A Penance: On Desires & Decision

Dear Jesus,

Preamble & Prologue

Father Jude penanced me to write a love letter to you right before I delivered that session at RCIA Retreat. It was on 19 January to be exact and this is therefore way overdue. Let me confess that I haven’t the slightest clue how or where to even begin. I feel like I have much to say to you yet nothing at all, so much to rant about but yet much to be thankful for as well. So here’s my limited attempt to piece our story together (and thus finally bring to a close my Lenten/Easter commitments).

As Henri Nouwen beautifully expresses, “to write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.” So this is me saying to myself, “I do not yet know what I carry in my heart, but I trust that it will emerge as I write.” [1] – I trust that you will prevail as I write.

Good Friday ’18 | The call to not be a bystander but to be in union with Christ in His suffering and His cross

That particular retreat session was unlike the many other sessions I have done before. And even up till today, I cannot wrap my head around and fathom just how things unfolded – the prep, times of desperate prayer and eventually, the delivery. It was the fullest and most alive I have felt in a long time. I was on fire (for you), was surprised at just how convinced and convicted I actually was of your presence and faithfulness in my life as I shared, and was absolutely reeling and high on some unexplained divine drug when I was done. That night, I remember going to bed wondering just how much more alive I could be with you, and for you. And I was excited at our very prospects.

RCIA Retreat ’18 | Service Team

Beginnings & Bumps

I have repeatedly wondered what sort of relationship we share. From mountain tops to valleys lows, a poverty of the unknown to having the surest sense of where is it that I ought to be, I have never once forgotten that first encounter of you beside the pillar, cross legged on the cold hard floor, during my Sec 3 camp in 2006. You literally swept me off my feet and transformed my life anew. And while I might have been blinded or petulant at times, I’ll like to believe that I was never in doubt that you are real to me.

4 Nov ’06 | Sacrament of Confirmation celebrated by then Archbishop Nicholas Chia

I think our first major fight happened when I received my disappointing O Level results. I was angry at the fact that I had made time for you – disrupted my study schedule every day for weekday Mass – but yet you never saw through in ways that I wanted you to. When I knew of my results, I cried. When I knew of my posting, I cried even more. And when Papa told me (in all his wisdom and knowledge of you) that this was you writing my life testimony, I scoffed in disbelief and told him that it was utter nonsense. I still recall the setting in the then CAYC office when my cry fest unfolded. I was extremely upset.

Recess Bunch ’07 | Last few days in IJ

Well needless to say, you won this fight hands down.

I was left absolutely speechless at the end of J1 – that completely ignorant “Eh what is this 100 percentile arh? Got two some more” – for who would have thought, really?

J2 was even more remarkable. And it was two years later that I finally articulated the full glory that you wanted to carry me to. I also finally acknowledged that those O Level results were necessary in building me as a person and in leading me to where it was that you wanted me to go next. Also, Papa was right for I repeatedly found myself being made to give ‘Who Am I?’ sessions and having this story arc of my life fall just perfectly into place, for you.

2S17 ’09 | Last day of JC life

You reigned, I emerged victorious and just a little more whole with you, and it was at this juncture that I grasped an important truth: You will only the best for me.

“God is too wise to be mistaken, God is too good to be unkind. So when you don’t understand, when you don’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.” [2]

Gifts and Growing Pains

I recall sharing at BASIC retreat last year just how privileged I was to be able to, time and time again, recognise your hand in my life and connect the pieces. Though never in the moment (of pain, doubt, or darkness), it is with the passage of time and of reluctant faithfulness that a semblance of beauty and sense somehow emerges.

BASIC Retreat ’17 | BASIC and LoG shot

I used to think that such perceptions and profound insights were a function of my intellect – I was able to grasp complexities of life, introspect, process them, and consequently, arrive at deep realisations about what was going on around and within me. I became proud, saw myself in a league above others, and began withdrawing myself from those who seemingly could not understand and much less, think. It was you then who initiated the painful move to strip me of what I now saw as my self-honed talent instead of God-given gift.

And painful it was indeed.

Receiving my Uni Year 1 Sem 2 results the last day of Sec 2 camp, the camp where I served as IC of, was the first strike. I remember breaking down at Papa’s office at my extreme disappointment (lol this shepherd, like you, is really always there hur) for I simply could not comprehend how in spite of my sacrifices and active involvement in church, I was not taken care of by you. It wasn’t to say that I hadn’t even pulled my weight that semester; I did study as best and as much as I could find the time outside of church work.

1Cor12 Retreat ’16 | Kingdom Builders as planning comm

In trusting surrender, I prayed, “Your grace has found me just as I am, empty-handed but alive in your hands”[3] during closing worship in sincere hope that my academic journey will get better.

The subsequent semesters however were as much of a struggle with me not grasping practically two-thirds of what was going on in my major. Econometrics became the real bane of my life and even though I studied so much more with each passing semester, my CAP only went down, never up. I was even issued a warning by Big Brother to buck up or face being revoked.

Throughout my semesters, I could not reconcile how you had blessed and brought me to where I was in university, only to bind me to something that I clearly now suck at, foamed and died beyond my reckoning. I didn’t know where I was headed and the complete joke came when I had to change my CS to EL. Oh my god, for what did I endure that 3.5 years of senseless misery then?! Genius.

Another truth became so real to me: You give and take away. And painful as it may be, my heart has just got to continually choose to pray “Lord, blessed be your name still”. For if I hold on tight to you, faithfulness will bear its fruit in due season; but if I lose my grip of you, nothing, both gains and losses, in this life will ever make sense to me.

NUS Commencement ’14 | That pink gown. What a story.

I repeatedly wondered, “So God, what now?” And strangely, though not entirely surprising, you remained absolutely silent in my incessant questioning.

I was brought down from my high horse and sent away from my batch mates to right where I felt least worthy and prepared to be. It was not what I desired nor what I feel I deserved at that time. But a small fraction (like a really really minute part) of me accepted your hand in it. Because you will only the best for me, right?

Grad Trip ’14 | Trek around Dove Lake Circuit, double rainbow after the downpour

I was off to NIE alone and absolutely defeated. All around me were people certain of their motivations for teaching and grounded in their experiences from contract teaching. Everyone was ready to thrive and here I was quite literally doing my PGDE only because I failed to continue further in my undergrad. I had not any prior teaching experience, and had not even fought for this job in ways that those around me had. I was there only because I had signed on a dotted line when I was 18, and second-guessing was just about all I did every other day.

I lived in the shadows of those around me and in this poverty of the unknown, I understood the reality of a prayer I uttered on the first night of SOW in 2010: “I do not ask to see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” For I knew not where I was going to end up, much less the state in which I will come out, I only knew of whom I was supposed to walk the path with – it was with you. And the challenge to choose the better part – to be Mary over Martha – to be faithful in prayer and in listening to you was the call for the season. For when the time is right, you will instruct me in the way to walk, and only by grace will the eagle fly.

One day at a time, one step at a time, in your time.

Coming to think of it, my existential crisis, withdrawal and isolation in 2014 must have pained you in such an unbearable manner. All facade aside, I was pretty much a hollow wandering shell. Nothing more.

Well, I did forge some very blessed friendships though. And that must have really been you gently at work because somehow this like-minded bunch just ended up together all the time. Every mod, every group project.

I guess it was these little blessings along the way that made me continue hanging on to the invisible you. It’s like as if you were there, but not exactly there. Silent, yet still somewhat present.

NIE Graduation ’15 | #understandcanalready

Dreams and Desires

I would characterise BASIC’s service at the then YV, now ACT, retreat in 2015 as a milestone in our love story. Unlike previous years where I largely counted on tangible gifts from you to be assured of my identity and who I was with you, I now understood with a quiet knowing that though sometimes I feel that all I have are my realities, you are very much bigger than my realities.

YV Retreat ’15 | Service Team (BASIC and friends) after that 5 hour session

In preparing to deliver a session at that retreat, the choice between sharing on the pit hole of indifference, something I was fully aware of yet did not speak of except within the confines of the confessional, or not followed. And that bugged me for days. I went with it eventually, extracting an excerpt from Acedia and articulating the extent and gravity of my wrestle with you and the reluctant decision to, at day’s end, hope. The verbalisation brought to light a glimmer of progress within my interior labyrinth and the movement towards sharing the once unshared sufficed.

At this retreat, you also made me see that the very gift that I, time and time again, saw as a personal bane (after you stripped me from it in university) transform into something quite wondrous for another. You used it for Kingdom Building and humbled me into an acceptance of a Greater Good. You also actualised what was once a mere suspicion of something unspeakably great happening, something that will ultimately lead back to you, into an experience that was indeed uplifting, bold and wondrously intimate.

I now grasp and treasure in my heart the truth that you are so much more than who I can ever imagine you to be for me. You know my heart through and through and your love is never transactional, only ever-giving and unconditional.

And so increasingly in the time that has followed do I find myself with the desire to give more of myself to you and to the service of the Kingdom. You have stirred within me a restlessness and dissatisfaction with my status quo, and continuously draw me to long for something more, something beyond what this world can ever offer me.

Holy Thursday ’18 | Altar of Repose at SFX

After the hauntingly beautifully time in Myanmar last December, I articulated in my year-end reflection that the immediate step was to courageously dream and boldly seek answers and direction. I hate to admit how you took my words so seriously (as with every other thing I have said since we begun our journey) because mere weeks later had I found myself having vocations presented in very clear pathways before me.

That scared the crap out of me so much because I recognised in almost an instant that your movement in my life over the past few years was slowly coming altogether, and that things were probably/possibly climaxing soon.

All I wanted to do was to run. Because I now knew that a concrete step forward ensues. And I was not ready.

Myanmar Mission 5, Dec ’17 | The day after the night.

Heartaches and Headaches

I have always proudly declared myself to have a non-existent score for ‘touch’ as a love language. Likewise, I usually joke among friends how I cannot imagine having to date and meet someone multiple times in a week, let alone talk to the same person every day. Quite paradoxical then that I do that with you every morning and night, don’t ever get sick of it and actually feel weird if I don’t. Unless of course we’re on not so good terms lol.

In any case, it came rather unexpectedly during Lent this year. The desire for companionship, to have someone constantly check-in and show concern, resurfaced. And this time, very strongly. I guess it was in part due to the immense ennui and dreariness of work – there were so many things weighing me down, many things left unarticulated. And the more I forced this longing for someone aside, the more did friendship with G come back.

I foamed because while I knew in the depths of my heart that our relationship was almost like the forbidden fruit, I simply couldn’t dismiss how I still felt towards him after all these years. Worse still, I cannot deny your hand in having grown us into such a deep and special friendship, to where we are right now. Which just makes it a lot more difficult to not reach out for the fruit and have it. Especially so when imploding to someone seemed like the quickest and surest soothing balm to the interior whirlwind.

Iceland ’16 | Héraðsskólinn Hostel

You know very well this tension and struggle – after all you and I got into such a huge fight over it in 2016 that I almost walked away – and hence handled it in the most effective way you knew I would take to when it came up over Lent. And while that had me walking all the way home one night in order to think and clear my head, I guess the much needed consolation and silver lining was that I was no longer indifferent and stone cold (as work had previously made me to be over time) and in fact could very much still feel such strong emotions.

That walk I now understand is the most definitive end and closure I can have. Because not only was I made to remember coming full circle with that perfect end in St Patrick’s Church, London – “Happy is the man who does not lose faith in me” (Luke 7:23) – I have also now learnt in my heart the important truth that You remember everything and never fail, even when humans do.

The liberation in finally moving on from those five years had to be your grace at work. And while I still have no real understanding why it had to turn out the way it did over the years (I have some inclinations though), I guess we have moved past the need for real clarity in our relationship. All I need is trust, and trust in abundance. [4]

UK ’16 | St Patrick’s Church, Soho

Sometimes really, I marvel at just how stubborn a person I can be. But well technically, that’s who you have made me to be so I’m sure you’ve got your reasons for it in my life.

With this new found freedom to choose, I’d admit that now’s your best time and shot to convince me of DS. Reluctant as I am, I promise to properly revisit that letter written 5 years ago in the pew that night in London and remain open to you. Also, I will no longer deny that with each M&S, a certain excitement is planted as they we dream the dreams placed in each of our hearts.

The Lenten Curated Book Project ’18 | A deeply edifying experience of faith and the power of the HS.

That said, my greatest preoccupation and by extension, distraction, this year has been and continues to be work. Having spend the bulk of my waking hours each day on it makes this so easy and almost excusable.

Admittedly over these few months have there been a good number of times when I had lost sight of you in the ongoing frustrations and struggles. More pertinently, the last few weeks have been ones with a diminishing desire to spend time with you. Patient endurance is an increasingly painful disposition to live in and throwing in the towel becomes so real an option; because the bleak and hopeless days far outnumber the uplifting and hope-filled ones. Really doesn’t help that I’ve been super sick with no real recovery time. And when I look at where C is right now as a result of work, I worry that I too may find myself in a state as irrevocable as such.

I do not know if the current ennui is a by-product of the previous work wrestle; I thought that that came to a close after the heartfelt 2.5 hour conversation with N. What I do know though is that the shadow that veils your hand right now is crippling.

I’ve reached a point where I have no idea what I’m doing anymore, much less where is it that I am headed. My strength is faltering and in this nothingness, I can only silently cry, “Where are you, Lord? Why the Darkness again?”, and choose to believe that you will come through as you always do.

1 Mar ’18 | There has to be more than this.

The wrestle with you over that application was a real act of dying to self and my will. And when the appointment announcement was made, I felt a strike right into my heart knowing that it could have been mine and that I did not even (put up a) fight for it. I guess it’s particularly hard to just sit by and not grab something that I humanly desire, and for days did I beat myself up for being foolish enough to give up what I could see for what I couldn’t.

It was at this juncture that I came to understood the wisdom uncompromisingly spoken through Fr Jude that until I let go out of my will, to give you control and the reins, I must not kid myself into thinking that what I think I have right now is the full experience of what it is that you have set me apart for. Because I am far from free. And I cannot say that you are my Lord and God if I choose to hold on to that one particular square on the checkerboard – the security of an unimpeded and/or accelerated progress in my career. For until I take that leap of trusting surrender to sell all that I own in order to purchase that plot of land where the Pearl of Great Price lies hidden, I but remain the merchant who settles for the if-only and what-ifs.

In being torn asunder by the security of the status quo and the real adventure of a lifetime with you, I can only be deeply grateful for the instrumental and almost too providential role that N plays in my work life. I guess you know just how intrinsically connected work is to the process that is unfolding and so you brought together the two unlikeliest of persons to be in the most unlikeliest of friendship in an absolutely unlikeliest of place over time. For I would have never imagined letting someone in on those preliminary stirrings, much less an older person, and someone of a different faith. Rationally, that doesn’t make sense, more so given my propensity (or lack thereof) for open and vulnerable sharing.

The gossamer and authentic conversations that have taken place have assured me in the least expected of ways that a call can take place within the daily toil and grind of work, and that at times, all you ask of me is to put aside my rationality for a greater courage to move and respond to the promptings of your Spirit. Availing myself to your divine appointments can bear such unexpected fruits and joy, if only I am willing to move.

HS Sports Carnival ’18 | A bunch of EL teachers who at times behave just like our students and drive our Boss up the wall.

I look back at the last five years and teaching EL (in particular) has been one of my greatest privilege and satisfaction of my work life thus far. I have an amazing department, a nurturing Boss and a real chance to broaden and expand minds while carrying out the curriculum still. The fruits of the Dark Ages are rather apparent now as well. And when I was forced to decide on my specialisation last year, I surprised Boss with just how sure I was.

Maybe this is the joy that was to await me after those gruelling and necessary uni years. Because I am now better disposed to receive your Greater Gift at work. And while all this does not remove the reality that I will possibly remain stagnant in the next few years and probably be overlooked in opportunities for growth and development, there is a quiet knowing to remain in your love, a love that is a gift to me and one that will not fail.

In my lack of energy to fight the war that seems to be raging every day against everything that unfolds in school, teach me then to continuously pray, “Bend my heart to your will, Lord”Because it is only with your Spirit that passion can be reignited and the frustrations of each work day not blind out the small joys that may drop by, albeit in trinkets.

“Man of little faith, why do you doubt?
You have seen me in the miracles!

I raised the dead to life, the blind can see, the lame can walk.
Why do you doubt in my pow’r and love?
Is there anything beyond me?”

– Across the Stormy Sea

Philippians 1:6 | While the road may be empty and dark, the end, I know will be wondrously beautiful.

Courage and Choice

In the same way that I didn’t know how to begin the letter, I now don’t quite know how to end it as well. Lol I guess it is because we are far from done with each other.

More than a decade in and I still find myself not having a clear grasp of who you are. I see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles now, and can know only so imperfectly. But I wait in the hope of seeing you face to face and asking you all that I ever wanted. Until then, the quiet assurance that I’ll be more than okay with you will carry me through. Because you have brought me full circle in many areas of my life and have convinced me that you will never fail.

You have taught me that the deepest and never failing intimacy is with you, the Perfect Lover. You have nudged me to be increasingly relational and expanded my capacity to love, feel, walk with and hold space for others. You have walked with me through the Darkness and shown me the light of my brokenness. And you have ridden each wave with me in order that I may rise with you.

If things between us do not work out in tangible ways down the road, I don’t know what would happen to me. Love has been your singular purpose in our relationship, even when I am least worthy of it.

You do not call the perfect but instead perfect the one you have called. And so, what lies ahead of me ought to be a willingness to embrace the possibility of a life set apart for and dedicated to your work. Because if the victory of your resurrection is marked by your immense love, then the only fitting response I can offer is my love, however limited, in return. And while I do not know for certain what your will is for me (and I recognise that I never will), this definitive invitation to something more is the journey I must now make.

Meet-and-Share | “Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace.” – Gaudete et Exsultate #34

I love you, Jesus, more than I ever say.

Remind me to sit with you, to wait and pray, to single-mindedly pursue you and courageously make that journey from hope to clear vision.

And don’t you ever give up on me, please.

Love, Mad

[1] A quote by Henri Nouwen that a community member tagged me in which that inspired me to finally pen this blogspot down
[2] Trust His Heart | A song that carried me through my secondary school life 
[3] Majesty (Here I Am) | A song that carried me through my university life 
[4] One of the key takeaways from attending Treasure 6 in 2016 


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