Monday, December 28, 2020

Developing a thick skin is key in being a true Catholic and to respond to our call to evangelize.

It’s a given that for many, if not for most, that answering the call to evangelize about our faith as Catholics to others is challenging, to say the least.

 

Many Catholics are even oblivious to the fact that their very baptism into Christ and into the universal Catholic church itself has conscripted them into the necessary task of bringing Christ to others who have not yet come to know the tremendous privilege of being the adopted children of God the Father in Christ.  Part of the reason this is so is because it is often the case that well grounded catechesis had not been a constant follow-up after the rite of Baptism, and even if it was constant, the response from the one receiving catechesis and formation in the faith was more passive than active.  Just like learning that is done in the academic field of life, one’s appreciation of the subject being taught is deeper and more focused when one is an active learner as compared to when one is just passively attentive to what is being imparted.  

 

In the matter of faith, especially when it comes to the task of evangelization, it is a given that knowledge of doctrine is of great import.  But even before one opens one’s mouth to speak about Jesus and the faith, what gets the important ‘foot in the door’ in another person’s life is the way that one lives and behaves.  No one is interested in our talk about Jesus if by our lives we are a blatant demonstration of living lives that are clearly contrary to the teachings of Christ.  Perhaps it is because many of us know that we are living somewhat ‘counter-Christian’ lives that we are reluctant and even hesitant to evangelize at any level.  Admitting that we are hypocrites is one thing.  Hearing others brandishing that description about us is far more painful and humiliating.

 


It is because of this realization that I came to see that developing a thick skin toward the negative responses to others is so very important if we are truly to do the work of evangelizing our faith to others.  A thick skin is needed to face many things that any true evangelist is very likely to face when introducing the person of Christ to others.  I share a few good reasons why this is not only necessary but also wise.

 

1.   A thick skin is needed to receive critiques and criticisms

There is a natural tendency to be defensive when the good that we intend to do is not well received. Sometimes this even gets personal. A thick skin is needed to take this in stride, and to not react.  A calm and collected demeanor in these moments could be the ‘deal breaker’ for those whom we are sharing Christ with, especially if they have hearts that are somewhat hardened.  

 

I recall reading about how Mother Theresa of Calcutta put this into practice when she was beginning her arduous task of getting food and supplies for the orphans in her care.  According to one account, she went to a bakery and asked the baker if he could spare some bread for the poor and starving children. The baker, with rage in him, spat into her outstretched palm.  Wiping the saliva gently away with the hem of her sari, Mother looked gently at the baker and said “Thank you for what you gave me.  Now, can you please give some bread to the poor children?” 

 

From that moment on, the baker’s heart changed, and as the story goes, he became a regular benefactor to Mother’s orphanage.  

 

2.   A thick skin is needed to accept no as an answer.

I think there are many of us who cannot take no for an answer, and this is problematic in the faith life. God often does answer our pleas and prayers with a no, and it is for our own good that he does.  If God’s answer to our petitions to him is always a yes, I think we have a very big problem on our hands.  So we struggle with God’s no.  

 

We also tend to struggle with a “no” when we invite others to come with us to some spiritual talk or meeting or some bible-study or prayer groups.  We want and expect a wholehearted and immediate “yes” from the people we are inviting to get to know Jesus, and because very often, the first response is a “no”, declining our invitation, we get discouraged and think we don’t have what it takes to evangelize well.  What it does prove is that we don’t have what it takes to be rejected.  

 

We need to almost expect that the first response, even the second or third response from those we are inviting to be a “no”.  There are two good things about having this expectation.  Firstly, it makes any “yes” a bonus and a true delight to receive, rather than something that we think is a response that we are entitled to.  We become grateful.  

 

Secondly, we prepare the grounds of their hearts when we go to them a second time (maybe in a few months’, or next year) to invite them again.  It may be that their hearts need a few rounds of asking, a few times of inviting and some show of loving persistence.  We need to bear in mind the gospel text of the parable of the persistent friend at night (Luke 11:5-8) that knocked at the door of a friend late into the night to ask for some bread for his visitors.  His persistence won for him food for his friend.  I think this parable can be renamed as the parable of the thick-skinned friend.


3.   We need a thick skin to offer the other cheek.

In Luke 6:29, Jesus gives a rather challenging instruction to his disciples when it comes to living out the Beatitudes.  It's framed within the call to love those who hate or curse us, and Jesus makes it clear that there is a need to offer the other cheek to those who strike us on one cheek.  Apart from a call to non-violence, to do this well requires of us to develop skin that is thick - thick enough to withstand the kind of negative response to our willingness to live out the call of intentional discipleship.  Having a thin skin in our discipleship will only show how sensitive we are to facing any kind of push back in our efforts at evangelisation, and we will be far more interested in preserving ourselves than in wanting Christ to be brought to others.

 

The work of evangelizing to others is always a work in process, quite like the way that our quest for spiritual maturity is also a work in process.  If we think it’s a point of arrival, we’ve really missed the point.  

 

It is always a point of departure.

 

 

Monday, December 21, 2020

“But it’s so hard, Father!” Yes, but so was the first Christmas.

 This is such a common response by people who show some interest in improving in their spiritual lives. It’s so common that if I don’t hear this lament from them, I wonder if they have really heard what it was I was asking them to do when it comes to putting in effort to live a converted life.  This is most common when I am trying to impart the importance of things like forgiveness, making effort to pray, making confession a regular feature in one’s life or doing all one should be doing to overcome a habitual sin in life.  But the very common and persistent one that is met with this response has to be forgiving those who have hurt them.

There seems to be a mistaken notion (and a very commonly held one) that the spiritual life should be easy or something close to a walk in the park.  No one said that it would be easy.  Even if Jesus did say that his yoke is easy and his burden light, it is still a yoke that needs to be borne, and a burden that needs to be carried. What he does promise is that he would be carrying it with us, but not for us

 

The truth is that nothing in life that is meaningful and has a great positive effect on our souls is easy. Easy things are never the deep and life-changing things.  Watching Netflix is never a challenge, but it also doesn’t do much to bring our souls closer to God.  An afternoon spent at a soccer stadium watching our favourite team playing against a rival team doesn’t require much effort on our part (at least not in the intellectual sense) but it also doesn’t impact the way that we mature to becoming better human beings.  In fact, sometimes it has a negative impact on our spiritual lives, when football turns into footbrawl.

 

So why does it surprise anyone then, that forgiving those who give us grief in life should be something that is very difficult?  That’s because being able to come to that point in our lives that we are putting a lot of effort and energy to show mercy and forgiveness to them shows that we are also willing to be Christ to them.  And more to it, it is imitating Christ at his most vulnerable and most powerful as well, which is the time when he gave himself up so humbly and willingly on the Cross of Calvary for sinners who were unrepentant.  This happens when we will ourselves to love those who do not love us back.

 


We need to remember that the entire mystery of the incarnation of Jesus becoming man, and entering into sinful humanity with love and effort, saving it by dying on the Cross WAS NOT EASY. Of course he is God, but he is also fully man, who also has human feelings and sentiments, who felt tired and hungry and thirsty like any normal human being.  The incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas is real acknowledgement that we are appreciative of just how much trouble God went through to become one of us so that we can become him (I’m paraphrasing St Ireneaus here).

 

I don’t think that wanting things easy is something that is only seen in entitled millennials.  This is something that lies deep inside every flawed and sinful human being.  Even Mary who was conceived without original sin had to go through so much hardship for her to be used so effectively by God in the whole plan of salvation for humankind. 

 

Here in Singapore, we have been able to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus to a large extent with many of us cooperating by practicing social distancing and wearing masks, and being responsible in enabling contact tracing.  This has also enabled Christmas Masses to be held, albeit in very limited numbers.  Those wanting to come for Christmas Masses are required to make online bookings for available spaces and when the time for booking came, all Mass bookings were filled and taken in a matter of mere minutes, leaving a large majority of Catholics disappointed, irate and frustrated.  

 

I could hear the chorus of “it’s so hard” coming from the ground up.  Yes, it was, but so was the first Christmas for Mary, Joseph and most of all, Jesus. The incarnation was something that truly changed everything for all of humanity, and it was also truly difficult. 

 

Let us not hope for things to be easy for us when it comes to matters of our souls getting shaped and readied for heaven.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The essential admission that every sincere Christian needs to make to pave the way for true conversion – deep inside, I am a selfish person.

I recall from a very young age, that whenever we would go out to have a meal at some open air eatery (in Singapore, we would call them ‘zhi char’ stalls), often at crowded coffee shops, whenever a waiter brought out a steaming hot dish, as he walked through the narrow pathway leading to the table which ordered the dish, the phrase ‘guan sui’ (boiling water in Cantonese) would be sharply and loudly yelled out in order to tell everyone to get out of the way, and to clear the path ahead.  It was a signal for everyone in the shop to not be too absorbed in whatever conversations they were engaged in to, at least for the moment, look up lest they be accidently scalded by hot food that could spill on them.  

 

“Get out of the way” is a very useful and clear metaphor all of us who are sincerely interested in true and mature spiritual growth need to bear in mind constantly.  While it is true that what gets in the way of our goal and aim of holiness in life is sin and all that sin stands for, there is still beneath that - something more elementary and germane, something more basic and basal that gives sin its necessary foundation to sink its claws into, and it is our very own egos and self-centeredness.  

 


Where do we get this notion that it is our egocentric drives that causes us to get into the kind of inner turmoil and conflict that we experience each time we allow sin to rule in our lives? We first see its emergence of course in the book of Genesis where our first parents get tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not that knowing what is good and what is evil is bad for us.  It is this going against what was told to them specifically by God that was at the heart of sin.  

 

Ever since that fall, every human heart (except for Mary, due to her being pre-saved by Christ in her immaculate conception) finds itself wanting what it wants more than wanting what God wants. Temptation to sin is the 1001 justifications that the former is good and delightful, and virtue and holiness is preferring the latter.  

 

We are always seeing this clearer after succumbing to temptation and fallen prey to the lies of the deceiver, a.k.a. Satan.  Whereas before the fall, our vision of clarity of what is good and beneficial for our souls is often cloudy and blurred, that same vision of clarity suddenly changes to 20/20 vision post sin.  What makes our vision cloudy is our ego and pride that blocks this clarity.  

 

Any spiritual retreat worth our time and retreat fee is measured by how clearly and articulately we allow the Holy Spirit to speak this truth to our hearts.  I don’t measure how good a retreat is by how ‘high’ one gets emotionally after a retreat.  That’s a very low bar to measure a good retreat by, as evidence has shown that things can just go back to normal in a matter of days after the retreat ends.

 

But a beneficial retreat is measured by how much inner conversion takes place by seeing with a greater degree of clarity how one’s ego needs and insecurities had been the source of wanting to give in to sin and selfishness in the various areas of life, and not wanting to put in the necessary effort to respond to God’s grace prompting and inviting one to do God’s will in each moment of life.  

 

I guess this is the main reason why there are ‘retreat addicts’ who run form one retreat to another, just to get the post retreat high, because many retreatants aren’t courageous and honest enough to do the hard work that is required to face one’s inner demons with a determination to slay them with the sword of the love of God.  

 

Yes, if we but instill in ourselves that it is necessary to daily ‘get out of the way’, we will be able to live out the call to have room in our hearts for Christ to enter in. Not just at Advent, but every day.  The painful reality is that the situation that Joseph and Mary faced in Bethlehem is the same one that Jesus faces each time he wants to enter into our hearts. There simply is no room for him at the inn.  

 

Maybe we need to hear a voice hollering “guan sui” into our ears and we will get out of the way.

 

 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Advent’s waiting isn’t just something that is experienced by us. God too is waiting.

Patience, as we all know, is a virtue.  Impatient people tend to display among other traits, short-temperedness and an unwillingness to suffer fools easily.  They want things to be done quickly, and to be done their way. Patient people are able to curtail these shortcomings and as a result, tend to have a personality that is genial, socially acceptable and are less hard to get along with than their impatient counterparts.

 

God, because he is God, doesn’t have flaws or shortcomings.  He is perfect love, perfect beauty and is truth itself, as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s masterwork in theological tome “The Glory of the Lord” takes pains to elaborate and illustrate.  

 

Now if God is perfect, and indeed he is, then together with God being the perfect lover and being truth itself, God is also perfect in the virtue of patience.  Of course, I am equating our human notion of virtue with the divine aspect of virtue, which may in itself be a little problematic, but we do need some anthropomorphism in order to flesh out what I am mooting in this reflection.

 


One of Advent’s perennial themes that always get airplay at this time of the year is the theme of patience or waiting.  As human beings, we struggle a lot with this.  Hardly anyone is naturally born with a healthy ability to wait well.  We see this intolerance with waiting evidenced even in newborn infants who just won’t stop bawling their tiny lungs out because they can’t wait to be fed or held close to the mother’s breast.  Somehow, hardwired into the human psyche (which is faulty through original sin) is that it wants the world to orbit around the self and the ego. Patience, though it is a virtue, is something that needs to be nurtured and learned, and like anything that requires growth, doesn’t happen overnight.  

 

So we are encouraged during the Advent season to develop a desire to want to cultivate patience.  Most of all, it is patience for God to present himself in our lives.  For sure, we do require patience for Christmas to come on December 25th, but more than just the celebration of the historic arrival of God-becoming man in the incarnation event, our spiritual lives require of us to acquire a heart that is willing to wait for God to manifest himself and his will in our lives.  It is when we are good ‘waiters’ that we can spot him when he appears, albeit in a hidden form, in our loved ones, in those who we consider our ‘enemies’, and in those who tend to make life challenging for us.  

 

But it isn’t only we who are waiting in our lives.  I think we very easily fail to realise that God too is waiting. He not only waits at Advent, but also has been waiting ever since Adam and Eve, his beloved creation whom he made out of love and for love, decided to willfully disobey and live for themselves, causing them to end up being cast out of Eden.  He had been waiting for them to be redeemed and to be restored once more to his embrace.  He had been waiting for humanity to realise that their greatest delight and fulfillment would be when they are fully in heaven.  

 

Our Advent waiting tells us that we are now living in between the two comings of Christ, where the first coming was at the incarnation and the second would be when he comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  God’s waiting also has a similar two dimension, where his first waiting was fulfilled at Mary’s yes at her annunciation.  In fact, all of humanity and all of heaven was waiting in great anticipation for her generous fiat, which paved the way for the incarnation to take place.  When those beautiful words of “let it be done to me according to your Word” was uttered by our blessed Mother, God’s first waiting was over.  His divine plan to enter into the world, in a hidden form of a helpless and tiny babe, located in some rural Roman occupied outpost in Bethlehem kicked into high gear.  

 

But God’s waiting isn’t over yet.  Even with the glorious ascension of Jesus to his Father’s right hand in heaven, God is now waiting.  Yes, right now, even as your eyes read these words on whatever device you are receiving this blog reflection on, God is waiting for your response to his reaching out to you in grace.  He is waiting for your wanting to live your life in a holy way that shows you are truly desirous of heaven and all that your baptism promises.  He is waiting for your ‘yes’ to being another Christ as you live out your day that could see you being asked to be more forgiving, more patient, more charitable in your deeds and thoughts, less critical of those who you deem to be lesser beings than yourself, and to find offensive the same things that God finds offensive, and find delightful in the things that give God the glory he deserves.  

 

Advent is indeed a time of waiting, but we don’t wait well.  God, however, has showed so much restraint in displaying his wrath when we are so deserving of recrimination for our numerous and repeated sins.  Thank God for his divine patience with us.

 

 

Monday, November 30, 2020

When having a poor understanding of charity can really expose a smallness of heart. (Included at the end is a YouTube link to a coming Advent talk I will be giving tomorrow night)

Sin and evil are not always obvious and clearly defined.  They can be also subtle and therefore complex as well.  This makes it very challenging for anyone to really want to listen to the inner promptings of the conscience because the way sin and evil like to work is to hide themselves in the fabric of good.  

 

No one would willfully and willingly commit an obviously evil act for the sake of evil itself (unless one was psychotically deranged, and even that would be a result of some mental disorder).  Almost always, one would commit an act of evil or sin within what is considered a shaded or misguided good.  After all, we see how the author of the book of Genesis describes the serpent in the Garden of Eden as being “more subtle or crafty than any other beast in the field that God had made” (Gen. 3:1).

 

The oft-quoted phrase “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions” is said to have originated from St Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the early 12thCentury.  His was a more succinct version, which went something like “hell is full of good intentions or desires”.

 

But how does one assure oneself that one’s intentions for anything are pure?  What does a pure motive look like?  What defines a heart that is a heart that is full (or at least having a large portion) of charity?  

 


It has to be reducible to loving the other in such a way that the other’s good is ultimately desired, even it means having to displace oneself to attain that end.  If it has a tinge of shaming the other, calling the other one out in public, or diminishing the other’s dignity is any way, there will be some form of vindictiveness or even vengeance in the act, and therefore should be avoided.  Carrying on would reveal a lack of charity.

 

This kind of evil is never obvious, and the means through which one’s thoughts are easily made public comes readily to mind.  We only need to look at how the proliferation of social media in its various forms have consequently seen the emergence of the keyboard warrior.  Hardly a complimentary term, keyboard warriors do not usually act with charity of the heart, nor willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.  There is little effort made for holistic engagement to take place.  When an incident that incites the ire within happens, one takes to the keyboard to write an email of complaint not just to the person directly, but oftentimes will also cc the world (or the larger community) and with one hit of the ‘return’ key, someone else is publically named and shamed.

 

When this is done, it immediately changes what could be a charitable act into an act that diminishes the other. An act of charity in this case would be to engage the other in a one-on-one conversation, bearing in mind the intention of ultimately wanting the good of the other.  But with a blast of one email that is cc-d to all and sundry, instead of building bridges and fostering the growth of well being, walls are erected and the world becomes a smaller and darker place.  Instead of love, fear and discord is sown.  Hidden behind all this, a sense of self-righteousness and a false sense of superiority can also lurk.  When the battle could have been God’s, it ends up being a round going to the devil.

 

This is why when there is conflict and disagreement, the golden rule would be to follow what Jesus says in Matthew 18 – if there is a matter to resolve, first go up to the person concerned and have a conversation on the matter.  If that doesn’t help to resolve the matter, bring one or two others along. If that doesn’t work, then tell it to the Church.  

 

This is sometimes called the law of gradualness or the principle of subsidiarity, where a certain hierarchy is followed.  Although it is tempting and easier to just go to the highest level (the public arena) when something is causing one to be upset (or when something causes one to feel offended), this law reminds one to take things in small steps, and in so doing, also helps one to develop the virtue of patience.  Of course it is going to take more effort.  But it is in the very act of its slowness that gives one the necessary reasons to bring the matter up in prayer and to listen to what God may be saying to us in our hearts.  

 

Bypassing the important preliminary steps and going straight to the community may be a quick way to be heard, but often what is heard (or seen) is the anger and bitterness in the heart rather than a deep desire for growth and maturity.  

 

In case you, my reader, are wondering what caused me to reflect publically and openly on this matter, it is because a letter of complaint had been sent to all the priests of the diocese regarding the way a fellow priest had apparently flouted liturgical laws during the celebration of a funeral Mass recently.  It was addressed not to the priest, but to the Bishop, and all of us priests were cc-d on this matter.  

 

While I can understand that there are a good number of the laity who are very liturgically minded, and get rather upset when they see what they term to be ‘abuse’, going straight to the bishop and cc-ing the entire priestly fraternity doesn’t really show much charity. Try instead to foster charity of the heart and make the effort to foster some engagement with whomever it is that we may have issue with.  

 

This way, we can really grow as a community where we truly want the best for the other.


Post-Script:  For those interested, I will be giving an Advent talk at 8pm (Singapore time) on Tuesday, 1 Dec 2021, tomorrow.  It will be conducted from the sanctuary of my parish of IHM, but because the COVID situation limits church gatherings to only 100 persons, it will also be broadcast online.  Just click on this link to bring you to the broadcast - https://youtu.be/Dtxr57NMmu8

Monday, November 23, 2020

Being pure and holy cannot be just for its own sake, like emptiness isn’t good on its own.

I have a glass jam jar sitting on my desk in my office.  It used to contain delicious strawberry preserve, which I had relished to the very last drop. I passed someone something I made a few weeks ago, and it was returned to me washed and cleaned, and I have yet to bring it back to my living quarters.  As grace would have it, I found a new use for it now that we cannot hear confessions in the confessionals but rather in our offices due to the safety measures put in place by the powers that be viz-a-viz the COVID situation. It comes in suitably handy in bringing across a point when hearing confessions regarding purity.

 

It is not uncommon to see people who are sincere in wanting to grow in holiness getting into a certain rut when dealing with their issues with purity and addictions.  While they are clear that their lives should not be lived around the obsession with things and activities that fill their hearts and minds with things that God finds offensive, many can end up having their lives obsessing over the direct opposite end of this moral spectrum – where they are overly concerned with keeping their lives and souls scrubbed spotlessly clean (as if that will ever happen) and making that the aim and goal of the spiritual life.  It is not.

 

Our lives (as is our heart and our soul) are not to be imaged as a blank slate or an empty vessel to be kept empty.  Emptiness doesn’t have value and goodness in itself.  Emptiness is a lack.  The beginning lines of Genesis tells of how before God created anything, that the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. This is strong metaphorical language because it isn’t logical to even say that there was earth before God created anything.  It’s alluding to the fact that emptiness is a lack, just as vacancy is a lack.  

 



Out of love, God has created so that creation can partake in the love that God is in his very essence. Just wanting to keep our souls (and obsessing over keeping our minds) clean and vacant not only isn’t possible, but it is also not in line with God’s aim of creation.  Yes, keep it clear of clutter and what does not glorify God, but do make great effort to fill that with what does give glory to God.  We do this by loving God and loving neighbour, and all acts of mercy, charity and rightful love will do that in big and small ways.  That’s probably the harder follow-up part of the spiritual quest that many find challenging.

 

This is when I use the concrete example of the empty jam jar sitting on my desk in my office.  The makers of that glass container did not make it to be a container for air.  It was made to contain things.  The same for our souls, which are not made for them to be void of anything, but to be filled with love (for God and neighbour) because they are made by love (of God).  Who could have guessed that a washed jam jar could be something I could use as an apparatus to depict our souls?

 

This brings to mind a gospel passage from Matthew 12:43-45, where Jesus says that when an unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it will go to waterless places seeking rest, but finding none, will return to the place from which it came and finding the house empty, swept and put in order, will re-enter it with seven spirits more evil than itself and the person will be in a worse state then before.

 

It will be a new obsession and it will be more insidious because at least in the first instance, it was a clearly morally objective evil obsession.  Now, in the second instance, the new obsession of being OCD about one being scrupulous will have an appearance of goodness, while in essence it is still not filling it with any semblance of love of God or neighbour, but is in fact a new level of being self-absorbed and self-serving.  

 

 

 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Knowing why we do what we do is always important, especially so in our spiritual quest.

It’s a known fact that big corporations all over the world hold retreats or company camps regularly for their employees in order to galvanize and motivate them to be good at their jobs. At these retreats, one of the things that are emphasized and stressed is the company’s mission.  The reason for this is that it aligns (or re-aligns) the various departments’ individual goals with that of the company’s overarching goal and mission.  If there are departments within the company that have ethos and goals not in line with the company’s mission, re-alignment will be required, resulting in greater harmony and productivity for the entire structure.  There is, in many cases, a general tendency for employees or even sub-departments to forget why they are doing what they are doing.  When this happens, motivation and drive naturally slacken.

If this is true vis-a-vis companies and corporations that are profit-driven, it is also true in an analogical way for the human heart and soul vis-√†-vis a person’s spiritual life. 
 



Every canonized saint of the Church has shown steadfastness in living out his or her soul’s mission statement, which is to have heaven as his or her ultimate aim and goal.  This same steadfastness and resolve to ensure that our lives are lived in such a way as to keep us aligned toward that divine end that we have as baptized sons and daughters of God is so necessary, especially when it is the intention of the evil one to have us not reach that goal. 
 
I have, as a counselor and guide for souls, become keenly aware of how easily one can fall into sin or give up wanting to live a holy life, when that heavenly goal for the soul is unclear or not intentional.  Without a strong desire to love God and to want to enter into God’s eternal embrace after we die, it is easy to merely exist and ‘get by’ each day, when we should be striving for excellence in giving God the glory of our lives and the effort that we put in when we ensure that we put love where love is lacking. Without an eye constantly kept on heaven’s goal, we tend to keep our bar of life set relatively low. But when we are in great awareness of what our baptism gives us in terms of a divine dignity, we raise the bar much higher.
 
It’s a well-known adage that in all our endeavours, we should always begin with the end in mind.  Without an idea or a target that we can set our minds and eyes on, we are inclined to settle.  Heaven isn’t settling.  Heaven is a highest standard that we can ever shoot for in life, and anything less that than is a compromise.  The saints knew this, and their lives and their steely determination to attain that end is for us to emulate.  
 
The foundation of such a firm belief is from our baptism in Christ.  That is the base from which all other teachings and doctrines that the Church imparts to us are built on.  If that foundation isn’t strong, the teachings and doctrines that are taught to us will not have much to stand on.  They will fall off our hearts easily just as a fried egg falls off easily from a non-stick frying pan.  The stronger one sets one’s heart and eyes on their heavenly goal, the truth of the church’s doctrines not only will make sense, but their essence will begin to be steeped into our hearts.  
 
In the gospels, Jesus is always seen as setting his eyes resolutely on Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is more than just a city.  It is a metaphor of his raison d’etre to fulfill the Father’s will, because of his intense love of the Father.  As much as Jerusalem is the city where his crucifixion takes place, it is also where he rose from the dead because he was faithful and lived his life with fidelity to the Father.  In Jesus we have the model to follow and be just as resolute to set our eyes on the heavenly Jerusalem.  It will most likely take us to places which will see us undergo forms of suffering and afflictions, but when our goal for locked on heaven, it will make valid anything that we are asked to go through.

Monday, November 9, 2020

What does ‘praying well’ look like?

Prayer is one of those things in the life of a person that one often struggles to properly define and for that matter, properly carry out.  There are of course, many other areas in our lives that we face similar struggles with – fidelity, righteousness, justice, charity, mercy and love, to name a few.  

But while all of those areas mentioned are experienced when we relate to one another, prayer is different because it is experienced and lived out between ourselves and God.  That God, who is the object of prayer, isn’t physically present to us when we pray makes prayer much harder to define, and also therefore, harder to actually do.  

That beings said, how do we pray well?  One way to define prayer is the ‘lifting up of our hearts and minds to God’.  But the way that I hear many people describe their prayer, it is often a very edited and tidied up contents of what is in their hearts and minds.  God is often treated as a very strict and foreboding parent, and before lifting the contents of our hearts and minds to God, they need to be first cleaned up, or at least go through some serious spiritual Marie Kondo-ing before it gets the ‘all clear’ to be lifted up to God.  This means that what is deemed unholy or too worldly is tossed out of the heart before one can do any serious praying.  But this would then mean that we aren’t all that fully transparent and open to God, who really does see all that he has created.  

 


At the core of this problem is that we have a very narrow view of what we think God considers suitable to be brought to him in prayer.  Maybe we have been taught that we are praying well only when we have good thoughts and don’t have aches and pains in our hearts that come from the fact that we have hardness and smallness of heart.  We think that we should only be praying when we feel at peace, generous, kind and centered in life.  

 

While these may be good feelings and emotions to have on any given day, when they are not there, when we cannot help but feel some anger, uneasiness, or even acrimony or bitterness, what are we do to then when praying?  We’d like to turn them off like we can the switch when we don’t want the brightness of the light from the lamps in our rooms, but sometimes we just cannot. Besides, together with these, there are other thoughts or mental images that can flood our minds as well, especially when we had not been too careful with what our eyes landed on earlier in the day.  Many would think that having these on our minds would somehow invalidate our attempts at prayer.  

 

The spiritual masters do not say that we should only be ‘lifting up our hearts and minds to God’ only if they are edited or scrubbed clean.  It can and sometimes should, include those things that we might wish were not there at all.  Doing this makes us admit of our weaknesses and, as it were, our foolishness as well. In fact, isn’t it true that it is precisely at these weak moments, these cloudy moments that we need prayer the most? Wanting God’s presence at these moments reveal to us just how weak we are, and that we can only get stronger in love of him if we but try.  

 

If you feel small of heart, and aren’t afraid to admit this to God, lift this up to him.  Ever noticed how little children don’t edit their feelings or sentiments when they speak to their parents?  Even when they are having a meltdown, they don’t edit it away. They come to their parents and have a certain hope that their parents will deal with it.  

 

When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God belongs to little children, and that we need to be like children to enter the Kingdom of God, it is this aspect of being a child that we need to learn to establish in life.  Just as children are honest and bare all in their feelings and what is in their hearts, so too do we need to do this in our prayer life.  The child who goes to the mother with his aching heart doesn’t first consider whether the mother has the wherewithal to deal with it. He just goes.

 

God, we need to realise, has the wherewithal to handle all that we carry in our hearts, and that includes those bits that we’d rather Marie Kondo out, for whatever reasons.  

 

Sometimes it is to our detriment that we make God to be so weak, and so small minded, causing us to be weak and small minded ourselves.

Monday, November 2, 2020

What a happy death looks like.

In the Disneyland theme park, there is a very popular attraction called the Haunted Mansion, where one is taken on a ride through a tongue-in-cheek “scary” visit in the caverns of a mock haunted mansion where visual and audio effects serve to give the visitor thrills and chills at the same time.  At the very entrance of the ride the visitor is greeted with a notice that reads, “We are dying to meet you”, referring to the 999 happy haunts that one will encounter within.

I’ve always thought that this was not only a clever tag line, but also one, which every Christian ought to hold as dear and true in our hearts as we approach our dying days.  Our entire lives on this earth are meant to serve one final purpose, which is to ready ourselves to finally meet our Heavenly Father, whom we can only truly see and embrace after we have finished our lives on earth.  But we hardly give much thought to this truth, as we are often far too focused on the delights, thrills and joys that this life brings.  While this isn’t wrong in themselves, it is when we get too fixated with what this life gives us to experience that makes us unwilling and perhaps even unable to welcome death when it is our time to go, and see its positive dimension, which is the necessary gateway that all of us need to go through in order to reach the heavenly destination that we were all baptized for.


I don’t think it is a sweeping statement to say that all of us want heaven, even if the ways that we imagine it to be has great differences.  But few of us want it and long for it badly enough to be happy to go through the gateway of death for it.  Woody Allen put it in such a witty way when he said that he didn’t mind death, but just didn’t want to be there when it happened.  The prospect of heaven’s eternal bliss is indeed promising, but not so much the portal of death through which it is a sine qua non for every one of us.

We are reminded of the inevitability of our deaths each time All Souls’ Day comes round each year on November 2.  It may seem macabre to even want to think of death when we are in the prime of youth or when we are in the pink of health, but spiritually speaking, we need to rein it in a bit whenever we think that whatever joys and thrills that we are having in this life should be something that doesn’t end.  COVID has been very effective in reminding us of this fact.

But when we live with the awareness that our lives here are meant to pave the way toward our heavenly goal, it will help us to handle two things that are hardest to handle well – joys and disappointments.  We will see that all joys that we are given to experience in life are but foretastes of the eternal joy that only heaven can give, and won’t be too upset, unsettled or grieved when these are taken away from us.  As well, we will also see that all sadnesses that this life can give us, and this includes afflictions and sufferings do not have the last say, and if handled well, can even serve to make us live in great anticipation of heaven where ‘every tear will be wiped away’.  

It is the fruit of spiritual maturity that our acknowledgement of this reality doesn’t leave us blas√© or sangfroid in life, because the spiritually mature person will still want to give his or her all in living and loving God with all one’s heart, mind and soul.  

What then is a happy death?  It is one in which one is very ready to fall into the arms of a loving God because one has lived this life in anticipation and readiness for that eternal fulfillment that only God can give, and can say like that sign at the Haunted Mansion “I have been dying to see God”.  Literally.




Monday, October 26, 2020

The universal call to holiness is rooted in our universal call to sainthood.

With the approaching of 1 November each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the glorious solemnity of All Saints’ Day.  It serves to remind us of many things about our Catholic identity, and one of the most important being that all of us who are baptized into the faith are, without exception, called to sainthood.  

 

But this is poorly understood most of the time, because for many Catholics, sainthood is something that is reserved only for a very few people who have been specially graced by God to lead exemplary, heroic and faith-filled lives.

 


While it is true that compared to all of humanity that have been baptized since the founding of the Church, only relatively few have been formally canonized and officially given the title of Saint, it is not only those who have been canonized that are indeed saints. Few in the Church seem to understand that every person who has died and has been deemed worthy to enter into the eternal joy of heaven is a saint.  To be a saint is to have attained one’s ultimate goal in life.  To not be a saint is to have failed in life’s most important goal and aim.  Every one of life’s other goals literally pales in comparison to this one target and destination in life.  When well lived, all of one’s other goals in life serve to help one to reach this target and aim.  To be sure, there are many other projects, interests and pursuits that a person can have, from marrying a spouse, having and bringing up children, being sedulous in one’s work, building up of one’s career, or pursuing one’s hobbies and developing one’s skills.  

 

But if they serve to distract and side-track one’s goal of attaining heaven at the end of one’s earthly life, all these would have been lived and pursued in vain, because they would at best have been ends in themselves, and not a means to an end, especially if in pursuit of them one has made choices that ended up blurring the focus of heaven and the attainment of sanctity.

 

To only define saints as people who have been officially canonized by the Church is to somehow raise the bar so high that it may be something that is unthinkable and out of sight for many, leading many to think that this is an unreachable goal and at best, a daunting task. And this is a shame, because the aim of our lives is not to be canonized saints, though if that is your personal aim, it is a very commendable one, but to be saints nonetheless.  

 

But the bar is set within an attainable reach for many when we understand that it doesn’t mean that one is a saint only when there is a St. before your name, with a specific feast day on the liturgical calendar that mentions your name.  

 

If we understand that as long as one is in heaven, that one has attained sainthood, then it really does change things.  It makes what may have seemed to be an unrealizable reality become something that is actually within our reach.  

 

As long as we are willing to yield with humility to the will of God, which is that we respond lovingly to each invitation to love God and our fellow man, we are working our way toward sainthood. 

 

If you put serious thought into it, the reason your eyes are landing on this reflection right now and receiving these words of encouragement to want sainthood for yourself is God’s grace prompting you to want to desire heaven in a particularly focused and purpose-driven way. This is just one of the small ways that God invites every person to bear spiritual fruit in their lives.

 

Remember – the celebration of All Saints’ Day isn’t just for us to feel wistful about the great saints that have accomplished their highest goal in life, which is to attain the promises of heaven.  It is also a very strong reminder that all of us are called to the same lofty destiny and to keep walking the often narrow path that leads us there in life.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The importance of mystery in our relationship with God, our neighbour and ourselves.

Our Catholic doctrine has a strong structural framework that gives a good foundation for our belief.  We see this in the systematic layout of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where the key elements of our Creed are broken down, phrase by phrase, to give Catholics the fundaments of our rich faith. It has plenty of footnotes which reference both Sacred Scripture as well as writings from the Fathers of the Church, with giants like Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, and the Eastern Fathers to name a few.  

 

But as much as we have a rich heritage that has helped us to have a good ‘lay of the land’ as far as our doctrine is concerned, it doesn’t pretend to be an answer book to everything that the Church holds dear in terms of doctrine and faith, and this is largely because we are essentially dealing with something that is organic and living, and at the heart of the matter is not anything that is physical but meta-physical.  The faith is after all, a relationship with God, and this makes the enterprise of learning about God so challenging.

 

Because God is not one of the many ‘things’ that we can study, but is above all, the things that we can say about God fall very far short from the truth of who God is.  In many ways, theologians tend to approach God from a via negativeway, saying what God is not, than to say what God is.  This is because God’s categories are beyond what our finite minds can wrap around. After all, to put limits on God and to define him in strict and concise terms would be to deny his omnipotence.  

 

It is for this reason that the Church rightly attributes to God the term ‘mystery’, which is definitely no saying that God is mysterious.  To say that someone or something is mysterious is to denote that there is something shady or sinister that is kept hidden, often with a disingenuous intention. God is certainly not disingenuous.

 


Mystery is a term that is used by the Catholic church to speak of the attributes of God that are beyond our ken, and more often than not refer to God’s beauty, truth and goodness.  These aspects or attributes of God are endlessly deep and profound that there is no way one can exhaust and plumb their depths. Like an endlessly long corridor where one opens one door after another after another without reaching an end, so too are the mysteries of God.

 

We need to be comfortable with this truth as baptized members of the Body of Christ.  I think way too many of us are not comfortable with mystery, and that is why so many also flounder and become anxious whenever they experience the more challenging mysteries of God, like the mystery of redemptive suffering and the mystery of sacrifice.  To want clear-cut answers when things become ‘foggy’ somehow does require a big step of faith. And when there is a reluctance or unwillingness to do this with a willingness in one’s heart may reveal that one is not yet quite ready to accept and to understand the term ‘mystery’ as it is used by the Church.

 

Last weekend, the Church was graced with the Beatification of Carlo Acutis, Servant of God, who had been graced with a deep appreciation of the mystery of redemptive suffering.  There is much to learnt from how, even in the throes of suffering from his blood cancer as he was approaching his death, he was able to offer up his sufferings for the intentions of the Pope and for the Church.  For an adult in the faith to do this is remarkable, but for a 15 year old to do this should leave many in awe.  He was a model of how one ought to suffer for a cause greater than oneself.

 

‘Mystery’ encompasses the ability to be comfortable with a certain degree of ‘I don’t exactly know for sure, but I am ok with things being this way’.  To misuse and abuse the term ‘mystery’ is to attribute to it everything that one cannot give rational (not necessarily logical) answers to, and to just throw up one’s arms in the air and say in some exasperated way that “it’s mystery”. When this happens, and I believe it often does, it leaves the one who is on the receiving end thinking that our doctrine and faith have no need for one to broach the faith with intelligence, and this is a shame.

 

An astute spiritual writer once said that we need to be humble about language.  It can only take us so far.  Both our imaginations and our language are limited.  We can never speak adequately and with clear delimiting lines about the infinite simply because we are finite.  But having said that, good theology is needed because it helps us to think about something that we cannot picture or think about otherwise.

 

We really don’t need to go as far as God to see the reality of mystery.  Most of us are mysteries to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Monday, October 12, 2020

The songs we listen to can end up shaping our worldview and affect our spiritual lives.

I was driving in my car last week and the radio station I usually tune in to was playing a few John Lennon songs in quick succession.  Turns out that it was his 80th birthday and as a tribute to him, they played quite a few of his songs that day.  

There are quite a few songs recorded by the Beatles that I am quite fond of, being from the ‘old school’ myself. But I am not fond of all of them, and in particular it was the one that John had written in 1971, two years after the Beatles had officially split up.  To be fair, the song isn’t one that was written nor performed by the Beatles, but by Lennon himself.  The song is ‘Imagine’.  

 

‘Imagine’ is clearly a song that is anthemic of the atheist movement, where there is a utopian dream of there being a country where there is no religion, and world where there is no heaven and no hell.  The melody and rhythm allows for it to be something that can be played as background noise, as it is rather soothing and not jarring, unlike the way heavy metal or rock songs can be.  For that reason, the seeming message of a dream of world peace that can come through the rejection of God, the promise of heaven or the eternal damnation of hell can be something that one passively accepts as it subliminally finds its way into the recesses of one’s consciousness.  

 

For us Christian disciples, world peace can only come about in and through the message and person of Jesus Christ. The peace that the world needs and aches for comes at a heavy price, and it was a price that only God himself could pay, which he did, on Calvary.  

 

When one’s deep conviction about the truths of Christian doctrine can make one really sensitive to the kind of lyrics that songwriters feed to undiscerning listeners.  But if one is listening passively to music, hardly paying attention to what is being touted and promoted, it is easy to let the false teachings be accepted as truths as well.  

 

This isn’t the only song that has objectionable lyrics that can negatively affect our view of God and the worldview as well.  I am sure that there are many many more, but for this reflection, here are a few more that could be problematic where our Christian doctrine is of concern.

 


1.   From A Distance, by Julie Gold.

This song was a major hit when it was sung by Bette Midler in 1990.  It has a soothing melody and like ‘Imagine’, it catches the imagination of a world where there is conflict and fighting, bombs and disease when up close, but from a distance, it appears that all is well.  While this is true, a great problem appears in the chorus and repeated refrain, where God, we are told, is watching us but from a distance as well.

 

It promotes the idea of a Deist’s notion of God.  This is the belief that after creating the world and giving it life, God doesn’t get involved in the world, and merely watches it ‘from a distance’.  God, a Deist believes, doesn’t get involved in the world in any way, even though there may be chaos and turmoil, conflict and fighting, bombs and disease.

 

But the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is attestation that God DOES get involved, to the extent of him becoming one of us human beings in all things but sin.  That the body of Christ exists on so many levels in the world despite its being mired in sin and evil is evidence that God is not just watching us ‘from a distance’.  In Jesus, God can talk the talk because he has truly walked the walk.

 

2.   We Are The World, by U.S.A for Africa.

 

This was a huge hit song, performed by a stage full of recording artists back in 1985.  It was inspired by the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and was a charity single.  

 

To be sure, the earnings and sales of this single were massive, and it did serve to raise over USD$63 million for humanitarian aid in Africa.  The aim of this as a charity single was indeed noble and good.

 

But it has a very jarring scriptural error that found its way into the lyrics, and it is the line that was sung by the late Willie Nelson.  It is one thing to slip in erroneous theology into a secular song, but it is far more problematic to quote from sacred Scripture, and to quote it wrongly.  The line in question is where Nelson croons in his signature warble “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.”

 

One only needs to go to one’s bible and turn to Luke 4:3-4 to see that though Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert to turn stone to bread, he did not give in to the temptation. His response was a quotation from Deut. 8:3, where it says that ‘man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’  

 

That the Son of God does not willy-nilly satisfy his human bodily needs makes him the exemplar of not living only for the self.  To suggest that God has turned stone to bread is tenuous especially in a charity song that is meant to help to feed the millions who are hungry, promoting in a backhanded way that God is not doing what he should be doing.  

 

What I am more astounded with is how this line in the lyric did not raise any eyebrows in that crammed studio with quite a number of Christian artistes in their midst, from Bruce Springsteen to Dionne Warwick.  Maybe the excitement of the moment made it challenging to be accurate in one’s quotation from Scripture.

 

3.   There’s a New World Somewhere by the Seekers, 1965.

 

I know listing this song here in this reflection may raise the ire of many a Catholic, especially those who have been active in the Marriage Encounter movement.  They have used it as their anthem, and it is easy to see why. The song promotes the belief that there will never be another person who will replace the one whom one is a spouse to. It is ideal for a movement such as Marriage Encounter where good marriages are empowered and strengthened to become better and stronger.  I myself was once the Spiritual Director of the ME movement here in Singapore, and I still do hold their flag flying high.

 

But I have a theological problem with this song, as it isn’t clear where this ‘somewhere’ is.  We Catholics have a very clear and firm understanding of where our baptism leads us to, and it is to heaven, where we will see God, as it were, face to face.  For us, it isn’t just a vague ‘somewhere’, allowing us to be seen almost as agnostics. 


But I have a theological problem with this song, as it isn’t clear where this ‘somewhere’ is, although there is the reference to a ‘promised land’.  To be clear, the term ‘promised land’ is only referenced in the Old Testament, a land given by God to Abraham and his descendants, the land which the Hebrew people in their 40 years of wandering in the desert were journeying to, our from their slavery to the Egyptians.  

 

Of course, one could argue that the Christian’s new ‘promised land’ is heaven, and it well is.  But if this is so, we will do well to name it as such and not use an Old Testament reference, because it can cause confusion as to whether we Christians are still looking for Zion or if we are indeed heading towards heaven as our goal.  


In my spiritual direction of directees, I have noticed that when the directee has a clear notion of where one’s life is heading, that one can be directed clearly.  When a person is very clear that his or her aim is heaven, and to be a saint, it makes directing the soul less arduous than when a person isn’t clear about where one’s spiritual GPS should be set as a ‘destination’.  If it is just to ‘be a good person’, or ‘so that I can be happy’, one could just as well be seeking the counsel of a therapist than to seek spiritual direction.  

 

I am sure that there are many more songs that can be added to these few that I have chosen to reflect on in this blog.  My main aim is to get you, dear reader, to listen more attentively to the lyrics that bombard your ears through many media, and to be discerning enough to point out the spiritual and theological errors that are being touted, even if it is in a passive way.