Monday, 11 June 2018

What is Your Anchor of Hope?

At yesterday's novena devotion, Fr Vincent Low mentioned about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain who, despite their successful careers, ended their lives prematurely, 5 days apart. He ended his preaching very persuasively, urging us not to lose hope for God never gives up on us.

Today, Fr Ignatius Yeo at Risen Christ Church delivered a very dynamic homily, infused with healthy humour, about "fear (being) the path to the dark side", quoting Master Yoda from Stars Wars. We have to choose either to stand with Christ or with satan (there isn't a 3rd side). Not deciding to stand with Christ is deciding to stand with satan. But if we should decide to stand with Christ, then we must claim His strength in the Eucharist and resist fear.

Scrolling down Facebook, I couldn't help but notice the posts on depression and suicide, more now than ever before in history, plaguing our world today. According to The New Paper (May 30, 2018), "In 2015-16, 77 children aged five to nine and 4,563 aged 10 to 19 called the SOS hotline compared to 14 and 2,366 in 2012-13." SOS (Samaritans of Singapore) is a suicide-prevention centre.

While the politicians are gathering over these days for the summit in Singapore, playing their political games and hopefully, by God's grace, arriving at some real effective conclusions for the greater good, many individuals are suffering, living in constant pain and in the darkness of hopelessness and purposelessness.

I sat in the pews today, looking at someone displaying clear signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I wondered what he has gone through in life that led to this disorder. I looked up at Jesus on the crucifix and thought about our world at large. In that moment, I felt the force of oppression that seems to be covering our world like a thick fog. And I had the image of 2 huge magnets, humanity being one and satan being the other. Both magnets were facing each other at their like poles. Hence, there was a great force of repulsion. The more satan pressed down on humanity, the more its force threatened to push us 180 degrees around so that the opposite pole can then attract the magnet of satan. Some were turned. And the numbers were increasing.

It all seems very bleak. Where is God? I am not surprised though I am saddened that people are increasingly losing their faith in God. After all, they cry and He doesn't seem to hear, and even if He does, He doesn't seem to care enough to do something to help. Perhaps they hear of other people experiencing miracles but not in their lives. Why God? Do you love some more than others? It is tough. I believe it is truly very tough in this very troubled era to believe that God still exists and that He will not let us down.

So what will help us build our trust in God? Will listening to biblical verses on hope and the unfailing love of God help? What would these words mean to us if we do not have a sense of connection with our ancestors of the faith, if we do not see that what happened back then between the Israelites and God has anything to do with us and our Mass? We hear, don't we, our priests painstakingly at times quoting these verses in their homilies in the hope of convincing us to continue hoping in God. Has it impacted our faith? Do we know enough of our salvation history to appreciate the profound continuation from the Old Testament to the New and to our lives, so as to see how God's love truly never ends and that we can be absolutely certain that suffering will never have the final say for those who place all their hopes in the Lord?

There is no quick fix to this disconnection between us and our faith. Our hope in God cannot blossom overnight. Expecting instant gratification will disappoint us greatly. I have seen that the slow, arduous process of seeking God has and is freeing me increasingly, and subtly, my faith has been growing a whole lot over the past years. I believe the key focus is not to grow my trust in God because I cannot trust who I do not first know. Rather, I have found my faith growing inevitably, consequently when my personal experiences and interior knowledge of God in the person of Jesus continue and deepen. What do I mean?

For instance, I see and encounter God's love when I look at my life from the angle of gratitude. And humility precedes gratitude. On the contrary, when I take things for granted or approach my life with the attitude of self-entitlement, all I will be able to see is myself, and nothing but my self-centred self. How will I see God's love? How will I be able to notice His presence in my life, when all I see are my efforts, my achievements, my failures, my talents, my status, my social facade, my determination? What have I received from God? The ingrate cannot find God in their lives. The grateful one will always have something to thank and praise God for, even if he lost everything like Job in the Old Testament. When I recognise God's blessings, I know intimately His love for me and I can trust His love will continue to provide.

God is very present in our lives, even when we are in the most desperate situations, when all we can feel is the pain of suffering and the endless worry of what is to come. Suffering is not the absence of God. On the contrary, suffering is infused with the presence of God. Because Jesus did not evade suffering. There is no pain of ours He has not already endured. Whether it is the shame of being stripped of dignity, being accused, insulted, taken for granted, rejected, misunderstood, laughed at. Even the embarrassment of looking like a complete failure when He hung helplessly on the cross. Valued less than a criminal. Betrayed and abandoned. Is there a pain of ours He did not already experience Himself?

When I was a child and a teenager, life was tough (not that it is now a bed of roses). There were many difficult emotions I had to handle and make sense of on my own. I recall that as a child, in those times I hid somewhere to cry, to complain to Jesus and Mary about what happened, telling them my feelings, one of the things that gave me great, great consolation was when Jesus showed me how He has already experienced those feelings. I began to see what He went through in His earthly life that made Him feel the same way as I was. It gave me such comfort to know that there was at least 1 person in this world who understood me perfectly and knew exactly what I was going through. I was not alone. Suffering connects me with Jesus and it has been the condition under which I have encountered so much the infinite love of God.

When I come to know Him, who He is, what He stands for, His character, when I seek the divine in my life, gratefully identifying His hand in my life experiences, my faith grows. Despite many times needing to wait for so many years to see some fruits of my prayers, when I see that He has not failed me after all, I know that He will never fail me. An attitude of seeking the divine and daily personal conversation with God (prayer) form the starting point of a life of hope.

Life does not end in our sufferings unless we choose to make it so. We do not know what will happen between now and our last breath. Who knows what miracle God will work in our lives tomorrow, the next hour? We do not know until we have lived through it to the end. No matter how talented and capable we may be, there will come a time we will have to confront our limitations as a human and creature. When that moment comes, the only thing that has power to give us hope is our confidence in a more powerful and greater Being above ourselves - God. Faith is not faith in good times. Faith is only possible in difficult, painful, threatening situations, when the power of fear will be so weakened because our eyes are fixed on Jesus across the stormy sea (Matthew 14:22-33). We know and we trust in God, who will reach out to grab hold of our hand even if we should lose hope and sink into the water.

My SD told me earlier this week that it is not about preventing myself from feeling fearful but that in those fearful moments, the crux is in my choice. I would like to end with this counsel from Jesus to me in my last retreat in April and I suspect it is not only for me. "Fears are real. There will be fears. But keep your eyes on Me and you will not sink."

What is your choice?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Testimony (Post-CER Journey) @ CER Fellowship, St. Ignatius Church

Testimony for the 1st CER Alumni Fellowship at the Church of St. Ignatius, 17 May 2018

I was in CER 36, about 4.5 years ago. At that time, I had spent 3 years discerning the religious vocation after my conversion experience. But the search for a religious congregation to join was tougher than I had expected. Over time, prayer became dry and I felt so lost, discouraged and spiritually dead.

I resisted going for CER initially because I loved the silent retreats that I was making! But I went eventually because I was so desperate for a spiritual resuscitation. God did bring me back to life in the retreat.

After CER, I was pretty much on a high I think like almost everyone else. And then came the question of what CSC ministry to join. Because of the fire of zeal I felt after the retreat, and the comforting sentiments of being back in CSC where I encountered Jesus so deeply, I was very eager to get involved, to stay connected with the CSC environment. And so I joined the healing ministry.

The ministry members are truly lovely people. But I soon began to notice various practices, underlying values and beliefs within CSC at that time that didn’t quite align with my beliefs and reflect the God I have come to know. The politics and strained relationships between persons that saw no improvement led me to wonder if God has really been taken seriously, and if He’s not, then what was the service really about? I became quite disillusioned and frustrated.

Only recently, I realized that I was the one who was not ready to accept imperfections, respect where people are and love them anyway. I’ve been seeking perfection as a way of protecting myself from getting hurt by imperfections. Simply because I was very hurt in my earlier days by people’s imperfections. So I wasn’t ready to work alongside anyone because I would just end up judging them and getting very frustrated. And then, I would get upset with myself for being judgmental, and that made me feel too unworthy for God’s love. This was a very big obstacle in my relationship with God.

On hindsight, I really should have discerned more carefully the call to join another ministry as I was already serving here in the parish. I realised what I needed most at that time was actually to focus more on God, on deepening my relationship with Him, being more disciplined in my daily prayer, aligning more consciously my priorities and values with God’s; in short, paying more attention to my interior life and building that up first, rather than to distract myself with ministry and everything else that comes with it. As Ignatius noted in his rules for discernment of spirits, when in consolation – which I was in right after the retreat – the soul frequently forms various resolutions and plans, which are not granted directly by God… and which must be carefully examined before they are given full approval and put into execution. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite aware of this back then.

Thankfully, I had the support and guidance of spiritual mentors and companions, and more, deeper encounters with Jesus in silent retreats on top of spiritual direction. I came to understand that CER is God’s tremendous gift to personally encounter Jesus but alone, it is not enough for the spiritual journey. Once that high is gone, the Ignatian Spirituality has been another of God’s gift to continue growing my interior life.

The Friday growth sessions, healing Masses were external structures that gave me an aid, lifting me up emotionally and spiritually when I felt down and tired. But relying on these external structures alone to give me a sense of holiness and consolation in that moment didn’t take me very far. Interiorly, I needed to decide for myself my level of focus on God and commitment to this journey. How serious am I when I say I want to follow Christ? When I’m in a high, it’s easy for me to say I love Him. I’ve said that so many times. But when it comes to the reality of my daily challenges, how much do I fight to keep my word? And when I fail to love God in others, and I’m once again faced with the ugliness of my human self, how much do I trust in God’s unconditional love for me? These have been and still are very real questions in my journey.

Few months after joining the healing ministry, God’s grace led me to the Good Shepherd Sisters (RGS), where I spent 3 years in pre-novitiate formation till late January this year. I learned to live with very different people of different ages, cultures, personalities, worked in very humbling settings caring for abused women and later, children who were abused or neglected. In community and ministry, I had my buttons pushed in more ways than I liked. The sisters are very good people but no one is perfect. And I’m certainly not perfect either. And through it all was the constant struggle to choose love over the easier and more familiar tendencies.

When I was deeply hurt by my own companions and formators, I had to face my anger, my pain, disappointments, still trying to keep my eyes on Jesus, holding myself back from reacting, and at times, begging Jesus to move my heart to forgiveness when all I could do was to sit in prayer helplessly angry, confused, and crying out the pain. How do I forgive when the other person isn’t even sorry? When she’ll continue to be the way she is? It was always a tug of war inside. But once, Jesus said, “Love needs no justification.” It was His invitation to exchange my human logic and need for justice for God’s humanly illogical, unconditional love. It was a choice I had to make each time and choosing to forgive because I want to walk the talk comes with a price; the painful price of discipleship.

On another note, through having my buttons pushed, I became aware of what those buttons were and I could bring them to God in prayer to listen to what He was trying to do in me. There’s a deeper reason why I was being triggered – my old, unhealed wounds manifesting, and it was God wanting to enter these painful memories to heal them and make me more and more whole.

And God took this healing even further. Part of our journey towards novitiate was to go through a psychological test. After which, the Jesuit Fr. Varghese who conducted the test for us pushed this rather new idea real hard and my provincial very generously offered for the first time as part of formation psychotherapy. It is not cheap and I’m most grateful for this. Not that we were found to be psychotic but as Fr Varghese shared, the psychological tools developed are now so advanced that being freed from our past wounds has become much more accessible and easy. And it’s only for the sake of freeing us up internally to be better ministers of God.

My therapist and I worked very hard in the process and the results are beyond my imagination. I never expected to encounter Jesus so deeply in the therapy as I normally would mostly in retreats.

After months of therapy, although we did not cover every single wound in my life and I am still far from being perfect, anger, frustration, fear, insecurities, inadequacy – these affected many of my relationships and were so much a part of my daily struggles in the past – but they have been greatly, greatly reduced.

Life situations have not changed but I have, and I can trust God’s love a lot more. I don’t feel as crippled by fears, which always took my eyes off Jesus and made me forget He holds everything in His hands. Being much more secure now, I was, in my retreat last month, finally able to hand over to Jesus my need and obsession for perfection because I’m emotionally stronger to handle the threats of imperfections and more than that, I feel safe enough to allow Jesus to take over the place as my Protector, my Calm, my Confidence. I don’t need to overprotect myself anymore.

I don’t know what you’ve been hearing about my journey but I see a lot of struggles in my journey. And it doesn’t look like they’re ending. At least not before death. But all these struggles and growth would be absolutely impossible if not for God’s abundant graces. I don’t know where I’d be without God’s continuous working in my life. His faithfulness to me. And the struggles would all be hopelessly depressing if not for a much greater prize to gain – which is the gift of greater intimacy with Jesus, the joy that brings and the comfort of knowing my daily struggles are my spiritual vitamins for growth. So my adventure continues and I pray that yours is abundantly graced too.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Neighbours & Sainthood

Have you ever lived with inconsiderate neighbours? Those who drag their chairs across their floor and your ceiling, and make really weird clanging noises that lead you to wonder what really they are up to in the room? Even late into the night? A great annoyance especially when the noises prevent you from sleeping very much at all before having to catch a very early morning flight for instance. 

What would your immediate reaction be? I think that mine would be to storm upstairs even in my pjs and tell those inconsiderate fellers off, warn them to stop their noisemaking before I take this to the authorities. After all, I'm angry!! Rightly so!!

Brings to mind someone - let's just call her Therese, since I'm reading about the life of St. Therese. Therese was unfortunately suffering from such noisy disturbances, thanks to the family that lived upstairs. For quite some time, the noises got to her almost every night and there were many times she even rehearsed what she would say should she head right up in attempt to get some neighbourly cooperation. But of course, cooperation was not even a guarantee! For they could, if they were really nasty, create even more noises to make a statement of their displeasure at the complaint. 

Then came one night when by some divine grace it seemed, she had a new insight and understanding. Therese realised that though she could very well justify her cause if she finally said her piece, she saw that this same annoyance towards the noise might be what people with some psychological dysfunctions experience too. The noise not from the outside caused by someone else but that which resounds unceasingly interiorly, in the mind; the noise in perhaps those who are suffering from depression. How hard it must be to bear them everyday!

Therese made a decision. She prayed and offered any endurance she had to make of the noises from these inconsiderate neighbours to God for those experiencing psychological unrest.  Strangely enough, the noises continued but Therese was no longer the same Therese minutes before. Over time, she noticed less of the noises and the disturbances those noises made within her grew lesser and lesser. Till the time when she was not irritated by the noises at all anymore. 

Isn't it interesting? A response like this. Seemingly suggesting what a coward Therese is and how she does not know to fight for her rights and make a stand for herself. Yet, what she revealed was a great interior strength and graciousness. By the grace of God. Growing in patience and humility, gentleness and compassion. 

Whatever situations we may find ourselves in, most especially the challenging ones, seem to be God's classroom for our sainthood. Why do we thus thank God for our "curses" and pain? Not because we who believe in Him are idiots. But because we have been given the faith and grace to see beyond, to look deeper, to recognise how God's love wishes to shape us increasingly into His image and at the same time, setting us free by His truth. Free from anger, resentment, unforgiveness; free from the effects of sin. Because the truth is that in the unpleasant, the struggles, the cutting pain, therein lies all that God's infinite and unfathomable love wishes to do in us, for us. 

What need we let go of to feel secure enough in God's love to put down our armour of war against the perceived negatives in our lives? So as to use these as opportunities to be moulded more and more into the image and likeness of our Creator? Have you signed up yet for God's classroom for sainthood? 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Allocutio - Living like a Sponge

Have you heard of people who liken a child’s brain to a sponge? I think they say this presuming that what the child is absorbing is good. Because the child is equally able to learn things that are not good. Thankfully, the real sponge only takes in liquids while anything solid will remain mostly at its surface. Otherwise, we might have to change the sponge every other day!

Is it good then if we are like a sponge in the way we live out our Christian lives? Surely, our Catholic faith offers us everything good. While a sponge by its design only allows certain things to pass through its surface, for us humans, we do not have such an easy time. We need to do our own discernment to know in which circumstances is God inviting us to be a sponge and when he is not. If we take a close look at the Gospels, we can notice that Jesus would go to a quiet place on his own way before dawn to pray. He would know then which district to go next to spread the Good News. He does not do so on his own, stay longer when the people pressed him to remain with them, but goes where he is led. It was the same for the early followers, who came together to pray, discern and act.

Surely, discernment is not an easy thing. Because we don’t hear God’s voice as distinctly as we hear one another speak. Most of us are busy throughout the day and there is hardly stillness within even when our environment is quiet. But all of us are able to learn to discern, and with practice and a good spiritual guide to co-discern with us, we would be able to live as discerning Christians.

This is important because God is our only goal, and if so, everything else – our family lives, work, apostolate mission – is only the means to this end. If we do not discern, there is a high chance of going with the flow and at times, this flow may not be the way that leads us closer to God. It may be for another person but not how God calls us individually to go. If we are to accept every invitation to a church ministry, respond to every call to evangelize, attend every talk and retreat available, we will eventually find ourselves drained out, disillusioned and lost. Our attention scattered rather than it being focused on God. Thereafter, no time or too tired to pray. Instead of moving closer to God through these means of living out our discipleship, we will find ourselves further from him. Being a disciple is not a call to load onto our plates more than what we are called to do. In deciding on our apostolate work, we too need to discern. Who is God inviting me to reach out to? And to those he is, how is he asking me to be his instrument?

To discern, we need first to grow in awareness of our feelings. How am I feeling now? In the moment, as a result of something that has happened or something we have experienced. It is essential because God does speak to us through our emotions. For example, I find mopping the floor during my night shift very tiring, mundane and trivial. But when I become aware that I am doing it out of love for the children I work with, and who are so loved by Jesus, it fills me with a sense of purpose and connection with Jesus. He pours out his love into me as I share this love with the children through the simple act of mopping floor. By noticing these inner feelings, I continue to notice too that even in such simple deeds, God is inching me closer to him. And thus, I know this is what he is calling me to – the way he wills, at least for now, for me to walk in his direction.

As you go on your daily life, you may consider taking a minute or so periodically to look back at the time that had passed, what you experienced and your response, and how it made you feel. To notice increasingly with more practice, so that you can become more conscious of how God is working in and through you.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Allocutio - Only a Sower

I have been into planting seeds and watching them germinate and grow into a plant. In the process, I realized that not every seed sprouts. Not every seedling survives and grows into a nice plant. No matter how much I want them to.

The most challenging so far is to grow lemon balm. For those few that sprouted, they usually died shortly after, despite me giving it enough water. I later discovered that worms invaded the soil and killed my seedlings. I refused to give up. I planted more seeds again, read up on the conditions lemon balm needs. Only recently had I found out that I was watering my seedlings too much, which invited flies to lay eggs and the roots would also rot. After many tries, my lemon balm seedlings now are finally growing well.

The strangest was when I was growing basil. I sowed basil seeds and was most delighted when they sprouted. I happily transferred the tiny seedlings into a nice pot of soil and later found out that somehow – and I am totally clueless about this even till today – what was growing in that pot was not basil but weeds. The landscaper at my place told me. Well, it is quite a nice weed with green leaves with a tinge of yellow. So I decided to let it grow in my pot anyhow. It is life all the same.

Last Sunday’s Gospel spoke about a farmer sowing seeds, which fell on different kinds of grounds. In our apostolate work, we are like farmers sowing seeds for God’s Kingdom. I would like to draw our attention today to the disposition of the sower. When we sow, what is subtly going on within us? Do we attach conditions to our sowing? Prerequisites?

It would be quite silly of me to, before planting these seeds, examine, evaluate, calculate (if I can) each of their internal composition, hypothesize and conclude which will germinate and grow into a healthy plant and which will not. I do not do research or alter the genes of the seed to control the outcome. As a farmer, as a sower, I simply sow. That is what I am called to do.

However, it is not always that I find it easy to apply this same attitude to sowing seeds for God’s Kingdom. For all too often, I judge prematurely if someone is good soil for me to sow seeds on. If I suspect that it might not reap much results, I would subconsciously avoid reaching out and turn towards others who might have a greater potential in responding positively to my sowing. I sow with the harvest as my focus. But the harvest is not within my control. It is God’s to control. I can do my best to give my seeds and seedlings the best conditions I know they need but yet their survival is hardly my doing because if it were, then all my seeds would have grown into healthy plants just as I will for them to. I do not breathe life into them. God does. And He sustains them with His breath.

So it is in our apostolate work. Wherever there are seeds to be sown, let us sow and let God breathe His life into our work. When seedlings die after some time, let us sow again. And again. For God never gives up on His beloved people. When weeds grow, may our disappointment not keep us from trying again.

Definitely, we do not reach out to everyone in the same manner. We do need to be discerning about where people are, what they are ready for, what is their style, etc. It is not a one size fits all. If someone is truly unreceptive or difficult to approach, it does not mean we give up on that person. Our way of sowing can be altered. Even a genuine smile or a simple “Have a good day” towards one who only responds with a glare. Just as the first reading also told us, that God’s word does not return to Him without it having done what God had willed, any love we sow would not return to us without it having moved something that perhaps was too hidden from our sight to notice. Every seed of mercy, every seed of compassion. God sees them all and blesses them all. Love itself is His breath and life.

May we be good soil for God’s love to take root in us so that we may be good sowers of His life and love in the lives of those He sends to us.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Allocutio - Facilitating God's Reign (Bible Sunday)


This Sunday, we will be celebrating Bible Sunday. It is not only a time to get down to reading the bible, which I am sure some of you are already doing or have done. Maybe, there is something more, something deeper. Maybe, it is a time of reviewing what God has been doing throughout salvation history and how we are called to be a continuation of this story in our times and in our lives.

Jesus came to bring the reign of God to us. But what is this reign? 2000 years ago, among the Jews there was great oppression of the poor and weak, sick and widowed. The peasants who were mostly farmers were forced to give up the best of their crops each harvest to the government. The people had to pay high taxes and tithes and each family had to be extremely cautious to avoid being in debts and their lands taken over by the larger landowners. The Pharisees were also oppressing the people and putting huge burdens on them with all their rules and beliefs.

Jesus saw the sufferings of the people and He came to tell us who God the Father truly is. Merciful, compassionate, generous, and most of all, a God who hears the cry of the poor. And He has already been working among humankind to bring about a world in which God’s victory is arrived at in each person, each creature. Jose Pagola wrote in Jesus – An Historical Approximation: “Jesus did more than denounce whatever is opposed to God’s reign. He also recommended a way of living more in accordance with the Father’s will. He sought more than individual, personal conversion. He was trying to introduce in the towns and villages a new model of social behavior… He’s not talking about a miraculous intervention of God, but a change of behavior that can lead to a fuller and more secure life for all… Jesus was proclaiming the reign of God as a reality that requires the restoration of social justice.” Jesus Himself lived a life in which God reigns. This is how we are called to live too. And this is the work we must continue as disciples sent on this mission. Giving sight to the blind, setting the captives free…

There are many people around us who are suffering oppression of some kind. Many who might not even be aware that they are oppressed. They do not have sight. Even in our offices, workplaces, by superiors, fellow colleagues, etc. People who are pressured to work overtime either by an unrealistic workload or by peer pressure. The need to look as if one is so hardworking in order to maintain a good reputation as a worker. While all other aspects of life are affected as a result. Like it or not, we oppress ourselves too when we judge and belittle ourselves in the very subtle messages we send to ourselves unknowingly each day.

There are also many roles that we can play in helping the oppressed and working, like Jesus, to restore social justice. There are passive and active roles, and we have been given different gifts. In the Gospels, not much is being said about Mary during Jesus’s ministry but it is not hard to think of her as playing a very passive supportive role in all that Jesus was doing. Supporting Him in ways that would free Him up and help Him focus on His ministry. Mary of Magdala used her wealth from her business to fund the expenses of Jesus’s ministry, while at the same time, being herself very involved in what Jesus and His disciples were doing. Other women would have helped by doing the cooking and seeing to the chores. But these tasks were very much according to the gender culture of that time.

It is a good time this week, then, to discern – individually and collectively as a legion praesidium – how we are called specifically to restore social justice in our world, in our lives. Collectively, if not as a whole group, perhaps even in pairs. Have a grace-filled Bible Sunday.