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.