Monday, July 18, 2011

Reaching out to hands that can’t reach back

Our human tendency seems to gravitate towards being rewarded and recognized, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. We don’t need trained psychologists to tell us that when we receive a positive stroke for good work done, when our sedulousness has been recognized, or when we receive a note of thanks, our self-esteem is given a shot in the arm, enabling us to be more positive in our outlook and increase our productivity.

But the ‘high’ that this brings can sometimes become a very hidden narcotic that is not easily recognized and we are loath to admit it. So, while the public, outward and expressed self does magnanimous, generous and generally noteworthy acts of kindness and mercy, the hidden, inward and unexpressed self waits in the shadows of the inner corridors of our hearts, anticipating the next ‘fix’ of the ego boost. If we are truly honest with ourselves, the best of us has seen that side of our personality, and it is not something we are proud of. In fact, the more we personally admit to it, the more real it becomes. If others ‘uncover’ it, our defense mechanism automatically kicks into high gear and often, our first words of retaliation would be ‘are you sure’?

St Paul’s haunting phrase in Rom 7:15 comes to mind when he says so honestly “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” All us, if we are deathly honest with ourselves will resonate with the apostle in his human struggle. It seems to be ingrained in our shared broken humanity.

One of the more effective ways to address this is to practice acts of mercy, and to do that often. Visit the sick, give alms to the poor, attend to those who are worse off than yourself, stoop to speak to the little ones. I can almost hear my detractors saying “but can’t we end up doing these for the sake of being thanked, seen as humble and in that way, being worse off than when we first started?” Of course that is possible but it doesn’t mean that we should not try.

When we do this often enough, when it is part of our schedule, when it is not a once-a-year affair, but purposefully done, it can weaken the hidden self that lurks in those chambers of our hearts. To be sure, that self will never be completely removed. At least not while we are alive. But that self can be given less food to grow, and his condition can be stifled and his development stunted.

I find this true in my own life. I have an aunt who has been slipping into dementia for the past couple of years, and is now in nursing care in a home for the aged. I have made it a point to visit her every week on my day off and she cannot remember my name even though she may try. I have lost count of the times she calls me Dominic, which gives credit to the real Dominic, a very genial and caring man who works full time in the said home. Dominic has a heart of gold. Sometimes, when I share with others that my aunt never remembers my name when I visit her, their reaction has sometimes been “and you do this so often?”

When a person slips into dementia, and when we visit them regularly, it is not for them to remember us, but for us to show that they are remembered. Whether aunt Michelle calls me Dominic, Terence or even Shirley matters not as much as my calling her “Ee Mah” (that, for my non Cantonese-speaking readers, means eldest maternal aunt). The same goes for people who visit patients who have had severe strokes and are in a comatose state who have no response at all. Doing these regularly with a dedication makes us weaken that part of us that hopes for some ‘recognition’ or ‘thank you’ simply because they cannot. It is times like these that show that hands reaching out to others are far more important than the hands that are unable to respond and reach back. These acts of mercy really can help us to nurture that part of us that recognizes God’s mercy when we it comes to us at the most unexpected and unrecognizable times.

As most of my readers know, I am being sent to Washington DC for further studies for two years, and I leave shortly. Friends and parishioners have asked me what I will miss most. Some think it is food, some think the warm weather, others my links to a parish community. Actually it is none of them.

But among the things that I will definitely miss are my weekly visits to my aunt as well as to one other comatose patient in another home. In fact, they probably don’t realize that what they do for me is more than anything I could have done for them, because each time my visits end, I gain more strength and determination to slay that hidden, lurking self.


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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this on a Monday morning. It resonates with me. These are things that remind us of the divinity we are capable of inside our broken human self.

    As a priest, you have a public persona. Cultivate this persona rightly, you will be adored and admired. Being privileged in life, I too enjoy a certain visibility in my life. I can attest that it is so easy for me to make big shows out of acts of kindness and mercy. It is such a starvation to my ego when I am to give anonymous donations, to help out invisibly in church, and to do other acts of kindness and mercy without ever being recognised.

    Hence, thank you very much for showing that it is ok NOT to get this “human fixes” when we reach out. You show us that when we measure out mercy and kindness, the measure we expect back is not human recognition but that, it is in the measure of the divinity of mercy and kindness we are given back! When you are standing before your dementia aunt or the comatose patient, you are …doing more than this is the humble “private persona” (I don’t know what is the opposite of public persona) that your parishioners do not see, doing more than this is salve to the soul as you perform quietly these acts of mercy, it is divinity reaching back. It is a reminder that it is not us who is pursuing God’s love but that it is God who is pursuing us with love.

    Bless your heart, Fr Luke.

  3. I fully empathize with Paul in ( Rom 7:15) and would have been discouraged if not for the hope given in Gen 1:26 – ‘’let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...’’ Thus, what you said - ’’ to practise acts of often enough..., purposefully done, it can weaken the hidden self....’’ struck me as a beautiful truth because we may be stamped in His divine image but in divine likeness we have much room for fact our likeness can be dimmed and tarnished whenever we do something that comes from our insatiable NEEDS - for affection, affirmation or acceptance etc. So these acts of mercy are definitely necessary to nurture us to grow more in His likeness.
    The late Henri Nouwen wrote,”A lot of giving and receiving has a violent quality, because the givers and receivers act more out of a need than out of trust. What looks like generosity is actually manipulation, and what looks like love is really a cry for affection or support. When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.” .........
    And so love always teaches us Love.

  4. What can I say? I am a Filipino who just moved here in Singapore to look for a job. As much as I can, I pass by St. Alphonsus Church in Novena to hear mass or to just even say a little prayer for everyone, my girlfriend, my family and her family back home in the Philippines and I would pray so hard that God would bless me. But I always look forward to hearing mass at Church of our Lady Star of the Sea because of you,Fr Luke Fong. You give me hope and inspire me everytime you share the Lord's good news. Not to mention you sing very well, and can crack a joke or two. Out of nowhere, I suddenly thought and asked my girlfriend, how about having you as our priest for our wedding? Then we remembered you were leaving. We felt sad but hey you're coming back right? I still have to find a job anyway and save up. That's how you touched not just my life but our lives and we thank you so very much! Thank you for reaching out to us, to all the parishoners and we wish you all the best. God bless you.

    John and Lexi

  5. Blessed are you,Father Luke,

    May Jesus fill your humble heart with compassion and love! Scatter them to wherever you will be.
    Kelly :)

  6. I acknowledge the truth of what you say. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of seeking to be recognized, rather than seeking to serve.

    There is a piece I've treasured for years called "Just For Today". In part of it, we read, "Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don’t want to do – just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it." It seems to me that faithfully putting this into practice will help to remove some of the focus from "I-Me-Mine".

    God bless you!

  7. Reaching out to hands that can't reach back is a true joy,which encapsulates my whole body,mind and soul.Thank you Fr Luke,I am learning to put God's word into practice through your guidance.Quite often i fall,but looking up at Crucified Jesus,my heart melts by the beaming light of Christ's Love.
    God Bless.