Thursday, September 29, 2011

Of children and angels (Reflection on the Feast of the Archangels, Sept 29th, and Guardian Angels, October 2nd)

“Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom His love commits me here,

ever this day, be at my side,

to light and guard,
rule and guide.

This, if I remember correctly, was the earliest prayer I learned as a child. Yes, even earlier than the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary”. Perhaps because of its brevity and rhyme, it’s perfect for teaching little kids. I remember praying it with my parents right before going to bed, then with my brother and sister, when they were old enough to join in.

I don’t pray it that often anymore—though when I do find myself uttering it every once in a while—two things necessarily accompany it: a torrent of childhood memories, and that sense of life’s simplicity that seems to dissipate more and more as one gets older and moves farther and farther away from the innocence of one’s childhood years.

Indeed, most of us were taught, as children, to believe in angels and archangels and pray to those we were taught to call our guardian angels. They were, we were told, our constant companions, sent by God to stand always by our side to protect and guide us.

As we grow up, however, as the days of our non-complicated childhood lives recede farther away into the distance, the idea of heavenly beings keeping us constant company slowly loses its appeal, until eventually, it gets relegated to those things which we “believed in as a child”.

We grow up and mature; our lives become ever more complex, and we find other sources of security and safety: our education, our friends, our jobs, our possessions, our titles, our achievements. As we take leave of the spiritual companions of our childhood, we often replace them with what we believe to be more concrete, tangible, and material sources of comfort and strength.

Indeed, talk of angels doesn’t seem to belong to the world of an adult, and we would probably be thought odd if we were to think about angels like children do. The words of Jesus in the gospel though, are a gentle reminder—not so much about our need to believe again in angels or pray to them like when we were kids—but about what lies behind the idea of believing in these creatures sent by God to protect human beings.

Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”.

Being like a child and believing in angels, Jesus seems to say, have something in common. They both mean trusting, believing, and having confidence in a Father, a God who is larger than ourselves, someone greater than even the greatest of our triumphs, successes, and accomplishments, and mightier than even the mightiest of our cares, worries and fears, and whose concern for our well-being extends to even the smallest concerns of our day to day lives.

And is that not in fact what we were taught our guardian angels do for us? Guide our steps—from the biggest to the smallest, guide our decisions—from the monumental to the minute, and protect our actions—so that none of them strays from the path God has set out for us.

“Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom His love commits me here,
ever this day, be at my side,
to light and guard, rule and guide.

We may no longer be children, and belief in angels may no longer be something at the forefront of our minds. But what these two things signify—humility before God and trust in his providence and care—these are qualities we must never lose, if we wish to be admitted into his Kingdom.

While these Feasts of the Archangels and Guardian Angels may be about angels, and the gospel readings may be about children, at their heart and core, they're really about us—we who call ourselves adults—and how we can perhaps recapture even a bit of that childlike confidence, trust, and humility before a Father who loves us, and who will never leave us to face the challenges of life alone.

Perhaps by being reminded not only of our dependence on God, but also of the constancy of his presence, we may yet recover even a small fragment of that innocence and simplicity of our childhood past.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Of ideal sons and daughters and the God of second chances (Reflections on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt. 21:28-32)

As I was preparing for today’s Mass, reflecting upon the readings, and doing a little bit of research on the Gospel narrative, I came upon an interesting little story entitled, “The Story of the Third Son”.

“A man came to his first son and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today’. The son said in reply, ‘Yes sir’, but he didn’t go. He then came to his second son and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today’. The son said, ‘I will not’, but afterwards changed his mind and went to the vineyard.

As he was working, he noticed someone approaching from the distance. It was his youngest brother—their father’s third son. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked his youngest brother. ‘Oh, father asked me to work with you in the vineyard. And I said ‘yes’.’ And these two sons worked in the vineyard until sunset when their father sent for them and welcomed them home.

It’s a clever retelling of the story, and although it’s not what we find in the gospel reading, it does help us understand the point Jesus was making.

The ideal son is not the one who said ‘yes’ and didn’t go.

Neither is it the son who said ‘no’ and then changed his mind.

The ideal son is the one who says ‘yes’ and actually does what his father asked of him.

But why did Jesus only talk about two sons and not a third one who said ‘yes’ and kept his word? Why did he talk instead of two, neither of whom was the ideal? Why did he leave a spot, some kind of ‘hole’ or ‘gap’ in his story? Who’s supposed to fill it? Who’s supposed to be the third son?

That spot is for you and I to fill. That’s what Christ is inviting us and challenging us to do. He isn’t telling us to be the son who says ‘no’ then changes his mind. He’s saying, be like the son who says ‘yes’ and keeps his word.

That’s the son or daughter God wants. And I’m sure we’d all agree that that is the kind of person we would all want to be. We want to be the person who keeps his word. Who wouldn’t want to be the ideal son?

But there’s another reason why Jesus only talks about two sons instead of a third one who’s the ideal type. He knows fully well that none of us can really fit the bill. And we know it too. None of us is really the ideal type. For one reason or another, we all fall short of being the person we want to be.

There’s this man who was writing to fellow Christians about himself, and he says: “Whenever I stop and think of the crazy, stupid and sinful things I’ve done in my life, I’m amazed God still forgave me and gave me a second chance”. It's a paraphrase, of course; but that's Saint Augustine speaking, telling us of his former evil ways.

We’ve all done crazy, stupid and even sinful things in our lives, whether as young men or women or as adults. Some of them in fact embarrass us when we remember them. At one time or another, we’ve all said ‘yes’ to God, and then failed to keep our word.

The good news is that God is the God of second chances. We may not be the ideal son, but we can always be the son or daughter who said ‘no’ at the beginning, but then changes his mind and obeys the Father.

And most Christians, even the saints, are really second-chance people: St. Augustine fathered an illegitimate child, Francis of Assisi was quite the irresponsible youth, Saint Ignatius was a hired mercenary before he founded the Jesuits. Matthew was a hated tax collector and Mary Magdalene was supposedly a woman of ill-repute.

“We have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God”, St. Paul says. We can certainly try to fit the bill of the ideal son. But if we can’t, we can always be the son who may have said ‘no’ but then changes his mind.

We may not be the ideal son or daughter who says “yes” and then acts on his or her word, but God loves us nonetheless. We may have failed him many times. But he’s always more than willing to give us another chance.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

"The first shall be last, and the last shall be first": God's generosity (Reflections on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt 20:1-16)

The seminary I attended in Belgium stood next to a church where a man by the name of Damien De Veuster is buried. A story is told that as a young man, Damien had once applied to the same seminary and wanted to become a priest. But he failed all the admissions exams and was consequently turned away. No one really heard much about him after that—until many years later when his remains were brought back to Belgium from Molokai in Hawaii where as a young priest he served the island's
small leper colony and eventually contracted the disease himself.

Years after his death, that same man was made a saint by Pope John Paul II himself who came all the way from Rome to honor the man they were calling the ‘hero of Molokai’. Thousands of pilgrims now visit his grave, which is now a shrine. And all the time they pass by the gate of our seminary, which many years ago, had supposedly turned away a future saint. (Whether true or apocryphal, the story still serves to make an important point—something of which today’s Gospel reading is keen to remind us.)

God’s ways are different from ours. If you consider the gospel story, it does seem unfair that the men who only worked for a few hours should receive the same pay as those who worked the whole day. But justice isn’t the point of the story. The story isn’t about fairness or unfairness. And the key to understanding that is when Jesus says: “Are you envious because I am generous”?

The story is about God’s generosity. It’s about the way God deals with us and the way he asks us to deal with each other. The generosity shown by the landowner in the gospel is not like any kind of generosity we know. He treated everyone in the same way—those who came first, and those who came last.

The world sees things differently. It measures generosity; it carefully picks those to whom it shall bestow it. The world loves winners. It has no time for losers. The brightest student gets the scholarship and the great job offers. The best athlete is honored with fame and fortune. The effective manager rises in rank very quickly. Even in the church, the intelligent and able administrator and fundraiser becomes a monsignor or bishop quickly.

The world has no time for those who come last, who aren’t lucky or bright or wealthy or successful. In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves, shall we act in the way the world does?

If honoring the best is meant to inspire and encourage us to imitate them, then it’s good. But if honoring only the best makes us forget the weak and those who have fallen through the cracks, then we fail in generosity. And we forget that before God, we are all weak and sinful, but he treats us all in the same way.

There’s a commercial on TV that starts by saying: “In this world, there are winners… and losers”. And that is true. There are persons that the world sees as failures. Jesus, however, is telling us that with God, there’s no such thing as a loser or a failure.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. God treats us all in the same way—with generosity, with kindness, and with acceptance. God will never turn us away like our seminary turned away St. Damien De Veuster because he wasn’t bright enough.

When I was first assigned to teach in seminary, I was very strict and demanding of my students. There was this kid who always failed my quizzes and exams. And I remember flunking him in the final oral exam. But he kept trying. He kept coming back. He refused to leave the seminary because he failed my course.

The next time he had to face me again to take the exam, I asked him the exact question I had asked before. When he failed to give a satisfactory answer again, I was furious. “This is the second time I’ve asked you that question! And you still can’t give an acceptable answer. I simply don’t know what to do anymore. Do you want to fail a second time!?” He looked at me, tears almost welling up in his eyes. “Father”, he said, “you’ve already failed me twice. This is the third time I’m taking your exam. I’m sorry if my answer’s still unacceptable. God knows I’ve tried as hard as I can”.

I was stunned. He was a fine young man, not very academically-gifted, but I knew he worked hard as a student - even if his intellectual abilities weren't stellar. I knew he'd be a hard-working priest, and a loving and understanding one too. I let him go and finally gave him a passing mark, but not after having reminded him: "When you become a priest one day, remember to show kindness to those who through no fault of their own, fail to make the mark". "Yes, Father, I won't forget. Thank you", he replied.

If God could be so generous to forgive me for at times being too demanding, then I should be as generous in treating someone whose only fault is that he wasn’t bright enough.

When I came home a few summers ago, that same young man was one of the students who greeted me when I visited the seminary. He has now been ordained a priest, and from what I hear, a very generous one.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first”. The generosity of God is the same for all of us. With him, there are no losers, because he loves each of us the same.

If he can be so generous to us despite all our failures and sins, should we not be the same towards others?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Seventy Times Seven Times: The 'Antidote' and Life's Healing Balm that is Forgiveness (Reflections on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 18:21-35)

"Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?" (The Book of Sirach)

Why ‘seven’? Why, of all the numbers, did Peter choose seven when he asked Jesus the number of times one should forgive? Why not nine or ten or a hundred? Was there perhaps, a significance to it? And why did Jesus correct him and say ‘seventy-seven’? Some other translations of the bible say ‘seven times seven’. Why ‘seventy-seven’? Why not ‘eighty-eight’ or ‘ninety-nine’. So why ‘seven’?

We really owe Saint Peter a lot in the gospels. It’s often his quick tongue and bumbling wit that draws from Jesus some very sharp but important teachings. Remember how at one point he gets Jesus annoyed and Jesus calls him ‘Satan’ and tells him that a disciple must be willing to follow his master’s footsteps?

Well, today, Peter does it again, except this time, he wanted to be on the safe side. In his mind, ‘seven’ seemed more than enough.

You see, the Jewish rabbis before Jesus had always taught that one must be willing to forgive three times, but not a fourth. In fact they taught that God only forgave sins three times, but that after the third repeat, God punishes the offender. Forgiveness was limited to three times. The fourth offense brought sure punishment.

And so Peter thought he’d impress Jesus by going farther than what Jewish Law allowed. He takes the three times and multiplies it by two. But just to be sure, he adds one more. Three times two, plus one; that’s ‘seven’.

In his mind, Peter must’ve been congratulating himself and feeling extremely generous. Surely Jesus would commend him this time instead of calling him ‘Satan’ or some other name. Poor Peter. It didn’t happen. Instead he gets corrected again. “Not seven”, Jesus says, “but seventy seven times” must one who calls himself Christian forgive.

What Jesus was saying was, “Go beyond what the Law requires. Don’t be satisfied with the bare minimum. Forgive again and again, because God has forgiven you, over and over again”. That was what the parable of the unforgiving servant was all about. His debt was so much greater that he should’ve been willing to forgive his fellow servant’s lesser debt.

But more than that, the truth is, forgiveness really does so much for us who forgive—at times, much more than for the one whom we forgive.

Forgiving frees us from the self-pity, the bitterness, anger and resentment that are often left in our hearts by the wrongs that other people do. Forgiving allows us to let go of bad memories that can poison our spirit, weigh us down, and harm our ability to live our lives to the full.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting either. We have to remember, so wrong things don’t happen again. But we remember, not to imprison ourselves in hate, but so we can let go, pick up the pieces and move on. The human spirit, breathed as it is by the Creator himself, is capable of rebuilding itself, again and again, after every heartache, after every pain. But it must be freed from the prison of anger and bitterness that often chain it down.

And yet, to forgive is never easy, especially if the hurts run deep. How do we forgive those who kill the innocent, like those on September 11, ten years ago? Awhile ago, I received an email telling me one of my former students was killed by car thieves, shot in the face as he was about to get in his car. He was a very bright, devout and promising young man. How do we forgive God when we sometimes feel he’s abandoned us?

Without grace, forgiving can sometimes be impossible. And that’s why today’s gospel is one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

As in all his teachings though, Christ never asks us to do something hard without telling us why. And today, he asks us to forgive even if it’s tough, because in the end, it is we ourselves who will benefit from doing so.

As those of us who have experienced forgiving know, while it can be extremely hard at times, it can also be the most freeing and liberating experience in life. For whenever we do forgive someone who has wronged us, we allow God to rid our hearts and minds of the bitterness and resentment that harm us. And we experience a sense of relief and freedom.

Peter thought he had already hit the maximum in today’s gospel. Instead Jesus says, “Try harder”. And he asks us to do the same. “Forgive and forgive, over and over, and over again”.

It will free our hearts, it will free our minds, it will free our souls. Forgiveness is the antidote to the many poisons we encounter in life; it is the healing balm prescribed by the great physician of souls himself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)