Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rejoice and be Glad!

A Homily for All Saints Day: 1st November

Happy are you … Blessed are you … Rejoice … Be joyful. Seems strange and inappropriate to say these words to one who is poor, or someone down and out, or when one is mourning for the loss of a loved one. And yet Jesus, doesn’t pause for a moment to exclaim … happy are you … blessed are you … rejoice … be joyful.

What is this joy that Jesus speaks of? Is joy something that you get when your needs and wants are fulfilled? Is this joy something that we can experience now or only in the next life, after we die? Can there be joy in the midst of troubles, sorrow, pain and suffering?

In the eyes of the world, sorrow and joy are two separate matters. People tend to say: “When you are glad, you cannot be sad, and when you are sad, you cannot be glad.” In fact, our contemporary society does everything possible to keep sadness and gladness separated. We try to hide and forget about death, illness, human brokenness.

But the beatitudes, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, gives us an entirely different picture. Jesus shows, both in his teachings and in his life, that true joy often is hidden in the midst of our sorrow. His life, death and resurrection alone is proof of this reality. The cross is a symbol of death and of life, of suffering and of joy, of defeat and of victory. In the cross, both joy and sorrow can exist together. That isn’t easy to understand, but when we think about some of our life experiences, such as being present at the birth of a child or at the death of a friend, great sorrow and great joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience. Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow.

And so we come to understand that true joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us. In other words, joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war or even death – can take that love away. We are, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading, the beloved children of God – this is our true identity – this is the source of our joy. To be a saint means to be joyful even in the midst of trials and sufferings.

When does this joy happen? The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. True, it will find its fullness in heaven; but for all that it is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now.

Nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.

Throughout the year, we celebrate feast days in honour of the saints. They are the ‘name’ (famous) saints, the ‘big’ saints like St. Joseph, the Apostles, the martyrs. Today, we celebrate the unnamed saints, the ‘little’ saints. They are the people who quietly tried to lead good, Christian lives, and who in God’s plan never had the occasion to do anything really spectacular or extraordinary. These are the saints who look just like you and I.

Today in this Mass, we should praise and thank God for the little saints, past and present – even the saints that are present in our midst. Each of you have a baptism name, a name of a saint. Today is everyone’s feast day. Happy Feast Day to one and all of you!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Go our way or follow Jesus on the Way

Thirtieth Ordinary Sunday Year B

The story of Bartimaeus, the man who was once blind till he encountered Jesus, is a story of our journey in faith. Many of us, like Bartimaeus, are looking for something in life, some form of fulfillment, some kind of happiness, a meaning or direction in life, except that we feel absolutely helpless at times. We beg for love and attention, we beg for material things which we think will satisfy our longings, we beg for recognition and understanding. We wrapped ourselves in our own self-deceit, our own self-importance, our fears and our false sense of securities waiting for the answer to come along, someone or something who will free us from the bondage of our present condition.

Then Jesus comes along. Many voices stand in the way of discouraging us from reaching out to him. We hear the echoing voices of past failures reminding us of our folly and warning us of the grave possibility of repeating our mistakes. We hear the voices of cynicism that comes from past experiences of disillusionment. We hear other competing voices shouting out solutions and remedies. It’s hard to recognize the presence of Jesus in the midst of such cacophony. It’s easy to get lost and to just let Jesus pass by unnoticed.

But Bartimaeus was not discouraged nor daunted by these discouraging voices. He cried louder to Jesus. He cried so hard as if he had nothing to lose. He did have nothing to lose but so much more to gain. Someone once said that the only way in which we really get in touch with God is when we are down in the pits, when we come to terms that we are really and totally helpless and vulnerable. The drunkard who recognizes that he is no longer in control of his life, the sinner who realizes that he is totally loss without the light of God, the man who meets the dead end of his life and only has God as his only escape route.

Jesus invites Bartimaeus to come to him. It was as if everything led to this moment, and indeed it did. When asked by Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?,” Bartimaeus had only one request, the only thing he had been seeking for all his life, his sight. But Jesus gives him more. It is ironic, that we often see the small picture and lose sight of the bigger. We imagine that we want this or that, and that if we received it, it would be the happiest moment of our lives. And yet, what we really need is God, the salvation which Jesus meant in today’s gospel. The joy is not so much in gaining what we had been looking for, but recognizing the hand of the giver, the Lord God of Israel whom Jeremiah sings has “delivered his people.”

Jesus then gives Bartimaeus a choice, “Go your way …” But Bartimaeus, who can now see not only physically but also spiritually, decides that there is a better way, following Jesus on the way. Bartimaeus will no longer be satisfied being a beggar, sitting by the side of the road, waiting for something to happen or someone to come along. It’s time to take to the road, and follow in the wake of Jesus. This is his new direction and purpose in life. This is what had brought him new sight. This is the source of his salvation and joy.

Today, we all continue to look to Jesus with our own different needs, big and small. We have been given a choice. We can continue to receive from the hand of Jesus and go our own way, or we can choose to follow him on the way. This is the difference between the blind beggar and the seeing disciple. Which way will we take?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Deepavali (Divali) - October 17

Living in multicultural and multireligious Malaysia is truly a blessing as we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about the cultural and religious celebrations of other Malaysians. Tomorrow, we celebrate one of Malaysia's great religious holidays, and for Hindu Indians it is their largest and best known holiday, Diwali (pronounced Di-vall-ee or dih-WAH-lee) or locally known as Deepavali, is popularly known as the "festival of lights"; however, its most noteworthy meaning in a spiritual sense may be "the awareness of the inner light".

Deepavali (தீபாவளி or Dīpāvalī,) (Hindi: दीपावली, दिवाली; Kannada: ದೀಪಾವಳಿ; Urdu: دیوالی; Tamil: தீபாவளி; Telugu: దీపావళి;Marathi and Konkani:दिवाळी) is a significant festival in Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism, and an official holiday in India and Malaysia.

Deepavali is a Tamil word meaning diyas in line தீபாவளி(deepavali) = தீபம்(deepam)+வளி(vali) (In tamil வளி(vali) = வரிசை(line))The word தீபம்(diyas) derived from the word தீ(fire).

Fundamental in Hindu philosophy is the belief that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman (pronounced in Sanskrit like Atma). Deepavali (Diwali) is the celebration of this inner light, in particular of the knowing that this light outshines all darkness (removes all obstacles and dispels all ignorance), and awakens the individual to their true nature, not as the body, but as an unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With the knowing of the Atman comes universal compassion, love, and the understanding of the oneness of all things.

In most regions, Diwali lasts for five days. It begins on the 14th day of the dark half of the Hindu calendar month of Asvina. (Hindu months are each divided into a light half, when the moon waxes, and a dark half, when it wanes.) In 2009, on the Gregorian calendar, Diwali begins on October 17th.

The story behind Diwali, as well as the length and specific details of the celebrations, varies widely from region to region; however, the essence is the same: to rejoice in the inner light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman) through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, the sharing of sweets and worship.

Deepavali celebrates this through festive fireworks, lights, flowers, sharing of sweets, and worship. While the story behind Dipavali varies from region to region, the essence is the same - to rejoice in the inner light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman).

Of the several events associated with it, the following are two important ones in Hinduism:

  1. Return of Rama to Ayodhya: Deepavali also celebrates the return of Rama, King of Ayodhya, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya after a 14 year exile, and a war in which he killed Ravana. It is believed that the people of Ayodhya lit ghee lamps along the way to light their path in the darkness. Since Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in North India, he passed through the south earlier. This is the reason why the festival is celebrated a day earlier in South India. Deepavali usually comes 19 or 20 days after Dasara.
  2. The Killing of Narakasura: Celebrated as Narak Chaturdashi, one day before Deepavali day, it commemorates the killing of Narakasura, an evil demon who created havoc, by Krishna's wife Satyabhama. This happened in the Dwapara Yuga during this time of Krishna's avatar. In another version, the demon was killed by Krishna ( Krishna provokes his wife Satyabhama to kill Narshna defeating Indra: Govardhan Puja is celebrated the day after Deepavali. It is the day Krishna defeated Indra, the deity of thunder and rain. As per the story, Krishna saw huge preparations for the annual offering to Lord Indra and questions his father Nanda about it. He debated with the villagers about what their 'dharma' truly was. They were farmers, they should do their duty and concentrate on farming and protection of their cattle. He continued to say that all human beings should merely do their 'karma', to the best of their ability and not pray for natural phenomenon. The villagers were convinced by Krishna, and did not proceed with the special puja (prayer). Indra was then angered, and flooded the village. Krishna then lifted Mt Govardhan and held it up as protection to his people and cattle from the rain. Indra finally accepted defeat and recognized Krishna as supreme.

Variations notwithstanding, these stories share a common thread; that of the removal of evil, to be replaced by that which is good.

This sense of renewal is reflected in the way Hindus prepare themselves for Deepavali.

In anticipation of the celebration, homes as well as their surrounding areas are cleaned from top to bottom; decorative designs such as the kolam are drawn or placed on floors and walls; and the glow of lights, whether emitted from the traditional vilakku (oil lamps fashioned out of clay) or colourful electric bulbs, brighten up the abode of both rich and poor, signalling the coming festivities.

Temples are similarly spruced up with flowers and offerings of fruits and coconut milk from devotees, becoming more abundant and pronounced as the big day draws closer.

The spring cleaning and decorating are significant for they not only symbolise renewal but also prepare for the welcoming of Devi Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, who is believed to visit homes and temples on the day. It is said she emerged from the churning ocean only days after the new moon of Deepavali.

Besides the cleaning of homes and temples, Hindus also prepare themselves by cleansing their bodies and minds. Many among the devout fast, or observe a strict vegetarian diet, and spend hours during the preceding weeks in prayer and meditation.

The eve is usually spent making last-minute preparations for the next day. This is also the time when past quarrels are forgotten, and forgiveness is extended and granted.

On Deepavali morning, many Hindu devotees awaken before sunrise for the ritual oil bath. For some it is a symbolic affair (to signify purity) while others take full oil baths to remove impurities externally, as well as tone the muscles and nerves to receive positive energies. Then it's straight to the temples where prayers are held in accordance with the ceremonial rites.

The rest of the day is taken up by receiving guests, as is customary here in Malaysia. Most devout Hindus tend to be vegetarian, but that doesn't change the fact that Deepavali is the day to savour the many delicious Indian delicacies such as sweetmeats, rice puddings and the ever-popular murukku.

For the Jains: Diwali marks the attainment of nirvana by Lord Mahavira – the last of the Jain Tirthankaras – on October 15, 527 BC and is one of their most important festivals.

Mahavira is responsible for establishing the Dharma followed by Jains even today. According to tradition, the chief disciple of Mahavira, Ganadhara Gautam Swami also attained complete knowledge (Kevalgyana) on this day, thus making Diwali one of the most important Jain festivals.

Mahavira attained his nirvana at the dawn of the amavasya (new moon). According to the Kalpasutra by Acharya Bhadrabahu, 3rd century BC, many gods were present there, illuminating the darkness. The following night was pitch black without the light of the gods or the moon. To symbolically keep the light of their master's knowledge alive, the Gana kings illuminated their doors. It was reported that they had said: "Since the light of knowledge is gone, we will make light of ordinary matter."

Diwali (also called Bandi Chhorh Diwas or "the day of release of detainees") is a particularly important day because it celebrates the release from imprisonment in 1619 of the sixth Sikh Guru, Hargobind Ji.

Deepavali has been significant in Sikhism since the illumination of the town of Amritsar commemorating the return of Guru Har Gobind Ji (1595-1644), the sixth Guru of Sikhism, who was imprisoned along with 52 other Hindu kings at Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir. After freeing the other prisoners, he went to the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) in the holy city of Amritsar, where he was welcomed happily by the people who lit candles and divas to greet the Guru. Because of this, Sikhs often refer to Deepavali also as Bandi Chhorh Divas - "the day of release of detainees."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Downward Mobility vs. Upward Mobility

Twenty Ninth Ordinary Sunday Year B

We humans are ambitious creatures. From a young age, we would have begun to fantasize the size and brand of our car, the type of house that we would want to live in, the amount of money that we would make. Once we have arrived at our goals, it just doesn’t feel enough. We want more. We want something better. We want to reach the sky. And in case, we are not able to fulfill our ambitions in our lifetime, we will then expect our children to fulfill those ambitions on behalf of us.

In today’s gospel, we see how the disciples of Jesus were also men of ambition. The two brothers, James and John approached Jesus and asked him for a favour, that is the honour to sit on his right and his left when Jesus comes to glory. The other disciples who heard the brothers’ request became envious of them too. Ambition has begun to erode the relationship of the disciples to one another and to Jesus too. Ambition had blinded them from their mission.

In the example given in the gospel, we can see how ambition can destroy us. Ambition breeds envy. It begins to spoil our relationship with others, even with those who are close to us. Friends can become competitors and enemies. Families can split up because of greed and ambition, everyone fighting for their inheritance or love and attention from parents.

Ambition also prevents us from accepting the crosses in our lives, the cup of suffering which Jesus offers to us. Most people are only happy to receive all the blessings and benefits from God. They are not prepared to drink from the cup of suffering nor are they prepared to take up their cross and follow Jesus. A discipleship that refuses to accept the cross, a discipleship that refuses to become last and the least of all, is not discipleship! It is mere human ambition and greed.

Jesus reminds his disciples and therefore all Christians that we should not copy the ways of the world in seeking for power and honour. Jesus reminds us that our way is different: “No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be slave to all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The paradigm of Jesus is downward mobility and not upward mobility.

Today, we also celebrate Mission Sunday. We often forget that we all share in the one mission of the Church, the mission of Jesus Christ. Ambition may blind us to the gifts and talents of others in wanting to serve the Lord and the Church. We begin to compete with one another. We see ministry no longer as a form of service but as a source of power and symbol of importance.

Today, Jesus invites us to drink from his cup, the cup of suffering that represents the way of the cross, the way of discipleship. If we wish to be great, we must be servants of others; if we wish to be first, we must be slave to all.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Travelling Light for the Journey

Twenty Eighth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Most of us have our own favourite bible verses. Some remember one of the beatitudes. Others like the teaching on love. But there are some bible verses that make us feel uneasy. Perhaps, this is what the second reading from Hebrews is trying to say: “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword …” This is what the word of God does. It does not only console us in moments of difficulty but also challenges us during moments of contentment. It does not only promise blessings but also spells out the curses which arise from our failure to be faithful to God.

Today’s gospel is one such of these difficult passages in the bible. Jesus in the first part of the story merely repeats the Ten Commandments. For many of us, keeping the Ten Commandments is difficult enough. But when the rich man asked Jesus what more can be done since he has already kept all the commandments, Jesus throws this additional challenge to him: “Go and sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Is Jesus asking this from each and every one of us? Does Jesus want each of us to sell everything we have and give all that we possess to the world? This seems like utter foolishness. But for us Christians, this passage contains the most profound wisdom that has ever been taught. The wisdom which Jesus is trying to teach here is this: The kingdom of God is far greater than the kingdom of men. The kingdom of men will fade away but the kingdom of God will be eternal. This is the wisdom of God: that the treasures which we will find in heaven outweighs the riches which will accumulate on this earth. Unless we are prepared to let go of these things on this earth, we will not be able to gain the treasures in heaven. When our concerns are only on the things of this life, things which are temporary, things which fade, things which we cannot take with us after death, then we are truly foolish.

Being rich is not a sin. This is not what Jesus is trying to say in today’s gospel. Rather, he is challenging us to give up whatever may be an obstacle to following him, an obstacle to the realization of the kingdom of God. Each man may have a different obstacle. Perhaps for one man, his riches are his stumbling block. For another man, perhaps, his greed for power is his stumbling block. In trying to be powerful, this man has forgotten that power and authority is given to us by God in order to serve the community and not to control it. For another person, it may be some possession or even person who is the stumbling block. These possessions and persons may distract him from his call to be a follower of Jesus.

In order, to follow Jesus, we must remove these obstacles and lighten our burden. This is the meaning of the parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle. The eye of a needle was the name given to a rock formation near Jerusalem with a big hole in the centre. An ordinary camel can pass through this hole in the rock but a camel laden with goods and the belongings of its master will not be able to pass through. The moral of the story is that we must travel light. If we want to pass through the eye of the needle, if we want to enter the kingdom of God, we must be prepared to let go of the many obstacles that will prevent us from passing through – our riches, our pride, our possessions, our power.

Perhaps, you may be saying that this is impossible. Well, Jesus gives us this hopeful assurance: “For men it is impossible, but not for God; because everything is possible for God.” Let us ask God for this special grace to be able to give up all the attachments that will prevent us from following Jesus into the kingdom of heaven.

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 3 (Final)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

Paving the way outward and forward

Exposing the fundamental myths that underlie our ethnocentricity is only the first stage, albeit a necessary one. In order to move beyond mere recognition and tolerance of differences to a position where diversity is celebrated, more needs to be done. Apart from the tasks that he had suggested earlier, Bennet also writes about the need to learn more about our own culture and to avoid projecting that culture onto other people's experience. This stage is particularly difficult to pass through when one cultural group has vast and unrecognized privileges when compared to other groups. This problem is so invisible that persons in the mainstream are often mystified when representatives of ethnic minorities begin to react to them in a negative way.

In order to begin building relationships with persons of other beliefs and cultures, one must move to the next level of acceptance. This next stage in Bennett's model requires us to be able to shift perspective, while still maintaining our commitments to our own values. He calls this stage “acceptance.” Acceptance does not mean that we have to believe in the same beliefs and values as the other person. What it does mean is accepting the fact that other people are entitled to hold different sets of beliefs and values from us.

Accepting and even respecting the right of others to their belief and values may prove insufficient when a person wishes to begin exploring deeper levels of dialogue and cross cultural communication. Bennet speaks of the next stage of intercultural sensitivity as “adaptation.” This allows the person to function in a bicultural capacity. In this stage, a person is able to take the perspective of another culture and operate successfully within that culture. Church documents often speak of this level as “inculturation” or more accurately “inter-culturation.”

Although, Bennet speaks of a sixth stage of cultural sensitivity which he calls “integration,” this may not be possible or even advisable in the context of religious beliefs. According to Bennet, at this last stage, the person can shift perspectives and frames of reference from one culture to another in a natural way. They become adept at evaluating any situation from multiple frames of reference. He, however admits, that some representatives in cross-cultural collaboration may reach this level, but most probably will not. In the context of religion, such integration often creates a synthesis of two or more religious traditions, thus resulting in a form of religious syncretism. Products of religious syncretism are often treated as new religious movements rather than as an ongoing process of dialogue and interculturation between parties in dialogue.

Dealing with our deep seated prejudices and aptitude to stereotype and vilify others is never easy. Few of us are even aware of every form of prejudice and ethnocentricity that we possess. Perhaps, we would never be rid of them in our lives. It would be a constant struggle of coming to terms with our inner demons, exposing them to the light of faith and reason and allowing God to restore and heal the image that He had intended for us. For some, this life long struggle may appear to be a curse. But for us Christians, it is an opportunity and a challenge to make space and constantly expand it for God and for others. Years of learning, understanding and articulating our faith through Catholic lenses will not be threatened or thrown out by our decision to encounter the ‘other’ as friend rather foe. On the contrary, we would soon discover our encounter with the ‘other’ will lead us to a deeper encounter with God, who as St. Paul reminds us is “the same Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him.” (Rom 10:12)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 2 (of 3)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

Levels of Cultural Sensitivity/ Insensitivity

The process of identifying our innate ethnocentricity and ability to move beyond it is much aided by the significant work of Milton Bennett, who authored the “Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”. Bennett describes six stages of development in intercultural sensitivity: denial, defense, minimisation, acceptance, adaptation and integration. The stages provide a good framework for determining how to work with and improve the capacity for intercultural sensitivity, collaboration and dialogue. Based on the stages enumerated by Bennet, Eric Law, in his book “The Bush was Blazing but not consumed: developing a multicultural community,” presented some of the same ideas in the form of 7 myths, false beliefs that underlie our ethnocentricity.

“Difference does not exist.” This is what Bennet refers to as the first stage of denial. It means that people in this stage are very unaware of differences or choose to ignore differences. What would be some of the reasons leading to this myopic world view? One can imagine someone growing up in an environment that is isolated from others. This denial is caused by isolation (either social, economical, physical) in homogenous communities. One may not need to examine the case of a person growing up in a religiously or ethnically homogenous village. Some self-contained exclusive urban neighbourhoods may also create the same effect. A few years ago, the Japanese Prime Minister commented that the Japanese are able to function more effectively than their American neighbours due to the homogeneity of Japanese society to the ire of the native aboriginal people, who often seem invisible to the larger majority. The task of creating cultural sensitivity at this stage is merely to recognise differences – “Differences do exist!”.

“Difference is confined to broad categories.” Most Malaysians, although there are certainly exceptions, may not fall into the first category but may find themselves in this second category of ethnocentricity. This second stage cannot distinguish finer differences among large categories. “All Chinese have straight hair.” “All Indians like to be involved in politics.” These are forms of stereotyping, meaning that they are oversimplifications in which all the members of a group are considered to be definable by an easily distinguishable set of characteristics. Stereotypes often form the basis of prejudice and are usually employed to explain real or imaginary differences due to race, gender, religion, age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, disability, and occupation, among the limitless groups one may be identified with. The task at this stage is to begin to understand each individual on his own merits. To know that a person comes from a certain religious or ethnic background does not tell us where they fit in terms of values or behaviors; rather, it alerts us to possible arenas of miscommunication.

“You are different; therefore you are bad.” Bennet refers to this form of ethnocentricity as “defense.” In a certain way, this is an improvement from saying that difference is bad or minimal. But this negative evaluation of differences leads to defensiveness and judgmental perception of the other. The task at this level of cultural sensitivity is to recognise and to become more tolerant of differences and to see basic similarities among people of different religions or cultures.

“Its okay for you to be different, but I am better.” Racial supremacy emphasises the positive and superior qualities of one’s own cultural and ethnic status while implying that others are inferior. It is often used to justify many political ideologies and systems based on race, e.g. Apartheid in South Africa, Arianism as justification for Facism and Nazism in Germany etc. The task here is to recognise that everyone deserves equal respect. In the context of religion, equality here means reciprocity rather than equality of beliefs.

“I am different; therefore I am bad and you are good.” Sometimes, the opposite of the previous position happens when one begins to denigrate one’s own culture in order to “fit into” the mainstream. This usually happens among small minorities who begin to assume the dominant cultural group’s attitude and sense of superiority by putting down their own cultural values. It is a form of self-assimilation into the main-stream. Many Orang Asli begin to dress and present themselves as Malay as a result of this dynamic, thus rejecting their own cultural roots in order to acquire a culture of the mainstream which is perceived to be superior to theirs. This form of ethnocentricity can also be the product of globalisation. We can see examples of this in the way of contemporary youth culture, hair-dye colour, dressing, speech and lifestyle aping Western culture.

“If you don’t include like I do, you are bad.” On the surface, such a statement appears to be inclusive. However, this belief often causes the person or group to negatively judge others who do not share their same values or think like them. Thus, the surface inclusion becomes a subtle and often unnoticed front for deep-seated exclusivism. While I was in the United States for a short stint last year, I had the opportunity of sharing a Sabbath meal with a group of secular Jews who made no secret of their avowed liberalism. When discussion led to the account of how the son of one of them had recently shown a greater inclination to Republican (obviously perceived as more conservative) views, another guest at the table exclaimed, “Oh poor thing! That must be so difficult for you to accept!” I thought I had missed something in the conversation. It appears that becoming ‘conservative’ was synonymous to contracting some form of terminal disease.

“I know there are differences, but they are not important.” This corresponds with Bennet’s third stage which he calls “minimisation.” At this stage, persons often try to avoid stereotyping and even begin to see value in all systems. Persons at this level view many things as universal, rather than viewing them simply as part of their own ethnocentricity. I would actually rate this as the most subtle and ‘dangerous’ form of ethnocentricity. Although it obviously emphasises the commonalities and downplays the differences among groups, this kind of ethnocentricity is another way of preserving the centrality of their own worldview. ‘If I want to accept only the part of you that is like me, I am ignoring the rest of you that is different and I am not treating you as a whole person.’ In other words, only those values which correspond to mine, and thus regarded as universal, are of value. In my perception, any differences are of little value. “All religions are the same.” “We all basically believe in the same thing. Differences are man made.” “We are all believers in God and for Him there is no difference.” I often shudder at the casual mention of the last statement at interreligious functions, knowing that my Buddhist friends would again be excluded by such a sweeping generalisation.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Demolishing the Tower of Babel: Dealing with our Ethnocentricity, Part 1 (of 3)

By Rev. Fr. Michael Chua

The Tower of Babel

We are all too familiar with the story of the tower of babel in Gen 11:1-9 set on the mythical stage of a world that was united by a single language and speech. As a result of their pride (though depravity is not mentioned at this stage as in earlier stories), men began this project of building this tower that would reach to the heavens. The story ultimately ends with God’s contempt for human pride and punishes them by causing disunity among them through the confusion of their languages and scattering them abroad, so that they will no longer be one people united by a single tongue.

Perhaps, the often unspoken question of any reader of the story would be this: Why did God confuse their language so that they couldn’t understand each other? What did He intend to accomplish? Is diversity, God’s curse for His people?

I personally received new insight to this story last year when I heard a Native American retell the story in the light of his own traditional spiritual understanding. He claims that he can never understand how White People interpret this story as a curse. He was utterly convinced that it was a “blessing” from God, or the Great Spirit. In other words, the Great Spirit felt it was such a shame for people to live under the illusion of same-ness, ignoring or even vilifying that which was different, that He had to intervene to teach man the need to respect and even celebrate diversity.

Thus, the tower of Babel becomes the symbol of our small-mindedness, our store-house of prejudices and inability to see value and goodness in those who are different from us. In our separateness, we build our towers of unspoken assumptions, beliefs and values. As the tower gets taller and taller, we create more distance and separation from others who are different. Up in the imaginary security of our tower, we may presumptuously conclude that our culture is God’s culture – which, in turn, may lead us to believe that we are gods. We then sit in judgment of others according to our standards and values.

How then do we come down from our towers of Babel? The first step may be the hardest. It is confronting the truth about ourselves – the truth that these towers of superiority and separateness do not guard us from harm’s way but in fact are the cause of our destruction.

I’m not a Bigot!

One of the hardest and most stinging indictments that anyone can receive in his or her life is being called a “bigot,” whether in reference to race, religion, sexual orientation or politics. “Am I a bigot?” Thus, the accusation will start a snowballing of angry denials which will ultimately lead to both mental and verbal justifications. “I’m no bigot! Just because I believe that some people don’t deserve to be compensated for their laziness doesn’t mean that I’m bigoted!” “I’m a very open minded person! For your information, I grew up with many friends who are non-Catholics.” “I’m for equal rights, mind you! I believe that everyone is the same and should be treated the same! There are basically no differences between us. Me? A bigot? Certainly not!” “I really have nothing against Hinduism, Islam or Buddhism. I just have problems with some of their believers and how their religion is practised. They should really learn from us Catholics.” The often angry reaction to even a hint of bigotry on our part may actually be indicative of the truth which we refuse to see in ourselves, the shadow of ‘the bigot’, ‘the racist,’ ‘the chauvinist’ hiding in the closets of our hearts.

So, perhaps before we can even begin to discuss bridge-building with peoples of other beliefs, it may be important to move beyond our self-deceptions to take an honest look at some of our fundamental beliefs of “others” in order to determine our level of inter-cultural sensitivity.

It may be useful to understand the dynamics of prejudice and bigotry by examining the anthropological concept of ‘ethnocentricism.’ Ethnocentricism refers to the tendency to evaluate other groups according to the values and standards of one's own specific group, especially with the conviction that one's own group is superior to the other groups. This often leads to an assumption of superiority over others. Anthropologists argue that everyone is not spared from this condition of being ethnocentric from an early age. We all grow up in a specific environment that shapes our values and worldview. When confronted with that which is ‘different,’ or the ‘other’ person or group, we would then begin to make judgments based on our own historical cultural assumptions and biases. We often do not know very much about other worldviews and would often either consider these as invalid or of lesser value and importance than ours. Therefore, we come to the painful conclusion that we are all basically “ethnocentric!”

It is only in understanding and accepting the cause of our ethnocentrism that we can move beyond it. Admission and recognition is the first step. Then we can begin the long journey of acquiring greater sensitivity to differences that we see in others.

Feast of Guardian Angels - October 2

Just 3 days ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Archangels, Ss. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. These are the three angels named in the bible. Today, we celebrate a smaller feast (what the Church calls a 'memorial'), the feast of our guardian angels.

A guardian angel is an angel assigned to protect and guide a particular person. That every individual soul has a guardian angel has never been defined by the Church, and is, consequently, not an article of faith; but it is the "mind of the Church", as St. Jerome expressed it: "how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it." (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II).

This belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Eusebius, "Praep. Evang.", xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an Assyrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: "He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed."

In the Bible this doctrine is clearly discernible and its development is well marked. In Genesis 28-29, angels not only act as the executors of God's wrath against the cities of the plain, but they deliver Lot from danger; in Exodus 12-13, an angel is the appointed leader of the host of Israel, and in 32:34, God says to Moses: "my angel shall go before thee." At a much later period we have the story of Tobias, which might serve for a commentary on the words of Psalm 90:11: "For he has given his angels charge over you; to keep you in all your ways." (Cf. Psalm 33:8 and 34:5) Lastly, in Daniel 10 angels are entrusted with the care of particular districts; one is called "prince of the kingdom of the Persians", and Michael is termed "one of the chief princes"; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8 (Septuagint); and Ecclesiasticus 17:17 (Septuagint).

This sums up the Old Testament doctrine on the point; it is clear that the Old Testament conceived of God's angels as His ministers who carried out his behests, and who were at times given special commissions, regarding men and mundane affairs. There is no special teaching; the doctrine is rather taken for granted than expressly laid down; cf. 2 Maccabees 3:25; 10:29; 11:6; 15:23.

But in the New Testament the doctrine is stated with greater precision. Angels are everywhere the intermediaries between God and man; and Christ set a seal upon the Old Testament teaching: "See that you despise not one of these little ones: for I say to you, that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 18:10). A twofold aspect of the doctrine is here put before us: even little children have guardian angels, and these same angels lose not the vision of God by the fact that they have a mission to fulfil on earth.

Without dwelling on the various passages in the New Testament where the doctrine of guardian angels is suggested, it may suffice to mention the angel who succoured Christ in the garden, and the angel who delivered St. Peter from prison. Hebrews 1:14 puts the doctrine in its clearest light: "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them, who shall receive the inheritance of salvation?" This is the function of the guardian angels; they are to lead us, if we wish it, to the Kingdom of Heaven.

St. Thomas teaches us (Summa Theologica I:113:4) that only the lowest orders of angels are sent to men, and consequently that they alone are our guardians, though Scotus and Durandus would rather say that any of the members of the angelic host may be sent to execute the Divine commands. Not only the baptized, but every soul that cometh into the world receives a guardian spirit; St. Basil, however (Homily on Psalm 43), and possibly St. Chrysostom (Homily 3 on Colossians) would hold that only Christians were so privileged. Our guardian angels can act upon our senses (I:111:4) and upon our imaginations (I:111:3) — not, however, upon our wills, except "per modum suadentis", viz. by working on our intellect, and thus upon our will, through the senses and the imagination. (I:106:2; and I:111:2). Finally, they are not separated from us after death, but remain with us in heaven, not, however, to help us attain salvation, but "ad aliquam illustrationem" (I:108:7, ad 3am).

There is a similar Islamic belief in the Kirama Katibin, two angels residing on either shoulder of humans which record their good and bad deeds. However, these angels do not have influence over the choices one makes, and only record one's deeds.

This is the traditional Catholic prayer to one's guardian angel.

Angel of God, my guardian dear
to whom God's love commits me here.
Ever this day/night be at my side
to light, to guard, to rule and guide.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Vocation of Marriage

Twenty Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year B

Many people think that marriage is a matter of personal right. They feel that the decision is purely that of the couple. So long as they love one another and decide to marry, that’s enough. No matter what others may say, no matter what the church may teach, no matter what advice we receive from others, we still insist that we have a right to marry. The Church also recognizes the right of the individual to get married. But the Church also requires that the party who wish to marry understand the implications of marriage.

As a priest in this parish and as a judge in the church’s marriage tribunal, I’ve seen so many marriages fail. Some marriages don’t even last for a month. Couples separate weeks, months and just a few years after marriage. When I speak to couples who are separated or who are already divorced, it is always the same story. Many felt that they were not ready for marriage. They had not known each other enough. They had not understood what commitment in marriage is all about. They were more concerned about their own needs and issues. And very often, God was not present in their minds when they decided to get married.

Today’s readings may help us to understand what marriage is all about. I truly wish our young people would listen to the message contained within these readings. I also wish that those who are preparing to get married or their family members will also pay attention to the lessons to be learnt from today’s mass. For couples that are already married, today’s readings will be reminder to you of the commitment you made on the day of your wedding.

First, marriage is not a human institution. Marriage is a divine institution. It is a vocation. Very often, God is forgotten in all the busy-ness of making preparations for marriage. The couples are more concerned with the wedding dress, the dinner, the floral arrangement, the invitation cards and the wedding photos. God and the church is a necessary inconvenience. Many often think that the only reason why they have to see the priest is because they want to get married in church. The only reason why many want a church wedding is because of pressure from family members. In fact, I’ve seen many couples insisting that they want to get married in church but have never stepped into church for the last 10 years and would most likely not step into church again. The wedding has become a sentimental ceremony rather than a spiritual celebration of Gods’ love. I would like to remind everyone here that without God, there cannot be a true union in wedding. It is God who makes marriages possible and lasting. If God is absent from our lives, it would really be very difficult to make the marriage work.

Second, marriage calls for a conversion in the lives of the couples. Conversion must take place because “the two must become one body.” Conversion must take place in order for the couples to die to their selfishness. That is why the preparation is so important. I often hear of complaints from young couples who want to have a quick wedding with little fuss. They don’t seem to understand why they need to go for marriage preparation. Many who attend, do so out of compulsion because the priest tells them that they cannot get married unless they go through the marriage preparation course. Conversion can never be compelled. It must come freely.

Lastly, marriage is about commitment. A lack of commitment is a sign of immaturity. Love is all about commitment. Love is never about feelings and emotions. Commitment means accepting the whole package and not just the parts which we like – “for better or for worse”. Commitment means learning to forgive not only once but again and again. Commitment is more concerned with giving than with taking and receiving. Commitment calls us to change ourselves, not only once, but throughout our whole lives.

Today, family life and married life is under siege. Divorce is becoming a normal everyday occurrence. But the Church’s role, the role of every Christian is to continue promoting married life and family life in spite of the many challenges. Married life is a contradiction to the selfish and self-centred lifestyle of today’s generation. In such a selfish and self-centered generation, people are seen as objects to be used. When they are no longer seen as useful, they are then discarded. I especially appeal to parents to take up this responsibility. Your children will learn from your behaviour. Your marriage will affect your children and their future. If your marriage is in trouble, I hope that you would do something about it. Seek help. Seek counseling. Get the support of family and friends. Don’t wait till it’s too late.

Today, let us pray for all marriages and families. Let us pray especially for the marriages that are in trouble and for broken families. Let us pray for ourselves – whether we are still single, married or divorced – that God would continue to bring healing into our lives so that our lives would be marked with selfless love rather than selfishness.