Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Spirituality of Peace

Triduum in Preparation for the Solemnity of St. Ignatius
Day 2 - A Spirituality of Peace

Readings: Genesis 2: 4-9. 15-25; Psalm 71; 2 Corinthians 5:17-6:2; Matthew 8:18-27
Picture: CC carulmare

From Lectures to Locations
Dear sisters and brothers, before we begin our reflection this evening, I’d like to make a suggestion. It has to do with how we understand, how we look at, what is happening in this Triduum of ours. What are we really doing on these three consecutive nights that we have dedicated to preparing for our parish feast? I suspect that one common approach is to think of them as three lectures on three different, though related, topics. So yesterday we heard about The Bible and Justice. Tonight, we will reflect upon A Spirituality of Peace. And tomorrow we will examine The Social Mission of the Society of Jesus. Justice, Peace, and the Society of Jesus – three topics to consider. Get your notebooks ready.

That is, of course, one way of looking at it. But if these are really only lectures, what does that make you and me? Don’t I become only a speaker, and you a mere audience? And what happens after that? The lecture ends and we each go our separate ways. Is this really all that is going on? Or are we not engaged in something quite different? On each of these three nights, we are coming together not so much as an audience, but as a people assembled by God. We gather not so much to listen to a lecture, as much as to experience the power of God’s Word, as it addresses us both from the ambo and the altar? And things happen when we allow God to address us. In opening our ears and our hearts to listen to what God has to say, we experience God’s consolation and God’s challenge. We leave this place more inspired and united than when we first entered it.

Of course, we cannot deny that each of these three nights is dedicated to a particular theme. But perhaps these are not so much topics as they are locations. Perhaps they are not unlike the stations in the Stations of the Cross. They are particular places in which we come to encounter the Word of God. Yesterday, our focus was on the Bible. Tomorrow, in examining the mission of the Society of Jesus, we will consider the world. But how does the Word move from the dusty pages of the Bible out into the messy situations of the world. It needs first to pass through the depths of our hungry – and sometimes hardened – hearts. And this is our concern tonight. Tonight, we focus our attention on what goes on within us, especially when we allow the Word of God, in the Bible and in the world, to address us. Tonight we consider how the Word can not only melt our hearts, but also move our hands to action. For that is what Christian spirituality is about.

So, sisters and brothers, are you ready to begin?

From Panadol to Photo-Album
Do you really want to experience peace? Is peace something that you truly desire, something that you seek, something that you work for? If so, what does your desire feel like? How do you go about seeking peace? What does your search look like? Sometimes, I think that our efforts for peace, mine included, look a lot like someone popping painkillers. Although we may have a ready supply of the pills in our medicine cabinet, we don’t really think about them until we feel some kind of pain. It’s only when we get a headache, for example, that we reach for the Panadol. Otherwise, who needs it?

Similarly, isn’t it true that we often only think about peace when we encounter some kind of difficulty, some kind of obstacle on the highway of life? It’s usually only when disease or disaster strikes, when dreams start turning into nightmares, when our comfortable lives are thrown into chaos, that we begin to think of peace. It’s only in troubled times that we search desperately for someone or something that can ease our suffering – perhaps a doctor or a friend, a counselor or a priest, a pious devotion or a new diet. But once the storm has passed, once the pain has subsided, we continue on our merry way, living our own life, pursuing our own happiness, until the next crisis comes along. Then off we go to frantically ransack the medicine cabinet once again. And so the cycle continues…

Which is all fine and good, I suppose. Except that we cannot fail to recognize how extremely limited is this kind of Panadol peace. For one thing, it can be very self-centered. It can be focused only on me, on my pain, on my comfort. There often doesn’t seem to be much room for others here, except as potential painkillers. And notice too, how unstable is this kind of peace. Notice how it fluctuates according to the direction in which the wind is blowing. If it suits me, then I’m OK. If it doesn’t, I immediately become anxious and upset. Isn’t it amazing how my so-called peace depends so much upon favorable external conditions?

And there’s also another problem with this approach: we only seek peace when we feel pain. But isn’t it true that, at least medically speaking, even when we may not experience any pain, it doesn’t always mean that we’re in the pink of health? Haven’t we heard enough stories of people who seem to experience no symptoms, and then suddenly drop dead of a heart attack, or are diagnosed with end-stage cancer? Also, isn’t it true that we can actually get so used to chronic pain as to ignore its presence? Can’t we say the same for peace? Isn’t it true that the absence of pain or discomfort – whether real or apparent – isn’t a reliable indicator of the presence of true peace?

Sisters and brothers, given all these factors, we might well question whether this is really the full extent of the harmony and tranquility for which our hearts are yearning. Or is there not perhaps something more – a fuller, deeper kind of peace, and a different way of seeking it? But what is this alternative? If not a Panadol peace then what does it look like?

Reflecting on these questions, I’m reminded of occasions when, for some reason or other, I’m sometimes drawn to take out an old photo-album to look at the pictures inside. You’ve probably done the same before. You know what the experience is like – how gazing at old photographs can remind us of things that we may have long forgotten. And, in the remembering, something happens to us. Thoughts are inspired. Feelings are evoked. Tears may even be shed. It’s as if we somehow get back in touch with ourselves, with who we are, with where we have come from, and where we need to go. We may even be filled with new energy, reinvigorated to face the many challenges of life. Could our search for peace look something like this? Is there perhaps an album of pictures that we need to contemplate?

The Garden that Gives Rise to Groaning
Interestingly enough, it is precisely such an album that our Mass readings present us with today. Two images, in particular, are brought to our attention – two different depictions of what true peace might look like. In the first reading, we find the image of a garden. And not just any garden, but the garden before all other gardens: the Garden of Eden. Pay attention to what we find here. Notice what it looks like. Not only are there the first man and the first woman, as well as every kind of tree and all the wild beasts, but God is also powerfully present here. And, above all, notice the relationships among all the creatures, and between them and their Creator. Notice the harmony – the right relationship – that exists among them: between nature and humanity, and between humanity and God. Everything has its proper place. Notice too how at ease the man and the woman are, not only with each other, but also with their own bodies. They have no hang-ups. They are comfortable in their own skin. Both of them were naked… but they felt no shame. Here, in this picture of a prehistoric garden, we are presented with an image of what we are looking for. More than simply the absence of pain, what we find here is the fullness of peace that comes from right relationship within all of God’s creation. This is the peace that we were made to enjoy. This is our birthright. We were created to live in a tranquil garden like this. It is for such conditions that our hearts are yearning.

And what is our reaction as we gaze upon this sight? What thoughts come to our minds? What emotions are stirred in our hearts? It is likely that we will find a part of ourselves enjoying the peaceful scene that we find here. And then, perhaps all too quickly, we may also be moved, quite spontaneously, to compare it with what we see around us today. Although there is still much goodness and beauty to be appreciated in our world, it is quite undeniable that our relationships are far from right. To begin with, humanity’s dealings with nature are becoming ever more problematic. We continue to pollute our planet to such an extent that even the polar icecaps are melting. We continue to rape our earth, in search of more and more oil and wood and every other kind of natural resource, without caring much about the needs of future generations. Increasingly, we are suffering the effects of deadly droughts and flashfloods, ever more powerful typhoons and scorching heat waves. It’s as though Mother Earth were protesting the abuse to which we are subjecting her. And, sadly, it is often the poorest among us who pay the highest price for our recklessness and negligence.

Within humanity itself, it is hardly necessary to elaborate upon the difficulties that exist among us at every level: international conflicts and wars, global terrorism, an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor… Even in an affluent and relatively peaceful place like Singapore, are we not plagued by various personal hang-ups that are often the result of an increasingly stressful environment? Do we not have to deal with dysfunctional families, broken marriages, declining birth rates, and troubled youth? Also, might the locals among us not examine the degree of hospitality that we show to the foreigners who come here to work or with hopes for a better life? When a child is killed in a road accident, for example, there are legitimately loud cries for seatbelts on school buses. But isn’t it strange that nowhere near the same degree of concern is generated when a pick-up packed with foreign workers overturns?

Faced with difficulties and divisions such as these, in a highly uncertain world where things often don’t seem to make much sense, we might perhaps expect many to turn to religion and to God. And that has indeed happened. But don’t you find it disturbing that many are choosing to embrace forms of religion that are as rigid in their beliefs as they are intolerant of others? Notice how fundamentalism is becoming ever more prevalent. Not just in Islam, but in Christianity as well. And, on the other hand, isn’t it also interesting that Borders now finds it worthwhile to have a section dedicated to books on atheism?

Sisters and brothers, when we gaze upon our world today, can we not be moved by how far it is from the ideal presented to us by the image of the Garden of Eden? However painless and free from anxiety our lives may appear to be from time to time, can we allow ourselves to be unaffected by the many broken relationships that we see around us –relationships within and among us, between us and nature, as well as between us and God? When we gaze upon the tranquility of the Garden of Eden, do we not feel our hearts groaning within us, crying out for a better tomorrow? But what is the way forward? How might we go about restoring this lost paradise? What, if anything, can we do to regain the fullness of peace for which we all hunger and thirst?

The Crossing that Calls and Commissions
It is as we begin to ponder these questions, even as our hearts continue to groan within us, that we find ourselves prompted to turn the page, and to gaze upon the next image in our photo-album. Like the first, this too is a picture of peace, but peace seen from a very different perspective. In contrast to the ideal innocence of the Garden, what we find in the gospel is tranquility in the midst of trouble, serenity in the face of a severe storm.

As we gaze upon this new picture, quite likely our attention will quickly be drawn to how Jesus miraculously calms the wind and the waves. And we will comfort ourselves with the thought that this is also what Jesus does for us when we sail through the storms of life. But, as consoling as such an approach may be, isn’t it also rather narrow. By doing this, aren’t we returning to the kind of Panadol peace that we talked about earlier? Aren’t we using Jesus only as a painkiller? Is there not more to this story? Is there not another image of peace in this picture? The answer, of course, is yes. And the peace we are looking for is found not so much in the calming of the storm, as much as in the full force of its fury. We find it in the figure of Jesus, sleeping soundly in the boat, apparently oblivious to the howling of the wind and the churning of the waves, snoozing even though they are in danger of going under.

To understand what is going on here, it’s necessary for us to consider the background of this boating adventure. Recall that it is Jesus himself who orders the disciples to make the crossing to the other side of the lake. And notice that Jesus gives this order at a time when his popularity is growing, when there are great crowds all about him. In such a situation, when others might have decided to settle down and start a business or build a career, Jesus leaves and crosses to the other side. And if we were to refer to the bible to see how the story continues, we will see that on the other side of the lake is Gentile territory, the country of the Gadarenes, where Jesus encounters two foreigners whom he frees from demonic possession. It is while crossing from a familiar to an alien land that Jesus and his disciples encounter the terrible storm. And it is in the midst of this storm, and in the middle of this crossing, that Jesus finds peace.

With this background in mind, as we continue to gaze upon the surprising sight of Jesus asleep in the belly of the storm-tossed boat, perhaps we might be reminded of two other very similar scenes. Perhaps we will first recall the image of the newborn Jesus, slumbering in a stable. There too, so many years earlier, he was making a crossing. Even as an infant he was negotiating the unimaginable distance between the Creator and his creation. And neither was that first crossing free from trouble. For Jesus was laid in a manger only because there was no room for him at the inn. And, not long after his birth, he had to flee for his life to faraway Egypt. Silent night, holy night… This is what we sing at Christmas. And yet, as quiet as it might have seemed inside the stable, on the night of our Savior’s birth, outside a terrible and deadly storm was blowing. And in the middle of this storm, the tiny Prince of Peace was so serenely sleeping.

And, as it was at the beginning of his earthly existence, so too was it at its end. Where, on earlier occasions, Jesus had snoozed in a manger and slept on a boat, now he submitted himself to the final slumber of death, even as he hung upon the wood of a cross. And how appropriate that it should be a cross. For, on this rough unforgiving surface, Jesus was making the ultimate crossing. Through this supreme sacrifice, he was smoothing the way for us, obtaining, on our behalf, the forgiveness of our sin. Through this Crossing of all crossings, Jesus was finally connecting the heights of heaven with the depths of earth. As we heard in the second reading: God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself…

With these three images of the sleeping Jesus before us, do we not come to a deeper appreciation of what true peace really means, and how we come to experience it? Do the images of Jesus, asleep in the manger, on the boat, and upon the cross, not speak to us of a deep peace that remains even when danger threatens and when darkness seems to rule? Do they not remind us of how Jesus comes to experience this same peace? Isn’t his slumber a sign of his humble submission to his Father’s will? And in his obedience, he crosses over from his Father’s side to where we are, restoring for us, once and for all, the ruptured relationships of the Garden of Eden. In the words of that praise song that we know so well: he came from heaven to earth, to show the way; from the earth to the cross, my debt to pay; from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky; Lord I lift your name on high...
And what happens to us and in us as we continue to ponder this great mystery of Jesus sleeping peacefully in the bosom of his Father’s will? Do we not find ourselves called to do what he does? Just as Jesus beckons the first disciples to share his boat, does he not also invite us to allow our own groaning for peace to lead us to lay our heads on the pillow of the Father’s plan of salvation? Aren’t we being drawn to imitate our Lord in making crossings in our own lives? Wherever we may experience division and disharmony – between husband and wife, woman and man, parent and child, Muslim and Christian, Protestant and Catholic, rich and poor, gay and straight, local and foreign, nature and technology – aren’t we called to resist those seductive temptations that would have us remain comfortably where we are, pointing fingers of self-righteous judgment and contempt at those on the opposite shore, or seeking to shield ourselves from them by, for example, sending them a check in the mail once a year? Instead, do we not find ourselves commissioned to do as Jesus did, to seek first to understand what the others are going through, to learn to share, as we are able, in their joy and hope, their grief and anguish, to attempt crossings even if we have to face the fury of a mighty storm?

As we are told in the second reading: it was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation… After losing the innocence of the Garden of Eden, it is only by accepting this great commission to cross over tumultuous waters that we come to enjoy true and lasting peace, a peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27).

Sisters and brothers, what crossings are we – what crossings are you – being invited to make today?

Thursday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Made In…

Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-6; Psalms 146:1b-2, 3-4, 5-6ab; Matthew 13:47-53
Picture: CC cambodia4kidsorg

Just recently, I happened to read an article written by an American, who tells of how he once addressed a letter of complaint to a department store for selling goods that were made in the People’s Republic of China. His objection was that, in doing so, the store was actually condoning and even supporting the many human rights abuses perpetrated by the government of that country. I mention this neither to make a judgment on the American in question nor on the PRC. What I find interesting is how the former should have been so conscientious in checking the manufacturing labels on the products that he was buying. He had formed a certain opinion about what he did and did not want, and he was careful to accept only those products that met his requirements, rejecting the rest.

I wonder if this is something like what we find happening in Jesus’ description of the kingdom of heaven in today’s gospel. At the end of time the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just… The question that comes to mind is: in making that final separation, what will angels be looking for? Obviously they will consider the fruits of each one’s actions. They will accept the just and reject the wicked. But how will they distinguish the one from the other? Is there perhaps a manufacturer’s label, a stamp of quality that they will be looking out for?

The first reading offers us some insight into this by using a similar manufacturing analogy. As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so you are in mine… In our relationship with God, God intends to be the potter, and for us to be the clay that submits obediently to God’s molding hand. The process may be long and arduous, but when the pot of our lives is finally complete, it can proudly bear the stamp of its divine manufacturer: made in the furnace of the Kingdom by the hands of the Eternal King.

But there will, on the other hand, also be those among us who might wish to go it on our own, or who prefer to be molded by other hands. These pots will end up being fashioned according to a different style. They will come to bear a different stamp. Made in… Yet, however beautiful and stylish may be the finished product, and however smooth and painless may have been the manufacturing process, the crucial question for us to consider is the extent to which this label will find acceptance by the angels when they go shopping on the last day?

If this image of the end of time is even somewhat accurate, then we may well need to examine closely our priorities and our ways of proceeding. We will wish to avoid hankering after things like earthly success and worldly pleasure, and instead be concerned with learning to submit to the hands of the divine potter. In the well-known phrase of St. Ignatius of Loyola, we will be concerned with finding God in all things. How else to find acceptance in the Lord’s kingdom? How else to be welcomed into the Father’s household?

Whose stamp, whose label, are we letting ourselves be marked with today?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wednesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…

Readings: Jeremiah 15:10, 16-21; Psalms 59:2-3, 4, 10-11, 17, 18; John 13:44-46
Picture: CC h-angele

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country… Many of us will remember these famous words uttered by the late, and then President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, in his inauguration speech of 1961. What Kennedy was doing was inviting his fellow citizens to change their mindsets, their view of the nation. He was asking them to see their country not so much as a kind of dispenser, from which they could expect to withdraw a constant stream of benefits, as much as a joint project, in which they were called to collaborate. Kennedy was issuing a stirring call to his fellow Americans to change from being mere self-centered consumers to zealous contributors and collaborators. Ask not what you country can do… ask what you can do…

Often, such an important shift of perspective needs to take place in the spiritual life as well. For isn't it true that many of us operate as consumers in the spiritual as much as in the secular life? We view God as some kind of 24-hour dispenser, or a year-round Santa Claus. Our prayer has mainly to do with asking God for what we want. We make wish-lists, not unlike those we find in the blogosphere. Like the Prodigal Son in the famous parable, we think nothing of abandoning our Father and squandering our inheritance. It’s important for us to learn instead how to ask what we can do for God and others.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. For aren’t there also those among us who only know how to ask the latter question? Don’t some of us think of ourselves only as workers and laborers? Like the older son in the parable, we spend our lives working hard, ostensibly for our Father. But we don’t really relate to God as a loving Father, as much as a hard taskmaster, or a tyrannical slave driver. And, however hard we may try, we can’t seem to quell the resentment that may lie simmering under the surface of our hearts. Focused so much on what we can and ought to do for God and for others, we never quite realize all that God does for us.

And this latter perspective might even seem to find support in our readings for today. The two people in the gospel parable have to sell all their possessions for the sake of the Kingdom. And, in the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah’s fidelity to God leads him to suffer terrible persecution. I neither lend nor borrow, yet all of them curse me… In their relationships with God, all three seem to find themselves having to give and give, to do and do, more and more. But are they really only asking what they can do for God? Not quite.

We cannot help noticing, as we did this past Sunday, that the two people in the gospel consider the sale of their possessions a joyful thing. Their gain is far more than their sacrifice. Even in the difficult times experienced by Jeremiah, the prophet recalls how he came to enter into the Lord’s service. It wasn’t only by considering what he could and ought to do. Instead, he had actually been won over by God’s goodness to him. When your words came, I devoured them: your word was my delight and the joy of my heart… And, even when facing persecution, Jeremiah doesn’t merely grit his teeth and soldier on resentfully. He revisits the question that first brought him into the Lord’s service. He ponders prayerfully over who God is for him. Do you mean to be for me a deceptive stream with inconstant waters? And God doesn’t leave him to struggle alone. God reassures him of God’s continued presence and protection. They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you.

What does this mean for us if not that, in the spiritual life, both questions are necessary? We need both to ask what we can do for God, as well as what God does for us. But most importantly, we need continually to ponder over who God is for us. In the words of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi:

But who do you say I am?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tuesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of Saint Martha
Lamentation that Leads to Life

Readings: Jeremiah 14:17-22; Psalms 79:8, 9, 11 and 13; John 11:19-27
Picture: CC jomiwi

I’m no expert. But sometimes I think that there is really only one thing that sells movies these days: thrills. Of course, these will come in different forms and genres: action, sex, violence, comedy, romance, and even horror. But the truth remains that people tend, for the most part, to flock to films that excite them in some way. Such that if a serious movie-maker wishes to tap into a wider audience – instead of being stuck only with the few who may frequent small art-house cinemas – the work must be packaged in such a way that it provides the thrills even as it may explore deeper themes. Make a movie that is too dark, and people will be turned off. We don’t really go to the movies for realism, as much as to escape. And perhaps the same might be said for our approach to life in general. We tend usually to steer clear of difficult and painful issues and feelings. For the most part, ours is a feel-good generation.

Assuming this is true, we might wonder how this affects our spiritual life? What impact do our obsession with thrills and our aversion to trouble have on our relationship with God? One possible result is that, when we pray, we may well find it difficult to talk to God about the difficult feelings that we experience from time to time, feelings such as anger and grief, or anxiety and confusion. Sometimes we may not even be aware that we are experiencing these feelings, since we’re so used to habitually tuning them out. Even if we do sense them to some degree, we tend to avoid dwelling on them. We try to look on the bright side. And then, our prayer might seem to dry up. Nothing seems to be happening. Which is quite understandable, since we are refusing to look at the very issues that are supposed to be happening.

How different is this outlook from what we find in the readings today. The first reading offers us an example of a form of prayer that we don’t hear much about in this feel-good culture of ours. It is the prayer of lament. Tears flood my eyes night and day, unceasingly… The prophet grieves not only for himself, but mainly for the disaster that has befallen the people. He laments the terrible effects of the drought and famine that he sees around him. And beyond the shortage of food, quite likely Jeremiah’s tears are shed also for the famine of the Word of God. Notice how closely the prophet’s prayer reflects what is happening in reality. There is no attempt to suppress the pain that he feels, a pain that is both personal and communal. Neither is there is any embarrassment at presenting it to God. And underlying this open lamentation, this unabashed ventilation of grief, is something that gives the prayer its power: for your name’s sake do not reject us… O our God, you are our hope. The courage to lament comes from the undying hope that God will not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of his people.

We find something similar too in Martha’s conversation with Jesus at the tomb of her brother Lazarus. Martha’s grief is personal. She has lost her brother. But it is also shared. Many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to sympathise with them over their brother… And she speaks about it quite openly with Jesus. She does not feel the need to try to put on a brave front, or to talk about the weather. If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you… And her hope in Jesus is rewarded. Her lamentation leads to life. For it is addressed to the One who is the resurrection and the life.

What do we learn from this – we who live in a pain-filled world, and yet who cling so obsessively to our need to feel good? Are we not encouraged and inspired to imitate Martha and Jeremiah? Are we not challenged to learn to face our grief with courage, and to address our prayers of lamentation to the Lord in the hope that he will lead us to the fullness of life?

How might we be helped to do this today?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Monday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Completing the Life Cycle

Readings: Jeremiah 13:1-11; Deuteronomy 32:18-19, 20, 21; Matthew 13:31-35
Picture: CC

I’m not sure what they’re like now, but when I was in school, our science textbooks included diagrams of the life cycles of various animals. The diagram of a butterfly’s life cycle, for example, would depict an egg, a larva (caterpillar), a pupa (cocoon), and then, finally, a full-grown butterfly. Quite obviously, however, although the diagram was meant to illustrate all the different stages of a butterfly’s growth, it wasn’t quite complete. For one thing, there was usually only one butterfly in the picture. Which presents a problem, since we know that a butterfly can’t quite complete its full life cycle if it remains alone. It takes at least two… That’s common sense. The authors of those science textbooks probably expected that students and teachers would understand this without it being illustrated. But, then again, common sense is not always common. It’s all too easy to forget things that are not explicitly stated.

Don’t we sometimes see a similar forgetfulness in our human life cycle? Isn’t it true that we often equate maturity only with independence and productivity? A child is considered an adult when s/he becomes independent of the parents’ influence, and starts its own working career. A doctor, for example, is considered to have made it, when s/he is finally able to leave the hospital in which s/he worked as an intern, in order to set up a private practice. But are independence and productivity really all that are necessary for a complete life cycle?

So pervasive is this outlook, that we often find it in our approach to the spiritual life as well. This is especially true of those of us who try to take God seriously. As in our secular lives, here too, consciously or not, we often also think only in terms of productivity and of independence. We want to be self-sufficient and to be able to do good works in order to help others. We go on mission trips and give to the poor. We strive to make a difference. We do our best to bear much fruit. But then, as time goes on, we can’t help but feel that something is missing. We may feel disappointed at the slow progress of our projects. We get disillusioned with our coworkers and even with God. We suffer from burnout. Our spiritual life cycle remains incomplete.

Which is why the message in our readings today is so important. In the gospel, we are given striking images of incredible fruitfulness. The tiny mustard seed grows into a tall tree that provides shelter to many birds. Just a small amount of yeast has the power to produce bread to feed many hungry people. But notice that this productivity is located not so much in human effort as in the Kingdom itself. We bear fruit not simply by being busy, but by remaining under the influence of God. Isn’t this the core of the message in the first reading too. What do we learn from the parable of the loincloth if not that we are made to cling closely to God just as a loincloth clings to a man’s waist. We are made not so much for independence as much as for intimacy. And it is only in experiencing this close relationship, first with God, and then with others, that we become truly fruitful and productive.

How are we completing our life cycle today?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sunday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (A)
The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalms 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52 or 13:44-46
Picture: CC JoshMcConnell

Dear sisters and brothers, do you remember those stories in which someone finds a magical object – maybe an old lamp or a discarded bottle – and when the thing is rubbed, a genie appears and grants the person three wishes? I’m thinking, for example, of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and The Thief of Baghdad. When I was growing up, I sometimes liked to imagine what it would be like if I were to meet a genie like that. If I were given three wishes, what would I ask for? On such occasions, I’d usually find myself thinking that the heroes in those stories were really a bit dumb. I’d think that, if I were given three wishes, I’d make sure that I used the last one to ask for three more wishes. Common sense right?

You can tell that even at a young age I was quite a greedy fellow. But, greedy or not, the point is that the characters in those stories should really have used their wishes more wisely. They should have asked for things that were useful in the long term. Instead, they only looked to their most immediate needs, like asking for a magic carpet to fly them from point A to point B, for example. That’s a one-time flight. Why not ask for the ability to fly wherever and whenever you want? In other words, like what we sometimes hear in modern-day advertisements, I thought that Aladdin and company should really have asked for a gift that keeps on giving. A gift that keeps on giving – why didn’t they think of that?

But that was only when I was a child. Now that I’m older, I find that I’m not so quick to criticize. I’ve come to realize that making a wish is really not that simple. In order to wish wisely – in order to ask for the gift that keeps on giving – I must first at least have some idea what it is I really want, what it is I really need. And that is not an easy question to answer. I say this partly because of my limited experience in attending and accompanying others on retreats. One of the main things that you do on a retreat is to ask God for what you want. And I’ve been to enough retreats to realize that many of us, myself included, don’t really know what we want. Imagine, for a moment, that God were to ask you, right now, to make a wish. How would you respond? What would you ask for? Would it be easy?

Which is why, it’s important to pay careful attention to our readings today. They help us to reflect more deeply upon what it is we really want, and also upon what we need to truly receive this gift from God. The gospel passage is a good place to begin, because here we find Jesus identifying for us the one thing that can fulfill us. Notice how happy the two people in the gospel are. They are filled with joy because they have received what they really want. They have found the Kingdom of heaven.

This Kingdom is not a place high up in the sky somewhere. Neither is it to be found only in a far distant future. Rather, in other passages in the gospels, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom has come near to you (Luke 10:11), and even that the Kingdom is among you (Luke 17:21). We find the Kingdom when God’s powerful and loving presence makes itself felt in our midst. As we prayed in the opening prayer just now: Touched by your hand our world is holy. The Kingdom of heaven is to be found in our world, here and now.

Why then don’t we see it more often? Why don’t we ask God for it? Why don’t we experience the joy that comes from finding it? Again, our readings help us to understand. Several possible factors are in play here. We will consider three of them. The first possible reason why we don’t wish for and receive the Kingdom is that we don’t really dare to ask. We don’t dare because there’s a part of us that suspects that the Kingdom comes with strings attached. We hear, for example, about how the two people in the gospel actually have to sell everything in order to obtain the Kingdom. And, consciously or not, we’re too attached to what we have. What if God asks me to quit my high-paying job, or to sell the car that I so carefully polish every week? What if God chooses one of my children for a priestly or religious vocation? Don’t play play. Better not to ask.

What we fail to realize, however, is that, having found the Kingdom, those two people in the gospel do not see the selling of their possessions as a sacrifice. They do it quite willingly, out of joy. Of course, this is not to say that we will not feel the pinch from time to time. Even Jesus felt it in the Garden of Gethsemane. What it does mean is that, however big the sacrifice may seem, the eventual reward will be far greater. As we heard in the second reading: all things work for good for those who love God… Jesus suffered and died only to be raised to eternal life on the third day.

But even if we do finally find the courage to ask God for the Kingdom, other obstacles may still stand in the way of our receiving it. Notice how the two people in the gospel come to find the Kingdom. The pearl of great price is found by the second person as a result of his search. He seeks and then finds what he is looking for. The first person finds the Kingdom buried in a field. Which implies that he must have been digging, when he stumbled upon it. The Kingdom is found by those who are willing to search and to dig.

This presents a big problem to us, who live in a modern and fast-paced society. Simply put, we don’t like to dig. We’re more used to moving quickly, busily, superficially from one thing to the next. We have neither the time nor the inclination to stop and to ponder the beauty of God’s creation, for example. We don’t even take time to dig into our own hearts to discover ourselves, and the God who is present there. Even when something serious happens in our lives – when we experience failure, or lose a loved one, for example – how many of us have the luxury of taking time out to come to terms with the loss? And it’s not just because we are too busy. It’s also because living at such a deeper level is too much trouble. It’s too tiring, and even painful, to dig for true treasure in this way. It’s too messy, for example, when we encounter conflicts, to discuss our differences like mature adults. We prefer to write anonymous letters or to fight over en-bloc sales – going to the extent of even vandalizing the cars of our opponents. Can we get any more superficial than that?

And, finally, even if we do eventually learn to dig, something else can still get in the way. Although we may have a vague idea that it is the Kingdom of heaven that we are looking for, we don’t really know what it looks or feels like. We easily miss it even when it is staring us in the face. It’s like the movie trailer I saw recently, where a robot picks up a jewelry box. It opens it and finds a diamond ring. But it doesn’t know the value of the ring. So it throws it away and keeps the box instead. Isn’t this the problem with us too? In the course of ordinary daily living, we don’t know how to discern the jewelry from the junk. We think that money and status are more important than family and friends, for example. Or that shopping is more attractive than prayer.

These are among the problems that we face: We don’t dare to ask. We don’t like to dig. And we don’t know how to discern. Isn’t this why the first reading is so helpful for us? Isn’t this why we find it so inspiring? For here, from Solomon, we learn how to wish wisely. Here, we finally find someone who dares to ask God to make him a good ruler, even though this will be troublesome for him. Here is someone willing to dig below the surface of his own more immediate cravings, in order to find the deep desire for God’s guidance in his life. And he does this because he knows that far more valuable even than a long life and riches, is the gift of an understanding heart… to distinguish right from wrong. And so he asks God to help him to discern. He wishes for a gift that keeps on giving. And God gives him what he asks for. Ask, and it will be given you...

Sisters and brothers, if God were to invite you to make a wish, what would you ask for today?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Feast of St. James the Apostle
Diving to the Top

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; Psalms 126:1bc-2ab, 2cd-3, 4-5, 6; Matthew 20:20-28
Picture: CC MadMatson

When you pause for a moment and gaze upon your life, what does it feel and look like to you? Sometimes, I think that life looks and feels a lot like someone climbing up a high mountain. Whether it’s in school or at work, whatever may be our motivations, we just cannot seem to stop pushing onward and upward, seeking to get to the top. From kindergarten to graduate school, from one pay grade to another, there just seems to be one height after another to scale. Even after retirement, aren’t there those who continue to seek other challenges, other peaks to climb? Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the image of ascending a mountain is a common and powerful metaphor even in the spiritual life. The psalmist, for example, speaks of going up the mountain of the Lord (Psalm 24:3), and one of St. John of the Cross’ books on the spiritual life is entitled The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Clearly there’s deep truth in the image. Life is meant, to some extent, to be an ascent of sorts.

Even so, isn’t it also true that there’s great danger in taking the metaphor too far? Isn’t it true that overemphasizing the need to climb continuously can actually be detrimental to wellbeing – both that of others and ours as well? It can lead us to become so obsessed with our own efforts and achievements as to lose sight of the reason why we’re trying to get to the top in the first place. And, in the process, we may find ourselves becoming ever more competitive, even to the point of ruthlessness. Which is why the image of the ascent needs to be complemented, and even supplanted, with yet another metaphor.

In the gospel, on this feast of St. James, what we find is precisely a powerful illustration of the dangers of overemphasizing the need to ascend. The mother of James and John asks Jesus for choice seats in his kingdom. And the rest of the apostles become jealous and envious. Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t chide her for making an unreasonable request. After all, the Father desires to give us the kingdom (see Luke 12:32). But he does point out that she does not know what she is asking. And neither do the others understand the implications of her request. For everyone thinks that she is actually asking Jesus to pull some strings so that her sons can climb higher and faster. But Jesus proposes a contrasting image. Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave… To ascend, one must first be willing to descend.

Paul deepens our reflection on this insight by reminding us, in the first reading, of Jesus’ example. Jesus didn’t so much climb God’s mountain as much as he was raised. And he was raised only because he first willingly lowered himself. He ascended only by making a descent. And it is only when we follow in his steps that he who raised the Lord Jesus to life will raise us with Jesus in our turn, and put us by his side… In order to truly receive the prize that we seek at the top of the mountain, we must first imitate the Lord in emptying ourselves. For we are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such an overwhelming power comes from God and not from us…

Even if life does indeed look and feel like the ascent of a high mountain, it is important that we remember that we reach the heights of God’s glory only by diving into the depths of selfless service.

How are we being invited to take the plunge today?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Thursday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Outflanking the Fortifications

Readings: Jeremiah 2:1-3, 7-8, 12-13; Psalms 36:6-7ab, 8-9, 10-11; Matthew 13:10-17
Picture: CC diametrik

In conventional warfare it’s pretty much common sense that when one encounters stiff resistance – in the form of a fortified position defended with formidable firepower, for example – one tries to avoid a direct assault. Instead, one attempts to outflank the position. This basic military tactic involves splitting one’s team into two groups. The first keeps the enemy engaged in a firefight. The second simultaneously maneuvers to the enemy’s flank, or rear, from which it can then more freely attack the position while the enemy’s attention is diverted elsewhere.

A fortified position is what we find in both our readings today. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a people who have forgotten their God. Even those among them whose responsibility it is to know better – the priests, the prophets, and the experts in the Mosaic Law – have no knowledge of God. They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, only to dig leaky cisterns for themselves… Things are not much better in Jesus’ day. Not only have the people lost their taste for the Word of God, they have actually fortified themselves against it. Their ears are dull of hearing and they have shut their eyes…

Faced with such a formidable foe, Jesus resorts to his own version of a flanking movement. Instead of direct speech, he chooses instead to tell parables. And notice how parables do their work. First, they are mundane enough for people to identify with. Instead of speaking in purely abstract terms, Jesus tells very down-to-earth stories about everyday realities, most recently about sowing seed and harvesting grain. But one should not be fooled by the apparent ordinariness of Jesus’ stories. Each parable usually also contains something puzzling or surprising – even shocking – enough to prick the listeners’ interest, to keep their attention occupied. In the parable of the sower and the seed, for example, Jesus refers to a hundred-fold harvest. This must have surprised his listeners, since scholars tell us that the average yield at the time was only ten-fold. But the interesting aspects of the story are not really an end in themselves. Their function is to keep the listeners occupied and engaged long enough for the parable’s deeper meaning to stealthily burrow its way through the fortifications of their minds and hearts, thus facilitating conversion and repentance.

What is useful for us to take away from such considerations will depend upon the side on which we may be fighting at any given moment. Sometimes we may find ourselves in the role of the staunch defenders, stubbornly resisting God’s Word and its implications for us. And try as we might, we may seem unable to dismantle our own defenses. In such situations, perhaps we ought simply to allow ourselves to remain engaged in God’s Word, even though it has no apparent effect. Perhaps we should just allow ourselves to remain pinned down by its friendly fire, and await that magical moment when we are finally outflanked and overrun by the depth of its truth.

On the other hand, when we find ourselves in the role of the ones trying to storm the defenses of others, perhaps what we need to learn is that a direct assault is neither always the wisest nor the safest option. Perhaps we might imitate the Lord in patiently taking a more indirect approach, one that relies more on the subtle power of the Word of God, than on any skill or eloquence of our own.

How does the Lord desire to outflank our fortifications today?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wednesday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Leap of Faith

Readings: Jeremiah 1:1, 4-10; Psalms 71:1-2, 3-4a, 5-6ab, 15 and 17; Matthew 13:1-9
Picture: CC Scott Ableman

Do you remember the last time you were invited or required to do something you didn’t really want to do, or something you didn’t think you were capable of doing? Perhaps you were asked to jump into the deep end of the pool, for example, before you had learned how to swim. What did it feel like? Did you do it? What factors did you consider in deciding one way or the other? It is questions such as these that might help us begin our reflection upon the scriptures today.

The gospel passage is one that we heard just two Sundays ago. We know it well. It speaks of the importance of being receptive to the Word of God in order to bear fruit. It also highlights different obstacles that might hinder such receptivity: hard surfaces, lack of depth, thorny ground. And we might perhaps add another to the list: the reluctance to do what the Word might require of us. We know that once we receive the Word, something will be expected of us. We can no longer hate our neighbor, for example. We have to reach out to the needy. We have to find ways to share our faith with others… But we don’t always feel up to such tasks. So, consciously or not, we may think that it is perhaps better not to receive the Word at all. Or, even if we do, then we do so only half-heartedly. Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us to face such struggles alone. God gently coaxes us to stretch ourselves and to respond.

Which is what God is doing for Jeremiah in the first reading. God calls the would-be prophet to speak a difficult word to the people. To do this Jeremiah will have to undergo various trials. Can we fault Jeremiah for not feeling up to the task? I do not know how to speak: I am a child! Still, the Lord patiently reassures him: There! I am putting my words into your mouth, and Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to protect you. Not only does God promise to provide the prophet with words, but also to remain ever by his side, supporting him in his ministry.

In addition, God also addresses what might be an unspoken reservation of the prophet’s. When we are asked to do something difficult, isn’t it the case that we may sometimes think that we know ourselves much better than the one who is asking? We know our limits: what we can and cannot do. But God reminds Jeremiah that this is patently not true, at least not in this particular case. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you… God knows Jeremiah much better than he could ever know himself. God sees abilities in him that Jeremiah is as yet unaware. And in this thorough knowledge of him, God also desires what is best for him, what can lead him to true happiness and deep fulfillment, even as he strives to serve God and the people.

Even so, in order for Jeremiah to realize the truth of God’s assurances, he must first respond positively. He must learn to trust the One who is calling him. He must step out in faith. I’m reminded of that scene in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where our hero has to cross a deep chasm. There seems to be no way across, but the instruction given to him is to make a leap of faith. He somehow finds the courage to take a first step into the abyss and is surprised to find his foot making contact with solid ground. He then takes the next step and the next, and crosses to safety. It is only then that he realizes that there was actually a bridge beneath his feet. But it was camouflaged and could not be seen from the other side. He could only discover its presence by first stepping out in faith.

How are we being called to do the same today?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tuesday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Mary Magdalene
Even Without Caller ID

Readings: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Psalms 85:2-4, 5-6, 7-8; John 20:1-2, 11-18
Picture: CC angela7dreams

Something quite amazing – but perhaps often taken for granted – usually happens when we speak on the phone with someone familiar. Even if we do not have caller ID, and even before the other party has told us who it is we are talking to, we can often recognize the other just by the sound of the voice on the line. We can identify the other, even with a high degree of certainty, without needing to see the other’s face. It doesn’t really matter what clothes s/he may be wearing during the conversation. There’s no problem even if s/he has on a mask or a disguise of some sort. We can still recognize the person by the sound of the voice. And we don’t really need someone else to teach us to do this. We don’t really need to go to a special school to learn this. Ultimately, what makes the difference is the amount of time we spend on the phone with the other. If we do so long enough, the ability to recognize the other’s voice comes quite naturally and spontaneously.

Perhaps something like this is behind what is happening in our readings today. Mary Magdalene is in a situation of great distress and grief. She has lost her beloved Lord and Master. Earlier, from up close, she had witnessed him being mercilessly tortured and executed, before being laid in a tomb. And now, even his body has gone missing. But the intensity of her grief is not the only obstacle to her recognizing the Lord. The other is the fact that Jesus appears in a form that she doesn’t quite expect. She is looking for a corpse but he appears as the Resurrected Lord. Also, it seems plain from all the gospel accounts that the appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection was somehow different from that before the Crucifixion. Something about him had changed. It’s not surprising then, that Mary fails to recognize Jesus, and even mistakes him for the gardener.

That is until he calls her by her name. Once that happens, it’s as though the lights suddenly come on in Mary’s mind and heart. It’s as though she finally learns to disregard all the other things that get in the way of her recognizing Jesus, in order to focus on the one important thing. It doesn’t matter that he looks different. It doesn’t matter that he appears in a form that she doesn’t quite expect. She recognizes the sound of his voice as he calls her by her name. And in the recognition, she experiences the very thing that the prophet Micah prays for in the first reading: shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance… Let them feed in Bashan and Gilead, as in the days of old… Jesus the Good Shepherd leads her, once again, to green pastures (see John 10). The stone cold tomb is transformed into a life-giving womb. Mary receives a new mission to be the apostle to the apostles.

And her experience is also offered to us as fellow disciples of the Crucified and Risen Lord. Especially in times of darkness and confusion, of bereavement and grief, when the Lord may seem painfully absent, when our eyes may be clouded over with tears, unable to recognize his face, perhaps even then, we will yet be able to hear and recognize his voice as he gently calls our name. But for us to do this, for us to realize that it is truly the Lord with whom we are speaking, even when the caller ID may tell us different, we need to entertain his calls more often. We need to spend time on the phone with him, even when things are going well. How else will we learn what it sounds like when he calls our name?

Do you hear the phone ringing today?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Monday in the 16th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Question and Answer

Readings: Micah 6:1-4, 6-8; Psalms 50:5-6, 8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Mark 12:38-42
Picture: CC bertrudestein

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re in a classroom teaching a group of students, and someone asks a question. How do you feel? How might you respond? I suppose the response will depend very much, among other things, on the question itself. For, as most of us know well, there are questions and there are questions. There are, for example, truly genuine questions – those that are sincerely asked with a view to finding out more. The responsible teacher will probably respond to such by trying one’s best to give an answer, even if it may take time and effort. Then, of course, there are questions that are more of a distraction than a help. These may be asked simply as a means of showing off, or to put the teacher on the spot, or, worse, even as a means of resisting the truth. If such is the case, the experienced teacher will probably try to respond in a way that helps the questioner face the truth, or, at least, to prevent the class from being distracted.

In each of our Mass readings today, God is teaching a lesson in repentance. And questions are being asked. The people in the first reading want to know: With what gifts shall I come into the Lord’s presence…? The scribes and Pharisees in the gospel ask Jesus if he could show them a sign to convince them that he is indeed to be believed. How genuine are these questions? In the gospel, Jesus sees through the hypocrisy of his interrogators. He knows that they are not really interested in a sign. For hasn’t he already performed enough miracles to demonstrate the power of his teaching? Seasoned teacher that he is, Jesus refuses to be distracted by the unreasonable request. In the first reading too, God responds to the people’s question by emphasizing that what is good has (already) been explained to you… They already know what is required of them: act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God. Like the Pharisees in the gospel, it is not so much more head-knowledge that is required as much as a softening of the heart.

As such, the focus in both readings is less on presenting new teaching than it is on inviting the listeners to first remember what God has done for God’s people in the past. I brought you out of the land of Egypt, I rescued you from the house of slavery… The next step is to highlight the fact that what God has done in the past, God is continuing to do in the present: when Jonah preached (the people of Nineveh) repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here… The ball is then placed firmly in the people’s court. How willing are they to allow themselves to remember, to be moved, and to repent?

And what of us? Doesn’t God continue to do for us today, what God did for the people in the time of Micah and of Jesus? Isn’t God continuing to invite us to remember God’s marvelous deeds for us in the past, to recognize the Divine presence in our lives in the present, so as to allow God more firmly to occupy the center of our hearts both now and ever after? Isn’t this process of remembering and repentance what we’re about in this celebration of the Eucharist?

But what is our response to God’s teaching?

What kinds of questions are we asking today?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Friday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
The Loving Lawnmower

Readings: Isaiah 38:1-6, 21-22, 7-8; Isaiah 38:10, 11, 12abcd, 16; Matthew 12:1-8
Picture: CC David Dean

It’s likely that not many of us like fickle people. We get irritated by those who can’t seem to make up their minds, who never seem to know exactly what they want, who keep flip-flopping from one option to another. They strike us as not being serious enough, of being too wishy-washy. In contrast, even though we may not necessarily like them a lot, we tend to respect the steady and serious ones, those who seem so sure of themselves, those who seem able to make a decision and stick with it through thick and thin.

Which is why our readings today are so surprising. For, especially in the first reading, we find God doing something that God seems to do quite regularly, at least in the Old Testament. God seems to change his mind. At first, the fates of king Hezekiah and the nation of Judah are apparently sealed. The former is stricken with a fatal illness, while the latter is under imminent threat of being overrun by the Assyrians. The stage is set for the exit of both ruler and ruled. But Hezekiah offers a tearful and heartfelt prayer to God. And God relents. God heals the king and saves the nation. Is God being fickle? Is our God not able to make up his mind? How are we to respect such a wishy-washy God as this, much less follow and obey him?

The gospel helps us to reflect fruitfully upon these questions, even if it doesn’t quite give us a complete answer. It does this by presenting two points for our consideration. The first has to do with the Pharisees. In them we see that being sure of oneself is not always such a good thing. For if they were anything, the Pharisees were certainly sure of themselves. Their confidence was rooted in their encyclopedic knowledge of the labyrinthine provisions of the Law. And yet, their stubborn adherence to legal guidelines leads them to the extreme of rigidity. Ignoring the obvious hunger of Jesus’ disciples, they accuse them of illegal harvesting on the Sabbath. For the Pharisees, the plucking of a few grains of corn is equated with harvesting! It’s not always a good thing to be too sure of oneself.

In contrast, Jesus presents us with a picture of concerned compassion. Through his words and his actions, the Lord teaches that the Law is fulfilled only in love and compassion. And it is here that we find the constancy underlying God’s apparent fickleness in the first reading. If God sometimes seems to change his mind, it is only in order to respond more effectively to the hungers of the human heart. In doing this, God demonstrates a flexibility that transcends the blunt instrument that is the Law. Of course, this will often make for less predictable, less orderly situations. But perhaps that is as it should be.

I’m reminded of the story of a man who promised his 12-year-old daughter $20 if she would mow the lawn. She agreed to do it while he was at work. But when he got home in the evening, he noticed that although most of the lawn had indeed been mown, there remained a patch of uncut grass right in the middle of it. Calling his daughter, he told her that he was unable to pay her until she had finished the job. But the girl steadfastly refused and seemed quite happy to forfeit the money. After she left him, the man’s curiosity got the better of him. He went out into the garden to take a look. There, nestled in the uncut grass, he found a large frog. His daughter hadn’t had the heart to disturb it, or possibly to injure it. To save the frog, she was willing even to forgo her reward, and to leave the lawn unfinished.

When there is love, there sometimes needs to be disorder.

And what of us? Are we fickle? Are we rigid? Or do we strive to offer to others the same love and mercy that God is constantly offering to us?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Thursday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Kit Exchange

Readings: Isaiah 26:7-9, 12, 16-19; Psalms 102:13-14ab and 15, 16-18, 19-21; Matthew 11:28-30
Picture: CC Fedot Preslov

The system has since been modernized and made even more convenient and efficient. But until not too long ago, military personnel who needed new equipment were required to undergo something called a kit exchange. When boots became worn out or uniforms damaged beyond repair, for example, you brought the used piece of equipment to the store and exchanged it for a brand new item. As such – unless the store had run out of stock – there was no real excuse for continuing to be seen in attire that looked shamefully tired, or to use equipment that compromised peak performance. If it didn’t work properly, you simply exchanged it for something better. Even so, there were usually some soldiers who seemed to delight in parading around in attire and equipment that had seen many a better day. Perhaps it was laziness, or an inordinate attachment to the old, or plain negligence. Whatever the reason, these personnel strangely seemed to disdain the kit exchange process, preferring the old to the new, the stale to the fresh.

A similar convenience is being extended in our readings today, albeit on a dissimilar scale and a different dimension. More than just tired equipment, both Isaiah and Jesus invite us to exchange our worn out selves and our weary lives, for a whole new form of existence. In particular, Jesus invites his listeners to exchange the oppressive burden of slavish and literal obedience to the law for the yoke of love that he offers. A key characteristic of this new way of proceeding is its focus not so much on one’s own efforts as upon the gentleness and humility of Christ, who loved us to the extent of obediently taking on the heavy burden of our rebellious human nature, and bearing the cruel weight of the Cross.

To submit to this kit exchange is to trade in our self-reliant tendencies, which often oppress us to the point of unbearable fatigue, for the gift of fullness of life that Jesus has won for us by his selfless sacrifice on Calvary. As inviting as such an exchange is, however, like those negligent soldiers we spoke about earlier, we may yet experience some resistance to it. We may find ourselves curiously clinging to our old ways, reluctant to give them up. For to exchange them for something new is also, in a sense, to suffer a kind of death – a dying to the old self and its habitual way of proceeding.

Yet, as Isaiah reminds us, to engage in this exchange, to submit to this dying, is really also to rise to a new existence. Your dead will come to life… the land of ghosts will give birth. And, even though we may remain immersed in this perfectionistic and workaholic culture of ours, even as we might still labour under the oppressive weight of our prideful ways, and suffer its exhausting effects, Jesus continues so quietly to beckon us: Come to me… and I will give you rest…

How might we submit more wholeheartedly to this kit exchange today?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wednesday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Specialized Training

Readings: Isaiah 10:5-7, 13b-16; Psalms 94:5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 14-15; Matthew 11:25-27
Picture: CC ActionPixs(Maruko)

The sports section of yesterday’s Straits Times carried a report of how Tao Li, one of our national swimmers, is preparing for the Olympics. I was quite struck by how specialized her training is, especially as it was depicted in two photographs. One showed her working out on a machine that was used by swimmers for power training. Another showed her undergoing light therapy, so as to allow her body to adjust to peaking earlier in the day since that was when the swimming events in Beijing would be held. Very specialized training tailored to meet very specific needs.

Which brings to mind the situation in our first reading today. Here, it’s clear that the Assyrians have trained hard and moulded themselves into a highly efficient war-machine. They have succeeded in conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and are now setting their sights on the southern kingdom of Judah. But, despite their apparent success, God is very unhappy with them. And the reason for God’s unhappiness is that being effective in war is only a part – and not even the most important part – of the role that God has in mind for them. In the frenzy of their fighting with and conquering of other nations, the Assyrians seem to have forgotten that they are meant to be instruments wielded by the hand of God. Like the axe and the saw, the cudgel and the club, they need to submit to the will of God. Instead they have neglected to consider what God wants. They have not shown mercy. Their heart was to destroy and to go on cutting nations to pieces without limit. Effective though they may be at war, they are a failure as instruments of God’s will. Their training has not been specialized enough.

Considering the example of the Assyrians, we cannot help but look into our lives, at the different types of training with which we may occupy ourselves. Whether it be in school or in the home, at work or at play, much of our time is spent honing our skills to become ever more effective and efficient in what we do. But how much time and effort do we spend training to be instruments that can be wielded more smoothly by the hand of God? How much consideration do we give to listening, recognizing and responding to the voice of God in our lives?

And the gospel tells us in what this training consists. Here, Jesus makes plain that the knowledge of God that is needed for us to be good instruments is something that comes as a generous gift. And it is given especially to those who are humble and open enough to welcome it into their hearts. For God seems to delight in hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Perhaps this is because, while the former may revel in their own accomplishments and talents, the latter know how simply to relax and to receive what is given. In particular, they seem to be open enough to enter into a loving personal relationship with Jesus, even when he may shatter their preconceived ideas of what a Messiah ought to be. They are willing to undergo specialized training, to become instruments fitted to the hand of God, effective in carrying out not their own wishes but the will of the Lord in their lives.

How might we submit to such specialized training today?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tuesday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Bonaventure, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Facing the Terrors of the Night

Readings: Isaiah 7:1-9; Psalms 48:2-3a, 3b-4, 5-6, 7-8; Matthew 11:20-24
Picture: CC Cayusa

It’s quite a matter of common sense that one doesn’t do the same things in the night as one does in the day. For example, one needs to switch on the lights at night, but not so much in the day. And one must also be more careful if one chooses to venture out in the dark, especially if one lives in an unsafe neighborhood. Like it or not, one has to adjust one’s behavior according to the time of day.

Something similar is necessary in the spiritual life. Here too there are moments of light and moments of darkness. There are times when God seems close, illuminating our way with the radiance of his smile. And all is bright and cheery. But there are also occasions when, for whatever reason, the divine Sun seems to hide its face, when the road ahead is shrouded in darkness and danger, and our hearts are seized with a sense of foreboding and dread. What can we do to face the terrors of the night?

It is this question that our readings invite us to consider today. For in both readings night has fallen. In the first, the kingdom of Judah faces the desolating darkness of military threat. A formidable foe – consisting of the allied armies of Syria and Israel – is besieging Jerusalem. In the gospel, the night is one of hardness of heart, a stubborn refusal to accept the Word of God. But, as terrifying as the situations may be, all is not lost. When faced with the perils of the night, steps can yet be taken to survive, and even to thrive.

At a time when Ahaz, the King of Judah, might be inclined to panic and to give in to despair, the prophet Isaiah counsels patience and calm. Pay attention, keep calm, have no fear, do not let your heart sink. At a time when the people might be sorely tempted to turn, in desperation, to idolatry and to rely on worldly powers, the prophet counsels steadfast fidelity to the One True God. If you do not stand by me you will not stand at all. As difficult as it may be to carry out, such advice has stood the test of time.

The words of the prophet resonate, for example, with the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits of St. Ignatius Loyola: When one is in desolation, he should strive to persevere in patience. This reacts against the vexations that have overtaken him… (Spiritual Exercises, #131) In time of desolation we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us before the desolation… it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves. We can make an effort in a suitable way to do some penance. When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it… (SpEx, # 318-320).

Measures such as these seem also to be what Jesus is trying to help his listeners to take. In the gospel, the darkness faced by the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, are clearly the result of their own negligence and stubbornness. In such a situation, Jesus prompts them to remember the miracles that have been worked in them. In the terminology of the Spiritual Exercises, Jesus is inviting the people to examine themselves, to meditate upon the times in the past when God has smiled upon them, and to allow the feelings evoked by such memories to spur them on to repentance. These are the appropriate activities for a time of darkness.

What measures do we take when faced with the terrors of the night?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Monday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Submitting to the Scan

Readings: Isaiah 1:10-17; Psalms 50:8-9, 16bc-17, 21 and 23; Matthew 10:34-11:1
Picture: CC MacRonin47

Let’s suppose there’s a person who consults a doctor for some mild physical discomfort. The doctor is concerned and advises him to go for a scan of some sort. The person is reluctant. Apart from the slight discomfort, he’s actually feeling fit as a fiddle. But the doctor insists. So he goes and, sure enough, the scan uncovers something serious. An operation is scheduled. Now the person is really anxious and upset. His earlier calm is shattered. Thankfully, however, the disease is detected early. The operation is successful. And the person is restored to health.

A situation such as this is not uncommon. And it may help us to get a deeper insight into Jesus’ shocking words in the gospel today. Contrary to all our expectations – as well as those of his listeners – Jesus proclaims: It is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword… Yet we also know that in another place Jesus tells his disciples: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… (John 14:27). In order to reconcile this apparent discrepancy, it may help to recognize that in that last passage, Jesus also says that the peace he brings is not as the world gives. The peace that the world can offer is often that of a superficial kind, an absence of conflict that is the result of ignoring, or even deliberately denying, the difficulties and differences that may be present. Like that person we spoke about earlier, we may experience discomfort, but we prefer not to pay any attention to it.

In such situations, Jesus’ presence, his words and his activities, act as a kind of scan, which uncovers the dust and debris that we may have swept under the carpet. And when that happens, the apparent calm that was there at first is shattered. Anguish and anxiety, as well as other negative emotions, may be experienced, but only as a necessary step towards a deeper reconciliation, a more lasting peace.

What Jesus the Physician does in the gospel, Isaiah the prophet does in the first reading. Here, on the surface, the people appear pious and at peace with God. They carefully observe the various feast-days, offering prayers and sacrifices in the Temple. But the prophet scans their hearts and their lives and finds serious inconsistencies. He shatters the calm of their complacency and arrogance by proclaiming: Your hands are covered with blood… For although their religious rites may be pious, their business practices are exploitative. They ignore the cry of the oppressed, the needs of the orphan, the plea of the widow. Their outward show of good spiritual health is illusory. Their illness is serious. An operation is needed.

And what about us? How truly peaceful are our relationships? How truly just are our business practices? What lies beneath the surface calm of our lives?

What might a scan uncover in us today?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday in the 15th Week of Ordinary Time (A)
The Birds, the Bees and Bible Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalms 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23 or 13:1-9
Picture: CC jmtimages

Dear sisters and brothers, on this Bible Sunday, as we reflect on the significance of our celebration, I’m reminded of something about which many of you probably know much more than I do. I’m not a parent so I’ve never had the experience. But I wonder what it feels like for parents when the time comes to speak to their children about the facts of life. Perhaps there is some embarrassment and hesitation, even an attempt to pass the buck to someone else. Go ask your mother, or father, or teacher, for example. And that’s understandable since, although ours is a modern and increasingly cosmopolitan society, it’s still very Asian. And, traditionally, Asians don’t talk about such things, especially not to their children.

But, however strong the embarrassment, the responsible parent will probably also have a sense of the importance of this moment. Because, like it or not, the child is going to find out, if not from mom and dad, then from friends, or the TV, or the Internet. And we all know how terribly inaccurate and even dangerous the information obtained from such sources can be. If we love our children we will want to give them the complete picture. We will want to tell them the whole story. And, simply put, there are at least three parts to this story.

The first part has to do with FIT. Here, we will emphasize the beauty of what happens between a woman and a man. We will speak of how they are made for each other, of how marvelously they fit together, as well as the pleasure that both should experience when that happens. And, of course, more importantly, we will speak also of how their physical intimacy is only an expression of something even more wonderful. It expresses a profound union of persons – of hearts and of spirits. And it is their bonding at this deep level that allows the couple to experience true ecstasy – a standing outside of oneself in intense awe and wonderment.

But there is also a second part to this story. And this has to do with FREEDOM. If there is really to be more than a mechanical movement of body parts, if there is indeed to be a true exchange of persons, then each partner must be capable of freely and wholeheartedly giving oneself to the other and receiving the other’s gift of self. And the final part of this story has to do with FRUIT. For when the conditions are right, this mutual exchange of persons results in new life. The love between the woman and the man quite literally takes on flesh. And when this happens, their lives are changed forever. And not just their lives, but also the whole world will never be the same again.

But this three-part story is, of course, only an ideal. It’s likely that the reality will often fall short. So many things can get in the way: busy schedules, a lack of communication, illness or fatigue (whether physical, mental or emotional)… But even so – even if we don’t often reach the ideal – the responsible parent will still want to let the child have the complete picture. Otherwise, how will the child know what to aim for? Especially in a world that often degrades sex from a profound expression of love into an oppressive instrument for making money and manipulating people, it’s so easy to settle for less. In such a world, it’s important not just that we tell the whole story but also that we ourselves remember and continue trying to reach for the ideal.

In similar fashion, the whole story is also what we are being invited to remember on this Bible Sunday. Like children needing to hear from their parents about what goes on between a woman and a man, we the daughters and sons of God need to hear about the proper relationship between the Word of God and the human heart. And as with the birds and the bees, it’s important that we hear the whole story. It’s important that we remember that today is more than just a day to buy and sell more bibles, or perhaps to flirt with the idea of signing up for a scripture class, as important as these activities are. Today, we are celebrating something much deeper. We live in a time where it is not uncommon for the Word of God either to be ignored or even, like sex, to be used as an instrument of manipulation and for making money. Especially in such a world, it’s crucial that we appreciate the whole story of what we are celebrating today. This story also has three parts corresponding to those in the story of sex.

Again, we begin with FIT. Notice what is said in today’s readings about the Word of God on the one hand, and the human heart on the other. The seed of God’s Word is designed to bring growth. Like the rain and the snow, the word that goes from God’s mouth does not return to God empty, without carrying out God’s will and succeeding in what it was sent to do. And it is for this same growth that the human heart hungers and thirsts. As Paul tells us in the second reading, together with the whole of creation, we groan inwardly. Like a married couple, our hearts and the Word of God are meant to fit together in a deeply satisfying way.

But in order for us to experience the marvelous beauty of this match, like a married couple, we too need to have the FREEDOM to give and to receive. Like the good soil that both willingly welcomes the seed, and selflessly nourishes it with the nutrients that the soil contains, we too need to learn to receive the gift of God’s Word and to give of ourselves – the resources of our time and energy – to allow that Word to take root and to grow in our hearts and in our lives. More than that, in addition to being good soil, we are also called to become zealous sowers of God’s Word, both through what we say, as well as in what we do.

And when we truly do this, the seed that is sown and cultivated in us will begin to bear FRUIT. Our lives will begin to change. Not only will we become more peaceful and just and loving, but we will also become agents of peace and justice and love in the world. In other words, God’s love will become visible in and through us. Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh, will be born again among us.

But, as with the story of sex, this story of God’s Word also presents us with an ideal. And – let’s face it – this is an ideal that is not often reached. On how many Sundays, for example, do we experience a connection with God at Mass that comes even close to being ecstatic? On how many occasions do we find ourselves leaving this church feeling pregnant with the Word of God? How often do we exit this sacred space with our hearts on fire, bursting with enthusiasm to go forth and cultivate the seed that has been sown in us, and to share its fruit with a hungry and thirsty world? Sadly, is it not more often the case that some, if not many, of us find the Mass tolerable at best and, at worst, painfully boring? Isn’t this why so many of us try to minimize our time here by coming late and leaving early?

Of course, the obstacles to receiving God’s Word are many. It must be admitted that we priests, who preside and preach, can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. The music can also sometimes be a source of distraction instead of inspiration. In other words, the sowers of the seed may well contribute to the problem. And yet, even if this is so, we cannot escape the fact that the obstacles highlighted in our readings today have to do mainly with the soil: some seed fell on the edge of the path… others on patches of rock… others among thorns… Hearing these words, do we not find ourselves challenged to do more than just buy a new bible today? Are we not invited to reach for the ideal – to examine our own hearts to see the areas that may have become coarsened by the difficulties and distractions of daily living, and to get in touch again with our own deep hunger for the Word of God? At the very least, isn’t this, what we should be moved to do in this celebration?

Sisters and brothers, how are we being invited to become both good soil and generous sowers of the seed of God’s Word in the world today?
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