Monday, June 29, 2015

The real struggle that the faithful encounter when society makes a choice that is morally unsettling.

By now, it is no longer news that last week, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex “marriages” are to be legalized in all 50 states of the United States of America.  This decision was greeted with, as expected, a huge celebration with the many who had been wanting their right to marry the one they loved even though that person was of the same gender as themselves.  All across the media, this has been hailed as a victory for love, and it was clearly seen that in the name of love, all hitherto barriers, natural or otherwise, are lifted and limits no longer apply. 

Being a world leader on many levels, what happens in America usually will reach the shores of other countries in the world, and this ‘wave’ is most probably going to hit Singapore’s tiny shorelines in a matter of time.

In my discussion on this topic with friends and parishioners, and a quick gleaming on the postings on the social media, what comes across is a clear struggle that many are trying to express in the light of what is being unveiled.

What struggle?  Predominantly, it is the internal moral struggle that one senses in people who are conscious about the need to be images of Christ in a world that seems to be filling rather quickly with people who have life-choices and lifestyles that have the tendency to disturb them at their very core.  They do not have to be the people who have been through deep and complex moral theology courses in seminaries and universities, or even be people who have engaged with others in discussions on such matters.  Quite frankly, they could well be the ‘salt of the earth’ people who have a certain sense about them which makes them feel at their marrow that something is amiss, and that there are rumblings at the magma level of humanity’s very being.  They do not want to come across as people on any moral high horse either.  Not because they want to continue to be popular with their same-sex pro-marriage friends or relations, but rather because of the need to live out the Christian call to love and to practice charity on all levels.  Neither does it help that the phrase ‘thou shalt not judge’ is being brandished about without much reference to any context from where it is taken, making the word ‘judge’ such a divisive word that can easily result in an effluvia of vituperation and vitriolic.

Is love at the heart of this entire debacle?  Without a doubt, it is.  More evidently, it is what constitutes love and how love is defined that is at the core of the confounding snafu.  Much as Christians can repeat, almost ad nauseam, that love in the purest sense and of the highest order is willing the good of the other as other, the philosophies of the current world have shouted a much louder definition of love, and unfortunately, one which is much broader than it is deep.    It makes the case, and rather successfully at that, for the love of self and the promotion of the ego.  When all pleasure senses and happiness ratings are going to be judged not by a higher standard, not by an unshakeable bastion, but by the fancies and preferences that satisfy the self, the end result will inevitably be what now lies before us.  When one makes oneself the standard and the measure of not only happiness, but also success in life, subjectivity rules the day.  It certainly doesn’t help that in almost all colleges in America at this time of the year, the Commencement speakers invited to give the graduating speech often centre their presentations on how imperative it is that each of the graduates from now on defines himself or herself, and should not allow societal norms to affect or influence one’s pathway to fulfillment of the self, and that they can do anything that they set their hearts on.  It is as if the degree earned gives them a carte blanche in life.

In the light of this, it is a no-brainer that the language that those who are steadfast to the teachings of chastity, the call to self-denial and the invitation to live out long-suffering will seem to be ludicrous and dissonant, to put it gently. 

It doesn’t help either that so many heterosexual marriages are hardly living images of people who are strong ambassadors of cross bearing in life.  It makes the case for being pro-family as an answer to pro-gay marriage a rather weak one.  Much as we strive to prepare couples in the faith to become living signs of Christ’s unconditional love for us, this noble ideal is often forgotten and left behind in the honeymoon suite. 

Sometimes, with just the slightest test and trial in their marriages, couples find the easiest way out and bail out of that commitment to “love till death do us part”.  Much as the Church preaches and teaches the values of chastity, long-suffering, charity and forgiveness, the unwillingness of these couples in sanctioned marriages to stay steadfast in the light of such daily challenges to love becomes a negative witness to what the Church wants to make of these couples – signs of Christ’s presence in the world, or to use Church language, sacraments of God to the world.

Clearly, those who are determined to stay steadfast to Magisterium teachings are going to experience being either sidelined or scorned.  They will not have it easy when conversing with their peers or relations who believe that their cause has scored a huge win. 

Do I have any semblance of a solution to this state of affairs?  To be sure, there is neither panacea nor any magic bullet that will change things in the short run.  If it took one or two generations for things to come to a head in the way they have, we can expect that for any dents to be made in the opposite direction, it will take just as long, if not longer. 

As I was proclaiming the gospel text for Mass on Sunday, which was from Mark 5:21-43, what Jesus said seems to be especially applicable to us all.  “Do not be afraid; just have faith” was his encouragement to Jairus. 

Staying steadfast amidst the lashings of an incoming storm will naturally bring some fearful feelings.  The Cross of Christ has stood so firm from that fearful day on Calvary when Christ died for not just his version of truth and love, but THE definition of truth and the most purified display of love.  There probably are scores of same-sex oriented people who do want to stay chaste and faithful to Church teachings, but are also fearful that staying on this course of moral courage will bring its fair share of loneliness, bullying, abuse and other forms of suffering.  It’s also probably a hidden truth that many who give in to the temptation of acting out their orientation are doing so because of a similar fear.  Finally, fear is probably at the heart of many who have a tension of two loves in their lives – the love of their LGBT friends/relatives, and the love of God and being faithful to his teachings in the faith.  All these are the various Jairuses to whom Jesus is saying “Do not fear.  Only have faith”. 

Faith is what keeps one afloat in the sea of contempt that one faces when one seems to be swept about by herd mentality. Faith is what kept Mary at the Cross of her son without demanding that answers be given clearly and distinctly.  Faith is what holds troubled marriages together because they see a higher purpose of their faithfulness that is founded not just in each other, but also in God who holds them together. 

This must be one of my most challenging reflections to write since I began the blog almost 293 blog entries ago.  It does not give any clear-cut answers to the issue at hand, and is not meant to be a “dummies” answer at all.  It merely gives fodder for thought, and it is meant to make the reader reflect and ruminate.  Otherwise, the blog should be renamed as “answers and solutions”. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

14th year of my priesthood

Readers of this weekly blog who are fairly regular will know that on Saturday, 20 June, I celebrated the 14th anniversary of my sacerdotal ordination.  Each year at this time, I make it a point to take stock of where God had led me as a priest, and more importantly, to be mindful of the ways in which his promptings had been ignored or justifiably looked past by myself.

Ever since my illness and subsequent transplant and slow recovery back to health, I have been confronted with the whole notion of how setbacks and apparent failures in life actually become the platform from which we gain a whole new moral vocabulary.  It even seems strangely coincidental that vestiges of this fact have confluenced at a time like the anniversary of my priesthood, and it has served to strengthen my conviction that there is no setback in life that we cannot use to learn and grow from. 

I chanced upon a new book by David Brooks, one of the more popular op-eds of the New York Times at a local bookstore.  David names this work of his “The Road To Character” and makes something, which is rather counter-intuitive, the main focus of the book.  He points out quite rightly that in life, one is not formed by successes, glories, hopes of self-aggrandizement and the upward climb of the ladder to fame and fortune that builds character, but rather the opposite, where the honest recognition and acceptance of one’s shortcomings, one’s failures and one’s inabilities, perhaps even those of a moral nature, brings one to make that climb down the ladder of descent, which builds character.  It is the character traits like integrity, patience, charity and longsuffering that this descent into one’s abyss enables and ennobles in a person.  Those moments which one finds it almost impossible to control and fix become the lynchpin moments where surrender and the giving up of control are the unexpected doorways toward true growth and maturity.

The person who is always hungering for that spiritual connection in me had always known this to be so, making this premis not new.  But it was a true delight to see it handled with such secular poise by a writer who is almost hesitant to speak directly about it from a spiritual viewpoint.  I believe Brooks is of Jewish and Episcopalian heritage.  I am still working my way through this read, and have found myself putting down the book at poignant moments, reflecting how as a priest I have (or have not) lived out similar promptings from God.

As I re-entered into active ministry only about four months ago after an almost four year absence due to studies and convalescence, experience incapacities and surrender on quite many levels, I found myself reflecting often on how God has spoken this same message to me, often in volumes that are far from hushed and whispered tones. 

The priesthood as a ministry means that one is called to service, but I have also come to see that there is active service, and there is passive service.  While the former sees the priest physically going out doing his duties and tending to his flock with his high energy levels, the latter is another dimension of service, which is often underrated and often unwelcomed.  This happens when a priest is either disabled or unable to do active ministry, but because of circumstances that he is put in, is made to be a minister in a passive way.  But I have also come to see that this does not in any way mean that he is less of a minister. 

Jesus himself had these two dimensions experienced in his life, but it is often only the active parts of his life that many think showed the kingdom of God active and alive.  Ronald Rolheiser has rightly noted in his writings that it is also the passive part of Christ’s life, largely seen on what happened to him at Calvary that also displayed in a mystical way, the kingdom of God’s in-breaking into the world.  On Calvary, Jesus was not saving the world through powerful action, but through his passivity, which was just as, if not more powerful than all that went on before the Calvary moment.  Some have said, perhaps too simplistically, that one of Judas’ gripes and dissatisfaction with Jesus was that he was not active enough in ushering the Kingdom of God.  People who have watched the popular stage musical Jesus Christ Superstar by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber will see this frustration clearly on display in the opening scene and number “Heaven on their minds”.  To this version of Judas, Jesus’ activity was just not enough. 

But there is a power in passivity which is something hardly appreciated when it is truly God’s doing.  This is not a passiveness which is an inaction stemming from a personal laziness or unwillingness to be sedulous in our work.  It is more the willingness to allow our lives to be conduits of grace, brought on often by the unmitigated dire circumstances one finds oneself in, through no fault of theirs.  Holy passivity, if there is such a thing, is welcoming this with an intuition that there is power in weakness and strength when one is brought down to one’s knees.  Jesus’ power of the Cross was this on grand display, and it was what saved the world.

What made this even more poignant was the fact that this was brought home with an even stronger emphasis in the liturgy of that very day of my anniversary Mass.  I didn’t choose the text as I used what was provided by in the Ordo of the Roman Missal.  The first reading at Mass was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians 12:1-10, where Paul writes with unabashed humility how it was revealed to him that “power is at its best in weakness”, and that God’s grace was sufficient for him despite him having a personal weakness. 

Being a priest of God ordained for 14 years now is not really a big deal, as far as numbers are concerned.  To be sure, there are silver, golden and diamond jubilarians who have been graced to see their priesthoods having such a long shelf life.  I am sincerely happy for them, and wish them all the best and more years of God’s abiding presence in their lives and ministry. 

My celebration today was not for what I could do for God, but rather, that God wanted to even consider using me in my inactivity through illness and the slow and long recovery process to be passively useful for his people and his kingdom.  He has given me a joy that has brought me close to the Cross and allowed me to stay there in its healing shadows.  To be able to do this with a sense of clarity in my 14 years is something I couldn’t have asked for, but was clearly a gift beyond my wildest dreams.  Being broken through illness has had the effect of having a heart that has been enlarged by the love of God in ways beyond reckoning. 

The sweet cherry that goes on top of this anniversary “cake” had to be something that came out of a song of one of my favourite recording artistes, Josh Groban.  As a celebratory act, I purchased his latest CD, which featured songs from hit stage musicals, and one of them is “Try to remember”.  It was a song from a 1960s musical called “The Fantasticks”.  It has beautiful lyrics, and the lyricist’s deft ability to conjure up a mental image of the fall colours heralding the approaching chill of winter is emotive, to say the least.  But one line always seems to have a haunting power over me – it is when Josh’s lush voice brushes over the phrase “Deep in December, it’s nice to remember, without a hurt the heart is hollow”. 

Not that hurts in themselves are good, but bruises and wounds, like brokenness, weakness, inabilities, handicaps, failures and hardships can be powerful moments which have the ability to open a hardened heart which gives an entry point of God’s grace in ways that could never have been planned.  These become things that fill the hollowed heart to become one that is fillable – with love, with charity, and with deep and abiding gratitude.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Bringing to life that part of us that is divine

Correct Christian doctrine has always held the firm belief that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures – human and divine.  His human nature grew and matured in the way any human being would, where, as scripture tells us, he grew and matured in strength.  He was not born as a super baby where he instantly took on the form of God in all aspects.  He was so human in his appearance and form that it was just not possible that anyone who looked at this infant, without the working of any infusion of knowledge from God, would say without a doubt that this child was divine. 

All of us have just one nature, which is human, but we are also called to divinity as well, meaning that we have a divine potential that can and should be nurtured and developed.  Saying this has a double-edged effect because there is great caution by many preachers and even theologians to downplay this great promise in us.  Those who are very conservative may hold the view that it can erroneously be the cause of an over inflated sense of self if each one of us walks around with a god-like ego.  One only needs to look at the ways which society is paying the awfully high price of an exaggerated sense of the false self where each person seems to be overly interested in making himself or herself the centre of the universe. 

But when this is taken in the right Christian sense where one rightly places God at the heart of life, one will grow this potential in a balanced way.  One then grows right from the centre, and not off-centered or eccentric, which is what “off centered” means in Latin. 

What does it mean to be in touch with the divine potentiality in oneself?  It has something to do with seeing the Kingdom of God in our very lives, and being instrumental in ushering this in by our lives.  Jesus gives us a very concrete listing of what can open the eyes of others to this kingdom when certain things begin to happen through us – lepers are cured, the dead are raised, the sick are cured and the devils are cast out.  At the heart of all of this is the thread of a great overturning.  What seems to be almost hopeless ends are now, in the kingdom of God, given an endless hope.  In biblical times, those situations that Jesus lists give the ones caught in these mired moments very little reason for living.  All of those who are in those are pushed further and further away from the heart of society to the edges and from the hearts of men and women.

When we are aware of our call to inner and outer godliness, those who for whatever reasons find themselves at the outer margins of society receive that necessary out-stretched hand of love and compassion to be brought back into the ambit of love and life.  Vestiges of this is seen when forgiveness is given in exchange for hurts caused, when charity is extended as a response to selfishness and self-absorption, and when love is shown despite a refusal to love in return. 

It doesn’t mean that living this way is easy by any means.  It will no doubt be painful in small and large ways.  It does mean, however, that one needs to swim against the currents of the world, where virtues like charity, compassion and forgiveness are at worst hardly extended, and at best, earned and deserved. 

But daring to live this way does something extraordinary.  It makes one godly, simply because this is what Jesus did as well.  In his encounters with his adversaries, in the face of hatred and injustice, he responded with a directly opposing power, founded on the love of God himself, where forgiveness overpowers transgressions, compassion trounces hatred, and love prevails over fear. 

And when the pain of living this way is felt, and we still persevere despite the aching soreness in our hearts, a pathway toward holiness and godliness presents itself before us.  If we welcome this pain (not in a masochistic way, but with love and godly hope), we will then also feel the pain of the world in sin.  This is what God did in the face of sin.  He felt the pain of the world, and didn’t turn from it, but absorbed and welcomed it on the Cross.  The only way that we can hold on to the pain – the pain of love, the agony of patience, of compassion and forgiveness, is when we know that we too are being held by the very One who went through this on a universal level on Calvary.  In the face of hatred, Christ refused to hate in return.

I am a firm believer that when we dare to live this way in the face of evil, that we become not just agents of change to a godless society, but that we can powerfully grow that seed of divinity placed in us. Jesus did not make any one of us earn this amazing grace in extending his salvation to sinners.  It was and always will be pure gift. 

Our imitation of this ‘gift’ sensibility when offering to those who hurt, abuse and misuse our love is what makes us godly.  It enlarges our hearts to allow us to live life not in small ways, but with a largess that gives us a divine character. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why the Church cannot but buck the trend as far as sexual moral norms are concerned.

There is much that is changing in the world of sexual morality, standards and acceptable norms.  Perhaps those who are living in this day and age can consider themselves as unique to have seen and heard the greatest voice from the many who are insisting that their rights to do or live (or love) as they please be given wide acceptance by just about all levels of authority, whether the Church, governing bodies or leadership of other forms.  Greater and stronger pressure seems to be put on positions of jurisdiction and supremacy to accept the LGBT cause, and most recently, the majority of Irish voters (about 62 %) made it clear that they wanted a change in their constitution to make legal same sex marriage in their country.  To be sure, this is not the first country in the world to accede to this pressure, but certainly the first in a very Catholic country.  In an interview with a state broadcaster, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is known to have said that the Church needs to do a reality check, after having seen the majority of young people, especially the gay men and women endorsed same-sex marriage and felt strongly that this “enriched” the way that they live. 

So, the pressure seems to be on, and at a rather strong notch at that, for other countries to do the same, causing many to wonder if pressure itself is enough cause to make a wrong right, and to change what is (or was) known and accepted as a universal standard of human natural morality to now change. 

What is at hand, and if there is something that is missing in the proverbial “big picture”, what is it?  Why is it that the Church seems to be the last bastion of things moral where we seem to have held such standards that cause us to be seen as not just purveyors but upholders of what is right? 

Professor of Philosophy and author Peter Kreeft is adept in his pedagogy when giving clear logic and sound reasoning to the Church's teachings in his writings.  Of the fundamentals of our moral foundations, he gives rather interesting, and in my opinion, compelling reasons which appeal to the masses.  What follows in the next four paragraphs are paraphrased from his thoughts put creatively across.

What is and always holds is that rules of morality do not change either with the times or with pressure because the Church had always and will always hold that the rules are not just arbitrary rules, but based on the fact of the unchanging essence of love.

Times may be changing, and indeed they are, but they also need to be measured against unchanging standards.  If standards are changing at the same time that times are changing, then there will be much confusion and unclarity because it will not be possible to say what a true standard is.  In a game of soccer, how can there be a declaration of either a foul or a goal point if what makes a goal post a goal post keeps shifting?  In a race, how can a runner be declared to be a winner if the finish line keeps being moved further and further away as the race is being run? 

Is it just for universal laws to be changed just because of pressure from certain ‘interest’ groups?  Stealing or the taking of things that do not belong to you is and will always be wrong.  A true certified kleptomaniac cannot and will not, even if there were a large group of them, change the fact that stealing is wrong.  No amount of pressure will change this.  There is a moral standard that is universal here. 

Even in the world of measurement and math a metre measured is a metre long and this meter is the measurement of the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.  There is such technical precision to things physical and mathematical and they are accepted as having universal standards and norms.  No one, no matter how much pressure is placed by well meaning and well-intentioned groups to change what a vacuum is, or insist that the measure of a time interval should be different, can change such standards. 

As in almost everything, these examples which Kreeft used are moot, but they are relevant to the topic at hand.  They go to show that things get awry and fudged when rules are not set to universally accepted standards?  Because it has direct bearing on what I set out to state in a rather bold but misunderstood way – that our Church’s morality is and has always been set by the unchanging essence of love.  Who’s love?  God’s.

When we say that the rules of morality are universal, we are saying boldly that the rules are for everyone.  Yes, even for positions of leadership in the Church.  That is why there is a zero-tolerance for any sexual misconduct among clergy, and those guilty have been brought to justice for their crimes.  There are, and never should ever be two standards.  There is thus not just Christian morality.  It is human morality for the human nature.  Connected to this is our understanding of natural law morality. 

And herein lies that great irony that appears to be at the heart of the issue.  The most common grouse and complaint about the Church is that it is not being fair to those with the LGBT agenda.  They are seeking equality on many levels, and want their ‘right’ to be treated like everybody else, citing for instance, the right to marriage, or the right to have the freedom to perform sexual acts with their own gender and not be criminalized for doing so, just to name a few big-ticket issues. 

But what many fail to realise is that the Church has always been fair and consistent in this.  The call to live in chastity and abstinence has always been issued to all – hetero and homosexuals.  In no way has there ever been one moral standard for those who are heterosexuals and another for homosexuals.  The Church has always seen sexual acts outside of marriage to be a moral transgression, and these include but are not solely limited to acts that are with the self or other human beings.  Similarly and subsequently, the call to self-mastery has been the long-standing solution to be able to live this way, and it is a call to live in the shadow and light of the Cross. 

Christians have always agreed that Jesus Christ is the most complete man, most human of men (because he is also the most divine of men) that he becomes and is the greatest revelation of God himself.

It is when there is disagreement and refusal of acceptance that Jesus Christ is the revealer of who God is that standards of God’s love in Christ is rejected as the standard to be kept to.  It is even sadder when it is within the Catholic Church that baptized members themselves begin to reject the very basic tenets of this faith statement and put undue pressure on the magisterium to change their standards of godliness.  

But this is where the difficult and yet so-challenging issue of dialoguing is so necessary for the Church.  Coming out with our crosses brandished with an almost insistent fury at the masses who are baying for their ‘rights’ to be ‘who they are’ will not bring a peaceful and loving discussion to any dialogue table.  It is actually because of our godly standards that we in fact have to become a Church that continues to love the sinner and stand by what we hold to the truth with regard to sin.  Perhaps it is at the heart of the matter that we find new and attractive ways to speak about sacrifice, and true heroism (where one takes the more challenging route of moral martyrdom than the easier path of hedonism) and the difficult path of self-denial rather than instant gratification.  Maybe we need to hail as true spiritual heroes examples of men and women who had lived with same-sex attraction issues with a moral courage to stay chaste and strive for holiness despite their inherent temptations, and men and women who saw these tendencies not as curses, but blessings where it became so clear to them that their paths towards eternal union with God was precisely in the way that they handled this gift with chastity and great reverence.  These would be concrete ways of living the Cross of Christ.

It is interesting to see what the world deems as heroic these days.  So many give this title so loosely and evidence is writ large with the countless who are calling Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner a hero for what he has done surgically and being so upfront about it.  No more hiding, no more excuses.  Apparently, Bruce has found his ‘happiness’.  It’s all put out for all to see in an almost voyeuristic way.  It should be no surprise to see that cross-dressing is much more attractive to the world than is Cross-carrying.  

But the Church too has heroes – lots of them.  They are called saints, especially those who have really done the difficult things in life, like standing for truth, for upholding the very difficult Christian standards in their moral lives, and for not giving in to what many would call their ‘rights’ in life.  These heroes have not only found their happiness, but something that perdures in a deeper and more profound way.  They have found joy.  Happiness is fleeting, but joy is abiding because joy is and has always been founded in God’s own life. 

We need new eyes to see the kind of difference between worldly heroism in hedonism versus the heroism and courage displayed in the lives of saints that brought lasting joy.  Perhaps it is only when we do this effectively and with great charity that we as Church can begin to face the challenge of effective evangelism and charitable and loving dialogue.  Otherwise, dialogue leading to understanding and sacrifice will always be in a provocative confrontation.