Monday, December 30, 2019

Is there a “best” new year’s resolution? There is indeed. Cover this one, and you’ve got your whole life pretty much covered.

It’s coming to that time of the year, when on the stroke of midnight of the 31stday of December, the calendar of the new year takes effect.  People the world over have a whole range of sentiments around this event, from being totally unfazed and indifferent about it, to being filled with enthusiasm, sentiments and hope.  For those to whom this event is significant, there are generally two things that they are likely to do.

Firstly, they like to do piecemeal analysis, where they look back at the various aspects of their lives and make a general reflection. So, for instance, they would look at the way their family lives went, how they fared in their working lives, their social lives, perhaps the state of their health, how they did in terms of their investments (financial and otherwise), and how healthy the state of their marriages were.  And if they are religious, it may include how they had fared in the aspect of their spiritual lives and whether they had grown in any positive way.

The other thing that follows from this examen is to cast an eye toward the coming year and, as it were, project onto each aspect of life a more positive outlook, treating each aspect as if it were a separate and individual component in life, almost compartmentalizing life.  

This can make the entire enterprise of making new year’s resolutions appear to be such a daunting task, partly because it also necessarily means that one needs to make so many different analyses and often, to make life easier, decide to only make resolutions to live better in only one or two aspects of life, simply because it’s just too bothersome or perhaps too persnickety.

I’m going to recommend an approach towards this whole task of making new years’ resolutions which is far easier, and what’s most truly amazing about this approach is that if you do this, and stick to this with great effort, there is really a guarantee that your entire life will be lived in a way that not only will do you tremendous good, but it will also make a positive difference to the world.

First of all, here is why making piecemeal resolutions is not going to make a great difference.  It merely compartmentalizes our lives, and can end up making us very myopic in life, where we can end up ignoring or overlooking the other aspects of our lives that we deem to be less important.  So, for instance, for a person in sales who is very career focused, while his resolution is for a greater sales target than this year’s, he may be dedicating so much energy and resources to make that new target, he could well be attaining that goal at the cost of spending less time and giving less love by being less present to his wife and children at home.  The attaining of this resolution takes its toll then on his role as a husband and a father.  Every piecemeal resolution is going, very likely, negatively impact other aspects of one’s life.  But there is a solution to this apparent conundrum.

This is when there is only one resolution made – to put God truly at the centre and heart of one’s life, and make one’s world revolve around God.  Why is this the resolution that handles all other resolutions?  Because it helps one to live life with a proper perspective in life, and a proper perspective of life.  

Perhaps an analogy would help, and I’d like to take the example of a meal table, and to be more specific, a Chinese meal table on a festive occasion like perhaps that important reunion dinner to celebrate the Chinese New Year.  On this table will always be laden a variety of dishes.  There will be often a fish dish, perhaps a prawn dish, one that is a vegetable, a soup that is made of luxurious ingredients, a meat dish, and a noodle or a rice dish.  All these are laid on the table and the members of the family are seated around it to share the food before them.  

Taking this as a metaphor of one’s life, do you see your life like this banquet table, with each dish representing a certain aspect or component of your life? Are there dishes that represent your family life, another your work life, another your career, another your social life, and perhaps one dish that is the dish where God gets your resources of time and love? If this is how you view life (and I believe many people do), God simply is viewed as one among the many other parts or components of your life.  If you seriously think about it, how could God, who makes all things (in this analogy, all ‘dishes’) possible and exist, merely exist alongside the things that he has created and holds in existence?  God cannot therefore be viewed as a ‘dish’ on the table, but is in fact outside of the table, and is the whole celebration, including the fact that you can be seated at the table partaking of the whole meal.

I’m not sure if I have conveyed this important point sufficiently through my use of this analogue.  But I do hope that it helps support the reason that if we make that one resolution to improve our relationship with God, to gravitate more and more toward his will, to live in his grace with more love and effort on our part, to truly begin to adore and worship him with our entire being, it will definitely bring improvements into every other component in our lives. Every ‘dish’ on that table will be tended to with greater care, moral rectitude, justice and most importantly, love. From our family life to our careers, from our social lives to the seeming little things like the way we drive our cars and treat others who treat us badly - because our relationship with God is lived well, these other elements too will benefit from this resolution in a significant way.

When St Augustine so famously said “love and do what you will”, this is what he alluded to.  Taken out of context and wrongly read, it may appear that one is given great license to do anything one wants to in life as long as one loves. Unfortunately, this is not so. The love that St Augustine refers to is the love of God.  

When the love of God is our deepest and firmest resolution, not just for a year, but for every day of our lives, we will be living in a very ordered and orderly way, and this will help to sanctify ourselves and the world we live in.  If there is only one resolution to make, let it be this one.  It’s really a no-brainer.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

No, Christmas wasn't easy for God.

“But Father, it’s not easy!” I hear this remark often both from penitents at confession and when members of the laity seek my counsel for their personal issues.  This is especially so when in my advice to them, I suggest that they practice some form of selflessness and altruism in their actions and attitudes, putting the other before the self.  This includes forgiving those who betray or hurt them, being generous in being patient with others, excusing rather than accusing, and loving those who do not return the love given.  No, I do not believe that any of these are easy things to do, but I think that part of the reason this retort is often shot back at me is because our frail and weak human nature just doesn’t do well when it comes to living in ways that require of us some degree of effort and sacrifice.  Our sinful nature has a certain default position that is partial toward the path of least resistance, and often this is a path that wants things easy, with little demands made on discipline and effortful love.  

The easy life, however, is hardly ever the life that is lived meaningfully and the life that can be defined as flourishing. Looking at anybody in history who has impacted history with their skills, talents and contribution to human flourishing.  Look at all of the saints of the Catholic Church.  What they share in common is that their lives were lived with effort and discipline, with a purpose that was beyond themselves being molly-coddled.  

I would agree that the choice that we make to live our lives with a sense of purpose and dedication, to live with integrity, fidelity, honesty and justice is not easy.  But since when has anyone promised that living this way would be easy? There is somehow hardwired in us a general false belief (or hope) that the whole enterprise of living life with an eye toward holiness and sanctification is meant to be easy, and just about everybody I have counseled seems to have bought this lie hook, line and sinker.

But there is a truth about life that we also tend to overlook, and this feeds the lie that we believe that life shouldbe easy.  The truth is that the things that are easy for us in life hardly ever lead to growth and maturity.  Easy often means effortless.  And if we apply this to life, when things do not ask of us to put in effort for them to be attained and achieved, it also necessarily means that there isn’t much value in those goals, and there isn’t much asked of us in terms of resources, time, energy and most of all, love.  There is hardly much merit in anything that doesn’t cost us anything in terms of effort.  Any Olympic Gold medalist will tell you that because that gold medal and that moment when one stands at the top tier of that medalists’ podium is so glorious, so splendid and so triumphant, he or she was willing to go through all the sacrifices, tear-inducing trainings and gut-busting competitions to get there.  It was worth the effort.  It wouldn’t have been possible if he or she was just a couch-potato with hardly any sign of gumption or drive in them.  The same is just as applicable to the spiritual life.

In the spiritual life, not taking that path of least resistance is asking of us to take on some form of hardship and put ourselves in some inconvenience, and it will be terribly unattractive and meaningless if we are doing it just so as to make our lives difficult.  That would be not only madness but also terribly masochistic of us.  

But the Christian life is called “Christian” precisely because it is a life that has a Christian dimension to it.  There is a Christian goal for us, and the path to this goal is to live a life that follows a blueprint and a model, and that model is Jesus Christ.  He was not just a good man or a model human being.  He is God as well.  We need to be clear that the incarnation of God becoming man in Jesus Christ was a deliberate choice of entering into our world mortality and sharing in our fallen state.  In the mystery of the incarnation, God himself made that conscious choice of hardship, sacrifice and stripped or emptied himself of his divinity to take on humanity (Phil. 2:7).  The life that Jesus lived was one which saw him pouring out his love on the least and the littlest, and while doing so, showed humanity glimpses of the Kingdom of God. As he moved toward the moment of salvation on Calvary, he was in a progressive state of self-donation.  This emptying of himself reached its apogee on Good Friday, and with his total giving, came a total receiving on Easter Sunday.  

The incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas each year is surrounded with sentimentality and is rather bucolic.  This romance often puts into the shadow the reality that there is a huge amount of hardship taken on by God for him to become man. No, this display of lavish love on God’s part was not easy for him, and it certainly wasn’t easy as well for Mary and Joseph.  If it was not easy for God, we should hardly expect it to be different for us.

The next time you find yourself wanting to retort “but it’s not easy!” to any advice that suggests that you practice a virtue, some form of mortification or self-denial so that your goal of holiness and sanctification can be realized, remember that at the incarnation, God didn’t let “easy” have the last say. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Living the spiritual life in a defensive way.

In 1964, Chris Imhoff of the US National Safety Council developed and introduced a course on driving focusing on driver safety. It was called the Defensive Driving Course.  Its syllabus went beyond the basic driving course that was mandatory for all drivers learning to drive.  It went beyond the mastery of the basic rules of the road, and its aim was to help drivers to anticipate dangerous situations and the mistakes of others.  Defensive driving was often referred to driving as if everyone else on the road were drunk.  I have of late begun to incorporate this mind and give my counselees and spiritual directees a similar way of living their spiritual lives, with the hope that they will be able to prevent the very common sins of anger, rage and acrimony towards others in life.

As a spiritual director to the people who come to me for help in living their spiritual lives with more effort and better outcomes, I have been trying to see a pattern in the way that many, if not most, people live their spiritual lives.  Of course each person is a unique individual that is a composite of one’s past history, one’s family background, one’s encounters with people, one’s social surroundings and one’s God experiences, and no two persons in the world are perfectly identical in this regard.  But there are certain patterns that are rather similar, especially in the areas of dealing with people who are a challenge to love.  These people can be the people they are married to, their children, their parents, their neighbours and those whom they work with.  

Oftentimes, our relationship with these people in our lives can be the cause of their sins of rage, anger and resentment. Generally, we may have great difficultly in handling the quirks, idiosyncrasies and behavioral patterns that these people adopt in life.  It could be things as seemingly harmless as the habit of their shaking of their legs when seated, to wanting to be control freaks in the relationship, or to being hardly expressive of gratitude for love shown.  When that happens, the material we bring up in confessions are often repeated sins of anger and resentment toward these people in their lives for such things.  One would think that after years of being spouses to each other, or growing up as children of our parents, that these personal quirks and idiosyncrasies would be accepted as part and parcel of their personality.  But it is often the very same issues that crop up that ignites the bed of anger in the heart, and leads it to become a veritable inferno, where the anger becomes an uncontrollable rage that causes harm to other relationships around us.  

I always tell my counselees that they cannot change the people around them very much, but they can and should change the way that they deal with them.  I remember once hearing a very humorous statement made, giving advice to women entering into marriage – that the only time that anyone can successfully change a man is when he is in diapers.  There may be some truth in this.

What’s all this got to do with defensive driving? Bear with me.  Remember - the essence of defensive driving is to drive with the expectation that every driver on the road is drunk, requiring of us to drive with extra care, extra vigilance and caution, and having this attitude results in safer driving conditions on the road (at least on our part).  Perhaps we can learn from this and apply the very same principle in our relationships with people.

We need to be very keenly aware that sin and its bedfellows like selfishness, pride, egocentricity, sloth, envy, lust and just putting the self in the dead centre of the universe is something that plagues every human being.  Just as driving defensively asks that we treat every other driver as a drunk ensues that we drive better, living defensively asks that we see that sin prevails in every person too, and that when these traits of sinfulness show up in life, we will be ready for them, and not let these quirks, habits or irritations cause us to react. This will cause us to live our Christian lives better.   Because we are ready for the negatives in others, we act rather than react. Spiritual defensive living is our readiness for such moments of negative encounter.  

Now I know what you, my reader, may be thinking. It’s not that I am asking you to label every other person in life as a sinner writ large.  This is not what I am suggesting.  I am suggesting that in readying for others in our lives to not live up to their heavenly best form, we are prepared to give them our heavenly best in ourselves NO MATTER WHAT their response is going to be.  If it is their kindest, most patient, most generous and most loving response, count it as a bonus and give God thanks for it.  If it is their worst, when their response hurts, betrays us or gives us pain in whatever form, we are prepared because we are not blindsided.  

Of course, living this way requires very much that we are in a state of grace, because it requires of us to give others grace when they need it most.  The more we are in a state of holiness, deeply in touch with God and loving him in others, the more we can offer them our best when they give us their worst.  For the Catholic, the assurance of us being in a state of grace is when we go to Confession.  Only in this state can we do the difficult thing of giving others our best when they give us our worst.  This is what happened on Calvary when the world threw its worst at God and despite this, God still gave us his best in Christ.  

In this way, living holy lives mimics Chris Imhoff’s Defensive Driving Course, but on a far more existential level.

Monday, December 9, 2019

If I don't feel anything when I pray, am I doing something wrong?

I’m not sure if it is something that plagues the current generation more than it did the previous generations before us, but there certainly is a great emphasis that many people place on their feelings, sentiments and emotions.  While I am not denying that as human beings, that our feelings and sentiments are real, it is when there is an over emphasis and heavy reliance on its importance that these can become problematic for us, and this is especially so when it comes to our prayer life.

It is only when we understand that prayer is not just any kind of communication that we have with God, but a purposeful communication, which is a communication of love and worship, that we will not become panicky and overly concerned when our prayer experience has a distinct lack of emotions or feelings.   

But what exactly does a communication of love entail?  First of all, we need to understand that God is love.  He isn’t just loving, he isn’t just lovely, but he IS love.  There is a whole lot of difference between God being lovely and God being love itself.  The latter means that God is the origin and source of love and the pre-eminent definition of love.  All love comes from him in his Trinitarian love relationship, and all distortions of love and selfish forms of possessive and abusive love is an abomination of God’s love.  

Because God is love in its purest and most unselfish, when we are in a love communication with God, our love for God in prayer necessarily ought to be as pure and as unsullied as possible.  The understanding of this is what lies at the heart of St Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love as ‘willing the good of the other as other’.  That should be the standard that we hope to attain, but at the same time, be accepting of the fact that this will be an aim that will be a work-in-process as long as we are on this side of heaven. Our sinful nature will always stand in the way of our love being as pure as it should be.

Notice that the words ‘emotions’, ‘sentiments’ and ‘feelings’ do not appear at all in St Thomas’ definition of love.  This is not to say that these have no value at all in our human experience of love and of being loving.  But it does mean that when we love despite the fact that these good feelings are not present in our act of loving, that our love has a certain purity about it, and therefore a certain godliness about it.  Just think about the way a husband and wife in a marriage that has lasted many decades love one another.  Often, in the amber or golden years, those sentiments and feelings that surged in the heart when they were a young couple aren’t as roaring, crackling or electrifying by the time they are grandparents.  But still being loving in those times despite there being a distinctive lack of such delightful consolations requires effort.  The fact that this effort is made is evidence of a love that is centered on the other, for the sake of the other.

Having said this, there may well be moments that we spend in prayer that could see us experiencing what are called the ‘consolations’ in prayer.  These are the times when God gives us an experience of his love and his presence, where we intuit in a very real and ‘felt’ way God’s love for us.  These can come most unexpectedly, and these are what I believe are God’s ‘treats’ for us.  While these may delight us, and indeed they should, our motive for praying needs to steer away from wanting more and more of these consolations and treats.  Why?  Simply because if we are praying for another consolation or another prayer ‘high’, we end up looking for the ‘high’ that God gives, rather than seeking the giver of the experience, God himself.  This is when our motive for prayer needs purification, because our love needs purification.

It takes great humility to want God more than what God can give, because it means that we value less of what we desire (in terms of feelings and sentiments), and value God himself above all of them.  To only want the treats that God gives us may not mean that we love God.  We may be loving him only because of his gifts.  

So I wouldn’t be too concerned, or concerned at all if I don’t feel anything special when I pray.  Wanting some consolations when going into prayer could be a sign that I’m placing too much focus on myself, and making prayer about me rather than making it about God.

Monday, December 2, 2019

The patience that Advent teaches.

More and more, as the world makes its ascent towards progress and advancements in so many areas of life, the one thing that we seem to be getting worse and worse at is the ability to wait and be patient.  There appears to be something inversely proportionate at work here – the more our technology makes new breakthroughs in efficiency and technology, the less we human beings are able to see the virtue and importance of patience and to embrace any form of waiting.  It does seem that the higher the number of Gs there are in terms of internet speed, the lower our ability to wait.  An App for waiting seems to be doomed to failure. 

Virtue in one’s life is always a mark of holiness.  Since patience is a virtue, then it has to follow that impatience and the inability to wait, in its various forms, is an enemy of holiness.  The mystic monk Thomas Merton was once asked what he felt was the single worst problem confronting civilization, and his answer was simply “Efficiency!”

Merton was intuitive in saying this. This isn’t only applicable to things of the electronic nature.  Just on the level of life itself, there is so much to do, so many targets and deadlines to meet, so many lists of ‘to-do’s’ to check off.  It’s a perennial turbine that we have to keep turning, and the hamster we keep running furiously in the wheel, or so we imagine.  Yet, we know that often that it is when we dial things down a little, when we take our feet off the accelerator pedal of life, that we begin to notice that there are benefits to be reaped in not rushing and in taking things slow. Just look at the many times you have appreciated going on that much needed retreat where you (reluctantly at first) put away the cell phone and managed to truly be incommunicado from the frenzied world of “I-need-it-done-by-yesterday”.  Suddenly things come into focus and you notice the things that you had inadvertently allowed to whiz you by as you took the fast lane in life’s highway.  You have stopped to smell the roses.

It is this deliberate effort in slowing down, and wanting to be willing to wait that Advent helps us to welcome, attain and inculcate.  Of course it’s going to be challenging (more and more so these days) because the world wants efficiency and screams it from just about everywhere you turn.  

Scripture, if we take time to pore over it purposefully, will reveal that God isn’t in a hurry.  In the entire expansive recounting of salvation history, not only has God taken his divine time to act, he has also taken his divine time to reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ.  The heroes of our faith from Abraham, to Moses, to Jacob, to Joseph, to all the prophets and finally to John the Baptist all shared the experience of having waited.  Patience, and the developing of the virtue of patience, cuts clearly through every single one of them.  The fact that God chose to come into our human lives through a human mother, requiring the gestation of a full nine months of pregnancy, and taking the path of human development and growth to reach human adulthood is itself testimony that there is something about slowness in growth and the passage of time that God delights in, and that God approves.  

While I do think that there are a lot of problems with the commercialization of Christmas, I have also come to see that it may be a tad simplistic to just decry this with slogans and banners like “Put back Christ into Christmas”.  With man’s voracious appetite for amassing material excesses with no end in sight, commercialization of this original sacred time is always going to be hijacked.  Let’s face it – the devil hates Christmas, and will do all he can to thwart its sacred reality. 

But we know that Christmas isn’t in the gift that can be bought but in The Gift that bought our souls from damnation.  We can do something with our practice of patience in Advent, but notonlyin Advent.  The entire Christian lifeis peppered with the need to cultivate waiting.  While Advent has a strong lesson in waiting as a liturgical season, it should not be only in Advent that we should be learning to wait.  The teaching of the virtue of chastity and chaste courting before marriage is in itself a lesson in patience.  So is the Catholic tradition of fasting and penance and all forms of bodily mortifications. All of them help us to develop not just patience, but temperance, charity and love.

Let Mary be our model and example of patience at Advent because her fiat at the annunciation inaugurated a life that allowed God to work in and through her despite things going unexpectedly wrong.  If our earthly mothers have struggled to teach us patience in life, we need to appreciate how much more is our heavenly mother willing to help us in our quest for patience, and through it, to attain holiness of life.