Monday, January 15, 2018

Celebrating a life well lived

It has happened yet again, someone I love has in the space of just over a day disappeared from this earth. Yes, life is fragile, time is finite, death is inevitable and all that, but when death wields an unexpected stroke, it leaves me slightly numb. We were just planning a visit in March to Melaka to see her and Mum's other relatives and friends, but now, Mum and I are in Melaka to attend the funeral tomorrow morning.

The only consolation is Aunty I did not suffer much. She had a fall last Thursday around lunchtime, hitting her head on the floor. There was bleeding in the brain, and despite efforts to move her to a hospital in KL for treatment, she passed on Friday evening.

 Aunty I is close in age to my mother and they grew up as playmates during the Japanese Occupation along with a bunch of other cousins. She is the only one who could relate a story of my mother as a playful girl chasing a screaming Aunty I around the garden with an earthworm lodged between her fingers. If you met my mother you could never imagine she had it in her to be mischievous. But then again, Aunty I would have been a great victim for she had a sunny and forgiving nature, and had a loud scream.

When talking to Aunty I, my mother became loquacious and animated. We've had some great times over the years, me listening to them chatter and laugh over the stories she would relate to us. Aunty I was insouciantly cheerful and had a huge store of funny stories to tell us. I will miss her infectious laugh and laid-back bonhomie. She was a true Melakan nonya who welcomed us with warm hospitality and easy smiles, always wanting to feed us.

Tonight as I listened to relatives and friends pay tribute to her, I am reminded that Aunty I was a woman of great faith, simple and strong. She was constantly praying for others and I am sure she blessed me with prayer over the years as well.

As Pastor Sam said it's not so important how one died (seeing as how her death was so sudden), but rather it is good to ask how one lived? Aunty I lived a full life for she touched many people's lives and brought many to Jesus, especially her own family members. She was sweet, kind, generous and humble as she laboured tirelessly in the Lord's vineyard, winning hearts for Him through prayer.

While I am sad I will never hear her laugh again, I rejoice that she is now with Jesus, a just reward for always placing Him first in her heart and life. It was a good way to go, quick with a modicum of suffering - she was definitely favoured by God. I celebrate her irrepressible spirit and unyielding faith with a wish to be even a quarter of the prayer warrior she was. Then I would move mountains like she has.

Till we meet again, dear Aunty I, may eternal rest and perpetual light be yours.

Sitting next to Aunty I in happier times

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Seven words for the new year

It is officially 2018! P and I welcomed in the new year by attending late night mass on New Year's Eve, giving thanks for the 12 months before, and also for Mary, Mother of God. Would that we both have half her courage and love for the Father and her Son, then the year ahead will be one filled with great things as we both magnify the Lord in all we do in the new year.

What do I wish for in 2018? That I will spend more time in contemplation. If 2017 is any indicator of how life is, it will not slow down. Apart for that, I am bringing across what was good for me in 2017 to the new year:

Breathe. No matter how stressful the situation, I can control how I deal with it even though I cannot control the situation itself. Being uptight and grouchy will not help me, or those around me. Release the tension. Breathe in and breathe out the name of Jesus, and let it be. Jesus will point the way forward, just follow Him obediently. His is always the best way.

Accept. In life, there will be always be upsets, spills, losses, breakdowns and betrayals. Expect that life will not be perfect or go my way all the time. Find beauty, instead, in the snarls and chaos - it is there. And give thanks that I will grow stronger from adversity. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ so there is nothing to fear. or to throw a hissy fit, for we already own the Good News and we are already living in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Remember. Although my memory grows poor as I age, I can remember to count my blessings, and commit to memory all the times I have been given much. Plus, every day, there are new blessings to celebrate. As Hebrews 13:8 reminds us: God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the loving Father, generous to a fault. He wants only the best for us and gives us just that. The question is whether I let myself experience His abundant love every day so that I am able to love others as He loves them.

Affirm. I spent too much of 2017 complaining and criticising, bad habits of a lifetime that I am resolved to change. It is not impossible to do so and I will do as Fritz recommended last year, and that is to pray immediately after I receive communion that Jesus heals me of a particular sin. Jesus came not only to redeem me but also to help me break free from sin. I am wasting a golden opportunity to be rid of sin if I don't allow the power of the Eucharist to administer to my faults and transform my sinful nature.

Laugh. There is nothing like humour to lighten the load and turn a bad day around. I need to be able to poke fun at myself when I get ridiculous or too intense. Laugh when all I want to do is cry. Laugh when I feel like pulling my hair out. Laugh just for the fun of it. And if I can make others around me laugh, too, I have done well for laughter heals and mends hearts, deepens the bonds of any relationship, and often brings much-needed perspective.

Offer. If I offer my life daily up to Jesus, I will hold lightly in my hands all my sorrows and my joys, all my losses and my victories. I will not be tempted so much by pride, nor will I succumb to addiction so easily. I can work on acquiring virtue without becoming vain, and I will walk with humility to see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow Him more nearly.

Magnify. And glorify the Lord as Mary did with her life. His will, all the time - this makes the great moments greater, turns the impossible on its head, and multiplies the five loaves and two fish I possess in order to feed many. It can be done. Our Mother always believed, never lost hope and loved with all her heart. I can do the same. Her gentle attentiveness due to her rich interior life has helped me master my own inner storms and I know she will continue to steer me through the days to come.

I hope to achieve these seven words every day. If I do, I know it will be a good year.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Anniversary lessons

It has been just little over a year since P and I got hitched. I can't believe it's been a year, nor that I am married. Still amazed. Still awed by how P and I met and slipped into marriage. It was a sweet decision, and it still is.

It hasn't been easy, and yet, it has been surprisingly smooth and mostly wonderful. I suppose it helped that we went into marriage appreciating that happily ever afters are hugely possible if both parties are willing to work at it devotedly. The good thing is, we both are. Of course we frequently get a helping hand from Jesus and His Mother.

So what have I learned in this very full year of marriage?

Walking humbly
The vows we spoke to one another on our wedding day have to be lived out in very concrete ways and in tangible acts. This means respecting each other's boundaries by giving in to the other without giving up one's own dignity or identity. We go out of our way to do things that will enrich the other as Christ would, not subserviently but selflessly. Of course knowing what it is exactly that the other wants and needs is tricky and will take us a lifetime to refine.

I have learned that my way may not necessarily be his way, and therefore it is not the best way. Likewise, what P thinks I want may not coincide with what I truly want, so adjustments in thinking are needed. We will still fumble and bumble. We will still talk at cross purposes. We will still have misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. We will still get frustrated and angry with each other at times. But how we deal with all this is what will continue to move us towards the happily ever after.

If we consciously walk with humility, we will both keep forgiving and being gracious to each other even when we don't feel like it; we will take accountability for our own mistakes, apologize, and make amends. We will also be open to new ways of doing things, to new experiences, all in the name of being a better spouse.

Humility enables gratitude, empathy and generosity to well up and power our behaviour, thus humility makes us kinder, more considerate and caring towards each other. Self-denial is not a problem. Sacrifice can even be a pleasure, a joy, as I have found.

Spacing togetherness
I have always loved this quote from Khalil Gibran's The Prophet on relationships:

Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.

Give space: allowing life to unfold as it wills usually yields better results, rather than forcing things to go the way you want them. I have a tendency to jump to conclusions, be judgemental, and also to demand instant results. In these past months I have learned to hold my temper and bite my tongue (edit, edit, edit damaging, killer comments that threaten to trip over emotionally charged lips); fold my arms and wait although internally I am jumping up and down with impatience. The honey of forbearance trumps the vinegar of impulsive, intransigent gratification.

It is no longer all about me or him but about us, therefore the relationship, the us, needs time and space to grow freely and organically. In this area, prayer is indispensable. When things are not going as I would wish, when I am upset or in despair, I pray for insight and strength to change myself first. I pray for His will to be done. Often, God honours my prayer, and Mother Mary comes to my aid. Hearts transform, pathways open up, the impossible is made possible. I am always amazed at His creativity.

While we are a couple, we are also our own people, separate individuals. There will always be a tension between the two as we forge couplehood. When do we compromise personal preferences and likes in order to foster a stronger marriage, and when do we keep nurturing our own identities in order to stimulate the marriage, this is something both P and I need to tango back and forth in one accord (we can naturally agree to disagree) - sometimes giving, sometimes taking. There is no perfect science to this save the sincerity we both bring to the table in wanting the best for the other.

Hunting grace moments
Married life is filled with grace moments, some we see right off the bat, others need keen detecting. If we take the time to look, we will also find those we take for granted. The consciousness examen helps me spot grace moments so that I can show appreciation and give affirmation appropriately, and frequently (something I am still learning to do).

Grace moments are like sacraments in that they are visible signs of inner grace and concrete acts of love. When these little light bulbs of divine love go off, they light up our world, and build bonds of love between us.

We are the ones largely responsible for creating our own grace moments in marriage, and when P and I both move in the Spirit, we create grace moments which often have a multiplier effect. People around us, especially our loved ones, benefit, for the effect is not just limited to the two of us.

Of course the best kind of grace moments are those that are completely unmerited, unsought and spontaneous, blessings from the One who loves us. Look out for those as well and luxuriate in them.

Through these last 12 months of thrills and spills, the one thing that has made it all that bit better is the laughter and smiles P and I have shared. P makes me laugh every day and has even taught me to laugh at myself, and not take myself too seriously. I thank God for this good man I call husband and I look forward to celebrating many more years with him. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Vacations and churches

When my sister-in-law asked me what there was to do in Sydney for she is visiting in March, I said to her she should research it herself for P and I have a penchant for visiting Catholic churches first before we do any additional sight-seeing.

We are always somehow blessed whenever we travel by usually picking accommodation close enough to a Catholic church to be able to walk to it thereby not missing out on our daily mass routine. Thus in Sydney, our first planned activity was to celebrate Sunday mass at Saint Bridgid's on Kent Street which turned out to be the oldest Catholic place of worship in Sydney and was a place where Australian saint Mary MacKillop frequented (or so we were told).

Later we discovered yet another church within walking distance that celebrated five weekday masses daily, Saint Patrick's, run by the Marist brothers. I felt Our Lady of Guadalupe granted my desire to celebrate her feast day, and my wedding anniversary in thanksgiving.

What P and I found most heartening was how crowded the weekday masses were in Sydney and, how many people went for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was hilarious really, for I thought I was next in line when a man went into the Recon room after the priest had turned on the light indicating his presence only to discover I had to get in line with 13-15 people ahead of me. On subsequent days we would see two priests administering Recon before and during mass, and this is during weekdays!

We then boarded a cruise that took us to Lifou where we could pray the rosary in the tiniest brick and wooden chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes I have seen, and to do the same in the Noumea Cathedral dedicated to Saint Joseph, again places we could walk to with not much effort.

When we returned to Sydney after our cruise we found ourselves close to Saint Mary's Cathedral and to Saint Peter Julian's, a lovely small church in Chinatown that both P and I felt was filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit.

What was the real treat just before we returned home was to enjoy the
Christmas light up at the Cathedral, whose facade was used as a canvas for the laser projection show that sought to evangelise those who watched it even as it wowed us with its beauty.

There is something to be said for seeking Jesus even when on vacation,and making time to honour Father God and Our Lady, who kept us safe and met us in the warmth and graciousness of the people, the beauty of the local architecture and land, and the many opportunities to enjoy ourselves(we had mostly great weather with a few passing showers that did not deter our activities). We were edifiied by the faith of Sydneysiders, and we found God is indeed alive and well, and living in the city.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Finding inner strength

It has been a while since I blogged. Life has been a little overwhelming lately and I have not been very inspired to share. To be honest, I kind of lost my voice. It has been a year filled not only with many new experiences that have posed needed adjustments, but numerous insignificant yet bothersome physical ailments. Despite my struggle to stay on top of things, I have spun quite often into despair and despondency. So I entered into the season of Advent not feeling quite my best, nor able to give much to anyone.

E said something to me a couple of weeks ago, a statement I found most liberating: It's okay not to be strong all the time. I had shared with him that I was not in a good place physically and that this posed quite a challenge for me emotionally.

Yes, it's okay to struggle, to fall, and to lean on those around you. There is no shame in admitting I am weak, that I have faults and failings only those who choose to love me can accept.

In the midst of my suffering, I often ask when will it end, yet knowing at the same time, I will be given the inner strength to deal with it. Thus I have found that suffering does not define me, nor should I let it do so.

I can still laugh with joy and sing with gratitude for all the good things that have been given to me. As E told me when she saw me last, rather than look at life as being filled with challenges, look at things, events that happen, as part of a season in life and allow myself to waver and stumble, taking one step at a time. Perfection is not required. I also needed to remember to articulate my difficulties, share them, rather than keep it all bottled up inside of me.

As I prayed the sorrowful mysteries this morning, I could see that Jesus allowed the events that were to happen play out fully. At no point in time did He protest or throw in the towel. He knew what was going to happen but still he underwent the betrayal, the unjust accusations, the humiliation of abuse and torture, the excruciating walk to Calvary and its final horror of crucifixion.

He bore the cross alone and walked, bowed under the weight, stumbling often. On the way, He accepted the assistance of Simon the Cyrenian, He let Veronica to wipe His face, He met His Mother, exchanging looks of grief-filled love, and He acknowledged the weeping women of Jerusalem.

In my own life who am I to eschew suffering? Nor should I demand perfection out of everything in life, especially what I do. Certainly what I can do to change things around I will do, in my own limited way, but what is not within my control I can accept with grace and act with integrity and selfless love, always reaching out to others as He did at each juncture.

As I wait for the Christ child to be born and to eventually grow up into the Messiah who redeems me, I let go of my pain, my despair, the things I cannot change, all of life's imperfections, and I look forward to His birth with anticipation and joy. I can do great things through Him only if I allow Him to be born in my heart. O come Immanuel. You will be my inner strength. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Choosing life over death

I say I choose life every day but I lie. While I do make a conscious choice to be life-giving, to be as compassionate and loving as Jesus was, and I acknowledge the primacy and centrality of God in my life, I choose death when it comes to my physical well-being.

I don't pay such close attention to what I put in my body, often eating foods that are bad for me; I ignore what my body needs to maintain optimum health. I even ignore the pain I am in, until it becomes unbearable before I actually do something about it. Hence, I choose death on some level every day.

Just by listening to the people around me, seeing the states their bodes are in, I know I am not unique. I may even make 'better' choices, and thank God, my health issues are not serious and revolve mostly around managing muscle pain and getting a good night's sleep.

P said that people generally avoid a fast death but they invariably pick a slow one. He was talking about people with chronic illnesses who have the power to manage said illnesses yet choose to ignore the prescribed remedies, preferring instead to let their conditions degenerate to a point where symptoms can be dire, and damage irreversible. Even then, they refuse to take accountability and make judicious changes in lifestyles that would help, opting instead to use medication as their only line of defence.

It's completely baffles me that people can be so irrational, choosing death over life, albeit a very slow death, but, then again, I am no different myself. I do not eat properly and exercise regularly. I do not do what's right for my body. I guess I'm not disciplined enough, and laziness trumps vanity for me. Prayer, now I've got that down pretty much, even mindfulness, but exercise and eating right? Hmmm, I still have a ways to go.

Although looking after one's health is not explicitly preached in the Bible, Saint Paul did remind the Corinthians that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us, and that we are not our own, we belong to God. We also know that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins and that temperance is a virtue. In Genesis, we are tasked to be good stewards - should this not apply to our bodies besides the environment?

When I feel tired or unwell, I am not able to give my best to the tasks I set myself. I even draw back from reaching out to others, loving others, for it all becomes just too much. My efforts are lackadaisical and perfunctory.

When I am in pain, I can only focus on my own pain, my world shrinks, and I tend to ignore the pain of others. I become self-centred, selfish, without even realizing it. I become short-tempered, impatient and quite intolerant of others' weaknesses.

When I am emotionally exhausted and fragile, I close up unto myself, and I do not hear the cries of the needy around me. I don't want to. I just can't. How can I be the hands and feet of Christ when I myself am so in need of comfort and rest?

I recently had a minor procedure done and while the outcome was good and I feel relieved and grateful, I am also physically drained. So I am learning to love myself a little more by resting and taking better care of my body. I realize I cannot continue down this path of poor stewardship over my own health for the price is high in terms of not being able to do the things I love, and the missed opportunities to minister to others.

I want to be pain-free, energized, brimming with health and vitally alive. If I am in better shape to worship the Lord, I will do a better job of it. Right now, my best is really not my personal best, and that's a shame. As I work on restoring my health, I invite you to take stock and see if you could make some healthier choices and to do it immediately. Every day we are given the power to choose life or death, choose life in all the ways that honour the Creator. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Cultivating coupleness in marriage

I was sharing with my SD last week about how my marriage was going and he said to me you both need to find a new language of love that is special to the two of you, a coupleness that is forged from each person's gifts and talents, and expressed in giving to the other in a committed love. I thought, what a lovely concept, and I was heartened for P and I have actually been doing this for the last year or so, discovering and building our own unique love language.

He reminded me of not falling into the pitfalls of a consumer relationship where we use each other for our own selfish needs, and we do not not respect the other's gendered dignity and we objectify each other. The archetype of this kind of relationship is where the man is seen as the banker or social status enabler while the woman is the "decorative vase" or baby factory.

Then there is the convenience relationship where we are in relationship merely to suit our own needs and purposes. It is not really what we are looking for in a relationship but it serves certain superficial social purposes, so why not? This is almost like a friends with benefits type of relationship where we fulfil ourselves gratuitously at the cost of real intimacy. Again we fall into using quite easily.

I will also put into this category, what my SD cautions against for married couples, and that is the married but living as singles. There is no true commitment to establishing a life together as one couple. Neither is willing to give up or make certain sacrifices that would make the other happy, so we still pursue separate interests and social lives, much like housemates. The relationship dynamics centre around quid pro quo, a what's in it for me attitude, all very transactional. Hardly what one can call marriage.

The kind of relationship marriage should be is the committed relationship where we are invested in the welfare of the other, what is good for him or her. It's a self-donating love that does not give up one's own dignity and individuality and is centred first on loving God in order to love the other. It's not about codependency or being a doormat.

There are undoubtedly differences in how men and women communicate, and how they see things from a feminine or masculine perspective can add tension to a relationship, even in the best of committed relationships. P and I are still learning to accommodate each other's differences, even when we don't completely understand the other at times. With patience, empathy and the ability to forgive, we can change to become better people together as well as individually through time.

Here is where what JPII calls the complementarity of the sexes comes into play. We are each called to combine the best of our masculine and feminine genius in how we interact with each other as a couple and how we, as a couple, act and interact socially.

This gender difference is found in spirituality as well. Brother Dominic shared that for men, the tendency was to the external, think Saint John of the Cross's Ascent to Mount Carmel. For women, it is more internal much like Saint Teresa of Avila's bid to enter the Interior Castle.

Women tend to be more life-giving, while men more life-protecting, just like Joseph who fled to Egypt with Jesus and Mary upon receiving a dream from an angel. The invitation is for both to nurture the life-giving qualities, without ignoring being life-protecting, and bless each other, their extended and respective families, and society at large.

As P and I continue to grow in coupleness, creating our own love language, I find the words of Saint Louis de Montfort in his book True Devotion to Mary apply equally to the marriage vocation and I can certainly shoot for this:

It is certain that growth in the holiness of God is your vocation. All your thoughts, words, actions, everything you suffer or undertake must lead you towards that end. Otherwise you are resisting God in not doing the work for which he created you and for which he is even now keeping you in being. What a marvelous transformation is possible! Dust into light, uncleanness into purity, sinfulness into holiness, creature into Creator, man into God!