Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Where Are You? A Bedside Reflection

I sat there by his bedside without him knowing I was there. I watched him as he slept, I watched the movements within me. The nurse came to draw his blood not knowing that the doctor had already done so earlier. They brought a new pack of glucose drip and connected it to the needle stuck in his hand, took a machine and scanned the code on his paper wristband. He had two wristbands with different codes - a bar code and a QR code. And all these while, I sat quietly at a corner, watching, pondering.

The future is unknown; not even the next minute or the next second is known. Not just his life but all our lives too. This is the fragility of life that Man forgets most conveniently as we scurry from one place to another, one appointment to another. 

My eyes welled up as my heart enlarged. People say that a medical patient seem to be less dignified as they are subjected to this and that test, the topic of observation and discussion. But is it true? Even with tubes running everywhere, even labelled with alphabets and numerals written with marker pens on plastic bandages stuck onto one's hand, even when all the depth and richness of one's life experiences seem to be dismissed and one identity becomes encapsulated in just some superficial details encoded in some squarish black spots or lines of different thickness. Even so, here lies a human person still mysteriously remaining in the image and likeness of God. Here lies a person who is apparently God's beloved child. 

But if this is God's beloved child, then it is even more perplexing. And I found myself turning to God, asking, "Where are You? Where are You in all these?" I searched for an answer in the silence rudely interrupted by the beeping rhythm of the machines. Can it be that somehow, amidst all these, God is still present and alive? That He has not left, not even for a moment? It must be. But where is He?

Then came a tiny voice, so gentle and firm, "Am I not here?" And I understood. "Am I not here?" in me to him, as I have come to lend a support, to extend the love of Christ, to pray, to care and love, to accompany. "Am I not here?" in me through whom God continues to affirm of His presence and care. "Am I not here?" also in him to me, as through him, I am challenged to care and love my brother in Christ, to open wider my heart and grow in compassion and faith. In the people who have chosen this line of work in the medical field to care and cure. In the facilities of this hospital that continually upgrades itself to give the best possible care and treatment.

But perhaps, what I had demanded from God was healing as I asked Him at the start, "Would You not do anything? You have the power. I don't. Would You not do something?" And so His presence through me to my friend feels inferior. How often do I dictate how I want God to manifest Godself in the harsh reality of everyday life so that life is made easier, more convenient, and faith becomes less farfetched?

Yet, God is still God and we are still creatures. Perhaps, God answered best my question of where He is in His invitation to surrender to this reality. The reality of my creaturehood in the light of His divinity. Can I, without fully comprehending His ways, without seeing His master plan, still believe without questioning that God's love never fails, even when what is before my eyes looks nothing like the 'love' I want, demand, hope for, pray for, and define it to be? That somehow, in my desire to surrender and live as a creature, discontinuing the pursuit to be the god-in-control, I may then receive the grace to let go and submit, and in this grace, to welcome the very presence of God Himself into my heart. That somehow, to find God, I need to first lose myself.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Seaweed, Rock and Morals

How do you tell the difference between a rock and a seaweed? A rock and a seaweed have very different characteristics. And the rock is what it is even before humans gave it the name "rock". Same too for the seaweed, which existed on earth in the form that it is long before we started naming it "seaweed". 

Our calling a rock "seaweed" does not change the substance of the rock into a seaweed. It remains as a rock, even as we call it "seaweed". Because this is the truth. When I hold a rock in one hand and a seaweed in the other, the truth remains that they are both different, distinct from each other. No one decided to fix this difference. It just is that way by nature. It is the truth. 

Applying this to morality... 

The Church does not set laws and impose them on the world. Rather, she fulfils her responsibility and duty to highlight, teach, explain and guide the world on what is morally right according to human reason. 

That an act is morally right/wrong and it being easy/difficult to carry out are two separate issues. E.g. I may find it hard and perhaps even impossible to stop gossiping but this has nothing to do with and is a completely different thing altogether from the truth that gossiping is wrong for the consequences it brings and the effects it has on me as a person. A woman who was raped and is with child may find it difficult to keep the baby and cope with her emotions. And as compassionate beings, we can understand and empathise with her. But it is a separate thing from the moral truth that murder in abortion is wrong. 

When we look at a situation that requires us to choose an action, we often allow the difficulty of the morally correct act to influence our perception of what is right and acceptable and what is not. So if something is very difficult to do, our hearts tend to pity the person or ourselves for having to do it anyway, like in this case of the raped victim. And then, even if the act is the right thing to do, like to keep the baby, we start to compromise, to say that maybe she can abort the baby so that she does not have to live with the trauma all her life. The more we compromise, the more diluted our conscience will become. But these two factors need to be seen apart. 

To say that a baby should not be aborted in a case of rape is not the Church being unfeeling and rigid. The Church does not decide that murder is wrong. She does not have the authority to fix moral truths, nor to change moral truths. Murder is wrong with or without the Church, and it has been wrong even before the Church officially taught it to be wrong.

The Church upholds the moral truth that killing is wrong, and this truth cannot be changed no matter what form it takes, under what circumstances, regardless of the individual's moral inconsistencies. And it applies too to all other moral truths. What we can do is to offer all the support we have in our capacities to aid this victimised lady, be it in healing, prayers, counselling, befriending, financial assistance, etc etc... 

And I'm so comforted and encouraged that Pope Francis gives us all a wonderful example. He shows us what being Church is, what community needs to do and be for one another - not to bend and twist, dilute or disregard moral truths to suit our circumstances and likings, and to make life easier and more convenient for us, but to extend the love of Christ to one another; to BE Christ to one another. That in the brokenness of our world and our lives, we remain with one another in truth, in solidarity. 

Here's one example of Pope Francis giving Jesus to this broken world, one person at a time. 
Praise and glory to God, from Whom all blessings flow.

Are there moral truths that you struggle with? Let us bring these to God in prayer, asking Him to shed His light of truth on these moral truths in our hearts.

Pope Francis Calls Rape Victim Alejandra Pereyra In Argentina To Offer Words Of Comfort

Posted:   |  Updated: 08/29/2013 3:38 pm EDT

Alejandra Pereyra was knitting at her home when she received a phone call from a stranger who knew her name. When she identified herself, he said, "It's Pope Francis."
Pereyra recounted the experience on Argentinean television, and after she picked up the phone, "I started crying. With an angelic voice, he told me to be calm and that he was calling because he had read my letter and my story struck him."
Pereyra wrote to Pope Francis in mid-August, recounting her tragic story. The mother of six said after months of police harassment, she was raped at gunpoint inside an officer's car.
With all the pain I carry in my heart dear Holy Father, I ask you for your help because after all the talk of rape, they finally did it.
The Pope called her at 3:50 local time on Sunday, August 25, and "when I heard the Pope's voice I felt like being touched by God," Pereyra said. Though her assailant has yet to be brought to justice, she said after her conversation with the Pope that, "He restored faith and peace in me and gave me strength to carry on fighting."
This isn't Pope Francis' first personal telephone call, and it appears to be far from his last, as Catholic News Service reported that he met today with the director of the Vatican telephone service. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Prayer This Lent

My prayer this Lent:
Dear Jesus, 
Reduce me to ashes, and then, bury me entirely in You... 
... now and forever.

Pope Francis on Lent (Ash Wed)

Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday: Lent reminds us that we are not God

Pope Francis' first Ash Wednesday took place at the Roman Basilica of St. Anselmo. He began there a procession to the Basilica of St. Sabina, to symbolize the 40-day long "itinerary.”

He arrived just before 5PM, and celebrated Mass. He also received the ashes from Slovak Card. Jozef Tomko.

During his homily, the Pope explained how Christians should approach the Lenten season. He called for an honest "conversion of the heart,” and said that this "challenge” does not exclude anyone. 

"We know that this world, ever more artificial, makes us live out in a culture of 'doing,' of the 'useful,' where, without realizing it, we exclude God from our horizon, and we exclude the horizon itself. Lent calls us to 'wake up,' to remind us that we are creatures, that we are simply not God.”

The Pope called out those who seek only power, and are willing to do anything to get it.

"When I see in everyday life some power struggles to take up space, I think: 'These people are playing God Creator.' They still haven't realized that they are not God.”

Pope Francis said that Lent is a moment to open up to others. And to do so, he added, there are three key words: prayer, fasting, and charity.

"All three share the need to not let appearances take over. Looks don't matter. The value of life does not depend on the approval of others, or on success, but of what we have inside.”

The cardinal members of the Roman Curia joined Pope Francis for Mass. Some may have even recalled that last year's Ash Wednesday was the last major ceremony for Benedict XVI as Pope. It took place in St. Peter's Basilica, just two days after he announced his resignation.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Capitalism - Part II

I've decided to put the whole post together in this Part II, hoping to give a better flow in the entry. It need not be read all at one go so I have included some questions for 
thought at possible "rain shelters" on top of the already embedded questions. 

(... continued from Capitalism - Part I)
Most people adopt the utilitarian philosophy of deciding if something is morally good based on its consequences. But we do not just look at end results. What the process does to us affects us greatly too. Specifically here, capitalism shapes our desires in subtle ways we do not notice or recognise. We unsuspectingly adopt wrong desires...

Is the perpetuator really at the upper hand? 

These wrong desires enslave us to things that not only do not bring us closer in union with God but actively pulls us further from desiring God and the things of God. We often look at what an act or non-act do to someone externally. So, the people who are marginalised, starving to death, sleeping on the streets are obvious consequences. We see it, we know it. But do we notice too what the same act or non-act does to the perpetuator? 

The Catholic Church believes that sin contaminates the perpetuator far more than the suffering it causes to the victim. And this is so true. For instance, when I choose to hold a grudge and not forgive someone who has hurt me, what is happening within me? Am I not causing a worm to remain in me to slowly eat me up from within? My heart begins to rot. Has anyone met an unforgiving person who is happy? Do murderers strike us as wholesome and at peace? Are they not suffering behind their facades too? Does not gossiping further reinforce one's negative feelings towards the other, making us become more forgetful that we are called to love even our enemies? 

Yet, the person who forgives whether or not the forgiven appreciates it is the one at peace. It is the one who continues to care despite being misunderstood and backstabbed who is at peace, despite being hurt. Because that hurt will be filled in by God's love that flows into the person who empties himself out. It isn't enough to look at an act in itself but to search deeper for what it is doing to a person (the not-so-obvious).

The obvious about capitalism...

Having looked at the fact that what happens externally does affect our interiors, we can look more closely at capitalism. We know that capitalism has been the cause of exploitation. We hear of stories of children being paid low wages for hard labour, farmers who never seem to get out of their poverty cycle because the big players pit these poor farmers against one another to offer their products at the lowest price in the aim of winning the bid. Sometimes, they even go below their production cost. The poverty cycle never breaks. 

The not-so-obvious...

But what does capitalism also do to the very people who thrive in it and are successful? How have they responded to God's invitation to love their neighbours? For companies to persist in burning up lands in Indonesia to clear it for the next crop generation, despite knowing fully well the consequences it has on the lives of people in their country and beyond like in Singapore, the damage it will cause to the ozone layer, contributing to the rise of global temperatures, ice caps melting, sea level rising, lost of animal habitats, destruction of costal homes... and yet they still do it because it is the cheapest and fastest way of clearing the land... ultimately, to save cost, increase profit margins. 

To me, this burning is obviously bad because I suffer the consequences the haze causes to my health every year. The implications to the environment are obvious. Perhaps, these people continue to do this because they have not yet realised what it is doing to their own selves. What has capitalism done to them if not to taint and harden their hearts to the point of such indifference towards humanity? What about the people who continue to produce cigarettes even though they know it will definitely harm people's bodies, affect family life? What about those who build casinos even though they need no further evidence that addictions WILL happen and destroy family life? What about those who claim to be life-savers but are in the medical field because it pays well and puts them on a pedestal? Nothing bad it seems. They get the money and the prestige, feel good that they can save lives (though they are helpless in 'hopeless' cases), people get cured. No bad external consequences. A win-win situation. But what is happening within? What are all these doing to the image and likeness of God in these human persons who have only one goal in mind - profit? 

Some reflections for consideration:
What are the beliefs the Church teaches that you find difficult to accept because you cannot understand what is so wrong about it? Take some time to reevaluate these beliefs, attitudes and actions to examine what could these do to a person, to you, interiorly. 

Capitalism does not involve me... does it?

Special thanks to Fr. Chris, SJ for this video
an excerpt of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech
Kenyon College 2005

Well, many of us aren't at the two ends of capitalism. We don't hold the market power and we aren't the farmers at the other end. We are the consumers who actually hold the power that keeps these big players in business, and the poor people in their poverty cycle. We stand in between these 2; we are their link. We don't really think too much about what we buy, why we are buying, who defines my needs, what defines my identity. Since we are not in the top management of the multinational companies, we are quite powerless and helpless. Not true at all. If we resist being manipulated by capitalism, who can these companies produce for? Maybe it is just you and I now against the tides but slowly, we build awareness, like what I am trying to do in this post. One person at a time. We start by evaluating our habits and desires, by bearing witness to the truth that we need not give in to capitalism. "Resistance is possible."

But again, we see no harm. Because the companies produce, I buy what I want, those poor people are given jobs in production lines, farmers are able to sell their produces to someone at least... everyone seems to somehow get by. More good than harm. Utilitarianism. Judging a situation based on its outcomes. As consumers, it isn't just about a simple act of buying. In that buying of what we do not actually need, we are allowing our desires to be reshaped and reshaped by capitalism. Because we don't think about capitalism often and deeply enough, it has seeped into our lives far more successfully than we are aware, bringing a destruction that we don't realise. 

It seems to me that capitalism thrives on individualism and further emphasises it to make itself even more successful. The emphasis on the "I", making the "me" far more elevated and important that "me" really is. And it contradicts head-on with what John the Baptist said, "He must increase, I decrease."

Our focus shifts further and further away each time from the one true desire - God. Opens the doorway to overindulgence, greed, gluttony, lust to satisfy the senses. It becomes about my feeling good. "Happiness is understood as pleasure, the absence of pain." (J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, C. 11, p. 257) Suffering is perceived as a curse, a punishment. I get angry with God who allows me to suffer. I lose faith in a God who leaves me in the lurch. In possessing and allowing possessions to define who we are, pride steps in, jealous of what others have that I do not have. Anger at my life situation, at an unfair God who gives more to some and less to me. And the list doesn't end here. 

The question to ask is what is this seemingly harmless consumerism doing to my life's focus and goal? What are we doing to ourselves as we strive to accumulate more certificates, qualifications? What is the message that we are sending ourselves and reinforcing daily without our awareness, if not that God is not enough? God does not satisfy. Rather than placing my happiness and securities in God, it seems safer and more rewarding to have these tangible things. That being a child of God is not precious enough, not good enough to define who I am, not good enough a reason for me to walk with my head held up. Instead of claiming this sonship, I choose instead to constantly work hard to earn a reputation, sustain my image, a place in society, a status to claim what I am worth, to accumulate more so that my head can be held higher and higher, so that I don't need to hang my head low or feel intimidated and lesser when I meet someone else who has more than I have. What are we saying to ourselves when we give in to this apparently harmless capitalism? 

Capitalism is bad.

It is not the final consequence that defines whether or not it is good. For the author of this book, Daniel M. Bell Jr., wrote, "In other words, the problem with capitalism is not simply that it may not work but that even if it does increase aggregate wealth, even if it made everyone on the planet a millionaire tomorrow, it is still wrong and to be opposed because of what it does to human desire and human sociality." Capitalism "actively works against the divine will for the renewal of communion with God and humanity." The author questions further, "With our economic lives ordered by capitalism, are we able to worship God truly? Are we able to desire God and the gifts of God as we ought?"

A means or an end?

The economic order, capitalism, as with all other things in life, must serve us in bringing us towards our life goal. We are not made to serve economy and capitalism. As Jesus taught us, the sabbath is made for Man, not Man made for the sabbath. The sabbath is meant to help us pause in our busyness to recall and give thanks to God for all the goodness He has showered upon us. Man took it literally that it is wrong to work and became anal about it. Wrong order of things. And so it is with the economy. We are not called to be slaves to economy, even if society says so. Our freedom need not be inhibited. Economy, its economic order - capitalism - must serve Man and take its proper place as a means, not an end. One cannot be the slaves of 2 masters. We cannot have more than one ends. We will love one and hate the other. 

Some reflections for consideration:
Which master have you been serving? 
Which master do you want? 

The Ignatian tradition speaks about being in the world but not being of the world. We can be in the global capitalist society and yet not be shaped by it. 

Do you believe that this is possible for you? 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Capitalism - Part I

Onto the next chapter of The Economy of Desire... in the light of my Moral Theology's first 3 lesson takeaways.

The Grinch who stole Christmas... 

This is one of my most favourite movies I can watch over and over. The Grinch, a very different-looking human being, lives high up on a mountain cliff, away from the village after he was very hurt and wounded by rejection. Away from humanity, life seemed to get by pretty well. The cave he had shut himself in seemed pretty harmless since it kept out those nasty people who could hurt him again. Yet, not only did it keep him safe, it kept his heart locked in too. So much so that his heart was only a third the size of a normal person's heart. And he even invented a machine to scan his heart to keep its size in check. 

One of the things that struck me about the Grinch is that he knew what to do to make his heart size shrink and to keep it small. It brings to awareness that what we do externally does have effects on what happens to us internally, even though we may not be as aware of these effects as the Grinch nor do we deliberately measure our heart-size and intentionally keep it small. Leads me to consider what capitalism does to us internally. Does it affect me?

Capitalism is quite good what... 

The usual question people ask to decide if capitalism is morally good is: "Does capitalism work?" The answer is obvious - Yes! There are people who were poor and were made richer because of capitalism. Because of this, people conclude that capitalism is good for us. 

This way of coming to a moral decision is called utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is to measure the consequences of a decision to decide if it's good or bad. If the good is greater than the bad consequences, then the decision is good to make. So, it seems that capitalism has brought about so many good consequences. Today, we have a wide variety of food to choose from, many gadgets to aid connectivity with one another. Hence, it is right?

Returning to basics... 

"Instead of asking, Does capitalism work? we ought to ask, What work does it do? ... What are people for? ... Why are we here? What is our end purpose?" We need to trace back to our human nature. St. Augustine said that "our hearts are restless until they rest in God." St. Thomas Aquinas said "that our end is ... nothing less than friendship with God." St Ignatius said our life's purpose is to praise, reverence and serve God, and for the salvation of my soul (union with God). Does capitalism serve this end? Or does it pull us away from this end? Does capitalism bring us closer to God? Or has it made itself a god in our lives?

We are "created to desire God and live in communion with one another in God." This is our human makeup. Why are our hearts restless? Because our desires have been corrupted, disordered. Our priorities made upside down. Because capitalism "disciplines our desires" towards market ends; for the sake of the wellbeing of the market and the market players who are profit-driven. They tell us what are life's necessities. In Singapore, we are told we need certificates to prove our worth in society. This is how society works and we have to subscribe lest we fall out of the rat race and be left behind to fend for ourselves. 

On the hamster wheel...

We are taught what success looks like and what failure is. Why does examinations cause so much anxieties in students? Isn't it because what is involved is not simply an examination grade that tells of how well we have understood the subject? The grades imply too how intelligent we are, how good our future prospects, how we will look in front of others. We are told to study hard or we'll become road sweepers. Yet if no one becomes road sweepers and garbage collectors, we'll be walking on decomposing trash everyday. It doesn't mean we all become sweepers and garbage collectors but isn't it true that because it has been ranked the lowest of all jobs, we have thrown it conveniently out of our minds, become unappreciative of the service these sweepers and collectors render to us, and even despise them who do these jobs? We need not do anything bad to them. We have already robbed them of their human dignity in our hearts when we see them as the lesser of our kind. 

We study hard to gain the freedom of choosing the degree to go into. Yet, the degree we ultimately choose is controlled by what is in demand, what will give us the most job options and security, what will fetch us the highest pay, give us the highest prestige, but are we truly passionate about what we are studying? I can go into medicine with all its nobility and good salaries but I may not be passionate about it at all. I may well be dreaming everyday of becoming the compassionate Youth Coordinator in Church who can really touch the lives of the wayward youths. But it pays substantially less and so to give up being a doctor is illogical and foolish. We kill our passions to conform to what society defines as good, better, best, most often in monetary measurements. And we end up shaping our desires this way.

Perhaps, it is helpful to pause here to call to mind the beliefs we have about ourselves being in this society. What am I striving for everyday? What am I living for? What are my priorities? What do I spend the majority of my time working for? Who and what influenced and shaped those beliefs and practices? 

(... to be continued)