Monday, November 30, 2020

When having a poor understanding of charity can really expose a smallness of heart. (Included at the end is a YouTube link to a coming Advent talk I will be giving tomorrow night)

Sin and evil are not always obvious and clearly defined.  They can be also subtle and therefore complex as well.  This makes it very challenging for anyone to really want to listen to the inner promptings of the conscience because the way sin and evil like to work is to hide themselves in the fabric of good.  


No one would willfully and willingly commit an obviously evil act for the sake of evil itself (unless one was psychotically deranged, and even that would be a result of some mental disorder).  Almost always, one would commit an act of evil or sin within what is considered a shaded or misguided good.  After all, we see how the author of the book of Genesis describes the serpent in the Garden of Eden as being “more subtle or crafty than any other beast in the field that God had made” (Gen. 3:1).


The oft-quoted phrase “the road to perdition is paved with good intentions” is said to have originated from St Bernard of Clairvaux who lived in the early 12thCentury.  His was a more succinct version, which went something like “hell is full of good intentions or desires”.


But how does one assure oneself that one’s intentions for anything are pure?  What does a pure motive look like?  What defines a heart that is a heart that is full (or at least having a large portion) of charity?  


It has to be reducible to loving the other in such a way that the other’s good is ultimately desired, even it means having to displace oneself to attain that end.  If it has a tinge of shaming the other, calling the other one out in public, or diminishing the other’s dignity is any way, there will be some form of vindictiveness or even vengeance in the act, and therefore should be avoided.  Carrying on would reveal a lack of charity.


This kind of evil is never obvious, and the means through which one’s thoughts are easily made public comes readily to mind.  We only need to look at how the proliferation of social media in its various forms have consequently seen the emergence of the keyboard warrior.  Hardly a complimentary term, keyboard warriors do not usually act with charity of the heart, nor willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.  There is little effort made for holistic engagement to take place.  When an incident that incites the ire within happens, one takes to the keyboard to write an email of complaint not just to the person directly, but oftentimes will also cc the world (or the larger community) and with one hit of the ‘return’ key, someone else is publically named and shamed.


When this is done, it immediately changes what could be a charitable act into an act that diminishes the other. An act of charity in this case would be to engage the other in a one-on-one conversation, bearing in mind the intention of ultimately wanting the good of the other.  But with a blast of one email that is cc-d to all and sundry, instead of building bridges and fostering the growth of well being, walls are erected and the world becomes a smaller and darker place.  Instead of love, fear and discord is sown.  Hidden behind all this, a sense of self-righteousness and a false sense of superiority can also lurk.  When the battle could have been God’s, it ends up being a round going to the devil.


This is why when there is conflict and disagreement, the golden rule would be to follow what Jesus says in Matthew 18 – if there is a matter to resolve, first go up to the person concerned and have a conversation on the matter.  If that doesn’t help to resolve the matter, bring one or two others along. If that doesn’t work, then tell it to the Church.  


This is sometimes called the law of gradualness or the principle of subsidiarity, where a certain hierarchy is followed.  Although it is tempting and easier to just go to the highest level (the public arena) when something is causing one to be upset (or when something causes one to feel offended), this law reminds one to take things in small steps, and in so doing, also helps one to develop the virtue of patience.  Of course it is going to take more effort.  But it is in the very act of its slowness that gives one the necessary reasons to bring the matter up in prayer and to listen to what God may be saying to us in our hearts.  


Bypassing the important preliminary steps and going straight to the community may be a quick way to be heard, but often what is heard (or seen) is the anger and bitterness in the heart rather than a deep desire for growth and maturity.  


In case you, my reader, are wondering what caused me to reflect publically and openly on this matter, it is because a letter of complaint had been sent to all the priests of the diocese regarding the way a fellow priest had apparently flouted liturgical laws during the celebration of a funeral Mass recently.  It was addressed not to the priest, but to the Bishop, and all of us priests were cc-d on this matter.  


While I can understand that there are a good number of the laity who are very liturgically minded, and get rather upset when they see what they term to be ‘abuse’, going straight to the bishop and cc-ing the entire priestly fraternity doesn’t really show much charity. Try instead to foster charity of the heart and make the effort to foster some engagement with whomever it is that we may have issue with.  


This way, we can really grow as a community where we truly want the best for the other.

Post-Script:  For those interested, I will be giving an Advent talk at 8pm (Singapore time) on Tuesday, 1 Dec 2021, tomorrow.  It will be conducted from the sanctuary of my parish of IHM, but because the COVID situation limits church gatherings to only 100 persons, it will also be broadcast online.  Just click on this link to bring you to the broadcast -

Monday, November 23, 2020

Being pure and holy cannot be just for its own sake, like emptiness isn’t good on its own.

I have a glass jam jar sitting on my desk in my office.  It used to contain delicious strawberry preserve, which I had relished to the very last drop. I passed someone something I made a few weeks ago, and it was returned to me washed and cleaned, and I have yet to bring it back to my living quarters.  As grace would have it, I found a new use for it now that we cannot hear confessions in the confessionals but rather in our offices due to the safety measures put in place by the powers that be viz-a-viz the COVID situation. It comes in suitably handy in bringing across a point when hearing confessions regarding purity.


It is not uncommon to see people who are sincere in wanting to grow in holiness getting into a certain rut when dealing with their issues with purity and addictions.  While they are clear that their lives should not be lived around the obsession with things and activities that fill their hearts and minds with things that God finds offensive, many can end up having their lives obsessing over the direct opposite end of this moral spectrum – where they are overly concerned with keeping their lives and souls scrubbed spotlessly clean (as if that will ever happen) and making that the aim and goal of the spiritual life.  It is not.


Our lives (as is our heart and our soul) are not to be imaged as a blank slate or an empty vessel to be kept empty.  Emptiness doesn’t have value and goodness in itself.  Emptiness is a lack.  The beginning lines of Genesis tells of how before God created anything, that the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. This is strong metaphorical language because it isn’t logical to even say that there was earth before God created anything.  It’s alluding to the fact that emptiness is a lack, just as vacancy is a lack.  


Out of love, God has created so that creation can partake in the love that God is in his very essence. Just wanting to keep our souls (and obsessing over keeping our minds) clean and vacant not only isn’t possible, but it is also not in line with God’s aim of creation.  Yes, keep it clear of clutter and what does not glorify God, but do make great effort to fill that with what does give glory to God.  We do this by loving God and loving neighbour, and all acts of mercy, charity and rightful love will do that in big and small ways.  That’s probably the harder follow-up part of the spiritual quest that many find challenging.


This is when I use the concrete example of the empty jam jar sitting on my desk in my office.  The makers of that glass container did not make it to be a container for air.  It was made to contain things.  The same for our souls, which are not made for them to be void of anything, but to be filled with love (for God and neighbour) because they are made by love (of God).  Who could have guessed that a washed jam jar could be something I could use as an apparatus to depict our souls?


This brings to mind a gospel passage from Matthew 12:43-45, where Jesus says that when an unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it will go to waterless places seeking rest, but finding none, will return to the place from which it came and finding the house empty, swept and put in order, will re-enter it with seven spirits more evil than itself and the person will be in a worse state then before.


It will be a new obsession and it will be more insidious because at least in the first instance, it was a clearly morally objective evil obsession.  Now, in the second instance, the new obsession of being OCD about one being scrupulous will have an appearance of goodness, while in essence it is still not filling it with any semblance of love of God or neighbour, but is in fact a new level of being self-absorbed and self-serving.  




Monday, November 16, 2020

Knowing why we do what we do is always important, especially so in our spiritual quest.

It’s a known fact that big corporations all over the world hold retreats or company camps regularly for their employees in order to galvanize and motivate them to be good at their jobs. At these retreats, one of the things that are emphasized and stressed is the company’s mission.  The reason for this is that it aligns (or re-aligns) the various departments’ individual goals with that of the company’s overarching goal and mission.  If there are departments within the company that have ethos and goals not in line with the company’s mission, re-alignment will be required, resulting in greater harmony and productivity for the entire structure.  There is, in many cases, a general tendency for employees or even sub-departments to forget why they are doing what they are doing.  When this happens, motivation and drive naturally slacken.

If this is true vis-a-vis companies and corporations that are profit-driven, it is also true in an analogical way for the human heart and soul vis-√†-vis a person’s spiritual life. 

Every canonized saint of the Church has shown steadfastness in living out his or her soul’s mission statement, which is to have heaven as his or her ultimate aim and goal.  This same steadfastness and resolve to ensure that our lives are lived in such a way as to keep us aligned toward that divine end that we have as baptized sons and daughters of God is so necessary, especially when it is the intention of the evil one to have us not reach that goal. 
I have, as a counselor and guide for souls, become keenly aware of how easily one can fall into sin or give up wanting to live a holy life, when that heavenly goal for the soul is unclear or not intentional.  Without a strong desire to love God and to want to enter into God’s eternal embrace after we die, it is easy to merely exist and ‘get by’ each day, when we should be striving for excellence in giving God the glory of our lives and the effort that we put in when we ensure that we put love where love is lacking. Without an eye constantly kept on heaven’s goal, we tend to keep our bar of life set relatively low. But when we are in great awareness of what our baptism gives us in terms of a divine dignity, we raise the bar much higher.
It’s a well-known adage that in all our endeavours, we should always begin with the end in mind.  Without an idea or a target that we can set our minds and eyes on, we are inclined to settle.  Heaven isn’t settling.  Heaven is a highest standard that we can ever shoot for in life, and anything less that than is a compromise.  The saints knew this, and their lives and their steely determination to attain that end is for us to emulate.  
The foundation of such a firm belief is from our baptism in Christ.  That is the base from which all other teachings and doctrines that the Church imparts to us are built on.  If that foundation isn’t strong, the teachings and doctrines that are taught to us will not have much to stand on.  They will fall off our hearts easily just as a fried egg falls off easily from a non-stick frying pan.  The stronger one sets one’s heart and eyes on their heavenly goal, the truth of the church’s doctrines not only will make sense, but their essence will begin to be steeped into our hearts.  
In the gospels, Jesus is always seen as setting his eyes resolutely on Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is more than just a city.  It is a metaphor of his raison d’etre to fulfill the Father’s will, because of his intense love of the Father.  As much as Jerusalem is the city where his crucifixion takes place, it is also where he rose from the dead because he was faithful and lived his life with fidelity to the Father.  In Jesus we have the model to follow and be just as resolute to set our eyes on the heavenly Jerusalem.  It will most likely take us to places which will see us undergo forms of suffering and afflictions, but when our goal for locked on heaven, it will make valid anything that we are asked to go through.

Monday, November 9, 2020

What does ‘praying well’ look like?

Prayer is one of those things in the life of a person that one often struggles to properly define and for that matter, properly carry out.  There are of course, many other areas in our lives that we face similar struggles with – fidelity, righteousness, justice, charity, mercy and love, to name a few.  

But while all of those areas mentioned are experienced when we relate to one another, prayer is different because it is experienced and lived out between ourselves and God.  That God, who is the object of prayer, isn’t physically present to us when we pray makes prayer much harder to define, and also therefore, harder to actually do.  

That beings said, how do we pray well?  One way to define prayer is the ‘lifting up of our hearts and minds to God’.  But the way that I hear many people describe their prayer, it is often a very edited and tidied up contents of what is in their hearts and minds.  God is often treated as a very strict and foreboding parent, and before lifting the contents of our hearts and minds to God, they need to be first cleaned up, or at least go through some serious spiritual Marie Kondo-ing before it gets the ‘all clear’ to be lifted up to God.  This means that what is deemed unholy or too worldly is tossed out of the heart before one can do any serious praying.  But this would then mean that we aren’t all that fully transparent and open to God, who really does see all that he has created.  


At the core of this problem is that we have a very narrow view of what we think God considers suitable to be brought to him in prayer.  Maybe we have been taught that we are praying well only when we have good thoughts and don’t have aches and pains in our hearts that come from the fact that we have hardness and smallness of heart.  We think that we should only be praying when we feel at peace, generous, kind and centered in life.  


While these may be good feelings and emotions to have on any given day, when they are not there, when we cannot help but feel some anger, uneasiness, or even acrimony or bitterness, what are we do to then when praying?  We’d like to turn them off like we can the switch when we don’t want the brightness of the light from the lamps in our rooms, but sometimes we just cannot. Besides, together with these, there are other thoughts or mental images that can flood our minds as well, especially when we had not been too careful with what our eyes landed on earlier in the day.  Many would think that having these on our minds would somehow invalidate our attempts at prayer.  


The spiritual masters do not say that we should only be ‘lifting up our hearts and minds to God’ only if they are edited or scrubbed clean.  It can and sometimes should, include those things that we might wish were not there at all.  Doing this makes us admit of our weaknesses and, as it were, our foolishness as well. In fact, isn’t it true that it is precisely at these weak moments, these cloudy moments that we need prayer the most? Wanting God’s presence at these moments reveal to us just how weak we are, and that we can only get stronger in love of him if we but try.  


If you feel small of heart, and aren’t afraid to admit this to God, lift this up to him.  Ever noticed how little children don’t edit their feelings or sentiments when they speak to their parents?  Even when they are having a meltdown, they don’t edit it away. They come to their parents and have a certain hope that their parents will deal with it.  


When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God belongs to little children, and that we need to be like children to enter the Kingdom of God, it is this aspect of being a child that we need to learn to establish in life.  Just as children are honest and bare all in their feelings and what is in their hearts, so too do we need to do this in our prayer life.  The child who goes to the mother with his aching heart doesn’t first consider whether the mother has the wherewithal to deal with it. He just goes.


God, we need to realise, has the wherewithal to handle all that we carry in our hearts, and that includes those bits that we’d rather Marie Kondo out, for whatever reasons.  


Sometimes it is to our detriment that we make God to be so weak, and so small minded, causing us to be weak and small minded ourselves.

Monday, November 2, 2020

What a happy death looks like.

In the Disneyland theme park, there is a very popular attraction called the Haunted Mansion, where one is taken on a ride through a tongue-in-cheek “scary” visit in the caverns of a mock haunted mansion where visual and audio effects serve to give the visitor thrills and chills at the same time.  At the very entrance of the ride the visitor is greeted with a notice that reads, “We are dying to meet you”, referring to the 999 happy haunts that one will encounter within.

I’ve always thought that this was not only a clever tag line, but also one, which every Christian ought to hold as dear and true in our hearts as we approach our dying days.  Our entire lives on this earth are meant to serve one final purpose, which is to ready ourselves to finally meet our Heavenly Father, whom we can only truly see and embrace after we have finished our lives on earth.  But we hardly give much thought to this truth, as we are often far too focused on the delights, thrills and joys that this life brings.  While this isn’t wrong in themselves, it is when we get too fixated with what this life gives us to experience that makes us unwilling and perhaps even unable to welcome death when it is our time to go, and see its positive dimension, which is the necessary gateway that all of us need to go through in order to reach the heavenly destination that we were all baptized for.

I don’t think it is a sweeping statement to say that all of us want heaven, even if the ways that we imagine it to be has great differences.  But few of us want it and long for it badly enough to be happy to go through the gateway of death for it.  Woody Allen put it in such a witty way when he said that he didn’t mind death, but just didn’t want to be there when it happened.  The prospect of heaven’s eternal bliss is indeed promising, but not so much the portal of death through which it is a sine qua non for every one of us.

We are reminded of the inevitability of our deaths each time All Souls’ Day comes round each year on November 2.  It may seem macabre to even want to think of death when we are in the prime of youth or when we are in the pink of health, but spiritually speaking, we need to rein it in a bit whenever we think that whatever joys and thrills that we are having in this life should be something that doesn’t end.  COVID has been very effective in reminding us of this fact.

But when we live with the awareness that our lives here are meant to pave the way toward our heavenly goal, it will help us to handle two things that are hardest to handle well – joys and disappointments.  We will see that all joys that we are given to experience in life are but foretastes of the eternal joy that only heaven can give, and won’t be too upset, unsettled or grieved when these are taken away from us.  As well, we will also see that all sadnesses that this life can give us, and this includes afflictions and sufferings do not have the last say, and if handled well, can even serve to make us live in great anticipation of heaven where ‘every tear will be wiped away’.  

It is the fruit of spiritual maturity that our acknowledgement of this reality doesn’t leave us blas√© or sangfroid in life, because the spiritually mature person will still want to give his or her all in living and loving God with all one’s heart, mind and soul.  

What then is a happy death?  It is one in which one is very ready to fall into the arms of a loving God because one has lived this life in anticipation and readiness for that eternal fulfillment that only God can give, and can say like that sign at the Haunted Mansion “I have been dying to see God”.  Literally.