Monday, September 16, 2019

How our crosses can be holy crosses.

Each year on September 14, we Catholics are invited, by virtue of the arrangement of the liturgical calendar, to ponder and appreciate anew how important and unique our Christian faith is when we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross.  Inevitably, whenever people think about the Christian faith, the image of the Cross comes to mind.  We are people of the Cross, and Christians are readily identified by the crosses that adorn their necks, hang on the rear view mirrors of cars, or above our doors and on the walls of our homes.  

But the power of the cross and what it truly symbolizes can be something that is forgotten, taken for granted, side-stepped and perhaps put aside rather easily, and it will be to our disadvantage if we do that.  

I say this with much conviction because in truth, every one of us has some form of the cross in our lives.  These come in so many different forms and can take the form of ill health, failure, being victimized, experiencing setbacks, betrayal, or even being victims of natural disasters.  Each time we encounter these tough realities in life, we have an option before us, which basically falls into two categories of a positive option or a negative option.  The negative options are the options which see us getting upset, angry, bitter, regretful, acrimonious and being generally difficult to live with.  Unfortunately, this option is the one which we see many people taking, and it results in a very fractured and broken world.  Someone needs to be blamed and someone has to pay the price for the sufferings in life, and it’s not going to be me.  It’s largely a residue of original sin, where someone else is to take the blame.

The other option is to take these sufferings in a positive light.  I can say with some degree of certainty that this isn’t the default option that the human person is prone to.  I am certainly not advocating masochism when I say this.  Taking suffering and any form of the cross in life in a positive way comes in different forms as well.  It can range from being of good cheer in our disposition, being grateful for little things, and reaching out to others despite our lot in life.  These positives are not uniquely Christian. Even atheists and people of non-Christian faiths can choose to take these positive options.  

But there is yet another level of the positive that is unique to Christianity – almost a step-up, and that is to carry our crosses with an eye on the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Only when we are consciously doing this with our personal crosses can these crosses then share in the power of redemption that the Cross of Calvary uniquely has. This dynamic lies behind the often misunderstood Catholic language of “offering it up for souls”, “performing acts of mortification and sacrifice” and “living with heroic virtue”.  To be sure, this kind of language isn’t broadly shared by our separated brethren in the Christian world.  

We Catholics are firm believers in what St Paul mentions in Col. 1:24 when he says “in my sufferings for you, I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is the church.” It is only when we bear this in mind that we have the reason and obligation to carry our crosses with a certain willingness, eagerness and inner joy, because it is not just for ourselves and for our sins that we do this.  We are also doing it for the universal church of which we are members. We are doing this to benefit our brothers and sisters whom we don’t know, but who need some solidarity in carrying their crosses too.

What’s more, it opens up for us Catholics the wider dimension of what the phrase “body of Christ” means when we participate consciously at each Eucharistic celebration.  Whenever Catholics come up to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and say “Amen” to the priest’s “Body of Christ”, that “Amen” is not just a yes to the real presence of Christ in the consecrated species.  It is also a yes to the willingness to live out as fully as we can to the call to become a vibrant part of the universal Body of Christ, and part of this response of becoming a vibrant member is seen whenever we take up our crosses and follow Christ on our journey toward heaven.

I guess I am making this reflection with special emphasis because as I am confined to my convalescence quarters to regain usage of my replaced hip, I am made painfully aware that I am also carrying a cross.  Christ’s Holy Cross empowers me to carry this well, to carry this with a purpose bigger than myself, and to carry this with a Christian elegance.  When the going gets tough, I am reminded to imitate my Blessed Mother to stand silently at the foot of the Cross as well, and stands there with her Son, giving her the title of Stabat Mater.

The Feast of the Holy Cross which we celebrated just a few days ago reminds us not only of this need, but also of the value and power that our crosses in life have a potential for.  Yes, suffering is an energy and a power, but it is also easily left untapped. Like any source of power, it has immense potential – potential to change us and to change the world.  But when the only thing we do is to complain about it, ask incessantly “why me?” and make the world around us more miserable than we are feeling, this power is wasted, its potential unharnessed.  

We all have crosses.  We also have the choice to, with effortful love, turn them into holy ones as well.

Monday, September 9, 2019

In all forms of healing, the law of gradualness applies.

I have remained somewhat silent as far as postings to this blog is concerned, for reasons that I had given in the previous blog entry. I have since returned from my highly enjoyable and thoroughly eye-opening vacation, after which I underwent surgery to get a titanium/ceramic hip to replace my necrotized (dead) left femur which had been slowly dying and crumbling for a prolonged period of over a year.  

I am currently into my second week since the surgical procedure, and am convalescing in a home that is set up for retired elderly priests, as well as for priests such as myself, who need to have a place to recover and heal from serious surgery and medical afflictions.  I share the place with several other priests, all of whom are retired from active ministry, and each time we are at the meal table, the total number of years in priestly ministry among us easily goes into 200 and over, mine being the least contributing number of course.

Each time I emerge from surgery and find myself meandering that slow path toward some semblance of normalcy, it never fails that I also find myself reminding myself not to rush things.  There’s that part of me that feels very guilty in not tending to my ministerial duties in the parish, and I think (erroneously of course), that things will fall apart in my absence.  No such things have happened, and I’m sure things are in good hands because they are really in God’s hands.  This sense of guilt finds me in some way willing myself to quicken the route toward recovery and gaining strength, as if it could, by sheer will, be something that happens.  I had something explained to me by my physiotherapist who kindly tends to me every weekday morning at 9am.  

I shared with him the many stories which I had heard about how quickly many of my friends’ parents and even grandparents had returned to their regular lives after having had their hip replaced, and was a bit concerned that my pace of strength recovery seems to be somewhat moving at a glacial pace. I am certainly not as confident in placing more than toe-pressure when walking using the walking frame, and my turns at corners are extremely ginger and even a tad robotic, always sensing that the hip is a bit fragile and tender.  I am certainly not as old and fragile as the elderly parents and grandparents of my friends who have had the same operation, but my recovery seems to be so much slower, and the leg muscles so much weaker.  What gives?

He took pains to explain to me that the state of the muscles around the hip at the time before the operation has a lot to do with the rate of recovery of strength.  Many, if not most of the elderly who have had their hip replaced due to either an accidental fall or some similar incident had thigh and leg muscles that were working without much issue before the incident, probably even able to put their entire body weight on one leg with no issue.  Their reasons for needing a hip replaced was not because of necrosis or death of the femur, which is accompanied by the atrophy of the muscles around the dead or dying femur.  So, when the new hip is inserted, the muscles hardly needed much work to awaken them to functioning as they ought.  

But not in my case.  

I had the misfortune to experience my hip’s slow death, and with it, a slow atrophying of its muscles as well.  So it is only natural that even with a new artificial hip that is much stronger than the old decrepit and dead femoral head, its surrounding muscles are in the old atrophied state.  They need time to be toughened up and built up, to regain lost mass, and range of movement.  These do not come overnight because they were not lost overnight.  At that moment I smiled to myself, not because I felt rather silly, but because I could see how the law of gradualness applies to one’s physical returning to normalcy, as much as it applies to one’s soul returning to a state of holiness after a conversion experience.

I have encountered so many penitents who have had those “a-ha” enlightened moments of conversion, usually at some retreat where they are led to look at their lives with some degree of seriousness and to have their moral compass re-calibrated.  They went for those highly recommended “deathbed confessions” where every sin, mortal or venial, was verbally confessed, and emerged post-retreat with a new verve in their quest for holiness.

It’s often not too long after that their old habits come back to haunt them and they find themselves back to their old ways, sinning as before.  These who come back to the sacrament of reconciliation are often kicking themselves, and are rather way more unforgiving of themselves than God is of them.  They, like me, need to remember to apply the law of gradualness to their conversion, because conversion is never a one-off, or one-retreat, affair.  

Like my thigh and hip muscles, their muscles of moral strength and rectitude had probably slid into desuetude.  And like my thigh and hip muscles, they need to be re-built, re-stimulated, re-activated, and re-loaded with weight.  In the spiritual life, this would include, but not limited to, things like a sustained prayer life, a heart that is re-aligned to loving God in a whole new way, frequenting the sacraments of the Church with a new desire and aim, relating to God as never before, and looking at the past sins as something that were a lie that one fully believed in.  These changes don’t come overnight because they are changes on the heart, and one needs to allow the law of gradualness to be one’s teacher, just like my thigh and hip muscles won’t grow and strengthen overnight.  

Would that I gain strength as quickly as my hip as replaced. I would be bouncing back to parish work, and find it so easy to ambulate without aid in the sanctuary at Mass, and be able to once again lift the Book of Gospels aloft with both hands and bring the Word of God to the Ambo and break the Good News to my flock.  Would that I could.  But the reality is that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will the strength of those atrophied muscles be bulked up within a short span of time.  

Yes, in all things, the law of gradualness applies. Even to hips and thighs.

Monday, July 29, 2019

God is good - all the time. But do we truly mean it when we say it?

It’s a phrase that is tossed about ever so often by speakers and preachers.  Some of them use it as a way to engage the congregation or the audience, where the person on the stage or sometimes the pulpit bellows “God is good”, prompting the response from his or her audience with “All the time”.  Sometimes, this is immediately reversed, eliciting a response from the people with the affirmation that God is good.  

It’s certainly not untrue that God is good, and that he is good all the time.  But I think we don’t appreciate enough that our faith needs to also consider that God’s goodness doesn’t change, simply because God doesn’t change.  His goodness isn’t only there when our lives are on the up-beat, when things are going swimmingly well.  His goodness is also there and unchanged when our life is on the down-beat, and when things aren’t all that rosy either.  It is this unwavering part of God’s goodness that we need to exercise more faith in believing because it is what helps us face all the challenges that life gives to us, especially those that tend to make us think that God’s goodness has petered out somewhat.

St Paul tells the Ephesians (5:20) how they should be giving thanks to God for everything.  We don’t take seriously enough how important this ‘everything’ is, because when we do, we are in a win-win situation in life.  We win when are are experiencing joys (and give thanks to God for them), and we win when we are experiencing losses and humiliations and failures (and still give God thanks for them).  This is a clear demonstration of how steadfast our love for God is, and that our love for him isn’t predicated on us experiencing good times only.  

When we live our love with this much courage, we are in fact imitating Jesus’ love for the Father on the Calvary.  He didn’t diminish his love for God one bit as his own life was petering out.  To Jesus, even on Calvary, God was good, all the time.  

I can hear the protests of so many reading this blog saying almost in a chorus “it isn’t easy!”  No one said it was.  If it was, there’d be so many more saints in the world and in the church.  Love of that caliber is rare, and that is because love of that caliber takes tremendous effort.  

Calvary would not have its salvific effect on humanity if it was easy.  It was effortful love of herculean proportions that came from a heart that was bursting with love for us sinners.  

Life’s curve balls are many, and no one really gets by without experiencing them in life.  But what sets believers and lovers of God apart from others is that the lovers of God don’t let those curve balls undermine their love for God.  In fact, they will choose to carry their sufferings with great zeal and joy precisely because it is a testimony of just how deep their faith in God is.  

When this is understood and lived out, it becomes much more true that God is good, all the time.

Nota Bene:

This will be my last blog entry for a while.  I am going away for a much needed vacation to give myself some serious rest and to recreate.  After I return, I will be going for my hip-replacement which requires about 6 weeks of recuperation thereafter, to regain lost strength and muscle. Hopefully, after the rest that my mind and body needs, I will return to my ministry with greater zeal for my vocation, my ministry and for the work of God.  God bless you all.

Monday, July 22, 2019

A strange connection between the secret to great pastry and the secret to great holiness.

Being a person who had been schooled in F&B on a professional level before, I was lured by a click-bait on the internet last week on CNN’s website, which posted a news story entitled “There’s a reason the pastry in Paris is so darn good”.  I can attest to this truth because when I was in Paris about two years ago, I was enchanted and tantalized by the many offerings of viennoiseries that were available in the many patisseries or pastry shops which proudly displayed their mouth-watering wares all over the city.  

Before I went to the text of this short article, I presumed that the writer would attribute the high quality of breads and baked goods in Paris to the high quality of butter, the freshness of the ingredients, the low humidity of Paris or a combination of all these. But I was wrong.  The writer quoted one pastry chef as saying that all of the pastry chefs she knows share one thing in common, and it was this - they are totally passionate about their craft.

So it’s not the butter, not the flour, and not the availability of fresh ingredients, nor was it due to the low humidity.  In fact, even if all these are of superlative quality, and the patissier has little or no passion in the craft, the product will turn out mediocre or passable at best, but not extraordinary and exquisite.  It is true then, that as the accolade puts it, the most important ingredient in cooking is love.  

After having read this short article and putting it aside, my thoughts then went to the spiritual life. This is where my reflections on the spiritual life have the wacky and strange ability to be taken to places they ordinarily would not go.  I was given to see that the very same principles apply to our prayer life and our spiritual life as much as this principle applies to food preparation. For our prayer life to be more than pedestrian and mediocre, for it to not just exist, but to flourish, for it to be outstanding and stellar and not just ordinary and average, passion is absolutely necessary.

The prayer life, because it is very much connected to love and based on love, is also very much connected with effort.  Love, unfortunately, has been very much defined by and associated far too much with feelings, sentiments and emotions, and this is understandable.  The songs that we listen to and the many love stories that we read and see portrayed in the movies all tell us that having these experiences are the only indications that love is present.  There is a huge problem then when our feeling bank is running on empty and there seems to be nothing to draw out from.  

Romantic love is far more associated with receiving than it is with giving  whilst the giving of love requires far more effort, and isn’t predicated on how one feels, what mood one is in, and which side of the bed one got up on in the morning.  

It is this kind of love that we need to put into when we enter into prayer.  Without this effort and awareness, our worded prayers that we read off from some printed page hardly turns into words of love that we send to God.  

Yes, we need to truly believe that love (effortful, and not dependent on feelings) is the most important element that makes all the difference when it comes to prayer, just as the patissier’s passion is the most important element to make exquisite morsels that delight the tastebuds.  Even if one has the best ingredients, the most favourable of climatic conditions and the best equipment, lacking the passion the patissier needs to have will not guarantee a great finished baked product.

Monday, July 15, 2019

How should I be praying when I am struggling with prayer? Admitting it is itself prayer.

St Theresa of Avila is known to have written in her journals a very striking yet humble line referring to her prayer life.  She writes “Oh God, I don’t love you, I don’t even want to love you, but I want to want to love you!”  

It delighted me to discover this because it really gives so many of us much hope when it comes to identifying what is challenging to so many of us when it comes to our prayer life.  We often find ourselves unable to articulate that we need help to make the time that we spend in prayer to be fruitful.  Perhaps articulating this is itself a very real prayer, and we may even need to begin our time in prayer by saying this out loud, not so much that God can hear us, but so that we can hear ourselves.

I believe that a lot of our prayer is centered on our lack, and that is why so many start their prayer with their needs, seeking God to hear them and fill the various voids in life.  But way beyond our material and physical needs, there is a need that is far more important to be addressed, and this is our need to increase our love for God.  I truly believe that the world is so full of dissension and discord, and our lives are so messy and turbulent and fear-filled because we have a systemic lack of love for God.  We may be obsessed with ourselves and our needs way more than we are concerned that we not loving God as we should.  St Theresa’s prayer is so radical in that it points this out in a very humble and real way, when she says that she wants to want to love God. The problem with us is that not only do we not love God, but that we don’t even want to want to love him.

It is important to want to love God because our hearts are made to love.  St Augustine’s quote that “our hearts are restless until they rest in God” comes immediately to mind.  Each time I hear a penitent confessing that he or she is struggling to overcome a habitual sin, I always try to point out that just wanting to give up the sin itself is not the key to living life without being plagued by this sin. It’s a bit like telling you, my reader, to not think of a pink elephant right now.  Now be honest – you just thought of a pink elephant, didn’t you? That’s because your mind was filled with the notion of the pink elephant, ridiculous as it may have seemed. If you are going to fill your mind (and probably other areas of your life) with the sin that you are struggling with, you are actually still obsessing over it.  

It is for this reason that I always advise the penitent to put more effort into loving God, especially in prayer.  If the love for God doesn’t occupy a major part of our time spent in prayer, and if that part of our heart that is given over to God doesn’t expand and take over the other areas of our heart that we are keeping for ourselves and our own agenda, we will live largely unconverted lives.  

Who are saints? They are people who have sought to give their lives over in love to God in more and more expansive ways, striving to live the first and most important commandment which is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and strength.  Why do we need to strive for sainthood?  Because it makes us what we are made for.  The Church has, I believe, somehow watered down this aim for every Catholic, and the result is seen so glaringly in the many scandals that have plagued the Church as of late.  We need to reclaim this shared objective of sanctity that is given to us at our baptism, and loving God is key to making this a reality.

Of course prayer is difficult, and it is because love in its purest form will always entail effort.  But if we are willing to be honest and admit of what it is that we lack in prayer, and dare to articulate it, it becomes a very sincere prayer, and anything sincere will definitely delight God.

The Prayer of Sincerity
(composed by the author of this blog)

Dear God,
 I want to love you, but my love for you is so lacking in effort.  I admit this lack in my heart for you, and ask for the grace to help me love you more and more, and the grace to love you as I should.  If you deign to answer any one of my petitions and needs, I ask that you increase my love for you most of all, because when I love you as I ought, I will not delight in the things that do not glorify you. 

Monday, July 8, 2019

Revisiting our priesthood.

The priests of the Archdiocese of Singapore just came out of our annual retreat, where we were given the luxury of being away from our parish assignments and to gather together in a comfortable location for five days.  With parish work kept on-hold for this period, we were able to spend time in prayer and reflection, recharging ourselves, as it were, for a re-entry into the many demands and challenges that the life of a priest naturally brings.

Respites of this kind are always welcome.  With no emails to respond to, or phone calls to be made and answered, no sick-calls to tend to, retreats help us do what they are meant to do.  They help us to re-charge.  In the arena of the battlefield, a commander calls for a retreat when he sees his soldiers wearied and fatigued from the frenetic action at the battle front, and gets them to go to a place where they are able to recuperate, recharge and re-strategize.  With this done, the soldiers are then in a better frame of mind, strengthened in body and spirit, and hence become more effective in their fight at the front line. Spiritual retreats aren’t all that different in purpose and intent.

Retreats are as varied as there are Retreat Directors who run them.  Each would have his own leanings as far as spirituality is concerned, but in general, any Retreat Master would reiterate that the one conducting the retreat is ultimately the Holy Spirit.  Like Spiritual Directors, Retreat Masters are but conduits for the Holy Spirit to use them as he wills.  

Of all the 18 years since my ordination, it was only at this recent one that we were given a dedicated time to meaningfully and purposefully go back to our Ordination Rite, and re-visit it in a very focused way.  I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if there were priests among us who may have baulked at such a simplistic exercise.  It really wasn’t simplistic at all.  In fact, I am quite certain that all of the current scandals that are now plaguing the Catholic Church with regard to abuse of minors and the like would have really been avoided if every one of those brother priests had, with great seriousness, taken their ordination vows to heart, and lived them out with great effort.  

But isn’t this also true of all marriages?  When a spouse in a marriage begins to forget and cast aside the vows made before the Church’s minister and witnesses on the day of the wedding, the spouse becomes sloppy and negligent in living them out with full intent. For this reason, I am extremely grateful that we priests have a canonical obligation to make a week’s retreat every year to re-enter into the work and the life that ministry calls us to. Spouses in marriages, unfortunately, don’t have such a requirement to make any annual examen of the state of their marital love.  But I have come to see that it is just as necessary for them as it is for us priests to give renewed purpose in living out those very serious and life-giving vows that were made so publically before.

The one thing that both rites (marriage and ordination) have in common is love.  For us, it is the love of God expressed in and through our ministry as his priests. If love does not lie at the foundation of our call to the priesthood, and if love is not the reason for the work that we do as shepherds of souls, it will merely be something that is perfunctory and at best, something that is clinically carried out without love. Just as I often tell married couples that their love cannot be predicated on feelings, emotions and sentiments but on effort and intent, neither should the love at the heart of our priesthood be predicated on how good we feel about our vocation when we rise from our beds in the morning.  I suppose it is somewhat easier to show joy in our ministries in the few weeks that immediately follow each annual retreat.  It’s natural, as we were more rested having large and luxurious pockets of time each day to take some physical rest.  

But the grind will come, and the incessant call to tend to so many things will be a feature that returns with immediacy soon enough. It is then that the effort to be faithful to prayer and to love needs to be constant and consistent.  It’s no-different from the need for married couples to be effortful in loving each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love and to honour all the days of their lives.  

On the last day of our retreat, we were each given a wooden cross with a stylized Christ laser-cut into the wood.  It is a cross with no hard and sharp edges, and is made so for the purpose of holding comfortably in the hand in prayer, and perhaps even as a prayer.  It came with a card that had a very beautiful prayer printed on it.  The words are as applicable to a priest’s vocation as it is to any marriage vocation.  I share them with you in today’s blog entry.

Holding Cross Prayer

“As I hang onto this cross, Lord,
hang onto me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
fill me with your strength and peace.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I remember the cost of your great love for me.”
“As I hold this cross, Lord,
I rejoice in the knowledge that our evil
and sin do not have the last word,
and that your love is indestructible.”

Monday, July 1, 2019

Why is humility so absolutely necessary in the spiritual life?

It is often said that of all the virtues that are good, important and valuable for us to cultivate and nurture, humility is the one that takes the top spot.  Many saints have lived lives that are marked significantly by humility, and the biographies of numerous saints have shown that they struggled to cultivate this virtue with great effort.  I am convinced of humility’s importance as well as our great resistance to want to live humbly, and it is particularly because the first sin by Adam and Eve was precisely their refusal to live humble lives, wanting instead to let pride and the ego speak in volumes that drowned out the call to humility.  The writer of the book of Genesis must have seen that pride is at the radix of our proclivity to sin that gave him reason to portray it within the story of our beginnings that is seen in this work of his.

The incarnation of Jesus is humility on grand display.  We don’t often think about it much – that God really didn’t have to do this.  There was absolutely no obligation at all for God to go from divinity to humanity.  Yet, out of pure love and grace, this unbelievable outreach made the incarnation happen.  One saint I read about put it in such graphic words when he said “God, in the incarnation, you have gone too far”.  If we really sit and think about it in contemplation, God, seeing how we had chosen to turn our backs on him and his love could simply just have remained unmoved, unchanged and divine but it was because love as God loves isn’t static but dynamic, that caused the incarnation to happen.  

Sin through pride caused the tragedy and death of humankind, and its antithesis, humility, had to be the antidote to redeem us.  Because sin caused humanity’s downward spiral into perdition, humility was God’s similar downward entry into the depths of human depravity to allow us to regain lost entry back to Eden’s glory.  In salvation, God goes down into the depths of humanity to raise us to divinity.

It follows then that our own path toward heaven and holiness necessarily includes our efforts at cultivating humility and living lives marked by humility.  All efforts at humility then become our walking in the footsteps andfootprints of the humble Lamb of God.  The saints intuited this, and we would do well to live in the same way.

Even in the post resurrection encounters of Jesus with his disciples, we see such humility and patience on the part of Our Lord.  The encounter of the resurrected Lord with Peter by the lake is of great significance. Those three times he asked Peter “do you love me?” have so much humility when read in the original Koine Greek.  

Jesus raises the bar of love when he uses the verb “agapas” whilst Peter responds that he loves, but with the verb “phileo”.  Biblical scholar Raymond Brown takes pains to explain that in Jesus’ asking three times the same question, Jesus isn’t at all insecure or deaf to Peter’s answer, but is giving Peter the opportunity to raise his level of love to that of an agapelove.  But Peter realizes he isn’t capable of that.  It is in this light that Jesus finally goes down to Peter’s level of love and on the third offer of love, asks Peter if he can love with a phileolove, to which Peter answers in the affirmative.  It is with this love that the first Bishop fed Jesus’ sheep.

But we know that Peter’s love really didn’t remain at the level of phileo(associated with fondness – not deep and abiding).  As Peter’s realization of how loved he was by Jesus whom he betrayed in such a personal way, denying Jesus three times, that love that began as phileogrew and matured to finally end up being an agapelove, where it is love of the purest and most selfless type.  It took humility of Jesus to lower the bar to Peter’s level, and it was Peter’s humility to admit that he was not yet ready to love at that high level.

It is humility that brings any sinner to the sacrament of confession.  It doesn’t take much or any humility to raise our head to heaven in the privacy of our own room or where there is no one to hear us asking God for his mercy.  That’s the way most of our separated brethren do this when they know they have erred.  But it takes so much humility to want to stand in line outside a confessional box to wait our turn to confess our failures to a human being on the other side of the grille or curtain.  It is also humility to want to believe that the other person, weak and sinful though he may be as a human being, also is in persona Christior one who is in the person of Christ himself.  

Very often, it takes humility to accede to God’s will, particularly when doing God’s will means having our world somewhat falling apart right before our eyes.  When Jesus was nailed to that ignominious cross on Calvary, his whole world DID fall apart.  Yet, it was what saved us.  Not one bit of that was logical, but neither is love logical.  And it was love that saved us, and it was a great gift of love that was wrapped with a ribbon of humility.  

Such should be the gift of our lives as well.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Why our effort matters so much in our spiritual lives.

St Augustine is well known for many amazing quotes, and my personal favorite is this “God created us without us, but will not save us without us”, partly because it appeals to the theologian in me.

The depth and beauty of this quote conveys a truth about the utter generosity and grace of God’s love, and at the same time gives us a glimpse of the absolute freedom of this love.  

We need to be clear from the start that there was no necessity for God to create us, or even to create at all.  God, whom we call omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, was fully content and complete in himself.  He was, and always will be the unity of three divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The fullness of love between the three persons is so intrinsic that it is what undergirds all of existence as we know it.  Classical theology attempts to describe this unity or flow of love between the three persons of God as perichoresis, a Greek term which can best be described as a dance or movement.  Perhaps what should be the key question that needs to be asked about creation is “why?”. Why indeed did God create, especially if God didn’t need to.

It was not out of necessity that God created, but out of sheer love.  The love that God enjoyed in his three personhood has in itself a generativity and inclusivity about it.  Unlike our love, God’s love wants others to be included and to share in this love.  Not possessive in any way, this caused creation.  In simple terms, God’s love was too good to be just shared between the three persons, and creation had its being in order for this love to be experienced, enjoyed and included.  And as St Augustine so astutely surmised, God did not ask if creation wanted to be created, and so created without our participation in it.  It was, and needs to be seen as pure grace and pure gift.

But love cannot in any way be coerced or forced if it is to truly be love in its purest sense. The necessity of freedom to want to return the love given to the lover from the beloved is what makes the loving true and pure.  This is where God gives us, his beloved, the freedom to either love him back with all our heart, soul and mind (as in the first commandment), or to reject this and turn our backs on the love (i.e. to sin).  

Unless we understand this important aspect of love, we will always be stymied by why God allows so much suffering to happen, especially when suffering is the result of a deliberate choice to hurt, to be selfish and to be proud.  It is because God loves us so much that he allows us to choose not to return this love to him, the ultimate lover.  

It is into this mired world of sin that God made that unthinkable choice to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from certain death.  But this salvation, because it is primarily based on love, still requires a response from us.  We need to want to be saved from sin.  Augustine saw this clearly enough to say therefore that God will not save us without us.  God will not force anyone into heaven’s embrace, because if it is forced, the embrace will only be seen as a strangulation and a restriction.  

In all this movement and dynamic, we are not simply left to fend for ourselves.  The Church has always been clear that there is the primacy of grace, where even in our wanting to return God’s love to him, we are first led by God’s grace, and never just because we made the move out of our own goodness.  Our lives need to be simply a loving response to this offer of grace.

Is it all as complex and as simple as that?  In effect, it truly is.  Yet, so many of us struggle to want to return this love to God because we are too full of ourselves and prideful in so many ways.  

This reflection is not just for the sake of some theological acrobatics.  A theologian reading this may scoff at its simplicity, but it was not written with theologians in mind.  It was written for those who cannot understand why God would create, and may have harboured the thought that with all the turmoil and suffering that exists, it would be better if God hadn’t created at all. Those who have such opinions have failed to understand that creation is itself an expression of how God is loving. 

If God were to save us without our effort and cooperation, God would not be loving at all, but a control freak, a dictator and an ogre, making heaven a hell.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Why I am still in the priesthood - a reflection as I celebrate 18 years as a Priest.

The US Catholic Bishop’s conference asked the young people in America through a tweet last week a rather poignant but very necessary question – “If you are a young Catholic who is still a Catholic, what has made you stay?”  I suppose it was something that has been very troubling for the Catholic Church in the United States, because a larger and larger percentage of Catholics there are either no longer practicing their faith on a regular basis, or have stopped calling themselves Catholics altogether, even though they had been baptized as infants.

I wouldn’t say with much confidence that our situation here in Singapore is all that much different.  Yes, our parishes are filled on Sundays and are also relatively full on the other four days of obligation outside of the 52 Sundays in the year, but I know for a fact that many families have young adult children who have jettisoned their faith and have stopped going to Mass on a weekly basis.  

I am making references to this current dilemma in the Church this week as I celebrate my 18thanniversary as a Catholic priest.  I was ordained on 20 June, 2001, and it does seem that so much has happened in this time.  I have given my life over to the service of the Church, and to be usable by God as his instrument to fulfill his divine plan.  It seems to be something incredibly lofty, even if only on the level of words.  But in truth, if this isn’t the reason why anyone becomes a priest, it will be reducible only to something that the individual wants or desires, with hardly any reference to what is supernatural.  In the light of that question that was tweeted out to the American Catholic Youth, it is also good to ask myself what has made me stay in the priesthood all this time.  If I were to forget the following, I will be putting my priesthood in jeopardy.

1.    It has been an invitation by God

I have to keep reminding myself that this is a gift and an offer to grace that I was never entitled to, nor ever will be entitled to.  To be kept grateful about this grounds me, and any priest, from being proud and arrogant in the priesthood.  I’ve always believed that once gratitude for anything is missing, one begins to easily act with hubris and some degree of self-importance.  Once I believe that my priesthood was something that I worked hard to attain on my own, I may end up talking at people, rather than talking to the people.  And besides, it may make me insensitive to the fact that for many people, the faith struggle is real, forgetting that I somehow had it a bit easier to activate faith in my life.  Remembering that my vocation is a gift is always going to not take this, or anything for granted.

2.    The energy of the priest for ministry is his prayer life

The ministry of a priest is so varied.  Some are called to teach and educate.  Some are called to pastor to souls in their parishes, and some minister to the sick and infirm.  I remember a rather cheesy song that was popularized by Sonny and Cher back in the early 70s called “A cowboy’s work is never done”.  In fact, not just a cowboy’s, but a teacher’s, a foreman’s, a domestic helper’s, and certainly in my case, a priest’s work as well.  But if a priest is defined solely by the work that he does, it makes him no different from any other man who is defined by his work.  What qualifies a priest’s work as different has to be that his work is energized and grounded by his prayer life.  There is a great temptation to abandon prayer, especially when there seems to be a mountain of work and tasks at hand to complete.  We make the mistake of thinking in terms of productivity and effectiveness, and if these are the standards that we apply to our ministry, we are in danger of running out of steam, and going into what is known as “crisis mode”.  

To be sure, our work, like that of a cowboy’s, will never be done.  There will always be sick people to visit in hospitals, paper work to handle, meetings to attend, and sacraments to celebrate.  If we are praying only when we have the time to spare, it also means that we are giving God the remnants and the unused bits of our time, as well as the unused bits of love in our hearts.  But if we are clear that our energy to minister as Jesus wants us to minister comes from the love that we have maintained in our dedicated prayer time, we are giving God prime time, and not what is left-over.  We are not praying only when our day has ended and find our energies petering out.  Instead, we are purposefully carving out a precious time slot out of the precious 24 hours that God has given us each day.  I am reminded then that my energy for my ministry comes from my prayer life.

3.    Am I still hungering for holiness?

If I lose this essential raison d’etre of both my baptismal identity and my priesthood, I would have, as they say, lost the plot.  I need to have the attainment of holiness as my topmost priority in life, and also the desire to impart this as a top priority for my flock and those under my care.  I have to create a thirst for this in the lives of my people because if this is lost, the elements of the world will easily find their way into their hearts, and into my heart as well.  I need to impart to them on a daily basis that it is when we set our bar high in this regard that we make inroads to truly changing the world and how it works and how it thinks.  There is a pressing need for everyone to see that holiness is not a unicorn but a reality that is truly attainable and a goal worthy of all our efforts.  

There is so much evil that surrounds the world, and it is no surprise that even in the hierarchy of the Church, sin and scandal has pervaded into the upper echelons as well. It is clear that even in the higher-ups, many appear to have ‘lost the plot’ in their desire for holiness.  

4.     Do I impart joy in my priesthood?

The best testimony or sales pitch for the vocation to the priesthood has to be when a priest is seen to be a joyful person.  No one would be interested in the priesthood if all they see is a priest as a person who is hardly cheerful and who, while carrying his cross, is sending the bill to everyone he meets.  I may not even have to tell others about the priesthood, but if I express an abiding joy and peace in my life while carrying various crosses in life, I am also in that way giving an effective testimony that goes beyond any words that my mouth can utter.  

It was clear that when I had the gift of leukemia when I was at a very vibrant part of my young priesthood, it was God’s golden gift to me to show how one can live with a heavy cross with joy and not with bitterness and harbouring negativity. I realized that my preaching platform was from that point on going to be not just the ambo in the sanctuary of the church, but the way I live with a debilitating illness.  I do not know whether and if I have been a source of encouragement to others who walk in similar shoes, but I need to believe that this is part of my ministry, and is something that is uniquely given to me by God out of love.  

I remember reading an anecdote taken from the life of St John Mary Vianney, also known as the Cure of Ars.  It happened when he was on his way to his parish assignment at the small village of Ars in France, and he was at a crossroads and wasn’t quite sure which fork of the road to take.  He saw a young man and asked the directions to the village of Ars.  The young man indicated which fork to take, and he said to the young man, “sir, you have shown me the way to Ars.  I will show you the way to heaven.”  Indeed, this man of small stature but a giant of a soul ended up bringing so many of his parishioners to heaven via the path of holiness.  

My purpose as a priest needs mirror that of the holy Cure of Ars, which is to see that the souls under my care hunger for heaven, and are shown the way to get there. Certainly, in terms of years, 18 isn’t spectacular by any means. It’s not a jubilee and neither is it a milestone.   But as in all things that matter, quality should never be mixed up with quantity.  But a reflection of this nature is necessary for me to continue to live my priesthood with great purpose, love and effort if it is to bear fruit that God delights in.  

If you, dear reader, have been praying for me in my priesthood and my ministry, please know that you have my gratitude for having made it thus far.  I am truly grateful.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Envy is such a common sin and also a total waste of time.

There are many who do not appreciate nor know of a truth that can save them a lot of trouble in life - that of all the sins that we can commit in life, probably the one which is the most stupid and an utter waste of time is the sin of envy. Envy has a peculiar attribute that no other sin has, and it is this – no one benefits or stands to benefit from it. Every other sin will benefit the one committing it in some way; even it is a perceived and shadowy benefit. Every other sin is attractive to the sinner because it purports to make us happy, even if for a fraction of a moment in time.  A person committing theft does so because the possession of the item stolen gives him or her some form of pleasure.  An adulterer believes that his or her affair will give a certain thrill and delight and hence happiness.  Cheating in a test or an exam benefits the cheater when the results show that he or she has passed.  Even the heinous act of murder gives the one who murders at least a perverted form of satisfaction that the one whose life had ended is somehow no longer in the world. But envy has absolutely no benefit at all - not to the one who is envying another, and not the one who is being envied, because most of the time, that person is oblivious to the fact that someone is looking on with green eyes.

Yet, this sin is so common, and people succumb to it so easily.  That is because we live our lives with so much inferiorities and there is always going to be the tendency in us to nurture some form of jealousy over the perceived success and joys of others.  It gives way to what the younger generation calls FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.  As well, the advent of social media with its incessant postings of what others are eating, enjoying and where they are in the world creates a certain disdain for our own pedestrian, unspectacular and pallid lives.  It encourages us to make comparisons.  We want to somehow believe that these posted photographs and videos of others being so happy and delighted are how they are in reality, 24/7, and it gives us the false notion that this is the hallmark of happiness.  We ignore the larger reality that for the most part, those photos are often very posed, styled, or even enhanced by technology. It’s not that this is fake news, but rather many people want to believe this is real, giving in to a very distorted sense of realty. 

Of course, one can choose to just opt out of the world of social media. Then these pictures of staged happiness won’t bombard one incessantly.  But that may not mean that one has overcome envy.  It could just be that one has prevented oneself from not being envious. We also need to realize that envy isn’t only present in the world of social media.  The workplace itself can be the place where envy exists, where one’s fellow colleague at work gets the plumper project, the best-worker award, or the pat on the back from the boss for good work done.  And at home, envy is often the reason why there exists sibling rivalry, where one’s sibling is perceived to be more loved and doted upon by mum and dad. To be sure, envy can happen in so many places.

What is the Christian response to this contagion or blight that affects our call to holiness and sanctification?  While I am not purporting to give a panacea that renders envy absolutely powerless, it is something that I have encouraged people to do when facing this nemesis that plagues us at our core.  It is to learn how to admire.  A hallmark of spiritual maturity is easily seen in people who have the capacity to admire – whether it is beauty, skills, talent, intelligence, success or plain youth, without the need to possess and have it.

The Latin root of the word ‘admire’ is admirari, which means to be astonished and to regard with wonder toward someone or something.  To admire without any need to possess or to outdo others must be one of the most logical things that we should learn in life, and sadly, I believe that this skill isn’t taught, and if it is, it isn’t taught well.  Admiring beauty, goodness and truth outside of ourselves without the need to hold it ourselves, or near to our hearts insulates us against the desire to covet.  To be able to say “truly, that is delightful to behold with my eyes” and to leave it at that prevents us from being jealous that it isn’t ours, and that it is ok if it is someone else’s.  We need to learn to say to another “your talent and skill is something praiseworthy and laudable” without having to add the word “but” at the end.  The hard truth is that the human heart doesn’t seem to be wired this way.  Instead, our hearts have the desire to control what it beholds, leaving us unable to admire with joy.

It always strikes me as both poignant and sad whenever I read the gospel passage of the rich man (sometimes with the added piece of information that he is also young) who goes up to Jesus and asks what he needs to do to possess eternal life. He strikes me as a person who is so used to the notion of ownership and possession, control and being on top.  Jesus wants him to receive, and not possess, and in order to do that, he had to dispossess himself of all that had been possessing him.  But he couldn’t.  It was too painful, or he was not ready yet.  He was way too invested to be divested.

The next time we find yourself envying others, be it for their talents, beauty, intellect, success, achievements or advancement in their fields, stop a while and ask yourself what is preventing you from just admiring and praising God for them?  You would be training yourself to pick up the necessary skill of not possessing, and more importantly, you would also be training yourself to not sin stupidly.