Monday, January 19, 2015

Back from silence

Having spent almost two years in semi-hibernation as I convalesced at home and in the hospital, with the grace of God I was able to spend about 12 days away to be by myself for some ‘me time’, which explains my two week hiatus from my weekly blog posts.  Somehow, when one has been given a new lease of life from something as amazing as a stem-cell transplant, one becomes very much more appreciative for even the smallest thing in life.  In those days away from home, each day brought about a new gratitude for the new vistas before me, the daily dramatic sunsets and sun rises, and a new thankfulness for the wonder of life itself.

I chose to be incommunicado for those 12 days just to be able to be as cut off as I could from the world.  Not that I have any disdain for it, but like any retreat or chosen period of silence and reflection, it is often after that experience that one gets a refreshed look at all that is presented before one’s horizon in life.  I suppose this is especially true when one gets the rare opportunity to have a new scene unfold each day being on a ship at sea.

I had the opportunity to do quite a lot of reading on my time away, and took a few books with me, some of which were precious Christmas gifts from well meaning friends.  I was delightfully re-introduced to the late Henri Nouwen’s writings.  The one I read with much interest emerged as a result of his seven months spent in a monastery where he was a temporary monk.  This privilege is hardly given to people, as the Christian monastic life is a life-long commitment.  But I suppose that Nouwen being who he was in the spiritual literary and academia circle was given a rare privilege of experiencing life as a temporary monk.  It is indeed a blessing for all of us that he had put into the written word his many and varied experiences of those months in silence. 

Strange as it may seem, my chosen time of a short two weeks of silence saw me reading about someone’s experience of seven months of spiritual silence, where he delved deeper into himself and struggled to understand his own psyche.  Ever the person who wants to truly know himself as much as he could, unveiling all the falseness that he was so ready to face and uncover with unabashed courage and directness, Nouwen does a fine job in inviting his readers not just to do the same, but to want to do this with a fresh willingness, and without the fear that many would associate with such an audacious idea.  He revealed himself to be someone who constantly seemed to struggle with a hidden and unhealthy sense of self importance weighted against knowing how much each of us needs to live in humility and strive for egolessness and selflessness which is so necessary for one who is serious about holiness and eventual sainthood.

It made me very aware that my time of convalescence had in actual fact mellowed and tempered my spirit in ways that I would not have had thought about without the gift and opportunity of my illness and its slow but steady recovery.  I can fully appreciate the frustrations and anxieties which Nouwen experienced in his daily monotonous work of washing huge amounts of raisins each day and greasing the unending line of baking tins for the bread which the monastery made for its means of income. 

One of the most refreshing and yet poignant things that he writes about unabashedly was his struggle to accept that happiness has to be an inside job that begins when one dares to face the reality of the uselessness of recognition, fame, the inflated ego, and a false sense of self importance.  That a notable cleric and academician like Nouwen at many times longed and ached to be noticed, appreciated and acknowledged challenges any reader to humbly admit that there are shades of this in all of us, and that our sense of stability and happiness, or lack of it, is often the root of so many of our problems in life. 

Nouwen struggled much with prayer.  I do not think that I am off the mark when I say that many people think that priests and monks have it easy when they pray.  We do not.  But what plagues us a lot is identifying the difference between praying and talking or writing about prayer.  It is so tempting for one to have a spiritual agenda when praying, to gain insights, to get fresh ideas, to piece together items for a talk or a presentation, to formulate a structured homily or sermon, so much so that one doesn’t really end up praying.  That emptiness that one so desperately needs to grow in the spiritual life then becomes avoided in a very hidden way, and one can even end up comforting oneself that one has prayed, when one has actually been formulating ideas about prayer.  If a spiritual giant like Nouwen could be so frank about his spiritual foibles and personal weaknesses, it gives so many of us so much hope that when we confront ourselves with our own issues of self-worth and hunger for some sort of validation in life, we can begin to identify these stumbling blocks (with a self deprecating honesty) towards real spiritual growth and maturity.  One never really reaches a point where one is fully grown in the spiritual life – one is always merely on the way.

I did meet quite a few people during my time away, people whom I had never met before, and were somehow very interested in my life.  Interestingly, when I revealed that I was a priest, they were intrigued.  But when I said that I was a cancer patient in recovery, they were fascinated, especially when I shared with them just how miraculous my stem cell transplant came about with an anonymous donation of a bag of perfectly matching stem cells from a generous stranger from halfway round the world. 

I returned from my hiatus with a sense of being recharged, and slightly heavier from some weight that I managed to gain from eating in unfamiliar surroundings.  What is more important is that I return to life with a new and fuller appreciation of not just what it can do for me, but what I can further contribute to life. 


  1. Dear Fr Luke

    WELCOME BACK! Missed your weekly sharing and look forward to more !

    God bless!
    OLPS Parishioner

  2. Welcome back Padre!

    Glad to read that you had a fruitful break and that you have managed to put on some weight.

    Blessings to you!


  3. It's a good feeling....being recharged. Congrats and God bless Father...looking forward to benefit from all sharings, homilies and blogs. Huray for calm seas...and wonderful books..and inspirations of Henri Nouwen. We missed you, Mat from OLSS.

  4. Dear Fr. Luke,

    I'm so glad to hear of your stem cell transplant and your ongoing process of recovery including this hiatus to recharge! May God continue to bless you and use you for good.
    Happy New Year! :)

    Genevieve from the Dominican House

  5. Welcome back to 'life' in the world we have shared. Yup, this personal break, from time to time, is good not only to lift us up spiritually, but also to help us accept the changes within and around us, and realize much of these is really for the better. It's like self-fermentation. May you continue to be strengthened and healed by the power of the Eucharist you celebrate. Love from us, Ignatius & Florence