Thursday, May 23, 2024

When the feeling inside of us is exhaustion, boredom and frustration, our prayer at these times should be the reason and purpose of our prayer.

 I recall with some fondness the rigor and system that outlined the life of the seminarian in the seminary when I was a seminarian studying for the priesthood.  That was a time of 8 years of my life, and it started when I was a 28-year-old man. 


I would imagine that when people hear me saying that I appreciate the routine and strict time table of the seminary, they would conclude that I had to be crazy and out of sorts.  In Singapore, National Service is mandatory for all men, and without a doubt, routine and following orders is just part and parcel of the life of being either in the Army or the Navy, or even of the Police Force.  The Army, Navy or the Police Force would be a complete failure if the soldiers, sailors or constables were people who were undisciplined and hardly followed the orders of their superiors. 


One of the things that made me appreciate with great gratitude the routine and discipline of the seminary was that they put in us seminarians the need to exercise routine in the life of prayer.  Each morning, whether we felt like it or not, we were expected to turn up in the chapel for Lauds, which is the morning prayer part of the Divine Office, at the quiet and seemingly ungodly time of 6am.  Some seminarians would be seen yawning and sleepy eyed as they turned up for Lauds, which was followed by Holy Mass.  But it was instilled in us as part of our formation, that prayer is the heart of the vocation of the priesthood and religious life.  And this, in effect, meant that no matter how we felt in our hearts, the practice of prayer needs to be upkept and practiced with routine and habit. 


If we were free to turn up for Lauds and Vespers (or even Holy Mass) only when we felt like praying, there would most likely to be disaster in the priesthood.  To stretch the point, priests would only go for their hospital visits when they felt like it.  The needs of the people would not be placed at a position of prominence in their life and time table.  The call to passionate service would not be part of their psyche and spirit, and the priest would easily end up chiefly serving themselves and their hearts.


I write today’s reflection because I fear that there are quite a few of our faithful who are only praying when they feel like it.  I don’t know if it is because of ill-planned catechesis of their catechists, but that can explain why so many Adoration Rooms in churches are often, left empty and ignored most of the time in the day.  As a priest, I find this very sad and even if we place large posters and placards outside of these Adoration Rooms that Jesus is waiting for us behind the doors of these rooms, the numbers going in to pray and adore God would still not change much.  Unless we place a sentence on the posters something like “Jesus wants you to go inside the Adoration Room regardless of how you are feeling in your heart and mind”.


And that is the truth.  Prayer must not be dependent on how we are feeling in our hearts.  The first motive to pray when we first become aware of the grace of our baptism, is to pray because we are so delighted that God loves us so much that through Baptism, we became the sons and daughters of Almighty God himself.  However, these first fervors of prayer do not last for long.  It is a matter of time that this immense and undeserved truth of our being loved and saved becomes something no longer thrills and delights us.  We begin to take our salvation for granted, and once this happens, we taper off our desire to enter into the church or prayer room and turn instead to other things that delight and thrill our easily distracted hearts and minds.


The regularity of prayer and adoration must not depend on our feelings and excitement to commune with Jesus our Savior.  Sometimes we are filled with irreverence and our emotions are angry or revengeful, or even filled with thoughts of sexuality and worldly delights.  If this describes our hearts now, then go into prayer and pray those thoughts of irreverence, pray those angry emotions and yes, even pray those sexual thoughts.  Do not wait for only those moments when our hearts and minds are no longer distracted and filled with sin to pray to God.  Real prayer is when we lift our minds and hearts to God.  Real prayer is not contingent on the good things that fill our minds and hearts. 


Prayer needs to be cultivated as a habit, not unlike the way brushing our teeth is a habit.  Imagine the outcome of our dental health if we only brush our teeth when we feel like it.  Many, if not most of us, would end up with a whole mouthful of dentures because all of our teeth have rotted away due to poor and non-existent dental hygiene.  Orthodontists would be filled with patients, and so would their bank accounts.  Brushing our teeth regularly and twice a day needs to be indented into our souls with ardor and discipline, and it is for our own good.  Our prayer and prayer life need to be embedded into us so that prayer is not something solely dependent on our feelings, thoughts and emotions.


When we have this principle in our hearts, prayer and going for Sunday Mass will become a good and constant habit in us, whether we are in our home country, or when we are away from home due to work or on vacation.  Don’t get me started on the number of times I have heard of penitents in confession who have confessed that they missed Sunday Masses when they were away on vacation in a faraway land.  It’s as if once they have left home, they also leave behind the need to give God glory in and through their lives.  Sadly, it does seem that the love of God is not the primary reason why they are present at Eucharistic Celebrations every Sunday.  Habit, sadly, has not yet been formed in their hearts.


One of the things I love about the Psalms that are primary in Lauds and Vespers, is that they are filled with the Psalms from Sacred Scripture.  The Psalms are filled with so many feelings that the human heart may be filled with.  There are Psalms that feature anger, despondency, ill-will, rage and unfaithfulness.  When we are filled with these emotions, it would not be difficult to pray with these words.  These Psalms help us to lift up our hearts and minds to God.


Yes, feelings can be the entry point into our prayer life.  But do not let that be the main feature of our prayer life.  God wants whatever is in our hearts in our prayer to him.  If you haven’t developed a regularity in your prayer life yet, start now. 


It is never too late to start the habit of prayer regardless of how we feel inside of us. 

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Are we really all that anxious as beloved childen of God? If we are, what are we anxious about?

There are many phrases that are found in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and perhaps it is because we hear it so often, we pay scant attention to what they really mean and even imply.  Of course, it is sad when this happens, because it means that we are not paying full attention to the words that make up the Liturgy of the Mass.  What is it that I am referring to in particular?  It is a phrase found in the embolism, which is a short prayer said or sung after the Lord’s Prayer.  In the Roman Rite of the Mass, the embolism is followed by the doxology.


In the less literal or more informal English translation used prior to 2011, it reads:


Deliver us, Lord from every evil, and grant us peace in our day.  In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.


And in the Tridentine form of the Roman Missal, the embolism doesn’t feature the word ‘anxiety’, but we find the phrase ‘keep us safe from all disquiet.’


One can easily miss the feature of the word ‘anxiety’, and it happens easily because so many people go so frequently to Mass that it doesn’t strike them as important to wonder why the Church sees it important that God keeps us from anxiety. 


Essentially, the Church sees the reality that a very large percentage of the human population suffers from a neurosis that sees us always striving to earn our place in God’s grace and that our names are safely written in the halls of Heaven. 


Many of us live as though in the deep recesses of our being, God may one day look on this earth, and with genuine surprise, see that you or I are actually still existing, and may even acclaim in genuine surprise: “My divine breath is taken away!  He/she is still alive!  I had completely forgotten about him/her!”


The harsh truth is not that we have fallen off from God’s divine radar screen, but there is a nagging truth that we are in a constant, restless and unending worry that our lives are forgettable.  We hanker after wanting to leave a legacy of permanence.  We strive to be special, and we want to make a mark in the world through our lives, and will not stop in attaining greatness in the financial world, and that our words and our lives will always be remembered by the people we touch and encounter in life. 


But that financial security, or that greatness that we strive to attain will never reach a point that we can safely say that “it is the end”.  This neurosis can be summed up in one word that is in the Embolism prayer that the Priest celebrant utters after praying the Lord’s Prayer.  And that one word is “anxiety”.


Our greatest fear lies in the horror that after we die and meet our divine judge, that we have been forgotten by God.  This anxiety is the opposite of faith, and it is the opposite of believing in God.  When we whittle away all the externals and trimmings of our lust for success, we are deeply unsettled because we are fearful that the God who gave us our lives, our desires and our personal talents, has not placed our names in heaven. 


Coming to this realization is the “a-ha” moment that I wish every baptized person humbly strives for.  But it won’t happen by just reading this blog reflection of mine.  It’s a painful and humbling process that can require the need of a good spiritual director and a guide for souls. 


Jesus tells his disciples to not be afraid, and that everything hidden will be shown and everything that is secret will be made known – Luke 12:2-3.  Our lives have enough trouble on their own, so we really do not need to have this anxiety in our hearts. 


Perhaps deep inside of us, there is this nagging fear that we are not loved, or worse, lovable.  We strive to earn this by our works.  We need to stop making an assertion of our lives and our talents and skills to prove anything, because God will prove it for us.  We only need to fall into the divine and loving hands of God, and Jesus’ main task in his ministry was to show the people he ministered to how special and loved they are to God, his heavenly father. 


Having read this reflection of mine in this blog, it is my hope that from now on, each time at Mass we hear the celebrant uttering the words of the Embolism after the Lord’s Prayer, we will be acutely attentive to our hearts and be sincere in praying that God will truly protect us from all anxiety. 


This way, when at the end of the Mass we hear the celebrant say “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, we will respond with great confidence “Thanks be to God!”