Friday, July 20, 2012

From Activism to Contemplation

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

One problem with our complicated lives these days is that many of us never find time to spend alone, in peace, without being bombarded with activity, crowds, noise and information. There’s no doubt about it – we live in a busy world. With all the time saving devices in our homes and work places one would think that we would have so much more time to do the things we like to do, to spend more time with our families, volunteer more of our time to charity and the church, and, of course, have more time for prayer. Just wishful thinking!

Time is something we wrestle with every day. Our lives are packed so full that the day is finished before we have accomplished half of what we wanted to do. In fact, experts tell us that we are trying to do in one day that not so long ago took three days. In spite of the fact that we frequently complain about our daily busy-ness, we also take great pride that our fully booked schedules and cluttered diaries are indications of our self-importance. Busy people are important people. Activity seems to be a good measure of our real worth.

The Twelve apostles returned from their busy assignments in today’s gospel to give a report of their activities to the Master who had sent them out on this mission. They have not been idle. Anyone, including the Twelve, would have hoped that the litany of their achievements would be met with more than a simple approval. In fact, they had done more than what was required. The Lord had sent them out in an earlier chapter to cast out demons, but now they return boasting that they had also taught in his name. Being busy and active seems to be an essential part of the ball game if you decide to play on Jesus’ team. The disciples were in the middle of this flurry of activities that followed Jesus wherever he went. For example, in today’s gospel we hear that "there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat" (Mark 6:31).

But Jesus’ response to the Twelve’s enthusiasm would have floored many of us. Instead of commending them on a job well done, and encouraging them to return to the frontlines as soon as possible, he invites them to enjoy some ‘R & R,’ or rather to go away with him to a deserted place to be alone together with him. Jesus is not just inviting his disciples to take time out of their busy schedule. Time out is a good strategy in sports, when the game needs to be slowed down; when weary players need a short break; when advice from the coach is needed to give the team the winning edge; when a player needs encouragement and support; when it seems that the opponents are getting an upper hand; a call for time out is what is needed. Certainly, taking time out is a wise principle in everyday living.

Rather, Jesus is calling them to a time away with himself. He is leading them away from the distractions posed by their busy-ness and activism, even when such activism seemed to be doing the work of God, to a deeper level of relating with him. Jesus is calling them into prayerful contemplation. Presently, I’m teaching a bible course on the Gospel of Mark where I have introduced the ancient Catholic practice of Lectio Divina as a form of prayer – praying with Sacred Scriptures. I am encouraged in knowing that most of the participants have benefited from this new prayer experience of praying with Scriptures. In a recent feedback, many of them informed their group facilitators of their difficulty in grasping the meaning of contemplation, the fourth section of the Lectio Divina. They are unsure of how one is to do contemplation or whether they have even entered into contemplation. The whole idea of contemplation seems altogether fuzzy and vague.

Perhaps, the inability to grasp the idea or enter into the experience of contemplation betrays a massive evasion. The personal difficulty lies in not being able to surrender control of our lives, or even that of our prayer experience to God. Contemplation is incomprehensible because our only known reality is that reality where we have been in control. We are accustomed to using words in our prayers. Others too have now been able to utilise their rich and vivid imagination to conjure up images of gospel scenes, surrealistic portrayals of Jesus whilst doing meditation. But now when invited to go beyond words and imagination, they are lost because it is an invitation to enter to the ‘dark night of the soul’ or the ‘cloud of unknowing’, as the mystics would call it. It is a frighteningly disarming experience because we ask to cast ourselves on to the mercy of God, allowing Him to do whatever He wishes to do us with us without holding anything back.

Though it has acquired other meanings and connotations in recent centuries, the word contemplation had a specific meaning for the first 16 centuries of the Christian era. St. Gregory the Great summed up this meaning at the end of the 6th century as the knowledge of God that is impregnated with love. This comes as an assurance to those who fear that when they cast aside the words and the imagination, the frills and the accouterments, they are left with nothing or just plain emptiness. St Gregory reminds us that when the soul casts aside the words or even discursive mental prayer, what is left is not nothingness but pure love. For St Gregory, contemplation was both the fruit of reflecting on the Word of God and a precious gift of God. He referred to contemplation as "resting in God." In this "resting," the mind and heart are not so much seeking God, as beginning to experience what they have been seeking.

In this traditional understanding, contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is not something that can be achieved through will, but rather is God's gift. It is the opening of mind and heart - one's whole being - to God. Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation. It is a relationship initiated by God and leading, if one consents, to divine union. Essential to contemplative prayer is docility toward the word of God resulting in ready obedience. This calls for us to surrender entirely to his will, to put aside our need to dictate terms, to suspend our constant desire to be in control in order to allow God to have total control of us.

When God is in control, we can no longer insist that we wish to have our prayer experience saturated with a particular kind of feeling, especially the feeling of being consoled and loved. When God is in control, He can certainly lead us to move beyond the feelings of warmth and security, in fact, beyond all feelings and emotions.

But perhaps, the real issue faced by most Christians is that they claim that they do not even have time for prayer. The oft repeated excuse is that we are too busy to waste time on this seemingly vacuous and fruitless activity. Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul was once asked how he could find time away from his busy schedule to pray and his simple reply was this, “The more active you are, the more time you should set aside for prayer.” Action, even when it is directed to the mission of Christ and his Church can never be a substitute for prayer. When Christians fail to prayer, they cease to be Christians. Even the most active in Christian ministry will be reduced to a social activist.

Prayer requires solitude, moving away from the crowds which tempt us with promises of popularity as we pander to their needs. Prayer demands silence, silence from the cacophony of noises that try to silence the voice of God. Prayer requires trust – trusting in God who leads us away to lonely deserted places to a deeper relationship that is not measured by the things we do but by how much we are capable of loving and allowing ourselves to be loved. Prayer leads us away from the temptation of trusting our own devices and resources in order that we may learn to trust God and His Providence. Prayer reminds us of the mastery and sovereignty of God, a God who continues to work even when men rests. Prayer teaches us that true measure of a Christian is not what he has accomplished in life but how he has been constantly with Jesus in both work and rest, in prayer and ministry, in and out of season.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Travel Lightly

Fifteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

It’s really ironic how some of the things which you enjoy most of all gets matched up with the things you least enjoy.  An obvious example is travelling. I love travelling. Who doesn’t? However, an important prelude to travelling is knowing how to pack your luggage. Here, I must confess I fail miserably. Packing my luggage is one of the things I hate most in life, which is another way of saying that I am disorganised. I know that many of you can appreciate the nightmare of trying to fit two weeks of clothing into a bag which can only accommodate less than a week, lugging around heavy luggage, waiting in long baggage claim lines, fretting over whether you would have to pay additional charges for overweight luggage.

I must have overlooked the wisdom of that celebrated author of the Little Prince, Antoine De St Exupery, “He who would travel happily must travel light.” In recent years, I have begun to learn the important lesson of travelling lightly. I’m a slow learner when it comes to this. After having over-packed for many trips, which includes lots of overnight stops in various hotels and accommodations, and suffering the misery of lugging around a heavy suitcase, I’ve finally learnt the lesson of keeping it simple.  Well, at least some times.

I can still recall the first trip I went on with this new resolution to keep things simple, where I opted for a cabin size carry-on instead of my usual larger than life check-in luggage plus another carry-on. The experience was exhilarating! I was mobile, flexible, and fancy free. I felt like I could go anywhere, and do anything, when I wasn’t loaded down with stuff. And I thought, wow, if it feels this great to travel lightly, how wonderful would it be to live this way? I began to edit the contents of my life with the same fervour as I had my suitcase. As I slowly ditched the extra “baggage,” I could feel the weight being lifted from my shoulders.

Excess possessions are like excess luggage: they can tie us down, get in the way, and drain our sense of energy and adventure. Conversely, the less stuff we have to worry about, the more nimble we become—and the better able to embrace new opportunities and experiences. To regain our freedom, we simply need to lighten our loads.

In today’s gospel, Jesus presents this wise piece of travel advisory to his disciples and to all Christians. But Jesus’ version seem even harsher than what you would expect on a budget airline like AirAsia. When you get a ticket issued by Jesus, you won’t have to struggle looking for those small print exclusions found at the bottom of the page. It would come printed in bold right at the very top – “No Carry-Ons Allowed.” Well, that’s really paraphrasing the following - “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick- no food, no sack, no money …. (can ) wear sandals but not a second tunic.”  

Many would be tempted to think that Jesus had imposed such harsh austere conditions because it arose from some sick sadistic pleasure to see his disciples suffer. Others would explain away the extreme demands made by merely dismissing the whole episode as a literary hyperbole – a mere exaggeration of the actual conditions required in order to prove a point, not to be taken literally. Very often, we would try to escape from the rigorous constraints placed by Jesus by spiritualising the message. But, it is clear that the most important lesson that Jesus wanted to impress on his disciples was a radical dependence on God with regards to disciples and would-be disciples. He had made this demand right from the beginning when he called Peter and his brother Andrew and the two siblings, James and John, from their previous stable occupations of fishing. They left not only their possessions, a paying job, their hometowns, but also friends, relatives and even families.

Radical dependence on God means not anchoring ourselves to our present situation of life. The conditions imposed by Jesus on travelling lightly stresses the importance of always being on the move. We are to steer away from the temptation of growing roots, hanging on to what we possess, holding onto relationships we have established, keeping a firm hold to positions we have acquired. Christians need to be always on the move because we are a missionary people called to proclaim the kingdom of God to furthest ends of the earth. Christians become overly parochial and insular when they lose their missionary edge. Inertia makes them grow spiritually fat and lazy. When Christians or parishes have become overburdened with heavy baggage, they no longer see the excitement and enthusiasm of sharing their faith.  

Secondly, radical dependence on God means rooting ourselves in the Church. Being dependent on God does not mean that one is a Lone Ranger or a soloist. Jesus sent out the Twelve two by two. Dependence on God requires dependence and submission to the community which Christ established as his visible body, the Church. Dependence on God means communion and collaboration with others called to the same mission. Radical dependence calls us to recognise that the Church is the People of God moving together and journeying towards the Promised Land of eternal salvation.

Thirdly, radical dependence means freedom from enslavement to sin, material possessions, false securities, self-sufficiency and pride. Interestingly, the four items required of the Twelve in today’s gospel are identical to that which God told the Hebrews to take on their flight from Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 12:11). The Hebrews were rescued by God from their condition of slavery in Egypt. But eventually, they found themselves enslaved to new masters – to the things which they brought as additional security. This radical rejection of those items point to a second Exodus which all Christians must take. In order to be free, one must not only be free from external masters but also from the tyranny of self.

Fourthly, radical dependence means accepting the hospitality of God. The whole story of the Bible could be seen through the interpretive key of ‘hospitality.’ God offers hospitality to man in Creation – he builds a home and furnishes it with all that is necessary for man’s livelihood and wellbeing. God offers hospitality to man by offering him forgiveness and reconciliation, even when man had turn God out of his life. And finally, God offers hospitality to man through the gift of salvation. He offers us the hospitality of heaven.  Hospitality means trusting in God’s providence. When we move into the home of a friend who has offered us hospitality, we don’t move our entire household, furniture, furnishings and lock-stock and barrel into this new environ. We move in with the expected hope that all our needs will be provided for. God will provide for our needs. Thus the radical dispossession of the disciples of Christ will be matched with the bountiful grace, riches, hospitality, and blessings of God. God will provide his workers with their ‘daily bread.’

As Christians, we are often tempted to surround ourselves with several layers of security blankets, to get into the rut of daily routine and develop inertia against change. The radical call of Christ, however, shakes us from our stupour. Christians are meant to always be uprooted whilst rooted in Christ. They are meant to live on the edge whilst living in dependence of God’s providence. They are called go out on a limb whilst attached to the True Vine who gives them life. They are called to travel lightly, whilst carrying the heavy weight of being effective witnesses of the good news of salvation. Only then, can the Kingdom of God be seen not only as the content of their message but in the testimony of  their lives.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Prophecy: Truth and the Word

Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Just the other day, I was talking to a close friend of how I’ve often held back in terms of preaching and speaking the truth. I cited several logical and seemingly reasonable justifications for my actions.
First Reason – People are generally not ready for the truth as much as they clamour for it. Quite often, the truth will be met with denial, incredulity and even outright opposition.
Second Reason – Speaking the truth will get others into trouble. You risk exposing their mistakes. So suppressing the truth is an act of charity and provides them with some protection against ridicule.
Third Reason – Speaking the truth will invite the wrath of the powers that be. Sometimes, it is prudent to tip toe around the truth and to confine ourselves to the official truth or what is deemed acceptable. In such a situation, it is better to hold back the truth in the long run, than to risk a premature end to your short-lived project.

The above reasons seemed well thought through and even appear to transcend self-interest yet they are undeniably clever ways of self-deception. They conceal a basic instinct for self-survival. What lies behind the veiled argument is a scared individual frightened that his actions will risk opposition, insults, and rejection. For the sake of maintaining good ties and to avoid soiling friendships, something has to give - truth must ultimately be compromised.

My friend reminded me that when I choose to hold back the truth, I do so at the risk of not just lying to my congregation, but also risk leaving them incarcerated in the prison of ignorance surrounded by half-truths and lies. When I choose to abdicate my responsibility to preach the Word of God, Christ who is the Truth, the Way and Life and instead substitute Him with some easy, non-threatening, and safe message, then I risk reinventing not only the message but the Christian faith. It seems much easier to transform the right into the wrong and the wrong into the right when it best suits us or when it’s the most popular thing to do. But William Penn had this to say as a stern reminder, “Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."

This week we celebrate Bible Sunday. It is an opportunity not only to celebrate the Word of God as revealed to man, but also man’s response or rather ensuing responsibility thereto. There is an inseparable bond between the Word spoken by God and that which is heard by man. Man hears the Word and is transformed – he then becomes the medium by which the Word is made known to the world. He is a servant of the Word, not its master. But the integrity of this bond is damaged when we choose to alter the meaning of the Word which we are bound to transmit. Thus, compromising the truth of the message reduces the Word of God into a message which is merely the sum of the words of men.

Today’s readings remind us that the prophetic ministry of the Word of God need not be something which is necessarily popular or easy. Our job is not to make everyone like us.  Our job or rather our responsibility is to use all our gifts and talents to make God present.  Our prophetic role is to deliver the message of God even when no one is prepared to listen. In the first reading, God told Ezekiel that even if the people did not like his message from God, after hearing Ezekiel they would know there had been a prophet with them.  When Jesus tried to teach in his hometown, no one would listen.  When Paul preached some people did not like what he said and made trouble for him.  The same is true for us.  We are called to fidelity in preaching the Word of God. We are called to be true to its message. We are called to be faithful to the source of that Word. We do so with the knowledge that we may have to risk everything, even fame, friendship and popularity.

Faced with such a daunting and unpopular task, how could we even begin to undertake this heavy responsibility of being story-tellers of the story of God to an audience who may not like what they hear? All three readings provide us with sufficient grounding for our prophetic ministry.

The ministry of proclaiming the Word of God does not proceed from some personal conviction or set of abilities. It proceeds from the call of God. God calls and sends us out as his prophets. God pours his Spirit into us and places his words in our mouth. This has absolutely nothing to do with personal capacity or capabilities, with personal merit or worth. The personal condition or disposition of the listeners also do not affect the transmission of the Word, at least from the point of the election of the prophet. In fact, God does not hide the truth about the difficulty of this task. We will have to contend with an audience that suffers from hardness of heart and obstinacy, one which constantly rebels against God. All these point to the inner dynamism or power of the Word of God.  We often make so much about the human factor – having the right candidate, the most fertile environment, the perfect opportunity. The first reading reminds us that we should never discount the power of the Word of God which is able to overcome all these limitations and obstacles.

St Paul reminds us that the life of a Christian is supremely about grace. A Christian may not be the most eloquent or gifted person in the world, he may suffer from all forms of weaknesses and limitations. He stands humiliated and shamed by his shortcomings. And yet in spite of all these factors which the world perceive as the perfect formulae for failure and disaster, God’s grace saves the day.  This is the conviction of St. Paul in today’s second reading. He is able to speak so eloquently only because of his confidence in God and not in himself. He believes that God speaks to him in this way: “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.” And so he declares: “that is why I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

How then do we know that we are authentically being prophetic and not just acting upon self-righteous delusions? The answer lies in the gospel. Jesus himself was rejected by his own countrymen and relations when he chose to play the prophet instead of the puppet. Both, the prophet and his message are often unpopular. This is because the Word of God, although often offering consolation and healing, can equally come across as a hard message and a painful truth. People do not like to hear the truth about themselves especially when the truth calls for change. We need to speak the truth and not just that which is popular.

As a priest, I’m often tempted to dull the edge of the message, soften the blow of the challenge, restate the difficult message in a more popularly acceptable manner. This guarantees personal survival and popular acceptance but obviously presents a hollow version of Christianity, and a message that is far from the Word of God. This may be the kind of prophet or priest that the people want, but is it the kind of prophet the people need? Let us therefore pray for strong prophets, faithful prophets, prophets willing to suffer weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and agonies for the sake of Christ; Prophets who are prepared to challenge our ignorance, our stubbornness, our sinfulness; Prophets who are willing to help us see that when we are weak, then we are truly strong; Prophets who are able to help us recognise that God’s grace is sufficient in all situations and at all times. Each of us is called to be this kind of prophet. So, let’s be prophets of God rather than politicians who rake up points for ourselves.