Monday, February 25, 2019

Can my pain, suffering, anxiety and affliction be beneficial to my spiritual life? You better believe it!

One of the thorniest issues in the spectrum of theodicy deal with the fact that if God is good, how then can there be evil in existence?  The offshoots of evil are many, and among them are pains, suffering, anxieties and various forms of afflictions.  I’ve met many an atheist whose chief reason for not being a believer in God and God's existence is based on the fact that there is evil in the world, and I would agree that some of the evil that exists is almost beyond heinous. Their common argument is that because evil is so real and prevalent in the world, it necessarily means that there is no God, because a God, especially one whom the Christians claim to be a loving God, must not and cannot permit sin to co-exist with good, and sometimes, it even appears that sin and evil has the upper hand.  

While today’s blog reflection isn’t one that probes the theodicy issue with some degree of depth, it does attempt to provide the Christian with a reason to live with the pains and struggles that every one of us must face in life, without exception. When a pain is one that is bodily and physical, the common way to deal with it is to look for medication, and the pharmaceutical industry thrives on the demand of the millions who seek treatment for their pain.  While seeking a medical solution isn’t bad in itself, the Christian who understands the value of the Cross would do well to not waste the opportunities present in the pain to turn it into something that has a high value.  How can pain be valuable?  What kind of value does it have, and what does it look like?

The Christian’s view of life is significantly different from one who isn’t a Christian. As St Paul puts it, the Christian is one who is ‘clothed in Christ’.  He takes on an identity apart from that of a human being.  If we understand that Jesus’ only aim and target in life was to glory his Father and to love him wholeheartedly, then our being clothed in Christ needs to see us having that same target and purpose in life.  Jesus’ love for his Father was so pure, so unsullied, and that enabled him to give of himself so excessively on Calvary.  Even though we are clothed in Christ, our love always remains sullied, partial, not fully committed, and impure.  A heart with a pure love for God is seen when the sufferings and failures in life do not negatively impact or affect this love. A heart with an impure love will see it waning and weakening when times are challenging, and strong and vibrant when times are good.  A love that is pure doesn’t fluctuate like the way the stock market tends to.

Understanding this will allow us to see the wisdom of spiritual gurus who have taught that every situation in life, good or bad, ought to be seen as opportunities for us to purify our love for God.  As intriguing as it sounds, it isn’t all that difficult to understand.  When we are in good times, and we find ourselves basking, as it were, in God’s grace and blessings, bearing this teaching in mind will remind us to continue to love God with the same intensity even if these blessings and consolations were absent from our lives.  And when we are in situations where we find ourselves tested, loaded with cares and worries, afflicted with weakness and illness, or when friends betray us and leave us in our Gardens of Gethsamanes, bearing this same teaching in mind gives us good reason to see goodness right there, because if our love for God in those times are just as strong, just as steadfast and just as robust and intense, then it is revealing that our love for God is passing the test of love, not unlike the way gold is purified through the application of intense heat.  And if despite the darkness that we are in, we can still say with honesty that God is indeed good all the time, it would show that not only have we passed the test of love, but that we have done so with flying colours.

Of course, living this way and thinking this way isn’t for the faint-hearted.  It is for those who are laser focused on heaven as their target, and sainthood as their aim.  But then, neither is Christianity for the faint-hearted. 

You, dear reader, are called to that same target, that same aim of holiness as I am. May you be renewed and strengthened in your quest for holiness, and when trials come our way in life, let us truly thank God for the golden opportunity to have our love for God purified.

Monday, February 18, 2019

What does white martyrdom look like?

In the long history of the Roman Catholic Church, there have been many brave souls who have died for their faith, especially during the times when the faith was under severe and direct persecution.  Their courageous stories have been regaled in the pages of Church History, and many of them may have been embellished for good measure, perhaps. Saints like St Agatha, one of the early martyrs, heroically died for her faith because she refused to give in to the overtures of a potential suitor.  She had earlier vowed to live a chaste life, giving her entire life to Jesus her spouse.  However, this didn’t deter her pagan suitor who felt spurned and tortured her to death.  Some accounts of her torture were rather gory, to say the least.  Hers is just one of the many stories that fill the pages of our Church’s history, where heroes of our faith literally shed their blood for Christ, which is why on the feast day of martyrs, the liturgical colour Red is used to remind us of how the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

Is martyrdom something that only belongs to a bygone era?  Not at all, as we do have martyrs who have died gruesome and bloody deaths in our time and recent memory.  Names like Oscar Romero, and the heroic Trappist monks in Algeria who were kidnapped and then beheaded come readily to mind.   But is there another type of martyrdom that doesn’t so much require the shedding of blood, but the dying to the self?  Yes, and it’s called white martyrdom.  This is a real thing, and not something conjured up, but the real challenge lies in the fact that there isn’t much either written about such lives of heroism, or that there isn’t much talk about them either.  Who are these martyrs, and what does a white martyrdom look like?  

A martyrdom that requires the shedding of one’s blood leading to the giving up of one’s life is not usually something that stretches over a long period of time.  After all, there’s only that much blood one can physically shed before going into serious cardia ischemia, which is when the blood flowing to the heart is insufficient, causing all sorts of problems to the other organs. 

In white martyrdom, the dying isn’t physical.  Our Christian spiritual language has the phrase “dying to oneself”, and it has a certain pain involved, though not necessarily one that is physical.  It is that pain that one enters into, and experiences, whenever a choice or decision is made that sees the person living counterintuitively.  With Lent coming around the corner, this ‘dying to oneself’ is often translated to mean refusing to do things that one delights in and enjoys. That typical giving-up of things like sugary treats and chocolate readily come to mind, but while these are examples of a ‘dying to things that delight’, they hardly come close to martyrdom, whether red or white.

In martyrdom, one clearly makes a choice to do what one does because it directly impacts one’s belief that Jesus Christ is Lord.  That he is Lord necessarily means that what he teaches and instructs and commands are fundamental and not to be toyed with, not to be side-stepped, and not to be cast aside.  In white martyrdom, it is because one wants to adhere to gospel values that then causes one’s life to take on a darker shade, and as a result, one then enters into a Gethsemane as well, with the difference that this Gethsemane lasts longer than just one night the way it did for Jesus.  

What do these choices look like?  For many, these choices will be moral choices, where one chooses deliberate and consciously to live in a way that shows one’s life parallel closely to the gospels.  In the light of the current wave of the LGBT movement that is sweeping the world by storm, it could look a bit like this – that a person has same-sex attraction (SSA) and admits of this to himself or herself, and is conflicted because as a Catholic, there are strong and clear teachings about the need for chaste living, whether one is single or married.  No one gets a pass from this need to live a chaste life. However, the LGBT movement flies as its banner the belief that love is something that should be freely celebrated (which is not untrue) and that this ‘love’ ought to be expressed in a physically sexual way (which is true only in marriage), and because of that, ‘marriage’ ought then to include those who have SSA (again, not true).  

When the conflicted SSA Catholic is clear about these, the cross or the opportunity for white martyrdom becomes clear.  To choose to live chastely as a single, to not demand to want ‘marriage’ despite having SSA feelings and sentiments, and seeing the world around you living it up and appearing happy and contented is going to cause a certain death within. It’s probably going to feel worse than being nailed to a cross, because even Jesus only lasted three hours on that infamous gibbet and died.  Your choice to live chastely in response to Jesus’ love for will be a daily death, and if your family knows of your heroic choice, and bears this cross with you in prayer and Christian esprit de corps and mutual sacrifice and love, your entire family undergoes white martyrdom as well.  

We need to believe that this kind of sacrifice has huge positive repercussions in the way that a stone cast onto a still body of water sends ripples in an outward direction. Your sacrifice won't just purify your love for God - it will also save souls.  You have no idea of the way this purifies the church and  purifies the body of Christ, but it does - in the same way that a bloody martyr causing a physical death purified and continues to purify the Church.  

I took pains to elaborate and give flesh to one example of a white martyrdom, but there are so many others as well.  Staying in a loveless marriage, enduring some physical pain or affliction that doesn’t seem to end, living with a handicap and despite that, living with great joy and hardly any bitterness.  Our opportunities for white martyrdom are endless, if you think about it.

But these only make any sense at all if we are of the understanding that our lives are not about us.  Only if we see our lives as the canvass on which God’s love, beauty and sovereignty are manifested to the world, does any martyrdom make sense, regardless of whether it be a white or a red martyrdom.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Clarifying the reason why there is a need for us to be in a state of grace.

I believe that as a pastor of souls, there are quite a few things about our Catholic life that are utterly important but need addressing and understood clearly.  One of these is this thing called the ‘state of grace’ which is something that the average Catholic isn’t very clear about. There could be many different reasons this is the case, but one of the more disturbing ones could be that this isn’t addressed as a point of catechesis in both our children and maybe even in adults who are in the RCIA process.  I am sure that it is implied or inferred, albeit in passing, but isn’t given the emphasis that it rightly deserves.  The consequence of this is a paltry appreciation of what this does to the Catholic who lives out his faith life, and the more important corollary, how it affects the way he or she lives in the world.
Pope Francis goes for Confession regularly - he knows that he can only function optimally when he is in a state of grace.

Simply put, being in a ‘state of grace’ is when one is conscious that one has no serious or mortal sin on one’s soul.  Whenever one emerges from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, one is given Sanctifying Grace, and is therefore restored to that state that one had at the point of baptism.  In effect, what sin (especially serious sin) does, is it puts up a wall or a barrier (metaphorical language, of course), between oneself and God, insulating one, as it were, from God’s love and grace.  Mortal sin injures the closely knit relationship that God wants to have with each person.  It is not that God has turned the person away from his love.  Rather, it is the person who has, through that sin, turned away from God’s love, which is the cause of all that exists.  When one is in a state of grace, one is also said to be in communion with God, and in a love relationship with God.  It is for this reason that one is also in a state that is ready to ‘receive Holy Communion’, because it actualizes and celebrates what one is already experiencing in a supernatural level.  

Hence, it is also the very reason that when a person is not in a state of grace, and without having gone to have one’s state of Sanctifying Grace restored in Confession, goes up at Mass to receive Holy Communion, the person in effect commits one more mortal sin that puts up an even greater barrier or wall between God’s love and the person.  It is called the Sin of Presumption, where one has presumed that God has forgiven (or isn’t bothered at all) about the sin that had first broken the relationship with God.  

In giving us the freedom that none of us deserves, God has also given us the power to break or to maintain this love relationship with him.  He has, as it were, handed over to us the keys to either living out a life of constant communion with him, or refusing to do this. Only a God who cherishes a freely returned love would do this.  When we understand this well, we will not want to abuse the freedom and the trust that God has given to us, his beloved children.  In the story of the prodigal son (actually also rightly called the story of the prodigal father), both the sons had abused the freedom, albeit in different ways. 

As a confessor priest, I hear a slew of sins that people confess, and in many of my penitents, I do see a great desire to be in the state of grace.  Some of them are so careful about being in a state of grace that they come sedulously to confess their sins.  While this is noble and good, I am left wondering if this is the only thing that matters to them – just making sure that they are in a state of grace. If it is their chief concern in life as a Christian, they may well be missing a very big picture of the Christian life.

The Christian life is one that requires of us to give of ourselves over to others in different ways.  We do this by being participative in the community, being active in ministry, sharing of our gifts and talents which are God-given, loving those who are challenging to love, and being keen in living with heroic virtue.  No one is given a pass where these are concerned.  

These are all truly very difficult to do when in a state of sin, but one becomes especially motivated to live them out when in a state of grace.  This state of grace therefore is never to be seen as an end in itself, but really, a means to an end.  What is our end?  It is to be another Christ to the world that is craning its neck to see God alive and active in the world.  If the only thing that we are concerned is about being and remaining in a state of grace (for ourselves), and are unwilling or refusing to let this state bring us to give of ourselves in disinterested love to others and to the world, we may be missing a huge piece of the puzzle called the Christian Life.

Should we be concerned that we are in a state of grace as much as possible? Certainly.  Losing that state is indeed tragic.  But let us open our eyes to the tragedy of just keeping a house clean for its own sake, because Jesus does say that when the demon returns to find the house swept clean, it will bring seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in to dwell there, leaving the man worse off than he was before.  And that would be a worse tragedy.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Why we slip into sin so easily is often attributed to the fact that we have failed to maintain a strong and loving relationship with God.

It is not by accident that the first fall of humankind is named as pride by many scripture scholars and theologians.  Although pride was depicted as a mere taking of a forbidden fruit, what led to that was a suggestion that the first couple were better off knowing than not knowing and that they had a right to what they wanted rather than to be contented with living with boundaries and limits (also known as living in mystery), and that life had to be lived with areas that are literally ‘out-of-bounds’.  All sin stems from knowing what God wants, but letting what we want get the better of us.  

The one primary reason we fall easily into sin is because we have often failed to keep God within our immediate horizon of life.  An example that is really relevant here is that of a spouse in a loving marriage. If a man who is married keeps the fact that he is married and has committed his life to his wife constantly on the horizon of his consciousness, there will be very little chance of him being unfaithful.  That he is called to fidelity to this one woman, living in a sacred covenant, is going to be something that filters off relationships that have the potential to injure this covenant.  

But just as this is something that has a practical application in life, it is just as practical in the spiritual and moral dimension as well.  When penitents confess to having sinned, they often also confess to not having been faithful in praying.  Therein lies both the illness and the cure.  If one has been faithful in prayer (not just saying prayers, but truly establishing a loving relationship with God), there is very little reason one would find genuine pleasure in things that God does not delight in.  Faithfulness in prayer is when we pray at all times.  

St Paul himself was an advocate of constant prayer, but I am sure that he did not mean that one should be fingering rosary beads 24/7, or mumbling chants throughout the day, or dousing oneself with holy water incessantly.  Faithfulness in prayer is faithfulness in loving God.  Many Catholics, I believe, are too limited in their understanding of praying always.  It is not the same as saying prayers always.  No one can do that – not even Carthusian monks, I’m afraid.  Even they have their segments of their 24-hour day when they do work and study.  Are they praying while they are doing that?  Certainly that is the aim, where they become contemplatives in action.  But not all of us are called to cloistered living, but all of us, without exception, are called to a life of holiness.  It isn’t just the purview of the notable few, but every single baptized Catholic.  And yes, that includes, you, the reader of this reflection.  Don’t shortchange yourself by telling yourself that you do not have a call to sainthood.  Perhaps no one has told you yet in such a clear and direct way, but it is a truth that needs to be said, and needs to be believed in.  

Setting God, his love and his presence within our immediate horizon of our lives and not relegating him to only a segment of our lives (like maybe an hour on Sundays only) is a sure way of keeping pride at bay, the cause of the fall of our first parents.  We hunger for so many different things in life, from success to mammon in all its various forms.  

A predilection for sin is a result of training our hunger only in things that satisfy us, but things that hardly nourish the soul.