Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Not everything that glitters is gold." (A Brief Reflection on the Solemnity of Christ the King, John 18:33-37)

As usual, it was the news story of the day (Black Friday)—the official start of the Holiday Shopping season. News story after news story showed it all, people lining up for hours to be the first to get their hands on a bargain. One news feature showed a growing number of people who now decide to forsake Thanksgiving at home and instead camp outside stores from 7 am on Thanksgiving day and bring their Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie with them while waiting in line for hours. (By the way, they just coined a new phrase to describe the fact that shopping now begins, not on Friday, but on Thanksgiving Day itself; they're calling it "Gray Thursday".)
Another video on Youtube showed a number of people pushing each other and screaming at each other, just to get their hands on some cheap prepaid cellular phones. In one mall, a shopper pulled a gun on someone who cut the line.

Yet another interesting item that was played over and over again the last two days was the increasing number of people who prefer to shop over the internet. It’s quick, hassle-free, with no long lines, and you can even do a bit of research and read product reviews by others who have bought them.

I myself was looking at these product reviews, not because I was going to buy something, but because some of them might prove useful as examples in Social Ethics class. Some of the reviews were particularly hilarious.

One of the funniest I saw said: “It looked good, it felt good, the price seemed like a really great bargain… item didn’t work… totally lousy, worthless piece of …..” I’m not going to finish the last word, but you can pretty much fill in the blanks.

It seems that one of the many great lessons of every shopping season is that “looks can be deceiving”. “Not everything that glitters is gold”. Perhaps we can even say: “Not everything that seems like a bargain, is really a bargain”. There’s a “good deal”; and then there’s the “real deal”. Looks can deceive, and not everything that glitters is gold.

Today’s gospel places before us, two men who stand in stark contrast to one another.  On the one hand, you have Pilate, the earthly ruler, dressed in royal finery, with all the trappings of wealth and power.

On the other hand, you have Jesus, garbed in a dirty and bloody robe, all beaten and bruised, with a crown of thorns placed on him by Pilates’ soldiers who mocked and beat him.

Two men, one looking like a ruler, the other looking pretty much like trash. The contrast and irony is striking. For when we consider these two men, we find ourselves asking: “Which of the two is the real ruler? Who has the real power? Which one is the real deal, and which one simply looks like it?”

Pilate certainly looked like a ruler. But we know had the real power in the story. And it wasn’t him.

Jesus certainly looked defeated. But we know who’s the real winner in the end. And it wasn’t Pilate.

The contrast between them shows us the meaning of today’s feast. Jesus puts it in these words: “My kingdom is not of this world”.

Pilate and Jesus are put before us by the gospel to show us the stark difference between “the way of the world” and “the way of Christ”.

Pilate, the earthly ruler, stands for everything “worldly”. It’s all a big “show”, it’s about “being seen”. It’s all about externals. It’s about everything that glitters, that looks good, seems good, sounds good, and feels good.

But the question is: “Is it really good?” The answer, sadly, is “no”.

As that internet review said: “It looked good, it felt good, the price seemed like a really great bargain… but the item didn’t work… it was a totally lousy, worthless, piece of junk.”

Pilate, just like the world, is all about show, with very little soul. It may look good on the outside; inside it’s usually empty. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, but in the process lose his soul?” Jesus asks in another part of the gospel.

Today’s Feast of Christ the King is a reminder to us to not allow ourselves to be deceived and misled by the ways of the world. It invites us to look for what is valuable, not in fancy and showy externals, but in what is true, meaningful, and lasting.

Our values, our principles, our relationships with one another and finally, our faith in God: these things that last. It is these things that remain, long after we’re gone.

Two thousand years after the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, Jesus is the one who is celebrated as king and ruler, not Pilate.

We wouldn’t even be talking about Pilate, if it weren’t for Jesus. Pilate is largely forgotten, Jesus is not.

“My kingdom is not of this world”. Jesus’ words place a stark choice before us today, and it’s a choice that will determine whether we will live forever, like Christ; or be largely forgotten, like Pilate.

And the choice is simple: Shall we pattern our lives after this showy, unreal, and ultimately fading world? Or are we going to be like Christ? Are we going to be “the real deal?”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

In this alone one truly lives...

“Lord, make us know the shortness of our life, and we shall gain wisdom of heart”. (Psalm 90:12) 

To live like one were dying, to give at every minute of one’s life, one’s all, to put in the treasury, everything one owns, like the poor widow of the Gospel, willingly perishing from one’s thoughts all and every worry about tomorrow; in this alone one truly lives.

There's  a certain reckless abandon required if one is to live life to the full, a certain surrender to the unknown, a willingness to walk and be guided by the most ephemeral signs and pointers along the way, as one allows himself to be led only by God’s providential hand, from the comfort and security of terra firma to the immense mystery and awesome darkness of terra incognita, trusting only in the God who shall always be waiting.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law" - Paul in his Letter to the Romans (A Reflection on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 22:34-40)

"The entire Law is summed up in a single command: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:15) 

Dr. Tom Dooley was a well-known doctor who spent his life helping thousands of refugees in Vietnam many years ago, before he himself died of cancer. He used to tell a story of how one time he was brought to a small dark and dingy hut where in a corner was a little boy huddled and crying out in pain. He couldn’t figure out what it was that smelled so bad until he finally touched the child and discovered he had been covered with cow dung, probably the only known home-remedy that these poor people could afford.

He asked the parents to help him remove the dung that had covered the child, and only then did he discover the sores on the boy’s flesh, already infected and in some places, infested with maggots. Gross, isn’t it! I found the story quite terrible myself. The good doctor, said he felt nauseous at first, but eventually got to cleansing the boy’s wounds, applying proper medication, and bundled him with a ton of bandages.

On his way out of the hut, still feeling quite shaken by what he had seen, Dooley found himself crying and telling himself: "I do not know if that boy will survive or eventually die (in those conditions, he was more likely to die), but this I know: crying out from that little bundle of flesh was my Lord in agony, and I know that what is done for the least of my brothers is done to him". 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus—in response to the question, Which is the first of all the commandments?—places side by side the command of Love of God and that of neighbor. The two commandments are inseparable; they form two aspects of but one commandment of love. Our love for God can only be made manifest in our love for our brothers and sisters in need.

I once knew this lady who’s very religious and pious; she was very active in church, was very generous to the parish, and very kind to priests. When her kids were all grown-up, she decided to join a religious order as a lay member. I admired her a lot and enjoyed having conversations with her about faith and religion, since she wasn’t only very bright, but was also well read.

Once however, I ran into her in a religious goods store; she didn’t see me come in of course, but from a distance, I noticed she was harassing the cashier about some little item the girl mistakenly priced. (Granted the cashier should’ve been more careful. But that’s beside the point). Never did I think this nice woman who always had “God” on her lips, could actually act so mean, and for something so minor. She finally noticed me walking towards her, and her demeanor changed. “Oh, Father, I didn’t see you there”. And then, embarrassed perhaps that I had seen and heard her nastiness, she said: “You know Father, you really have to act this way to these people. They’re so lazy and incompetent. That’s why these people are poor and will stay that way. I just don’t have time for these people”.

Who among us has not met such persons? Who among us has not been that kind of person, at one point or another? Perhaps because of that encounter, and the embarrassment she felt, she never asked to talk theology and religion with me again. I, on my part, was somewhat glad, because honestly, I felt quite mad as I stood there listening to the uncharitable words that came from this woman who, just days ago, was talking to me about the parish’s outreach program to the city’s poor she was involved in.

At such moments, I couldn’t help but find myself understanding, if not actually sympathizing with my atheistic and agnostic friends who would complain that Christianity would be ok if it weren't for some Christians who give it a bad name; and I couldn’t help but recall Jesus’ rather harsh words: 

“Away from me you accursed ones, away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me food; I was thirsty, and you did not give me drink; I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me; naked and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me.” 

How much do we really love God? Do we love him enough to love him truly and sincerely? Or is our love mere lip service? Our love for God can only be proven by our love for people, people who are flesh and blood, good and bad, pleasant and undesirable, our friends and our enemies. 

“What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” (James 2:14-16) 

A tree is known by its fruit, and the tree of our faith and love of God must bear the fruit of neighborly-love; there simply isn’t any other way.

And why is that? Precisely because it is Christ that we love when we serve those in need. And it is also Christ whom we refuse and reject when we fail to assist those who need us. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me”.

Albert Aerts, a Belgian lawyer during the war, spoke of it in an experience he had during the war. He picked up a wounded man and carried him for more than a mile till he found a house where he could be treated. As he carried him along those devastated streets, he wondered what the point was of carrying this man who would surely die anyway. As he looked at his bony hands, black and blue, and full of bruises, it suddenly dawned on him, it was Christ he was carrying. Suddenly everything had a point, and it was no longer futile to carry this man who would die anyway.

“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, [namely] “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These are Saint Paul's words in his Letter to the Romans. (13:8-9)

The scribe who came to Jesus wanted to know which (of the hundreds of laws they followed) was the most important one. Jesus didn't pick a few, instead he pointed his questioner to just two: love of God and love of neighbor - two inseparable commands, summed up by Paul in just one word: "love", which he calls "the fulfillment of the law." (Rom. 13:10)

Friday, November 2, 2012

“If Christ did not rise from the dead, then our preaching is useless, and you have believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:14) Thomas Aquinas on Death and the Immortality of the Soul

What happens when we die? To grasp Saint Thomas Aquinas's thinking on this question, we will need to be clear on at least one thing. This is that he does not believe that human souls survive as complete human beings after we die. He thinks that human beings are both bodily and non-bodily beings. He therefore concludes that the survival of them as nothing but body, or as nothing but what is not bodily, cannot be the survival of them properly speaking. 

To understand Thomas on the survival of the human soul, we must forget about notions like that of people surviving their death as complete incorporeal persons, which is certainly the Cartesian view of survival after death, and which is also, perhaps, the most common view among non-philosophers. [Think of movie portrayals of souls leaving the body at death, dressed in pretty much the same clothes, looking pretty much the same as the deceased, except having some sort of translucent, spectral quality.] Thomas’ view is that Fred's soul can survive the death of Fred. But the soul of Fred when he has died is not itself Fred (i.e. Fred's soul, apart from Fred's body, is not Fred).

Yet why should we even say that Fred's soul can survive the death of Fred? At this point it is important to remember that Thomas thinks of the human soul as 'the form of the body' and as something subsisting. For his argument is that, if that is what the human soul is, then the human soul is not something perishable. He holds that for something (e.g. a cow) to perish is for the thing in question to lose its substantial form, to lose what makes it the kind of thing it is. Perishing, for Thomas, is the loss of form, and form is that in terms of which we analyze perishing. He therefore concludes that it makes no sense to speak of form as such perishing. And if the form in question subsists, he reasons, it continues to exist as something subsistent.

Not being a body capable of perishing (as the biological human organism is), and yet being subsistent, the human soul cannot perish. For Thomas, that by virtue of which I understand and think is not the sort of thing which can die as bodies can die. (Ia, 75, 6) Of course, he is perfectly aware that people die and that their bodies perish. But he does not think that this entails that people are totally extinguished. It only entails the destruction of everything which belongs to them as animals.

However, people, for Thomas, are rational, understanding animals, and they are what they are by virtue of what is not material. This aspect of people must, he concludes, be capable of surviving the destruction of what is material. He does not think we can prove that the soul of Fred must survive Fred's death. In his view, whether or not Fred's soul survives the death of Fred will depend on whether God wills to keep it in being, and Thomas does not think that we are in a position to prove that God must do that. For him, therefore, there is no 'proof of the immortality of the soul'. He holds that Fred's soul could, in principle, cease to exist at any time. But he also thinks that it is not the sort of thing of which it makes sense to say that it can perish as bodies can perish.

Yet, for Thomas, neither is it the sort of thing which can survive as a human animal can survive. So the survival of Fred's soul is not the survival of the human being we call 'Fred'. Or, as Thomas puts it, 'my soul is not I'. People, for him, are very much part of the physical world. Take that world away and what you are left with is not a human person. You are not, for example, left with something able to know by means of sense experience. Nor are you left with something able to undergo the feelings or sensations that go with being bodily. On Thomas’ account, therefore, the human soul can only be said to survive as something purely intellectual, as the locus of thought and will.

One implication of this teaching which Thomas draws is that there is no joy or pain in the life of a surviving soul, where joy and pain involve physiological processes and states. 'A disembodied soul', he states, 'does not feel joy and sadness due to bodily desire, but due to intellectual desire, as with the angels.' (Ia, 77, 8.5)

Given all that, of course, one might naturally ask: 'Can I live after my death?' If my soul is not me, and if only my soul survives my death, then it would seem that I cannot really be said to survive my death. Aquinas, however, accepts this conclusion. He does not regard it as ruling out anything he wants to maintain. In his view, the existence of a human soul apart from what is bodily is unnatural. He also thinks that, if I die and only my soul survives, then I do not survive. For my soul is the soul of the individual person that I am. And I am a particular, perishable, bodily individual. Destroy my body, there­fore, and the particular person that I am ceases to exist.

On the other hand, however, not everyone who believes in human life after death wishes to conceive of it as survival of something incorporeal. And such is the case with biblical authors such as the evangelists and St Paul. In their scheme of things, life after death is not a matter of what we might call 'the immortality of the soul'. It is a matter of resurrection.

And this is Thomas’ view as well. My soul is not me, he says. But he also believes that it shall be reunited with my body. And then, he thinks, I shall live again. When my soul is reunited with my body, he argues, I shall again be there as the person I am now. In fact, he adds, the soul naturally belongs with the body.

Thomas does not think that human happiness consists in bodily life. He sees it as ultimately lying in the vision of God, which can be enjoyed without the body. 'There can', he says, 'be no complete and final happiness for us save in the vision of God.' But he also holds that something is lacking with respect to happiness in disembodied souls, and that the lack here lies in the absence of the body.

So long as the soul enjoys God without its partner, its desire, though at rest with what it has, still longs for the body to enter in and share. Desire in a disembodied soul is wholly at rest on the part of the object loved, for it possesses what contents it. Yet not on the part of the subject desiring, for the good is not possessed in every manner that can be wished for. Hence when the body is reassumed happiness will grow, not in depth but in extent... Since it is natural for the soul to be united to the body how is it credible that the perfection of the one should exclude the perfection of the other? Let us declare, then, that happiness complete and entire requires the well-being of the body, both before and during its activity. (Ia2ae, 5.4)

In short, if human beings are to be happy after death as human beings, they will need to be raised from the dead in bodily form. They will need to be what Thomas thinks people are now, i.e. human beings, not incorporeal substances. 'Therefore we believe according to our faith in the future resurrection of the dead.' And this, Thomas thinks, means that between what I am now, and what I am to be hereafter, there must be material continuity. Some philosophers speculating on the possibility of personal survival have settled for less than this. They have, for example, said that I can survive if there is some kind of psychological continuity between me now and me hereafter. Others, believing that for people to exist involves bodies existing, have said that I can live again if there is some body or other for me to 'inhabit' or for me to be identified with. For Thomas, however, personal identity requires bodily continuity. For me to live again, he says, there must be a human body. But not just any old body will do if I am to live again.

Just as the same specific form ought to have the same specific matter, so the same numerical form ought to have the same numerical matter. The soul of an ox cannot be the soul of a horse's body, nor can the soul of this ox be the soul of any other ox. Therefore, since the rational soul that survives remains numerically the same, at the resurrection it must be reunited to numerically the same matter. (Compendium Th., 153)

How? Thomas simply does not explain. He does not claim to know what processes must occur in the resurrection of an individual human being. And he does not think that there is any general scientific reason for holding that people survive their death. 'Since the human body substantially dissolves in death', he says, 'it cannot be restored to numerical identity by the action of nature.' But he is absolutely clear that such numerical identity is needed if I am to live again, and, given his belief in the power of God, he finds no objection in principle to believing that it can be brought about.

Since all things, even the very least, are included under divine providence ... the matter composing this human body of ours, whatever form it may take after our death, evidently does not elude the power or the knowledge of God. Such matter remains numerically the same, in the sense that it exists under quantitative dimensions, by reason of which it can be said to be this particular matter, and is the principle of individuation. If then, this mat­ter remains the same, and if the human body is again fashioned from it by divine power, and if also the rational soul which remains the same in its incorruptibility is united to the same body, the result is that identically the same man is restored to life. (Comp.Th., 154)

On this basis Thomas firmly insists on the reality of Christ's re­surrection. 'Whatever properties belong to the nature of a human body', he says, 'were totally present in Christ's risen body.' And this, so he adds, means just what it says. It means, for example, that the risen Christ had flesh, bones, blood, 'and other similar elements [which] pertain to the nature of a human body'.

 (From Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, 215-220.)

“We aren’t the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in a verse of God’s everlasting poetry”. (Reflections on the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, November 2nd, John 6:37-40)

Death’s a strange creature. We only know it from a distance; our own death is something we can only imagine. An ancient philosopher, trying to calm the fears of his students once said that death is not to be feared, since when we’re around, death isn’t; and when death’s around, we aren’t. So what’s there to fear?

The Christian view of death is of course, quite different; it’s one of hope and trust. It speaks of a “passage”, not an “end”. It speaks more of a promised future than a completed past. Today’s commemoration of all souls witnesses to this fact.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit." Death is our gateway to glory. "It is the supreme festival on the way to freedom", as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer says. Really? 

Who remembers Bernard Connelly? [He’s one of the students buried in the American College plot in Park Abbey cemetery in Louvain. He was a seminarian who died in Belgium, years ago.] How about Joseph Nuttin? Who remembers him? He’s buried in a neighboring plot, also at Park Abbey. [He was a professor at the university.] We used to visit their graves during All Souls’ Day when we were students in Louvain; we’d say prayers for them and all the other students and professors of the seminary and university who have died over the years.

They’re fortunate to still have their names etched on tombstones. What of the others? Who now remembers those countless millions, nameless and faceless who died loving Christ and serving others throughout the ages? Even we who remember our own dead can only think and refer to this now anonymous crowd under the traditional collective term—“faithful departed”. It’s rather difficult to hold onto a promise of glory when you know there won’t be anyone left to remember you at some far distant future. For a handful of human beings, I guess it isn’t a problem. The more famous ones among us go down in history and are remembered—as two dimensional characters in history books. Is this the glory promised by Christ? I certainly hope not.

“The most powerful signs efface themselves”, says the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur. Today’s commemoration of the dead reminds us of this fact. Sir Lawrence Olivier was once asked why he became an actor and he answered: “Look at me; look at me; look at me”. Robert, a priest I met at The Hague many years ago also gave me that answer when I asked him why he decided to become a priest. 

I suppose that could also be said for many of us. We have gifts and talents, strengths and abilities we are proud to be able to share them. And that’s fine; the problem is, when the “I” is gone, there’s nothing left to look at, except perhaps a trace, which only gets dimmer as time go by.

The glory of which today’s Gospel reading speaks and is promised to us Christians is the glory of Christ who suffered, died, and rose again. We’re baptized into it. Now for John, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, though temporally distinct, are not three separate episodes. They’re part of one piece, a seamless garment revealing the glory of Christ. For John, Christ’s glorification is not an ‘after-effect’ of his death, and his death is not a mere ‘prelude’ causing or leading to his glorification. His death is his glorification. In his destruction and effacement lies Christ’s true power and glory.

The most powerful signs efface themselves. A Christian, initiated into the Body of Christ is initiated into Christ’s death. Dietrich Bonhoffer could not have put it more powerfully. He says: “When Christ bids you come, he bids you come and die”. What kind of death? Death to self.

The most powerful signs efface themselves. It’s easy to fall into the danger of wanting to save the world and putting ourselves in the forefront of salvation history. No need, the world was saved two thousand years ago. We’re not asked to do it again.

It’s easy to despair that our effort to change the world is often frustrated, our voices, silenced by a world so eager to prove itself right by proving us wrong. Does it matter?  Hardly. For we know that nothing we do is ever in vain. Our glory is not measured by our success. Instead it lies in the realization that our Redeemer lives.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” The faithful departed whom we remember today remind us that our true glory is in the person of Christ. It is not ourselves we proclaim, but him who sends us. We are not the sun, simply the moon reflecting the sun’s light. We are not the entire score, simply a note in the eternal melody, a line in the verse of God’s everlasting poetry.

Our hope of everlasting life is in our sharing in Christ’s death; our power in the losing and effacing of ourselves in order that Christ may be known; our glory in our being part of the Body of Christ our Head. The most powerful signs efface themselves. The faceless and nameless and now voiceless crowd whom we remember today speaks eloquently of this fact.

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