Monday, May 29, 2017

The need to die to the self is not masochism. It's deeply embedded in our DNA.

Many spiritual writers and even psychologists have agreed that in life, there is a certain need to give obeisance and be obedient to something higher than us.  To live only for our needs and ourselves somehow doesn’t lead to a life that is truly meaningful and deep.  Just notice how your insides react when reading about the lifestyles of the rich and famous that surround themselves with luxury and opulence.  While it is true that the media hardly reports on the ways that they may have reached out to the lesser privileged, it does give the public a certain idea that their lives are only about attaining and maintaining the self.  If this is the plain truth about their lives, it is also true that this kind of living has a certain hollow ring to it.  Why?  Because deep in our hearts, we know that life should not be hollow.  Deep inside of us, there is a voice, small and soft though it may be, to live in a way that has trace elements of sacrifice and altruism, and that sees the virtue of selflessness. 

The early church knew this and lived this out not just as an axiom, but also in deed and action.  There is a common saying that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.  It was this gallant belief that there was a need to die a physical death for the love of God and his Church that saw so many heroes of our faith die such brutal and cruel deaths. 

Times have changed since then, and there doesn’t seem to be this pressing need to shed our blood for Christ in a physical way now as there was before.  However, the mind and the spirit of sacrifice has not changed.  Those of us who forget this are worse off for it.    We begin to think, erroneously of course, that our lives are about us.  The more we start to accept the difficult and challenging truth that our lives are essentially not about us, the more we will consider to embrace the spirit of selflessness and sacrifice in all aspects of our lives.

Sometimes, the act of sacrifice needs to go beyond our physical being.  Some of our dreams and hopes in life also are rich fodder for sacrifice, and these are the stuff that can make us people who have a rich depth in character, only if we don’t make others pay for the sacrifices that we have made.  This is a form of martyrdom that is unfortunately hardly considered as martyrdom at all.  Make no mistake – it is.

I truly believe that it stems from the fact that we are made in God’s likeness.  God himself, as revealed in the covenants that he made with Israel, is a God who is self-sacrificing.  Having put Abram into a deep sleep while God went through the halves of the sacrificed animals is a symbolic way of showing that God’s essence includes the unmistakable element and character of sacrifice.  In this godliness that we carry inside of us is also a fire – a fire of love, a fire for glory outside of ourselves, and a fire for transcendence.  This fire, when managed and handled well, becomes the fire that makes us die, even in small ways, for others so that they are carried well in life and are given an enervating love through us. 

This becomes meaningful and clear the more we look at the paragon of sacrificial love that was writ large on Calvary’s Cross.  If we never look with depth at the crucified Christ hanging on the Cross, our own call to sacrifice and martyrdom will not be heard. 

It will only remain as that soft, small voice that slowly becomes lost and drowned out in the world where our lives are about us. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ministry can be truly challenging, especially when there are two 'i's in the word.

Walter Brueggemann is an American Protestant theologian who writes extensively on the Old Testament.  I remember coming across one of his quotes which says “God’s task of transformation is invariably entrusted to reluctant human will and courage”.  In the light of the Old Testament, I couldn’t agree more.

Each of the prophets, from the major to the minor ones, has shown one thing in common – they were reluctant human beings, reluctant in will and in courage.  Yet, the Church has always liked to use the phrase “prophetic courage” when referring to the need to hunker down and do the challenging tasks that will end up bringing about a transformation. 

Why do we need courage?  Because all transformations, especially the ones that are deep and that require one to be not just moved but yanked out of one’s zones of comfort and security.  And these will inevitably bring some form of chaos and turmoil at first.  It’s a bit like a farmer who had been sowing one crop and the yield had been marginal through the years, perhaps getting smaller as the years went by, and decides that it is time to change or rotate his crop.  In order to do this, it wouldn’t be prudent to simply pull up the old crop, and just plant the new seeds or saplings.  There has to be a reworking of the entire soil, allowing the land to fallow, enriching it with nutrients and preparing the land to accept the new crop and become usable for new life.  There will be a disruption in the flow of the way that things were before.

The farmer needs to have courage to go through the lean times that are ahead because of the desired transformation of the land.  As a priest, I have seen that there are great similarities between a farmer wanting to see a transformation of the land, and a shepherd who wants to see a transformation in the hearts and minds of his flock. 

The ultimate transformation of the human heart is the work of God – it is divine work.  We human beings, even the shepherds of the flock, are but co-operators with God’s spirit.  But strangely, it is apparent that he entrusts this to the cooperation of reluctant human beings whom he ordains as priests.  It is a gargantuan task to impart to one human being that there is a need for inner transformation.  To impart this to a group of human beings, and hoping that they will get the message compounds the challenge. 

Would that there be always a solution that is smooth in transition.  Invariably, hearts get rattled when changes are on the horizon.  I have read so many stories that when Vatican II announced the reformation of the Liturgy, allowing the use of the Lingua Franca to replace Latin as the language of the Liturgy, and having the Priest turn to face the congregation, it riled and ruffled so many of the faithful.  There was a mass exodus of priests when the changes were made, but this didn’t seem to convince Mother Church that the reform was a bad decision.  It took the visionary leadership of the then Pope John XXIII to really dare to open the windows to let in the Spirit anew in his grand vision of aggiornomento.

Sometimes, when we resist changes and reformation to things that have been on even keel for a long time, it could be that part of the problem is because we may have unidentified ego-related reasons.  The more we make it about how we feel, how we are now inconvenienced, how we are seemingly deemed irrelevant, we may have made it more about us than about Church and community. 

Ministry is a good word.  It means service to others and the community at large.  But if one is not careful, one will put more emphasis on the ‘I’ in ministry.  The temptation is always there, perhaps because there is not only one “I” in the word, but two. 

If we are too hurt by changes made, what Brueggemann said is something good to remember – God’s task of transformation is invariably entrusted to reluctant human will and courage.  Some will always be more reluctant than others. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Keeping faithful to prayer when it is hard.

When we were seminarians studying for the priesthood, in one of the spiritual conferences given by a religious priest, one of us asked a question “Father, what should we do when prayer is dry?” 

Without missing a beat, and with the sense of humour he was known for, this priest replied “Tell me, brother, what is a wet prayer?”  His reply forced us to articulate several things about common-held notions of prayer that affect many people.  What are we experiencing when this so-called dryness shows up in our prayer?  What does it mean?  How do we handle it?  When we pray in this state, does it affect our prayer? 

In the purest sense of the word, prayer is the act of turning our gaze and attention outside of ourselves and onto God.  God is the ultimate focus of prayer.  This fulfills that definition of prayer that says it is a call to adore, worship and glorify God.  It is primarily God-centered.  When we understand this, it will be clear that anything that turns the focus and attention ourselves, be they our needs or what troubles us, is the secondary purpose of prayer. 

Whenever we speak about feelings or sentiments, the focus is always on us and not God. 

In prayer spirituality, the phrases “consolations” and “desolations” are often used when referring to what experiences we go through during prayer.  Some of us tend to confuse this with prayer being dry or not.    

Consolations in prayer have very much do to with God and how our hearts and minds are drawn to him, loving him for who he is, regardless of what is happening in our world.  To give a very graphic example, let’s say that you were living in New York City when 9/11 happened, and the day after the horrendous incident, you went into prayer and you were drawn to loving God despite the way that life was literally interrupted for you and for countless others.  If your prayer was mainly centered on God, and not asking for his divine justice, it would be a consolation that you had been given.  It was prayer in its finest definition – praise and love of God.  In short, your prayer was not about you or your circumstance.  During that time spent in prayer, your heart was beating in tandem and in harmony with God, who had been knocking on the door of your heart.

However, when one experiences spiritual desolations, one’s focus is often away from God and on the self.  One’s mind and heart are only filled with the matters of the self and the world, and this can lead to the false belief that one’s prayer makes no difference, leading to the temptation to abandon prayer altogether.  At these times, one doesn’t at all feel attracted or drawn to God nor hear his gentle knocking on the doors of our hearts. 

In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius speaks about how our lives are affected by two spirits – good and evil.  When he speaks about desolations in our spiritual lives, he makes it clear that they are caused by the ‘evil spirit’.  When we read the words ‘evil spirit’, we must not only have the idea of a malevolent force that is destructive.  Whatever does not contribute to our desire for God and his goodness is a spirit that is evil.  It doesn’t even have to be an evil that is personal in form.

So what should we do when it comes to dealing with desolations in our prayer life?  St Ignatius gives us very useful instructions so as not to go from desolation to despair.

1)   He instructs firstly that we need to want divine assistance in our spiritual growth.  St Ignatius must have seen that many men and women were never really concerted in their desire to get close to God.  Articulating this as a desire and intention is therefore the first step.  It cannot be something that is merely passive in intention.

2)   Put effort in meditation on the words of Sacred Scripture, where God’s promises his undying and unconditional presence in our lives.  Passages which remind us that God is ever faithful are held in our minds in silence.  Some useful passages are Deuteronomy 7:9, Psalms 36:5, 89:8, 119:90, Romans 3:3, 1 Cor 1:9, 1 Cor 10:9 and Heb 10:23.

3)   A thorough and sincere self-examination often helps to uncover and reveal where we may have contributed to this state of affairs.  Sometimes, the desolations we experience can be traced to the time when our lives entered morally troubled waters, or when we were slipping into some addiction that went out of control.  If we have been living double lives or lives that are deceitful in any way, our prayer life will always be affected.  Humility is of great help in not only identifying these, but also in wanting to do something that can help us manage these concerns well.

4)   Lastly, the taking on of mortification or penances in our lives are noble ways to counter the destructive forces and tendencies of spiritual desolation.  Fasting is highly recommended, as well as works of mercy that make others and their needs greater than ours.  Mortifications of all sorts tend to train us to be humble.  Certainly, one should avail oneself to the sanctifying grace that comes to us every time we go to a priest for the sacrament of reconciliation. 

Experiencing challenges and difficulties in prayer will always abound simply because we are human.  We tend to take into our prayer psyche so much from the way that we deal with worldly things.  The truth is that our spiritual lives have a depth and dynamics that are more different than the way the world works.  There is a lot more that is uncommon than common.  We tend to give up or stop doing something that is painful or arduous, or not bearing the kind of fruit that we want it to.  In the spiritual life, especially when it comes to prayer, this would be the worst thing that we can do.

The following quote is often attributed to the statesman Sir Winston Churchill, but apparently, the veracity of this has yet to be substantiated.  Apparently, he is known to have said “If you find that you are going through hell, just keep going.  Hell is not a place for anyone to stop.”  We would do well to apply this kind of tenacity to our prayer life.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Listening to the promptings in our hearts helps to ascertain our vocation in life.

The fourth Sunday of Easter is also called Good Shepherd Sunday in the Catholic Church.  On this day, the church prays specially for vocations including the vocation to the priestly life and the life of a religious.  This comes from the understanding that priests and religious are called to live this life by God.  The very word ‘vocation’ comes form the Latin ‘vocare’ which means voice.  But should this only be limited to the priestly and religious life?  I am wondering if this is too narrow a scope and I believe that it gives the unfortunate impression that the married life isn’t a vocation as well. 

The way that many marriages end up in sad separations and civil divorces (I say civil because in the Catholic Church, there is no such thing as a divorce.  Annulments are the official declaration that the marriage that was entered into was not a marriage insofar as the laws of the Church were concerned) could be indicative of the fact that there was little or no proper discernment by the couples to verify in a serious way if they were at all called to the married vocation in the first place.  The married life seems to be a ‘default choice’ for many, leaving those who are not married to a sad state in life that makes them think that they have been ‘left on the shelf’. 

If God is the giver of life, and if we truly believe that no one is alive ‘by accident’, each life then is called to a specific vocation in life as well. Jesus makes it clear in the gospels that he is the Good Shepherd. He leads his flock, and he also truly cares for each one personally.  His personal care and love therefore extends to the way that we exist and live our lives, which is what our ‘vocation’ is – a life that we are called to. 

Everybody knows that the journey to the priesthood is a long and arduous one.  Many years are spent behind the seminary walls, and for a multitude of reasons.  Apart from the many hours spent in serious study, the years of formation are assiduously spent in praying and discerning, together with those in charge of our formation, if the seminarian really has the vocation to the priesthood or the religious life.  It is never an arbitrary and unilateral decision.  The lives of those come under their pastoral care are at stake. 

If there is little or merely superficial prayer and discernment by single unmarried people before they make that decision to marry in the sight of God in church, the consequences can be rife.  The Sacrament of Matrimony is called a sacrament because it is a visible sign of the grace of God in the union of the man and woman, with Christ being the one who joins them together.  Sacraments are real and not mere metaphors or symbols as many people may think.  Neither are sacraments to be taken lightly.  Just as no seminarian who becomes a priest would take the sacrament of Holy Orders lightly, but is constantly aware that he is a visible sign of Christ’s love and presence to the world that he minsters to, no person, single or those truly called to the married vocation should take their discernment lightly as well.

Perhaps the way that the Church is preparing single people for marriage isn’t done with as much dedication and seriousness as those who are discerning for the life of the priesthood or the life of a religious.  While it would be almost ridiculous to make it something that one sets aside seven years to ascertain, the current offerings of either a mere weekend at an Engaged Encounter stay-in or seven sessions of the Marriage Preparation Course can only do that much.  Would the Church decide to ordain a man to the priesthood after a weekend’s retreat?  That would be simply dangerous for the person as it would be for the flock he is going to minister to.

Pope Francis has rightly encouraged priests to journey closely with couples before they marry to help them in the discerning process.  This is good advice, but challenges abound.  I would greatly encourage parents of the single adults to also be the voices of discernment to pray with and guide their charges to listen for the voice of the shepherd so that their decision to marry is a response to a vocation in life.  With parents living out the sacramentality of their marriages being the voice of conscience and the examples of Christ-like loving, discernment becomes something that happens throughout the life of the child into adulthood. 

The married life cannot be considered the default vocation.  If it is, little wonder that those who are single end up thinking that they are left on the shelf.  This will end up denigrating the value of the single, chaste life that results from proper and guided discernment.