Monday, April 29, 2013

Emptying ourselves to be filled

I have been re-admitted into the Singapore General Hospital for my third round of chemotherapy, to allow the harsh cytotoxin chemicals to ravage my body so that the leukemia cells have very little chance to develop and grow.  It is, in a way, a necessary evil, which I take with a certain willingness and an abiding silence.  I am not quite sure, though, if this is totally due to my faith in God’s providence and omnipresence, or that I am just going through the motion as a chemo patient.  On my best days, it the former would predominate.  And I guess, on the bad days, when the nausea, the aches and the inability to eat anything set in, the latter seems to have the upper hand.  Thus seems to be the reality.

When my suitable stem cell donor is located (the authorities are currently getting one possible donor’s blood sample from Canada to do higher resolution typing for me), the next step for me is to receive a high dose of conditioning chemotherapy which is chemotherapy drugs in much higher doses and toxicity than what I have been receiving in past treatments.  This does a few things – It will weaken my own immune system so that the donor stem cells have a chance to grow in my bone marrow.  At that point in time, my own immune system will be either non existent or very much weakened and compromised, opening me up to the possibility of a whole host of infections and diseases.  I will also be given high-energy rays of Radiotherapy to destroy cancer cells and this will be applied to my whole body.  These two preparatory treatments are required to empty my body for the reception of the donor’s stem cells so that his healthy cells can be grafted well into my marrow without much resistance that can naturally come when the body detects an ‘invasion’ of something that is foreign to it. 

The first thirty days after the transplant will be the most crucial where my body will naturally fight this ‘invader’ and the reactions have been known to be quite severe – diarrhoea for up to 30 times a day, rash outbreaks all over the body, incessant nausea, and of course, tremendous weight loss.  Patients have been known to die from the inability to survive this severe but necessary period of the treatment. I was told by a doctor in a tongue-in-cheek way that being a stem cell recipient is the best weight loss programme that one can ever go through – it’s almost a guarantee that one will lose between 8-10 kgs in the process.  That’s 18 to 22 pounds to my American non-metric friends.  That’s something to look forward to!

Why am I so detailed in giving my readers an idea of what I am about to go through?  It’s not that I am soliciting for sympathy or more prayers (although that won’t hurt, would it?).  It’s because it has something that is very much connected to our Christian living.  Let me explain.

There is a very important aspect of our Christian life that entails the process of kenosis.  That word is of Greek origin.  “Kenos” means empty, hence the word Cenotaph, which is a derivation of Keno + taphios, meaning tomb.  Incidentally, our own Cenotaph in Singapore which is a monument erected in honour of the war dead during the First World War was horribly defaced sometime last week by a cowardly vandal who spray pained the word “Democracy” in large letters on the monument itself.  He not only disrespected and dishonoured the lives of  the war dead, but also disregarded the pain and suffering of the members of their families who lost their loved ones in the war effort.  In my opinion, there was instead a sad evidence of an emptiness in the vandal – an emptiness of the heart and a worse vacumn of the mind.  He did not just vandalise a monument.  He also vandalized his very self in the process.

The defaced Cenotaph which has since been cleaned
Returning to my reflection of the necessary kenosis of the Christian who is truly interested in being a disciple of Christ, this is mentioned in Phil. 2:7, where we are told that Christ emptied himself.  If Christ who is God, emptied himself in order for the Father’s will to be done in such a radical way, it shows by necessity then that anyone following Christ also needs to undergo some form of emptying.  This is one of the most challenging and difficult things for any Christian worth his baptism.  That dying of the self is symbolically undergone when the Elect gets submerged into the baptismal font (which is why a mere trickling of three drops of water from a pretty shell or an ornate water vessel doesn’t quite bring across the message that there is dying going on here!).  Liturgically and sacramentally, the larger and more obvious the sign and symbol, the clearer the catechesis and reality will be.

From that moment on, each step of our Christian life will ask of us whether we are in fact dying to the self so that Christ can be implanted deeper and deeper into our spiritual marrows.  If our lives are just too full of ourselves, our plans, our ideas, our motivations, our fears and our desires, how much ‘space’ is there in our lives for God to really get in and form that necessary union with us, where we can say as Jesus said “the Father and I are one”?  We need to live such that “Jesus and I are one”, such that when people look at our lives, our acts and the way that we carry ourselves begin to say something like “I find it a strange comfort that when I look at the way Joe lives, it is Joe, but at the same time I also do see Jesus – it’s a wonderful combination”.  When we live like that, kenosis happens.

But for true kenosis to happen, something has to be ‘kenotosised’ (I made up that word).  Something in us has to be truly empty, like the way that the conditioning chemotherapy and whole body radiotherapy is going to empty part of my body to receive the donor’s stem cell to let it do what it needs to do for me to get to the point of remission.
Yet, we find so many ways to fight this kenosis – “it’s too hard”, “yes, but not yet Father!  Let me enjoy life first”, or “why do you make Christianity sound so difficult?”  I think that St Augustine must have thought these thoughts before is conversion. 
The decorated wall of my hospital room facing my bed
I append a photograph of my decorated wall in my hospital room, which is always a head-turner for any nurse or doctor who comes in to tend to my medical needs.  As you can see, it is filled with cards and posters, some hand made, some even too heavy to be pasted on the wall!  They come from all over the world!  The message for a great majority of them is “Get Well Soon, Father”, which is understandable for anyone suffering any form of illness and requires medical care. I am very grateful for this tremendous display of love, care and deep concern.  I have ministered to many of these people in the past, and the ones which really amaze and touch me are that a lot of them come from people whom I have not met, as I have not been to their parish to serve them in my tenure as a priest! 

But it was in my deep prayer that something was revealed to me.  It is not just I who am ill and need to get well.  Each of us, and each of these wonderful people who wrote these words of love and care are also in great need to ‘get well soon’, as long as they have found it a great challenge to undergo the task of self-emptying and kenosis.  If we are so full of ourselves and our rigid ways of dictating to God how he should be and how he should work in our lives, we are all of us, to put it in a nutshell, pretty sick, and we do that to God at some point in our lives, don’t we?  Kenosis necessarily changes that, but when God becomes fully transplanted in our lives, we walk, talk, and live in a very different way. 

But when we don’t, and fight it all the time, not only does God have very little space in the marrows or our souls, he will also have very little space in the morrows of our lives as well.  Just being nominal Christians at best, we could end up being mere Christian Cenotaophs, walking around like empty tombs that have no real Christian substance, or worse, have defaced and vandalized them with our very lives. 

One of the common phrases that we hear uttered by leaders and the ‘movers and shakers’ of industry is that something has become a ‘game changer’.  What this essentially means is that the way that people broach this event, this issue or this matter has to radically change.  It now ‘changes’ how one lives, how one thinks, and one’s entire attitude.  Well, have we ever thought that when Jesus came to reveal God the Father in such a radical way, that he too has been a ‘game changer’ for us?  He changed life’s ‘game’ 2000 years ago. 

Are we still playing the same old game in the ways that we live our lives?  Or are we truly interested in a game change?  The true Christian life is THE game changer.  We need to empty what needs emptying to be filled with who needs to fill us.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Being real in prayer

“Father, I simply cannot pray when everyone around me is so noisy, so distracting and so annoying!  Why can’t they respect that I am trying to pray?” 

Does this sentiment sound or look familiar to you?  I have heard this lament on many occasions when talking to my former parishioners (I don’t have any real ‘parishioners’ now during my medical hiatus from formal ministry).  What I suspect is happening often is that for many Catholics, there seems to be a very rigid notion of what prayer is.  For many, perhaps the “problem” lies in the notion that we can only pray to God when we feel that we are holy, when we are in a reverential mood, when everything in our life is ‘in place’, and when there are no distractions in life that steer our attention away from our ‘pure’ focus on God.  While it would be ideal that we are reverential, holy, not distracted and pure, the truth is that most of the time, we are not.  There seems to be so many ways that we are not as we should be when we place ourselves before God in prayer.  And when we find ourselves this way, it may cause many to give up on regular prayer altogether, simply because we are not ‘worthy’ when we place ourselves before God.

I wonder if this sentiment comes from the ways in which many of us communicate with our elders and those in any position of authority.  Could it be that we have been told ad nauseam that we are not to waste their precious time, and that if we were to speak with them, it had better be about something that is important, and that there is a need to observe some form of protocol?  If this were what we have been brought up on, it would be almost a ‘natural’ progression to transfer this mentality to the ways in which we communicate with God, which is what prayer essentially is. 

What are the dangers if this is our attitude towards God and prayer?  Here are a few:
  • We will not meet God unless there is a problem in life that needs God’s divine attention or help.
  • We will never see God as someone whom we really can have a relationship with, let alone someone who is truly interested in us.
  •  Communication or encounters with God will be met with a deep sense of dread and a sense of excitement comparable to a visit to the dentist.
  • It will be very hard to truly believe that God loves us unconditionally simply because there is a proper way to encounter God.

Of course, in our Catholic ritual of prayer and liturgical worship, there are very organized ways in which we bring ourselves as a community to meet God in his mercy and love.  The challenge facing every Catholic is to know that these moments of ‘organised encounter’ are very real and very good ways to meet God and to reach out to him who is present in each person at worship and prayer.  But these are not to be the only moments to do so, and certainly not the only ways to do so.  These can pave the way towards deeper and more intimate encounters with God when we decide to meet him in the realities of our hectic, frenetic, disorganized and messy lives that we all live. 

In fact, when we do pray to him not despite but because our lives are such, it makes our prayer so much more real and genuine.  Prayer no longer just becomes a ritual or a rite, but is something in which we bring our entire true selves before God who really is interested in what bugs us, what irritates us, what bores us, what excites and motivates us, and what disappoints and makes us livid and grumpy as well.  When we carry these very real feelings and sentiments with us before God, we are no longer trying to be what we think we ought to be, but begin to truly lift our hearts and minds to God who is always interested in what is going on in our hearts and minds.  And we also need to know that God, being God, may not need us to tell him all about what fills our lives, but will lovingly accept these as what are offered to him in an offering of prayer and love. 

Do I feel like praying every time I go into prayer?  To be dreadfully honest, no.  There are moments and sometimes, periods of days (even weeks) when I don’t feel like praying.  It may not come as a surprise to any of you that chemotherapy and its sometimes vile and nauseous effects can make one really want to put praying on the back burner.  But if I only depend on my feelings before praying, I would be over-dependent on my feelings alone to love God. 

Love, when dependent on feelings alone, is at worst, idolatrous, because it can become self-serving.  Imagine a married couple that only loves each other when they feel like it!  They wouldn’t remain married for long, and will most probably abandon the marriage once their ‘feelings’ wear off and become threadbare.  But, as the Marriage Encounter movement has always emphasized, when love becomes a decision, and not something that purely decided upon feelings, it becomes far more precious and valuable and genuine. 

So, if you are like my parishioners who have complained about how you are distracted by noise, and are annoyed, it could be that there is a right there a very good opportunity for real prayer which you may just be missing. 

A mystic once said that telling God our plans is a sure way of making God laugh.  Is our prayer something that only sees us making God roll with laughter?  Perhaps we should begin to make our prayer as real as possible. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking at death with friendly eyes

Over the weekend, there were two articles which appeared in our local paper that centered around the topic of death but from rather different viewpoints.  The first was the news that Matthew Warren, the son of acclaimed pastor/author Rick Warren, had shot himself fatally in the head after struggling with mental illness and depression for many years.  The second was a reflection/commentary by a local journalist Ms S Tan on the very topic of death, revealing that for this self-proclaimed agnostic, death is something very much to be feared, even if there is an inchoate sense that there is an eternal “thereafter”.  I wonder why she didn’t use the more familiar term “hereafter”. Isn’t it interesting that even the term used has a distanced nuance to it?  Like as if saying that it’s ‘there’ rather than ‘here’ will make it less threatening, less foreboding and more comfortable to handle.

The words in the picture are "You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore".  

My ‘work’ as an ordained priest has a lot do with death, simply because it has everything to do with life.  Being priests of God, who is The author of life, our very vocation and calling is to be living testimonies of the fact that everything that we experience and encounter in life is pure gift, as well as an open invitation to participate in the very life of God who makes all things possible.  This is undoubtedly a great challenge especially in this day and age where there is so much arrogant demands made on God by atheists who untiringly and unremittingly shut him out from a world which he has created in love and with love. 

At the very sensitive and emotional moments that surround a death, be it the days and moments before a death, or the moments and days that follow it, there is a certain rawness in the world of those whom the deceased leave behind that silently ask the perennial question whether everything is ‘all right’.  A good pastor of souls needs to hone his skills in detecting this unasked question in the silence of the mourners’ often unspoken words, and a good answer to this silent question doesn’t often necessitate words.  This skill takes great grace and years of training, and I dare not say that I am adept at it.  Let’s just say that one learns best from one’s slip-ups and mistakes.

But what if one needs to handle the topic of one’s own end?  I know many Catholics who are as superstitious as the next “Ouija Board pushing-wood touching-talisman hanging-salt tossing-evil eye wearing” atheist who are loath to talk about death and the self in the same sentence.  It’s a shame if one is so paralyzed with fear and at the same time claim to profess a true love for Jesus Christ as one’s Lord.  Striding one leg on a floating boat each (a very graphic Chinese figure of speech for being split in one’s trust) will only lead to a very hard time in life, not to mention legs that will cramp in no time.  Yet, to handle the very sensitive topic of superstition requires another set of skills where the truth is spoken such that it doesn’t make the listener defensive but reflective.  Again, I have yet to master this skill as I often want to get to the point without wasting time.  But I have since learnt that ‘wasting time’ is also a very necessary preamble that softens the harshness of the truth of sin and its effects without compromising on the truth of sin and its effects. 

When one’s faith in the Lord’s constant providence is unwavering and sure, it gives one the blessed assurance that death is a friend and not a foe.  Perhaps it was because of his father’s solid faith in a loving God that prompted Matthew Warren to say some ten years ago to his father “Dad, I know I’m going to heaven.  Why can’t I just die and end this pain?”  There is no need to go into the theological rightness or wrongness of this quote in this blog, or the complexities of a life taken when one has been struggling with such an illness as Matthew’s.  Just take it as something that was said and done by someone in pain, someone who suffered much and someone who probably experienced much aloneness and anxiety (read: someone who was not his whole self).  It appears to contrast deeply against the fearful and openly anxious view of Ms Tan who seems to live in some inchoate hope, but doesn’t want (or know how) to deal with it.  I am sure that she is not alone in her situation.  But then, neither was the late Mr Warren.

With the reality of my illness staring me in the face each time I look at the mirror (it’s funny how I still do a double take each time I see this bald man staring back at me in the reflection!), I find much cause to ponder anew about life AND death each time I enter into meditation and prayer.  Not so much to stall death and extend life.  That’s God’s doing.  But to be able more and more to have new eyes that look upon life and death as equal friends and not fighting foes.  It was St Francis of Assisi who when nearing his death looked upon death as “Sister Death”.  What grace he must have had received to be able to call death a ‘sister’! 

There’s too much anti-life terminology when it comes to dealing with cancer of all sorts.  People talk animatedly about ‘fighting’ this enemy, being ‘strong’ to conquer it, and how we need to ‘win’ the battle and overcome it at all costs.  While I can understand such strong sentiments when one only wants to extend life and living, I’m afraid that if one spends most of one’s waking moments to ‘fight’, one begins to lose one’s real sense and purpose of living, leading one to lose touch with the real moments of life – celebrating joy and friendship with friends and family, and being thankful to God for each blessed moment. 

Me?  I’m not a fighter and have never been one.  The only real fight each of us has is with sin and evil.  I’m certainly not fighting cancer.  Neither can I say that I fear death.  I’m living (and loving) with cancer!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sufficiency at each moment

I remember rather vividly when the doctors first suggested that I may have cancer about a month ago.  Back in Singapore already by then, I was placed in the investigative care of several doctors who were tasked to find out the origins of my daily bouts of high fevers.  One of them suspected that it was Leukemia. I recall just letting the news flow into me like an incoming tide on a very calm day.  No drama, no anger, no incredulity.  It was as if I was looking at myself from a distance, and there was a reassuring calm that assured me that “it’s ok”, and that this is in no way an abandonment in any way, shape or form.  If at all there was an ‘out-of-body’ experience that I could ever refer to in my life, that would be a very close one.  Even up till now I am amazed at the kind of grace that I have been privileged of receiving on a daily basis, where it does seem that I have simply hightailed it from denial to acceptance. 

I have read about and encountered many peoples’ difficult and painful struggles about that fluctuation between the so-called five stages of grief management (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), and even had on several occasions myself asked cancer patients if this is a linear movement, where one finishes with one stage and moves on to the next one, in some sort of progressive way.  Apparently, it is different for different people, and one can actually go through all five stages in the span of a few hours in a day, and even go back to a stage several times.  There is, as such, no hard and fast rule about when and how long one is at each stage of the grief process. 

I have asked myself the pointless question of why this does not seem to be the case for me, and lately, in the silence of my hospital room (I hardly have the TV or radio on in the room) I came to the conclusion that this is perhaps because I have never seen this cancer-challenge as something that is grief causing.  Sometimes, it is the label that one gives to things and situations that can determine and cause the way one deals with life challenges.  Truth is, I have never seen cancer as something that I should be dealing with by looking at it with grief.  Grief is defined as deep sorrow, often caused by the news of a death of a loved one.  My faith in God and his deep Divine Mercy has deeply instilled in me that the only true sorrow in life that is truly deep is when one has cut off oneself from this font of mercy and love by one’s sinfulness and stupid willfulness.  Everything else is a commentary.

Do I mean to be flippant about the true and agonizing suffering of millions of others who also have to deal with physical pain and psychological torments?  Certainly not.  I fully acknowledge that each person’s suffering is real.  But there is a certain point at which a person can choose to dwell on that suffering, or ask God to use it creatively for the betterment of God’s Kingdom.  I remember having a conversation with my friend in DC, Fr Paul Appel, a priest-student from Iowa, a kind hearted and gentleman12 years younger than I who stayed in the same college as I did.  It was at the beginning of my fever bouts, and he asked me how this experience of illness (of course we didn’t know that I was at the genesis of leukemia then in early January of this year) would affect the way I ministered to the infirm in future.  I remember saying to him that the words I use in future will no longer have a hollow ring to them, as I know for a fact how one feels when one is truly sick. 

Yet, having said that, I look at my own situation now, and realize that I have been graced by God and have fully and almost immediately accept this cancer-journey with a spirit of peace and quite calm.  Does this mean that I have yet to really walk the walk, almost nullifying any claims to being in real solidarity with my fellow cancer sufferers because my lot seems to be so different?  Yet, I am fully convinced that this whole experience has not just a teaching and living lesson for me, but for many out there who are looking for some semblance of positive outlook in life when it appears that life is only giving out lemons.  Many have written to me and told me how my open reflections about the mystery of life and suffering have given them some form of a shot in the arm.  (God knows the kind of unpleasant shots that we have had to endure in our infirmity!)

One of the ways that I think has helped me in looking at things positively is to see that there is an air of sufficiency in everything.  If I am to look at life and its challenges as something that is lacking, something that needs topping –up, something that needs mending and something that requires a completion by my or God’s acts, there will be an insufficiency that fills my world and my spirituality.  I will be always looking at life as a half-filled glass, and I may well be walking around with an air of discontent, impatience and a sense of being unfulfilled.  That would be a living nightmare.  But if our lives can be filled with some semblance of sufficiency, where we know that no matter what happens or has happened in our lives, that it is sufficient, that God is more than sufficient, that our lot in life is sufficient, and that ‘lack’ is a human category that often renders one ungrateful, impatience and unwilling to yield, I truly believe that we can begin to make ‘acceptance’ a place where our spirits, hearts and minds can dwell for a long time to come, and the Holy Spirit can truly be a long-staying guest in the depths of our hearts.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Difficulty of the Resurrection

Celebrating something as surreal and unexplainable as the Resurrection of Our Lord is something that can be easy and something rather difficult at the same time.  The Liturgy of the Church tries its level best to bring the truth and reality to us in many ways, through prayer, song and meditation.  There is a great communal sense of a promise and hope that rises from our hearts as we participate in the common prayer of the Church. 

Yet, the other side of truth is that there are many who do not see much signs of the promise of hope and resurrection, especially when their world is covered with darkness and suffering, despondency and sadness.  The infirm, those from broken homes, the morally bruised and battered, those who are forced to live in some situation of disintegration are just some of the examples of people who cannot for some reason or other truly enter into the joy of the resurrection, which is really the greatest good news that anyone can ever have.  It means that there is no last bastion that cannot be overcome, and that death is not the end.  But the world that many who are wrapped in cannot unbind the darkness that allows them to see this light of glory that wants to pierce this darkness. 

Perhaps the answer lies in the difficulty to truly love.  After all, if one looks at the gospel episodes of the resurrection, it was love that allowed those who saw the resurrection to truly see it as it is.  The disciples who ran to the tomb show us, I believe, a paradigm of what it means to see the resurrection.  Peter who represents the authority of the Church was given much deference to enter into the tomb first, but it was the ‘beloved disciples’ who saw through the eyes of love that saw and believed.  Even Mary Magdalene who at first mistook the Lord for a gardener (the image of a garden is one where one meets the beloved, isn’t it?) only truly opened her eyes when Our Lord spoke her name lovingly ‘Mary’.  Love does open one’s eyes to love.

When we are too enveloped in our own miry suffering and pains, it is easy to not look at many things with love.  Perhaps this is because we are only loving ourselves and in some warped way, looking only at our pain and nothing much else.  But on the Cross on Calvary, where there was pain immense, Jesus never did look upon his pain and suffering without casting his eye toward the Heavenly Father with great love.  It was not that he was not suffering, or as the heretics would accuse, ‘pretending’ to suffer.  His suffering was real, but his love for his Father’s will was much more real.  Fr Ronald Rolheiser had a deep insight in one of his blog writings where he put it so succinctly that what the resurrection teaches is that God doesn’t forcibly intervene to stop death and suffering.  Instead, he redeems the pain and vindicates death. 

Easter resurrection asks of us to have that belief in our difficulties.  Not all of us would have gone to the Easter celebrations with that great joy in our heart, with that lilt in our steps and with that delight that springs from the sunshine on our backs.  But when we choose to love, it gives us all a glimmer of hope that the resurrection is real, and that God truly loves us. 

I wish all my readers a truly blessed and joyous Resurrection this Easter.