Monday, February 24, 2020

How does one ensure that one glorifies God with one’s life? It begins with the very first minute of the day.

The Chinese poet Lao Tzu is credited with the saying that the 1000 mile journey begins with a single step. It is an oft-quoted saying that reminds us that every successful major project, every great dream, every lofty endeavour very often has very humble and simple beginnings.  

The Catholic Christian is a person who has a very very lofty endeavor ahead of him or her.  That endeavor is sainthood.  Any other end, any other aim that is short of sainthood is a life that has not attained, or has not yet attained its fullest potential. That is because in the Catholic belief, every life that God has willed to be, which is every human person that was conceived in a female human body, has been willed for a divine purpose, and there is no exception.  Not even a life that has been conceived through a crime (as in a rape), or outside of wedlock is exempt.  As long as it is a human person (and this person exists the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg), this human person has a divine end which God wills for it.  This life is a gift by God, and the life glorifies God by giving itself over to God’s will throughout one’s entire lifetime spent as a living human being.  

Each time this human being lives not just for itself and what it delights in, but for God and God’s purposes, it tunes into and conforms to the divine potential that he or she is made for. What I just said is the nuts and bolts of the ultimate aim of the Christian life.  But one doesn't normally just jump from being a baptized person (or a baby in the Catholic scheme of things) to sainthood in one swift movement. It is a slow process, because growth, be it human physical growth or growth and maturity in godliness, is a process, and a rather long drawn out one.  It is often the length of this process or journey that is rather daunting for so many.  What is asked of in this entire process called life, is an attitude of patience and a deep love of God.  St Josemaria Escriva called this attitude one of heroism.  

To live heroically is to live with an eye cast on heaven’s eternal love that awaits every saint, while at the same time wanting to do all one can in this life to make that end a reality. It is to take on the hard task of loving God with all of one’s mind, heart and soul and one’s neighbour as oneself every moment of one’s life.  This is a lofty aim indeed, and very challenging, because the sinful self is always far more interested in doing what it wants rather than the good that it has potential for.  

It is often said of sin that “Sin isn’t my doing bad things.  Sin is knowing what God wants, but I don't care.  I want what I want, how I want, and when I want.”  Realizing this, and seeing sin this way will show that sin is something that is deeply relational.  It isn’t just me doing private and secret naughty things.  Seen this way, then it becomes clear that not only can we sin in small and rather private ways, but that we also can practice virtue and live out holiness and live heroically in small and very private ways too.

St Josemaria Escriva was very interested in encouraging Catholics to live with a deep awareness of this, and therefore to live heroically as well.  One of the things that he taught was to practice the heroic minute.  That may sound strange to many, but it makes perfect sense once we understand where this saint was coming from.

Every day consists of 24 hours, and broken down further, it consists then of 1440 minutes.  For every single person, these 1440 minutes begins with the first one the moment one wakes up, either from the cacophony of the alarm clock buzzer or the gentle (or violent for some) noise or movement by another human being.  The general tendency for most people is to want to slink back into sleep and hit that snooze button several times.  That attitude shows that a fight or struggle is going on – between the self that wants what it wants (sleep) and the self that ought to be getting up and starting the day to live in a sanctified way.  St Josemaria posits that when one absolutely refuses to give in to the temptation of sloth and laziness and instead gets right up and right there and then utter a prayer that wills one to give of one’s new day to God, it demonstrates heroism.

Doing this the very first thing when one awakes from the previous night’s sleep kick-starts the process of sanctifying one’s entire day which lies ahead.  It, as it were, charts the course of the rest of the remaining 1439 minutes left of one’s day for a life lived with an aim for holiness and godliness. It reminds one throughout the day that one isn’t just called to live life in some mindless and aimless way, but to navigate one’s life according to the north star of holiness that one began with in the morning.  

This is a very concrete way to live one’s life in a heroic way.  Does one have to do this?  Is there an absolute necessity to live one’s relationship with God and one’s fellow man in such a heightened way?  Well, no. It is not an imperative, and neither is it absolutely necessary.  

And this is why it is called heroism.  Doing a heroic deed for anyone in life is not an imperative, and neither is it absolutely necessary, and generally, people will understand it if you were to live without much heroism.  People who jump into rivers to save a drowning person are not obliged to do so. My own anonymous stem-cell donor who donated his stem-cells to enable me to overcome my leukemia back in 2013 didn’t have an obligation do to it, but he did.  This kind of living outside of what is obligatory and what is not an imperative makes such people heroes.  

The same applies when a mind and heart puts in the effort to practice the heroic minute.  But when one does it and knows that it charts his or her course of life for a holy path for the rest of the day, and can offer the inconvenience of not hitting that snooze button up heroically for souls in purgatory, or the conversion of sinners, one is practicing Christian love because one is willing the good of others for their sake.

In truth, it may not seem like a big deal – not snoozing in, and making the effort to get oneself out of bed with alacrity.  But because it charts the path for one’s day for sanctification, it is a bid deal for God because it reminds us that we have a need to glorify God with our lives.  It stretches our hearts to love in ways that are not so obvious.  

As well, it becomes our first step that we take to make that 1000 mile journey a little shorter, and the goal of holiness a bit closer.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Audio recording of a homily for the Mass of 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dear readers

As the celebration of public Masses is still in suspension this week, I am putting this out to help supplement your Sunday gatherings at home or in your communities.  Let us continue to pray for those who are on the frontline of this fight against the COVID-19 virus, and that the suspension of public Masses will be lifted soon.

Click the audio link below to access the recording.

I am with all of you in prayer and in faith.

Yours in Christ
Fr Luke

Monday, February 17, 2020

Juliet was right – parting is indeed a sweet sorrow

It finally came to be – that much dreaded pastoral letter coming from our bishop to inform us of his decision to suspend all public celebrations of weekday and weekend Masses in this island republic of Singapore, for at least until the situation of the COVID-19 virus is somewhat under control.  To be frank, we could see signs that this unfortunate state of affairs was looming on the horizon, and it was more a matter of “when” than a matter of “if”. The notice was made on Friday evening, and yesterday was the very first Sunday that was affected.

The last public Mass that I celebrated was on Saturday morning in my parish.  I have celebrated so many funeral Masses in my priesthood that I have lost count, but I can say for certain that this was a Mass that was significantly more sentimental than any of the other funeral Masses.  Moreover, this was not even a funeral Mass to begin with, but it was the last time I was going to celebrate the Eucharist with my parishioners until public Masses are reinstated in the future, and we aren’t even sure when that will be.

I am certain that this drastic decision was not one that was hastily nor easily made by our bishop.  It must have been a very painful one.  As well, I am quite certain that such a situation has never been faced by any of his preceding bishops, and hopefully, none of those of who will be his successors in the future either.  To suspend all public Eucharistic celebrations is akin to cutting off a Catholic’s daily spiritual sustenance, if one is a daily communicant.  

Closing the Mass with a solemn blessing on the congregation, I felt as if we were, as a community, going into a certain ‘vacancy’ or ‘void’. This was not out of a choice of our own, but there would be a shared emptiness that we were entering into.  

It is highly likely that we won’t be coming out of this before Lent begins in slightly over a week.  As a result, it is quite possible that we won’t even be celebrating Ash Wednesday with a Mass, where we will be starting our journey into the desert with Jesus for 40 days, and having our foreheads smeared with dirt.  However, having said that, it did feel like our Lent started one and a half weeks earlier with Saturday morning’s somber Mass.  

One of the things Lent tries to have us experience is an entering into a ‘lack’ or ‘void’ in life.  This is the essence behind the call to practicing forms of mortification and sacrifices in Lent, where we give up something we cherish and are fond of, or taking up something that is difficult and challenging, to create a space where we love God and one another with greater intention. 

When Lent ends, we enter into Holy Week, where for one day in the entire year, on Good Friday, there is no celebration of the Mass.  It is a day to commemorate in a very vivid way the emptiness that creation experienced when God died on Calvary, out of love for us.  But this sense of being deprived of the Eucharist isn’t very deeply entered into, because on Good Friday, Holy Communion is still distributed as part of the service.  There is, in essence no real experience of being deprived of Jesus in the sacrament. Besides, the church has only to wait till the next evening, Holy Saturday night, where the mother of all liturgies will be celebrated in the Easter Vigil.  Though the Church has the intention of having her devotees to experience a ‘lack’, it is more symbolic than anything.  The reception of Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil Mass, and the celebration of Mass is meant to give us good reason to rejoice in a renewed and more emphatic way, and this is felt primarily by those who have been observing the liturgical celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.  However, as these are not days of obligations, not all Catholics would experience this ‘lack’, especially if they had only gone for Mass on Palm Sunday and one week later, are present at the Easter Sunday Mass.  

But with this suspension of all weekday and Sunday Masses for all Catholics in Singapore, this ‘emptiness’ is going to be felt and experienced by every single Catholic, whether he is a ‘Sunday’ Catholic or not.  

It is for this reason that I would say that there is something positive that could emerge from the bishop’s decision to suspend all Masses till further notice.  Apart from trying our best as a community to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 virus, every Catholic has no choice but to be drawn into a ‘vacancy’ where there is no easy access to Mass.  

Of course, the danger or downside to this is that those who were previously lukewarm or tepid about their faith could end up being even further from the Mass.  But this would be akin to looking at the situation from a ‘half-empty glass’ standpoint.  We need to be people of hope and think positively, even in the face of challenges and difficult decisions.

My positive outlook at this is that the hunger that is imposed on every Catholic with regard to access to the Mass can be a good thing.  I believe that when the situation calms down and things get back to the semblance of normalcy, and when we can once again freely celebrate the Eucharist, the hunger and ache that we had experienced will make us appreciate Mass in a new and heightened way.  I have hope that the congregation will be more participative, and there will be a renewed joy and pride (good pride, of course), in every celebration of the Eucharist. I have hope that previously tepid hearts will have new, warm blood coursing through their veins.  I have hope that there will be a new gratitude and appreciation for what could have just been taken for granted before.  

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a very often-quoted line is one in which after the two lovers having talked the whole night to each other, Juliet parts ways with Romeo with the words “parting is such sweet sorrow”.  Though they have to part, and the parting is painful, it is the anticipation of their next meeting that makes this parting pain something that can be sweet.  

We could learn something from the bard here.  This ‘gap’ that we as a Catholic community are facing may be bitter, painful and sorrowful.  But when we cast our eyes on the day this emptiness is over, the sweetness of that day makes this time of emptiness something that has positivity in it.

Indeed, absence can and should make the heart grow fonder.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Audio recording of a homily for the Mass of 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In light of the fact that all public Masses have been suspended in Singapore due to the COVID-19 situation in our island republic, I have taken the initiative to record the Sunday homily which would otherwise have been preached to my parishioners in the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  I hope that this will be of help to the many who desire to be enriched with the Word of God.  May God bless and protect you.

Please click on the link below to access the audio recording.

Yours in Christ
Fr Luke

And if this link doesn't work (I have had so many issues with getting it set up today), here is the text of my homily.  If you can't get in the front door, there's always the back!

6thSunday in Ordinary Time

The liturgical readings presented to us this Sunday makes references to wisdom in several places.  All of us, to a man, wants to acquire wisdom in life, and we know that it is a very high complement when others speak about us as being wise.  It is different from being called a wise guy, which is a derogatory term; used as an insult, and it is akin to calling someone a smartass or a jackass.  

But a wise person is a different term altogether.  People look up to those who give wise words of counsel, and it is even more attractive when their pace through life’s many twists and turns, ups and downs, are in tune and aligned with what comes out of their mouths.  They not only talk and talk, but they also walk the walk.  So when there is an option or a choice of how our lives ought to be lived, and the choice is between a wise way, and an unwise or foolish way, it really is no-brainer.  Everyone will say that they will want to choose the wise choice or path in life.

Our first reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus does appear to make it look easy though, and it’s seen in the way that he puts this choice before us – and the choices are almost polar opposites.  Fire and water; life and death.  Of course we know which we ought to, and will choose if the choices are so stark and dissimilar, like a choice between day and night, white and black, chalk and cheese, and good and bad.  But all of us also know that most, if not all of the choices that we make in life are often anything butstark and clear cut.  More often than not - they are in that grey area, where there is some evidence of light, as well as some evidence of darkness.  Even in the choices that are sinful, there is some degree of goodness in them, and that is why sinners fall into sin – no one commits a sin for the sake of the bad in the sin.  That would be a real twisted mind and someone who is almost totally evil in essence, and no one, except the devil, is pure evil.  In fact, evil is never pure, so the phrase ‘pure evil’ is in itself an oxymoron.

The answer to this conundrum, when the path before us is neither all good versus all bad, is, as the writer of the book of Ecclesiasticus tells us, to live with a ‘fear of the Lord’.  

Many do not understand what this term ‘fear of the Lord’ means, and when it is poorly understood, the result is that our relationship with God can end up twisted, unhealthy and even dysfunctional.  To fear anything almost always has a negative connotation to it.  But to fear the Lord in a healthy way really implies more an attitude that is positive than it is negative.  It has its roots in the Hebraic mind, where oftentimes things are taught using hyperbole or over-exaggerationin order to bring home an essential point. Jesus uses hyperbole in today’s gospel where he tells us to cut off our hands and tear out our eyes.  Of course Jesus doesn’t want us to live life as if we had just stumbled out of a very botched butcher’s attack from some B grade horror flick.  But if we get the visual horror and disfigurement that sin does to our human bodies, that should shock us and make us wary of how our unwise choices, small though they may be, and innocent though they may seem, will affect our souls and the condition of its state after we die.

To fear the Lord therefore needs to be understood in the light of loving God.  If we love anyone in this life, think of your spouse, your boyfriend or girlfriend, or your children, you would not want to do anything that would outrightly hurt them.  You reverence that person so much that you will fear injuring the love that you have for that person.  It is thatwhich you are fearing – you are exalting the love of the person so much, valuing and prizing it so highly, that you don’t want to do anything to harm or to damage that love.  You will protect it, and cherish it, and surround it with a lot of tenderness and care. 

If that makes sense for the way we treat a human person, now raise that relationship up many more notches to the relationship that we have with God, who is infinitely more important and more worthy of our devotion than any human being – that fear of injuring and disrespecting that love that we have for God and the love that God has for us, is where the fear is of greatest emphasis.  That is the correct fear of the Lord.  Not the fear that sees our knees knocking each time we walk into the church and cower with trembling limbs before the Blessed Sacrament because we see him as some sort of holy ogre, but the fear of not having given God our greatest respect and deference in life.

This kind of wisdom comes from not just good doctrinal teaching, but is a sum total of how we have been guided and taught by our parents, the kind of home that we had been brought up in, the moral choices that our parents and guardians and leaders have given and lived by example, and the kind of reverence that we see that our fellow brothers and sisters give God in the community that we are in.  The more God-centered wisdom these people show us, the more our hearts will be sowing seeds of wisdom.

It is when this is understood well, that we will see wisdom in being careful in the very small things that seem trivial and maybe even inconsequential – for example being properly attired and participative at Mass, coming in not just punctually but early before Mass - to prepare our hearts and minds for worship, and centering our hearts so that we can give God our best.  When this is how we put effort in the small things at worship, it will translate well into the ways that we live our lives outside of Mass.  It is all related and connected, but if we are not training our hearts for wisdom, we will only see these as being fussy and OCD, and love God one way in the Church, and not love our brothers and sisters outside of the Mass.

Once we get this right, we will see that today’s gospel text is really an elaboration of how one’s life will look like when one cooperates with a heart and mind that is tuned in to wisdom.

Jesus gives us three aspects of life to bring home his point.  Firstly, when we live with wisdom, and want to show a healthy fear of God in our choices, we will not only be careful in not outrightly killing our fellow man. That is way too obvious.  That’s the black and white.  But wisdom will want us to be sensitive to how even our words main or injure the reputation of others.  We may not be bringing down a hatchet to split their heads open, but calling them fool or insulting them or gossiping about them can end up hardening their hearts.

We will also be very cautious of where our eyes land and how our hearts are being brought into darkness. Infidelity is always wrong, and no married person wants to commit adultery in an outright way.  But in order to not be ending up an adulterer, one needs to be sensitive of how one may be objectivizing another human being, or gratifying oneself in marriage and how one averts one’s eyes on landing on unsavoury content on the internet.

Finally, when one lives the call to wisdom with effortful alertness, one will also be living an integrated life. This means that you will be a person of integrity, with no deceit, no disintegration or very little of it, in your heart.  Jesus’ third teaching in today’s gospel addresses this when he says all we need to say is “yes” when we mean yes, and “no” when we mean no.  

Having said all this, this morning, the one big question that needs addressing is how does one nurture wisdom in the heart?  There is no course on wisdom – you can’t go to any institute of learning or university to get a degree in wisdom.  Would that there were.  

But it is really something that is more caught than it is taught.  To catch it, you need to be exposed to it, a bit like catching the COVID-19 virus in order to be infected with it. But unlike the COVID-19 virus which can lead to death, ‘catching’ wisdom has the propensity to lead us to life. We catch wisdom by the things we expose ourselves to, to good role models, to teachers and parents who are interested in values more than they are interested in grades, promotions and reputation, and most of all, to developing a heart that learns to love God and to aid this by being careful that we are constantly in a state of grace.   

Monday, February 10, 2020

Fear is the reason for all our sinful actions that harm our relationship with God and with others around us.

I am often conscious of not repeating the topics that I write and reflect about in my weekly blog posts, but I strongly believe that I need to make an exception this time.  I wrote something regarding fear last week, and it was when the coronavirus situation in Singapore was somewhat calmer and milder, with the response system condition (something our health ministry has formulated and named DORSCON to raise its citizens’ awareness toward a health emergency) at a yellow level.  

In a span of just one week, the yellow level has been stepped up to the next, which is orange.  At this stage, the disease that is plaguing the country is deemed severe and spreads easily from person to person, and the government wants its citizens to know that there will be moderate disruptions that are to be expected, with extra measures like quarantine and visitor restrictions put in place in hospitals.  

When this was made official news, it was no surprise that many in the country reacted with much fear and anxiety, resulting in a frenzied rush to clear grocery store shelves of their essential and even non-essential items.  I was rather bemused to see this happening so rapidly, and was rather amused in the way some locals were saying how when we moved to orange, that the people went bananas.

At the heart of all this craziness and insecurity is fear.  I’m not so much referring to the fear of not having enough food, personal and household supplies here, though this is the fear that is most evident.  At its very heart, it is the fear of death.  

It isn't as if the apocalypse is happening before our very eyes.  But wouldn’t it be so freeing and liberating to know that even if the apocalypse were to take place now and in this way, that there is still no need to fear and no cause to be anxious?  That would be like having some superpower that could overcome the worst enemy that we as human beings could ever have.  

In truth, we who are Catholics, baptized in the faith, have this superpower, but it is largely untapped and sadly, also left unknown and un-applied in our lives, especially when it is needed most. 

Just a cursory glance in the biblical accounts where God either appears to a human person or communicates directly to him through the angel of the Lord will reveal that in his omniscience, God knows that the first reaction that man has to something outside of the ordinary is that of fear.  The first words that open such encounters is almost always "be not afraid".  It reveals somehow that man's default reaction to things that are supernatural (which literally means above or beyond nature) is to be fearful.  Jesus comes to allay this in all of us, but he also wants us to cooperate by having faith in him.

In so many of his teachings, Jesus was trying to tell his listeners that because he is God, he is therefore the way out of all fears and anxieties in life, as well as the way to confront them.  He touched death and he went through death, and he wants us to do the same.  Following him as his disciple is going to be the best antidote for all of life’s worst panic situations.  Jesus was saying that once we are fully invested in him, living our lives like him and being loving as he is, then even though the world around us is riddled with fear, we are not.  But I don’t think this truth really sinks into the hearts and minds of Catholics who are baptized.  I am not surprised by this - partly because to really live with this kind of stellar confidence in life also requires one to be fully invested in one’s faith. While I’m not saying that all Catholics need to be fanatics, I am saying that the degree to which one is fully faithful and reliant on God’s grace and cooperating with it is the determinant factor in one’s confidence level in times like these.

In the many social media pictures and videos of Singaporeans hoarding essential items in their shopping carts and proudly displaying the contents of their storerooms in their homes looking like mini versions of grocery stores, I was really hoping and praying that these people are not baptized Christians who are practicing their faith.  It would be an embarrassment and almost pathetic if they are. And these videos that are making the rounds would be a clear testimony of how shallow their faith life really is. 

If they are not Christians, it shows we have our work cut out for us.  We know Christ and the kind of freedom that he alone is able to provide us in life and it behooves us to share this strength and power with them.  This is the core of evangelization.  

I fully understand why a non-Christian would resort to hoarding and being self-preserving and self-centered.  Who knows?  I might too, if I were a pagan and only lived my life for myself and made the world revolve around me and my needs if I was not a baptized child of God with him as my father and Jesus as my brother.  Being selfish and self-centered (hence, fearful) is after all, a very real part of our fallen sinful human nature that is somehow embedded in our DNA as human beings, thanks to that first fall of our first parents.  

In his inaugural address after taking the oath of office in 1933, US President Franklin D Roosevelt made a statement about fear which has since become immortalized.  He said that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.  While it may be true, once we are baptized in Christ, even this fear of fear itself is overcome.  

That, if you ask me, is truly a superpower.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

Fearlessness in an atmosphere of fear.

Living fearlessly is something that many people would like to do, but very few ever really do so in life.  I recall having read about a daredevil stuntman who called himself Evel Knievel in my younger days, when he would thrill crowds who would gather at events where as a stunt performer, performing astounding airborne stunts on his motorcycle like leaping over a row of parked cars.  His real name wasn’t Evel, but Robert Craig Knievel.  He gave himself the name Evel because it sounded like Evil, and it brought a certain mystique associated with his death-defying stunts.  

Stuntmen and daredevil personalities give the impression that they are fearless.  But I do wonder if they, or any human person really can live without fear.  Even Jesus, we are told by scripture, sweated blood in the garden of Gethsamane in the face of his impending crucifixion, and prayed that if it were possible, that the hour might pass from him.  He was, after all, fully human and fully divine, and fear was part of his humanity.

I don’t think it is possible to live without any fear of anything, and it may not be healthy at all, because there needs to be a healthy fear in life in order to live safely.  Just think about how much danger we will be putting ourselves in if we have no fear of what boiling water would do to our hands.  There is a rare disorder in which a person cannot feel pain, and when one has this disorder, one is constantly in danger of hurting himself unless one is constantly guarding himself against accidents that may hurt or maim him.

The world as of late has been gripped by fear and anxiety, due largely to the outbreak of the coronavirus which appears to have originated from Wuhan, China.  There is no telling how bad it can get, and day by day the numbers of those infected and those who have succumbed to this virulent strain of the influenza are increasing.  There is a foreboding sense of fear, unease and anxiety that is slowly creeping across the globe.  Can one be fearless in the face of this public health emergency situation, which could turn into a pandemic?  

The greatest fear that can plague any human being has to be the ultimate fear of death.  For most of humankind, it is death that separates what is known from the truly unknown.  But for the Christian, the unknown has become known, in and through the person of Jesus Christ.  The great and truly groundbreaking event of the resurrection has given us Christians the consummate confidence to face death, and anything that can lead to it, coronavirus notwithstanding.  

No matter what stringent protocols a government or health organization can put in place in countries that are facing such threats, the one thing that undermines it all is going to be panic and hysteria. Confidence and calm, which are antithetical to panic and hysteria, come ultimately from living as free from fear as possible.  Don’t we as Catholics at every Mass pray the embolism after the Lord’s Prayer where we hear the celebrant pray that we will be “free from sin and safe from all distress”? No words in the Liturgy are there for no good reason.  Every word has deep significance and meaning for our faith and for our lives.  

Even if fear is a real thing that we may be experiencing right now, there is good reason for us to be calm and collected, especially if we are in a state of grace, and thus “free from sin”.  Living in this state is our greatest guarantee that even if our lives are being threatened, that it is truly ok.  It is what gave the heroic martyrs of our faith the courage to go through their last act of sacrifice and to look forward to the promise of life eternal after that.  

Evel Knievel may have shown external courage by leaping over however many cars that he did in those stunt shows.  The promise of the resurrection gives us the ability to leap over all that life can throw at us, and that includes a life-threatening illness.