Monday, March 29, 2021

How we understand the symbol of the Palm can greatly help us to attain spiritual greatness.

If you are reading this blog entry on the Monday of Holy Week, and have managed to go for Holy Mass over the weekend, you probably have a palm branch that was given to you at the Mass of Palm Sunday.  


I have always wondered if the laity really appreciate the deep significance of this blessed palm.  There are many Catholics who don’t really know what to do with these palm branches when they bring them home from church.  Some place them on their home altars, but aren’t quite certain of what purpose they serve, and it’s a pity.


Sure, we hold them aloft and wave them at the beginning of the liturgy of Palm Sunday to commemorate how Jesus was welcomed by the people of Jerusalem so jubilantly into the Holy City for the last time before Good Friday.  The waving of palm branches and even laying them on the ground was a sign of a hero’s welcome, often given to soldiers and warriors returning from a victory over the enemy.  Jesus was given a hero’s welcome, because many did think that he was the Messiah who would overcome the Roman occupiers of Palestine. 


It is for the same reason that many of the martyrs of the early church featured the symbol of the palm branch as well, signifying that they heroically died for their faith, and did not cave in to the pressure put on them to commit apostasy.  


All of us who are disciples of Christ are called to live with the same kind of heroism and courage.  Whilst not all of us may be called to die a martyr’s death, each time we die to sin and die to the self is a mini form of martyrdom.  We forget this easily because the ways of the world are always making this choice for God and for holiness a less attractive choice.  We need something that serves as a reminder to live our Christian lives with effort, and we can get this help from the way we display the blessed palm branches in our homes.


Placing the palm branch behind or near to the Crucifixes that adorn the walls of our homes serves to be a strong and symbolic reminder to be heroes of our faith in the big and small ways of our everyday lives.  Every refusal to give in to sin is a demonstration of how much we love God more than we love ourselves.  Looking at the palm branch together with the crucifix before we leave our homes each day will remind us that we are about to step onto the stage on which our Christian lives are on full display.  And this will apply to whether we are stepping out of our homes for work or for leisure.  


I have often overheard comments as the parishioners receive their palms in Church, and a common one is “please give me a small one”.  If these prickly palms are only something that we use as a prop for Passion Sunday, asking for a small palm is understandable.  No one likes big and cumbersome props.


But if the palms serve as a year-long reminder to live our Christian lives with a deep sense of purpose and sacrifice, we really shouldn’t just settle for ‘something small’.  We are called to imitate our Lord Jesus who went to the Cross out love for us, and it certainly was not ‘something small’.  


If we are having trouble with dying to sin and dying to the self each day, we really should be looking out instead for the larger and more visible palm fronds to speak louder to us to want to live our Christian lives with greater heroism.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Jacob's fight with the One is our fight as well.

Most of our lives are marked with struggles and fights that come in different forms. We experienced this from the very day of our birth, when we really wanted to stay in the confines and comfort of our mothers’ wombs, but had to be expelled from that comfort zone of security and warmth into the cold and hostile environment outside.  This disdain is marked by the sharp cries of a newborn that peal the corridors of a labour ward.  


Our human nature is dotted with episodes of rebellion, willfulness and struggles as we grow.  From our youth, we struggle with eating, walking, and taking instructions.  Isn’t it strange to see that even expelling wastes from our bodies come with great struggles for many.  


As we grow into adulthood and face many more choices in our lives, the very act of choosing from a variety of seeming goods in front of us poses yet another array of other struggles.  We all want to do the ‘right’ thing in life, but to choose the best ‘right’ amongst other ‘rights’ is yet another struggle.


The fight that Jacob has with this figure of deity in Genesis 32 vs 23-32 brings this struggle a little clearer, especially when we struggle between  two ‘goods’.  It is easy to see what is the better choice when we are asked to choose between a good and an evil.  But between two ‘goods’ is a much harder choice, and that makes the struggle that much more painful; that much more difficult.


Notice how Jacob first sends his family and possessions across the stream Jabbok before he meets his brother Esau.  We are told that Jacob was then left alone till daybreak, and that was when the Lord wrestled with him. This exemplifies what real struggle is – when we are no longer with those who give us strength through their physical presence, when we are really alone in our choices and what is in front of us.  At those moments, the only thing that has any influence on our choices is our conscience and our free will. This marks where our true alliance and love lie.  But it takes a whole lot of courage to want to send our ‘family and possessions’ ahead of us.  It takes a massive amount of courage to choose to be alone, and to as it were, face our demons alone.


Left alone with no one to influence or guide our choices, we fight that real fight with ourselves. This is characterised by Jacob’s wrestle with God. When we are in the depths of aloneness and solitude, we begin our real wrestle with the god within ourselves. This is when we don’t have the assistance or influence of our friends, our valued family members, our spouses, our fellow priests, our counselors, our spiritual directors or anyone else.  


And the more frightening thing about it is that we also cannot wear the masks that I have been so comfortable wearing so often.  Our fears are exposed, our weaknesses left bare, our defenses are down. This is the real struggle and we have to muster all our strength and will to fight till dawn breaks.  The one thing good about community as far as the Church is concerned is that we have a ‘body’ to rely on when things are not going well.  But the downside of it is that we may become too reliant on it and refuse to face our personal struggles.  Could this be why many are not willing to face their personal struggles head-on? Of course, there are time when community is indeed necessary, like for instance, when one is struggling with living with a terminal illness.  But when we are unwilling to spend part of this struggle alone, it can end up making our final exit from this world the real pain that we have to endure because there is no one who will go to the other side with us when we have not made any effort to face some sort of aloneness alone.


There are many whose daily meditation is marked with many struggles.  Physical struggles of not falling asleep, not having our minds wandering, thoughts that we are ‘wasting’ our time when it could be used for something far more ‘productive’ - these are just some of them. 


But deeper in significance are the interior struggles that we face.  Where is my life going?  Am I in the ‘right’ place in life right now?  What am I most afraid of, and why?  Are these fears real?  How much do I really love?  What prevents me from truly loving?  These are all the kinds of wrestling that we and God enter into each day, and we cannot wait for the ‘dawn’ to come when we are being pinned down.


And just like Jacob, we too need to ask for a blessing from the one we are struggling with. We need to know that our struggles are not in vain.  We would like some form of affirmation, some form of blessing that all is not lost when we are facing failure in our endeavours.  We seek some clarity despite the fact that we are in a nebulous cloud of unknowing.  


Jacob’s struggle with Yahweh did not go on forever.  There was a dawn that broke through the darkness, and he did rejoin his family and possessions eventually - but only after the struggle.  Perhaps this is what we need to realise too.  The difficulties that we are facing on our own, the uncomfortable surroundings of where we find ourselves, the un-familiarness of so many things in our life right now, they too will come to an end. The dawn will break.  


But right now, we have to face our wrestling with God till he gives us his blessing.  We may even be struck in the hip, and because of that, left with a limp.  But if we do, that limp will serve as a constant reminder that we have been with the Lord through our struggles and we have been blessed as well.  The blessing of Jacob comes with a price of a limp.  


We don’t see blessings this way at all, and that is unfortunate.  We think that blessings must be pain-free and leave us feeling like a million dollars.  But in truth, blessings come is so many different forms, and quite often, blessings in life have a price.  Not that God wants us to pay for them, but I think he wants us to realise that his presence in our lives is not about giving us all that we want.  The sicknesses that we encounter, the empty bank account, the recalcitrant child, the friend who has let us down (again), the philandering heart of our spouse, the occasional heartache, the child born with a genetic condition - these may well be God’s striking us at the hip.  But without any deep spirituality in our lives, these will often  only end up being seen as curses, when they can in fact be blessings.  




Monday, March 15, 2021

The Necessity of Lent.

Why is there Lent in the life of the Catholic church?  Aren’t we, above all, an Easter people?  After all, so many of our separated brethren in the Protestant churches hardly give much emphasis on the 40-day lead up to Easter, and this is visibly noticed in the way that their crosses displayed in their prayer spaces only feature a bare cross.  It could be their way of conveying that the Christian faith leans heavily on the resurrection and the empty tomb.

Of course, this is our Catholic kerygma as well.  That Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and through the resurrection, has conquered sin and evil in a definitive way is the basis of our faith and will always be.  Yet, a strong visible difference in our churches is that while the Protestants have a cross, ours is distinctively a crucifix with a corpus attached to it.  It serves as a visible and constant reminder that the price paid for our sins and the key that opened heaven’s door to us poor sinners had such a high price because the offence of sin against God could only be pardoned by a God-sized sacrifice.


I have come to realize that this truth is a lot to take in.  In fact, this truth is so deep in mystery that many fail to enter seriously into this truth.  But when we do, it changes us from within.  It is truly hard for any serious Christian to do is to admit the truth that it’s not just sin in general that had Jesus going the distance from heaven to Calvary, but each and every particular sin that we have committed and can ever commit in life.  It’s not just the Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate, Judas who caused Jesus to die in such an ignominious way.  It is a sum total of all those, plus your sin and my sin.  


When we come to that point in our lives that we can honestly admit this truth, we come to the brink of a serious conversion.  The spiritual journey necessarily includes this onerous task which no one outside of ourselves can do for us.  It is not possible to ‘outsource’ this to someone else like the way many things in life can be outsourced.  This is because conversion isn’t a ‘thing’, as life is not a ‘thing’.  


Lent and its traditional disciplines serve to till and soften the hardened ground of our hearts to enable this reality to honestly faced by us.  Of course, we are an Easter people, but we also cannot side-step the fact that each of our lives is lived with the harsh reality that includes an admixture of pain, sorrow, anxiety, suffering and grief that come from loss in so many forms.


These, when left unreflected, unexamined and unprocessed can leach out of the sealed containers which we may have stored in the recesses of our heart.  The effects of such ‘leakage’ are the numerous dysfunctional relationships that we have with those whom we call our loved ones and our ‘enemies’.


Lent helps us to get in touch with our brokenness within, and see afresh how Jesus is the true and only way through all this messiness in life.  This is not the same as saying that Jesus is the true and only way ‘out’ of the messiness.  Jesus didn’t come to get us out of our sinful world but rather to give us a means through which we can face the challenges that come from being in a sinful world.


We want a superman in Jesus but God’s answer isn’t in a superhero.  His answer comes in the form of an empty tomb.  The effects of evil will always be with us, and so will evil’s natural end, which is death.  From looking at the corpus on a crucifix, we can see the reality that God doesn’t intervene to stem evil’s wickedness, but that he does let his loved ones suffer and die.


But this doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing anything either.  


The empty tomb gives us the assurance that despite appearances, love does triumph over fear and hatred, and forgiveness will trump bitterness.  Good and God will ultimately have the last word, and justice will triumph.  Just not in this life, or at least not when the powers of this world seem to be influencing the majority of the human race.


In its depth, Lent reminds us that because the tomb was empty, that it is not naïve to want to still trust and place all our bets on truth.  Fr Ronald Rolheiser’s inimitable phraseology is weakened if I paraphrase him, so I will just end this reflection with a quotation from him verbatim.  This came from one of his great insights on his reflection on the empty tomb.


“What Jesus taught is true:  Virtue is not naïve even when it is shamed.  Sin and cynicism are naïve, even when they appear to triumph.  Those who genuflect before God and others in conscience will find meaning and joy, even when they are deprived of the world’s pleasures.  Those who drink in and manipulate sacred energy without conscience will not find meaning and life, even when they taste pleasure.  Those who live in honest, no matter the cost, will find freedom.  Those who lie and rationalize will find themselves imprisoned in self-hate.  Those who live in trust will find love.  God’s silence can be trusted, even when we die inside of it.”


May you, dear reader, enter deeply and meaningfully into the depths of your heart the remaining days of Lent and appreciate with a new freshness the empty tomb of Easter.





Monday, March 8, 2021

Just renaming our former allegiances with the label “Catholic” doesn’t really make us Catholic.

I have come to see that it is indeed a challenge for many converts to Catholicism to truly be converts from within.  This conversion process, unlike what many may think, is not only something that happens when one is immersed in the life-giving waters of baptism, usually on Easter Saturday night’s liturgy.  While it is a Rite through which one enters into the Mystical Body of Christ as a living member, it may give the false notion that this is all that is needed to become Catholic.  But it really requires much more, and my fear is that this ‘more’ is not something that is broached and dealt with adequately, resulting in many converts who may be Catholic in name, but not truly Catholic inside.

Jesus in the gospel does point to this as something so important when he talks about new wine needing to be stored in new wineskins.  In essence, he is saying that if there is to be a true conversion, a true metanoia, which means a new ‘mind’, one needs a newness that manifests itself both without and within.  Just a change of one without the other will yield results that could end up disastrous, both to the wine and to the skins.


What do I mean?  In Singapore, this phenomenon is perhaps more easily seen when one who was practicing a different religion undergoes a conversion experience, and through the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), undergoes baptism and becomes Catholic.  While the practices of the faith like going to Mass regularly every Sunday, praying daily, and having a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary are embraced and followed sedulously, what lies beneath and inside the heart and mind of the convert may still be something that is still deeply steeped in one’s former religious mind. 


One of the most important doctrines that are very often insufficiently and superficially understood is that of the Christian being saved by grace, and not by works.  When this isn’t something that strikes the core of the convert, especially if one had come from a background which had a strong emphasis on ‘meritocracy’, one can inadvertently bring that into Catholicism, and believe (erroneously of course), that one has to as it were, jump through certain hoops, in order to be saved.  There does exist in other faiths many practices of worship where one is given to believe that in order for a deity to answer one’s prayers and desire, it is necessary for one to make certain offerings to please or appease the deity.  


This is where Catholicism differs in a radical way.  God’s bestowal of his love and mercy to us sinners is nothing that anyone can ever merit or earn.  Our Christian doctrine is crystal clear that our being saved in Christ is something that is purely gift from the extraordinarily generous heart of God.  No one can earn this, or deserve it in any way.  


One of the clearest examples of this is when an infant is baptized.  Nothing that the infant has done or can ever do, no matter how cute or adorable he or she is, has earned him or her the gift of baptism and becoming the beloved child of God through it.  Despite not being able to do anything, he or she is saved through Christ.  


I am certain that when we truly begin to appreciate just how undeserving we are to have received salvation in Christ that we will begin to respond in a changed (metanoia’d) way by living lives anew.  We will not wait to be loved before loving; or wait for others to change before forgiving them; or set any conditions to our gift of self both to God or to others.  We will see that all we can and should do is at best, out of a grateful response to what we have already been given.  Not only given, but given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into our laps.


But if all we have done is in conversion is a name change, from being a called a (insert former religious belief here) and now a Catholic, leaving the inside unchanged, the only conversion that is true is that we may only have switched the labels of a receptacle, without any change in the receptacle’s contents.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Virtual sacraments – an oxymoron which we must never settle for in life.

Anyone who recalls their basic catechism would be able to rattle off the Penny Catechism definition of what a sacrament is – an outward sign of an inward grace.  As a youngster, when I first came across this definition, it really made little sense to me.  I just remembered it by heart, and it was much later that I appreciated how, when stripped of all its theological language and jargon, this definition whittled it down to its true and barest essence.  Seminary formation in the theological years helped to broaden the richness, truth and beauty of each of the Sacraments of the Catholic Church, and to impress upon me how central it is in our Catholic faith that God’s grace (both actual and sanctifying) are bestowed on us when we fully and actively participate in the celebration of the Sacraments.  And the chief of the Sacraments is the Mass, otherwise known as the Blessed Sacrament.

In order for us to receive the graces that come from the Sacrament, we have to be physically (and mentally) present at the celebrations.  This was well understood as it was unthinkable that anyone could (or would) be at a celebration without truly and physically being at such a celebration.  Until the chaos of the COVID pandemic came a-visiting last year to just about every country in the world.  It caused many countries to go into a lockdown, some more than once in the space of a year, and for a relatively prolonged period of time.


This very unique and hitherto unparalled situation in the world’s history caused the emergence of what was once deemed to be only imagined – that there could be something that could be a virtual or on-line celebration of the Eucharist.


Sacramentologists (theologians who specialize in the study of the sacraments) would have most likely discarded as nonsensical that such a thing could ever exist. After all, sacraments at their heart convey a reality of a true human physical encounter with the divine in and through our God-given 5 senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. There is nothing ‘virtual’ about any of them.  


But in this unique COVID situation where there seems to be a preeminence of needing to distance ourselves physically from one another in order to stay alive and healthy, we have ‘invented’ a way to virtually celebrate them.  The Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is THEsacrament par excellence, has acquired a virtual character, and access to it has become easy – a bit tooeasy – by just turning on our tablets or computer screens and sticking a pair of ear buds into our ears.  Moreover, it also has acquired something hitherto unimaginable for a Catholic – that it can even be something that is available ‘on demand’. It can give the impression that even for accessibility to God’s grace, I hold the controls, and I call the shots, because now, God’s ways are my ways, and not the other way around.


By the looks of things and messages that are coming from the authorities concerned at the governmental levels, it will still be quite a long ways off before we see a complete lifting of the limit of people who can physically be in Church for Mass or any other worship event. At the time of this blog’s release, the rules allow up to 250 persons (seated in five separate clusters of 50 persons each) to be present where Masses are celebrated. I have heard a plethora of responses whenever I ask Catholics if they have been coming back to the physical celebrations of the Mass now that the COVID restrictions have been somewhat eased.  


The responses have been broad ranging.  Here are some of them:


-      I prefer to ‘watch’ online Masses because it’s now so convenient for us.

-      I like online Masses as I can go all over the world to ‘shop’ for (good homilies, short Masses, priests who don’t preach on weekdays, etc.)

-      I like online Masses because I don’t have to dress for church.

-      I am afraid to be exposed to COVID because of the crowds in church.

-      I like Masses to be available online because I am elderly and home bound, and this gives me some access to the celebration of the Mass.


I would say that the last two are valid reasons, but as for the others, it isn’t surprising to find many of these responses being centered on what the “I” prefers.  Indeed, the relativistic atmosphere that we are steeped in is so clear, where even where faith is concerned, it isn’t about God but about “me”.  


While I can understand that there is a need to be vigilant in not giving cause for any COVID clusters to develop through gatherings at events like Masses in church, there is something that is being conveyed without us even thinking deeply about it, and it is this – that while physical health is important, it gives the notion that physical health is the primary good, to which all other needs must give obeisance to.  


This runs rather contrary to what we believe as Catholics.  Our belief, when whittled down to its core, is that nothing in this life is to be the highest order and as such gets top priority.  It is not money, not status, not earthly happiness, not even our families or even our spouses.  Jesus puts it so clearly and, I daresay shockingly so when he says that no one who prefers father, mother, son, daughter etc. to him is worthy of him, and that he has come to divide people against each other, and from now on families will be split apart, three against two, and two against three.


Many preachers walk on very fragile eggshells when confronted with these texts, but they are the Word of God.  The essence of these challenging texts is not that Jesus wants to cause friction and factions among families, but to show that even familial bonds which are deemed sacrosanct in many, if not all cultures, are secondary to our relationship with Jesus, because he is the resurrection and the life.  He is not the (healthy) life, but the (eternal) life.  


Now I can hear a chorus of reactions from my readers wanting to protest against what I just wrote, saying things like “are we then just to throw caution to the wind just because it is not this life that is important but only heaven’s eternal life that should only matter”?  No.  I am not saying that at all.  But if we continue to think that it is a healthy life in this world that should be our highest aim, whether as individuals or as a society, we have forgotten how clearly Jesus said that the most important commandment is the first, which is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, and the second is to love our neighbour as ourselves.  He did not say that we are to love our health with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. 


We easily end up relativizing the (primary) importance of grace and how grace should be given the top priority in our lives.  This is already seen in the way that we hardly give much attention to whether we are in a state of grace or not when we come to physical Masses.  I certainly do hope that every Catholic who goes up to the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion is in a state of grace for them to be able to receive the graces that come from a worthy reception of the Lord, but just looking at the numbers who do make an appointment for their confession to be heard and comparing to the numbers who come up for communion at each Mass, I am afraid of the sadder truth that there are a lot of sacrilegious communions that are taking place at each Mass.  I am truly frightened for the health of the souls of so many of my flock, but I can only do so much to encourage frequent confession to ensure that we are in a reasonable state of grace most of the time.


When we truly begin to understand and appreciate deeply the importance of grace in our lives, and that the means to obtain this is through physical celebrations of the Sacraments and physical reception of Holy Communion, we will wantto come to physical Masses, and know that virtual Masses just are not the same, and will never be the same.  At best, it is a second best option; just like a zoom conversation with our friends and relatives who are in another country are only second best to a true face-to-face encounter with them.  


Are we content to just “settle” for something ersatz?  If we are, how can we ever have the gall to ask that God give us his best? But we do – all the time.  


I hope that those who are reading this rather long reflection will make the effort to begin going back to physical Masses if you have ‘settled’ for what is offered online or virtually.  Just as we don’t want God to only give us his ‘virtual’ graces, neither should we be contented with giving God anything virtual.  


There is very little virtue in things that are only virtual.