Aug 25, 2020

The cell in spiritual life (Part 1)

“Thy cell, if thou continue in it, grows sweet, but if thou keep not to it, it becomes tedious and distasteful. If in the beginning of thy conversion thou accustom thyself to remain in thy cell and keep it well, it will be to thee afterwards a dear friend and a most agreeable delight.”

-- Thomas à Kempis (Imitation of Christ, Chapter 20)


Thanks to Blessed Titus Brandsma, OCarm, I came to understand the double senses of the ‘cell’ in the school of Carmel.

A cell is a small room, or “a small room in which a criminal is locked up” (Oxford Dictionary). We are more familiar with ‘cell’ as in a prison ‘cell’. Interestingly, it is also a term commonly used by religious to refer to their bedrooms.

If anyone had been inside of the cell of a cloistered religious, one would understand why it is called a ‘cell’ and not a ‘room’ – because it looks exactly like a prison cell. Inside the cell, the most basic furniture are: a simple single bed, a desk and a chair. Of course, in the more modern monasteries or religious houses, they would have more than these.

I know about this because I have seen a cell of a Carmelite nun. It was an unoccupied cell that was opened for visitors during the opening of their newly refurbished monastery in Kuching.

The first sense of the cell is exactly what the word implies, a small room. When Bl. Titus Brandsma was arrested (because he opposed the Nazi regime) and imprisoned in cell number 577 in Scheveningen, he wrote an account of his life in prison entitled “My Cell”, in which he described how he had made use of that little, cold room with minimal furniture. The account began with these words: “Cella continuata dulcesit” (a cell becomes sweeter as it is more faithfully dwelt in), which he quoted from the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

“I am already quite at home in this small cell,” wrote Titus. “Now he [God] is my only refuge, and I feel secure and happy. … Seldom have I been so happy and content.”

Upon reading this, I was reminded of my own bedroom back in Kuching. It was not a big room, with a single bed, a small bedside table, a desk, two bookshelves, a stand-fan and a wardrobe. When I was much younger, I did not make use of it much aside from sleeping at night. But as I age and crave for privacy and solitude, I began to spend more time in that room. It was in the silence of that room that I prayed, cried, enjoyed reading and meditating, and found joy and peace in solitude. It was in that room that I experienced God’s presence.

Now having moved to Australia and settled into a new house, once again I made use of one of the rooms in the house as my study. I called it a cell, because it is small, smaller than the one I had back home in Kuching. After putting in a desk and a shelf, the room can barely fit a single bed. So I bought a small futon couch, which can be converted into a small bed. I fixed the special Trinitarian cross (a gift from my parish priest) and some icons of Our Lady and the Carmelite saints onto the wall. On the desk, there are two portraits of St John Paul II (my hero!), a small Byzantine cross, and a cheap-looking plastic skull as memento mori. My books… they are everywhere. Some are stacked up on the desk because I refer to them every now and then for my studies, others are messily placed on the shelf. Before long, you could expect some books to be arrayed on the futon couch as well! 

My current small, messy cell

Just like the room I had in Kuching, this is the cell where I found my heart at peace. This is where I work, pray, read, study, work and even cry. Since I am now in ‘exile’, God is my only refuge and it is here that I feel secure and happy.

I would suggest to everyone reading this to prepare a room as such for yourself, if it is at all possible. If a room is not possible, then set up a little quiet corner in the house where you can be alone by yourself. It is a fantastic way to keep ourselves sane, because as people of prayer, we need to spend time in solitude, and therefore we need a space where we can find security and peace, a place that is conducive for our meeting with God.

Truly, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, “thy cell, if thou continue in it, grows sweet, […] If…thou accustom thyself to remain in thy cell and keep it well, it will be to thee afterwards a dear friend and a most agreeable delight.”

This first sense deals with the exterior element, something that brings consolation to our senses. The second sense of the ‘cell’ points to the interior disposition of the heart. I shall touch on this in another write up.

Jul 5, 2020

The gentle and the humble

I often wonder why Jesus (and God the Father) is obsessed with the poor, the afflicted, the outcast and the helpless, as though they were God's favourites.

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus claims that He is "gentle and humble in heart" (Mt 11:29), fulfilling Prophet Zachariah's prophesy that the coming King was someone who is "humble and riding on a donkey" (Zech 9:9). This could be the key to unlock the mystery of God's obsession with the poor and the afflicted: because they bear the image of Jesus.

In their poverty and hopelessness, they are just like empty vessels ready to be filled. They attract God.

Only those who have been hungry could appreciate the little food that is set before them.

Only those who are thirsty could savour every single drop of water offered them.

Only those who have nothing would accept any amount of money given them.

Only those who are tired desire and appreciate a good rest.

Only those who have struggled with a heavy burden would gladly exchange it for a lighter one.

Only those who acknowledge their nothingness and are willing to learn and be corrected, are the ones who would receive and grow in self-knowledge and God-knowledge (truth).

Such is the value of humility. True humility. "Humility is the mother of all virtues" (Mother Teresa of Calcutta).

When we acknowledge our weaknesses and our need for God's mercy and grace (that's humility!), we turn our heart towards God and His will. It is then that we lay down the worldly yoke and put on Jesus'.

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time | 5 July 2020

Jul 3, 2020

The journey up

It has begun.

The sacrifices, the entirely new environment, the unfamiliar territories, the many heartbreaks - all the consequences of stepping out of the comfort zone and moving into the unknown deep, are coming true, just as I've imagined and anticipated. The only difference is, the thoughts of them was easier to bear than having to face them - alone.

The walk on the flat plain had been such a breeze. Now, it's time to climb the slope. I began to realise that the easy walk, though did enhance my spiritual stamina, it did not quite help with the muscles. It is such a difficult climb, especially when I'm all alone. Worse still, the scenery has nothing worth beholding - shrubs, trees, branches, buttress roots, rocks and boulders - these made the climb such a challenge. I have to stop all so often to allow the sore muscles to recover, take a little rest, read the guidelines and marks left behind by the saints, pluck up enough courage through Hope, then continue to make another few steps forward before the whole cycle begins again. As a matter of fact, I'm taking much longer rests than the climb!

Every day I'm struggling with dying to self. I'm so used to taking care of me, myself and I. And now that there is the other person whom I have pledged my life to, it's never easy to put myself last. Things could have been a little easier had he shared the same love for God and the Church.

Such is my life since the last four months. Not having a community to belong to, and with the lockdown in place due to the Coronavirus pandemic, life is just painfully dry and unfulfilling. The mundane day-to-day routine is beginning to bore me.

I wonder if this is the beginning of the Dark Night St John of the Cross speaks about. I'm being deprived of almost everything I've always enjoyed. Even prayer becomes such a drudgery. I haven't received much consolation. God seems to be silent.

But I love the Lord too much to give Him up. If it wasn't for Him, I wouldn't be willing to choose this path. It was a decision I struggled to make - for I knew the consequences of this choice. I'm willing to risk it all, as long as He is faithful to His promise of Eternal Life with Him, which is the only Hope I hold on to.

So first thing first: staying rooted to the faith and love. Thanks to the kind Malaysian Carmelite friar Fr Sinwee, I'm allowed to follow the online study classes conducted by him. That has certainly helped me to live out my Carmelite identity in the absence of a community.

My messy desk

After a little reflection on my current situation, the discomfort I'm experiencing could be a good sign after all. For the Doctor of the Church, St Teresa of Jesus is said to have commented, that "Life is a night spent in an uncomfortable inn." It is true that we should not seek comfort in this life, for our only comfort lies in God alone.

Praying that with every few steps up the mount, my muscles would be stronger, my stamina further strengthened, to be ready when the steeper slopes emerge.

Jul 22, 2019

God is faithful to those who are faithful

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835)
by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov. (Source: Wikipedia)

Today is the feast day of St Mary Magdalene.

I totally admire this holy woman, and her love and faithfulness for her friend and master, Jesus. She, like our Mother Mary, is truly the "apostle of apostles" of Christ. She accompanied Jesus until the very end. Even at the tomb, she was so saddened at the disappearance of Jesus' body, whom she laid to rest. When everyone had left, she stayed back in an attempt to find out where and why Jesus' body had been removed.

If any biblical figures could qualify as the "perfect lover", it has to be Mary Magdalene. For truly, she sought him whom her heart loves (Song of Songs 3:2). So it is no wonder why certain Gnostic gospel recorded that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were involved in a romantic relationship! (And how many people have been scandalised by this story!)

While many reflected on how Mary Magdalene was privileged to be the messenger to announce the resurrection of Christ, and thus we too are called to proclaim this Good News through our lives, I drew from this Gospel a different insight.

As a reward for her persistence and her deep, genuine love for Jesus, the Resurrected Lord appeared before her and greeted her. "Mary!" (John 20:16) He even called her by name; that familiar and gentle voice! He did not forget nor let down this faithful woman, whom he knew loved him tremendously. I believe that for Mary Magdalene, the greatest privilege was to be the very first person to have met the Resurrected Lord.

This Gospel account gives me so much hope.

I have often questioned myself. Would my deep desire to see my Beloved Lord face to face, despite my frailty and frequent fall into sin, and my failed daily attempts to die to self, be rewarded with that same reward granted to Mary Magdalene?

I believe God will not disappoint anyone who loves him. He knows that our human love is imperfect. "The Lord knows our weakness, that he is mindful that we are but dust and ashes” (Psalm 102:14). And he "looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). He is faithful to those who are faithful to him.

This is the very hope that keeps me going.

St Mary Magdalene, pray for us, that like you, we too may meet the One whom our hearts loved.

"For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved."

-- St Gregory the Great on St Mary Magdalene

Feb 25, 2019

Reflection on the air

I have no idea since when, the Kuching airport has become quite a nostalgic place for me. It is so familiar, yet at the same time giving me the feeling of sadness. I travel alone most of the time, always with caution, alertness, sometimes with anxiety too, but other times, excitement.

But today, as I made my way to the departure area, I felt my heart sank. As I watched the plane took to the sky, it felt as if I was leaving Kuching behind and would not be back for a long time. Even though I was with a few friends, and we were flying to another town for a short business meeting.

Is death something like the airport too? Like the airport, it is an area souls await to be brought to their final destination? There would be those who are unwilling to leave their loved ones behind, and therefore the feeling of such a heavy heart. There would also be those who are more than ready to leave every earthly thing and look forward to go Home.

If God would give me the chance to choose how I would prefer to die — a sudden painless death (due to accident or in my sleep), or slowly fading away (due to old age), or a painful deterioration (due to sickness) — I wouldn’t know which one to choose.

As I advance in age, and as I bid goodbye to more and more people in funerals, and shared in the sorrow of friends who lost their loved ones, I began to truly realise the brevity of our lives and deeply treasure those who are close to my heart. I have to admit that I am becoming more and more afraid of losing those whom I love. I wish I could keep each and every one of them by my side so that I could care for them all, but I know that in reality, we could rarely get the best of both worlds.

So that brought me to yet another realisation: that death is never about how we are going to die, because it is not up to us. But we can definitely choose how to live our lives, by giving ourselves completely to those whom we love. We can choose to live by dying to ourselves everyday, that when the time finally comes for us to leave for Home, it will not catch us unprepared and unwilling.

To my loved ones, particularly Mom and Dad, and my fiancé Ahmos, I love you all most deeply.

(Penned on 25 February 2019; on the flight to Tawau, Sabah)