Monday, September 26, 2016

That perennial struggle we have between making worship an act of love and wanting worship to be entertaining and engaging.

As much as I can understand that this is a reality that so many young and not-so-young people face in our churches, I cannot seem to get a firm grip on how either the Church or myself, an individual pastor of souls, can help to address the situation.  Here is the main problem that I am reflecting on today – that we are losing our faithful in massive numbers, and a common reason that we hear is that our liturgy is ‘boring’.  That they are leaving because of doctrinal divergence or a lifestyle that is at odds with the Catholic faith is another issue altogether.  But it is with the issue that they are of the opinion that the Catholic liturgy is ‘boring’ is what concerns me here.  In the Singapore archdiocese, the numbers that leave are actually quite high.  Apparently, the statistics have shown that only 1 in 3 Catholics in Singapore are regularly going for Mass on Sundays, and that 2 in 3 Catholics are not actively practicing their faith.  It is not known however, how many of these are leaving because of the boredom felt at Mass.

Those who have left our ‘boring’ liturgy can often be found in the churches of our separated brethren that feature the latest sound and lighting systems that have been acquired at near extortionate prices.  Each Sunday’s session is rightly called a production, with slick singers (sometimes even dancers) and feature vocals that are worthy of recording contracts.  In no uncertain terms, those who are labeled as ‘mega’ churches offer a show and an experience that lifts one’s senses in the way that attending a concert would.  An added ‘bonus’ is the fact that while being entertained and with the senses so engaged, one is also doing something else – worshipping God.  Mary Poppins may be right when she said that with the right amount of sugar, medicine does more easily go down.

The intent of today’s blog is not to question or critique the ways and practices of our separated brethren churches.  There are enough webpages and blogs that rant and inveigh heavily on them, many with hardly a scintilla of charity.  But if it is really just the fact that the sensorial experience is what has caused the exit from our churches to happen, what is more pertinent is to address what worship is, and what constitutes a massage of the senses.

I will be the first to agree that in the modern mind, the Catholic Liturgy is an acquired taste.  Any new comer who sees the liturgy for the first time is bound to find himself in a different space, more so if the only experience of being in a sea of people who sing en-masse is at pop concerts or parades in a secular or commercial setting.  It would only be natural to compare the liturgy to what one had experienced before and come to the conclusion that the Roman liturgy ‘sucks’ at entertaining and crowd pulling.  That’s the main problem – the liturgy has never been about entertainment or engagement of the senses at those levels, and it is certainly not focused on feelings. 

If the purpose of the Mass is meant to entertain the people, the Congregation of Divine Worship at the Vatican would need to be renamed the Congregation of Spiritual Entertainment and Audio and Visual Delights.  The fact that the Mass is Divine Worship means that it is to God that our attention and purpose is turned to.  It is not about us.  Not about how we feel, what panders to our senses, what makes us clap our hands in approval of how one singer has sung or how upbeat the choir performance was, or how slick the production was.  Those accolades are rightly given to concerts and productions of a worldly nature, and whose purpose is ultimately profit-driven and being popular.

What our faith ultimately seeks is to nurture and grow mature and discerning Christ-centered adults who are committed to all areas of life, and this includes their commitments to marriage, to their families, to their jobs and vocations, and ultimately to God.  A very strong foundation of this commitment is grounded in things and activities that build tenacity, discipline and an appreciation for order.  None of these are handed on well by novelty, being entertaining, gimmickry or excitement.  These may thrill and delight, but are momentary and ephemeral at best.

The Catholic Church has sacred roots that have stood the test of time.  To say that it needs to ‘move with the times’ is akin to saying that God too needs to ‘move with the times.’  The unspoken narrative behind this statement is that even God is mutable and needs to change, subjecting God to forces that even He needs to respect. 

Often in life, what is of good value and what feeds the soul requires much dedication.  Perhaps our modern day culture has compromised too much due to its addiction to efficiency.  All addictions are a great challenge to be weaned off from.  But if we are taught from a very young age to appreciate the sublime, to be in awe of beauty that is deep and to know the difference between smarts and wisdom, the path is always one that requires much more attention than entertainment.  A child who is schooled in books and the discipline of reading will be deeper than one who is surrounded constantly by gadgets, the Internet and the television.  I personally know of a very talented chef and his wife who have two lovely children below the age of 10.  These delightful girls have adult taste buds, and have never developed a taste for fast food or junk food.  This is because their loving parents have always given them the food that they themselves eat, wanting to form their appreciation for taste that is wide and varied, and it is a delight to see them appreciate the complexities of tastes at such tender ages.  I can see Mother Church doing this for her flock through the Liturgy that she provides.

The great challenge posed to us as Church is to continue striving to impart to our children the foundational importance of loving God, worshipping God and living under the auspices and aegis of God.  How are we building their foundation to truly pray and worship God for his sake and not for ours? 

Treats given constantly and ending up as meal replacements will simply ruin the body.  Ask any nutritionist. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fear lies behind our tendency to be dishonest. But what is it a fear of?

“Thou shalt not lie” is not a commandment that is specific to Christianity alone.  In almost all religions, honesty is upheld as a virtue to be cultivated and lived.  Why is this so?  We have in us as human beings an inherent appreciation and need for honesty.  Its goodness is universally agreed upon and people looking for life-partners want to see honesty in them. 

Yet, there is ample evidence that dishonesty plagues humanity on so many levels.  People lie for all sorts of reasons, and as a confessor, I can vouch that many penitents are burdened and feel guilty for having lied and being dishonest.  The Confessional is a place where one reveals to God the ways in which one had not been living in a right relationship with God and with one’s brethren.  In dishonesty, which comes in so many forms, the relationship had been lived in some sort of falseness or duplicity, and this simply does not sit well with the penitent.  While the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Confession does forgive the person for the dishonesty confessed, the more important dimension of this confession is more challenging - to get the penitent to understand the reason behind this dishonesty.  After all, one really needs to understand the energy and the rationale for such behaviour before there is true conversion of life and of heart, enabling one to walk and live in a new way thereafter.

I have realized that it is not often easy for a person to get to the root of the ‘why’.  Most people who lie cannot just be pathological liars.  There have to be reasons behind this, and just admitting the lie may not bring about a conversion of heart.  True conversion requires one to arrive at the root of why one had resorted to living in some form of deceit.  I am wont to believe that many times, the under girding reason is fear.

Fear of what?  The basic fear that one would not be loved, accepted and met with approval if one was truly honest, guileless and ingenuous.  The child fears that the parent would not love her if she were honest about not having done her homework so she lies.  The teenager is afraid of being rejected and admonished by his parents if he really tells them that he was smoking with his buddies, so he lies.  The husband who was really with his friends around the poker table rather than around the meeting table fears that the truth would mean getting the cold shoulder instead of a shoulder of support, so ends up lying to her.

Scripture is so right to say that the opposite of love is not hatred but fear.  However, scripture doesn’t elaborate very much as to why this is so.  But if we are discerning enough, we will see that it is often the fear of being rejected and being denied the security and comfort of love that all human beings seem to need.  The good news or the gospel (from the word “god spell”) that Christ has come to cast over the world is that humanity does not need to live in any insecurity or fear because he had come to show how much God loves the world – unconditionally.  So unconditional that the cost of their deepest fear (which rejection and abandonment by God) was paid by the very life of God’s himself by the life of his only son.  Unconditional love doesn’t count the cost.  It bears the cost.

Agreed, the layers behind this statement and its implications are many and nuanced, but its truth is what gives one cause to live in honesty and truth rather than in fear, anxiety and deep-seated insecurity. 

It is only when one is clear about this that one begins to want to live no longer in any duplicity or deceitfulness.  One begins also to live in a newfound confidence, not just because lying is wrong (which it is) and because one doesn’t want to ‘suffer’ the pains of hell, but because one is now living in right response to what one has been given unconditionally and without meriting it by one’s own goodness.  We hardly trust this truth very much in our lives, and this was seen in the way that our first parents, Adam and Eve were so easily deceived to think that God’s love for them was somewhat still conditional and that something was still held back.  This made them fall for the lie.

As much as the world does seek honesty, it does not help when dishonest acts get to be commended and rhapsodized and given some sort of ‘stamp of approval’.  I recently came across a story of how a radio station in Australia had pranked someone by calling a random number.  The DJ of the radio station (there were two on this program) who made the call fabricated a story of how he needed this random person to pretend to be a referral in his job application to an accountancy firm and asked that if he would help him if he were to lie to his would-be employer, and so give the potential employer a good impression of him.  This person (it was later revealed that this person went by the name of James) agreed.

The other DJ then called James soon after, posing as the potential employer, and asked questions about the person James was being a fake referral for.  James lied bold-faced about having known the person for about 10 years, that he was bi-lingual, and that he was good with numbers.  The prank was finally unveiled and the truth exposed.  One would think that this would end here.

But this is where it gets bizarre.  The local news station picked up on this, and featured James in their TV show, and had him brought to the station.  It turned out that what James did was met with widespread approval from not just the listeners to the show, but even people on the social media.  He was hailed as a ‘great bloke’ and a ‘truly great guy’.

Society’s moral compass as far as honesty and truthfulness is concerned seems to have gone out of whack.  Dishonesty here becomes praiseworthy and commendable.  It was clear that all James wanted to be was a ‘nice guy’, but at what price?  Is the bar to be loved, approved and accepted even by complete strangers really that low in life?  It brings clearly to mind what Jesus said “what would it profit a man if he should gain the whole world but lose his soul?” 

I am that convinced that knowing that God unconditionally loves us really changes everything in life.  Jesus came to show us that.  It is what really redeems us.  And that is why I always end my homilies and sermons with “God love you”, and pray that one day, this truth will sink in and begin to change our world.     

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Death needs to be handled with kid gloves, more so when it is the result of a suicide.

It is always a great challenge to handle and accept death when it happens.  Death is never timely.  A very common pithy statement made about death, especially when it happens to a young person is that he or she had gone too soon.  The problem gets compounded when the death was a result of violence, or an illness that had brought with it much suffering and trauma, or when there is no satisfactory reason for the death.  If suicide was the cause of the death, the ramifications are often not just far reaching but also lingering, defying the adage that time heals all wounds.

Blogs like this take risks when writing and reflecting on suicide.  It risks being misread as pontificating on the unspoken issues at hand, and some of the common ones are the apparent selfishness of the deceased, or how perhaps the community surrounding the person were somehow oblivious to the signs that were displayed of the deceased person’s emotional instability.  Often, the ‘elephant in the room’ is the question of whether the person’s death was something that was preventable.  The fact that the person is no longer alive bears testimony that it was not.  The object was to ensure death and what is left seems to be for the survivors to cope with this very regrettable loss.  Many don’t have the necessary coping mechanisms.

The Catholic Church has, thankfully, softened her approach toward such deaths.  By the very technical definition of suicide being a killing of oneself, it was taken to mean that the person died in a state of mortal sin as the taking of life (in this case, one’s very own) was deemed to be a both an act of despair.  It also signaled the loss and abandoning of one’s faith in God.  By denying the deceased the Catholic funeral rites usually accorded to baptized Catholics, the Church was highlighting the paramount importance of upholding the absolute sanctity of life.  Whilst this is true, the ritual sanction broadly applied may well have had corollary effects.  One of these was assuming that at the point of committing the act the person was really acting in true and full freedom. 

The current 1983 Code of Canon Law took into consideration that though acts of suicide are objectively immoral, the degree of culpability of this act also depends on the state of mind of the person when this act was carried out.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering and torture” as things or circumstances that can diminish one’s personal responsibility in cases of suicide.  And because the Church holds that only God can read into the very depths of one’s soul, the judgment of such actions should be left to God and God alone.  It is thus a noble act to continue to pray for the souls of those whose lives were lost by suicide, offering Masses for the repose of their souls, and imploring for God’s love and mercy for such souls as well as God’s healing grace to be bestowed on those grieving for the deceased.

This must be a source of good news to those have had the terrible experience of having someone close to them who have sought suicide as a solution to the problems that they were facing.  While outsiders looking on from a distance can feel compassion for their loss, it is the immediate family members who often suffer in silence.  It doesn’t help matters that in an Asian society like Singapore, we do not have the habit of putting our wounds on public display and wearing our hearts on our sleeves.  This blog is written with the special intention of giving some balm of solace to these families.

Perhaps some explanation is needed for a blog entry such as this.  A few weeks ago, two separate and unrelated cases of deaths by suicide were reported here in Singapore.  Both of them were committed by teenagers who were students in Singapore’s top junior colleges, and they happened within 10 days of each other.  These deaths were very quietly handled, as would be expected.

Families are often at sixes and sevens when broaching such deaths with their faith lives.  Many struggle precisely because of a notion of God that could do with some serious re-adjustment.  It is my hope that somehow, this blog entry gets to them and that it can help them to see anew how the compassion and mercy of God is expansive, and that there is no place that God doesn’t have access to, be it the locked rooms of their hearts, or the hearts of their loved ones that beat no more.  The line in the Apostle’s Creed that says that Jesus ‘descended into hell’ is pregnant with deep meaning.  So is the fact that after the Resurrection during Jesus' appearances to his disciples, that he could enter through doors that were locked.  It necessarily means that there is no place that is devoid of God’s saving love, and that includes the private hells in which we sometimes find ourselves being captives, behind doors which we may have securely locked and bolted.  When we are in those places, we may find ourselves doing other things – like locking others out because we are too wounded in our own pains, or full of fear, or for some other reason, paralyzed and immobilized.  But Jesus enters through doors that are shut and descends into those depths as he did after he died. 

But after having been raised from the dead, locked doors do not prevent Jesus getting to those places of pain and fear.  That Jesus descended into hell also gives us hope even when we think there is no hope. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Why we need a pure heart in order to see God.

The Church’s history has been replete with examples and stories of how saints have been made saints because they managed to keep themselves pure.  This gives us reason for the Church’s teachings on sexual purity largely because many of these stories of purity were mainly centered on sexual purity, where these saints fought courageously and prophetically to preserve and maintain their sexuality from being tarnished and sullied.  Moreover, the Blessed Mother herself, the greatest of all saints, is hailed as the Virgin Mary, denoting that virginal purity is highly prized as a badge of honour when entering the heavenly halls.  Up and down the centuries, the image of the Roman Catholic church has been often critiqued as a stuffy and fussy upholder of prudishness and cautions against a life lived according to the pleasure principle.

There is good reason to champion purity and chastity, but unless we truly understand the sound reason for this, worldly eyes will always misread and misunderstand this fundamental need to be pure.  The call is not just on the level of sexuality, though predominantly it can appear to be so.  Purity is something that has to be lived and inculcated in every sphere of our lives if we want to “see God”, as Matthew 5:8 tells us that “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God”. 

Purity has to be understood in terms of being genuine, sincere and honest.  When one has pure motives, it means that one’s motives are also undiluted, unmixed and clear.  However, most of the time, we find ourselves doing things with very mixed motives, and if we are truly honest, we will find ourselves admitting that there are various degrees of self-serving reasons for many of the things we do, and that includes living out our religious and spiritual lives.  There are some couples who do admit that the reasons for their being married was because they did not want to be ‘left on the shelf’ for the rest of their lives.  Love then was not the real reason for their marriage, but rather, a sense of self-preservation and self-protection.  It does seem to fall rather far from the pure reason for love, which as St Thomas teaches, is ‘willing the good of the other as other.’

One of the truly amazing things about grace is that it works at where we are.  If we are open to grace at whatever level of life we may be at, even at the most selfish levels, but are seeking to purify our motives and work at becoming less and less selfish and self-centered, our mixed motives can be purified and slowly become less diluted and clarified. 

With faith, there is no lost cause.  We do however, need to be aware of the desire to want to seek purification in life, and to truly make it an act of the will. 

Perhaps this is where most of us falter – we are just not hungry enough to want to live in the purity of the gospel.  Just as the enemy of the perfect is the good, so too is our desire to want purity in many of our endeavours in life.  Our weak wills settle too easily for the moderate and the mediocre.  We hardly believe in the need to set our sights high. 

The Catholic doctrine of purgatory isn’t highly fashionable in theology, and it is a shame.  I believe that without a proper appreciation of what it truly is, many reduce it to an idea of the past, where there is a lot of suffering with images of fire and agony.  These are but metaphors to denote that it is painful when love undergoes any purification.  It is because what heaven offers is love at its purest and most unsullied, that it necessarily demands of purification that we willingly take on when we see how selfish and impure our loving had been in this life.  No one sends us to purgatory.  We willingly and honestly take ourselves there because we finally see just how pure God’s goodness and holiness is in the light of how impure our love had been. 

Then, once we have managed to purify our love, then we will be able to truly ‘see God’.  The retinas of our hearts would have been dilated enough to take in all the splendor and radiance that God’s love wants to fill us with.