Monday, December 30, 2019

Is there a “best” new year’s resolution? There is indeed. Cover this one, and you’ve got your whole life pretty much covered.

It’s coming to that time of the year, when on the stroke of midnight of the 31stday of December, the calendar of the new year takes effect.  People the world over have a whole range of sentiments around this event, from being totally unfazed and indifferent about it, to being filled with enthusiasm, sentiments and hope.  For those to whom this event is significant, there are generally two things that they are likely to do.

Firstly, they like to do piecemeal analysis, where they look back at the various aspects of their lives and make a general reflection. So, for instance, they would look at the way their family lives went, how they fared in their working lives, their social lives, perhaps the state of their health, how they did in terms of their investments (financial and otherwise), and how healthy the state of their marriages were.  And if they are religious, it may include how they had fared in the aspect of their spiritual lives and whether they had grown in any positive way.

The other thing that follows from this examen is to cast an eye toward the coming year and, as it were, project onto each aspect of life a more positive outlook, treating each aspect as if it were a separate and individual component in life, almost compartmentalizing life.  

This can make the entire enterprise of making new year’s resolutions appear to be such a daunting task, partly because it also necessarily means that one needs to make so many different analyses and often, to make life easier, decide to only make resolutions to live better in only one or two aspects of life, simply because it’s just too bothersome or perhaps too persnickety.

I’m going to recommend an approach towards this whole task of making new years’ resolutions which is far easier, and what’s most truly amazing about this approach is that if you do this, and stick to this with great effort, there is really a guarantee that your entire life will be lived in a way that not only will do you tremendous good, but it will also make a positive difference to the world.

First of all, here is why making piecemeal resolutions is not going to make a great difference.  It merely compartmentalizes our lives, and can end up making us very myopic in life, where we can end up ignoring or overlooking the other aspects of our lives that we deem to be less important.  So, for instance, for a person in sales who is very career focused, while his resolution is for a greater sales target than this year’s, he may be dedicating so much energy and resources to make that new target, he could well be attaining that goal at the cost of spending less time and giving less love by being less present to his wife and children at home.  The attaining of this resolution takes its toll then on his role as a husband and a father.  Every piecemeal resolution is going, very likely, negatively impact other aspects of one’s life.  But there is a solution to this apparent conundrum.

This is when there is only one resolution made – to put God truly at the centre and heart of one’s life, and make one’s world revolve around God.  Why is this the resolution that handles all other resolutions?  Because it helps one to live life with a proper perspective in life, and a proper perspective of life.  

Perhaps an analogy would help, and I’d like to take the example of a meal table, and to be more specific, a Chinese meal table on a festive occasion like perhaps that important reunion dinner to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  On this table will always be laden a variety of dishes.  There will be often a fish dish, perhaps a prawn dish, one that is a vegetable, a soup that is made of luxurious ingredients, a meat dish, and a noodle or a rice dish.  All these are laid on the table and the members of the family are seated around it to share the food before them.  

Taking this as a metaphor of one’s life, do you see your life like this banquet table, with each dish representing a certain aspect or component of your life? Are there dishes that represent your family life, another your work life, another your career, another your social life, and perhaps one dish that is the dish where God gets your resources of time and love? If this is how you view life (and I believe many people do), God simply is viewed as one among the many other parts or components of your life.  If you seriously think about it, how could God, who makes all things (in this analogy, all ‘dishes’) possible and exist, merely exist alongside the things that he has created and holds in existence?  God cannot therefore be viewed as a ‘dish’ on the table, but is in fact outside of the table, and is the whole celebration, including the fact that you can be seated at the table partaking of the whole meal.

I’m not sure if I have conveyed this important point sufficiently through my use of this analogue.  But I do hope that it helps support the reason that if we make that one resolution to improve our relationship with God, to gravitate more and more toward his will, to live in his grace with more love and effort on our part, to truly begin to adore and worship him with our entire being, it will definitely bring improvements into every other component in our lives. Every ‘dish’ on that table will be tended to with greater care, moral rectitude, justice and most importantly, love. From our family life to our careers, from our social lives to the seeming little things like the way we drive our cars and treat others who treat us badly - because our relationship with God is lived well, these other elements too will benefit from this resolution in a significant way.

When St Augustine so famously said “love and do what you will”, this is what he alluded to.  Taken out of context and wrongly read, it may appear that one is given great license to do anything one wants to in life as long as one loves. Unfortunately, this is not so. The love that St Augustine refers to is the love of God.  

When the love of God is our deepest and firmest resolution, not just for a year, but for every day of our lives, we will be living in a very ordered and orderly way, and this will help to sanctify ourselves and the world we live in.  If there is only one resolution to make, let it be this one.  It’s really a no-brainer.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

No, Christmas wasn't easy for God.

“But Father, it’s not easy!” I hear this remark often both from penitents at confession and when members of the laity seek my counsel for their personal issues.  This is especially so when in my advice to them, I suggest that they practice some form of selflessness and altruism in their actions and attitudes, putting the other before the self.  This includes forgiving those who betray or hurt them, being generous in being patient with others, excusing rather than accusing, and loving those who do not return the love given.  No, I do not believe that any of these are easy things to do, but I think that part of the reason this retort is often shot back at me is because our frail and weak human nature just doesn’t do well when it comes to living in ways that require of us some degree of effort and sacrifice.  Our sinful nature has a certain default position that is partial toward the path of least resistance, and often this is a path that wants things easy, with little demands made on discipline and effortful love.  

The easy life, however, is hardly ever the life that is lived meaningfully and the life that can be defined as flourishing. Looking at anybody in history who has impacted history with their skills, talents and contribution to human flourishing.  Look at all of the saints of the Catholic Church.  What they share in common is that their lives were lived with effort and discipline, with a purpose that was beyond themselves being molly-coddled.  

I would agree that the choice that we make to live our lives with a sense of purpose and dedication, to live with integrity, fidelity, honesty and justice is not easy.  But since when has anyone promised that living this way would be easy? There is somehow hardwired in us a general false belief (or hope) that the whole enterprise of living life with an eye toward holiness and sanctification is meant to be easy, and just about everybody I have counseled seems to have bought this lie hook, line and sinker.

But there is a truth about life that we also tend to overlook, and this feeds the lie that we believe that life shouldbe easy.  The truth is that the things that are easy for us in life hardly ever lead to growth and maturity.  Easy often means effortless.  And if we apply this to life, when things do not ask of us to put in effort for them to be attained and achieved, it also necessarily means that there isn’t much value in those goals, and there isn’t much asked of us in terms of resources, time, energy and most of all, love.  There is hardly much merit in anything that doesn’t cost us anything in terms of effort.  Any Olympic Gold medalist will tell you that because that gold medal and that moment when one stands at the top tier of that medalists’ podium is so glorious, so splendid and so triumphant, he or she was willing to go through all the sacrifices, tear-inducing trainings and gut-busting competitions to get there.  It was worth the effort.  It wouldn’t have been possible if he or she was just a couch-potato with hardly any sign of gumption or drive in them.  The same is just as applicable to the spiritual life.

In the spiritual life, not taking that path of least resistance is asking of us to take on some form of hardship and put ourselves in some inconvenience, and it will be terribly unattractive and meaningless if we are doing it just so as to make our lives difficult.  That would be not only madness but also terribly masochistic of us.  

But the Christian life is called “Christian” precisely because it is a life that has a Christian dimension to it.  There is a Christian goal for us, and the path to this goal is to live a life that follows a blueprint and a model, and that model is Jesus Christ.  He was not just a good man or a model human being.  He is God as well.  We need to be clear that the incarnation of God becoming man in Jesus Christ was a deliberate choice of entering into our world mortality and sharing in our fallen state.  In the mystery of the incarnation, God himself made that conscious choice of hardship, sacrifice and stripped or emptied himself of his divinity to take on humanity (Phil. 2:7).  The life that Jesus lived was one which saw him pouring out his love on the least and the littlest, and while doing so, showed humanity glimpses of the Kingdom of God. As he moved toward the moment of salvation on Calvary, he was in a progressive state of self-donation.  This emptying of himself reached its apogee on Good Friday, and with his total giving, came a total receiving on Easter Sunday.  

The incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas each year is surrounded with sentimentality and is rather bucolic.  This romance often puts into the shadow the reality that there is a huge amount of hardship taken on by God for him to become man. No, this display of lavish love on God’s part was not easy for him, and it certainly wasn’t easy as well for Mary and Joseph.  If it was not easy for God, we should hardly expect it to be different for us.

The next time you find yourself wanting to retort “but it’s not easy!” to any advice that suggests that you practice a virtue, some form of mortification or self-denial so that your goal of holiness and sanctification can be realized, remember that at the incarnation, God didn’t let “easy” have the last say. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Living the spiritual life in a defensive way.

In 1964, Chris Imhoff of the US National Safety Council developed and introduced a course on driving focusing on driver safety. It was called the Defensive Driving Course.  Its syllabus went beyond the basic driving course that was mandatory for all drivers learning to drive.  It went beyond the mastery of the basic rules of the road, and its aim was to help drivers to anticipate dangerous situations and the mistakes of others.  Defensive driving was often referred to driving as if everyone else on the road were drunk.  I have of late begun to incorporate this mind and give my counselees and spiritual directees a similar way of living their spiritual lives, with the hope that they will be able to prevent the very common sins of anger, rage and acrimony towards others in life.

As a spiritual director to the people who come to me for help in living their spiritual lives with more effort and better outcomes, I have been trying to see a pattern in the way that many, if not most, people live their spiritual lives.  Of course each person is a unique individual that is a composite of one’s past history, one’s family background, one’s encounters with people, one’s social surroundings and one’s God experiences, and no two persons in the world are perfectly identical in this regard.  But there are certain patterns that are rather similar, especially in the areas of dealing with people who are a challenge to love.  These people can be the people they are married to, their children, their parents, their neighbours and those whom they work with.  

Oftentimes, our relationship with these people in our lives can be the cause of their sins of rage, anger and resentment. Generally, we may have great difficultly in handling the quirks, idiosyncrasies and behavioral patterns that these people adopt in life.  It could be things as seemingly harmless as the habit of their shaking of their legs when seated, to wanting to be control freaks in the relationship, or to being hardly expressive of gratitude for love shown.  When that happens, the material we bring up in confessions are often repeated sins of anger and resentment toward these people in their lives for such things.  One would think that after years of being spouses to each other, or growing up as children of our parents, that these personal quirks and idiosyncrasies would be accepted as part and parcel of their personality.  But it is often the very same issues that crop up that ignites the bed of anger in the heart, and leads it to become a veritable inferno, where the anger becomes an uncontrollable rage that causes harm to other relationships around us.  

I always tell my counselees that they cannot change the people around them very much, but they can and should change the way that they deal with them.  I remember once hearing a very humorous statement made, giving advice to women entering into marriage – that the only time that anyone can successfully change a man is when he is in diapers.  There may be some truth in this.

What’s all this got to do with defensive driving? Bear with me.  Remember - the essence of defensive driving is to drive with the expectation that every driver on the road is drunk, requiring of us to drive with extra care, extra vigilance and caution, and having this attitude results in safer driving conditions on the road (at least on our part).  Perhaps we can learn from this and apply the very same principle in our relationships with people.

We need to be very keenly aware that sin and its bedfellows like selfishness, pride, egocentricity, sloth, envy, lust and just putting the self in the dead centre of the universe is something that plagues every human being.  Just as driving defensively asks that we treat every other driver as a drunk ensues that we drive better, living defensively asks that we see that sin prevails in every person too, and that when these traits of sinfulness show up in life, we will be ready for them, and not let these quirks, habits or irritations cause us to react. This will cause us to live our Christian lives better.   Because we are ready for the negatives in others, we act rather than react. Spiritual defensive living is our readiness for such moments of negative encounter.  

Now I know what you, my reader, may be thinking. It’s not that I am asking you to label every other person in life as a sinner writ large.  This is not what I am suggesting.  I am suggesting that in readying for others in our lives to not live up to their heavenly best form, we are prepared to give them our heavenly best in ourselves NO MATTER WHAT their response is going to be.  If it is their kindest, most patient, most generous and most loving response, count it as a bonus and give God thanks for it.  If it is their worst, when their response hurts, betrays us or gives us pain in whatever form, we are prepared because we are not blindsided.  

Of course, living this way requires very much that we are in a state of grace, because it requires of us to give others grace when they need it most.  The more we are in a state of holiness, deeply in touch with God and loving him in others, the more we can offer them our best when they give us their worst.  For the Catholic, the assurance of us being in a state of grace is when we go to Confession.  Only in this state can we do the difficult thing of giving others our best when they give us our worst.  This is what happened on Calvary when the world threw its worst at God and despite this, God still gave us his best in Christ.  

In this way, living holy lives mimics Chris Imhoff’s Defensive Driving Course, but on a far more existential level.

Monday, December 9, 2019

If I don't feel anything when I pray, am I doing something wrong?

I’m not sure if it is something that plagues the current generation more than it did the previous generations before us, but there certainly is a great emphasis that many people place on their feelings, sentiments and emotions.  While I am not denying that as human beings, that our feelings and sentiments are real, it is when there is an over emphasis and heavy reliance on its importance that these can become problematic for us, and this is especially so when it comes to our prayer life.

It is only when we understand that prayer is not just any kind of communication that we have with God, but a purposeful communication, which is a communication of love and worship, that we will not become panicky and overly concerned when our prayer experience has a distinct lack of emotions or feelings.   

But what exactly does a communication of love entail?  First of all, we need to understand that God is love.  He isn’t just loving, he isn’t just lovely, but he IS love.  There is a whole lot of difference between God being lovely and God being love itself.  The latter means that God is the origin and source of love and the pre-eminent definition of love.  All love comes from him in his Trinitarian love relationship, and all distortions of love and selfish forms of possessive and abusive love is an abomination of God’s love.  

Because God is love in its purest and most unselfish, when we are in a love communication with God, our love for God in prayer necessarily ought to be as pure and as unsullied as possible.  The understanding of this is what lies at the heart of St Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love as ‘willing the good of the other as other’.  That should be the standard that we hope to attain, but at the same time, be accepting of the fact that this will be an aim that will be a work-in-process as long as we are on this side of heaven. Our sinful nature will always stand in the way of our love being as pure as it should be.

Notice that the words ‘emotions’, ‘sentiments’ and ‘feelings’ do not appear at all in St Thomas’ definition of love.  This is not to say that these have no value at all in our human experience of love and of being loving.  But it does mean that when we love despite the fact that these good feelings are not present in our act of loving, that our love has a certain purity about it, and therefore a certain godliness about it.  Just think about the way a husband and wife in a marriage that has lasted many decades love one another.  Often, in the amber or golden years, those sentiments and feelings that surged in the heart when they were a young couple aren’t as roaring, crackling or electrifying by the time they are grandparents.  But still being loving in those times despite there being a distinctive lack of such delightful consolations requires effort.  The fact that this effort is made is evidence of a love that is centered on the other, for the sake of the other.

Having said this, there may well be moments that we spend in prayer that could see us experiencing what are called the ‘consolations’ in prayer.  These are the times when God gives us an experience of his love and his presence, where we intuit in a very real and ‘felt’ way God’s love for us.  These can come most unexpectedly, and these are what I believe are God’s ‘treats’ for us.  While these may delight us, and indeed they should, our motive for praying needs to steer away from wanting more and more of these consolations and treats.  Why?  Simply because if we are praying for another consolation or another prayer ‘high’, we end up looking for the ‘high’ that God gives, rather than seeking the giver of the experience, God himself.  This is when our motive for prayer needs purification, because our love needs purification.

It takes great humility to want God more than what God can give, because it means that we value less of what we desire (in terms of feelings and sentiments), and value God himself above all of them.  To only want the treats that God gives us may not mean that we love God.  We may be loving him only because of his gifts.  

So I wouldn’t be too concerned, or concerned at all if I don’t feel anything special when I pray.  Wanting some consolations when going into prayer could be a sign that I’m placing too much focus on myself, and making prayer about me rather than making it about God.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The patience that Advent teaches.

More and more, as the world makes its ascent towards progress and advancements in so many areas of life, the one thing that we seem to be getting worse and worse at is the ability to wait and be patient.  There appears to be something inversely proportionate at work here – the more our technology makes new breakthroughs in efficiency and technology, the less we human beings are able to see the virtue and importance of patience and to embrace any form of waiting.  It does seem that the higher the number of Gs there are in terms of internet speed, the lower our ability to wait.  An App for waiting seems to be doomed to failure. 

Virtue in one’s life is always a mark of holiness.  Since patience is a virtue, then it has to follow that impatience and the inability to wait, in its various forms, is an enemy of holiness.  The mystic monk Thomas Merton was once asked what he felt was the single worst problem confronting civilization, and his answer was simply “Efficiency!”

Merton was intuitive in saying this. This isn’t only applicable to things of the electronic nature.  Just on the level of life itself, there is so much to do, so many targets and deadlines to meet, so many lists of ‘to-do’s’ to check off.  It’s a perennial turbine that we have to keep turning, and the hamster we keep running furiously in the wheel, or so we imagine.  Yet, we know that often that it is when we dial things down a little, when we take our feet off the accelerator pedal of life, that we begin to notice that there are benefits to be reaped in not rushing and in taking things slow. Just look at the many times you have appreciated going on that much needed retreat where you (reluctantly at first) put away the cell phone and managed to truly be incommunicado from the frenzied world of “I-need-it-done-by-yesterday”.  Suddenly things come into focus and you notice the things that you had inadvertently allowed to whiz you by as you took the fast lane in life’s highway.  You have stopped to smell the roses.

It is this deliberate effort in slowing down, and wanting to be willing to wait that Advent helps us to welcome, attain and inculcate.  Of course it’s going to be challenging (more and more so these days) because the world wants efficiency and screams it from just about everywhere you turn.  

Scripture, if we take time to pore over it purposefully, will reveal that God isn’t in a hurry.  In the entire expansive recounting of salvation history, not only has God taken his divine time to act, he has also taken his divine time to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  The heroes of our faith from Abraham, to Moses, to Jacob, to Joseph, to all the prophets and finally to John the Baptist all shared the experience of having waited.  Patience, and the developing of the virtue of patience, cuts clearly through every single one of them.  The fact that God chose to come into our human lives through a human mother, requiring the gestation of a full nine months of pregnancy, and taking the path of human development and growth to reach human adulthood is itself testimony that there is something about slowness in growth and the passage of time that God delights in, and that God approves.  

While I do think that there are a lot of problems with the commercialization of Christmas, I have also come to see that it may be a tad simplistic to just decry this with slogans and banners like “Put back Christ into Christmas”.  With man’s voracious appetite for amassing material excesses with no end in sight, commercialization of this original sacred time is always going to be hijacked.  Let’s face it – the devil hates Christmas, and will do all he can to thwart its sacred reality. 

But we know that Christmas isn’t in the gift that can be bought but in The Gift that bought our souls from damnation.  We can do something with our practice of patience in Advent, but notonlyin Advent.  The entire Christian lifeis peppered with the need to cultivate waiting.  While Advent has a strong lesson in waiting as a liturgical season, it should not be only in Advent that we should be learning to wait.  The teaching of the virtue of chastity and chaste courting before marriage is in itself a lesson in patience.  So is the Catholic tradition of fasting and penance and all forms of bodily mortifications. All of them help us to develop not just patience, but temperance, charity and love.

Let Mary be our model and example of patience at Advent because her fiat at the annunciation inaugurated a life that allowed God to work in and through her despite things going unexpectedly wrong.  If our earthly mothers have struggled to teach us patience in life, we need to appreciate how much more is our heavenly mother willing to help us in our quest for patience, and through it, to attain holiness of life.

Monday, November 25, 2019

What does faith look like?

One of the things that a priest is privileged to is the entry point to the times of a person’s life at critical junctures of life. At birth, a priest is there to baptize a child for his life in God to begin and to flourish.  When a person makes that decision to enter into a life-long covenant in marriage, we are there to receive those vows on behalf of God and the Church, and at Confession, the priest tends to a person’s most vulnerable state when he humbles himself and puts pride aside to admit of his brokenness and frailty and mistakes.  These are all very very privileged places to be, partly because one needs to be trusted enough to hand over one’s life to another in trust.
A quote from the late Cardinal Francis George, who was the Archbishop of Chicago when he died.
But one of the greatest privileges that one can have as a priest is to be called to a person’s last moments of life on earth. It is undoubtedly when one is most vulnerable, most weak, and most helpless, where earthly help is concerned.  But it is also where the greatest help and aid can be given to a human being, because the help that one needs at that time is supernatural, and it touches faith.  “What does faith look like?” one may ask.  

We use the phrase ‘faith’ rather loosely and often don’t tag it concretely.  When things aren’t quite concrete and tangible, they can end up being ethereal, and as a result, can also not influence much of our daily life.  But faith is power, and power is also something that is unseen until it is harnessed and applied in life.  If faith is power, what does this power enable us to do?

One of the most important things that faith must enable us to do is to surrender.  Spouses in marriages will agree that if there is little or no faith in the love of the marriage, there is also very little courage or effort in surrendering oneself to the other.  This surrender takes on the form of being kind, patient, forgiving when wronged, going the extra mile in loving actions, etc.  When there is not faith in the other, and in the love of the marriage, one becomes less willing, or not willing to live out those virtues. Rather, one will be calculative, parsimonious and unwilling to put those values and virtues into practice.  

Living this way requires of one to die to oneself. There is a constant need for this dying to self in marriage daily, and this doesn’t only apply to people in the married state.  Because every single one of us have the tendency to live lives that are self-centered and ego-centered (a residual of original sin), this dying to self is something that is similarly required of every single person.  When we die to ourselves, to our egos, to our needs, to our pride, we are in effect handing over our lives.  To whom?  To God. Faith then takes on a concrete form, when we are handing over our lives, in love, to God who is love.  

But handing over our lives in surrender to God isn’t the ultimate handing over that we need to do in life.  The ultimate handing over to God is to hand over or surrender our deaths to God, and that surrender is most crucial for us as God’s sons and daughters.

Whenever I am called to minister to a person’s last remaining days on earth, oftentimes in a hospital, I realize that I am also witnessing this handing over.  It is never the same, and it is often an indication of how much of handing over of oneself one has done during one’s lucid and healthy moments of life.  The peace that one experiences at this liminal moment in life is often predicated on the kind of peace one has given out in life. Suffering and pain experienced at these moments are not to be seen as one not having peace.  Oftentimes, the family thinks that when their dying loved one is in some form of pain or suffering, that the person is not at peace. This is when it would be most prudent to look at Jesus’ last moments of life on the cross on Calvary.  There was tremendous suffering and it was definitely excruciating (ex-crucis, from the Cross) for Jesus, but he was at peace, because he was surrendering his death to the Father whom he knows not only is a loving God, but is love itself.

In this most liminal of moments in our lives, it will be our last time that we will be dying to the self.  It will be the most unselfish thing that we can do, because we will be giving up the most precious thing that we have – our lives. Our faith takes on a very concrete form because we are saying that we have faith in the promise of God’s mercy, God’s love and God’s heaven.  Just think of how the many martyrs of the Church had shown such tangible faith at their dying moments when their persecutors made demands of their faith, asking them to renounce their faith, but instead they chose to give their lives up for God.  

Not all of us are called to be such martyrs with our blood, though some of us may pray for this grace.  But all of us will be called to give up our deaths when our time comes.  The Church has named St Joseph as the patron of a happy death, but there are so many ways we interpret what a happy death is.  It surely cannot be only defined as when a person manages to make a good confession just prior to taking in one’s final breath.  Let’s be honest - of the numbers dying each day in the world, the ones that get that privilege make up only an infinitesimal percentage.  

A happy death then needs to be understood as a willingness to hand over our deaths in the way that Jesus did – with no regrets, with no unfinished business, and with a joy that looks forward to what comes after.  But we will only be able to do this well if in our daily lives we are also willing to die to ourselves.  

Our task in life is to die before we die, so that when we die, we will not die.  

Monday, November 18, 2019

God doesn’t tempt anyone. Then why do we say in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation”?

There has been some debate and discussion in recent times regarding the phrase “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer.  Even Pope Francis himself weighed in on this issue, calling for a new translation of that phrase which gives the impression that God plays an active role in leading anyone to sin.  God, who is all good and benevolent, appears in this part of the prayer (or at least in the translation of it), to be an active player in causing us, his beloved children, to be tempted and therefore to sin.  His benevolence seems to be somehow tainted with malevolence. Certainly God doesn't do that (ref. to James 1), but the words of the translation in this prayer can appear to have us see God directly leading us to sin. It can therefore be a tad problematic for some.

It’s always good to do hermeneutics and exegesis when we encounter such issues with the Word of God.  After all, this prayer comes to us directly from the Gospels, and hermeneutics is that branch of biblical studies that deals with interpretation of texts, going to the very origins of the text’s language. The bible texts that we have in English are translations from the Old Testament’s Hebrew and the New Testament’s Greek, and all texts, biblical or not, suffer from what is known as being lost in translation.

In the English language, whenever the word ‘temptation’ is used, it implies the act of being lured, seduced, persuaded and beguiled into sin.  It has the implication that one’s strong will is being somehow debilitated and weakened, preventing one from being resolute to stay the course.  

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the part that teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, (paragraph 2846), there is a very interesting admission in the Catechism that mentions of “a difficulty”.  It specifically says that this translation is indeed “difficult” because the Greek verb in the original text can mean two things.  For the Greek geek, the verb here (both in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel) is ‘peirasmos’.  This word is synonymous with both ‘trial’ and ‘temptation’, and this is what lies at the root of this knotty issue.  

God certainly gives us many trials in life, like illnesses, setbacks, failures, betrayal from our nearest and dearest, having addictions, etc.  These trials are not in themselves good, but they need to be seen as paths through which we can grow in virtue and holiness.  A healthy spirituality teaches us to look at trials as God’s invitation to have us grow and mature.  They are opportunities given to us to show how much tenacity and steadfastness we have in God’s love (with the help of God’s grace, of course) and not yield and fall by giving in to the temptation to either give up, or yield to despair and hopelessness.  So, we need to make it clear that God permits us to be tried in life, so that we can strengthen our faith and love for him.  

I would at this point compare this to my daily difficult but necessary physiotherapy and joint and muscle strengthening exercises that I put my operated hip through, having had hip replacement surgery on 26 August this year.  They are really forms of trials that I place on my new artificial hip.  These daily and repeated stresses are necessary so that muscle fibers around the joint are not just sitting there and languishing away. By the trials and strains of often exaggerated movement and actions, they strengthen the joint and give the necessary stability and support to this hip so that my movement and gait become smoother and my limping less and less pronounced.  

The choice is always there during the exercises (trials) to just stop and give up (temptation).  In the Greek ‘peirasmos’, the same word would apply to both the exercise and the temptation to give up.

But in this prayer, we are in effect asking God for the grace, when the trials come in life, to not yield or give in to the temptation that is inherent in the very trials that we go through. This refusal to yield or give in to the temptation is something that we need to activate on our part, demonstrating our effort in wanting to grow and mature in life.  We are also praying to not fall into temptation, but to be given the grace to grow in virtue.  

We face all sorts of temptations in life, but the temptations themselves are not sin.  To be sure, there is a final temptation that all of us will face in our lives when our lives are at their final moments.  This ultimate temptation is to give up our faith altogether, to wring our hands in despair, and to not believe that God’s mercy is available to us when we need it most.  This is why in the prayer that concludes the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick prayed at or near the person’s death, the words of the prayer always ask that the infirm be strong in facing temptation.  We often have too facile an image of the temptations that we face in life, limiting them to sins that involve the 7 capital sins.  

But the temptation that all of us face in the end, whether one is strong in body or not, is to be tempted to negate God’s love and mercy, when we are at death’s door.  This would be our final and definitive battle against temptation for every single person.  Is it any wonder that the phrase “now, and at the hour of our death” appears so clearly in the Hail Mary prayer?

No, God does not lead us to sin, nor does he actively cause us to fall.  When we pray that line of the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the grace to be strong and steadfast when the necessary trials of life show up at our doorstep.  

Monday, November 11, 2019

Yes, you can be angry with god and yet not be sinning. But you may be idol worshipping.

I hear in confessions so often something that many people grapple with in life.  It’s very common, and it plagues both men and women of all ages.  Many find themselves giving in to this, and when they do, it fills them with guilt.  No, it’s not one of those “loin matters”, if that’s where your mind is going. It is this - when people get angry with God.

At the heart of this sin lies the fact that we know that as Catholic Christians, we should be loving God with all our heart, mind and will.  And if that is so, then loving anyone, including God, should exclude wanting to have negative thoughts or feelings about the person, and when these sentiments arise in one’s heart, it does seem that one has done wrong.  If this person is not any person but God, the ultimate person and creator of all beings, then by extrapolation, this could well constitute the ultimate sin.  At least that’s the logic that seems to be going on in the minds of the penitents who feel guilty for having had these feelings.

Let’s be clear that as far as Canon Law is concerned, for something that qualifies as a mortal sin, it has to fulfill these criteria:
1)    It has to be a serious matter (e.g. abortion)
2)   The person needs to be aware that the action is sinful (full knowledge)
3)   The person, with this full knowledge, commits the action with full intent and full freedom

Of course, those criteria apply to sins that are ‘mortal’, meaning sins that are serious enough to cut ourselves off from God’s grace.  (No, God doesn’t cut us off.  Rather, it is we who cut ourselves off from God).  But even for sins that aren’t mortal, but venial (where our relationship with God is injured and weakened to some degree), there isn’t any mention or reference to feelings, because feelings themselves have no morality in and of themselves.  They are not actions that we willfully do, and these include those many random thoughts that can flash through our minds when we are not actively engaging them in the day.  Feelings are not sins, and quite a lot of people are almost neurotic about confessing feelings.  Living this way limits very much our freedom in life, and God certainly wants us to live freely.  It’s what we do with our feelings that give it a moral texture and quality that can make us virtuous or sinful.

When one believes that one has sinned because one has found oneself being angry with God, I always like to clarify what is it that God has done to the penitent that has resulted in this anger targeted at God. Here are some common examples.

-      God has not answered my prayers even though I have been a good Catholic
-      God has made life so difficult for me
-      God hasn’t helped in my struggle with my addiction/bad habit
-      God is so slow to act, and I’m so tired of waiting

This list, let me assure you, is not exhaustive. There is a whole legion of other reasons people have been or are angry with God.  And for some, being just ‘angry’ is putting it mildly.  Each time I hear their explanations for their being livid, I share their pain, while at the same time, I mourn at their ignorance which they are blind to.

I like to begin by telling them that they have every right to feeling this way toward ‘God’, and that I too would be angry and even acrimonious toward ‘God’ if I were in their shoes.  But the sin I would be committing would not be harbouring ill-will toward God.  Rather, the real sin would be that of idol worship or the worshipping of a false God, simply because the ‘God’ that their anger or resentment is really targeted not at God as who he really is, but at a god that they have created in their minds. 

It is quite clear to my mind that for many of these people struggling with their notions of God, what they are really struggling with is mystery.  It is mystery that God can allow bad things to happen and that he values freedom far more than he wants to control people and the outcome of bad situations.  It is mystery that God takes so much time to have things unfold in life (to me, it is a greater mystery why the human heart is so addicted to speed and to measurable performances).  It is mystery that a lot of life’s deep virtues are learned and imbued through our struggles with failure, suffering, sin and even addictions. A lot of peoples’ false constructs of God result from insisting on him being a wish-granting genie rather than who he really is – mystery itself.

If a person has had the image of God as an elderly white-bearded whose existence is just to arbitrarily manipulate the lives of his creatures in a facetious way, making some people happy when he so wishes, and giving others a hard time with no good reason, and this person has never allowed that image of God to change, grow and mature as he went from childhood to adolescence, to being a youth, then a young adult and finally as an adult, this person’s God image has not really grown, but is quite literally retarded and stopped maturing since he was a pre-teen.  This ‘God’ doesn’t exist in reality, but only in his pre-teen mind. As such, the God he is having negative feelings toward and huge reservations about, is very much a construct and very far from God as he truly is.  Negative feelings against a self-constructed idol have no moral value. It would be like fabricating an image of a unicorn in one’s mind, believing it to be real, and because it cannot be corralled and controlled, becoming finally angry at it.  

In short, one cannot really be faulted for being angry at a self-constructed god.  But one may be idol-worshipping, which is something far more serious, as one has created an idol and have placed it on a pedestal whether to be worshipped or casting one’s anger onto.  

Monday, November 4, 2019

Why joy, and not the Church’s laws, rules, code of moral conduct and ethics should always be evangelization’s first move.

There are many things one can do wrong when one wants to heed the call to the ‘New Evangelization to Transmit the Faith’ to others.  One of these is by bashing others over the head with the Bible.  Of course this is a metaphorical phrase which includes a heavy emphasis on doctrine and the laws of the Church, or a high insistence on getting liturgical actions ‘just right’.  Don’t get me wrong – I am all for doctrine and Canon Law.  They are both necessary and important, but these cannot be the first things that others see us interested in when carrying out the call to evangelize and to be missionary.  What is far more important as a first step is the establishment and forging of friendship and the conveying of our joy that we have as sons and daughters of God in and through our baptism.  This joy needs to fuel the passion that goes behind our words, demeanor and message.  A useful metaphor would be that no one is likely to enter a restaurant when all they see through the window are patrons inside who are simply not enjoying their food, and leaving the eatery glum and dissatisfied.

But I also know that joy is not something that is taught, but rather something that is caught.  When you need to teach someone to be joyful, it wont be coming from the correct place.  The term ‘organized joy’ is really an oxymoron.  But joy that comes from an experience and an encounter will always be authentic and automatic.  One only needs to see a child’s face light up when she wakes up on Christmas morning or gets told that they are going on a family vacation to understand this.  That child doesn’t need to be taught to smile. It’s coming from within.  

Of course, the joy of Christianity and its promise of eternal life and the joyful news of a family vacation are not the same. One has a joy and promise that is truly lasting whilst the other lingers only as long as one’s has good memory. Effective evangelists need to be people who have truly encountered the Lord in a way that is striking, or at least his truth in a way that is more than merely cerebral.  If one’s heart isn’t stirred, one will naturally have quite a few obstacles in one’s path to carry out the task of evangelization even if one has good intentions.  

Having said that, not every evangelist needs to have a supernatural encounter with the Lord to be effective.  But every evangelist needs to set up his life in order for him to be open to God on a daily and regular basis.   One’s dedicated prayer life is therefore the seedbed of such an encounter.  Daily sitting before the Lord in the Tabernacle or whose presence is in the Monstrance in an Adoration Room is essential for the encounter to be real.  One is, after all, in the presence of the real presence.  In the same way, the priest who doesn’t make prayer his work will hardly make his work his prayer.

When our joy is palpable to the people we meet and talk to about Christ, they will be more open to the words of goodness and truth that doctrine provide.  More and more, I am convinced that the order of evangelization needs to be firstly beauty, secondly goodness and only thirdly truth.  There is so much captivating beauty that the Catholic church has in its rich history. Non-Catholics going to the basilicas and cathedrals in Rome and, even without so much as a guide or docent, have come out admiring the beauty that is within them.  Our smile and the joy on our faces as Catholics need to be seen as extensions of Catholicism’s rich beauty.  

These non-Catholic brothers and sisters of ours need to see a certain je ne sais quoisabout us, especially when we are able to go through life’s sufferings with a calmness that conveys faith in God.  
This joy cannot be predicated on how we feel or on which side of the bed we get up from in the morning.  Like love, our joy needs to be predicated on something that doesn’t fluctuate and vacillate like our mood or the weather.  If so, it makes us no different from those whose beliefs are different from ours, of from people with no belief at all.

St Paul is a prime example of how a true disciple of Christ doesn’t let his circumstances in life determine his joy of being a disciple.  In peace times or in persecution, in fair or foul weather, in freedom or in chains, his inner joy was indeed unshakeable and unmistakable.  Calling upon the intercession of this giant of a saint will always be beneficial to anyone who is serious in answering the call to mission and evanglization.