Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Crusader: My first attempt at poetry =

The Crusader

The present.
Better than the past.

The weight.
On my shoulders at last.

New start.
The germ that haunts me still.

The present.
No different.
The past.

The past.
The present.
The mass.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can talkative people make it to Heaven?

The good Christian's default mode?
The title of my post might sound a bit weird but this thought comes to me whenever I finish an enriching conversation with somebody. My definition of enriching would mean that the conversation contained no gossip, was intellectually stimulating and humanly deep and done in an atmosphere of mutual listening and sympathy. It need not always be explicitly about God though God and religion are very often (at least for me!) one of the most interesting topics to talk about.

Will heaven be like that I sometimes wonder? Or is my talkativeness (and I can be very talkative, just ask Grace my fiancée!) simply a symptom of my deeper restlessness for deep and abiding communication with God? 

To be sure, the Christian tradition places a lot of emphasis on silence and with good reason. We are reminded constantly to slow down amidst the busyness of our lives, to still our hearts and quiet the noisiness in our souls. After all, the prophet Elijah did not discover God’s voice in the earthquake or fire (noisy events to put it mildly) but only in a gentle breeze. (1 Kings 19:12-14). And when we reflect on the times we have mis-communicated with someone, we know that it is very often because our minds are so preoccupied and cluttered that we have heard but failed to listen to the other. And we proceed to give advice and to talk even before we have truly listened.

Does that mean the talkative people are to repent in sackcloth and ashes? Well I think that they should repent of being talkative without listening and try to cultivate a capacity for silence. Yet being talkative in itself, when properly understood is not a bad thing at all. In fact, the ability to communicate is really a participation in the eternal speech of God. Jesus, is the WORD of God as we are reminded in John’s Gospel. And when the word became flesh, hosts of Angels were singing hosannas to frightened Shepherds.

Pretty chatty if you ask me.

Indeed, redeemed in Christ, we are able to speak to each other as heirs to the Kingdom, adopted children of the Father. Our sharings are characterized not by boasting but by mutual concern for each other. Conversation becomes enriching as it is free of jealously, one-upmanship and pride. One would genuinely want to listen to the other as the other is a brother in Christ of infinite interest.

We know however that this is not possible on earth. To begin with, we are unable to have conversations with everybody we respect for extended lengths of time as time is finite (though with facebook, the possibilities are extended!). So we are usually limited to conversations with close friends. And an enriching conversation in which there is mutual vulnerability and friendship seems to me a participation in the eternal conversation of the Trinity in which we are also invited. (Indeed, that’s Fr Robert Barron’s definition of prayer.) Prayer, an invitation to participate in the eternal conversation of the Trinity.

When I was studying theology, the joke which went around was that when talkative theology students (the kind who can spend literally hours talking about the processions of the Trinity for instance) pass on to the life to come, there would be two doors waiting them. One would be labeled “God”. The other would be labeled “seminar about God”.  Guess which one would the theology student chose? 

I began to panic as I realized that I might choose the second door. I remembered St Augustine’s passage that the restless heart can only rest in God and know that I must be careful not to mistake theology for God himself. Nevertheless, will that mean that I won’t be able to talk about theology in heaven if and when (God willing) I get there?
Then I read St Gregory of Nyssa. His idea of the afterlife is a bit different from Augustine as he holds that there would be no rest in heaven as we would be constantly stretched onwards and upwards towards God. “No limit can be set to our progress towards God; first of all, because no limitation can be put on upon the Beautiful, and secondly because the increase in our desire for the Beautiful cannot be stopped by any sense of satisfaction” as Gregory puts it in one pungent sentence.

If I understood Gregory correctly, I would have an eternity to talk about theology and an eternity to communicate deeply with the Blessed Trinity and all the saints in heaven. That would include not only the hall of famers like Our Blessed Mother, St Peter and Paul but also our loved ones and others whom we hope have also placed God or following their conscience their top priority.

In the book of Revelation, heaven is portrayed, as a wedding feast where guests will be at table, and served by the Lamb himself. (Revelations 19:7-9)

 I presume there would be lots of talking at a wedding feast.

And I do hope that you and I would accept the invitation  =)

The wedding feast in heaven

Catholic planking and the feast of Corpus Christi

Some of you might be familiar with the latest fad to take the on (and off)line world by storm – planking. As you might guess from the choice of words, it has something to do with human beings pretending to behave like (you guessed it) a plank of wood.
Plankers (those who plank) do so by lying flat on the ground with their arms pointed inwards by the side. They invite friends to take photos or videos of them which are then uploading for the viewing of the online planking community.
If you are a beginner, you can simply plank on your bathroom floor. For more advanced plankers, the clothesline, the supermarket refrigerator, or a seventh-storey balcony can be fair game. Sadly (or not depending on your perspective,) the seventh-storey balcony gave plankers its first martyr when he fell to his death.
This is not a place to issue a wholesale condemnation of the planking craze. Suffice to say, I agree with Zac Alstinwhen he notes that in many cases, “It’s the sheer lack of proportion between risk and reward (online and offline social affirmation for the most part) that makes these notable cases of planking seem insane, and make me wonder about the deeper motive.”  
What I would like to note rather is the sheer fact of the media circus surrounding this phenomenon and what it suggests about our nature as human beings.
As someone once noted, “dog bites man” does not make the news headlines. “Man bites dog”, on the other hand, will surely make it to the front page of The New Paper. Have a community of human beings biting dogs and you will make the headlines of the Straits Times and ChannelNewsAsia for weeks.
The point to note here is that news is made when something out of the ordinary happens. “Planks of wood found on the floor” is not news. They are simply in keeping with what planks are supposed to do. “Man falls asleep” is not news either. But “Man pretends to be a plank of wood” is.
Indeed, as G.K Chesterton suggests perceptively “Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God.”
It is this often unconscious recognition that the human being is a being with a certain special dignity that we find someone suddenly deciding to lie on the floor amusing. When we see someone suddenly collapsing onto the ground, we would immediately rush to help. Lying flat on the ground is somehow recognised as not normal (and dignified) for the human being.
And doing that deliberately in dangerous places for the proverbial 15 seconds of internet fame has had this observer wanting to paraphrase Chris Tucker in Rush Hour 2: “You are human, stop humiliating yourself!”
Happily for us, the Catholic blogosphere has helpfully suggested how Catholics can incorporate planking into their daily routine. Jo Bryant for instance has announced that planking is really a fine Catholic tradition.
To prove his point, Jo provides pictures of Catholic plankers, prostrate in front of the Eucharist, during good Friday Service, preparing for ordination or if you are so inclined, after being slain by the Holy Spirit during a charismatic prayer meeting. (Do check out the pictures!)
Planker purists would object to Jo Bryant’s attempt to co-opt the art of planking for the Catholic Church. They would note for instance that real plankers put their hands beside them turned inwards. Catholic plankers, on the other hand (no pun intended), often have their hands stretched out in front of them. That’s not real planking, they would argue.
Yet having your hands stretched out is really what would save plankers from being turned in on themselves and treated by others as mere objects of amusement. “Oops, this plank(er) just fell into the sewer, must be painful, let’s have a look at the next one” can be a very real reaction for an internet user casually browsing through planking pictures while sipping his morning coffee.
Catholic planking, on the other hand, is neither weird nor contrary to human dignity. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that we plank that we come to realise the fullness of our dignity, the ability to recognise that all of reality is gift and that lying prostrate in adoration of the Supreme Gift giver is the only adequate response of the creature. 
Last Sunday, we celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi. It is a feast to recognise that the King of Kings can deign to be so small and humble as to come to us hidden in the form of bread. The only correct response really is to plank.
Nor is this simply a private spirituality with no consequences for the wider world. As Pope Benedict XVI, planker extraordinaire would say, “In an increasingly individualistic culture such as that in which we live in… the Eucharist constitutes a kind of “antidote”, working on the hearts and minds of believers and continually infusing them with the logic of communion, service and sharing, the logic of the Gospel.
Here’s to planking without pretension and illusion!

Cher You Christian Ah, No wonder your Engrish so good

The title of this piece is taken literally from a pupil from the Normal Technical stream whom I was helping with her English at school one day. Hoping to give her some further encouragement, I gently shared that I am a Christian and that I pray to God and He helps me. If she is a Christian she can pray too, if not, no harm trying as well.

Her response took me completely by surprise. Her actual words were “’Cher, you Christian ah, no wonder your Engrish so good, I Buddhist, that’s why my Engrish no good.”

Being the typical Singaporean teacher, I fumbled around to explain to her that not all Christians are English-speaking and that there are English-speaking Buddhists as well. Furthermore, proficiency in language is a different thing from professing a particular religion.

Nevertheless, consciously or not, her remarks have crystalised for me in one pungent sentence, the question of what does it mean to be Christian and Singaporean, something which I have been pondering for some time.
In the letter to Diognetus, an ancient Christian author explained to his fellow non-Christian citizens of the Roman empire that while “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs… there is something extraordinary about their lives. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives….
“Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult.”

While one may dispute the accuracy of such a picture of the early Christians, the fact that the author boldly writes this to be is nevertheless a bracing challenge for the Singaporean Christian.

What may well be a modern day letter to Diognetus in the Singaporean context? In many cases, it may go something like this “Christians are indistinguishable from other Singaporeans… like others they marry and have not too many children. Nevertheless there is something extraordinary about their lives. Most of them speak English and many of their children are in the university. They live in riches and possess an abundance of the 5 Cs.

“They love all people and want them to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour. They are condemned because people do not understand why this Jesus will send them to hell if they don’t accept Him. Sometimes, a curse is their answer to such abuse and brandishing their high educational qualifications is a response to insult.”

To be sure, I admit that I am probably too harsh. I personally know of many selfless co-religionists of mine whose faith and works of charity put me to shame. Nevertheless, I think my student’s pungent remark should still haunt us.
Is this the view of a typical non-Christian Singaporean? Are non-Christian Singaporeans attracted, if at all, to Christianity because they see it as an entrance into an upwardly mobile, socially elite crowd? Did Jesus give this Christian a new BMW? Well, I’ll take Jesus (with the COE too if you please!)

The challenge placed before me today is essentially a Eucharistic one. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Do you want to honour Christ’s body? Then do not scorn Him in His nakedness, nor honour Him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting Him outside where He is cold and naked. The rich man is not the one who is in possession of much, but the one who gives much.”

If Singaporean Christians were to take up the challenge of St. John Chrysostom, perhaps the letter to Diognetus can be rewritten. Perhaps our non-Christian countrymen might say the following of us:
“Christians are indistinguishable from other Singaporeans because they comprise members from all races, ethnic groups and social status. Yet, there is something extraordinary about their lives. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them to the pursuit of the 5Cs. They share their meals, with their domestic helpers.

“Obedient to the law, they yet live on a level that transcends the law, ensuring justice for the most vulnerable. They are condemned because they are considered naïve. They live a spirit of poverty, using money for the common good. They suffer dishonour, because Christ and not GDP is their king.”

And maybe, future Christian teachers might hear their students saying the following to them “Cher, you Christian ah, no wonder you going the extra mile for me, can I be one too?”

A Catholic Halloween More Scary (and glam) than you think

The other day, I was at Vivo city with my fiancé where I chanced upon a poster with a man with an axe buried in his head. “Halloween Horror nights, Singapore’s scariest party” proclaimed the poster, insinuating, of course, that if you are part of the glamorous crowd, you should be there (at Universal Studios, Resorts World Sentosa, where else), dressed in your Halloween best.

One’s Halloween best can include of course being dressed as one of those traditional Halloween creatures, such as werewolves, vampires, or Frankenstein’s monster. For those preferring modern versions, there is always Edward Cullen of Twilight fame or Lady Gaga.
Party goers know that they are only at their ghoulish best (worst) for one night. As they party the night away, they know that when morning comes, they go back to work or school and will return to being plain John Lee or Jane Chan. Nevertheless, taking a night off to connect with your inner monster sure was fun.
Catholics, (at least for those who consider days of obligation obligatory,) will instead be found huddled in churches for the celebration of the Vigil Mass of All Saints’ Day. I know I was. And a very insightful homily by Fr Derrick Yap, OFM at the Church of St. Mary of the Angels got me thinking.
In his homily, Fr Derrick mentioned the surprise he felt when he realized, upon asking a group of children, that they knew next to nothing about All Saints Day but knew everything about Halloween. He had to explain to them that Halloween is connected to All Saints’ Day. Indeed, the word is a Scottish rendition of All Hallows Eve, that is, the day before All Saints Day.
Fr Derrick urged the congregation to let their children know the saints better, for All Saints Day is potentially the feast day of every single Christian, since that is our destiny. In his typically folksy style, Fr Derrick insisted that surely the saints are “more glam” than any of the strange creatures that come for our Halloween parties.
Fr Derrick’s words got me thinking. Why are our saints seemingly not as “glam” (if one were to use this word) as the parade of spooky monsters? Before we decry the secular world for yet another attempt at commercializing a Christian festival (think Christmas for instance), perhaps we should look at the way we present our saints.
Do they look pallid and overly sentimental in our typical Catholic artwork? Are their stories told to our children as a means of social control, for example: the saints obeyed their parents/teachers therefore you should too, making them glorified teacher’s pets? Or do we teach our children that these saints are first (potential) spiritual dispensing machines, helpful if they grant “practical” favours like passing the exams and getting into a good school but whose lives ought not to be imitated too seriously?
If that is the way our attitude to the saints are, then no wonder the spooky monsters seem more glamorous. I don’t want to be a glorified teacher’s pet on All Hallows Eve. I want to be someone larger than life.
Yet the best of Christian art and storytelling has never portrayed the saints in this way. The saints were usually troublemakers and provocateurs, who inspite of their human weakness, strive to love the person of Jesus Christ and shine his light onto every facet of life. They confronted human problems in the most creative and remarkable ways provoking either fierce loyalty or strident opposition. When they were peacemakers, they were able to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable foes. And yes, they were prepared to face martyrdom for their beliefs.
Indeed, if one were to look at the frescoes of The Last Judgment painted by Michelangelo, one would notice a parade of saints, many of them showing the tools of their martyrdom to Jesus Christ the Just Judge. If one were to look carefully, one would notice one man carrying his flayed skin and showing it to Jesus. That is St. Bartholomew, who was believed to have suffered martyrdom by being skinned alive.
And if one were to come to a Singapore’s scariest party dressed like St. Bartholomew, one would surely be one of the finalists in the best dressed competition.
The best of the Catholic tradition is not unfamiliar to pain, suffering and gore. But pain, suffering and gore are not ends in themselves. They are celebrated not for its own sake, but for the reason that they can be transfigured into scars of victory and love. St. Bartholomew showing his skin to Christ does not glorify pain in itself but offers it as a pledge of love.
On the other hand, Halloween parties seem to glorify pain and gore in itself. It is, instead of a transfiguration, a disfiguration; it takes suffering either too seriously, by telling the world that suffering is the final destiny of man, or too trivially, reducing it to mere entertainment.
As Catholics, we need to reclaim Halloween in the right way, first by recognizing that our saints, in loving Christ, become some of the most interesting people on the planet. Indeed, sainthood is our destiny.
So dress your children in a saint costume the next Halloween. As they “party” the night away and when morning comes, they return to being plain Johns and Janes. But they remember these real people (the saints) were also plain Johns and Janes. But by loving Christ and being loved by him, they fulfill their full potential and destiny.
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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Can going for Mass be an occasion of sin? An observation over the Dresscode debate in Singapore Catholic Churches

There is an old Catholic saying "lex orandi lex credendi" - i.e the Law of prayer is the law of belief. i.e how you pray will affect your beliefs about God.

I think we should also propose another Catholic saying "lex clothing orandi lex credendi" (Apologies, i don't know enough latin). i.e The law of wearing clothes for prayer affects your beliefs about God
Some of us would probably have read about the dresscode debate within the Catholic Church. If you have not, you can read an exercpt here.

One may ask why are people spilling so much ink over this. Actually, from a theological/sociological perspective, that makes a lot of sense. Clothing is always culturally symbolic and never neutral. Gandhi wore homespun clothing. Do you think he did it without any intention?
Likewise how we dress for mass will necessarily have symoblic and even theological meaning whether we are conscious of it or not. If a middle class family decides to "just happen" to put on whatever is available at the moment i.e shorts, t-shirt and slippers, they may not consciously intend to make a statement but they do bring a certain attitude to worship. (what that really is, only they know themselves)

I also notice a bit of an irony when i read these debates. We are told very often in homilies, especially in the Post-Conciliar Church after the Second Vatican Council that the Mass should not be a privatised devotion but should spur us on to care for and notice our neighbor.

And sometimes, clergy do that by getting (during mass!) people to shake hands with the person next to you.

Those who wear the spaghetti straps and flip flops et al will like it but those who wear mantillas etc will cringe. (i am generalisng and being ironic here)

But suddenly when it comes to dress code, i have noticed that those who defend the spaghetti strapprs etc or the spaghetti strappers themselves will say when they are challenged that they come to Church "only for God" and hence my dressing is God's business and none of my neighbour's business. If a guy stumbles because of my spaghetti strap, than it is his problem not mine. Also if by your flipflops and bermudas and singlets cause the little ones i.e children to have less reverence for a place of worship, and form the impression that attending Mass is no big deal, its the children's problem not mine.

You can't have it both ways. Either the Mass is a purely private deovtion, then everybody can wear what they want i.e including mantillas or spaghetti straps etc and receive Holy communion kneeling on the tongue without being refused and also with the words on your clothing "F*ck You God" without being refused since every one relates to God in their own way.

Or the Mass is necessarily a communal sacrifice, a communal and public act of worship.

Which means all the ten commandments apply when one is in Church.

Which also means, that all the relevant litrugical norms ought to be followed.

We go for mass among other things, to ask God for the grace for the week and to help us love our neighbour better.It will be a tragedy and the greatest irony when going for mass becomes an occasion for sin and where the battle against sin has to begin right within the Sanctuary.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Hungry Ghost Festival: Some Catholic Thoughts

I have actually been thinking about this for some time and the hungry ghost festival presents certain interesting theological questions.
The ghosts/spirits are believed to be released on the 7th month to roam the earth, something like a "free pass." These ghosts are "hungry" in the sense that they do appreciate human beings entertaining them and giving them food etc.

From a Catholic theological perspective, there do exist "hungry ghosts". They are the Holy Souls in purgatory. They are ultimately hungry for God's love, longing and fainting for the courts of the Lord as the psalmist would say. We help them of course through offering prayers and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for them to satiate their hunger. And within Catholic tradition, these souls in purgatory do get to appear to human beings in the forms of apparitions to certain select individuals. A book entitled "hungry souls" by Dr Gerard Van den Aardweg provides fascinating material of this phenomenon. There is even a Church in Italy with a "purgatory museum" storing artifacts which have been touched by these souls a visible reminders of their visit. A bit spooky but within the boundaries of Catholic teaching.

As such, in inter-religious dialogue, this can be a good starting point to share with those who practice traditional chinese religion.

However, from a Catholic theological perspective, all we can say is that God has not revealed to us that there is a special month where souls are released from purgatory to roam the earth to beg for prayers. That would be in the category of natural human religiosity.

In anycase, we have all souls day, a day dedicated to pray for these hungry souls. There seems to me no harm per se for Catholics coming out of a Chinese religion background to intensify prayers and offer masses during the month of August should they so chose. Of course the elements not in keeping with Catholic teaching have to be slowly weaned away.

Catholics sometimes report that they feel "oppressed" during this season. Some of a more traditional/charismatic bent advocate spiritual combat. What then should one do?

For one thing Catholic teaching is clear that there is only one "King of hell", i.e. Satan. He tempts human beings all the time and will use whatever historical circumstances to bring that about. Since the hungry ghost festival is in the category of natural human religiosity, truth is often mixed with error. Hence it is very possible that satan and his minions makes use of this period of time the "hungry ghost festival" to burrow into human religious practices and cause spiritual disturbances.

Then again, God could also permit the holy souls in purgatory to be "more active" in seeking the prayers of the living during this month. If that's the case, he seems to be drawing good out of natural human religiosity.

In any case, while we can't be absolutely certain, we can draw some guidelines.

The bottom line for Catholics is Mass, the rosary and other approved devotions directed to the Holy Souls in purgatory or minor exocrisms designed to drive away infestations. According to Dr Gerard van den Aardweg, souls in purgatory when they do appear to human beings, will sadly beg for prayers, help and compassion. Damned souls/demons do not.
A Catholic knows that any attempt at placating a soul with food, entertainment, joss paper etc is while done with good intentions, is ultimately not helpful.

Worst still if Catholics attempt at placating demons via the usual hungry ghost practices.

That's one category of intelligent beings we absolutely don't negotiate with.