Thursday, 30 January 2014

Through the [Stained] Glass

When visiting old churches, especially cathedrals, I always take some time to enjoy their collections of stained glass windows. There is something grandeur and mystical about these windows. Besides their vivid colours and their geometrical and symmetrical designs, the featured symbolism never ceases to awe. A church's stained glass is (should be!) a visual catechesis of the truth of the Faith. In the stained glass, the Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition come to life. For me, enjoying stained glass art is like listening to a theology lecture while at the same time pampering my eyes.

It is worthy of note that this beautiful stained glass is not beautiful by itself. Rather, it needs light. During the waking hours, daylight from the outside shines through the windows and gladdens the church interior. After the sun sets, it is the church's internal light — the candles — that must illuminate the darkness and gives radiance to the church's surroundings. I'm sure, some confused soul wandering outside in the dark, when he sees one of these windows, will be immediately reminded of hope, of love, of his God.

The light that shines through stained glass makes the images leap out, so that their beauty becomes lively. The best glass design, when denied proper lighting, will appear dreary and its message cannot be perceived clearly.

As a Christian, we also need to realise that we are nothing without God. King David himself already realised this when he said, "Who am I, Lord GOD, and who are the members of my house, that you have brought me to this point?" (2 Sam 7:18)

We are familiar with the story of David's life: from the youngest child that nobody accounted for, he became a harpist in the court of King Saul, then he became Israel's hero after he defeated Goliath, and finally he ascended the throne as the new king of Israel. As if those were not enough, God made a covenant with David, pronouncing that the house of David would endure forever, and that the Messiah was to be born from his line. And who is this Messiah? It's none other than God the Son incarnated!

David had surely never dreamt of any of this! Granted, God might have seen his potentials, his leadership skills, his loyalty, and his faith. But all these only came to light when David was anointed by the Prophet Samuel. In humility, David agreed to be an instrument of God, and with that, the promised Messiah could be born for us.

We are stained glass, and its brilliant design is a collection of God's many blessings: our talents, our skills, our intellect, our good looks, and more. Using all these without God is like stained glass that remains in darkness: rich and full of possibilities, but does not illuminate anything or anyone. Over time, such glass will become dusty, broken, worthless, and forgotten. We think we know how we should use our resources, but God might have other, greater plans.

But if we let God shine forth through ourselves, that means we let Him use our potentials to the maximum, even beyond our wildest imagination. This is the proper thing to do, for a lamp is not brought in to be placed under a basket or under a bed (cf. Mark 4:21). Our lives should become a witness of divine providence, because we entrust everything that happens into His hands.

Thus, let us be aware of the many blessings that God has given us, and do not be afraid to use them for the Kingdom, in ways fitting to His will. Let the light of God shine through the stained glass of our souls, so that we can be more beautiful, and our beauty give Him greater glory.

Finally, let me close today's reflection with Pope Benedict XVI's comment on stained glass:
"From the outside, [stained glass] windows are dark, heavy, even dreary. But once one enters the church, they suddenly come alive; reflecting the light passing through them, they reveal all their splendour. Many writers... have used the image of stained glass to illustrate the mystery of the Church herself. It is only from the inside, from the experience of faith and ecclesial life, that we see the Church as she truly is: flooded with grace, resplendent in beauty, adorned by the manifold gifts of the Spirit. It follows that we, who live the life of grace within the Church’s communion, are called to draw all people into this mystery of light."


Daily Reading for Thursday, 30 January 2014

First Reading — 2 Samuel 7:18-19, 24-29
Responsorial Psalm — Psalm 132:1-2, 3-5, 11, 12, 13-14
Gospel Reading — Mark 4:21-25


Image: "Rosa Mystica", photography by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

3 Characteristics of the Lord's Servant (Pope Benedict XVI)

1. Fidelity
"[The servant] is entrusted with a great good that does not belong to him. The Church is not 'our' Church, but his Church, God's Church. The servant must give an account of the way that he has taken care of the goods that have been entrusted to him. We do not bind men to us; we do not seek power, prestige, esteem for ourselves."

"We know that things in civil society, and often in the Church too, go badly because those upon whom responsibility has been conferred work for themselves and not the community, for the common good. With a few lines the Lord traces an image of the wicked servant, who begins to stuff himself and get drunk and beat his fellow servants, betraying the essence of his duty in this way. In Greek the word that indicates 'fidelity' coincides with that which indicates 'faith.' The fidelity of the servant of Jesus Christ also consists precisely in the fact that he does not seek to adjust the faith to the fashions of the time."

2. Prudence
"Prudence, according to the Greek philosophical tradition, it is the first of the cardinal virtues; it indicates the primacy of truth, that becomes the criterion of our conduct through 'prudence.' Prudence demands humble, disciplined and vigilant reason, [which can be] blinded by prejudices; it does not judge according to desires and passions, but it seeks the truth -- even uncomfortable truth. Prudence means engaging in the pursuit of truth and acting in a way that conforms to it. The prudent servant is above all a man of truth and of sincere reason."

"In this way we become truly reasonable men, who judge on the basis of the whole and not according to accidental details. We do not let ourselves be guided by the little window of our personal cleverness, but by the big window, that Christ has opened up to the whole truth for us, we look upon the world and men and [from this truth] see what truly counts in life."

3. Goodness
"Only God is good in the full sense. He is the Good, the Good par excellence, Goodness in person. In a creature — in man — being good is therefore necessarily based on a deep interior orientation to God. Goodness grows with interior unification with the living God. Goodness presupposes above all a living communion with God, the Good, a growing interior union with him. And in fact: from who else can one learn about true goodness if not from him who loved us to the end, to the extreme (cf. 13:1)? We become good servants through our living relationship with Jesus Christ. Only if our life unfolds in dialogue with him, only if his being, his characteristics penetrate us and form us, can we become truly good."


Pope Benedict XVI
From Papal Homily at the Episcopal Ordination of Five New Bishops
St. Peter's Basilica
September 12, 2009

Image: "Women Washing Clothes by the Stream"- Daniel Ridgway Knight

Idem velle, idem nolle

What is friendship? Idem velle, idem nolle – wanting the same things, rejecting the same things: this was how it was expressed in antiquity. Friendship is a communion of thinking and willing. The Lord says the same thing to us most insistently: "I know my own and my own know me" (Jn 10:14). The Shepherd calls his own by name (cf. Jn 10:3). He knows me by name. I am not just some nameless being in the infinity of the universe. He knows me personally. Do I know him? The friendship that he bestows upon me can only mean that I too try to know him better; that in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, in prayer, in the communion of saints, in the people who come to me, sent by him, I try to come to know the Lord himself more and more.

Friendship is not just about knowing someone, it is above all a communion of the will. It means that my will grows into ever greater conformity with his will. For his will is not something external and foreign to me, something to which I more or less willingly submit or else refuse to submit. No, in friendship, my will grows together with his will, and his will becomes mine: this is how I become truly myself.

Over and above communion of thinking and willing, the Lord mentions a third, new element: he gives his life for us (cf. Jn 15:13; 10:15). Lord, help me to come to know you more and more. Help me to be ever more at one with your will. Help me to live my life not for myself, but in union with you to live it for others. Help me to become ever more your friend.

Pope Benedict XVI
Homily on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul
Saint Peter's Basilica, 29 June 2011


Image: "Youth and Time", John William Godward, 1901

Saturday, 18 January 2014

I Have Chosen You

"If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is. Or will be when the time comes."
When Gandalf announces that Bilbo Baggins — a respectable Hobbit, but still a "little" Hobbit nonetheless — is the fourteenth member of the Dwarves' daring expedition, the Dwarves are utterly surprised, and Bilbo himself cannot be angrier. Everyone knows that a Hobbit is probably not a proper addition to the team; Bilbo is not trained in the art of the sword, he does not wield an axe, and he much prefers an uneventful life with food, a pipe, and his books. His presence in the team is not just without use, but is also a nuisance to the others.
But Gandalf insists that he has chosen Bilbo, and nobody can change his decision. Gandalf sees a great potential in simple homebody Bilbo, a potential which other people and Bilbo himself are not aware of. With much grumbling, and under the Dwarves' doubting stares, Bilbo agrees to join the mission. And we all know how the adventure unfolds.
The Bible is full of tales about God choosing the most unlikely people. In the first book of Samuel, we read how God, through Samuel, anoints Saul as a king of Israel. Just like Bilbo Baggins, Saul feels extremely unworthy. "Am I not a Benjaminite, from the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and is not my clan the least among the clans of the tribe of Benjamin?" (1 Samuel 9:21)
We are all unworthy before God. Man, in his free will, has rejected God, and consequently we are conceived and born in sin, which is none other than the state of separation from God. Since the fall of Adam, there is a deep abyss between Heaven and earth. We are then imprisoned in concupiscence, our knowledge of divine things is severely blurred, and our love for God and our fellow men is heavily blunted. It is not very surprising when Lucifer and his angels refuse to honour Adam, for what is man compared to the angels?
However, God Himself has chosen us, by making us in His own image. It is He who lifts man up as the crown of creation. It is He, too, who builds a bridge between Heaven and earth, that is, the holy cross of His Son. With a love so great, God visits us personally and offers us His salvation.
Yes, we are all called to holiness and salvation. Jesus has said that He, a doctor, comes not to visit the healthy, but the sick. Then, does the sick agree to be seen?
Based on my personal experience as a doctor, that is not always the case! Lots of people with illness deny that they are ill, and therefore refuse any treatments. Those who get treatments are those who ADMIT that they are sick, and agree to be treated.
This is what distinguishes people like Bilbo Baggins, Saul, Matthew the tax collector, and Mary the mother of Our Lord. Indeed they have been chosen, but most importantly, in humility they have said "Yes!" to their calling.
May we obtain the grace to confess that we are sick and that we need a doctor, because the Divine Physician is looking forward to bring us back to health. And may we be encouraged and inspired to bravely say "Yes!" to our callings. Amen.
Daily Reading for Saturday, 18 January 2014
First Reading — 1 Samuel 9:1-4, 17-19, 10:1
Responsorial Psalm — Psalm 21:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Gospel Reading — Mark 2:13-17


Image: "The Calling of St. Matthew", Caravaggio, 1599-1600

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Total Blackout

There is a new reality TV show called Total Blackout. In this show, the contestants are brought into a room of total darkness in which they must perform certain tasks. For example, they have to reach into a box and feel a particular object inside, and then identify the object. Sometimes the boxes contain simple household items such as a brush, a small doll, and a feather duster. Other times they may be small, harmless animals like an iguana, a few eels, a handful of shrimps, and a puppy.

For the audience, the assigned tasks look pretty basic and actually a little ridiculous. But for the contestants, theirs is an utterly frightening situation. Several minutes into the game, many of them quickly become paranoid, and some even cry and desperately want everything to be over.

We see then how darkness can paralyse our senses. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish things; those that are good and benign are perceived as evil and threatening, and vice versa. It is even worse that in the darkness, our own minds can play tricks on us, by creating a variety of imagined scenarios that are so far-fetched from reality.

This is precisely the danger of the darkness of sin. Sin paralyses the senses of the soul. We no longer recognise God's greetings or warnings for us through daily phenomena. We no longer hear His voice that seeks to have an intimate conversation with us. Instead, because we are so accustomed to darkness, we may even have a faulty perception of God: His salvific laws are seen as a burden, timeless Tradition is perceived as out-of-date, Catholic morality is nothing but suffocating.

Apparently, Jesus's disciples in today's Gospel reading also cannot recognise Jesus, although they walk with Him everyday. They see His miraculous works and listen to His words first-hand, but when Jesus is seen walking on water towards them in darkness, what is it they think they see? A ghost!

So it is no wonder that the disciples are scared, and that is because they have not truly known the real Person of Christ. Their physical eyes see Him, but their souls' eyes are blind still.

What about ourselves? Do we really know the face of God? We Christians — Dominicans, in particular — have a noble task to preach the true face of God to the ignorant world. So do not be afraid to open ourselves to Him, to seek His glorious face, and to study His loving laws. Let us leave darkness and fearfulness, to approach the Light that illuminates all things. Let's fill our minds and hearts with contemplation of Him, so that this fullness may brim over and nourish the arid world.


Daily Reading for Wednesday, 8 January 2014

First Reading — 1 John 4:11-18
Responsorial Psalm — Psalm 72:1-2, 10, 12-13
Gospel Reading — Mark 6:45-52


Image: Still from Total Blackout