Monday, December 31, 2018

A humble New Year request of my readers

Writing this blog on a weekly basis is not something that comes easily for me.  I suppose, in all fairness, when I started out ten years ago, I had a whole plethora of topics before me – in a certain way, the world was my oyster.  2019 would mark the tenth year since I started this blog ago and have since managed to, with the grace of God, to be able to come up with something each week to help my readers’ faith to grow and mature, albeit slowly.  To date, I have archived 466 essays in this blog.  There have been hits and misses, and some topics that I reflect on seemed to garner much greater interest and readership than others, and strangely, some of these were things that I thought wouldn’t interest many people.  I continue to be surprised by my readers’ interests.

No one but God helps me in this effort – it really is largely a solo effort, and I have come to a point where I seem to have run rather dry on what to write about. I seem to be scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel.  I have written on many different issues -  prayer, forgiveness (which seems to be a big issue with many), what we can do with our pains and struggles in life, and today, I now am asking you, my reader/s, to help me to keep this blog going, if at all you think it benefits you.  I need ideas from you about the burning issues that you have as a church, what your personal struggles are with your faith which I may not see because of my own narrow vision, and unless I get some topics to ponder, this blog will in all likelihood cease to continue in the new year. 

Sure, I can venture to put out my homilies on this blog, but that would be far too easy and I think that would make me a lazy writer, simply putting out something that I have written for another purpose.  I am a firm believer that homilies are mean to be listened to attentively, and not to be read.  For that reason, I am not in favour at all of posting my weekly homilies online.  So, I kindly ask that you do not ask me to do this. 

Instead, my request is for you to sit for a while and dig deep into your own faith journey, and identify what topics or issues you would like to read reflections on. This would help greatly in sustaining this blog, which I hope does help your growth in faith.  I often do get people coming up to me in different circumstances telling me that they read my reflections, but I also do get a sense that it is much easier to read something and be passive about it, than making the effort to write something like a comment or post a question to keep the discussion going.  My humble request this new year is precisely this – to ask you what it is that makes your Catholic life such a great challenge and what is it about your faith that you need help in.  It may be asking you to put in a little more effort in your spiritual journey, but all effort in this endeavor of spiritual maturity counts as love.

One of my spiritual go-to guides is, as some of you may know, is Fr Ronald Rolheiser.  I am in great admiration of how this septuagenarian has the ability to churn out meaningful reflection after meaningful reflection week after week.  Some of his musings are truly brilliant and insightful, clearly something that had to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and I sometimes think to myself – how can he possibly top this one?  But he still does.  

Well, he is a notable scholar of great repute, and he is a syndicated writer as well – meaning that  he has a steady flow of income which he gets from his writings, and this must benefit the congregation of the OMI (Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate) greatly.  I guess, for many blog writers, it can be a good source of monetary income, but in all the ten years of my writing, not a cent has come my way.  I don’t ask much from my readers, (least of all anything financial) but this year, I am asking – not for money, not for more readership, but for your effort to put in writing (sent to my comments page of my blog) your suggestions on how this weekly blog can help to deepen your Christian life.  Please do not just put a ‘like’ on the FaceBook page that you found this blog post – these likes do absolutely nothing to aid my writing. I ask that you do a bit more than just ‘like’.  Bring to prayer my request, and perhaps this will help me overcome this long-coming writers’ block that I have encountered lately.

Having said this, I do wish each one of you a very blessed and holy 2019.  God love you.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Our outgoing God, and the treasure that finds the hunter.

In November 2015, a sunken ship was found off the coast of Colombia.  This was no ordinary sunken ship.  It was the remains of a Spanish galleon named the San Jose, and she was lost in a sea battle against the English back in 1708.  It was said to have been carrying a huge amount of precious metals like gold and silver, along with gems like Emeralds from Peru.  It was on its way to Europe to fund Spain’s war against the British when it was sunk in the waters off Cartagena, South America.  It had been lying in the depths of the sea for almost 300 years and its treasure is reportedly worth around $22 billion in today’s value.  

Many treasure hunters had been looking with much dedication and enthusiasm for the San Jose, with the hope of getting their hands on this treasure, but to no avail.  Treasure hunters do that.  It’s their job, and it is in their best interests to be always looking, always searching.

I mention this as a way of introduction to this week’s reflection, because I think many of us miss the point of our salvation, and by a large margin, if we do not begin to appreciate anew and with fresh minds that there is something so striking and so breathtaking about our faith.  

To be sure, there are many Christians who may be baptized in the faith, but who are not being seized by it. A first and very important step in appreciating the richness of our salvation is that we understand what repentance is.  True, it is not an elegant word by any stretch of the imagination.  Moreover, if repentance is seen mainly drawing up a list of sins and transgressions that we are sorry for in life, it is far too simplistic and one-dimensional.  Behavioral changes alone do not make on a Christian.  There are so many people in the world who are ethical and moral but do not have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Repentance, therefore, has to mean much more.

Repentance is when we recognize that our main sin, and the sin underlying the rest of our other sins, is our self-salvation project.  That we think that by living a good life, a moral life, a holy life that we earnour place in heaven, is intrinsically erroneous in itself.  We do not, and none of us does.  There are so many people who try to prove their worth through moral goodness or through achievement, or through their family or their career.  I have also seen that there are also people who are heavily involved in church and religion and still have a great need to repent because of the ways that they have put God and their brothers and sisters in their debt! By our attitudes, some of us have unknowingly lorded it over our fellow Catholics.

But when our repentance consists in seeing that all along we have been relying on our own hopes, our own significance, our own security and our own efforts to stabilize our lives, we would have struck gold.  

We call this folly of ours out when we appreciate anew just how God has made his presence known in our world and in our lives.  We may think that it is so great that we have taken that step to look for God in life, and that as adults, we may have made that turnaround in life and sought him out in the RCIA process (or some other conversion journey) and left our former ways of godless living.  But the truth is just the opposite.  It is not we who have found him.  Hehas found us.  And the scriptures tell us over and over again, in so many ways, and in such colourful stories, how this God of ours is in a relentless search for us.

The story of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth is a metaphor with this search that is compelling. With God at her very centre - in her womb, Mary goes out of her safe abode and comfort, into the hill country of Judah, to tend to her elderly and pregnant cousin Elizabeth.  She thinks nothing of her own safety and her personal needs. Just how does Mary do this?  Only when she is fully aware that God is doing something in her.  She decidedly put aside her own ego and intellect, but instead responded to a prompting that came from within her.  When the two women finally meet, Elizabeth attributes Mary’s greatness not to Mary, but to whom she was a container of - God himself.  When goodness meets goodness in the most holy and agenda-free way, it is God alone who gets the glory.  

Because God through Salvation history has shown that he is not an idle god, not a lackadaisical God, but an active and truly outgoing God; a searching God; then those who truly have him in their hearts cannot but be outgoing themselves, giving of themselves in many ways.  And this only happens when we see how God is our ultimate treasure.  

Herein lies the link with my introduction of this blog with the discovery of the sunken San Jose galleon.  Treasure hunters go out and seek treasure.  But the wonder and astonishing truth of Christianity is that the treasure goes out in search of the hunter.  No other religion has it this good and this amazing. 

Advent celebrates and reminds us of this, because at Christmas, we live out this truth in its splendor and glory. And when God truly finds us, when we realise this and repent of our many ego trips, we will realise how valued we are in God’s eyes.  That treasure that lies at the bottom of the Columbian coast in the sunken San Jose is reportedly worth $22 billion.  To God, each of us is worth an infinite number of San Jose Galleons.    A blessed Christmas to you, dear reader.

Monday, December 17, 2018

How to not waste our pain.

Whenever we think of resources, what come to mind are energy resources like water, natural gas, oil, electricity or the sun’s rays.  But in the spiritual life, there is a resource that is often overlooked, underestimated and therefore unappreciated.  All of us have it in various forms, but the majority of us want to numb it, and find ways to avoid it.  Many go to Novenas and petition God to take it away from them, without realizing that it can do amazing things both for them, and for others.  What is it?  It is pain.

Yes, pain is a resource, but not in the normal sense of the word.  Natural resources are generally not good in themselves, except for water, I suppose.  But when harnessed, purified and applied with great effort, it can do wonders.  The same goes for our pain in life.  This pain or suffering comes in so many different forms for different people.  It could be physical pain that comes from being infirm, having an illness that is serious and perhaps even debilitating and terminal.  It could be an injury caused by an accident.  Sometimes it isn’t even something that has happened to you personally, but to a loved one or a family member, and there is absolutely nothing you or anyone can do about it but to live with this condition for the rest of your lives.  There are other pains and suffering that isn’t physical but mental, causing anguish of another form.  A betrayal by a spouse, a breakdown in friendship, a broken promise, or even a death of someone well loved.  All these are pains in forms that are not uncommon.  What is uncommon is when one knows how to turn these into resources usable by God for His will and purposes.

How does that work?  What are the mechanics involved?  Is it even a thing?  For those of us without faith, it doesn’t work, and it is not a thing.  It could even be tossed away as pure rubbish. But for those of us with faith, even if the faith were the size of a mustard seed, it can do wonders.  We only need to offer it up for God’s will to be done and to want it to benefit others in need of God’s grace.  This means that we surrender it lovingly to God.  It’s not something that we do in frustration and anger, and demand that God take it away.  Doing it with that kind of attitude would be much like bringing something that we don’t use and don’t like to a Goodwill store or the Saint Vincent de Paul thrift shop and dumping it there because we have no use for it.  

It’s got to be done with great love, and great faith, and in surrendering it to God, we place it as if on a silver platter, and tell God that this is something that I am not quite  sure of what I can do with it, but because he is God, he can make it good, usable, and benefit some soul who is in great need of his grace.  And the souls that can best benefit from these acts of love will be souls in purgatory who cannot purify themselves on their own.  They are purifying their love for God, which was in all likelihood very impure, very sullied and adulterated when they were alive. Our doing this for them helps them because in doing this with faith, we are at the same time purifying our love for God and for our fellow man, regardless of whether we know them or not. 

I love to tell the true story of how, when a priest whose arm was in a cast due to some accident, met the then Pope John Paul II in a private audience and had asked the Holy Father to bless him. The Holy Father looked at him, blessed him, and then told him “Father, don’t waste your pain”.  Puzzled, the priest asked him to elaborate.  The Pope replied that this pain of his is a resource that can benefit souls.  

Just tolerating pain, complaining about it, being bitter about it, or only asking that God take it away is the common thing that people do.  The Pope was reminding the priest that it is our duty as children of the Father and brothers and sisters of one another to bear our crosses for one another.  We need that same reminder from time t time, because if we are only thinking of ourselves most of the time, our world is too small.  We need to realise that we are part of a larger world, and this includes the church in its three states - the church militant, the church suffering and the church triumphant.  If we do this well, the world will definitely be a better place because it will make us more compassionate people, and we will populate the world with stronger images of Christ, an image so desperately needed in the world right now.

So, if you are in any sort of pain, suffering or anxiety in you life, don’t waste it.  With great love and with great faith, offer it up to God. He is God, and surely, he can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse if he wills it.

Monday, December 10, 2018

God’s mercy and his justice are not mutually exclusive. His love justifies both.

To preach God’s mercy is always much easier than to preach of his justice.  Even on the part of the listener, to hear that God is merciful is something that sounds very much like good news, which it is.  There are so many passages from the Gospels, alone which attest to the fact that Jesus came to reveal this dimension of God.  That God is prodigious in the mercy that is shown to the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son appeals to us in our current time as much as it must have appealed to Jesus’ audience when it was first told.  The joy of the one straying sheep being brought back to the sheepfold at the risk of leaving the 99 who are safely grazing in the pasture is another dimension of this outgoing mercy of God.  So too is the joy of the woman who had found the one lost coin so palpable and relatable when we are told that she called all her neighbours to rejoice with her.

It is a given that we are sinners without exception and the fact that all of us stand in great need of God’s divine mercy at the end of our lives is fait accompli.   The preachers from the churches of our separated brethren reveal often that the mercy of God is the predominant theme of God’s providential love for his sons and daughters.  That he is a merciful God who has forgiven the sins of a sinful and sin-filled humanity often is their foundational preaching and narrative, and this is not at all wrong.  

But there is a downside when our preaching is limited to this alone, without being just as clear about the other aspect of God’s love, which is God’s justice.  God’s justice includes, amongst other things, that God doesn’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of our sinful actions and to the fact that our lives are often less than virtuous; that there is judgment that awaits us where we will be held accountable for all the ways in which we did not live in generous response to the high calling of our being given the dignity of being called God’s beloved children in Christ.  The Church’s teachings on indulgences (both partial and plenary) have been very misunderstood by both Catholics and the critics of Catholicism alike.  At the heart of these teachings is not so much that one gets ‘time off’ from the punishments (whether in this life or in purgatory) but that one truly begins to live a converted life and has weakened or completely removed one’s attachment to one’s ‘favourite’ sins.  It hardly will make a dent in one’s need for purgatorial purification if after having completed the requirements to obtain a plenary indulgence, one still harbours in one’s heart a great desire and attachment for one’s old and ingrained predilections and sinful inclinations.  

There exists a true story of how in the 1500s, when St Philip Neri preached to a jubilee indulgence crowd in a church, he had a revelation from the Lord saying that in the entire crowd, only two people actually received the plenary indulgence – an old charwoman (an antiquated term for a cleaning lady) and the saint himself. Perhaps this means that though there are many who have ‘performed’ the necessary acts to fulfill what it takes to gain a plenary indulgence, what was most necessary for it to be fulfilled or gained (which is a complete conversion of heart that loves God in as complete a way as possible) is still sadly lacking.  

This incident serves to show that what the Lord asks for most, and what pleases the Lord most is not so much the acts of penitence themselves, but along with it, a very contrite and humbled heart that is willing to truly put God in the centre of one’s life.  This is what must make for a heart that is truly ready to be received readily into heaven’s eternal embrace.

I am, together with many other spiritual writers, of the strong belief that purgatory is one of the greatest evidence of God’s mercy because it means that God is always going to want to give the sinner time for conversion, time for softening of one’s hardened heart, so that one can be truly mellow enough to appreciate God’s unbounded love which is heaven’s promise.  Our hearts are just so divided and our devotions so mixed while we live in this life, and our constant giving into sin is what makes purgatory so necessary and so wonderful at the same time.  

God’s mercy truly doesn’t cancel out God’s justice.  Rather, it necessitates and defends the need for it.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Does God give us crosses that are wider than our shoulders? I’m quite certain that he does, and for good reason.

I have come across spiritual musings and reflections from various sources that share a common opinion given to those who are experiencing burdens and afflictions in life, and it is this – that God won’t or doesn’t load us with crosses to bear that are too big for our shoulders.  As much as this sounds comforting and assuring, it also can become a cliché, or worse, something that prevents us from nurturing the virtue of humility that is so crucial for a soul to attain holiness and sanctification.

If our burdens and trials in life are just right for our shoulders to bear, then we will be able to do everything that we face in life, simply on our own efforts and our own wills.  The narrative of our times seems to support this idea as well – that if we want to do anything, we only need to apply ourselves to the fullest, and our goals will be attained or achieved.  There are so many commencement speeches at the graduation ceremonies of Universities or Colleges that one can view on YouTube, and they often feature a presentation by a person of some celebrity or corporation bigwig, and the common feature of so many of them is this – don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve anything you want.  The hidden message (and sometimes not so hidden) is that we need to make the world all about us.  And when we do, we can overcome any obstacles in our path to success and worldly glory.

While these speeches may set the fresh graduates running off into the world to conquer it, armed with their degrees with printing ink still wet, we need to realise that there could be a downside to all this “we-can-do-anything” narrative.  To be sure, it won’t be a long time before they realise that life doesn’t fit its challenges according to the width of our shoulders.  We only need to look further afield from our workplaces to see that there are other challenges and afflictions, and things that set our world in turmoil to see that there are many difficulties in life that are more than we can bear alone.

With the eyes of faith, we are called to see our challenges and afflictions as things that are placed in our lives not to make life difficult, but so that we can grow.  These include, but are not limited to things like failures, betrayals, serious illnesses and other losses.  But I have also, especially of late, come to see that God doesn’t give us challenges that merely fit our shoulders.  He gives us crosses much bigger than we can bear, but for good reason.  Chiefly, it is so that we will humble ourselves to ask for God’s grace, aid and ultimately mercy.  

I am quite certain that we will be so full of hubris if we were to be able to carry all our burdens and manage our pains merely on our own energies and our strong wills.  It would be akin to presenting St Peter a perfect and unblemished report card of our life on earth at the gates of heaven and having a sense of entitlement to a place in paradise.  Just like forgiveness from God, no one deserves heaven either.  It is truly all grace, and our call in life is to cooperate as fully as we can to God’s offer of grace at each moment in our lives.

St Catherine of Sienna is known to have had a locution, where she encountered the Lord saying to her “I created you without you, but I will not save you without you.”  In that short and pithy sentence lies an unfathomable depth of God’s immense grace and God’s incredible humility.  God truly wants our deepest cooperation, and until we understand just how crucial our self-giving is, we will, all of us, find ourselves holding back from giving our all to God.

So, if you find yourself puzzled as to why your cross in life is much bigger than your shoulders, know that it is so that you can call on God for his divine aid.  Pride comes in many forms, and one of them is the refusal to reveal our weaknesses.