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.






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