Monday, September 29, 2014

In saintliness, receptivity and gratitude often go hand in hand.

One common characteristic in the lives of many saints is the presence and abundance of gratitude.  The grace of God that permeates many of their lives indicate something very important that seems to be at the heart of what it means to live a holy life.  It is to live a grateful life, and to remember that one is never really a self-made man or woman. 

But to be able to be grateful for everything one has in life is a corollary to the gift of receptivity, as rightly pointed out by Fr. Rolheiser in his book “Against An Infinite Horizon.”  It is the lack of gratitude and receptivity that marks the beginnings of the original sin of our first parents, which is graphically presented in the creation story of Genesis.  What this story also shows is that there seems to be a slowness, or perhaps even a strange reluctance to be in a state of receptivity and following from that, gratitude in life.  It does seem that when one isn’t somewhat graced or taught and trained, one can grow up to have a sense of entitlement that easily contributes to one’s impatience, intolerance and false sense of superiority.  Their opposites – patience, long-suffering and humility find their roots when one knows early on in life that one came into the world with nothing, and will leave it with nothing. 

Declan, a dear nephew of mine lives with the condition known as Muscular Dystrophy (MD).  People with MD have a very weakened musculoskeletal system, hampering their movement.  A most charming boy of 13 now, he relies heavily on the use of a wheelchair for mobility in school and at home.  What strikes anyone who has the privilege to meet him is his constantly joyful demeanor, and how positive he is about everything in life.  One can just imagine that a boy who is confined to a wheelchair can become angry, bitter and indignant when he sees his friends and classmates happily running around and kicking a soccer ball in the field.  But not Declan.  Ask him any day how his day went, and with a brightness and cheer that comes from deep within, he will answer “great!”  In all the years that I have known him, I have never heard him complain of his condition.  He manages to see so many things as gift, and each time I visit him in his room, I have a sense that this boy has the innate ability to teach me something about receptivity and gratitude in ways that many books cannot. 

This spirit of thankfulness and gratitude that I see so clearly in life in him is constantly giving me the mindfulness of being thankful for the many people who have helped me through my chemotherapy sessions and subsequent hospital treatments.  Nurses who came to do the smallest of things like clearing my urine bottle in the middle of the night, taking many many vials of blood samples at 4am each day, or who gave me my many medications left my room very often with a word of thanks.  Some of them said it was unnecessary to do so as if they had done something extraordinary to merit such gratitude.  To me, they did more than just their job. 

I grew in my consciousness that much in life comes to us as gift, sometimes wrapped in service, often in mere presence and a kindly demeanor.  These are not owed us.  They are gifts given.  If I were not given the grace of my experience of having blood cancer, I don’t think I would have come to this realization that forcefully and convincingly.

When Jesus taught his sermon on the mount and declared that blessed are the poor for the kingdom of heaven is theirs, he was saying that there is a certain concealed advantage that poverty, which includes other sufferings like illness, failure in life, embarrassment, a personal shamefulness, and disability, provides.  These are very often hidden pathways through which one can attain a greater grace.  Sure, without the proper mindset and attitude, they can also trigger things very negative in people like rancor, rage, envy and many forms of irritations.  But when channeled well and with a willingness to live under the shadow of the Cross, a transformation is made possible.

Adam and Eve’s desire to take rather than receive with a receptivity and gratitude marked their (and our) downfall.  Our return to grace and eventually heaven has to teach us of the need to live not in a spirit of entitlement, but one of receptive gratitude.  When this is lived out, we will soar in the Lord even though our physical limbs may be weakened.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The quest for sainthood and the perfect soba – attaining perfection is not possible.

One of my few “guilty pleasures” in my convalescence and time out from full time ministry is to watch episodes of meaningful food documentaries that take me to another land and another culture.  Not being able to travel in my condition to these exotic locations, I ‘visit’ them via the cable television programmes and some of them end up teaching me more than mere culinary secrets and skills.  Some of them impart a hidden doorway that also reveals similar truths to the spiritual life. 

In one of the episodes of the series “Destination Flavours”, the host of the programme takes us to Osaka and a segment features a simple and unassuming soba noodle maker who has dedicated his life to his craft.  For the uninitiated, soba is a noodle made of buckwheat flour, cooked in boiling water, chilled in an ice bath, and eaten with a dipping sauce that comprises flavour-imparting ingredients like kombu (a dried seaweed), dried sardines, dried bonito, soya sauce and honey.  Though this humble chef had been doing this everyday for years, and is noted for his attention to detail to the extent of grinding his own buckwheat to ensure that he gets the exact type of flour that he is contented to work with, and aging his own sauces, he said in the interview that he has not reached perfection.  When asked if he was trying to make the perfect soba, he humbly responded that yes, he was trying, but till the end of his life, he will not be able to reach perfection.  Just as long as he keeps trying, continuing to work toward it, he will get closer.  There was a palpable contentment in his response, and yet, something that was also very enduring in his humility.  One doesn’t feel any tension or frustration in his admission of his inability to reach perfection.  I couldn’t help but see in this quest something that we all can adapt and adopt in our own quest for spiritual perfection, which is sainthood.

The fact that the church never declares anyone a true living saint is testimony that our lives here on earth are always short of the perfection that we inwardly seek.  Our weakened state of beings as humans who are prone to falling into sin and giving in to temptation means that there is no one time that we can ever be contented with ourselves.  Even immediately after stepping out of the confessional, we will be facing seemingly facile temptations that makes us ‘miss the mark’ of perfection.  Those of us who are more prone to habitual sin and are humble enough to constantly seek God’s forgiveness and mercy will readily see the truth in this “two steps forward and one step back” movement that marks the life of any serious saint ‘wannabe’.

Despite the difficulties that we face in climbing this mountain toward holiness and sainthood, we know that deep within, we cannot but plod on.  It is not, as some would think, a futile and unavailing exercise.  Why?  Perhaps it is because if we are truly honest to ourselves, we know that deep within, we are made for a heavenly life, and that this desire for heavenly perfection will be our ultimate happiness.  It is the soft whispers of God’s prevenient grace working in our lives, to use a theological reference.  Yet, we also know that on this side of heaven, perfection is merely a concept, and something that we can only strive for, but never ever truly grasp or attain.  The strange and alluring thing about grace is that the moment we think we have grasped it in our hands and gained control of it, we don’t.  One wonders if lovers can compare this with what is often called the ‘thrill of the chase’. 

In our most humble admission, we can only say that we are merely striving for that perfection, but are happy to do so.  Just like the soba master and the perfection that he seeks.  He knows that deep inside, he will never ever attain it, but that does not make it a futile or idle exercise.  He has spent a large part of his life dedicated to his craft, making sure that each ingredient he uses, each measurement, each turn of his uncut dough, and the width of his hand-cut noodles are as perfect and exact as they can be, it will never reach perfection.  The entire exercise each day becomes something which he merely puts his whole being into, and this is where the parallels between spirituality and something as seemingly facile as soba-making come so close. 

If one can put in that much dedication and care for a craft that is as seemingly mundane and areligious as soba making, what more for our spiritual lives which have an end that is eternal?  If only we put in as much seriousness in the different ‘ingredients’ that contribute to our lives, I am sure we will go far in our thirst and desire for sacredness resulting in being spiritually (and perhaps even physically) wholesome.

The ingredients of our spiritual life are what fill our everyday lives.  How we react to the 6am alarm that calls us to face the breaking dawn; what is in our minds as we start that drive to work or take the public transport; the kind of internal comments that we make about the things we see around us; how we approach our fellow workers and family members; how we fill our God-given 24 hours in the day; the kind of things that we allow ourselves to be affected by; and of course, the judgments that we make throughout the day.  Knowing that each of these elements contribute to our search for the attainment of heavenly perfection makes it clear that though we may desire perfection, we will most just as likely fall short of it.  But we also know that we cannot just give up altogether because that will be denying our truest selves.  That true self inside of each of us only rests when we finally rest in Him.  St Augustine got that so right.

Just like the humble soba-maker who said that he was still trying to make the perfect soba even though he had been at his craft for years, so too should we as people striving toward sainthood also need to say that we are still trying - trying to get closer and closer to our ultimate aim but with less and less tension and frustration, and to never forget to give God thanks for each moment of grace for being able to make small steps in that ascent towards heaven.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Why we need to praise God and glorify the Trinity as a constant practice.

One of the most common prayers that the Catholic prays, apart from the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary is the Glory Be.  In this simple and short prayer, we make a very simple statement, or as traditional Catholicism calls it an ejaculation, that gives glory to the three persons of the Blessed Trinity whom we acknowledge has always existed, and will always exist for all time.  Why is this a prayer?  After all, there is no formal petition in this prayer whilst in the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary there are obvious petitionary phrases.  What is at the heart of this prayer is a doxology with an origin that is traceable back to seventh century Christendom, and vestiges of it can be found in St Paul’s own writing.  What is the spirit behind this prayer?

Because it primarily serves to glorify God and nothing else, a good starting point would be to ask ourselves why does God need glorification?  Is he not satisfied with and in himself that he needs this seemingly ego-boosting utterance to reassure his dominance, power and majesty over his creation?  Without doubt, we have to contend that God has always been full in himself.  As the preface in the Eucharistic Prayer (Common Preface IV in the Roman Missal) states so clearly, “For, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness but profit us for our salvation”, so God definitely has no need at all of our praises.  God doesn’t need us to glorify him.  He is not needy in any way.  He is always and has always been sufficient.  Yet, we still do glorify God and the Church is constantly calling us to do this as a unified body.  This is because doing this reminds us of who God is, and who we are.  We forget this so easily, and so often.

Our constantly moving and working minds are a living testimony that nothing in us is static and unchanged.  We are constantly moving, thinking, remembering (living in some kind of past) and imagining (hoping for some kind of future).  The self-unassured and oftentimes insecure ego is also on the constant watch for some sort of self aggrandizement that asserts our presence and importance in the world around us, perhaps in a way reminding us that we are alive.  We just seem to be wired this way.  Just look at how furious postings of photos of the self and what the self is either wearing, eating, where the self is staying, going, enjoying, hating, loving and thinking are put up constantly on the social media and one will find evidence of this in spades.  Though not morally wrong in itself, what can easily happen is that we think this is normal, and that the more we do this, the happier we will be, putting ourselves on grand display and at the centre of just about everything.
Doe God want us to be happy?  Without doubt.  But our definition of happiness narrows and diminishes when we displace God from the centre and put ourselves in his place. When we purposefully remind ourselves from time to time that this happiness, no matter how temporal or temporary it is in the ways that we promote ourselves has to also include glorifying the one who makes it all possible, we gain back our true centre in God and that redefines our happiness and our pursuits of all that we hope makes us happy.  From being eccentric (literally meaning “out of or off-centre), we put God where he should always be – at the centre of our lives and of our world.

If there is one reason alone for praying this prayer often it will be this that I have tried to put across in terms current and with examples that I hope most people can identify with. 

The other reason that we need to pray this prayer often is because of the fact that we are made in God’s divine image.  When we pray this with a regularity that is as familiar to us as the beating of our hearts, it aligns us once more to our great and humble origins as a people of God, made in his image, and made in love for love.  It will no longer be just about us – our lives, our purposes and our origins will be re-instilled in our very being that we live in order to glorify God who delights in bringing glory to our own lives when lived in his sight and in his love.  When we are aware of this constantly, it gives us a very firm foundation to face anything that life may give us in terms of challenges, failures, sickness and bad news in general.  Our oneness in God is not hampered nor adversely affected by anything negative because our very being is in God who is constant.  We stand then, on a very secure grounding.

Perhaps it is too idealistic to stop everything in our lives and direct our hearts and minds to God in prayer in the busyness of our day.  I can only imagine what kind of chaos it may cause.  But what could be done is that while we are busy with our lives, doing what we do on a daily basis on the social media, using the many means of communication and putting our God-given talents to good use, it is also good to have this prayer silently prayed in the depths of our hearts simultaneously.  This will help to ensure that we do everything “ad majoram dei gloriam”, or for the greater glory of God. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Imparting heavenly truth is good, but it can take a hell of a long time.

One of the regular blogs of spiritual writers which I very often read with great interest is one written by a priest, Msgr Charles Pope who ministers in the Washington DC diocese.  A very erudite and astute priest, he has orthodox views and is unabashedly bold in upholding the truths of the faith, but when doing so, usually manages to bring across his point clearly and without being wishy-washy.  An example of this is clear in the following quote from one of his recent blog entries where he wrote passionately about the absurdity of the Cross in a hedonistic world. 

He wrote: And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the Cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read “our”) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)”

It is a prophetic spirit that one is endowed with that enables a preacher and teacher to dare to be so clear about just how challenging the true Christian life is.  Yet, we also know that if we want our listeners to be won over to living a true life of a dedicated Christian, their defenses will have to be lowered, and this hardly happens when it is forced and commanded.  Msgr Pope may ‘tell it like it is’, but he is instructing the masses through the written media.  It is when we need to impart this kind of ‘hard’ teachings to another person, that we have to be mindful of so many other things, and one of them is the proclivity of resistance. 

Like many things in life, we resist it when we are forced to do it, and our strangely in-born resistance to change and conform becomes tested.  Where do we see this played out with great drama?  Teaching toddlers patience, trying to get them to eat vegetables and wanting them to learn that there are things that are bad and forbidden will show this aspect of our shared humanity very clearly.  It’s almost somehow encoded in our DNA.  I see this in two of my young but adorable godchildren. 

I was taught a valuable lesson by one of their mothers recently.  Children and young people share something in common – they often resent being told, but when something is shown and demonstrated in life by one’s parents and elders, something begins to happen – they will slowly (and the operative word here is S-L-O-W-L-Y) see the value in the discipline and teaching that is being lived by the example shown. 

Like the formation of values in our children, so too does the formation of Christian ideals in their lives take time.  Would that it could be imparted and accepted in one swift lesson!  Unfortunately, we also know that what is learnt overnight is also often unlearnt and forgotten in often the same span of time.  God knew that the Hebrew people had stubbornness in their hearts and perhaps this is why one whole generation (40 years in biblical terminology) had to pass before they actually entered the Promised Land.

But I can hear some parents lamenting with a worried heart – what if they still don’t learn when they are adults?  I know many parents of confirmed Catholics who have since left the Church and now are parents themselves, and have never thought of returning to the faith that they were baptized into.  It aches their hearts to no end to see their children (and even grand children) living this way.  But what seems to be a common denominator is their continued love of their children. 

Perhaps this is just a small representation of God’s immense love and mercy that is constantly shown to us in our lives.  His demands are tough, he minces not his words (how much clearer can the ten commandments be?) and he doesn’t want us to be lukewarm in living out our faith (ref Rev. 3:16).  Yet, God does not stop loving and giving his grace so necessary for our deeper and deeper conversion.  These divine overtures, I often say, never end but sometimes, they do get drowned out by the cacophony of the false teachings of the world.

To be patient in the way that God’s intricate plan pans out takes a lot of faith and to a large extent, wisdom.  We know that these two – faith and wisdom often take a long time to develop in us.  When I catch myself being impatient with the slowness to change in others, an important thing to do is to remind myself of just how slow my own journey towards maturity and mellowness has been, and is still on-going.  These very qualities which I wish to have, are evidenced in me far less frequently than I wish to admit. 

To want to be perfected in a short span of time is akin to spiritual suicide.  Like what Col. Nathan Jessup (the character played by Jack Nicholson in the movie A Few Good Men) said, many of us can’t yet “handle the truth”, so we have to learn in small steps along the way.  Perhaps this is what God meant when he said that one would die if one saw the face of God.  Many of us cannot take in that much light, truth and love in an instance, for we would most surely be blinded by the overwhelming presence of God’s abundant goodness when our hearts are just not ready for them.