Monday, August 31, 2020

True freedom and having prophetic courage always comes at a price. If we have been paid, our silence would have been bought.

Someone came up to me recently and asked if I had made any money at all from the time that I had been maintaining this blog of mine for over ten years.  I thought that to be a rather strange question, and my immediate response was of course in the negative.  No, I didn’t start this blog endeavor of mine in order to make a few extra ‘bucks’ on the side, supplementing my monthly basic allowance that I get as a priest for the diocese of Singapore.  To be fair, I do have several motives for doing what I do in this blog.  The first and primary motive is to use this as a platform to catechize people (Catholics as well as non-Catholics) on the various aspects of the faith, and in so doing, I am able to help people to mature slowly in their spiritual lives.  One can never really say that one has learnt all that can be learnt about the faith, and at best, one can only say that one is on the way towards fuller development of one’s faith.  

The other reason I keep hacking at this at a regular basis is because I believe that writing requires thinking, and both of them need to be regularly done in order for one to experience growth and maturity.  Writing, because it is essentially a craft, also  requires discipline – the discipline of consistent practice if one wants to develop one’s writing character.  While the writing itself doesn’t really get easier with practice, what does get better is the confidence in forming the ideas that swim in one’s head.  Turning them into phrases that others can read when they are put into words requires effort, and as I have said ad nauseam, effort equals love.  

I have come to appreciate as well the fact that the freedom to write what I write has been made possible largely because I am beholden to no one but God.  I am not sponsored by anyone, and have not gotten a single cent by monetizing my writing efforts.  Let me state clearly here that I do not in any way denigrate nor view negatively the many other bloggers or vloggers who monetize their work.  To be fair, this is the only way some of them make their living, and many of them do contribute to the well-being of their 'followers'.  But I was very humbled to read one of Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s regular columns recently when he shared that it was because he was a syndicated writer who was paid for his contribution to the many publications that publish his writings on a weekly basis, that he somehow isn’t as free as he would like to be as a writer.  

He also reveals that somehow he has to ‘tow the line’ and be somewhat PC as a Catholic writer.  He admits that he would like to make a strong stand on things like social justice, but he has to be very measured as he doesn’t want to rub his readers up the wrong way, and to have multiple newspapers drop his columns as a result.  Prophetic courage always has a price to be paid, and as Rolheiser makes it clear, money and renown can be very powerful paymasters.

While I am not sure if my writings are at the level and quality that are worthy of being published by any newspapers or religious publications, but of this I am certain – that the moment I start to gain in some way, financial or otherwise from these weekly reflections, that accompanying it could well be a concern of whether or not my next piece or article will cause my readership to suffer.  Even being overly concerned with the numbers that read my reflections each week can work against a writer’s freedom.  As it is in the spiritual life, one has to constantly purify one’s motives if one wants to live with any degree of courage and tenacity. 

The same freedom applies to anyone who is serious in his being an evangelist at any serious level.  Our freedom to speak about Jesus and his truth can become very diminished if we are very concerned and worried about how our audience will treat us or view us as a result of our sharing of our faith, or if we are obsessed with numbers.  To be sure, the message of Jesus and his values are always going to be counter cultural and counter intuitive for the mind whose values are based on the things that this world has to offer.  

Of course, one can always just preach and share about the “safe” issues that almost everyone can agree upon – being kind, being generous, being faithful and sincere in all that we do.  I suppose, these “safe” issues will keep one safely maintaining one’s regular paycheck and strong readership numbers.  These are not, and will not be wrong in themselves.

Yet, it wasn’t these truths that Jesus was sentenced to death for on Calvary.  It was for the hard truths that he not only stood for, but for the truths - of who he was; that he was the Son of God, the only way to eternal life of heaven, and that he is the eternal King of a kingdom that will have no end.  Jesus didn’t stay on teaching only about the “safe” issues of life, but really pushed the envelope when he taught about loving one’s enemies, forgiving those who are sending us to our deaths, being washers of each others’ feet, that we need to eat of him in the Bread of Life that is the Eucharist, that he alone is the source of true life and that no one can come to the Father EXCEPT through him.  In fact, he doubled down on some of these hard truths when his followers began to walk away, rather than dialing it down just so that he could keep the numbers of his followers.

Jesus didn’t need any form of payment for his prophetic courage, because his courage came from knowing just how deeply his heavenly Father was always loving and sustaining him in his very being.  I am certain that we too will have much more prophetic and moral courage and authority in our discipleship if we also know how much we are just as loved by our heavenly Father.

Monday, August 24, 2020

When we love someone, we allow him or her to amaze us. Do we see this in God as well?

Our catechism tells us of God’s attributes, and that he is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient – all-powerful, all present and all knowing.  These attributes are succinct ways to show that there is no higher power than God, and because of that, he is truly above all and the creator of all. We declare this every time we profess our faith in the Creed, and say that he is light from light, true God from true God, and that through him, all things were made.  

This being the case, can anything we as creatures do that can in any way, shape or form impress or amaze God? Since he is God, almighty in every way, it is ultimately he alone who can truly say that he has ‘been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and the mug’ to everything and to every experience possible.  

As he isn’t just beautiful but beauty itself, can anything that is created by us or even created in nature that could captivate him?  That would be impossible.  Philosophically, Aristotle himself says of God that he is the unmoved mover because if all motion were to trace its origins from the act of motion that caused it, to the one that caused that other act of motion, back to the very first and original act of motion, one would arrive at a prime mover, or the one whose act of motion has no origin other than itself, and this would be God, the unmoved mover.  

If this is so on the level of philosophy and existence, does it apply in the same way to God on the level of affection?  Can God be ‘moved’, as it were, affectively?  

There is actually biblical evidence that supports this seeming incongruity in God, as Jesus himself is described by the gospel writers as being ‘amazed’ and that he ‘marveled’ at least twice.  In one instance, Jesus marvels at the faith that is displayed by the Centurion who sent friends to ask that Jesus not come to him personally, but to heal his beloved servant who was suffering from an unnamed illness at home.  In the other, Jesus himself encounters a Canaanite woman who pleads humbly before him for him to heal her daughter who was being tormented by a devil.  Here, we are told that he exclaimed, “great is your faith”, which is a demonstration of Jesus being amazed at her display of faith.  In some translations, we even see Jesus being ‘astonished’.

These two pericopes from scripture show that though Jesus is God, there is something that human beings can actually do to astound and even to fascinate God.  This power lies in every single human being, and that includes you, my reader of this blog.  Do you want to know how you can astound and be able to cause God to marvel at you?  

It is actually something that is very easy to do, yet so few of us know that we have this strange and very humbling ability.  It is when we activate our faith in God.  The two gospel passages have one thing in common.  In both of them, faith was activated and demonstrated and when Jesus noticed this, it was something that he somehow was so delighted to see that it made him take special notice.  And in both cases, the activation of faith was made by non-Jews, or gentiles, who were the people outside of the House of Israel.  

If God is all-powerful, how is it that something as small and seemingly insignificant as the activation and demonstration of one’s faith cause him to marvel and to be astounded? That is because the ability to be astounded and amazed really has its roots in love.  

We only need to look at how parents of infants and toddlers have such an unmistakable power to astound, surprise and delight their parents.  And often, they only need to do the simplest of acts, like opening their mouths to say ‘dada’ or ‘mama’, or make a word from the lettered bricks that the child is playing with, like ‘dog’ or ‘cat’.  The father or mother may be a high ranking tenured professor at a renown university with a string of degrees behind his or her name, yet a very simple act like this can literally cause the parent to be astounded and truly delighted, and to almost walk on air for the day.  This is not so much because of the fact that something of intelligence came out from the child, but because this was his or her child, and that before any of that could be done by the child, the parents loved the child first.  

The very same action would be received with much less delight and enthusiasm from an onlooker who has no relationship at all with the child in any way, shape or form.  And because an ‘outsider’ doesn’t have love for the child, any action that the child does will not have any power to amaze and astound.

This being the case, it should delight us to know that we don’t have to move mountains in order for us to be noticed and be delighted by God.  Because God is love, any action that we do on our part to convey a love for him will have a certain spiritual symbiotic effect.  If we are getting up from bed in the wee hours of the morning so that we can spend some time taken from our comfortable sleep to pray and to show in a very demonstrative way that we are loving God and putting aside our own needs and preferences, it will show that we are showing great love for God and great faith as well.  

When things don’t go the way we would like, but surrender our anxieties to God and submit it to the hands of God in the way that Jesus did when he breathed his last on the cross, we are activating our faith and also showing great love for him.

This power that we have in seizing God’s notice is stridently different from the way that a vast majority of his children often do.  Letters of petition written to ask for divine help in so many of life’s challenges are countless.  Candles lit at altars and shrines all over the world bear witness to the many hearts that cry out for God’s attention, especially when lives and health experience afflictions and debilitation.  Of course, there is nothing wrong in prayers of petition, and the Church has always encouraged its faithful to turn to God in their moments of need.  

But imagine how any parent or friend would feel if the only time they get to hear from their beloved is when they are in trouble or in dire need?  In the same way that an “I love you” thrills and delights when it is said with no particular reason or with no ulterior motive, an activation of faith from our hearts to God with no particular reason or ulterior motive will delight and even astound God.  

How do we know this?  Jesus the God-man showed delight, surprise and amazement when this was demonstrated by people who were not even among the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  That’s you and that’s me.  

Know that you too have the very same power and it lies in your faith, and the power’s origin lies in the fact that God loves us unconditionally.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Feelings and emotions have a part to play when it comes to love, but their role should never be a starring one. The same applies strongly to our prayer life.

Any couple married for a relatively long period of time will attest to the truth that challenges abound.  The courtship years, with all their allure of electrifying romance and bewilderment have a certain use-by date.  Once the rigours and stresses of effortful love kicks in, along with these rigours is the reality that it is not romance and feelings or ‘sparks’ that keep the cogs of the marriage wheel turning but active decisions to love at each moment where love seems to be lacking.  There is really little effort to love if one is constantly able to ‘feel’ love in a romantic way.  

This is particularly true during the honeymoon period that follows marriage.  A wanting to love one’s spouse at honeymoon time hardly needs much effort, and is more like a “knee-jerk reaction” largely because it’s in response to what is already there in a very sensate way.  But it is when the honeymoon period is over, and the drone and humdrum of daily unexciting life sets it when the effort to love is most needed and also at the same time most valuable.  Oftentimes, it is when these ‘feelings’ or ‘sentiments’ of romance that was previously so electrifying are no longer electrifying in any way, that one needs to activate one’s will to love, demonstrating what true loving is.  As St John of the Cross succinctly puts it – “where there is no love, put in love, and there you will find love”.

One wonders if married couples are aware of this dynamic at all, what with the rising rates of divorces that the statistics show.    It is dismaying to see how so many couples decide to end their marriages citing that it is because there was no longer anymore ‘spark’ in their marriage, and that the marriage has become more of a habit than anything else.  But isn’t love (love that is effortful and lived with an act of the will) supposed to become a habit?  And not only a habit but a good habit at that.  A habit is an action that one does repeatedly, often many times a day. Of course, habits have their positive and negative sides. Where love is concerned, it is certainly desirable that one cultivates the active choice and decision to do loving actions that are selfless and kind, leading them to becoming one’s second nature, whether there are ‘sparks’ or whether ‘sparks’ are lacking.  

But there are also challenges when habits have become actions that have turned to be somewhat annoying and grate on the nerves. I heard an elderly priest say to a couple at their wedding Mass that before marriage, every pimple is a dimple, but after marriage, even dimples can be seen as pimples.  What may be seen to be ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ in the courtship and pre-marriage days can unsurprisingly become the very thing that annoys and irritates later in the marriage.

It takes effort and an act of the will to not let these overshadow a couple’s decision to love when these surface in marriage, but this is only made worse when one views the aim or goal of marriage. 

If marriage is seen as an end it itself, it is seen as a destination rather than a new embarkation point.  The Christian view of marriage is never that of an end, but a means to an end.  This end is not of this world.  The end is a heavenly one, where each individual attains the perfection of one’s existence, which is to be in the eternal embrace of God and to behold him ‘face to face’.  The aim of marriage, especially when it is a sacramental marriage of two baptized Catholics, is to give each of the spouses the means through which each party is perfecting himself or herself in selfless loving to grow closer and closer to their individual heavenly selves as their marriage matures.  It is, as it were, the garden where their seeds of love are given the adequate nurturing, pruning and nourishment to flower and eventually bear fruit.  

However, if marriage is only seen as a destination and an end, there really is no good reason either party should put in any effort to keep the love sustained and growing.  One would have the attitude of having reached the highest summit of the mountain, and as they say, it is all “downhill from here”.  It gives no reason for either of the spouses to not just sustain the love, but to keep it growing with desire, effort and acts of the will. 

All that has been said can be applied to our individual spiritual lives as well.  If our prayer life is largely based on our feelings and emotions, it will not be something that is sustained.  Are we praying only when we come across a reflection that brings some delight and activates our imagination?  Do we find ourselves only wanting to pray when we ‘feel holy’, whatever that may mean?  Is our communication with God in prayer predicated on how emotionally high we are, like having come out of a retreat where we experienced a particular grace? What happens to our commitment to prayer when those sentiments and emotions are no longer there?  

Just like marriage, our prayer life cannot be seen as ends in themselves.  Just going to Church and receiving the sacraments are not ends in themselves, but need to be seen as means to our final end, which is our final union with God in heaven, where we will see us attaining our best selves.  If participating in the sacraments are ends in themselves, the final words of the celebrant priest at each Mass makes no sense when he asks that the congregation “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. It’s a reminder that the Lord we have received at Mass is not for ourselves, but for us to bring him to others by becoming Christ ourselves.  And that takes tremendous effort.

Monday, August 10, 2020

We just aren’t made for social distancing as human beings – even God doesn’t distance himself from us.

There has been a lot of fallout resulting from the on-going COVID-19 pandemic that the world is currently mired in right now. Understandably, most governments have at their topmost concern is how this has affected and continues to affect their economies as this is the engine that they are put in power to maintain and keep running as best as they can.  It doesn’t take an astute economist to see the kind of impact that this virus has on the countless jobs that help to put food on the table in millions of families. For many people who live from hand to mouth with hardly any savings in the bank, the loss of a regular paying job can have devastating effects.  As long as the search for a vaccine against the Coronavirus hasn’t reached its end, more and more jobs and the financial stability of families will continue to be negatively impacted.

But that is just one of the ways COVID-19 has changed the world and has changed many lives.  There are a lot more other non-economic related effects which human beings have experienced the world over as well.  One of the more significant of these is the way that we relate to one another socially as human beings.  As a priest who is ordained for the care of souls, and to pastorally shepherd the flock that he is sent to, I see this clearly in my ministry, and cannot help but feel a certain sense of foreboding, especially where the dynamics of human interaction are concerned.  There had never been any course in the seminary that prepared us for a time when it was not possible to physically meet with our parishioners, or when so much restrictions are put in place by the authorities.  

The catchphrase in these unusual times is to “socially distance” ourselves.  None of us would have ever thought that there would be a time in our lives where, in order to keep the other safe, we would have to keep away from one another. Understandably, there have been much reactions against this new norm, largely because the human person was not made for social distancing.  Right from the first chapters of Genesis, God makes for Adam a suitable helpmate, one who is taken from his side to be with him side by side.  

It isn’t surprising to see large swaths of people from all nations resisting this call to socially distance themselves from one another.  It just goes against the human need and appreciation for contact, encounter and what the bible terms as koinonia, the Greek term for fellowship or community.  Yet, it is within that call to truly love one another in the truest sense of the word, where we will the good of the other for the sake of the other, that we practice this tough call of social distancing.  

Thankfully, the pandemic comes to us at a time when the supporting structures are in place for us to do many things online.  The negative impact of the pandemic on society would be far worse if we were not living in the largely digital world, where one can work from home, learn from home, shop from home, run a business from home and to meet friends both near and far from home.  The world is so heavily dependent on our strange ability to live in a ‘virtual world’ in these challenging times.  I was rather amused to see how there is even a virtual open-house tour of the Istana (the office of the President of the Republic of Singapore) to observe our nation’s 55thIndependence Day online.  It certainly isn’t uncommon to hear of the many things that one can experience on the virtual platform, including virtual meetings, virtual concerts, virtual classrooms and virtual workshops and seminars. 

The Church too, has benefitted from the use of this technology, and there are many virtual or on-line Masses that are broadcast live to devotees all around the world, though this too, has its challenges. It doesn’t surprise me one bit to find out that there are segments of the Catholic population who say that they are getting so used to these ‘virtual’ Masses that they don’t really look forward to the time when we can once again come together physically to be with each other in community in a physical Church to celebrate and encounter the oneness that we are as members of the Body of Christ.  

When asked why they are now partial to virtual Masses, some of the responses have been that they can view them at their own time and schedule, and need not bother about how they dress or attire themselves when doing so.  Some have even said that as a family, they even snuggle under the comfortable duvet on their parents’ bed, and ‘attend’ Mass in a supine position, surrounded by their fluffy pillows and favourite stuffed animals, and dressed in their pajamas that they wore since the night before.  It’s just so convenient.

I noticed that what is making this going so well for these “virtual Masses” is that they seem to be centered on the self, with reasons being those of comfort, convenience and availability ‘on-demand’. These, after all, are the very same reasons why the cyber world has become so successful – the world is becoming more and more about the self.  And this is where, if we are not careful, we will start to apply the same attractive qualities of the cyber-world to our spiritual lives, and see the very foundations of our faith begin to disappear beneath our very feet.

What is the foundation of our faith and our sacraments?  It’s ultimately based on love, and a love that is willed for the other, and for the good of the other.  God’s love for us is what compels him to go out of his own Trinitarian comfort to create us and to share that love with us.  If we strip away all that the externals of every Sacrament of the Church – their actions, their liturgical trimmings and adornments, their exquisite settings and the carefully formed phrases used in the various rites, each Sacrament is ultimately an experience of this love of God who wants to be close to us, and not distanced from us. And certainly not socially distanced either.  

If we fail to see this, we will easily end up making it all about us - be it our comfort, our convenience and our ability to have things on-demand. And when that happens, we will ultimately forget or fail to see that because pure love requires effort and sacrifice (especially where God and the other is concerned), there is therefore also a great value in putting aside our comfort, our convenience and making it all about us. This is where our faith sits stridently opposite to the narrative that the world promotes and upholds as almost sacrosanct.  The effort to come to Mass celebrated at a time that may not be convenient to you, the effort to turn up in an attire that shows we value what we are doing at Mass, and even the effort to pay attention to what may appear to be something ‘boring’ is really an effort to love.  

The virtual life may be something that is sweeping over our lives like a powerful tsunami, but if we are not careful or discerning, we may forget that the more meaningful life is not the virtual life, but the virtuous life.  And that is always effortful.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Much like hunger and appetite, desire is not always a bad thing. The task of the spiritual life is to control it and not let it control us.

Desire as gotten quite a lot of negative press especially where the spiritual life is concerned.  Many think that desire doesn’t have positive connotations, and some spiritual writers have considered it as something that doesn’t serve the soul well in its quest for holiness.  I disagree rather strongly with this sentiment, chiefly because like freedom, desire is something that God has given to each human person out of love.  Without freedom to choose good over evil, and love over fear, God might as well have created us to be like the proverbial lemming that doesn’t think for itself and merely follows the one that is in front of it.  Desire is closely associated with the freedom to choose, and it is when one desires wrongly (or chooses wrongly) that one is making a choice for sin.


In his rather enlightening book “Immortal Combat”, Fr Longenecker takes pains to elucidate this very important point.  He puts it so succinctly that the freedom to choose may seem simple and elementary, but it is also terrifying because its implications are eternal.


It is indeed true that embedded in the power to choose is the spark that is called “desire”.  Desire is the engine of choice, without which there would be no impetus at all to choose any one option over the other.  We need to realise that desire itself is not evil.  We are taught in the catechism that even in their preternatural state, Adam and Even had desire, but they desired everything that was beautiful, good and true (relate this to God being the fullness of Beauty, Goodness and Truth themselves). 


But I do have some issue with Fr Longenecker’s positing that because God wanted his new creatures (Adam and Eve) to remain innocent and immortal, that he forbade them the knowledge of good and evil, and before the fall, they only desired and chose that which was beautiful, good and true.  I would only disagree with this view if time was a factor in its consideration.  Maybe some explanation is in order here.


We tend to think that there was a period of time (or length of time) from the moment our first parents were created until they chose to sin, resulting from a wrong choice.  If so, then Fr Longenecker’s definition of this preternatural state necessarily included the non-possibility of choosing wrongly, and ipso facto, the absence of freedom which is so important in the moral order.


If there was a necessity to make an errata in his thesis, I would posit that this state is only plausible and possible when referring to origin sin within a linear time frame, whereas the reality is that the moment the human person was created, it fell, because in linear time, the tempter (aka Lucifer and his minions) were already in existence before God brought humans into existence.  Genesis had to be written the way it was simply because linear time is the only way our human capacities can apprehend and comprehend things.  Remember – much of scripture is written in parabolic, metaphorical and archetypal language, and this was richly used by the author of Genesis to convey a truth of the human person and how he deals with the mystery of sin and evil.


This rather esoteric reflection’s focus isn’t so much about when our first parents sinned and listened to their desires in a wrong way.  That wouldn’t really make a difference to our own challenges that we now face when making choices that are morally right and beneficial for our spiritual lives.  Rather, it is to make it clear that one way to stay on the path toward holiness and wholeness is to be keenly aware that how we respond to our desires in life impacts greatly the moral state of our souls.  It is when we let our desires steer our direction in life that we can easily begin to also abandon our moorings on godliness and living the life of grace. 


As well, we often encounter the reality that it is our wrong or bad desires that we have heeded to in life that has given way to many of our bad or sinful habits.  One of the very effective ways of overcoming these bad habits is to stop our actions midway through these habits and ask a very simple question – what am I doing right now?  For instance, if someone is addicted to smoking and is struggling to quit, it would entail him or her to, once the cigarette is lit and is hanging out of the mouth, to stop and ask – what am I doing right now?  The more direct and graphic the answer is, to more one will find it objectionable to continue with the action.  So, in this case, the answer could be one of the following – I am not ingesting toxic fumes into my body and coating the air sacs of my lungs with black tar that does my body no good whatsoever.  Or I am slowly poisoning my body and making it unhealthy and sick and in the process making it dangerous for others to be around me as I make them passive smokers while I exhale pollutants into the air.  It would be also very helpful to admit that it is because I have given in to a desire that for my body isn’t good, that I have also a reason why I should be desiring something that is instead beneficial and healthy for my body which is a gift from God. 


One can apply this methodology to any of one’s habits that one is struggling to break free from in life.  It works as far as one is willing to be both honest and humble at the same time.


Closely connected to the ability to choose the right desires is the ability to discern between the choices that we face in just about everything we do in life.  We just need to be aware that the more conscious our choices are for God and his will, the more we will show God and others how real our love for God and one another is, and live out the most fundamental commandments of God – to love him and to love one another.