Monday, February 23, 2015

What the Church needs to cope with when loved ones die.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to pray at the funerals of two people who died within a day of each other.  One may be excused for thinking that my choice of words seems strange, and that ‘opportunity’ would hardly be an appropriate and suitable choice.  I use it with deliberateness because I firmly believe that to be able to stand at the casket and to be physically reminded of our own mortality is a grace that many of us hardly appreciate.  I know of many who find all sorts of excuses to not go near a casket, let alone to look intently (and lovingly) at the deceased lying in repose.

Death always brings with it a whole slew of questions that are often left unanswered, though our faith in the promises of Christ reminds us that there is a great promise of eternal life to look forward to.  We don’t like to think that far, and this may be the reason why so many people tend to live with a lot more verve and enthusiasm in this life, than to live with an eye for a fullness of life in God.  Like the misunderstood proverbial ostrich that seems to stick its head in the sand hoping to have their problems magically disappear, perhaps this is why many also choose not to look death in the face, especially in the face of someone who was deeply loved and cherished in life.  By the way, it is a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand to find escape from dangerous situations.  They would never be able to breathe if they do.

I’m not sure what goes on in the minds of the many who do file past the open casket at funeral homes or wake halls.  There would inevitably be thoughts of sadness that the person is no longer physically around, memories of situations in which times were shared, be they joyous moments or perhaps even moments of tension and disagreements.  But I am of the opinion that one of the most important things that we should do as people of faith is to be strongly reminded that this (lying in repose and experiencing death ourselves) is something that none of us can run away from, no matter how hard we may try to.  We should be gently reminded that one day, it will be us who will be lying in that state, and so we need to look at death with a sense of hope, and not with a tenor of foreboding. It is our faith that arms us with a spiritual weaponry to be able to say like St Paul “oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) at these liminal moments in life. 

Liturgy plays a pivotal and critical role in these times when we are at life’s borders.  But liturgists also need to be highly tuned to two things at the same time in order for the richness that good liturgy seeks to be experienced – to bring hope and comfort, as well as to pray for an outpouring of God’s infinite mercy without which any hope would be hollow and empty.  Many liturgists do the first without much trouble, often substituting a homily that should be a rightful platform for a reflection of how the resurrection is our ultimate hope in God, and instead giving snippets of how the deceased is now already in the arms of God, as if the funeral mass was a mini canonization ceremony. 

Perhaps celebrants find it hard to speak at such a time of pain and sorrow about the fact that most of us are in all honesty not yet ready to face God no matter how well we may have lived our lives.  But if we really come to think of it with some honest depth, none of us is fully ready for heaven at our deaths, unless we had lived all of our lives like our Blessed Mother. 

Some of us may even think that it would not be politically correct to say that the deceased may in fact have to continue some sort of purification before being able to meet God ‘face to face’.  Our separated brethren do not believe in the doctrine of purgatory and thus often treat the funeral as an open celebration of the person’s entry into heaven.  They believe that Jesus became our purgatory and took our punishment.  Our Catholic view isn’t that much different.  We too believe that on Calvary, Jesus did take a punishment that we deserve, but we also believe that justice demands that we are individually responsible for our actions as well.  There is a residual effect of all our sins that we leave behind, a bit like the carbon footprints that result from how we use (or misuse) the resources given to us by mother earth.  The realization of this effect of sin is punishment itself.  We just don’t see sin’s full effect while we are still alive, perhaps because we human beings are just so clever to justify our actions. 

Punishment is not something then that is meted out by God so much as it is something that we take on ourselves willingly because we see our faults and failures stripped of their excuses and justifications, and deem ourselves still unready to face God in his fullness.  Much as God wants us to be with him for eternity, we will see ourselves as not fully ready for this eternal union, and need the time away from him to ready ourselves.  This distancing from God will be the ‘pain’ of purgatorial punishment and we will be greatly aided by the continued prayers of those still active members of the Church Militant, and this is indeed a grace much misunderstood.

I must admit that I have very very rarely been a concelebrant at a funeral Mass where this has been boldly preached, with good liturgical taste, to give us a good sense of Catholic hope.  It may be extremely comforting to hear phrases like ‘he is already in heaven’, and ‘her suffering has ended’, but an overuse of these sentiments do not remind us of the need to still be united to our departed loved ones in faithfulness and constant prayer, and the continued offering of our personal acts of sacrifice and penance.  And if we truly love our departed, we will want to continue in our acts of love for them despite their physical absence.  Living godly lives with a divine purpose and offering our efforts at holiness for their purification continues our ties with them.  It seems to remain a great tussle to want to rely on cheap grace, than to have prophetic courage to speak about the fact that we are still united in our quest for eventual sainthood.  But to do so with nary a regard to their continued need for our prayers and connectedness is to sever our ties prematurely. 

A good theology at death, when married with a sound and elegant liturgy that is not too sentimental does something which gives us a solidarity with our deceased loved ones.  We are still on our journey, and so are they, albeit in a different mode.  We must never be too presumptuous about God’s mercy and grace. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Recovering wonder and enchantment in our walk with God.

One of the most insidious things that can happen to any soul in search of truth and goodness and beauty is that of being jaded, bored and generally uninterested in life.  Some will refer to it as ennui that envelopes one’s world.  We only need to look at little children in their infancy and early childhood, and see their minds and bodies growing like sponges soaked in water, simply because there is an ability to be awed and marveled by the world, not just in its largess, but also in the tiny but often missed things that we adults take so much for granted.  An ant crawling up a wall can mesmerize a child, and the expression on his face that speaks of wonderment and amazement is priceless. 

If this is something that is so easily seen, experienced and displayed in our early years as we are physically grow into adulthood, could there be a similar pattern and necessary mirroring in our spiritual development as well, as children of God that we all are?

Speak to anyone who has gone through an enriching RCIA journey where God is introduced into the life of a person, and it is often revealed that one’s spiritual vocabulary had been slowly expanded and enriched, and it will be evident that the person had been given something akin to new eyes to view the world and marvel all that it holds.  Conversely, when RCIA is not imparted as a journey but a ‘course’ that is highly focused on cerebral content only, this necessary pathway towards spiritual maturity is overlooked and sadly even sometimes disdained. 

When Moses encountered the burning bush in the episode related in the book of Exodus, he was told to remove his shoes/sandals, as the ground that he is on is holy ground.  One would think that this holiness referred only to the physical ground that was surrounding the bush that was aflame but unburnt.  But isn’t all ground holy?  We may have desecrated and made unholy the many grounds that we have been given in life, but that doesn’t change the fact that God had been the original giver of this ground, as he is the ground of our very being. 

The real challenge to one who has had their spiritual experience and spiritual vocabulary expanded is to continue to be open the wonders that surround and fill one’s world daily.  It may sound either simplistic or just naïve to read that in my journey with God, I have often been challenged to see that there is marvel and miracle in the everyday happenings and occurrences in ordinary reality.  Our modern day minds have been so attuned to being bedazzled and beguiled by what is amazing, surprising and ‘awesome’, that we have dumbed down our ability to be enchanted by the simple and ordinary.  We cannot ponder, and we have lost our ability to wonder.  When this happens, something more insidious also happens – we become irreverent and our souls become tired.

How then does one recover one’s lost sense of wonder?  How does one rescind from the greyness of a spiritual ennui?  One thing that is so clear about the spiritual masters is that mystics and contemplatives hardly lose their ability to wonder, and have an innate sense that gives them hearts that see boredom not as boredom but as us giving room for God to enter in.  They are also hardly cynical and negative, but are always willing to look at the silver lining at the edge of each cloud, and harbour no resentment or ill-will towards the situations in life that challenge or disturb their peace.  The peace that the Church prays for at the Eucharistic celebration after the Lord’s Prayer is precisely for this – a peace that is Christ’s peace.  This peace is one which isn’t just found in stillness and calm, but strangely, one that is found in the lion’s den (ref. the prophet Daniel), the belly of the fish (ref. the prophet Jonah), and most significantly, one which is found in the Cross. 

In his book The Everlasting Man,  G.K. Chesterton put it so well when he wrote of the need to recover the candour and wonder of the child and attain the objectivity of innocence, resulting in seeing contempt as a mistake.  As for the imagination, he astutely said "we must invoke the most wild and soaring sort of imagination; the imagination to see what is there". 

A daily ritual that trains us for this kind of holy longing is when we make a daily holy hour with the Lord in Eucharistic adoration.  Yes, whilst there, we do look at the Lord, but we hardly think about what happens from the viewpoint of the Eucharist.  We too, must allow the Lord to look at us – and in that act of faith, also believe that he is loving us despite ourselves.  Married couples and couples in love know that when they are looked at with deep love, the world around them changes.  When we are looked at with deep love by God himself, and are aware of this affectively, our world too, becomes seen in a new light, and we can begin to recover our lost sense of wonder and enchantment as we walk with God in life.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Our ongoing struggle with theodicy

There is a branch of systematic theology that specifically deals with the mystery of how evil and sin can co-exist with a God who is all loving and present to his creation.  This mystery is not something that is solely for the intellectual pursuits of theologoumenon, but it is something that almost all of us ponder over ever so often, especially when we encounter episodes where evil and sin are present and seem to be waxing in the face of our faith and what we know about God being all loving.

Apart from the fact that God gives us all the amazing gift of our free wills which when used for selfish reason often give rise to the prolongation of sin and evil in the world, it is also tremendously helpful when we find strength and gain courage from the word of God in sacred scripture to aid us in the living out of our faith.  When we come up against the quagmire of evil versus good, or sin versus holiness in life, or when page after page of the daily paper has nothing but stories of human preponderance of injustice and inhuman behavior towards our fellow man and woman, when natural catastrophes occur or when airplanes carrying hundreds of passengers fall out of the sky and crash.  We deal with these calamities when they are contrasted against the hope and goodness that our faith and religion reveal to us that God is good and that he has a great salvific plan for us.  At times like these, it does us well to go to a place in scripture that emboldens our belief that when evil seems to prevail, that God is not absent.  I often go to Rom 8:28 not only for solace, but also strength, confidence and hope.

What Romans 8:28 tells us very clearly is this – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”.  There is an abbreviated form of this in Latin, which is ‘omnia in bonum’, and it was a dictum, which St Josemaria Escriva believed and lived by.

We struggle with the phrase ‘all things’ in many ways, don’t we?  What we often want is ‘good things’.  We delight in the ways in which things turn out well for us in life, and find very little problem with praising God when things go our way.   I am quite certain that many of the people who have come up to me for a blessing, be it a blessing of themselves, or their house or apartments, their cars, and their many sacramentals like medals, holy cards and statues, have generally one idea in their minds – that a blessing should impart goodness and wellness on all levels.  But is that all that a blessing bestows?  As a priest and a theologian at heart, I have a far greater appreciation of what a blessing is, and hope that the theologian in every person of faith expands their understanding of a blessing.

The phrase ‘all things’ was not written by St Paul as something that was unintentional or casual.  If we truly believe that the Word of God is something alive and active (Heb 4:12), then nothing that is in scripture is frivolous, vain or vapid.  Indeed, St Paul was fully aware of how God had been powerful and present in his life in both good times as well as times when he faced great persecution, was whipped, imprisoned, been shipwrecked and endured hunger and thirst.  Despite these, he never faltered in his belief and love of God who loved him beyond all telling.  How is it that these trying situations that St Paul found himself in didn’t cause him to flinch from his faith?  How is it that when we go through similar or even less trials in life easily doubt if God is even ‘there’?  (Wherever you think this ‘there’ is).  Perhaps it shows that we are far more ‘fair-weather’ Christians than we think we are, and it shows that our faith is far more conditional that we claim it is.

A blessing is not, for sure, an incantation that imparts good fortune and excellent health.  Of course, being prosperous in life and experiencing good health are in themselves great blessings, but what a blessing does and is has to encompass far more than this.  It strengthens our faith to continue to be steadfast in our belief in a God who loves us despite our not experiencing these.  Isn’t this what St Paul referring to when he wrote that ‘all things’ work together for good?  ‘All things’ have to mean good things as well as bad things. 

If in marriage we vow to love one another in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, should we not extend this to all areas of life as well?  How is it that we compartmentalize life and have a strange notion that that kind of inclusiveness should not extend to all areas of our lives?  What St Paul emphasizes also is that both the seemingly good and bad things work together for good. 

We don’t want the ‘together’ bit, and we certainly are uncomfortable with ‘all things’, aren’t we?  We much prefer ‘good’ things, and only the good things.  What a blessing imparts is a broadening of our vision of God and his plan, so that we can like Mary truly say ‘let it be done to me according to your will’ when faced with challenges and events that show little of God’s mercy, presence and bestowal of peace. 

Of course, we can only live this way if the third and most important part of the statement is apparent and real – and that is the love of God.  Not God’s love for us, but our love for him.  Rom 8:28 emphasizes ‘for those who love him’.  Perhaps the real problem for many is that there is a lack of love of God in their hearts and in their lives.  When the love of God is conditional and fear-based, so too will our ability to see him in ‘all things’. 

We will always be facing this issue of theodicy when thorny and difficult issues confront our lives, but given the right spiritual tools to broach them, the thorns will not be that much of a bother when we realise that like life, the rose bush that produces the beautiful bloom somehow also necessarily exists with the thorns in its existence.

Monday, February 2, 2015

How Christ's entering into darkness gives us light

As a blood cancer patient who has been in slow recovery, I have been recruited by the Bone Marrow Donor Programme here in Singapore as a frequent spokesperson to speak about the pressing need for more people to sign up and be on the list of potential bone marrow or stem cell donors so that a life can be saved – a life which is being threatened by a blood disease somewhere in the world.  In this effort, I have also been interviewed quite a few times by various organizations and asked about my own experience of this whole process of getting ill, being told of the grim prognosis, going through the chemotherapies, and finally being told of the impossibly good news that a perfectly matching donor had been found, albeit from half a world away. 

These interviews often also ask me about how I felt about being told that I was standing at death’s door and I always marvel (even now) at just how calm and almost placid I was when I was told that I had a life-threatening illness.  After all, I have ministered to so many cancer patients who had no intentions of displaying signs of disbelief, anger, shock and denial, which makes my own quick and calm acceptance nothing short of a great grace.  Being a Christian doesn’t automatically give one the inner strength needed to stop from being afraid and anxious.  But perhaps being a person who has very often meditated on the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsamane gave me a precious insight into how I was saved by Jesus’ willingness to go through a suffering so innocently for my sake and the sake of the world was what brought me a light that was so needed in that time of sudden darkness.

I often ask myself how it was that Jesus, when he entered into that emptiness of the garden before his brutal execution, experienced and handled that foreboding terror before him.  We are told in the gospels that he agonised in that garden.  This God-man Jesus, who was so often deep in prayer and communicated with his Father, the master of creation and almighty, was actually in some sort of agony over what lay in front of him.  We read in some translations that he was ‘deeply distressed’ but if one were to go to the original Greek text, one would see the world ekthambeisthai, which more accurately translates into something that causes one to be in an intense and emotional state resulting from a great surprise or perplexity.  The question remains – how could this man who was in such a deep and real relationship with his father, the Lord of all, be reduced to a becoming a fearful and surprised person?  But isn’t it also true then – that if this relationship that was so real that it was holding him up and gave him all that he needed and existed for in life, then it was the entering into a state which was devoid of this that was going to be hellish and truly agonizing. 

This must be what hell is – that there is no semblance at all of godliness, and goodness and no divine presence at all.  Jesus was entering into godlessness, and it was beyond staggering.  We say it all the time in church language – that Jesus took on the ‘sin of the world’ on himself, but we hardly spend much time expanding on what it truly means.  Doing this cannot be just the work of reflective theologians trying to gain some impressive scores in the academic world writing theses to attain their degrees.  Doing this is something that all of us who are the disciples of the Lord need to do and do it often.  One very good and meaningful day to do this is before the Altar of Repose in the evening of Holy Thursday.  Coming to some deeper understanding of what it means to ‘take the sin of the world’ on oneself gives one the ability to encounter the smaller deaths that we do each day in our own encounters with people in situations that cause us to enter into the little hells that we often go through. 

What is godlessness like?  It must be something akin to not knowing God.  Imagine having a very good friend, a loving spouse or someone who knows and relates with you on a very deep level.  Imagine then waking up one morning and suddenly have that person no longer in your life to talk with, to share with, and to be in the presence of.  A void, much more than just a lacuna in life, will be experienced.  This will undoubtedly cause much pain.  Jesus was in a great relationship with his father – Our Father.  It sustained him, it empowered him, and it defined his very being.  Having that deep bond taken away on the very next day had to be a pain that goes way beyond what a spouse would feel if the other was taken away, or a friend leaving one’s life for whatever reason.  That pain of separation or disappointment that we would feel would pale in comparison to what Jesus was about to go through.  Our human emptiness is only a drop in the ocean of agony compared to a divine emptiness that Jesus must have seen coming.  In that garden on that night before Good Friday, he saw how he was about to be in a state of godlessness, which for us, should be the ultimate horror, since our lives (body and soul) are made for his love and presence. 

Yet, the antithesis of this is what atheists seem to be wanting to declare - that there is no God, and that this life is something that had happened by ‘chance’, and that the god that we worship is a fabrication and doesn’t sustain us at all.  No, they believe that we are our own existence and that at the end of life, it all turns black (actually, black is something and not nothing, but that would be a matter of another discussion).

The hell that awaits true atheists has to be the fulfillment of their deepest desire – that they will enter at the end of their earthly lives, an eternity of being so distanced, so disconnected and so empty of the one who sustains everything.  Jesus was about to enter into that state, and it more than surprised and ‘deeply distressed’ him.  Yet, he chose to do this albeit much difficulty so that when we now enter into our own pains and struggles where we think we are devoid of God’s presence and power, we are able to do it with a confidence that can only be provided when we know that Jesus came out the other end with more than flying colours. 

I perhaps can say now in hindsight that this must have been going in my mind when the doctor told me that I was facing an impending death with the leukaemia diagnosis.  How could I say to myself ‘it’s ok, it’s only cancer’?  It came from the strength of someone who had entered into Gethsamane, and took on hell not just for me, but for the whole creation.  What is one person’s impending death and suffering (mine) when someone took on the world’s?  My being a little selfless at that time was nothing if not for Jesus’ suffering for the world.

I could never put these thoughts in a précis form for my interlocutors at interviews about my illness and recovery.  I can only give glimpses or snippets of this which gave me that strength when the doctor gave me the news of a cancer.  It never is a full revelation and perhaps can never be, because it is like trying to give someone an experience of something only by using words and phrases.  Words can only convey that much, no matter how great a wordsmith one is.  Words never convey or provide a full picture.  At best, it can help to provide a screenshot. 

Perhaps it is because of this that now I don’t sweat ‘the small stuff’ easily.  It still surprises me how I find it easier to forgive people who may be prejudiced against me for whatever reasons.  And when I face disappointments, when I am maligned in my character, when I am wrongly accused, when I am thought of much less than I know myself to be, or when others think that they need to make me small so that they feel great.  These are never easy things to do, but these darknesses in life are made light (pun definitely intended) because Jesus chose to enter into a much darker and emptier state for us all to bring us a new and everlasting light.

Someone remarked recently that my reflections have taken on a somewhat more somber tone after my illness and recovery, and that I don’t write about lighter and happier matters.  I guess this is a natural result of having had this near-death experience, and also of encountering the incredible benevolence of my stem cell donor (that’s you, Peter Mui).  Happy stuff can find them in abundance in the social media.  They are not hard to find.  But I do have the need to give others who have a great difficulty in finding hope and strength in their own Gethsamane moments.  It could be someone who has just been told that they are seriously ill, or who has tremendous difficulty with the knowledge that their marriage is on the rocks, or when one’s secure world of possessions and riches has been suddenly and greatly reduced.  I believe this reflection serves to help them see some light in the dark tunnel that they find themselves facing in life. 

It’s not that I have become stoic and lost my sense of humour.  In fact, it is because I don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’ that I can genuinely smile at so many other things in life.