Saturday, 30 November 2013

Fruitful, Not Successful

In our fallen world, it's easy to confuse fruitfulness with successfulness, and thus also with worldly power and wealth. We young preachers are especially vulnerable to this mistake. When we set out to evangelise, we are often impatient to see results. We want to see immediate "Eureka!" moments in people, quick conversions, and ready acceptance of the Lord without hesitation. Perhaps there are even times when we compare the success of our preaching in terms of numbers: more conversions means more success, and more success means better preaching.

You see in the scenario above that the concept of success ends with praise to the doer, to the "I", not to God. But it is not so with fruitfulness. There is a reason why business folks never talk about when their newest branch office will produce "fruits", or how their latest financial deal shall be "fruitful": that is because, to be fruitful, one must die first.

This reality doesn't sound pretty, although it's true. The tree is not the same as the original seed. The tree is not the seed, and the seed is not the tree. In order to become a tree, this seed must undergo radical transformation, and radical transformation is radically painful. (Now you know why commercial business doesn't want to have anything to do with being fruitful.)

First, it starts with extreme humiliation: the seed is to be put so low inside the earth, buried. It is now trampled under the feet of men and beasts. Next, all the physical changes take place. Imagine your skin breaks off, your flesh cracks open and shrinks small in order to let a green projection shoots out of you. Good thing a seed cannot scream, right? All these have to happen. An unwilling seed is a fruitless seed.

Now that is the basic idea. But there are instances when seeds fail to sprout. A soil too dry, a soil too wet, too acidic, too basic, too many birds, too rocky, too thorny, too little sunlight, too hot, too cold. There are too many factors involved, and we cannot control everything. Fruitfulness is not a coldly calculated mechanics where variables are under our control. When planting seeds, we are putting our trust in the unknown, that is, nature, or more correctly, the Creator of nature.

I believe this is the proper outlook that we preachers must adopt. To a certain extent we can control the environment: we study good books, we contemplate seriously, we practise writing, we carefully choose words and gestures and timing. But when we actually sow the seeds, we are putting everything into the hands of God. We cannot know everything; we are dealing with a vineyard too vast and too rich for us alone to manage; thus we are to trust in His great providence. Let ourselves be humbled and die, let the words of our preaching be dispersed by the winds. But He, the Lord over winds and soils, shall see to it that our scattered words be used to work miracles in the hearts and minds of those who hear us, miracles that, however small, will add up to a great force that will bring out fruits and give harvest.

Just be glad that we are even permitted to work in His yard. That joy alone is enough.
There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame.

Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another’s wounds.

Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.

—Henri Nouwen


Image: "Time of harvesting (Mowers)", Grigoriy Myasoyedov, 1887

Friday, 29 November 2013

The one that will never pass away

One of my favourite activities is stargazing.

Whenever I have some spare time in the evening, I always climb upstairs to the open attic to watch the night sky. Whenever I'm lucky enough to be standing on an open field or sailing in the open sea, where the horizon spreads to infinity, when night comes I always look up to the stars.

The grand view of a starry night sky is like a time machine. It's simply mind-boggling when I realise that the same scene has been perceived by generations before me. The same view has been watched by my great-grandparents and their great-grandparents. The same sky has shaded Gajahmada, Napoleon, and Lao Tzu. The same stars have blinked to pharaohs, ocean voyagers, lowly slaves, and great kings.

We too, stand on an ancient land. Nusantara and its ancient civilisations have existed since 200 BC. Even history tells us that the Java Man (Homo erectus) prowled the island around 1.6 million years ago, and is one of the oldest ancient men.

Seeing how far we've gone, how invincible mankind is on the great earth, it's hard to imagine that every one of these will come to an end. I'm sure that the ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, the Soviets, had never imagined that their strong civilisations and cultures would be obliterated. But that's what happened.

That one pencil on our table will slowly be degraded. Uneaten food will become stale or covered with mould. Riches will be used up. Borobudur will break down. Pyramids will be swallowed by dust. The stars I've been gazing at, that have been watched by previous generations, later, somewhen, will fade and die out.

It's frightening to think about it. But fortunately we have some relief for there is one thing that will never pass away: God's words.

Human word, as soon as it is uttered, disappears, as if it is nothing. But even then, human word, which is a mere vapour in the wind, already has tremendous powers. Human word creates history, form thoughts, yields emotions and hopes. Human word can console and destroy, can build up and overthrow, can nurture and kill.

If that is how strong human word that is meant to pass away, how much stronger is the word of God, the one that will never pass away! God is eternal, and eternal is His word. His word is the true reality, the only right foundational rock. And on this foundation must we build our lives, around this reality must our lives revolve. On this rock shall we find safety and peace, because "his rule is an everlasting rule which will never pass away, and his kingship will never come to an end." (Dan 7:14) Amen.

Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, praise and glorify him for ever!
Bless the Lord, every plant that grows, praise and glorify him for ever!
Bless the Lord, springs of water, praise and glorify him for ever!


Daily Reading for Friday, 29 November 2013

First Reading — Daniel 7 : 2-14
Responsorial Psalm — Daniel 3 : 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81
Gospel — Luke 21 : 29-33


Image: "Moon Light Sonata", Basuki Abdullah

Monday, 25 November 2013

Marian Monday: Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring (Zoodochos Pigi)

Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring (Gr.: Zoodochos Pigi, Ζωοδόχος Πηγή), sometimes translated as Life-Giving Font or Fount, is a Byzantine icon and devotional title of the Holy Theotokos.

Legend tells us about the origin of this title:
Outside of Constantinople, towards the district of the Seven Towers, there was in ancient times a very large and most beautiful church named in honour of the Theotokos; it had been built about the middle of the fifth century by the Emperor Leo the Great. 
Before he became Emperor, he had encountered there a blind man, who, being tormented with thirst, asked him to help him find water. Leo felt compassion for him and went in search of a source of water but found none. As he became downcast, he heard a voice telling him there was water nearby. He looked again, and found none. Then he heard the voice again, this time calling him "Emperor" and telling him that he would find muddy water in the densely wooded place nearby; he was to take some water and anoint the blind man's eyes with it. When he had done this, the blind man received his sight. 
After Leo became Emperor as the most holy Theotokos had prophesied, he raised up a church over the spring, whose waters worked many healings and cured maladies by the grace of the Theotokos; from this, it came to be called the "Life-giving Spring".

Technically, then, the name "Life-Giving Spring" refers to said miraculous water source that was housed in a church built by Byzantine Emperor Leo the Great. The church was destroyed during a Turkish invasion 1000 years later, but the water survived and can now be accessed through the new church, the Zoodochos Pigi at the Baloukli, Istanbul, Turkey. The icon can be seen above the font as if pointing to it and guarding it.

Symbolically, the "Life-Giving Spring" is also a title of the Virgin Mary, as expressed in the Canon of the Akathist:
Hail, Sovereign Lady, never-failing spring of the Living Water!

The Living Water is, of course, Christ Himself, and the line is a reference to the Old Testament, when Moses in the wilderness struck the rock “and [God] brought water out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down as rivers” (Psalm 78:16; also Exodus 17). Jesus, referring to this miracle, said: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believes on me, according to the Scriptures, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:38)

The Zoodochos Pigi icon is very easy to recognise because it is the only Theotokos icon where she and her Son is seated within a water font, from which streams of holy water gush forth to heal believers. The font is usually in the shape of a cross. The Theotokos may be shown in any pose—oranta (praying) as above, or else. There may or may not be a pair of angels by her sides.

The Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring is celebrated in the Eastern Church on Bright Friday, the first Friday after Easter.
As a life-giving fount, you conceived the Dew that is transcendent in essence,
O Virgin Maid, and you have welled forth for our sakes
the nectar of joy eternal,
Which pours forth the water that springs up unto everlasting life
in unending and mighty streams;
And so, taking delight, we all cry out:
Rejoice, O Spring of life for all men!
—Apolytikion for the Feast Day

Enjoy this small gallery of the Zoodochos Pigi! (click to enlarge)

Monday, 18 November 2013

Marian Monday: The Unfading Bloom

The Unfading Bloom, the Unfading Flower, or the Eternal Bloom, is a Russian icon of Mary, Mother of God. The time of its appearance in Russia is unknown.

On this icon:
  • The Theotokos holds her Divine Son upon her left arm, and in her right hand is a bouquet of white lilies. This bouquet symbolically signifies the unfading flower of virginity and immaculateness of Mary.
  • The Theotokos is shown giving the flowers to her Son; she doesn't hold them as her own ornament. This means that Mary presents her purity solely as an offering to God; she is truly ever-virgin, the Spouse of God the Holy Spirit and Mother of God the Son.
  • Child Jesus is depicted holding a globe on His lap, and His right hand is shown in the classic benediction gesture, referring to His identity as the King of kings and the High Priest.

Lilies as a symbol of purity is widely recognised in both the Eastern and Western Church. This is probably what makes this icon one of the more familiar images to the eyes of Western Church faithfuls.

Alternatively, some copies of the icon depicts the Theotokos holding a rod from which roses and other flowers blossom. This points to a line in the Akathist hymn: "Rejoice, O thou who alone hast blossomed forth the unfading Rose" — in this case, the Rose is Jesus Himself.

Indeed, the Church Fathers as old as the 6th century have long named the Blessed Virgin as the "spotless lily who brought forth Christ the unfading rose", according to a compilation of titles by Sr. Marie Stephen, O.P.

The feast day for this icon is on April 3.


Hail, O you who alone gave rise to the unfading Rose! Hail, O you who bore the fragrant Apple in such perfume as to be pleasing to the King of All! Hail, salvation of the world, O you, the ever-Virgin! Now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Souls we forget to pray for

When praying for the dead, we often only pray for the souls of deceased family members and friends. While this is certainly a great and loving work of mercy, we really could do more for the poor souls in Purgatory! During my last Lay Dominican meeting, which took place on Nov 5, we held Mass specially dedicated to these souls. While we were invited to submit the names of our deceased loved ones, we also prayed for "forgotten souls", which include:
  • Souls whose bodies contribute to the learning of science (anatomy lab cadavers come into mind!)
  • Souls who died sudden deaths in accidents, natural disasters, and riots
  • Souls who no longer have living family members and friends

I would also like to add:
  • For medical professionals: souls of patients who died under their care
  • Souls of babies who died before being born (both from natural causes and from human intervention)
  • Souls of John and Jane Doe's
  • Souls of those who lived a noble life and died a noble death outside the Faith, for example, the souls of our national heroes

If you remember more "forgotten souls" to pray for, please remind us of them by filling out the comment box below! :)

Remember that the souls in Purgatory are holy! They are inheritors of Heaven, they are counted in the Communion of Saints! They only have to be purified a little more out of love for God. Let us Church Militant never forget our brothers and sisters the Church Suffering!


"Lay my body anywhere, only this I beg of you: remember me at the altar of God."
—St. Monica to her son, St. Augustine—

Monday, 11 November 2013

Marian Monday: Our Lady of La Naval de Manila

Our Lady of La Naval de Manila is a Marian devotional title most prominent in the Philippines. Its formal name is Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of La Naval de Manila (Nuestra Señora del Santíssimo Rosario de La Naval de Manila). This devotion is embodied in a 16th-century ivory and wood statue of Madonna and Child enshrined at the Dominican church of Santo Domingo, Quezon City.


In 1593, on the death of his father, the Spanish Governor General Luis Perez Dasmarinas commissioned Captain Hernando de los Rios Coronel to have a Marian statue sculpted. He wished to give a religious imprint to his regime in the Philippines. A non-Catholic Chinese sculptor was found to make the statue. This sculptor later became a convert through the intercession of the virgin. The beautiful image was presented to the Manilla Dominicans and enshrined in the old Santo Domingo Church by the Pasig.

The Battle of La Naval

In the Philippines of 1646, there were not only hostile Muslims in the South, but also Dutch privateers under the banner of VOC attempting to seize the Filipino archipelago. Beside colonisation and unfair trade, with the Dutch invaders there was also the danger of the spread of Calvinist Protestanism.

In the spirit of the Battle of Lepanto, the Spanish-Filipino crew fervently sought the aid of the Blessed Virgin through the Holy Rosary. There were five bloody naval battles between the Dutch Navy and the greatly outnumbered Spanish and Filipino joint forces. At the end, only fifteen of the defenders of Manila were lost in all of the battles. The Dutch, then political enemies of the Spanish, retreated, and never again threatened to destroy the integrity of the islands.

The victorious defenders petitioned official church recognition and declaration of the naval victories of 1646 as divine miracles. The Ecclesiastical Council in Cavite deliberated and examined written and oral testimonies from all eye-witnesses. On April 9, 1662, the Council ordered that the five naval victories of 1646 be declared as miraculous: "granted by the Sovereign Lord through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin and devotion to her Rosary, that the miracles be celebrated, preached and held in festivities and to be recounted among the miracles wrought by the Lady of the Rosary for the greater devotion of the faithful to Our Most Blessed Virgin Mary and Her Holy Rosary".

Detail of the La Naval, by robbyandharry
The image

The La Naval statue, standing at 4'8" tall, is known for its regal appearance and fine craftsmanship. Pure ivory made up the face and hands of the Blessed Virgin, and the entire body of Child Jesus. Both figures wear large golden robes with highly intricate embroideries, complete with a queenly and kingly crowns. The statue is covered with jewels, tributes from devotees through the ages, and the halo is surrounded by 24 stars. The statue's brilliant appearance recalls the image of Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse, "clothed with the sun".

What makes La Naval different from other similarly majestic-looking statue of Our Lady—such as Our Lady of Manaoag—is La Naval's unique oriental face. The face is rounded, almond-shaped, with high-set cheekbones and slanting eyes; the typical features of an Oriental-Filipina face. For this reason, La Naval alone is lauded as a "native virgin" by the Filipinos, despite her strongly Spanish-style adornment.

Prayer to Our Lady of La Naval

Holy Mary, at the sound of your voice, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the baby in her womb leapt for joy. Visit us as you visited the home of Elizabeth. During our earthly pilgrimage towards God's kingdom, may we magnify the Lord whose greatness endures from age to age, who lifts up the lowly, fills the starving with good things, and comes to the help of His servants.

Our Lady of the Rosary of La Naval, Our Mother, first disciple of your Son Jesus, intercede for us in our most earnest request: [offer your petition].

May we, in turn heed your unceasing call to do whatever your Son tells us to do. With your powerful intercession, we believe that what is most difficult can be done, what we have overlooked, you cannot miss, what is meaningless, bitter or painful can be transformed into fulfillment, gratitude and joy.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Jesus in the Kitchen

Well here's the thing: I have almost zero problem with religious stuff. As a natural introvert, I have virtually no difficulties staying silent, contemplating, having internal dialogues with myself. It's actually what I do during every waking minute. And I certainly don't need slow music and hypnotising commands like "Focus... focus..." in order to focus (if anything, they make me sleepy).

The spiritual life isn't what I struggle with. What I struggle with, is the practical life. People need help to ascend the mountain, but *I* need help to descend. If I could, I would stay all day in front of the Blessed Sacrament and not have to go check on my patients at the hospital. If I could, I would write long letters, essays, and reflections on spiritual matters all day every day throughout the year, rather than going to the bank, the market, the post office, the gas station. The "contemplari" part of the Dominican principle "Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere" is easy, but the "contemplata aliis tradere" part always needs an extra oomph.

Anyone have the same issue?

I found the following quote from the Ignatius Press page on Facebook. It's a piece of advice from my patron saint, the great Teresa of Avila. She reminds us that there is a time for interior matters, and there's a time for exterior matters. More importantly, she also reminds us that leaving the pew does not mean leaving Jesus; Jesus is walking with us all the time, yes, even "among the pots and pans", to help us work in the world, out of obedience and love for Him.

Martha is a saint too, isn't she? :)

"Well come now, my daughters, don't be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly."

—St. Teresa of Avila


Image: "Kitchen Scene with the Supper in Emmaus", by Diego Velazquez, 1618.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Marian Monday: Axion Estin

The Axion Estin (It is Truly Meet) is originally the title of a theotokion (Marian hymn) popular in the Eastern Church. Tradition tells us that the hymn has an angelic origin:
During the reign of the emperors Basil and Constantine Porphyrogenitos, a certain Elder and his disciple lived near Karyes, the administrative center of the Holy Mountain. 
One Saturday night, the Elder went to Karyes for an all-night vigil. He instructed his disciple to remain behind and read the service in their cell. As it grew dark, the disciple heard a knock on the door. When he opened the door, he saw an unknown monk who called himself Gabriel, and he invited him to come in. They stood before the icon of the Mother of God and read the service together with reverence. 
During the Ninth Ode of the Canon, the disciple began to sing "My soul magnifies the Lord…" with the Irmos of St Cosmas the Hymnographer: "More honorable than the Cherubim…." 
The stranger sang the next verse, "For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden…." Then he chanted something the disciple had never heard before, "It is truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure, and the Mother of our God…" Then he continued with, "More honorable than the Cherubim.…" 
While the hymn was being sung, the icon of the Theotokos shone with a heavenly light. The disciple was moved by the new version of the familiar hymn, and asked his guest to write the words down for him. When the stranger asked for paper and ink, the disciple said that they did not have any. 
The stranger took a roof tile and wrote the words of the hymn on its surface with his finger. The disciple knew then that this was no ordinary monk, but the Archangel Gabriel. Then he disappeared, and the icon of the Mother of God continued to radiate light for some time afterward.

The icon of Axion Estin can be recognised by the following specifics:

  • Mary and Child Jesus, both usually crowned, appear facing to the left side of the viewer, with eyes typically looking directly at the viewer, although some renditions may portray their eyes gazing upwards to the heavens, or downwards to the earth.
  • Mary's left hand supports the sitting Child Jesus, while her right hand holds Jesus's right arm or hand, which holds a parchment, open or rolled.
  • Alternatively, Mary's right hand and Jesus's right hand may be holding that same parchment.
  • If open, the parchment reads: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me." (Luke 4:18)
  • There is usually a pair of angels near Mary's head who are touching Mary's crown, or crowning her. This indicates that the queenly status of Mary is bestowed upon her in Heaven, whereas Jesus's kingly status is inherent, not given.
  • If the icon is coloured, Mary is usually depicted wearing her usual Theotokos garments: red veil covering a blue robe underneath. In iconography, red is the colour of divinity and blue is the colour of humanity, a fitting representation of the human Mary clothed in divinity (adult Christ, such as in the icon of Pantocrator is usually depicted wearing the colours in an exactly opposite manner: the divine Christ clothed in humanity). However in this icon, Child Jesus usually wears white.

Below is an English-language rendition of the Byzantine hymn of Axion Estin — thanks to St. Peter's List for finding it and posting it first:


It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God,
more honorable than the cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,
who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify thee!

The Eastern Church commemorates the icon on June 11 and July 13. The appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to a monk on Mt. Athos, and the revelation of the hymn "It is Truly Meet" is commemorated on June 11.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Last Diagnosis

Pope Francis, our meek, loving, liberal, progressive pope, has his own hidden skeleton: he firmly believes in the reality of the devil (surprise, he's a Catholic!).

Now this side of Pope Francis is never paraded in secular media's limelight. The reactions could've been interesting though, because il Papa didn't mention evil in an abstract (read: modern) sense, as if it is a negative energy that can be exhaled out during a yoga session. No, Pope Francis takes the devil very seriously and very literally, as a being, a spiritual creature, a fallen angel, an enemy. He implies that not acknowledging the presence and power of Hell poses a danger of "diminishing the power of the Lord" (yep, isn't that what's happening in this age of ours?).

Of people who claim that the Biblical scenes where Jesus casts out unclean spirits are actually Jesus healing a mental illness, Pope Francis insisted:

"It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the devil! And we do not have the right to simplify the matter, as if to say: 'All of these (people) were not possessed; they were mentally ill'. No! The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, with the victory of God over the devil."

Look at how the Holy Father spoke: with a sense of urgency! He speaks as if he has ever beheld the devil with his own eyes (I wouldn't be surprised if he really has). The Pope rightly recognises that while mental illnesses do cause odd behaviours in people, demons also exist and likewise they can produce similarly broken personalities and bizarre attitudes. Like any other Catholic teachings, this is not an "either/or" issue, it's a "both/and" reality.

I'm reminded of one time during a morning shift at the ER. A young man was admitted because he suddenly dropped down and lost consciousness. We couldn't find anything wrong from physical examination, lab results, and CT images. Yet he constantly drifted between the twilight state and the comatose state. After 3 days trying to find a diagnosis, the mother gave up and told us she wanted to seek help from a "learned man" instead (a "learned man" is a local metaphor for a paranormal), because she believed her son was jinxed, or worst, possessed.

I reported this to the senior ER doc. She neither discouraged nor encouraged the choice; she simply said: "Well, we're doctors. We don't believe in that stuff."

Which made me think. Sure I'm a doctor, but first and foremost I'm a person of faith. I belong to a Church who has been battling the dark force since her Pentecostal birth. Our Master personally defeated Hell with His own blood. Heck, I'm supposed to believe in "that stuff"! Regardless of whether  the young man was really possessed or not, "that stuff" exists, is active, and is harmful. "That stuff" has to be acknowledged with a certain measure of respect, not because it is noble, but because it is beyond our humble understanding. The possibility of demonic activities shouldn't be scoffed at and dismissed as silly, but it should be silently taken into consideration; if not for immediate answer, it's for our last card, that "last diagnosis".

"Do not confuse the truth. Jesus fights the devil: first criterion. Second criterion: he who is not with Jesus is against Jesus. There are no attitudes in the middle. Third criterion: vigilance over our hearts because the devil is astute. He is never cast out forever. It will only be so on the last day."

For Catholic doctors, I propose this: Do what you have to do. Follow the procedures. Find the right diagnosis and give the right treatment. But remember what Sir Conan Doyle said through the mouth of Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Pray for all your patients. If you can, even, offer to pray together with them, not just privately in your room.

"Do not relativize; be vigilant! And always with Jesus!"
—Pope Francis


Image: "The Exorcism", from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Folio 166r