Monday, February 27, 2017

When love is missing, even prayer will be seen as a chore.

Do you, dear reader, find praying something that is both challenging and tedious?  Does the very notion of praying give you a sense of dread, boredom and perhaps fill you with some degree of foreboding?  Your Christian upbringing and catechesis may have imparted the great need for prayer as part of our Christian heritage, but this may have only resulted in you knowing that prayer is something good for you without giving much insight as to either why it is good, or how to make this truly good. 

Right off the bat, we must understand that the heart and the root of prayer is love.  It is love at two levels – the love for God (coming from our hearts) and the love that we put into our efforts and endeavours to pray.  While they may appear to be similar, these two ‘loves’ are really quite different, and it will help us tremendously if we are cognizant of the differences between them.

If our prayer is accompanied with an awareness that what we are doing in prayer is loving God, it transforms and brings it many levels higher qualitatively than if it were just a mouthing of the words and phrases as mere prayers that are “said”.  In this way, the difference between “saying prayers” and “praying” is as wide as a chasm.  What differentiates the two is the element of love. 

 Why is love important?   Because it is God’s very nature.  Scripture is so clear that God is love – it is what He is, and anything that includes love and has love as its motive brings it to a level of godliness that it lacks when it is done merely on the level of rote or routine. 

How do we pray with love?  What makes any action a loving action?  Is it a feeling? 

Associating love with feelings is something that so many people have done, and continue to do so.  It is erroneous, but I believe that many people have to be taught why this is so.  After all, that is the way the world seems to have portrayed love.  The sentiments of the heart that emotes the warm and fuzzy feelings that puts the object of one’s desire in soft-focus, usually in the foreground with appropriate lighting made complete with the luscious chords of music in the background make it easy to feel loving and lovely.  It sends out the message that this is the feeling that has to be experienced if one is loving.  If this is the narrative that ‘works’ in the world through the movies and songs that we are so exposed to in life, we often end up bringing this into our spiritual lives.  We associate love with feelings.  This is where we begin to get it wrong.

As I have said so often in quite a few of my previous reflections, the theological definition of love has nothing (read ZERO) to do with either feelings or sentiments.  St Thomas Aquinas defines loves as “willing the good of the other as other”.  There is, as you can see, no mention of or reference to either feelings or sentiments.  Love, when it is pure and truly godly, is an act of the will.  The more it is a conscious act of the will, absent from feelings and an expectation of a return from the one receiving the love, the more it is truly godly.

Knowing this and reminding ourselves of this will serve us well when we struggle with prayer.  We are in truth really struggling with love and struggling to love.  If we only define love when it is easy to love, or when the sentiments are readily reciprocated, it will always be hard to love when the sentiments are missing. 

But if we now define love in the way that the astute St Thomas Aquinas has defined love, we are really free – we are no longer slaves to loving only under certain conditions.  When we love as an act of the will, we are no longer dependent on external influencing factors when we love.  We are also no longer loving only when we are loved back in return.  This makes it possible for us to love those who hate us (Jesus’ words, not mine), and to love those who do not return the love that we give.  In that sense, it makes our love heroic.  And if we understand this, we will also extend this to the forgiveness that we extend to those who hurt us.  Forgiveness without love is always going to be quid pro quo, where we will forgive only if certain conditions are met, and usually, we will insist that the other party either asks for forgiveness or shows remorse.  When our forgiveness, like love, is also a similar act of the will, it is aligned with love and it will be given unconditionally.

Composer and song writer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a song for his musical “Aspects of Love” called “Love changes everything”.  I believe that Climie Fisher also had a hit with a similar title.  There is a great truth in this statement.  Theologically, it is definitely true.  Love does change everything.  Anything done with love, especially when it is a deliberate act of the will, changes the way these things are done.  When love is missing, St John of the Cross teaches that we need to put in love, and there we will find the love that we couldn’t at first.

If we struggle with prayer, if we find prayer a chore and something laborious, it could well be indicative of something else that we are struggling with – we are also struggling to love.

Monday, February 20, 2017

When a secular movie can give us an image of what a great grace our divine filiation given at baptism bestows upon us.

I had the opportunity to watch the movie 'Lion' recently, and it left me with so many points to ponder and reflect on.  A powerful movie is able to do that.  It doesn’t just leave you when you leave your seat in the cinema hall.  You take images and messages of it with you out of the screening, and as you go through your days following the experience, there will be moments when you find certain scenes appearing in your mind, making you reflect on the reality of your own existence. This, in my opinion, is what makes a really good movie.  It is what continues to ‘roll’ in your heart even after the final credits have ended.

Perhaps it is because I have been constantly reminding both myself and my congregants of the dignity that we have as the adopted children of God through our baptism that makes me appreciate in so many ways this movie is both poignant and moving.  After all, the movie revolves around how a lost boy of five from the rural villages of India ends up getting adopted by a loving Australian couple in Tasmania.  Not being adopted myself, watching how a lost boy becomes accepted and loved unconditionally by parents that are not his own gave me a sneak and privileged peek at some of the emotions that must be a part of such an experience.  Perhaps we don’t do that enough in our experience as children of our natural parents and that is why Christianity’s great message of privilege and dignity of our being God’s adopted children of divine heritage sometime fails to make the great impact that it should.  We never really choose God.  It was God who chose us first (the primacy of grace), and we don’t give enough thought of just how tremendous this is.  It is just very much taken for granted by most of us.

I think that only a small handful of people will truly understand and appreciate just what it is to have parents who have consciously made that choice to adopt you when they could have had children of their very own, like the adoptive parents of Saroo, the man whose life is central in ‘Lion’.  In one very touching scene, Saroo’s adoptive mother, played by Nicole Kidman, was not barren.  She tells him that she and her husband had made a conscious decision to adopt children who do not have parents of their own, to give them a life, because they felt that to take a child who was suffering and to give them a chance in life and in the world is really something tremendous. 

If there were one line in the entire movie that was worth the ticket price, this would be it.  I believe it tries to explain in our vocabulary, as impossible as it is, the theology of God adopting us as his children.  Without salvation and God’s grace, we sinners are as lost as Saroo who found himself lost amidst the millions of people in Calcutta one morning - an aimless urchin with no way of getting back to the family who loved him more than a thousand kilometers away in rural India.  But adoption through baptism is indeed a game changer.

Just as Saroo took such an arduous journey back to India to look for his birth mother, we too make this quest in our search for meaning in life, and for God. 

Many people have come to that point in life where they realise that what they have been dedicating their lives to - things or projects that leave them feeling somewhat flat and unfulfilled, have then embarked on a search to find what it is that is either missing or that will bring them to greater fulfillment and what gives their lives a higher purpose.  For the spiritually attuned, this would take the form of looking for God, who is the one who gives our lives ultimate meaning and purpose because it is only God can be the quest that lasts beyond this life.  All other quests and yearnings find their terminus when we breathe our last. 

All of us, even those who have been baptized since birth, are on this journey.  We fool ourselves if we think that just because we are baptized and practice our faith by coming to Mass every Sunday that there is no need for conversion anymore.  I’m afraid that we may become retarded if we hold this to be true at all.  After all, to retard is to delay or hold back any progress or development, and all of us, without exception, need to progress and develop in our spiritual lives and to become spiritually mature.  It should not surprise us one bit to see that in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and man.  If that was necessary for Jesus the God man, how more imperative and pressing is this for us mere mortals?

I’m not a great fan of the movies, but once in a while, there comes along one that seems to tick many boxes that really make it a gem of a find.  Apparently, this one has been nominated as one of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture.  I’m quite certain the creators of the movie weren’t consciously making a spiritual movie, but I’d highly recommend it as one.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Only God's love can propel our pain to being purposeful.

If God loves us, there should be no suffering and afflictions.  This may sound right, but I’m afraid that this is also a wrong conclusion to bad and incorrect theology.

It is so commonplace to find atheists coming up with this argument against the existence of God – that if he exists, and if he is indeed a God of love and goodness, then the very existence of turmoil and suffering and anxiety in life proves that God does not exist.  This is the same trite argument over and over again in the vitriol that goes on in comments made by angry atheists on the Internet whenever someone makes a reference to God’s love or providence in life. 

I guess to be fair, it is a logical conclusion to arrive at if one’s notion of God is one whose raison d’etre is diametrically opposed to sin, suffering, pain and fear.  God’s very omnipotence then should also render him being capable of obliterating all traces of things that he detests.  For these pundits, omnipotence equals Omni control.  I do understand this kind of logic, but it is a flawed logic.

Why is this flawed?  Because it fails to appreciate that omnipotence is God’s Omni potential to love as well, and the greatest display of love is when one is given full freedom to accept or reject this love.  Our given freedom by God our Father has a corollary – the freedom of the beloved to return the love given by the lover in total and true freedom – without any coercion, force, compulsion or manipulation.  It is when we are unable or refuse to return the love given to us that turns us inwardly unto ourselves and hence to sin. 

Someone asked me recently that she understood my theodicy but has problems when she herself encounters situations of pain, anxieties and tensions even when in a state of grace, making us feel unhappy.  Does not God want our happiness?  Why then are we not happy all the time?  Why is this so? 

Again, this is a ‘wrong’ question, but a good one to ask.  It was Fr Ronald Rolheiser who once said that asking ourselves if we are happy is akin to torturing ourselves.  Asking this question doesn’t bring much solace to our aching souls simply because none of us lives perfectly fulfilled lives.  All of our lives are quite simply “unfinished symphonies” as Karl Rahner once famously said.  There are always areas in our lives that are mourning, where we are hungering for something that cannot be satiated.  Fr Rolheiser astutely challenges us to not ask if our lives are happy, but to ask ourselves if our lives have meaning. 

This is a deep question simply because “meaning” requires us to go deep into our very hearts, while “happy” is superficial, doesn’t have as much depth nor asks of us to enter into the silent chambers of our hearts and interior life which usually goes unexamined.

I imagine myself to the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, climbing up next to him and ask him if he was happy being nailed there on the Cross, slowly suffocating and bleeding profusely from his wounds.  I am quite certain that the answer would be no.  There is no happiness in undergoing such immense shame, ignominy and agony.  But Jesus would say that what he is undergoing is extremely meaningful.  It teaches the world just how expansive and inclusive God’s love is for all of humanity, loving even those who were responsible for this heinous murder of God.  There is meaning in showing the value in longsuffering and sacrifice and non-violence.  These don’t necessarily provide for happiness in the way that the world knows happiness.  But because they are signposts and sacraments of how deep God’s love and mercy are, they are indeed meaningful. 

Happiness can be superficial and fleeting, and indeed it often is.  This is partly because happiness has much to do with feelings, which are strong and passionate on Monday but cold and limp on Tuesday. 

But what provides for meaning and purpose prevails. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

If love is not our motivation in life, it usually shows by how engaged we are. This is true especially in prayer and worship.

There are many reasons why we pray.  As a priest who stands before a gathered congregation each time I celebrate the Eucharist, I see a large gathering of people who share the same faith.  But just as each one has a different DNA, I am also sure that each one has a very different reason for being present at Mass.  Some come to fulfill an ‘obligation’ for fear of committing a serious transgression if they are not there on Sunday; some are there to obtain a sense of peace; some may be there because they need some petition answered and are in some particular need which only can be answered by God, and some may be present in body but not in mind or heart. 

I often wonder how the congregation would look if we all had love of God as the underlying reason we were there.  I am certain of one thing – we would look as if we were truly filled with joy to be there, and our senses would be delighted.  Our singing would be full throated and our responses to prayers would be made with gusto.  If our motivation to pray and worship is because we truly love God, we will pray very differently, worship very differently, and embrace our faith very differently.

When we are aware that we are doing a loving action, our entire person gets involved.  Just look at a person who is courting someone and is on a date.  He knows that everything he does while out on a date is done with a difference when compared to when he is only out with his childhood buddies or if he were to be just going to work.  He dresses with greater concern, he is aware of even his tiniest gestures, he wants to be taken seriously, and he speaks such that his date understands that she is at that moment the most important person in the world.  All this is predicated on the fact that he has love in his heart for the person before him. 

When our motivations for worship stems from love of God, the way we worship will be similarly affected.  If we are only present in prayer or worship because we are forced to, or compelled to for reasons outside of ourselves, it will show in the ways that we participate at Mass. 

But having said that, I do realise that each person at Mass is never a person apart from his or her life experiences.  Each one is there replete with their histories, backgrounds and amalgamation of joys and sorrows.  Each person must have a story of life that includes a struggle to love as well.  When I forget this and am even a bit disturbed by what appears before me to be a sign of disinterest and insincerity, I as a celebrant may be guilty of painting with a very broad brush, giving scant respect to each person’s history, background and make up. 

This is why I fully believe that my motivation to worship has to be first founded on my love of God.  The moment I depart from this, I begin to dangerously look at my ministry as a task, or a duty, or an obligation imposed from outside of myself.  I will risk becoming disinterested, cold and merely functional.