Monday, September 30, 2019

The real value of our lives.

I am not bashful about revealing that I have varied interests and healthy curiosities.  I add the adjective ‘healthy’ because I am very aware that there are many curiosities in life that are not only unhealthy but can also be toxic and dangerous.  My curious nature lends itself to creativity in thinking and gives me a broad spectrum in looking at the world through a wide-angled lens.  Sometimes the things I read about may lead to dead-ends, and sometimes, they give me a new perspective of things that I hitherto had looked at with myopic eyes.

One of these curiosities led me to find out something about the world of luxury goods and introduced me to the term ‘pre-loved’.  Apparently, there is a whole market out there that caters to people who are very interested in purchasing and owning high end but second-hand luxury goods like clothes, shoes, handbags and watches (I also learnt that there is a distinct difference between a watch and a time piece).  It seems that the term 'pre-loved' was first used around the late-70’s and has since gained traction, and was first applied to homes that were previously occupied and were looking for new owners.

I may be wrong, but somehow the term is now predominantly used in a more specific way and is applied uniquely to items that are smaller than homes, but are at the same time items that fetch a high resale value.  To this end there are pre-loved high-end watches, fashion accessories, jewelry, and shoes.  Of course, the more unblemished, pristine and well taken care of the item is, the higher the value it will have.  

‘Where is today’s blog going?’ I can almost hear my reader asking.  

There were two biopics that came to the cinemas recently that piqued the interest of the public, and interestingly, they were about the lives of two rather similar personalities in the entertainment industry.  One was Rocketman, which featured the life of singer-entertainer-song writer Elton John, and the other was Bohemian Rhapsody, which was a dramatization of the life of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the rock band Queen.  One cannot help but see a wealth of similarities in both biopics (albeit with some degree of artistic story/entertainment license taken, I am sure). But one thing that stood out for me was just how hungry, needy and desperate both of these mega-stars with larger-than-life stage personalities were for one thing - love.

To be sure, this human phenomenon isn’t only something that is found in rock singers and stage artists.  It is something that plagues the human heart, and has also been the energy that has driven people to do great as well as utterly horrible things in history.  Oceans of ink have been spilled onto pages and tomes, detailing the lengths to which the human heart will go and the things that man and woman will do to attain semblances of love.  

It doesn’t take a genius to know that this is the real issue that is at heart of so many of our wounds and brokenness in life.  We seek to love, we seek to be loved, and we invest so much of our lives to attain the holy grail of love, and many have sought in all but the right place. I'll admit that I have very little appreciation for country music.  My idea of purgatory is a place where country music blares 24/7.  But I will admit that there is wisdom in Johnny Lee’s 1980 hit when he sang about “Looking for love in all the wrong places”.  

At the heart of the Christian faith is the revelation by Jesus himself that all of us need not be looking helter-skelter for love, because each one of us, even before we were born, is really pre-loved.  The Gospel tells us that we should not have the need to look for love in all the wrong places.  Even before we were first loved by our human parents who brought us into the world, we were and always will be loved by God our Father who deigned to love us into being.  The well-formed Christian person is one who is secure in this knowledge, and lives this out in faith throughout his life.  St Josemaria Escriva calls this our 'divine filiation'.

When we are not secure in this revelation of how crazy in love God is with us, we will inevitably search for some kind of thrill, delight and satisfaction in things and activities and the saddest of all is when we end up using people instead of things. It explains why there are addicts of so many different kinds, from substances to pornography to shopping. Those two biopics I mentioned are mere examples of this human brokenness writ large.  I was pleased to read that Elton John has revealed that he has been sober for the last 30 years from his numerous addictions.

If you have in your possession any “pre-loved” item, especially if it is of a high value, I invite you to take it in your hand, and look at it with an eye that is at the same time cast on your own life.  If this is something that you paid a pretty penny for, know that your very soul is way more valuable and has been paid for as well. The price was the blood of God himself, shed on Calvary for the love of you and for me.  

And may this give you a new hope in facing your addictions in life.  You have always been pre-loved.

Monday, September 23, 2019

My 500th blog entry – the journey so far, and where to go from here

It has finally arrived – the day that I write my 500th blog on this blog site, which I have been hacking away at for the past eleven years, with the regularity of almost one essay or reflection every week. Like many endeavours in life, it didn’t start out with such grandiose intentions, that one day I’d be able to look back and say that I have done this with a dogged sense of dedication and tenacity. While it does feel like I have reached a milestone with this reflection, I also do not want to make it about me. This blog page and the effort behind it has never been about me.  It was meant to be some form of outreach platform, where visitors to this site who drop in to spend a few minutes of their precious day can, for albeit a brief moment, raise their minds and hearts to want to live their lives with a higher purpose and to look with a bit of seriousness at their own hearts to see where they stand in their relationship with God and with his Church.  

I went back to glance at my very first blog entry back in October 2009, and saw that I gave it a title ‘Moved and shaken’.  It was a bit like going down memory lane, and with some delight, saw that I had mentioned that in our spiritual lives, there is this dynamic of being moved and shaken by God, and that this journey is almost always a very slow process.  

Through the years of my reflection, prayer and writing, I have given countless examples of how this is so true in all of our lives.  The very fact that God is so patient with us in our response to his outreach to us is itself good reason for us to be patient with ourselves as well.  I am quite sure that one of the strongest reasons for my having featured this aspect of the spiritual life is because I have seen how this troubles many who embark on this endeavor of holiness with any degree of seriousness.  God has this knack of displacing us in life so that we can be in a better stead with him, and often it happens through forms that require us to even weep a little.

Those of you who are regular visitors to this blog will know that this isn’t really a light-hearted blog site.  There are plenty of blog sites out there in the world of the internet that provide the distractions that many seek in life, with some websites even providing harmful and unsavoury fodder.  Rather than being a source of distraction, this blog page is meant rather to attract – to attract the soul and the mind to live with a high purpose and to make it attractive to God and hopefully to be at the same time inviting, giving the reader a good reason to strive for sanctification, holiness and ultimately sainthood.  

In this social-media saturated world where the likes of Instagram are heavily used and promoted, it is not uncommon to see the word ‘influencer’ being tossed about, often by the younger set.  It appears to be something that the young, and some not-so-young aspire to become in life, and very often, lying behind it is the hope of either fortune or fame, or both.  These platforms thrive on the human person’s desire to build some kind of brand personality, and with the added incentive of monetizing their uploads through increased viewership, it seems to be a win-win situation.  Or so it appears.

The kinds of effort that so many put to making videos that are click-worthy are indeed commendable.  They boost creativity and they give many some sense of purpose, and the lure of lucre that comes with increased viewership, lead to the incessant cries to "please follow me on Instagram" and "like me on FaceBook".  It never fails to strike me as somehow odd that before the advent of the internet, just thinking of the phrase "please like me" was something that reeked of insecurity and shameless desperation.  But these days, it's being tossed about so often that nobody seems to think it sounds rather odd.  They want to, by their self-promotion and life-style, ‘influence’ their followers and make others like them in more ways than one. 

In this light, perhaps the many spiritual greats whom I often defer to, and myself in this blog effort of mine, are also in some ways hoping to be ‘influencers’, but with very different motives and ends.  There is no monetizing in this weekly effort of mine. It may be different if I were a writer of spiritual books because there is some income that is garnered from being published or if one is syndicated.  Yet, there is a certain push that we share, and this is where, I think and I hope, we veer very widely away from the influencers of the social media world. While they are social influencers, my aim, and the aim of spiritual writers and bloggers out there, is to be spiritual influencers.

I do want to influence others, but it isn’t something that I want for myself.  It is something that I have been called to by virtue of my baptism and the divine filiation that resulted from that Sacrament I was first graced to receive through the baptismal waters.  All of us baptized in Christ have been, by virtue of our baptism, been drafted into being influencers of others and of the world.  Not for fame, not for fortune, but for the Kingdom of God.  By being conscious of our need to bring our best Christ-centeredness to others through our choices, our actions, our thoughts, words and deeds and our joys, we are meant to influence the world to bring others to the awareness of the universal call to holiness and sanctification.  

But there is, and always will be, the challenge to not make ourselves take centre stage.  There will always be the temptation to turn whatever enterprise we are working on into a personality cult, where the ego overshadows the initially pure motivation. I am always very wary when I hear of parishioners asking what time is “Fr (insert name here)’s Mass”, because in truth, every Mass is the Mass of Jesus Christ.  It is never Fr So-and-So’s Mass, and should never ever be.  To say to anyone “come to my Mass” displaces the reason why there is any Mass in the first place.  

True, one may point to the many blog reflections where I had featured my own encounters with pain, afflictions and illness.  These were never meant to draw attention to myself, but to give anyone reading the reflections good reasons and motivation to face their own afflictions with tenacity and faith and trust.  I would only be speaking (or writing) from a theoretical vista, and I have realized that anyone who has read widely can do this, and quote what others have said if I hadn’t had those experienced myself in a very personal way.  But I have realized that people want to see and hear it from someone who has walked the walk before they talked the talk.  It is for this reason that I have always been grateful for all of my health (and other) challenges that have come my way.  They have become my teacher, and among the greatest lessons they have taught me are humility and gratitude.  

We are all called to mission in life, and mission takes on many different forms.  One of my own heroes of courageous mission spiritedness is St Therese of the Child Jesus. So desirous of being a physical missionary to be sent to faraway lands to spread the faith, she became stricken with tuberculosis at a young age and was confined to the world that was cloistered in her Carmelite convent in France.  But when she found that when she could accomplish heroic deeds by heroic love, she offered every effort, no matter how small, for the missions - even an act as small and insignificant as picking up a piece of litter from the convent grounds.  Her love for God and her love put into small acts, were gargantuan displays of love in God’s eyes, and this was enough for her.  Who would have thought that this little holy soul ended up being hailed as the Patroness of Missions and declared a Doctor of the Church, when she never stepped physically outside of her convent grounds but managed to send her love to the world?  

Perhaps it is my mission to something similar through this blog of mine.  I do not have a large number of readers, and it really isn’t about numbers.  I know some who do circulate what they stumble on, passing it on to others and in this way, some goodness gets to be spread.  I do hope that everyone who stops here to read will somehow be recharged in his or her love for God, and to make small changes in life to love God more and more in little ways.  There will always be room to experience growth and maturity in our striving for holiness, and I pray that each person who reads these makes some effort to want to pursue a path of sanctification in life – not just in a theoretical or idealistic way, but in concrete steps.  And if my reflections have given anyone reason to want to try, it would have served its purpose.  

Your life, then, would have been ‘influenced’.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

How our crosses can be holy crosses.

Each year on September 14, we Catholics are invited, by virtue of the arrangement of the liturgical calendar, to ponder and appreciate anew how important and unique our Christian faith is when we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross.  Inevitably, whenever people think about the Christian faith, the image of the Cross comes to mind.  We are people of the Cross, and Christians are readily identified by the crosses that adorn their necks, hang on the rear view mirrors of cars, or above our doors and on the walls of our homes.  

But the power of the cross and what it truly symbolizes can be something that is forgotten, taken for granted, side-stepped and perhaps put aside rather easily, and it will be to our disadvantage if we do that.  

I say this with much conviction because in truth, every one of us has some form of the cross in our lives.  These come in so many different forms and can take the form of ill health, failure, being victimized, experiencing setbacks, betrayal, or even being victims of natural disasters.  Each time we encounter these tough realities in life, we have an option before us, which basically falls into two categories of a positive option or a negative option.  The negative options are the options which see us getting upset, angry, bitter, regretful, acrimonious and being generally difficult to live with.  Unfortunately, this option is the one which we see many people taking, and it results in a very fractured and broken world.  Someone needs to be blamed and someone has to pay the price for the sufferings in life, and it’s not going to be me.  It’s largely a residue of original sin, where someone else is to take the blame.

The other option is to take these sufferings in a positive light.  I can say with some degree of certainty that this isn’t the default option that the human person is prone to.  I am certainly not advocating masochism when I say this.  Taking suffering and any form of the cross in life in a positive way comes in different forms as well.  It can range from being of good cheer in our disposition, being grateful for little things, and reaching out to others despite our lot in life.  These positives are not uniquely Christian. Even atheists and people of non-Christian faiths can choose to take these positive options.  

But there is yet another level of the positive that is unique to Christianity – almost a step-up, and that is to carry our crosses with an eye on the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Only when we are consciously doing this with our personal crosses can these crosses then share in the power of redemption that the Cross of Calvary uniquely has. This dynamic lies behind the often misunderstood Catholic language of “offering it up for souls”, “performing acts of mortification and sacrifice” and “living with heroic virtue”.  To be sure, this kind of language isn’t broadly shared by our separated brethren in the Christian world.  

We Catholics are firm believers in what St Paul mentions in Col. 1:24 when he says “in my sufferings for you, I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is the church.” It is only when we bear this in mind that we have the reason and obligation to carry our crosses with a certain willingness, eagerness and inner joy, because it is not just for ourselves and for our sins that we do this.  We are also doing it for the universal church of which we are members. We are doing this to benefit our brothers and sisters whom we don’t know, but who need some solidarity in carrying their crosses too.

What’s more, it opens up for us Catholics the wider dimension of what the phrase “body of Christ” means when we participate consciously at each Eucharistic celebration.  Whenever Catholics come up to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and say “Amen” to the priest’s “Body of Christ”, that “Amen” is not just a yes to the real presence of Christ in the consecrated species.  It is also a yes to the willingness to live out as fully as we can to the call to become a vibrant part of the universal Body of Christ, and part of this response of becoming a vibrant member is seen whenever we take up our crosses and follow Christ on our journey toward heaven.

I guess I am making this reflection with special emphasis because as I am confined to my convalescence quarters to regain usage of my replaced hip, I am made painfully aware that I am also carrying a cross.  Christ’s Holy Cross empowers me to carry this well, to carry this with a purpose bigger than myself, and to carry this with a Christian elegance.  When the going gets tough, I am reminded to imitate my Blessed Mother to stand silently at the foot of the Cross as well, and stands there with her Son, giving her the title of Stabat Mater.

The Feast of the Holy Cross which we celebrated just a few days ago reminds us not only of this need, but also of the value and power that our crosses in life have a potential for.  Yes, suffering is an energy and a power, but it is also easily left untapped. Like any source of power, it has immense potential – potential to change us and to change the world.  But when the only thing we do is to complain about it, ask incessantly “why me?” and make the world around us more miserable than we are feeling, this power is wasted, its potential unharnessed.  

We all have crosses.  We also have the choice to, with effortful love, turn them into holy ones as well.

Monday, September 9, 2019

In all forms of healing, the law of gradualness applies.

I have remained somewhat silent as far as postings to this blog is concerned, for reasons that I had given in the previous blog entry. I have since returned from my highly enjoyable and thoroughly eye-opening vacation, after which I underwent surgery to get a titanium/ceramic hip to replace my necrotized (dead) left femur which had been slowly dying and crumbling for a prolonged period of over a year.  

I am currently into my second week since the surgical procedure, and am convalescing in a home that is set up for retired elderly priests, as well as for priests such as myself, who need to have a place to recover and heal from serious surgery and medical afflictions.  I share the place with several other priests, all of whom are retired from active ministry, and each time we are at the meal table, the total number of years in priestly ministry among us easily goes into 200 and over, mine being the least contributing number of course.

Each time I emerge from surgery and find myself meandering that slow path toward some semblance of normalcy, it never fails that I also find myself reminding myself not to rush things.  There’s that part of me that feels very guilty in not tending to my ministerial duties in the parish, and I think (erroneously of course), that things will fall apart in my absence.  No such things have happened, and I’m sure things are in good hands because they are really in God’s hands.  This sense of guilt finds me in some way willing myself to quicken the route toward recovery and gaining strength, as if it could, by sheer will, be something that happens.  I had something explained to me by my physiotherapist who kindly tends to me every weekday morning at 9am.  

I shared with him the many stories which I had heard about how quickly many of my friends’ parents and even grandparents had returned to their regular lives after having had their hip replaced, and was a bit concerned that my pace of strength recovery seems to be somewhat moving at a glacial pace. I am certainly not as confident in placing more than toe-pressure when walking using the walking frame, and my turns at corners are extremely ginger and even a tad robotic, always sensing that the hip is a bit fragile and tender.  I am certainly not as old and fragile as the elderly parents and grandparents of my friends who have had the same operation, but my recovery seems to be so much slower, and the leg muscles so much weaker.  What gives?

He took pains to explain to me that the state of the muscles around the hip at the time before the operation has a lot to do with the rate of recovery of strength.  Many, if not most of the elderly who have had their hip replaced due to either an accidental fall or some similar incident had thigh and leg muscles that were working without much issue before the incident, probably even able to put their entire body weight on one leg with no issue.  Their reasons for needing a hip replaced was not because of necrosis or death of the femur, which is accompanied by the atrophy of the muscles around the dead or dying femur.  So, when the new hip is inserted, the muscles hardly needed much work to awaken them to functioning as they ought.  

But not in my case.  

I had the misfortune to experience my hip’s slow death, and with it, a slow atrophying of its muscles as well.  So it is only natural that even with a new artificial hip that is much stronger than the old decrepit and dead femoral head, its surrounding muscles are in the old atrophied state.  They need time to be toughened up and built up, to regain lost mass, and range of movement.  These do not come overnight because they were not lost overnight.  At that moment I smiled to myself, not because I felt rather silly, but because I could see how the law of gradualness applies to one’s physical returning to normalcy, as much as it applies to one’s soul returning to a state of holiness after a conversion experience.

I have encountered so many penitents who have had those “a-ha” enlightened moments of conversion, usually at some retreat where they are led to look at their lives with some degree of seriousness and to have their moral compass re-calibrated.  They went for those highly recommended “deathbed confessions” where every sin, mortal or venial, was verbally confessed, and emerged post-retreat with a new verve in their quest for holiness.

It’s often not too long after that their old habits come back to haunt them and they find themselves back to their old ways, sinning as before.  These who come back to the sacrament of reconciliation are often kicking themselves, and are rather way more unforgiving of themselves than God is of them.  They, like me, need to remember to apply the law of gradualness to their conversion, because conversion is never a one-off, or one-retreat, affair.  

Like my thigh and hip muscles, their muscles of moral strength and rectitude had probably slid into desuetude.  And like my thigh and hip muscles, they need to be re-built, re-stimulated, re-activated, and re-loaded with weight.  In the spiritual life, this would include, but not limited to, things like a sustained prayer life, a heart that is re-aligned to loving God in a whole new way, frequenting the sacraments of the Church with a new desire and aim, relating to God as never before, and looking at the past sins as something that were a lie that one fully believed in.  These changes don’t come overnight because they are changes on the heart, and one needs to allow the law of gradualness to be one’s teacher, just like my thigh and hip muscles won’t grow and strengthen overnight.  

Would that I gain strength as quickly as my hip as replaced. I would be bouncing back to parish work, and find it so easy to ambulate without aid in the sanctuary at Mass, and be able to once again lift the Book of Gospels aloft with both hands and bring the Word of God to the Ambo and break the Good News to my flock.  Would that I could.  But the reality is that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will the strength of those atrophied muscles be bulked up within a short span of time.  

Yes, in all things, the law of gradualness applies. Even to hips and thighs.