Monday, February 26, 2018

It makes all the difference when we pray with love, out of love and because of love.

There is a pervading sense in many minds that just because one has said prayers, it means that one has prayed.  However, these two actions can in reality be very different and one can really end up having said prayers without praying, in the same way that a spouse can say the words “I love you” without really loving.

In my experiences of either counselling directees or hearing confessions, I sometimes ask the question “do you pray?” to which the response very often is “I say my prayers daily”.  When I say in return that this is not what I asked, I am in no way dismissing their sincerity.  I am merely bringing to their attention that there is an intrinsic difference or distinction between the two, and that it is more than just a semantic one.

Perhaps more so in the long-standing tradition of the Catholic faith, we have been steeped in the formula of crafted and worded prayer.  There is indeed goodness in this.  From a very young age, we are taught how to say our prayers, and this has been highly effective in providing us with a framework of how we can approach God and the mystical in a formulated way.  Particularly pertinent to a developing mind and psyche of a child who is in the process of growing from a toddler to a young adult many years down the road, being schooled in prayer that has a framework that is specifically formulaic and worded has its merit.

But together with, and ingredient to learning prayer in this formulaic way, needs to also be a keen intention in developing a heart that has a love for God.  What I have come to notice in my years of ministry is that it is this particular aspect of prayer that is highly underdeveloped and insufficiently imparted either by parents or catechists.  It often results in a disconnect later on in life, and there is a price that one pays heavily, often without even knowing it.

That we are loved by God is something that we don’t give enough attention to.  But I have come to see over and over again in my priesthood that this is the lynchpin that is missing in so many lives that are either becoming slowly shattered or already in smithereens.  Our rigorous prayer life that is depicted largely only by saying prayers, whilst good, can only do so much.  Because we are often rattling off words learnt by heart, we do not easily give ourselves over to emoting the same words from the heart

We must never underestimate the great power that we are given when we appreciate anew that we are loved by God.  Just on the human level, aren’t so much of our lives so positively affected when another human being tells us that in his or her eyes, we are loved?  What more the creator of the universe who has ultimate power over everything and everyone? 

I chanced upon a short dramatized biography of the famed fashion designer and doyen Coco Chanel recently in my convalescence.  This fashion doyenne from Paris who was born in the late 1800s had a very deprived childhood and was abandoned at an orphanage by her father whom she always hoped would come back for her one day.  He never did. 

All her life, Coco, whose real name was Gabrielle Bonhuer Chanel, looked for love and approval in her myriad affairs but she never did.  There is one poignant scene in a final part of that particular film which saw her speaking to one of her models whom she chose to wear her creations on the catwalk at a fashion show, and she said to her in words to the effect of “remember – the most important thing in the world is to be loved by another.  It is not a big deal when we love others.  We do that all the time – we love others, and we love things.  But when someone loves us, our world changes and becomes beautiful”.

There is much truth in this, but as a priest, I would apply this truth ultimately to God, and this takes the truth to the nth degree.  What Coco said mirrors what is found in 1 John 4 which tells us "In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and sent us his Son as expiation for our sins".  

When we become aware and truly convinced that not only we are loved, but that we are loved by God who is the master of the universe who has loved us into being, our world not only becomes beautiful.  Our world becomes infinitely brighter and safer because this assurance of divine love gives us the ability to take all the life throws at us.  We will be chasing much less the things and relationships and delights that are only good for the moment and whose satisfactions fade almost immediately thereafter, like the way fireworks are breathtaking and disappear seconds after having lit up the night sky.

Jesus came to impart this to us, and used his entire life through Calvary to tell us that in him, God was promising us he loved us.  Indeed, in Jesus, God gave us his Word. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

The right spirit of Lent and its challenges.

This year, the start of the season of Lent coincided in a very interesting and paradoxical way with Valentine’s Day.  While the former was observed largely by the Catholic community, the latter has become a worldwide event, and has been seen as a day to show with various degrees of overture, one’s appreciation of another with demonstrations of love, often having romantic undertones.  The liturgical season of Lent is often seen as a time of self-renunciation shown and demonstrated by taking on forms of mortification and discipline, so on the surface of things, many may think that nothing could be more contrasting than observing Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s day simultaneously.

But in essence and in truth, it was actually quite provident that these two occasions met on the same day.  There is something that the two have in common in a rather hidden way, but on different levels – and it is love.

What many may find it difficult to perceive or appreciate is that underneath and undergirding the recommended observances of the traditional practices of Lent of fasting, almsgiving and prayer, is the purifying of our love – love for God and love for neighbour.  A prolonged season of doing this with some level of assiduousness (40 days) is asked of all of us principally because at the core of our human and sin-prone nature, we don’t do the two very well.  We often don’t love God as wholeheartedly and authentically as he ought to be loved, and neither are we as proficient in loving our neighbour as we should.  So Mother Church gathers us in and helps us through a 40-day guidance of a shared experience as a community – an experience of purified love.

“How does fasting purify love?” one may ask.  At the heart of the issue of not loving God and insufficiently loving neighbour is an issue of self-indulgence and an inordinate emphasis on the love of self.  This love of self takes on many forms, but they chiefly find their root in the sin of pride.  One way of overcoming or being aware of this is to resist how we often give in very easily to our comfort needs through our unwillingness to experience being hungry. 

A friend once shared with me that the one thing that tells him that he is no longer poor and is comfortable in life, is when he goes to a grocery store and he has the confidence that he can buy whatever he sees, without worrying about the cost.  There could be a host of factors that contributed his having this ‘marker’ in life, like perhaps having come from a materially challenged youth.  I think that not only this friend of mine, but all of us too, have an inner desire to never feel a lack or a discomfort.  We all like to keep hunger pangs at bay, and herein lays the rationale of fasting that a large majority of us miss.

When we willingly put ourselves in a state of fasting, we are reminding ourselves that we are not ruled or controlled by our physicality.  Our drives in life must not be purely instinctive and our bodies do not control us.  We are taking back full control of our natures, unlike animals without consciences.  Eating mindlessly all the time can make us a bit like the animals that constantly graze in fields.  We do this so that we don’t feel discomfort and hungry.   This has its parallels in the way we can often mindlessly take in other things in life as well – gossipy stories of others, biased opinions, trending newsfeeds and lifestyles, so much so that we end up loving ourselves and feeding ourselves in ways that leave us bloated and exhausted.  If periodic physical detoxing does our bodies good, what more spiritual detoxing?

Almsgiving does the same thing but on the level of money and how much it controls our lives.  Always a touchy issue, we know that we cannot live without it, but that it is also something that can easily master our lives if we allow it to.  Jesus himself warns us about this saying that where your treasure is, there is your heart also.  Ever since money was invented, there has been a prevalence of a fear of not having enough.  It has easily become a god unto its own, with a legion of worshippers at its feet.  Almsgiving helps us to counter its insidious allure and power over us when we willingly give this away, controlling it rather than letting it control us.  It also reminds us that our blessings are meant to be a blessing to others.

Prayer is the third area of life that Mother Church wants to give us special guidance at this time of grace.  She wants to remind us not only about prayer’s importance, but to draw us to the heart of prayer, which is ultimately love.  If our prayer is primarily that of asking God to listen to us, our prayer becomes an extended act of loving ourselves.  But if we move our motivations for prayer away from ourselves, wanting rather to love God more and purify our love for him, so too will our love for neighbour undergo purification as well.

Love then is truly at the heart of all our Lenten practices.  As a community, when we love God with a heart that slowly becomes more purified through mindfulness, the body of Christ takes on a form that becomes more visible and tangible in the world. 

Was there a clash of ideas and purposes when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday met this year on February 14?  I guess the answer is yes only if we have been living distorted loves in our lives. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

The great gift of courage that Christ gives his beloved.

Courage is a virtue that is universally prized and admired.  It is a quality that is desired across the board – from leaders of nations to prospective spouses.  Parents across the world would like to see their progeny grow and become brave and courageous adults, being fearless when facing the many challenges that life can bring, as it often does.

God, who is our ultimate parent, is even more intent on wanting to see his children live and flourish with courage.  Many times in Jesus’ ministry to his disciples and the crowds that followed him on his walkabouts did he tell his listeners to have courage and to not be afraid.  Yet, if we are honest about it, we find ourselves limited and even paralyzed by the many fears that grip us in life.  As a result, we oftentimes fail to make much headway to reach the potential that we are capable of attaining. 

The kind of courage and the nature of the courage that Jesus wants to give us has a different depth and essence that is not on the same level as the courage that most of us think of when we refer to courage.  Our frame of reference is more often than not limited to the tests and trials of this life, which is understandable.  So, when we speak of having courage, the challenges that we have in mind are often the things that we can overcome by our own efforts, skills and talents.  Students study hard to face and overcome the challenges of tests and exams; friends who experience betrayal and hurts overcome and deal with them by exercising forgiveness and extending mercy, and people who have suffered losses in their business ventures and investments are courageous when they pick themselves off the ground and with tenacity forge on and do not let their failures cripple them.  These are very legitimate and evident displays of courage that can also often inspire other folk who suffer similar trials and setbacks in life to face them with a similar tenacity. 

But the courage that Jesus ultimately wants to give us isn’t so much resilience against what confronts us in this life but what is our final bastion that we all must face – the end of our lives.

St Paul understood this so well when he asked brazenly “death, where is your sting?”  No matter the kind of challenges we may meet in this life, they pale when put against the ultimate challenge that each one of us inevitably has to face when our time on this side of heaven ends.  The courage that Jesus comes to give us is the kind that enables us to be fearless beyond the precipice of death.  When Jesus said that he comes to give us life that we may have it to the full, he didn’t limit it to merely what this life here accords us.  The fullness that he wants us to have extends past the flat line of the ECG machine, and this is where the courage that this world and all it stands for meets its limit.

Each of the canonized saints of the Church who had died a martyr’s death is a vibrant testimony of a life that had this kind of courage in an extraordinary way.  It’s not that they didn’t value or love this life, but they knew without a doubt that what Christ came to give us all is much more than what this life can give and what this life can promise. 

I would err on the side of insensitivity if I dismiss the reality of the pain of separation that all deaths entail.  To not fear death does not mean that one’s loved ones and relations who remain should not experience the reality of the vacancy one leaves behind in their hearts and lives.  This ‘gap’ is real, causing sorrow and grief.  We too, will do well to handle this with the courage that Jesus gives us, making real what Shakespeare said of death’s parting being a ‘sweet sorrow’.

When we waver in our belief in the promise of Christ, it reveals itself in the ways that we are afraid of death, or the many forms of little deaths that life brings – some examples that come to mind are the dying of the ego; sudden and unexpected humiliations; and the ways that we may be asked to be generous with our possessions, time and skills, often at the most inconvenient of times.  The courage that Jesus wants us to have when facing our ultimate Death (with the capital D) extends to and includes the courage to face these little deaths that we meet each day as well.  If we don’t do the latter with ease, we will hardly do the former with much conviction either.

Praying for a happy death necessarily means that we are also ready to be happy with these small deaths as well. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

God hates divorce – even between theology and piety.

When I was reading theology at the graduate level, I noticed that I was struggling to bridge a gap that I saw looming before me.  It was that gap that seems to exist between theology and piety – something which I really hadn’t given much thought to before. My discomfort with this apparent yawning divide between the two in our life as Christians was becoming more and more defined.  The more I read, the more I saw the contrast - that what I was studying in the pages of those tomes and deeply reflected theological thoughts and intellectual calisthenics had little to do directly with the average person in the pew in church.  Its irony wasn’t lost on me at all as I walked each day to my classes, wondering if all this would make me a better priest and if this would really help me in my deep endeavour to serve the people I was sent to minister to when my studies were over.

Much as I did enjoy breathing in the theological air that I was immersed in, I kept reminding myself that ultimately, this was not what I went into the seminary for in the first place, some 20-over years ago.  Much as I looked on in wonder and admiration at my professors and fellow course-mates who seemed to be so passionate in their pursuit of theological excellence, there was a nagging part of me that back home, half the world away, in the church pew, sits some illiterate man or woman with a heart filled with a deep love for God and neighbour, and my wanting to soak up the intellectual offerings of the Institute would hardly make a difference to their world, and in all probability may not help them to love God more.  Yet, I had an acute sense that what I was doing was going to impact them in some inchoate way.

I couldn’t put my finger on the issue at hand at that time, but upon reflection in my convalescence in these past weeks, I have been led to realise this – that within me, and perhaps in a lot of us, lay the great temptation to cut and divide, and to segregate theology from piety, simply because it is always easier.  After all, it is rather prevalent where one is emphasized at the expense of the other, and oftentimes, this makes for the apparent chasm between theology and spirituality or piety.  A great pastor of souls has to endeavor to marry the two like the way a great artist marries the different paint pigments so as to bring the beauty that he has in his mind to materialize on his canvas.  And this is not always easy.

They are, admittedly, of two seemingly different worlds – theology and piety.  Yet, there is wisdom in striving to marry the two, challenging though it may be.  A theologian who hasn’t filtered down lofty theological concepts like the Trinity or the Incarnation or even God’s very Being (as if this is at all possible) isn’t going to make either God or himself very relatable.  A preacher who only preaches pious stories and Chicken-soup-for-the-soul-stories, solely promoting devotions and being persnickety about the minutiae of ritual stands in danger of turning spirituality into mere sentiment, romanticism and technical correctness. 

There is a very interesting and relevant quote from Malachi 2:16 which I believe applies as much to marriage as it does to theology and piety.  There, it is stated that God hates divorce.  Certainly, what God hates or detests is not divorcees but the terrible consequences that divorce inevitably has on his beloved people.  How this statement has been so misunderstood and used to bludgeon people who have suffered from failed marriages is fodder for another blog reflection.  But I believe that connected to this is how God sees beauty and necessity in marriage and union, and in oneness, and that it ought to apply as much to marriage as it should to how theology and piety need constantly be married and not be divided.

A good priest needs to have both these tools at hand, and minister with both of them open in front of him.  Doing this with a consciousness and a mindfulness will prevent us from being lazy and repetitive.  Being mindful of the need to be guided and formed by good theology will keep him sound in his view of God, in God’s very Being and that God is Love, and the being mindful of having a heart of tender love will remind him of the need to show this through his actions and words.  This will be my 17th year of being an ordained priest, and I must confess that it is a great challenge to do this well, having more misses than hits.

My time away from ministry in this 6-weeks of medically imposed period of Coventry by my doctor is meant to strengthen a weakened and dying part of my femur.  Hopefully it will at the same time strengthen a part of my ministry that is in a constant need for renewal and regeneration too.