greater will our lives change and become more godly, more holy, and with a much more significant display of heartfelt gratitude. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Does Catholicism set for our lives a very high bar?

I have come across some articles written about reflections on religion by converts to Catholicism, and something that seems cut across many of them is the fact that in their journey into the faith, it had dawned on them that Catholicism does have a very stringent standard for life, and that sainthood is not a path for the faint-hearted.  Yet, despite knowing this, there is an undeniable pull or magnetism that draws the person into the faith, and it has nothing at all to do with the fact that some people may have a masochistic streak in them.  It has to do with the truth.

What is this truth?  Well, the fundamental tenets of our faith are in the Creed which we recite (hopefully with heartfelt enthusiasm, passion and awareness) each Sunday at Mass.  But these truths can become mere statements that we mouth if we do not take the effort to translate it into what it means for us and our daily living in this life.  When that all-important connection is not made, it can easily make one a mere nominal Catholic who exists instead of truly living life as life should be lived.

At the heart of our faith is a very amazing truth that once we truly get it, it should change the way we live our lives.  This is the fact that God has a great desire to see us living as God lives.  All the teachings of the Church that give us moral guidance and that set for us a very high ethical standard are actually guidelines that help us to make that often difficult and challenging choice for God and holiness.  That teachings of faith and morals which the Magisterium declares are infallible give it a divine revelation that ensures us that these hard truths (some of them) are not mere whimsical rules set up by humans who are sinners, but actually do come with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and direction.  Living as God lives – if you really think about it, there is no higher bar that can be set. 

Sure, one can will oneself to be loving, kind, considerate, patient, forgiving and even positively endure long suffering in life.  But what sets the Christian apart is that these are not just going to be acts that one manages to do with training and perhaps even good familial upbringing.  It comes from a far richer and deeper wellspring, which is the love of God who wants to share his love with us in the deepest way possible. 

But as you and I know, there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  There is a whole gamut of them.  Much as the Church prays that all Catholics will embrace the truth that they are baptized into with great fervor and ardor, there are many who seem to be ‘getting by’ with the barest of minimalism, which is the reason why there is the term ‘nominal Catholics’.  They come in all forms, and there are some characteristics that they share – they hardly talk about their faith with any pride, go to Mass with a dread (if at all), and cannot wait to bolt out of the Church once the distribution of Holy Communion is over.  Their outward and visible lives seem to be hardly testimonies of any semblance of the love of Christ and the world seems to be centered on them and what they are interested in. 

Do I sound judgmental?  Forgive me if I do, but that was not my point.  It was a caricature of how someone who hardly embraces the truth of the faith can end up living his or her life.

That God constantly invites us to live lives that are deep and significant and true should not be something that is news to any baptized Christian.  It struck me that the clearer we are about this in the introduction of the faith to unbaptized folk who are enquiring about our faith, and share with them right from the start that the Christian calling is one which invites them to live as God lives and love as God loves, it will set the ground right to impart any of the Church’s teachings later on.  But that would also mean that we have to walk the walk before talking the talk, and that our own lives must show that we dare to live deeply and not just superficially. 

We can only do that when we live in full awareness each moment that the bar for each of us has been set very high.  High enough to reach God.

Monday, June 9, 2014

How do we react in a godly way in tense situations?

Every one of us gets caught in these moments when the worst of us can suddenly emerge.  It could be in a traffic situation where someone cuts us off rudely and without warning, posing a danger to our safety.  It could also be a conversation we were having with a friend or colleague that somehow turned ugly and ended up with two people no longer talking civilly to one another.  No one really gets into these situations with the purpose of making life difficult and painful for the other person (or for ourselves) but that is how it seems to have panned out.  More often that now, we wish that we could have more prudence in dealing with the situation, and that is also often a thought made in hindsight.

Jesus was never really caught acting badly in the many tense situations that he faced in his earthly life.  Even on that day when he was awkwardly presented with the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery by the accusing authorities who had the intention of catching Jesus out, we see him being able to handle it so well that it turned out good for the woman and the tables turned on the accusers. Jesus was able to act in such a calm, collected and nonplussed way was because he was truly living every second of his life in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture and tradition tells us that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the gift of counsel.  In theological parlance, counsel perfects the virtue of prudence.  What is prudence but good and balanced judgment, or what some people may simply call common sense, which is oftentimes a misnomer because it hardly is something which is common in the crude sense of the word.  But counsel happens when prudence meets divine wisdom to result in something that doesn’t take life away, but gives life instead.  It is called a gift because it cannot be taught.  It is something valuable that is only given by God.  Strangely, we either have it, or we do not. 

But that does not mean that we cannot ask for it in earnest.  Many of us ask for so many things in our prayer life, which is not a bad thing in itself.  At its basic level, when we do ask, we are reminded to rely on God for what we need in life.  However, not many of us ask ourselves the question whether or not what we are asking is of God’s will and if it is something that would make a holy difference in our lives. 

The Church celebrated its birthday yesterday the Solemnity of Pentecost, where we are enlivened so powerfully by the Holy Spirit’s outpouring on the community.  On our part, what was required was a hungering and a yearning for that great gift of the empowering.  Yet, when we look around us, do we see much (or any) signs of being empowered and enlivened?  If evidence of such signs is hardly seen, it could well be that we have not yearned and prepared a place in our hearts for that filling to be made.  Just like so many things in life, if space is not created for a filling to be made, no matter what happens, nothing is going to get in. 

God certainly wants to give us the gifts that are necessary to become co-transformers of this world, but he may well be casting pearls before swine if we are hardly anticipating the reception of such gifts, with counsel being one of them.  Perhaps it is no wonder that so many of us find it a struggle to live godly lives each day.  We do not ‘raise our eyes to heaven’ enough in prayer, in the way that Jesus did before saying what he did, and doing what he did in those tense situations. 

If we only have our eyes trained on this world, or worse, on ourselves and worry about what others think of us, there is hardly any room for prudence to grow and be received well in our hearts.