Monday, July 28, 2014

Asking for that one humiliation a day

Spiritual guides have often written and spoken about the great need for humility if one sincerely intends to advance and make inroads in the spiritual life.  It is almost a sine qua non for one who is serious in his or her search for holiness and saintliness.  Why is this so?  Possibly because its nemesis, which is pride, has often been seen as the very first sin that plagued humankind from the time when our first parents were living blissfully in the proverbial Garden of Eden.  To overcome this in any serious way, one has to thus make the quest for the virtue of humility life-long, where it will become a stepping-stone toward recovering one’s true and original face.

One of the most challenging talks about this which I have heard was given by a priest who walks this talk in a very real way.  He was bold in his expression of the importance of this and made a very strong and almost audacious statement about it.  He cited the need for us to ask for one humiliation a day to keep us grounded and not take ourselves too seriously.  Of course, this took many of his listeners by great surprise, and the more he elaborated on it, the more it really did make sense. 

Humiliations come in so many ways for so many of us.  It could be an incident where we were not ‘respected’ for whatever reasons, a failure, a fall, being misunderstood, being unjustly judged against, having a broken relationship, or even something as simple as someone cutting into our lane whilst driving on the road.  Having a serious illness in life at a most importunate moment of our lives can also be such a 'humiliation'.  How we react to these humiliations show how near or far we really may be from attaining any degree of spiritual maturity.  The more ‘practice’ we have from such encounters the better we will be in handling the real challenges in life when they present themselves to us. 

Some of you reading this entry may know that a year ago, I received the life-saving gift of a perfectly matching bag of precious stem cells from an anonymous donor from America.  What I have come to realise as of late is that my serious illness was one of these ‘humiliations’ which I had encountered, and which has since formed, shaped and mellowed my own spiritual growth and maturity.  Did I ask for it to happen to me?  Not in those stark terms, but perhaps deep inside of me, I did prepare myself for such an event in case it ever did happen.  There was a desire for real empathy in me, something which may need some explanation.

I had encountered many lay people in my ministry who were sufferers of illness, some of whom were seriously sick.  As a priest ministering to them, I realized that there was a certain limit beyond which my empathy and outreach could not go.  Much as I wanted to really be with them in their pain and sometimes utter helplessness at the situation unfolding before them, and know what their fears were, I could not.  I was still an outsider looking in, at best.  Often, after visiting the sick and ministering to them in their hospital bed or at home, it seemed rather easy to just get into my car and drive off back to the parish and tend to other matters, with my own life unaffected.  Perhaps it did seem rather perfunctory at times, and this was a silent lament.  Upon hindsight now, I can almost safely say that I did have some hidden desire to really and truly be with them in their suffering, and this silent desire was answered in the form of my own blood cancer almost a year and a half ago.

What made it bearable and not something to despair had to be my deep faith.  Without faith, without the deep belief in God’s all providing love and mercy, asking for or having a silent desire for such an affliction would be akin to asking for a death wish.  But when faith is something that we know is all-important, it makes a lot of sense to ask for such a serious ‘humiliation’ in one’s life.  It’s not that one is ungrateful for the gift of health.  It stems rather from a desire to minister, walk with and be one with from within and not just from without.  Each time I reflect on the mystery of the incarnation where God took on the form of weak and sinful man, and the great humility that this shows, the hidden and silent desire to want to be with the sick in their pain, uncertainties and sometimes unanswered questioning becomes something positive rather than negative, something meaningful rather than ludicrous.

By writing this reflection, I realise that I run the risk of sounding ‘boastful’ of my desire.  Make no mistake about it – I am not boasting of my faith, but if I seem to be boasting, let it be about the wonderful grace that has been bestowed upon me to want to take up this cross in life.  Mary’s own life had been a journey of great crosses, yet no one who prays the words of the Magnificat would say that Mary is an egomaniac when she says “henceforth all ages will call be blessed”.  She knows her blessedness is a boastfulness of the blessedness of God.  In a very small but imitated way, I too know that my journey of having had blood cancer and experiencing all the ups and downs of such a challenge and yet remaining positive about this is my way of blessing God.    Having had the ‘audacity’ to write about this seeming courage is a roundabout way of stating just how great my God is.

My desire for my readers of today’s blog is to encourage you to also dare to ask for that one humiliation a day to build up your strength to die to the self.  It’s not something to easily ask for with great sincerity, but when it becomes a regular feature in our prayer life, our fears will be mellowed and we will come to a state where we know we will be ready for some serious challenges in life to really show our God how much faith we have in him, and how real he is to us. 

Is it a death wish?  I suppose it is – only thing is that what we should be truly interested to ‘kill’ is the false self and the fragile thing that we call the ego. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Allowing the good and the bad to coexist takes a certain godliness.

The gospel text for the Eucharist (chapter 13 of St Matthew’s Gospel) on Sunday was a very challenging one, especially for those of us who struggle with our ideas of perfection or anything close to it in life.  I believe that every one of us has degrees of perfectionism, and the more it is a main feature in our lives, the more ‘imperfect’ we really are.  Calling anyone a perfectionist has become something negative rather than positive, though some may think otherwise.  When this title or label is given, it often silently also says that the person is controlling, ego-conscious and has an intolerance for the shortcomings of others. 

The parable of the wheat and the darnel is indeed a great teaching lesson.  Jesus is revealing something about the kingdom of God, and that it has a very disturbing inclusive character about it.  Jesus doesn’t say that God sowed the darnel or weed in the field.  In fact, he does attribute the presence of the darnel to the enemy.  That God does not stop this insidious act gives us a lot of evidence that supports the explanation of evil in the world.  In fact, if we go back as far as the creation story in Genesis, we see the same strange existence of good together with evil where right in the middle of the garden there stands the tree of knowledge of good and evil!  God has the ability to allow evil to co-exist with good, troubling though it may seem.

The constant argument that atheists have with the existence of God is that they see too much evil in the world.  For many of them, their belief (which seems to be an oxymoron in itself if you come to think of it) is that God has to be good, and if he is all-good, then there cannot and should not be the existence of evil in the world.  But the fact that there is evil shows then that God does not exist.  This of course is a problematic argument based on the wrong or stilted idea that God also has to be a completely controlling deity who cannot tolerate anything that is contrary to his goodness and his perfect plan.  Having said this, the notion of freedom is also not taken into account, which is another bone of contention for many atheists. 

Why would God allow good to co-exist with evil?  For the same reason that he allows the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.   When love is the reason for existence, and it is insofar as our belief in God is concerned, it becomes the highest common factor in all actions, even surpassing righteousness and justice.  This is the underlying preaching and teaching of the Church, which often is overshadowed by our individual intolerance of others who do not think the way we do. 

If we really think about it long enough and hard enough, it is often also the presence of evil or suffering that has strangely brought about certain ‘good’ in the world.  There would be no martyrs if not for the despots and totalitarian regimes that bully and kill so thoughtlessly.  There would be no saints who are noted for courage and strength in times of persecution and trials of all sorts if they had not lived in times of such hardships and religious intolerance.  Or as Fr Robert Barron so daringly put it, there would be no St Edith Stein or St Maximillian Kolbe if there were no Hitler.  Of course, this is not to say that God made Hitler into what he was, and to condone the heinous crimes that he was responsible for, as history has revealed.  But there is a certain ‘wisdom’ in allowing such evil to co-exist with the good, without banishing them the instant they show up in our lives.  Good does seem to develop in the presence of evil, with the grace of God.  Illness, especially one that is prolonged and labored, can often also mellow and change a person for the better, allowing an internal conversion of the mind and heart that can be something which is somewhat more difficult for the fit and healthy.  I have come to see this in a very real way myself.

When the need for control is identified in oneself, it can become a stepping-stone towards holiness if one is willing to face one’s own shortcomings that is tempered with a willingness to be merciful to oneself too.  That we can see sinful actions around us happening, but not be too quick to condemn them but to bravely step into the shoes of the other and walk a few miles in them, becomes a gateway to becoming less critical and a little more charitable in our thoughts and actions.  This, I strongly believe, is an aspect of Divine Mercy which many of us lack in our need to get things right and others to see things our way.  But when we are too concerned with our position and stance in life, we will be seen wanting to pull up the weeds before their time, thinking of course that we have all the right answers. 

Sometimes, it is not the answers that are important as the experience that the lessons are teaching us in life.  This has to be something that the Kingdom of God imparts, often in silent, imperceptible ways.  Perhaps this is where the Kingdom of God differs so greatly as compared to the kingdom of man. 

The former has a character of challenging ‘willingness’ tempered with mercy and charity whilst the latter is far more concerned with control and being right.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Missing the point about religion.

There are, to be sure, many out there who are averse towards organized religion.  They often say that religion has done much more harm than good to the human race, making bigots out of the followers of doctrine and robots when dealing with issues of morals and social justice. 

In an article that he wrote for his syndicated weekly work back in the late 90s, Fr Ronald Rolheiser attempted to address this topic about what religion is all about, and started by relating a Jewish parable, where a Rabbi asked his disciples a rather strange question.  He asked “How much light is enough light in the world?”

True to form, there were two different answers from his disciples.  The first said that there is sufficient light when one can tell the difference between an oak tree and a sycamore tree.  The second said that there is enough light when one can tell a sheep from a goat.  Both of them failed to get the approving nod from their master.   Finally, to their relief, the master answered his own question and said, “There is enough light in the world when one looks at the face of another and sees in that face, a brother or a sister”.

This wonderful parable is really a roundabout way to explain the predicament that faces all religions in the world, yes, even Christianity.  It seems that the human heart (and mind) has a certain predilection towards separation – where one sees the need to separate what one sees and categorizes what lies before him.  When one is bent solely on being doctrinally and dogmatically correct when one thinks of religion or practices one’s religion, that would be akin to the answer the first disciple gave – where the light is sufficient when one doesn’t mix up the trees.  To those for whom being right is the most important thing in the world, this kind of light, though insufficient, is enough for them.

Then there are those who are bent on being morally right in life, and where religious practices and beliefs keep them steady on the right path of sanctity and holiness.  These are perhaps seen in the kind of disciples who say that there is enough light when one is able to discern between a sheep from a goat.  Again, the importance may be a ‘difference’, but a subtler one.  They are not altogether wrong, as one who is able to see how the moral teachings of any religion though hard should be followed, leans on such teachings for feelings of security and confidence. 

What is starkly missing from the heart of both of these disciples would be clear when one begins to look at things from the point of mercy, compassion and charity.  They are somewhat obviously missing from the two first answers.  Perhaps this is where Christianity needs to always remember to take its point of departure, as Christ did say that he was the light of the world, something that we are reminded clearly and visually at each Easter vigil celebration of Light.

That Christ was full of compassion and charity is an undisputed statement.  When we call ourselves disciples of Christ or Christians, what has to be at the heart of our faith is to imitate as much of this as possible in the living out of our religion.  While correct doctrine guides the understanding of correct moral and socially just issues, religion cannot just stop there.  If it does, it easily makes one very (falsely) self satisfied and think that one’s spiritual quest is over.  It is not. 

At the heart of religion has to be the ability to see in every human being the connection that one has with the other.  When this is missing, it becomes far too easy to add to the millions who have been blamed for sullying religion to give cause to the statement that it has “done much more harm than good to the human race”.  Perhaps this begs the question – “why is it so much of a challenge to live in this way”?  I do not want to be overly simplistic in offering a simple answer, but I do sincerely believe that the answer lies in the fact that we are too protective of our very selves.

It becomes difficult to see in another a brother or sister when we put ourselves in a judgmental position where we often think that our views, our ways of doing things, and our opinions are of a higher quality than the other.  It becomes a challenge to act with mercy and charity when the other person I am dealing with is seen more as competition rather than companion.  It also becomes far more difficult to become generous with my assets and belongings when I view the other and his needs as something that is going to make my own possessions diminished in any way. 

When catechesis does not address this important issue of charity, compassion and mercy in a clear and unadorned way, religion will always have a tendency to remain at the first two levels.  But woe to the catechists or priest who dares to make this clear from day one of religious instruction of any kind.  He or she will be bound to face the fact that some listeners will just walk away.  Real religion casts light on the self, and some shadows will be far too dark for some to see, accept and make less obvious when the light of Christ falls on them. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

The great challenge in accepting hard Church teachings

Much has been said and misunderstood about the Church’s teachings about her stand and wisdom behind the LGBT issue.  Here in Singapore, the Church had been cautious through the years to weigh in on the issue at hand, but as of late, because of the strong views held by those who have SSA (same sex attraction) and who have been advocating the acceptance of such active lifestyles, our Bishop spoke up in an official capacity as head of the local church, making it clear what the Church teachings are, but at the same time making it very clear that the Church also does try her best to balance her teachings with an abundance of charity and compassion towards those who suffer. 

The reaction from the public, especially those who choose to live out their SSA in an active way, has been strident to say the least.  Why is this so?  There are many different reasons for this, but perhaps the one reason which makes the most sense is that of faith, or lack of it.  Without doubt, Church teachings can seem hard, inflexible and unyielding.  Even more so if one is only looking at such teachings as an external observer, with a keen eye to notice only selective teachings without being able to comprehend the larger whole.  To be sure, one of the things that enables one to accept ‘hard’ teachings is faith – faith in God, deep belief that this God is loving, and faith in the Church being the visible sign of God’s presence in a sinful and broken world.  Teachings about chastity are not the only hard teachings.  Acceptance of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist can be an equally hard teaching but we don’t see the Church getting soft on that at all.  Of course, we do not put the Eucharist and the call to chastity on the same level of theological dogmatic importance, but I did it to make a point.  There are strong reasons why the Church seems to be unbending in her teachings.  It takes faith to hold on to them and accept them.  It is often when this faith is weak and wavering that one makes the initial movement to live outside of what the Church calls ‘grace’.

Whenever I come across vitriolic spewed at the Church from livid SSA advocates, excoriating the Church's seeming rigid stand on such issues, one of the first things that I ask myself is whether there are signs that show that the writer or speaker is an unbaptized person, or if the person has left the Church.  In almost all cases, this is found to be true.  Yes, in some very painful cases, it could have well been a reaction that found its sad origins in one having been abused by members of the clergy.  The Church has paid (and is still paying) dearly for such sins.  But that cannot be the reason for the majority.  For many, it has been the unwillingness to accept the fact that the call to discipleship and eventual sainthood will always entail the carrying of the cross, and this cross comes in so many different forms.  The virtue of longsuffering is often furthest from the minds of such advocates.  For the disciple of Christ with SSA inclinations, the cross necessarily includes a physical denial of the self.  The call to chastity and chaste living is a call to every disciple of Christ, whether one is married or single, lay or cleric.  The deeper one’s faith is, the clearer will this call to holiness be. 

But when one only chooses to follow the physical demands of the flesh with no regard for borders or controls of any kind, one starts then to put aside the call or vocation of godliness to make the self and one’s needs the centre of everything.  To still want to be a faithful disciple of Christ and live out in an active SSA lifestyle would be tantamount to living a life of disequilibrium, which will end up tearing the person apart from within. 

But this dilemma does not only apply to these brothers and sisters alone.  Anyone who is living a lifestyle that is contrary to church teachings and considers themselves disciples of Christ and his Church does this to himself – examples abound – people being unfaithful in marriage, people who regularly lie and cheat and steal, people who have no qualms in using others for their own benefit, employers who do not treat their employees or domestic helpers with justice or respect, etc.  And when one’s conscience is numbed, one will have no qualms about receiving the Eucharist whilst living a double life.  The only difference is that these sins are often hidden and acted out clandestinely, whilst those advocating an open SSA lifestyle are bold and public about this, which makes it slightly more of a challenge for the Church to treat with charity and compassion.

When a disciple of Christ abandons any thoughts or acceptance of living a sacrificial life, something else happens rather unnoticed - one will automatically shift one’s locus of life from the soul or spirit to the body.  Listening to the body and giving in to its multifarious demands for gratification and physical needs will become easier and easier as one abandons the Cross.  To be able to see this movement and still love the person with sincere love and charity is one of the great challenges of any LGBT Christian support group.  Where this love, charity and compassion is lacking, an opening will be made for intolerance, finger-pointing and acrimony.

Perhaps what is sorely needed now is a real Saint who has lived the life of chastity and faithfulness as a result of deep faith even though he or she had been given the cross of being same sex attracted.  This person would then be the solid example that listening to the soul and following its challenging path is not a feeble choice, but a stalwart one.  And if there are real-life stories about how he or she when faced with temptations of the flesh chose the harder route of denying the self (and suffered even further as a result of the choice for God) that led to a greater peace and silent joy, they would be great sources of encouragement to those who choose to live out their faith with courage and devotion.  These saints would then be patrons of those who want to carry the Cross bravely, but also acknowledge that one needs spiritual help to do this well.

Perhaps this may not be materialized in our generation.  I do hope that one day, this will happen for the benefit of many of our SSA brothers and sisters in the faith who are living in very challenging times.  I too, join my bishop and pray for your faith and courage to be strengthened each day and offer up my physical sufferings in my convalescence for your call to holiness.