Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Does life have meaning?

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Does life have any meaning? When things in life are going well and we are happy and content, the question of the purpose and the meaning of life really doesn’t matter. But this particular needling question does pop up when we hit a crisis, a season of depression or a time of change. Both during youth and old age, the question of life’s purpose and meaning becomes particularly relevant, but for different reasons. With an infinite future ahead and limitless possibilities and choices, the youth wonders what the purpose of his life is and what he should do – get married and raise a family, seek further education and a professional career, get a good-paying job, or a billion other options. The older person who is retired, perhaps widowed, watching friends and family die all around him, also wonders what the purpose and meaning of life is – but for a very different reason than the youth. Choices become more limited. Those things that used to give life purpose and meaning seem to be slipping away.

So what is the real purpose and meaning of life? Is it to make a lot of money and be successful? Is it to marry and raise a family? Is it to obtain lots of material possessions – fancy car, big house, a fat bank account? Is it to make lots of friends, be popular and socialise? But, is that all? Is there no greater meaning or purpose to this amazing gift of life? For some, maybe these sources of meaning and purpose are enough—even if they don’t quite fulfill. Why? Because there is something very deep within us that says there is more to life than any of these, that there is something very great and meaningful that we are here for. But what is that purpose?

Sigmund Freud said it bluntly, and he is right: “… only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life.” The Second Vatican Council also expressed something similar in the first paragraph of its Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate): “Men expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir the hearts of men: What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Whence suffering and what purpose does it serve? Which is the road to true happiness? What are death, judgment and retribution after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?” This Sunday’s first reading from Ecclesiastes also seeks to find an answer to these fundamental questions.

Ecclesiastes sets up the whole book as a kind of experiment, in which he searches for the meaning of life through a series of projects. He starts off searching for wisdom, but decides in the end that, “in wisdom is much vexation” (1:18). Then he moves on to pleasure and tries to find meaning in life by satisfying all of his base desires, but again “all was vanity and a striving after wind” (2:11). And then he turns to the third option, finding happiness in one’s labour, one’s achievements and even here he judges it as mere vanity. By this point, the author has already exhausted three possible routes to happiness, meaning and fulfillment: knowledge, pleasure and work. The gospel throws in a fourth option, wealth, and you have a “winning” or “losing” formula”: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”

Now, the meaning of “vanity” has changed over the centuries. For the modern man, vanity is synonymous to narcissism and excessive pride, both pervasive problems of our age. But the word “vanity” in this context has a different meaning. “Vanity” translated from the Hebrew hebel, which means “vapour” or “breath.” Of course the word is used here in a densely metaphorical sense, causing translators throughout the ages to struggle to capture the proper sense of the claim that all things are ‘fleeting’, ‘empty’, ‘futile’, ‘vain’, ‘absurd,’ or ‘meaningless’. So a modern rendering may sound like this, “Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”  All of this may seem depressing and fatalistic but it is notable that the Book of Ecclesiastes ends by urging the reader to place his trust in God as the only Eternal Being.

True, there is a widespread hunger for religion and various forms of spiritualities. This is evidence of the abiding human need to find meaning. But too often these “spiritual” solutions often prove to be either fraudulent or as fragile as the options the world offers – knowledge, pleasure, work and possessions – they all end in futility. In contrast, St Paul in the second reading points us to a vision of human reality based on Christ. We were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised with Him through faith in the power of God. Since we have been raised with Christ, we should “look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is sitting at God’s right hand.”  Of course, St Paul is not saying that we should become angels. That is not possible. But our present existence should be seen and lived in the light of 'heaven, where Christ is'.

Why is this heavenly perspective so crucially important, you might ask? This is because meaning is experienced as fulfillment. In other words, one who lives a meaningful life—i.e., a life which seeks to fulfill its purpose—is one who is fulfilled. And the fulfillment of a life well-lived is integral to our arriving at our destined end. What is our destined end? The answer to the second question of the Penny Catechism tells us: “We were made to know God, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.” Every human being is destined for glory – we were created to be with Him in Paradise forever. Heaven is our destiny and therefore heaven is what ultimately gives life meaning.

Finally, the parable in our gospel today provides us with a stark and well needed reminder: If this world is all there is, then you will be disappointed. If you live in pursuit of the things of this world in an attempt to satisfy the longing of your soul, then you will die empty. Whatever you possess, you acquire, you achieve in this life, you would not be able to carry into the next. You see - the things of this world were never intended to ultimately satisfy. While their pleasures provide momentary satisfaction, in the end, you will be left wanting more. The things of this world are designed to point you to God and seek Him. This is because only God can truly satisfy. Life pursued apart from God is as futile as trying to catch the wind in a cup.

At the end of the day, when we do not place our priorities in their proper order, life starts to lose its meaning. Life is no longer a joy to live. Everything seem chaotic and meaningless. But when our life is in God’s order, life is a joyous adventure! Our Lord tells us that this is the proper order, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.” What’s the first thing? God. What is the second thing? Everything else. It is important not to get the two confused. Because when God becomes the second thing, and other priorities become the first thing, we lose God, and then our lives get lost in meaningless living.

But when the Lord takes first place in our hearts, we will find that life is far from the meaninglessness. Instead, we discover in God that we are made for a beautiful eternal communion, the ultimate fulfillment of our nature, our purpose, our destiny. We now understand what St Teresa of Avila is trying to remind us,
“Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices.”

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Prayer is not Magic

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I recalled an enquirer in the RCIA sharing how she received her first lesson in prayer; it was quite the unfortunate experience, I must say. Her friend, a Catholic, had given her some advice on prayer – “take some holy water collected from the Shrine of St Anne’s and sprinkle them on the four tyres of your car, then buy the number of the car registration plate and you will be assured of a jackpot.” I heard something similar at a coffee shop once. Two men at a neighbouring table were talking about their gambling exploits in Genting Highlands. The Christian turned to the other and said that his secret for winning was praying in tongues. “When I pray in tongues as the dice is rolled, I win BIG!” I know both these stories may seem like extreme examples and most of you good folks would obviously find them ridiculously hilarious. But the truth of the matter is that we often treat prayer too much like it is magic even when our method seems reasonable.

Prayer is the foundation of our Christian life. No question about this. However, some carry this to an extreme and jump to the conclusion that prayer is something of a magic wand, that if we do prayer with the right words, in the right manner, with the right phrases, and in the right posture, God is obligated to answer. The idea seems to be that we have the capacity to coerce God into doing for us whatever it is we want Him to do, and that we can either strike a deal with Him or convince Him to change His mind. But the truth is that prayer is not magic. Magic seeks to assert control over others, our environment, our lives and even God. Prayer, on the other hand, is allowing God to take charge. Prayer is submitting ourselves to His control.

But sometimes, the stories in scripture seem to actually support the view that prayer works like magic. In Genesis, we see Abraham bartering with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, beating down the price like a typical Asian customer in the market place, a little more each time until Abraham gets God down to just ten people. You may say that since the outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion, was it worth the effort? Would it have mattered at all? Well, it did at least for a few. This back and forth arguing between Abraham and God finally saved Lot’s family. It does appear that God had changed His mind. But is this really a correct interpretation of the story? Since God knows the outcome of every decision we make and every prayer we pray, then maybe it’s not so much that God’s mind was changed, but rather that God knew what He wanted to do in the end. He just wanted to get Abraham into the act. It is not God’s Providence and Mercy that was being tested but Abraham’s tenacity in supplicating for his kin and even strangers.

But we see a very different sort of prayer in the gospel. St Luke presents our Lord as a man of prayer. Luke's Jesus is a strikingly prayerful figure, never afraid to make known to His Father His deepest desires: He does not hide from the Father his fear of his coming death, praying so hard for the cup to pass him by that he sweats blood, even as he submits to the will of God. On countless occasions, His ministry and teaching are interspersed with prayer.

And, it is no surprise that having observed this frequent activity of the Lord, His disciples are moved to want to pray like Him. So, the Lord takes the opportunity not only to teach them a prayer, but also to teach them the way to pray: persistently. To pray persistently is to pray like Jesus. So, the Lord’s prayer to the Father does not detract from, but rather reinforces, His unity with the Father. And so it is with us. The unity the Son has by nature with the Father, we share by adoption as we follow the example of Christ. That is why He begins by this simple and intimate address, “Abba”. In teaching us to address God as “Father” or “Abba”, we are to be in conscious union with the Lord Jesus. God is not a divine vending machine that dispenses goodies whenever we hit the right button or a foggy old man that constantly needs to be reminded or a trader that you can strike a deal with or offer a bribe. Nor is He a terrifying despotic or whimsical God that needs to be appeased with blood sacrifices and other horrific practices observed by the pagans, but a loving Father who knows how to give His children what is good.

So, the Lord invites us to pray for concrete things, the things we need, the things we judge to be good for us. But this still raises the big question: if God knows everything that will happen, why do we pray? If God can solve every problem, bring justice to the oppressed, heal the sick, save the sinner, give us what we need without being told, why should we pray? What good does prayer actually do? Well, the answer lies in our Catholic understanding of justification. The grace of God does not exclude human cooperation. In fact, it is God’s will that we should participate in His grand work of redemption and salvation. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that God wills to bring about things in answer to our prayers. God gives us the dignity of being able to share in His work of providence by our own actions, in praying for things to come about, so that we can acquire confidence in God and recognise Him as the origin of what is good for us.

Faith tells us that God does answer all our prayers. However, the consequence of what faith tells us must be true, is perhaps even more difficult for us to understand and accept. We must believe that God does answer all our prayers, but the reality must then be that the answer is so often ‘no’, no to the particular thing that we asked for. God does bring about good things in answer to our prayers, but what that good might be, is often very different from any expectation and understanding we might already have. If we ask, it is given to us; if we seek, it is found; and if we knock, the door is opened, but what is given and found, is not what we might have expected.

Often mistaken for a blank signed cheque, the last set of sayings, “Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find …” is actually an invitation from the Lord to persist in prayer. Never give up praying, even when it seems that we are not getting what we are asking for. We may not have the wisdom to know what is good for us. But we are still invited to ask, to search and to knock with our eyes fixed not on the object of our request, but on God our Father. God is immensely wise and God will certainly give us what we need. He will lead us to find what it is we are really seeking. He will open for us the door that leads to life. And finally, our asking, our searching and that ‘open door’ would lead us to the greatest gift He wishes to offer us, the Holy Spirit. We should pray whilst remembering that we are bit players in a much, much larger story. God is weaving a beautiful tapestry in this universe and every blessing or tragedy from God is meant to bring every thread of His work together in perfect harmony.

Ultimately, prayer is affirming our belief that God is Sovereign and that He calls the shots - His Kingdom come, not ours. Yes, prayer is not magic. We can't control or manipulate God; and that isn't why Christians pray. Praying is not about making God more aligned to our human thinking and ways, but about us aligning our thoughts, words and actions to His, becoming part of the friendship of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. We pray not so that we can twist God’s arm, but so that we may rest the whole of our lives, our tragedies, our petty desires and our hopes for ourselves and others, upon the mercy of God the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And so we come more and more to grow within His friendship, and know the wonder and the intimacy of the friendship of the Holy Trinity, who is always at work to draw us from our sin and our sadness, so that we may burn forever, in the leaping flames of the love of God.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Divine Hospitality

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“From Hostility to Hospitality”. A few years ago, our parish adopted this tagline as one of two focal projects for our parish transformation and renewal. When I first mooted it, I could sense the reticence and tension within the room. Should I even be surprised by this response if “hostility” were not an accurate assessment of our parish condition? How have we fared since then? Well, I jokingly tell Fr Dominic and some of the leaders, instead of growth in hospitality, after repeated goading and “instigation” from the Parish Priest, we seem to have made progress, “From Hostility to Greater Hostility.” I acknowledge that I must also take some blame for this, for either causing more hostility through my policies or words, or failing, through omission, to handle the hostility in a more expedient or prudent manner.

It is interesting how hospitality and hostility sound so much alike but yet are so different. Other than the first three letters, they are clearly opposites. “Hospitality” conjures up the context of guests, visitors, putting on meals for them, providing board and lodging, and making the stranger feel “at home.” Hostility, on the other hand, is about keeping the other at a safe distance and even putting up barriers and walls to keep them out. Yes, it is easy to be hospitable towards those who are being hospitable towards us. However, in these past few years as a priest, I have been reminded that being hospitable to those who are being hostile is difficult and challenging.

In today’s gospel scene, we see both hostility and hospitality. Martha is resentful. She is hostile towards her sister’s lackadaisical attitude for leaving her to do all the work. Most of us would emphatise with poor Martha. We can understand her resentment - some seem to be doing an unfair share of the work whilst others seem to be lazing around or are able to find all sorts of excuses to escape work. The irony of this story is that this tension or hostility arises between the two sisters as a result of their different ways of showing hospitality to the Lord who has come visiting. Martha shows it by her busy-ness in the kitchen whereas Mary displays her form of hospitality by sitting at the feet of the Lord. Sound of light banter and even cheerful laughter drifting into the kitchen where Martha was busy slaving over the stove, would have incensed even a saint.

Martha had not chosen anything bad. In fact, she had chosen something very good. But yet our Lord commended Mary for having made the better choice. Yes, serving others is a characteristic feature of being a disciple of Christ. But there is more to this. Listening to our Lord, being attentive to the saving words of the Lord, the Word Incarnate, being “served” by Him, is far more important. That is why the Lord chided Martha with these seemingly harsh words, “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.” Only one thing that is needful and Mary had chosen that one crucial, absolutely necessary thing. She sat at His feet and listened with great eagerness, affection and pleasure. Mary chose to listen not just to the words of Jesus but to the life-giving, death defying, saving Incarnate Word of God. It is by sitting at Jesus' feet that we learn that He is the one who has come to serve and not be served. It is at His feet that we truly grasp His work of redemption – by taking our sins of inhospitality, by dying for the ones who rejected Him and refused hospitality to Him, He offered us the hospitality of heaven. It is at the feet of our Lord that we learn the real lesson of hospitality from the One who is the perfect host. To do other things at the expense of sitting at the Lord’s feet is to let good things get in the way of better things.

Here is the true paradox of the story – whilst Martha was asking what she could do for the Lord, Mary knew the correct question should be “what can the Lord do for her?” The host becomes the guest and the guest the host. It is interesting to note that the Italian word “ospite” can mean both “guest” and “host.” This certainly presents us English-speakers with some confusion. How can we make the distinction when we are talking about the host (the one who welcomes you in his home, the one who is busy in the kitchen as the rest of us sit at the table) and the guest (the one who rings the doorbell and waits for the door to be opened, the one who waits to be served, the one who needs directions to find the bathroom)? After all, don't we need a word that distinguishes the one who gives hospitality from the one who receives hospitality? But in this story, we are reminded that there should be such confusion. The author to the Hebrews tells us “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1-2). Hospitality flows both ways. No hosts, no guests, only “ospiti” - hospitality.

The host becomes the guest and the guest becomes the host. This is the power of biblical hospitality. God’s call to love the stranger is an invitation to experience God in a new way. It is a way that brings about radical transformation, changes lives and introduces surprises. People usually don't expect surprises. Yet biblical hospitality, the call to love the stranger, guarantees that a surprise is just around the corner. The guest becomes the host. Givers receive more than they give. This is the story of Abraham welcoming three guests, who turned out to be divine visitors. In return, God shows hospitality to Abraham by rewarding Sarah with a son.

The story of Martha and Mary and Jesus therefore should be considered in this same light. Here, we are not celebrating the hospitality of a man (or a woman), but the very hospitality of God. In fact, St Luke portrays the life and ministry of Jesus as a divine “visitation” to the world, seeking hospitality. The One who comes as visitor and guest becomes host and offers a hospitality in which the entire world can become truly human, be at home, and know salvation in the depths of their hearts. Those in St Luke's Gospel who readily offer hospitality - chiefly the sinner, the marginalised and the poor - find themselves drawn into a much deeper sphere of hospitality, the hospitality of God. They may have welcomed the Lord into their homes and to their tables, but it is the Lord who has welcomed them into His heart as they opened their hearts to Him. They are challenged by the Lord to conversion so that no one may be left out of the banquet of life to which God calls all mankind.

In a culture of hectic schedules and the relentless pursuit of productivity, we are tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. Sometimes, we believe that we can earn God’s favour through the busyness of our devotion and service. Such activity often leaves us anxious and troubled and we end up with a kind of service that is devoid of love and joy and resentful of others. But then we are reminded once again by the story of Martha, Mary and our Lord that what is ultimately important is not what you can do for the Lord but, what can He do, or what has He done for you. And that is only possible when we are able to transcend our busy and distracted lives and enter into prayerful contemplation of His Word. We can never claim to be able to offer true hospitality to a stranger or even our neighbour or family member, if we continue to be aliens to the hospitality of God. God is always inviting, patiently waiting for us to sit at His feet.

At His feet, we are reassured once again that we are His children, we are renewed in faith and strengthened for service. God wants to play host to us. Our Lord offers us the hospitality of His grace. In Him, we find ourselves now to be, the enemy who has been forgiven, the sinner who is saved, the stranger who is welcomed, the alienated one who has found a home. In Him, and only in Him, can hostility become hospitality.