Monday, July 27, 2015

The great Christian challenge to love even our enemies

There is a wide range of teachings and life dictums that each disciple of Christ is called to embrace and emulate, even if one finds great difficulty in doing so.  The call to be generous, charitable, forgiving, and loving are just some that easily come to mind. 

While many of these are found to be similar teachings in other religions, there are some which are particularly Christian in character, and can pose a great challenge to even the most seasoned and long-practicing Christian disciple.  One particularly exigent dictate of Jesus is that we love our enemies.

There is within each of us, almost as if it is in-built in our human existence, a tendency and predilection for retaliation and an almost antithesis to be charitable when we face some form of disagreement, opposition or strident opinion from interlocutors.  The stronger one feels about an issue, the greater the disquiet one will feel welling up in the pit of one’s very being when there is disagreement, conflict of opinions or worse, when one is ridiculed and scoffed at.

When this happens, tensions inevitably rise within us, and our defense mechanisms take over if we are running on ‘auto’.  Scientists who study human social behaviour have noted that in each of us, there is a ‘flight or fight’ response that each of us chooses in the face of attacks and threats, be these physical or just intellectual.  Perhaps it is something that we have inherited from our pre-evolved ancient ancestors that we still have this thing called the ‘reptilian brain’ that wants to attack back, fight to gain more ground, or to be taken seriously and respected.  However we may want to explain it, when we are faced with such ‘threats’ in our lives, it becomes a great strain to live out this teaching of Jesus, where we are called to love those who are deemed our ‘enemies’.  Our natural animal instinct is to have that last word in an argument, to put down our opponents, and to be defensive.

How did St Paul manage to bless when he was ridiculed, endure in the face of persecution, and respond with gentleness when slandered?  We just have to read 1 Cor. 4:12-13 to see this. 

Maybe the key has something to do with the ability to live outside of our petty selves.  Charity makes it clear that there is a need to enter into the world of the other, and love at its most pure and unsullied calls us to love for the sake of the other.  It is when we hold this foremost in our minds that we will be able to step out of ourselves to enter into the world of our dissenters that some headway can be made toward loving our enemies.

It becomes almost unnatural to want to step into the shoes and lives of the enemy when confronted by violence and negativity.  Yet, this is the counter-intuitive directive that Jesus requests of his followers.  Natural instinct does not want us to bless these people, and neither is there an in-born tendency to treat them with gentility.  It takes superhuman power to do this, and to do this with genuine intent. 

Indeed, it is superhuman power that we are given when we rely on the power of Christ and his Holy Spirit to live this way.  Relying purely on our own goodness and kindness, we know that our storehouse of such attributes have limited supply. 

I must admit that I struggle with this as much as the next person.  When my best intentions are doubted, when the genuineness of my actions are questioned, or worse, when I am falsely accused and critiqued with unfair bias, that reptilian brain of mine seems to go on auto-mode.  But one thing I have noticed is that when I am aware of being in a state of grace that I am able to attune myself to the person of Christ and turn myself over to him in love and rely on his mercies.  This becomes a far greater difficult thing to do when the state of grace is lost. 

This reptilian brain does not die just because one is living in Christ.  Would that it does.  But what can begin to happen is that we start to live with enlarged hearts that allow us to enter into the hearts of others, even those of our enemies.  It is when our hearts beat in tandem with theirs, no longer in frenetic syncopation but with calm and synchronicity, that we can begin to truly love our enemies because in them we will begin to see our own selves. 

Could this be what enabled Jesus to forgive not just his executioners on Calvary’s cross, but all sinners through all time?  His compassionate heart was so enlarged, so expanded that he saw goodness in all of broken humanity.    

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why pursuing the perfect is a stilted notion

I’m currently re-reading a book entitled ‘The Spirituality of Imperfection’, a work which was co-authored by two lay people, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham.  It was one of those books I had stashed away in my collection of books, some which were given by well-meaning friends who either knew of my predilection for books with a particular spiritual bent, or who were sympathetic toward my perfectionistic flaws in life.

This one was given to me by a long-time priest friend of mine even before I entered the seminary.  I remember asking out loud why he thought I needed to read this book, but was only given a knowing smile as a reply.  I guess it took me almost 20 years of life’s experiences and challenges to not only see that my perfectionist streak in me was already somewhat visible back then, but also to see that the very notion of perfection is an imperfection itself – a paradox indeed.

What makes us human beings such strange rational animals to have such notions as perfection in life?  In the animal kingdom, the pursuit of perfection is hardly evidenced.  There seems to be an almost imperceptible acceptance of the way things are to these ‘lesser’ beings around us who walk on two legs and have rational minds.  The very beauty of nature seems to almost have to include imperfections so that beauty is seen in its splendid array.  Imagine how dull and uninteresting any landscape would be if every blade of grass, and every tree was symmetrical and straight.  Yet, it is precisely from such a varied array in nature’s existence that we see its beauty emerge.

Apparently, the way that the rational mind views life and how ideas or notions of perfection affects it has something to do with whether we have a Greek or a Hebrew mind.  The Greek mind has very clear definitions of what it means to be perfect.  It includes but isn’t limited to ideas of having no deficiencies and is devoid of flaws and faults.  One has in one’s mind the notion of an ideal to be reached, however unattainable, and it is applicable to all that is true and beautiful as well.  If one extends this to the moral world, then it would have to include a notion of being sinless or as free from sin as possible. 

But the Hebrew mind, apparently, has a very different understanding of perfection.  It has something to do with being able to walk with God, despite our having flaws.  It includes the notion of being present to Presence, and to accept to a certain extent, the reality that there is beauty, goodness and truth in things that are not quite perfect. 

This story, which follows, brings to light the apparent contradiction of the two minds:

The chief executive of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive.  But he suffered from one embarrassing weakness:  each time he entered the president’s office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants!

The kindly president advised him to see a urologist, at the company’s expense.  But when he appeared before the president the following week, his pants were wet yet again!  “Didn’t you see the urologist as advised?” enquired the president.

“No, he was out.  I saw the psychiatrist instead, and I’m cured,”  said the executive.  “I no longer feel embarrassed about it!”

Clearly, the Hebrew mind was given scope and breadth to live in harmony with something as flawed as such a bad case of incontinence. 

At the priests’ annual retreat, which we came out of last week, one of the things that we were brought to appreciate is that there are stark differences between the presence of problems and the presence of mystery in life.  The Greek mind deals with problems with an almost German-like precision.  Problems require solutions, and issues need fixing.  The Greek mind does this, and does this with aplomb and sangfroid.  But the spiritual quest that the rational animal (read us human beings) is invited to cannot be seen as a problem that needs fixing.  We are not broken people that are in search of mending, and neither are we imperfect creatures seeking some sort of restoration and rectification.  In fact, it is the very fact that we ARE alive that decries our flawed existence and imperfections.  As human beings, we do not “have” limits; we ARE limited and this shows that we are alive.  It is when this reality of our shared limitation is denied and viewed with some repulse that we suffer in our spirituality.

There’s another difference between the minds and their dealings with what lies before them.  If the presence of problems require solutions that fix them, the presence of mystery cannot be answered with the same mind.  Gabriel Marcel, the noted French philosopher said that if problems require solutions, mystery requires not a solution, but rather invites a response.  To think that mystery requires a solution is a problem in itself.

Imperfections, like illness, like psychoses when treated only as problems can only give us relief to a certain extent.  But it is when its presence in life is seen as mystery and invites not so much a solution but an entering into a response with our lives and the whole of our being that gives us the ability to live with these imperfections and flaws on another level.  Solutions tend to make the issue go away, but responding to mystery with our entire lives allows us to live WITH them in harmony despite their imperfections.

When Jesus asks us to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, it is not perfection in the Greek sense.  It is the perfection of having that breadth of love of the Father who gives his love equally and without bias whatsoever so that his rain ‘falls on the just and unjust alike’.  It is the ability to walk with God, in the cool of the evening as at the beginnings of creation, without needing to hide from him at all, bearing, perhaps even with a tinge of honest pride, our flaws and imperfections. 

That would make things perfectly imperfect.  An oxymoron?  Go figure.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Where our spiritual pursuits are unlike the pursuits of endurance athletes.

When Ed Ceasar, an author of a recently released book entitled Two Hours contemplated the reasons why endurance athletes like marathon runners train so hard for something that is obviously torturous and perhaps even mundane and to a certain extent masochistic, he offered a few tenable and cogent reasons for such pursuits.  He proffers that this kind of training forces one to fight distractions, that one is in a sedentary position for too many in a day, that there are a plethora of entertainments available, that in some countries even the shopping comes delivered to the door, there are too many mechanized means of transportation which make us use our legs too infrequently, and that our churches are empty.

I found it rather amusing to think that if one were to play the familiar game of ‘one of these things are not like the other’ made famous by the creators of Sesame Street, that last reason would be most likely to stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. 

But Caesar goes on to explain why he makes the connection with church attendance.  When one compares team sports with endurance sports, the differences are quite clear, and it can be evidenced in the language that is used.  In team sports, one speaks of winners and losers, of strategies, and even of campaigns.  In team sports, results are paramount.  However, Ceasar suggests that the drive and purpose of endurance sports have an unseen quieter and more spiritual register.  For instance, mountaineers speak of  “peaking” which is a blissful sensation that accompanies that arduous trek up to a summit.  He also speaks of how marathoners run in achievement of what he calls a ‘state of grace’.  Apparently, sports psychologists use this word to describe the state in which the runner performs with an unconscious ease.

Having been an avid long distance runner in my healthier days (read pre-cancer), I can fully understand what these psychologists are referring to.  Some have called it a runner’s ‘high’.  When Caesar spoke to Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan marathon king who clocked an amazing 2.03.02 in the 2011 Boston Marathon about his training regime, Mutai said that “the more you get the spirit, the more it gains on you”. 

The interesting thing about such endurance training or sports is that it answers the human being’s need to test ourselves and to see where our limits are.  Endurance athletes, Caesar says, are people who seek to address our identity through a narrative, which is acted out in feats of fortitude and courage.  Perhaps it is because most people have hardly been given the vocabulary that facilitates an insightful discussion of the state of our souls, that it becomes far easier to do this through the experience of this ‘state of grace’ and attaining it with the efforts that one puts in. 

As I read his article, which I chanced upon in a recent copy of the Financial Times, I couldn’t help but make the spiritual connection here.

Is the spiritual life and the quest for it something that is difficult and challenging?  Of course.  Does one have to be constant and consistent in its practice?  Most definitely.  Is it an arduous and grueling exercise at times?  As sure as the Pope is Catholic.  But spiritual masters have always cautioned that in one’s spiritual odyssey, one has to also undergo a shaping and an evolvement as far as one’s motivations are concerned.  The initial ‘grace’ that these endurance athletes seem to be constantly in search is apparently, the prime motivation for their continued pursuits.  Many are constantly going for the ‘runner’s high’.   But this is where the two pursuits differ.

Spiritual maturity and development may or may not begin with any taste of such a ‘high’, however it may be described.   If one simply goes from one spiritual retreat to another, or moves from one spiritual exercise to another in order to attain an experience that one was graced to have at some time in the past, one can well be far too concerned to get the experience of God instead of encountering the God of the experience. 

Endurance athletes are not in the training to relate to the one who gives them this ‘grace’ even though they may loosely use this spiritual term.  But I am wondering if one can ever be truly be indifferent to how this experience even originates or exists. 

The spiritual endurance athlete doggedly pursues his practices with dedication and constancy, not so much in order to gain any highs, but must have as his prime motivation the sustaining of a connection to God who he sees as the foundation of his very existence.  For the one who does this in the Christian tradition, that foundation is the endless and energizing love that flows out eternally from the persons of the Trinity. 

The clearer one is of this in one’s life, the more one will see that all other pursuits are but commentary.

Monday, July 6, 2015

When gratitude defines your very being, even plain vanilla is amazing.

I have written and reflected on numerous occasions here in this blog and in some of my talks which I have made, that gratitude in its many forms is a hallmark of the spiritual life.  If we find ourselves griping, finding fault, getting anxious over the small issues of life, and getting piqued most of our time, it may well show that we have hardly made any significant inroads to spiritual maturity and real character formation.  One can hardly make any references to the nurturing of one’s spiritual life without emphasizing just how important the spirit of gratitude should form the foundation of one’s quest for wholeness. 

To be a saint is to be a thankful person, and to live a life with a heart that is constantly warmed and seized by gratitude.  The very image of a thankless heart that is shored up by ingratitude and a refusal to appreciate and to show any signs of acknowledgement conjures up a heart that is cold and hard, much like a stone.  The phrase ‘hard-hearted’ readily comes to mind.  However, notice how one automatically warms up to another human being who exudes gratitude and grace.  But one can imperceptibly detect a solidified and unyielding presence in one who cannot enjoy any gift that one is given. 

This makes it almost an imperative for a follower of Christ to begin nurturing the spirit of gratitude from a very early age.  But if encouraging thankfulness is only done at ‘special’ occasions, like on Christmas, or birthday celebrations, or at the milestone success points in life, it can give one the impression that at other ‘non important’ or ‘plain vanilla’ events of life, where the horizon is an undisturbed open sea before one’s vista, that there is hardly any need to express our gratitude for things that one has been generously given, but perhaps not readily seen and truly appreciated.

Perhaps the real challenge that faces so many of us is that we have not really nurtured in ourselves that habit of being thankful for the small, ordinary and everyday things and have sadly taken so many of them for granted.  And when the small and seemingly inconsequential things are taken for granted, it can, ipso facto, make it just as easy to take the ‘big ticket’ things for granted when they are made manifest in our lives. 

I am quite certain that Jesus taught this incipiently at the multiplication of the loaves and fish on that Mount of Beatitudes.  In the sea of a multitude of people, the only provender that Jesus and his disciples had was five loaves and two tiny fish.  Even if they were sturgeons, it would be a task and a half to feed 5000 people.  But here is where Jesus indirectly teaches the importance and potency of gratitude – he raises his eyes to heaven and gives thanks.  How can one sincerely give thanks for such a tiny portion before such a massive gathering?  It seems to be beyond logic, and perhaps it is.  We often miss the point that if we are only living in the ‘this-ness’ of the world, amazing things will not be allowed to happen.  One can speculate all one wants about how the multiplication took place.  Some pundits have said that there was actually enough food in the crowd, but they were too afraid to share for reasons only they would know, but when the spirit of thankfulness caught on, their food parcels and satchels that they were carrying opened while their hearts did the same.  Even if this were actually what happened, a miracle did take place, because the act of thanksgiving made turned the inward serving crowd into an outward sharing people.

At the heart of the issue is perhaps another human tendency, albeit a rather flawed one.  We have an inner need to earn and merit what we have in life.  Our ego gets puffed up a little when we know that it was through our hard work and talents and efforts that enable us to enjoy what we have before us in life.  The extreme display of this is an arrogance and a cockiness of self in thinking that one can merit heaven at the end of one’s life.  Perhaps we may even see shades of this in ourselves when we tick off our spiritual checklist items like prayer, devotions, fastings, works of mercy and Mass attendances.  Scripture tells us that even the just man sins seven times a day, making the Confiteor that we say at the beginning of each Eucharistic Celebration such deep and important significance.  The more one is touched by the mercy of God, the more one can grow in one’s attitude of gratitude. 

If one only encounters the rich mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a year, one hardly nurtures that spirit of gratitude for the things in life that are ordinary and easily by-passed in life.  Yes, even for the things that are ‘plain vanilla’.