Monday, June 24, 2019

Why our effort matters so much in our spiritual lives.

St Augustine is well known for many amazing quotes, and my personal favorite is this “God created us without us, but will not save us without us”, partly because it appeals to the theologian in me.

The depth and beauty of this quote conveys a truth about the utter generosity and grace of God’s love, and at the same time gives us a glimpse of the absolute freedom of this love.  

We need to be clear from the start that there was no necessity for God to create us, or even to create at all.  God, whom we call omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, was fully content and complete in himself.  He was, and always will be the unity of three divine persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The fullness of love between the three persons is so intrinsic that it is what undergirds all of existence as we know it.  Classical theology attempts to describe this unity or flow of love between the three persons of God as perichoresis, a Greek term which can best be described as a dance or movement.  Perhaps what should be the key question that needs to be asked about creation is “why?”. Why indeed did God create, especially if God didn’t need to.

It was not out of necessity that God created, but out of sheer love.  The love that God enjoyed in his three personhood has in itself a generativity and inclusivity about it.  Unlike our love, God’s love wants others to be included and to share in this love.  Not possessive in any way, this caused creation.  In simple terms, God’s love was too good to be just shared between the three persons, and creation had its being in order for this love to be experienced, enjoyed and included.  And as St Augustine so astutely surmised, God did not ask if creation wanted to be created, and so created without our participation in it.  It was, and needs to be seen as pure grace and pure gift.

But love cannot in any way be coerced or forced if it is to truly be love in its purest sense. The necessity of freedom to want to return the love given to the lover from the beloved is what makes the loving true and pure.  This is where God gives us, his beloved, the freedom to either love him back with all our heart, soul and mind (as in the first commandment), or to reject this and turn our backs on the love (i.e. to sin).  

Unless we understand this important aspect of love, we will always be stymied by why God allows so much suffering to happen, especially when suffering is the result of a deliberate choice to hurt, to be selfish and to be proud.  It is because God loves us so much that he allows us to choose not to return this love to him, the ultimate lover.  

It is into this mired world of sin that God made that unthinkable choice to become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from certain death.  But this salvation, because it is primarily based on love, still requires a response from us.  We need to want to be saved from sin.  Augustine saw this clearly enough to say therefore that God will not save us without us.  God will not force anyone into heaven’s embrace, because if it is forced, the embrace will only be seen as a strangulation and a restriction.  

In all this movement and dynamic, we are not simply left to fend for ourselves.  The Church has always been clear that there is the primacy of grace, where even in our wanting to return God’s love to him, we are first led by God’s grace, and never just because we made the move out of our own goodness.  Our lives need to be simply a loving response to this offer of grace.

Is it all as complex and as simple as that?  In effect, it truly is.  Yet, so many of us struggle to want to return this love to God because we are too full of ourselves and prideful in so many ways.  

This reflection is not just for the sake of some theological acrobatics.  A theologian reading this may scoff at its simplicity, but it was not written with theologians in mind.  It was written for those who cannot understand why God would create, and may have harboured the thought that with all the turmoil and suffering that exists, it would be better if God hadn’t created at all. Those who have such opinions have failed to understand that creation is itself an expression of how God is loving. 

If God were to save us without our effort and cooperation, God would not be loving at all, but a control freak, a dictator and an ogre, making heaven a hell.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Why I am still in the priesthood - a reflection as I celebrate 18 years as a Priest.

The US Catholic Bishop’s conference asked the young people in America through a tweet last week a rather poignant but very necessary question – “If you are a young Catholic who is still a Catholic, what has made you stay?”  I suppose it was something that has been very troubling for the Catholic Church in the United States, because a larger and larger percentage of Catholics there are either no longer practicing their faith on a regular basis, or have stopped calling themselves Catholics altogether, even though they had been baptized as infants.

I wouldn’t say with much confidence that our situation here in Singapore is all that much different.  Yes, our parishes are filled on Sundays and are also relatively full on the other four days of obligation outside of the 52 Sundays in the year, but I know for a fact that many families have young adult children who have jettisoned their faith and have stopped going to Mass on a weekly basis.  

I am making references to this current dilemma in the Church this week as I celebrate my 18thanniversary as a Catholic priest.  I was ordained on 20 June, 2001, and it does seem that so much has happened in this time.  I have given my life over to the service of the Church, and to be usable by God as his instrument to fulfill his divine plan.  It seems to be something incredibly lofty, even if only on the level of words.  But in truth, if this isn’t the reason why anyone becomes a priest, it will be reducible only to something that the individual wants or desires, with hardly any reference to what is supernatural.  In the light of that question that was tweeted out to the American Catholic Youth, it is also good to ask myself what has made me stay in the priesthood all this time.  If I were to forget the following, I will be putting my priesthood in jeopardy.

1.    It has been an invitation by God

I have to keep reminding myself that this is a gift and an offer to grace that I was never entitled to, nor ever will be entitled to.  To be kept grateful about this grounds me, and any priest, from being proud and arrogant in the priesthood.  I’ve always believed that once gratitude for anything is missing, one begins to easily act with hubris and some degree of self-importance.  Once I believe that my priesthood was something that I worked hard to attain on my own, I may end up talking at people, rather than talking to the people.  And besides, it may make me insensitive to the fact that for many people, the faith struggle is real, forgetting that I somehow had it a bit easier to activate faith in my life.  Remembering that my vocation is a gift is always going to not take this, or anything for granted.

2.    The energy of the priest for ministry is his prayer life

The ministry of a priest is so varied.  Some are called to teach and educate.  Some are called to pastor to souls in their parishes, and some minister to the sick and infirm.  I remember a rather cheesy song that was popularized by Sonny and Cher back in the early 70s called “A cowboy’s work is never done”.  In fact, not just a cowboy’s, but a teacher’s, a foreman’s, a domestic helper’s, and certainly in my case, a priest’s work as well.  But if a priest is defined solely by the work that he does, it makes him no different from any other man who is defined by his work.  What qualifies a priest’s work as different has to be that his work is energized and grounded by his prayer life.  There is a great temptation to abandon prayer, especially when there seems to be a mountain of work and tasks at hand to complete.  We make the mistake of thinking in terms of productivity and effectiveness, and if these are the standards that we apply to our ministry, we are in danger of running out of steam, and going into what is known as “crisis mode”.  

To be sure, our work, like that of a cowboy’s, will never be done.  There will always be sick people to visit in hospitals, paper work to handle, meetings to attend, and sacraments to celebrate.  If we are praying only when we have the time to spare, it also means that we are giving God the remnants and the unused bits of our time, as well as the unused bits of love in our hearts.  But if we are clear that our energy to minister as Jesus wants us to minister comes from the love that we have maintained in our dedicated prayer time, we are giving God prime time, and not what is left-over.  We are not praying only when our day has ended and find our energies petering out.  Instead, we are purposefully carving out a precious time slot out of the precious 24 hours that God has given us each day.  I am reminded then that my energy for my ministry comes from my prayer life.

3.    Am I still hungering for holiness?

If I lose this essential raison d’etre of both my baptismal identity and my priesthood, I would have, as they say, lost the plot.  I need to have the attainment of holiness as my topmost priority in life, and also the desire to impart this as a top priority for my flock and those under my care.  I have to create a thirst for this in the lives of my people because if this is lost, the elements of the world will easily find their way into their hearts, and into my heart as well.  I need to impart to them on a daily basis that it is when we set our bar high in this regard that we make inroads to truly changing the world and how it works and how it thinks.  There is a pressing need for everyone to see that holiness is not a unicorn but a reality that is truly attainable and a goal worthy of all our efforts.  

There is so much evil that surrounds the world, and it is no surprise that even in the hierarchy of the Church, sin and scandal has pervaded into the upper echelons as well. It is clear that even in the higher-ups, many appear to have ‘lost the plot’ in their desire for holiness.  

4.     Do I impart joy in my priesthood?

The best testimony or sales pitch for the vocation to the priesthood has to be when a priest is seen to be a joyful person.  No one would be interested in the priesthood if all they see is a priest as a person who is hardly cheerful and who, while carrying his cross, is sending the bill to everyone he meets.  I may not even have to tell others about the priesthood, but if I express an abiding joy and peace in my life while carrying various crosses in life, I am also in that way giving an effective testimony that goes beyond any words that my mouth can utter.  

It was clear that when I had the gift of leukemia when I was at a very vibrant part of my young priesthood, it was God’s golden gift to me to show how one can live with a heavy cross with joy and not with bitterness and harbouring negativity. I realized that my preaching platform was from that point on going to be not just the ambo in the sanctuary of the church, but the way I live with a debilitating illness.  I do not know whether and if I have been a source of encouragement to others who walk in similar shoes, but I need to believe that this is part of my ministry, and is something that is uniquely given to me by God out of love.  

I remember reading an anecdote taken from the life of St John Mary Vianney, also known as the Cure of Ars.  It happened when he was on his way to his parish assignment at the small village of Ars in France, and he was at a crossroads and wasn’t quite sure which fork of the road to take.  He saw a young man and asked the directions to the village of Ars.  The young man indicated which fork to take, and he said to the young man, “sir, you have shown me the way to Ars.  I will show you the way to heaven.”  Indeed, this man of small stature but a giant of a soul ended up bringing so many of his parishioners to heaven via the path of holiness.  

My purpose as a priest needs mirror that of the holy Cure of Ars, which is to see that the souls under my care hunger for heaven, and are shown the way to get there. Certainly, in terms of years, 18 isn’t spectacular by any means. It’s not a jubilee and neither is it a milestone.   But as in all things that matter, quality should never be mixed up with quantity.  But a reflection of this nature is necessary for me to continue to live my priesthood with great purpose, love and effort if it is to bear fruit that God delights in.  

If you, dear reader, have been praying for me in my priesthood and my ministry, please know that you have my gratitude for having made it thus far.  I am truly grateful.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Envy is such a common sin and also a total waste of time.

There are many who do not appreciate nor know of a truth that can save them a lot of trouble in life - that of all the sins that we can commit in life, probably the one which is the most stupid and an utter waste of time is the sin of envy. Envy has a peculiar attribute that no other sin has, and it is this – no one benefits or stands to benefit from it. Every other sin will benefit the one committing it in some way; even it is a perceived and shadowy benefit. Every other sin is attractive to the sinner because it purports to make us happy, even if for a fraction of a moment in time.  A person committing theft does so because the possession of the item stolen gives him or her some form of pleasure.  An adulterer believes that his or her affair will give a certain thrill and delight and hence happiness.  Cheating in a test or an exam benefits the cheater when the results show that he or she has passed.  Even the heinous act of murder gives the one who murders at least a perverted form of satisfaction that the one whose life had ended is somehow no longer in the world. But envy has absolutely no benefit at all - not to the one who is envying another, and not the one who is being envied, because most of the time, that person is oblivious to the fact that someone is looking on with green eyes.

Yet, this sin is so common, and people succumb to it so easily.  That is because we live our lives with so much inferiorities and there is always going to be the tendency in us to nurture some form of jealousy over the perceived success and joys of others.  It gives way to what the younger generation calls FOMO or the Fear of Missing Out.  As well, the advent of social media with its incessant postings of what others are eating, enjoying and where they are in the world creates a certain disdain for our own pedestrian, unspectacular and pallid lives.  It encourages us to make comparisons.  We want to somehow believe that these posted photographs and videos of others being so happy and delighted are how they are in reality, 24/7, and it gives us the false notion that this is the hallmark of happiness.  We ignore the larger reality that for the most part, those photos are often very posed, styled, or even enhanced by technology. It’s not that this is fake news, but rather many people want to believe this is real, giving in to a very distorted sense of realty. 

Of course, one can choose to just opt out of the world of social media. Then these pictures of staged happiness won’t bombard one incessantly.  But that may not mean that one has overcome envy.  It could just be that one has prevented oneself from not being envious. We also need to realize that envy isn’t only present in the world of social media.  The workplace itself can be the place where envy exists, where one’s fellow colleague at work gets the plumper project, the best-worker award, or the pat on the back from the boss for good work done.  And at home, envy is often the reason why there exists sibling rivalry, where one’s sibling is perceived to be more loved and doted upon by mum and dad. To be sure, envy can happen in so many places.

What is the Christian response to this contagion or blight that affects our call to holiness and sanctification?  While I am not purporting to give a panacea that renders envy absolutely powerless, it is something that I have encouraged people to do when facing this nemesis that plagues us at our core.  It is to learn how to admire.  A hallmark of spiritual maturity is easily seen in people who have the capacity to admire – whether it is beauty, skills, talent, intelligence, success or plain youth, without the need to possess and have it.

The Latin root of the word ‘admire’ is admirari, which means to be astonished and to regard with wonder toward someone or something.  To admire without any need to possess or to outdo others must be one of the most logical things that we should learn in life, and sadly, I believe that this skill isn’t taught, and if it is, it isn’t taught well.  Admiring beauty, goodness and truth outside of ourselves without the need to hold it ourselves, or near to our hearts insulates us against the desire to covet.  To be able to say “truly, that is delightful to behold with my eyes” and to leave it at that prevents us from being jealous that it isn’t ours, and that it is ok if it is someone else’s.  We need to learn to say to another “your talent and skill is something praiseworthy and laudable” without having to add the word “but” at the end.  The hard truth is that the human heart doesn’t seem to be wired this way.  Instead, our hearts have the desire to control what it beholds, leaving us unable to admire with joy.

It always strikes me as both poignant and sad whenever I read the gospel passage of the rich man (sometimes with the added piece of information that he is also young) who goes up to Jesus and asks what he needs to do to possess eternal life. He strikes me as a person who is so used to the notion of ownership and possession, control and being on top.  Jesus wants him to receive, and not possess, and in order to do that, he had to dispossess himself of all that had been possessing him.  But he couldn’t.  It was too painful, or he was not ready yet.  He was way too invested to be divested.

The next time we find yourself envying others, be it for their talents, beauty, intellect, success, achievements or advancement in their fields, stop a while and ask yourself what is preventing you from just admiring and praising God for them?  You would be training yourself to pick up the necessary skill of not possessing, and more importantly, you would also be training yourself to not sin stupidly.  

Monday, June 3, 2019

Don’t wait for things to change before forgiveness is given to those who hurt you.

In my many counselling sessions with people who have wounded and broken pasts, it is never surprising that one of the greatest struggles that a great majority of them have is the inability to forgive their enemies.  I’m using the term ‘enemies’ in a very general way, and this includes those who have caused them pain, betrayed them, given them grief, caused them any form of sufferings and torment in life.  There seems to be a very common belief and tightly held opinion that it is only when these people apologise and show remorse for their actions of hurt will forgiveness be given.  This kind of quid-pro-quo mentality is somehow hardwired in the makeup of humanity in general, and strongly militates against the true workings and value of forgiveness as taught and demonstrated by Jesus.  

When Jesus died on Calvary for sinners, there was no conditions attached.  He didn’t wait for all of humanity to change in any way, to soften their hardened hearts and to worship the only true God before dying. His conditionless dying on that hill of Golgotha was truly groundbreaking because he wasn’t waiting for anything to happen before he gave of himself in such a total way.  We sinners, however, have a very tough time with this.  We seem to be constantly setting up conditions and are waiting for something to happen before we give the forgiveness that is needed for wounds to heal.  

I often ask my counselees what they are waiting for.  It’s a very tough and sensitive question, but it is one that needs to be asked and also very important to answer and identify.  When a marriage is betrayed, one is often waiting for the infidelity to stop before forgiving the spouse.  When one had been abused, one is waiting for the abuser to admit their wrong and bring himself or herself to justice before being forgiven.  When something is stolen, the resentment is held in the heart and is held on with a death-like grip until it is returned before there is forgiveness.  When one had been forgotten to be thanked in some speech that was given, the forgiveness will only be extended when the words of gratitude (and the apology for being left out) are spoken before one is forgiven.  The examples are legion, as so many people are really waiting for something to happen, for some condition to be met before they forgive.  

While I can understand why people think this way, they are also showing that they don’t really understand the true power of forgiveness.  The power that forgiveness gives is the power of true freedom.  When there are so many conditions to our forgiving those who have hurt us, we are the ones who are unfree and held under evil’s bondage.  We are holding on to those hurts, and are using them as the revenge that we are taking on our enemies.  It is like a knife that we are holding to use against them, but in reality, our hands are really gripping the blade and we are hurting ourselves.

Waiting for something to happen, and setting conditions before forgiveness is extended really makes forgiveness unnecessary in the end.  I say to my counselees that it is like waiting for a cut to heal before one applies the salve and puts the dressing on the wound.  The dressing is needed precisely when the wound is fresh and gaping and the bleeding is profuse.  By the time the wound closes up and the keloid forms, the value and effect of the dressing is of little or no use.  

Many also wait for a memory to either fade away or be forgotten before forgiveness is extended. “Father, I can forgive, but I can’t forget” is the common response.  God doesn’t want you to have dementia before you forgive.  Again, forgiveness has no value if there is no memory.  Perhaps it is because of the power of our memory that Jesus told Peter that he is to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times. Each time the memory puts its sting into our hearts, jolting us back to that place of hurt which causes that stab to the heart, the will to forgive is needed to be activated.  It is for this reason that forgiveness is often not a one-time effort.  Painful memories that linger are God’s invitation to apply forgiveness, and this is where the merit of forgiveness on our very own souls is high.  There is very little merit when forgiveness is only given when the waves of anger in our heart have become a still, placid lake.  

Is this kind of living with a concerted will to effect forgiveness in a very purposeful and mindful way easy?  Not by a long shot.  One doesn’t automatically live this way.  If there is anything automatic about our living, it is when we return the abuse given by withholding forgiveness and mercy.  Rather, we need to be taught, and we need to be trained to function in a truly humane way towards our enemies.  It is to live counter-intuitively, and the Church gives us two models of this to look at – Jesus on Calvary, and Mary his blessed mother.

Jesus set no conditions and waited for no one to do anything before saving us so selflessly on the Cross.  Mary didn’t demand that those who were responsible for murdering her sinless son repent as she stood at the foot of the Cross.  She had every right to shake her fists to heaven and make demands from God but she didn’t.  She entered into the mystery of suffering in the same heart as her Son.  She too, set no conditions in her love for God.

If we are waiting for something to change, something to be said, someone to repay for some hurt before we start forgiving, we are very often the ones who are unfree, trapped and imprisoned, and not those whom we impose the conditions on.