Saturday, April 17, 2010
Friday, January 22, 2010
Most of us are familiar with St. Paul’s injunction to pray “unceasingly” in his first letter to the Thessalonians.
But what does it mean to pray unceasingly? Surely we recognize that prayer is essential to keeping our souls alive in grace, much like the oxygen that feeds our lungs. St. Alphonsus Liguori, the great doctor of the church is often quoted as having said, “He who prays is saved. He who does not pray is lost.”
Some might see that as rather simplistic, but there is an eternal truth behind that simple logic. Anyone who has ever known the power and effects of prayer on a Christian life will also know the seductive havoc that an absence of prayer can wreak on a moral life. We know that from weakness and we know that from experience.
To raise our thoughts and hearts to God, to pray as it were constantly not only sounds daunting, it sounds impractical given the daily challenges and obligations of life.
With only 24 hours a day, most people already feel the stress of being tugged and pulled in all directions by the attention demanded of us in our professional and private lives.
“I don’t even have time for myself” is the refrain often heard on the frustrated lips of people struggling to make a living and upkeep a home.
And yet scripture calls us to pray without ceasing, almost as if God urges us to pray even more when the challenges of life press down on us with greater demands.
But I am not Carthusian monk you say, living the liturgy of the hours. I am not wrapped up in a constant cloud of prayer and living in a monastery equally clouded by the austere heights of quiet mountains and pine trees.
Instead, I work a twelve-hour job, seated behind a desk full of papers, enslaved to a computer, ferrying difficult passengers for hours on end, cramming for exams, cooking and cleaning for a family of five etc. And the list goes on.
Is work really the bane of our spiritual life? Does it obstruct our worship of God or does it in fact ennoble our living hours by offering us divine opportunities to reach heaven that much more easily?
Let’s face it, the ordinary preoccupation for most of our days is the work we do in our offices, in our schools, in our fields, in our barracks and in our homes. We cannot detach ourselves from this necessary part of life. And for good reason – work gives us a purpose, a means to support our loved ones and ourselves, and work allows us to contribute in a meaningful way to society. All of which are good things when done well, all of which can be offered to God as a loving sacrifice of the fruits of our love.
At its core, work is heaven’s gift to us. How well we do it can be a prayer of love to God. And prayer is above all an act of humility and gratitude.
We thank the Lord for the jobs we hold, knowing that it is a gift from Him. We thank the Lord for the salaries we make, and the benefits we enjoy. But we also thank him for the tedium we sometimes face at work, the routine that can numb our days, the office politics, the challenges of a difficult boss and the struggles we encounter in doing our work well.
It is because these routine struggles and mundane annoyances hold the key to sanctity and holiness when we embrace them with a supernatural vision.
Many people look for grand signs of God in the extraordinary, when God Himself has come to us in the most ordinary sacrament of a baby born to a poor working family. And it is in the most mundane, most routine and most ordinary demands of life that God calls us to be saints.
As lay people, our cloister is the world. Our mission fields are our offices and our working environments. Our apostolate is our witness to our faith and the reality of God in the midst of our secular activities.
We are contemplatives who point to God in the middle of the world, not away from it. And since we spend more than half our waking lives at work, we need to learn how to turn our work into prayer, to super-naturalize our activities so that they have the power to sanctify, to witness, to praise and to convert.
If we fail to do this, then our worship of God will be reduced to mumbled snatches of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” just before we fall asleep, much to the spiritual starvation of our souls. And as we pray less and spend less time with God, in time we shall stop praying altogether.
Indeed work is prayer, and prayer can be our work. The motto of the Benedictine Order; “Ora et Labora” means to pray and to work. These two pillars of Benedictine sanctity are not irreconcilable because prayer divinizes our work and makes it holy, while work done in a spirit of prayer is an act of worship to God. These are the oil and wick that keep our spiritual life alight with the life of Christ.
St. Josemaria Escriva, the saint of the ordinary, often reminded Christians that "Work in our hands, as it was in Christ’s, must be turned into prayer to God and service to mankind for the co-redemption of the whole human race."
What does he mean that work in our hands must be turned into prayer? What sacrifices must we make to unlock the spiritual wellspring behind our efforts? It sounds awfully hard and most of us are already chafing under the natural demands of our professions and labors.
But the simple truth is what Blessed Mother Teresa once advocated, “To do small things with great love.”
She also said that we are not called to be successful in life but to be faithful, not that there is anything wrong with success. But when we turn the small nuisances, difficulties and challenges of our daily lives into opportunities for prayer, we change the world as it were by our response to the world.
Are we distracted, bored and tired at work? Let us say to the Lord, “Lord, I give you the next hour of my work as a living sacrifice of praise. I will endeavor to do it well, to do it joyfully and as perfectly as I can. And I offer it as a means of grace for my wife and children.”
Can we barely stand the sight of our boss or colleague? Let us say, “Lord, I will endeavor to smile and be positive in my encounters with them today, though it costs me my pride, and I offer this in union with your most holy passion.”
Are we tempted to skive and do less than our fair share at work? Let us say, “Lord, I shall offer an extra hour of honest work today in thanksgiving for your blessings, and I offer this mortification for the life of the Church.”
In sanctifying your work, you participate in the mystery of Christ’s redemption by sanctifying the world.
If you make your work holy, you learn to become holy. And your relationships with your colleagues and bosses, not to mention the results of your efforts, encourage an atmosphere of grace in the office that glorifies the presence of God. This is how we win the world back to Christ, by beginning where we are, in the ordinary work that we are already doing. Our professional work can indeed be God’s work.
There is no greater mortification than the crunching patience and self-denial that is needed to turn our daily boredom, tiredness, frustrations, laziness, routine and pride into moments of heroic Christian love.
How pleasing it is to the Lord for a wife to beautify herself after a hard day of looking after the kids in preparation for her husband coming home. How pleasing it is to the Lord that a husband should greet his wife with a broad smile, a warm kiss and a bouquet of flowers after a terrible day in the office, and to spend time listening to her despite his own desire for some quiet.
How pleasing it is to the Lord that we practice virtue at work, whether we run for high office or whether we drive a garbage truck, so that we may draw extraordinary fruits from our ordinary work when done well and done with Christian love.
How pleasing it is to the Lord that we begin and end our days by offering to do all things well for the Lord, whatever the circumstances of our work.
As Catholic Christians, all of us share in the common priesthood of Christ the high priest. And just as Abel offered the work of his hands and Melchizedek, the sacrifice of bread and wine, we too can offer God the best fruits of our work that come to us each day.
For the priest, the altar is the table where he celebrates the Liturgy of the Eucharist. For you and me, our altar is the table in our office, where we offer God the sacrifice of our work and talents.
Whether you are a teacher, a banker, a cleaner, a fireman or a housewife, that is where God has placed you in his great wisdom. And that is where he wishes you to find him, and to make him known to the world. The circumstances of ordinary life are not an obstacle but rather the material and path of sanctification.
Work becomes prayer when we do it to glorify God, when we make our talents, skills and labor an offering of love to the Lord, so that doing our work well with perfection, charity and patience becomes no less meritorious to God than giving our lives in martyrdom.
Indeed, the dying to self required of us to persevere in a spirit of cheerfulness despite difficulties everyday is a bloodless martyrdom that wins for us the crown of eternal life, making us saints through our ordinary duties and work.
It is a fact that God wants to reign in the midst of every human activity, especially the ordinary and mundane, but the temptation to remove God from the world and keep him only in the churches, is the same one that seduces some of us to pray only on Sundays and at mass.
Jesus who taught us the perfect prayer worked and sanctified his days as a carpenter for many years before beginning his public ministry.
St. Paul, the apostle of the gentiles supported his apostolic life by his work as a tent maker and he too asked that we pray unceasingly.
Should we then not believe that this is not only easy and possible but also crucial and necessary? Indeed we must.
We pray not just with our voices and our hearts, but also with our eyes, our hands, our feet and our minds. We pray not just in churches and the quiet of our bedrooms, but in offices, farms, hospitals, and schools and in every place where a Christian heart is ready to turn to God.
When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked what it took for a person to become a saint, he answered simply, “Will it.”
Let us then put aside the excuse of work in saying we have no time to pray, and let us repeat with St. Benedict the holy genius of a good Christian life - “Ora et Labora”.
Let us “pray and work”, for the way to heaven is set before you everyday.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
But when I got out to check the car, I discovered that my left frontal tyre was flat as a doormat. That explains why I had to fight the vehicle’s compulsion to keep running off to the left like a dog pulling against a leash.
The only thing I could do was to bring the errant car back to “port” and fix the tyre. But as I stood there staring at the deflated wheel of my otherwise perfect ride, I couldn’t help feeling frustrated by the inconvenience; especially since I was on my way to keeping an appointment. And then the thought hit me. I remembered driving up a curb a week back and the little bump must’ve inflicted more damage than I expected. Strange that it took so long for the air to slip out.
In the same way, many of us pick up injuries to our souls and our hearts that we often don’t notice or only imagine to be tiny bumps along the way. Months and years later, we suddenly find ourselves broken down on the road of life, stranded, surprised and perhaps even alarmed at the state of our disrepair. And unlike cars, we often hide the bruises and injuries of our accidents far better, so well in fact that some of us spend a lifetime oblivious to the scars, dents and scraped metal we accumulate through days, weeks and months of careless driving.
Yet sooner or later…we all break down when these collective abuses remain ignored and untreated.
Every few thousand miles, we’re told to bring the car in for servicing; to let the professionals do a thorough checkup and fix what needs to be fixed. Ever so often, we need to do the same for our souls and our hearts.
I’m always amazed by people who say, “I have no sin, I have nothing to confess, I don't need to ask forgiveness for anything”, especially since “I haven’t killed, hurt or cheated anybody in a big way.”
That’s like saying I’m not concerned about the state of my car from all the daily grind, stress and speed abuses I put it through because I didn’t try to jump through a ring of fire, or drive it into a wall, or compete in a demolition derby.
The fact is, we do need to be conscious of our thoughts, our moral choices, our attitudes and struggles, and our present state of soul if we want to save ourselves from breakdowns and accidents that are almost always the cumulative fruits of small sins of selfishness and pride.
The Lord tells us that if we are faithful in little things, we will be faithful in big things as well. In the same way, if we neglect to rid ourselves of little faults, they will grow into bigger faults that can one day lock our steering wheel in life, and drive us to the edge of disaster if we do not recognize them for what they are. Even the biggest chains that haul anchor on a ship are made of smaller links bound together. What more the chains of sin and sadness that bind a soul to despair over years of indifference and apathy?
Thankfully, regular maintenance for our soul is cheap and easy. All it takes is some humility and the will to return to Christ amidst all the hard rides and cheap thrills of life.
A few minutes of prayer each day talking to our heavenly father, a short passage of scripture, regular confession or at least an examination of conscience, and the super unleaded fuel of the Eucharist at mass...these are all freebies given to you with unlimited generosity so that you may avail yourself of the best maintenance and repair work for your soul always. Your moral windshields are cleaned so that you may see better the roads you should take, your tyres are inflated so that your journey might be smooth and safer, your engine is finely tuned to give you excellent performance in the race for eternal happiness, and your seatbelts are checked to ensure that you are safely strapped in despite the bumps and obstacles of life.
But some of us might feel that going to church, praying and giving that little more attention to our spiritual lives is unnecessary, boring and tedious. And yet if I told you there really was a car servicing station that offered you all these amazing services for free, you would put the pedal to the metal and be the first to queue in line for the good of your car. Your soul my friend is far more precious than your car.
Indeed, the bad habits we maintain each day can easily damage our steering alignment over time and cause us to keep veering off the right track in life and lead us ever further from happiness and fulfillment. Each one of us has a couple of flat tyres in our lives that need some attention. Make a decision today to get yours fixed before they continue to drive you away from everything that is true and good.
Incidentally, I’ve never actually replaced a flat tyre before. So as I stood staring at the flattened rubber tubing hugging my rim, I was very much tempted to just call for help. It would be a cinch; the guy would come in his tow truck, jack up the car, remove the wounded wheel and replace it with the spare in less time than it would take me to figure out which was the jack in the first place. And I would be $50 poorer of course.
But something told me I had to do this myself, or at least make the effort without being crushed to death under my own ride. And so I rolled up my sleeves (figure of speech of course since I was wearing a t-shirt) and got right down to it. I found the jack, found where to winch it, found the tools to loosen the nuts and bolts, and struggled like the ultimate wimp that I was to unscrew the tortured wheel. But it just wouldn’t budge.
Lots of grunting, groaning and wheezing later, I was ready to give up and call the toll free number for a mechanic. But something stopped me and persuaded me to keep trying despite the stinging sweat in my eyes and “the bolts that would not be turned”. After kicking, stomping and basically trying to do the River Dance on the poor spanner attached to the bolts, they finally gave and started to loosen up. After that it was easy. The bolts came off, the wheel was dragged off, and the spare was replaced with ease and tightened up by another frantic encore of the River Dance.
For someone who has trouble changing a light bulb, I was pretty darn pleased with myself. I had learnt something new about my own capabilities. I could be as manly as any guy, I had hair on my chest, I could change a tyre!!! (Ok the middle part wasn’t true.)
2008 wasn’t really a good year for me. In fact, many things in my life seemed to have a steering alignment problem and kept veering off the road no matter how much I tried keeping my hopes and dreams on course. And often, it was extremely frustrating and discouraging when I didn’t know the reasons why.
The point of this story is; God often allows difficult things to happen to us because he wishes to draw us out of ourselves. He loves us too much to let us stay in mediocrity, and even though we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the pain, rejections and disappointments of life, God whispers in our ears, “Do not be afraid”. Do not be afraid to hope in God. Do not be afraid to try. Do not be afraid of failure. Do not be afraid to forgive and let go. Do not be afraid to seek and accept forgiveness. Do not be afraid to dream and hope still. Do not be afraid to open your heart. Do not be afraid to live. Do not be afraid to love. Do not be afraid to trust in God still, for He is with you always.
In the crosses we carry, the burdens we bear, the pains we suffer…sometimes it’s human and natural to doubt, to wonder if God is a mean schoolmaster trying to teach us a lesson. Perhaps he is. Not as a nasty disciplinarian without sympathy, but as a most loving father with deep compassion for our needs. And perhaps…it’s also a lesson we desperately need to learn for our own good, for our own dignity…and for our own happiness.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
The fact is; many of us are so accustomed to speeding along in life that we often react to any delay or obstructions with predictable annoyance. Some drivers weave through traffic in their ridiculously pimped up machines as if the devil was on their tail, or their trunk was on fire. We want to get there first; we want to get there fast, and without any obstacles in our way.
As a driver myself I often notice that when I’m behind the wheel, I tend to look myopically ahead like a horse donning blinkers. I hardly perceive the scenes whisking by. Of course it’s partly out of safety that I keep my eyes to the front, but mostly it’s also because I’m so focused on the road ahead that I often miss the journey entirely. Indeed we can drive for years down the same stretch of road and never really notice the environment around us except for the endless stretch of grey ahead. We don’t notice the view; the flowers, the colors, and the attractions that accompany us on our journey until we let someone else take the wheels of our car. And whenever I’m fortunate enough to sit back as a passenger, I’m surprised to see how beautiful the world is outside.
Why are we so fixated on rushing through life, only to arrive often with disappointment? The time spent getting to our destination is often fraught with anxiety about what we’re going to do when we get there, who we’re going to meet, how we’re going to handle the various situations etc, that we’re almost fearing the arrival as much as we’re anxiously spurred on by an urge to be somewhere, to do something.
There was a time when people drove for the fun of being on the road, of spending time in each other’s company. Now it’s all about getting somewhere quick. In the past, the journey itself was the reward, getting there was just incidental. And people arrived at their destinations with greater satisfactions even though they may arrive later or take detours along the way. In fact, detours were welcomed as an adventure…knowing that as long as they experienced all things in love and companionship…even the difficulties along the way were redeemed as beautiful encounters.
Admittedly, many of us really need to slow down. Perhaps some of us even require emergency brakes to stop short of impending disaster. But when we can’t help ourselves because we’re so used to being the driver of our own destinies, what does God do to help us? I think he turns on the red lights in our lives, he throws up those obstacles and detours that annoy us so much because they delay our plans and disrupt our routes, but which ultimately save us from spiritual death or manslaughter.
Have you ever seen children running gleefully down a hill? In our youth, we ourselves have rolled down more than one slope, scraped more than one knee and sometimes broken more than a few bones. Despite natural feelings of caution that go off in our brains, our egos to compete, our greed for excitement and our pride in not losing out to anyone else effectively drown out whatever warnings our parents might give us.
As adults we continue to run recklessly down the hill of our lives without brakes. And even though God our Father asks us to slow down and to stop running, we don’t listen.
Sometimes he has to forcefully throw obstacles in the path to stop us from hurting others and ourselves. No one likes running into a wall, but sometimes a wall of love is the only buffer that can save us; much like an airbag in a car. Of course, it’s going to be painful. Of course it’s an experience that can be avoided in the first place. But when we get out of control, God has to activate the brakes and airbags in our lives to slow us down, to stop us in our tracks even, so that we may survive our mistakes despite our bruises.
What are the obstacles that have forced you to take a detour in life or to slow down? What are the walls that have been erected in your path, separating you from what you imagine to be your happiness and fulfillment?
Whether it’s the distress of a bad investment, or the cross of a debilitating illness, or the loss of a loved one, or the misunderstandings that lead to the end of a relationship, we’ve all experienced the frustrations of being thwarted in our plans and our hopes. And in the absence of supernatural faith, we can turn bitter with anger against God whom we see as the enemy to our happiness.
The truth is; God allows us to encounter these obstacles because of three things – love, love and love. We are going through our present difficulties because God loves us very much; not because he wishes us ill, but because he alone knows how much good can be born from our patient acceptance of our crosses. It is not good to be sad naturally, but faith in a heart that believes in the fidelity and loving will of God gives every Christian soul the strength, the courage and the supernatural hope to trust that God will bless the broken path that leads to real joy and happiness.
Yes, many of our crosses are of our own making. Many of our crosses could’ve been avoided. And many of our crosses are the direct results of our own bad choices in life…including a sinful life. We have insisted on driving through every red light, we have resisted every call to slow down and avoid running down steep hills for thrills, and we have purchased the pain of our actions through foolish pride and irresponsibility. And now that we are humiliated by our circumstances and our failures, we can finally relinquish our desperate mastership of our destinies to one who truly is King of our lives.
C.S. Lewis says, “Pain is God’s megaphone for rousing a deaf world”. And humility cannot be learnt except through humiliation. Yet it is humility that can begin the long path to healing and redemption; to recognize that we are not God, and in our prayers to let God be God in our lives; instead of taking that divine tone ourselves.
Just two Sundays ago, we celebrated the end of the Church’s liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King. In his time on earth, our Blessed Lord preached unceasingly of the Kingdom of God. But what is essential for a kingdom? Subjects surely, ministers, soldiers and various people with various talents who live their citizenship in this royal domain. But more than anyone else, a kingdom needs a king who is free to exercise his rightful place as sovereign and lord.
The Kingdom of God can be understood as the acceptance of and loving obedience to the kingship or lordship of Jesus in our person and in our lives. In other words, we give ourselves as humble subjects to our Lord, asking him to be master and lord, king and sovereign over our entire lives, and to establish his most holy and loving reign over our souls and our bodies; accepting the good and the bad from his hands, trusting in his divine will which expresses this kingship most clearly.
Know that God’s will is most clearly manifested in the events of our days, the opportunities of our lives, the chance encounters, the tiny crosses, the opened and closed doors, and the friendships, relationships and people who cross our paths…all of which are opportunities for grace and eternal happiness…if we start from today to listen to his voice so that we may see what he sees, hear what he hears, and desire what he desires for us.
But if we continue to cling to this obsession to be behind the wheel of our own lives, to keep in control, to be the master of our destinies when we often don’t even know where we’re going or dread going there if we do, we shall drive ourselves into a ditch of sadness, despair and enduring pain. Not just for ourselves, but also for those we love.
The roads of life are always changing, the maps are constantly evolving and obstacles are ever present. It takes someone with a towering view of things from the air, like a pilot in a helicopter, to be able to tell us what lies ahead, and what to avoid.
Only heaven can guide us to safety. As pilgrims on the road, we can’t see more than 300 meters ahead, and often there are obstructions in the way. Even then, bad weather or the darkness of night can make visibility even worse. But no darkness is as dark as sin, and no obstacle so insurmountable as stubbornness and pride. To continue down this path of neglect for our soul and our dignity is to drive off a cliff one day, dragging others with us.
So in this season of advent, slow down, take stock, stop to think, pray and look around you. Check your moral GPS, see where you are…and if you are lost and confused, come back to the Lord for he is waiting for you…just as the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son stands on the brow of the hill looking out, and waiting for his child to return, so that his joy may be complete in you, and your joy may be real in Him.
Viva Christo Rey! Long live Christ the King!
Thursday, June 12, 2008
In an age of digital photography, I was curious about how such an old-time business sustains itself. The owner, who is this wiry old man in his seventies was familiar to me. Uncle Han (in asia, we traditionally address anyone more senior, especially the elderly as uncles and aunties as a mark of respect even though the person could be a total stranger) and I got to talking, sitting down on old rattan chairs and sipping some really potent chinese coffee that was sure to keep me up for weeks. And in the course of our conversation (filled with much nostaligia and reminiscing), we got to talking about love. He got up and reached for an old album which he kept wrapped up in the silky folds of a ladies' scarf, and unbound a lifetime of youthful memories to share with me.
Mostly, it was filled with old pictures of himself as a young man standing next to the love of his life. She was a beautiful girl. They must've both been in their teens when these photos were taken. There is much to be said about subtlety, when so little is physically expressed but so much love, bonding and depth is evident from the simplest gestures and smiles. As uncle Han spoke, I could feel the deep stirrings of his heart for his childhood love. It was a tale of deep and earnest love, in a time when perseverence, forgiveness and commitment meant some things. Unfortunately, this precious love was cut short by the onset of war. With violence, oppression and danger came sickness, poverty and want. (Uncle Han belongs to a generation of old chinese men who still have difficulty forgiving the Japanese for the atrocities of the last century).
Amdist this historical struggle, this man suffered the personal tragedy of losing his love to pneumonia when no medical attention was possible or sufficient. Her parents were fearful of having him over since the Japanese kempetai (or secret police) was always on the lookout for young men to round up and execute. And communications and visits had to be sparse and cautious. Hence he was denied much contact with his love, although letters carried their hearts to each other whenever that was possible. And only after some weeks did he learn that she had passed on in the heart-rending loneliness of calling his name.
That was well over 60 years ago. Han survived the war, survived the difficult years of rebuilding that followed, settled down, got married, survived personal sickness and tragedies, survived his wife, survived the sweeping technologies that swept away a generation, but sitting there right next to me; his eyes brimmed with tears, he never survived the loss of his young love and I suspect he will continue to love her to the end.
There is something beautiful about love that perseveres even in the face of death. Today, we see so many relationships die because people have no idea at all about what it means to know real love and commitment. They're always searching for something grand and smooth that they don't see the extravagance of generosity and love in their difficulties, disagreements and struggles to stay together. Perhaps some will say that Han's longetivity in love is common in the face of love unfulfiled. Because he never had to live with his fiance, marry her, put up with her, quarrel with her and take her nonsense that his idealism remains intact, unsullied by reality and human imperfection. His memories of love in other words have preserved unnaturally his devotion to love.
I don't believe that to be true at all. Rather I believe that to be an excuse for people who lack any idealism, any hope, any true desire for love and commitment; which always comes with pain, sacrifice and above all, personal and lasting choice. I feel in my own heart great love for a relationship that has died and which was wrought with painful and disappointing moments. But I do not wish to turn my back on what is true in my heart, even though that love may not be appreciated nor reciprocated. Choosing to love beyond the transient separates us from beasts of gratification; whose choices are fleeting at best and prisoners to selfish satisfactions that have nothing to do with real love and devotion. We are not such beasts when we love with Christ and in Christ so that our relationships, our hearts and our romances may also be redeemed experiences that lift us up in our human and Christian dignity, not tear us down to vulgar commonality.
In that dingy, tiny photography studio with the blue doors and rattan chairs, I found real respect for the man who continues to develop memories for people when they bring in their own cameras, while cherishing his own memories in a celebration of lasting and faithful love - ever young, ever present, ever faithful, ever real.
And in that great hope of the resurrection, I pray our dear God to grant him the fulfillment of a lifetime and more - to one day finally hold his love in his arms, and to know her love for eternity.
I like this quote from Mother Teresa, and I share it here with you.
"Don't think that love, to be true, has to be extraordinary. What is necessary is to continue to love. How does a lamp burn, if it is not by the continuous feeding of little drops of oil? When there is no oil, there is no light and the bridegroom will say: "I do not know you". Dear friends, what are our drops of oil in our lamps? They are the small things from every day life: the joy, the generosity, the little good things, the humility and the patience. A simple thought for someone else. Our way to be silent, to listen, to forgive, to speak and to act. These are the real drops of oil that make our lamps burn vividly our whole life." – Mother Teresa
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Thursday, December 20, 2007
It is unfortunate that many good Christians find themselves in this awkward dilemma. Yet as much as some of these emails can be inspiring to read, there is really no need to suffer any scruples over them. Too frequently, these writings not only cause unnecessary guilt but they also invite superstition. Usually, they also insinuate that if you love Jesus, you will have the good sense to share it with so many others, if you don't, then obviously you won't. In this aspect, they are no different from chain letters that promise some retribution or at the very least, the deprivation and loss of some blessing if a reader fails to pass them on.
In reality, authors who pen these things are presumptuous in describing the love of God in such terms.
If we do love God, there are certainly changes in our lives we should hasten to embrace to ensure that holiness and sincerity reign in all our thoughts and actions, since only in the truth of the Gospels is there any hope for happiness and peace in our lives.
Discipleship does not consist in merely forwarding an inspiring email to a certain number of people and then feeling like we've done our part for evangelising.
As such, I can't help wondering how different folks who rally around such minimalist approaches to religion are, as opposed to people who similarly build their faith around endless novenas and St Jude prayers and the recitation of a certain number of prayers on certain days.
Such an attitude towards faith and salvation is totally unchristian and founded instead on the magical assumption that we can control and dominate God by fulfilling a certain set of devotions.
The pagan spiritual world of magic and religion almost always consists of formulas to follow in order to obtain spiritual help. And in many ways, they also come equipped with the understanding that dark days will come upon him who fails to observe these practices.
A religion based on instilling fear of spiritual backlash is not a true religion.
Rather, the fear and reverence of God prescribed by the Old Testament is an allusion to a different kind of fear.
There is Holy Fear, which does not grip the soul in panic but rather imbues it with a humbling sense of tremendous wonder and awe, which is not only natural but also bound up with our duty and reverence towards God as our Creator. And then there is superstitious fear, the kind that is bound up with the same anxieties associated with darkness, snakes and evil that we find so common in our human psyche.
That is the kind of fear and relationship with God that the enemy seeks to introduce into our lives under the masks of "authentic" devotions.
But as you well know, there can be no authentic relationship where love is transplanted with formulaic transactions and where our spiritual health depends only upon so many emails we send to so many people, before slipping back to our morally complacent lives with an eased conscience.
We should remember that darkness often seeks to sow superstition in the heart of real religion.
When I do come across something inspiring and feel inclined to pass it on to individuals I think would benefit from its messages, I do forward the mail, but only after I delete the ridiculous portion crying.."If you love Jesus, send this to so many people etc."
That is an example of corrupting the Christian message of love as well as using the Lord's name in vain.
The idea that we can pry open a treasury of grace by following an exterior set of "magical" formulas is silly. That is also why whenever we come across stacks of chain letters to St Jude where the petition carries with it the obligation to reproduce these letters and leave them in church, we should promptly throw them in the trash, for that is our Christian duty before God and the Magisterial Church.
However, there will always be those who prefer this kind of sentimental faith, the same kind that appeals to Christians who claim to tell fortunes through tarot cards and read your palms while invoking the name of St Anthony or some other saint, as if by that safeguard, they somehow legitimise their superstition as falling within the realm of approved religion.
Why do so many prefer it?
Because it costs less in terms of the repentance and conversion that is needed in real faith.
That's almost similar to the Pharisees and scribes who go through the motions of offering a couple of sheep and goats as token worship to Yahweh, but whose lives largely never change.
Many people who go to novena services often do so because they want something, and that something they want is more often than not, NOT a conversion of their lives.
Indeed, formulas deprived of their original intention give many of us an excuse to do the barest minimum for Christ, and still expect to be blessed with material rewards. Hence the popularity of chain letters that come hidden under the guise of genuine devotions.
After all, doesn't Christian tradition describe how Satan often takes on the appearance of an angel of light?
Now you might ask, what about services or devotions like Triduums and Novenas or even the traditional practice of saying 3 Hail Marys through the day? And let us not forget the 5 decades of the Rosary. How are these different?
Well to start with, the incidental number of days or prayers connected with these devotions are just that...incidental. They don't have any magical powers associated with them. If you don't complete 9 days in a novena, it doesn't mean that you offend heaven or commit a sin.
Secondly, there is no compulsion to perform them. You are not a bad Catholic if you do not believe in their efficacy or practice. The worst you can be accused of is a lack of charity and appreciation for such ancient devotions that have brought blessings and consolations to so many generations.
But to each his own. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is essential to our salvation, all others simply aid us towards that.
The word "Novena" is Latin for 9 days at a time when early Christians performed acts of charity or held certain days of prayer vigils to commemorate and honour a certain aspect of the Gospel. The length of these devotions are set so as to impress upon the penitents a sense of pilgrimage, as they journey through the different meditations and arrive at a destination in their prayer which usually culminates in benediction or a celebration of the Mass.
Having a certain number of devotional days to celebrate is much akin to the ancient wedding and religious feasts of those days. Weddings in the time of Christ for instance went on for weeks like in the Gospel story of Cana. The feast of the tabernacles or Passover was also a celebration that went on for a good number of days.
Novena services simply honour that tradition of a family celebration, where we journey as pilgrims together on the move, from one theme or day of prayer to the next, recalling the reasons for our redemption and so forth.
They are undertaken so as to draw closer to God, and to afford a greater union to His love by taking special time to meet Him in our busy schedule.
This is the same rationale behind things like Tridiums (3 days), the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius (30 days retreat), LENT (40days)...all of which are just invitations to set aside time for God and commit ourselves to meeting him everyday for a determined period.
The number of days are not important.
It's almost like a man saying, "I have been so busy recently that I rarely give time to my family apart from those sporadic moments after work each evening. But despite my busy schedule, perhaps I can commit myself to spend the next 10 days in really giving myself to my wife and children, and recalling my vocation as a Christian husband and father. Hopefully that will help me to grow deeper in my love and appreciation for them. Even though my work will not ease up, I make this commitment because I know how important they are to me."
The same principle applies. The numbers are not magical. 40 days of Lent commemorate the 40 days of Jesus in the desert and the 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert in anticipation of God's promise. 9 days in a Novena (although a Novena can be made with any number of days that you personally determine) simply evolved from the ancient Roman custom of those days, when pagan Rome had a traditional 9-day devotion to appease their Gods by offering sacrifice and prayer.
As Rome became Christianised, the early Christians replaced the Roman practice of sacrificing to their Gods with 9 days of vigils and prayers in honour of Christ and His saints instead, to signify that Jesus had conquered, overcome and replaced the old pagan religions and customs with the Gospel light of Himself.
That was a symbolic act to say that the old had passed away and the new was here to stay.
Some traditions however attribute this popular vigil to the 9 days that the apostles were believed to have spent in prayer before the descent of the Holy Spirit during Pentecost.
The novena prayers to St Jude work on the same basis. The numbers of days simply connote a sense of commitment and sincerity in following something through. They are not magical. For people who believe otherwise, they get terribly upset whenever their prayers are not answered after completing this routine, as if we can make God a prisoner by forcing Him to uphold His part of the bargain since we are fulfilling the formula.
God is not a genie living in a lamp whom we rub 3 times and utter some incantation. Why should St Jude bother with someone whose sole purpose in performing some religious devotion is to gain temporal favours? It's his role and special interest to intercede for us that we might become better disciples and be saved. And if part of that in God’s plans means having our prayers granted, then that is up to God. It is not a condition for faith or even a road map to happiness.
These devotions we must remember, are meant to bring the person into closer union with God. They are spiritual exercises meant to strengthen faith and charity. They are NOT activities that unfailingly promise favours, which is mostly why people perform them; to seek gifts apart from the giver, as if by our very attendance to these things, we are doing God a favour and therefore He should show us His gratitude by answering our prayers. If not, we'll just hop onto the next passing wagon of cheap rituals that promise something else.
These prayers and practices are intended to help Christians find the strength to carry their crosses, not remove them. For without the cross, how can we ever be lifted up to the heavens? Without Good Friday, how can there be any Easter Sundays in our lives? And without Calvary, will we ever see the Resurrection?
By the way, the Novena, (private or public) is not an official part of the Church's liturgy despite being widely popular among the faithful for ages.
So back to the issue of these inspirational chain letters, don't feel too badly if you choose to ignore them. In as much as we can evangelise through these things, I hardly think that this constitutes spreading the Good News. If we were to content ourselves to merely this as disciples, we should really re-look our motivations and generosity in making Jesus known and loved.
After all, this requires no sacrifice save the effort of your finger upon the keyboard.
But we are asked to do more, much more.
So if you come across something you'd like to pass on, by all means. But delete the bit that sounds like a chain mail. It’s an insult to Christianity. Let it be your personal intention and even then, only send it to people whom you want to say something to. Then follow up on this with real efforts to spread the Good News in your life.
The only multiplication we need in our religious duties is the increase of grace in our lives, without which all is vanity.