Tuesday, October 15, 2019

We pray to know we are not alone

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Some of you may remember the movie Shadowlands, a moving tale of the great Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, and his wife Joy. At one point in the film, after finding out that Joy’s cancer had gone into remission, one of Lewis’ friends says to him, “I know how hard you have been praying, and now God is answering your prayer.” Lewis, brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins, replies, “That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”

As much as some of us can understand the truth of this claim in a limited sort of way, most people would rather wish to believe that their prayers can change the mind of God. The readings we’ve heard today seem to lend support to this expectation that prayer can and will change the mind of God. For if prayer didn’t have this effect, if prayer is incapable of changing anything, then it would make little difference whether we choose to pray or not. Why bother praying?

In the first reading we have the strange but interesting tale of Moses interceding for the Israelites as they fought a battle with their enemies, the Amalekites. Whenever Moses held his hands up while holding the staff, the Israelites were winning the battle over the Amalekites. But whenever he lowered his hands, they lost the battle. This seems to give the impression that Moses was actually controlling the Israelites like a puppeteer would control his marionette with invisible strings.  Modern folks would find it incredulous and superstitious that we should even attempt to make a connexion between Moses’ hand- positions and the fate of the army. But rather than seeing Moses as the main protagonist, his raised hands actually point to the power of divine intervention. Holding up our hands to heaven, or the orans position, is actually an ancient symbol of a praying Christian asking for God's divine intervention.

This story is a reminder of how prayer is connected to action. This is how a Christian community is constructed: some fight on the outside, do all the work of the apostolate, carry out the mission of the Church; whilst others pray on the inside – in our monasteries, intercessory prayer groups, “private chambers” of our homes – for those who are fighting on the outside. For without prayer, the Church’s mission cannot succeed, its battle with evil, sin and the world cannot be victorious. If the Church, and every single one of her members, is to avoid being routed in the difficult battles of our day, all of us must pray, persist in prayer, storm heaven for assistance and grace, instead of everyone just being lost in busyness and activism.

In the gospel, we are given the example of a widow as a person of prayer. Nothing unusual about this. But what often confounds many Catholics is the analogy drawn between the unjust judge and God. It seems to reinforce a popular image of God of being a harsh despot who requires appeasement from His subjects. As He often does, our Lord takes the immoral and imperfect realities of our world as His point of departure. Here it is the corrupt judge, elsewhere it was the dishonest steward who defrauds His master, the exasperated and self-centred neighbour. Certainly, we can see that it was not our Lord’s intention to associate the faults of these characters with the nature of God. It’s not meant to be an “apple to apple” comparison. Rather, beginning with what is familiar, our world with all its imperfections and faults, our Lord wants to move up to the supremely higher and purer values of the Kingdom of God. The point of comparison is the persistence of a request – if even the wicked will do it out of selfish reasons, then all the more God who is good would do it out of unconditional love for us.

What is clear from this parable is that our Lord wants us to ask God with persistence and determination, even to the point of risking sounding like an annoying pest. But then someone can raise this further objection, if God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful, and thus require no further assistance from His creatures, including us), and if we acknowledge that God’s plan is always perfect, then wouldn’t it be logical to argue that our prayers shouldn’t do anything. After all, we’re not going to tell God anything that he doesn’t already know, and we’re not going to have a better plan than the one He already has, right?

This objection can only be answered when we see that human prayer is actually part of the plan of God. If prayers are answered, it is because God wills it. But then again, God will never force us to ask Him for what we truly need. God’s greatest gift to man is his freedom and it is in prayer, that we see how that same freedom is exercised. Human freedom is never negated by God’s omniscience or omnipotence, for if that was true, we would be merely mindless puppets in the hands of God. But because we possess human freedom, prayer is necessary to salvation, and without it no one having the use of reason can be saved.

Prayer isn’t about persuading God to do what we want, however noble that may be; it is about inviting God to mould us in faith into what He wants for us. Prayer can’t change God; it should change us. Through our prayer our faith is nourished and deepened, we learn to die to ourselves in order that we may conform ourselves more closely and intimately to the will of God. It teaches us fidelity and how to be faithful friends of God, and not just fair-weathered ones.

Returning to the character of C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands, he says, later in the movie, “We pray to know we are not alone.” Yes, prayer is about not being alone, we pray because we believe that God is with us even in our darkest and hardest moments. Prayer is about Jesus crying out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” God is with us even in the most trying moments which feel like abandonment.

So let us continue to pray, even when we know that God knows what is best for us. Let’s persist in prayer, even when we believe that God has heard our prayer even before we have uttered it. The old Baltimore Catechism tells us that “we should pray: with attention; with a sense of our own helplessness and dependence upon God; with a great desire for the graces we beg of God; with trust in God's goodness; (and finally) with perseverance.”

Christ Himself is our model of prayer: He was a man of insistent prayer during His life, and ultimately on the cross, pleading for us and alongside us for our redemption. And this very same prayer on the cross is perpetuated at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It was the early father of the Church, St Justin Martyr who saw Moses’ prayer with arms extended as prefiguring the cross. The self-emptying of the cross is the point around which all the scriptures and all history turn, and it must be the focus of our prayer as we seek to answer Christ’s call to follow him. So, why do we pray? As C.S. Lewis would have put it, “we pray because we can’t help ourselves. We pray because we’re helpless. We pray because the need flows out of us all the time, waking and sleeping.”  But finally, we pray because it changes and transforms us. We pray because we want to be like Christ and to be with Christ, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Grateful for being saved

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Among priests, we often lament and complain about how the priesthood can be a thankless job. After a hard day’s work of attending to a myriad of needs and requests, celebrating mass, anointing the sick, counselling individuals and couples, instead of receiving a simple word of thanks, our efforts seem to earn us dirty looks or stares, or just an outright criticism that we had taken too long, not done enough, set the bar too high, failed to be sufficiently compassionate or should have just done it differently. I often stop myself when I begin this broken record litany of self-pity and remind myself, “Have I too been thankless for my priesthood, for my parish and parishioners?” “Have I forgotten to be grateful for the home cooked meals infused with love, the many dedicated lay persons who quietly carry out their apostolate thus making the work of a priest lighter, the kind words of encouragement and appreciation given when most needed, or the offer to chauffeur me, or the patience shown to me even when I was testy, impatient and annoyed?”

So, should I be complaining about the ingratitude of others when I suffer the same malaise too? I guess it is a good reminder that it is not just priests who occupy thankless jobs, but almost everyone too. It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “Gratitude, being nearly the greatest of human duties is also nearly the most difficult.”

In today’s gospel, among all the ten lepers who were healed, it was the Samaritan leper alone who distinguished himself when he returned to thank the Lord. To be fair, all ten lepers stepped out in faith and cried out to the Lord for help; they were obedient to His counsel to show themselves to the priests, and as a consequence they were healed of their disease. Yet only one expressed gratitude for the miracle. And to add irony to this story, this person was a Samaritan, despised by the Jews. The story illustrates two points. The first point is that no one is excluded from the love of God, God does not discriminate when He shows His abundant mercies to both saint and sinner alike, to the grateful and the ingrate.

But the gospel pays greater attention to the second point - the former Samaritan leper gives us a powerful lesson in gratitude. Gratitude is not about ‘looking at the bright side’ or denying the realities of life. It’s not saying, ‘Thank God, it could be worse!’ Gratitude goes much deeper than that. The leper’s action reveals the heart of gratitude – it is treasuring Christ more greatly and savouring His redeeming work more sweetly. In the first reading, in the story of the foreign general Naaman, we recognise that gratitude has the power to heal. But this is only part of the mystery of God’s grace. In the second reading, St Paul reminds us that gratitude also liberates. But it is in the gospel that we discover climatic apex of this godly virtue – gratitude saves.

Notice that although the nine lepers were ‘cleansed’, but our Lord reserves these words for the Samaritan leper alone, “Your faith has saved you.” Only the foreigner is grateful for the grace received and that is his salvation. The others think solely of the benefits received, physical healing and social acceptance; but neglected to pursue the path of well-ness right to its very end, which is salvation. Salvation is the one thing which we must desire most above all gifts from God. Most people search for a cure to our disease, longevity to life, a solution to life’s problems; but ultimately lose sight of the greatest gift of all, the reason for the Father having to send His Son to die on the cross for us – our salvation. No work of God's is more worthy of gratitude than salvation.

If gratitude opens the window to heaven, then ingratitude is what unlocks the gates to hell. It was St. Ignatius of Loyola who asserted:  “The essence of sin is that of ingratitude.”  We have forgotten that before coming to know Christ, each of us lived in a self-imposed prison of guilt, spiritual blindness and sin. But Christ not only rescued us from the power and penalty of our sins, He also lifted us to the realm of grace. He delivered us from punishment and brought glory. He defeated death and won for us eternal life. He took away the threat of hell and gave us the hope of heaven. Gratitude is therefore keenly linked with memory – memory of the grace of salvation we have received from God and who continues to complete and perfect the work which He has begun in us.

Gratitude isn't something that should pass from our minds with the passing of a season. It's an attitude, a God-centred response to circumstances that should pervade every season of our lives. Perhaps the most difficult time to be thankful is when we're in the midst of a setback, a challenge, or a trial. When the storm comes, giving thanks is rarely our first reaction. Being thankful for adversity is never easy, but it is always right. Our faith reminds us that the difficult times are the ones in which God seems to be most at work in our lives, strengthening our weak spots, comforting our hurts, and drawing us to greater dependence. A person cannot be complaining and thankful at the same time, nor can they worry about money or health or anything while being thankful. With gratitude comes joy, hope, peace and love.

At the very heart of the Eucharist, described by the Second Vatican Council as the “source and summit of the Christian life,” is gratitude. The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word, “eucharistia,” (εὐχαριστία) meaning to give thanks (for the good graces we have received).  The Eucharist is the primary place where we can express our gratitude to God. The entire Mass is a prayer of thanksgiving – it is first and foremost, Christ’s thanksgiving to the Father, and secondarily, the Church’s thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. It is here that we give thanks because the Sacrifice of the Cross re-enacted at every Eucharist has saved us and continues to make us whole – completing, bringing together and finishing the grand work of salvation which God has begun in us. The Eucharist contains and carries many deep and inexhaustible realities; it helps continue the incarnation of God in history; it is God’s physical embrace; it is the new manna that God gives to nurture His people; it is the antidote to death and the true elixir of immortality, it is God’s gift of reconciliation and forgiveness; it is an invitation to a deeper discipleship; and it is an anticipation of the heavenly banquet that the Lamb and Bridegroom has prepared for us.

Yes, we’ve often heard people complain (and perhaps we have been guilty of it too), “I don’t get anything out of Mass.” My reply is that, “The problem is not that you are not getting anything but because you fail to recognise how much God is giving to you through the Eucharist.” When we lack gratitude, when we only have complaints, the Eucharist becomes an empty, boring and meaningless ritual. We have been healed from the effects of sin. We have been freed from the bondage of sin. We have been saved! Rather than adding on to our litany of woes and complaints, let us add on to our list of praises and thanksgiving. Thanking God for saving us should be the unceasing occupation of our lips. Gratitude should make us sing of salvation, talk of salvation, and finally witness the salvation we have received in our daily lives. And so we give thanks not just because God has healed us or answered our prayers, but primarily because He has liberated us from sin, fear and anxiety. The prospect of being made whole, being healed, being liberated and being saved should be enough to make us turn around, rush back again to Jesus, and say thank you, Jesus. “Thank you so much.”

Friday, October 4, 2019

Fan into flame the gift God has given you

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

One of my favourite memes which I often send to friends after a busy and tiring day is that of this chubby boy slump over his desk with his head resting on folded arms, with the following caption, “This is me every day, and not just on a Sunday.” Weariness and exhaustion in life are all too common. We go to work day after day, drive forty minutes plus, pick up the kids from school, drive home, make dinner, help with homework or send them for tuition, and maybe live with someone we barely talk to, only to start it all again tomorrow. Sounds familiar? Yes, even the most extroverted and highly motivated would arrive at a point in life where they are almost on auto-pilot, repeating mindless and meaningless routine. If this is true of your personal life, can our spiritual life be any different? It is at this stage that for many, faith no longer makes sense. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton has his finger on the problem: “Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.”

The early Church fathers had a name for this affliction – acedia, which later got translated into “sloth”, one of the seven deadly sins. The association with sloth unfortunately leads many to equate acedia with pure laziness. But there is more to it. The Catechism teaches us that: “acedia or spiritual sloth goes so far as to refuse the joy that comes from God, and to be repelled by divine goodness” (# 2094).  Dorothy Sayers, who wrote an entire book on the subject, describes it as “a sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.” In short, “sloth” does not mean inactivity but rather apathy. Instead of finding anything exciting, we get bored with everything.    

What do we do when apathy sets in to our faith life? The problem and remedy seems to be addressed by this week’s readings. Faith is the motif in each reading. The seldom-referenced prophet Habakkuk had grown frustrated with the lack of faith evidenced in his people's behaviour and responsiveness to God. They had grown spiritually slothful and now the prophet himself is tempted to follow suit. But God assures him, however, that his prayers are heard and God never disappoints. Perseverance would be the first remedy to acedia. We should keep praying, even when we don’t feel like it. We should keep going for mass and confession, even when we seem to get nothing out of it. As the Lord assured Habakkuk, “if it comes slowly wait, for come it will, without fail,” because “the upright man will live by his faithfulness.”

Similarly in the gospel, when the disciples learned more about the demands of discipleship, they feared they did not have the faith to meet the challenges that came with it. The heaviness of discipleship weights down on them. To that end, they beg, “increase our faith,” a frank admission their profound lack.  But the problem is that faith is not quantifiable. Nevertheless, it is the power that inspires us, helps us to persevere, enables us to struggle and not lose heart, and keeps us ever mindful of God’s abiding presence. That is why our Lord uses the images of the mustard seed and the mulberry tree to graphically illustrate the power of faith, even the tiniest spark of it, can move the unmovable and accomplish what appears to be impossible.

At first glance, it might appear that the Lord was being sarcastic. But this was not His intention. In fact, He clearly knew and understood their weaknesses, but He also wanted them to understand that even a little faith goes a long way. His parable about the servant seems to say that faith is not a reward for the spiritually proficient; rather, faith is the requisite for every disciple. And when we have faith, we are merely doing our job as disciples and should seek no reward.

Yes, even a little faith can go a long way. Faith begets faith. Or, as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “Faith does not quench desire, but inflames it.” True faith is like a small snowball poised at the top of a long slope, waiting to be pushed so it might then grow as it picks up speed. But that snowball is always first formed and moved by God. Faith is first and foremost a gift from God. But faith is also a response. When we respond in obedience to God and His gift, faith grows. This is because faith is also a habit, a power or capacity that gets stronger when it is exercised and atrophies when it is not.  So faith is like a spiritual muscle.  The way you develop faith is, to exercise it regularly and to do so against ever increasing resistance. Don’t expect faith to get easier. It necessarily gets harder because the only way faith grows is to be challenged.  If you ask for faith, know that this means giving the Lord permission to put more weight on the bar.  If we wish to grow in faith and resist the vice of acedia or spiritual sloth, we must be ready to discipline ourselves. For, as St. Paul says, “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:8).”

That brings us full circle back to St Paul in the second reading and the wisdom he shared with his friend and colleague, Timothy. As he reminded Timothy, our faith must be tended, stirred and fed like a flame. Our Christian faith can be likened to hot coals which would make a fire when fanned but become cold and useless if left alone. Many of us Catholics were baptised as infants, thus becoming Christians before we knew anything at all. Many of us grew up without properly tending that initial spark of faith that was given to us at baptism or we had allowed the pressures and distractions of life to reduce our faith to cold ashes. The result being so many have left the faith of our childhood, the faith of our parents, believing this is no longer relevant.

How do we fan into a flame God's gift of faith that has been kindled within us? Fanning our faith into a flame implies that we respond to the grace of God in us. It is achieved through daily communion with God in prayers, taking time to prayerfully study His Word and frequenting the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist. It means reading good spiritual books and attending good formations to deepen our faith. Being immersed in a faith community and community life, is essential for our growth in faith.  As we open our hearts to God in these ways, He strengthens our faith, allowing the seed of faith planted in us to blossom. But when we cease doing these things, we would soon find our enthusiasm for anything spiritual diminishing.

Most of us need an occasional shot in the arm to keep our faith strong and vibrant. But this does not mean that we should be constantly searching for extraordinary experiences that give us an emotional high. Growth in friendship with God does not happen only in the special, uplifting moments. It is through our daily efforts to be faithful to God, to live our faith in the everyday, with the help of the Sacraments, that our bond with God is strengthened.

Yes, we need to fan into flame the gift of faith God has given us. But in order for it to really catch fire, we need to step out in faith. Every step of faith that we take is like the oxygen added to the fire to keep it blazing! Our effort, feeble though it may seem to us (like a tiny insignificant mustard seed), works like a bellows blowing air onto the fire until it is a blazing bonfire. So, let us fan the flame of the Spirit. Let His fire burn away all doubt and hesitation, all sloth and apathy, so that you can become a beacon of faith, hope, and love for the people around you. As Pope Francis constantly reminds us – what the Church needs more than ever today, are joyful witnesses full of enthusiasm rather than someone who had just walked out of a funeral.