Saturday, August 26, 2023

Forgiveness is often overrated and under applied in life

As a priest who very frequently hears the confessions of penitents, I must admit that I very seldom hear my penitents confess that they have withheld the forgiveness of someone or a group of people who had caused them some pain and turmoil some time ago.  It’s not that these hurts do not occur in people, but it does take a special grace from God to allow people who have been hurt in the past, to look at the hurt that they have nursed in their hearts, and make that often painful decision to let that pain go by extending the needed forgiveness to their tormentors.  I have asked some people why is it that past hurts are so difficult to forgive and let go of.  The answer takes me often by surprise, leaving me somewhat dumbfounded.  The most common answer is that they haven’t heard the apology from their tormentors, causing them to withhold the extension of the balm of forgiveness.  I say that it is a balm because only when forgiveness is given from a willing heart that it truly becomes something that heals and soothes the aching heart.  This is also chiefly because true forgiveness is not a quid-pro-quo agreement, where the forgiveness is extended is only dependent on the hearing of a sincere word or act of sorrow and apology.  I say this with firmness because I am truly convinced that forgiveness in its purest and selfless form can only come when it is a decision to love. 

 

While I am quite aware that deciding to love parties that have caused pain and hurt in the heart is an enormous and hugely challenging effort that is more than herculean, Jesus himself made this clear in his teaching.  He addressed this when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus made it clear that forgiveness becomes singularly the most important of all virtues, and it does decide whether we go to heaven or not.  It was Fr Ron Rolheiser who said that our place at the eternal banquet of heaven is only open to us if we are open to eating with everyone who is willing to sit down everyone – including those who may have been our chief persecutors on this earth.  Only we can open our hearts sufficiently to sit down with everyone for eternity.

 

The character of Jennifer (played by Ali MacGraw) had a very dangerous remark about love in the movie Love Story.  She told Oliver (played by Ryan O’Neil) that “love means never having to say you’re sorry).  If there is a dangerous line that should never be adopted as truth, it is this line.  Not having to say “I’m sorry” in a relationship doesn’t mean that there is love.  Love is when you are so aware that you must not do anything that would cause you to apologise in the end.  If love means never having to say “I’m sorry”, then the sacrament of reconciliation in the Catholic Church should not even exist.  The truth is that each time a penitent enters a confessional, he or she is apologizing to God for having acted wrongly in life.  If we do not love God, it makes the confession of sins superfluous.

 

So, if after reading this blog, you realize that you have been carrying a heavy burden of unforgiveness in your heart, you may be traveling with a bit too much unnecessary baggage.  You will walk with a greater degree of lightness in your heart after you have made the decision to forgive by extending love to your enemies in life.  Hear God reminding you to love your enemies, as it prepares you a place in Heaven’s eternal banquet of love. 

 

Forgive, and travel light.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Love is not just a feeling. It is a decision that changes everything.

As a confessor-priest, I have heard so many confessions that expose the deepest depths of the penitent’s hearts.  While they truly are varied in what they have been struggling with, whenever it comes to the great challenges of a person, one of the most common angst is that many of the penitents have a great struggle when it comes to loving those who are close to them.  These could be members of their own family, or even those to whom these penitents are married to.  What is common is that many of them tell me that they do not ‘feel’ like loving.  I have a strong suspicion that this is the crux of the problem.  So many people only love when they ‘feel’ like loving.  Many emotions contribute to this feeling – emotions like being light-headed, being warm in the heart, or hearing over and over again the usual words that people utter when they are expressing their love and concern for the other.  While they are not wrong in themselves, just basing love on such feelings isn’t really love at a deep level.

 

What constitutes love is far more than just feelings alone.  Love is truly a decision that one makes to love another, regardless of how great the feelings are that well up in the depths of our hearts.  One spiritual guru I had the benefit of knowing in my Catholic life mentioned this “decision to love” when he taught about how we develop our love for God.  It is basically a decision that the disciple makes in the heart to love God who is not seen with the eye.  This decision to love surpasses the many challenges that any disciple of Jesus may face in the journey of growing to know and love the immutable God.  Certainly, challenges can come in the form of feeling desolate and maybe even abandoned by God.  But when the relationship of love is one that is based on a decision to love, these desolations should not be things that can cause a disciple of Christ to renounce or relinquish that all important relationship with God.  In fact, it is in being persistent in deciding to love God despite all these challenges that will show how strong one’s love of God is.  This principle can be easily applied to the times one devotes to prayer in life.  People pray for many different reasons, but one of the chief reasons to pray to God is because one loves God.  To base the rationale for prayer on the feelings that one gets when praying, or the delight that it gives to the heart, are very flimsy and weak reasons for prayer.  In fact, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love need to surpass any other reasons for spending time in prayer to God.

 

When we reduce love to anything else other than a firm decision to love, we make it something so unstable and flimsy.  And I believe that this is the main problem with so many people who are unable to reach out to their family and fellow man when it comes to displaying stable and strong love.  So many are relying on the feelings that they have in their hearts for these people who God has placed in their lives.  Once a person truly understands that love is more a decision than the feelings that loving others give their hearts, the slightest reason to not love the other becomes the reason one gives up on living in steadfast love toward the other.  If this is true for the link between two or more human beings, it is far more true for the link between a human person and God.  This principle is the same for those who transgress another person in life.  Forgiveness is hard, but it is made more meaningful when the forgiveness is based on the fact that one has made a decision to love, rather than just sentiments which are fleeting and subjective. 

 

I am not concerned with who reads my posted blogs on this website, but whoever it is who has logged in to today’s post, I sincerely hope that it sheds new light on how important it is that we base our love toward those who are in our family and maybe even work circles that we should move toward basing our relationships with these people on a decision to love.  It doesn’t just make loving more meaningful, but it also makes the pain of forgiveness when wronged less of a struggle.  On top of this, we need to frequently reflect on the fact that God has made a divine decision to love us when he made us.  God doesn’t need to love us, but because it was based on the goodness of God’s will, God’s love becomes so much more meaningful to us.  Our living just and righteous lives then becomes something that we naturally want to do in order to return this undeserving love of God to its divine origins. 

 

When we come to this realization, each time we gaze upon a crucifix with the corpus of Christ nailed to it, our hearts ought to beat anew with a strong heartbeat of love.

 

 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The advantage of having been a patient of leukemia in the past

It wouldn’t surprise me if I hear someone who has had the experience of having had some form of cancer in the past wishing that he never had the illness before.  If we have the ability to go back to a time of our lives in the past, and will that those painful events never happened to us, I am quite certain that cancer patients would want to eradicate that part of their lives that were so debilitating.  But there is no such option available to us human beings. 

 

Ever since I have returned to ministry as a priest, I have been paying special attention to parishioners who tell me that they have some form of blood cancer like Leukemia.  I would ask them for their home address, and when I am available and my time table permits, I would make that effort to drive to their homes and pay them a pastoral visit, often giving them the option for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, and pray with them.  It brings them so much comfort. 

 

Just today, I drove to the home of a Catholic just outside of the boundaries of the parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and it was to visit a Leukemia patient who is about to be admitted into the Singapore General Hospital for a Bone Marrow transplant next week.  I found myself going purposefully back to my own experience of having been a Leukemia patient myself back in 2012, and shared with him the kinds of difficulties when undergoing the chemotherapy and full body radiation that ensures the recipient’s body would not be fighting against the introduction of the bone marrow from another human being.  I recall my radiologist friend telling me that the weakened body after the many doses of full body radiation is like a body having gone through the ardors of Fukushima with the Tsunami disabling the power supply and cooling down of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors, with all three cores largely melting in the first three days.  The body goes through a tremendous weakness after the full body radiation, but I can’t imagine how the body would fare if the body’s defences were not depleted before the transplant happened. 

 

It was because I saw the huge benefit of the full body radiation that I told myself that I would want to be able to share the experience I had with patients who have this on their treatment for the leukemia.  I made sure that even as I spoke with clarity and passion, I would also lace it with the kind of humour that most people know me for. 

 

This is all part of the awareness that I have that a priest should always be alert to the role that pain and suffering has in his priesthood.  I consider myself so blessed to have had the experience of having had biphenotypic acute leukemia, which was a mixture of both types of acute leukemias, the acute myeloid leukemia and the acute lymphoblastic leukemia.  Some parts of the treatment were particularly filled with moments of doubt and uncertainty, but I take it as just a part of the whole process of getting treated for the blood cancer. 

 

I always try to instill into the patient that it is always good to be aware of the possibility of offering up one’s discomfort and pains that are part of the process of recovering from the cancer, and to offer them up for souls in purgatory.  As I say this, I am always checking the visage of the listener to see if there is a strong negative reaction from them resulting from what I am trying to inculcate in them. 

 

Most of the Leukemia patients I encounter in my parishes have thanked me for the way I spoke candidly to them about the entire chemo and radiation protocol.  I am aware that most doctors try not to prepare their patients with too much information about what is to come, and will prefer to deal with the issues as they surface during the days of the post-transplant recovery. 

 

When I was in the hospital recovering from the bone marrow transplant, I didn’t have the comfort of a recovered patient coming to my bedside to give me the encouragement that gave hope.  I lived from day to day, and prayer and daily Masses celebrated in my hospital room helped me tremendously.  I want my parishioners to be able to go into their transplant hospital rooms with their hopes in such a positive light that they would take any form of suffering in the right light. 

 

The Catholic Church has just entered into the season of Lent with the celebration of Ash Wednesday yesterday.  The Cross is a strong feature in the liturgical season of Lent, with the praying of the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent.  What this imparts to us is that in our lives, there is a need to be people who are willing to carry the cross in our lives.  Leukemia is one such cross.  Undoubtedly, there are patients who deem that their afflictions like cancer are burdensome crosses that they are given in life.  But these crosses are not just ours to carry.  In fact, Simon of Cyrene was summoned to help Jesus to carry his cross to Golgotha, and the world knows who Simon is, just because he willingly went up to Jesus to help him carry his instrument of death.  It only takes a change of mindset and the cancer patient will be able to carry his or her cross, knowing that they do not carry the cross alone, but are actually helping Jesus to fulfil the Father’s will.   

Friday, January 13, 2023

Does love really mean never having to say "I'm sorry"?

When I was a young lad, there was a movie that enthralled so many people in the theatres.  I wasn’t taken to watch it by my parents as they said that it was a movie for adults, and in their minds, it was something that I wouldn’t understand.  The movie starred a young Ryan O’Neil and Ali MacGraw, and the title of the movie was just made up of two simple words “Love Story”.  From the movie came a very popular song “Where do I begin?” written by musician Francis Lai, made popular by the crooning voice of Andy Williams. 

 

When I was older, I made it a point to rent the video so that I would not miss this movie.  It was what many would call schmaltzy (excessively sentimental), and as the title reveals, it was a love story between the two protagonists of Ryan and Ali.  Some things are imparted through movies, and some are rather strange and not even true.  One song that came from another movie named Beaches, was a hit song sung by Bette Midler, and it was named From a Distance.  The jarring verse in that song says that God is watching us from a distance, which is terrible theology.  God isn’t watching us from a distance.  The Incarnation of Jesus is proof that God wasn’t just interested in having a view of the world from heaven, but in the incarnation of Jesus, came to live as a human being in real life, and lived and died to save the world from sin.  In a blog I wrote many years ago, I mentioned how some lyrics convey wrong or bad theology, and I used a line in the song “We are the world”.  That song was sung by many different artistes, and it was Willie Nelson who sang that “God has shown us by turning stone to bread”.  The truth is that God did not turn stone to bread, and in fact, Jesus refused to do that as in his temptation in the dessert, the devil suggested to Jesus that he could ease his hunger by making bread from stone. 

 

I now return to commenting on something that came from Love Story.  It was something that Jennifer (Ali MacGraw’s character) told Oliver (Ryan O’Neil’s character) during their romantic relationship.  She said “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.  Oliver used this very line when he told his father that Jennifer had passed away from a terminal illness.  If there is one thing that we should never do, it is to believe such lines as truth and use them in our lives in future relationships and conversations.

 

If there is any truth in this line, it would be that when one truly loves another, one would choose not to do certain things that end up with the person having to apologize for having lived in a certain way.  In fact, the misleading quote from Love Story would instead be “Love means never doing anything that requires you to apologize for having lived a certain way.”  It’s a mouthful, but at least it clarifies things lest things get misconstrued. 

 

If love means never having to say you’re sorry, it makes the sacrament of reconciliation (or confession) redundant.  God loved the world so much that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.  All men and women are encouraged to go to the confessional often to make sure that they live in a state of grace.  And this sacrament came about because of God’s love.  In the confessional, penitents are sorry for their sins because they recognize how incredible it was that God showed us so much love that he sent his Son into the world to save it from sin.  If what Jennifer believed was true, the sacrament of reconciliation would not exist.

 

True love makes sin and an apology for sin erroneous.  Maybe it is because so many people do not equate the confession with the love of God, that many hesitate to go for frequent confession.  In fact, the more often the sacrament of reconciliation is experienced, the more one becomes touched by the truth of God’s incredible love for mankind.  Deep inside of me, I truly believe that constant pondering of God’s love for humankind is a sure way of ensuring that one isn’t bonded to any particular habitual sin that keeps one from being in a state of grace in life. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The new names that we have been given paves the path of the new life ahead for us.

On the stroke of midnight on Saturday, the world celebrated the end of 2022 and welcomed the new year of 2023.  There is a certain air of expectation and hope in the hearts and minds of so many people all over the world with the approach of a new year.  Many are hoping for a new outlook in life and new hopes in their families and in the area of their jobs.  It’s a given that all things new will give us a better outlook in life and be surrounded by a newness of joy and happiness. 

 

While this may be something fresh and fills many of us with great expectations, many of us may have forgotten that there was something fresh and new that Christians were all given on the day of their baptism, and this lies in the reception of our baptismal names.  We received our new identities as sons and daughters of God the Father when the Sacrament of Baptism was celebrated.  Most of the time, the names we got were names of saints in the history of the Church, and the hope was that our lives would be patterned after the life of the saints we were named after. 

 

What caused me to reflect on this was the Gospel text of the Mass on 4 January from the first chapter of John’s gospel, which featured Jesus meeting Andrew and Simon Peter.  He renamed Simon and called him Cephas, which was translated as Rock, and this was because Jesus intended to make him the foundation of His future Church.  From that day on, Simon Peter lived a newness of life, and fulfilled the mission that Jesus gave him with great love and determination. 

 

Those of us who have been baptized in life do not need to wait for a new year to come to be reminded that we have the inner drive to pursue a mission in life.  It was given to us when the Holy Spirit was given to us in our baptism and our Confirmation.  It would be just an excuse for us to live a sedentary and uncommitted life over and over again.  We have all been given a new mission by Christ himself when God invited us to live a new life of grace in Him in our baptism. 

 

I’ve heard confession after confession which showed how the penitent was just unwilling to love people like their family members or fellow work mates in their jobs, and try hard as I did, it was just so difficult for them to believe that they really did have it in them if they made a decision to act in love and charity in life.  They would have merely responded to the life of Christ that was given to them at their baptism.  Yet, the reality is that oftentimes, if something is so plain and simple in life, getting that point across to others can be as challenging as climbing a huge and steep obstacle in life. 

 

But we have to remember that being in a state of grace helps tremendously in our pursuit of holiness in life.  This being in a state of grace is the gift of God that comes to us whenever with deep faith and conviction go to a confessor priest to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation or confession.  I often recommend the penitents avail themselves to the Sacrament of Reconciliation about once a month.  This would be particularly recommended to penitents who have a very clear struggle with a particular sin that afflicts them on a regular basis.

 

What could be helpful to my readers is that they make it a point to do a little research to rediscover the life history of the saint whose names they were given at their baptism.  Doing this can help them chart the course of the life that they aspire to lead as they pass from day to day in 2023.  Rediscover what it is that God is calling you to fulfil in life each day. 

 

There is no sadder life than to live aimlessly without a clear notion of the kind of sanctity that God wills for one in life.  Calling to mind the dignity that our baptism gave us helps us to live life with a new and holy aim.