Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Unfinished symphonies can contribute to the masterpiece called life

I have quoted Karl Rahner more than on a few occasions in this blog of mine, to have said, “In the insufficiency of everything we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished”.  It is certainly not a pessimistic quote that comes from the prolific German Jesuit Theologian, but when understood well and in the correct way, it attests to the truth that no matter how well we make sure that each ‘i’ is dotted and each ‘t’ is crossed, there will be some things that are beyond our control to complete and finish, let alone finish well.

When all is said and done, seen and accepted under the immense canopy called grace, it will slowly come to light that we are certainly not in control of everything that lays before us in life.  We are certainly not “self-made” men and women, and at our best, we are an on-going response to the outpouring of God’s grace which our entire existence is steeped in. 

I write this post in the silent confines of my room here in the lodgings of the Holy Redeemer College in Washington DC, a place where I had spent two years of my life in pursuit of a teaching license in Systematic Theology from 2011 to 2013.  It was at the early part of 2013 when I became terribly sick and had to seek medical treatment back home in Singapore for what was later to be diagnosed as Biphenotypic Leukemia.  Facing imminent death if I was untreated by chemotherapy and a subsequent stem cell transplant, it was quite clear that I had no choice but to put aside all hopes of completing my licentiate, and hope to find that perfect match for my stem cells. 

That was two years ago.  I have since gone through quite a few trials and ‘speed bumps’ and have, with God’s great grace, slowly regained my strength and general health to return to DC, albeit for a few days, to organize that part of my life that was left in a state of flux two years ago.  Today, with things sorted out, boxes ready to be shipped back to Singapore and goodbyes said to my professors and caring friends from the Dominican House of Studies where I received my graduate training, I seem to be in a melancholic state of letting go – a letting go of an unfinished chapter in life, and being at peace in closing that with an eye cast on another view of the horizon of life that lay before me. 

Does it feel like a sort of dying?  Strangely, it is a question that is answered with both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ – something that many theologians like to say when posed with a question by folk who like simple answers to tough questions.  It reminds me of one spiritual writer who was asked in front of an audience a rather deep question on theology, and he asked rather bluntly, but also with a great sense of charity “do you want the simple answer, or the long one with the many sub-clauses?”

There is no denying that I think that I would be in a better place if I had the opportunity to finish what I first started.  That completed picture would appeal very much to my sense of what was proper and correct.  Yet if I were only to look at so many of the lives of saints and holy men and women, I would be able to see that indeed, in many of their life stories, some did not end up what they started out with.  John the Baptist’s life seemed to have a tragic end, especially when one reads about how enthusiastic he was in pointing out to Jesus as the Lamb of God, but never got to see this unfold in his lifetime.  Moses’ own life would have been much more deemed as ‘completed’ if he could lead the Hebrew people physically into the Promised Land, but toward the end of his life, he could only gaze upon that place with his eyes before they closed for the last time.  How does one take these ‘failures’ or ‘unfinished symphonies’ well?  How does one not end up disgruntled, disenchanted, and discouraged when faced with defeat and a canvas that seems to have only a vestige of what was started? 

It only makes ‘sense’, if ‘sense’ is the correct noun to use, if one releases control of one’s life, and when one sees that one not only doesn’t have all the answers, but that perhaps one doesn’t really need to possess all the answers to life’s questions.  It births a humility that a success can never give, and an openness that completion doesn’t accord. 

I was having a conversation with one of the Dominican brothers in the institute just a few days ago when I shared my story with him.  Ironically, he is named Bro. Luke.  It was after my sharing that he ventured to share his favourite quote by Canadian poet and novelist Leonard Cohen.  It was a rare moment in which I could have sworn the light of God’s grace pierced so brilliantly into a sea of darkness, bringing a clarity that was totally unexpected, and yet so deep and poignant.  It made me look at all that I had before me with new eyes, and sets before me a glowing new hopeful horizon.  I hope it does the same for any of my readers who may be facing unfinished symphonies in life. 

This is Cohen’s quote – “I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.  You abandon your masterpiece and sink into the real masterpiece.” 

And who is the Master of all masterpieces?  One pretty much has a lot more to fail and learn from in life if one struggles to come up with the answer to this question. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Humility - one of the hidden life-changing truths that Easter brings.

There are undoubtedly many preachers and spiritual writers who have done marvelous work in their extolling of the wonders of the Resurrection, and how all of our lives pivot and hinge on its truth.  Many will no doubt base their examples and content on how different individuals have encountered a turnaround in life, often from a position of weakness, suffering and failure, to one of strength, wholeness and victory, and cite these as Easter images of the resurrection.  I have no bone to pick with them or their myriad examples.  But from my own experiences, readings and reflections, it has dawned upon me that there is also a very hidden but real Easter truth that catalyses all those examples, without which nothing that hints of resurrection can ever take place.  It is the virtue of humility.

After all, it is humility that brings one to one’s knees to be able to develop a tolerance for any ambiguity in life.  It is often the proud and the ones with the (self) assured answers to everything that have the most trouble with things like hope and faith.  It doesn’t take much astuteness to see that one of the common traits of angry atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens is their glaring lack of humility for the many ambiguities that life presents.  Just look at the way they often cite the existence of innocent children with wasting diseases and natural disasters as reasons enough to reject the notion that there is a God who is loving and all powerful.  But it is only with humility that one takes all these equivocal and sometimes abstruse realities in one’s stride that one still decides, without bitterness, to fall on one’s knees to offer praise and worship to God, simply because one dares to admit that one doesn’t have all the answers.

Easter resurrection has ambiguities, and in spades.  They are often not logically laid out in some systematic way, and much as Jesus’ appearances have a certain consistency, they also have as much diversity in their array.  To want resurrection to be ‘in your face’ and crystal clear is to miss the message of promise and hope that in life, it is often only with a second, third and sometimes multiple seeing that we then ‘get it’.  Our frail egos and limited intellect demand proof before admission.  But it is humility that helps us know that with faith, no proof is necessary.  In fact, proof can sometimes become more of a stumbling block than a stepping stone.

I am quite certain that the disciples who encountered the risen Lord did at times harbour a wish that the Lord would also appear to those whom they preached the kerygma too, to make their task much easier.  But in his godly (read ‘strange’) wisdom, God’s preference is for the message to be handed down by a sharing.  Whether it is a verbal sharing (preaching) or a socio-communal sharing (of one’s life in the community), it requires the virtue of humility. 

We often don’t understand or wish to even entertain the truth that we are in fact cramped together with other people in life, and that these people are much like ourselves (read “equally imperfect and often just as irritable”).  Yet, the deep truth that is denied is that life is made much richer and deep when we are not alone.  We are not made for self-sufficiency and self-achievement, no matter what our culture and our educational systems try to convince us otherwise.  As columnist David Brooks wrote so eruditely in one of his recent articles for the New York Times, our culture and our educational systems may make great inroads towards building an external career, but they hardly make a dent in helping us build inner character.  Humility is needed to achieve the latter. 

It must strike us as strange that in Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus asked his disciples for something to eat.  Imagine that – the resurrected Lord, the one who is co-responsible for creation itself, the giver of all power in their earthly array, doesn’t conjure up food for himself ex nihilo, even though he can easily do so with a wave of his divine finger.  He asks for food instead. 

In this simple action is a very hidden message of easter.  The Lord of Life has it in his very DNA (metaphorically speaking, of course) a humility that he takes with him in the resurrected form.  It is when we too live in a way that nurtures humility ourselves that we too become partakers in the resurrection, and giving cause to others to see the Lord very much alive in us. 

Perhaps it is then that we begin to descry a new dimension of the resurrection and value humility anew.

NB:  There will be a two week hiatus in this blog as I make my way to America to meet and thank my stem-cell donor and his family for the selfless act of saving my life almost two years ago.  I am sure that I will document in some way this long-awaited meeting with this generous person.  I am also very grateful for my readers' constant prayers for my physical well being and health.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Being bothered for the right reasons - a great challenge for a priest.

There is a prevalent notion among many people (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) that anger or any betrayal of this emotion has a negative connotation.  After all, anger is one of the seven deadly sins or cardinal sins which when uncontrolled, causes one to give in more easily to the malevolent human tendency to sin. 

Jesus’ grand display of his anger at the temple was therefore deemed uncharacteristic of Jesus, and one easily wonders what had happened to the charitable, patient, kind and genial side of Jesus which makes him usually so automatically loveable, affable and amiable.  At the root of his anger was the consternation that filled him when he was confronted by the fact that what was meant for the Father’s glory was instead used for exploiting the poor.  Something that was meant to bring God and his people together ended up being something that did just the opposite.  There was a flagrant disorder that was happening right before him, and the sad irony was not lost on him. 

On the surface of it, we guard ourselves from turning our churches and places of worship into market places rather well.  Checks and balances, the carrying out of ‘best practices’ and necessary liturgical rules help us lay the correct foundations that prevent this kind of fiascos from taking place, as it were, right under the nose of God.  But I have, in my course of being a priest and a celebrant at Masses, seen another type of abuse that disturbs me and causes discomfort in no small measure.  I am referring to how our indifference may display a disorder of another kind. 

If Jesus was perturbed with the disorder that was before him in his Father’s house, does that not make us ask ourselves how we feel when we find before us a disorder that turns our Father’s house into something else other than what it should be?  The Father gave us his everything in Jesus.  He did this in total love.  It cannot be that hard to infer that it must elicit from us a similar returning of love, not out of obligation, but out of love from our part. 

In worship, this translates into our entire attitude - from our externals (what we wear and how we dress) to our inner and unseen selves (how we respond and participate in our singing), to meaning what we say/recite, and in being aware of not what, but WHO we are receiving in Holy Communion.  Doing all this, and doing them well gives us the proper foundations and grounding for our raison d’etre for being Christians, which is to go out to the whole world to proclaim Christ as Lord.

But it is when we worship with a half-baked attentiveness and a divided heart, or worse, when we know that we have in us unconfessed and unrepented sins, that each of us becomes a ‘disordered temple’ which turns the Father’s house into something worse than a market place. 

I have heard complaints and comments galore about how our worship, especially that of the Roman Rite, seems to be stiff, rigid and almost inflexible.  Some would go so far as to call it boring.  Could the problem be with us, than with the rite?

I am of the opinion (and it is not a humble one, by any stretch of the imagination) that this is the problem - that we expect what titillates and excites us in the world around us to similarly entertain and entrance us when we worship God.  That we have been subconsciously fed a steady diet of slick MTV videos and polished concert performances costing millions of dollars to produce gives us the false belief that our worship needs to meet these standards at some level.  Perhaps we do not want our encounter with God to be something that is so different from our worldly lives.  Just as movies keep us attentive, we want worship to do the same.  Just as Facebook holds our often undivided attention and makes so many of us glance at that app every so often in the day, so too should God be as addictive and habit-forming.  And if God and our prayer life pales in comparison, then maybe, just maybe God is not as real as our worldly pursuits. 

But if we really think about it, how can our worship BUT be different?  We do not worship our work, do we?  Our friends in our social circles are not the cause of our being, and none of our material yearnings and desires can ever give us eternal joys.  Only God and the everlasting joys of heaven do that.  In fact, it is really when we are touched by God so differently at worship that we bring this dynamic into the world that we can begin to transform the world with a prophetic courage. 

Till that happens, we probably will be unchanged in our approach towards worship and prayer.  Our response will be lukewarm, our singing will display indifference, and we will emerge from the pews on Sunday with our lives untouched and unchanged.

I tried to addressed this to a weekday Mass crowd at my parish just last week, and the word quickly got round that I was in a bad mood that day, and had ‘scolded’ the parishioners.  Perhaps I did sound a tad worked up, but it came from an energy that was passionate.  It is clear that Jesus was passionate when he reproached the money changers in the Temple.  He did it for the love of God and for the people.  I am certain that I did the former with clarity, but may not have succeeded in showing the latter. 

There is an old saying that fire makes a good servant but terrible master.  Perhaps the same can be said of anger.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The real empty show of Easter

At every celebration of Sunday Eucharist, the church recites the creed as a body, serving to remind us of the foundations of our belief as Christians.  But at the Easter liturgy, the church omits this.  Instead, something significant takes its place – we renew our baptismal promises.  We do this in two parts - firstly we reject sin and evil, and following that we renew the promises and tenets of our belief, responding with a resounding and resolute “I do” after each of the questions asked.

As many of you readers would know, the Catholic Church had a renewal of the liturgy a couple of years back, with the renewal of the Roman Missal where there were some changes to the wordings made to the former Missal.  One of the changes that I noticed, and which intrigued me, was the way one of the questions was formulated in the renewal of baptism promises.  In the former version, one of the questions ran “Do you reject Satan and all his empty promises?”  The renewed version asks, “Do you reject Satan and his empty show?”

Empty show!  How succinct, and how deep this truth runs.  All of sin, all temptations and all that evil stands for is truly an empty show.  It is empty of fulfillment, so often devoid of truth, and vacuous in its promises of true and lasting happiness and joy.  Yet, we so often fall prey to these empty shows, don’t we?  Being constantly alert to this ‘empty show’ is our only key to keep ourselves on that path to true holiness and wholeness, where as it were, we have an internal ‘radar’ which spots and identifies these false ways of living.  The more we are tuned in to God in our lives, the easier it is for us to be sensitive to the ways this emptiness makes inroads into our hearts and lives.  The giving in to these empty shows inevitably end up making us even emptier than before.  We only need to think of any sin that we have committed in the past, and will see the truth in this.  Before the act, it did appear to be a good thing; something very attractive and often strangely alluring.  Committing the act always seemed to give a hope of some element of joy that would make us happy, but after falling prey to its gossamer promises, the result is always flat, and the apparent joy promised always leaves us disenchanted and somewhat disabused.  Sin always is an empty show indeed.

What is the promise of Easter for us but the fullness of the truth that God and goodness trumps all the emptiness and hollow exhilarations that sin and evil purport to give.

It becomes truly significant then that Easter gives us something that is also an empty show – but only in this case, it is the showing of an empty tomb!  In the Easter event, it is God’s empty showing of the tomb – a tomb that could not keep the Son of God contained in death and darkness.  God’s empty showing of the tomb upstages and stands head and shoulders above the barren and vacant thrills and evanescent delights that sin accords.  God’s empty tomb is in fact his magnum opus, writ large, of his most powerful weapons in humanity – love and forgiveness. 

Satan’s empty show leads one to death.  God’s empty show brings us all into life.  This then, is the great promise of Easter which makes us unflappable even in the face of death. 

A happy and holy Easter to all!  Alleluia!