Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Novena of Grace of St. Francis Xavier (Day 6) Ash Wednesday 9th March 2011

You know, homilies are funny creatures. There are times when in the toilet, I get brilliant inspiration and I would be waxing lyrical crafting what I would vainly think, a lofty homily. But come the time to commit to pen and paper, all heavenly ideas disappear like the proverbial will-o’-the-wisp. It is enormously frustrating. Anyway, let me begin with a story, a true one because it involved me.

I was out for movie. It was a midnight movie. [If you regularly keep an 18-hour day, midnight is the only time for recreation]. Seated the row behind me but a couple of seats to my left was a gaggle of giggly girls. They were talking. You know that type of conversation which comes from “You must know that I am here”. [Like on mobile phone in a lift or on the LRT]. They carrried on talking loudly because we have come to tolerate such behaviour. As the movie started they showed no sign of abating. I mimicked our universal sound for silence: shhhh… Well, you guess it. One of them shushed me back and they carried on talking. Then in my best Tamil slang, I turned around, raised my voice a little and said, “Oi, [censored], diamlah”. (Hey, [expletive], shut up). That caught my two companions by surprise. But judging from the general laughter, it seemed that I had done the right thing for soon we settled placidly into watching the movie. Did I get it right? Not the settling into the movie part but shutting them up?

Today, we continue to tread the path to holiness. Appropriately, it is Ash Wednesday and so we shall speak of sin—not so much the act of sinning or the sin but rather the responsibility for sin. Our world today is troubled not as much by sins or the prevalence of sins as it is by the lack of responsibility for sins. At the time of the incident, it was funny but I am not proud of what I did. The point is this. No matter how extenuating the circumstances may have been, still it was unwarranted that I should have used an expletive. In my defence, I could claim: “Those stupid girls made me do it”. The blame-game is as old as Adam. “The woman made me eat the apple”. We live in a world that has shrugged off personal responsibility and we have assumed blaming to be reason for our actions—from blaming my parents to blaming my spouse to blaming everyone else. Without breaking the seal of Confession, do you know how often priests hear Confessions of details that a so-called sin was caused by someone else. Many of us do not see the connexion between blaming others and mental illness. What do lawyers do when they want to absolve their clients of a crime? They advise the client to plead insanity.

We have come full circle from the ancient philosophy of sin as a cause of diseases to illness as the excuse for one’s sin. The point is, “others” may be mitigating factors but the buck needs to stop somewhere. Ultimately there must be one who sins. There is a term which you may have heard of. It is called “affective maturity”. It is not just about emotions but also about the ability to enter into relationships. An important criterion of affective maturity is taking responsibility of not only your emotions but also your decisions and actions. According to a priest involved in the Marriage Tribunal, gross immaturity is frequently the ground for annulment. And here, it has nothing to do with great accomplishment, intelligence or success. On the contrary, many who apply for annulment are intelligent and successful and yet, the dysfunctional patterns of their relationship often betray an inability to accept responsibility. Thus, the annulment process is really rehabilitative in this sense. It allows the person to take responsibility for his or her past actions.

But, unfortunately what happens is that sometimes both parties will be blaming the other for the state of the failed marriage. The Church’s canonical sanctions are pastoral and catechetical. It is never punitive. Instead it is rehabilitative. Society at large reacts to the Church—either it is too soft [as in the case of paedophilia] or too harsh [especially the excommunications]. Those who think it is too soft believe that sinners should be locked up and keys thrown away. But, there is always a way home.

Have you seen Assumption Church’s car sticker? It says: God allows U-turns. To those who think that we are too harsh, canonical sanctions are meant to impress upon us the gravity of our actions. If actions have no consequences, it becomes a licence for sin. With sanction always comes an invitation for the sinner to return home. Some parts of our penal system attempts to reflect the rehabilitative dimension of the Church but more and more, it draws the line when it comes to the death penalty. People cannot be forgiven and neither can they be rehabilitated. The only solution is to be rid of them. But, without the possibility of “rehabilitation” there is no possibility of taking responsibility.

The Church has a role even more crucial in this post-modern world. She tries to give clear moral guidance so that we may take responsibility for our actions. Why? When Modernity came, the world came to equate “intelligence” or “rationality” with morality, in the sense that, what was possible was also moral. For example, just because we can produce test-tube babies means it is OK. But, Modernity was a dismal failure because rationality did not prevent two great wars. And now we are in Post-Modernity which is a reaction to Modernity and its basic principle: if rationality did not prevent us from sinking into barbarism, “Why bother now”? This explains much of our chaos.

Today is Ash Wednesday—a time to appreciate the gravity of our actions. Have I sinned or not? Note that Communion is denied to those who are not baptised or are in a state of serious sin, whereas the imposition of ashes does not discriminate. Why? Because everyone is a sinner and therefore in need of saving grace. Imposition of ashes is only symbolic and it will remain as such unless one takes responsibility for one’s sin. The 2nd Reading says: For our sake, God made the sinless one into sin. Christ the truly innocent one took on the responsibility for our sins and paid for it on the cross. Since we are not Christ and therefore cannot do it for others, should we not do it just for ourselves? For Christ’s sake. [Footnote: Coming back to expletives—bad words, four-letter words, etc. Its pervasiveness in the broadcast media may be an indication of how dumb-down world has become which explains why we cannot take responsibility for our actions. In fact we are so dumb-down that we have come to believe that big, loud and strong are the only ways to express ourselves. So, a “real” movie has to have loud noise, car chase, destruction and mayhem. But, scholarship has something to do with contemplation—what I said yesterday about knowledge. Silence, unseen and the ordinary allow us to step back and think things through. I guess the contemplative religious have something to teach us. Behind their walls they stand as a fortress for civilisation. Once I was called up by Fr Paul Tan then. He told me that there was a complaint against me. I had been liberal in the use of expletives. I told him, quite cheekily, I like Cantonese because their expletives sound like music to my ears. Music or not, the liberal use of expletives is a symptom of stupidity. I am brought to mind Winston Churchill. It seemed that a certain Lady Nancy Astor once said to him, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d poison your tea”. And, his response was simply: “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it”. He did not resort to calling her by names and even if he did, it was done with style. A certain Bessie Braddock accused him: “Sir, you are drunk”. Churchill’s response was, “And you, madam, are ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober”. Today, our response to anything disagreeable is simply crass and unrefined. How to be civilised?