Monday, August 28, 2017

In practicing our faith, we could learn a thing or two from the commercial world – just do it.

One of the virtues and qualities that we admire and appreciate as human beings are faithfulness and fidelity.  There is a sense of admiration and quiet respect that is accorded to people who have stuck with one job for their entire lives, and among the unspoken qualities that these people carry are stability, dedication and reliability.  Dog lovers around the globe share a deep appreciation of their dogs, citing very often that among the great qualities of dogs are their undying loyalty and faithfulness to their masters.  I have personally known of employers of domestic helpers who have had the same helper in their home for over twenty years, and amongst other qualities, trust and faith in the person had been praised and appreciated in the helper.  In one particular case, the helper became so much a part of the family that she became the Godmother of one of the children when he was confirmed in the Sacrament of Confirmation at the age of 15.  Loyalty had been in this case so well received.

Fidelity and faithfulness cannot be bought but have to be earned.  Like anything organic, they do not manifest themselves overnight.  They need to be desired from the beginning, with great intention, and as time passes, they slowly take root and begin building upward.  These very same qualities so easily admired and appreciated in the social and professional life should be just as easily admired and appreciated in our faith life.

When one is spoken of as being loyal, faithful and possessing a sense of fidelity, especially in a marriage covenant, it is taken to mean that one has been unstinting and unwavering in living out the vows one had taken with a deep sense of seriousness.  It’s the living out of the lyrics of the song “Come what may”, the song from the musical Moulin Rouge. 

If this is what human beings appreciate in other human beings as qualities of virtue, we can be quite certain that God too appreciates our acts of fidelity and faithfulness to him.  Fidelity embraces the will to do something and to live out something no matter what, and come what may.  In marriage vows, it is the staying in the marriage covenant “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death do you part”.  This same sentiment has to be applied just as assiduously and conscientiously in the living out of our practices of our faith as Christians.

One of the things that I know many Catholics struggle with, especially the millennials, is the weekly Sunday Mass.  There are many who find it a great challenge to find themselves in the church pews week in and week out, when so many of their peers have far more engaging and ‘enjoyable’ ways of spending their Sunday mornings – at cafes sipping their artisanal cappuccinos, lounging in their pyjamas in front of the television, sleeping in after a tiring night out drinking and partying with friends, or exercising at gyms or participating in some sporting event.  One thing that all of the aforementioned activities share in common is that they satisfy and benefit the self in a rather self-absorbed way. 

But the choice one makes to be faithful to the obligation to the weekly Mass often sees one making the choice to be self-less and other-centered.  Our presence at every Mass strengthens the faith of our fellow brother and sister who is also at Mass.  One’s act of fidelity encourages another’s call to faithfulness to God.  One thing for sure is that when the choice to come to Mass is a deliberate one, where one has willed oneself to do something because it needs to be done, its value in terms of fidelity is increased exponentially.  Even if one doesn’t feel like it, and one does it regardless of the sentiments and feelings, one is building up the foundations of what constitutes fidelity and loyalty. 

Perhaps the biggest thing that bedevils so many of the millennials in the practice of their faith is that the underlying unspoken narrative that so many of them fall prey to is to only do things that serve themselves and put them and their needs first.  It doesn’t sit well with the call to fidelity and faithfulness where there are things in life that just should be done with a consistency that goes beyond how it benefits the self. 

Indeed, there are things that we ought to be doing, and with a consistency and constancy that stands the test of time.  Should I exercise regularly even if the couch and television look far more appealing?  If I truly believe that the long-term benefits will serve me well, I will just do it.  Should I pray even if I don’t feel like it?  If I believe with all my heart that I should, I will myself to just do it.  Should I go to Mass even if I don’t find that it interests me and my mind is running all over the place?  I believe that I should, and so I just do it. 

There is a well-known sporting giant that may have something deeper in their slogan than meets the eye.  Their well-known slogan is “Just do it”.  We will do well to apply this just as diligently to the practice of our faith.  It builds fidelity and faithfulness in more ways than we know.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Our biased views give us such a limited perspective of life and reality.

I have been convalescing from my Core Decompression procedure in the confines of my private quarters in the parish for slightly over a week now, with about 5 more weeks to go.  The doctor has given me strict instructions that I am to put no more than toe pressure on my operated leg, and this has resulted in me being heavily reliant on the use of two things – crutches and a wheelchair.  I have been told that for an Asian, I am taller than the average man, and sitting in a wheelchair, I have realized this in so many ways.  Sitting in a wheelchair brings me much closer down to the ground level, and just wheeling myself around in my residence, I see things that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen, like cobwebs under book shelves which are usually hidden from my vista when I am on my feet.

As I went about cleaning and dusting these shelves, I realized that this is just as true of our spiritual lives.  Aren’t most people so used to seeing things and people from their view and position in life?  This causes us to be either fixed or stuck in the way that we look at life and others, often preventing us from truly being empathetic and sympathetic.  While we know that we should always strive to enter into the world of others in order to understand their viewpoint and struggles, we don’t do this with enough conviction that allows us to truly enter into their experience. 

I am appreciating anew the necessity of a downward movement that the spiritual masters have long advocated.  This includes and is not limited to the need to embrace humility, the losing of the ego, the necessity of dying to self, to sin and the very painful experience of failure in various aspects.  We naturally resist and desist these when they show up on the doorsteps of our lives, and do everything that we can to prevent them from ever happening.  One reason for this is that we believe with all sincerity that as human beings, we are not only meant to fly, but to soar; not just to exist, but to flourish. 

While this is true, we are so often blindsided in our pursuit of greatness.  If we are out of touch with our deepest identity that is our divine filiation, we will end up only thinking rather narrowly that flourishing in life is only about what fills our bank accounts, what keeps us entertained and distracted and busy.  While these in themselves are not bad, they cannot be the yardstick by which we measure contentment, fulfillment and happiness, simply because they do not last. 

The paths of descent that we shun, however, are really the paths of enlightenment, illumination and awakening.  We don’t often take them on our own accord.  We are led there, and often also find ourselves fighting to get out of them.  But just as it takes our eyes a considerable time to get used to the darkness after it has been in the daylight for a prolonged period of time, we will begin to adjust to the dimmed environment that we are put in and see things anew.  Now, no longer only from a perspective of advantage and entitlement, but one that has brought us down several notches, giving us a different view of the same things that we have been seeing all the while. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Going through trials with a resolve moulds and shapes us to become the best versions of ourselves in heaven’s future glory.

Nobody in the right frame of mind anticipates trials in life with glee and anticipation.  All of us hope that our lives can be as smooth sailing as a yacht on a calm sea with the wind always in our favour.  However, this is more a rarity than a reality as the vast majority of our lives are more like seas that encounter the occasional squall, dark and ferocious gale-force winds and weather systems that threaten to capsize our boat called life. 

Good sailors train for every possible scenario that a ship out at sea can face.  Only a foolhardy sailor will venture out into the vast ocean with only knowledge of how to handle the vessel in calm and tranquil waters.  Sooner or later, nature will reveal that surprises will show up at the most inopportune and unexpected of moments, and it is only the truly weathered shipman that can successfully keep a storm-tossed vessel upright without veering too much off-course.

I was rather enlivened and enchanted with the many responses and reactions to my blog entry last week, where I announced that due to an imminent collapse of one of my hips, I had to undergo a procedure that would help to arrest and alleviate the pain I was enduring.  Comments poured in steadily through the week encouraging me to be strong, assuring me of their prayers for me.  I am deeply touched by such a tremendous outpouring of support from all corners of the globe, and it would be a gargantuan effort to thank each one personally, partly because I have not personally met so many of these kind souls.  The reality that we are all part of the Body of Christ is so clear and evident in times like these.

Quite a few of the comments that came from that post asked me what it was that enabled me to stand strong in the face of such adversity in life.  While I would be the first to say that it is nothing short of the grace of God, I do realise that it does take grace to respond to grace.  The fact that many know about this, but are still gripped with fear and anxiety when faced with trials in life is clear indication that there is a certain inability in many to respond to grace.  One thing for certain is that when we are living in a state of grace, we are giving God the greatest deference that we can, offering our lives to be used for His glory.  Grace will never force itself on us, but only asks that we cooperate with its outpouring.

In a couple of days’ time, we will observe the great Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  What this solemnity celebrates is much more than just the fact that after her life on earth was over, that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.  The theology behind this holds for each one of us the great promise of our own potential for glorification as our blessed mother if we but avail ourselves to the grace that God wants to bestow on us.  While we are not born without original sin and find ourselves constantly making the foolish choices to sin rather than to live in grace, each time we make the conscious choice of wanting to live in grace, we uncover more and more our potential for heaven’s glory – the glory that awaits each one who is the beloved child of our heavenly Father. 

I think I have mentioned it before on some previous blog that the version of ourselves that we will be in heaven is the best version of ourselves that we can ever hope to attain.  As we live out our lives now, we slowly uncover the glorious potential that we are made for.  The trials that we go through in this life are the ways in which we slowly uncover our heavenly versions of ourselves.  So many have asked me what spurs me on to live with such positivity when I face in my life the physical challenges that seem to afflict me with such constancy.  It is precisely this – that I choose to see these so-called trials as my training to shape and mould my spiritual self so that the false-self becomes whittled away, little by little, not unlike the way a woodworker using a whittling knife trims away the parts of a wooden stump or branch to reveal the ideal image that he wants to end up with.

Michelangelo was asked how he created masterpieces like the Pieta and the statue of David from a single block of marble.  His response was something that I hope every person reading this blog will impress on his or her minds.  He said that when he stands before the raw and uncut piece of marble, he envisages the image that he wants to carve out of it.  All he does, he said, is to chip away what is extraneous and doesn’t belong to the final image he has in his mind, resulting in the beautiful masterpiece which was embedded in the original block.

This is something that we should apply assiduously to our spiritual lives as well.  At our baptism, God sees in us the great potential of our heavenly glory.  But we have our whole lives to hand our lives over to him to have him, the master craftsman of our souls to hack, chip and remove what is foreign to the glorious versions of ourselves that awaits us in the eternal life of heaven.  Mary needed no whittling away, no removal of anything extraneous.  Her earthly form was her heavenly form.  Ours is a constant work in process. 

The reason why I am joyful at the prospect of an earthly purification is that I know that God is doing something that my bodily eye cannot see.  It is my faith that assures me that this suffering is a good that I cannot yet understand. 

Married couples will stand to benefit greatly if they see that their marriages are this shaping process, where if they willingly and lovingly hand over their lives to each other, they allow the other spouse to remove what is preventing the exposure of the best versions of each other.  Of course, this will always entail a humility and submission that the ego stubbornly resists.  If only more married couples see this in their married life, they will face the daily challenges of marriage with a new vista.

As we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary’s Assumption, may we ever keep in mind that the glory that Mary enjoys right now is the glory that awaits each one of us as we submit our lives to the master craftsman of our souls, God himself.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Only the eyes of faith enable us to see goodness in pain and suffering.

On the feast of St Martha that took place at the end of July, I shared with my congregation at the Eucharistic celebration something that I came across in my own spiritual readings many years ago, but had forgotten about it until I meditated on the feast again.  Gems like these should never be kept and left unshared.

It was a reflection based on the episode of Martha seeing Jesus only after her brother Lazarus had been dead for two days.  Martha’s words to Jesus betrayed her deepest feelings of regret that Jesus had not arrived sooner.  She said, “Lazarus would not have died”.  Scripture tells us that Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus were very special and close friends with Jesus.  They may even have grown up together.  And Jesus loved Lazarus.

Many, if not most of us, tend to think that when we have friends of influence, people who are in ‘high places’ and have special connections with people in authority, that these friends can help us in some favourable way.  I am sure that anyone reading this blog would have known someone who had stood to gain in some way through being familiar with people in a position of authority where either red tape was shortened or some discount was obtained, or some freebie or special pass had been handed to them.  Either that, or you the reader have stood to gain in some way yourself with having such connections in life.  These stories are not uncommon.

What if Martha’s remarks to Jesus had such a hidden expectation?  Since Jesus was the Son of God, and they were such close friends to Jesus, would he not, as they say, ‘cut them some slack’?  Surely if he loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus so much, that they could somehow be spared from the pain that death and separation brings! 

I am often asked this same question by Catholics who are of the opinion that being Christians and being baptized in the faith somehow should then mean that their lives will be spared from experiences of adversity and affliction.  But if we look carefully at the whole episode of chapter 11 of John’s gospel, even though Jesus was the close and intimate friend of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, no such exemption or immunity was accorded them.  Fr Ronald Rolheiser says that what Jesus gave them was an experience that would be similar to what he himself was to undergo on Calvary.  On Calvary, Jesus was given no exemption or immunity from suffering, even though he was the beloved Son of the Father.  He allowed his beloved Son to die a most gruesome and shameful death, and wasn’t cut any slack.  God the Father was not the fireman who was to rescue the beloved Son from the agony of the Cross.  However, this did not take away the fact that Jesus was indeed the Father’s beloved son.

Twice in his life before this episode, Jesus was assured from the Father that he was his beloved – at his baptism and at the Transfiguration.  Jesus knew that those words were not empty and were said just to impress.  God’s word is truth.  The event of Calvary, traumatic as it was, did not take away or change this fact that he was cherished and beloved by the Father.  On the Cross, he held on to the truth in deep faith.

So what he gave to Mary, Martha and Lazarus was the exact same thing that would be given to him on Calvary later on.  On hindsight, we know that it was because Jesus went through the Passion with a resolution that was founded on love; his cruel death was vindicated by the resurrection that accorded him the glory of the faith that he clung on to. 

Knowing this may not sufficiently explain the sufferings that we undergo in our lives, but it certainly gives us reason to undergo unexplained sufferings with a greater willingness.  Not only that, it also gives us an inner joy to know that as we embrace the afflictions of life, we are also doing this best when we take our point of reference and pattern it after Jesus himself.  Jesus shows us the way and is the example par excellence of how to accept with faith that suffering has a redeeming value that is not visible to the naked eye and the logical mind.

The moment we take our eyes off Jesus and look only inwardly at our crosses in life, we easily become bitter, resentful and even rancorous with our lot.  We may find ourselves demanding answers that fit our small logical minds with empirical evidence, forgetting that when we have such clear-cut answers and explanations, we are twice as likely to become more bitter, harbour deeper resentment and be filled with acrimony than before.

Lately, I have been having greater and greater difficulty in walking without pain in my left hip.  Because it never quite abated, I underwent an MRI and it revealed that I have Avascular Necrosis (AVN) at stage FICAT III of the femoral head.  I am at great risk of a total hip collapse that the doctors say is imminent.  As such, I will have to undergo a procedure called a Core Decompression, after which I will have to rest in bed for a period of roughly 6 weeks.

I have been limping around with the support of a cane in the parish for the past few weeks, and I had been asked how I could still be so cheerful and positive despite being in pain. 

It would be bad form for me to boast in anything unless it is a boast about the incredible and amazing love of God.  While I don’t think I am consciously being cheerful and positive, it must be only with the grace of God that I am not bitter, nor filled with anxiety.  I guess my inner joy really comes from the fact that I have never taken my eyes off Jesus in his Calvary experience.  I am a firm believer that there is meaning in innocent suffering that is beyond one’s ken.  I also believe that there is untold suffering of souls in purgatory that can be given relief by offering up of our own pains and mortifications.  It is only with the eyes of faith that this is possible.  And this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love me.  In fact, it means that he loves me very much to want to give me some share of the experience that he gave to Jesus his beloved Son.

As my condition requires me to be resting as much as I can, I may need to take a hiatus from my weekly blogging.  If my energy and ability to still write isn’t affected adversely by my physical immobility, I will still try to churn out something helpful next week.  Strangely, this post today is also my 400th post since I started blogging weekly 9 years ago, and I am wondering if this is God’s way of telling me I can take a rest, albeit for a while. 

I pray that you, dear reader, will continue in your own pursuit of holiness and sanctification and that you will never let your faith falter as your make your journey toward heaven’s eternal embrace.  I will continue to offer up mortifications for the purification of souls and urge you to do the same.  May we do this with great joy, knowing that others stand to benefit from the way we live our lives.  St Paul wrote to the Romans that the way we live and the way we die has its influence on others.  I am sure that this also applies to the way we bear the pains, sufferings and turmoils of merely being human.