Monday, May 25, 2020

Mary is our example of how to wait for the Holy Spirit in our lives.

With the great feast of Pentecost coming in a week, the tradition of our Church has always been to be in a state of preparation for its arrival, not unlike the way the Church has the season of Advent to prepare us for the arrival of the child Jesus at Christmas. In many ways, it is like another Christmas, because it too marks how humanity has been graced by the entry of God right into its heart.  Whilst Christmas marks how God comes to humanity in a human form, Pentecost marks how God comes to us in his essence, which is love.

In the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, which really is the book of the Holy Spirit, we see the setting in which the seminal church, made up of the apostles together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus gathered in the upper room. Mary’s presence in that group is extremely significant, but not for the reasons that many may think.  

For the apostles, their gathering in that room showed that they all, as a whole, still required the heart of God, which is the Holy Spirit, to come upon them and fill them with the zeal, fire, verve and power that only the Holy Spirit can give, before the church could make its first baby steps toward growth, maturity and flourishing.  It makes total sense that they needed to receive the Holy Spirit in that united way.  But this cannot be the same reason that Mary is there.  Ostensibly, Mary’s reason for being there was the same as that for the apostles, but it only looks that way from its appearance.  Intrinsically, her reasons were very different, and my reasons to say this unequivocally is listed below, though I am sure if the Holy Spirit were to further inspire me, the list would be much longer.

1.   Mary was already filled with the Holy Spirit long before this gathering took place.

I think we easily forget that right there in their midst in the upper room was someone who had the plenitude of the Holy Spirit in her, one whom the Angel Gabriel hailed as being “full of grace”, and that was at least 33 years before the upper room gathering took place.  Now, unless Mary suddenly had a lapse of her holy memory, her function and role there in that room was one that was significantly different from the other 11.  But we can be sure that Mary wasn’t suddenly having a ‘brain fog’ moment.  So why was she there?

2.   This was one of Mary’s first roles as the Mother of the Church

From the Cross of Calvary, Mary was given to the world as its universal mother.  In a very significant way, the motherhood of Mary over the entire church has a very strong emphasis and link with suffering and the high price of love. If we think about it, Jesus could have given Mary over to John and all of us at so many other moments of his earthly life.  Surely there were good times when things went swimmingly well, like when the wine was flowing in abundance from those huge ablution jars at the wedding at Cana, or when there was such a mountain of leftovers from the multiplication of loaves and fish on that amazing day.  Those would have been excellent and fortuitous settings to give Mary to us as our mother.  Yet, God’s plans have shown to be so unlike ours.

From the Cross, God gives Mary, his most beloved and most beautiful human being he ever created to us, and that moment was also Mary’s darkest and caused her heart to be rent asunder.  It is no wonder that one of her most significant titles is that of Mother of Sorrows.  Couched in this title is the fact that in our dark moments, in our most fearful moments, in our most timid moments in life, Mary is right there with us as well, just as she was with those timid, fearful 11 disciples of her son. Her role in that room was not to receive the Holy Spirit’s power and energy.  She was there as their mother- a mother who stays by and stays with her children when they are quaking in their boots, and one who gives her motherly care by her maternal presence and who assures us of her love when it is needed most.

3.   Mary was going to reveal just how amazing her spouse was.

Among her many titles, Mary is also called the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, the person who covered her with his shadow at the annunciation and enabled this delicate and fragile flower to be the soil that would receive the seed of God to be eventually nourished and grown to become the Word incarnate.  All the while, up to this moment, the world hadn’t encountered her silent spouse, but this was the moment of revelation where there would be others apart from her who will now have an experience of this divine spouse of hers, and in that way, have a share in the kind of inner joy and peace that enabled Mary to stand so courageously through the times when God’s ways seemed so indeterminate, concealed and even hidden.  Every woman who has a spouse who is noble, strong, courageous and virtuous is naturally proud to show him to others.  She is proud of her spouse, not in a prideful way, but a healthy pride that causes one to beam.  As much as this is the Holy Spirit’s moment, it is in a very discreet way, Mary’s moment. She stands not in the spotlight, but steps aside to let her spouse take centre-stage.  

4.   Mary is not diminished in sharing her spouse’s love.

Many spouses are inclined to have an inward looking and exclusive relationship.  Certainly, the church has always taught that married spouses need to keep a certain dimension of their marriage very exclusive and only to be shared between themselves, and rightly so.  This is where the analogy of Mary’s spousal relationship with the Holy Spirit reaches a limitation insofar as we use earthly marriage as the analogue.  

In Mary’s spousal relationship with the Holy Spirit, there is no weakening of the love relationship that she has with God when the Pentecost event happened.  In fact, the opposite happens – the more her children are filled with the same Holy Spirit, and become enamoured with God’s essence of love, the more Mary’s role as the Holy Spirit’s spouse and her role as our Mother bears fruit and becomes fulfilled.  Love is always going to find growth something to be celebrated rather than something to be envious of.  

We mustn’t let these few days that usher in the feast of Pentecost just go by without creating a space in our hearts for the Holy Spirit to set them on fire.  There is a familiar phrase that we often hear in Catholic hymnals where we ask God to enkindle in us the fire of his love.  Those who have had the experience of starting a fire in the wild without matches or a lighter would know that kindling is key to making fire. What is kindling but flammable material, often things like lint, grass, wood shards of tree bark, gatherings of tiny bits of feathers or leaves.  Most importantly, they have to be dry.  The drier, the better.  This will allow the tiniest sparks caused by the friction of twigs rubbed against each other to set the kindling alight and begin the process of turning a tiny, incipient flame as small as that found on top of a birthday cake candle, to become something as huge as a raging and roaring blaze.  

God only needs the kindling of our hearts, prepared on our part by keeping it dry and ready, with the moisture of sin kept away so that our hearts can be set ablaze by the fire of his love.  Mary our mother stands ready by her beloved children to have this happen, with her immaculate heart already aflame with her maternal and virginal love.  

Mary, mother of sorrows and spouse of the Holy Spirit, pray for us as we await the Pentecostal fire of God's eternal love.

Monday, May 18, 2020

If love isn’t first, the commandments of God become distorted and understood in an impoverished way.

Sound theology always needs to have us understand that no matter how much good we can do in life, be it good for others, or good that is ordered toward God directly, we are led to it by the grace of God.  Nothing happens without God first supplying the grace that is needed for us to do anything good.  In fact, nothing exists without the grace of God sustaining existence itself.  

Why is it important that we understand this, and accept this as truth?  Principally because it mitigates against any form of Pelagianism, which is the heresy that believes that human nature and the human person has the free will to achieve and attain perfection simply on his own accord.  Take this heresy to its extreme, and it can lead one to believe that heaven and all that heaven promises can be earned and strived for just by willing oneself to, devoid of God’s willing of it to happen. As well, Pelagianism taken to its extreme can easily lead one to fill oneself with human pride and hubris, which are expressions of what caused the fall of our first parents in the early pages of the Book of Genesis.  The primacy of grace prevents this from infiltrating into the hearts and minds of those of us who are baptized in Christ.  Understanding that God’s grace comes first is not only elementary for any Christian, but also something that helps us to remain humble no matter how much good we can do in life.

In God’s giving the Hebrew people (and us) the decalogue or ten commandments, a similar important sequence has been revealed.  The Christian faith has often been given a bad name because it has been wrongly seen as a religion of commandments and laws.  While it is true that all of us Christians are morally ordered, guided and directed by the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments that were given to us through Moses by God on Mount Sinai (or Horeb), the imparting of these commandments did not come first in the Hebrew peoples’ experience of their encounter with God.  What came first before the commandments were given, was the salvation of God through the first Passover in Egypt, where their first-born were spared their lives. This act of salvation was a very concrete encounter of God’s love for them.  It was much later while they were in the wilderness that God gave them the commandments, to give them an ordered way to live, so that their lives and how they lived was a response to the love that was first shown them.  In short, in the experience of God, it was love first, and the laws or commandments second.

Understanding this is, I believe, a great game changer when it comes to responding well to the commandments given by God.  They are then no longer just rules to follow and obey, but rather are the medium through which our love for God is expressed and demonstrated.  It therefore necessarily means that one’s experience of God’s love is primordial before the commandments of God are accepted and lovingly followed.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case for many people who have come into the faith, or at least it isn’t demonstrated to them in a clear way.  To be sure, for most of them, God’s love had been seen in inceptive and inchoate ways, for example, in the gift of their families, loved ones, experiences of blessings in life, the splendor of nature and just in the gift of life itself. But the human tendency is to take all these for granted and to only think of God’s love as something that should be experienced outside of such gifts of his grace.  The human tendency is to, as they say, miss the forest for the trees.  The entire journey of the RCIA process necessarily should include moments for these blinkers over the eyes of the catechumens to be removed, and to see them as God’s revelation of his grace and his love. When this important aspect of the journey is omitted or unaddressed, the result is that the Elect can be baptized, with hardly any experience of identifying how their lives had been touched by God’s love up till that point.  

Once hearts and eyes are opened to see familiar things in a new and unfamiliar way, there will be much less problems when it comes to accepting the commandments of God, now no longer just as stand alone laws, but modes through which our lives can be lived as a response to the unmerited love that God had been giving us and sustaining us in life all the while.  

The same importance is just as true and necessary for children who are baptized as infants into the faith. Along the timeline of their physical development from being toddlers, then pre-teenagers and then teenagers, and lastly into adulthood, it is just as important that they are guided to see God’s blessings and be grateful for them, rather than to be blasé and nonchalant.  

Not developing a grateful heart is a sure way to be disdainful of the gift of God’s commandments which in essence, are commandments of how to love God and how to love neighbour.  

Monday, May 11, 2020

The real presence God gives us is in need of a reciprocal presence right now.

Catholics who are familiar with and know their basic doctrines well have very little problem with the teaching that in the Blessed Sacrament is the true presence of Jesus Christ, who is the second person of the Holy Trinity in his full divinity and humanity in the form of consecrated bread that is materially made of only water and wheat flour.  

It is because of this belief that he is fully and truly present in the Eucharist that we Catholics give the highest reverence to the Blessed Sacrament by adoring him in adoration rooms all over the world and worshipping him wherever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and venerated in gesture, word and song.  

We Catholics are a very sacramentally-centered people, and every of the seven sacraments give us a very tactile and sensual experience of God’s love and grace.  As well, we are keenly aware that the God of the universe wants to give us an experience and a true encounter of how much he loves us through our five senses.  For this we are extremely blessed.

But something has happened in the past three months or so that has made us acutely aware of how impoverished we are when our free access to encounter God’s love in the sacraments have been curtailed and suspended.  Before all these corona restrictions, when I gave talks or reflected with groups of parishioners of how weak and malnourished we would be if the Eucharist was no longer easily accessible to us Catholics, it would only be something conjectured, like some fantasy (or nightmare) which one needs to activate one’s imagination to conjure up.  It wasn’t something that they could readily relate to.  And to be sure, most would not do all they can to fire up their imaginations to really make that situation so real that it strikes the heart. Up till now.

This present generation of Catholics all over the world do not even need to fire up any part of the brain that is used to imagine anything now, when it comes to thinking of how it would be to not gain access to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, or to any celebration of the sacraments for that matter.  The unthinkable has happened, and our faith needs to allow us to believe that God has allowed this unfortunate turn of events to happen, simply because there is nothing that can happen without God allowing it to.

There is, I daresay, a “downside” to our high dependency on the sacraments to experience God’s grace and love. And the downside is that it can lead us to believe that once we are cut off from the sacraments of the Church, that we are consequently left godless and defenseless when it comes to battling against sin and evil.  This belief is not only dangerous but also very wrong.  

I have always been repeating to my listeners and readers that real presence is also really a two way process. Real presence requires the response of real presence.  Even if we take the seemingly ridiculous example of art for instance, the principle applies.  

Imagine going to an art museum, and there on one of the walls that is protected by alarms triggered when invisible laser beams are interrupted and behind bullet proof glass is Leonardo da Vinci’s la Giaconda, otherwise more popularly known as the Mona Lisa.  

You can be sure that the lines going into the museum, leading to the display of this world famous painting will be very long (social distancing not withstanding) if we are told by the authorities that this was the real painting and not a replica.  Our time given for us to stand right in front of this masterpiece will be precious, and we will be giving it our fullest attention, and in that way, our real presence, because it is the real thing.  The real deal deserves our real response.

But if we know that it was a traveling exhibit of very good replicas of the real thing, and we are told of this by the authorities, you can be certain that as we browse the various replicas of the old masters, our appreciation of the artwork before us will be dialed down a lot, and there will be a much poorer response from our side simply because what is before us is only a replica and an ersatz version of the original work of art which is safely displayed in the Musee de Louvre in Paris, France.  

Now let us return the issue of our real presence before Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist.  I truly believe that the more Catholics respond to Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist with a greater activation of their will and intellect, and let this truth that the God of the Universe is right there in front of us giving us his love, his grace and his mercy, the more the Church will make a strong impact on the world that it is called to evangelize and convert.  One of the chief reasons that Jesus’ clarion call to every disciple to be bearers of his truth to others is moving at the speed of a melting glacier is because Jesus’ real presence has not been given the opportunity to be of real impact to the average Catholic.  

I am not only referring to people who go to Adoration Rooms, but to the larger general populace, which are the Catholics who receive Jesus’ real presence in the reception of Holy Communion every day, in every country, all over the world.

Once we activate this real response to become what we eat, I am certain that we will become less wimpy and weak when we face challenges when it comes to being evangelists because our lives will be changed from within.  

Yes, right now, we are in many ways curtailed from receiving Jesus in the Eucharist, but that should not give us any excuse to stop effort on our part in being Christ to others.  Even if Jesus’ real Eucharistic presence in our lives is being curbed, it cannot and should not stop us from being his real presence through our love, care, charity, forgiveness and Christ-like concern for others.  In this case, just because we don’t have the real presence does not mean that we should lie fallow our faith and our aspiration for greatness to be a priestly and holy people.

The reason we are capable of this is because when we were Confirmed in the Sacrament of Confirmation, each of us was empowered by the Holy Spirit and anointed for mission.  Praying that God will help us to reactivate the Holy Spirit’s power in us at times like this is crucial and necessary, not just for the present, but for an active spiritual life from this point onward in our Christian lives.

Many people have been wanting things to go back to normal once the stay-at-home restrictions are lifted.  I, on the other hand, DO NOT want things to go back to normal, if normal was the way we had been so slow and lackadaisical in our response to evangelizers of Jesus.  I certainly do not want to go back to normal and only see Catholics merely interested in being Sunday Catholics and weekday agnostics.  If that was a normal, it was a normal that needed to be ramped up many notches.

Rather, I want things to change what was a bad normal, to being a new and re-energized and re-purposed normal, where normal is now a new response to Christ’s call to truly love the Lord God with all our heart, mind and soul, and to love neighbour as ourselves.  The new normal needs to see us give our real presence to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist so that we can be Eucharist to others wherever we go.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Finding God in every moment of our lives – even the dark and sad ones.

In his wonderfully insightful book Into Your Hands, Father Wilfrid Stinissen, a Carmelite priest (I’d even call him a mystic) writes that “There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life”.  We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness but where God is not present.”

Contained in those two lines found in the beginning chapters of his short but pithy gem, Stinissen manages to sum up and describe what I would call one of humankind’s biggest and most common of problems when it comes to living our lives in spiritual awareness of God’s omnipotent presence.  Why does evil happen?  Why do we balk at the very thought of suffering and the experience of affliction in life?  Why are many of us so conditioned to pray for and believe in God’s omnipresence only when we ‘feel’ him, and make 1001 excuses to not pray the moment when he seems distant and by way of conclusion, also then deduce that God is cold?  Why are we so addicted to our positive feelings and emotions when it comes to God?  

Stinissen credits this to what so many of us do so well –  the fact that we flee in order to escape from actually making strides in our spiritual life, because we are often too absorbed by our own narrow and flimsy ideas of God – i.e. how he works, how he ought to work, how he isn’t working, and therefore making assumptions that he isn’t present. I see this in so many well meaning Catholics who often complain and lament that they either don’t pray anymore or find prayer difficult (or even dull, dry, uneventful) simply because they don’t get that warm fuzzy ‘feeling’ anymore when praying or sitting in front of the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the Monstrance in an Adoration Room.  By Stinissen’s definition, it does appear that many Catholics may be going to Adoration as a form of escapism and for their own sakes, (not unlike going to a spa for a massage session) rather than to truly adore and worship God for his sake.  If we are there only for a spiritual ‘feel good’ session, Stinissen calls this our ‘banal reality’.  

Yes, I can understand that some who are reading this blog may feel slighted or even offended by the way I have expanded Stinissen’s quote.  But if one is able to get past the ‘being offended’ phase, and touch the reality that I am trying to bring to the surface, there is something deeply positive that can come out of it.  You will be helping your faith to be more robust and solid.  It is my hope that it will not only expose a common weakness that many Catholics have, but in doing so, provide the reader with new eyes to see how this exposure can pave the way to pray with no other expectation than to adore God, and in so doing, reach the point where one is able to fully abandon oneself before God in total surrender.  That is, after all, what the Christian life is ultimately about – surrendering to God’s will and that God’s will be done in and through our lives.

A lot of Catholics (and I’m including Christians who are our separated brethren here) have a very narrow definition of God’s will.  We need to realise that the part of God’s love story in creation and salvation that we have a direct part to play, which is our lives, is only a tiny speck in the entire span of God’s incredible plan of his show of love.  The part that consists of our lives, from birth right to our death, including all that happens in between those two points of time, is what we see.  But it isn’t the entire drama.  There’s a whole lot more that lies outside of our ken that we do not see.

Our faith needs to have us believe that even though the entire plan of God does involve our individual lives, it ultimately isn’t really about us.  We are about God and his plan.  And by saying this, I am not dismissing that our lives don’t matter to him.  Our lives are significant to him because, as scripture tells us, he is aware of each of the strands of hair on our heads.  We are not arbitrary beings like some anonymous ‘extra’ on God’s stage.  Yet, what happens to each of us, how our lives pan out, are intrinsic to God’s will. 

Remember those Rand McNally topographical maps that were used by motorists on road trips back in the day when there were no GPS or smartphones?  We’d navigate our route by always locating the point on the map which tells us where we are at in relation to our destination.  But in relation to the entire map when fully unfolded, where we are is just a dot.  There is an entire part of not just the printed map, but the entire world that we cannot see from a clear perspective.  

Now take this analogy and use it to read into it our spiritual lives.  If we are clear about God’s omnipotence and omniscience (which we should if we are clear about the fundaments of our faith), then our lives need to be seen like that road map.  But more than just that road map.  We need to see it as the entire atlas of the universe.  God is the divine cartographer of our lives.  His will is immutable and is not subject to change even if evil is permitted to appear to have its sway.  The portion of our lives that we see right now isn’t the entire view of God’s will for us, and neither is it the entire view of God’s will for all of creation. It’s just the moment of ‘here and now’. And the ‘here and now’ inevitably also includes parts that are painful, perhaps unsightly, giving us grief, discomfort and even sometimes sorrow and loss.  As well, they would also include those moments of our lives that are joyful, delightful, fulfilling and moments that give us an exhilarating experience of God’s love and goodness.  For us who live in this present time, those dark moments may include our experience of living with coronavirus and all its restrictions and inconveniences.  In short, it is a combination of all (good and bad), and never a fullness of either one of them.  

Our sinful and weak tendency is to only want the good, the delightful and those that give us consolations. And when we encounter moments where we do not, the default is to yearn for those good times to return, or for the dark moments to make their quick exit.  As well, we find ourselves preferring or ‘liking’ those that we understand or those that tell us what we like to know or agree with, and put aside those that puzzle us, confound us, make life a little uncomfortable for us, or displace us in some way.  

I see this happening so often when I see well meaning Catholics forwarding and sharing recorded talks by various speakers and when they add the comment “I like this talk”, it often also means that they like that they agree easily with the speaker’s topic and that the content doesn’t threaten their perception of God and his reality.  The opposite is hardly seen – when the message is really challenging one’s safe perception of how God works, and because it even includes the need to have God needing to allow one to suffer and experience afflictions in life, that this talk is also then just as readily shared and is deemed a ‘good’ talk that one likes. 

Many people have been very bothered by the current coronavirus plague that has caused many lives to be inconvenienced, disrupted and for some, even experiencing loss of lives of loved ones. They long for things to go back to ‘normal’, and it is easy to understand why.  They ask where is God in all this, and is he even concerned that we are experiencing this tragedy?  To be sure, it is a good question.

But if we accept the reality that God is truly omnipresent, we also have to accept that God is not and is never far from us or distant from us in this pandemic or in any sorrow that we may encounter in life.  It’s far too facile to say that we need to pray in such a way that God will somehow come in and change things for the better.  A much better prayer is to pray that we cooperate in all the ways that we can to God’s will which somehow necessarily includes the experience of this suffering that we have in life, and to have the gift of surrender.

Once that is the foundation of our prayer life, we will be able to respond with love, with charity, with kindness and with generosity even when things appear to go sideways.  Otherwise, we may be too busy praying that God ‘take away’ this virus, and miss all the golden opportunities that we are give to see God present when we are given those moments through his grace.