Monday, July 04, 2011

God of My Vocation

My dear sisters and brothers, on occasions such as this, one is led to consider how much of all that one is, and all that one has, one owes to others. I think not only of family and friends, teachers and formators, benefactors and parishioners, but also of people of different times and places. Many of whom I have never even met: People whose books have enriched me, whose lives have inspired me, whose achievements have benefited me, even those whose mistakes have been lessons for me. It is this sense that little about me is truly original that gives me the courage (some would say thick skin) to share with you the following words, which I have shamelessly stolen from a prayer written by the late Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner. The prayer is entitled God of My Vocation.

O God of my calling.... Can I preach Your Gospel, if it has not struck deep roots in my own heart? Can I pass on Your life, if I am not alive with it myself? .... It’s unavoidable: Your official business and my private life cannot be separated.

And that is precisely the burden of my life. For look, Lord: even when I announce Your pure truth, I’m still preaching my own narrowness and mediocrity along with it. I’m still presenting myself, the “average man.” How can I bring my hearers to distinguish between You and me in the frightful mixture of You and me that I call my sermons? How can I teach them to take Your word to their hearts, and forget me, the preacher? ....

O God of my vocation, when I consider these things, I must confess that I don’t at all feel like taking my place in the proud ranks of Your confident and conquering apostles. I rather feel that I should be on my way, simply and humbly, walking in fear and trembling. I don’t mean to criticize those among my brethren who can be so happily sure of themselves, those of Your servants who so unmistakably reflect the inner confidence that they are coming in the name of the Lord God of Hosts, and who are quite amazed if anyone does not immediately recognize in them the ambassadors of the Almighty.

I cannot belong to that fortunate group, O Lord. Grant me rather the grace to belong to the number of Your lowly servants who are rather amazed when they are received by their fellow (human beings). Let my heart tremble again and again in grateful surprise at the miracles of Your grace, which is mighty in the midst of weakness. Let me continue to marvel that I meet so many (people) who allow me, poor sinner that I am, to enter into the secret chamber of their hearts, because they have been able to recognize You hidden in me....

O God of my vocation, I am only a poor mask, behind which You have chosen to approach (people) as the hidden God. Grant me the grace day by day to be ever more free from sin and self-seeking. Even then I shall remain what I can’t help being. Your disguise and Your unprofitable servant. But then at least I shall grow ever more like Your Son, who also had to envelop the eternal light of His divinity in the form of a servant, to be found in the garb and livery of a (human person).

When I bear the burden of Your calling, when Your mission weighs down heavily upon me, when Your Majesty humbles me, and my weakness is taken up into that of Your Son, then I may confidently trust that the hindrance which I have been to Your coming may still turn out to be a blessing to my (sisters and) brothers. Then perhaps You will transubstantiate my servitude... into a somehow sacramental form, under whose poverty You will be the bread of life for my brethren.

O God of my vocation, let my life be consumed as the Sacred Host, so that my brothers (and sisters) and I may live in You, and You in us, for all eternity. Amen.

My sisters and brothers, thank you all for coming. May your presence here tonight be an ongoing channel of grace, for you and all your loved ones, in the days to come...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It

Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13-14; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30
Picture: cc Alexander Savin

Sisters and brothers, do you exercise? What kind of exercise do you do? And why? As you know, if we were to go to East Coast Park after this Mass, we will probably see many people there walking or jogging, cycling or roller-blading. And it’s no secret why these people do these things. They know that the body needs exercise to remain in good condition. They know that unless they engage in some form of regular physical activity, their bodies will grow weak and become more prone to illness. As the saying goes: if you don’t use it, you lose it.

I’ve also heard of a community of religious sisters, all of whom have already retired from active ministry. In addition to saying their daily prayers, these nuns actually spend a good portion of their time playing mahjong. Don’t worry. They’re not gambling. The sisters are encouraged to play mahjong because those caring for them know that this game can help them to remain mentally alert. They know that, like the body, the mind too needs exercise. Otherwise, as we age, we become more prone to diseases like dementia. As with the body, so too with the mind: if you don’t use it, you lose it.

But, of course, there is a limit to what we can do. No matter how far or how often we may walk, no matter how many rounds of mahjong we may play, finally, if and when sickness decides to come knocking on our door, we will still be unable to escape its clutches. Death comes to us all. That is just the nature of things.

What’s more, it is actually possible to be in excellent physical and mental condition and still be deeply unhappy. We can think, for example, of the pair of Hong Kong celebrities who have been filling the news lately. So rich and famous. So talented and good-looking. Yet so very miserable. And what about us? Even if we may not be celebrities ourselves, don’t we have our fair share of problems too? Misunderstandings with family and friends, difficulties in school or the workplace, financial setbacks, loneliness, boredom, and the routine stresses and strains of daily living. These are just some of the many burdens that, from time to time, each of us has to bear.

Isn’t this why we find Jesus’ invitation to us in today’s gospel so very consoling? Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. When we hear these words, don’t we wish we could run immediately to the Lord and enjoy the rest that he offers us? And when we listen to the first reading speak about the king who comes to us riding on a donkey, and who will proclaim peace to the nations, don’t we wish we could welcome this king with open arms? Don’t we yearn to experience his peace?

And yet, it’s not always easy to come close to Jesus, is it? As much as we may want to enjoy his company, all too often we allow other things to come between us and the Prince of Peace. Sometimes it’s a matter of simple ignorance. We want to go to the Lord, but we just don’t know how. At other times, we are kept from drawing close to Jesus, because we are clinging to something else. A sinful habit, perhaps. Or a painful memory. Low self-esteem. Or an inadequate appreciation of God's love for me. An obsession with material concerns. Or just plain old-fashioned laziness.

And then, of course, there is that one obstacle that we all struggle with at some point or other. Even the great St. Peter and the rest of the first apostles stumbled over this obstruction. What is it? It is the realization that the way of peace, on which this donkey-riding king from the first reading wishes to lead us, is also the road to Calvary. And the easy yoke that Jesus wishes to lay upon our shoulders in the gospel is none other than the wood of the Cross. For, as we all know, in the mystery of Christ–the same mystery that we are celebrating in this Mass–Death and Resurrection are really two sides of the same coin. We only get to Easter Sunday by passing through Good Friday. To come close to Jesus is also to bear the life-giving burden of his holy Cross. When we realize this, will we still wish to come to the Lord?

What then are we to do? How can we overcome all the formidable obstacles that keep us from approaching Jesus? The solution lies neither in physical strength nor in mental ability. Neither solely in the body nor in the mind. It is to be found, instead, in the spirit. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading: (our) interests are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual. For unless (we) possessed the Spirit of Christ (we) would not belong to him. What all this means, sisters and brothers, is that, in order to live a full human life, as Jesus did, it is not enough just to engage in physical and mental activity. It is not enough simply to go jogging, or to play mahjong. In order to come to Jesus, and to enjoy his rest, in order to experience his peace, what we need above all, is to engage in  regular spiritual exercise. We need to deepen our prayer.

Which brings us to the reason why my companions–Fr. Ravi and Bros. Jerome, Stanley and Basil–and I are here today. We are Jesuits, followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint of 16th century Spain, who was blessed with a gift for guiding others in the ways of prayer. The five of us will be outside the church after Mass to share a little, with any of you who may be interested, about the Spiritual Exercises, a book that St. Ignatius wrote. It is a manual for helping people to grow closer to God. For, in the words of Ignatius himself: just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all (disordered) attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God (SpEx. #1).

To rid ourselves of disordered attachments. To grow closer to Jesus. To find the courage to shoulder his yoke–the Cross of Compassion. And, in shouldering it, to enter into his rest, the rest that the Father’s will alone can provide. This is what it means to engage in spiritual exercise.

Sisters and brothers, even as we may struggle with our many problems, our Lord continues to invite each of us to come to him. But in order to be ready to answer his call we need to exercise regularly. For as it is with the body and the mind, so too with the spirit: if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Sisters and brothers, what forms of spiritual exercise are you doing today?