Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Humility is obedience

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Being a priest, it is almost impossible to find ourselves at any table other than the VIP table at a Church function. So, it’s a little difficult to heed the Lord’s advice, “make your way to the lowest place and sit there.” If I had my way, I would make my way to the back of the hall, closest to the toilets for convenience, and to the exit to facilitate a quick get-away when no one’s looking. But in deference to the organisers and as a “guest of honour” we don’t get to choose where to sit. You just submit yourself like a puppet to the host who will tell you, “Father, move up higher” and you simply comply. This is the irony and the paradox of humility. In insisting, in the name of humility, of wanting to be seated at a more humble and discrete position, it actually betrays my arrogance.  Even if we think that our way is the more humble one, the more magnanimous, the more charitable option, it would be pride and not humility that would be insisting on this. Humility is doing what you must do, even when you don’t prefer it.

You could think that humility is packaged in, wearing plain clothes, taking the lowest positions and in doing menial jobs; by no means—there may still lurk a great deal of pride at the bottom of this outward appearance of humility. It may very well happen, that by adopting this mode you wish to distinguish yourself from others, and to pass as a better and more humble man than they, and so all may be but a sort of refined pride. Note that these exterior things, are no guarantee of true humility. Humility is never worn like a badge declaring “I am Humble!” or trumpeted by the one who practices it. This is the paradox of humility.

There is something utterly self-defeating about seeking humility. For example, if I try really hard to achieve it but ultimately fail, I will end up feeling shamed. That’s pride. On the other hand, if I actually succeed in my quest, I will inevitably soon find myself proud of it. Do you see the problem? When we are trying so hard to look humble, isn’t that a form of vanity and pride of the highest kind. Humility as “show” or as “achievement” is no humility. It is just vanity and pride under a not-so-discrete disguise. True virtue seeks to remain hidden. It is just this enigma that the Lord addresses in the curious parable that we have just heard.

Now the parable may seem familiar enough and easily comprehensible but don’t be too quick to judge. In fact it feels almost like the Lord is proposing a self-serving strategy – if you want to climb the corporate ladder, make sure you play the game by positioning yourself as an underdog with the intention of gaining a promotion. Here's the point: how much humility are we showing as we take our seat at the low end of the social spectrum? Aren't we just aiming for someone significant to notice us and lead us to a socially more advantageous spot? Nothing humble about this. That's why this parable is a snare. It exposes the true condition of our hearts. The parable does not claim to present a picture of noble virtue. Our Lord directs is to the self-centred mentality of His audience. They secretly want to be exalted, but they want to be subtle about it. In the face of such subtle self-exaltation, the Lord promises, “for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Here lies the clue to this parable. Those who seek through their own efforts to exalt themselves, either by some shameless act of publicising self or by using more subtle methods of playing humble, will fail – they will be found out and humbled by God. On the other hand, those who are truly humble realise that their exaltation is ultimately the work of God, and comes through no effort of their own. Whether someone gets exalted or humbled is not the work of man, neither does it come from public approval or disapproval. Ultimately, God will be his judge.

By using the metaphor of a meal, our Lord is anticipating the heavenly banquet. Here Jesus is telling us that we are not the ones to decide which position we deserve. Our very presence at the heavenly banquet is God's gift. No one gets to attend without being invited. No one deserves this. No one is entitled to have the best seats. God will overturn our sense of priorities and will give the highest places to those whom the worldly consider to be the least important. This is the reason why the humble man forgets himself. And finally, when he is gathered in the midst of angels in the “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … in which everyone is a first born son and a citizen of heaven,” he recognises that this too is a gift from God. The humble man understands that he did not earn this, for all this would not be possible without the sacrifice and work of “Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant.”

The first reading tells us: “there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him.” But for the humble, he is assured that he “will find favour with the Lord” who “accepts the homage of the humble.” The ancient sage who wrote these words understood that God is honoured only by those who make nothing of themselves. God is the One who is the source of all good things, it is He who hands out good gifts, hence a man can never boast of anything – even his humility. Other people may consider him important, but he himself knows that he owes all he has to God. The cure to our arrogance and ambition becomes possible when we go to God, acknowledging upfront that we are truly helpless without Him. Humility ultimately means being free from thinking about yourself at all. Only then, can we begin to think about God. For we do not possess the cure to our own arrogance.

There is another important element in the parable. The prerequisite for humility is obedience. Notice that the guest only needs to heed the instruction of the host and comply. “Give up your place to this man,” or “move up higher.” You have no say in the matter. St Ignatius of Loyola saw obedience as synonymous with humility. In fact in describing the three kinds of humility in his Spiritual Exercises, he described the first kind as “to subject and humble (oneself) as to obey the law of God our Lord in all things … and would (not) consent to violate a commandment, whether divine or human, that binds (us) under pain of mortal sin)” (Sp Ex No. 165). St Ignatius saw this type of humility or obedience as “necessary for salvation.”  St. Thomas Aquinas explains that by obedience “we slay our own will by humbly giving way to another’s voice.” Therefore, it is not humility but rather pride when one deliberately chooses to depart from the rubrics of the liturgy or excuse oneself from the disciplines of the Church or moral law.

Most of us are familiar with the humility of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. But very few realise that he is not the first pope hailed for being a paragon of humility. The Pope who came from humble and impoverished origins is Pope St Pius X. St Pius was often uneasy with the pomp of his new role. An old friend recalled coming to visit St Pius after his election. He found the new pope in tears. “Look,” he said, gesturing to his rich and heavy papal vestments, “how they have dressed me up.” Rather than rejecting the pomp and pageantry of the papal court, Pope St Pius X resigned himself to it because humility is not insisting on our way but when we “slay our own will by humbly giving way to another’s voice.” And in the case of St Pius X, that voice was the voice of Christ speaking through Mother Church. Doing what you must do, even when your personal preferences lie elsewhere – that, my friends, is “humility.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

Catholicism Lite isn't Catholic

 Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The most common complaint against Catholicism is that it makes life too difficult, that it over-complicates Christianity and that it has too many rules and restrictions. “If Jesus was here,” so the argument goes, “He would just simplify things and dispense with all these small minded rules. Jesus would never make it so hard for people to enter!” What I find ironical is that these complaints generally do not come from non-Catholics, but they are the constant gripe of many well-meaning Catholics who sincerely believe that more people would flock to Church and less would choose to leave, if we just keep things to the basics, to the bare minimum - soften our approach, lessen the demands, relax the rules, grant greater accessibility to the sacraments. Yes, this argument is so appealing because it proposes a lighter, easier Christianity – “Catholicism Lite.”

But the reality of life often proves the reverse. For example, if you wish to do anything well, it takes effort, time and lots of sacrifice. Shoddy and lazy work results in poor performance or substandard products. If you wish to achieve better results, you have to make costly investments of time, money and effort. So an easier Christianity does not guarantee better Christians. It just means that we may be churning out substandard Christians – Christians who are more self-serving than selfless, Christians who feel more entitled than duty-bound to follow Christ, Christians who are more ready to give up than persevere. Lighter, easier Christianity does not guarantee better Christianity. Churches that have chosen to go “lite” have not stemmed the exodus. In fact, going easy seems to have quicken the pace of dying – easy come, easy go! 

So, as much as we would like to look for shortcuts, and time and effort saving hacks in our spiritual lives, they may actually lead to failure and destruction. Scripture warns against spiritual shortcuts. St. Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:1-7, warns against this human tendency to look for an echo-chamber, an opinion or a teaching that agrees with us rather than one which challenges us, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” Today, our Lord warns us: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because, I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.”

Authentic Catholicism involves accepting suffering, it calls for urgency, for patience, for conviction, for endurance. Catholicism-lite, on the other hand, is nice and easy: no need to “endure sound teaching,” just seek out teachers of your own liking. You get to pick and choose what you like and discard the rest of the messy, difficult and demanding stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable. That sounds a lot nicer than martyrdom. But the real litmus test of a good religion is not whether it makes things easier but whether it gets you to heaven or not.

If you want to know whether salvation is easy or difficult, just look at the Cross. This is what our Lord meant by the “narrow door.” The cross is never easy. That’s the price our Lord Jesus Christ paid to get us to heaven. If salvation were meant to be easy, somebody should have presumably given that memo to Jesus so that He didn’t have to suffer the pain, the humiliation, the rejection and finally, death on the cross. If Catholicism is hard, it is because the Cross is hard. Other things may be easier, they may be more comfortable, more convenient, less painful and demanding, but nothing can lead to salvation apart from the Cross.

Now, some smart-alec may argue, “Didn’t Jesus just tell us to “try”?” Most people console themselves by saying that they’ve tried their best and then resign themselves to failure. But when our Lord tells us to “try your best to enter by the narrow door,” He is not just making a tentative suggestion. The Greek word for “try is agonizomai, implying an agonising, intense, purposeful striving or struggle. It is the same word used by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:25 when describing an athlete battling to win a victory; in 1 Timothy 6:12, when speaking of a Christian who “fights the good fight of faith.” It is a battle because entering the kingdom is like going into warfare. It is a reminder that salvation is not easy, “because many will try to enter and will not succeed.” The gospel is not made to accommodate any kind of cheap grace for people with low-pain-threshold or an enormous sense of entitlement. The kingdom is not for people who want salvation without making any radical changes or sacrifices. It is only for those who seek it with all their hearts, those who agonise, who strive to enter. Many would lose the opportunity of salvation because upon approaching the gate, they turn away upon finding out the cost.

Nevertheless, the “hard” here doesn’t mean only few succeed. If you notice, our Lord did not actually give a direct answer to the question posed by the anonymous person in the crowd, “Sir, will there be only a few saved?” The answer He gives is in a way saying, “Your salvation depends on whether you choose to enter by the “narrow door” by paying the cost or choose an easier, a more convenient short cut, which circumvents and avoids the cross.” The former leads to salvation, the latter leads to perdition – “where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” So, when the Church makes demands of us and sets the bar high, it is not because she wishes to see us fail but because she knows that this is the only path that will guarantee “places at the feast in the kingdom of God.”

So, Christians should avoid falling into despair thinking that salvation is only reserved for the elite, the strong, and the best among us. Neither, should we fall into the temptation of presuming that salvation is easy, and it is guaranteed with the least effort or sacrifice on our part. Both are sins against hope and falsification of the message of Christ.

If the Christian path is difficult, does it mean that God is some sadistic being who wishes for us to suffer? The author of the letter to the Hebrews assures us that “when the Lord corrects you, do not treat it lightly; but do not get discouraged when he reprimands you. For the Lord trains the ones that He loves and He punishes all those that He acknowledges as His sons. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as His sons?” What a beautiful image to speak of God as a loving parent. Loving parents practice tough love and choose to discipline their children; self-serving parents do not because they wish to pass themselves off as “cool”, which is more self-serving than loving. Therefore, the suffering we experience in life must be understood not as punishment but as a necessary instrument of formation, a means to stretch our spiritual muscles and compel us to grow beyond our comfort levels to reach for the stars.

Following Christ is hard. It’s brutal at times. It’s painful. And it’s made even harder when well-meaning people seek to undermine the importance of doing just that by telling us, one way or another, to settle for the middle ground or even, to do the bare minimum. The bare minimum may be sufficient for survival in this world but salvation is not just about survival. When it comes down to protecting the feelings of people and defending the Truth, we must choose the latter for the good of the person. Yes, soothing wounded hearts is important. Understanding is important. Gentleness is important. But nothing – nothing at all – is more important than the eternal salvation of souls meant to be with God in Paradise for eternity. So don’t be afraid to challenge the limits of potential disciples. The solution is not found in lowering the threshold but raising it by helping people to “try” or “strive” to enter by the “narrow door.” May our work of evangelisation, of reaching out to others, ever be guided by this ultimate Truth.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Truth draws the line

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I’ve been described as a “pigeon” for good reason. I think it is fair assessment because I often wish to avoid conflict and keep the peace. Confrontation drains and sends me tumbling down a rabbit hole of depression. But, rather than seeing this as a virtue, I have come to recognise that it is a fault to the hilt. A fault, and perhaps even a vice that I have to constantly struggle against. Because in wanting to merely “keep the peace”, I end up sometimes sacrificing the Truth or violating my conscience. This is especially challenging when my true motivation is not really about finding true peace, but something less altruistic – in fact, quite self-serving: I just do not want to lose my friends or my popularity.

Although we acclaim Christ as the Prince of Peace, it must be stated clearly that peace at any price is not the goal of Christianity. Where two sides embrace two conflicting “truths,” compromise to attain some form of uneasy “peace” or to avoid conflict at all cost will descend into an evil. Peace is not just the absence of conflict. In fact, peace is not the result of the absence of something or anything, but true peace always entails the presence of God. It is a Godless society that descends into a violent society, even when such violence is perpetrated in the name of God and religion. Peace loving leaders and their proponents may win the accolades of men for their avoidance of conflict, but if such avoidance of conflict entrenches evil and deceit, and allows it to continue under the blessing of a compromised peace, we are in a sense supporting the continuation of evil.

What is required is not reconciliation that allows and overstates the benefits of a false peace but appropriate confrontation that ensures, what is God’s remains God’s, and what is man’s or what is usurped by man, is restored to God. Truth that liberates, that sets us free and that saves can only come from God. Truth can never be the result of human compromise to merely “keep the peace” so as to offend no one. The fact of the matter is that modern man is willing to risk offending God rather than offending man. It should be the reverse. Give no offence to God, even if it means offending someone who cannot accept the Truth that comes from God. That which is of God is the only Truth. No one can add to it or subtract from it, they cannot improve on it with new human wisdom, nor can they refute it by denial. Anyone who thinks that they can is arrogant. The best we can do is to have a better understanding.

Far from the peace-loving, conflict avoiding Messiah that is depicted by moderns, our Lord in today’s gospel tells us, without mincing words, that He has come to ‘bring fire to the earth’ and ‘bring division’. It is important to note that the Lord is not making some broad statement about His ultimate purpose. Rather, He is pointing to a very real result of His message and mission. The gospel will effect divisions because the Lord confronts us with the truth. He is “the Truth” (John 14:6) and all have to make a response. Our response will ultimately be the point of division. We can either accept the Truth or reject ‘him’. If we try to ignore, that too is a form of rejection. As the Lord announced the kingdom of God, calling for primary allegiance, this will inevitably cause splits and create rifts between different camps, those who will stand with Him in the Kingdom, and those who refuse to abide with Him or even choose to stand against the Kingdom. The family, the traditional central institution that provides protection and social identity, must also give way to this new relationship with Christ. So, even though the kingdom of God ultimately establishes God’s peace on earth, the advance of the kingdom brings division.

The fiery message of this passage is equally crucial to our times. The challenge thrown by the Lord is contrary to many of the prevalent values of our age, the two principal ones being inclusiveness and moral relativity. As a result of this obsession with “inclusiveness,” we are told that we should accept “alternative lifestyles”, redefinitions of life, marriage and sex, normalise the abnormal. The catchword is “tolerance”. Some have almost made a god of tolerance. Yet we find these same people can be quite intolerant of any other viewpoint that disagrees with theirs. Closely related to this teaching of tolerance is the concept of moral relativity, which illogically argues that there are no moral absolutes, except its own claim to be absolute. We must, however, note that Truth is indeed intolerant but its intolerance is directed to lies and sin which seek to hide under the cover of euphemisms. We must remember that Jesus was never tolerant of evil. In the case of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:11), He reached out to the sinner in love, but He hated sin. Compassion and acceptance of the sinner have never meant tolerance of their behaviour. It meant exhorting them to cease that sort of behaviour. Our Lord drew very sharp lines between what was good and what was evil, what was moral and what was immoral. When we blur the line between good and evil, we call destruction upon ourselves.

This unhappy truth does not, of course, imply that followers of Jesus are to seek conflict or to try to split up families or bring division. In fact, our Lord makes it clear that we are to be peacemakers and “to live in peace with each other” (Matt. 5:9; Mark 9:50). St Paul adds: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). That is why Christians are called to be bridge builders and to enter into dialogue with others. But making peace is not the same as making nice. Being nice just means, not trying to offend anyone, which often means lying, compromising our values and giving in to the demands of others and societal pressure to conform. Sometimes, our efforts to bring genuine peace to a situation or a relationship will, in fact, lead to conflict. Neither does making peace mean compromising the Truth. Truth is not the antithesis of love. In fact, love demands truth.

Yes, division is inevitable. As long as the world continues to resist the life-changing gospel of Christ, as long as the world continues to attempt to subvert and win us over to its self-serving values, where man is God and God is not, there will be division and conflict. St Augustine speaks of this division in terms of, “the City of God”, where love rules, and the “City of the World” where human greed and lust for power rule. Our Lord reveals that this division will sever even the closest family ties, while St Paul depicts this division as splitting apart even the individual human heart, where the flesh fights against the spirit (Gal 5:17).

There is a battle between good and evil going on in the world and in our hearts. It is important that we are aware of this. Our Lord has drawn the lines and calls us to make a stand. All disciples have to choose where we are going to stand—with Jesus or with the world. Many of us, well-intentioned Catholics, may honestly believe that we are standing with Christ but unknowingly, are actually aligning ourselves with the world’s standard. Our collusion with the world may sometimes be benign and subtle. When we are afraid to witness to the values of the Kingdom with the excuse that we wish to be peaceful and respectful, or that we do not wish to offend anyone, we are actually standing out of line, within the firing range of enemy territory. When we try to be friendly with the world, we may make the fatal mistake of being an unwitting Trojan horse within our own ranks. In the heat of battle, where there is much confusion and the temptation to sound a retreat is great, let us never forget the advice of the author of Hebrews, “let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.”  He is our victor and we who stand with Him will be victorious. And He assures us that we can “conquer evil through good.” (Rom 12:21)