Monday, October 29, 2018

God wants our cooperation in our Christian living.

I often see men and women of good faith struggling very hard to become better Christians and this gives me a lot of hope.  There are quite many people who make the effort to go to weekly confessions and this edifies me as a priest, because guiding people to holiness is one of the reasons I have given my life over to be a priest of God.  If they have a thirst and a hunger for spiritual perfection and the attainment of their own sainthood, it means that as a priest, I must be doing something right.  A church that doesn’t have her parishioners striving for holiness may be an indication of the lack of holiness in her pastors.

What do these people struggle with?  The range is broad, but I have come to see that there really is a common issue that serves to address all sins and addictions.  I know many people pray for the ability and strength to stay on God’s beam, where they will make the right choices that make their lives something that glorifies God.  When a person says that he prays that he will stay away from sins of lust, for example, I often ask what it is that he is praying for exactly.  Is it a prayer that wants God to place him in some sort of spiritual shackle or restraint, preventing him from doing things that disrespects his dignity or viewing things that do not please God?  Does their prayer for this view of holiness disregard the value of this own part to play in the pursuit and quest for holiness?  It has come to light that this seems to be the mind that many some Christians have whenever they lament to me that they pray for the ability to overcome sinful inclinations, but have hardly made a dent in improving their lives.

Do we have this notion about how God should be working and are either miffed or disgruntled with God for not improving in our moral lives?  The issue really isn’t that God is at fault or slow in working, but that a very large part of this ‘puzzle’ is missing, and that part has a lot to do with us. 

Yes, God does want us to live better lives all the time – lives that not only glorify him, but lives that make us instruments and conduits of his love to the world that we live and work in.  But God doesn’t want to do this alone.  He could if he wanted to, but out of his generosity and humility, he chooses to do this with the cooperation of his beloved sons and daughters.  A holy life that is made holy outside of our desire and effort has very little value of love and holiness.  It is a bit like when a naughty or recalcitrant child who has done something he shouldn’t have is told and even forced to apologize for his actions. If there is no sincere contrition and sorrow for his actions, the apology is a mere mouthing of a few words that come only from his lips, but nothing in his heart.  What comes from the heart is a willingness and an effort to demonstrate that he knows that he has made the wrong choice, leading him to do a wrong action, ending up hurting himself and his fellowman.  

We need to apply the same principle with holiness.  Holiness will have very little value and cannot really be called holiness when our own part in cooperating with God’s grace is missing.  If our cooperation isn’t required when it comes to holiness, God isn’t God, but a control freak of supernatural proportions. Imagine a world where no one has the possibility to make a mistake, where every person cannot do wrong, simply because everyone has been programmed or forced to ‘fall in line’.  There will be discipline, there will be conformity, but one thing will be missing for certain, and this one thing is love.

Love in its fullest sense has always to embrace and include freedom – a freedom to either receive and cooperate with the love given, as well as the freedom to reject and spurn what is offered.  Only when it is given back with a free choice is the circuit of love complete.  

People who want to be restrained and stopped from sinning by a force outside of themselves often show themselves to be people who do not understand this very important dynamic of love, and this, in all likelihood, is the reason why their prayers to live a converted and holy life has failed to bear much fruit.  They haven’t realized that God desires very much that they give over their lives to him in love.  A person who is loving his addictions and sinful habits most of his waking hours simply isn’t going to make that conversion if he isn’t first going to want to love God and God’s ways and make that his central focus of love. 

Simply put, we can only truly sin less if we start by loving God more. It is this cooperation that God delights in. 

Monday, October 22, 2018

Living out The Beatitudes gives us the greatest interior freedom in life.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount, also referred to as The Beatitudes, are short, pithy and very challenging to understand and accept for many Christians.  Tomes about them have been written, and rightly so, because they are key to unlocking the door to the Kingdom of God.  Even the phrase “Kingdom of God” holds in itself a mystery that is deep and profound.  Many tend to equate this with a similar sounding phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”, and they are not quite the same.  Certainly, those who are effortful in living out the values of the Kingdom of God are in good stead for the final embrace of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of God has a certain ‘already but not yet’ quality to it.  Right now in this life, one can and should be living the Kingdom of God if one considers himself a true disciple of Christ.  The Kingdom of God isn’t so much a place outside of oneself, but a state within the heart of the disciple of Christ who brings certain qualities and attitudes to the world no matter where he or she may be.

It is when one understands this correctly that it becomes truly possible that joy can be found in whatever situation one is in, from being in concentration death camps run by despotic regimes, to living in marriages where one spouse is unfaithful and unloving and could be cheating on the other spouse.  In my earlier days, I often wondered how some saints could really find peace and beatitude within the walls of Auschwitz when they were so deprived of liberty and dignity in so many ways.  I later came to understand that these holy people didn’t predicate their joy on things external to them, but on their relationship of abiding love with God.  

This strength within is displayed so clearly by Jesus in a short sentence in John’s gospel. It is found in John 10:18, where we see Jesus saying “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  Jesus’ sense of equanimity and peace within was not based on, influenced and predicated by how he was treated externally.  His sense of freedom was not taken away one bit even though he was bound and nailed to a cross.  That his limbs were nailed to the wood of the Cross didn’t curtail his liberty.  How can we attain this kind of deep freedom? 

Jesus gives this very same power to us in his teaching of his Sermon on the Mount.  Each of the Beatitudes is really bringing us to one place but through different avenues and boulevards.  That one place is an interior freedom and joy.  While the world tells us that its versions of joys are premised and dependent on things like wealth, prosperity, strength, laughter, universal acceptance and approval, Jesus enters into our world and breaks this mindset with his set of Beatitudes.  He gives us new eyes to view what seems to plague and bother humanity that is tuning in only to a very narrow bandwidth of happiness.  

The truth is that unless one is able to appreciate the entire life and purpose of Jesus, these Beatitudes will hardly make much sense.  A simple test would be to bring up any of the beatitudes in office cooler conversations, and we will likely be viewed with raised eyebrows or dismissed as nutjobs.  But for one who is cognizant of the fact that Jesus is the universal savior of the world, desiring to try to live out any of the beatitudes becomes evident that one is keen to show true and active discipleship at a high level – akin to high-octane Christianity.

Just like the issue of forgiveness, living out the beatitudes is never intuitive and easy. I get the response “Father, it’s so hard” whenever I encourage penitents in the confessional to forgive those who have hurt them, particularly when spouses have been betrayed in marriage. If it is easy, everyone would be forgiving and merciful.  Yet, the truth is that most people want to give tit for tat when hurt.  It takes great effort and a willingness to want to give love to one who has taken love for granted, or has been parsimonious with love.   In the same way, Jesus put in a whole lot of effort to go willingly to the Cross to be the sacrificial Lamb of God.  To be sure, it was an effort that was backed by and fueled by great love for both God and for us.  This needs to be the power behind the effort that makes our forgiveness real and meaningful.  The same logic needs to be applied when living out each of the beatitudes.  

But when we do put in effort to strive for this level of Christian excellence, Jesus tells us that we will be experiencing a joy (which is what beatitude means).  Joy is significantly different from happiness, which is fleeting and based on a predetermined set of circumstances.  The joy that God gives in the beatitudes isn’t dependent on our getting things in life the way we would like.  The joy can be there despite harm done to us whether it is physical, psychological or medical.  

It is for this reason that those who endeavor to live out the beatitudes are truly the blessed ones.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Understanding chastity and celibacy, and the power of this gift.

This blog post first appeared as a contributed article in the Catholic News (Oct 14, 2018 edition).  I’ve since added one paragraph to the article pertaining to chastity within marriage, expanding my reflection.

There is a very prevalent but very weak appreciation of chastity and its close cousin, celibacy.  And I say this not just in reference to the laity, but sadly, also in reference to the many religious and clerics who have taken the vow of celibacy for life.  Just as a strong and deep understanding of chastity as the Church teaches can lead to one being generous, selfless and giving in many ways, the very opposite, which is a weak and shallow understanding and appreciation of it can lead to its antithesis – where one is stingy, calculative, selfish and inward looking, and fearful (which is the antithesis of loving).

The world has been scandalized ad nauseam by the horrendous revelations of the reports of how religious, clerics and some bishops have lived double lives and had been involved in many cases of sexual misconduct in various dioceses all over the world, leaving many to ask how could men (and even women) who have pledged a life-long commitment to chastity succumb to such a depraved pit in their conduct of their moral lives?  Did they not have a conscience that was speaking volumes to their hearts?  How could they fall in this way, and in such staggering numbers?  

The answer surely cannot be a facile one.  However, it cannot be denied that one of the strongest reasons would have to be that there was a very simplistic and insufficient appreciation of what chastity was, and the great potential that it can have for the world when one embraces it with the mind of the Church.

Whether one is secular (read worldly) or whether one is religious, living a chaste life is not something that is easy and readily welcome.  Why? Because in our DNA as human beings, we are wired for Godliness.  God’s divine attributes are that of being life-giver and creator, and in our sexuality lies the germ of this attribute.  God, as Genesis tells us, made us in his image, and as such, our sexuality has inside of it, an aspect of godliness that God has shared with us.  

Sexuality isn’t a bad or dirty thing, despite what many may think.  It is truly a beautiful and precious gift from God to us.  If it weren’t a powerful energy inside every human person, the human race would not be populating the world the way it does.  

Having said that, when one accepts the call to live chastely and be celibate for life, it is not that one is praying that he or she be somehow neutered and asexual.  It is not a call to not love oneself.  But one will not love oneself if one doesn’t first endeavor to love God first.  If we don’t nurture a pure love of God, we will only end up loving ourselves, and in the wrong ways.  

How then ought one to broach chastity and celibacy?  It has a lot to do with purity of heart.  It’s interesting to note that nowhere in the Gospels do we see Jesus teaching his disciples to be celibate and chaste.  But he does instruct them on the great need to live with a purity of heart.  Having a heart that is pure is what makes one able to ‘be holy as God is holy’, and to be ‘perfect as God is perfect’.  

How does God love?  He loves the very being of the person.  He doesn’t allow the actions or the words of the person blur or stymie his intention to love.  Our love for others, unfortunately, is very often predicated on the recipient’s kind and positive actions, demeanor, tone of voice, physical appearance, etc.  The more the other person doesn’t meet with our expectations, the less we are likely to love him or her.  That’s not the way God loves.  Because God’s love is pure, he is able to love despite one not being ‘loveable’ according to our standards.  To be pure of heart then is to want to love as God loves, and to see others as God sees them.  In this way, we will also love them for their sake, and not ours.  A misuse of this will be when we use others for our sake, and this is where impure intentions and impure hearts lead to impure actions.

Chastity and celibacy when healthily understood and lived out cannot but result in a person who is outward looking and life-giving in many ways.  A person who taps on this grace-energy doesn’t become less energetic and lethargic, but truly full of vigour and is able to channel his or her energies in a proper and respectful way.  

Chastity must not be limited and restricted to those who are celibate.  Many people have the wrong notion that chastity has no place in married life.  When chastity is observed and respected in married life, spouses will not be taking each other for granted, and use one another for their own ends and purposes. A chaste married life is not a sexless married life.  Neither is it an oxymoron.  It is characterized by a marriage where the spouses do not objectify each other, and intimacy isn’t something that is ‘on demand’. This is when intimacy in married life can truly be a holy celebration that it is, especially when a sacrifice is required on the part of one of the spouses.

Understanding this still doesn’t make chastity and celibacy easy by any means.  It will always be something that sees one pushing against the goad, but it then becomes absolutely necessary that one constantly seek God’s grace to be chaste in all aspects of life – to have chaste hopes, chaste dreams (both day and night dreams), chaste desires, and above all, chaste intentions. Indeed then, blessed will they be – those who are pure of heart.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

There is a great need for careful discernment when choosing godparents.

In the Catholic tradition, there has always been the need for a godparent to be specially chosen for the newly baptized.  The role of the godparent is deemed necessary for every person who is entering the faith, and this is not dispensed even for one who is baptized on his or her deathbed.  

In the infancy years of the Church after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the embryonic church faced plenty of persecution.  The initial converts were almost always adults who had the guidance of a sponsor in their formation.  But later on, it was quite normal for newborn infants of Christian parents be baptized, and not just adults.  The godparents were people who assisted the parents in the development of their Catholic faith.  This role is still primary and pivotal for godparents now as it was before. Certainly, most parishes have catechism classes for children, forming their faith until they reach Confirmation age, but these classes only have the children being taught about 40 hours a year. These classes at best only scratch the surface of what needs much more unpacking, discussing and sharing.  This is where the godparent/s are required to step in and supplement in the very important area of journeying personally with their charges.

In many of the baptism preparation sessions that I have conducted for parents and godparents before the Rite of Baptism, I have noticed that there has been a trend that has been somewhat passed down from former generations – that of appointing relatives like aunts and uncles to be the godparents of the children.  I can understand the sentiments behind this. But what isn’t often discerned is whether these relations can actually fulfill the role of forming the faith of their godchildren.  Sentimentality alone cannot be the criteria of this important choice.  

The people that parents choose need to be people who are first and foremost practicing Catholics who are clear about the doctrines and teachings of the faith.  While it may be somewhat romantic to have Aunt Geraldine for a godma as she is the mother’s sister or BFF, it is far more important that Aunt Geraldine was chosen or asked to be godma because she is articulate about her faith, clear about Catholic doctrine and won’t lead the child astray to paganism or superstitious practices that ignore the Church’s teachings.  In other words, in the eyes of the parents, Aunt Geraldine is the model Catholic.  Sentimentality unfortunately, isn’t what being a model Catholic is about.

As far as the Church’s instructions are concerned, the requirements for being a godparent are actually very basic – that they must themselves be Confirmed Catholics who are 18 years of age or older, and be in good standing with the Church.  I am sure that many people can name many in the Church circles who fulfill these two requirements, but the parents need to go much further in their discernment before approaching potential godparents.  

It takes a village to raise a child
For us Catholics, we need to be clear, right off the bat, that no man is an island.  We are a community of believers, made up of different individuals who are members of the Body of Christ, who are part of the Communion of Saints.  Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too does it take a spiritual village to raise a saint.  Growing and maturing in the faith-life isn’t something that is attained by oneself. Certainly, the Catholic parents (or the one Catholic parent when the other parent isn’t a baptized Christian) bears a very large part of the responsibility to ensure that as the child grows physically, his or her growth in her faith doesn’t lag far behind.  It is this part of the growth of the faith life of the child where the godparent/s helps the parents by carrying out this co-responsibility.  

Being physically present in the life of the godchild
At milestone events of the godchild, like at their First Holy Communion, their Confirmation later on, and at their marriage much later on, the presence of the godparent is expected. But the time that is in between these milestone events are just as, if not, more important.  Regular interaction with the child prevents any awkwardness of just showing up at those events.  I often recommend that godparents go to Sunday Mass once a month with their godchildren and their families to foster this familiarity between godchild and godparent.  

This familiarity helps to create a trust where later on, in the child’s life, he or she knows that the godparent can be the one to turn to when facing situations that may be deemed either sensitive or awkward to broach with one’s parents.  As well, the parents will be able to take comfort that their child is properly guided in life when they seek the counsel of their godparents, someone whom the parents are familiar with, and who was specially chosen to do this very task – giving guidance to their child.  For this reason, I would discourage parents from asking friends or relatives who live overseas to be the godparents of their children, as their physical distance does prevent this familiarity from developing.  As much as FaceTime and Skype can bring people together despite being physically separated by thousands of kilometers, there are limitations to what technology can do.

I do empathize with Catholic parents who face this challenge of asking the right people who are effective and exemplary Catholics to be the godparents to their children.  And if the parents themselves are not people who interact with other Catholics in the parish or similar settings, it makes this doubly challenging.  How would they even begin to start looking for people who are such exemplary Catholics, and would they be amenable to welcome a member of their new Catholic family by asking someone whom they are not familiar with?  Highly unlikely.  Catholics who live privatized faiths with little or no interaction with fellow Catholics will always face this dilemma, and often will end up settling for Uncle Bob for mere sentimental reasons, and he will probably only end up being a nominal godparent.

When should parents start discerning?
Many parents scuttle around for godparents only after their child is born, perhaps a few weeks before the baptism date.  That, in my opinion, is akin to last-minute shopping.  No one buys good and thoughtful gifts when one does that.  

The irony is that many parents do so many other things to prepare for their baby’s arrival months before they are born – doing up the nursery, getting baby things like prams, walkers, clothes, and yes, even planning their child’s education savings plan with financial planners. But if one is clear that the most important future for their child is their child’s eternal life and their child’s relationship with God, planning for and praying for the godparents of the child need to go hand-in-hand, alongside the planning for these other things. 

The life of our children cannot only be limited to his or her time on this earth.  We are made by God and for God, and the children that we have are not really ours.  They are ‘on loan’ to us by God, who deems in his divine plan that we are the best parents for these lives.  The best thing that we can do for them isn’t material.  The best thing that we can ever do for them is to give them the needed preparation for what awaits them after this life is over, and doing this will also ensure that the life now is well lived as well.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Is there a good side to life’s challenges and hardships? The Christian life believes so, and that is Christianity’s good news.

No one in the right frame of mind will seek difficulty for its own sake.  Unless one has some form of masochistic streak, it is very normal for one to avoid pain, anxieties and general badness in life.  For the most part, human beings long for and seek a life that has as little strife and hardships as possible, and this isn’t bad in itself. However, there is also a need to acknowledge two realities – firstly, that a life that is aimed at having as little strife and resistance as possible will only make one a very weakened form of one’s fullest potential.  Philosopher Charles Taylor coined the term ‘the buffered self’ to describe how moderns (that’s a term referring to people living in the present era) are only interested in the empirical and scientifically provable, and have denied the existence of the transcendent and supernatural.  

When one is a ‘buffered self’, it is also most likely that one will also seek to live a life that pushes from one as far as possible any and all forms of suffering.  It will be the ‘happiness principle’ or the ‘pleasure principle’ that moves and motivates one to choose the options open to oneself, and oftentimes, this results in one having some sort of crisis or meltdown when things are not turning up roses in life.  

The other reality that we need to acknowledge is this – that no one human being is exempt from encountering pain, suffering and affliction.  No one, not even the one who was conceived without original sin, had a pass when it came to suffering and sorrow.  We see this clearly in the Gospels when Mary met Simeon at the Temple, when she brought Jesus to the Temple eight days after he was born, and this elderly holy man prophesied how a sword would pierce Mary’s heart.  Catholics believe that Mary was conceived sinless.  That this sinless human being was not spared suffering and pain is clear indication that suffering and affliction are a part of our human DNA.  

If this is so, then it has to beg the question of how one should be facing these challenges and hardships that are an inevitable part of life.  The reality is that we do not have all that many options available to us.  

We could just take the easiest and perhaps most common option, which is to run away from them.  Variations of running away can be in distractions, amusements and even addictions.  These may have the ability to temporarily cause us to forget the pains and afflictions that we are facing.  But we know that once the dazzling lights, throbbing music, and the drunken stupor wear off, one cannot but be forced to face the reality that one faces, with the problems very much unchanged and unaffected.

A second option is the ‘blame’ option, where we erroneously believe that someone outside of ourselves is the cause of our strife and sadness in life.  This often results in one harbouring a deep sense of hostility and ill will in us.  We can end up having a lot of self-righteousness in us because we have exonerated ourselves from any contribution that we may have made to have this suffering in our lives.  A further harm that this does is that it can easily foster a breaking down of the community because the blamer won’t often keep this contempt and animosity to himself, but will find himself telling others about this.  It really does make the phrase ‘misery loves company’ come to life, albeit in a bad way.

There is one option that Christians ought to always bear in mind when faced with struggles such as suffering and other forms of badness in life.  This will entail one to believe that there is a good side to such badness. 

To come to this belief, it is first of all necessary to believe that we do not have exclusive ownership of our lives, our resources, and our time.  When we think that we have exclusive ownership of our lives, we easily end up shutting ourselves in the narrow confines of our programs, plans and our thinking.  If we are open to believing that our lives are not our own, we get out of a narrow-mindedness that entraps so many of us.  

The Christian needs to be brave and courageous to enter into God’s wisdom, which is a life that is much more beautiful and fruitful than a life that we have absolute control over.  

Mature Christian living will always invite one to live with a sense of abandonment to a plan that is higher that one can imagine, and this could well include living a life that has may challenges and trials.  Many find themselves only asking God “why?” when we are faced with things like disappointments, failures, cancer prognoses and betrayals, and don’t make it to the next but more important question.

What is this question?  It is this – “God, how do you want me to grow and be strengthened and reach a greater level of maturity through this trial I am facing?”  Another question would be “God, how are you asking me to purify my love for you through this challenge I am currently facing?”  Only when we dare to ask these deeper and more loving questions will we see that badness does have a good side to it.