Thursday, April 5, 2012

Allowing Ourselves to be Loved

Holy Thursday

Earlier this year, on the occasion of my priestly anniversary, I received my first greeting over Facebook, which read, “Dear Fr M.C., Happy 8th Anniversary!” I was taken aback by the number of years I had served as a priest (though it pales against the years of other more senior clerics); the number of times I had celebrated weddings and baptisms and funerals; the numerous times I had celebrated Holy Mass. Eight years seem staggering! I had not been counting and my ordination seemed only like yesterday. This sudden awareness ignited a spark of recollection - these last few months have been a time of great joy for me. When asked by friends and parishioners as to how I felt about being Parish Priest in Our Lady of Lourdes, I had no hesitation in answering, “I’m very happy. I love this parish and its people.” Perhaps, God is allowing me to experience a new springtime of my priesthood and ministry.

But it has not always been like this. In all honesty, I must admit that there were times the priesthood didn’t feel like a joy but more a burden. I would often hear my mother’s voice ringing in my head, “Become a priest lah! Looking for trouble where there was none!” When I found myself drowning under the weight of heavy responsibilities, personal issues and having to contend with the problems of others, I began to doubt whether things would have been much better if I had not become a priest.

I guess a major change took place during my sabbatical year. During this past year, I came into closer contact with two very dear priest friends who each taught me a lesson about the priesthood and ministry. The first seemed to sail through his ministry without a care in the world. He was always positive and never seemed to complain about his ministry nor about his parishioners. He was not without his faults. But his people had learnt to love him and forgive him in spite of his limitations. I just found it incredulous that anyone could be so happy. Here I was, often with my litany of complaints. On the other hand, my stories of pain and misery were often matched by his stories of blessings and reason for joy. One day, I asked him for the secret of his ministry – what sustained him in the face of critics, troublemakers, and people who just got on your nerves. He gave me this simple and almost naïve answer, “Michael, they just want to be loved!” He told me that he never saw anyone as difficult. No one set out to make life miserable for others. No one deliberately plans trouble. At the heart of their pain and odd way of reaching out to others, they were just searching for understanding and acceptance. In other words, they were just looking to be loved.

Although this simple piece of wisdom changed my whole perspective of ministry and the people whom I ministered to, I still questioned my ability to be as magnanimous and as generous as this priest was. I doubted my ability to love, what more to love unconditionally. The answer came through the second priest whom I had the privilege of spending time with. This priest was unabashed in being loved by his people. It was no secret that he was loved by many in spite of his quirks and idiosyncrasies. But what inspired me about this man was that he felt not embarrassment in allowing himself to be showered with the love of others. In a conversation we once had regarding my own personal struggles at dealing with an abysmally low self-esteem, he poignantly reminded me, “Michael, you just don’t allow yourself to be loved. Unless, you can allow yourself to be loved, you will never really know how to love.”

What’s the point of me telling you all of these? Certainly, I’m not hoping to begin a new chapter or volume in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But I have decided that by sharing these two experiences with you best sums up what this day is all about. Today, we celebrate Holy Thursday, where the double focus of our celebrations is the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. But traditionally, this day was also known as Maundy Thursday, which has nothing to do with the name of England’s most famous comedic troupe, Monty Python. The word ‘Maundy’ is derived from a Latin word, ‘Mandatum’ which could either be translated as commandment as well as mandate. Thus, infused into the meaning of the word ‘maundy’ is both the idea of power as well as responsibility. The ‘mandatum’ that is being alluded here is the New Commandment that is found in John 13:34 – “A new commandment I give unto you, love one another as I have loved you.”

What is significantly ‘new’ about this commandment as compared to the Great Commandment which can be found in Matthew 22:36 (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, and love your neighbour as yourself”) is the standard by which love is measured. In the Great Commandment of the synoptic gospels, the point of reference is ourselves – how much are we capable of loving? Fifty percent? Eighty Percent or Hundred Per cent? Self-honesty will tell us that we will never be able to give our entire self to God and to neighbour as long as sin remains a reality in our lives. But the New Commandment starts from an entirely different angle. It presents a standard of measure that is not just super-human but supra-human – it is that of Christ himself. Our love must now be measured according to the love which Christ had shown to us, in other words, the love that allowed him to sacrifice his life on the cross and a love which is represented in the sacrifice of the holy mass whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.

The new commandment or mandate of love is not just about loving others as Jesus had loved us but also a commandment to allow ourselves be loved by Jesus. We have receive a commandment and mandate to be loved by Christ himself. The starting point is not our capacity to love, but Christ’s love for us. We can only begin to love when we come to acknowledge the depth of Christ’s love for us. We can only love when we allow ourselves to be loved. This begs the question: Do you prefer to love or be loved? Although we acknowledge that everyone does desire love, the fact of the matter is that it is much easier to love than to be loved.

Why it is more difficult for us to allow ourselves to be loved? The answer is simple – a lot of us are control freaks. When I serve others, when I love others, I’m still in control. We are reluctant to give up the reins to anyone or anything including love. Allowing ourselves to be loved means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be loved means exposing ourselves to the risk of rejection. Allowing ourselves to be loved means admitting to our neediness, our insufficiency, our incompleteness. Peter was ever eager to prove his love to Christ but he would ultimately fail in the end – he would end up denying Jesus in face of threat of danger. Peter would have been most willing to volunteer washing the feet of his Master or even that of his fellow companions, but to allow his feet to be washed by the Master was unthinkable. In the face of Christ’s love for him as demonstrated in the washing of feet, he felt the overwhelming urge to pull back instead of allowing himself to let the love of Christ to flow through him like rain. In Peter we see our true reason for not allowing ourselves to be loved – we are afraid, we are cowards, we do not wish to be beholden to others, we do not wish to turn our lives entirely over to God because that would be risking everything, even having to give up all our securities.

Robert Frost wrote, “Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” There is some truth in that. We all want to be loved but just do not how to do it. However, to truly allow someone to love you all barriers have to be dropped. Walls must be broken down. You must allow yourself to be vulnerable. I detest my vulnerability. Again, I am a coward. I don’t like to let people in. I don’t want them to know that I am worn out; I am tired; I am jaded. I have been hurt one too many times. I have misjudged what love really is one too many times. Ultimately, my inability to let those who would love me into the deepest core of my being is based on my fear that this will result in my loss. But, today as the Church commemorates the institution of these two foundational sacraments, the sacrament of Holy Orders and the sacrament of the Eucharist, I’m reminded that I must ever take the risk to be loved. Allowing myself to be loved by Christ teaches me that being called to the priesthood has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of my abilities, but on the singular privilege of God’s love. Allowing myself to be loved reassures me that I don’t have to be the Saviour, the Redeemer, the one who has it all together, Christ has already come and will continue to save the world in spite of my limitations. Allowing myself to be loved reminds me that I too am in need of redemption and salvation, and that unless I too allow my feet to be washed by Jesus, I will have no part of his life. Whenever I celebrate the Eucharist, the message of Maundy Thursday, resounds in my ear and in my heart – “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As we celebrate Maundy Thursday, the day we remember the mandate and commandment of Jesus to love each other as he has loved us, we are also called to let down our guard and allow Christ to love us, to wash our feet, to give his life on the Cross for our redemption. We often stand on the sidewalk begging for love in the streets and alleys of life. Weighed down by countless responsibilities and demands of others to be loved, we find ourselves exhausted and empty of love. We fail to recognise that Christ who loves us stands by watching in pain. He watches patiently. Perhaps, when we do have the courage to turn around and look over our shoulders, we will indeed catch a glimpse of Jesus, and it is a glimpse of love. You will find him whispering in your ear, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.