Monday, June 25, 2018

17 years in the Priesthood - a reflection

On 20thJune last week, I crossed yet another year as an ordained priest in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  In terms of numbers, it wasn’t significant by any means.  It marked by 17thyear in the priesthood, and it isn’t a milestone as far as traditional milestones are concerned.  But in all fairness, considering that five years back I could have succumbed to Leukemia, each day is viewed as a gift from God and each anniversary a visible and tangible work of the grace of God to me. 

In years past, when I cross this date, I have often taken time to view the journey that I my priesthood had taken me on.  I encourage married couples to do this when their anniversary is celebrated, and since the priesthood is akin to a marriage in some ways, I apply that advice to myself. 

One of the things that I ask married couples to do is to look back and see if and how their spouses had gone through changes since their wedding day.  I got this idea from a book on the meaning of marriage written by a Presbyterian pastor.  In one of the pages, he quotes Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes as saying that when he married his wife, he had hardly a smidgen of sense for what he was getting into with her.  How could he know how much she would change over 25 years?  How could he know how much he would change?  He said that his wife had lived with at least five different men since they were we – and each of the five had been him.

I found that reflection to be worthy of something to sit with as I pondered over the past 17 years of my priesthood.  Could I say the same thing for myself?  Although I am still the Fr Luke Fong who was ordained back in 2001 in the parish of St Anne’s in Sengkang, am I also in some ways a different Fr Luke Fong now in 2018?  Would people whom I ministered to back then see the same priest ministering to them now if I was still in that parish?  If not, where were the changes?  And as for the parts that are still strong and familiar, what is it about them that somehow has resisted change?  And why?

If nothing at all in me has changed in the past 17 years, then something must be terribly wrong.  I do believe that I am constantly being challenged to mellow, willingly or otherwise. God’s grace is always inviting me and beckoning me towards not just existing but flourishing, and he often sends people and situations my way in order for this to happen.  Some can be altercations with friends or even parishioners, and some come in the form of physical challenges, like mine was back in 2013 with the gift of Leukemia.  That one was really a defining point in my life when something truly shifted in my core. 

Since that episode, the mellowing process has since taken on a greater dimension of suppleness and less of a resistance.  That perennial call to holiness and sanctification is very much clearer and rings more like a siren now when it was for more muted in the past, when it was more comparable to chime in the background.  

One thing for sure, it has vastly improved my prayer life.  I had made a personal vow to make a dedicated Holy Hour in prayer each day of my priesthood since my ordination, and it has been unbroken, with the grace of God.  But it has, since 2013 taken on a new purpose and a new depth, and where it was previously carried out with an intention to keep going something out of a personal obligation on many occasions, it is now very much more focused and predicated on a love for God.   
And it is for this reason that a large portion of any kind of counselling that I give to people who approach me for direction and guidance in life often seeing me asking if there is an element of prayer in their life, and most importantly, if loving God is the aim and purpose of their prayer.  It has ceased to surprise me now that when I ask this question, I get either a puzzled look, or a revealing pregnant pause, indicating in some way that it had never really crossed their minds that loving God has anything to do with praying.  

I am more and more convinced that it is when we begin to love God as Jesus said, with all our heart, mind and soul, that we discover and use the most effective weapon to fight Satan and to foil his plan to wreak havoc on our souls.  Sin occurs when our love for God and his will is diluted, thinned out and adulterated.  When a heart increases in its capacity to love God and love what God loves, it will, by becoming like God, find offensive and distasteful what offends God and displeases God.  Sin happens when a soul loves what God deems an affront, and doesn’t see goodness, truth and beauty in what God delights in.  What made Jesus able to love without sin is precisely because he loved the Father with his entire being.  The less we love God, the more sin has its sway with our souls.  

Having been ordained for 17 years, and having spent an hour with God each day would have seen me giving God around 6200 hours thus far.  Author Malcolm Gladwell is known to have propounded the 10,000-hour rule, where he said that for anyone to achieve mastery in any given field, one has to put in 10,000 hours in practicing and training.  

While spirituality isn’t about mastery, it is about constancy and effort.  There have been some studies that have debunked Gladwell’s theory.  But if I am to follow this rule of his, it looks like I still have quite a long way off to reach that 10,000 mark, since I am still a teenager priest at 17 years.

And wouldn’t it be interesting to see what kind of priest I would be when that mark is reached.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Finding motivation in life

I recently came across an interview where world number one sprinter Usain Bolt was asked why he was retiring from sprinting at the early age of 31. His reply was interesting in that he said that he had reached his goal, which was to win three Olympic Golds in three consecutive Olympiads.  His last one was attained at Rio in 2017, and after that, he said that there was nothing to motivate him anymore, and it was all ‘downhill from there’.  

Surely, no one would begrudge him his well deserved accolade of being the fastest man on earth, with all the medals and titles he has achieved thus far in his illustrious career as a sprinter.  But in that interview, you could sense that there was a shade of disappointment in his demeanor when he said that it was all ‘downhill’.  He also did add that there was no longer any motivation for continuing to pursue goals in running.  

In the Christian perspective of life, as in the world of sport, motivation is just as, if not, even more important.  What motivates us to live out our discipleship of Christ in and through our lives is something that we should always be contemplating and pondering while our journey towards heaven’s eternal joys is not ended.  Even St Paul used for analogy the training for sports to convey this notion that it is akin to a race that we are running, but for a wreath that will not fade.  For us Christians, the ‘race’ cannot be seen as one that has a ‘retirement point’, unlike Bolt’s running career.  It is quite understandable that the mere physicality of Bolt’s craft depends very much on his physical fitness and muscle coordination ability.  These are very much connected to and affected by one’s physical age and health, and it is just a matter of time when younger, fitter, and more agile runners become the ones who stand on the winner’s podium.  It’s just that some world records are harder to break than others.

So what is our motivation for our Christian lives?  What is it about Christianity that doesn’t have a ‘reach-by’ or ‘use-by’ date?  The ability to define this goal as clearly as possible will serve us well in that it will give us the reason to keep pursuing it constantly, with the grace of God. This goal is of course heaven’s eternal joys where as Revelations tell us, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will no longer be any mourning, nor crying nor pain. What this also necessarily means that while we are in this life and part of the Church Militant, mourning, crying and pain are experiences that are inevitable for every single human being. Seen in a more positive light, these features of our human brokenness and imperfection are elements that make us long and yearn for not just our ‘moment in the sun’, but an eternity of being IN the Son.  

Extending from last week’s reflection on the fleeting nature of worldly success, setting our sights on a joy and a goal that is eternal and in the future is what prevents us from reaching a point of being jaded and lacking in motivation in our spiritual lives.  We need to remind ourselves that if our goals and aims in life are greatly connected to the material, the tangible and those that can be measured in terms of titles, awards, accolades and possessions, we have set the bar too low.  A goal that is heavenly and non-attainable in this life is a bar that is raised to such a level that no earthly recompense, honour and bounty can match.  

Regular participation in Sacraments the key to fight weariness

Catholic Christians are particularly advantaged in living with this goal because along the journey of this life, we are richly aided by God’s assuring presence and strength when we are given Sacramental grace.  Each time we participate at Holy Mass, and receive Holy Communion in a worthy manner, we get a foretaste of heaven by the very fact that we receive in us the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man.  Regular participation in the Sacrament of Reconciliation keeps us grounded in humility and in a state of grace.  God knows how challenging it is for us to be constantly motivated for our heavenly goal in the sea of the world’s challenges and the turbulent sea of temptations that come fast and furious at us.  Receiving Jesus in Holy Communion is what strengthens not just our resolve, but above all, strengthens our faith in God’s constant love and presence in our lives. 

Many Catholics cannot make this important connection when they receive Holy Communion.  Receiving the Eucharist is much more than just getting a shot of Holy Red Bull or some Sacramental Energy Boosting drink.  I have heard the sad lament of many a Catholic who tell me that they wish they had a personal encounter with Jesus, and my response to them is that the Eucharist is precisely this.  In the Eucharist, God is giving each person a truly personal encounter.  Which friend do you know would say to you “I love you so much that I want to give you my flesh to eat so that you and I can have a deep bond established”?  Probably not a single friend can say this.  Yet, God has said this, and is constantly saying this at every Eucharistic celebration.  

Being ignorant of this and unappreciative of this results in what we see these days – thousands and thousands of Catholics forming long lines to receive Holy Communion at Masses throughout the world, but with scant attention paid to what is truly taking place – a dynamic and real encounter that goes way beyond personal between Jesus and the communicant.  Being incognizant of this truth is what probably make us think, erroneously of course, that we are left on our own in this life as we make our individual ways toward God in our daily lives.  What we fail to appreciate is that Holy Communion is what can truly take the travail out of our earthly travel.

As far as his running career is concerned, Usain Bolt is clear that it is ‘all downhill’ from here after his three Olympic Gold medal win.  For Mr. Bolt’s sake, I hope that he has other goals to keep him motivated in life, because though medal- chasing may have an expiry date, there are aspects of life that don’t.  

As, Christians, our race for the finish is far from over.  See you at the finish line!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Success does not always lead to contentment, but so many still hope for it in life.

There is a certain drive in life that propels us as human beings to better our state in life. Obviously, this has a good side to it, because we only have to look at the quality of our lives here in the 21stcentury as compared to that 100 years ago.  The very fact that you, dear reader, are able to read on your device, be it on a desk or one something handheld just moments or days after I posted it on early Monday morning, is evidence of this.  It doesn’t even matter if you happen to be halfway across this planet.  And this progress is only at the level of cyberspace, without taking into consideration the advancements of the other fields of life which impact the way we live. 

It is understandable then, that so many seek some kind of success in life, to better themselves and to attain a standard of life that is somewhat higher than one was born into.  In competitive societies, this need can be so insatiable and besotting that it easily makes it the primary goal of one’s life. 

June is, in Singapore, a time when schools are on a mid-year month-long break, and churches often organize camps for their youth in the various levels of catechism. During these camps, confessions are often provided for the campers to give them an opportunity to make their confessions if they have not been regular penitents on their own outside of these specially organized camps and activities.  We priests can get a good idea of the kind of burdens, trials and anxieties that plague our youth in schools from the confessions that we hear. While we can never use this information directly, we can hold talks and conferences for youth that have broad themes that deal with general issues that are real.  I have noticed that a very recurrent and troubling issue is that of envy of the success of others.

Granted, it is not just an issue or problem facing our teens.  It is a very common issue for so many people, adults included. Those who have not or are unable to attain success are the ones often dealing with the issue of envy, where they look upon the success of others with the proverbial green eye.  Those who are humble will know that this isn’t a virtue of the human spirit, and bring this up in confession.  My response to this is to often invite the penitent to develop the ability to admire.  We don’t do that often enough, nor do we do that well enough.  Admiring someone’s else’s goodness, beauty, success or achievement and to be truly happy for the other person is the antidote for envy. Leaving it at the level of admiration and not harbouring any desire to covet it for oneself is what is sorely lacking in us as human beings.  It takes humility to want to be able to do this, and this is, I truly believe, something that leads a soul to holiness and sanctification.  

But there is also a downside for the one who has attained the success and fame.  It can be intoxicating, and like the climb to the top of the ladder of any success, the one at the top is always in a very unstable and precarious position.  It becomes worse when one identifies one’s self-worth and value with the success that one has attained.  Just as it is true that ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown’, it is also true that the one at the top of the ladder can end up having fitful nights of restless sleep because he or she is always concerned of who is trying to shake him or her off her perch at the summit.

It isn’t by any means coincidental that all three of Jesus’ temptations in the dessert by the devil are various forms of entitlement, privilege and power.  Jesus was asked to turn stone to bread when hungry, tempted by status and earthly glory, and thirdly by taking advantage of his being the Son of God to jump off the top of the temple.  The implication in this temptation is that the Son of God doesn’t need to take the stairs but can expect to be saved the trouble and the be served.

Jesus doesn’t cave in to any of these temptations because he has a very strong memory of what his baptism assured him – that he is God’s dearly beloved Son in whom God is well pleased.  This assurance gave him the confidence that the Son of God’s being loved so completely by the Father wasn’t going to be changed by the fact that he experienced physical hunger, nor was it going to be diminished by nations rejecting him, and if he had to take the stairs like everyone else, it didn’t mean God loved him any less.  It was this confidence that allowed him to live with fidelity and faithfulness right to the very end of his life.

The end of Jesus’ earthly life was hardly an image of success.  Yet, it is depicted so openly, loved so greatly and displayed so proudly in homes, schools and churches throughout the world.  Its success is so hidden, that even in some churches which preach the gospel of success and the gospel of prosperity, this message is missed by a huge mile.  It isn’t any surprise at all that Jesus’ first beatitude is one which declared for the poor a certain privilege of happiness.  For one who has a very narrow definition of success, this beatitude will always be bewildering and troubling.

In the past week, the world saw how two very popular and highly successful people ended their own lives.  Fashion icon Kate Spade and celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain committed suicide despite their wealth, success and fame.  No one can say for certain exactly why they chose to end their lives the way they did, but one thing can be said for certain – success and riches alone are never a true benchmark of happiness.  

For us Christians who are baptized, we need to be always remember with great gratitude that our greatest identity comes from being God’s beloved sons and daughters. Living our lives in response to this great privilege is our ultimate success because this success is the only success that we take with us when we leave this earth.  All other successes will be left behind.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Confirmation – perhaps the most under-valued Sacrament for the Christian life.

Among the seven Sacraments of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the one Sacrament that is often misunderstood and rather poorly appreciated is Confirmation.  A shallow, superficial and insufficient grasp of this Sacrament has in its wake many negative consequences.  It is my hope that this reflection helps those who haven’t yet a good appreciation of what this Sacrament is and provides us to have a heightened awareness of this tremendous grace from God.

One of the unfortunate things about Confirmation is that it is most often celebrated in tandem with the biological time of a young person’s foray into physical adulthood.  This is unfortunate because I have seen way too many cases that the spiritual maturity of a person often isn’t something that develops and grows alongside one’s biological maturity.  Would that it was.  But if one thinks about it, neither does one’s emotional maturity accompany one’s biological maturity. What more one’s spiritual maturity?

Confirmation is, together with the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, collectively referred to as the Sacraments of Initiation.  They are meant to start one off or launch one into life – which is outgoing, organic and ever developing.  The oft-quoted maxim “life isn’t a destination but a journey” is relevant here.  The Sacraments of Initiation set the the tone right for one to face the challenges of life with a certain dexterity, verve and resolve.

Sacraments, however, are not magic.  As much as they bestow grace to those who receive them, the effect that they impart to us are always subject to our willingness to cooperate with God.  If it is magic, the disposition of the recipient would hardly matter at all, because one would have no true freedom to respond or not to respond.  Black magic, often associated with spells, hexes and evil, have the intention of making the person unfree, controlled and bound in some way.  Sacraments are a direct opposite, where one has to put in effort and intentionality to respond to what God is offering out of love.  

Confirmation gives those who are confirmed in the faith great strength.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit’s vey life, the one confirmed sees the great need to step up in living the adult Christian life, where one’s actions and choices are made with one eye cast on our heavenly goal and eternal union with God.  One’s consciousness is more attuned to in every aspect of life, and one becomes emboldened to live in a way that makes of one’s life a walking signboard to others as one lives one’s adult life.  But one is also free to reject this gift and live in ways contrary to the call of Christ.

This is one of the reasons why the Church has always taught that one should be a Confirmed Catholic before one can celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage, with exceptions made.  Marriage is an adult mode of living, and Christian Marriage has a dimension of mission that every married couple is called to.  A Sacramentally Married couple has the very challenging but onerous task of being a living sign of the living Christ in and through the way they live sacrificially and selflessly their married vows.  Only when one is empowered through a meaningful response to one’s Confirmation does this make sense.  Fidelity and faithfulness are never going to be something that is imposed on us.  They will only work when we make the effort to want to stretch our hearts to live in such a way that we want to will the good of the other.

Just as Confirmation isn’t magic, neither is Marriage.  It takes commitment, lots of effort, and plenty of self-sacrifice to really work.  A married couple that is only willing to love when they feel like it, or when the ‘mood’ is right will hardly be truly committed to love ‘in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, till death do they part’.  Confirmation is a public declaration that one is willing to make a similar commitment to live out one’s faith.  When this understanding is lacking in the one being confirmed, it will only remain a Rite with little impact made on the inner self.  This is clearly seen when one who has been confirmed stops the mindful and loving practice of one’s faith, and only comes to Sunday Eucharist on an ‘as and when’ basis.  Instead of being a Sacrament of Maturity, the one confirmed is displaying signs of spiritual immaturity.

St Thomas Aquinas has been known to be responsible for this Latin axiom about life – quidquid recipitur modum recipitur recipientis.  It essentially means that whatever is given is received according to the mode of the receiver.  If one’s heart and consciousness is underdeveloped and small, the gift (of grace) may be huge, but one can only receive it in a small way due to an inherent inability or insufficiency.  This could explain why there may be many who, though confirmed in their faith, are somewhat unable to respond as fully to the Christian life as they should.