Monday, February 22, 2021

The hidden value in taking on suffering in the life of one who is serious in Christian discipleship.

I was sent a message by someone who was quite bothered by something she read in a book on the life of St Pio of Pietralcina.  The book had described how this saint had suffered tremendously from a young age. That’s not what bothered the reader. What disturbed her was how suffering was presented in the book as something good and because it is good, it is willed by God.  Futhermore, the writer also said something along the lines of “the greater the pains, the greater the love God bears you.”


It wasn’t surprising at all that this person ended the message by declaring “I don’t know what kind of theology this is”.


In my cryptic way, I responded with this line – “you just answered your own question”.  Of course, she didn’t really ask me a question, but from the last line, one can easily infer that she had a burning question, phrased in an almost exasperated declaration.


Indeed, not just this person, but many people do not know what kind of theology this is, mainly because this isn’t commonly taught neither in seminaries nor preached by homilists at Masses.  Redemptive suffering seems to have somehow fallen by the wayside, in favour of preaching centered on a God whose mercy trumps even logic and rationale, and who doesn’t even seem to care much for justice.  Falling together with redemptive suffering by the wayside is that in God, mercy and justice embrace, and that this truth necessarily requires a recompense for sins committed as well as the effects that those sins have on souls and on the world.  


Yes, I would agree that redemptive suffering is a great challenge to preach and teach, but in order to do that well, one needs a good foundation of the theology of redemption and soteriology (the theology of salvation).  Sometimes, when I get excited and really get into the groove of preaching and speaking about redemptive suffering, I find myself painfully frustrated, almost like a literature teacher at college or university level would be frustrated when he wants to impart the amazing beauty of Shakespearean poetry or the depths and beauty of any of the literary giants like Dickens, or Tolstoy or Trollope, when his students have only a primary three level of the English language under their belt.


Now it doesn’t mean that one who isn’t familiar with soteriology 101 should not be reading the kind of books that this friend picked up.  But there are a couple of things that one should be mindful of when encountering these tough subjects which to the uninitiated, easily can be deemed ridiculous or bordering on masochism with a spiritual bent.


Firstly, I believe that it is crucial to examine the attitude one has when encountering something that one doesn’t immediately grasp or understand when reading books of a spiritual nature, especially those which bear a nihil obstat, meaning ‘free from error’. One needs to ask this question : Do I want to be open enough to accept as true what I read with my eyes but cannot yet understand or accept in my heart?  In other words, we need to ask if we have the attitude of a cynic or skeptic, or if we humbly acknowledge that what is written or spoken about is true, but I need a shift within me to be made in order to appreciate and accept as true what it is that I am unable to accept?  In other words, am I ready for metanoia?


Second, it would be extremely helpful to bring to prayer what it is that one cannot (or will not) understand and accept, and be able to articulate what it is that causes one to have this block. Is it a language problem?  Is it a culture issue? It could also be a lack in humility to admit that whatever is presented is challenging not only to accept but to also practice and live out.  And if this is so, to admit that one needs the grace of God to want to overcome this block in order to accept as true what is being presented.


I must admit that whenever I read about how heroic the saints were in embracing the numerous crosses in life, that I never once recoiled in horror, disdain or disbelief in the way that they faced their challenges with so much faith and effortful love.  And this wasn’t even when I was facing my impending possibility of death.  I recall how even when I was much younger, in my late teens that whenever I read the stories of the life of the saints, I had wanted to emulate them because I saw that they were so graced to have been given this ability to stand so close to the cross of Christ. I prayed for the opportunity to similarly practice it myself. Perhaps that is why when my own cross came to me in the form of Leukemia 9 years ago, I embraced it so happily. The groundwork had been laid for me to be able to carry my Cross with such alacrity.


And this is where I think most peoples’ struggles with cross-carrying lie.  The groundwork had not been laid, or if it was laid, it was done insufficiently and in a random and unfocussed way. For most Catholics, especially those who have not been exposed to such heroism in living out their faith, the knee-jerk reaction would be to balk at such teachings.  The beauty and truth of living our faith so heroically would never be seen to be attractive if one’s heart had not been previously prepped with having been shown that coming close to Jesus necessarily entails one to be also close to Jesus in his most salvific moment of his earthly life, and that God can and does will this in his beloved children.  


I know that speaking or writing like this will always seem to be incongruent with how the world sees joy and how the world defines what being fulfilled in life means.  Yet, I also know that it is my personal mission to speak or write about this whenever I feel moved by the Spirit of God to do so. Fresh angles to look at this ‘gem’ always somehow seem to come to my consciousness, and I would be derelict in my duty as a pastor of souls to ignore and put aside these opportunities to carry out my apostolate.


Someone asked me if speaking like this on such a challenging issue like the joy of Cross-carrying requires a new lens to look at life through.  “No”, I replied, but I added “it requires not just new lens, but new eyes”.  

Monday, February 15, 2021

The extremely sensitive issue of excommunication has to be handled with kid gloves, lined with compassion and love.

There is such a growing discord and acrimony in the Catholic Church in America right now, with many Catholics, lay as well as clergy, petitioning their bishops to excommunicate both Catholic President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, from receiving Holy Communion at Mass.  This is due to a few hot button issues of moral concern that both of them have promoted officially in the public sphere, of which pro-choice and the LGBTQ are at front and centre.

In no uncertain terms are these unimportant moral issues, and there is also a whole backstory of why and how America has come to this state of affairs. Abortion is indeed a most heinous sin, because it is in effect the intentional killing of life.  To support this sin in any way is to be aiding and giving cause for this sin to persist.  Marriage is a divinely instituted state of life where a male and female are joined as one.  Any other union that is outside of this male-female unit is therefore in direct polarity against something instituted by God.  


For many Catholics (both in America and in all other parts of the world as well), these issues are fundamentally so wrong and sinful.  The degree to which they are sinful and contrary to the faith have caused many to publically call Biden and Pelosi to task and to be denied the reception of Holy Communion, which is a most serious censure that a Catholic can receive from the Catholic Church.  


While I am not saying at all that we should treat these issues lightly, what I am more disturbed with is what I see to be missing in a glaring waywhenever I read about these calls for excommunication.  What I see sadly lacking is the love and concern for those who are asked to be denied Holy Communion.  


Why is a person denied Holy Communion?  At the heart of it, is there only the punitive rationale in such a denial? No.  There is more.  Apart from denying one the grace that comes from the reception of Holy Communion, what is perhaps even more important is that the Church is deeply concerned with the soul of the person who is denied Holy Communion.  Because in the Eucharist is the true presence of Jesus, Body, Soul, Humanity and Divinity, receiving him when we are not in a state of grace is going to be most detrimental to our soul.  We are, as it were, adding insult to injury and would cause our souls to suffer in unthinkable ways.  The Church sees this supernatural reality that will impact negatively the health and well-being of our souls, and it is for our own good that we be denied Holy Communion. It is because the Church cares and loves souls that these sanctions are applied.  


This is also what lies behind the highly misunderstood reason why our brothers and sisters who are not in communion with us in our Catholic belief and Creed are not given Holy Communion.  It is for their benefit and protection that we do not impose our belief in the true presence (among other doctrinal beliefs) on them.  We love them and do not want to cause them to sin.


When Jesus says that we are to love our enemies, there is a lot of truth behind that instruction.  Loving those who don’t love us, and loving those who don’t love the things that we love are perhaps the most challenging things to do in life.  The cacophonous cries that are coming from the ground amongst many of the Catholics in America to deny Catholics like Biden and Pelosi Holy Communion may be missing something very germaine to the faith, and that is deep and sincere compassion for those who they feel are sinners.  


While I am hearing a lot of the crying out for them to be denied Holy Communion at Mass, I wish that I could hear a similar cry for their souls to be protected, for calls to fast and pray for their continued conversion to become the saints that all the baptized are called to live toward, and in that way, to courageously love the enemy.  


Christian doctrine firmly and clearly believes that every human person who is alive has been loved into being by God.  Each person who is alive and has come into existence therefore can never be said to be a mistake.  God loves all whom he has created unquestioningly so, and unconditionally as well.  If we have problems with any human person, if we have issues with loving them, perhaps we need to apply this truth and begin to see them through the eyes of God, and it will become less of a challenge.  


I think many, if not most people who find others intolerable is because we see them only through our own small and very often biased eyes.  We in Singapore may not have issues (or at least not in a clearly direct way) with Biden and Pelosi’s Catholic identity, but we may have issues with someone within our own community who we strongly think should be denied Holy Communion at Mass.  


If it is your abhorrence of these individuals that causes you to have these feelings and sentiments about their receiving the Lord at Mass, ask yourself if you are caring for their souls and want the best for them.  Are you willing their good for their sake, rather than standing proud and tall on the proverbial soapboxes to show who is right and who isn’t?  If it is the latter, then even though the truth is that they should be refraining from receiving Holy Communion, our reasons for applying these sanctions are coming from self-righteousness.


And that cannot be pleasing to God.



Monday, February 8, 2021

Not “Me too”, not “me two”, but “me three”.

One of the greatest challenges in attaining any degree of maturity in the spiritual life is to live life with the belief that “my life is not about me”.  To be sure, I am not saying at all that a healthy spiritual life necessitates self-loathing and any form of self-hatred.  But if humility is the requisite of a spiritual person, then one of the effects of humility has to be the antithesis of self-promotion, self-glorification or self-centeredness.  The supreme example of this is in the way the three persons of the Holy Trinity love.  Their love for the other is so pure and so total that there is no self-reference and self-protection but a full giving of love.  With each receiving of the love from the other, the recipient cannot but return this love in a total and undiminished way.  


What I just tried to put into figurative language in a very simplistic and perhaps clumsy way is what theologians call perichoresis.  When we understand that this cyclical giving and receiving of the love of God in his three persons is what sustains all of existence as we know it, it has to follow that our human experience of love mimics this selfless and other-centered pattern.  This gives the strongest reasons why for any human experience of love to convey truth and purity, there has to be some form of the denial of self.  It’s not that God wants us to die in order for us to be loved. 


In our own interpersonal relationships, be they in our families, in marriages or just among people in general, there is a hierarchy to follow when it comes to loving.  


The first love is our love of God.  Taken from what the Jewish tradition calls the great shema from Deut. 6:4-5 we are reminded and instructed that we shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our being and all our might.  


The second love is for the other person.  Grounded first in our love for God, we turn next to our fellow human person, and this includes our spouses, our blood relations, and who Jesus defines as ‘our neighbour’.   


The third order of love is the love of the self.  The problem that plagues a large majority of the human population is that we tend to reverse this order and love ourselves first, others second and (maybe) God third.  When God is not the base and foundation of our lives, God will also not be the base and foundation of our loves.  God easily then gets treated in some periphery way, like as if he is an attachment to life, not unlike what a printer is to a computer.  The computer can run just fine without a printer, but it is only when some hard copy is required that the printer is sought and used.  


Both marriage and family life face great challenges to be lived well and flourish.  In my experience of counselling and helping families to grow and flourish, I often see that the family’s awareness of God and love of God isn’t often their first priority.  The attention paid to gaining financial stability, getting the childrens’ academic needs sorted out and secured are often what gets most of the family’s resources.  While these are not often deemed as gods in their own right, the kind of attention and devotion these get do in fact end up with their being worshipped rather than God, often relegating the spiritual life and the family’s relationship with God to the back burner.  


This arrangement may appear fine at the onset, but it is when these ‘gods’ turn on us, and we see how limited their ability to give us true stability, happiness and contentment that we begin to flounder and lose our mooring in life.


Directly speaking about this doesn’t often work in getting Catholics to reprioritize their loves.  Instead, many may choose to believe it in a cerebral way, but carry on with putting the love of God as the last in the order of priority and importance.  If reading this short reflection has started you to rethink the way you are ordering your loves in life, then perhaps it has done some good.  


The spiritual masters have always reminded us that there should only be one order to our loves in life – God first, others second, and me third.  And there are plenty of good reasons for this.



Monday, February 1, 2021

Because we are human, every action that we do has a meaning to it. Some have deeper and more lasting impact than others, but it never is without meaning.

“But it didn’t mean anything!” 

Have you ever found yourself giving this as a response when you were asked why you did something that was considered bad or hurtful, whether to yourself or to another human being?  It is often used when we are sometimes cornered by undeniable evidence, almost like as if the hand was caught in the cookie jar.  We know that it would be useless and pointless to explain ourselves out of the situation, so we clutch at straws.  And the most convenient straw, apart from the senseless one which is “I don’t know”, is this one.  We excuse ourselves by saying “oh, but it didn’t mean anything.”  


There has to be much more that we can say because we are human beings endowed with intellect.  It is self-negating because it dumbs down our God-given intellect, which makes every human action a moral action.  We are not automatons who act with no intention or awareness of what we are doing, unless we are in some somnambulistic state, which would mean that we were not free to make informed choices or decision for our actions.  But more to it, at the heart of it, we are accountable for every one of our actions in life.  Practicing the habit of being articulate about our choices and decisions prepares us for the readiness for our judgment that we will inevitably have to face at the end of our lives when we face Jesus.  We may get away with an “I don’t know” or “it didn’t mean anything” while we are on this side of heaven, but after we breathe our last, this will not be something that we can use to either explain away our actions or to self-exonerate any sins.  We will see ourselves for who we are and our actions for the ramifications they caused.


In this life, we may want to quell the heartaches and feelings of not being faithful to our word by telling those we had hurt that “it didn’t mean anything”. But those words end up hurting even more, because behind those hollow words is the truth that the relationship that was cherished which those actions shattered also didn’t mean much. Especially when there is an infidelity that has broken a vow or a covenant, those words aren’t only a sword that pierces the heart, but twists the blade as well.


Betrayal is always painful, and we cannot say that God doesn’t know how it hurts.  In an imaginary meditation for Good Friday, I was told that a priest once gave a very short and succinct reflection for the congregation to meditate on.  He activated the imagination of the faithful in the church by having them imagine Jesus going before his heavenly Father after dying on the Cross, and the Father asking Jesus which part of the passion was most painful and hurtful for him.  He asked whether it was the crown of thorns, or whether it was the nails that pierced his hands and feet, or the many scourges that rent his back and tore his flesh.  Jesus said it was none of those.  


What hurt most, what was most painful, and what cut to the core of his being, was really the kiss that Judas planted on his cheek.  


Imagine Judas being asked at his judgment “why Judas, did you hand me over with a kiss?” to which Judas replying with a nonchalant “but it didn’t mean anything”.