Thursday, May 26, 2016

Homily for First Day of Parish Novena 2016: "Comforting the Afflicted"

Preacher: Fr Simon Yong SJ

Just as well that we launch this year’s Novena with a subject central to the Year of Mercy. The issue for the first day is “Comforting the Afflicted”. Even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists it as one of the Spiritual Acts of Mercy (CCC. 2447), it is scriptural as St Paul himself counselled that one should rejoice with those who rejoice and the weep with those who weep (Rom 12: 15).

Closer to the truth and contrary to St Paul’s exhortation is this quote of an American poetess Ella Wilcox: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone”.  It is always easier to do something, anything when confronted by a sorrowful situation not of ours or not personal. If caring is taken to mean sharing, then you would understand why not acting can be or is frequently equated as not caring enough. Thus, consoling the sorrowful or comforting the afflicted is not for the feeble. Someone sent me a light-hearted cartoon of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: He comes back after praying to the Father only to see the Disciples doing something quite familiar to all of us and He exclaimed: “Can you not watch for an hour without texting”?

At the heart of this spiritual act of mercy is a notion of sacramentality or an expression of sacramental presence. What do I mean by that? The person who listens and is present to the afflicted becomes an image of Christ who bore our suffering and carried our sorrows. The Latin root of the word compassion carries this same idea—to suffer with, much like the word to empathise.

However, corporal acts of mercy are much easier to handle because they involve a distancing. For example, an explanation given about why a nation where the people are so friendly is that their friendliness is a protective act of distancing much like giving water to the thirsty a way of projecting a Christ-like behaviour which fulfils an obligation but without getting too much involved. “I am a Christian and I have done my duty. What more can you ask”? Perhaps it explains why when faced with a catastrophe like the previous massive flood in the East Coast, the easiest (even if it may be painful) is to reach into the pocket or to get out the chequebook. And, of course, the best thing was we witnessed the outpouring of sympathy expressed through the accumulation of donated goods—canned food, expired or not, clothes, used or otherwise etc), and at times charity organisations will tell you that people give what they have no need of anymore. That deed of giving acts as a kind of guilt-salving which sends the message that “In so-doing, I have behaved in a Christian manner”.

Our reluctance to embrace the suffering of the afflicted may find its provenance in the air we breathe—an alpha-achievement atmosphere that is aided by a technology-obsessed culture. We are conditioned into winning all the time—and only winning can validate our existence. Think “kiasu”. The alpha-achievement fear of losing is driven to achieve and to succeed. It is not difficult to carry that mentality into the culture of mercy. Whenever someone is hurting, we try to cure the hurt and remove it. Inaction would come across as failure.

The backdrop of this roadmap to achievement and success is a lifestyle of comfort and convenience. To paraphrase John Paul II, “the evil use of advertising techniques has stimulated the natural inclination to avoid hard work by promising the immediate satisfaction of every desire." We all crave greater comfort as well as convenience and nothing should stand in the way of this quest. Why do you think that the acceptance of euthanasia is on the rise? Is it because we have become more merciful to those who are suffering. We hear this often, do we not? “Yeah, it is terrible to watch her suffer. It would be more merciful to end that suffering”.

But, sorrow and suffering are both characteristic marks human existence and as JPII pointed out, we naturally have a natural inclination to avoid them but when they are taken to be signs of weakness, our “success-driven” narrative will measure achievement through the efficiency with which we annihilate them. Perhaps you begin to realise how easy it is to buy into the relevancy of euthanasia. We not only abort and euthanise everything that makes us suffer but we also run away from anything that reminds us of our powerlessness.

Benedict XVI in Spes salvi tells us that “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love”. The ability to suffer and embrace our personal suffering is the first step towards this spiritual act of mercy. If you like, in the face of sorrows and tribulations, our power comes not from our prowess but from our powerlessness before God.

Thus, powerlessness in the face of sorrow and affliction is not a sign of failure. Instead, it becomes an impetus for charity and an act of deep faith in God. When Christ hung on the Cross, He forgave the Good Thief but He did not change the status of the Good Thief who in fact hung on even longer and had to have his leg broken in order to hasten his death. Likewise, in the many cases of sorrow encountered, we can do nothing to change the situation but our absence, like the Disciples deserting Jesus after His arrest, might just increase the sorrow of the sufferer. Think of the proverb: shared joy is doubled whilst shared grief is halved.

Do not look at your inability to solve the problem, to remove the sorrow or restore what was lost as a weakness but rather look at it as a strength to communicates a faith in God who knows what it is to suffer. Comforting the afflicted sends this message out loud: You are not alone. I am with you is sacramental proof that God is with you.

Finally, St Teresa de Jesus has this to say: Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

It is easy to become His hands and feet when we engage in charitable works. We can readily address the physical needs of those who suffer. We do it and it makes us feel good about it and about us. But, what about the invisible and more spiritual aspect of mercy? Here, something may be said here about the eyes as window to the soul. Thus, the Christian challenge in a materialistic world bent on banishing pain and suffering is to become His Soul with compassionate eyes so that one may also enter and touch the soul of the one who suffers.

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