Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent's question - what are we all ultimately waiting for in life?

The start of every liturgical year brings us into the season of Advent.  These fleeting four weeks often pass us in double-quick time amidst the many other preparations for Christmas.  Many of us hardly have the time to truly enter into this spiritual space that the church provides for us to ready ourselves to wonder at the incarnation of God.  The way the world of mammon promotes Christmas with such fervour causes our spiritual preparation for Christmas to take a back seat.  The way things seem to be going, Advent would be lucky to be given a seat at all!

But in truth, Advent centres around a very important element in all of our lives, whether we are religious or not.  This is because Advent’s heart is that of a yearning, a longing and a deep hunger that seeks to be sated.

Every single one of us can identify some part in our hearts which sees us incomplete, unfulfilled, and unfinished, causing us to constantly crane our necks to look for, pine for and yearn for that one thing that we consider to be our ultimate fulfillment and which once attained, will give us what we believe to be lasting and true joy. 

The scenarios vary, but the underlying truth is that there is an undeniable consistency that threads through all of them - persons illness looking for a healing or a cure for their condition so that they can get back to life as they knew it before; students who yearn for the day when they finally get their hands on that coveted diploma; refugees who experiencing homelessness, leaving them with no real safe haven that accords them citizenship with its rights; broken hearts languishing in their depression anticipating the day when they can dare to love again; vice presidents of some multinational corporation just anxious for the day when they can sit in the place of their boss as the head of the company; single, unmarried persons pining for the appearance of a special human being who will be the perfect life partner in marriage.  These are just examples to show that there is a longing that exists in all human hearts.  We seem to exist in a world where there is a continual waiting, with an insatiable hunger that often leaves us hungrier and more needy than when we began to address it. 

Doesn’t this prompt anyone to ask whether at all there exists a fundamental longing or an intrinsic desire that is at the root of this, or from where these strivings originate?  Faith gives us an affirmative answer to this, and in the fifth century, St Augustine named it with a graced brilliance. 

In his autobiography simply called Confessions, St Augustine bore his soul with great depth and honesty when he said “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.” 

Some would say that Augustine is probably history’s most notable ‘playboy-to-priest’, and his no-holds barred narration of his life shows that even great saints have had their share of chasing after false joys and temporary thrills.  But it was only by the grace of God that he was led via his empty chases to the only and ultimate chase of all that he found peace, contentment and tranquility.  It was revealed that what he was chasing without, was actually seeking him within.  Before this discovery, the U2 hit “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” could have been his anthem.

In a nutshell, Augustine gave an answer to man’s constant quest for what he thinks ultimately satisfies and sets him at rest.  All the yearnings and hopes that man can ever have are subordinate to the yearning that exists not just in the heart, but also in the very purpose that all hearts are created for – a union with our Creator.  

Religion, when done well, brings us to that point where we are able to identify this.  Religion then becomes the gateway for us to make that all-important connection with the origin of our hearts’ greatest desire.  But when done badly, and when misused, religion can often end up doing the exact opposite of what it was meant to do, and can become in and of itself an end rather than a means toward one.   Bad religion controls, but good religion truly frees.  This is not to say that good religion is something that should be free of any boundaries either.  In fact, good religion can and should show the love that undergirds all boundaries that are necessary for true freedom.  We will be doing God a great injustice if we lead people to worship only the religion of God instead of helping them to meet the God of religion.

Advent’s purpose, though manifold, is to get everyone to dare to ask what in the world they are waiting for and hoping for in life.  The end of Advent, which is Christmas, is the answer to this perennial question.

We all have our different longings, hopes and yearnings in life.  Advent serves to remind us not just of our common yearnings as human beings, but also reveals that our ultimate yearning can only be fulfilled by the one who has created us in love, and came to show us how to truly love. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Solitude is healthy loneliness

There is a plethora of songs and poems written about the pains and struggles of loneliness.  Just the mere abundance of this is evidence of the human resistance and opposition to being alone.  It seems to weigh down the heart, cut one off from community and society, revealing that deep inside each one of us lies a longing and a yearning for communion at some level. 

How we react to this and cope with this in our lives may reveal quite a few things about us.  The easy way out of this is to go ‘hunting’ for company, and the prevalence of singles’ bars in cities all over the world are a testimony that this seems to be a go-to place to address this need.  The ‘one-night-stand’ culture that is quite often the result of these casual encounters purport to satisfy this insatiable need for deep and meaningful company and companionship, but as many, if not most will tell you, they leave one feeling more empty, more void of depth and more lonely than the night before.  Rather than feeling more energized, as meaningful relationship should, these often leave the individual simply enervated and dissipated.  But the fact that these people return over and over again to this defeating spiral shows that there is something terribly addictive in addressing loneliness in an easy way, when there is little or no responsibility involved, and more importantly, when the default choice seems to have no true personal investment of the self.

On the contrary, what lasts, what has depth and what leads to true growth and maturity is far more difficult and requires a deeper investment of the self.

If loneliness is an emotion that we share in our broken humanity, what is the best response to it that we can have?  Knowing that so much problems and heartaches result from turning to using people or substances to stave off this fear of having to face being alone, where then can we find a true way of coping that is sustainable and still gives us room for growth and maturity?  For many, marriage is one way to do this, but when one enters into marriage largely for the purpose of staving off loneliness, the partners in the marriage will very easily find themselves either using each other or abusing each other.  The sad truth is that there are many marriages in which there still exists very much loneliness.  What had not been addressed before marriage as far as loneliness and filling that void in the heart meaningfully was concerned, is often then simply imported into the married state, leaving one to make it possible to live a ‘married single’ life.

Fr Rolheiser once shared about how one of his friends who was a mentor to seminarians asked a young man why he wanted to become a priest, and his reply was rather jolting.  He said, “I grew up in a large family and I never had anything of my own.  I had to share everything – room, food, television, stereo, visitors, and even my parents’ affection.  As a celibate, I will have the private space and the privacy that I’ve wanted all these years.  My life will be my own!” 

Rolheiser remarked that it was a very bad reason to become a priest.  I probably would have expressed it in a less charitable way. 

When one has not dealt with the mystery of loneliness and the innate longing for healthy and meaningful bonds of human connection, even a celibate life can be one in which others can be used and abused.  I suppose this can help to explain why there are many priests who experience vocational crises in their priesthood, or who may even be parish terrors.

There is a deep difference between loneliness and solitude.  Solitude is nurtured when there is a healthy understanding of waiting which develops the virtue of patience.  This is experienced when one is not constantly craning one’s neck to look out for the next distraction in life, when one is appreciating the things and the people in one’s life at any one moment in time, and when one is not harbouring the hope of being somewhere else other than where one is in at the present moment, or to be with someone else.  When this happens, one is training oneself to wait in a healthy stance.  This is undoubtedly more difficult and requires more self discipline than turning to any act of immediate gratification which at best may keep at bay the inner hungers for a short span of time, but at worst will leave us feeling drier and hungrier than before. 

Perhaps it is for this reason that all religious and priests need to take seriously that daily one hour of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament for the rest of their lives.  Among other things, it serves to shape the loneliness that the celibate life necessarily imposes to become the solitude that brings holiness to one’s life, and more importantly, to allow this holiness to steep into the relationships and ministry work that the priest or religious is involved in.  My personal experience has been that this does help me very much in being as present as I can to the person who is standing right in front of me. 

I am also convinced that it is only when a celibate is integrated with his or her aloneness with God, that one can be truly joyful in service.  Otherwise, celibates can easily end up being as cheerful as consecrated refrigerators. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

When terror is at our door, how is Jesus the answer?

South East Asia woke up on Saturday morning to the horrific news of the orchestrated terror strikes in various parts of Paris, France.  It must be a thing that brothers share in their blood.  My brother texted me to say that what shocked him was not so much the utter atrocity of the attacks, but that he was no longer able to be shocked by carnage of this scale anymore.  Gone are the days when such news would be simply appalling and horrifying, leaving us distraught and beside ourselves.  I was thinking exactly the same thing. 

With the downing of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 as a barometer of terror, such carnage just doesn’t seem to jolt us deeply and stop us in our tracks anymore.  What does it say about our humanity and what triggers our compassion when such news of massacres, butchery and outright slaughter leave us no longer flustered?  Signs betraying the fact that we may have turned bovine in our behaviour is evidenced when video footages of human beheadings are passed around through cell phone Whatsapp messages like as if people were sharing something that has an entertainment value.  Not that I have received such video feeds, but I am not oblivious to the fact that these things exist.  Somehow, our daily diets of having been force-fed voraciously such vile reports now seem to no longer allow us to experience an unsettling of the stomach and a wrenching of our hearts.  If the aim of the terrorists is to numb us to evil’s existence and odium, perhaps it is true that they are now having a strong upper hand.

The knee-jerk reaction to such blatant violence is to return an eye for an eye.  Some may say that ISIS’s rationale for such condemnable acts could well be to retaliate against the alleged assassination of Jihadi John a few days ago.  If this is so, it is clear that what Ghandi said about “an eye for an eye making the world go blind” is not a mere pithy statement.  Violence in return for violence caused is a reaction, and not an action.  It comes from the same mind and thought processes that is in the evil itself.  I think it was Albert Einstein who once said it so astutely "we can't solve problems by using the same thinking that we used when we created them".  Though we (as human beings) didn't outrightly create evil, resorting to violence as a response to evil is akin to the same thing.  The need and insatiable drive for “revenge” that is often couched under the much more socially acceptable term of “justice” is clearly not a solution and will bring us nowhere near an end to this madness that the world is experiencing right now.  It needs a different 'mind' and a different thinking.  The drone strike that purportedly killed Jihad John was a combined effort between the U.S. and U.K.  Yet, the target of Friday’s attacks was France.  Evil is clearly no respecter of personages and nationalities.  Evil has humanity as its target.

What does the Christian have in his or her armory as a response when terror and evil of this magnitude becomes so glaring and flagrant, and is found at one’s very doorsteps?  Is the follower of Christ given any access to a special arsenal that gives him or her an edge over such cunning, guile and deviousness?  Our faith in a God who is divinely merciful does in fact give us that, and more.  But it is not an easily acceptable and readily understood “weapon” of choice, simply because it doesn’t seek to harm, but instead to disarm.  It is, unfortunately, the model path that Jesus took in his choice to face the storm of evil right in the face with love – the love of God and of his very murderers.  It doesn’t mean that the Christian option when faced with violence of this magnitude is to become doormats and let our enemies trample us to the ground.  That would be an overly simplistic interpretation of the Calvary event.  There would be scarcely any salvific value in that kind of response. 

Jesus’ teaching of loving our enemies is one of the hardest things to accept and practice, but it is really the only true response that is radical.  A radical is not just a root, but also a concerted departure from tradition.  In the case of violence that is malevolent and diabolical, Jesus has always taught that violence begets violence, and it is only love that provides a way out of the vortex that violence sucks one into.  This is the 'new mind' that conquers evil.

When a spouse who has been cheated on comes to me in confession and cries out for God’s justice, it easily becomes clear that what this wronged spouse often wants is revenge, and the more painful this is for the philandering spouse, the more ‘avenged’ the innocent partner thinks he or she will feel.  My counsel is often something that they hardly even want to entertain or consider with any level of seriousness.  This is because I only offer them Jesus and his example writ large by his life and passion on Calvary.  It is love in response to hurt caused and as an answer to murder perpetrated and brutally carried out.  It may seem simplistic and even stupid to pray for, or make sacrifices like fasting and performing acts of mercy with love for these who are our tormentors, but no one has ever said that love was logical or that it was easy.  Especially when it is love done out of a true willing of the heart despite not being loved back.

To hope to get a whole nation or nations to do this with a true conviction is more than a herculean and onerous task, especially if we are not united in our belief that the Jesus response is possibly the only way out of this iniquitous maelstrom.  If we can’t even get spouses who are hurt to do this on a marital level within a single household with the result of a new compassion, how much more formidable is it going to be on a far larger national or world-wide scale? 

Yet, I know that my single efforts at fighting this storm with love and charity is not an act that is going to be unnoticed.  My faith is based on the strong and unshakeable belief that one man’s amazing courage 2000 years ago confronted the greatest storm of the sin of humanity on a hill called Calvary and that it took away the sin of the world.  Jesus chose to face the force of evil headlong in love and mercy and this makes my single efforts at praying for, and even trying to love my enemies a weapon of choice.  Faith is what makes this weapon powerful.  While this choice may be laughable to some, faith tells me that it is laudable to God. 

This is my personal response when terror is at my doorstep.  It is also Jesus’ response.  What is yours?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Searching frenetically for our lost drachma

There is in Luke’s gospel a parable of Jesus, which is contained in only two verses, but with an impact that plumbs fathoms deep. It comes from the Luke 15:8-10 and it relates the story of how the woman who had 10 drachmas and realized that when she had lost one, made great efforts to retrieve it.  She lit a lamp (this could mean that she did this even into the dark of night) and swept the house to look for it.  When she finally found it that she was so overjoyed that she called her friends and neighbours to celebrate and rejoice with her this spectacular find. 

It is necessary for one to enter into the Hebraic mind to understand and appreciate the underlying truth that is being conveyed by Jesus’ teaching.  For the Jewish person, numbers play a pivotal role both in the social and religious life.  Some numbers convey wholeness and completeness.  The number 10 is one such number.  But when this wholeness was not experienced in the discovery that there were only 9 in her possession, it disturbed her and threw her off-centered. Somehow, this was a perturbation that left her unsettled and disarranged.  Was it the value of the coin that was lost?  Most certainly not, as a drachma was worth around the current day’s US$0.65.  How much trouble would one go to retrieve this amount when it can easily be written off without any skin off one’s nose?

Many of the parabolic teachings of Jesus reveal a hidden teaching and deeper truth.  So too in this case.  What was it that Jesus saw and encountered in life that made the segue into this teaching so appropriate and opportune?  We only need to look at the beginning of chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel to see the context.  Jesus’ audience were the Pharisees and scribes who had complained about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Interpreted broadly, it would be akin to saying that they took offence that Jesus actually paid any attention to these societal outcasts, especially if he truly was a prophet and a holy man of God. 

This is where the mercy of God is so clearly missing in the understanding of salvation and what it means to be a holy person.  From the very outset of salvation history, there was a need for a mending of something that was broken.  Once the fall of man and woman happened through sin, the wholeness that was Eden required a repairing.  Something that was once whole, perfect and beautiful was now ruptured, broken, fragmented and experienced disintegration. 

Every sin makes this rupture worse, and further splinters what is mean to be whole.  Jesus’ entry into the world was God’s amazing way to show not only that God meant business about restoring this brokenness, but more especially so the inconceivable lengths that he would go to ensure that this wholeness is restored and made right.  What were once two will now be again made one.  This was the way God’s at-one-ment (atonement) would be realized – in and through Jesus Christ.  And it would not be done through strength, not through power and might, and certainly not through a smiting of any kind.  Instead, it would be done through a very understated and under-appreciated way, blindsiding those to whom this ‘weapon of God’s choice’ is used on.  It was none other than the weapon of mercy.

That Jesus chose to use this parable of the lost drachma to teach this truth shows that mercy as God’s weapon of choice cannot be easily explained.  Mercy is far more a matter of the heart than it is of the head, and mercy is also far more effective when one’s heart is touched.  After all, wasn’t it Blaise Pascal who wrote so astutely that ‘the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’? 

Every time a sinner breaks the community by his or her willfulness or stupidity (all sins are acts of stupidity, while some are more stupid than others) the integrity and strength of the community is compromised and fractured.  These are the 9 drachmas that not just the woman, but all of us have as well.  The 10 that was fullness and wholeness is now less than full, less than what it should be.  We should be as disturbed and perturbed as the woman.  That she was so eager to see the brokenness made whole by lighting a lamp and sweeping the house until she found it images God’s eagerness to restore wholeness.  Jesus’ entire being was to bring about a restoration of this wholeness.  He is the lamp that was lit, and his life was what swept all of creation (and continues to sweep creation) to find the lost. 

I think the problem with too many of us is that we are easily satisfied and perhaps a tad complacent.  We think we are happy with the 9, and it shows in the way that we are slow and sluggish to bring the good news of salvation to the lost.  There is no hunger for wholeness, and it even shows when we are not eager for wholeness in ourselves.  In the current toxic culture of relativism and secularism, especially when many chose to believe heavily in the dictum of ‘if it feels good, do it’, brokenness, being fragmented and experiencing a rupture seems to be the norm.  But let us never forget that we are made for wholeness and unity. 

In our Catholic faith, culture and tradition, the sacrament of reconciliation is a very real and tangible experience of this mending of brokenness – both in us as individuals, and to the community at large.  ‘Confession’ as it is sometimes called, is that restoring of the one lost coin, that finding of the one lost sheep.  It is the mending of what was in disrepair and the re-integration of what was dis-integrated.  I don’t think we as church celebrate this enough when we see a penitent emerging from the confessional room.  The woman who found that lost drachma did it in a profound, even over-the-top way in calling her neighbours to celebrate with her this seemingly miniscule find of nugatory value. 

What is our spiritual life’s task but to re-appreciate over and over again that in Jesus, God broke himself to mend our broken body.  But in God’s eyes, the celebration of the restoration of one sinner and the winning back of one heart is never over-the-top.  What makes it all possible was what happened at the top of Mount Calvary, where in Jesus, God gave of his very best.  The result should be that we too, could dare to give of our very best. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

November – a time to appreciate our connections with the saints and saints-to-be

In the northern hemisphere, when Fall or Autumn comes in late October and into November, the days get noticeably shorter and it gets dark earlier and earlier in the afternoon.  The further up north one gets, the more noticeable this becomes.  The darkness of the longer nights often brings about a melancholy that some say is a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.   I can see how November seems to be environmentally and consciously suited to liturgically observe how our lives also have an ebb.  After all, this is when the Church deems fit to place the Solemnity of All Saints and the commemoration of All Souls’ Day as well.

Our shared mortality isn’t something that we readily like to be reminded of.  In fact, most of the things that we dedicate our lives to, and the things that we like to celebrate encourage us to think that life would be better if it doesn’t end.  Rightly so, because we are wired for life, and we push thoughts of our mortality away from our consciousness in so many ways.  Many of us think that our happiness would be terribly curtailed and truncated if our lives were to come to an end.    

However, those of us who have been graced with the gift of faith and have as our core belief that this life is a mere stepping stone - to a life that is far more dynamic and spirited.  We are reminded, and necessarily so, that there are many variations of ersatz and temporary happiness of this life, but our faith is what gives us hope even in the face of death.  That Jesus Christ became our doorway to that hidden reality through his passion, death and resurrection permits us to even celebrate death despite its pain and bitterness.  The Church helps us to do this with dignity and in a liturgical progression with the observances of All Saints and All Souls.

Who are saints?  These are the trailblazers of our faith – heroic men and women who lived their faith to the full and were unafraid of how difficult it was for them to do so.  Saints are people who have accomplished life’s most important task – to be found at the end of their earthly lives fully meriting heaven in its full glory.  Some of the faithful may have a slight problem with the way the Church heavily uses the word ‘merit’ in many of its liturgical prayers.  Understood in the wrong sense, it does give the impression that one can ‘earn’ what one finally beholds at the end of life’s journey.  But it is only when we take this to mean ‘attained the ability to taste fully of heaven’s fruit’ can this be taken to mean the grace that makes this at all possible.  We must never have the faintest notion that we can ‘earn’ our way to heaven.  Ours is the theology of the primacy of grace.  Saints are not only thus tasting of the fruit, but also feasting copiously on its sweetness and delight because they have not taken of it in any self-entitled way, unlike our first parents.

We need to remember this for our own sainthood to happen.  Perhaps not in the St. (insert name here) way, but without a shadow of doubt, all who are in that heavenly feast are the saints whose lives we celebrate each November 1 – whether canonized or not.  Our rich heritage in the belief of the Communion of Saints tell us that we are never alone in this sometimes arduous journey to be able to see God ‘face to face’. 

In the mired contours of our life-journeys, we can sometimes find ourselves in very challenging and trying times.  Our faith can even waver and wane because of the strains that are placed on our belief in an unconditionally loving God.  It is at these times that I am grateful the Church has given me myriad examples of real life fellow believers, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who stood tall in their own struggles and challenges.  Their lives are testimonies that it is indeed possible to not ‘lose the plot’ of our faith.  Their stories give me the courage to resist temptation, to love in Christ-like ways, and to continue to pray despite spiritual fatigue and sloth.  The saints’ tenacity to love and place God foremost in their lives fortifies my sometimes dwindling and feeble faith. 

One would think it strange that on the very next day, 2 November, we as Church observe in a solemn way the remembrance of All Souls.  The fundamental belief that we celebrate on that day is that the mercy of God is so rich that it allows for a place/moment/time of purification between the ending of this life and the full embracing of heaven’s richness.  Essentially, this is what Purgatory is.  The Church is saying that ultimately, everybody is important to God, and many, if not most of our lives are lived with mixed intentions that come as a result of our tortured complexity.  There are healthy and unhealthy ways of appreciating Purgatory.  An unhealthy notion sees that God sends people away from him when they are not ready for heaven’s eternal embrace.  But a healthy understanding of this helps us to see that because our vision of our own lives is far richer after it is ended than when we are living in this world, that it is after we die in our human bodies that we see with deep honesty and true humility that we are not ready yet for God and that banquet of eternal life. 

This state of ‘unreadiness’ is the distance that we put between God and ourselves, and this tension is what creates the ‘suffering’ of Purgatory – a ‘suffering’ that purifies the soul and burns away intentions and loves that are impure.  All the while God is still loving and looking intently at that firing of the soul, and awaiting with great delight for his union with his beloved children while we are purified ‘like a refiner’s fire’.   

Some of these who are getting ‘refined’ could well be our departed loved ones and people who we may not even know, but who stand to benefit greatly from our prayers and corporal and spiritual works of mercy. 

To be sure, there are many different theologies that support and try to make sense of the Church’s teaching of saints and those who have ‘gone before us’.  But these also provide a good reason for us to believe that death never severs a connection.  Death may remove one’s physical presence from our lives, but our faith remains something that still connects us.  It gives us reason – very rich reasons, to not lose the plot ourselves as our task of living rightly continues.