Monday, July 31, 2017

What breakdancing priests and the incarnation share in common - both can be scandalous.

One of the websites that I often peruse is “Word On Fire”, which is one of the pet projects of the renowned Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  In his website, not only does he have weekly entries of interesting homilies with very sound theology, he also has a host of other contributing writers giving their views of spirituality-related issues and topics.  This week, something caught my eye that I thought was very interesting which may well happen here in our tiny island of Singapore, eliciting the very same reactions from the ground.

One of Bishop Barron’s contributing writers, Fr Damian Ference from the Archdiocese of Cleveland, Ohio, wrote about how a 40-second video of two priests breakdancing in their clerical togs went viral, which was not surprising.  What was also not surprising was the kinds of comments that this dance elicited.  These two priests were rather young (you would have to be young to be able to backspin the way they did) and the context of their dancing was at a youth conference (presumably Catholic) in Steubenville, Ohio. 

Fr Damian first began his reflection by quoting (probably verbatim) some of the remarks and comments that came from the posting of the video.  Some called it inappropriate behaviour, some called it an embarrassment, some said that the priests were trying to be popular, and some just said it was unacceptable. 

Of course, I was not in the least surprised.  If I were to be captured on video attempting those moves with that kind of dexterity, I’m sure that I would get even more scathing comments. 

Fr Damian’s response to their comments was very interesting and worthy to be repeated.  And I hope my readers will benefit from his reflection.  You see, Fr Damian drew their attention to what happened at the incarnation, and applied the same comments to the mystery of God becoming man.  Before the incarnation, it would have been thought that God becoming man was not only inconceivable, but completely scandalous as well.  God, who is supreme, ineffable, beyond the limitations of our human ken could never and should never stoop so low as to take on the mortality of sinful man!  Yet, he did – in Jesus Christ.  To so many, this was just unacceptable, and even an embarrassment.  When the great debate took place before the Council of Ephesus in 431AD, this was what stoked the fires of theologians and emperors!  You can safely apply all those comments that the two breakdancing priests received to the debate about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

Thankfully, the two priests were not breakdancing in the middle of a liturgical celebration.  That would be highly inappropriate, raising even my eyebrows.  But they were at a youth convention, in a country where the number of nones (those who put ‘none’ in the box when asked what their religious affiliation is) is skyrocketing even as this is being read.  These priests probably intended to show the young people that having good clean human fun and being holy and good Catholic priests are not mutually exclusive.

Perhaps what was also foremost in the minds of the priests was that they wanted the young people at the gathering to see that priests are human before they are priests.  I am sure that breakdancing was not part of their seminary curriculum.  They probably had a past life – just like I myself had a past life, where I had a few slick moves myself – not at a dance floor, but at two dance schools.  Our theological and spiritual formation in the seminary is something that is added-on to our humanity, and doesn’t take away what makes us human.  Priests are not saints before they are ordained.  Perhaps many people want us to be, and that could be a major problem.  But that’s not the “deal-breaker” at our ordination.  Not by a long shot.

What makes it possible for us to be ordained is the grace of God, which allows for so many u-turns in life.  All of us, priests and lay, are called to a life of holiness and sanctification.  It is in the very ordinary things that we do (as well as the extra-ordinary things) that we apply holiness, and the ordinary things can include things like breakdancing, in appropriate places of course. 

I applaud what Fr Damian ended his piece with – that what is far more dangerous and scandalous are priests (and anyone else, to be sure) who would never dance in front of crowds and brightly lit arenas, but live double lives instead, dancing unseen and privately, doing so only when not wearing their clerical garb, and when cameras are nowhere to be found.  Like Fr Damian, I too, am rather wary of priests who run helter-skelter from their humanity and only let their humanity manifest in the dark, like some Fr Jekyll and Mr Hide (spelt wrongly on purpose here for effect).

My readers this week may think that I am advocating some kind of loose living as priests.  I do not, and I certainly will not.  What I am in full support of is that clerics should not disdain their humanness.  What is sinful should of course be dealt with assiduously, and brought up as matter for confession each time it causes us to lose the state of grace.  We are certainly not holy robots.

What we must never lose is our joy.  I confess that sometimes I can be in some moody state and this is never a good advertisement for joyful Christian living, let alone the priesthood.  I will always remember a piece of advice given by a priest who came to the seminary leading us in one of the many days of recollection in our seminary training.  He said “brothers, remember – we are not called to be consecrated refrigerators”.  I’d go one further – if we find ourselves being consecrated freezers, it’s time to let things thaw. 

But just as the incarnation allowed the world to experience God as man, our humanness is our platform to see that we are redeemed as human persons and not as perfected saints incapable of living fully human lives. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

A health update - one year more to year 5!

Cancer patients look forward to the day when they reach their fifth year of remission.  Generally, the medical community deems that if the cancer patient manages to attain a clean bill of health for five consecutive years post transplant or operation, without any sign of return of the illness, it can be taken to mean that he has a good chance of a total remission. 

Each year, July 25 is the day I look forward to.  It's my second birthday, so to speak.  It was on this day back in 2013 that I received the precious life-saving stem cells from my lifesaver Peter Mui who gave me what I needed to reset my cancer ridden blood cells.  Tomorrow marks the fourth year since my transplant, and it is only with God’s tremendous grace that I had come so far, especially when I had seen quite a few fellow transplant patients who, due to different complications and infections, succumbed to their malady.  Thinking of this and how far I have come only makes me more and more grateful for each day’s grace of life and experiences of God’s love.

I have always held the belief that our lives are most meaningfully lived when we live with gratitude in our hearts.  Gratitude makes us humble, and humility is the mother of all virtues.  The problem with so many of us is that we are often taking for granted the many different blessings that fill our lives.  Living that way tends to foster a certain sense of entitlement that causes us to not only be prideful, but also prevents us from nurturing a grateful heart.

When one is given the experience of having a serious medical condition like a cancer, one is also given a golden opportunity to allow it to shape and mould the heart.  I do agree that not every one comes to see this in such a positive light.  It is definitely a grace.  Ever since my transplant adventure and slow recovery, I have had countless people approaching me and asking me what the secret to such a positive attitude to life is.  I have no secret.  It is only a secret insofar as one is unwilling to allow one’s given situation in life to be one’s teacher rather than to be the one who holds the controls in life. 

Living this way requires most fundamentally faith.  For a person who doesn’t have faith, my reflections will easily be deemed drivel and dismissed as hogwash.  Life, to those without faith, is meant to be lived such that the marrow is always sucked out of the bone.  But willingness to be led by one’s situation in life requires also a willingness to be led by a force and power that is higher than the self.  Jesus speaks of this when he tells the beloved disciple at the end of John’s gospel that “when you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go”.

We all have these places that we would rather not go.  Examples of these are legion.  But it is in these places, often, that we also grow in depth and in virtue, and as a result, in holiness as well.  All near-death experiences are such places.

Would I be living just as gratefully if I had not reached my fourth year post-transplant with such smoothness?  While that would be conjecturing, I daresay that it would not change much.  After all, the deepest foundation of my gratitude is that I have been saved by my Lord Jesus Christ.  My gratitude for anything else that I have been given in life are but shades of this fundamental gracious act of a most merciful God - a bit like add-ons in life.  Living this way then makes it possible to still be grateful in life for any negative experiences in life, because they do not take away the promises of an eternity lived in God’s kingdom. 

When life is approached from this perspective of faith, it makes living with a joy that is unshakeable possible.  Indeed, the world around us can be literally fall apart, but there will still be an inner integrity that defies disintegration.  Moreover, it gives us the ability to see that failures, physical weaknesses and even our inferiorities as things that can build up our souls.  As Christopher de Vinck said in The Power of the Powerless:  A Brother’s Legacy of Love, that soul comes from inferiority.  He writes poignantly about how his older brother, Oliver, though born blind and with severe brain damage, became a tremendous blessing to their entire family.  That is the belt that is tied round our waist to bring us where we would rather not go. 

I believe that it is when we reach that place that we will realise that though it was a place we would have rather not gone, that turns out to be a place that we really needed to go. 

Here’s to the next 365 days, and whatever comes with it! 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Living fully in the present – we need to do this, but so of us few really do.

To be told that we cannot change the past nor anticipate a worrisome future is a given.  As a sentence in written form, it makes perfect sense.  Anyone using logic will agree with this statement.  Yet, there are millions of people who live each day with much needless anxiety and worry because of some event or events that had occurred in their past, or because they are fearful and apprehensive about something that has yet to occur. 

Some well-meaning Christians may even have the idea that carrying a burden of an injured past is what Jesus meant when he said that we should take up our crosses and follow him.  I’m afraid he didn't mean that at all.  Crosses are not our injured past, especially when they are our sins and mistakes that we had made in our unenlightened youth.  Moreover, if we had confessed these in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, seeing these sins as our crosses to be carried for the rest of our lives only shows that we may not believe that God’s mercy was effective and real. 

Perhaps what needs to be made clear is that our memories of our mistakes and transgressions do not mean that God holds these sins against us.  That we remember them are indicative of healthy memory cells and that we are not demented.  The phrase that is often tossed with hardly any thought about our injured past is that we should ‘forgive and forget’.  This is not only wrong, but also something that is truly inhuman.  

My family had a bereavement recently.  I had an unmarried aunt who passed away just last week.  She had been a dementia patient for about six years and she had been very well cared for in a nursing home until she died.  She could hardly respond to our weekly visits and words of comfort to her, and she was not (physically at least) present to us when we were there.  Dementia patients are not able to recall their past because their neurological function is impaired.  That she had forgotten her past was a sign that she was not as healthy as she ought to be.  Wouldn’t it then be a sign of great health, when we say over and over again that we forgive, but are struggling to forget?  It means that our memory cells are working, as they should.  To want to forget, I’m afraid, is to also want some form of dementia.  That cannot be what God wants.  Besides, if we forget the event and because of that, we say that we have forgiven, it doesn’t raise the bar of forgiveness high at all.  But when we remember the event vividly, and at that instant make the conscious decision to forgive, the bar of forgiveness is set very high.  Its value as a virtue is intensified tremendously.  This is why God’s mercy is so amazing.  He looks at us, knows what we have done, but still loves and forgives us. 

True forgiveness must not include memory loss.  Rather, true forgiveness is when we can recall the entire incident that was painful when it occurred, but now, whenever the memory is played out in our minds, the pain and the need for revenge and hankering for our own brand of justice is no longer harboured in our hearts.  We can truly let go of the need to punish (others or even ourselves) and learn from our past.  The memory is not accompanied with a need to hurt anybody, including ourselves.

There is a theological problem with God forgetting anything.  If God is perfect, he has no fault.   Forgetting is a fault, and it is a flaw, and as such, it is also a shortcoming.  God has no shortcomings, as he is perfect.  God is perfect - in beauty, in truth and in love.  God doesn’t so much as erase our past as he forgives it.  After we confess our sins, God doesn’t forget that we had made those errors, no matter how heinous and stupid they were.  Instead, he sees them, but because he also sees how sincere we were in repenting for having committed them, overlooks them with his love.  That is the true part of loving that most of us cannot understand because we do not allow ourselves to practice it in our lives.  We hold with some degree of ransom in our hearts the wrongs that others have done to us in our lives as an edge that we have over them when we forgive them.  It even becomes a ‘bargaining chip’ that we keep stashed away in our hearts ‘just in case’ we need to wield it in the face of those whom we had shown mercy and forgiveness, like some Joker card up our sleeve.  We just find it so hard to see their wrongdoing while at the same time, love them and forgive them for what they have done.  It’s either/or for us.  Either we forget that they have hurt us and we forgive them, or we remember that they have hurt us, and therefore do not forgive them.

But God’s love has the amazing ability to be not either/or, but both/and.  So does his divine mercy.  He sees that we have made mistakes, AND he decides to forgive us at the same time. 

I have encountered myriad instances of people coming to me, telling me that they have been so burdened by their past sins or the wounds of having been sinned against by their nearest and dearest before.  Some have been guilty of having had abortions, some have been betrayed by their spouses, some have betrayed their spouses, some have been dishonest and because of their dishonesty have left a trail of destruction and become destructive themselves. 

Many of them are pained and struggle with peace now because they are still living in the past.  Peace, as far as they are concerned, is predicated on the removal of such struggles and afflictions.  Holding grudges and hurts of the past is living in the past.  Fearing the unrealized outcomes of what has yet to happen is living in the future.  Some cancer patients (as well as those looking after them) project so much into their unrealized future and because they see their future as nothing but a slate of grey, are already living anxiety-filled lives now. 

That is why Jesus tells us not to worry, as tomorrow has enough troubles of its own.  There is so much wisdom there, but so few of us are ready to live it out. 

If you are truly pragmatic, living fully in the present should be the only way to live.  Unfortunately, most of us are only nominal pragmatists.  A great number of us are more like time travellers – living in the past or in the future, and as a result, never happy living this way.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The silence that we are uncomfortable with speaks volumes to our hearts.

I have just come out of a most refreshingly unusual retreat.  Each year, the diocesan priests in Singapore take five days out of our busy and active schedules to come together to make a 5-day retreat.  Apart from fulfilling this requirement of Canon Law, it had also been an occasion for us priests to encounter one another without the agenda of doing any parish-related work.  For years, this diocesan retreat struggled with the element of silence.  It was something that was a challenge to address by our bishop because he is a contemplative at heart.  He knows how important it is for silence if one is truly intent in allowing God to speak to the heart.  Many priests also preach about how golden silence in the spiritual life, but unfortunately, few seem to be able to maintain this at our annual retreat.  The bishop, compassionately, has also seen that his priests only come together this way once a year, and are very happy to meet their brothers in a non-parochial setting.  It is natural for many to want to ‘catch up’ with each other, and because of this, silence had become an issue.  The bishop could only encourage his priests to observe silence and to speak about its virtue.  Being the bishop that he is, he has been fighting the temptation to make this a strict requirement, enforcing it by his power as a bishop, even though he could have if he wanted to.

But it was a true act of grace that something different seemd to happen this year.  There was a very concerted attempt by every priest to strive to maintain silence this time.  I am not sure if it was because the venue was a very different one, given the fact that we no longer had the use of our own seminary which had been the somewhat de riguer venue for our retreat in past years.  A very kind and generous Christian corporation was our benefactor for this year’s retreat venue, and this could have contributed to our response by being generous with our silence as well.  It made a huge difference.

One of the meditations that our retreat master led us on was the ‘woman caught in adultery’ from John’s gospel.  Our retreat master brought home to us an unwritten yet crucial aspect of this familiar episode.  After having been questioned by his accusers of whether to stone the woman as prescribed by the Law of Moses or not, John tells us that Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. 

Much has been speculated on what Jesus wrote, but this was not what we were led to ponder.  That Jesus said nothing as a response had a great teaching lesson for those of us who are perhaps too prone to give answers that are pithy, trite or even scathing and cutting.  After all, Jesus could have easily silenced his interlocutors and adversaries if he wanted to.  But this would be to deal with violence using the same violence of the enemy. He had a counter-intuitive response. Instead, he let his silence be the sword of conscience that revealed the innermost intentions of the heart. 

Silence has the amazing ability to do that.  When one doesn’t hear the words of admonition for a wrongful act, one isn’t given an instruction or accusation from without.  When one is given only silence as a response, it leaves the wrongdoer himself to be his own judge, and one is then forced in a most unthreatened way to be honest and strict with oneself without shame and without the fear of embarrassment. 

This was mercy at its best, and it gave the woman’s accusers the freedom that they needed to walk away, one by one, beginning with the eldest. 

Perhaps the silence that so many priests in our presbyterium seemed to struggle with was due to the fact that they couldn’t appreciate the freedom that a freely-willed silence gives.  I cannot be sure of this, but I have the inkling that the bishop knew this as well, and thus didn’t use his position as a bishop to insist on this.  He must have known that we had to really own it and do it willingly with love if we were to attain the benefit of silence as a free and willing response.  Well, it certainly took a long time for it to happen.

If this bodes true for us priests, it must certainly do the same for our laity, the sheep we are given to lead in our role as their shepherds.  We need to not only tell them that silence has great benefit in a world that is becoming increasingly loud and terribly noisy.  Silence aids the maturing of the interior life that so many pay scant attention to develop and grow.  Our worship of God in our communal celebrations need to have within it an appreciation of the element of silence as well, where God speaks to the depths of our hearts, revealing to us not just himself, but our truest selves, stripped of our myriad pretenses and masks that often fool even ourselves.