Monday, December 28, 2015

Crowning the real king and dethroning the wrong ones in life

Quite often, we don’t realise that the things that we stumble across in life can be fodder for gauging our spiritual lives in ways that surprise us.  Just last week, this thought came to me as I casually glanced at a news article which I would least think that can do this for me, or for anyone else.  It was the unlikely news story of a beauty pageant.

On the surface, it may seem awfully trivial and perhaps even mundane, but an insight was revealed to me that there is something rather hidden, yet very important that we can learn from it.

In the finals of the recent Miss Universe beauty pageant, a contestant which was not the winner was crowned and named by mistake, and the poor embarrassed host who committed this gaffe had to immediately correct this error of universal proportions by apologizing to the runner up, getting her newly placed tiara removed from her head, and crowning the rightful winner of the contest – in front of a worldwide audience.  This unthinkable mistake naturally upbraided the true runner-up (Miss Colombia) together with all her countrymen and women.  A wrong winner was crowned, and the real winner was by-passed, at least for a few moments.

Why would I even want to mention this seemingly inane incident in a blog that serves a spiritual purpose?  Because I see such irony in it.

So much of our life’s problems come from getting it wrong when it comes to crowning what we think is most important in life, doesn’t it?  In so many spiritual counseling and confessions that I have heard, it is apparent that it is when we make our worlds orbit around the wrong centres that unhappiness and frustrations abound.  Our relentless search for wealth, happiness, popularity, freedom from illness and suffering and success have so often been made the locus and aim of our search for happiness and stability.  But the harsh truth is that the moment we think we have attained our goal, the opposite happens - we become even more unstable, more insecure and more greedy.  Like the poor host at the pageant, we have too often crowned the wrong winner in life.  When Jesus revealed that he is the way, the truth and the life, he was revealing that as long as we do not put him where we should be orbiting around him, that our lives will be unsettled and there would be no peace.  We may know that he said this, but we have not really taken it with much seriousness.  But the truth is that in so most of our lives, these mis-crownings (pun well intended) are very prevalent.  

When these things happen in our lives, God could rightfully smite us immediately as we have contravened his very first commandment, which is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind.  When such a transgression has been made, such opprobrium deserves drastic measures and God would be entitled to set things right.  But that is human logic, which is hardly ever applied together with love - love as God loves.  Much to the credit of the real winner of that pageant, Miss Philippines did not grab the tiara off the head of the wrong winner and place it on her own head.  She waited for her rightful crown and her rightful crowning.  Gracious as she was, there was one who was far greater in history who paved the way for graciousness to be seen and experienced.  When Jesus died on the Cross of Calvary for humanity's salvation, he did this but on a cosmic level.  Our sin of having so many other idols in our lives, to which we pay far more attention to than we should, must offend God immensely.  Much as he knows he is the truth, he doesn’t forcibly edge out all the false idols in our lives.  Much as he is life itself, he doesn’t smite with anger all those other goals in our lives that often bring death.  Instead, he takes it all in - quite literally.  He takes upon himself the sins of the world out of love for us.  And he lets the effects of his sacrifice take a long, slow process to work its truth into our hearts.  

Grace takes its time, and conversion is also a slow process that respects the metanoia of the heart.  I suppose this is the law of gradualness at work.  Shame doesn’t help to tenderize hearts nor does it speed up the process.  This is why perhaps confession and regular visits to the confessor does something so imperceptible – it releases slow doses of grace that makes us see the light of our folly where we have crowned the wrong centres of our lives. 

The many false kings in our lives may be crowned with gems and jewels, lots of our attention, time and resources.  They tire and wear us out.  But we will be so graced to realise that the real king wore for us on his head the crown of thorns.  Knowing this should help us to be sure about who the real king is, and dethrone the false ones, enabling us to live rightly ordered lives.

Monday, December 21, 2015

When blessings are received well, we pay it forward

As a priest, many people come up to me for a blessing.  I have always met their request, but I also struggle with the very prevalent ‘talisman’ mentality that a lot of Catholics have about medals, scapulars, holy cards and crucifixes.  Don't get me wrong – in themselves, these sacramentals (a Catholic collective term for these articles) are good and useful.  I do not dismiss their effectiveness in conveying a sense of the sacred, and I myself have often been comforted and assured of God’s loving presence in my life by either holding on to an image of the crucified Lord or a medal depicting Mary.  We are people who are visual and tactile, and the wearing of these reminds us that we are always in God’s presence. 

Many ask for these to be blessed, and it is always a good thing.  What are blessings, but verbal assurances to us of God’s love and support in our lives.  It is the same reason why couples wanting to get married ask their parents for a blessing.  To have their parental blessings is to hear in a formal way that the person that they want to have as their life-partner also receives their support and approval.  It is a very real and necessary reminder that this person is also loved. 

It is for this reason that when I am presented with a handful of medals, rosaries, crucifixes, a holy picture, a statue or a scapular, I always ask the person if these belong to him or her.  When it is not, I try to tell them to give it to the person they intend this for, and encourage this person to present this to a priest for a blessing. 

I know that it does seem petty or calculative of me, but I have my reasons. I do not want to be the priest to inculcate nor promote a talisman mentality among the faithful.  The blessing that a priest bestows on a sacramental is also a blessing on the person using them.  I often formulate the blessing to remind them that they are loved by God, and that these sacramentals are to be used as material reminders of this love.  People do not change because of medals or holy cards.  People change because they know that they are loved, that they are approved and that they are blessed.  They need to hear these words and experience the blessing themselves.  Just handing a blessed item or article to someone can often end up with them thinking that there is no need for them to be holy, just so long as what they are wearing or using is holy.  That call to holiness isn’t heard, and it remains on the surface and doesn’t have the opportunity to permeate into their hearts.  Of course, my intentions may not have the desired effect 100% of the time, but at least I know that I have given a chance for this to happen.

Aren’t so many of life’s problems and sufferings caused by the fact that we are not aware that we are loved and blessed?  This is evidenced so clearly by the ways that so many of us get ahead of ourselves to elicit love and approval of others.  This is seen in the ways that we are avaricious of things and images of success.  But when we are confident that we are loved despite our many shortcomings, it allows us to see the shallowness and futility of all that provides false happiness and short term thrills, leaving us hollow in the end. 

A meaningful blessing does this.  It may not do it all the time, but I am always hopeful that this truth touches the people I reach out in a heartfelt and meaningful and loving blessing. 

Most of all, when we see that we are so blessed by God who doesn’t even need to bless, but does anyway, we cannot but become blessings for others.  In this way, we learn the very important Christian virtue of paying it forward for the benefit of others. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

What prophets are, and what they are not.

Whenever the word prophet is heard and spoken about, people generally have a mythic or misunderstood notion of it.  The bible is filled with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Hosea.  If we are not discerning, we will think that the role of the prophet is to be a soothsayer of sorts, perhaps having either had a sneak-peak at what is coming in the future, or someone who has some crystal-ball gazing ability.  Even though some of the passages in these books of the prophets do make out these personalities as oracles, the role of the prophet is much more grounded and related to our daily living.  Perhaps this is why Vatican II had insisted rightly that at baptism, each of her flock becomes in essence a person who is baptized Priest, Prophet and King.

When we don’t understand this high calling in our lives, we will probably not be able to live it out, unless we begin to unravel and apply to ourselves what being prophetic entails and what it does to us. 

Underlying the works and acts of a prophet has to be love – both of God and of the people to whom the prophetic actions and words are directed at.  When this is not fundamentally understood, it easily results in one being a person who is merely a voice of anger, irritation and antagonism, which is not something rare these days.  The social media alone is rife with people who take umbrage and offence at the drop of a hat, and respond in double quick time with repartees and opinions that are laced with seething disdain and criticism, often without much filter.  Whether it be against terrorists or governments, racial groups or religious zealots, the anger and hatred is often blatant and undisguised.  But what is behind this vitriolic is an all-important underlying tone of love and concern. 

To be a truly prophetic person worthy of that title and job description requires of one to manifest this part of our very being as well, which is founded on God who is love.  Anger alone, or an insistence on justice with no leeway given for mercy of any kind is not prophetic in a healthy way.  People who give no hope for an understanding and an opportunity for reform or repentance, and who are crying out for blood in return for blood shed are hardly prophetic.  Antagonistic and belligerent people do not show a truly prophetic stature, and are more likely to cause others to continue in their ways than to even consider a metanoia.

A true prophet has to always be able to see the good as well as the bad, and make no excuses for either.  A prophet who is crying out for proper stewardship of nature has to be able to be one who isn’t only disturbed by the breaking down of the physical environment.  He must be at the same time able to speak clearly about the wonders and beauty of creation.  A prophet who feels called to rally against materialism needs to see where economic progress has raised humanity’s standard of living, hygiene standards and comfort and thank God for it.  A prophet decrying moral decay and corruption in the people need to balance this out by acknowledging the goodness in joy and God’s delight in seeing his creation celebrating life as it should.  I cannot just be a critic of individualism without speaking strongly and positively about the energy and strength that community can provide.  Truly prophetic people are balanced and cannot be shouting slogans while wearing blinkers. 

It is only when we are strongly founded on the belief that God’s love for us is the raison d’etre of our existence, revealed in Jesus Christ, will this foundation be strong and real.  Otherwise, we will just be angry voices, barking dogs and antagonism aunts, and end up alienating others from ourselves instead of forging bonds and lighting the darkness with the light of Christ in our hearts.

The reality is that most of us don’t do this balancing well.  We blow hot and cold with little consistency.  And when we react without reflection and are unconscious of our hurtful words and biting remarks, we injure where we should bring a healing. 

That is why prayer has to be at the heart of every true prophet and his actions – the kind of prayer that bonds him close to the loving heart of God.

Is this a high calling?  Without a doubt it is.  Yet, not many are willing to rise to the challenge with courage and fortitude.  But strive we must, as it is a dignity bestowed on us with our baptism.  If we do not see enough prophets in our world, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we have done anything to awaken the sleeping prophet inside ourselves.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Running into the arms of forgiveness at confession

It’s coming round again – those heavy days of seemingly endless lines at the penitential services where the faithful make their way to the priest for their confession before Christmas. 

It never fails to cross my mind when these en mass confessions take place – that the grace of God is so lavishly given.  Before every Mass on Sunday, in almost all Catholic churches in the world, there these lines that form outside of the Reconciliation room.  But especially in the last few weeks of Lent and Advent, when there are these special services solely for the celebration of this much maligned and misunderstood sacrament, these numbers soar, and people come in droves. 

It is a happy problem.  So few priests serving so many penitents.  Some of my brother priests face these weeks with a certain foreboding because doing this for about 2 hours each night for an entire week can be a rather draining experience.  Many lay people have the wrong idea about this sacrament.  It is not a ‘pleasure’ at all to hear all these transgressions being confessed, like as if we were privy to some intimate edition of a talk show.  We need to listen to what is said, as well as to what is not said, and the latter is always the more important and for the penitent, much more challenging to identify.  Much as we priests truly want the heartfelt conversion of each penitent where there is a stripping away of a false and shallow living, we are constrained by the need to not take too much time with each penitent.  The more genuine and precise the penitent is in truly naming the sin and not glossing over it, the more sincere one is in wanting to change one's life for the better.  For the priest, it is a constant challenge between being an attentive and sharp listener, and being concise without being too expeditious, risking even the appearance of being dismissive. 

I can appreciate with sincerity the fears that unnerve many penitents who come to the confessional.  Besides, if we add to this the many terrible and foreboding ways that this sacrament is portrayed in films and TV shows, confession doesn’t get much good press.  Perhaps the deep truth is that no one likes to be so clear about admitting of one’s own stupidity and shallowness.  While the world tells us to boast and trumpet our achievements and titles attained, it also often tells us to hide all flaws, faults and peccadilloes.  Even if the twisted narrative seems to tell us to be proud and flaunt these flaws to the world and be brazen about it, there is one glaring difference between confession and making a show over it on the social media.  One is never asked to be remorseful and repentant about it.  In fact, it is often quite the opposite – the more ‘in-your-face’ one is about it, the more shock value one should garner, and hence the more ‘likes’. 

But when the mercy of God is sought for what it truly is – an underserved gift of a welcome mat back to the home where one stands on holy ground – it invites us to live in a new gratitude which gives us the opportunity to genuinely live and love with sincerity where before, we were living and loving with ourselves as the focus and end. 

I am not sure how to go about changing this poisoned view of the sacrament of reconciliation.  Many think that the Church seems to have a monopoly on God’s forgiveness and uses it as a trump card to control and have mastery over the laity.  And it doesn't help that a vast majority of the laity will only avail themselves to the grace that is outpoured to each penitent twice a year at most.  Used wrongly, of course it can turn out to be such a toxic experience, leaving so many wounded and scarred, and some for a whole lifetime. 

But aren’t all sacraments of the Church ways through which God’s love is experienced by the faithful?  That being the case, then a truly meaningful experience of God’s forgiveness becomes not crippling but freeing, not fearful but joy filled, and not dreaded but anticipated with great delight.  Who doesn’t want to run into the arms of a loving and forgiving parent?  Perhaps part of the problem is that too many people are far more concerned about what they bring up than being delighted by the grace that one receives as a result of this encounter of divine mercy.  Of course, it also necessarily means that one is at the same time humble enough to admit of one’s wrong ways and misdirected affections in life. 

When love is at the heart of the sacrament of reconciliation, it truly makes no sense why a Catholic would only come to experience God’s love only once or twice a year.  If an ATM machine was continuously spitting out $50 bills, would one go there only twice a year?  Forgiveness and the grace of God is far more valuable than any currency, yet, the sad fact is that so many Catholics have a loathing for this because they fail to see the intrinsic connection between mercy, love and forgiveness. 

Another misunderstanding about the sacrament is the penance that is asked of the penitent.  Often, it is in the form of a short prayer like a Hail Mary or the Lord's Prayer, or something familiar.  Can a prayer be truly be sufficient to make up or restore what was broken and taken for granted?  Of course not.  Often, the sin can be a huge one, injuring not just the self but the community as well, and the penance is a prayer one has learnt by rote in one's younger days.  It seems so disconnected.

But it imparts a truth that just on the level of economics alone, someone has to pay a price for something infringed and hurt.  The grace that comes from the confession is not cheap.  It was made possible only through the completely selfless act of Jesus' dying on the Cross on Calvary.  When we priests give a simple penance, we hope to show them just how merciful God is.  But is there justice in this?  Probably not.  But what many penitents don't realise is that on our part, there is something that is done that most penitents are not aware of.  Some of us willingly and lovingly take on much more penitence for ourselves to make up for what the penitents' simple penance may lack.  Each time a priest goes into prayer, fasts willingly, does some act of mercy and prays for his people with devotion and tenderness, you can be sure that some part of him is praying for the sins of the people he ministered to as a shepherd of souls.  Someone pays for the price of sinning against God.  Theologically, God himself did on Calvary, but those who confer the grace through the sacrament bear part of this burden to share in the unburdening of the heaviness of sin.  It may seem like a rather unnecessary thing to do, but no one can deny that this humbles the priest and sets for himself a discipline.  Besides, it shows another side of God's love for his people.

Someone said to me after I gave a talk on confession once, that the confessional room should be seen as God’s kissing booth.  Though it does give me some strange mental images, I think this person got the right idea of the theology and spirituality behind this much-maligned sacrament.