Monday, March 28, 2016

An Easter reflection

The amazing promise of Easter, miraculous and wondrous though it may be, cannot be one among many great things that ought to be appreciated.  It is so monumental and so significant that it needs to be re-appreciated over and over again in our lives.  Perhaps the cycle of life that we see happening all around us gives us the mistaken notion that even the resurrection is a cyclic event.  While it is true that for us Catholics, the annual liturgical cycle can give us this impression, it is a wrong impression.  We do not ‘re-cycle’ the resurrection each year.  What the Church is seeking to do is to allow us to re-look and re-enter into timeless mysteries so that we come out renewed and refreshed in our faith.  To look at Easter and think that it is just a representation of a cycle of life, is to erroneously say that there is not much difference between a mosquito larvae’s cycle of life and the Paschal Mystery.  That would be absurd.  Though, as a point of reference, one could begin by saying that in nature, things die in order for something else to live – and this is a reality that is so easy to overlook and dismiss, perhaps because its occurrence is almost imperceptible unless we pause to take it in with a purposeful act of the will and mind.

The flower needs to die in order for it to be fertilized and bear fruit for new seed is a reality that occurs at every single moment of the day.  The wheat grain needs to be crushed to become flour that gives us nourishment and nutrition.  The sun is in fact dying and burning itself up and in doing so, provides us with the much-needed warmth and light without which we would surely die.  A spouse’s own will has to experience some degree of death to give life so that the marriage experiences a flowering of mutual selflessness that mirrors the constant giving of the persons of the Holy Trinity.  These dynamics are at play in everything that surrounds us and they are but vestiges of the resurrection.  But they are not the resurrection, because the resurrection of Our Lord is a newness in a far greater and staggering dimension.

Perhaps it is because it is so easy to take these small ‘easters’ for granted in our daily lives that we think erroneously that the resurrection isn’t real, and this becomes evident in the way that we Christian can often find ourselves hesitating and even tepid in being convinced that the resurrection is at the very heart of our belief.  We seem to be far more taken in by Jesus’ power over illness (when he miraculously heals a leper or a man with a withered hand), or be intrigued with the way that he enables Simon Peter to haul in a catch of fish that causes him to be so humble that he admits of his sinfulness on the spot, that he multiplies loaves and fish in copious amounts, or that he stills and controls storms that can make seasoned sailors quake with fear.  Great and wonderful these miracles may be, they are not central to our faith.  What is undoubtedly and undeniably central and pivotal is Jesus’ rising from the dead – that he overcame humankind’s last bastion.  It isn’t a cycle at all.  We do not believe in reincarnation.  It is so vital and utmost for our Christian belief that if this was not real, and merely a legend, everything about our faith crumbles. 

But if we are truly convinced about Jesus’ absolute power over death, demonstrated by his resurrection from the dead, we have a power within us that allows us to overcome all darkness and tribulations in life.  After all, death had always been the last insurmountable bastion hitherto the resurrection of Christ.  It has a power that had never been seen, and it’s the kind of power that have caused despots and political bullies to tear their hair in frustration because the truly convinced martyrs who died for their faith in the resurrection knew that the earthly oppressive tactics of their subjugators could only go so far.  Beyond the doorway of death, beyond this life, they were simply impuissant.  But not the resurrected Lord.

Perhaps the truth is more likely that too many of us are far too mired with the daily grind of our work and family life that we don’t find it necessary or pertinent to take our faith that far.  We have become complacent as far as the true power of the resurrection is concerned, and have become Christians that are ‘soft in the middle’, causing those of us who profess to be ‘hard at our core’ being labeled as fanatical or eccentric. 

But if we are truly convinced about the power and the truth of the resurrection, it cannot but be impactful and change our lives from within.  There will be no wrong that cannot be forgiven, no trial in life that will see us despairing, and no disappointment that has the last say.  There will always be a comeback no matter how wrecked we may be, and most of all, death will never get the last word.

Each time I find myself on the brink of becoming cynical, it is often because I have lost partial sight of the splendor and power of the resurrection.  I have not become an “Alleluia” person, and perhaps like Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning, instead of seeing the resurrected Lord, I am only seeing the gardener.  Perhaps the light from the never-setting Morning Star of Jesus had been eclipsed by my own egocentric fears and constraints.  But when I do take the effort to return to the Galilee of my faith, there is a renewal in the centrality of my faith in the resurrection and there is a resurrection experienced all over again.  God becomes my sun again and I am rightly orbiting around him.

There are usually no big resurrections in our faith lives.  But it’s the small, sometimes imperceptible ones that awaken in us the need to always believe that the final resurrection is yet to come.   This, I believe, is the subtle yet real joy of Easter. 

A blessed and happy Easter, my dear readers!

Monday, March 21, 2016

If our greatest aspiration in life is not to be a saint, we would have 'lost the plot' of our baptism.

Every parent, without exception, wants the best for their children.  To this end, many parents will go to great lengths to ensure that their children be provided with as much as they can provide materially for their precious charges.  Many, if not all parents, have this belief that their children deserve the very best, or at least the very best that the parents can give.  It is not uncommon these days to hear of parents who are buying insurance plans and registering for places in elite schools for their children who are still ensconced safely in the womb of their mothers.  So much planning and care is done to ensure that their children get what their parents think to be the most important things in life.  Looking at this kind of meticulous remote preparation from the viewpoint of someone who is not married and doesn’t have children, it is easy to have some admiration for the dedication that these parents have for their children.  At least from the outset, these parents do appear to be doing a good thing for their children. 

The Catholic Church has always taught that it is both necessary and good for parents to have their children baptized as infants, and for very good reason.  In days of yore when medical standards were far from that of current times, and when mortality rates were much higher, getting a newborn baptized soon after birth was an act that had an unspoken rationale – that even if the child’s physical life is in danger in the post-natal period, its spiritual life would have been safely taken care of, assuring the parents of the child’s salvation in Christ.

I’m not sure if the great leaps of advancement having been made in the medical world and low mortality rates have caused some Catholic parents to be somewhat lukewarm in their approach toward the baptism of their children when they are infants.  As a priest, I have been asked by Catholic parents themselves whether there is a pressing need for them to have their babies baptized as infants.  I often ask them in return what is holding them back, and invariably, the answer would be a variations of “I don’t want to force anything on my baby, and would want to give him or her the freedom to choose their faith”. 

I can appreciate this struggle in marriages where one parent is a baptized Catholic and the other is not.  But in marriages where both parents are baptized Catholics, this reason tells much more than meets the eye.

First of all, it shows clearly that the Catholic parents have a disordered sense of priorities for their children.  They make all sorts of decisions for their children before they can even think or speak for themselves, and this includes and certainly is not limited to things like vaccinations and medical care when they are ill, warmth and clothing when they are cold, food and drink for their sustenance and growth, and the best education that they can afford.  Yet, all these are not eternal goods.  They are earthly goods and are finite. 

The spiritual life has values that endure in this life and beyond.  While the material and empirical world is finite, the soul perdures in eternity.  While a price tag can be placed on the things that one can provide for the life of the flesh, there is no price that can ever be placed on the life of the spirit.  This is therefore a very good and sound reason for any parent to place as his or her primary care and concern for their children, a priority to bring this child into the life of Christ through baptism from an early age.

Secondly, what pains me as a priest of God when I hear this as a response by Catholic parents is the revelation and admission (always passively revealed, by the way) of their own lack of priorities and shallow or non-existent faith in God.  Somewhere along the line between their catechesis leading up to their Confirmation and the time when they got married and became parents, God as a top priority and reason for their very being had taken a back seat, or relegated to the trunk.  Faith, for whatever reason, had become an option, and God began to be given a secondary or tertiary position of relevance and importance in life.  They had ‘lost the plot’ of life along the way, and it had not bothered them to recover it.  God was moved to the periphery of life, and given a nominal role.  Many of us may have not realised that all that we have been endowed with in life is a gift from God to be used for his ultimate glory, and this includes our gifts, our talents, our resources and our time.  But it does seem that God hardly gets much of these in return from us, and if he does, he only gets what's left.  If an analogy were to be made, where a piece of fabric was one’s day to make a shirt out of, most of the time, the main portion of the fabric would be for one’s own needs and purposes, and if there was any remnants left, then God would get them.  If at all.

A gentle prodding and probing of these parents of why it is that they do not find infant baptism meaningful and beneficial for their children sometimes reveals something else – that it is because the faith meant nothing for them growing up, and that they wouldn’t want their children to suffer in the same way as they did.

My response to these parents is this – while it is most unfortunate that you may have not had a childhood that included the tender and constant care of the community and prayerful environment personified by a loving and nurturing presence of a God-parent, it does not necessarily mean that this will be the same experience for your own child.  Many people do not have good memories or experiences of school.  Many have experiences of being bullied, abused, prejudiced against, failure and defeat, and being passed over in school by their teachers or peers.  Yet, this has hardly been reason for parents to not want to have their children educated.  Indeed, this reason exposes it for being a mere excuse, and a rather shallow one at that.

Perhaps what is most distressing about this is that though the Church has always taught that the child’s first catechists of the faith are his or her parents, it is the parents themselves who are either unable or unwilling to take up this seemingly onerous task.  Many may feel inadequate to either pray with their children, bless their children, or have any conversation with them that has a remote connection with faith, and it results in their children having a dualistic mind when it comes to the realities before them.

While the empirical and material world is one reality that dad and mum are very interested and involved in, and can speak passionately about and have strong opinions of, the spiritual world is something that they are sadly clueless about, revealed often by their inability to have a meaningful conversation with their children about anything remotely connected with God.

I know that I am not pointing out a problem that is new.  In many developed countries, this is a reality that has plagued the Church, and its trickle-down effect is staggering.  Hearing the young and not-so-young people toss about phrases like “I am spiritual but I am not religious” tells me that there is a generation that thinks that religion is to be disdained because it seems to be a roadblock or barrier against being spiritual, and that religion is not something that a truly mature person takes seriously.  This is, in a word, insidious.

We will be bluffing ourselves if we think we do not have a problem on our hands.  It takes a concerted effort of both the common and ministerial priesthood to work together to broach this thorny issue, and we need to do this with a great sense of urgency and sensitivity.  The plot, if it is in the process of being lost, needs to be rediscovered and reappreciated.

Monday, March 14, 2016

When staring at the Son heals our inner blindness.

Some phrases tend to stick in our heads after we encounter them.  One such phrase has haunted me for close to three weeks now, and it is that nagging one from G K Chesterton about seeing familiar things over and over again until they are unfamiliar.  I have used it in my scripture reflection at Mass, I wrote about it in last week’s blog, and just this week, something happened in the heavens that immediately brought up this phrase without even trying.

Over the skies in this part of the world (Singapore and parts of Indonesia) last week was a very rare phenomenon of a solar eclipse. Singapore only saw a partial eclipse, so there was a period of a few minutes in the morning where the skies were significantly dimmed. 

The age of the Internet showed that the response and reaction to this phenomenon has changed through the years.  In the era before the Internet, we would only most likely read about such stories a day or a few days after the event.  If at all there was filmed footage of the event, it would be a delayed broadcast, and most probably a feature on the evening news.

The opening of the cyber world with its technology makes the reporting of such events almost simultaneous.  The Internet had live footage of how different cities reacted to the shadow of the moon cast upon the earth.  Chat rooms and groups on message apps like Whatsapp were rife with people asking each other whether they were looking at what was happening in the skies.  Many remarks and comments were made, and some of the more memorable ones were those that remarked that God is indeed awesome, and that an event like this shows the splendor of God in nature. 

I couldn’t help but make that immediate connection with Chesterton’s astute aphorism.  I do not for a moment disagree that when one sees with one’s own eyes the blocking out of the sun’s light in broad daylight, that one is brought to realise anew God’s grand display of his work in nature and the cosmos.  But what is more striking is that it takes a literal blocking out of what is there to re-appreciate its beauty, wonder and effect in our lives. 

The sun has always been shining in the sky, almost 150 million kilometers from the earth.  Its necessity and radiant beauty giving us life has always been there and sadly, taken very much for granted.  This fireball in the sky was and will always be God’s gift to us, but we hardly take notice of it.  But the moment it becomes significantly blocked from view, when another heavenly body comes between it and ourselves, we have a new awareness of its presence.  Ironically, its absence causes its presence to be re-appreciated, and we make a big deal out of it.

We see this happen in our lives where our health is concerned, don’t we?  Our perfectly working bodies with its incredible system of interconnected network of veins, nerve endings, muscles, skeletal system and all its organs synchronized with a precision that boggles the mind is also taken very much for granted.  Until an eclipse happens, often in the form of some debilitating illness.  It is only then that we begin to look with new appreciative eyes at what we had been endowed with all our lives hitherto the arrival of the eclipse. 

Readers of this blog who live in Singapore will readily see this happen in the very air that we breathe.  For so many years now, every year for a few months, we face the inconvenience and hazardous haze that plagues our island when our neighbouring countrymen clear their forests in irresponsible ways through fires that are not controlled.  And it is only when we are literally in the thick of the haze that we appreciate what having clear skies and breathing in unpolluted air is like.  So we take it for granted – till we need the masks.  Yet, while we have clear skies, we hardly give God thanks for the very air we breathe because it is just something that is so normal and ordinary, and yes, even familiar.

This has to be what Jesus himself was referring to in Mark 4:12 and Matthew 13:15.  It was in reference to Isaiah’s prophecy from Is. 6:9-10 which has as its central teaching that it is the heart that needs to understand before true conversion takes place. 

Conversion, or metanoia (a new seeing, or a seeing again) is never an activity of the head.  It is that of the heart, or the whole person.  It is never knowledge-based, and the proof of this is the remarkable number of people who may have sat through the entire RCIA journey only contented with learning of facts about Jesus and the faith, but without engaging the heart in forming a necessary relationship with the Lord. 

But those who have made that very difficult and challenging move to get out of their heads and have used their hearts to truly see again, will know that this experience has given them much more reason to believe than logic and cerebral sense.  A relationship that comes from a result of a new seeing is that much more stable and faithful (full of faith) than one that is attained with the head alone.  Though in truth, I will have to say that for a truly holistic conversion, but head and heart are required for a new seeing.

In areas that stand in the path of the shadow of the moon in an eclipse, there are strong warnings to remind people about the dangers of staring directly at the sun.  Retina burns caused by this (solar retinopathy) can cause severe damage or even blindness. 

What is prayer but looking intently at the heart of God.  Looking directly at the Son (of God) removes the blindness of our hearts and gives clarity to the soul.  And it is for this reason that indeed, we should, as Chesterton observes, look at this Son over and over again, until he becomes fresh and unfamiliar, and our love for him is renewed.


Monday, March 7, 2016

Getting that belt tied around us and taken to where we'd rather not go.

The gospel of John, the last of the gospels written, is markedly different from the other three, which are often referred to as ‘synoptics’ (Greek synopsis, “view together”). 

Written later than the other three, John’s writing style and theology stands out.  It doesn’t take a scripture scholar to notice that the Jesus in John can seem more divine than human, leading some noted scholars to say that if John’s gospel was the only gospel we have, we would hardly know much about the humanity of Jesus.

In the post resurrection narrative in John’s gospel, Jesus asks Peter those three very poignant, searing and pertinent questions – “do you love me?”  It was, as some commentaries tell us, Jesus’ way of allowing Peter to repent of his three denials of his master before he was crucified on Calvary for the sins of humankind.  To be sure, I don’t think we will ever know the true reasons for those three questions, though of course, this reason does make a lot of spiritual sense.

It was after this that Jesus tells Peter something about his life and all of our own lives – it is a very striking and somber statement that while he was young, Peter used to dress himself and go where he wanted.  But when he grows old, he will stretch out his hands and someone else will dress him and lead him where he does not want to go. 

Peter the true disciple who became the first Pope, indeed saw this happen to his life.  Jesus, in telling Peter this, is in fact giving us all an insight into true discipleship and preparing us all for a life that should not be surprised or confounded when we find our lives mired in some kind of challenge, difficulty and unexplainable suffering. 

This pretty much sums up and is the narrative for almost all of us.  We all have those experiences of our younger, nubile and yes, even willful years when we dressed ourselves and went wherever we wanted.  This is a metaphorical way of saying that we simply lived as if the world orbited around us.  Some would say that those were the ‘best’ times of our lives, when there seemed to be no limit to what we could achieve or experience, and the world did appear to be our oyster.  Just a quick scan of the plethora of videos on YouTube of Commencement speakers at college graduations (a lot of them from America) will reveal that most of them say the same thing in different ways to the graduands.  Do not put limits on your dreams and you can achieve anything you set your mind to.  While on the surface this kind of message does seem to be uplifting, encouraging and positive, it can subliminally tell these people that all limits and boundaries are to be disdained and even disrespected, just so long as one is able to attain one’s desires, no matter what they may be.

But if we take Jesus’ words to Peter to heart, it will dawn on us that total human freedom and subjective expression without respecting borders of any kind may not be the best thing that we can do for ourselves.  In fact, it could well be the worst thing.

Of course, I do know that reflecting on this on a blog like this could only make sense if one is truly interested in reaching any level of spiritual sensibility.  If you were an atheist reading this reflection, you would most likely have stopped reading this three paragraphs ago, or are readying yourself with a vitriolic rebuttal to debunk all that came before.  But if you, dear reader, are a searcher of truth and see the folly of only always seeking what thrills delights and titillates, the words of Jesus will words of life, because he IS the Word.

But in truth, his words are true not just for those who are beginning to see the wisdom in moving themselves out of the centre of their universe.  It is just as applicable to people whose whole lives are displaced and experience some kind of dislocation.  I’m thinking of people who have just been told that they have a very slim chance of seeing their next birthday because of a grim prognosis, or a spouse realizing that his or her marriage is no longer salvageable, or a parent who is at the deathbed of her child and who knows that there is no way that she will be driving home with her child ever again from that hospital and that she will never be playing with her toys at home. 

These are the kinds of places that we go to only when there is a rope tied around us.  These are the situations where we are dressed by others because we are either unwilling or unable to ourselves.  We find ourselves in a new location – and that we have been dislocated.  That we are led there when we are older often means that we are also conscripted there, often by a conspiracy of circumstances rather than by choice.  After all, one only gets conscripted or drafted only when one is of age.  Indeed, it is rarely by choice that we go to those border situations on our own.  Would that it be that we enter into these times by a gentle hand, but the truth is that quite often, it hits us unawares and sends us reeling.

But it is when we show our grit as faithful disciples of Christ that we slowly see the necessity of surrender under such trying circumstances.  It is only those who have some semblance of faith in God and that he and he alone holds the universe in place who are willing to admit that all that one can see at any one point of time is merely a tiny corner of God’s immense and enormous plan, and we are but blessed cooperators of God.

Our task as priests and spiritual mentors to souls is most challenging and most necessary at such times in the lives of the faithful.  I must admit that oftentimes, it is difficult and painful to see people being led to these places. 
It may seem odd but I do believe that at these times, realizing what baptism really means can strengthen our faith.  Baptism, understood in a very broad way, is a displacement.  It places us outside of a merely physical and material world, and brings us into the spiritual.  It gives us a life that supernatural – beyond that of nature itself.  And of course, living in faith makes sense only when we live in Christ by virtue of our baptism. 

And when we dare to live this faithfully and this large, we know ultimately that even though we are led to places we would rather not go, that it is the love of God beyond our fathoming that we are led to places that we need to go to, for the betterment of our very own souls.