Monday, October 28, 2013

Daring to ask 'why'?

Sometimes the things that we learn from academic studies and for those of us who had been in the seminary, the courses that we had learnt from spirituality and pastoral courses can somewhat put us in a disadvantage from truly getting in touch with the reality of suffering and the Cross.  I have to admit that personally, from the time I was diagnosed with Leukemia in February, I may have mistakenly rushed through the five stages of grief just because I had intellectually known about them and read about them, and through the encounters of others who have suffered, decided in a silent way to simply accept the situation and be strong about it.  God apparently, had his ways to show that the Cross and suffering is something that we can’t work at on our own.  I can’t pull myself up by my own bootstraps no matter how I may hope to do it.

I have realized that I also need to allow myself to ask that difficult but unanswered question of ‘why’?  I hadn’t allowed myself this very important but necessary question in my illness, perhaps because I knew that at the bottom of it all, there are very little meaningful answers that will satisfy and give that peace that so many people seek when facing the various kinds of pains and struggles that we meet in life. 

The thing about living with and dealing with a blood cancer is that there is a pain that isn’t often physical.  It’s a very long road to recovery as if one is running not just a marathon but an ironman race, with sometimes life-threatening ‘bombs’ that feature along the long journey – a bit like what happened in the Boston Marathon.  In the past two weeks, I happened to hit such a ‘bomb’ situation that reminded me that this entire recovery journey was not going to to be anything easy.  I was stricken with what is known as an idiopathic pneumonia, which for a blood cancer patient like me with fluctuating blood counts, can be something truly lethal.  For two weeks I was in hospital, terribly weakened and subject to constant doses of a powerful antibiotic till the pneumonia cleared.  I am very blessed to have come out of the woods, and I am sure it is thanks to the prayers of so many people from around the world, and the professionalism of the doctors who cared for me medically.

But it was in the dark and lonely days in the hospital this time that I really dared to ask that difficult question – ‘why’?  I found myself getting strangely emotional very often when this question was pondered.  It took me almost ten months to dare to ask that question and I realized that it is not only necessary but also spiritually healthy.  Scripture has always told us to look for the face of God in our suffering, and I know that many people who suffer in so many ways are always asking God to show his face to them.  They want answers to why their lives had been so interrupted from their dreams and plans because of a suffering that had been untimely introduced.  People have all sorts of wonderful plans and hopes for life, and a suffering that jams these plans cause all sorts of anguish and perhaps even confusion about God. 

I have only recently been open enough to myself to ask myself why at age 48 I have been afflicted with this debilitating illness.  I had plans for my theological future, and so had the diocese by sending me away to get that Licentiate to be useful to the Church in Singapore.  I was always advocating a healthy lifestyle as a priest and lived a very consistent lifestyle that included healthy diet and exercise.  But I have now come to see that we can plan, we can have hopes and we can have our lives somehow mapped out well by those in charge of us, but ultimately, we need to submit humbly to the Lord who has his ways. 

There is nothing that is really embarrassing or shameful in daring in asking that question ‘why’?  I will always recall that when I was first diagnosed with Leukemia, a good priest friend told me not to rush into being gung-ho about the suffering that I am to go through.  I could not understand at that time why he was being so forthright with me, seeing that I was about to enter a long road to Calvary.  Now I can see his wisdom. 

The pain of suffering became very real to me when I got discharged from the hospital this time round.  I physically fell twice in a night and was totally disoriented from my fall first in the bathroom and then in the bedroom where I found myself at the foot of the bed, not knowing how I landed there, with bruises all over by body.  The sleeping medication combined with the steroids that I have been administered to overcome my pneumonia proved to be something that weakened me in the night and just going to the bathroom to relieve myself was such a harrowing experience.  I had not encountered a physical pain in my illness so far, even with the many Chemotherapy and transplant experiences, and these falls brought home to me that there is a physical suffering that I have to undergo as part of the mystery of suffering. 

Do you find yourself asking that ‘why’ question about life’s suffering?  You may not (and usually you wont’) find the answers you are looking for.  But make no mistake about it – it is a necessary question that broadens our spiritual horizons to allow God to show us his face.  


  1. I am sorry Fr Luke. As for me, I have been harbouring anger and resentment at GOD's seeming silence upon an issue that I feel HE is more than capable of taking away. Honestly, sometimes my attitude is like "What the .... is your problem GOD!" I'll say sorry of course but my maturity and attitude towards GOD is not where it should be.

  2. May God give you the graces you need to make it through this darkness. May you feel His presence in a palpable way....We continue to keep you in our prayers. God be with you.

  3. Dear Fr Luke,
    We haven't communicated for ages, but I was just wondering how you were on the road to recovery and felt some dismay when reading about your setback. I remember the high standard you set for your healthy lifestyle and your determination to pursue your studies, and It made me reflect on the truth of the oft-quoted line that 'the best laid plans of mice and man go awry'. Yet, in your suffering I see the measure of strength and the determination to keep with your blog, perhaps that is God's plan that you inspire us with the way you have let God's light continue to shine for all of us. Will remember you in our prayers....

  4. Dear Fr Luke
    When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I saw it as God's punishment. ..initially at least. I went through the full works of surgery chemo and radiotherapy and along the way met with obstacles that led to further hospitalisation and interruptions to my chemo cycles. Did I ask WHY? Many times but there is no answer really. One is just unfortunate. The book WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE by the rabbi who lost his son does not give any answers. Neither does Job.
    Over the years I learn to accept that God must have had a reason. One might find this contradictory/ridiculous but I think God loves me for through this cancer, I have been brought back closer to Him. My faith is stronger though it also fluctuates. Do I still think it's a punishment? Sometimes. But I continue in my prayers thankful that God has given me more years beyond the expectations of my doctors.
    You have been and still is in my daily prayers.
    I have travelled the same road as you are on now. In my darkest moments I just talk to God. Good intentioned friends tell me to remain strong, have faith etc etc . It didn't work for me. I kept my hot line with God very busy...mainly about my fears.

  5. Hi Fr Luke,
    For the many years that you "prepared" yourself for the long run (healthy lifestyle, spirited-filled life and all), nothing really prepares us for the real race. But I trust that even though you did not have the foresight that you would be running this race, the Lord has and will continue to be with you.
    United in prayer

  6. Why ask why? It is in the question that we sometimes get the answer. It is an act of humility that we admit we don't know and that we want to know because we find it hard to accept the way things are as they are and we want to make sense of it, to find the purpose behind what happened. It is not a lack of faith to ask why of God; it is an acknowledgement that we are at his mercy and grace and a cry for HIS presence in the dark hours of our nights when we badly missed HIM. It is also a prayer as in last Sunday gospel's reading admitting our helplessness and in needing God to help us through the pain of our present existence. HIS reply comes in unexpected hours and the answer is also one that is often unexpected that we can receive only when we are open to HIM. This is my experience. But, we must first ask the question "why?".

  7. For some time now I imagined that you were well on your way to a full recovery. I had no idea of the difficulties and set-backs that have befallen you. I pray that God grant you the necessary strength and perseverance to keep on fighting the good fight; and that complete restoration (of your physical self) is not too far away. God bless...

  8. Some time back, I did asked Him aloud "Why... Why ..." although, after questioning him, I did felt a great sense of peace and a solution, I felt guilty and worried that I quickly went for confession, and was told by a priest that at times, it is alright to ask "Why".

    Fr Luke, do know that you are always in our prayers. JLU


  9. Dearest Fr. Luke,

    I have been interceding for you since I heard you been back into hospital. Thank you for sharing your personal journey with us, starkly open, showing us how real our relationship with God can and should be.

    I had been in a cross-road in my spiritual journey recently.
    I went for a silent retreat earlier this month and spoken in depth with the spiritual director about personal issues – which I thought I, had it all sorted out, discerning for many years… Only to have him told me otherwise. I felt let-down and played out. As if this was a “chastisement” from God.

    I kept wondering “Where did I go wrong? What else more must I do? Why didn’t God help me if I am wrong? Why led me on a wild goose chase?”

    It is a wearying process, as I tell myself to trust God in His higher plan, and at the next turn, feeling sore and starts to doubt His loving nature. I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity, praying only with mortification as if God needs to be appeased with sacrifices. I feel restless and irritable, finding myself depressed and crying before the Blessed Sacrament, with no apparent reason.

    Through reflecting on your recent posts, I am having inkling that God is asking me to be REAL & more open with him, as needed in any intimate relationship. That He is a loving God, with unchanging faithfulness.... How easily I choose to forget that…

    I may not get the answers I seek soon and I may have to spend more time to discern; but now I am more secured in the knowing that God doesn’t care about what I can do but cares deeply about me. Even my mood swings… ;} a reminder that my emotions are a channel to God’s invitation for deeper union.

    I am beginning to see some light out of my woods… Thank You Fr. Luke.

    PS: Will be continuing to pray for you, Fr. Luke, for God’s presence of peace and joy in the dark nights; for His strength in carrying your cross in your marathon, and loving comfort for your bruises.

  10. Dear Fr Luke,

    Thank you for your openness and humble sharing. I'll continue to keep you in my daily prayer.


  11. “ look for the face of God in our suffering, and ............people who suffer are always asking God to show his face to them.”

    These words are strangely moving and evocative of a vague forlornness in one that’s impoverished. Sometimes, intense pain and the agony of physical suffering can cause one to resist or turn in on oneself fearfully and defensively,...............doubting the mercy of a loving and compassionate God.

    I had occasion to experience something very much like what you have shared. Like you said, sometimes it is a pain that is more than physical, but more difficult to assuage, for it is the total depletion of energy in a body already devastated by drugs fighting the illness besides other medication supposedly helping the body to overcome the side effects of the treatment. The pain is both the fearful loss of control over one’s own body movements as well as a total physical exhaustion. Though one’s mind can rationalize and agree to accept this - in truth, the flesh abhors and shuns it and this sets in motion a feeling of helplessness, frustration, isolation and “adriftness.”

    This would be the time when one expects to be comforted by the presence of the All-Compassionate, All-Merciful but He is nowhere to be found! “Show me your face O Lord!” Was He after all a figment of one’s imagination? Was He playing favourites.............was He testing one for virtues of patience, hope, humility...............? What bedevils one is the meaninglessness of it all! The big “Why?” And what humiliates and hurts most is the seeming Indifference of Him whom we call Lord. There is an emptiness that hollows one’s guts out, as one re-aligns oneself to this new reality of being “god-forsaken”, God-abandoned.

    The stages of dying ( you mentioned) seems to be true of the spiritual part too – for as the assertive self diminishes, a quietness envelopes the soul- was it despair or death ......? Strangely, though- it is in this “near dying-despair” that a peace seems to creep slowly back and settle quietly upon the soul. I believe it is His grace that did not allow His gift of faith to die. There were no special encounters or anything mysterious.........just a pervasive feeling of quiet acceptance and peace, even when there seems to be no visible changes for the better. It is like a new consciousness, a quiet awakening.

    God bless you, Fr


  12. Dear Father Luke, it sadden me with all the pain that you are going through. Yes it often sadden me to know that people are suffering. I do ask why, but the answer that I discover is, who am I to question God the almighty if we so often believe that we can never play God, God loves us and He would never want to see us suffer, it's the sin of the world that causes our pain and suffering, so why question the one who loves us so much, Dear Father, I will keep you in my prayer and trust that the Almighty will keep you safe in His hand. God bless.

  13. Hi Father Luke,

    Thank you for your openness in your recent 'Why?' post. I'm so happy that you weathered your recent storm and are recovering albeit slowly. It would be rare to find a good Christian whom at one time or other never asked God “why” or “why me?”. The positive thing about that question is that because of his/her close relationship with God he/she feels that it's a perfectly OK question to ask as opposed to someone with no relationship with God. Having been in therapy for years and later on counselled others, I once came across an answer that startled me and got me thinking “Why NOT YOU?”. Would it have been more appropriate if it happened to your neighbour, friend or family member who was more 'qualified' to be struck by an illness? Those statements got me thinking and led to some answers, for me at least.

    Having been to hell and back (on a few occasions) I have asked the “why’ question many times. My Christian therapist once told me, “Can you imagine if you went through life without trials and tribulations, where would you be in terms of your walk with God, your empathy for other people and your determination to make a difference in someone else's life?" I answered "lukewarm" I guess. She went on to tell me that “one day you will thank God for this trial”. To which I found hard to digest then, but holds so true now. She went on to say that she had seen people with severe psychological problems who wished they had some sort of cancer instead and people who had cancer who wished they had anything else but cancer. Her point was that no particular illness is worse than the other. We will never know what the sufferer goes through. The most powerful statement she made that I cling on to is this. “If you want to be a very good therapist, going through the roughest of rough times and coming out of it will have its rewards. Because you cannot bring your clients to a place where 'you have never been to”. Think of the new love, new compassion and new empathy you will have for people and your new relationship with God. I believe that statement applies for priests too.

    PS: The therapist in question is a 70-yr old American lady who was awarded a medal of appreciation for her outstanding work in family therapy by Queen Elizabeth.

    1. Very thoughtful post, Anonymous. Thank you.

  14. Thank you so much Fr Luke for your candid sharing on suffering - nothing inspires more than the bravery and grit of a soldier in the heat of battle against overwhelming odds; there is no better sermon than the witness of a Christian patiently suffering in the footsteps of Christ, the Lord of all, who suffered unimaginably for us.

  15. Dear Fr. Luke,

    I admire your great courage in sharing your personal predicament so candidly with the world. I also empathize with your unimaginable sufferings, both physical and emotional that ensue from your unexpected illness. Don't get discourage Father, God has great plans for you!

    It's true, man proposes but God disposes. The mystery of suffering can only be explained by Jesus himself; His Passion on the Cross is a great example. SUFFERING IN UNION WITH HIM SAVE SOULS! And more benefits and virtues for one's soul and others too, also flow from it. Each of us has different sufferings or crosses, silent or dramatic, slow or sudden, prolong or swift --- the nature varies with God's will for us. Submitting willingly and with dignity, will lead us more into conforming with Him.

    Read these beautiful spiritual websites on some mystical saints whom Jesus explained the reasons for great sufferings. Highly recommended, click here:

    1) Jesus Words to St GEMMA Galgani on Suffering:

    2) ST FAUSTINA DIARY - AUDIO ( Note: Jesus message to St Faustina changes daily.)

    Wednesday, November 20
    Suffering for Souls
When Sufferings Are Great

    My daughter, know that if I allow you to feel and have a more profound knowledge of My sufferings, that is a grace from Me. But when your mind is dimmed and your sufferings are great, it is then that you take an active part in My Passion, and I am conforming you more fully to Myself. It is your task to submit yourself to My will at such times, more than at others ... (Diary, 1697).

    3) ST FAUSTINA DIARY ( No Audio )

    I pray that God will give you strength and peace. Take heart, He has not forsaken you.