Monday, July 25, 2016

Having two birthdays - a reason to be grateful repeatedly.

I chanced upon a short BBC TV interview featuring the 1976 Summer Olympics multi-gold medalist Nadia Comaneci.  A recently recorded interview, it featured the now 55 year-old Olympian.  There were video clips of her record-making routines and they are just as spectacular today as they were 40 years ago.  As she was reminiscing about how she felt when she became the first ever Olympic gymnast to get a perfect 10 score in the history of the modern games, she said something interesting – that now, today, as she looks back at that historic performance, it has become much more valuable and that she understands what a big deal it was.  The trace of gratitude in her whole demeanor was not hidden in any way.

I think that this says something about life.  Ms. Comaneci was expressing the truth that in life, being grateful becomes of us when we are appreciative over and over of where we once were, and for where we are now in life.  I am wont to believe that gratitude is really the root of all virtue.  It undergirds all authentic love. 

It is when we have lost the ability to be grateful, and begin to take anything or anyone for granted, that the foundations of virtue begin to erode and we find ourselves building on sand in everything that we do. 

We get a sense of this when we ponder the original fall of man (and woman) in Scripture.  This depicts Adam and Eve doing something rather innocuous and seemingly trivial – the taking of a fruit from a tree.  The logical mind doesn’t quite know how to make any sense of this because if that tree was so potentially toxic not just to the two of them, but also to the entire human race, then it shouldn’t have been in the garden in the first place!  So right from the start, we say that this tale/lore/story/fable/parable (delete whichever is applicable) is flawed. 

Anyone looking at this purely from a logical, dualistic and left-brained perspective would be excused for coming to this conclusion.  But the fall of humankind and the subsequent elaborate and long drawn-out plan to get humankind back into Eden and back into eternal life is just as illogical, non-dualistic and requires more of a right-brained thinking. 

The fall of humanity is often attributable not to the action of eating of a fruit, but to the energy and drive to even want to do it in the first place.  In that garden, and in the original plan, there was a promise that life would be super abundantly rich and good.  It had a caveat; a clause.  And the condition was that the life that they were promised was to be received as gift, and the only way one could truly partake and enjoy it in its fullest was when they continued to receive it with gratitude, respecting the gift with a heart that knows that it didn’t deserve it in the first place.  Grace, to be grace, has to be totally undeserved and unearnable.

But, as the story shows, the life that God gave us necessarily came with a freedom as well.  And this is because love has to be free in order for it to be real.  A love that is forced to love in return is not love.  People in forced marriages or people living in fear in a marriage know this to be true.  This is the reason why we always try to ensure that when coupled enter into marriage, that there is no coercion or situations that are forcing the couple to marry, compromising the absolute freedom of the couple concerned.  And that is why a pregnancy out of wedlock is always deemed a curtailing of freedom.

God doesn’t force us to love him.  He knows that forced love is an oxymoron.  That is why he gave us the ability to even want to reject this offer of love, and the result is that Adam and Eve took from the tree.  The whole simple explanation of their sin is that they were not receptive of life as a gift, but appropriated it for themselves in that defiant act of taking and grabbing it as if it was theirs by right.  And from that point, we have all been struggling with this and have to learn over and over again to truly nurture gratitude in our lives.

One of the effective ways to remind us to be grateful is to look back at where we have come from in life.  People with a mired past and who are living now in a new enlivened state have an advantage over others.  People who have come through adversities and emerged later more grounded, more stable and less scattered have great advantage to be thankful.  Peoples who had been refugees once but are now citizens of countries which gave them a new stability and citizenship know this to be true.  It is not just a concept for them.  It is real.  And we all need to be able to do this often.

Today, I can say that I am one such grateful person.  It was exactly three years ago that I received my much-needed perfectly matching Stem Cells from my kind and generous donor, Mr. Peter Mui who lives in Chicago.  This truly altruistic donation has allowed me to be alive today, and I am two years away from being declared cancer-free and in full remission from my Leukemia.  I have never allowed myself to take this great act of kindness for granted, and it has forever shaped the way I approach challenges in life.  Everything is truly gift, even the adversities and trials that we have in life.

Peter has a wonderfully self-deprecating nature, and each time I thank him for his selfless act, he tells me that he did something anybody would have done.  But the truth is that it isn’t something anybody would have done.  It was something he specifically did, and it mattered.  He asks jokingly if being demonstrative of my gratitude could be getting old.  It cannot get old.  If it does get old, it means that I have begun to take mercy and grace for granted.  I need to be grateful and to show it in living a converted life each day. 

So Peter, again and again, I would like to say a big “thank you” for giving me the possibility of getting a ‘re-boot’ in life and to be usable for God’s kingdom and His work.  It’s my new third birthday, and it truly is a very happy one. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Respecting God in the other is the only way out of the spiral of violence.

Each day, we seem to be exposed to more and more stories and reports of terrible violence committed that is planned, calculated and pre-meditated.  One only knows how numb one is to the horror that we can afflict to another human being when one reads of the unbelievable carnage done and turns the pages of the newspaper with hardly any reaction of surprise, shock, sadness or empathy. 

Animals who see the rotting carcasses of their own species walk pass them with little reaction.  To expect more from them would be imposing human standards of feelings and sympathy onto beings that have not been endowed with a conscience.  But we know that there is something terribly wrong with us as a race of humans when we see reports or instances of people maimed, shot, bombed or mowed down by a truck, and do little more than lament that there is something wrong with the world.  Do we see ourselves as the priest or the Levite who walked by the half-dead man in the parable of the Good Samaritan? 

Perhaps there are too many of us who think that we are just too insignificant to make any impact on a global scale as a single human being.  Unless we are people who have some global clout or who hold some position of power and authority, our little ways of living and working in our office, our neighbourhood or small social circles can hardly make a difference to change or stop these from happening.  With blinkers on our eyes, causing us to narrow our vision, we could justify our unwillingness to live differently. 

Those of us who are Christians, especially Catholics who understand the impact and depth of what it means to be a living part of the global and universal organism known as the Body of Christ, cannot afford to be lackadaisical in this regard.  Small and seemingly insignificant actions of charity, forgiveness, hospitality and mercy done to even one other human being has a much larger effect than meets the eye.  We must believe what Jesus says in Matthew 25 is true when he says “whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me”.  This has to affect the way that we treat each person we meet in the pathways of our lives.  The one problem we all share as a broken Body of Christ is that we have very limited definitions of who makes up this ‘least of my brethren’.  Most of us have no qualms being merciful to those who are merciful to us, being kind to those who are kind to us, and being generous with those who are generous with us.  It’s those who do not fit into these categories that make this a very great challenge, and it is most likely that it is when these are the beneficiaries of the extension of our love and care that God takes extra delight in.

The Christ-follower has a divine reason to want to try to extend love to the stranger and the one who has fallen through the cracks of life.  The divine reason is that in the person lives the very image of God whom he or she is made in the likeness of.  No other religion upholds this dignity of the human person with the same loftiness and excellence.  This has to be one very compelling reason why and how Christ is the savior of the world.  It is when his image is valued and honoured and treated with dignity that peace can be restored – a peace that the world cannot give.

As a confessor, I often hear confessions of so many people (men and women, adults and young people alike) who find themselves so beguiled by the evil of pornography.  When time permits, I ask them if they are only interested in getting God to forgive them of their sin, or if they are willing to do the hard work that it takes to see this sin for what it is, and render it more and more powerless over them. 

The way I see it, whether it is trying to stop hate-violence on a global level, or self-violence on a seemingly private level (as in the case of self-destruction through pornography addiction), it has very much to do with the way that we see our fellow man and woman.  The trouble is often that we do not pause to see that the other person is more than just who he or she is to us.  This needs explication.

If the person before me isn’t seen and appreciated for more than just who he or she is in relation to me and my self-serving or self-protecting purposes, I am not honouring the fact that just like me, that he or she has a mother, a father, probably a sibling or more, could have nephews and nieces, grandparents who dote and cherish him or her, and want to be proud of his or her being in the world.  This expands and deepens the reality of the person and invites me to consider him or her more than just for what he or she is in that flat dimension devoid of his or her entirety. 

The vice-gripped world of pornography flattens the person and robs him or her of her depth, and what is sold or presented blatantly negates and ignores this.  It is often saying “use him or her solely for your pleasure”.  The director, the photographer and the industry (porn, drug, slave, insert the applicable) at large has already robbed and stripped him or her of all her deep worth as a child of God.  They make it easy to forget and ignore that this person also has the dignity of being a loved child of a mother and father, a brother or a sister, or even possibly a parent of a child or several children.  The person is seen as having only one-dimension.  This of course, is a lie, but millions and millions buy into it.  Why?  Possibly because it takes too much effort to realize the intrinsic worth and dignity of the other.  It is way easier (and more convenient) to use another person for one’s personal and selfish benefit. 

The same applies to the foreigner, the refugee or the person with special needs.  It is only when we pause to see that each person, each individual has a worth that is more than what meets the eye (a threat, one who is taking away what I am entitled to, one who doesn’t deserve or who isn’t entitled to my same privileges in life), that I know that I cannot be justified in dismissing his or her basic and human needs. 

I am more and more convinced that the true contemplative mind is the one which is given the important ‘hermeneutical flashlight’ to see beyond what is apparent and physically visible.  This term ‘hermeneutical flashlight’ is used astutely by Ronald Rolheiser in his groundbreaking book ‘The Shattered Lantern’ to refer to the way that the contemplative mind is given the insight to peer beyond the surface knowledge of reality, where hermeneutics is understood as the deeper interpretation of Biblical texts.  So, when one applies a ‘hermeneutical flashlight’, one opens up one’s way of looking past and into the reality of what and who is before one.  Because it changes the way the seer sees reality; it also changes the seer himself. 

I attach a video of a song which I had recently come across, powerfully depicting the message of our shared dignity as children of God.  The lyrics are appended below to help you to appreciate the depth and essence of the song. 

This is a son – by Jody McBrayer

No one looks him in the eye
No one dares to take the time
We only see him as the guilty and the shameless
We write him off as wasted and nameless

This is a son
He has a mother
He is a child
Maybe a brother
This is a heart
This is a soul in need of love
To see beyond
the awful things that life has done
This is a son

He knows how it feels to hurt
He thinks this is what he's worth
He knows we see him as the guilty and the shameless
and write him off as wasted and nameless

This is a son
He has a mother
He is a child
Maybe a brother
This is a heart
This is a soul in need of love
to see beyond
the awful things that life has done
This is a son

Mother Mary stands beneath the cross
Staring up in utter disbelief
and as the angry crowd screams out in hate
she whispers through her tears and through her grief

This is a son
He has a mother
He is my child
He is your brother
He has a heart for every soul in need of love
To see beyond the awful things that you have done
This is a son
This is a son
This is a son

A Post-Script
I do realise that what I have written and shared today in this blog may be rather esoteric, and may fail to appeal to the masses.  I would be na├»ve to think that this type of reflection has a strong following.  But here is where I am appealing to your charity as a reader to help me grow and develop as a writer and a thinker.

Your comment is appreciated.  It always is.  I have mentioned to some circles that I had intentions to stop these weekly reflections, and invariably I get the response that my writings are being read and being forwarded. What would help me sustain this solo effort is when I am able to respond to your reactions.  Any feedback is useful as it tells me several things - the helpfulness of the topic chosen for the week, the language used, the relevance to you as a reader, etc.  

Posting these reflections on Facebook is my way of reaching a larger audience, but I am not so much interested in your ‘liking’ what I post.  Please do not just ‘like’ this.  It makes no difference to me (and I say this with no intention to sound arrogant or egotistic - it truly doesn't make a difference to me as a writer).  What makes me continue to pursue this effort of mine is when I know that it creates in my readers a willingness to expand and enlarge their hearts, and to live out the challenges to be part of the organic Body of Christ.  Can I ask that you do not just ‘forward’ these, not just 'share' these or 'like' these, but that you take some time to pause, reflect, and then with some deliberation, make a personal comment about the piece.  It doesn’t have to be a comment that agrees with what I have written.  It could be a question, a clarification, a reaction or just a thought to add.  My improvement as a thinker and a praying person is when I can take negative feedback and look at it as something that moulds, shapes and forms my future thinking.  Writing without any feedback is supremely challenging, and I am appealing to your assisting me to improve and deepen – as a writer, as a priest, and as a person.  God bless you.

Monday, July 11, 2016

It may not necessarily be a bad thing when the wine runs out.

The episode of the wedding at Cana in John’s gospel has been an often used passage at many wedding Masses.  After all, it is centered on the very subject of a wedding, and there is a miracle that is featured in the episode, where water was turned into wine.  At each marriage, especially when this is a Sacramental marriage between two baptized Catholics, it is the marriage itself that becomes the very presence of the reality of God’s love in our world, concretized in the very love that the couple live out as one body in a lifelong union.  That is why the Church has always taught that the ministers of the Sacrament here are the couple themselves, and not the presiding priest or minister.  It is the vows made between the couple that makes the Sacrament valid, rather than the presiding minister’s presence and prayers.

Whenever friends and relations congratulate the wedded couple, it is customary for words of good tidings and blessings to be lauded upon them.  After all, it is a social norm to do so.  So phrases like “we wish you an abundance of happiness”, “may you always be experiencing the joys of marriage each day of your lives”, or variations of the traditional Gaelic blessing that the “road rise up to meet you” are not unfamiliar.  We seem to wish only the best for the couple, because we want only the best. 

But we don’t often realise that what we deem as ‘best’ in life also often ignores the fact that in life, whether one is married or single, mature adult or child, man or woman, it is most likely not the sweet taste of successes and glories in life that make us persons of depth and substance, but the trials, the turbulence and the tests that prove us to be strong in faith and in love, and ultimately in life.  Swimming along the current in shallow waters doesn’t necessarily show that we are good swimmers.  Being trained in swimming against the tide is where we know we truly are able to go out into the deep waters.

This was what brought me to an insight, which I shared at the recent priests’ retreat that just ended for us in the archdiocese of Singapore, where we were guided by the retreat master Archbishop John Ha from the Kuching Diocese in West Malaysia.  I was inspired to share that like at the wedding in Cana, it may not be as terrible and tragic as it seems to be when the wine runs out in our lives.  Sometimes, the tragedy or calamity becomes the route through which God’s grace gains that necessary foothold and entry point into our lives.

The miracle where Jesus turned the water into wine is often referred to as Jesus’ first sign of glory in John’s gospel.  It inaugurates Jesus’ glorious presence into the world, and it is after this event that other miracles of his become recorded in this gospel.  If the wine hadn’t run out at the wedding, many other things would not have happened.  If the wine hadn’t run out, there would be no reason for there to be an abundance of the new wine that was of far superior quality.  If the wine hadn’t run out, the world would not have heard those words of great advice from the Blessed Mother to “do whatever he tells you”.  If the wine hadn’t run out, the jars that only had been used for ordinary ablution purposes containing water would never be considered to be worthy of being containers of something as precious and unctuous as a premium product of excellent variety, and in copious amounts at that!

The priestly life, just as in the life of a married couple, is constantly facing moments of trials and tension.  And if married couples experience crises and moments of difficulty, the priestly life is similarly tested.  There are times in life when we hit rock bottom.  Alcoholics Anonymous acknowledges that it is often only when the addict is at rock bottom that we can begin that long recovery journey because it is only when one is at the bottom that the only way to go is up. 

It is in this understanding that it really was a good thing that the wine ran out at that wedding in Cana.  No guest there would have wished that tragedy would be experienced by the couple, let alone at such an early stage in the life of the couple’s life.  But no one can deny that it was precisely because of the tragedy of wine having run out that the superior wine made its appearance through God’s grace.  Just as no one wishes a newly ordained priest to have a crisis of his faith or his vocation on his day of ordination, isn’t it just as possible that it is in and through his crisis that the healed one then becomes the better healer because of his woundedness? 

This is the paradox of life that many of us fail to appreciate, and find it so hard to articulate in life.  Yet, I am sure that when we are able to truly seize the moment, those moments of vulnerability and live those with faith and love, with eyes looking upward to God as our only hope, that pain can turn into purpose, and water into sweet and velvety wine. 

Yes, sometimes it is not a tragedy when the wine runs out.  It could well be the ushering in of greater things around the corner.