Monday, November 25, 2019

What does faith look like?

One of the things that a priest is privileged to is the entry point to the times of a person’s life at critical junctures of life. At birth, a priest is there to baptize a child for his life in God to begin and to flourish.  When a person makes that decision to enter into a life-long covenant in marriage, we are there to receive those vows on behalf of God and the Church, and at Confession, the priest tends to a person’s most vulnerable state when he humbles himself and puts pride aside to admit of his brokenness and frailty and mistakes.  These are all very very privileged places to be, partly because one needs to be trusted enough to hand over one’s life to another in trust.
A quote from the late Cardinal Francis George, who was the Archbishop of Chicago when he died.
But one of the greatest privileges that one can have as a priest is to be called to a person’s last moments of life on earth. It is undoubtedly when one is most vulnerable, most weak, and most helpless, where earthly help is concerned.  But it is also where the greatest help and aid can be given to a human being, because the help that one needs at that time is supernatural, and it touches faith.  “What does faith look like?” one may ask.  

We use the phrase ‘faith’ rather loosely and often don’t tag it concretely.  When things aren’t quite concrete and tangible, they can end up being ethereal, and as a result, can also not influence much of our daily life.  But faith is power, and power is also something that is unseen until it is harnessed and applied in life.  If faith is power, what does this power enable us to do?

One of the most important things that faith must enable us to do is to surrender.  Spouses in marriages will agree that if there is little or no faith in the love of the marriage, there is also very little courage or effort in surrendering oneself to the other.  This surrender takes on the form of being kind, patient, forgiving when wronged, going the extra mile in loving actions, etc.  When there is not faith in the other, and in the love of the marriage, one becomes less willing, or not willing to live out those virtues. Rather, one will be calculative, parsimonious and unwilling to put those values and virtues into practice.  

Living this way requires of one to die to oneself. There is a constant need for this dying to self in marriage daily, and this doesn’t only apply to people in the married state.  Because every single one of us have the tendency to live lives that are self-centered and ego-centered (a residual of original sin), this dying to self is something that is similarly required of every single person.  When we die to ourselves, to our egos, to our needs, to our pride, we are in effect handing over our lives.  To whom?  To God. Faith then takes on a concrete form, when we are handing over our lives, in love, to God who is love.  

But handing over our lives in surrender to God isn’t the ultimate handing over that we need to do in life.  The ultimate handing over to God is to hand over or surrender our deaths to God, and that surrender is most crucial for us as God’s sons and daughters.

Whenever I am called to minister to a person’s last remaining days on earth, oftentimes in a hospital, I realize that I am also witnessing this handing over.  It is never the same, and it is often an indication of how much of handing over of oneself one has done during one’s lucid and healthy moments of life.  The peace that one experiences at this liminal moment in life is often predicated on the kind of peace one has given out in life. Suffering and pain experienced at these moments are not to be seen as one not having peace.  Oftentimes, the family thinks that when their dying loved one is in some form of pain or suffering, that the person is not at peace. This is when it would be most prudent to look at Jesus’ last moments of life on the cross on Calvary.  There was tremendous suffering and it was definitely excruciating (ex-crucis, from the Cross) for Jesus, but he was at peace, because he was surrendering his death to the Father whom he knows not only is a loving God, but is love itself.

In this most liminal of moments in our lives, it will be our last time that we will be dying to the self.  It will be the most unselfish thing that we can do, because we will be giving up the most precious thing that we have – our lives. Our faith takes on a very concrete form because we are saying that we have faith in the promise of God’s mercy, God’s love and God’s heaven.  Just think of how the many martyrs of the Church had shown such tangible faith at their dying moments when their persecutors made demands of their faith, asking them to renounce their faith, but instead they chose to give their lives up for God.  

Not all of us are called to be such martyrs with our blood, though some of us may pray for this grace.  But all of us will be called to give up our deaths when our time comes.  The Church has named St Joseph as the patron of a happy death, but there are so many ways we interpret what a happy death is.  It surely cannot be only defined as when a person manages to make a good confession just prior to taking in one’s final breath.  Let’s be honest - of the numbers dying each day in the world, the ones that get that privilege make up only an infinitesimal percentage.  

A happy death then needs to be understood as a willingness to hand over our deaths in the way that Jesus did – with no regrets, with no unfinished business, and with a joy that looks forward to what comes after.  But we will only be able to do this well if in our daily lives we are also willing to die to ourselves.  

Our task in life is to die before we die, so that when we die, we will not die.  

Monday, November 18, 2019

God doesn’t tempt anyone. Then why do we say in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation”?

There has been some debate and discussion in recent times regarding the phrase “lead us not into temptation” in the Lord’s Prayer.  Even Pope Francis himself weighed in on this issue, calling for a new translation of that phrase which gives the impression that God plays an active role in leading anyone to sin.  God, who is all good and benevolent, appears in this part of the prayer (or at least in the translation of it), to be an active player in causing us, his beloved children, to be tempted and therefore to sin.  His benevolence seems to be somehow tainted with malevolence. Certainly God doesn't do that (ref. to James 1), but the words of the translation in this prayer can appear to have us see God directly leading us to sin. It can therefore be a tad problematic for some.

It’s always good to do hermeneutics and exegesis when we encounter such issues with the Word of God.  After all, this prayer comes to us directly from the Gospels, and hermeneutics is that branch of biblical studies that deals with interpretation of texts, going to the very origins of the text’s language. The bible texts that we have in English are translations from the Old Testament’s Hebrew and the New Testament’s Greek, and all texts, biblical or not, suffer from what is known as being lost in translation.

In the English language, whenever the word ‘temptation’ is used, it implies the act of being lured, seduced, persuaded and beguiled into sin.  It has the implication that one’s strong will is being somehow debilitated and weakened, preventing one from being resolute to stay the course.  

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the part that teaches us the Lord’s Prayer, (paragraph 2846), there is a very interesting admission in the Catechism that mentions of “a difficulty”.  It specifically says that this translation is indeed “difficult” because the Greek verb in the original text can mean two things.  For the Greek geek, the verb here (both in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel) is ‘peirasmos’.  This word is synonymous with both ‘trial’ and ‘temptation’, and this is what lies at the root of this knotty issue.  

God certainly gives us many trials in life, like illnesses, setbacks, failures, betrayal from our nearest and dearest, having addictions, etc.  These trials are not in themselves good, but they need to be seen as paths through which we can grow in virtue and holiness.  A healthy spirituality teaches us to look at trials as God’s invitation to have us grow and mature.  They are opportunities given to us to show how much tenacity and steadfastness we have in God’s love (with the help of God’s grace, of course) and not yield and fall by giving in to the temptation to either give up, or yield to despair and hopelessness.  So, we need to make it clear that God permits us to be tried in life, so that we can strengthen our faith and love for him.  

I would at this point compare this to my daily difficult but necessary physiotherapy and joint and muscle strengthening exercises that I put my operated hip through, having had hip replacement surgery on 26 August this year.  They are really forms of trials that I place on my new artificial hip.  These daily and repeated stresses are necessary so that muscle fibers around the joint are not just sitting there and languishing away. By the trials and strains of often exaggerated movement and actions, they strengthen the joint and give the necessary stability and support to this hip so that my movement and gait become smoother and my limping less and less pronounced.  

The choice is always there during the exercises (trials) to just stop and give up (temptation).  In the Greek ‘peirasmos’, the same word would apply to both the exercise and the temptation to give up.

But in this prayer, we are in effect asking God for the grace, when the trials come in life, to not yield or give in to the temptation that is inherent in the very trials that we go through. This refusal to yield or give in to the temptation is something that we need to activate on our part, demonstrating our effort in wanting to grow and mature in life.  We are also praying to not fall into temptation, but to be given the grace to grow in virtue.  

We face all sorts of temptations in life, but the temptations themselves are not sin.  To be sure, there is a final temptation that all of us will face in our lives when our lives are at their final moments.  This ultimate temptation is to give up our faith altogether, to wring our hands in despair, and to not believe that God’s mercy is available to us when we need it most.  This is why in the prayer that concludes the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick prayed at or near the person’s death, the words of the prayer always ask that the infirm be strong in facing temptation.  We often have too facile an image of the temptations that we face in life, limiting them to sins that involve the 7 capital sins.  

But the temptation that all of us face in the end, whether one is strong in body or not, is to be tempted to negate God’s love and mercy, when we are at death’s door.  This would be our final and definitive battle against temptation for every single person.  Is it any wonder that the phrase “now, and at the hour of our death” appears so clearly in the Hail Mary prayer?

No, God does not lead us to sin, nor does he actively cause us to fall.  When we pray that line of the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the grace to be strong and steadfast when the necessary trials of life show up at our doorstep.  

Monday, November 11, 2019

Yes, you can be angry with god and yet not be sinning. But you may be idol worshipping.

I hear in confessions so often something that many people grapple with in life.  It’s very common, and it plagues both men and women of all ages.  Many find themselves giving in to this, and when they do, it fills them with guilt.  No, it’s not one of those “loin matters”, if that’s where your mind is going. It is this - when people get angry with God.

At the heart of this sin lies the fact that we know that as Catholic Christians, we should be loving God with all our heart, mind and will.  And if that is so, then loving anyone, including God, should exclude wanting to have negative thoughts or feelings about the person, and when these sentiments arise in one’s heart, it does seem that one has done wrong.  If this person is not any person but God, the ultimate person and creator of all beings, then by extrapolation, this could well constitute the ultimate sin.  At least that’s the logic that seems to be going on in the minds of the penitents who feel guilty for having had these feelings.

Let’s be clear that as far as Canon Law is concerned, for something that qualifies as a mortal sin, it has to fulfill these criteria:
1)    It has to be a serious matter (e.g. abortion)
2)   The person needs to be aware that the action is sinful (full knowledge)
3)   The person, with this full knowledge, commits the action with full intent and full freedom

Of course, those criteria apply to sins that are ‘mortal’, meaning sins that are serious enough to cut ourselves off from God’s grace.  (No, God doesn’t cut us off.  Rather, it is we who cut ourselves off from God).  But even for sins that aren’t mortal, but venial (where our relationship with God is injured and weakened to some degree), there isn’t any mention or reference to feelings, because feelings themselves have no morality in and of themselves.  They are not actions that we willfully do, and these include those many random thoughts that can flash through our minds when we are not actively engaging them in the day.  Feelings are not sins, and quite a lot of people are almost neurotic about confessing feelings.  Living this way limits very much our freedom in life, and God certainly wants us to live freely.  It’s what we do with our feelings that give it a moral texture and quality that can make us virtuous or sinful.

When one believes that one has sinned because one has found oneself being angry with God, I always like to clarify what is it that God has done to the penitent that has resulted in this anger targeted at God. Here are some common examples.

-      God has not answered my prayers even though I have been a good Catholic
-      God has made life so difficult for me
-      God hasn’t helped in my struggle with my addiction/bad habit
-      God is so slow to act, and I’m so tired of waiting

This list, let me assure you, is not exhaustive. There is a whole legion of other reasons people have been or are angry with God.  And for some, being just ‘angry’ is putting it mildly.  Each time I hear their explanations for their being livid, I share their pain, while at the same time, I mourn at their ignorance which they are blind to.

I like to begin by telling them that they have every right to feeling this way toward ‘God’, and that I too would be angry and even acrimonious toward ‘God’ if I were in their shoes.  But the sin I would be committing would not be harbouring ill-will toward God.  Rather, the real sin would be that of idol worship or the worshipping of a false God, simply because the ‘God’ that their anger or resentment is really targeted not at God as who he really is, but at a god that they have created in their minds. 

It is quite clear to my mind that for many of these people struggling with their notions of God, what they are really struggling with is mystery.  It is mystery that God can allow bad things to happen and that he values freedom far more than he wants to control people and the outcome of bad situations.  It is mystery that God takes so much time to have things unfold in life (to me, it is a greater mystery why the human heart is so addicted to speed and to measurable performances).  It is mystery that a lot of life’s deep virtues are learned and imbued through our struggles with failure, suffering, sin and even addictions. A lot of peoples’ false constructs of God result from insisting on him being a wish-granting genie rather than who he really is – mystery itself.

If a person has had the image of God as an elderly white-bearded whose existence is just to arbitrarily manipulate the lives of his creatures in a facetious way, making some people happy when he so wishes, and giving others a hard time with no good reason, and this person has never allowed that image of God to change, grow and mature as he went from childhood to adolescence, to being a youth, then a young adult and finally as an adult, this person’s God image has not really grown, but is quite literally retarded and stopped maturing since he was a pre-teen.  This ‘God’ doesn’t exist in reality, but only in his pre-teen mind. As such, the God he is having negative feelings toward and huge reservations about, is very much a construct and very far from God as he truly is.  Negative feelings against a self-constructed idol have no moral value. It would be like fabricating an image of a unicorn in one’s mind, believing it to be real, and because it cannot be corralled and controlled, becoming finally angry at it.  

In short, one cannot really be faulted for being angry at a self-constructed god.  But one may be idol-worshipping, which is something far more serious, as one has created an idol and have placed it on a pedestal whether to be worshipped or casting one’s anger onto.  

Monday, November 4, 2019

Why joy, and not the Church’s laws, rules, code of moral conduct and ethics should always be evangelization’s first move.

There are many things one can do wrong when one wants to heed the call to the ‘New Evangelization to Transmit the Faith’ to others.  One of these is by bashing others over the head with the Bible.  Of course this is a metaphorical phrase which includes a heavy emphasis on doctrine and the laws of the Church, or a high insistence on getting liturgical actions ‘just right’.  Don’t get me wrong – I am all for doctrine and Canon Law.  They are both necessary and important, but these cannot be the first things that others see us interested in when carrying out the call to evangelize and to be missionary.  What is far more important as a first step is the establishment and forging of friendship and the conveying of our joy that we have as sons and daughters of God in and through our baptism.  This joy needs to fuel the passion that goes behind our words, demeanor and message.  A useful metaphor would be that no one is likely to enter a restaurant when all they see through the window are patrons inside who are simply not enjoying their food, and leaving the eatery glum and dissatisfied.

But I also know that joy is not something that is taught, but rather something that is caught.  When you need to teach someone to be joyful, it wont be coming from the correct place.  The term ‘organized joy’ is really an oxymoron.  But joy that comes from an experience and an encounter will always be authentic and automatic.  One only needs to see a child’s face light up when she wakes up on Christmas morning or gets told that they are going on a family vacation to understand this.  That child doesn’t need to be taught to smile. It’s coming from within.  

Of course, the joy of Christianity and its promise of eternal life and the joyful news of a family vacation are not the same. One has a joy and promise that is truly lasting whilst the other lingers only as long as one’s has good memory. Effective evangelists need to be people who have truly encountered the Lord in a way that is striking, or at least his truth in a way that is more than merely cerebral.  If one’s heart isn’t stirred, one will naturally have quite a few obstacles in one’s path to carry out the task of evangelization even if one has good intentions.  

Having said that, not every evangelist needs to have a supernatural encounter with the Lord to be effective.  But every evangelist needs to set up his life in order for him to be open to God on a daily and regular basis.   One’s dedicated prayer life is therefore the seedbed of such an encounter.  Daily sitting before the Lord in the Tabernacle or whose presence is in the Monstrance in an Adoration Room is essential for the encounter to be real.  One is, after all, in the presence of the real presence.  In the same way, the priest who doesn’t make prayer his work will hardly make his work his prayer.

When our joy is palpable to the people we meet and talk to about Christ, they will be more open to the words of goodness and truth that doctrine provide.  More and more, I am convinced that the order of evangelization needs to be firstly beauty, secondly goodness and only thirdly truth.  There is so much captivating beauty that the Catholic church has in its rich history. Non-Catholics going to the basilicas and cathedrals in Rome and, even without so much as a guide or docent, have come out admiring the beauty that is within them.  Our smile and the joy on our faces as Catholics need to be seen as extensions of Catholicism’s rich beauty.  

These non-Catholic brothers and sisters of ours need to see a certain je ne sais quoisabout us, especially when we are able to go through life’s sufferings with a calmness that conveys faith in God.  
This joy cannot be predicated on how we feel or on which side of the bed we get up from in the morning.  Like love, our joy needs to be predicated on something that doesn’t fluctuate and vacillate like our mood or the weather.  If so, it makes us no different from those whose beliefs are different from ours, of from people with no belief at all.

St Paul is a prime example of how a true disciple of Christ doesn’t let his circumstances in life determine his joy of being a disciple.  In peace times or in persecution, in fair or foul weather, in freedom or in chains, his inner joy was indeed unshakeable and unmistakable.  Calling upon the intercession of this giant of a saint will always be beneficial to anyone who is serious in answering the call to mission and evanglization.