Sunday, 23 May 2010

Punggol End or End of Punggol? - Br Edward Seah

At our recent Diocesan Vocation Retreat, I learnt that quite a number of participants could not find the way to the Seminary. How is that possible considering Singapore is [according to a minister from one of our neighbouring countries] just a little red dot? Then I recall the very few occasions I had taxi rides to the place. The drivers did not seem to know where Ponggol 17 Ave or Ponggol End were. One only knew when I said ‘It’s near the end of Punggol’.

At a table conversation during the vocation retreat, I learnt that it seems many drivers did not quite understand when passengers requested for ‘Punggol 17 Avenue’. Then I learnt of a new name given to this place. The taxi drivers call it simply: Punggol 17. Hmm, that’s a cool name for sure!

Punggol End or Punggol 17 is a new place for me. It is the part of Singapore I am not very familiar having spent the first part of my life in Bendemeer-Rangoon area and the rest of my years, prior to coming here, mostly in Katong. My memories of Punggol could only go back to the once-upon-a-time time even before the air was filled with the ‘ketiak’ [armpits] odour of pigs. Once in a blue moon, my mum used to visit a Middleton Hospital colleage of hers for some ‘see-sek’ [chinese gambling cards game or what I thought was the female version of majong] session which lasted like a whole day. When evening came, the aunties either put up the dimly-lit oil lamps or the very brightly pumped kerosene lamps like those commonly used then by stall holders at Pasar Malam. I could still recall the challenge of going home once the aunties transfigured into ‘zombies’ after a day of ‘puak see-sek’. Someone would carry a torch light and lead us through a narrow dirt track before we reach the bus stop for the same bus number 82. It was scary as we believed pontianaks roam in the dark looking for guys [so hold on to your shorts tight] and we were advised never to look back if we smell the sweet fragrance of flowers especially from the frangipani tree.

Many years later, in 2009, I was back again to this place near the end of Punggol. It was different from what I had seen before. There were less trees, less farms though this last stretch of Ponggol Road still look the same narrow road quite like before. Once settled in the Seminary, I had the wonderful opportunity of experiencing the cool weather especially at night and in the early morning. I remember I did not need to use the fan in my room on my first two weeks here. My room faces the forest next door. I was often awakened at night by the sound of wild boar among other creatures and during the day watched different kinds of birds and abundant squirrels in their daily routines. At times, the monkeys made their special guest appearances.

Photo: Is this ….. Down-Under or somewhere? Courtesy of Br. Gregory Chan

Photo: A dream world right across the road. Courtesy of Br. Gregory Chan

I was amazed with the amount of wild lives present in this small remaining pocket of forest. Within a year, the surrounding places changed. Over a period of time, we could hear excavators pulling down the trees one by one. As the struggle went on between the excavator and each tree, I watched the swinging of other trees as if they were trying to uproot themselves so as to seek refuge somewhere else. For a while, the seminary also became like a passage way or crossing for many crawlies including the poisonous cobras. I have no idea where the creatures have gone to now but hopefully they have made their exodus to some other promising lands.

I must say that it has been a privileged for me to be here at this time where Punggol is undergoing major transition. I arrived just in time to catch the breath of the green lung of Punggol. For those who come to attend the next Vocation Recollection, be sure to catch a glimpse of the little old Punggol and give Him the highest glory and praise while admiring the plants of the earth, the bird in the sky, and the wild beasts and tame before the next change comes: the much anticipated Punggol 21. Come and see not only Punggol 17 but if you have time, go beyond … right to the end of Punggol.

Photo: Punggol Road and the bus stop for 17th Avenue.

Photo: Where Punggol Road meets Punggol 17th Avenue.

Photo: What else to do next?

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Chains of Freedom

Being called by God to be a follower of Christ can sometimes seem very daunting. It seems to entail being chained to the commandments of Christ 'to love one another as I have loved you' (John 13:34), chained to the demands expected of a follower 'to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me' (Mark 8:34), even chained to the will of God that seems to go against how we want or desire to live our precious lives.

Gospel reading: John 21:20-25
    Peter turned and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them – the one who had leaned on his breast at the supper and had said to him, ‘Lord, who is it that will betray you?’ Seeing him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you? You are to follow me.’ The rumour then went out among the brothers that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus had not said to Peter, ‘He will not die’, but, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come.’
    This disciple is the one who vouches for these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony is true.
    There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written.

Each time I am called by God either towards a particular vocation, a particular ministry, a particular person, or even just a small particular task, initially it almost seems as if I am being picked out by God from among so many around me, to be clamped with chains round my wrist, so that I may be pulled out and tasked to do God's bidding like a victimising master picking on his slave for fun and pleasure. It is during these moments that I seem to exclaim in Peter's words 'what about him, Lord?' pointing to so many people out there who seem more worthy and capable to be 'picked on'.

First reading: Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
On our arrival in Rome Paul was allowed to stay in lodgings of his own with the soldier who guarded him.

    After three days he called together the leading Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, ‘Brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and would have set me free, since they found me guilty of nothing involving the death penalty; but the Jews lodged an objection, and I was forced to appeal to Caesar, not that I had any accusation to make against my own nation. That is why I have asked to see you and talk to you, for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear this chain.’
    Paul spent the whole of the two years in his own rented lodging. He welcomed all who came to visit him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete freedom and without hindrance from anyone.

Yet we see how even though St Paul was imprisoned and chained in Rome through no fault or choice of his, it was 'on account of the hope of Israel that' he chose to 'wear this chain’. Not only that, throughout the time that he was chained, 'he welcomed all who came to visit him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete freedom and without hindrance from anyone.'

Upon further reflection, I realise that whenever God calls me to follow His will, I am not really being chained to His whims and fancies. In fact, God is really coming to me to set me free from the worldly chains that bind me to earthly pleasures, bind me to my own desires, dreams, plans and will that spring from my own limited and misguided perception of what is really good for me. Only when I freely and willingly accept His calling do I allow God to set me free so that I may truly live out His perfect will for me 'with complete freedom and without hindrance from anyone' and especially without hindrance from my own self.

As I now slowly learn to accept His will and plan for me, I also slowly experience the freedom of being led by God to the fullness of His love and peace, through my deep and personal encounters of Christ, and through the way God uses me in 'proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ' in my everyday life.

It is in this light that I slowly stop looking around me and asking 'what about him, Lord?', for I have realised that it no longer matters to me why I seem to be the only one called, or why someone else isn't called, for God calls each one of us differently and for different paths, but ultimately God personally comes to each one of us to set us free from our earthly chains. And because of this, all that really matters to me is that I be 'chained' to His perfect love and will, to be bound by His mercy and greatness, and to live the life God wills for me with complete freedom.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Not Scared to Lose

I was having mixed feelings the night before this year's Annual Diocesan Vocation "Not Scared to Lose" Retreat held from 7-9 May. It may have been the fact that it was my first time participating in the retreat no longer as an aspirant but this time 'on the other side of the fence' as a seminarian / faciliator. But deep down I knew it was more so because exactly 3 years ago, I attended this same retreat for the very first time, and was one of the minority who sheepishly raised up my hand on the first night of the retreat when we were asked who in the room had a girlfriend. I could almost recall the gaping mouths and the looks of "are you out of your mind?!" horror on the faces of the other single men in the room. 

(If you didn't already know - you can read from my private post 'Sell Everything', I went for the retreat with the intention of confirming that it was God's plan for me to marry my girlfriend then by confirming through the retreat that priesthood was not for me. Yes, I've been asked 'what was I thinking?' many times already so don't you start.)

In all honesty, it's not that I'm having any regrets or remorse at this point in time. I've been very much at peace and have been experiencing moments of deep joy and intimate encounters with the Lord over the last 4 months in the seminary. But I suppose these mixed feelings come about whenever I start to reminisce about the past, recall what I used to have and now what I had to LOSE in order to answer the call of my vocation. It didn't help much either when I recently got to know that not 1, not 2, but THREE fellow aspirants who shared similar experiences of being prompted by God to leave their girlfriends to discern the priestly calling, eventually concluded after a period of discernment that their vocation was for the married life, and so have already gotten married or are about to tie the knot within the next few months. (So it's not true that all who come for a vocation retreat become priests, so what are you afraid of? In fact, with statistics like the above, what are you waiting for? Heh. =P ) While part of me is happy for them that they have finally found their true calling in life that will eventually lead them to the fullest of life and joy, I can't deny that a tiny part of me wonders why couldn't I have shared with them 'God's final answer' for them too. 

"For whoever will save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." (Mark 8:35)

Yet it was Mgsr Eugene Vaz's homily on the last day of the retreat that truly shed much light on my little predicament. He mentioned that in seeking one's vocation in life, it wasn't so much as to consider what one had to LOSE or what one could GAIN from following God's call, but rather HOW we could use our God-given gifts, talents, strengths, positive qualities for the building of God's kingdom for the glory of God!


When I first felt called to the priesthood, I started out measuring my vocation based on what I had to LOSE in order to answer my call - my career, my girlfriend, my hopes of marriage and raising a family. This can make many fear taking the next step, especially when we are overwhelmed by how much we have to sacrifice. Sometimes we may even start to compare ourselves with others and begin to think how we will LOSE out to our peers when we take the road less travelled. During the early stages of my discernment period, I remember feeling jealous of dating couples and even hated attending weddings at one point in time when I saw my friends - what with their wedding gowns, smart suits and photoshoots - as having what I couldn't have.

Once after a good friend of mine gave birth to a baby boy, I got the chance to visit her. And when I saw how cute the baby was, I told her how jealous I was of her, to have such a nice happy family. But you know what she told me? She told me, “Are you crazy? I’m the one jealous of you, to be able to experience God in such a deep, personal way that you could just give up everything to answer His call. And that made me see things differently.


Later I began to also see answering one's vocation as being able to achieve the greatest possible self-fulfilment in life, being able to experience the fullness of His love and joy that He meant for us to have by living out our vocation. While I believed God would still bless my marriage had I chosen to ignore His call, I concluded that not only will I be short-changing myself with a life of second-best (only in my case if I was called to the priesthood), I would also be shortchanging my partner from a better plan that God might have for her.

And so it surprised me when Msgr Eugene Vaz mentioned that the above should not be the primary reason why one answers a vocation call. While it is true that God wants the best for us, and will never disappoint or be outdone in generosity when we surrender our lives to Him, the above 'GAINS' are only to be considered the fruits and rewards of answering one's vocation call, the pleasant outcome of our obedience to His call.


And so I've come to realise that measuring our vocation call based on what we have to LOSE and/or what we stand to GAIN from it, not only makes our response very much self-serving, it also would not sustain us in our vocation call. As Msgr Eugene Vaz points out, it is necessary that we stop asking 'what will I LOSE?' or 'what will I GAIN?', and start asking 'in which vocation can I best make use of my gifts and talents for His Church, for His glory?' When we can find the vocation - be it singlehood, marriage, or the religious life - where we can best serve God and His church using the gifts given to us, we not only give glory to God and benefit the entire church, we also get to fully live out the life God planned for us, to BE the person He created us to be - in His image and likeness, and THEN only will the things we have to LOSE pale in comparison to the awesomeness and perfection of His ultimate plan for us, and THEN only will we consequently GAIN the greatest possible life we can have through experiencing the fullness of His love and joy.

Indeed this was what I eventually experienced during the 3 days of the Diocesan Vocation Retreat. The minute I focused on giving my very best to God and to the retreatants, I found myself so taken up by the power of God working through the speakers, the sharings of the retreatants, the prayer sessions, the entire atmosphere of the retreat, and also through my very self, my very BEING. As I began welcoming the retreatants and making them feel as at home and as loved as I myself experienced 3 years ago, as I began sharing with the retreatants about my own experiences, struggles, joys, insights, as I even got to have some heart-to-heart chats with a few retreatants who were facing personal struggles or concerns, I found myself in great joy, fulfillment and awe at how powerfully God was using me as His instrument to journey with the retreatants and bring about His love and truth. And so not only was I there to provide faciliatation and support to the retreatants, the retreatants in turn have also provided me with the much needed affirmation that I am right where He wants me to BE, and have no regrets LOSING everything just so I can better serve God and His people. And the joy and peace I GAIN from it can never be replaced by anything else in the world.

"Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

But then the question is, how do I continue refraining from looking into the past and dwelling on what I have to LOSE, or stop looking into the future at what I stand to GAIN?

St Therese of Liseux says, "It's only love that makes us what God wants us to be, and for that reason it's the only possessions I covet. But how to come by it? Our Lord has seen fit to show me the only way which leads to it, and that is the unconcern with which a child goes to sleep in its father's arms."

As I begin to grow in my intimacy with God through my time in the seminary, I better understand how true the above is. The more we grow in our relationship and intimacy with God as a child grows in relationship and intimacy with its father, the more we can trust in His ways and simply lie still in the Father's arms without a care in the world what we lost from the past or what we may gain in the future. When we can give that complete trust to the Father, all that matters is dwelling every minute of everyday in the Lord's presence, allowing Him to Lord over my life, to lead me to His perfect plan for me, and to totally submit and surrender to His time and purpose.

It's just as how I imagine myself to be caught in the middle of the ocean, still unaware of which island God wants me to end up on. Yet, if I try to take matters into my own hands and swim towards the island I think I want to go (which may not necessarily be His plan for me), I might be swimming against the current and tire myself out along the process. Instead, I realise all God wants of me is to BE STILL and know that HE IS GOD who knows best and will use the waves and the currents to gently and slowly lead me towards the island I am meant to end up on, the vocation I am meant to live out.

And so while I am still in my first year of formation, still unaware of what is to come in the subsequent years of my journey, I choose to continue lying in the middle of God's gigantic ocean of love, lying still in the midst of His gentle ways that will carry me day by day towards His perfect plan for me.

And my prayer is for all of us who may still be in search for our vocation, or may be struggling along the path towards responding to that vocation, that we may continue to faithfully build that intimate relationship with the Father through small faithful acts of prayer and time set aside for the Lord, such that once we can experience the 'unconcern with which a child goes to sleep in its father's arms' 

no matter where God is leading us towards our true vocation in life

we will not have to consider what we stand to GAIN

and we will most definitely

NOT be Scared to Lose!