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

Thanksgiving

Before coming to the United States of America (USA), Thanksgiving didn’t mean much to me. While I caught glimpses of this holiday in American sitcoms, my understanding of it remained at that: distant and apathetic. My impression of Thanksgiving was limited to stuffed turkey, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes and sweet corn – delicious yet highly superficial. Similar to some of the holidays in Singapore, Thanksgiving was an occasion synonymous with good food and merry-making. Yet, akin to an increasingly commercialized Christmas, there has got to be something deeper and more meaningful to Thanksgiving right?
In 2012 during my year abroad in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I was fortunate to have a friend, Lindsey, invite me over to her home for Thanksgiving. I was lucky to have an “adopted” family for a span of 5 days. And in retrospect, I could not have asked for a better way to spend my first ever Thanksgiving in America; a thanksgiving spent with the Luxon family.
My impression of thanksgiving became very different immediately after we left our university for Lindsey’s home. Her home was approximately three hours away and the majority of the journey was spent on the interstate highway. But our journey took longer than three hours – we were stuck in heavy traffic. Entering the highway, we saw bumper to bumper traffic; different vehicles of all shape and sizes with one common destination: home. (Imagine rush hour traffic on the CTE or PIE – it was something like that, only with much more cars and lesser lanes on the expressways). Yet, the scene of the traffic jam immediately made me perceive Thanksgiving in a deeper light: family and friends were all heading home together. Very much like the reunion dinner for the eve of Chinese New Year, Thanksgiving reunited family and friends. From the onset of the trip, this was turning out to be a very meaningful Thanksgiving for me.
As the car turned into the driveway of Lindsey’s home, I saw Lindsey’s father standing outside in the cold, waiting to welcome us. And that tableau of a father waiting anxiously for the arrival of his daughter back home really moved me. In a typical Singaporean way, I greeted him enthusiastically with a handshake and said “Hello Uncle!” However, my greeting was met with a huge chuckle. In my excitement, I forgot that people in the USA did not usually greet their friends’ parents by “Uncle” or “Aunty”. Nevertheless, I felt happy and proud to bring a bit of my Singaporean manners to the Luxon household. Entering the home, I was greeted with the aroma of delicious home cooked food (oh how I miss thee!), a fully prepared dinner table and the warmth smile of Lindsey’s mother (whom I happily addressed as Aunty).
Dinner was a really enjoyable affair. Apart from the incredibly delicious cuisines, what made dinner even more wonderful was seeing love personified through the conversations of Lindsey and her parents. The conversations were not incredibly profound or extraordinary – far from it actually – it was simple, genuine and heartfelt. “How are things in school?”, “Don’t stay up too late to study!”, “Are you eating well? Here, have more of the mashed potatoes.” These conversations reminded me of my very own family, the simple things that my parents and I talk about during meal times. Isn’t it incredible how love (and the presence of God) becomes so real in the simplest things of Life?
The next few days spent with the Luxon family was an incredible experience. Preparation for thanksgiving was really fun! As I have always enjoyed cooking (perhaps half as much as I enjoy eating), I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with Lindsey’s mother to prepare food. I made the turkey stuffing and had a hand in stuffing the turkey thereafter. I was given a quick lesson on the intricate ways of baking a turkey and had a few interesting conversations with “Aunty” (she even shared with me a family secret for preparing coffee!). Thanksgiving became more tangible to me; I was beginning to grasp the crux of its purpose better.
The highlight of my stay was during the family’s thanksgiving lunch. The array of dishes on the dining table was everything that I imagined it to be, and more. That meal was easily the best that I have had in months. But what encapsulated the entire meal and made Thanksgiving all the more memorable was the moment before we actually began eating. With family and friends around the table, “Uncle” began to lead us in a prayer. But unlike previous prayers before meals, he began to give thanks for the many wondrous things that God has given to him in his life: a lovely wife, a loving family and a meaningful career. He also gave thanks to God for my presence with his family on this special holiday.
That prayer best described Thanksgiving for me. Apart from its meaningful historical narrative, Thanksgiving in essence is a holiday for giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving at its core is the awareness of the many graces of God in our lives. And while it is true that we really should not only give thanks to God only during Thanksgiving, this simple yet profound shift in the understanding of Thanksgiving moved me incredibly.
Thanksgiving now means so much more to me. Apart from being a holiday for family reunions, good food and merry-making, it calls us to take a moment to pause, reflect and give thanks to God. Interestingly, Thanksgiving also occurs at a very apt timing – it happens just before Advent, it is the holiday before Christmas. Seen in this light, Thanksgiving becomes a very wonderful occasion: it allows us to be appreciative and receptive to God the Father, before God the son comes to us in the form of baby Jesus during Christmas. Let us then use the remaining time we have in Advent to give thanks to God as we welcome the birth of our savior in our own special and unique thanksgivings.

Ministry and Theory of Mind

Garrett talks about the Theory of Mind and how it can help us understand the spiritual journeys of ourselves and others.

One piece of advice I will never forget receiving from my Spiritual Director is this: in ministry, you must learn to speak the language of the heart. This means learning to empathize with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and identifying with their struggles and hopes. Being a more bookish and studious sort of guy, I must admit this changed the way that I approached my ministry. When before I looked to form ideas from high concepts to improve the institution or society as a whole, I started again from the ground up, having casual conversations that eventually led to a deeper sharing of lives, which in turn helped me gain a deeper understanding of the universal struggles of the human condition. I realized how crucial it was to understand the hearts of my fellow members of community, and how easy it was, as a leader, to become out of touch with the average member’s spiritual needs.
But rather than turn my back on everything that I had read, I found my established literary foundation an invaluable tool in learning the language of the heart. This intellectual formation, coupled with carefully processed intuition, helped me form and connect ideas, especially when my friends found that they lacked the words to describe their situation. Often, after I managed to draw that connection, I was met with an exclamation of ‘Whoa, you read my mind there’, or on one particularly memorable occasion, ‘STOP STARING INTO MY SOUL, GARRETT!’. I started to wonder if I had struck upon something, if I had begun to figure out the way that the head and the heart can come together in walking this faith journey with others.
Perhaps a little anecdote will serve to elaborate this idea further. Recently, I attended a panel discussion titled “The Relevance of Literature in a Time of Confusion”, organized by the Singapore Management University. At the end of the discussion when the panel was opened up to the audience, an elderly professor who was in attendance shared his own answer to the question. He gave the biblical example of John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The professor brought up the fact that this is the only time in the whole of scripture that Jesus is recorded as writing, when he “bent over and wrote in the dust with his finger” (Jn 8:6). What did Jesus write? We may never truly know, but some believe that it was the Law of Moses, and the professor’s response seemed to place him among their number. Others, referencing the Old Testament, see a connection with this verse: “Lord, you are Israel’s hope; all who abandon you will be put to shame. They will disappear like names written in the dust, because they have abandoned you, the Lord, the spring of fresh water.” (Jeremiah 17:13) Could Jesus, then, have been writing down the names, or even the sins, of those who were accusing the woman?
Whatever the case may be, the professor put forth the idea that perhaps this is the only glimpse we have of Jesus the literary critic. He had to analyze the letter of the Law of Moses, the hearts of the accusers, the accused woman, and whatever he was writing on the ground. And from this analysis, Jesus was able to draw out from this chaotic situation an amazingly compassionate response: “Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7). Perhaps, said the professor, this was the most compassionate response in all recorded writing.
I would propose that a good way to learn the language of the heart is practicing the Theory of Mind. The definition of the Theory of Mind is given below:
Theory of mind (ToM) is the ability to recognize and attribute mental states — thoughts, perceptions, desires, intentions, feelings –to oneself and to others and to understand how these mental states might affect behavior. It is also an understanding that others have beliefs, thought processes and emotions completely separate from our own.
Theory of Mind is a skill, just as much as St. Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits is a skill. As such, it can grow better with practice, as you hone your intuition and become better at attuning to the thoughts of others. In a nutshell, this process consists of taking what a person is telling you and forming a theory about the underlying patterns that influence these thoughts and behaviors. It remains a theory as it is impossible to completely understand the mind of a fellow human being, and your conclusion may be right or wrong. The theory of mind is also similar to empathy, but the key difference is that empathy is the ability to feel what the other is feeling, while theory of mind relies on intuition and leaps of logic.
However, I would argue that this does not make the latter any less valid in the process of journeying with someone, as empathy has it’s limits. As humans, our experiences are all different, and that means we aren’t necessarily able to feel completely everything associated with someone else’s experience. This is where theory of mind helps fill in the gaps: “Oh, so-and-so probably feels X because Y.” Furthermore, theory of mind is something that everyone practices instinctively on some level. As such, it can be understood and harnessed to bring others to Christ.
In my opinion, to develop theory of mind in the context of Christian ministry, I would propose that three things are important:
  1. Firstly, prayer. As with all things in ministry, prayer is at the heart of everything. In this case, I believe that having a deep prayer life is of the utmost importance, as we are helping each other along in our Faith. Like any aspect of psychology, the theory of mind can be used to sinister or manipulative ends. Knowledge is power, and the very act of journeying together implies a mutual trust between two Christians that this knowledge will not be abused. So we must continue to pray that we will be given the grace to honor that trust, and to use it for God’s purposes, to lead others to Christ and to grow in Faith ourselves.
  2. Secondly, reading fiction. I understand that reading fiction is a luxury that few can afford, but it is nevertheless a very good way to develop the theory of mind. Stories resonate with people because the author, if competent, is able to replicate on the page experiences which resonate with the readers. Why did Harry Potter react that way? The narrative trick of ‘show, don’t tell’ forces you to think and guess at the motives of characters from the author’s description.
Another way that reading fiction helps is that stories and narratives bring people together, and which parts of a story people are drawn to can tell you quite a bit about them. I once gained an insight into someone’s particular emotional baggage and spiritual struggle by his sharing with me why the character of Darth Vader appealed to him so much.
  1. Lastly, spiritual reading. Journeying with others in a ministry or community setting necessarily operates on the assumption that humans have a spiritual dimension to them that cannot be ignored. Therefore, understanding this spiritual dimension is paramount if we want to use the theory of mind in helping others develop in their relationship with Jesus. I particularly recommend the works of Henri Nouwen, as he draws deeply from his own experiences and understanding of humanity, making his works extremely relatable. Spiritual reading helps us to uncover the common yearning that all humans, including ourselves, hold in their hearts, allowing us to help each other along in our journey.
So this has been my short and no means comprehensive introduction to a particular cognitive skill I think anyone in ministry should be aware of and aim to develop. I hope that as inadequate as it is, it will inspire readers to do their own exploring and reach their own conclusions.
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

Poem: Dining in the Desert

In this special post, the three of us come together in a collaborative effort to weave our individual searches for Jesus together into a poem.

A/N: Blessed Wednesday everyone! To round off Odes to October month, Chris, Greg and I thought we would try writing a poem together. After giving it some thought, I struck upon the idea of modeling the poem after a Japanese collaborative style of poetry called “renga”. 

You may notice that Greg’s first three lines take the form of the famous “haiku” – the three line, 17-syllable Japanese poem. A renga consists of a series of haikus linked together by a couplet – two lines of 7 syllables each. I thought the structured form of this poem would both impose healthy creative limitations (the challenge was to sum up the state of our current spiritual lives in a haiku), and aid some of us who had grave (and unfounded) doubts about our poetic abilities (*cough*Greg*cough*).

So over a long video call across various time zones, the three of us spent a light-hearted three hours listening to each others journeys and trying to fit our spiritual lives into 17 syllables, as well as finding ways to express where our spiritual lives overlapped, mainly in our combined desire to search for Jesus. Do let us know your thoughts on social media or if you ever wish to try a similar exercise with your community or loved ones. We hope you enjoy the read!

– Garrett

Greg:

I walk the desert 

Relishing in a mirage 

More real than the rain 

Garrett:

Truth reveals reality 

Turning desert to summer; 

Lazy summer’s day 

Seeker puts his satchel down 

To hear the Lord’s words: 

Chris:

“Why search for answers outside? 

Can you find rest in me, child?” 

New yet familiar 

I cook a meal for Jesus 

I am loved; He smiles. 

Greg:

My meal and His Eucharist 

We dine together and live 

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng
© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok

Distance, Detachment and Inner Freedom

Chris reflects on how important it is to hold on to our identity as children of God in the midst of a world of distractions.

Simon and his companions set out in search of him, and when they found him they said, ‘Everybody is looking for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came’ … (Excerpt from the Gospel of the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Mark 1:29-39)
“Everybody is looking for you.”
Hearing this verse at Mass the other day and pondering about it in prayer has allowed me to better introspect and in turn, gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of the importance of distance, detachment and inner freedom. To me, the implicit notion of this poignant phrase is one of expectation. Expectation not in the anticipatory Advent “Christmasy” manner but rather, other people’s expectations of Jesus.

Continue reading “Distance, Detachment and Inner Freedom”

Reflections from the Genesee Diary

Chris reflects on how prayer and solitude helps us live as the unique individuals God created us to be.

For the past few nights, I have been really grateful for The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery by Henri Nouwen. This book has been a lovely reflection-companion for my daily night prayer. Nouwen’s writings (from my experience, that is) have always been so hearfelt and brutually honest, and it is precisely in his disarming honesty that one experiences the vulnerability and authenticity of his personality.

Continue reading “Reflections from the Genesee Diary”

Creating Space for God

Chris shares on the vital necessity of creating space for God in the midst of a busy world.

Lately, I’m noticing an invitation to actively create space and make myself available for God in my life. The availability that I actively consent to, the willingness to sit with my inner restlessness and resist the constant (and inordinate) desire to do something (for God, for the church, for ministry-related activities etc. in a knee-jerk and sporadic manner), better allows me to cooperate with God’s divine grace and trust in His perfect timing.

Continue reading “Creating Space for God”