Monday, October 26, 2020

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Monday, October 19, 2020

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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





Monday, October 12, 2020

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


1.   From A Distance, by Julie Gold.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

Monday, October 5, 2020

If the Christmas angels heralded peace on earth, why are we still not having the peace that was proclaimed?

Each Christmas, we hear the dulcet tones of Christmas carols.  Quite many of the traditional carols depict the Christmas angels appearing to the poor shepherds in the fields tending to their sheep, and proclaiming the great news that the Messiah is born in Bethlehem, and that because of this, there will be peace to men of goodwill.  These words come directly from the infancy narrative found in Luke 2.

Well, we are 2000 years from that watershed event in human history, and one can easily argue that the heavenly announcement appears to be something like ‘fake news’, because from the birth of the Messiah till now, the world had been experiencing more times of war and violence than it has of peace and tranquility.  Did the angels bring false hope?  We know that angels are not messengers of lies and deceit, so what gives?  Is there something that we do not or have not yet fully understood?  Was there something that was more hidden than obvious, perhaps even cryptic in their message that we have missed?  

The mystery of the incarnation is definitely good news for sinful humanity, because it opened up the only path that we sinners have toward heaven.  And it is also good news when we are promised peace in and through this child.  But there is a caveat that we bypass easily when we read the gospel texts of the infancy narratives, and when we sing those familiar Christmas songs.  It is the part that says that peace will be given, but not to all and sundry.  It is given to men of goodwill. Some manuscripts have this translated as “… in whom God is pleased.”

Christ’s incarnation is not magic, in that the moment he was born, the world automatically stopped being violent and suddenly had a miraculous change of heart from one that was hardened through warfare and violence, into a softened and tenderized heart that was kind, forgiving, and full of charity.  There is an imperative to be persons of goodwill before the peace of Christ has any effect on us.  There is, as it were, a certain condition that needs to be met before this universal peace is enjoyed and experienced, and the condition is that we need to be living lives that are identified with this child of Bethlehem.  

That Christ is the model of goodness and forgiveness and charity is a consistent teaching of Christianity, where Jesus isn’t only seen as a good person, not only as a moral person, but as divine and as such, worthy of true adoration and worship.  

Certainly, the message that the angelic heralds proclaimed on that first Christmas morning was meant for all, but just like anything that we are physically given, if we have our hands full of other things and excess baggage, it’s going to be very hard for us to not only receive what the divine infant wants to give, but to hold on to them for life as well.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives us such an evocative description of the necessity of humility that the Son of God embraced when he took on human form where he emptied himself for our sake.  Our entire spiritual life is going to be a struggle to do a similar emptying or kenosis.  Would that it was as simple as dropping our heavy bags at some doorway to walk straight in to embrace whatever God wills for us.  But there would be little effort in this kind of one swift action.  We will always realize that the moment we identify and drop one bag, we will be aware of another satchel of some attachment that calls us to live for ourselves and less for God and others.

Being people of goodwill is ultimately being people of God’s will.  We pray for the ability to live this out every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, where we start off by asking that God’s kingdom come, and God’s will be done.  We know it is ultimately what is best for us, but we somehow hope that our will be done before God’s.  

The angelic promise of peace to all mankind is a promise that God will fulfill, but he certainly isn’t going to force it down our throats at any rate.  It is a peace that only can come when we are people who have a heart of goodwill to want God’s will above all, and at all costs.