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

Why do I… believe in God?

Greg weighs in on the difficult existential question, “Why do I believe in God?”

Now, this topic has been discussed, debated, pondered and meditated upon ever since the beginning of humanity – whether you believe we were created in 7 days or evolved slowly over billions of years – an issue which splits even Catholics into 2 camps, not unlike Moses splitting the Red Sea. There are so many answers and ideas about this very topic by everyone scientists to saints, philosophers to priests and anyone who ever had a notion on where they stand on this issue. Ideas from brilliant thinkers such as Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawkins, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine and many more have attempted to justify their answers to this question:

Is there a God?

What I’m trying to do now, in the spirit of this series, is to try to make sense of this through my own experiences, beliefs and teachings that I know of, however hard this task may be. To this debate, I will probably not add anything that is not unknown or that has yet to be said (after all, the question’s been there since like humans appeared). However, what I will add are my own thoughts on this matter and that is that I believe there is a God (otherwise I wouldn’t have become a co-founder to this blog, would I?).

Personally, the main reason I believe in the existence of a God is the fact that not believing in one would be a less rational choice than actually believing in God. Let me explain. As one who is studying within the field of science, a foundational idea within science is cause and effect. A common example of this would be Newton’s Third Law, which is widely known as the law that states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While Newton generally devised this law to refer to forces, the idea of causality is not restricted to simply the domain of physics. Our body’s own homeostatic responses involve some form of reaction to a fluctuation of our body’s natural and healthy state. A major component of historical research is discovering causes that led to certain events. The door opens when I push/pull it. In short, to all things, there is a cause. Thus, by extension, the creation of the world, the stars, the universe must have a cause.

Even though many might point towards the Big Bang, what caused the Big Bang? Well, I think scientists are still trying to figure this model out but if you have any theories to this, please seek out your nearest physicist for, what I’m pretty sure will be, a very stimulating talk. Aside from that, you get the idea. If you continue this pattern of regression, there must be an initial cause to all things; a cause that cannot be regressed upon, or as St Thomas Aquinas puts it, the Uncaused Cause. This Uncaused Cause (or as Aristotle puts it, the Prime Mover) is what is commonly known as God. Quite appropriate actually considering that the Bible constantly refers God to Yahweh, or “I Am”. For example, “I am who I am” in Exodus 3:14, the one who is unchanged and uncaused; the Alpha and the Omega.

Now, this seems like an awful lot of theorizing based on causality. What if causality’s a sham and Nature is random and disordered. What if it’s all just chaos or some sort that we’re just caught in? Here’s where the concept of beauty is so intertwined with truth: the sheer elegance of the world, in my perspective, just cannot be simply explained away with sheer chance. Maybe there’s a deeper explanation on the idea of chance in scientific enquiry but I cannot fathom how the creation of the universe, life, evolution and development of mankind are all simply caused by a series of very fortunate events happening at just the right time and space. Delving deeper into the mysteries of the world, you learn how interconnected the world is. Molecules and atoms obey a set of laws (be they quantum or classical) that allows for reactions to take places. Nature leverages on these physical phenomena to optimize cellular activities via enzymes and various pathways. This, in turn, allows living things to function, adapt and thrive in their environment. In nature, you can find tons of cycles, both on the microscopic and macroscopic scales, allowing resources and materials to always be recycled and used in an efficient manner (That is, before we messed things up slightly). That aside, there are just so many intricate details that are beyond human understanding in each of these concepts and yet, they all just work. They click. And that, brothers and sisters, is something that cannot simply be pure chance. That, is part of an intelligent design; one created by God.

Now, at the end of the day, I could give you all my thoughts on this topic. However, going back to truth and beauty, we must remember the last of the three transcendentals: goodness. A brother of mine once shared that faith is like a litmus test. Until you actually dip the litmus paper into the solution, you will never know the acidity/basicity of said solution. Likewise, unless we have experienced the goodness of God, how can we believe in our faith with all our hearts, mind and body? Just like how I have run synthetic reactions in order to believe that my synthetic mechanism yields good results, I too must experience God’s goodness before I am able to fully commit to Him. That is the crux. If someone is unwilling or unable to do so, then no matter what arguments I may have for them, it will never really turn into a belief. Until and unless somebody is able to see God’s goodness in Nature (and anything else really!), science remains simply a pursuit of knowledge instead of a gateway into understanding and delving into the mysteries of God’s Creations.

“I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.” – Albert Einstein

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Gregory Adrian Gunawan

Why Learning Complements Our Faith

Garrett muses on how the faithful should not fear learning, but learn to employ it.

“For although correct conduct may be better than knowledge, nevertheless knowledge precedes conduct.” – Charlemagne, De Litteris Colendis

This is a quote from a letter written by the Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled over much of Europe for much of the 8th century, to Baugulf of Frida, the abbot of a monastic community. A towering figure who came to the support of the popes, Charlemagne was also extremely interested in the topic of education, and in the ability of the Catholic Church at the time to educate people (keep in mind that these were hard times with low literacy rates). In this letter, the Emperor expresses his desire that churchmen should feed the minds of the people as well as their souls:

“[…] bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each individual, so that just as the observance of the rule imparts order and grace to honesty of morals, so also zeal in teaching and learning may do the same for sentences, so that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly.”

Reading this letter was interesting for me as I’ve always valued learning, and never really saw any disparity between knowledge and the faith. In fact, my faith was strengthened greatly by reading as a young boy the works of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and while my understanding was somewhat limited, it drove me to learn more and more about the faith and why we should believe. And indeed, one could argue this was the way God ‘trapped’ me – even if I were to want to walk away from the faith, I think deep down inside I would know that it would be a fundamentally dishonest act.

But that said, I find that most of my friends have become somewhat wary of knowledge and learning. And while their reasoning has merit, I think there is a better way to approach the problem, and if we’re going to grow as Christians, especially in a modern city like Singapore, it is necessary to strengthen our knowledge of the faith. Thus, this article will be serve as a discussion and hopefully a proposal on ways we can use knowledge to strengthen our faith.

So what is the main problem people have with knowledge? I think it lies in the fear that being so immersed in the technical aspects of the faith detracts from one’s personal relationship with Jesus. This worry can be summed up in the maxim that some people “know a lot about God instead of knowing God”.

I won’t say that this is an unfounded fear. I think most people in Catholic communities might know someone like that. Someone extremely widely read in matters of faith and spirituality, but whose knowledge gives them a sense of superiority over others. For such people, their knowledge has become a stick to beat others with, and not surprisingly, leave people with a bad taste in their mouth.

However, despite this potential pitfall, I don’t believe that we are justified in simply tossing out learning wholesale. As with all things, there is a right and wrong way of approaching the issue. One wrong way is the one I just described, to use learning as a means to engage in theological pedantry and endless (often fruitless) wrangling.

And yet I have had moments where being theologically informed did come in useful when ministering to others. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing”. What Bishop Sheen said about the Bride of Christ is true of her Spouse as well. There are a lot of misconceptions people have about God, and many people have false conceptions of Him. Even our fellow Catholics, and even ourselves. No one can know God in His entirety, but we can know what He has revealed to us, through scripture, tradition and the teaching of the Church. In a sense, learning about God is getting to know Him better as well, and helps us to introduce Him more effectively to others.

 “An hour of study, for a modern apostle, is an hour of prayer.” – Saint Josemaria Escriva

St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, was a big believer in the value of study and learning. So much so that he dedicates an entire chapter of short sayings on the topic in his most famous work, The Way. Having reflected on his writings, I think this is born of being appreciative of the time God has allowed us to live in. Think about it. We live in a time of extremely high literacy rates. Electricity allows us the ability to continue reading and learning even at night. This is both a blessing and a curse for us urban city-dwellers. On one hand, we have so much information available to us. On the other, we are overwhelmed by the plethora of ideas and views that seem omnipresent on social media and other things we interact with on a daily basis.

Thus, I feel that it is more important than ever to embark on an adventure of learning, to truly appreciate for ourselves the beauty of the Catholic faith, and to communicate that to others as well. I hope that this article inspires you to explore the amazing breadth of our Faith and learn more. God bless!

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

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

What are my Nets?

Chris reflects of the images of ‘nets’ in a certain Gospel passage.

One weekend, I was grateful that I had the time to attend two Masses, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday morning in two very different parishes to hear the Word of God. This meant that I was able to witness, listen and reflect upon two homilies, both dealing with the same Gospel passage and both reiterating the main call to Discipleship. The Gospel spoke about Simon and Andrew “abandon[ing] their nets and follow[ing]” Jesus upon hearing His call (Mark 1:14-20).

Continue reading “What are my Nets?”

Gregory, I choose you!

If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon already, Pokemon Quest was just released on mobile a few months ago after its Nintendo Switch release! Prior to that, “Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!” was also released last November and Pokemon fans were going crazy because Pikachu SHOULD NOT have spoken English. Nope. Not at all. That slight rant aside, it is a loose retelling of the first season of the animated Pokemon series and a new movie is expected to come up this year as well! With all these exciting developments, (Wewew!) it’s gonna be another good year for Pokemon fans.

So, how does this link back to our faith? Well, read on fellow Pokemon trainers, and see how our journey towards being the very best that no one ever was, is similar to our journey together as one Body of Christ.

Continue reading “Gregory, I choose you!”

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