Thursday, December 20, 2007

Breaking free of chains

‘If you love Jesus, send this to 20 people’ - I often see this at the end of an email carrying a Christian message. Also, what is the deal with duplicating St Jude pamphlets and leaving them in Church?

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.

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