Monday, January 28, 2019

"If it doesn't spark joy, remove it from your life." Is it good to apply this to all aspects of our lives?

There is a current wave of interest and popularity, thanks in part to both Netflix and social media, in the philosophy of Marie Kondo, an “organizing consultant and author.  This demure 34-year-old Japanese lady has her own Netflix TV series where she physically goes into the homes and lives of real people and teaches them how to get their homes organized and tidy. 

I am sure that the producers of this show went to great lengths to feature the families whose homes were particularly cluttered and messy, so that the end result would be as dramatic as possible.  Speaking no English or very little, she enters the cluttered and often chaotic homes of her clients, and carries out her “Kondo method” or “KonMari” as she calls it, where she gets the occupants of the disorganized home to settle into their own space, inviting them to still themselves first.  She then gets the occupants to empty their wardrobes of all their contents, and place them in a pile in the middle of the room. Facing this pile (sometimes it can even seem as if the occupants had created a sizeable mountain), she gets the occupants of the home to take each item of clothing and here is where it gets a bit strange – she tells them to hold each item in a very careful (almost like carrying an infant), and hold it to their heart, and the most important part comes next – to detect if the item sparks joy in the owner of the item.  If it doesn’t, the owner is then to say “thank you” to the item before putting it into a pile that is destined for either the trash bin or to be given away.  One only keeps those things or items that “spark joy” when held close to the heart. Then, from the bedroom, she does the same to the other parts of the house as well.

The rest of the KonMari method is a practical exercise of systematic folding and sorting and storing, which I must say is very useful for anyone who has little or no idea of how one should be storing things in a way that economizes space in the home.  I have tried out her folding method myself (for my t-shirts), and I must say that I am rather pleased with the way my clothes drawers are now looking.  At the end of each episode of her “reality TV show”, there is always a contrast of how the home looks in their new organized state, contrasted against their “before state”, and of course, it is an expected happy ending.

Why in the world am I writing a blog post about de-cluttering and re-organizing when the nature of this blog of mine is to help people to grow closer to God and to mature spiritually, you may ask.  It’s a valid question.  It has to do with the importance of activating our filters in life, especially when a philosophy in life is being sold and taught.  Taking anything in life lock, stock and very cluttered barrel, can sometimes lead us away from spiritual maturity, our goal in life.

I am not at all averse to being organized and tidy, and those who know me would probably not hesitate to label me as a ‘neat-freak’ myself.  But I do have great concerns when this philosophy of “sparking joy” is applied blindly to everything that we face in life.  How so?

In his teachings and life instruction, Jesus has in various ways told his disciples and the crowd that there is a necessity in life to take up our cross and to follow him. This imperative is something that many people either don’t take seriously, or would prefer not to do unless it is thrust upon them.  Yet, Jesus doesn’t give us much of a choice, does he?  He didn’t say that we can be choosy or picky about the cross in life for his followers.  If you want to be my disciple, he says, taking up of the cross is a sine qua non. What does this cross look like? It comes in many forms, but if the cross that Jesus carried to Calvary was something that was ignominious, difficult, challenging and something that required great effort, then these same qualities would be what defines many of our crosses in life.  One thing that carrying our crosses do not immediately do is to “spark joy” in our hearts – at least not in the worldly sense.  Only when we are casting our eyes toward heaven and toward our sainthood, will we see the joy that lies behind carrying our crosses. This is the ability to trust that (given by God’s grace, of course) these challenges are really our means to join with Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, and to thereby contribute to the salvation of the world.  

If we take the KonMari method and apply it to everything in life, and more dangerously, to all our challenges and hardships that we have in life, we can easily end up not carrying our crosses, but dumping them away, like the way Marie tells her ‘clients’ to dump or give away those items in their homes that do not spark joy.  But if what Marie is teaching through her method is to inculcate a spirit of detachment in life, especially to material things, I have no qualms about that at all.

Let us never forget that in all likelihood, Jesus didn’t feel happy on the Cross on Mount Calvary, nailed to that crucifix.  He would be a masochist if he told the soldiers who scourged him to strike harder, enjoying each lash.  No, I truly believe Jesus wasn’t particularly happy or joyful on that Cross.  But without a doubt, he knew that what he was doing was something that was necessary, salvific, that was deep, meaningful and that contributed to life – your life and mine.  

There are many things that do not spark joy but that we do and continue to keep in our lives for the greater good.  I applaud Marie Kondo for teaching us that life needs to be simple and uncluttered, and I would teach anyone who is interested how to fold our clothes in a very space economical way.  Thank you Marie.  But do be mindful and try not to carry the “it needs to spark joy” to things that are not in our wardrobes.  You may be discarding the very thing that is our stepping stone to holiness and sanctity.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Why eulogies within the funeral Mass are out of place.

In 2014, the Archbishop of Ottawa, Canada, made a very bold but prophetic and liturgically correct move when he issued a formal decree which banned eulogies at Catholic funeral Masses.  This is deemed bold because issuing this as a decree showed that he was making it crystal clear that there is something intrinsically wrong about eulogies taking place within the celebration of the funeral Mass. "But what is wrong with eulogies?" I hear some of you asking.  First of all, let us ask ourselves what eulogies are, and what is their purpose.

A (an?) eulogy is a speech or a written article that praises the good works of legacy left behind by the deceased.  It is usually something that is delivered by a close friend or a member of the family of the deceased, and it brings to the fore the fond memory of the one who had passed away.  Certainly, when a person dies, it is a good time for the memory of the life of the deceased to be regaled and celebrated, especially when it is done in good taste.  But as in all things, there is a proper time and a proper place to do this.  Within the celebration of the Catholic Mass is not one.  Why is this so?  This then brings me to the second point.  The Mass cannot be about anything or anyone other than Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is principally because every Mass, be it a wedding Mass or a funeral Mass, is and should always be about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.  It is a celebration of the wonder and goodness of God who has caused the being of everything and everyone in and through Jesus Christ.  It is an occasion for the believers and followers of Jesus Christ to gather as one, where we love, worship and adore the Holy Trinity.  It is a place and a time for the faithful to come and to be fed and nourished by God, both in word and in Sacrament.  It is not, and it is never about us.  It is not the Bride's day nor the Groom's day at a wedding Mass, and neither is it about the deceased at a funeral Mass or service.  It is about God, plain and simple.

When we do not get this right, it is no wonder then that we begin to introduce other elements into the Mass, taking away, as it were, God's thunder.  The result can be seen in the way that many faithful cannot give a firm and clear response as to why Catholics come for Mass on Sundays, or even on weekdays.  Many can say that they come to ask God for his blessings, and many, especially the younger generation, may even respond that they don't really want to come, but that they are there simply because their parents have insisted on it each week.  But very few Catholics can readily say with strong conviction and without skipping a beat, that they come to Mass because they want to adore, worship and love God.  If this is not the prime reason we are at Mass, we are really missing both the forest and the trees.  Perhaps we have made it more about us that it is about God.

This becomes very clear and evident when at funeral Masses, a eulogy is delivered within the celebration of Holy Mass.  Sometimes (and this is not an exception) the length of the eulogy given is far longer than the homily preached by the celebrant.  I have been a priest for 18 years, celebrating and concelebrating at many funerals, and at quite a few of them, there have been not one, not two, but even a string of eulogies, delivered one after another, and each one waxing lyrical about the glories and praises not of God, but of the deceased, almost canonising the person in the casket.  As much as I want to be compassionate at a tender time like the death of a fellow pilgrim, I could not help but sense misplaced intentions on grand display.

I know that I may seem cold in wanting to belabour the point.  And I know that writing this piece today risks offending many of my parishioners, and even dear friends who have themselves given such eulogies at the funeral of their loved ones.  But I am quite sure that these were done in vincible ignorance, because if this reflection was written before those funerals, they would most likely not have been delivered.

I am not saying that we should not be grageteul for the many things that they deceased had done when alive.  They should just not be done within the celebration of the Mass because the Mass needs to be about Jesus Christ, and the way that he lived his life, and not the way the deceased lived his life.  Love and appreciation need to be expressed, and the death of our loved ones is a good time for this.  But there are certainly other more appropriate moments for this.  We could and should do this at the funeral wake.  This is a time where friends and relatives come together, to pay their respects, show their love and support for the deceased, and in that space, it really can be about the deceased, where words of loving remembrance can be delivered, and even a string of them, without taking away what ultimately belongs to God.  It can even be something that may take the whole night.

And if one is concerned that only a few people would hear these words, it could be arranged that before the Mass begins, when everybody is gathered and seated, these words can be said, and then following that, the Mass can begin where the emphasis is on worshipping God, listening to God's word and receiving God in Sacrament.  We can inform the people who come to the wake the time that this would take place in the Church, perhaps 30 minutes to an hour before the Mass starts, and this will prepare everyone adequately.  We then prevent giving a mixed message to our non-Catholic friends and relations who turn up for Mass and wonder whether the Mass is about the deceased or about the worship of God.

Like I mentioned, I am quite certain that this blog will unruffle the feathers of more than a few people, especially those who may have given eulogies at the funeral Masses of their loved ones.  This is certainly not a critique of them, but rather, my hope is to be able to raise the awareness of right worship, something which is perhaps understood in a very weak way by the faithful, or worse, by priests themselves.

I have noticed quite right as of late that there have been more and more spiritual writers and theologians who have made it clear that our lives are not about us.  When we remember this well, we will spare ourselves a lot of spiritual anguish that leads to almost every sin thinkable.  And if we are clear that our lives are not about us, w must be just as, if not even more clear, that our deaths are also not about us.  

In the gospels, Jesus makes it so clear that when others see and praise us for our acts of righteousness, we would have had our reward.  Remembering this will give us even more reason to not trumpet the good acts of our deceased loved ones before others, because our Father's reward has a preference for acts un-trumpeted.  Surely we wouldn't want their reward from God to be diminished or nullified because in and through our waxing lyrical of them, they already have had their reward.

I am quite certain that the Bishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa did not make himself liked nor popular when he made that official decree.  But being popular isn't why anyone becomes a bishop, nor should it be the reason he is made one.  A bishop is first and foremost ordained to lead his flock, and in issuing that decree in 2014, he was doing just that.  He was leading the way to proper worship and proper adoration of God.  It certainly takes moral and prophetic courage for a bishop to be this bold, and it must be because he truly loves God.

The onus is then on the faithful to realise what the bishop is trying to teach, and to refrain from accusing him of not being compassionate towards his flock.  He must have had true compassion for his flock for him to do what he did.  For the faithful to see this beyond just a bishop's wielding of his episcopal power is where the real challenge lies.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Is not having faith, or having weak faith a terrible sin?

Very often, I hear penitents coming to confess their struggle with faith, and many of them carry a very heavy and burdensome load, believing that this struggle somehow displeases God, and is therefore a sin.  Maybe you are one of these many people, and your repeated confession of this ‘sin’ sees you still mired and bothered by this, perhaps because your confessor priest did not have the opportunity to address this issue at length.  While I am not declaring that once you take the time to read this reflection of mine that you will immediately see a much stronger and vivid faith life, I am hoping that with the Holy Spirit working in and through my words, and your effort at reading this, you will be able to lessen the burden that maybe you too have been carrying for a prolonged period of time in your spiritual journey.

First of all, let us be very clear that faith, by the very fact that it is not something that is physically seen by the human eye, is always going to be something that is also both challenging and also something that is supernatural (beyond or above nature). This fact means that it is going to take more than just natural efforts to tend to it and to help it to grow. What I mean is that if it is just something worldly, tangible and even quantifiable, we can just apply our efforts at it and find success in it, like the way that many people apply themselves, their resources, their energies and their sheer willpower to reach their goals in life, be it an academic degree, the mastery of some skill or talent, and in the end, reach their goal.  

One of the main reasons faith isn’t something that works the same way, is because faith is very much related to and involving something else that also isn’t physically quantifiable and tangible, and that is love.  Our faith in God, if it is not connected closely and associated with the love of God and the love for God, will be even more nebulous and abstract. Love is only seen in its effects, in the way a child looks at the face of his parents, in the actions that a husband does to show affection and devotion to his wife, and in the way that a night nurse cares tenderly for his geriatric and frail patient in the wee hours of the morning, perhaps changing his adult diapers and giving his hands a comforting hand massage.  Otherwise, love is just a concept, and not relatable to life as we live it.  Faith is something that needs a similar expression.

When faith is connected with love, then we need to apply to faith the very same things that we apply to love. We must will it to happen, the way we will our love to happen.  When we will our love to happen, we make efforts to be demonstrative of our love, we inconvenience ourselves and we put the focus and attention on those we are loving. Our world, in some ways, begin to revolve and centre around the beloved.  It is no longer about ourselves, and spiritual writers sometimes call this disinterested love, which may sound rather strange to many.  But it merely means that one isn’t interested in what one receives, how one is feeling, and even the way the loving overtures are received by the one being loved.  What matters is the giving of the love and the loving actions.  Anything that comes back or anything that is returned, is then a bonus.  And if nothing comes back, it really changes nothing.

When we apply these principles to faith, something else, however happens.  That is because faith applied with effort and zeal will always benefit the one applying it, because one’s belief (in God) is strengthened the more one applies it.  There is no such thing as disinterested faith, even though there is disinterested love. A purposefully applied faith in loving God and faith in a loving God necessarily results in a stronger faith, not just in his existence, but in his providence.  

Many people who say they lack faith or have a weak faith relate to me that this is because they see their prayers unanswered.  Does God always answer our prayers?  He definitely does.  But does he always answer our prayers in the way that we formulate these answers in our heads?  Not necessarily, and perhaps not even most of the time.  When we have faith in God, we also express that we have faith that God has our greatest interest at heart, and he wants us to flourish as his children. This flourishing must not be imaged as only having a comfortable life, a healthy and illness-free life, and a successful life.  Our definition of a flourishing life is perhaps too conditioned and shaped by a world that only defines happiness in a very narrow bandwidth.  But when we have faith in a loving and providential God, we will be able to say with confidence that even though I am with afflictions in life, even though I am not successful, or have to suffer in various ways, that these do not necessarily mean that I am not loved by this loving God. 

Admittedly, this kind of faith isn’t nurtured overnight.  It is something that we have to tend to with great care, not unlike the way a gardener is careful to tend to the saplings that he plants in his nursery.  Our daily committed prayer life that sees us loving God as a non-negotiable part of our 24-hour day shows this commitment lived out. 

Is not having strong faith in God a sin?  It cannot be a sin per se, because it isn’t something that anyone sets out to do with a purpose and intention.  But seeing how weak our love for God is, and not doing anything about this would be something that is slothful and that would be jeopardizing our faith life.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Keeping the faith when things seem to be falling apart.

Before I get to the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this week’s blog entry, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many readers who took pains and made great effort to respond to my request which I made last week to give me suggestions as to how I should maintain this blog this year.  There were indeed many and varied comments and suggestions that came to my inbox, some sent personally to me, some via the comments page of the blog itself, and others as comments that followed the blog post that I put up on social media. These will definitely come in handy, giving me little reason to experience a dearth of material to ruminate. 

One of the very practical and pertinent questions that I was asked by one of my readers was how to keep the faith amidst the sea of scandal that Holy Mother Church has been mired in within the past year.  It is not that I have side-stepped the issue at all.  In fact, I did refer to it in passing in a blog post in September last year, but it was not a post that dealt directly with the sex abuse/pedophile scandal of the Church, coupled with the way the higher ups had handled the entire matter, which made headlines all over the world. CNN has called 2018 the Church’s year from hell, as it may well have been.  One could justify saying that 2018 was a annus horribilus for the Church.

In the face of this awful and evil scandal, it is a very necessary and pertinent question to ask how a Catholic who wants to be faithful and who strives for holiness in life continue to pursue a life of virtue when the upper echelons have failed, and failed so miserably? 

In truth, there are two main categories of people who are affected by this scandal.  The first would be the victims of abuse themselves.  One would have to have a heart of stone to not feel sympathy for their having been subjected to such injury and assault, and by people who were supposed to be held in high esteem and regard.  Unless one has direct access to them, it will be very challenging to minister to them on a personal basis.  There have been, understandably, many reports of these victims having left the faith with much disillusionment and anger, and they have every right to feel the way they do.  But as Church, we can and should be praying for their healing and their peace, despite not knowing them personally.  

The other category of people who are affected by the scandal can well be you, the reader of this reflection. This forms the much larger body of the faithful who are hurt, confused, angry and infuriated with the way the upper echelons have chosen to deal with the scandal the way they did.  And many of you may have wondered how and why we as Catholics should continue practicing the faith the way it has been taught and handed down by the Magisterium.

The first thing to remember is that our faith is in God more than it is in an institution called the Church. Yes, the Church is God’s chosen medium of how God’s grace is given to the faithful, ministered through human beings who act in persona Christi in the celebration of the Sacraments.  And because God uses human persons, there is always going to be a possibility of these human persons having a weak and frail response to minister in a way that isn’t as full and loving as it ought to be. As much as the Church is led by the Holy Spirit, it is also led by men and women who are in need of grace, mercy and salvation.  That God has chosen to meet us through the medium of his Church is mystery, akin to God giving us salvation through his incarnation in Jesus Christ.  

It is not an excuse that I am giving in this blog for the heinous and egregious sins of the hierarchy. Rather, it is a highlighting of the fact that human beings are always open to weaknesses, and as much as there are fallen leaders in the Church, there are also ministers who are faithful and who strive to live to the high standards they are called to.  Would that all who are called to ministry be always living to those standards in a responsive, selfless and loving way.  In a recent priestly ordination, the presiding bishop remarked that there are so many different kinds of priests out there, and that the priest-to-be who was standing in front of him needs to be alert to learn from and to model himself after the right ones.  It really is reducible to the freedom of each person, and how one chooses to exercise this freedom in love.

It isn’t just the priests or the hierarchy that is called to exercise a freedom wisely.  This call is to all the faithful as well.  In the case of a Church hierarchy that has transgressed in ways abominable, the laity is also called to exercise this freedom to not be scandalized by the human leaders who have failed them, but rather, to still be faithful to God who hasn’t failed them, and who will not fail them.  

It takes a great activation of one’s faith to, in this case, separate the broken Church from a God who has broken himself out of love, and to put one’s faith in the fact that the Holy Spirit is still leading the Church despite its flaws and shortcomings.  By no means am I advocating that anyone should just up and leave the Church.  

When the Church encountered persecutions in her 2000 years of history, good has resulted, albeit through a process. Through persecutions, the faith of the people have often been purified, forged and become stronger, though it has always taken a process involving a long period of time.  Yes, the Church has made terrible mistakes and has shown the awful truth that power can really corrupt in our generation.  It has, in a sense, persecuted itself in this case.  Admittedly, these self-inflicted wounds have been deep and injurious.  

“Can any good come out of this?” one may ask.  Strange as it may seem, I sincerely believe it can, simply because as much as the Church is made up of fallible men and women, it is also God’s chosen instrument to lead, form and guide the faithful, and there will always be men and women who are truly seeking holiness and sanctification in and through their very own lives.  These are the front line soldiers who fight on in the Church Militant despite the generals not being in top physical or spiritual form.  The presence of these true ambassadors of Christ, remaining faithful and true to their vocations are good reason enough to believe that God is still empowering the Church with his Holy Spirit.  Besides, don't we at every Mass, after praying the Lord's Prayer, hear the words of the celebrant saying "look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church"?  These words are so important to reflect on especially in these rocky times for all of us.

These blog reflections of mine really have one purpose – to guide and strengthen the faith of those who take the trouble to spend time to read and be formed by them.  This topic is one that is very sensitive and could even be divisive.  

Just as it is always easier to pray in a Church that is clean, bright, well designed and aesthetically pleasing, so too is it easier to be part of a Church that is morally upright, leading by positive examples and righteous in all aspects.  But faith isn’t meant to be easy, and an easy faith may not develop our virtue.  The activation of faith does ask that we love what is not easy, and in a situation that is not comfortable.  Just as it is easy for a married couple to love one another in good times, it is far more important to stay loving in bad times.  This shows a willingness to love for the sake of the other.  

As members of the faithful, I strongly believe that your staying in the faith despite the transgressions of weak leaders is what will purify the Church.  It is also my personal reason to still set my bar high for holiness and sanctification, and I pray it will be yours as well.