Monday, June 27, 2016

“I am spiritual but I am not religious!” This is as good as saying that you are only spirit but are not bodily.

We live in an age where many people seem to have a disdain for organized religion and are vociferous about it.  Not just in the Catholic Church, but many who are of other religious affiliations have a common lament that they too have noticed that their devotees have been heard saying that they are spiritual but not religious. 

When I hear such statements, my response is often to ask them if they are human beings as a result of just inhabiting a body, or if they are their bodies.  This was something I picked up while reading something which one of my professors in the Dominican House of Studies, Fr Thomas Joseph White, wrote).  When their answer is that they are their bodies (which I certainly hope they are), then religion is actually being spiritual in bodily form because worship of God is done through very physical actions like standing, bowing, kneeling, as well as by making sacrifices, making vows and giving alms. 

If one says one is only spiritual, by extension, it could well mean that one’s moral convictions and one’s quest for anything that speaks of virtue is not going to take any concrete or bodily form.  If at all, it is only going to remain on the level of concept and ideal, not as a lived reality. 

Our physical presence is very much required at a gathered community of believers (e.g. in a church assembly) because we belong to a community and a body of Christ.  To remove ourselves from it out of self-centered reasons has many implications, the chief of which is that we are depriving the body of Christ from our presence, our faith and our prayer.  We are essentially saying to the gathered community – “you will not be getting the goodness of my presence and prayer this Sunday”.  The Catholic tradition has always taught that it is mandatory to worship in community in church every Sunday, and that it is a very serious sin to not do so. 

Understood only on a superficial level, it simply seems to be a pedantic rule that the church is burdening its followers with.  But there is a much deeper significance.  It is a serious sin to weaken the body of Christ willfully either by choice or by scandal, and one person’s absence truly does make a difference.  The results from the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union which came out last week stunned the whole world, and there were many stories which emerged that revealed how individuals who voted “out” actually regretted their vote and if given the chance again, would now vote “in”, and their common lament was that they thought that their vote, their singular vote, would not make a difference.  It did. 

And so does each individual’s presence at Mass each Sunday.  God may not need your presence at church.  He is God, after all, and so technically, he doesn’t need anything.  But the body of Christ, made up of each individual baptized person does.  We either become enriched or impoverished by your presence or your absence. 

If you are spiritual, and are serious about this, it has to result in right religion.  We are not just animals.  We are rational animals, and indeed, we live this out rationally as beings that are made for God. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

On reaching 15 years of priestly service

Each year at this time, I like to use this blog of mine to reflect on the priesthood on a personal level, particularly because on June 20, I celebrate the anniversary of my sacerdotal (priestly) ordination to the priesthood.  This year is a milestone of sorts, as I am today a priest of 15 years.  Clearly, this is  not even close to anything as huge as a Golden nor Diamond jubilee.  But considering the circumstances that I have been given, each day that passes is a joy, and each anniversary is a great blessing.  By average standards, I am considered a rather mature vocation to begin with, having been ordained at the age of 36.  These 15 years have been rich, and I have been given countless situations in life that have molded and shaped me to be the priest that I currently am. 

I thought that I’d write this year’s reflection in the form of a letter that I would write to a fictitious man (let’s call him Martin) who is thinking of answering the call to become a priest, giving him counsel from the experiences that God has graced me with in the past 15 years. 

Dear Martin

Thank you for your letter, which I received last week, asking me to share with you my insights and thoughts on the priesthood as your desires engender you to consider the priestly vocation.  I must admit that it is always edifying to see a young man pondering the possibilities of the priesthood.  We pray for vocations each Sunday in my parish, so it doesn’t surprise me that prayers do get answered.  I hope that my letter will give you some clarity in coming to an informed decision with the advice and guidance of your own spiritual director.

1.   I was never worthy, and neither will you be.
Right from the start, I would begin by saying that no one ever is worthy of being a priest of Jesus Christ.  If you are waiting to be good enough or worthy enough, you have missed the point of salvation – it is not about you or how good you are.  The only perfect thing that makes this possible is the perfect love and mercy of an infinitely loving God.  The Lord doesn’t call us because we are good.  He calls us because he is good and because he loves us.

2.   Always be aware of the immensity of God’s love if you want to be a priest who serves with love, and this comes from a life dedicated to prayer.
If you desire the priesthood, know that God’s love is what makes all holy desire possible.  Your wanting to be a priest has to be founded on the fact that you are acutely aware of how tremendous God’s love for you is, despite your faults and failures; your frailties and predilection to sin.  Priests convey through their very lives the love of God to others, and all of us, priests as well as laity, are constantly receiving the love of God.  This love is experienced most importantly through the discipline of spending time with the Lord each day of your life.  Prayer is not something that you have to do.  If it is, it becomes a chore.  Prayer is something that you must love to do, because it is love given in return for love received.  Prayer is not something that you do when you have nothing else to do.  Prayer is rather what enables you do to do everything that you do outside of the time that you give to God in dedicated love.  Going to prayer only when you feel like praying relegates it to calling a friend only when you need him. 

You can be sure of this – there will be times when you do not feel like praying.  I hesitate to use the phrase “dryness in prayer” (perhaps because it then means that its antithesis is having “wet prayer”), but there will be days when there is nothing but distractions, agitations, stirrings of a disturbed stillness, and it may seem to be a waste of time because nothing seems to be happening.  Always come back to the seed of prayer being love.  When love is present in a relationship, one doesn’t depend on what thrills and delights, excites and beguiles in order to keep one in the relationship.  When love is the reason of the relationship, and there is apparently nothing to ‘get out of it’, it means that your relationship becomes an offering that is precious and valued. 

3.   Learn to live with solitude and be at peace with it.
The human heart is somehow hardwired for companionship and intimacy.  The call of the priesthood has, as an intrinsic part of it, the call towards solitude.  It is not a call to loneliness, because loneliness is a lack.  Solitude is the healthy ability to live in a way that sets one apart from the world.  An enlightened priest of mature spirit once said that when loneliness is turned into solitude, it becomes the loveliness of being alone with God. 

4.   Priests can be likened to airplanes.  When one falls, it makes headlines everywhere.  But no one really bothers much with those that are still flying.
I saw this in a meme lately, and I thought it spoke of a truth in a rather humorous way.  Yes, most parishioners do love their priests, but they won’t always love you.  Sometimes, with our own quirks and idiosyncratic ways, people will find us less than lovable.  Some may delight in making this known to us.  Take it all in your stride.  Hopefully, you will have a bishop like I do, who will remind you of how much he loves and values your priestly vocation.  But there are many priests in the world who may not have supporting and encouraging bishops, so it is crucial to know that God is always going to love you, not for the person you’d like to be, not for your faultless ways, and yes, despite your many sins, but for your very self.  This confidence will enable you to persevere in the priesthood even though you may walk in those valleys of darkness merely by being a shepherd of souls.

5.   If you want God’s mercy, be an instrument of mercy yourself through humility and searing honesty.
Humility is always going to be a challenge to cultivate in life.  But it is a sine qua non for a priest who exists to show God’s face of mercy to his flock, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  When we are wrong (and you can rest assured that there will be times when we make mistakes, say the wrong things, touch a raw nerve, and even cause our parishioners to take umbrage with us on a personal level), be the first to make that move to apologize without justification.  It is a fallacy that priests are always right, and when we realize that we have made mistakes, be humble enough to seek reconciliation.  Having received mercy from others, we will be then able to be sensitive instruments of God’s mercy to those who are humble enough to come to him in the Confessional.  Of course, we as priests ought to avail ourselves to the grace of the sacrament at least once every month.  It will always be difficult to give what we haven’t got nor experienced ourselves. 

6.   Have a lived and deep devotion to Mary. 
I made it a personal promise on the day of my ordination to pray at least one Rosary a day for the rest of my life.  I have come to see how pertinent it is to have a true and lived devotion to our Blessed Mother.  One reason is that all our mothers are flawed in some way, and that they will not be with us for the rest of our priestly lives.  We need a mother who has loved perfectly and God, in his infinite wisdom, has given Mary to us as a mother with no flaws, and who loves with no selfishness.  Closeness to Mary will always help us in our relationships with our own earthly mothers when these relationships become challenging themselves.  Furthermore, a healthy devotion to Mary ensures that a priest embodies a certain maternal instinct over his flock, manifesting the important traits of charity, mercy and tenderness.

7.   Never say that your work is your prayer unless your prayer is first your work.
I have heard many priests saying that their days are so full and because of this, they say that their work or their ministry is their prayer.  Be very careful of this cop-out.  If prayer is not your first “work” of the day, it will be very difficult truly say that all your other work is done with a prayerful intention. 

8.   The best promotion of the priesthood is a joyful priest. 
Of course it will be easy to be joyful when things are going swimmingly well.  But the reality is that in the priesthood, as in other vocations, there will be times when things seem bleak, when we are wounded, when we are disliked by our superiors, our flock, or when we are assailed by any of the seven deadly sins.  Some of us may have to live with other priests who are grumpy, disenchanted, who hardly pray, and perhaps who have lost their initial zeal.  Sometimes, (and I speak from personal experience here) we may even be given the news of a life-threatening illness that visits us out of the blue.  The only way that we can still have a joy within is when we have truly known the love of God in a sustained prayer life.  This will allow those looking on to see that difficult though the life of a priest may be, there comes with it the amazing ability to live in joy despite the challenges that come with an answer to become a shepherd of souls.

These eight points are by no means exhaustive, but they certainly rank among the most pertinent.  I would not have lasted 15 years without observing them faithfully, and with God’s grace, I hope to be able to continue to live them out for the remainder of my priestly years in God’s service.  I pray that God will continue to reveal his unceasing love for you as you discern your own call to the priesthood.  Could I be bold enough to ask that you pray for my today too, as I celebrate another year of God's amazing grace?  Thank you and God bless you.

Your priest

Fr Luke Fong

Monday, June 13, 2016

Prayer makes it possible to make the best out of life's lemons

In doing some research on the topic of the meaning of suffering and afflictions in life, I was delighted to come across a quote from the Greek writer and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote in one of his books about his metaphorical and mystical journey through life.  In his Report to Greco, he describes an encounter with a monk and asks the elderly monk if he still wrestles with the devil, but the monk responds that as he is grown old now, the devil had also grown old with him.  Instead, he now wrestles with God, and reveals that in this wrestling, he really hopes to lose. 

Noting that this would be a very arduous task, he asks if there was a more agreeable way; or perhaps a more human way, and his response is equally mystical in nature.  There is only one way, and that is the way of ascent.  However, this ascent requires a series of steps.  From full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering.  God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst and suffering, while the devil sits at the summit of a comfortable life.  The monk then tells Nikos that we really wake up when we choose the former, and ours is the task to choose death before death wakes us up.

To the mind that is not open to contemplation and anything that speaks of mysticism, all that Kazantzakis wrote about could be deemed drivel.  But it wouldn’t take long for a contemplative mind to know that what he has written is gold. 

That success has nothing to teach a truly searching soul is the underlying narrative that spiritual giants worth their meditations extol.  Success easily panders to the ego’s need for aggrandizement and self-assertion, which, ironically, leaves one even more empty and hungry than when one first began.  Instead, the antithesis of this is the pathway to true ascent, deep growth and mature wisdom. 

I was approached by a kindly lady after I celebrated the Eucharist just last week who asked me my secret to being so positive and hopeful in the face of afflictions and suffering, and I think many of my blog readers know that I often do get such questions from people of different walks of life who had heard of my story of living with great hope despite what many might classify as being given a death-sentence. 

As much as my interlocutor wanted a pithy and quick answer, I tried explaining in as simple terms as possible that doing that would not be prudent.  Maybe it is the current mentality that believes that all problems can be solved with quick fixes, pat answers and one-liners.  It would be tantamount to seeing life as a ‘problem’ to be solved.  It isn’t.  Instead, it is a mystery to be lived.  Pat answers are often more a danger than an answer per se. 

In the mystical life, the ascent toward wholeness and holiness is always going to look dark, dangerous, uncomfortable, unsettling and disarming.  That’s paradox.  Without any preparations for this, one naturally will be full of fear, anger, resentment and bitterness when crosses are placed in one’s life-path.  Like the monk said, the ascent will always seem to appear as a descent – down from full to hunger, from plenty to paltry, from joy to suffering. 

It was sheer grace that moved me in the direction of contemplation from the moment I began my priestly training.  But it was an even stronger grace that helped me to see that this had to be truly followed through in daily practice rather just leaving it as a method or a teaching that was good for one’s soul.  And so I persisted through the years of priestly formation, well into the years of my priesthood, sitting an hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament with often nary feeling anything neither particularly stirring nor enlightening.  Day in, day out, month in, month out, year in, year out. 

I had read that the fruit of one’s prayer is never during prayer itself.  It unfolds itself in the life that is lived outside of prayer time.  It was as if I was silently being trained despite myself and my efforts, to become supple enough to be bent without being broken later on in life. 

How does one put all that into a pithy statement?  I think it is near impossible, simply because it will cheapen an entire chapter of life.  Ask any Olympic medalist how he managed that amazing record-breaking victory swim, and he would be at a loss for words to name exactly what it was that helped him to reach that moment in time.  It was not so much that very moment that the race ended, but everything that went on in his life up to that point that made it possible, from early morning trainings to demanding coaches, from sacrifices made on so many levels to dreams unfulfilled in other areas of life. 

Yes, I was ready to endure the impending arduous and laborious cancer treatment when I was told of what it entailed.  Looking at it in retrospect, it would be akin to saying that I was asked to run the marathon at a moments’ notice, and my response was “I thought you wouldn’t ask”.    The only thing that enabled me to do that without rancor was the discipline that I resolved to go through in contemplation because I saw a dire need in life to ascend via a descent in life. 

I once saw a very witty and interesting meme that asked the question “what do you do when life gives you lemons?”  The response was “take out the Tequila!” 

That is not only funny, but also rather true.  But we can only take out the Tequila if we have it in our liquor cabinet.  Contemplation enabled me to have more than a bottle of it in my cabinet. 

I had been given a whole warehouse worth of it. 

Monday, June 6, 2016

Good spirituality will always necessitate embracing the Golden Mean.

In philosophical language, evidenced in the teachings of Aristotle, there exists the call to live out and identify the Golden Mean.  This Golden Mean is the middle of two extremes, where on the one hand there exists excess, and the other, deficiency or lack.  The Grecian mind saw much beauty in balance and symmetry, and this is reflected in this philosophical axiom that they promoted. 

But even in the world of Chinese philosophy, there exists something that advocates a concept that isn’t all that far from their Greek counterparts.  Called the Doctrine of the Mean, this was taught by Confucius.  Often, this is interpreted as the maintenance of balance and harmony that allows one to direct one’s mind to a state of constant equilibrium.  It represents moderation, rectitude, objectivity and propriety.  One should never act in excess. 

When this is misunderstood, it can lead one to think that virtue and truth are found in mediocrity, which is not what these teachings inculcate.  What they, and all good spirituality point to, is that all virtue and truth, all righteousness and principled living somehow require us to avoid extremes, and live in some healthy tension inside of an accepted ambiguity.  And this is extremely challenging, simply because our broken and sinful human nature finds it much easier and comfortable to live an “either/or” existence, where there are clear demarcations, rather than locating and staying in the middle where neither side can be easily offended.  Rather, virtue and truth have to necessarily include some form of a “both/and” existence.

 The world has been careening from the effects of religious extremism where people on the extreme side of “left” or “right” become purveyors of terror and victimizers of unsuspecting innocent by-standers.  And we know thus that extremism in any realm has inherent flaws and darkness.  Yet, we also do know that rich spirituality is often bridled by what is known as paradox, and this is often God’s teaching mode of choice because it requires of us to discern, to ponder and to be constantly on the alert to teachings that present themselves to us in and through our very lives.

Those familiar first eight verses of the third chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes also speak of this in the reality of our lives.  In 1965, the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” was a massive hit for the group The Byrds, and the lyrics of that song were predominantly made up of those verse references.  Positing that there is indeed a time for everything, it can also be understood to mean that life really does balance and move in the mean of the various extremes.  And we will find ourselves at each moment of our lives, reflecting on and making sense of those essential categories of life – living, working, emoting, gathering, being intimate, finding, creating, and very importantly, loving and holding that tension between conflict and peace.

Of course, the key-teachings of Jesus are often expressed in paradox.  Some of them you may already be familiar with.

“Who can then be saved?  For man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mark 10:27)

“The first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31)

“Count it all joy when men revile you and persecute you, for they persecuted the prophets that were before you”.  (Matthew 5:12)

“But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. (Mark 10:43-44)

God’s incredible plan of salvation was to be revealed to us through the vessel of a Virgin and Mother (Catholics, deal with this!), paving the way for His becoming the apogee of paradox – God and man.  If we haven’t yet got a sense of this, we may have indeed be missing the forest for the trees.