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.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Original sin is such a misunderstood doctrine among many, and that includes Catholics.

Whenever I prepare talks on doctrine and theology especially meant for the average lay person, I try my best to put myself into their shoes for various reasons, the chief one being that I want to bring across a certain teaching and truth of the faith in a way that not only appeals to their sensibilities, but also to try to address the common misconceptions and misguided prejudices that are prevalent in the majority of people.  This is not only necessary, but also something that is challenging, to say the least.  I need to imagine what it is like to broach a certain teaching with a mind and a biasness that has leanings toward atheism and the buffered self, where one is harbouring certain resentments toward God because of how he has been portrayed in and through the writings of the books of the Old and New Testaments of Sacred Scripture.

Perhaps one of the more challenging doctrines to teach and be received with little objection in our Catholic faith has to be that of Original Sin.  I have found that many non-Catholics who come into the faith or make efforts at wanting to learn about our faith struggle with this.  Many baulk at the fact that every human being, no matter how young, even a newborn infant, is born into sin.  After all, the theological definition of sin is an action that is something that is committed which is a transgression against God’s law, and something that is willfully and knowingly done.  Can a newborn child do this?  Does he or she have the capacity to do this?  Obviously not.  What is this Original Sin that everyone is mired and burdened with then, something that doesn’t even require one’s will to commit?  Adults who embark on the RCIA journey too may think that sin only applies to the big-ticket items on the sin-list like murder and theft and adultery, giving them the idea that confession (especially regular confession after baptism) is highly unnecessary for the average Joe.

Original sin needs to be understood as a condition more than an act.  It is every human being’s urge or tendency toward doing bad things and thereby offending God.  Human beings do not need any training or coercion toward sins like lying and being guileful and wily in life.  As a confessor, I see this in little children who know that they have wronged their parents when they have been untruthful to their parents, doing things that they ought not.  They don’t need to be taught to do such things.  It seems to be an automatic and built-in default that lies in the human DNA. St Augustine explains that because this is a spiritual disease, it is therefore also a fault, and faults deserve judgement and subsequently, condemnation.  It is this condemnation that needs to be forgiven.  This original fault, which is attached to our physical origins, is what baptism forgives.  

I always find it challenging to put this across without a sea of furrowed brows and looks of discomfort in the faces of those to whom I impart this teaching.  The human being is naturally resistant toward being judged and worse, being condemned, especially for a fault that one had been saddled with, and not something that one willingly chose to do. 

Christian doctrine therefore teaches that the only way a human person so mired in a sinful condition can saved from such consequences is through the sheer grace of God, given through the sacrament of Baptism, which comes to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and no other name.

I had a conversation with someone this week, and this person was not a baptized Christian, but had married a Catholic spouse, and they are parents of a child who is now about 30 years of age.  This child was baptized at birth, and the Catholic parent had been faithfully bringing the child up in the faith, basically fulfilling the Catholic’s spouse’s duty to baptize all the children that the marriage is blessed with.  The technical term for such a marriage is a mixed marriage.

As a priest, I was very pleased to know that the child in this marriage was brought up in the faith, received first Holy Communion and Confirmation. In my conversation with the non-Catholic parent, somehow the topic of baptism and original sin came up, I was told that this parent made it clear that there was no such thing as original sin, and that every person is born with no sin at all.  I held my tongue which was itching to say something, and with great effort, stepped into the shoes of my interlocutor.  In so doing, I was trying to see this view from the vista of a person who had no notion of God, and whose idea of God (and religion) was most likely one that was greatly influenced by secularism, subjectivism, the dominance of individualism, rationalism and even the social media. All these are great promoters of the idea that there is no such thing as an objective sin, and advocates of this philosophy of the central “I” have a great resistance to the fact that anyone needs to be saved, especially from sin that one hasn’t personally committed, which is what Original Sin is.

I will have to accept the fact that my task as a priest and an educator of the faith will always see me being ready to give a response to such ideas and objections with clarity and charity.  It’s not the clarity-part that is challenging.  I have come to realise that it is often the charity-part that needs the greatest effort.  It is the need to step into the shoes of the other, even walking around for a while in them, and to understand (often with compassion) the views and opinions of the other before saying a word.  And the only thing that makes this possible to do is humility.  I have also come to realise that once humility is lacking, hard truths of the Church will be very much resisted, and if accepted, will only be accepted with great reluctance and hearts that are hard.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Easter joy, and what Easter helps us to do.

One of the greatest joys of Easter is that it gives us the ability to be joyful despite the fact that our lives may be immersed in darkness and in states of non-resolution.  The fact that our faith is predicated on the resurrection of Jesus gives us ample reason to continue in our pursuit of love and righteousness and truth, even if these don’t appear to be given any form of vindication whatsoever in our lives.  

Why I say this is because on Calvary, as Jesus was left hanging on the ignominious cross, everything that Jesus stood for, and lived for, appeared to have been in vain.  Abandoned by his disciples save one, he experienced deep betrayal and rejection, and heard the clamour of the crowds wanting to spare the life of a brigand instead of his.  He was accused of blasphemy when he was merely speaking the truth, and he had no intention of seeking revenge on his abusers, and sought instead to forgive them.  On the surface of things, it did seem that all that he believed in, lived for and stood for, made not a scintilla of difference.

But his greatest vindication was yet to come.

His resurrection from the dead, leaving the tomb empty with just the grave cloths as its contents made all that he stood for truly worth it, even though at the time, it really did not make any sense.

We need to take this truth for our faith and apply it each time when in our lives we want to pursue anything with faith, love, honesty, integrity, righteousness and with truth, especially when our efforts at staying the course makes little or no difference.  

Examples of these abound. Think of the times when a spouse makes the decision to stay in a loveless marriage, and chooses to forgive a philandering spouse over and over again; or when one does not stop being kind and charitable to one’s office colleagues despite being betrayed by the blanket term ‘office politics’; or when one strives to be positive and of good cheer despite being told one is in stage-four cancer and that the tumor markers are off the charts; or simply when one faces opposition and an icy situation at work or even in the parish setting where even the slightest gesture of cordialness is met with the coldness of a granite obelisk.  To keep positive and to not give up and throw in the proverbial towel at such times can be so tempting.  

This is when Easter’s resurrection and the empty tomb holds the greatest promise for us.  We need to remember that all the fruits of what Jesus stood for in terms of love and truth and fidelity to the Father’s will were not tasted on Calvary.  The sweetness of their fruit only came at the resurrection.

A culture of instant gratification militates against this, and does it so strongly.  Our vindication will, for most of us, come only after we die. We need to know that our efforts while we are still alive, to pursue all that we do with the virtues of Christ, will, because of evil, be either stymied or blocked in our lifetime.  

But living in faithfulness and hope will only make any sense if we imbue the attitude of delayed gratification and apply the virtue of patience.  The promise of the resurrection is certainly not one of instant results, and that also isn’t the message of the gospel.  The Italians have a phrase that sums it up – gia ma non ancora.  It means “already, but not yet”.

Indeed, Easter’s great joy, celebrated so intensely each year, is a reminder to all of us to never give up hope despite all that may be against us.  Alleluia needs to be our war cry when we battle the forces of evil in life.

A blessed Easter to all.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Being wary of crowds is a good way to know if we are carrying solitude at a high level.

It is finally here – Holy Week. There is a certain darkness and heaviness that always comes upon me each time Passion Sunday arrives, marking the start of Holy Week.  Just on the physical level, I can see the complex and intricate liturgical celebrations of the Holy Triduum looming on the horizon, comprising the Mass of Maundy Thursday, the services of Good Friday, culminating with the mother of all liturgies, the Vigil Mass of Holy Saturday night, finally ushering in the high joys of Easter Sunday.  Back when I was a more youthful (read: physically fitter and more energetic, pre-cancer) priest, I was very happy to exhaust myself, plunging myself with a “bring it on” mentality about it all.  But things have tamed me a bit now, in my post-cancer and hip-weakened condition, and I am very grateful simply to have made it to Easter Sunday evening intact and not having fallen apart on some level.  That’s on the physicality of things.

But there is the much more important level which I am always grateful to experience and be mindful about – that as Catholics, we are so privileged to journey with Christ in that time of his earthly life where he was most weak, most human, most compliant to the Father’s will, most docile, and of course, most humble.  Starting from his entry into Jerusalem, his beloved city, riding on the back of an ass or a colt, not on anything resembling the strength and regality of a steed, or the majesty of being atop an elephant (yes, I know there are no elephants in Palestine, but I’m making a point here) almost everything that Jesus does this week takes on various shades and degrees of humility. Notice that the deeper Jesus goes towards his passion, the more he finds himself less and less with company and friends. From the crowds that surround him waving those palm branches welcoming him to Jerusalem akin to getting a celebrity’s reception by idolizing fans on Palm Sunday, we see him on Holy Thursday night only with his disciples, at the Garden of Gethsamane abandoned by his languorous and lethargic friends after the Passover meal, then getting arrested, and from that point on, the people he encounters are either only interested in getting rid of him or are crucified next to him.  Jesus is very much alone.  As we walk with Jesus on his last leg of his human journey on earth, of the many things that we ought to do, certainly one of the most important things that we need to try to do is to enter into solitude.  It features so heavily here.  And connected to this, we also need to somehow embrace solitude when it features in our own lives, and to learn to carry it at a high level, if it is to be something that makes us people of depth.

The fact is that many of us do not do well with solitude.  It doesn’t take much to see  our young (and even not-so-young) people easily finding themselves almost panicking, depressed and even a tad neurotic if they are not out with their friends doing something each Saturday night.  It’s as if when one is alone on a Saturday night, it shows that somehow, one is a loser and is left out of friendship circles.  It could well be connected with the fact that there has been hardwired into our humanity the impression that we do much better when we have company, and this is true at a certain level.

We see this played out in the creation story in Genesis where God makes a companion for Adam, and where it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18).  But as much as companionship and friendship are good and are blessings for us, with the fall of humanity, sin has very often worked itself into the society that we are such an integral part of, and have become a means where we get tempted to live at a lesser level of holiness.  

Almost always, where crowds are featured in the scripture, they are pejoratively portrayed.  Just the word “crowd” itself doesn’t give us a good mental image.  Many adjectives for it help to foster this idea – think “frenzied”, “mindless”, “jostling” and “unruly”.  In the gospels, we see how Zacchaeus was prevented from seeing Jesus “because of the crowd”, and how the crowd brought the adulterous woman before Jesus.  On Good Friday, we see how that crowd which hailed the Hosannas on Palm Sunday turned into a crowd that shouted a full-throated “crucify him” five days later.  

It’s not so much that crowds are evil in themselves.  Sometimes they are not.  Crowds, after all, are made up of individuals who happen to be in one place at the same time. That’s a physical crowd which is inevitable, especially if one happens to live in a busy and heavily populated metropolis like Singapore, a place where I call home.  Making the news this week will be the official opening of Jewel, an addition to the world-famous and multi-accoladed Changi Airport.  You can bet your bottom dollar that the place will be teeming with crowds and packed to the brim in its first two to three months of operation.  I’m not referring to crowds of this nature.

What is far more insidious is what I’d call crowd-think.  That’s when one’s conscience and moral compass gets swayed and influenced by what the majority think and feel and believe in.  And when the majority are not guided by a strong sense of God, moral-rectitude, justice and love in its purest sense, it will be guided only by what is most convenient, what requires least resistance, what is most pleasurable, and what is easily obtainable with little or no effort at all.  This kind of crowd-think hardly helps one to attain a desire for heroic virtue at any level.

Solitude (not loneliness, which is certainly not good) is what helps us enter into this space in life.  It doesn’t require being alone in wide-open spaces, which is a luxury in a very populated country like Singapore.  Solitude requires going into oneself and getting in touch of that part where God makes his home in us.  Holy Thursday night gives us a great opportunity to do this when we, with great effort and love, spend one precious hour with Jesus at the Altar of Repose set up in Catholic churches the world over.  I discourage very much the oft-believed practice of going church-visiting this night, because what Jesus asks of us is not to be church-tourists (where we hardly spend ten minutes at each of these 'stops'), but to spend a full hour with Jesus, sharing in his solitude.  Church-visiting makes us busy, whilst a full silent hour before the Blessed Sacrament makes us loving in a deep way, reminding us to stay the course in things that are challenging and perhaps even uncomfortable.

When the crowds went for his life, Jesus went into that part of his heart where he was so connected with the Father.  We too, need to learn to do this, and it begins when we learn this by being comfortable with aloneness.  And being able to do this well prepares us for those times in our lives when we find ourselves at home alone on a Saturday night.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Don't just ensure that the casket is straight. Ensure that our lives are too.

I have presided over many a funeral Mass which always ends either with the casket being lowered into the burial spot in the ground, or the ashes of the deceased interred into the niche of the columbarium.  Before the dirt is heaped onto the casket or the niche is sealed with the marble slab showing the photograph of the deceased, the family of the deceased is always asked a question by the funeral director or undertaker – “is it straight?” 

The well-meaning funeral director obviously wants to give as much comfort to the grieving family as possible, and one indication of this is that the final resting place of their loved one is given attention to detail, and on the physical level, this would mean that the casket or the urn is in as upright and straight a position as possible.  It never fails that a family member will always ask that the casket be moved ever-so-slightly either to the left or the right, or that the urn pushed a bit further in, or adjusted in some tiny way. I suppose it’s their way of saying their last goodbye, or their doing one last act of love for them.  

I can understand that there is a ton of sentiments going on at that time in life.  It is, as they say, one of those ‘liminal’ moments of life, where we face a transition going on, and something that is beyond our control.  When Jesus died, John’s gospel describes in quite vivid detail how Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus went to Pilate to request to let them have the body of Jesus, and how Nicodemus brought a huge amount of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds to embalm Jesus’ body.  It was their way of showing their love and respect for Jesus after he had died.  It was all they could do in their capacity given the situation that they faced at the time, much like the little gestures that family members do after their loved ones have departed.  It also gives them something to be busy about.

But as people who have heaven as our final and eternal destination, we have to believe that how we live our lives and how we align our lives with the north star of Jesus Christ is really the only and most important alignment that we should ever have.  Our calling is to make Jesus our standard and aim; our paragon of virtue and holiness.  All else is, as they say, simply commentary.  When this is clear, and when we have lived lives that mirror Christ's in terms of virtue and righteousness, we would have given our loved ones the greatest peace and assurance after we die. It wouldn’t really matter then how out of alignment our casket is in the burial plot, or how unsymmetrical the urn of our ashes are in its columbarium niche, because what was most important that while we were alive, our lives were straight, and that we were correctly aligned to God.  

If our lives were not lived with great attention to detail, it can almost be a mockery if our casket is so straight in the burial spot, while in stark contrast, our lives were way off target as far as righteousness was concerned.  

Having said this, is it easy to live a virtuous life?  By no means is it easy.  If it were, we would have many more canonized saints now.  But try and strive we must, even if it does appear to be an arduous task. We lose sight of this so easily in life, partly because we get easily distracted by the lights and sounds and smells of this world.  We settle so easily for what thrills and delights for the moment, but are things that really have no lasting effect, a bit like how fireworks dazzle, overawe and spellbind, but for all of three to five seconds of time.  Sin is always so attractive, but its aftertaste is always bitter and acrid.

My priestly ministry has to include efforts to impress this importance to the flock entrusted to me, and though it may not be fashionable or popular, I have to constantly remind my flock of the reality of heaven and that God never makes empty promises.  

Monday, April 1, 2019

Don't think that God only wants to see a report card that only has As.

There are plenty of reasons why Catholics have stopped going to Church.  One of the very common reasons is because they may have some moral issue that they just cannot resolve or get around in life.  These folk sometimes feel that they just cannot bring themselves to journey in life with the community that God has given them, and prefer to ‘work things out’ outside of church, and outside of the praying community consisting of their brothers and sisters.  As well, there are many who believe that they can only come into the church and the community after the messiness of their lives is somehow sorted out, and often by their own effort.  What undergirds this mental construct is that they have to earn their place in God’s eyes, and that life is about presenting God with a life-report card that is full of As.  Fortunately, this is a very erroneous view of God and his offer of salvation.

The only way a Spiritual Director can help a directee to grow and mature is if he or she is willing to present to the director a complete picture of his or her life, including the parts that reveal the often hidden and secret moral failures.  A Spiritual Director cannot do much to help a directee who chooses to only present their best side of their lives in direction.  After all, if a directee is only going to show the side of his life that has straight A scores, there isn’t much that needs directing. Among other things, it could show that the directee’s idea of God is that God only wants to see the good parts of our lives.  Is this a problem?  How should we see our spiritual lives?

First of all, we need to understand that God doesn’t love us less should we sin or have some moral transgression in life.  And because God’s love doesn’t waver, nor does it wax and wane, there is nothing that can make God love us more, and there is nothing that can make God love us less.  This is perhaps where God’s unconditional love is so different from the love that we extend to one another, and also different from the love that we receive from one another.  We waver so much in our outreach of love toward others, basically because we have days when we don’t love ourselves as well.  In order to appreciate how divine love is so different, we need to try to get out of ourselves, and check our egos at the door when we enter into prayer. Although this is never a teaching of the church as far as the use of the Holy Water at the stoups of the church is concerned, right there – at the doors of the church before we enter into the sacred prayer space – is where our egos need to be left, and that is because our worship and adoration of God in the Mass is never about us.

Secondly, because we are aware that God’s love that is extended to us is unconditional, we are then really able to lift up our ‘minds and hearts’ to God without worrying if what is on our minds and hearts fall short of the perfect A.  In other words, we need to learn to stop editing out or censoring out what we think God should know or see in our lives.  Besides, his omniscience knows us through and through.  That’s what omniscience means – that God has a knowing that covers all.  Our church isn’t one that is perfect by any means, and if it can attain perfection, it is only possible with God’s grace, and not by our efforts alone.  

Coming before God cannot be something that is compared to coming before some important dignitary where we show him what we think he wants to see, and hide from him the things that we believe will somehow make him love us less.  

Adam and Eve hid from God when they sinned, causing God to ask them “why are you hiding from me?”  When we present ourselves to God, bring to him all that we are, so that we won’t hear God asking us that same question.  And know that the God who can heal and repair all wounds, and knows all and sees all, isn’t only interested in a report card full of As.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Of confessions, truth, compassion and exorcism. What's the link? Read on.

It’s that time of the year when the line of penitents at the confessional become significantly longer. After all, Lent is the season where Catholics are encouraged to face their own shortcomings in a more serious way, and when they ought to be doing their ‘Easter duty’ of making a good confession at least once a year, and preferably before the celebration of Easter.  

When I approach a sin being confessed, I often follow up with a few related or secondary questions like ‘why did you find yourself doing it?’ and, perhaps when it is a sin of lying that is confessed, I'd then ask ‘to whom was it that you lied?’. As a confessor priest, I am always trying to give my penitents some insight into their lives and the way that they have somehow programmed themselves in life, and hopefully, be able to give them the sufficient tools to face these same situations in a better, more enlightened and mature way that next time the temptation to sin comes around again.

When it is the sin of lying being confessed, you may well ask "What does being able to identify the reason of our lying help us to do?"  To illustrate this, a story may help.  Imagine a penitent coming to me and confessing that he has lied, perhaps even repeatedly, to his parents, and leaves it there without elaborating it further. Of course, the sin of lying is grave, but when asked why he had lied to his parents, he reveals that he doesn’t want his parents to know the real reason for his staying out into the wee hours of the morning on Saturday nights, so he cooks up a story of being with some friends who are considered ‘safe’ company by his parents.  The truth is, however, that he had been mixing around with friends whom his parents considered dangerous company, and had instructed him clearly about not hanging out with, and because they have been known for bad behaviour due to overindulgence of alcohol.  

If the penitent just leaves the confession at the sin of lying or dishonesty, he would most likely not arrive at the real root of the issue at hand, which is his disobedience of his parents, and that he is mixing with questionable company.  Repeated confession merely of the sin of lying will not get him to face the fact that the choice of his preferred company on Saturday nights is what needs to be changed.  There are of course, variants of this issue, where young children confess to lying to their parents about not having homework when asked, when in fact they do have undone homework, and the reason they lied was so that they could have more game time on their computers or electronic devices.  The issue is far more than just lying – it is their choice of pleasure over being conscientious students and responsible students.

Reading this, you may wonder why as a confessor-priest I seem to be so inquisitive and doing what may even be termed ‘digging’.  Certainly, I can just leave it at the sin of lying and carry on with giving a penance and asking the penitent to pray the Act of Contrition, and as it were, move on to the next penitent and clear the line that is long and waiting outside the confessional.  It really boils down to one thing – compassion and concern for the soul of the penitent.

I just came out from a 5-day course on Exorcism and Deliverance, conducted by a team of Exorcists and their lay assistants from another Diocese.  We learnt many things about this misunderstood and under-appreciated ministry that has roots in our Catholic Tradition which have been somehow either glossed over post-Vatican, or suffered from too heavy an emphasis on the post-modernist culture.  It is clear that the Church has really resulted in losing something that has given it a good reason to be holy and to always aim for the heights of heaven as our goal in life.  Could it be that the Church is currently suffering the crisis of moral failure even at the upper echelons is due to the fact that it has put aside or let dust settle on some very important traditions that had been assiduously adhered to in the past?  I came across a very insightful quote from Gustav Mahler recently regarding tradition, where he said that tradition isn't the worshipping of ashes, but the preservation of the fire.  

One of the things that came out loud and clear in the course is the need for compassion for the demoniacs in every exorcism that is carried out.  As much as there is a need to be very firm (and perhaps even unflinchingly fierce) in his approach to the demon he is battling, there has to be a very sincere care and tenderness at the same time for the person who is possessed by the demon in question, who needs to be seen as a victim.  

In truth, it is the love of the oppressed son or daughter of God whom God loves so unconditionally that brings the exorcist priest to want to bring him or her out of his diabolical shackles that he or she is in.  Video footages of real life exorcisms that are authentic do not see the priest standing several feet or some safe distance away from the demoniac, but sitting or standing very close to the afflicted sister or brother, placing the exorcism stole that he wears around the shoulders of the demoniac, and having his hand placed over the person’s head.  All these are clear demonstrations of a love of the person, while rebuking the evil spirits that infest the person at his or her soul.  

We were clearly taught that if an exorcist doesn’t have compassion for the afflicted, and sees him or her as a beloved child of God that he truly is, the ministry of exorcism will lack something so necessary – love and charity – not for the demons, but for the person harassed and trapped within.  His ministry will only be something that is purely mechanical, and hence, he may not be a very effective exorcist.

All the while as I was learning from the course, it became clear to me that something similar needs to be on my consciousness when I minister as a confessor-priest.  While I would love to be able to say that I am always aware of the need to be compassionate in the confessional, I cannot.  There are times when we get physically tired, and are not giving our all on the other side of the screen.  I am reminded that we cannot just be perfunctory because we are dealing with peoples' souls.

If a confessor priest is merely mechanical and perfunctory, the lines outside of the confessional may be efficiently cleared,  but if compassion is lacking, we priests may not be able to convey the love and mercy of God in a way that is perceived at the heart.

Monday, March 18, 2019

How we understand the term ‘glorifying the Lord by your life’ is revealed in the way our lives are lived.

“Glorify the Lord by your lives”. As Catholics, we hear it ever so often in our liturgical prayers, at the Collect at Holy Mass, in the hymns that we sing, and whenever we pray the “Glory Be” prayer, which is something that we as Catholics have learnt to pray from a very young age.  It has been almost drilled into us as Catholics that we should be glorifying the Lord, but as in so many things in life, even something that is correct, proper, and just, can end up merely being something that is passively uttered, leaving its truth at the doors of our lips without it making that necessary entry into the portals of our hearts, and transforming our lives from within.  So what does it really mean to glorify anything?  And far more importantly, what does it mean to glorify God?  What does a glorified life look like?

‘Glory’ is translated from the Greek doxa and the Hebrew kabod.  While the Hebrew has connotations of heaviness or weightiness, it also has ‘deference’ and ‘honour’ behind it as well.  The Greek doxa is a term that denotes the commanding of respect and magnificence.  In the New Testament, particularly in the transfiguration accounts of Jesus, this term becomes something that James, John and Peter get a direct and first-hand encounter of when they personally witness Jesus being glorified.  They are essentially bedazzled when the face and clothing of Jesus on that mountain become radiant and spectacular.  But this glory isn’t so much just something that happens to Jesus as something that emits from Jesus.  Perhaps the fact that Peter utters something as random as wanting to set up three tents in that moment reveals that he was too gob-smacked by the glory of what was manifested before him.  

That God deserves glory and that he is the source and origin of glory because of his divine being is something that goes without saying.  After all, the Creed that we recite each Sunday has us saying that God is ‘light from light’.  There is a lot packed into that phrase consisting of three simple words.  Can we add anything to God’s glory?  Can one add beauty to the essence of beauty itself? To do so would be even more audacious than gilding the proverbial lily.

So how do we understand that our lives ought to be lived such that God is glorified?  This is something that is truly right and just only if we get one thing right – our baptism in Jesus.  At the core of our baptism is that we are now adopted children of God, living not for ourselves alone, but ultimately as members of a people that have a divine inheritance and dignity.  It is for this reason that we apply a high standard of living and loving than just what our own hearts desire.  Indeed, our lives are therefore not about us.  If it is not about us, then what is it about?  It is essentially about God, and giving God the glory that he deserves.

In order to do this and to understand this well, an analogy is not just helpful but necessary.  The analogy I choose to use is that of a magnifying glass or a lens.

A magnifying glass is essentially a lens, and what it does is that it enlarges or magnifies the image whose light passes through the lens, and when this light lands on our eyes, or on a surface, like a screen, it enables us to see the image with greater clarity and greater light.  This is how we ought to see our lives viz-a-viz God and God’s glory, where God is the light of truth, beauty and goodness, and our lives are merely the lens through which this light of God becomes clear to the eyes of our brothers and sisters.  Without a doubt, it has been the result of centuries of theological reflection and discourse that has given us such insights, enriching the way that we live our Christian lives.

But what is much more remarkable is that long before such theological studies and reflection took place, this truth was already prophesied, lived out and proclaimed by none other than Mary, our Blessed Mother.  It is in her Magnificat uttered in her visit to her cousin Elizabeth that saw her intuiting this truth with such conviction where she said that her whole life was to be a magnification of God, where her soul would magnify the Lord.

Mary understood with such clarity that not only was this her mission in life, but the raison d’etre of her existence.  She was only interested in being the spotless magnifying lens that brought light and clarity to the world that looked upon her as mother and the model Christian disciple. Mary’s life was lived so selflessly and with such humility such that she was willing to be transparent and unnoticed, much like the way a magnifying glass or a lens is not noticed in itself, and needs to be transparent. Just look at the way we enter a cinema hall and watch a movie on the screen before us.  It really is the lens of the projector that makes the experience possible, but all the while, hardly anyone is grateful to the lens and what it is doing.  

If we are finding it hard to know what glorifying the Lord by our lives means, it could also reveal another truth – that we are placing far too much importance on ourselves and what we want in life as Christians, than on making God our reason for our lives.  And if we need a model to do this well, Mary is the model par excellence.

Monday, March 11, 2019

If there is something not right about the phrase “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”, there is also something just as wrong about the phrase “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious”.

There is a lot of talk about the increase in numbers among us of the ‘nones’ these days, especially in blog and vlog posts by Catholic commentators in the Western countries.  The ‘nones’ are the group of people who, when it comes to filling out personal particular forms asking for their religion or faith, check the boxes ‘none’. They make up a very large number in the West, and I believe that this is not just something that is restricted to the West alone.  What is more disturbing is that it has been noticed that the people that make up these ‘nones’ include people who have been baptized at birth, or perhaps even later on in life, and have at some point in time jettisoned or abandoned their faith.  We who are in Asia must not think that this is something that is not happening on our own shores. 

One of the very common things that ‘nones’ and those who do not profess to practice any formal religions say is that they are “spiritual, but not religious”.  On the surface, this oft-touted phrase can appear to be rather ‘cool’ and maybe even sophisticated, giving the impression that being religious isn’t as chic, enlightened or savvy as those of us who give ourselves over to formal religion and practice it with great dedication and regularity.  What is it that makes being ‘spiritual’ something that is appealing to anyone?  Conversely then, is being ‘religious’ something that is deemed shallow, na├»ve, and maybe even callow?  As Aristotle so correctly described the human person as a rational animal, I am wont to believe that no one really does anything without good reasons behind their decision, so the ‘nones’ too must have very good reason to say that they are spiritual, but not religious.  

One thing that sets religious people clearly apart from the non-religious, (and I am referring to those who assiduously practice their religion with great dedication and regularity, applying it to every sphere of their lives as possible) is that there is very often a discipline that is involved.  Whether one calls it discipline, effort, regularity, or commitment, it is clear that those who are religious are not those who blow hot one day, and cold on another.  It calls to mind what many consider the motto of the US Postal system which goes something like “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”.  Encapsulated in that statement is a deep and serious commitment and dedication to the task at hand.  Where serious application of one’s religion to one’s life is concerned, this motto seems just as applicable.

Does the human person naturally apply oneself to a committed cause with such dedication?  In my encounter with many different people in my years both working in the secular world, and the many more years being a pastor of souls as a priest, I must say that this is a rare grace.  Many, if not most people, do not do very well when it comes to commitment and living lives with great dedication.  There is instead, a preference for simply ‘going with the flow’, or waxing and waning according to one’s moods and feelings.  The human heart is somehow hardwired to take the path of least resistance, and this preferential option mitigates against choosing something that requires moe effort than less.  I’m not sure if this could be the cause of the existence of the ‘hook up’ culture, where men and women prefer to live together without any commitment to marriage, because it is far more convenient for the self to be preserved, and furthermore, there is always the possibility of calling it quits when selfless loving becomes too challenging.  Merely being ‘spiritual’ doesn’t have any dimension of commitment and staying the course.

I am also wont to believe that this underlying current is what makes being spiritual far more attractive and convenient than being religious with any degree of seriousness.  This is because when one is merely spiritual, one doesn’t need to adjust one’s life, where there is a need to align one’s life with an aim that is greater than oneself and one’s principles.  A life that is just ‘spiritual’ has no codified commandments to live by, no specific rules to follow, and doesn’t have any particular need to give oneself over to discipline.  Being merely spiritual is really pretty much an ‘anything goes’ way of living one’s life with little need to face the challenges of a conversion that mellows one’s heart.

Of course, there are the other arguments that many will bring up to say that religion has been the primal cause of so many wars and violence in the world, but can one seriously attribute that to the existence of religion per se?  When one’s view of and approach to religion is fundamentalistic with leanings to violence and hatred, it is always a distortion of true religion.  While I would concede that it may appear to be the case where religions seems to have been the root of violence and wars, it is always far more accurate to attribute it to the false and erroneous way that religion had been understood and practiced that has caused it to become the scapegoat of world violence.  

Having said this, there is also a flip side of the “I am spiritual, but not religious” dictum that has a dark side to it as well.  This is when anyone simply says that they are religious, but are not spiritual.  This would describe someone who is a devotee to the practices of their religion, but hardly imbibing and living out what one’s religion teaches at its core.  This is when one brings one’s shell to Church on Sundays, but has little or no heart in lifting one’s mind and heart to loving God and neighbor, and when one ‘says’ prayers rather than entering intoprayer.  In this way, one can be assiduous in following ritual as an external form, but could really be a pagan in the depths of one’s being.  One could really then call oneself a Christian, but only because one physically goes to Church, or has one’s name appearing on a baptism certificate.

In truth, being spiritual alone is not enough, in the same way that being religious alone is not enough.  The truly holistic person is one who tries his best to do both to the best of his ability.  The fact that Jesus in the gospels is often seen berating the Pharisees for merely following rules as an external exhibition of religiosity reminds us that our practice of our faith needs to go deep.  As we Catholics enter into the season of Lent, let us make greater efforts in making sure that our Lenten practices help us to grow spiritually as well.