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.

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Working All Night: A Fisherman’s Lessons

Chris reflects on what Our Lord has to teach us in seemingly trying and futile times.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:4-5)

In a season oft characterised by desolation, despondency and despair, Simon’s response to Jesus seems to encapsulate my current state of life. The words “We’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything” resonate deeply with me.  These words are filled with so much fatigue and exhaustion! Furthermore, these words also point to a visceral sense of fruitlessness – a climate of barrenness disproportionate to the “work” and effort that one has made. Reading Simon’s words out loud, one can almost feel his palpable desperation.

Does Simon’s response to Jesus also speak to the depths of your heart? Are you also experiencing an extended season of emptiness and dryness – one that comes from endless (and needless) toiling? More importantly, however, how can one possibly find comfort, refuge and solace from the Living Word through Luke 5:4-5? What can we learn from Simon’s response to Jesus?

Luke 5:4-5 speaks to me on various levels. Firstly, I find it exceptionally intriguing that Simon’s response to Jesus was “Master, we’ve worked hard all night …” This phrase, “all night” captivates me. I am captivated, not because fishermen work especially hard at night, (possibly because fishes are easier to catch at night), but because “all night” is an important metaphor and points to a larger theme: toiling in the dark. How many of us work hard “all night” when most of us are already asleep? (Think of the many women and men who work ungodly hours just to keep our nations safe – security personnel, maintenance workers etc.)  Indeed, who amongst us work behind the scenes continually and more often than not, without thanks and acknowledgement? How many of us work in silence, every single day? Haven’t we all considered throwing in the towel and raising our hands up in frustration and futility? I don’t know about you, but questions such as Why try so hard? Why strive so much? What’s the point? keep coming to me whenever I find myself in this desolated rut.

Perhaps, the key to this tangible sense of disappointment and futility stems from the second portion of Simon’s response to Jesus – “ … and haven’t caught anything.” Indeed, we live in a world of immediate gratifications; we are a quick-fix society. We are brought up to (falsely) assume that effort equates to results. We want to see (immediate) results because the results serve as a tangible affirmation for us; our end products seem to tell us that our processes are effective. That technique may have worked for us in schools and in our younger years, but in the working world, we come to realise that this mode of operation fails to deliver . There are times when effort just does not cut it; there are moments when sheer hard work does not produce results. Indeed, there are seasons in our lives where our toiling simply yields neither immediate nor long-lasting fruits.

To me, then, the larger lesson of Luke 5:4-5 seems to be the distinction between striving for and striving when. From a young age, I was conditioned to think that I had to strive – whether in school or at work – for Jesus. I underwent supposed hardships and pain for Him. My toil was for the Son of God. Such a mind-set, noble yet horrendously egoistic and erroneous as it may be, however, connotes a certain loss of freedom. Indeed, I was more a slave to Jesus than a child of God. Yet, John 15:15 clearly states, “No longer do I call you slaves … I have called you friends.” How, then, do we reconcile this supposed dissonance? My simple response: time. Indeed, it is very likely that Simon’s inability to catch any fish was because he was not yet called to do so. Timing is of the essence here. How many of us conduct our actions on impulse, on insecurities and on past hurts and wounds. How many of us fail to properly pray and discern before we act? Little wonder why we often feel like square pegs being forced into round holes. We bring unnecessary strain to ourselves simply because we have yet to (re)align our wills, our deepest hopes and desires with God’s.

Our God is a generous and loving God. I also have come to recognise that no experience of my life – both the good and especially the bad – has been wasted. In this pedagogy of life and in this ever invigorating (re)discovery of God’s will in prayer, silence and solitude, I have also come to the peaceful realisation that seasons of (needless) toiling and apparent fruitlessness can also be deeply formative for the self. Take Simon for an example. Even though there was no tangible “fish” that was caught during his labour of love, surely the very process of fishing would have yielded long-term benefits of discipline, rigour and grit – instrumental skills that prove to be especially helpful for a future Pope. Paradoxically, then, are we able to also see the hand of God amidst our daily toils and struggles and gradually come to the awareness that there is something larger at work here – that I am still in the midst of being formed, that my process of formation is far from complete? I find it most humbling to accept that God is not done with me.

Perhaps, it is only in this expansive perspective – this ownership of God’s love for all of us – that Simon could respond, “because you say so, I will let down my nets”. What amazing faith! What admirable obedience!

Indeed, because You say so, Lord, I am willing to try again, to pick myself up when I fall over and over again, and trudge further in this challenging journey of faith. Because You say so, Lord, I am willing to look stupid – in the eyes of the world, at least – and do exactly what I’ve done before in the past – actions that have seemingly yielded no apparent results. Indeed, because You say so, Lord, I will make the effort, one more time, to “let down the nets” because I know that You are with me and have called me to do so. I freely avail myself so that I may be used as Your instrument to spread the Good News to the world, regardless of the outcome, for Your greater glory.

© 2018 Christ Centered Conversations/Christopher Chok

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).

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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

 

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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Spiritual Battles and Fantasy Worlds

Garrett muses on what fantasy fiction can teach us about our faith journeys.

In 1986, a writer named Stephen R. Donaldsen published an essay called “Epic Fantasy in the Modern World”. By then a renowned fantasy author himself, Donaldsen achieved fame through his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series, which was famous for it’s handling of moral issues. In this essay, Donaldsen elaborated on the two terms he used to define his work – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’. It is these two terms that I’d like to look at and evaluate, not simply because I found the essay insightful, but because I believe that the terms epic and fantasy as Donaldsen describes them find their fulfilment in Jesus (as all things eventually do).

In part 1, we’ll look at the more familiar term, fantasy. The word itself when applied to entertainment needs almost no introduction, as shown by the popularity of the Lord of the Rings series of films, and more recently, the Game of Thrones television series, which seems to owe no small part of its success to scenes of sexual violence, torture and gore. The word ‘fantasy’ conjures up images of a pseudo-medieval world where men (or women) in shining armor prance about, alongside wizards and dragons. But is there really all there is to the Fantasy genre?

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