Monday, April 30, 2018

How does faith look like?

To be sure, this is a very sensitive question, largely because faith at its core is personal. Let me clarify by stating from the onset that it doesn’t mean that it is personal and therefore it should be kept to oneself and no one outside of yourself should hear what you have to say about it.  It is personal because it takes shape in each person in a unique way, as unique as each person has his or her own individual set of fingerprints.

Our personal experience of faith is really a mélange or pastiche of each of our individual life experiences consisting of our joyful moments, our times of strife and anxieties, our very public moments, our ‘alone’ or extremely private moments, and most of all, it includes our saddest and most disconsolate of moments.  It is never one of these alone, though of course some of these may stand head and shoulders above the other moments. Because faith has everything to do with life, our faith takes on the very contours, the crests and troughs; the highs and lows of life.  

It usually isn’t difficult to say that God is at work when we are experiencing joys and successes in life.  Milestone events like births, weddings and college graduations are times when it is relatively easy to look up at the heavens and whisper a prayer of gratitude for these experiences of grace.  

But as a pastor of souls, I have come to see that faith is all the more needed and pivotal at those other times - moments when things are falling off the hinges. But the activation of our faith in these crucial moments is often never something that happens at the spur of the moment.  To believe that God is ultimately in control and has our best of intentions in his divine plan for each one of us is something that takes a very long time to build and strengthen.  

To be able to say that “it is ok” at heart-breaking moments we are standing beside the casket of a loved one who has died is an act of faith.  To be able to say this and mean it when the reason our loved one is in that casket because of a horrific traffic accident and was barely entering into life as a young adult is a very bold and courageous act of faith. In the same vein, to be able to say that God has my back when the doctor tells me that I have stage 4 cancer is as much an act of faith.  Faith at these moments takes a specific form – its form is the assurance that even though what is happening before our very eyes is seen to be a tragedy and even heart-wrenching, deeply troubling and most calamitous, there is a strength coming from outside of us, giving us the ability to say “it is indeed ok”.  This being ‘ok’ is not predicated on how good or lifted we are feeling inside, but that THE story isn’t over, even if the story of the person concerned seems to be.  The ground of this confidence comes from the belief that our individual stories are but threads that weave in and out of the warp and wefts of that enormous tapestry of God’s plan, and the one who deftly handles this loom is God. 

Unfortunately, faith at these times isn’t something that is summoned up at will or available at on speed dial a la Deliveroo or Food Panda.  It is, most of the time, the result of a long process of constantly being in touch with God’s divine presence in our lives, and this includes being familiar with Scripture from our younger days as school children, catechized consistently towards our Confirmation, being constant and dedicated in our prayer life in good times and in bad, and walking with God while being mindful of being in a state of grace.  While these may not guarantee that we will not quake in our shoes when the waves of tragedy or calamity reach the shores of our lives, they do the necessary work of ‘tilling the soil of our hearts’ and giving the seed of faith the nutrients to grow and mature.  

Here in Singapore, over the past few weeks, we have read of a few cruel and untimely deaths that have resulted from tragic road accidents.  I don’t have to have known these young lives personally to have an inkling of just how bereft their parents and family members and loved ones felt or are still feeling.  Words of comfort cannot reach where only faith can comfort and give strength. Courage at these times do not come in the form of stoicism and being able to stop the function of one’s tear ducts. 

Courage ultimately has to come in the form of our assured faith that our God has and still goes through our darkest moments because he went to Calvary’s cross for us, and that He does this because He loves us without condition.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The problem with praying only when there is a feeling.

Frequently when I hear confessions, I like to ask the penitent on the other side of the grille to give me an indication of their prayer life and the regularity of their prayer.  The reason for this is because it gives me an idea of the effort and desire of the penitent to live a life of holiness.  To be sure, there are a host of attributes and attitudes that one can nurture in life that indicates in some way one’s desire for holiness.  Prayer, the desire for prayer, and the disposal of one’s life to prayer are often a good indication of this.  Of course, their answers are never the same, but oftentimes, the remark that follows are variations of “but I find it hard to get any feeling when I pray”. 

Therein, I believe, lies the main issue at hand for many when it comes to prayer.  Prayer has much more to do with love than with feelings or sensations or moods.  It seems to many that it isn’t natural to associate prayer with love.  I beg to differ.  Love has everything to do with prayer, because prayer is and has to be first and foremost our overture of love to God.  But because a vast majority of people find my question to be strange or disturbing, it gives me good reason to believe that when they were first taught to pray, there was very little emphasis by their teachers (or parents) that prayer is essentially our love relationship with God.

There is hardly any issue though, when it comes to petition as an intention to pray.  Conceptualizing God as almighty and omnipotent, it isn’t unreasonable to then see God as the ultimate fulfiller of wishes, hopes and desires.  It is this aspect of God that gives us so much confidence to place our needs before him.  However, a lot of people hardly make much inroads into prayer from that point on, and end up seeing God as a mere granter of wishes and hopes, not unlike the way Aladdin summons the Genie by rubbing the lamp.  Of course, I run the risk of sounding ridiculous by saying this, but if one is only going to God to have one’s desires fulfilled, one can begin to turn God into a personal genie, whose command seems to be the wishes of the one who prays. 

But when love becomes the starting point of prayer, and the raison d’etre of prayer, it truly becomes the game changer, especially when we define love in the Thomistic sense, which is to will the good of the other as other.  My reason for going into prayer will not be predicated on how good or elevated I am feeling if my reason to pray is to convey my love for God.  Of course, there may be times when God deigns to grace me with a sense of closeness where I do feel his presence in my life, and they do make prayer not only easier, but an experience of delight and elation.  I will be praying more for these sensations than for the sake of conveying my love for God if the reason I pray is to have more of such experiences, making my praying an effort that is more for my own sake than for God’s sake.  This would change the Thomistic definition of love to being “willing my good for my sake”. 

Fidelity is always going to be a challenge because at the heart of fidelity is the promotion, elevation and love of the other despite gaining nothing for ourselves.  Spousal fidelity works on the same principle – where one is willing to to be faithful whether the times are good or not, whether one is in a state of health or in a sickly state.  It is a love that abides “no matter what”.

Fidelity to prayer needs to be broached in the same way.  Whether we are graced with good sensations or feelings or not, it shouldn’t affect our regularity in prayer.  When we are clear that we are praying with love, and for the sake of love, it sets the framework and foundation of our prayer. 
Fidelity runs directly against the grain of the way the modern and utilitarian world works.  As long as one isn’t getting any benefit from anything, be it a venture, an investment or a relationship, one should abandon the enterprise altogether.  Marriages can fall apart easily then, because one spouse will feel shortchanged when the love they give isn’t reciprocated or given back in a greater way.  Applied to our prayer life, then it easily explains why one stops praying the moment one doesn’t get those ‘fuzzy’ feelings anymore when one prays.

St Theresa of Calcutta’s prayer life is probably well known by now – that for years serving God in the way she did, she obtained no insights, no consolations and little affirmation from God.  She was, so to speak, praying in the dark.  But she was faithful, and showed up daily in her meditation.  What she was doing every day was this – she was showing great love.  Our keeping of our daily appointment with the Lord in prayer reveals this as well, whether we receive good sensations or not. 

Love, after all, is a decision and an act of the will, and much less a feeling. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

The importance of showing up in Church each week.

I don’t think it is a sweeping statement to say that every church, no matter what denomination of Christianity, faces the issue of their members not coming regularly to Church.  I am sure that the Roman Catholic church is not unique to face this issue.  Why is this so?  There are a host of reasons that cause this irregularity, and at its core, the issue really boils down to selfishness.  There is something somehow embedded in our human nature that wants to accept things on our terms rather than to submit to laws, authority and order.  Proof of this is right there in the opening chapters of Genesis, symbolized in the way that our first parents reached out to grab the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Theologians and scripture scholars have often called this first sin the sin of pride, and rightly so.  Instead of allowing this ‘fruit’ to be handed to them in God’s own time, the fruit was TAKEN as if it was a right.  We see shades of this in the current generation that is collectively called the ‘millennials’ where the sense of entitlement is often evidenced.

Perhaps the other reason that contributes to irregular or poor church attendance is a poor understanding of ecclesiology.  Ecclesiology is the theology or study of the nature of the Christian church.  A healthy ecclesiology is very much lacking in many Christians, but it is especially necessary in the Roman Catholic Church, principally because of how we understand the term Body of Christ.  This term is very dynamic because it applies to not only the consecrated host at Mass, which is the body, soul, spirit and divinity of Jesus Christ.  It is also a term that refers to the collective group of baptized Catholics in the entire Church, worldwide, past and present.

Understanding this has deep implications because it explains something that seems to be a bugbear to many Catholics – that every Sunday and day of obligation, all Catholics are obliged to be present at the celebration of the Eucharist, also known as the Mass. On the surface of things, it seems to be a fussy, archaic and demanding.  Underlying this obligation is love.  Let me explain.

That I am a member of the Body of Christ has to mean that by my very person and presence, I contribute to the faith, health and vitality of the entire body.  Coming to Church to stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow member of the same body does several things which I may not be aware of.  By my very presence, I am giving my brother and sister in the Mass encouragement and strengthening of their faith.  I do this when I pray, stand, kneel and sing together with them. By that same token then, when I am willfully absent from the assembly in the Church, my absence creates a gap in the same Body.  I am also saying quite a few other things, and they are not limited to the following:

1)   This Sunday, you will not be getting any strength and affirmation from my presence because I prefer to be selfish with my time and energy.

2)   You (the person who would be sitting next to me, or across the aisle from me) are on your own, because you will not be benefitting from my prayers and presence.  You will not be getting my love today.

3)   My needs are far more important than yours, which implies that I am more important than you.

4)   I am not concerned with your needs and am showing this by my absence.

5)   My life is about me and my needs.  I am selfish today.

Certainly, this list is not exhaustive nor is it meant to be.  Barring those of us who are physically and bodily unwell to be present at Mass, there is a great necessity for us to show up.  When we see why our presence at Sunday Mass is so important, maybe we can then understand why a willful absence is seen to be so wrong as to call it a mortal or serious sin.  It breaks the Body of Christ on many levels.

Mass regularity and consistency ought not to be predicated on good music, riveting preaching and engaging lectors who read with a broadcaster’s voice, but it will help to make Mass participation appealing if liturgists and celebrants put great love into their celebrations.  

I have wondered many times in the past how I should address this issue to those who are infrequent at Mass attendance.  Speaking about this at the Ambo would be addressing the wrong audience by the fact that they are already there at Mass.  Perhaps this musing on the issue on a blog like this may reach those who haven’t seen it explained this way.  

Dear reader, my hope is that you may want to share this reflection with someone whom you know who could benefit from this, and let them know that the Body of Christ needs them.  Every Sunday.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Easter's empty tomb is not incongruent with a Crucifix that has a corpus.

Easter celebrates an empty tomb.  It is God’s ultimate vindication of a life that is lived out with the greatest of fidelity and love, and one that had gone through the toughest of struggles in life, having borne the heaviness of the world’s sins.  It really is the greatest reward given for the greatest of sacrifices.

That we can have heaven to look forward to when our own lives end is a goal that we all share as the baptized and adopted children of God.  It has everything to do with responding to and co-operating with the grace of God.  But the empty tomb of Jesus does not mean that our own lives of struggles are therefore over.  Each day still requires of us to do battle with sin and evil, to strive to do good, to make that choice for integrity, honesty, fidelity, and to, like Jesus, sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is not without meaning that the Church Militant is a name given to the Church that exists in this life - the life that you and I are living.

Many have noticed and remarked how different the crosses are in Protestant and Catholic Churches.  Those in Protestant churches are always plain crosses, sometimes with a cloth draped around its bare crossbeam.  Those in Catholic Churches are distinctly different because they almost always have a corpus or body of Christ hanging on it.  Protestant theology tends to explain it this way – that because Christ rose from the dead, he should therefore no longer be seen to be nailed and hanging on the Cross anymore.  The victory of Christ should be symbolically represented by the fact that the Cross stands empty.  The battle over sin and death is won.  Game over.

By that token then, would it mean then that Catholic Churches do not believe in the Resurrection?  Certainly not.  In fact, all Churches - both Catholic and Protestant, share the same belief in the resurrection of Christ as the ultimate victory of God over sin, evil and death.  In both Churches, the game is indeed over for sin, evil and death.

But our victories – yours and mine, has a dimension that still features a personal and ongoing struggle that requires a daily fight.  Objectively, the battle is won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection.  Our individual battles are still subjectively ongoing.  Our human tendency to not want to fight, to give up easily and to not sweat any blood in our own Gethsamanes is a constant reality.  These experiences of ours will always require some added boost to our faith, giving us a stronger resolve to want to live and love as close to the way that Jesus lived and loved as possible. 

The danger of having a bare Cross as our symbol of Christ’s victory is that it can leave us clinically distanced from what has made God go to the Cross – our sins.  It can turn us into complacent Christians who give nary a thought about the depth of God’s love for us which caused not just a man, but a just man, to be so brutalized to such a heinous extent. 

Just as our spiritual progress is always a ‘two-step-forward, one-step-back’ process, the joy and strength of Easter is never going to be a distinctly straight road to glory.  Our lives will always feature some form of the Cross for us as we do our battle with sin.  The forms of the glory of the empty tomb is, for most of us, going to be fleeting glimpses in between the struggles that we face.  I can understand why the Prosperity Gospel message is so appealing to many – its message is essentially one of Easter all the way.  The truth is that Easter’s triumph gives us all the more reason to carry our Crosses with greater elan, and we will do this well by constantly casting an eye on an image of Jesus dying to show us his undying love.