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.  

Monday, June 3, 2019

Don’t wait for things to change before forgiveness is given to those who hurt you.

In my many counselling sessions with people who have wounded and broken pasts, it is never surprising that one of the greatest struggles that a great majority of them have is the inability to forgive their enemies.  I’m using the term ‘enemies’ in a very general way, and this includes those who have caused them pain, betrayed them, given them grief, caused them any form of sufferings and torment in life.  There seems to be a very common belief and tightly held opinion that it is only when these people apologise and show remorse for their actions of hurt will forgiveness be given.  This kind of quid-pro-quo mentality is somehow hardwired in the makeup of humanity in general, and strongly militates against the true workings and value of forgiveness as taught and demonstrated by Jesus.  

When Jesus died on Calvary for sinners, there was no conditions attached.  He didn’t wait for all of humanity to change in any way, to soften their hardened hearts and to worship the only true God before dying. His conditionless dying on that hill of Golgotha was truly groundbreaking because he wasn’t waiting for anything to happen before he gave of himself in such a total way.  We sinners, however, have a very tough time with this.  We seem to be constantly setting up conditions and are waiting for something to happen before we give the forgiveness that is needed for wounds to heal.  

I often ask my counselees what they are waiting for.  It’s a very tough and sensitive question, but it is one that needs to be asked and also very important to answer and identify.  When a marriage is betrayed, one is often waiting for the infidelity to stop before forgiving the spouse.  When one had been abused, one is waiting for the abuser to admit their wrong and bring himself or herself to justice before being forgiven.  When something is stolen, the resentment is held in the heart and is held on with a death-like grip until it is returned before there is forgiveness.  When one had been forgotten to be thanked in some speech that was given, the forgiveness will only be extended when the words of gratitude (and the apology for being left out) are spoken before one is forgiven.  The examples are legion, as so many people are really waiting for something to happen, for some condition to be met before they forgive.  

While I can understand why people think this way, they are also showing that they don’t really understand the true power of forgiveness.  The power that forgiveness gives is the power of true freedom.  When there are so many conditions to our forgiving those who have hurt us, we are the ones who are unfree and held under evil’s bondage.  We are holding on to those hurts, and are using them as the revenge that we are taking on our enemies.  It is like a knife that we are holding to use against them, but in reality, our hands are really gripping the blade and we are hurting ourselves.

Waiting for something to happen, and setting conditions before forgiveness is extended really makes forgiveness unnecessary in the end.  I say to my counselees that it is like waiting for a cut to heal before one applies the salve and puts the dressing on the wound.  The dressing is needed precisely when the wound is fresh and gaping and the bleeding is profuse.  By the time the wound closes up and the keloid forms, the value and effect of the dressing is of little or no use.  

Many also wait for a memory to either fade away or be forgotten before forgiveness is extended. “Father, I can forgive, but I can’t forget” is the common response.  God doesn’t want you to have dementia before you forgive.  Again, forgiveness has no value if there is no memory.  Perhaps it is because of the power of our memory that Jesus told Peter that he is to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times. Each time the memory puts its sting into our hearts, jolting us back to that place of hurt which causes that stab to the heart, the will to forgive is needed to be activated.  It is for this reason that forgiveness is often not a one-time effort.  Painful memories that linger are God’s invitation to apply forgiveness, and this is where the merit of forgiveness on our very own souls is high.  There is very little merit when forgiveness is only given when the waves of anger in our heart have become a still, placid lake.  

Is this kind of living with a concerted will to effect forgiveness in a very purposeful and mindful way easy?  Not by a long shot.  One doesn’t automatically live this way.  If there is anything automatic about our living, it is when we return the abuse given by withholding forgiveness and mercy.  Rather, we need to be taught, and we need to be trained to function in a truly humane way towards our enemies.  It is to live counter-intuitively, and the Church gives us two models of this to look at – Jesus on Calvary, and Mary his blessed mother.

Jesus set no conditions and waited for no one to do anything before saving us so selflessly on the Cross.  Mary didn’t demand that those who were responsible for murdering her sinless son repent as she stood at the foot of the Cross.  She had every right to shake her fists to heaven and make demands from God but she didn’t.  She entered into the mystery of suffering in the same heart as her Son.  She too, set no conditions in her love for God.

If we are waiting for something to change, something to be said, someone to repay for some hurt before we start forgiving, we are very often the ones who are unfree, trapped and imprisoned, and not those whom we impose the conditions on.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Why the Ascension of Jesus is of primal importance to us.

Every year, toward the end of the season of Eastertide, I get both excited and even a bit on edge as the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord approaches.  It is something that so many Catholics either fail to see its great significance of, or something that few deem necessary to comprehend with depth and seriousness.  I remember going to Mass on this Solemnity in my very young and impressionable days, but for the life of me, I cannot bring myself to recall anything theologically or spiritually significant about this feast that was the result of a clear and applicable preaching.  Perhaps most of the reflections only centered on the physicality of the ascension, but little was spoken about the reason for it.

The Ascension of Jesus cannot be understood and discussed outside of what is known as the Paschal Mystery. This term embodies and includes the passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.  If the Paschal mystery stops only at the resurrection, then the saving dimension of Jesus’ life simply isn’t complete because it lacks its important universal and eternal dimension.  

The Ascension of Jesus has its scriptural basis in the gospels where we are specifically told that Jesus physically ascended to beyond where the physical eye could not see him any longer. Before that happened, the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus had the disciples physically seeing him, touching him and sharing food with him.  He was still bound and limited to the confines of time and space, though substantially, there was something different about him where he could walk through locked doors and walls.  But he was not at different places at the same time.  There were still limits to his being.  

In order for the effects of Jesus’ salvation to encompass the entire universe, and to effect all time that includes the past, present and the future, the removal of himself out of the confines of this existence as we know it had to take place.  Having risen from the dead, death was no longer going to be the way he leaves this world.  His ascension was therefore his necessary exit path through which he would transcend the space and time limitations that are imposed on every material substance that is created.  

Moreover, Jesus himself made it clear to Mary Magdalene when he appeared to her post resurrection, to not hold on to him as he had to ascend to his Father.  His mission was not yet complete, as his saving effect had still that one important part that was yet to happen.  In John’s farewell discourse, he gives a hint as to why he had to go. It was so that the Advocate could come. With Jesus still physically around, there was not going to be much reliance nor dependence on the Holy Spirit. His departure was going to be the reason that we believe in the Holy Spirit, and why we need to trust in the Spirit’s presence and power in the world.  

I remember how I learnt to ride the bicycle when I was young.  I had a bicycle that had training wheels attached to it on either side of the back wheel.  My reliance on them was there as long as they were attached, and I was rather gung ho in handling my bike knowing that if I shifted my balance on either side of the bike, I would not fall.  

But as the days went on, the angle of the training wheels was adjusted such that the wheels went progressively higher and higher, forcing me to find and maintain my balance without those additional wheels.  It was only when they were finally taken away that I found my balance and rode with the bike with confidence.  They had to be taken away.

I seem to have moved from the sublime to the ridiculous with this analogy, but I hope it served its purpose. Jesus’ ascension was necessary so that our true confidence in him could begin.  If Jesus had not ascended, our physical dependence on him was not going to give us the ability to mature and develop as it should, and more importantly, I am certain that we would not make any efforts in being missionary and evangelical.

Monday, May 20, 2019

A Marian reflection for the month of May.

May has traditionally been called the Marian month in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.  Above all, it is a month to honour Mary as the Mother of God, with connections that can be made to the time of the ancient Greeks where the May was dedicated to the god of fecundity or fertility.  In different eras, like the medieval and the baroque periods, there had been different ways of giving Mary the honour she deserves as both the sinless one, and the Mother of Jesus who is the second person of the Holy Trinity made man.  It is no coincidence that Mother’s day always falls in the month of May.

Here in Singapore, May has always been the month where special home rosaries are organized where parishioners meet at one another’s homes to pray the rosary and to show their love to our Blessed Mother.  Behind all Marian devotions is the doctrine that Mary, being the mother of Jesus is also then the mother of God.  And because Jesus from the Cross gave her over to John to behold her as his mother, gave her to all of us as well.  As our Blessed Mother,  she is eternally caring for her beloved children with not just a maternal love, but a maternal love that is heavenly, and as our earthly mothers care for us in ways big and small, so too does our Heavenly Mother.

Ronald Rolheiser once made a reflection on Mary where he made an interesting distinction between the Mary of Devotion and the Mary of Scripture.  The Mary of Devotion is held fondly in the hearts of Catholics, and she is the one who we show love to in the recitation of the rosary, in the installation of her statues in our churches, homes and in the different types of novena devotions that are extant.  She is the one who prays with us while we are still ‘mourning and weeping in the valley of tears’, a phrase many of us are familiar with when we pray the Hail Holy Queen prayer.  It is always interesting to see how every time there is a Marian apparition, it is always to those who are meek, humble, lowly and nobodies in society.  Mary has never appeared to a bigwig investment banker, a captain of industry or a leader of a country.  She has never been documented to have appeared before a Hollywood A-lister or anyone remotely famous.  Her choice has always been for children, many of whom were uneducated (at least theologically), and those who had trouble in conveying her messages to the authorities.  Indeed, her predilection is for the poor, and she is indeed a mother of the poor and the humble.

But the Mary of Devotion cannot be just reduced to pure sentiment and romance.  If so, we Catholics can end up being very theologically sloppy in the way we hold Mary in such high regard.  Devotion to Mary has strong theological foundations that we must never abandon and forget, in preference to the way we show her our fond devotion. Pure sentimentality runs the risk of being reduced to superstition that is feeling or fear-based, and can end up making Catholicism more cultish than a religion that is reasonable and rational.

It is to the Mary of Scripture that we need to seek to always get our grounding right.  The writers of the gospels give us good reason to maintain our healthy Marian devotion and she helps us to become true and proper disciples of Jesus, and show us that she is indeed the model disciple.  But we have to be very attentive to how her character reveals her ideal discipleship qualities in the gospels, as these are subtle. For example, this is revealed when Jesus says that those who listen to God’s word and obey it are his mother, brother and sister.  Mary never took umbrage at these words, which any earthly mother easily would.   Marian theologians have always called her the second Eve whose pure and unconditional ‘yes’ contrasts so clearly against the ‘yes’ of the first Eve when she chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The first Eve didn’t want to live in mystery, whilst the second Eve welcomed mystery and showed a readiness to live in an unknowing.

Mary’s model discipleship is shown by her willingness to carry her cross with great love all her life.  And the way she carried her cross mirrors the way her Son carried his.  Neither of them was bitter about it, and neither of them sent anyone the bill for it either.  Mary’s stance at the foot of the cross exemplifies humility where we don’t see her shaking her fist to heaven and screaming out for vengeance for her innocent son’s death. Her agony at Calvary mirrors her son’s. Her son’s agony opened heaven’s gate for us, and I see this agony as her labour pains, akin to a mother’s pains when she undergoes the incredible pain of childbirth.  Calvary needs to be seen as humanity’s labour ward, where the result of the pain resulted in her being the mother of all humanity.  

It is this Mary that May’s devotions honours, and it is this Mary who is crowned the Queen of Heaven and Earth. How blessed we are to be able to call her Mother.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Vulnerability may be counter-intuitive to us, but it is so necessary for real love to happen.

There is a strong ideology in our shared human DNA that believes that we will only be loved and respected if we are impressive and strong.  From a very young age, children are taught, not without good reason, that they need to grow up to be strong and even supreme in some way, so that they will have the upper hand in life.  Apart from health reasons, it easy to see that there are people who frequent the gym and resort to inject steroids in their bodies in order to project a very impressive appearance to the world.  The subliminal projection of this message lies behind the glossy covers of the many health and fitness publications that line the shelves of bookstores and newsstands.  Even if it is not physical strength that one seeks, being impressive to the world comes in other forms, like popularity and physical beauty, and having a huge following on social media.  

The human person has various reasons to do this, and it can be reduced to our desire for others to love us. In the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, we see a group of people who endeavor to do something rather strange – they set out to build a tower, attempting to reach the heavens.  This metaphor is deep as it is ridiculous. Behind it is man’s inner desire to make himself a stronghold that makes him tower over everything and everyone else. It is hubris in action.  Its antithesis is something that we humans have a tendency to reject and overcome, which is vulnerability and humility.  But in truth, it is vulnerability, seen clearly in the virtue of the practice of humility that really has lasting beauty, that does win not just friendship and real admiration, but also ultimately, love.  

But we need to be very careful to differentiate between the development of skills, talent and human gifts for true goodness and the building up of these same things, and for the building up of weapons that promote war, jealousy and a sense of superiority over others.  While one serves to endear ourselves in a good way to others and to society, the other only causes us to alienate ourselves from others, and to promote a sense of fear rather than love and healthy admiration.  This is indeed a fine art that few are automatically born or graced with, and its development lies within the purview of seeking spiritual maturity.  

This will only make sense if we begin to see both the wisdom and beauty of vulnerability, which is displayed magnificently on Calvary.  But without wisdom, vulnerability will only be seen as a stance in life that asks that we become doormats for others to step on, and sometimes repeatedly so.  In John’s gospel, which is the latest of the four gospels to be written, there is a very developed theology in its portrayal of the Son of God.  He is in total control of everything that happens right from the start with the Word becoming flesh, and we see him having power over all forces of the natural and the supernatural world in the fourth gospel. One interesting example of this is when Jesus is arrested in the Garden on the night of his trial, and John writes that when Jesus responds, “I am he” to the question who it is they are looking for, they “moved back and fell to the ground”.  There is a lot packed in this strange line.  John is reminding the reader that this Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the very same “I am who am” as revealed by Yahweh to Moses in the burning bush.  That omnipotent God and this Jesus are one and the same.  Ultimately, all creation will fall on its knees in worship.  It is at this revelation and reminder that the soldiers fall to the ground in a collective act of humility before the Divine.  

Yet, despite this, the events of the arrest, trial and eventual crucifixion take place.  The divine takes on the very important virtue of vulnerability in order for our salvation to happen.  It certainly isn’t to be confused nor associated with Jesus being a doormat at all.  

When there is a wrong or unhealthy idea of vulnerability, especially when it is confused with allowing others to know absolutely everything about us, it doesn’t become attractive either. We see this happening when there are ‘confessions’ at talk shows, where someone sits in front of an audience or on national television, and, as it were, lets it all “hang out”.  In a very twisted way, there is hubris in it because the person can be almost demanding that the world love and accept him and has used his “coming out” to buy their love and acceptance, almost demanding it in a crude way.  This isn’t love but a perverted trade-off.  This is so different from Calvary’s true power of vulnerability.

True vulnerability always needs to have a very clear sense of humility that has traits of honesty and tenderness at the same time, and this is where powerlessness gets its true power. It will always be a paradox that we have to struggle with in life.  

If you find yourself in a relationship that is very often in conflict with the other person, especially when you are perplexed by a lack of intimacy that is the fruit of honest and humble vulnerability, it could be a sign that there is still a lot to be learnt and discovered in the department where power in vulnerability is the motto.  It could be that you have been too busy building your own Tower of Babel in that relationship, and haven’t yet learnt how to be vulnerable in a godly way.

Monday, May 6, 2019

We may be self-sabotaging our efforts for holiness without knowing it.

I came across a story recently, which tickled my funny bone but had the amazing ability to satirize the way I see many well-meaning people struggling to live a holy life.  I’m quite sure it wasn’t true, but won’t be one bit surprised if it was.  The story follows:

My sister had been ill, so I called to see how she was doing.  My ten-year-old niece answered the phone.  

“Hello,” she whispered.

“Hi, Honey.  How’s your mom doing?”  I asked.

“She’s sleeping,” my niece answered, again in a very whispered tone.

“Did she go to the doctor?” I asked.

“Yes.  She did, and got some medicine,” the little girl said softly.

“Well, don’t wake her.  Just tell her I called.  By the way, what are you doing?”

In a very soft whisper, she said, “I’m practicing my trumpet.”

Picturing just how sincere the little girl was in making sure she was not waking her sleeping mother by her conversation with her aunt, the girl had no idea at all how her trumpet playing is louder than her whisperings by many decibels.  

After my chuckling subsided, it struck me that this serves very well as a caricature of how I notice many penitents may be having good and even excellent intentions of leading holy, pure and virtuous lives, but can at the same time be sabotaging their good intentions by doing things that bring their efforts the opposite effects.  

If you keep confessing that you are not chaste in your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend, one of the most important things to not do is to bring yourselves to situations and places that invite you to take risks with improper behviour and activity. This necessarily means that you need to have that important but perhaps awkward conversation that deals with the issue of only meeting each other in very public and open places.  

If you find yourselves always tempted to look at inappropriate websites that you find arousing on the internet, one of the things that is a sine qua non is to use your computer in the privacy of your own room, and ensure that you only have access to the web when in the living room or dining room, where members of the house are in full view of what you are doing.

If you say you have no time to pray in the night when you come home from a busy day at work or in school, then nighttime is certainly not the correct time for you to pray.  You’d do well to set your alarm clock twenty to thirty minutes earlier, get up before everyone else in the house, and devote that quite thirty minutes to God as a morning offering, consecrating the coming 16 to 18 hours to God, telling God that you want to make sure that from this moment till the end of your day, you want to glorify him with everything you do, say and think.  That way, it doesn’t become such an issue if you do not manage to pray before you go to bed, because you had begun the day with that good intention, though of course, it would be good to hinge your day with prayer in the morning and in the night.

If you keep confessing that you don’t put God at the centre of your life, but make very little actual effort throughout the day to make an examination of conscience, and only do so while you are in the confessional line perhaps once a month, it shouldn’t surprise you that your good intentions didn’t bear much fruit.  This putting of God in the centre of our lives cannot be a reflection that we do every month or two, but rather, every hour or two. While I certainly don’t wish for anyone to become obsessed with scrupulosity (which is unhealthy and not something that leads to true holiness), we must not be so lax in our self-examination that it is only something that we do minutes before we enter the confessional and land our knees on the kneeler inside.

A habitual gambler will be putting temptation to the test if he keeps going to the casino even though he admits that he needs to stop gambling.  That crucial but painful decision to register himself on the exclusion list at the casinos needs to be something he has to consider and to finally actually do if his words of repentance are to mean anything.  

Is there a magic pill that makes one automatically holy and make the right decisions all the time?  Would that there were.  One thing that the existence of such a pill excludes is the very important aspect of freedom of the individual.  What is at the heart of every sin is the inordinate and inappropriate love of self, and the lack of love of God.  Sure, we may say that the devil made us sin, but for sin to happen, there has to be cooperation and consent on our part.  The more we apply ourselves to loving God, the less we will have the resources (or the desire) to want to apply ourselves to loving things that injure or lessen our love for God.  

That choice to want to do good and to be holy in all that we do is an expression of how deep and true our love for God is.  Every holy man and woman who is a saint in heaven shares this as a common thread in their lives, and have either lived lives that showed great love for God, or have been purified their love for God in purgatory’s flames of purification.  

The girl in the story may have been effortful in speaking in hushed toned on the phone, but didn't apply this effort to everything outside of a phone conversation.  We too may be careful in only certain parts of our moral lives, but have not been effortful in applying this to the other parts of our lives.  We need to apply ourselves with great awareness if we are not to end up like that little girl, blasting the trumpet despite being so careful in speaking in hushed whispers when on the phone with her aunt.