Friday, February 16, 2007

The Vocation of a Knight

The Knights of Malta are an enigma to many people. On the one hand, some in society find their exclusive membership somewhat elitist and pompous. On the other hand, there is no denying the great comfort and consolation they bring to those suffering the ravages of war, disease and natural disasters through their medical and social relief efforts.

Like Opus Dei, the Charismatic movement or indeed the Catholic Church herself, the Order of Malta cannot be understood from the outside; it can only be experienced from the inside. To peer in through the critical lens of a spectator is to miss the character and true spirit of its nature and foundation, and to behold only the extravagant and somewhat archaic display of costumes, capes, medals and medieval courtesies; which can seem rather ostentatious. And yet, we need visible symbols of valour, fidelity and courage to remind us of the invisible virtues they represent.

After all, we are sacramental people living in the great sacrament of God’s love, and symbols express our Christian faith with the high pageantry of inspired hearts and wills. But for those of us who are pilgrims in the Order of Malta, how should we live the challenges of this vocation? – (For indeed, it is a vocation and not a social membership.)

There are as many egocentric dangers of belonging to an association draped in historical nobility and prestige, as there are temptations to self-importance. And the novice knight is vulnerable to such mortal wounds unless he guards his soul with the chainmail of faith and humility.

I hope my brethren in the Order will indulge me these few points of reflection.

The Maltese cross so proudly worn by every knight and dame of the Order should point us to something bigger than ourselves and indeed, to someone other than ourselves. This splendid eight-pointed cross of chivalry means something only if it leads those who wear it to prostrate themselves before the rugged cross of Calvary.

This is because the true nobility of a Christian knight lies not in the ancient lineage of the Order nor on the promises of their station, but rather on the promises and grace of their baptism, which makes them children of God and co-heirs of Jesus Christ.

As Catholic Christians, the divine blood that runs through our veins at every Holy Communion should awaken us to our real dignity as sons and daughters of God. As members and associates of the Order, this same eucharistic blood further obliges us to place ourselves at the service of suffering humanity; in imitation of Christ.

In every kingdom there are lords and servants, and knights by their very station exist to serve, so that through their service they bring glory and honour to their king, and ennoble their own souls through the practice of heroic virtues.

A Christian knight has every obligation to be a saint, since he has every obligation to reflect the greatness, mercy and goodness of Christ the king, in whose service he has vowed himself. As secular knights carry the standard of their Lords and Mistresses upon their breastplates, a Christian Knight of Malta must carry the standard of Jesus and Mary upon his soul. And if that lofty standard is the cross, then he must indeed be willing to embrace his holy vocation as a soldier of Christ, bonded to his liege and master as a royal victim, priest and servant, for unlike the flags and banners of secular pride, the glory of Christ is written on the hearts of men.

As such, every emblem of office for the knight must remind him of his divine duty before God; that he is a man set apart - not for honour and glory – but for humble and sacrificial service to God and neighbour; particularly to the poor and the sick. Failure to recognize this grave obligation to sanctity and love will only reduce a Christian knight to the hollow tinsel of his medals and ribbons. And like so many things that sparkle and glisten in this world, the vanity of such an obsession will be tragic.

All of us need symbols and ideals larger than ourselves to help us live the Christian life. We need the collective drive, courage and wisdom of other heroic souls in a blessed camaraderie of faith and love, to support and strengthen us on our common pilgrimage and journey to paradise. But we also need to ensure that the glorious symbols of such a consecrated gathering do not blind us with pride and hinder our salvation, but rather remind us of our real dignity as children of God, and lead us to place ourselves at the service of our brothers and sisters.

This is our true noble calling; to be a poor knight for Christ, so that our hearts may be rich with love for his people. In this, we do well to recall the example of Francesco Bernadone – the frivolous young man of Assisi who lusted with all his heart for the worldly nobility of knighthood, who clad himself in the finest armour and rode forth on an empty crusade for fame and honour, only to be stripped of his delusions by the love of God.

Suffering greatly the pains of his vanity, he finally found himself naked of all illusions and reduced to an empty husk of existence. With no knighthood and no nobility to boast about, he could only throw himself before divine mercy and in doing so, he took the first steps of wisdom to becoming a true knight of Christ. In exchanging his rich armour for the tattered tunic of a beggar and in surrendering his quest for glory to his hunger for Christ, this young man began the transformation that would eventually immortalize him as the shining paradigm of a true Christian knight.

For a cup to be filled, it must first be emptied. St. Francis of Assisi pray for us, teach us what it means to be a real knight. May the good Lord save us from the vanity of this life.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Are you disappointed?

Every now and then I wrestle with the disappointment of living the Christian life; not that the Christian life isn’t worth living. Rather, I sometimes expect in some kind of childish way that the waters of baptism would make life easier and more pleasing. And of course it doesn’t.

Christians don’t necessarily enjoy an easier life than pagans. Being saved and redeemed by our Lord doesn’t make the battle against sin any less urgent. We still fall sick, we still suffer injustice and pain, we still labour against the concupiscence of our flesh, and ever so often, we still fall prey to the dark vestiges of despair.

Calvary beckons every Christian soul to climb it in the example of his valiant captain, and to crown his ascent with the sacrificial worship of faith, hope and love.

The health and wealth gospel so richly preached from the pulpits of some evangelical circles is not the gospel of Christ. It may sound more popular than the gospel of Jesus, but it is not the message of Jesus. Instead, Christ our Lord promised that the cross is ever before us, the poor will always be with us, injustices will exist, and if we’re fortunate enough, some of us may even be crowned with martyrdom.

It all sounds a little morbid, doesn’t it? No wonder some people prefer to shop around for a more lenient gospel. But like the political zealots of Israel who hoped that Jesus would usher in an earthly reign of peace, prosperity and freedom from the Romans, we too sometimes look to our messiah only as the deliverer of our earthly chains, forgetting that the Kingdom of God is not of this world.

In reality, Jesus never promised us a naturally happy life. Rather, he promised us a supernaturally happy life; one that can be experienced even now. The gospel ‘Beatitudes’ show us the joy to be found in witnessing to Christ amidst the sufferings of this life. “The peace that I give, the world cannot give.” We hear this read so often from the gospels and yet we hanker after the peace of this world. Why? Is it because we find it more deeply fulfilling or merely because our hearts cannot aspire to anything beyond our immediate gratification?

Have we grown up only to become people of the moment with no regard to eternity, unable to look beyond the veil of our passions and appetites? I hope not. But even if that were so, there’s nothing to stop us from refocusing our spiritual eyes. Our joys in this world are always dependent on things going right, or to put it more honestly; things going our way. But the joys of a Christian faith does not hinge on any thing, property, human person or circumstance, so that in spite of trials, difficulties and failures, the Christian soul can still enjoy a peace and happiness that is above the conditions of this life. This is because Christian joy is founded on Jesus Himself. He is the reward and source of our happiness and peace. And as St. Augustine discovered, "our hearts were made for thee O'Lord, and we shall not rest until we rest in thee."

In life there will always be disappointments, especially when we have ideals. That’s not to suggest that ideals are bad. Not at all! In fact, ideals are the fuel that drives our passions; they are the musical notes that carry our words of commitment, fidelity and courage and give them form and beauty. However, we must be careful not to be driven to despair and bitterness when those same ideals are not realized despite our best prayers and efforts. You’ve heard of the phrase, “Man proposes, God disposes”?

Well, an English Dominican Provincial once gave a homily to newly professed novices in which he said; whatever schemes we hatch, whatever plans we formulate along the way, whatever monuments we hope to raise, we can be sure of one thing – God will frustrate them.

Perhaps you share this frustration and you’re upset that no matter how hard you try, how boldly you plan and aspire, you never seem to get a providential break. Are we doomed to fail because God sets Himself up as our adversary to happiness?

Instead, Fr. Timothy Radcliff O.P. sees it this way. God sometimes demolishes our plans and extinguishes our hopes because no matter how grand they might seem to us, He wants to liberate us from the smallness of our dreams. He wants us to reach more extravagantly in life, and to share more ambitiously in His hopes for us. Our dreams and plans (despite appearing ideal for ourselves) actually imprison us in mediocrity, since they grow from the soil of our own self-interest and imaginations. And as John Paul the Great often told young people everywhere, “Do not be content with mediocrity”.

God is not against us, He is completely for us, which is why he sometimes challenges us to look beyond the trivial pursuits of our hearts. Real happiness is not bought at the cost of replacing truth with fantasies, and God wants us to be truly happy, even at the risk of disappointing us.

We’re familiar with the feast of the Epiphany; the story of how God revealed Himself to the nations through the visit of the Magi from the East. We picture in our minds the moment of discovery for these wise men. We see them presenting their gifts amidst the Christmas glow of beautiful paintings and pious nativity plays. But how much do we really know of their struggles?

Did they expect to find what they found after months, or even years of difficult travel and seeking? How much time, energy and money did they invest in this quest for the King of the Jews? What sacrifices did they endure as they left their homes and families to seek this treasure? What greatness did they imagine they would find? And finally after the weariness of such a long journey across harsh and dangerous lands, their hopes kept alive only by the light of a single star, they discover their treasure wrapped in swaddling cloths in a poor shelter, surrounded by the poverty and filth of the animals, and cared for by two very ordinary looking parents in the company of dirty shepherds.

Was this a cruel joke? Is this what they had sacrificed everything for? Were they misled by false hope? Where was the majesty they had expected? Where was the splendour of this new king? Is this truly the audience they had been waiting for? Disappointed, sad and disillusioned, how much doubt must’ve filled their hearts. Should they turn their backs on this pathetic picture, or should they believe beyond the picture?

Uncertain – they must’ve prayed, discussed and pondered. But in the end, they knelt and worshipped Him, laying their gifts and their lives before His tiny feet. And with that act of faith, they broke free from the shackles and limitations of their human plans, and received instead the royal freedom of the Sons of God and a vision for happiness that enriched their lives beyond all telling.

My friends, we too shall face many disappointments in life. The question that awaits us however is the same: will we offer our human plans to his divine love and commit ourselves to trust Him still? Or will we turn our backs and walk away?

The next time we find ourselves at this crossroad, I pray we may have the wisdom of the Magi, for as always, some truths can only be learned on our knees.