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!


  1. Thank you for your inspired reflection, Fr. Luke. I am glad to hear that despite your sufferings, you are being buoyed by so much of God's grace and love. I especially appreciated your comment about how "fighting" misses the point. We continue to pray for you here in DC. May God continue to bless you.


  2. Dear Fr Luke. You do not know me, a parishioner from St Mary of the Angels, but I learnt of your edifying blogsite and have been following it on and off. I just want you to do that whenever I attend Mass, I carry you in my prayers and in my heart, along with Fr Joseph Yao S.J. who has lung cancer, at the moment of consecration, entrusting you both to the LORD and Master who has carved your name on the palm of His Hand. Pax et bonum.
    S G Lee.

  3. Quote:
    “... as superstitious as the next “Ouija Board pushing-wood touching-talisman hanging-salt tossing-evil eye wearing” atheist” Ha ha!

    It's wonderful to see (or read, rather) that you've not lost your sense of humour in spite of your present circumstances. I put this down to faith - real faith. Reading between the lines, I detect a certain light-heartedness on your part, which is amazing (not that word again...).

    Thank you again for your reflections and God bless you, Fr. Luke.

    Btw, the use of the word “thereafter” is wrong. I reckon the writer was exercising some poetic licence and using it as a secular version of “hereafter”, since “hereafter” has religious connotations when used in that context.

  4. “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way" - Catherine of Siena

    not a fighter in the sense mentioned in your blog entry perhaps, but maybe as defined below......

    Fighter: a person with the courage or disposition to fight, struggle, etc.
    a determined person

    Fighting the good fight....2 Timothy 4:5, 2 Timothy 4:5

    God bless you and keep you in His care.

  5. Dear Fr Luke

    Thank you for your very much inspired words and reflection. I will continue to keep you and priests who are going through the pain and suffering in my prayers. On the homefront (the peranakan families I grow up with) I am journeying with my 88 year old mom Mary who is slowing down with the onset of dementia, weakening heart and body who loves Mother Mary and our Lord Jesus and looks forward to holy communion each week, my 92 year old Christian aunt Imm Neo who is frail and wheel chair bound and always have a cheerful and ready smile and also my godpa (Albert Lim) who is full of energy and life each time he shares with whoever visits him at the assisi hospice that he is a "walking time bomb" as one of his lungs has collapsed and the other lung is operating quarter strength and with the aid of oxgyen supply is looking forward each day to share his faith. Do keep them in your prayers Fr Luke. I do not know how to share with them about redemptive suffering so that more souls may be saved through their sacrifice and prayers - but God knows how much they love their families and friends and in His time he makes all things beautiful. In the Hearts of Jesus and Mary I lift up all our prayers to our Father in Heaven.


  6. At the risk of appearing facile, these words of Winston Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps, the end of the beginning...............” - came to mind when I read your last few paragraphs on death. For I feel that is how, we, as Catholics should be looking at death and dying. For us, death brings an end to physical life but it is also a ‘pass-over’ to or a new opening to new life. Perhaps, that is why in confronting death, (for those who believe in Easter) there is no fear but rather a sense of curiosity and the ensuing ‘waiting’ time is transformed into special beaded ‘alive’moments - when Life can be lived with much zest and gusto, celebrated -even !.................just like you said, “with the real moments of life – celebrating joy and friendship with friends and family, and being thankful to God for each blessed moment........” because each death gives birth to something new.

    Our pain, sufferings (from chronic/terminal illnesses), failures and disillusionment are our “ burning bush experiences” -where we stand with our sandals off - the better to experience ‘death’ in trust/faith. If we surrender and embrace in gratitude all that we have been given and with the full hope of what has been promised, I believe we would be entering into (what we have been told) is – the paschal mystery....or perhaps we are already participating in it?

    So, perhaps- when faced with cancer or other life threatening illnesses, we can choose to follow what Fr R Rohr said, “You do not think yourself into a new way of living as much as you live your way into a new way of thinking.” For we have His assurance stated so succinctly, (in the lyrics of this song) - “I am God’s Love revealed, I am broken, that you may be healed..........’’

    God bless you, Fr.


  7. Peace be with you, Fr Luke.

    Thank you for your beautiful reflections which are directly pertinent, not only to those who are currently faced with an illness, but also to those who are not.

    Perhaps your being able to face your situation with equanimity is due in part to grace from God & in part to the work you've been doing on your own soul.. accepting little 'deaths' in the course of life through the years, till death is no longer foe but friend.

    I agree with you the issue is not about fighting, or conquering, or about being restored to health in the end. It's about our will & ability to embrace whatever may come (which may or may not include healing) & to dance with it, that is our personal response of love to Love.

    We all pray for your healing - that's a given. But many do not go beyond this to the core message which I think you've tried to put across in different ways in your various blogs ie. the grace is already present in fully living & embracing the life you're given, which is all-sufficient, even if you are not healed.

    We need to assimilate this message, to daily die little 'deaths', daily practice our 'fiat', to orientate ourselves such that Death becomes an integral twin of Life, so that when called upon, we may have the courage to face the "3 stages" - earthly life, death, eternal life (not linear?). Both earthly & eternal life seem delectable. Why would one want to tarry or hasten any portion of the journey? Why not just let it be in due time; accept the Lord's perfect timing?

    an Anthonian

  8. Dear Fr. Luke

    Thank you for your good sense of humor in this post. That is correct.. "The only real fight each of us has is with sin and evil." Unless we can win over sin and evil, we can never experience the True Freedom that God gives us. So to say, true freedom is when we are able to surrender ourselves to God Totally, to be what we are created for, "An image of God's goodness, that is full of LOVE and COMPASSION."

    I remember this documentary "Don't cry for me, Sudan" commemorating a missionary priest, Father John Lee Tae Seok. In the midst of his suffering of both liver and colon cancer, he continued to show his love and compassion to the patients in the hospital, never stopped to show his concerns to the Sudanese. He gave a word of reassurance a few hours before his death that Sudan will be alright. Even though he knew that he will not be for long, yet he had looked at death with friendly eyes and had never stopped to show his compassion to the poor.

    Peace be with you.

  9. Dear Fr Fong
    We hope and pray that you will recover and have a healthy life, but like Mary, you seem to be saying to our Lord "Thy will be done". I believe it is because of the faith you are not in fear nor in a state to fight death. I admire your faith, and we pray for you. MM Lee reportedly said, in The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao of Sep 12 and 13, 2010, that Mr Hon Sui Sen (his friend, fellow cabinet minister, a Catholic) was “absolutely fearless, he showed no distress, no fear." when facing death. We hope and pray for your recovery. But if it is God's will, we pray you may return to Our Father with joy and peace. God be with you.