Monday, August 25, 2014

Putting our gratitude into action for a truly life-saving act.

Much as I would like to make this weekly entry of my blog page one that has a topic or teaching point that is not about me or one that is mainly revelatory about myself, causing this to be mistaken as a blog with an exhibitionistic nature, I do find that there are times and events of my own life that when revealed and shared on a relevant platform, could hopefully end up benefitting my readers than if I were to merely keep them to myself.  This is perhaps one such entry, and I beg the pardon of those who think this may be a bit over indulgent on my part. 

Our journeys in life invariably involve quite often, the meeting or encounter with another significant human being which affects one’s life either positively or negatively.  The social media is replete with acrimonious examples and stories of people who have caused anguish, melancholy, anxiety and grief in the lives of others.  By putting such stories on ‘grand display’, many bear the secret hope that those reading will sympathize with them and feel their seething anger.  The other hope would be that they would also garner some supporters along the way, making them fellow ‘haters’ of a now shared common ‘enemy’.  It often further promotes the false security of our side being the ‘right’ or ‘good’ side, and our interlocutors being the ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ one. 

I do believe that part of our task in this world as Christ’s light bearers is to do just the opposite when we have the opportunity to, especially when our stories and encounters bring much needed hope to a suffering humanity, which sometimes seems so devoid of true stories of charity, generosity, patience, hope and selfless love.  My blog entry this week will highlight that these wonderfully Christ-like values have been encountered by me in one such person, and that his act of valour and courage needs to be recorded for various reasons.  He has a name, and his name (yes, his real name) is Peter.

After more than a year since my life-saving stem cell transplant, the rules protecting the anonymity of donor and recipient become abrogated.  The donor and the recipient can sign forms that formally allow our contact details to be released to each other, giving them the freedom and opportunity to contact one another if they so wish.  I signed this form after July 25 this year, and was waiting to see if my donor would do the same.  It was with great delight that I received a lengthy email just two days ago from this significant human being who God had placed in my life, as Randy Goodrum wrote in his song “You needed me”, to “give me hope when life was at the end”. 

I shall not reveal much about Peter and his personal details here, to protect and preserve his privacy.  But his act of remarkable selflessness deserves, I believe, a public act of gratitude simply because mere thanks coming from me doesn’t quite show the impact that such a wonderful gesture of kindness creates in the world of the recipient of such Christ-like altruism.  These ripples of love and waves of life that have emitted from a seeming small act of giving something so needed by another human being spread far and wide, and it is through his act of kindness that many of you, my readers have seen grace working powerfully in my life.  This act of kindness has been instrumental in giving my life a much hoped-for extension, and for giving me back to my family, my community and to those I serve.

To save a friend’s life is wonderful and noble.  I have no doubt that anyone seeing a friend or relative needing something of his or her own (like a stem cell donation) would go through the discomfort and inconvenience of such a procedure.  When I needed the perfect match for my cancer-filled marrow to be replaced by a healthy one, many parishioners wanted to be that match, but nature doesn’t allow us to make the decisions.  Many seemed to have the ‘condition’ that if they did this, they wanted to choose who it was that would be the beneficiary of their giving.  But stem cells do not work this way. 

In God’s ‘inscrutable’ ways, this can only be possible if donor and recipient’s Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) markers match perfectly.  In short, it is what we have inherently given by nature (like our DNA) that determines if we have what it takes to save the life of another person.  There are altogether about 2,500 HLA markers that make up a person’s HLA type.  To be a suitable (or perfect) match, only 10 of the most important markers need to match, risking great rejection issues for the recipient if just one of these fail to match.  My search for a suitable match was brought to an international level when the local register failed to find this match.  It was finally found half a world away in Peter, who became significantly, my lifesaver. 

To do this for a total stranger whom one may never know is a grand gesture of benevolence, which literally means ‘good willingness’ of another human being.  Receiving thanks from me alone would be expected, as I often say that gratitude has to form the very basis of our being able to live in any state of grace, as both gratitude and grace stem from the same root, linguistically and fundamentally. 

Peter’s story is remarkable for various reasons, one of which is that it is living proof that just because one has done a good and kind deed, that it does not mean that all things in life henceforth would be without challenges and further trials.  Not long after he had donated his stem cells to me, his family suffered a crisis of sorts, where his own child became sick, and his doctors simply could not find out what it was that was plaguing the child.  The family entered into a time of darkness and agony but they knew that they had to depend on the mercy and love of God to see them through.  Thankfully, after about two months, this child of his has since made a full recovery. 

There are many different motives for people to do the things that they do.  What touched me very much about Peter's story is that he revealed to me how he lost his childhood friend to Leukaemia in their teenage years.  The two of them had run in relay races, and passed the baton to one another as part of their routine.  When Peter received notice that there was a stem cell donation needed from someone for whom he was a possible match, memories of his friend came to mind.  While it must have been terrible and tragic to have lost a friend when one was in one's formative years, it does seem that even an event as dark and bleak as this does have an unexpected bright side.  It motivated and moved Peter to put aside any discomfort or inconvenience on his part in the harvesting and donation process, and put the needs of another human being in front of his.  In his saving act, Peter has also handed me the baton to allow me to continue my run in life.  

I have written much and reflected upon the challenges of living a Christ-like life since I began this weekly blog five years ago.  I do not ask much of my readers, and haven’t made personal requests.  I appreciate and treasure each comment that is written as it shows that you are not merely passive readers.  You are participating in my life.  But I make an exception this week.  For those of you who are as grateful as I am for having my life given back, to receive another chance at living life, to continue to walk in the love and grace of God, please write something that expresses this gratitude to Peter.  My words of thanks may show my personal gratitude, but I believe he and his family, and many other potential lifesavers would benefit from seeing a similar gratitude to Peter.  His act of compassion and magnanimity has given me back to you, and you will never know how far your words of gratitude will touch his life and the life of others.  His community will definitely benefit from this gesture of affirmation coming from strangers who he has touched with his giving.

There is too much wastage of good ice and water being thrown over peoples’ heads these days to show support for a good cause.  Perhaps it is time to cover now a total stranger with something far better and more loving – take a moment and please make that effort to cover Peter and his loving family with some words of thanks together with me. 

Peter, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you and have you know that you are greatly loved not just by me, but my many others because of your act of kindness and selfless generosity.  Thank you for being Christ to one who was on the cross. 

Perhaps listening to this song reminds us of how we do need one another in life.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Jesus descended into hell. Why the hell?

Much has been written, talked, tweeted and blogged about the topic of suicide in the past few days.  This comes especially strong in the wake of the apparent suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams who was found asphyxiated in his home.  Word has it that he had suffered from depression, and that he facing the fact that he had to live life with Parkinson’s Disease.  The world has since been mourning the loss of a comedic genius, and this has sparked off much thought and discussion about suicide. 

I believe that this is indeed a very important topic that needs periodic reflection and thought, especially in a blog that speaks of things that concern the spiritual life.  It may surprise some to know that of all the 250 blog entries since I began writing a weekly reflection in this blog site, one which featured suicide quite a long while ago and how a Church should respond to it, garnered one of the top readership numbers.  It does seem to be something that is of deep concern for many out there who are facing uncertainties in life, and would like to have some understanding of how to handle some of life’s unanswered questions regarding this seemingly taboo topic. 

The Church has indeed grown and matured in her way of handling deaths of her children who have succumbed to this illness.  And it is precisely because it is largely seen to be an illness that has changed the way the Church journeys with the person in his or her death when this appears to be the cause of the end of life as we know it on this earth. 

Suicide, to be truly labeled a suicide (derived from the Latin “sui cadere” or to kill oneself) and for it to be a mortal sin has to fulfill the basic three conditions of a true sin.  It has to be a grave or serious matter.  It has to be committed with a full knowledge of the gravity of the offence.  It has to be committed with a deliberate and complete consent of the fact that it is in opposition to God’s law. 

With this in mind, not only is it thus rather ‘difficult’ to truly commit a mortal sin, but more importantly, for those who succumb to death through apparent suicides and who have their freedom or knowledge impaired or diminished due to illness (mental or otherwise) are not closed to the saving and mercy of God.  It is because of this that the Church still continues, thankfully, to give the deceased who have died through seeming suicides, the dignity of the full Catholic funeral rites accorded to every one of her baptized. 
Where can we find solace when someone close to us has ended his or her life in this tragic way?  There seem to be two places, one from Scripture and the other from Tradition, which gives us great hope. 

Firstly, it helps for us to read the biblical accounts of Jesus appearing before his apostles after his resurrection from the dead.  He is able to walk through locked doors and into rooms that are shut.  An apparent little detail that Luke just put there?  I’m sure there is much more to it than that.  Luke is trying to tell us that the resurrection of Jesus has an amazing power to overcome and enter into places of our lives, which we think we cannot let anyone or anything else in.  Mental illnesses and depression often gives the sufferer reason to block out so many people – and often it is their nearest and dearest that are left out in the silence.  The power of the resurrection gives us all hope that Our Lord does and is able to enter into those locked doors of our lives so that we still have hope amidst the darkness that seem to bind and tie the infirm.  And he can do that precisely because he enters it with love, and not judgement, and bears us his saving wounds seen in his hands and his side.  These wounds are the doorways through which divine light can enter into the darkened and lonely worlds of those who are suffering in loneliness. 

Secondly, Tradition as seen in the Apostle’s Creed has a rather alarming phrase, telling us that Jesus “descended into hell”.  That God is willing to descend into hell must give those of us who are the hells of our own a lot of hope.  He need not have done that.  Yet, his Divine Mercy and love propels him to do the unthinkable so that perhaps even the unsave-able can be offered salvation.  The Church Fathers say that Jesus went into Hades to free those who had died before Christ’s salvific death and resurrection opened the gates of Paradise, freeing personalities like Moses, Abraham and of course Adam to bring them to heaven.  But the definition of hell has a much broader aspect.  Many who are confined to themselves in their inability to hold on to their sanity are also living in hells into which Jesus also wants to descend into and give hope. 

All said, it is ultimately the divine generosity and charity of God and his mercy that makes salvation and forgiveness possible.  In the incarnation, God not only lived for thirty over years in our world and in our human flesh, but he also witnessed often the vicissitudes of human living in meeting the broken, the sick, the possessed and the dying.  The compassion of Jesus didn’t end with his resurrection.  He does continue to be the one who has the unique ability to judge with compassion because he also sees the world from the side of the one being judged.  This will be Divine Mercy at work, and Jesus is Divine Mercy, writ large.

Finally, we must never forget the words of the Hail Mary, especially where we pray that she will pray for us “and at the hour of our death”.  Much of suicide not only is taboo, it is also something that we cannot understand.  Mary at the foot of the Cross of Jesus on Calvary gives us something to hold on to in our moments of apparent despair and unclear seeing.  She chose to stand under the cross instead of demanding to understand the cross.  When we make that choice to stand with Mary there, we too may not have all the answers, but in our action of faith and love just standing there with her, we too will open ourselves up to the mercy of God that is nailed to that cross, and take shelter in the shadow of the cross. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

The treasure that is found in poverty

The Beatitudes or Sermon on the Mount give different people different things.  To those who are in fact weeping, hungry and impoverished, it gives lots of hope.  Yet, to those who use logical thinking to analyse and clarify using the mind only, it gives mainly headaches.  Perhaps that is the real beauty of Jesus’ teachings – we know that many of them are heart teachings that require of us much more of an expansion of the heart than the workings of the mind alone.  Take the strange yet challenging teaching that ‘blessed are the poor’ which is found in a more succinct way in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew, where there seems to be a tapering of intensity when he adds “in spirit”.  Whether we are physically poor, or come to God with a poverty of spirit, there is undoubtedly an extolling of poverty, which makes many of us uncomfortable.  I believe that Pope Francis’ desire for a ‘poor church’ does stem from an undiluted and clear understanding of the preference for poverty over riches, no matter how one chooses to define ‘riches’. 

Each year on August 10, the world celebrates the feast day of St Laurence the Martyr, one of the seven deacons of Rome who were in charge of the poor and needy in the city.  He served under Pope St. Sixtus who was killed for his faith in the early part of the second century.  The prefect of Rome at that time was a covetous pagan who demanded that the Church hand over their riches to him.  When St Laurence heard of his demand, he gathered the poor and the sick people whom the Church had been helping and supporting all along.  When confronted by the Prefect of Rome to fulfill his demands, St Laurence is said to have gestured to his poor and sick entourage declaring, “here – these are the riches treasures of the Church”.  Needless to say, this infuriated the Prefect and he ordered the execution of St Laurence by having him barbequed alive over a burning pit of coals. 

What this grisly story imparts is also a very real teaching of Jesus, of the Church and of what we know to be true despite what our constantly reasoning mind tells us.  There is something in poverty that teaches us and forms us from within, which riches and accumulation and being surrounded by great comforts simply cannot and will not.  Poverty, like experiencing major failures in life, seems to be able to open what I would call our ‘heart space’ where we truly begin to have our heartbeats beating in tandem with the heart of God, but only if we allow it to form us. 

I am thankful for a Church that is prophetic enough to put in her yearly liturgical calendar this feast of St Lawrence.  It serves many positive purposes as well as, valuable teaching to our generation, which seems to only see purpose and value in the healthy, fit, able-bodied and strong.  That the sick and the poor are seen in a totally different spectrum of values gives those of us who do not fall into that category much hope that God and his Church does not discard the marginalised, but instead, holds them in high regard – high enough to be called ‘treasures’.

Perhaps that could be the problem and the answer as well.  We have thus a need to constantly re-evaluate how we define what are real treasures in our lives, and separate them from the trinkets that dazzle and bewilder us.  Working with the poor and making them a regular feature in our ministerial outreach helps us to look anew at the ways we assess our values.  As in the parable that Jesus told, we have to be like the man who finds a treasure hidden in the field.  We will be fooling ourselves if we say that we have already found it and stop searching.  The Kingdom of God does not allow us to say with any finality that we have ‘found’ it because it is akin to saying that we have God figured out.  The wonder of this treasure is that it allows for a constant finding, because like God, his Kingdom is a constantly unfolding, wonderful mystery.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Real love happens when it refuses to depend on feelings

A common comment made by newly baptized adults months into their baptism is quite often that the wonderful and warm feelings which they experienced at the Easter Vigil Mass are no longer there.  Some even wish that they had that experience each time Mass is celebrated, to which I would silently say to myself “for your sake, I hope you will not”.  Am I being a killjoy?  On a certain level, perhaps.  But on another level, I am hoping that they will reach a certain maturity in love that shows itself beyond one’s feelings.

In a similar way, I have also been rather pointed in my wedding homilies, where, though I wish the couple the blessings of God, I have also mentioned that I hope the good feelings that make the couple feel so much in love during the honeymoon would end very soon, so that love that is not hinged only on good feelings and romance can begin to be lived out in their everyday lives.

Like many spiritual masters, I do strongly believe that love and prayer share something in common – both of them need a ‘ritual’, which becomes a solid container on which to build a rhythm that can be sustained in the long run.  There has to be a certain routine and ritual which we willingly enter into with little irregularity or unusualness and with a certain constancy. 

One of the main problems with us human beings is that we are easily distracted in our best efforts.  We tire easily, many of us are not automatically or spontaneously creative, and even if we are, we are not often operating on that high level simply because we do not have that sustained high energy all the time.  Our minds are just not wired that way.

Many years ago, I was privileged to visit a Trappist Monastery in Massachusetts in North America, and followed their work and prayer timetable for about a week.  Their whole 24-hour day was broken up into three 8-hour segments, one for work (and study), one for prayer, and one for sleep.  There was plenty of routine for monks to follow, and it was not hard to perceive that there was a rhythm and a  purpose in this rule.  Part of the reason this seemed to be so ‘rigid’ is because monks know that following a discipline calls for the living out of love beyond feelings, and the living a deep prayer life also requires of one to pray even when one does not feel like praying.  The routine and the rhythm thus helps to keep the monk grounded in his commitment for the Lord expressed in his commitment for life. 

It is when love is largely dependent on fleeting feelings that one begins to give all sorts of seemingly legitimate reasons for not loving when those feelings are no longer present nor as strong as when the commitment was first made.  Those of us in the Marriage Encounter movement have always said that love is a decision, and decisions cannot be dependent on merely feelings.  When love is a decision, it goes beyond feelings and beyond romantic ambience.  It becomes something that is based on our will, which should be much more solid than our feelings alone.  This is the living out of being true to one’s spouse “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, all the days of one’s life”.  After all, there will be many days when one doesn't feel like being loving, when one doesn't feel very much like forgiving, and when one doesn't feel like sharing.  

There are many misconceptions regarding prayer, liturgy and yes, even love, which plague many a modern mind so used to being ‘relevant, engaged and entertained’.  But if prayer, like love, is to be lived out as it should, then it has to be something that is long term with certain rules that give us strong guidelines to follow.  If as persons we find it a great challenge to be engaging all the time, to be full of insights all the time, and to be interesting 24/7, we will slowly begin to realise with the advent of maturity, patience and mellowness of heart, that there is a virtue in routine and rhythm. 

Whenever I hear about the complaints coming from congregants that our Latin Rite’s celebration of the Eucharist is so staid and boring, compared to some of the newer ‘mega’ churches which will remain nameless, it pains me that I have not enough time to share with them the wisdom of consistency and routine in worship, which helps us all to be steadfast in the love of God in our daily routine of life.   When we forget that the basis and fundament of our celebration of the Eucharist is that of a divine sacrifice, we tend to make the mistake to think that it is the other 'feel good' factors that should make the Mass a 'solid' celebration, as some may wish to call it.  It was St John Paul II who once said "the mystery of the Eucharist is too great a gift to admit of ambiguities or reductions, above all when, 'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet."

How is love good when it is a routine?  How can it then be real?  Perhaps a personal example might explain it with some degree of clarity.  I have a dear aunt who is in a nursing home and who suffers from severe dementia, and doesn’t communicate with nor recognize her visitors.  When I was still healthy and strong before cancer came a-visiting, I would start my one off day a week from priestly duties each Thursday with a visit to the nursing home, and stay with her till her lunch time,  I did this with dogged regularity despite her not recognizing me.  What was more important was that I knew who she was, and that I recognized her for who she was.  I guess it was my living out of a decision to love and to be consistently routine in carrying this out. It was way beyond something that was based merely on feelings or emotion.  There was little chance of any deep conversation, nothing particularly cerebrally meaningful that could be seen with the eye, with little if any, emotional satisfaction.  But there was a connection which went beyond any of these, far more important than feelings can evoke.

Our celebration and dogged regularity at Sunday Eucharist and prayer needs this kind of routine as well, if only for the connection that it provides as well – where we give the chance for a divine connection made possible by the Divine Connecter who is God.