Monday, October 27, 2014

The call for dying well and a happy death lies deep within each of us.

There are many spiritual writers who have posited that embedded in our DNA there is, as it were, a yearning for and a longing toward greatness.  Gurus like Teilhard de Chardin and thinkers like Simone Weil have said that we have inside of us a very deep longing to submit ourselves in obedience to a higher power.  If we do not do this, we will end up the other way – being pompous, self-interested, self-serving, and living in a very small world.  It is when we endeavor to submit ourselves in humble adoration of true greatness that is beyond the self, that we can overcome the constant temptation to live only for the self, and to secretly yearn to be adored through our stories of success and recognition.

The early Christians may not have developed this notion well in terms of pithy statements, but they certainly lived it well.  Many of them got it right when they longed for martyrdom as an aim of their Christian living.  For them, apparently, martyrdom was something normal, and not extraordinary.  It was a sure-fire way to show how determined one was to attain heaven at all costs, even to the extent of losing one’s earthly life in the process.  Psychologists these days will have plenty to say about what martyrdom complex in an individual may reveal in terms of achievements and personal grandiosity, but by and large, it has always been acknowledged that the foundation of the Church had been laid by the blood of the martyrs. 

Martyrdom when understood in a healthy way and lived out in our current times often does not need to include the shedding of blood.  Perhaps one of the least appreciated and easily misunderstood martyrdoms is that of dying a happy death.  I have written and pondered in this blog-site about what dying a happy death encompasses, largely because our Catholic culture has its patron saint, St Joseph, who is the patron of a happy death.  But it bears repetition and a re-visiting to appreciate in a new way what in essence a truly happy death is as far as the Christian mind is concerned.

Perhaps what needs to be debunked first is that a happy death excludes tragedy, suffering and pain of any sort.  A superficial understanding of a happy death seems to have the misguided notion that one should just fall into a deep slumber and without the slightest experience of suffering or pain, have one’s heart stop beating and drift off into the bliss of heavenly eternity.  If this is what marks a happy death, then perhaps the majority of the human race, and definitely very very few canonized saints had not had a happy death at all.  It’s more a rarity than a reality, which then makes the prayer for such a happy death something closer to a figment of our imagination, or wishful thinking.

But a happy death needs to be seen in what has to be the blueprint of what a truly human life is, and for us, this is the life of Jesus our Lord and Saviour.  His death a blueprint?  Does this mean that I should be dying after being beaten and scourged, stripped and bleeding, hanging and shamefully naked from a cross? 

Lest we get carried away with our imagination, it is what Jesus bore in his heart and what he carried deep within that marks what his death gave us.  His amazing ability to not blame and shame and victimize those who hated him is what gave him the ability to surrender everything back to the Father in love and humility.  In that grace-filled act, Jesus handed over his death for the salvation of the world.  One spiritual writer describes it so well when he said that one of the things that makes Christ’s death is so special and saving is that he didn’t carry the cross and then send them the bill. 

A happy death is thus marked by what we do not do, rather than what we do.  Suffering is part of the package of life that we have been given, and how we handle it exposes where we get our energies from.  If we are bitter, angry and want to make others pay for this, we will emit out from our hearts a bitter energy, an angry disposition and the need to send everybody the bill for our pains and sufferings and anguish.  But when we become transformers of these energies and instead of bitterness send out kindness, instead of anger give out forgiveness, and instead of sending others the bill of our sufferings give out love and charity, we truly become the presence of divinity in the world around us.

To want to live this way answers the deep and often silent heart deep within each of our authentic selves that bears the divine DNA of God through our baptismal identity.  We may not realise this, but to want to hand over our deaths in a life-giving way and to end our lives in holy surrender and not with bitter regret is something that we all share as God’s children.  This is what handing our deaths over to others means at its deepest level.  It means that we are willing to let our own deaths, firstly our little deaths each day, and then our one great act of dying at the end of our lives, to be something that energizes others and empowers others to love and live well.  But as Christians, we need to do this with a consciousness that shows that we are richly influenced by Christ and not by our own egos and vanity.  This is perhaps the real hard task of dying well, and dying happy.  It requires us to put our faith at the forefront of both our living and our dying. 

When done well, we give over our lives to those we leave behind an energy and a vigour that has a lasting value and power that is beyond ourselves.  The ‘happiness’ becomes something that is passed on to those who live on in this world so that they are similarly empowered to be co-transformers of the world to help to make ‘God’s kingdom come’.

Being aware of this constantly means that it doesn’t matter if we die of a debilitating illness, a traffic or industrial accident, or through the sheer carelessness of another human being.  These things do happen in fact.  

One parting note about dying well also necessarily means that we leave very little unfinished business tended to in our lives.  This ‘business’ refers to words and gestures that we know should be shared with those who will stand to benefit from them most, and these parties often are not necessarily our loved ones, but includes those who are also the thorns in our sides.  Our dying well necessitates a deliberate reaching out to them in love, charity and patience – acts that will no doubt stretch our hearts in love.  But we will only be able to do this with a conscious choice because Jesus first stretched out his arms on the Cross becoming the saving conduit between heaven and earth. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

In our broken humanity, we seem to share a reluctance to live the moment fully.

Much has been written about how the social media has been instrumental in causing humanity to be obsessed with capturing events and moments in pictures and letting the whole world know what is going on in one’s life.  It is almost laughable that anyone would be vaguely interested in what one is eating, where one is going, and what one is wearing, and yet, this lie is being believed and many are taking this, hook, line and sinker.

This obsession really does interrupt life as it should be lived and celebrated.  Before one can fully enjoy the moment like a meal or a gathering, the ubiquitous phone is reached for and poses are struck, or some direction is given on how much light is needed to be cast on the plate, and how the shot should be perfectly framed.  Whenever I am in such company, I keep silent and politely observe what is going on, and try to imagine the satisfaction that can come out of such an exercise.  I have come to certain conclusions that it does stem from something in our DNA that makes us not want to forget or lose the sense of happiness or contentment that is before us, and the most charitable part of me becomes softened to say that at some level, we do hesitate to be fully immersed in almost anything in life, be they moments of joy and happiness, or sadness and sorrow.

In the event of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, we see a glimpse of this in Peter’s reaction to what was unfolding before him.  We are told he wanted to pitch tents right there and then to, as it were, freeze or contain the moment in some way, rather than let the moment form and teach him.  Peter’s reluctance to not master over the moment reveals that reluctance or inability in us to fully live out these poignant moments of our lives.  Joyful moments are not fully immersed into and cause us to want to re-create them later in our older years when we may have had them before but were too busy trying to make the moment last.  In a strange but similar way, aren’t many of us in a hurry to rush past the pains and sorrows of our lives, where we don’t take time enough to mourn the passings of our loved ones but are more interested to get back to ‘normal’ life?  We only know this when later on in life, we realise that the vacuum or ache that throbs in our hearts are for mournings and deep weepings that we were too keen to have them forgotten with premature immediacy.

Scripturally, we see this difference in two groups of people who encounter Jesus in their daily living, in moments where God’s presence is breaking into this world in the actions of Jesus.  Often, we are told by the evangelists that the crowds would be ‘amazed’ at what Jesus either had done or had said to them.  This is contrasted with the way another group– which ‘pondered’.  Fr Rolheiser makes this contrast clear in his book ‘Sacred Fire’ in what must be a great insight into the spiritual life, and in so doing, guides the reader who is sincere in wanting to make greater inroads into spiritual maturity. 

Amazement is not a quality that shows a depth of spirit.  One is amazed at a magician and his legerdemain skills.  One can be amazed with another’s eloquence and sharp wit.  One can easily be amazed at what tantalizes the tastebuds and be dazzled by the kaleidoscope of colours emitted from a Lazare-cut diamond.  Amazement doesn’t necessarily cause us to enter into the morality of what is before us, because it works at the surface level.   Amazement takes on the energy of the group that is around us, perhaps even where there is an energy of spontaneous emotion and we hardly act on it, but just let the frenzy breeze right through us.  Crowds hardly think, though there is the oxymoron ‘crowd mentality’ that causes groups to act out of a blind energy. 

The other group that doesn’t just get caught up in amazement but enters deeper into mystery is exemplified by Zechariah and Mary where no immediate answers are given, yet they are either cast into a necessary silence or voluntarily step into the mode of pondering.  It deserves to be repeated over again that Mary’s position of standing under the cross of Jesus at his crucifixion is an image that is so pregnant with depth of pondering, where there are no screamings and rantings for answers, nor is there a need to run away and hope that it was only a nightmare and not real.  A strong heart and a steely will to do the will of God was displayed by this seeming silent action of merely standing under the cross.  It opens the heart to a virtue that is born of a patient waiting and allowing.

My encounters with many parishioners reveals that many of them are somewhat reluctant to willingly enter into a serious pondering of their lives.  It takes a certain grace for one to want to go for a retreat where there are large opportunities to enter into a silent mode, so that one can meet the God of silence without distractions, to ponder deeper, and not just be entranced and distracted by what may amaze us momentarily.  Just as Jesus revealed it to Peter after the resurrection that it is when he is older that he will have a belt put around him and take him to where he would rather not go, this is also an indication to those of us who seriously want to be disciples of Christ that it is to this silence that we need to enter willingly into if we are to reach any depth of spiritual maturity. 

Otherwise, we may just end up merely taking spiritual snapshots and be contented to make biblical facebook postings of the life that we live.  Indeed we may in fact be very reluctant to live each moment fully enough, and being present enough.  Living like that may not give us much in terms of being able to live with stretched and expanded hearts. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

How do we as Church respond to a heart-tugging statement like "he is our son"?

In the current extraordinary synod on the family that is being held in the Vatican, there has been a noticeable presence of laity who present themselves with their own life experiences on marriage and family life before the many bishops present there.  An Australian couple Ron and Mavis Pirola was one of the six couples chosen for this task, and they presented some advice on how the church should “uphold the truth while expressing compassion and mercy” by giving an example of how their friends dealt with the thorny issue of having a gay son who was bringing his partner home for a Christmas family gathering.  Apparently, this couple (not the Pirolas) said that they knew that their grandchildren would welcome the son and his partner into the family, and that their response could be summed up in four words “He is our son”.

That phrase is a very loaded one which bears deeper reflection.  Seen from the standpoint of compassion and sensitivity, it does seem to have the ability to trivialize or even abrogate all that the Church has taught about the evils of an active same-sex relationship.  Often, such phrases as these are thrown in the face of those who stand courageously and prophetically for Church teachings that call for a stalwart stance for chastity, abstinence and self-denial.  It does appear that because one is one’s own son or a daughter, the Church’s teaching which are undoubtedly difficult and sacrificial, can somehow be either denied or fudged.  In the face of these sentiments, holding on to Church teachings about sacrifice and chastity in an unmitigated way will easily make one appear to be unflinching, cold, and having a mind without having a heart.

The difficulty facing the Church or any authority that stands for truth will always be that of teaching and imparting the truth while at the same time tempering it with a heart and mindfulness of the weaker parties who are often subject to the law of gradualness.  This ‘law’ simply means that there are some folk who seem to be immediately struck with grace and can comprehend and accept truth and Church teachings, whilst others seem to be able to take are rather circuitous route to acceptance, often making many side-trips and stops along life’s highway.  When we seem to be in a rush to have everyone understand and accept Church teachings, we have to also accept that there are people who seem take a much longer time. 

I come back then to the phrase used by the couple that seems to almost bless their son’s choice of having a same-sex partner in life.  “He is our son” appears to be a trump card of sorts. 

Allow me to take you to another scene where a similar phrase was uttered not just by a human parent, but God himself.  When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, the heavens, we are told, opened, and a voice was heard “This is my son, the beloved”. 

With the eyes of faith, we need to see just what this is teaching us.  When Jesus spoke about the need to eat the bread that was himself, and many walked away, he must have wondered if this was what it meant to be “God’s son, the beloved”.  When he was in the midst of being betrayed and abandoned in the loneliness of Gethsamane, he must have recalled in that moment of raw aloneness that the Father declared once “This is my son, the beloved”.  When he was scourged and crowned with thorns, hung upon the cross on Calvary and left to die of asphyxiation, surely he must have pondered what it really meant to have God declare “This is my son, the beloved”.

Am I overly graphic?  Perhaps, but it does serve a point.  It brings across that point of connection that we all have as either children of our parents, or of parents of children of our own, when seen in the context of Jesus being the son of God.  Being a son or a daughter must always be seen in the light of what and who Jesus was to the Father.  To only see it as something that gives us a sense of entitlement or privilege is to miss half of what this truth teaches us about life.  The other half is to know that there is a certain selflessness and abandonment that each one of us is called to in life, which life when correctly lived almost necessistates, such that we carry on the sufferings of Christ which have yet to be completed with a redemptive mentality. 

Would that the couple facing the son’s choice of living out his same-sex attraction be as prophetic as they could, they would love the son still, but perhaps not fight shy in making it clear that not all our desires in life are called to be fulfilled, and that some are called to be martyrs without the shedding of a drop of blood.  Would that the son know that he is indeed the offspring of a loving and faithful couple, he would be aware that God does give grace to those who stay close to the cross in life’s journey.  No parent will willingly give his son a stone if he asked for bread, or a snake if he asked for a fish.  But perhaps we should be much more astute in how we approve or ‘bless’ some of the choices that our offspring make, because we may well be giving snakes in stead of fish, and stones in stead of bread.

To say that I am speaking of an ideal or a dream is to say that the Church is idealistic or existing in a dream-like state.  It is not.  The Church is very aware of the pains and struggles of such families, and is also aware that there are countless families who are ill-equipped with the ‘tools of faith’ that gives some counsel and words of truth to handle these situations when they present themselves.  A large part of the problem may well be a linguistic one, where the vocabulary that we use to discuss these sensitive issues serve more to divide than unite, antagonize than to soothe.  It is when our faith wobbles on weakened foundational structures that it doesn’t take much of a rising tide to wash away the little faith that our lives have been built on. 

While it is tempting to confuse mercy with the need to take the hard path of love, we must ensure that we do not fall easily into it. Mercy requires that we, with great charity, look lovingly upon those who make choices that are clearly inordinate as far as God’s will is concerned.  But mercy also requires that we are clear in not making compromises when it comes to truth. 

This great difficulty is itself a cross that many a family will have to carry, albeit with the whole church praying for and with them.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What desert experiences can teach us.

There are many places in the bible where the desert is specifically mentioned, and for various reasons.  These arid and seemingly lifeless places are hardly places people would willingly go into, even in this day and age when modes of transportation are plentiful and varied.  Only the very adventurous would make that purposeful trip into the desert, and most of us would much prefer to watch these expeditions from the comfort and safety of our sofas from the opening to closing credits of some documentary filmed by National Geographic or some other nature channel.

But when sacred scripture does mention the desert as a destination or purpose, there is usually something positive that we are being told about the desert experience which doesn’t usually enter our minds, requiring that we almost ‘stand on our heads’ to be able to penetrate what it is trying to impart.  Three specific references come to mind which can help us in our search for wholeness and holiness in our own life journeys. 

The first comes from the Old Testament, and is found in the eleventh chapter of the book of Judges.  It is here that we meet Jephthah, the son of Gilead, who makes a very strange promise to God if he is granted victory over his enemies the Ammonites.  He vowed to offer to the Lord as a burnt offering whoever comes to meet him at the door of his house upon his triumphant return from successful battle.  Well, it turns out that the Lord did indeed give the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands and upon his return, it was his own daughter who met him at the door of his house.  Caught in a quandary, his daughter tells him to fulfill his vow made to the Lord, but asks for time to enter into the desert to bemoan her virginity for two months with her companions.  He gives his beloved daughter his blessing to take this leave, after which she returns to him and allows her father to fulfill his vow made. 

One would ask why the Lord did not stop his sacrifice at the last minute as he did with Abraham on Mount Jireh when he was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.  There is no answer to this question.  But we are not discussing human sacrifice in the context of the land and practices of the Ancient Near East in this reflection.  That will perhaps be best left for another reflection.  What is of import here is what going into the desert meant for this daughter and what it can mean for us.

To bemoan or bewail her virginity is an act that shows that she knows deep within that there is a part of her that will forever remain unfulfilled, much like a crater that can never be filled in one’s heart.  It is something that we all share as part of the landscape of our lives as human beings.  We all have deep yearnings, unfulfilled dreams and hopes, and it is the human heart that knows that our lives seem to be one desire fulfilled after another, constantly seeking and hankering after modes and means which we hope gives us some semblance of being satisfied and fulfilled.  As Karl Rahner is often quoted so rightly, this reality is shown by the metaphor that “in life, there are no finished symphonies”.  It is when she has done her bemoaning that she is able to return home with a new willingness to allow her father to fulfill his vow. 

The second desert episode that bears mentioning is in the Gospels where Jesus is taken by the Spirit after his baptism in the Jordan and is led into the desert for 40 days.  Metaphorical of a long time, this prolonged sojourn in the wilderness sees Jesus being confronted by three very common temptations that every human being is plagued with in life – that of satisfying hunger (in whatever form), inflating the ego, and the perennial, unending and constant fulfilling of greed or avarice.  Jesus may have battled these in rather dramatic form, but it needs to be acknowledged that we have these same nemeses in our lives, perhaps in more and more hidden forms and disguises.  Jesus overcomes these temptations in the wilderness, before entering into life and ministry.

The third desert episode is a leaf taken from the Book of Apocalypse or Revelation, specifically from 12:6 where the woman who gives birth to a child is taken into the wilderness for safety from the dangers of the dragon’s intention to devour her child.  One would think it extremely strange that the wilderness is seen as a place of protection and refuge that is prepared for her by God!  Yet, we are told that in the wilderness, she is nourished for a long period. 

We flee the wilderness or thoughts of being alone, abandoned and being defenseless very easily, and for good reason.  There is something we are inborn with that is called self-preservation.  Yet, in these three episodes of the bible, the wilderness can be a very necessary place that we purposefully enter into at certain times of our lives.  Some may quickly say that they are natural anti-social beings and become smug thinking that they have no problems about enjoying their own company and love to be left alone most of the time, and mistakenly think that they are already at the apogee of spirituality, with no need of retreats, silent disciplines and meditative prayer.  What is apparent on the outside often doesn’t reveal the truth of what stirs within.  It is when we make that frequent entry to face our fears, confront our unfinished symphonies and identify our naked hungers and false egos that we truly come face to face with what gives us ultimate peace amidst the turmoils that we are constantly facing in our lives. 

It is often only when we boldly face these situations – our insufficiency in all our longings, where we need to bemoan our virginities; where we face courageously the temptations of our lives in their barest forms, and follow that directive pointing towards the wilderness where our ultimate refuge from evil strangely lies, that we can emerge from these apparently lifeless places with more strength and more verve to do what we really should be doing that places us at peace and aligned to bring about the Kingdom of God.