Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks

Garrett uses tales of shipwrecks as an allegory for the times where we feel spiritually distant from God.

Robinson Crusoe Wyeth 1920Robinson Crusoe, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

As an English Major, one novel that I keep having to read and re-read is Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. As a boy, I loved the abridged version of the story that I owned, one that simplified the story of this intrepid castaway for children. So it was with some horror that I discovered that the original was a slow, plodding book that seemed to drag on a lot longer than it had to. To be fair to the writer Defoe, he was writing one of the first great English novels, and the art would slowly be improved upon later. So while the novel isn’t without its faults (namely, being pretty boring), I was eventually able to look past them and get a feel of what made this story so well-loved to this day.

Robinson Crusoe’s story is, as I said, a well-known one that has been adapted multiple times in various different ways. It is not the story of the guy who traveled to unknown places and went to the land where everyone was tiny. That gentleman would be Lemuel Gulliver from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (which I was also forced to read). Interestingly, Swift and Defoe were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and Gulliver was in some ways a response to Defoe’s novel.

The story of Robinson Crusoe could be summed up thusly: As a young man, Robinson Crusoe defies his father’s wishes and sets off to make his fortune by the sea-trade. He is shipwrecked, captured by pirates, escapes and becomes a plantation owner in Brazil. While taking part in a slave-trading expedition, he is shipwrecked again on a deserted island. Overcoming his despair, he is able to eventually eke out a comfortable if solitary lifestyle. This solitude is broken when he befriends a native boy whom he names Friday, and he eventually escapes the island after about 20 years.

However, what this summary leaves out is Crusoe’s conversion experience on the island. As my professor pointed out, Robinson begins the book by lamenting how he should have listened to his father all those years ago and stayed home where it was safe. But if you think about it, if he had done that, he would have simply carried on being the shallow and money-obsessed young man he was in the beginning. Some of the most poignant scenes in the novel are his religious awakenings, such as when he sees the hand of God in the events that led him to discover what kind of edible plants could grow on the island, and the touching scene where he wakes to his parrot saying the words he’s been repeating to himself:

…for in just such bemoaning language I had used to talk to him and teach him; and he had learned it so perfectly that he would sit upon my finger, and lay his bill close to my face and cry, “Poor Robin Crusoe! Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?”

While at this point in the story Crusoe has come to a better understanding of God, we didn’t really know that he taught his parrot Poll to say these words. In fact, when he wakes up to Poll’s voice he has a moment of shock, thinking that he was being addressed by a Higher Power. And in a way, I think he was – it’s easy to imagine God using Poll to ‘parrot’ out some truths to Crusoe in his exile. It’s also easy to imagine Jesus saying these words to the worldly, fortune-obsessed man who was even willing to turn to the slave-trade in his quest for riches. Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?

Crusoe thus shows himself to be not only physically shipwrecked on the island, but also spiritually shipwrecked and in need of rescue by his Saviour. Charles Dickens would later bring his famous miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, into dialogue with this scene in A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to the time where he read Robinson Crusoe as a lonely, isolated boy:

“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, […] ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know.

Scrooge, who up to this point in Dicken’s novel has been nothing but a grumpy, selfish old man, is shown to suddenly burst into boyish excitement upon remembering this scene. The reader is shown that the call of ‘Where have you been, Robin Crusoe?’ resonates with the old miser’s heart, and offers the hope that Scrooge too can be redeemed from his spiritual shipwrecking on the island of Greed and Isolation. And of course, at the end of the novel, he is.

Defoe and Dickens were both great storytellers, and their stories of conversion and rescue from the shipwrecks of our spiritual lives shines through their (occasionally dull) prose. However, it is important to remember that whether consciously or not, their stories contain elements of a story told by the Great Storyteller himself. Long before either author was born, Jesus Christ told the story of a son who ungratefully left his father’s house, fell into tragedy and came back contrite of heart. And also of a Father who ran pell-mell to welcome him back and tell him that he was still loved and cared for. We are never told if the son truly came to love his father more on his return, but what is important is that he has every opportunity to do so.

I feel that we all have Robinson Crusoe somewhere in our heart. We all have moments where we forget God and wish to act by our own will and our own strength. But this timeless story encourages us to use the inevitable disasters that we face in those moments to turn back to God, to love Him more and try to serve Him as best we can. As John Henry Newman said, ‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

Speaking of Cardinal Newman, in the second and final part of this series, I will be introducing you a little more to him and his story. We will also be looking at Newman’s work St. Paul at Melita, a short poem in which he tells the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck near Italy, and how a true Christian reacts when facing the disasters of life. Till then, God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

P&W Reflection: “Where the Spirit of the Lord Is”

Some time back, I was at this program teaching us about the Holy Spirit. One of the program sessions was about the ‘Spirit of conviction’, the Spirit that empowers us to be free. As I was watching the video, the song “Where the Spirit of the Lord Is” by Hillsong came into my head and I realized how apt it was for this paeticular session. If you doubt me, just look at the chorus:

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is
There is freedom
Where the Spirit of the Lord is
Chains are broken
Eyes are open
Christ is with us
Christ is with us”

More than just the explicit mention of freedom, the idea of the breaking of chains and the opening of eyes also evoke a sense of freedom. Expounding on this idea then, we can see that there seems almost a two-part approach to freedom. The more widely known part of freedom is the idea of chains being broken, or the giving to an individual the ability to choose freely and deliberately. This idea is more than just about the physical restrictions; it talks very much also about the chains of emotional baggage and addictions. The verses in the song also talks about this idea of breaking free from the bondages of these chains. The first verse goes “In Your Name alone, we have been released” with the second talking about how “we are slaves no more”. I think things such as emotional baggages, addictions, past hurts and other such things limit us from being able to act freely because of their ability to influence us. In this sense, these factors chains us to simple reaction, doing things out of fear – fear of repeating past hurts or fear of being emotionally wounded again – or simply by being compelled by our addictions. Just like how the fear of prosecution kept the apostles locked in the upper room after the resurrection of Jesus, the Spirit of conviction gave the apostles the freedom to act beyond this fear; to act freely and deliberately to let the Good News be known.

If this was the only definition of freedom, then the Church wouldn’t have so much problems with the freedom espoused by the world in general. However, many seem to forget of the second part of the notion of freedom: eyes being opened. The song opens with the verse “For we know the truth, Your truth has set us free”. If we look to what the Church has to say about freedom, “human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” (CCC 1731). There is an ordering of our freedom towards God. CCC 1734 adds that “there is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just”. The first step, just like how the song first starts off, is recognizing this important truth; that true freedom is tied to the truth of God. If the ultimate purpose of our earthly life is to achieve perfect union with God, then freedom must be framed through the lenses of our end goal. It cannot simply be a desire to choose. Someone who has never learnt to play the piano is free and can choose to play the piano badly, but they are not truly free to play music on the piano owing to the sheer fact that they have never learnt nor practiced the piano, unlike a professional pianist. There is a lack of the freedom to be excellent. In this same vein, if we are all called to be excellent and to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, (Matthew 5:48) then abusing our free choice to disobey and be anything less than perfect becomes the “slavery of sin.” (CCC1743)

But what this song always reminds me of is our redemption and freeing from the bondage of sin. It is our victory cry. This is encapsulated so beautifully in the third verse:

“Who the Son has freed
He is free indeed
All our sin is gone
We have been redeemed
Jesus paid it all
Jesus paid it all”

And what’s more amazing? The fact that the Son chose to free all of humanity from the sins that held us captive. Not just His chosen people but Jews, Gentiles, pagans and all of humanity were saved. Free. Not just to be able to choose but to choose good. To choose to follow God. To choose to be in communion with God and with one another, we who are saved and free.

At the end of it all, the bridge gives two very important reminders in our freedom: that docility towards the promptings of the Spirit does not reduce our freedom but in fact, grows it and to always praise the Lord through our lives, in the free choices that we make. So, as we continue to continue on our various journeys, may we continue to open our hearts to the gentle promptings and fiery passion of the Spirit of the Lord that convicts us and to lead a live of true freedom, growing closer to the Lord and praising Him with our lives.

“Open wide the gates of heaven
Fill our hearts as we surrender
Lord let Your presence fall
Lord let Your presence fall

Open wide the gates of heaven
We will worship You forever
Lord let Your presence fall
Lord let Your presence fall”

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

P&W Reflection: ‘Lord, I Need You’

Chris reflects on the important message conveyed by Matt Maher’s song ‘Lord I Need You’.

Sometimes, the most powerful songs are written in the simplest of ways, and Matt Maher’s ‘Lord I Need You’ is one such example. Unpretentious yet strikingly profound, this song encapsulates the essence of God’s unconditional love for all of us. The more I listen to it, the more I am reminded of the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15. In the following article, allow me to share more about why I am deeply moved by this beautiful song and why it serves as the theme of song for all prodigal children – you and I included – of our most loving and most forgiving Father in Heaven.

Lord I Need You begins with the following lyrics – “Lord I come, I confess / Bowing here I find my rest”. Immediately, it is evident that the song speaks of humility, of contrition, of wanting to return home to “find” “rest” in God. The lines that follow in the same stanza exudes a similar sentiment – “Without You I fall apart / You’re the One that guides my heart”. Here we see a recognition that God is our all in all and we are His beloved. This recognition also reflects the awareness that our relationship with God is a personal and intimate one – one that speaks heart to heart. God is not some distant, authoritarian figure, ever ready to judge and to condemn but a God who provides “rest”, who “guides”, who loves passionately. Indeed, it is almost as if this stanza was crafted specially for the prodigal son in Luke 15. One can almost imagine that upon “[coming] to himself” (Luke 15:17) in hunger, desperation and despondency, the prodigal son “set off and went to his father” (Luke 15:20), singing these exact same lyrics.

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St. Francis De Sales’ Roses Among Thorns

Chris shares his reflection on a book by St Francis de Sales.

Recently as I was tidying up my Evernote database, I chanced upon the following excerpt from St Francis de Sales’ Roses Among Thorns – a very thought-provoking book that I completed numerous months ago:
Do not allow yourself to become angry or let yourself be surprised to see that your soul still has all the imperfections that you habitually confess. Even though you must reject and even detest them in order to amend your life, you must not oppose them with anger, but instead with courage and tranquility, so that you will be able to make a solid and secure resolution to correct them. (…) When we censure our neighbour or complain about him — something we should do rarely — we never bring it to an end, but are always beginning again and endlessly repeating our complaints and grievances, which is a sign of a nettlesome heart that has not yet regained its health. (16)
Embedded within the above excerpt are two striking issues worthy of exploration and further discussion. Firstly, Sales affirms a poignant reality of spiritual maturity i.e. that the further we traverse on this journey towards oneness and unity with Christ, the more aware we become of our soul’s “imperfections”. Indeed, I have been privy to the recurring emotions of anger and frustration whenever my imperfections, weaknesses and failings get surfaced. I often ask myself “Oh gosh, there you go again. Haven’t we been through this before? Why are you imbibing in these habitual, self-gratifying sins again, sins that serve no greater purpose and goodness than selfish pleasure? Don’t you know better? Didn’t you just go for confession and made a commitment to repent?”

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Repentance and the Morte d’Arthur

Garrett reflects on what his childhood hero King Arthur has to teach him about Christian leadership.

“Then Sir Bedivere cried: Ah my lord Arthur, what shall become of me, now ye go from me and leave me here alone among mine enemies? Comfort thyself, said the king, and do as well as thou mayst, for in me is no trust for to trust in; for I will into the vale of Avilion to heal me of my grievous wound: and if thou hear never more of me, pray for my soul.” – Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Not too long ago, I volunteered to serve in a 9-day long School of Christian Leadership. Desiring a break from being a facilitator, I subtly hinted to the organizers that I wanted to help out in logistics instead. Just turn my brain off, do some manual labour, and reconnect with Jesus, you know? My plan worked a little too well, and I found myself in charge of logistics, because Jesus has a strange sense of humour. But regardless, it turned out to be an extremely fruitful experience for me.

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The Excellent Exsultet

Greg refelcts on the beautiful Easter prayer, the Exsultet.

“Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,

exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,

let the trumpet of salvation

sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!”

Each time I hear this being sung at the beginning of every Easter vigil Mass, my heart and soul simply feel so uplifted, ready to exalt in the Resurrection of Christ together with His Church! The Exsultet holds such deep meaning, both in its verses and in the beautiful symbolism it uses. A century-old prayer that has been almost unaltered since the Middle Ages, the practice probably dates to even before that.

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Teaching and St. John Baptist De La Salle

Chris shares more about St. John Baptist De La Salle and why he is one of Chris’ favourite Saints.

“You can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those entrusted to your care.”                                                                                                                                                                                      – [Meditations 180.3]

It is often very easy for us to get lost in our work – especially when we live in a fast-pace, productivity-driven society like Singapore. Amidst the hum-drums of routine work and key performance indicators (cue the dreaded “KPI”), it is often tempting to lose ourselves in our jobs, equate our identities with our professions and forget that we are so much more than what we do. In short, in losing ourselves to work, we lose our self-identities completely. Indeed it is often very tempting to get so caught up with the things we do at work on a daily basis that we forget the very rationale, purpose and objectives of our work as calling. Therefore, it is often necessary to re-focus and re-center our attention to first-principles; it is important to (re)anchor ourselves lest we get blown around in the turbulence of societal expectations and competing voices.

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