Monday, July 27, 2020

Our fight against evil is only made real if we see evil not just as a force or an energy, but as a person. The very same applies to our love for and relationship with God.

“I am not religious but I am spiritual”. This is often touted as an adage by well-intentioned millennials or ‘nones’ and their peers.  There is a lot that is packed into that statement, and it is tempting to just take that at face value, and not probe deeper.  But if we do probe, it will uncover quite a lot that lies hidden behind that statement, and one of these beliefs is that formal religion or institutions of religion are stuffy and serve to only limit one’s freedom.  Even that sentiment could be the material of a dedicated blog entry itself, but that will best be left for another time.

Another sentiment that lies behind that statement is also the belief that God is a force or an energy, and as such, doesn’t require an institution or any formality at any level in believing in it. On that note I am fully on board and agree with it 100%.  Yes, you read that correctly.  There is absolutely no necessity to belong to any formal religion with its specific doctrinal teachings on God if God is only a force or an energy.  

However, the Catholic Christian’s approach to God, and the Catholic Christian’s understanding of God is that God isn’t just a force and certainly more than just an energy.  We have it from God himself, in and through the person of Jesus Christ who is God incarnate, that God is a person.  Not only is God a person, but he is a unity of persons, and the persons of God desire and hope to have a deep and intimate relationship with every single human being.  One would never think of relating seriously to a mere force or energy, but only with a person.

As well, it was revealed by Jesus that evil isn’t just a force or an energy either.  Jesus tells us specifically that evil too is a person and he has a name, and the chief of his descriptions is that he is the Father of Lies, the direct antithesis of God who is the Father of Love.  

The devil’s reality becomes weakened and his thereat to our human flourishing in virtue and holiness becomes limp and with the power of milquetoast when we only view the devil as a force or an energy as well. The truth that we are in a battle against the devil while on this side of heaven, and sin becomes much more apparent and concrete the more we realize that he is a person, just as our relationship with God becomes more real and effortful if we view God as a person who loves us back in a personal way.

One of the devil’s greatest achievements is to have human beings deny his existence.  When the enemy in any battle achieves the ability to stay under the radar and stay undetected, it gives the opponent little reason to stay alert and vigilant.  As well, there is always the tendency to take a very laxed stance to be on high alert, let alone be ready 24/7 to fight when the enemy shows up in whatever form. Apart from being the Father of Lies, the devil is also the Master of Deceit, and has even known to take the form of Jesus himself to hoodwink saints in the Church’s history.

It is indeed lamentable that there is in general a very much weakened front on the side of the Catholic Church that forms the Church Militant in the lifelong fight against the devil and his minions. The tried and tested efforts at weekly fasts, penances and mortifications, whilst weakening the physical body, build up the spiritual muscles that makes our fight against the supernatural enemy strong and robust.  Yet, these are only sedulously practiced by Catholics few and far between. I am very certain that this is largely because the belief in the reality of the devil as a real person has become so watered down and diminished, causing many to think that moderns who still believe in the existence in a personal evil are remnants from a less sophisticated era.  

Having said this, we need to caution against being so fearful and timorous that we attribute everything that causes us to experience affliction and suffering to the devil himself.  That would make us not just spiritual pessimists but also even superstitious, making us more paranoid than free, and we may easily end up giving the devil much more power than we should.  Our call as Christians is to move from paranoia to metanoia.

If we are strengthened in our united fight against the devil and his evil plans to steal souls from God by seeing him not just as a maleficent force but a real person, the converse is true.  We will be also strengthened in our relationship with God and wanting to do his will in our lives the more we see God not just as a force or an energy but a real person with whom we can truly relate to and with.

It should come as no surprise then that catholic church has always given the Eucharist such a prominent place in our worship of God for so many reasons, one of which is that each time we are present at the sacrifice of the Mass, God gives himself to us in a real and concrete way when we consume him by partaking of Holy Communion.  With the ingestion of God who is truly present in every consecrated Host, we are relating to God in a most intimate and sublime way, where we become who we consume.  In truth, there is a holy consummation that takes place each time a communicant receives the Eucharist in a worthy manner.  

As such, there is an intrinsic difference between viewing on-line Masses and coming to participate at Masses physically. There is a difference between receiving the Eucharistic Lord in Holy Communion, and receiving him virtually. Though there is a blanket dispensation for all Catholics to come for Mass on Sundays due to the COVID-19 situation, if we can and if our health and age permits, we should take every opportunity to avail ourselves to relate so personally with our God in the Mass as far as the provisions of the authorities (civil and ecclesial) allow.  Unfortunately, what we notice from the rather dismal numbers who register for seats at our Masses since our coming out of the Circuit-Breaker period show that a very large number of Catholics are very reticent in weaning themselves off the virtual Masses.  

It is my fervent prayer that Catholics the world over will not allow the availability of on-line Masses to weaken their personal relationship with God.  Otherwise, we may end up only believing in God as a force or an energy, and soon, to have only a virtual relationship with God, much to our eventual detriment. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

To evangelize well, we need to re-appreciate the importance of the whole number.

There is a lot of truth and wisdom that is hidden in scripture which only becomes clear when it is revealed to us through wise and sage teachings.  Much of this is lost on the average person who reads not only translated bibles, but also who don’t have much of an appreciation of the mind and culture of the people who wrote the texts.  Sometimes, when a truth is revealed, it becomes a game-changer in terms of not only understanding the text, but also in living out our call to be disciples of Christ and to carry out our collective mission to evangelize. 

When teaching using parables, Jesus revealed to his disciples that there is a two-fold purpose in his usage of parables as his teaching method.  He says that it is “because the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to some but not to others.”  In other words, there is a certain hiddenness that is embedded within the parables that Jesus used, mainly because the kingdom of God isn’t something that is purely logical and linear in its essence, but has a mystery that needs entering into.  This is also why one can bring the very same part of scripture to prayer over and over and over again, and can also come out of prayer with fresh and different truths and insights each time.  The words have not changed, but its depths have reached new fathoms.

There is something to be said about the context of Jesus’ parables, largely because the evangelists do tend to group them together in a certain way. For instance, in the 15thchapter of Luke’s gospel, we see three parables in rather rapid succession and if we isolate them and only take them one parable at a time, something of essence is easily missed.  Within this chapter, the three parables are 

1)      The parable of the lost sheep (15:3-7)
2)      The parable of the lost coin (15:8-10), and
3)      The parable of the prodigal son (15:11-32)

Each of these three parables can and often are read as stand alone parables.  While that is good and perhaps even laudable, one easily misses something huge if one doesn’t begin by reading the first two verses of chapter 15, which is the context of why Jesus launched into these three parables.  We are told that the Pharisees were grumbling and complaining that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.

This was what was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and, if you will, his raison d’etre of his incarnation.  It was to bring the good news to sinners, and to share table fellowship and in that sense, to become Eucharist.  What drove him to be so passionate was the Hebrew mind of how crucial the whole number was and how an odd number just doesn’t sit well with in the Jewish culture.

Notice that in all the three separate but subsequent parables, there is one main theme that links all three stories and teachings, and that is how relentless the pursuer is of wanting to restore the whole.  In the parable of the lost sheep, the sheep owner goes out of his way in order to bring that one lost and wandering sheep back.  Why?  So that the 99 can eventually become 100.  The odd number needs to become whole.

In the parable of the lost coin, the woman had 10, but had lost one, leaving her with 9.  That odd number just didn’t sit well with her and she turned the whole house upside down just so that the 9 would become 10 again.  That need for wholeness drove her to go to such extremes.

Finally, in the parable of the prodigal son, the family unit experiences being split and rent asunder with the younger son departing the home and hearth for the life of debauchery and iniquity.  The father was utterly broken and yearned for nothing more than a reunion and return of that son, evidenced by his running out to meet the returning younger son. His excitement and utter joy is enough to justify this act of humility where an elder runs out to greet and meet the younger.  Running as an elder would be deemed an unbecoming act for an elder, but the return of the lost one puts aside all social graces.  

In all the three parables, the thread that passes through them is the unceasing and relentless need for the whole to be complete.  If 100 is the whole, 99 is incomplete and doesn't sit well with God and with the heart.  Because 10 is the whole, the fact that one is lost requires great effort in sedulous sweeping to not settle with 9.  If 2 is the whole, God doesn't want to settle for 1, and neither should we.  

I think many of us have missed this hidden point in the parables.  It really is a call to move beyond tribalism.  This is a term which isn’t quite used in contemporary reflection, but its prevalence is universal.  It’s the self-preserving need to only keep alive and to maintain, support and nurture what we are comfortable with, and not to include those who are outside of our inner group.  Its offspring is exclusiveness and it truly goes against the grain of God’s kingdom of heaven where everyone needs to be invited. 

In our own experience of life, these need to include those who have gone astray, those who are lost and those who have chosen to, like the younger son, live a life that has elements of selfishness and maybe even somewhat debaucherous.  The final judgment is God’s, and we need to respect that.  Ours is to seek them out, incessantly invite them back, and show charity win their friendship.  

This last part poses the greatest challenge to anyone serious in evangelizing to the lost.  It is an art that requires delicate balance and great patience, partly because we are dealing with matters of the heart and soul, and unless there is love, it will always be easier to bash the door in with harsh truths than to knock gently and persuade the door to be opened from the other side.  Our zeal needs to be tempered with tact and humility, which is such a delicate operation. But what fuels our zeal needs to be that hunger for the whole number that these three parables reveal to be at the heart of God.

Our empty churches are not a whole number.   We need all those who are still to be found.  

If we have the heart of God that wants wholeness and isn’t contented until all of his beloved children learn about his truth and his love, we won’t easily settle.  We will ramp up our efforts at talking about Christ and his good news, because every person matters.  Success at evangelizing isn’t ours to measure.  All we are asked is to do our best in showcasing our faith in our love and actions to all, regardless of whom we may be encountering in life.  

If we sometimes write others off with some unspoken prejudice in our hearts, we need to see how zealous Jesus was to go to the Cross for all of humanity, with no prejudice whatsoever.  

Monday, July 13, 2020

When we can’t genuinely praise our fellowman, we probably aren’t ready for heaven too.

There is a lot of wrong imagery about heaven that give us not only a wrong impression of holiness, but also a bad interpretation of what eternal life is.  I guess this is proof that bad imagination results in bad theology.  Cartoonists and satirists have often contributed to this with the way they like to portray heaven as having the saints lying languidly on puffy white clouds, oftentimes strumming harps.  This is problematic in so many ways.

It’s as if the life that we live now on God’s great green earth, with its unceasing rat race and striving at an often frenetic pace, is just so that at the end, the prize we attain is a certain state of idleness, with hardly any aim or purpose but to laze around. And for eternity!  Nothing could be more wrong and more offensive to the divine plan that God has for us ‘mere mortals’.  God has made us for eternal ‘life’, not eternal ‘laziness’.  Besides, if sloth is one of the capital sins, it would make absolutely no sense that heaven would be an eternity of this sin.

In our Roman Catholic liturgy, at the conclusion of almost every one of the Eucharistic Prefaces, the prayer has the presiding celebrant exclaiming that we join in the unending hymn of praise of God, often with the choirs of angels, before launching into a full throated singing (at least this is what should be happening) of the triple Holy, Holy, Holy. It informs us that this action of fully participated divine praise is an action or work that is what heaven consists of. 

This phrase “unending hymn of praise” reveals that one of heaven’s ‘works’ is to give God the unending praise that he deserves.  If that is so, then it behooves us to not only start this eternal praise that is going to be our eternal work as part of our work here in this life, but to also do this well.  

And herein lies a great problem for so many of us on this side of heaven.  We don’t praise well.  Not only do we not praise God well, we certainly have a lot of problems with praising one another well.  If it is one thing that we do well, it is that we do the opposite of this well.  We criticize and complain well, we fault-find well, and we certainly condemn and judge negatively well.  If there was an Olympiad for these, and if these were talents, the human race would be considered multi-talented and highly skilled, with so many gold medalists.  

Even if we find ourselves appreciating the good in others, or the skills that they posses, there is a part of us that seems to desire to covet or possess them.  And this adds to the problem because it means that we are motivated by the sin of covetousness.

The angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, himself mused, and quite correctly I must say, that it’s a sin to withhold a compliment from someone when it’s deserved because by withholding our praise, we are depriving him or her of the food that he or she needs to live on.  It makes us alert to the fact that our souls need to be fed as well, and genuine and unaffected compliments are the food for the soul and it comes in the form of affirmation, recognition and blessing.  It provides for the health of the person when these are given “willing the good of the other, as other”.

I strongly believe that a hallmark of one who is truly spiritual and mentally mature is that he or she is able to admire and praise with no other intention than to admire and praise with a pure heart.  It is made doubly hard when one doesn’t have models in one’s life to imitate and look up to as elders who have been doing this well in their formative years.  

I came across a study that Fr Ronald Rolheiser shared recently in a retreat.  He said that there is so much power in a compliment and affirmation, most especially when it is from a top-down direction.  The greatest of all top-down directions or flow is when God affirms and praises, and this happens at every baptism where God declares that the newly baptized is God’s beloved.  It was this incredible power that gave Jesus the clear lens through which he viewed the world as his mission began, allowing him to see in some way that God’s will is woven into even the most challenging and punishing of situations, the passion and crucifixion not withstanding.

On the human level, this power and confidence in life is transmitted from parents to their children, but it is especially powerful when the praise, affirmation and acceptance is given by parents of the opposite gender.  It’s not surprising at all that mothers easily bless and are affectionate to their sons, and fathers just as easily bless and are affectionate to their daughters, giving way to the familiar terms of being “mommy’s boy” or “daddy’s girl”. 

But there seems to be a great challenge when it comes to blessing and being affectionate to parents and children of the same gender, with mothers finding it more difficult to do this to their daughters, and fathers to their sons.  However, when this is done well and often, despite its seeming awkwardness, the result is often that the child has a certain added confidence in life that doesn’t see him or her later on in life needing to assert himself or herself in such a way as to compensate for this ‘power’ that was missing in one’s formative and younger years.  

Sons who had lacked the affirmation and affection of their fathers could find themselves striving to find success and power (hence affirmation and value) in their work and profession.  Of course, this in itself isn’t a bad thing, but the extreme negative effect of this is when it goes completely south and the unaffirmed son or daughter channels this by way of being abusive, whether sexually or physically, toward others, like their spouse or their children, passing down, as it were, a ‘generational sin’.

If praising others and commending the good that we see in them is still something that is foreign to our sensitivities, perhaps we seriously need to rethink this.  What is more important is that we also know that by praising them, we are also praising the God who made them, and that all praise is ultimately given to God, directly or indirectly.  

After all, if heaven’s work is our praising God eternally with the angels and saints, we will find ourselves most unfit and unskilled for heaven’s work if we hardly put any effort in it during our lives on this side of heaven.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Mother Mary – any serious actor’s source of inspiration.

In an on-line conversation between actress Anne Hathaway and actor Hugh Jackman, it became apparent to me that what separates a good actor/actress from a great actor/actress is how transparent and ego-less he or she is able to be when in character.  This is really a skill that needs to be learnt simply because the ‘default’ in any person is to put his or her ego right in the forefront of things, and to assert his or her will over any other person’s.  

But when that happens, especially in an actor’s craft, it becomes very problematic because then the audience sees he actor and not the character whom the actor portrays.  To ‘get into character’ requires the skilled artiste to diminish his own persona and lose himself to the role, disappearing as it were, so as to let the portrayed character emerge from within.  So, for instance, when playing the role of Jean Valjean in the film adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Misereables, Hugh Jackman needed to ‘disappear’ in order for Jean Valjean’s personality to come to the fore, letting us who sit in the audience see not Hugh, but Jean.  The more famous the actor is, the more challenging this becomes because dying to the self becomes more difficult after success which often causes one to be inflated and ‘larger than life’. 

This skill that actors need to acquire is what separates the ‘men from the boys’, and doubly blessed is the actor/actress who works with a director who has the ability to draw this out from the talents that he works with.  When these two skills dovetail, a symbiosis happens, and oftentimes this is what separates a great production from a mediocre one.  

It is very apparent that the dynamics at work here requires very much what I have been taught all along, and have been passing on as one of life’s very important lessons if one were serious in attaining any degree of maturity in the spiritual life.  It is the importance of living out consciously that ‘my life is not about me’.  

When an actor is truly lost to his character portrayed, he needs to die to himself.  The more he is self-conscious, the less he will be able to be ‘someone else’.  Bad acting is when this is contrived, over-acted and affected.  One need not be schooled in acting to detect when an actor is very self-conscious in his work.  

One of the reasons we (not just actors) are so wrapped up in the self and ego-centered most of the time in any 24 hour period, is because of the effects of sin.  It was this need to promote and assert their wills over God’s that caused our first parents to be successfully tempted by the serpent in Eden. From that first fall, all of their children from then on inherited this strong predilection to the self and to our egos.  

There was only one human being who was able to work so perfectly and so selflessly, in perfect symbiosis with the Holy Spirit, and she is Mary of Nazareth.  The one reason she was able to put up no resistance at all in wanting God’s will to be done over her own will was that she was graced so perfectly.   Her life mirrored what Adam and Eve’s lives were like prior to the fall.  In each moment of her life while on earth, Mary was always able to be so transparent to the self, desiring to give herself over to the will and ways of God so as to give God the glory, even to the expense of herself.  

But this didn’t diminish herself in any way, but rather, enabled her to be her best self that she could possibly be. While our lives on this earth are a training ground and workshop to reach the attainment of that heavenly form that God has made us capable of, Mary was already living life at that level while on earth, rendering any need to further refine her love for God after her life ended here not only unnecessary but also redundant.  This is one one of the theological reasons why the Church has made the Assumption of Mary into heaven a proclaimed Dogma of the Catholic faith.  

In all of our altercations with our brothers and sisters in life, it is always our selves that ‘get in the way’. Our egos get bruised and damaged so easily, and we always have the need to be right in all that we do, even when we are obviously wrong.  

You, dear reader, may be thinking that such a reflection doesn’t concern you at all because you are not an actor in any sense of the word.  You may be in some other profession, maybe a plumber, or a social worker, or a homemaker, or a stay-at-home dad, or a nurse or a domestic worker.  On the other hand, you could be a business owner, or a lawyer, or a food delivery worker trying to make ends meet.  It doesn’t really matter.  Every single one of us are called to allow God’s will to be done in and through our lives, and when we allow that symbiosis to happen, we allow God’s glory to be made manifest in the world.  Like Mary, we need to allow God to use us in the best way possible, and put up the least resistance on our side, yielding to the Holy Spirit every step of the way, and denying ourselves where the case may require us to do so.  

In that way, we are really actors on God’s stage.  Every single one of us.  There are some who know it, there are some who resist it, and there are many who have no clue as to what their role is, and that there is an ultimate purpose of each person’s life.  Mary gives us a very good example of how to carry ourselves on God’s stage of the world.