修直道路

Greg反思圣若翰洗者呼吁我们“修直道路”之意,从而发现自己有时误将“道路”视为“终点”。

有一个呼声喊说:
“你们要在旷野中预备上主的道路,
在荒原中为我们的天主修平一条大路!”(依40:3)

将临期的福音中,我们常听见圣若翰洗者准备迎接耶稣的使命。这个使命即是依撒意亚先知所预言,且圣若翰洗者所重申的这一点:

“我是在旷野里呼喊者的声音:修直上主的道路罢!”
(若1:23)

将临期提醒我们要在心灵之中为上主修直道路,好为祂的圣诞做准备。教会教导我们,修直道路的方法有好多:阅读圣经,尤其反思将临期的读经;检讨良心,在心中为耶稣腾出空间;深入祈祷,加深与天主的感情,等等。我想,这些都是准备迎来将临期的好方法。对我而言,此文章实属自我告诫:重要的不是道路,而是耶稣。

在反思这段福音时,我赫然发现,自己虽总是一心想为上主修直道路,却多次弄巧反拙。何谓弄巧反拙呢?我想,简单来说,我们常徘徊于两个极端:一,因为道路不够直、不够平,而将其铲除;二,因为着重于道路的建设,而忽视了建设道路的目的。简而言之,我将精力都放在建设那条道路上,却没太专注于它是否能让主耶稣一步步走进我的心房。

是这样的:我常因为自己只能够静默祈祷10分钟,无法长达15分钟,而感到心烦意乱;也常因为无法克制自己的各种欲望,无法全心侍奉天主,而感到忧虑自责;我坚持练习各种神操,也是因为认为它们是遇见耶稣的必经之路。想必我们都曾陷入这个陷阱:在勤于准备迎接耶稣之时,却没发觉祂也渴望进入我们的心房。我因为不断专注于修直道路,竟忘了道路前面正等着我仰望祂的耶稣圣婴。我忘了这是一个甘心降生成人,诞生于小马槽的天主;一个受到牧人探访,而非君王朝拜的天主;一个为了世界的救赎而蒙难,被钉在十字架上,死而安葬的天主。这是一个不在乎荣华富贵的君王,一个不在乎道路是否完美的君王;这是一个关心我的君王,一个愿意将圣神注入我内,和我携手建设这条道路的君王。

到头来,依撒意亚先知和圣若翰洗者呼吁我们忏悔改过,不是为了忏悔而忏悔,也不是为了改过而改过,而是希望我们能够全心迎接耶稣,让祂在我们的心中诞生。因此,在这将临期,我要想的不是如何修直道路。我要想的,是如何认识耶稣、接受耶稣,并在来临的圣诞期学会时时爱祂,时时珍惜祂。

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Clarence Lee

Fishers of Men: Leaving Nets Behind

Garrett reflects on following the call of Jesus, and what it means to ‘leave the nets behind’ for him.

This is a response to Chris’ article, “What are my Nets?” where he reflects on the passage in Mark about the disciples leaving their nets behind in order to follow Jesus. It’s a poignant reflection, elaborating on the need for detachment in order to follow Jesus with a dedicated heart. What really struck me when reading this article was this image of the nets. It’s a striking image, and I wondered whether further reflection on this image would prove fruitful. So this article is an attempt to do just that, expanding on the imagery of nets as found in the Bible and an attempt to synthesize this with my own personal experience with the ‘nets’ of my life.

Chris mentions that nets can come to symbolize many things that are important to us – “Nets of affirmation and societal approval? Nets of security and material desires? Nets of past hurts? Nets of people? Safety nets?” I think in particular, nets had a special significance for the lives of Simon and Andrew as fishermen. In Chris’ words again, dropping their nets means “letting go of their job, their profession — indeed, letting go of everything that they have stood for and done in their lives”. Yes, nets can be things that we are proud of, things that we can take pride in, things that give our life meaning. This rings true for me in particular, as the ‘nets’ that I cling to the most at the time of this writing are my own abilities and what I have accomplished with them so far.

I consider myself to be a late bloomer in terms of recognizing the places and skills I excel at. When I take an honest look at myself, I find myself badly wanting to use my gifts in order to impact the world in some way, as much of a pipe dream as that seems to be. Deep down, I fear that my life will be meaningless, and I find myself unconsciously taking hold of my abilities a bit tighter than I should.

But the Bible shows us how unhealthy these kind of attitudes are. In the book of Habbakuk (How’s that for a book of the bible you don’t read every day!), the prophet laments “A people, these, who catch all on their hook, who drag them with their net, in their dragnet gather them, and so, triumphantly, rejoice. At this, they offer a sacrifice to their dragnet, for providing them with luxury and lavish food. Are they then to empty their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity?” (Hab 1:15-17). These ‘people’ that Habbakuk refers to the Chaldeans or Babylonians, whose growing power in the region threatened the prophet’s Kingdom of Judah, which they eventually conquered.

Habbakuk thus exposes the danger of trusting too much in one’s own gifts and talents. When we use our gifts in a self-serving manner, we often end up misusing them instead. When we are so confident in our own strengths and abilities, our pride can often lead us to do things that are… ill-advised, to say the least. True, I may have some talent in certain areas such as writing, research and literary analysis, but if I buy too much into the idea that I can use these things to glorify myself, I may very well end up hurting or alienating others. To pursue ‘greatness’, be it in the form of excess wealth, fame, or other things, to the exclusion of everything else, is to be like the Babylonians in Habbakuk’s time, ‘empty[ing] their net unceasingly, slaughtering nations without pity”.

So rather than use our gifts in self-serving ways, what should we do with them instead? I think the answer lies within the call of Jesus to the apostles on the beach: “Come with me and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

Fishers of men. What is the significance of this phrase, other than showing that Jesus was rather skilled at wordplay? For me, it shows that Jesus is not ignorant of our abilities, but rather, he values each of us for who we are. More than that, he teaches us and directs us to use these abilities for ends that perhaps we could not envision ourselves. He saw these rough fishermen tending the tools of their trade on the shore, and knew that they could apply the same effort and tenacity they employed in catching fish to gathering their fellow men into the Kingdom of God. He saw tax-collectors, men reviled as greedy and race-traitors, and knew that that same sharpness and business acumen could be applied towards matters of social well-being, as seen by how Zechariah repaid anyone who he had cheated four times over.

So for myself, in the coming weeks I will continue to reflect on the transformation between fishermen, and fishers of men. I will continue to try to offer up whatever gifts God has given me back to Him, to let go of the nets of my fears and comforts. In doing so, I trust that the adventure He sends me on will prove a fruitful one.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Take This Naan: Faith and Food

Good food is awesome.
Good food with amazing company and delightful conversations are times when I feel as though God allows me glimpses of Heaven. And there’s always this recurring joke whenever supper is eaten at a particular Indian eatery and the Naan arrives at the table:
Take this Naan, and eat of it.
And then, after a minute of laughter (or groaning depending on the person) at the pun, we proceed to break bread and sup.  In case, the hints weren’t clear enough, the allusion is to the source and summit of a Christian’s life: the Mass and more specifically, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Bread and wine are central to a Catholic’s life. After all, in Mass, we believe that the bread and wine offered are transformed into the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus. We, as Catholics, are then called to this Feast, this Communion to partake of the Body and the Blood of Christ. And most of us know that the bread must be unleavened and the wine, red and natural. Still, even fewer of us know that the bread must be made with only wheat. (Even I didn’t know this and in case you were wondering, Code of Canon Law, Canon 924).
Believe me when I say that NAAN (heh) of us had any grand delusions that we could actually transubstantiate the pieces of naan on our plates (or prata if you want actual unleavened bread) into the Body of Christ. However, one does wonder at times: why exactly bread and wine? I mean, looking at the context of the Last Supper, the wine seems to be an obvious choice seeing that it was the only drink present during the meal. But bread? Why not the bitter herbs or the charoset, a sweet paste eaten at the Passover? Even better yet, why not the lamb? That would make an awful lot of sense wouldn’t it?
As Archbishop Fulton Sheen brilliantly puts it:
“First of all, because no two substances in nature better symbolize unity than bread and wine. As bread is made from a multiplicity of grains of wheat, and wine is made from a multiplicity of grapes, so the many who believe are one in Christ.
Second, no two substances in nature have to suffer more to become what they are than bread and wine. Wheat has to pass through the rigors of winter, be ground beneath the Calvary of a mill, and then subjected to purging fire before it can become bread. Grapes in their turn must be subjected to the Gethsemane of a wine press and have their life crushed from them to become wine. Thus do they symbolize the Passion and Sufferings of Christ, and the condition of Salvation, for Our Lord said unless we die to ourselves we cannot live in Him.
A third reason is that there are no two substances in nature which have more traditionally nourished man than bread and wine. In bringing these elements to the altar, men are equivalently bringing themselves. When bread and wine are taken or consumed, they are changed into man’s body and blood. But when He took bread and wine, He changed them into Himself.”
First of all, unity. In CCC 1, it states that “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life… He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church” We are called to be united in Christ and not just called; we were made to share and be united in God’s life. The bread and wine were staples of that time and important parts in the diet of the Jewish people at that time. Unlike meat, which was a luxury and wasn’t eaten on a daily basis, bread was consumed as part of the daily meal and likewise for wine. By choosing food that was consumed by the majority of the Jewish people at that time and not simply the rich, He united the people, regardless of their status, into one Church, one Body of Christ. And it wasn’t just simply that. He united the covenant held by the Jewish people in the Old Testament into a new one in Him by taking two key aspects of the Passover meal, and then changed them into Himself. In short, Jesus came and united the rich and the poor, the educated and the non-educated, the elites and the plebeians into one Church, a Church that up till now stands united and universal in Christ.
The second point is beautifully made by Archbishop Sheen. Just to add on (not that it actually needs adding on since the words he wrote were just so incredibly Spirit-filled and beautiful), I think nowadays, we take it for granted that we can easily purchase the flour, milk and yeast to make bread or better yet, just buy the bread itself. However, at that time, bread was a daily affair and the wheat had to be harvested and milled by hand, a back-breaking and time-consuming task before it can be made into bread. Wine (even now) involves an equally laborous process of harvesting and crushing before it can be stored. I think going back to unity, it also unites the people with the sufferings of Jesus. Back then, a lot of effort was needed to make bread and wine and while it’s easy for us now to simply order sacaramental bread and wine, it doesn’t detract from the fact that to be in Communion is to be, like the grape and the wheat as well as the people of old, united in the sufferings of the world and of Christ and to die to ourselves that we may live in Him.
Lastly, it shows the unity of the bodily and spiritual aspect of man. CCC 355 says that God made us in His Image, including that “in His own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds”. Jesus as fully God and fully Human reinforces this through taking bread and wine, material objects, and changes it to His Body and Blood, His Soul and Divinity. Such as bread and wine nourished the Jewish people in their diets, so may the Body and Blood nourish the soul of humankind that we may awaken to ourselves, the full nature of our being, a being of spirit and body. As we receive Communion, may we remind ourselves that just as bread and wine nourish our bodies (or maybe Naan and Lassi heh), we allow Jesus to nourish our souls through the Eucharist.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

Potest Qui Vult: Free Will and Responsibility

A while back, Greg wrote an article on this blog inspired by his secondary school motto – Ora et Labora. It’s a great article, a reflection on the need to ground our work in prayer. However, I too, have a pretentious secondary school Latin motto – Potest qui Vult, and not to be outdone, I present to you, dear reader, an article based on its English meaning: he who wills, can. Now, before I start, I should point out that the Latin here is not gender-specific; potest is simply the third person form of the word possum, which means ‘to be able to’. She who wills can, too. My school translated it that way because it was a typical Catholic boys’ school. For the sake of convenience however, I’m going to stick with the masculine translation I’m familiar with. So please keep in mind that if you happen to be a lady, I’m writing this article for you too!

The question I would like to ask and answer, then, is this: he who wills can… what?

The immediate answer may seem to be this: that he who wills can succeed. And indeed, from a secular viewpoint, it should seem an obvious conclusion to draw: whoever dreams big can then work hard and achieve those dreams. But yet, basic economics seems to disprove this. We live in a world of scarcity, and that means that in a dog-eat-dog competition, there are bound to be losers. Indeed, for some (but not all) of us in my secondary school days, the very fact that we were in this school meant that we failed to get into a different school. Perhaps because we did not Ora et Labora hard enough. Rather, we had to learn what it meant to get up after receiving a hard knock, and to this day some of my friends love our alma mater for imparting to us that very lesson.

From the viewpoint of faith, as well, this answer does not seem to hold water. I’m reminded of Mother Teresa’s famous saying: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” And indeed, doing and believing the right thing can sometimes result in being martyred for those very actions and beliefs. One needs to look no further than Jesus himself, who had to suffer so greatly on the Cross. Of course, as a Christian I believe Jesus does succeed in his goal of bringing salvation to man, but this requires me to believe in a truth that transcends my physical existence, to believe in the existence of the soul, and in salvation and damnation. For the Christian, ‘he who wills can succeed’ is true only if we are not referring to a worldly success, but rather, a heavenly one.

Perhaps then we can propose another answer: he who wills can endure. And indeed, endurance is an important aspect of faith, and perhaps even a positive quality to have in the secular world too. “The Sovereign Lord comes to my help,” says the writer of Isaiah, “so that I am untouched by the insults. So, too, I set my face like flint; I know I shall not be shamed.” (Is 50:7) And indeed, with God’s help we can overcome the trials of this life, come what may, in the hope of passing to our heavenly reward.

But to interpret it this way has its negative connotations too. After all, is life nothing but an endless stream of misery to be endured? True, life can be hard, but as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, traditionally Catholic countries like Spain, France and Italy have a well-deserved reputation of being merry and festive. This miserable view of life clashes with the idea of Christians as people of the Gospel – good news. Catholics are called to be joyful. As Hillaire Belloc wrote:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,

There’s always laughter and fine red wine.

At least I’ve always found it so,

Benedicamus domino!

Perhaps then to come to a satisfying answer, we have to take a few steps back, and take the phrase as it is: he who wills, can. As Catholics, will in this context invokes the idea of free will. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

CCC 1730: God created a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions.

And furthermore:

CCC 1734: Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts.

Free will is sometimes puzzling to me. I sometimes feel that people can be saintlier than angels, or more evil than devils. (Is that a quote from somewhere? It might be.) But perhaps that is a testament to God’s love for us that He allows us to be as good or bad as we possibly can. That is why we are responsible for the freedom given to us. That is another lesson that my alma mater imparted to me. It’s been almost ten years since I left my school. Some of my schoolmates have done extremely well for themselves, and some live exemplary Christian lives. On the other hand, as a good friend of mine stated to the more contemporary students there during his stint as a relief teacher: “Take a good look around you. Ten years from now some of you will be in jail.” Perhaps not the most tactful pearl of wisdom, but a true one nonetheless, from our experience.

So today, Potest Qui Vult to me signifies the wondrous and awful responsibility God has placed in my hands. The responsibility to live the life that He has given me well. To make the truth known to all mankind: that he (or she!) who wills can seek the face of God. Can bear the light of Christ even in places of the most hopeless darkness. Can love God, and be loved by Him in turn. And of course, can truly be with Him one day in Paradise.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

 

Christian Castaways Part 2: Spiritual Survivors

Garrett reflects on a poem by Cardinal Newman, about trusting God in times of trial.

Last time around, we looked at the phenomenon of being ‘spiritually shipwrecked’ – moments where we realize that our pride and worldly desires have cut us off from God and left us spiritually desolate. I ended off that article with a quote by John Henry, Cardinal Newman, reflecting on how our struggles on Earth require us to change often in order to live an authentic Christian life.

As I reflected more on this idea however, I realized that Newman’s life and writings constitute a good reference on how to cling to God throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of life. With that in mind, I hope to provide a very brief introduction to this important Catholic thinker, as well as provide an analysis of his short poem, St. Paul at Melita, which describes the saint’s own shipwrecking and his response to that situation.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was an Anglican (and later Catholic) priest who distinguished himself as a thinker and academic at Oxford University. He was one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, an intellectual movement that sought to re-introduce Catholic elements back into Anglican theology, a movement that resulted in the Anglo-Catholicism branch of the Anglican Communion. In 1845, Newman was received into the Catholic Church, an extremely controversial decision that alienated many, but at the same time, led to him and many of his followers to set up the Birmingham Oratory. Newman wrote multiple influential works defending Catholic thought and tradition, and was eventually made a Cardinal.

St. Paul at Melita was written in 1833, before Newman’s conversion to Catholicism, while he was touring Italy with a friend. This trip seemed to have been a productive time for him – many of his poems were written during this time, and also around this time he wrote his famous hymn, Lead, Kindly Light, about trusting God through darkness and fear. In many ways, it is easy to see this period as a foreshadowing of Newman’s later spiritual journey, one of trusting God through difficult times.

The poem is a reflection on the events of Acts 27:9-28:6, the story of the Apostle’s shipwreck on the island of Malta (Melita). Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Paul knows that the voyage is a bad idea. He attempts to warn the others, but they ‘took more notice of the captain and the ship’s owner than of what Paul was saying’ (Acts 27:12), leading to their shipwreck. Paul comforts the crew, and they eventually end up on the island of Malta. Newman in particular calls attention to Paul’s actions on the island – “Paul had collected a bundle of sticks and was putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by the heat attached itself to his hand” (Acts 28:3).

“SECURE in his prophetic strength,
The water peril o’er,
The many-gifted man at length
Stepp’d on the promised shore.”

Paul here is described as a figure of authority. He has ‘prophetic strength’, and is described as ‘many-gifted’. The impression he gives off is one of supreme confidence and trust in God. Despite the trials that he is undergoing – Paul at this point is heading to Rome as a prisoner to testify before Caesar – Paul surrenders everything to God, trusting in His will and His providence, something that Robinson Crusoe eventually learns to do as well.

“He trod the shore; but not to rest,
Nor wait till Angels came;
Lo! humblest pains the Saint attest,
The firebrands and the flame.”

Newman here draws attention to Paul’s actions on the island, namely his commitment to gathering sticks for the fire. Paul does not give in to despair or remain idle during his shipwreck. He does not even wait for divine help, but rather resolves to do his part. I think that last point is a poignant one, too often, I find the temptation to say that I will ‘leave something to God’ even though I know that there are more, possibly God-given opportunities for me to do something about the situation, and my holy language becomes a mask for my own resignation. No matter how little our actions can be, perhaps even just putting sticks to keep a fire going, if they bring warmth and cheer to those around us, they are surely pleasing to God.

But, when he felt the viper’s smart,
Then instant aid was given;
Christian! hence learn to do thy part,
And leave the rest to Heaven.

These last few lines are ones that I find especially piercing, as it really speaks to me and my experience of service in Christian ministries. People are people, and in ministry and community there will certainly come moments of pain and disappointment. To choose to continue to serve means to sometimes be reminded of such moments of pain, I find the thought of facing such ‘vipers’ unbearable. However, Newman here reminds us that God is still with us in our tribulations, ready to be with us in these moments of pain.

© 2017 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

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.

Continue reading “Christian Castaways Part 1: Spiritual Shipwrecks”

Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2

Garrett reflects on “epic stories” and their presence in Sacred Scripture.

This article is a continuation of my previous article with the same title, where I discussed Stephen R Donaldsen’s essay, Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, and how fantasy fiction can inform our Faith. While my previous article focused on Donaldsen’s definition of ‘fantasy’, how fantasy speaks to the human heart, and how Jesus satisfies that desire as in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘a myth that came true’. This time around, I’d like to focus on Donaldsen’s other definition – ‘epic’. As Donaldsen himself states, the term epic is much better understood than ‘fantasy’, and indeed, a deeper look at this term can tell us much about Faith and Scripture as well.

I’d like to preface this article by saying that it’s going to be even more… ‘technical’ than what I usually write. In an article like this, context is important, and a large chunk of this article is going to be me paraphrasing and quoting stuff from other sources. But that said, I still hope that this will be an informative and interesting read. So, let’s get into it!

Continue reading “Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds Part 2”