Sunday, 21 June 2015

Conversion - Part 1 - Rome Sweet Home

Friday marked the 5th anniversary of my radical conversion during a very short pilgrimage with the SFX Youth Choir to Rome and Assisi. We flew over after a choral competition in St. Petersburg. I have decided to share my experiences (I'll do so in parts as there's too much to say at a go) because I hope to bear witness to the redeeming love of God in my life. If He can redeem my life from the mess it was in, He can do the same for anyone else. And He desires to. Because He loves all of us in the same measure. 

For 10 years before this pilgrimage, I was a Sunday Catholic. Maybe, a little more than a Sunday Catholic given my active participation in the choir. But I was not praying daily like I used to because complacency and pride caught up with me in college years. It was a stark contrast from the life I was leading before this decade. A life of daily prayer. Although I received no spiritual direction as I was not exposed to the idea, God's abundant graces guided me to speak with Him in the most authentic manner that I find difficult to do even now. It was in prayer that I brought all the experiences of the day to God, rattling on and on before listening to all He had to say to direct my heart towards forgiveness, peace, love, joy. 

With pride and complacency came sin. An increasing sinfulness. And without prayer, without bringing all my accumulated guilt and struggles, hurts and joys to God, without being able to push that "reset" button, I lost God (though He never lost me) and I lost myself. I lost the willingness to forgive, I lost peace, love and joy. I lost people I loved, or claimed to love. I became a terror, demanding my rights wherever I went, building up mighty fortresses to prevent "dangerous" people from coming too close to my heart, in case I got pricked by their many thorns. I had to ensure that I protect myself well because no one else would, and that meant to react defensively whenever I sensed the slightest threat of being taken advantage of. I lost, most of all, my identity of being a precious child of God. And I was bitter behind the facade of my strong exterior. 

When the choir received our competition results, we were in the practice room, praying and singing thanks to God. I broke down. Uncontrollably. I felt the pain of putting my then relationship with my fiancĂ© on the rocks for the competition and that all the sufferings were worthwhile. I felt a strange comfort of being able to cry out all I had kept within me for those months leading up to the competition. My heart softened a little. 

On the night before the choir flew to Rome, I was unexpectedly held up by something that happened to some members of the choir. It turned out that the next morning, I had to tell on someone against my wishes because I felt it was the right thing to do. The responsible thing to do for the sake of other members. It was tough. I felt like I was betraying a friend. And when the matter was addressed to the choir, I felt like the greatest sinner in the world. I expected friends to reject and ostracise me, and I projected these expectations onto them. Eventually, I felt so crappy about myself that I distanced away from everyone. Withdrawing into my own fragile shell. Yet, this fragile shell was the very needed cave in which God wished to meet me in the coming days. This incident pulled me away from the high of the fun and jokes I was immersed in with my fellow choir members. It got my attention. As Richard Rohr wrote in "Everything Belongs", "The path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two Great Paths of transformation. Suffering seems to get our attention..." 

During Mass on the first day in Rome in a private chapel in the basement of St Peter's Basilica, I teared from beginning to end. It is very unlike me to cry in any other place except in the privacy of my room. But my tears were very disobedient that day. Something was happening within me. Something beyond my control because it was God who was peeling apart the countless layers of dead cells, hardened layers, surrounding my heart. God had come and He desired to penetrate the walls of my disfigured heart to enter in. He wasn't going to continue watching me mess up my life further. It was as He did to Zacchaeus on the tree. He self-invited Himself to Zacchaeus' house and He did the same to me. But could it be that Jesus saw Zacchaeus' secret thoughts that were revealed in his climbing up the Sycamore tree to have a clear view of Jesus? Could it be that Jesus saw something in me in the messiness of my life? Something that perhaps longed so discretely for order, happiness, healing, wholeness? 

in St. Petersburg
From that Mass, peace took its throne in the depths of my entire being. A peace so deep and immovable that nothing I had ever owned and experienced before could ever bring me. A peace so precious that I committed myself to daily prayer again because I knew this is the only way I can continue to experience this peace. Life changed. Immediately. I didn't feel like I had to put on my makeup anymore on the trip and beyond. No need for loud earrings or my pretty hat. No need for more selfie and wefie marathons (no coincidence that my camera cranked up on me only in Rome). I embarked on the journey from the circumference towards the centre of my life. A journey from the exterior to the interior. I was in consolation. Deep, deep consolation. 

At every shrine the choir went to, I plugged in to my Taize music to shut out the noise and help me keep focus. Praying earnestly to God for good health, peace and harmony for my family. I felt the close presence of the saints, especially Saints Peter and Paul. Like how one would feel the presence of someone standing behind, I felt the presence of the saints behind me. Surrounding me. So close. I knew it was them because of the peace that accompanied their presence and through them, I felt a closeness with Jesus. In retrospect, it was truly an encounter of "the communion of saints" we recite in the Creed. 

The whole bible story from the beginning of creation became alive in me. It no longer felt like a story I listened to every week at Mass (I wasn't a bible reader and I disagreed with the hype over scripture studies though I love the Gospel stories). Rather, it is real, almost tangible. And I am now part of this story. I am the continuation of this story as a disciple of Christ living in this here and now. My heart was burning with a fervent love for our salvation history, for this whole seamless story of God and Mankind. 

My life would never be the same again. It has been 5 years and it has never been the same as before. God has come to the dumpsite of my humanity. He digs into the garbage and finds there my life. He saw something that I do not see and decided that I become His "pagpag". Food thrown away, useless and filthy, picked up by the extreme poor who have nothing to eat. They dust off the bugs and dirt, take the pagpag home, cook and eat. Food that becomes the source of nourishment for the poor and outcast. God has shown me His great mercy. His graces have saved me. Truly, amazing grace. Praise to our God, now and forever. 

A short CNN video on pagpag