Monday, October 28, 2019

Making time and finding time to do anything reveals its importance to us.

The 24 hours that we are each given each day is a limited resource that every single human being is given equally and something which no person given more than the other.  In that sense, it is truly unique because it is not the case for every other resource that we have in life.  Our energy, skills, talents and finances are at our disposal in different levels and quantities.  But not time. How we use each 24-hour day reveals, among other things, what we are truly invested in, what we are most passionate about and what value we place on those things and activities.  We would then naturally apportion only a small portion of those 24-hours to things that we don’t highly value and conversely, apportion a higher portion of it to things that are important.  What takes the lion’s share of this resource is what also takes the lion’s share of our hearts.

This same principle is similarly applicable to our prayer life as well.  We all know that there is a need to pray, and this doesn’t just apply to Christians. All religions and faiths promote and encourage their devotees to spend time in prayer, and for different reasons. In the Catholic tradition, the need for prayer on a daily basis is something that is crucial but as a priest, I hear very often the lament (often in confession) that there is a constant struggle to not only pray, but to be faithful in praying.  

When I encounter someone who tells me this, I often ask if one finds time to pray, or makes time to pray.  The response is usually a quizzical look, almost saying to me “what’s the difference?”  In truth, the difference is night and day.  

When one finds time to pray, or to do anything, one doesn’t give it much priority.  One only is able to do it when one has a pocket of spare time, not unlike how one is only able and willing to give to the needy beggar when one reaches into one’s pocket and happensto find loose change. Or when one is working with fabric to make a garment, and it is only when one finds that one has scraps left over after the garment is made, is one willing to make something for one’s child. 

Making time for prayer is completely different.  When one makes time for prayer, one purposefully carves out and makes sacrosanct that apportioned time for God.  Other things circumnavigate and orbit around this non-negotiable time that is a priority and it is thus considered one’s ‘prime’ time. This denotes the value one puts on prayer, and also denotes the value one puts on one’s relationship with God. 

People who exercise assiduously will know what I am talking about.  It sets their day right when they exercise daily.  If it is missing for whatever reason, the day is off-kilter and it can negatively affect one’s mood and general disposition for the whole day. The reason this is so is because one has placed so much value in the effect of having raised one’s heart rate for that period of time, resulting in having one’s energy levels raised to face the rest of the day.  It is for this reason that many know that they simply cannot just exercise when they find time to do it.  If they have this approach toward exercise, they will not reap the numerous benefits that regular and dedicated exercise can give.  A heavily overweight person who exercises “as and when” is not going to end up trimmer, fitter and healthier.

This is the same attitude that we need to take to our prayer life.  No one who prays only ‘as and when’ is going to establish much of a deep relationship with God, let alone a loving one.  It’s the same in one’s relationship with one’s spouse in marriage.  Imagine only talking to one another ‘as and when’, as compared to when a couple ‘makes time’ to a committed time of dialogue and communication where feelings and thoughts are shared on a deep, regular basis, or worse, communicating only when one needs something from the other.

Being committed to prayer is important because it sets the tone of how committed we are to all other things in life, including the commitments to our families, our spouses and our work.  Being committed to prayer and establishing a loving relationship with God in prayer sets the foundation for living out loving our neighbor as well.

The time when one prays also plays a pivotal role.  If you only have time to pray once in the day, I’d highly recommend that you make that the first thing you do in the morning upon waking than the last thing you do before you go into dreamland at night. This is because when you pray upon rising, you are able to consecrate the day ahead and have the intention of giving God the next 18 or more hours to glorify God by your life.  It’s a bit like writing God a blank cheque.  If we don’t do that, and only pray after a long and hard days’ work, our prayer is most likely going to be filled with ‘could haves’ and ‘should haves’ where we are regretful in having lived for ourselves than for God and his purposes.  

I like to imagine that when we do consecrate our day to God in the morning, and give him that blank cheque, that when our day closes, the amount drawn on that cheque would be something which truly pleases God, and does not end up being one that will bounce.  

Monday, October 21, 2019

Why God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind and soul.

I walked past a young lady who was wearing a T-shirt with a rather interesting phrase emblazoned across the front the other day.  It said, “I’m not just an original.  I am a limited edition”.  

At first glance, I thought it was quite catchy, for the most part.  After all, this kind of talk appeals to the current generation of trendsetters who all want to be original in their own ways.  Apparently, being original just isn’t enough.  There seems to be a need to be a “limited edition” – a one-of-a-kind.

I get it.  I think this mentality describes what lies in the heart of many an inventor, playwright, poet, songwriter, and artist of different mediums.  This must be the stuff and energy that has given itself over to the many wonderful paintings, classical symphonies, literary masterpieces worthy of Pulitzer, Booker and Nobel prizes, and the myriad architectural wonders around the world. In the field of the sciences, it must have been what pushed scientists and researchers to make those incredible and amazing breakthroughs to find innovative ways to treat and even cure illnesses and to deal with deadly viruses.  If all humanity was merely contented to exist with the ordinary and “garden variety” of life’s challenges, there would be little of the flourishing that makes life not just good and functional, but truly astounding and breathtaking.

There is a downside to this though. If we think that only those who are high achievers and attain stratospheric goals in life are worthy of our admiration and attention, we may then think that in our spiritual lives, God only notices and pays attention to them, and not to the rest of humankind, and that includes the likes of you and me. 

But when we think this way, we are the ones who are the real losers, especially when we erroneously think that our own individual, ordinary and garden-variety lives are somewhat too ordinary and not quite spectacular enough to make a difference to the world and even to God.  It may make us think that our little, unnoticed and unspectacular lives are too humdrum for others to take notice, and the spotlight will always go to others and never to us.  Our lives seem to be in sepia tone, whilst that of others is lived in brilliant Technicolor. 

I see this negativity played out in many of the youth who strive so hard to become noticed, to be different, because they think that their lives are uninteresting, whilst the lives of their peers and those who are more noticed, have more Instagram and FaceBook likes, or who bag more As or A-Stars on their exam results.  

But this is far from the truth, especially when it comes to our spiritual lives.  Every single one of us is important and individually and uniquely loved by God.  Jesus conveys this reality by saying that even the hairs of our head are all numbered. God doesn’t just love human beings or humanity.  He loves each one of his created children individually as if each one was his only child. And only God can love this way.  

If we bring nothing else to prayer but only this as our point of meditation, it will help us go very far in living out our relationship of love with God.  It also means that God doesn’t only love us when we are good, but that we are good because he loves us.  And if that is true, then it makes great sense that it is possible to love God with all our heart, all our mind and all our soul.  It is possible to consecrate every aspect of our lives to live in such a way that we glorify God with everything that we do, even the most mundane and insignificant tasks – things that no one gets any recognition or accolades for doing well, let alone for doing them at all.  

To really understand and live this out is indeed very liberating and freeing.  It frees us from the endless need to compare and to compete, to crane for attention and to make ourselves liked or loved by putting on all sorts of false fronts and endless posed selfies.  It certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive for excellence in all that we do, but the motivation isn’t then to get noticed at all, but to be as fruitful as we can be given our composite talents, gifts and strengths. It wouldn’t be to glorify ourselves, but God.  And the amazing thing is that once God is glorified in and through our lives, the glory that he receives really redounds to us, and the blessing circle continues. 

The problem with so many of us is that we think of humility so wrongly.  We think that it is about thinking of and concentrating less of ourselves when it really is about thinking of and concentrating on ourselves less.  We are far too self-conscious for our own good.  

Indeed, not only are we all originals, each of us is also a limited edition, a one-of-a-kind.  

Monday, October 14, 2019

If you are a Chinese, you would know how important it is to ‘come home for soup’. If you are a Catholic, you would know how important it is to ‘come to receive Holy Communion’.

A pre-blog caveat :  I have never, and will never use this blog for any political purpose.  The mention of the current situation in Hong Kong in this blog only serves to reference a remark made in an interview that I recently came across.  

It would have been about 15 weeks since the first riots or protests started in Hong Kong over the highly contentious extradition bill, but since then have been more fueled by other disgruntlements from the (mostly) younger generation of Hong Kong citizens.  The city has since been facing weekend after weekend of chaos, turmoil and mayhem, and there have been numerous stories shared both on the social media as well as mainstream news broadcasts lamenting that many families which were formerly very closely knit and united are now being split and factioned within.  In one poignant interview, a journalist asked a matriarch of a family how this spate of affairs has affected her own family. Choking with emotion and sadness, this Cantonese-speaking mother looked wistfully at the camera and made a statement that probably means very little to anyone who isn’t Chinese or more specifically, Cantonese Chinese.  She said “they (meaning the younger generation) don’t even come back home for soup now”.  I could fully appreciate her lament, not just because I am a Chinese Cantonese, but also because I am a Roman Catholic Priest.  Let me elucidate.

To the Chinese, and I am very sure this applies to just about any other ethnicity in the world, the family dinner table isn’t just a piece of furniture that sits in the middle of a space in the house or apartment called a ‘dining area’.  It represents many other things.  These include notions of family bonding, unity, respect, love, kindness, filial piety, tenderness and a sense of well-being.  To be able to sit together for a meal and to partake not just in the food on the table, but in the stories of each other’s lives gives a sense that one is valued and validated, and that each person has a place of importance in the family.  For that reason, being invited to a meal with one’s family is not something to be taken lightly, because one is for that moment, akin to being elevated to a status of family.  I recall watching 1960 black-and-white Cantonese melodramas on television where guests at such meals will be given the choicest cuts of the chicken which is usually reserved for the head of the family.  It was the playwright’s way of showing that the guest at such a meal is treated as a VIP.

But in the world of the traditional Cantonese family, the one dish which is always present at every meal is the ubiquitous soup.  (I am sure that other ethnicities would have their own particular dish or tradition which serves a similar purpose).  This soup isn’t just something which the cook (usually the mother of the household) haphazardly throws into a pot and brings to the boil with water.  It is always a well-planned item, where a portion of meat with bones is gently brought to a slow and gentle boil, together with carefully selected vegetables and herbs, some of which may have been procured from the chinese herbalists or apothecary.  These ingredients would raise the dish from being a mere soup to the level of a health tonic, with holistic benefits for the family.  In the days of old, this elixir would be cooked over a charcoal stove where glowing embers would be keeping the mixture at simmering point, contributing a distinctive smokey flavour to the soup when it is savoured by the entire family at dinner time.  Those partaking of this labour of love means that one has received and participated in the family’s bond and love. 

What the interviewee lamented resonated with me went beyond the fact that I am a person with Cantonese Chinese roots.  It gave me a new basis and vista from which to understand the deep sadness and heartache which many Catholic families suffer from when members of their family who are baptized no longer bring themselves to participate at Sunday Eucharist and hence do not receive Holy Communion anymore.  Often, these are children who are in their late teens or early twenties, and would possibly include those who have gone overseas to obtain their university degrees or working there, and who have, for various reasons, fallen out of love for God and the Church.  They have become numb to the richness of faith, the Mass and the Eucharist.  Like the protesting youth in Hong Kong, there also exist in our Churches many youth and young adults who also don’t come to home for soup too.  But in our case, the benefit of Holy Communion goes way beyond what a mere tonic gives to the body.  It truly feeds the soul.

Jesus must have taken great risks to cut to the chase at the Last Supper when he merely said to his disciples that they were to ‘do this in memory of me’, and to do it faithfully.  Notice that he didn’t give them a theological treatise of what it means to eat his body and drink his blood, and what kind of benefits the one who obeys this instruction is going to receive, or even how this is to be explained.  The disciples must have intuited that Passover night that this was a reasonable request, and that Jesus meant it very literally.  The Church through the ages, starting from the Apostolic Fathers broke it down to give this action a spiritual, theological and doctrinal essence, from which we now have such a rich pastoral understanding of what receiving Holy Communion and BEING Holy Communion means, as well as the central importance that the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is for every single Catholic.  

Its truth and its richness will always be there, whether we appreciate it or not.  What matters most is that Jesus asked that we do it.  Notice that he didn’t even say that we need to understand what it is that we are doing.  He trusted that the Church he founded would do that when the time came.  What he wanted most was faith.  Perhaps that explains why he asked pointedly at the end of his parables that when the Son of Man comes, would he find any faith?

Faithfulness sometimes makes it more important that we do something with great consistency and mindfulness, than if we understand why we do it.  Of course, knowing clearly why we do it elevates it to a much higher level – and this truth applies to many things we do in life – from drinking soup together as family to receiving Holy Communion at Mass.


Monday, October 7, 2019

We need to allow God to give us heartburn.

Oftentimes, and it happens to the best of us, we don’t allow the depth and impact of the Word of God to affect us the way it has the propensity and the power to.  It could be because we think we are too familiar with the Word of God, and for us who are members of the clergy, it can be something like an ‘occupational hazard’, where, because we are so exposed to it on a daily basis, it becomes rather easy for us to gloss over the Word of God and what it is revealing to us – about its truth, its meaning for the world, and most importantly, its meaning for us personally.  

But I am sure this isn’t only something that happens to clerics.  Many members of the laity struggle with this over-familiarity with scripture, especially when it comes to the Gospel texts.  The three-year cycle of Sundays and the two-year weekday cycles of the Mass readings in the Liturgical cycle of the Roman Catholic Church give us a re-visit to the scriptures on a regular basis, and if one is regular at weekday Masses, and faithfully goes to Sunday Mass each week, one would have gone through about 90% of the four gospels and about 55% of the non-Gospel New Testament readings.  A passive listening of the readings at Mass may end up making one feel as if one has ‘heard it all’, and give in to the temptation to ‘switch off’.

We see a very interesting phrase used by Luke the gospel writer in the post Easter episode that is often given the heading of ‘the road to Emmaus’.  In it, we see Jesus interacting with the two jaded and dejected disciples who were walking away from Jerusalem toward the town of Emmaus after Good Friday.  After having heard Jesus giving his two disciples a history lesson, detailing how God had woven himself into the warp and weft of the lives of the Hebrew people from the time of Moses, we are told that the two disciples felt their hearts ‘burn within them’. 

This, I believe, encapsulates what needs to happen in every person who either reads scripture or listens to it being proclaimed at Mass.  In that encounter on the road to Emmaus, Jesus wasn’t telling those two disciples anything new.  They must have known the Pentateuch and the prophetic writings.  It couldn’t have been new to them.  Yet, there was a difference here.  Jesus, who is the Word himself, opened up scripture to them, and made it land in a new way on their jaded and discouraged ears.  They allowed him to peel away the layers on their hearts and minds that were preventing them from perceiving the truth in the promises of salvation and the wondrous promise of the resurrection that was foretold by the prophets from of old.  Jesus helped them to join the dots.

Notice too, that this ‘stranger’ who walked with them didn’t mince his words.  In fact, he was rather straightforward and called them foolish. Not only that, he pointed out that their biggest problem was that they were slow to believe.  They were slow to trust in the big picture of God’s plan, but at the same time, were very myopic and focused only on their one narrow view.  Wasn’t this Judas’ problem as well?  In Judas’ mind, there was only one modus operandi that God could and should possibly make God’s kingdom come and it was, in all likelihood, one that used violence and a tit-for-tat approach, and with great immediacy.  The disciples couldn’t see past their current pains to allow the healing of God’s promises to enter into their hardened hearts, and in a very unlikely way.

Isn’t that what is so frequently preventing us from entering into the beauty and truth and life of God’s Word to us?  We are so wrapped up in ourselves and our worries, so much so, that we are unable to go beyond our little world to see our lives from a higher point of view, which is God’s point of view.  Our lives are only a dot on God’s immense canvas of his work of creation and salvation, and there is really no way that we can fathom how things work out as God deigns it.  Pride makes us want to, but our finite minds make this simply not possible, and faith allows this to happen. Not only are our hearts hardened, but our ears are also often hard of hearing.  Passivity is a great contributor to this.  We may be present in our pews, but our minds are as closed as a bank on Sunday.

If this is the state of our hearts, it probably means that there is some hardness of our hearts that needs a good deal of softening.  Only when that happens can our hearts end up in a state that Cleopas and his friend found theirs when they had a glimpse of living out their lives Eucharistically.  They described it as experiencing their hearts burning.  

Pray for a good heartburn and let that heart of burning love set the world on fire, starting with you.  Milk of magnesia may help a physical heartburn, but only the milk of God’s love gives us a healthy and burning heart.