Monday, August 29, 2016

Embracing the Galilees and Jerusalems of our lives without exceptions.

Ronald Rolheiser in one of his many keynote addresses made a very pertinent reference to both Galilee and Jerusalem.  He made it clear that though these are geographical places that physically exist, when it is made in relation to our prayer life and our spiritual life, they have a deep and abiding spiritual meaning and significance.  For the sake of my readers, and because I find this most relatable to my own prayer life, I would like to ponder a bit about this.

In the ministry and life of Jesus, these two towns or cities gave very different experiences both of God and of man.  Galilee was a place where so many miracles were performed and recorded.  Jesus begins forming his team of disciples in Galilee.  This was the seedbed of Christianity as we know it.  Jesus walked on the water there and he fed the 5,000 miraculously.  In fact, Peter himself managed to make a few steps on the water too.  Stormy seas were calmed and controlled by Jesus at Galilee.  This was a place of great happenings.  The power of God seemed to be at its zenith.  Galilee was a place of light.

Then there’s Jerusalem.  What Galilee was to Jesus, this was its antithesis.  Beloved city that it was, it was not a place that was welcoming and happy to receive Jesus.  Jerusalem was the place where Jesus would be provoked, with the powers that be orchestrating to disconcert him.  The authorities there would plan and plot to have him done away with, and this would be where, hanging on the Cross of Calvary, Jesus would be dying to save the world.  Jerusalem was a heavy and dense place, and it contrasted against Galilee, it would seem to be a place of darkness.

Yet, in both places, we meet Jesus.  This I believe, is the important teaching point that many miss.  If these two places are indeed places where one did meet Jesus, and for different reasons, then it also means that in our own spiritual journeys, Jesus too is found in places that are dark and dense, just as he can be found in places that are full of light and joy.  Jesus doesn’t just meet us when things are going well, and when there are no trials and afflictions.  Jesus isn’t just there at the Galilees of our lives.  Jesus is also there in the Jerusalems where we are facing trials and when things seem to be falling off the hinges and things don’t seem to be making sense. 

It’s the embracing of Jesus at these two places simultaneously that many people are not comfortable.  A healthy spirituality doesn’t turn our backs on Jerusalem like those two disciples who headed for Emmaus, even though most of the time, it doesn’t make logical sense to go into a place of foreboding with any willingness.

The place that these two locations had in the life of the early church was also very different.  At so many resurrection appearances of Jesus, he tells the disciples to meet him at Galilee.  There is a spiritual and theological reason for this that requires some unpacking.  Because Galilee was a place of grace-filled encounter, there is a need for us to hearken there especially when the trials and tests of life come flying at us at breakneck speed.  It is a reminder to all of us that when the horizon ahead of us isn’t particularly clear with blue skies, it would be good for us to rekindle our faith by recalling when we were called to life anew, like when our baptism gave us a new identity and a great purpose for life.  It’s easy to forget these foundational moments when we start floundering in our faith.  Good retreats must always rekindle within us the joys of our Galilee moments.

But to stay there would be to miss the point.  It is the Jerusalem moments that build our character and give us a reason to pursue virtue.  Just as Jerusalem was a sine qua non for Jesus and the salvation of the world, so too are the Jerusalems for our souls.  Just as Calvary was the prerequisite for the Resurrection, our risings from our little deaths can only come about through the ways that we resolutely enter the Jerusalem moments with faith. 

Our lives are always made richer because of the contours and contrasts brought about by both darkness and light.  Joy is only fully appreciated when one has known sorrow, in the same way that sorrow brings depth the experiences of joy.  So too with the Galilee and Jerusalems.  To only want one without the other may be asking for immature living.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A happy death has to include making a good and heartfelt confession.

It could well be due the fact that I have been celebrating numerous funeral Masses so close to each other lately that I have been given in to thinking and reflecting about the fleetingness of life or the inevitability of death more than the average person does.  Many people seem to have the idea that thinking of death is such a morbid thing.  The moment the topic of death is mentioned, some become strangely silent, suggesting a change of topic or become awkwardly uncomfortable.  One of my first spiritual directors had been sedulous in promoting his strong belief of the necessity of a regular meditation on death.  I have since been convinced of its benefits, the chief of which is gratitude. 

Catholics of a generation past would often have prayed for a happy death, and the patron of this is St Joseph.  Perhaps it is because St Joseph’s demise has never been mentioned in the pages of Sacred Scripture that it was believed that he died a naturally happy death, and that he would be the model and patron of this grace.  Some traditions of our faith are still open to healthy and respectful questioning.  But one question that remains, and not often addressed is ‘what constitutes a happy death’? 

In my numerous pastoral encounters with persons whose deaths were imminent and foreseeable, I have noticed one thing – that a good heart-searing confession doth maketh a restful spirit.  As much as the Sacrament of Anointing includes the absolution of sins, the quality of a restful soul is clearly evident when the one experiencing the anointing has had that opportunity to truthfully speak about what had weighed most heavily on his or her heart for the longest period of time.  It certainly takes a lot of soul work to articulate the ways in which one had been living falsely.  Identifying where in life one had been callous and selfish requires a humility that knows that it is simply not good to take these with him or her to meet God.  A general absolution of sins objectively does take these sins away, but there is also the element of divine justice that awaits one who hasn’t died to oneself in raw honesty.  I truly believe that a happy death has very much to do with dying with an honesty, especially one that requires articulation.

It is true that oftentimes, when a person who had been battling illness for a considerable period of time comes to that stage where the mind is no longer quite as lucid, nor able to communicate with clarity. This is when the grace of the sacrament takes over and one’s sins are absolved without one’s actual confession having been made.  But we should not wait for that moment to come simply because it might not happen the way we would prefer it to.

As a priest, I do ‘get it’ that so many people are very reticent when it comes to bringing their transgressions to confession.  The common excuse given is that God knows what is in our hearts and the darkness that lurks there.  I have no doubt that he knows.  He is God, after all.  We have to first of all understand that God’s forgiveness stems from God’s love.  Our human forgiveness sometimes can be given outside of love, and that is where our forgiveness falls short of it being a mirror of godliness.  When we forgive reluctantly, and are clear that this would be the very last time it is given, we forgive with a grudge and not with love.  God doesn’t.  And this is one of the great reasons we need to experience this in the sacrament of reconciliation.

There is really no place for pride in encountering God’s grace of mercy in the Confession, and for that matter, there is no place for pride in heaven as well.  Just wanting the forgiveness of God without the effort to name our shortcomings may be akin to wanting a set of clean clothes to wear but refusing to take a good bath first. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why God invites us to make a sacrifice of praise.

Heb. 13:15 tells us that we ought to offer God an unending sacrifice of praise.  How do we understand this phrase “sacrifice of praise”?  How can praise be a sacrifice?  It seems to be a contradiction of terms, but in truth, it really isn’t. 

When do most of us give God praise and thanks?  Most likely, it is when things are going well for us.  When we get that raise or promotion that we had been eying all this while, or when thing are going swimmingly our way in life, or when the doctors give us the report that there are no parts in our bodies that appear to be wearing down or riddled with tumors.  In other words, when life is good, when there are no afflictions and tribulations, directing our gratitude and praise to God is, as they say, a no-brainer – at least for those of us with faith.  There’s really not much merit in doing this, because it is something that we really should be doing.

While it is good to know that we should be giving thanks to God for all that we have but do not deserve in life, in themselves, these do not constitute a ‘sacrifice’ per se.  There is not much of a ‘dying’ that happens to cause this gratitude to emote from our hearts.  For a sacrifice to be sacrificial, something has to be offered up, put aside, entailing some kind of death.  How is this applicable to us?

I have said it in many past reflections in this blog that ultimately, our lives are not about us.  If we understand this to be so, then praise given to God should also not be about us.  If it is only when our lives are good and when our lot in life has abundance and isn’t filled with challenges that we give God praise, aren’t we also making praise about us?  But if our lives are riddled with crosses big and small, when we are faced with challenges and trials galore and have worries and anxieties aplenty, and despite these, we come to God and praise him still, then our praise would have a ‘sacrificial’ element in it.

Mindfully wanting to cast aside our pains and problems that may be rife in our lives and willfully praise God with a selfless purpose will always be a sacrifice simply because it takes effort.  It entails some form of a dying in us, and it reminds us that our lives are truly not about us, and neither is our praise of God contingent and predicated on his blessing our lives with goodness. 

Maybe that report from the doctor came back with a positive result, revealing a cancer that requires treatment.  It could be that you lost your job due to a downturn of the economy.  It may well be that you have just lost your spouse or best friend after a long battle with a debilitating illness that he or she finally succumbed to, leaving you without a spouse or a parent to your children.  Making that effort to still give God praise while experiencing these very real agonies in our lives adds a tremendous value to the quality of praise that we are sending to God.  It may well feel like a death that you are going through at that time.  But to lay them aside and thank God for his sake, and not for ours, raises the quality of our faith to another level altogether. 

Part of the reason may well be that we are just so conditional in our love – for others and for God.  If we find ourselves only being grateful to others and thanking them for being in our lives when they do extra special things for us, or being forgiving to them only when we see strong evidence of their repentance and change, and not because forgiveness comes from our hearts and because we love them, our love for them is actually conditional and fear based.  We may also extend this conditionality onto our relationship with God.  We may believe (erroneously of course) that he deserves thanks and praise only if he is extra ‘godly’ in giving us more than what he should already be giving us in life. 

In encouraging us to give God a ‘sacrifice of praise’, the writer to the Hebrews is actually asking us to imitate God in his unconditional love for us.  He is beckoning us to live with enlarged and expansive hearts.  God sent us His son to save us not because we deserved salvation or as a reward for being good.  In fact, it was just the contrary.  God gave us salvation despite our not deserving it, and is not predicated on any sense of quid pro quo or some zero-sum game.  The author of Hebrews had a deep sense of this, and is encouraging us to love as God loves, and be as unconditional as he is unconditional. 

I believe that all of us have the ability to offer beautiful sacrifices of praise to God that He alone deserves.  Truth be told, I’m afraid that if we are honest about it, it may reveal that even in our praise of God, we could in actual fact be conditional, calculative and parsimonious.   

Monday, August 8, 2016

Keying in to life

Most of us celebrate with some greater degree of ‘specialness’ our 21st birthday.  Back in the day, we often celebrated it by the cutting of a cake on the shape of a key.  In this day and age of hipster cafes and multitudinous bakeries that make some incredible looking cakes, I do realise that practically no one has cakes made in the shape of keys anymore.  But in my time, it was common to mark our 21st birthdays with a cake that took this shape.  Why such a strange shape?  What was the mind behind this symbol?  Many people I have asked said that it was supposed to symbolize one’s coming of age, where the person was now given, as it were, the ‘keys’ to unlock doors that were hitherto locked before.  The unspoken message was that all doors could now be opened; all pleasures tasted, nothing was prohibited or verboten.  One could now enjoy life to the hilt. 

But we know this to not be true.  Our lives will be chaotic if not for rules and laws. The reason laws were given to the Hebrew people through Moses, was to show them Godly living and to guide them in Godly living.  Parameters were thus set and put in place so that the "game" of life could be played out well and be enjoyable at the same time. These rules or laws for life serve as life's boundary markers for the orderly and safe living out of one's life.  Beyond these markers, one inadvertently enters into the twilight zone of uncertainty, with a lot more doubt and endless anxieties- hence inviting confusion, misery and suffering.  In any game, rules are necessary in order for delight to take place while at play.  Similarly then, laws are very necessary in life to help each player in life's game to recognize where one’s  personal boundaries lie and in so doing, respect those of others as well.

I think we have never really appreciated rules in this light.  We find them hemming us in, curtailing and limiting our freedom.  Instead, we think that there should be absolute freedom.  But the truth is that in life, there are no unlimited freedoms, because living that way brings with it unspeakable chaos.  Whilst I am quite sure that a key-shaped cake is considered passé at 21st birthday celebrations now, I am quite certain that there is still a silent desire for freedom  in each teen entering their twenties. 

Too many well-meaning parents have given unrestricted freedom to their children before they have reached an age of discernment and maturity, and in so doing make the symbol of a key at 21 redundant.  Perhaps keys have been given out too freely before it was appropriate, and as a community, we suffer the consequences now.  Maybe we have only thought of keys as instruments to open doors, but aren’t they also just as necessary for locking them up too?  It is only with adequate discernment that one will know just what doors to secure tightly, and what doors should be freely left open.