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.