Monday, March 25, 2013

Entering into the Jerusalems and Gethsemanes of our lives

As Holy Week begins, the Church through her liturgy will guide the faithful on a journey that recalls vividly the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  There are, to be sure, multivalent levels of participating in these deep days of prayer, worship and reflection, the simplest of which would be to look at it from a non-involved and sterile distance, as if one were a member of an audience at a very prolonged opera.  This would assure that one makes that false divide between faith and life as clear as possible, without seeing any need to make any connection between the life of Christ and one’s own life. 

If Liturgy ends up with the faithful doing this, it would have failed to be what Liturgy is meant to be.  Liturgy is meant to draw one closer and closer to the life of Christ as one becomes absorbed by the mystery that one participates in.  Properly celebrated and conscious of the words of the Celebrant ‘ite, Missa est’ (Go, the Church has been sent) are proclaimed, each participant whose sense of Christian mission has been heightened by deep participation at the Liturgy becomes aware of the pressing need to live the life of Christ in a real and dynamic way. 

Holy Week brings this reality to the fore.  We see Jesus entering Jerusalem for the last time and we also see the dark reality of sin and evil.  But it is not just sin and evil, pain and suffering that we see as in abstract.  We are made aware of how real this darkness is in our own lives, and how we struggle and cope with this constant fight because there is also a very real side of our lives that also wants to live for Christ and holiness and goodness.

Each of us has Jerusalems and Gethsemanes that we inevitably have to face with a certain dimension of aloneness.  In most of our sufferings, we generally have the community’s support, shared faith, and prayers.  I have personally benefitted, and still am benefitting, from the many who have been with me in prayer as I live with my illness.  But I have also come to realize that like wanting to be with a friend who is going on an overseas flight at the airport departure terminal, there is a point at which he or she needs to go beyond a certain point alone.  These are the Jerusalems and Gethsemanes that I am referring to.  It is not that the prayers of loved ones are ineffective.  They will always be sources of strength and moral support.  But just as Jesus was so aware of his being alone with no one else but the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane even though his beloved friends were just a ‘stone’s throw’ from him, so too do we sometimes find ourselves in life.  We can sympathise with sufferers of all sorts of pains and life-struggles all we want, but there will always be dimensions of their suffering and darkness that will always be something that they alone can experience, and they alone have to live through. 

But it is what these experiences end up doing for them that also forms (or deforms) them.  Jesus did not let his aloneness make him an embittered, angry and resentful man.  He commended his Spirit to the Father as his final gift of his complete self.  But he had to go through his Passion to get to that point.  What this means for us is that one cannot make short-cuts one’s journey to that surrender point, as much as we would want to.  It is that portion of life between the Jerusalem’s entry and that final surrender that forms us.  And it will only happen if we allow it to form us. 

As I begin Holy Week I will be going back to the hospital for my second round of intensive chemotherapy, I will also take this reflection with me.  It will be the most interesting Holy Week since my ordination thirteen years ago.  Though there will be no Liturgy that I can participate in, I will be participating in another kind of mystery altogether, and I take with me as my companions all those who are suffering in small and large ways, and with you, I too, look forward to the Resurrection with eyes that look toward the wonders of Easter joy.  

Monday, March 18, 2013

Clearing misconceptions about bone marrow transplants

I had never intended this blog to be about myself or my personal life.  This was and is primarily a blog with spiritual content.   But since I my diagnosis of Leukemia last month, there has been a lot of misconceptions that require addressing, especially when it comes to locating donors for a possible bone marrow transplant.  I greatly appreciate the many who have told me of their intention to donate their bone marrow for my personal remission.  However, the process is not as simple as many may make it out to be.  Today’s blog, hopefully, will clarify certain misconceptions and prejudices that may be the cause of confusion and uncertainty.

First of all, the technology is so advanced now that no longer is it called a bone marrow transplant.  What the doctors use is the stem cells that are extracted from the blood of the donor.  There are no painful or agonizing experiences of one’s bone marrow actually being tapped and harvested.  The actual procedure is very much like going to donate blood at the blood bank, where one’s blood is taken, stem cells removed, and the rest is returned to the donor’s body in a short span of time.  As far as the donor is concerned, that is the only ‘inconvenience’ that one experiences as an actual donor.

Secondly, because the parameters (tissue typing) are so specific before any stem cell is received or given, the matching process is very detailed and specific.  This means that even though one may wish to donate one’s stem cells to a particular person in mind, it becomes almost impossible to be recipient-specific.  I fully appreciate the friends and parishioners who have told me that they want to give me their stem cells/bone marrow, but this is not how the process works.  It is far more complex than just the giving of one’s blood.  I have tried to explain to many friends that it doesn’t matter if they cannot donate their stem cells to me directly.  What matters is that they register themselves as potential donors and put their names on the worldwide register as interested donors.   When this happens, the list of potential donors becomes larger and larger, and it will shorten the waiting time for those who are waiting for willing donors whose basic parameters match theirs.  Currently, there are only about 55,000 local names that have registered as potential donors, which is a paltry number when our local population is 5.3 million.  This means that only 1% of Singapore’s population have signed up as potential, interested donors!  It is no wonder that they are still searching for a local match for me, and probably have to look overseas since only 1% of the local population has taken the effort to register themselves.

Thirdly, there is also the misconception that registering oneself as a potential donor is a painful and tedious process.  It is not.  One only needs to go the Blood Bank located at the Singapore General Hospital, and give a saliva swab from the cheek and fill out a few forms of personal details.  No blood is taken at this point.  This will become the basic information that is uploaded onto the local and worldwide register of potential donors.  Only when a potential match is discovered will one be contacted so that the next steps can be taken.  Apparently, it is at this point that some donors get ‘cold feet’, and decide to not go further in the donation process.  You can only imagine the disappointment that some recipients go through after hearing that a possible match has been discovered when this happens.

Fourthly, there is the misconception that donating one’s marrow will be a costly affair for the donor.  There is no cost at all to the donor, as the patient’s medical insurance will cover the medical expenses incurred.  The only cost will be one’s time and one’s stem cells.  It is important, however, to note that the registry will only accept registrants who are between the ages of 18 to 49. 

I do hope that this strange blog entry does not draw attention to my own predicament, but that it will help the many thousands who are waiting for a tissue type match, which will be able to give them a remission and much hope.  What is really needed is a mindset change towards donating.  Because this kind of donation is never recipient-specific, what is required is a generous heart that is open to the possibility of saving a life, no matter whose life it may be. 

When we are aware of our being active members of the Body of Christ, and that each one of us are that intrinsically connected through our spiritual bond, we become less concerned about whom we may be saving or helping, because whoever it is, it is a brother or sister in Christ.  This is at the heart of true Christian charity.  When we live this way, we will ever expand our horizons to love, to care for, and to ennoble one another in our shared journey that is called life. 

Further information about the Bone Marrow Donation Programme can be accessed here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Loving God with all one's heart, mind, soul and strength

Just last week in Friday’s Mass reading we saw Jesus reminding the scribe about the first of all the commandments, which is to love God with all our heart, our soul, mind and strength.  Mark’s gospel differs slightly from Matthew’s in this. But this has not changed, and will not change as a primary commandment for all of us.  Everything else flows from this, and it is when we get this right, that we will see life in a very different light than how a purely secular eye sees life.  The problem with our eyes, I believe, is that we have been influenced very much with a worldly, secular and utilitarian world, which puts the self much more in front of the God who we should be loving first.

How does the world love?  It’s not that difficult to give a general definition.  The world often loves only when it is assured of some tangible and selfish gain or return.  Seldom would it be the first to reach out in an overture of goodness and love, with little thought of getting some assurance that this would not be a wasted venture.  Many couples that ‘love’ one another with this mind enter into marriages with an idea that they are ‘getting’ something from their spouse in marriage rather than being one who is going to give and provide from the heart.  This often shows up much later in the marriage when the ‘honeymoon’ period is over, and real life needs to be lived.

Having said this, is it an easy task to love God and put him first in everything that we do?  If this is indeed the panacea for all of our problems and woes, why is this difficult to achieve and sustain?  Are only a few graced with the ability to be constantly mindful of this?  If so, who are they?  Monks?  Nuns?  Priests?  Bishops?  How could this be?  In a lot of honest writing and reflection, I have come across hoards of religious who have themselves expressed how frustrating and difficult it is to love God so ardently and so wholeheartedly.  What are we to make out of this?  If religious find it hard, how much more would the laity I am sure.

I do not find it easy myself.  I certainly do not find it easy to do so in my current state of being shunted in a hospital room, where I hardly get out to see the sun, and on chemo reaction days, find my insides wanting to see the outside.  I remember saying to myself in the midst of my retching episode last week – “God, can I really praise you and thank you for your goodness even in all this agony?” Sitting on a chair in a hospital room with a barf bag may not seem to be a time for praising God.  But isn’t the first commandment one that we should be loving God with ALL of our heart, mind, soul and strength, even when we don’t ‘feel’ like it, and when we are puking our guts out into a bag?  What does it mean then?  I think it means that God wants and appreciates all our moments of our days when we are aware of his presence in our lives, even when things are not going well, not seen to be pleasant and when life is tough. 

Liturgically, this pans out very correctly.  Each Sunday, the thousands and millions that take the effort to go to Church certainly do not ‘feel’ like praising and loving God at the same time.  Some may be suffering, some may have had a terrible quarrel with the spouse or a family fight the day before, some may even have doubts about why they are going there in the first place.  Some may disagree with the music, have negative thoughts about the preaching delivered, and perhaps only a small minority are able to really attune themselves with the actions and words of the liturgy.  But what is important to God is that there is a unified concerted effort of the Church (which is the Body of Christ) to make an active effort of worship that tries to honour that first commandment. 

But the question remains – why should we love God with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength?  Because God loved us first and has deemed to show this to us not just in nature, but also in the amazing act of the incarnation which displays his mercy.  All that remains for us is to respond to this with our daily acts of responsive love and awareness.  With lots to distract us, this does become a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. 

In his scholastic theology, St Thomas Aquinas wrote much on the notion of grace, and categorizes grace into prevenient, consequent, operative and cooperative grace, to name a few.  It is cooperative grace that many of us don’t think much of or place much emphasis on in our spiritual lives.  Cooperative grace is the desire of God to elicit our human cooperation to his outward reach of his primary grace to us.  In other words, in cooperative grace, God is waiting for our response and respects our free will before he acts.  It is not a quid-pro-quo notion of grace, but rather a display of respect and utter freedom. 

Don’t we do this with our own children?  Much of the important things in life we may impose on them without consultation, but in other things, when we want to show them our awareness of their maturity of thought and being, we seek their cooperation and responses too.  This then, is the same notion brought to a divine level.

This Sunday was the celebration of Laetare Sunday, which means Rejoice Sunday, taking the name from the opening words of the Mass’ Introit, calling Jerusalem to ‘rejoice’ as the sorrow she has experienced will encounter consolation.  It marks the mid-point of our Lenten journey thus far, and the visible mood in Church is lifted with the donning of Rose Vestments and that flowers are permitted to be adorn the altar this day.  This should help those who really don’t ‘feel’ like rejoicing, to cast aside their feelings and join the universal church in her act of worship as a body.  Let this be our ‘cooperation’ to God’s offer of unmerited and underserved love and begin to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength.  

Even if we have to approach him with our barf bag in hand.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Embracing the Cross in the Body of Christ

I would have to be a most ungrateful person to not acknowledge the hundreds, if not thousands of well-wishers and prayer warriors who have responded so kindly and so generously to my announcement of my illness in last week’s blog.  I thank you for your kindness, your generosity, and your thoughtfulness, and most of all, your faith.  Never in my wildest dream have I ever thought that I would get that many hits on a simple blog like mine.  Not only that, but each comment, each outreach and each precious sharing by a fellow sufferer who poured out his or her life-story brought to light the reality of the body of Christ.  Moreover, I have had prayers literally pouring in from all over the world, from Malaysia, India, the Philippines, Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand, to name but a few.  This too, made the body of Christ an immense reality and an overwhelming one at that.

As I am only just beginning my entry into a deeper and more somber act of suffering in this adventure of the world of cancer, I can only write as a novice is capable of.  I am only beginning to familiarlise myself with the names of the chemicals and toxins that are being pumped mercilessly into my body each day of therapy – unpronounceable names like Granisteron, Cyclophosphamide, Cytarabine and Vincristine, and steroid drugs like Dexamethasone.  I have only just begun to experience the immense discomfit of nausea brought on by Chemo drugs.  But I do realize that I do depend on the drugs for my survival, and perhaps, I have become a chemoholic.

The things that surround me, the feelings that I sometimes feel, and more importantly, what God is telling me at each moment, cannot be written in the words of a veteran sufferer with a ‘been-there, done-that, bought the T-shirt and mug’ approach.  At least not yet.  Not only would that be facetious, it would very much disrespect the many who have walked through a much deeper walk than I have thus far.  I am in awe of veteran folk like young Joshua Ling who commented so insightfully in my previous blog, and who I would highly recommend many to read and to be inspired by.  Believe me, Joshua, your story has touched many of my friends.

But what is very real to me is the fact that so many people are praying.  They assure me that they are doing this, and I am touched and grateful.  Being a theologian in training (albeit one that is somewhat on hiatus at the moment) makes me wonder what the many are indeed praying about.  I am sure many are praying for a complete recovery from my illness.  Many have indeed written and told me that this is what they are praying for.  And this is not wrong, and not at all a bad thing to pray for.  But is this the only thing that we should be praying for when things go ‘awry’ in our lives?  Do spanner in the works of our life plans dictate that our prayers to God beseech him to ‘change his plans to suit ours’?  Does it necessarily mean that God has deemed it fit to ‘punish’ us for our iniquities?  My spirituality doesn’t permit me to believe this, and neither has by education and training, and more importantly, my faith relationship with God.

Please do not get me wrong.  I am not saying that I am ungrateful for prayers of healing and recovery.  We should be praying for goodness in life, for blessings, and for God to be in our lives in such a way that we experience joy, an abundance of goodness and a great outpouring of God’s rich graces.  After all, God does want us to live life and to it to the full.  Yet, the often unfathomable reality is that there is also the irony and even necessity of a suffering that purifies and saves, as witnessed by the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but if it was the Father’s will, let it be done.

This tussle is something that I find myself struggling with too, not just when I pray, but also when I read the wonderful petitions that come from my friends, loved ones and praying partners in the world.  Jesus did not reject the cross in an outright way, nor did he run to it.  Instead, when we contemplate on it, we will realize that Jesus embraced it with a certain air of temerity, and to do so, didn’t he have to remove something as well?  He had to remove his garments. 

The Church has always associated the tenth station where Jesus was stripped of his garments with our sins of passions and lusts, rightly so.  But when I pondered on how a true and healthy and purifying suffering entails not a rejection but an embrace of the cross, I saw how we too in our lives, need to have certain barriers and ‘garments’ removed before we can have a healthy and healing embrace of our crosses in life.

The prayer of a complete healing and a remission from cancer or any other illness or adversity is a good prayer.  It is not a wrong prayer.  It is a faithful prayer.  It is a loving prayer.  It is a prayer of intercession, as we are told to seek, knock, and find.  But if it is a prayer that arm-twists God and doesn’t give him any chance of displaying his greatness in ways beyond our ken, it doesn’t really become a prayer.  It becomes an order, a command and worst of all, it makes us unto God. 

Is it a brazen prayer, a bold prayer and an audacious prayer to ask for also the ability to embrace the cross willingly and lovingly?  Is it too soon to ask for this in a journey towards anyone’s Calvary, especially one that has just been embarked on like mine?  Does not this mean that we will first have to identify our own garments that we have been loath to remove but rather, have spent years and years to acquire and to wear, display and exhibit with pride?  I am afraid it does, and unless I too learn to do this, my embrace of the cross will only be lip service and hardly be something that will help much the sufferings of the body of Christ.