Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows – 15 September 2009

Most if not all of us have our favourite image of Our Lady. I have mine as well, and it is the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. About four years ago, through one of Fr Ignatius Huan’s homilies or lessons, I was introduced and have since added another favourite image of Our Lady, the image of Mary standing at the foot of the Cross.

When confronted by the imminent death of her son Jesus and the horrific sufferings that Jesus was enduring, Mary herself was also at the foot of the Cross undergoing her own passion. Yet in John’s Gospel, Mary was not depicted as weeping her eyes out, beating her chest as the women of Jerusalem did nor kneeling down in a state of distraught. Instead Mary was seen as standing at the foot of the Cross, a picture of trust and confidence in the Divine plan of God the Father and the promises of Her Son Jesus.

Exactly one year ago this day, I was about to start on my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Mount Alvernia Hospital, and there was quite a fair bit of uncertainties and even apprehensiveness, because I do not know what is going to happen or will happen at CPE. Some said that it was an irony to start my CPE on Our Lady of Sorrows, but to me, it was providential and it pointed out the attitude I am invited to have. In that quiet morning that day, as I prepared for Eucharistic Celebration in Holy Spirit’s chapel, all I did was to surrender and entrust in faith and obedience to God the Father, and I said to Our Lady, “Mother, I do not know what is going to happen, but Mother, please walk with me and stand with me.”

There are many things we do not understand, and like Mary we are invited to ponder on the things we do not comprehend in our hearts, and we are all invited to be like Mary, to be open, to be faithful, to be trusting, to stand upright despite all the impossibilities going on around us, to let go of our dreams and dream God’s dreams for us.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Unsatisfying Food

Today, on the Feast of The Triumph of the Cross, a line in the First Reading caught my attention and re-surfaced a long overdue reflection that has been lingering at the back of my mind for the past few weeks.

The First Reading says that the Israelites lost patience with God as they entered into the wilderness grumbling, “we are sick of this unsatisfying food” (Numbers 21:5). Unsatisfying Food – what is that, really?

I guess at some point or another, we would have experienced “unsatisfying food” in our lives and these experiences although often insignificant, would have taught us something worthwhile – (01) either about the food we ate, (02) the one who prepared it (i.e. the chef) or (03) possibly about ourselves (i.e. our hunger, to be more precise).

Within these three possibilities, I guess the least blame can be given to the “food” itself , although at first glance, it seems to be the one which causes the whole reaction. Sure, there is the possibility of the poor quality of the raw material that could have gone into the preparation of the dish but we all know that it can never be that bad because nobody intentionally starts preparing a dish with rotten ingredients.

The second possibility is that the one who prepared it was a poor cook and so was not able to prepare something delicious and satisfying. This is often the reason we would sight in our everyday life and so it is of no surprise that the Israelites blamed God, the “chef” of the food they were eating, for the “unsatisfying food” and I guess it is because of their rejection of the “chef” that they also end up losing His presence which is their protection and ended up being bitten by the fiery serpents. When we do not like a certain food at a particular restaurant, we often decide never to go back there again and this is sometimes the case with our own relationship with God. The problem is that in our everyday lives, there are many other “cooks” or “chefs” that we can turn to but when it comes to God, our Faith tells us that He is the only One. Rejecting Him would mean inevitably making the decision to go hungry for the rest of our lives and we all know where this would lead us – starvation and eventual death. At this point, I also recall the parable of the Prodigal Son; the younger son had decided that he no longer wanted to eat his father’s food and so he resorted to eating the food of the swine. Similarly, sure, there may be other alternatives in life; “food” that may satisfy our initial hunger but we also know at the same time, just like that younger son in the parable, that this food is not the “real food” that was made for me and neither was I made for it. It was much more “unsatisfying food” but our pride may hold us back from returning to the feast of the Father’s House.

I personally feel that it is the third possible reason for “unsatisfying food” that deserves our closer attention. “Unsatisfying food” is so not so much of the food itself but because of our appetites and our tastes. It is common knowledge that the best tasting food is the worst for our health and often, the most bland food is in reality, the most healthy for us. Nevertheless, there is a reality of our own hunger and appetites that we need to examine and understand. Maybe, if the Israelites had understood their hunger more, they would have complained less against God and this could well be the case in our own modern lives too. What are we hungering for?

Recently, I met a good friend for lunch and he mentioned something that has stayed with me since. He was reflecting about our lives as Christians in the modern world we live in and he remarked that most of us are settling for “stale bread” instead of feasting on the “daily bread” that the Father desires to give to each of us. I have been reflecting further on his remark and realise that it is very true for myself and for many people around me. Often, I am unable to go deeper into the longings of my heart, the depths of my hunger and the fast pace and superficiality of modern life has sometimes prevented me from truly settling for “real food” because I can choose to settle for “instant noodles”. We all know that “instant noodles” are good stopgap measures but they would never be the main dish of a feast. It would in fact be a great insult to our guests if we threw a big feast and served them all packets of instant noodles. Somehow, we also know that the best dishes in life are made with great effort and love. I guess that’s why mother’s cooking is always the best – not so much that she is better than the world’s best chef but we know how much “love” was a necessary ingredient in her dish.

I believe that this is also true when we come to the hunger of our lives. In the Book of Exodus – “'That' said Moses to them 'is the bread Yahweh gives you to eat” (Exodus 16:15). God knows the hunger of us His children and he has given us divine “bread” that our hunger may be satisfied. Many of us fail to receive the “bread” that God has prepared for us because we have turned to other foods that often does not satisfy.

And let us say that we do appreciate the"divine bread" that God gives us as many of us committed Christians do because we realise that only He can satisfy our hunger, we may also fall into another trap which my friend mentioned. We settle for "stale bread" instead of "daily bread".

When God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert, he also commanded them through Moses, “No one must keep any of it for tomorrow” (Exodus 16:19) and “Eat it today” (Exodus 16:25). God wishes to give us not just “bread” but “daily bread” and is this precisely not the prayer most of us say almost mechanically in the Lord’s Prayer every day. Why is it that we ask for “daily bread” but often settle for “stale bread”? Often, we cling on to experiences of God in the past which is an excellent thing because God has always invited His people to "remember" but we must also realise that our "remembering" should open us to the reality of the "daily bread" that God gives us. We need to realise that God is not only the God of the past but the God of our todays and He is offering you "new" bread even at this moment.

This hunger for “daily bread” is most perfectly satisfied in the Eucharist for Jesus is our true source of our satisfaction for our hunger. In the Eucharist, we experience the loving “food” preparation of God who has “prepared a body” (Hebrews 10:5) for His only Son and given Him as “real food” (John 6:55) to us. God Himself feeds us with Himself in Jesus. And this is not just a historical event that happened 2000 years ago that we merely recall with some sentimentality. The Eucharist is not merely a historical event which has become "stale bread", that is no longer relevant or unappetizing. It is our "daily bread" because Jesus comes to meet us everyday of our lives with all the pains and joys each day carries with it and He becomes food for us in ever "new" ways every day.

Yet, it is no surprise that some say, “we are sick of this unsatisfying food” (Numbers 21:5) even at the Eucharist. What then are we hungering for? What better food do we desire? Maybe, it is high time we start understanding our hunger more instead of complaining about the “food”.