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.


  1. Nikolaus & Tracy Hence (CEE)April 29, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    Dear Fr Luke Fong,

    Thank you for sharing with your readers on your treatment journey. It really give us the enlightenment when we face our day to day challenges ahead of us. We pray that you will be able to make a full recovery, for you to continue to do HIS work. God's Bless

  2. Self-abdonement to divine providence, simple words to say, but difficult to do. It is so true Christ constantly calls us to empty ourselves, to embrace the new man born in the waters of Baptism, purchased at such a great price. It is truly difficult to embrace the Christian way of living because it is antithetical to the way of the world, it requires one to let go and to trust completely in God, but even more to imitate Him. This becomes even more complex with all the allurements and distractions which abound, which pull our eyes from that divine revlation and eternal truth of who we are and what we are called to do. Nevertheless, our loving God has a way of turning any situation into an opportunity for sanctification, but it always requires the actor to submit his will and make it complement the divine will.

    Thomas a Kempis has a wonderful prayer that brings this to light:

    "Grant me Your grace, most merciful Jesus, that it may be with me and work with me and persevere with me even to the end. Grant that I may always desire and will that which is to You most acceptable and dear. Let Your will be mine, and let my will ever follow Yours and agree perfectly with it. Let my willing and not-willing be all one with Yours, and let me be unable to will otherwise than You will or do not will. Amen."

    In surrending to God we are emptied and are made a proper dwelling for the Holy Spirit for we are truly conformable to Him. Let us always strive toward that end.

    Now that I have made my general comment, please know I wish you improved health, and will continue to pray toward that end. May our Lord continue to grant you strength and may His grace be ever upon you.

    God bless you.

  3. Thomas Merton wrote:

    "When in the soul of the serene disciple
    With no more Fathers to imitate
    Poverty is a success,
    It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
    He has not even a house.

    "Stars, as well as friends,
    Are angry with the noble ruin.
    Saints depart in several directions.

    "Be still:
    There is no longer any need of comment.
    It was a lucky wind
    That blew away his halo with his cares,
    A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

    "Here you will find
    Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
    There are no ways,
    No methods to admire
    Where poverty is no achievement.
    His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

    "What choice remains?
    Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
    It is the usual freedom
    Of men without visions."

    We are in good hands -
    all things happen for the good of our souls.

    Much love,

  4. My wife bought a painting of a simple white bowl years ago. What intrigued me more was that it was an empty bowl. I could not understand what she saw in this painting until she said, “kenosis”. “This empty bowl will be a daily reminder to empty myself before God”, she added.

    What was even more interesting was when she hung this painting in her office. Colleagues were appalled. Their first reactions were, “Chio! Where got Chinese put up an empty bowl one? The bowl must be overflowing with water or rice so as to bring luck.” It took them a while to understand that when we seek God’s blessings (“luck” to them), we must first be willing to surrender all.

    Reading your blog today reminded me of the above incident. Indeed, you are right in saying that Jesus’ revelation of God the Father is a ‘game changer’. What the world sees as a void in an empty bowl, we see it as a hope of receiving God’s abundant blessings. We see the ability to be self-emptying as a grace from God, a joy to be celebrated. And so dear Fr Luke, this is my wife and my joyful hope for you, that, in your bleakest days, when your bowl is seemingly empty, that you still know God’s grace is with you, and His love never fails.

  5. Peace be with you, Fr Luke,

    Kenosis... my first thought was that you've been through it before, sort of - isn't a sacerdotal ordination a fundamental kenosis? A game changer, to say the least.

    Now you're called upon to go through it again, building on your first kenosis. There must be a redemptive purpose to this. It seems an invitation.. no longer about casting nets in the deep, nets are externals; but a personal invite to you, body soul & mind, to dive into the deep. 'Courage, it is the Lord.'

    "I say that we are wound with mercy, round and round".. Gerard Manley Hopkins

    An Anthonian

  6. Dear Fr. Luke,

    Your reflection on Christian kenosis comes at a very providential time for me. I just got engaged (!), and I was just thinking to myself that I need to become more detached to the world than ever since wedding planning is getting me kind of excited in a material way. Against this + some extra vanity, I certainly do need to "get well soon." If you have suggestions for spiritual exercises/prayers in order to help with our kenosis, please let us know! I will continue to pray for you, especially in this next round of chemo.

    God bless you and be ever near you,

  7. You are precious in His Eyes. And invaluable in ours. Be well Fr. Luke Fong. We are certainly praying with you and for you.

  8. Reading this…………..

    “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” – (or as you also put it) – it is a -“dying to the self so that Christ can be implanted deeper and deeper into (us).......…..”

    ……….. I am brought up against John the Baptist’s profound – “He (Christ) must increase and I must decrease.”

    And Peter’s ( Matt 19:27)…………. “we have left everything and followed you…….”

    How then does one go about “decreasing” or emptying self? Does this mean that we won’t be able to be His disciples unless like the early Christians we sell all our material possessions and distribute to the poor? But then the story of Ananias and Sepphira comes to mind………

    So it cannot be just the giving up or renouncing of material possessions alone or denouncing them as bad, – rather, by detaching oneself from them, one is free from all constraints and obligations exercised by possessing them. Thus it would include everything that can enslave or distract us from God. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said this seemingly strange teaching….. “ whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son …….…………does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

    I also believe that this emptying or renunciation cannot be a one-off thing – but is on-going and will always be a challenge as long as I make a decision to follow Christ. In fact, before I can empty self, there will always be a mental struggle……….to half empty or totally empty? For to do a total emptying of self calls for act of great love…..……great faith for it is somewhat a total abandonment of self to Providence. And even if I were able to do that for one instance, how can I be sure it is not vainglory ?

    Thank you for a most engaging reflection.
    God bless you, Fr.