Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Unfinished symphonies can contribute to the masterpiece called life

I have quoted Karl Rahner more than on a few occasions in this blog of mine, to have said, “In the insufficiency of everything we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished”.  It is certainly not a pessimistic quote that comes from the prolific German Jesuit Theologian, but when understood well and in the correct way, it attests to the truth that no matter how well we make sure that each ‘i’ is dotted and each ‘t’ is crossed, there will be some things that are beyond our control to complete and finish, let alone finish well.

When all is said and done, seen and accepted under the immense canopy called grace, it will slowly come to light that we are certainly not in control of everything that lays before us in life.  We are certainly not “self-made” men and women, and at our best, we are an on-going response to the outpouring of God’s grace which our entire existence is steeped in. 

I write this post in the silent confines of my room here in the lodgings of the Holy Redeemer College in Washington DC, a place where I had spent two years of my life in pursuit of a teaching license in Systematic Theology from 2011 to 2013.  It was at the early part of 2013 when I became terribly sick and had to seek medical treatment back home in Singapore for what was later to be diagnosed as Biphenotypic Leukemia.  Facing imminent death if I was untreated by chemotherapy and a subsequent stem cell transplant, it was quite clear that I had no choice but to put aside all hopes of completing my licentiate, and hope to find that perfect match for my stem cells. 

That was two years ago.  I have since gone through quite a few trials and ‘speed bumps’ and have, with God’s great grace, slowly regained my strength and general health to return to DC, albeit for a few days, to organize that part of my life that was left in a state of flux two years ago.  Today, with things sorted out, boxes ready to be shipped back to Singapore and goodbyes said to my professors and caring friends from the Dominican House of Studies where I received my graduate training, I seem to be in a melancholic state of letting go – a letting go of an unfinished chapter in life, and being at peace in closing that with an eye cast on another view of the horizon of life that lay before me. 

Does it feel like a sort of dying?  Strangely, it is a question that is answered with both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ – something that many theologians like to say when posed with a question by folk who like simple answers to tough questions.  It reminds me of one spiritual writer who was asked in front of an audience a rather deep question on theology, and he asked rather bluntly, but also with a great sense of charity “do you want the simple answer, or the long one with the many sub-clauses?”

There is no denying that I think that I would be in a better place if I had the opportunity to finish what I first started.  That completed picture would appeal very much to my sense of what was proper and correct.  Yet if I were only to look at so many of the lives of saints and holy men and women, I would be able to see that indeed, in many of their life stories, some did not end up what they started out with.  John the Baptist’s life seemed to have a tragic end, especially when one reads about how enthusiastic he was in pointing out to Jesus as the Lamb of God, but never got to see this unfold in his lifetime.  Moses’ own life would have been much more deemed as ‘completed’ if he could lead the Hebrew people physically into the Promised Land, but toward the end of his life, he could only gaze upon that place with his eyes before they closed for the last time.  How does one take these ‘failures’ or ‘unfinished symphonies’ well?  How does one not end up disgruntled, disenchanted, and discouraged when faced with defeat and a canvas that seems to have only a vestige of what was started? 

It only makes ‘sense’, if ‘sense’ is the correct noun to use, if one releases control of one’s life, and when one sees that one not only doesn’t have all the answers, but that perhaps one doesn’t really need to possess all the answers to life’s questions.  It births a humility that a success can never give, and an openness that completion doesn’t accord. 

I was having a conversation with one of the Dominican brothers in the institute just a few days ago when I shared my story with him.  Ironically, he is named Bro. Luke.  It was after my sharing that he ventured to share his favourite quote by Canadian poet and novelist Leonard Cohen.  It was a rare moment in which I could have sworn the light of God’s grace pierced so brilliantly into a sea of darkness, bringing a clarity that was totally unexpected, and yet so deep and poignant.  It made me look at all that I had before me with new eyes, and sets before me a glowing new hopeful horizon.  I hope it does the same for any of my readers who may be facing unfinished symphonies in life. 

This is Cohen’s quote – “I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.  You abandon your masterpiece and sink into the real masterpiece.” 

And who is the Master of all masterpieces?  One pretty much has a lot more to fail and learn from in life if one struggles to come up with the answer to this question. 


  1. Thank you for sharing these 'difficult' moments... makes for good reflections and a desire for personal honesty before life and God. Pax!

  2. “......I seem to be in a melancholic state of letting go – a letting go of an unfinished chapter in life, and being at peace in closing that with an eye cast on another view of the horizon of life that lay before me.”

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful threshold moment – for it is never easy to be in this in-between space of a doorway, often times called by spiritual writers, the liminal space. When one has been through a harrowing time (physically , emotionally & spiritually) due to an illness, or been forced to contemplate death on a daily basis, this liminality provides the space and time to ponder and assess one’s spiritual direction.......for one has to confront oneself - facing one’s insecurity, hurts, frustrations, loneliness, boredom.......and little by little to make “ a clearing within the dark woods of one’s own heart.”

    I was told that these threshold experiences contain the power of transformation (not perceptible to the naked eye, though) - for by enduring the time in this liminal space we learn to let go of old ego ways that we had relied upon to defend us from our vulnerabilities and insecurities, cleansing us of false perceptions, weaning us from feeding upon what no longer nurtures us. In other words, it prunes us and prepares us for growth..................to become wiser, to be strengthened and become a more authentic self. So it is a fruitful time, a time of hope...................a promising future.

    Nevertheless, I feel that it is a time of ambiguity, vagueness and disorientation but also a time of mystery. Accepting this mystery with simplicity and trust will keep me centred on Him who is Love. Listening into the silence of liminality will yield an echoing of the prayer of the heart – ‘You are never alone, you are always loved!’

    God bless u, Fr