The Courage of Mary

What would you do, if you knew you would not fail?

Today, my church choir and I were reflecting on the meaning of the Gospel as the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mother Mary. The Gospel reading is from Luke, chapter 1, verses 39 to 56; it tells of the pregnant Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth’s home, of the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaping for joy, and of Mary glorifying the Lord.

Someone talked about how much courage Mary, and her ancestor Abraham before her, had to follow the Lord’s wishes – Mary, in conceiving a child before her wedding and while still a virgin, and Abraham, in (almost) sacrificing his beloved son Isaac. For her, what leapt out at her from her reflection on Mary’s life was how Mary always said “yes” to God, even when it was hard to do so.

Mary’s “yeses” have often been a point of deep reflection for me, too, but what leapt out at me today was a different aspect of the Gospel. “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth asks in wonder. And later, Mary says – not so much in direct reply but in a harmony of wonder – “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked with favour on the lowliness of His servant.”

The wonder of God’s two servants in those lines struck me today as a glimpse into the source of their courage. I think this speaks more for my lack of gratitude than any lack of providence in my life, but I can think of very few occasions when I have actually been dumbstruck at how lucky I am for something to have come into my life. When I think of one such occasion, I remember the emotion very clearly – heart rising. Heart leaping.

In actuality, we are blessed in so many more little ways than the big moments we remember, which have the capacity to strike us dumb with awe if only we are humble enough to recognise them. Mother Teresa once said that when you are humble, nothing will touch you – neither praise nor disgrace – because you know what you are. I may venture to add that when you are humble, nothing will touch you because you know whose you are.

Mary is magnified in the Church as our Mother, as a motherly figure holding us close to her heart, but she is also glorified as God’s first disciple and as His child. I believe that she had the courage to say ‘yes’ so many times to so many difficult challenges because she knew whose she was. She was humble enough to know that above all, and underlying everything, she was God’s child.

Humility also comes hand in hand with trust, or faith. What would you do if you knew you would not fail? I asked at the beginning of this post. When I think about well-made plans, I realise that the feeling of confidence and certainty that accompany them arise from the level of thought we have given them. We have thought things through so well, prepared for so many contingencies, we know that there is a very, very high chance we will not fail. Science tells us there is no higher percentage of accuracy than that. A freak accident could always occur, and we would fail, but not for want of preparation.

Faith gives us the highest possible, full percentage of accuracy – but only in the plans which He makes, and which He offers to us to accept with the humility and trust of a child. Of His child. Once we say yes with trust, then we have the courage to sail the plan through, knowing with humility that neither success nor failure will touch us. 

PS. That said, I am still finding it very hard to implement this in my daily life. Prayers would be much appreciated!

On Love

I’ve been wondering a lot about love lately, in both its human and divine incarnations.

I also just got back an assignment, which I received a terrible grade on.

Yes, I promise there is a connection between the two statements above. Let me explain:

As the Church enters the period of Lent, we are called to contemplate our sins, and also God’s mercy. This is not as easy as it sounds. Take the first. Realizing my own wretchedness as a sinner was harder than it sounds. The fact that we are all sinners seems like a universal truth, but it is not as self-evident as it appears, because everyone’s wretchedness is different. Everyone’s forbidden fruit is different. And truly realizing, internalizing, the extent of my wretchedness was frightening indeed. It can feel like a quicksand of your own making, when you become aware of your own faults and failings.

But there is also the second element to contemplate: God’s mercy. If I had to take a stab at defining Christianity, I would say that we hold two beliefs: that we are sinners, and that by God we are saved. The point of being a Christian is not to wallow in the sorrow of being a sinner. It is to glory in the joy that despite your status, despite the utter wretchedness of your sin, God loves you just the same. And God loves you so much that He went through the same thing you did, in much greater pain, so as to empathize with your personal journey, and to convince you that yes, He knows who you are, and yes, He still chooses to love you. There is so much joy to that.

I wrote before that mercy is love to the undeserving. In Church last Sunday, someone offered me an alternative definition: mercy is loving even when your love has been rejected. On the divine plane of love, that is easy enough to understand. God reaches out a loving hand to us, and carries us even when we try to push Him away, even when we commit the incredible folly of thinking that we know better. I know I have done this far too many times.

But as Valentine’s Day came around just half a week into Lent, I began to compare my experiences with human and divine love. We are made in His image; we are called to love as He did. But that is often terribly difficult. How do we love when our love has been rejected? How should that love be manifested?

By giving, without asking for return

My mother shared this excerpt with me. The emphases are entirely my own, but I wish the words were; if anyone knows where this is from, do let me know.
“The mercy of God transcends all human understanding, which had only been familiar with ideas of justice and love. Justice involves giving each one his or her due. One is first evaluated, and then given only what one deserves. Love transcends justice, in that love involves a certain self-forgetfulness in giving oneself to the other. But even in love, there is a certain reciprocity. One gives oneself to the other with an expectation that the other would reciprocate the love given. When the other does not care, there is a hurt that burns with pain. Exactly as love is precious and dear, that hurt is also deep and powerful. And yet mercy transcends love, in that even when one is hurt, one seeks to reach beyond the hurt and bless the other. Mercy is giving undeserved love in the fullness of joy.”  

By letting go

Of course, the corollary to ‘giving, without asking for return’ is that you need some sort of fuel for that amount of giving. I’ve always loved this quotation from Mother Teresa: “Give, but give until it hurts”: that is, I’ve always found it beautiful, but also painfully true. Loving hurts. Giving, passing on your light to others without anyone to relight your candle, can be exhausting, and, at worst, self-harmful. I have found myself getting easily annoyed, pugnacious, or vindictive, when actually I am just so tired of giving without getting any replenishment in return.

And therein lies the catch. We cannot hope to aspire to God’s level of love if we only aim to achieve His level of giving without reciprocally achieving His level of sustenance. Here is where my assignment comes in: I had put in X amount of work, and did not understand why that did not translate to my desired grade. I had hoped it would be like a mathematical formula: X + Y, “it necessarily follows” that Z, and so on. But as these aggrieved thoughts floated through my mind, I began to find them very familiar. I found them highly reminiscent of my thought processes when my human loves failed.

There’s a beautiful scene in the film (500) Days of Summer where Tom says that at the end of every relationship, you go back and start to see where things began to fall apart. You start to play the narrative back a little differently. When I did so, I often found my thoughts playing the same mathematical formulaic arc: “now she’s putting in X amount of effort…” “…now he’s being won over…” (Yes, I’m aware this is sounding like a really bad sports commentary, of maybe a lame community game show nobody watches.) And at the end, I’d inevitably question: I thought I had it in the bag there. What happened?

With grades, it’s easier to say that it’s all arbitrary. It’s up to the teacher’s discretion; it’s up to your ‘law school karma’ (replace with degree as relevant); etc. I wish I could say differently for human relationships, and so pin down some way to remain in love forever, mathematically speaking; but it’s not. Human love, after all, and grades, both stem from the same source: humans. And humans are, insofar as emotions are involved, illogical and arbitrary. (Even our rational processes are not spared. 

I think giving only stops hurting when we give up the need to be affirmed or recognized. This is different from giving without asking for return. Sometimes, we don’t want a reciprocal gift per se; we just want someone to turn around and acknowledge the gift of ourselves that we have vulnerably proffered. But this view of giving runs into the ground for the same reason as applying mathematical expectations to grades or love: we begin to feel hurt, and then aggrieved, and then maybe angry, when nobody acknowledges our gift.

I think giving only stops hurting when we begin to place our need for affirmation in the hands of God instead. When we place our vulnerability in His hands, and accept the affirmation that comes on His terms, then we can let go of earthly weights and truly give as freely as He gives.

Happily ever after?

I said before that I was trying to compare my experiences with human and divine love.
The next theological hurdle I came to was, if divine love is giving without asking for return, and if mercy is loving even when love has been rejected, then how do we deal with the idea that God is always calling us to come home? Why does He want us to be with Him so dearly?

Does this speak of a notion of ownership – i.e. ‘I want you here with me now and always’? If so, what does this mean for human loves? For the sacrament of marriage? Is it just a religiously acceptable form of possessiveness?

The long quotation in the first part above ended with, “Mercy is giving undeserved love in the fullness of joy.” The idea of ‘fullness of joy’ is, indeed, a recurring theme in Christianity. There’s something about the ideal relationship between a human and God that is whole, that is full. Mother Mary is said to be “full of grace”; she is brimming over with God’s mercy and God’s marvelous, marvelous love.* I think that is what God wants for us too. He wants us to be with Him because He knows that only then can we be completely and incandescently at rest. There is no notion of power play in the sense that ‘ownership’ suggests. As our divine father, I do think there is a paternal element we cannot escape; but we must not mistake this for a master-servant relationship. God does not want us with Him to subjugate us to His commands, like slaves; God wants us with Him so that we, too, can achieve fullness of joy.

What this means for human love is that sometimes, we rush to the altar. We are too quick to pronounce a state of heady happiness as ‘fulfillment’. We see the best in others, and are too quick to proclaim this sufficient to achieve the best that God has in mind for us. When we tolerate differences, without any way (or intention) of getting around them, we necessarily settle for the lowest common denominator in order to get along. (I thank both my friend Anne and my Constitution Law lecturer for this epiphany.) The question then arises whether this does us justice; whether ‘getting along’ is actually the closest we can get to happiness, or if, through a little more strife, a little more work, there can be something more golden that awaits us.

There is a reason why Adam proclaims Eve as “this one, at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). (It’s not just because she is literally made from his flesh and bone.) It is because with human love that reflects divine love, there is a sense of coming full circle. People speak of ‘coming home’; we have found the one in whom we can see, and aspire to, God’s level of love, at last.

Grace has to go both ways. There is a saying that God’s mercy is like the rain, but we must turn our buckets upwards in order to catch the droplets.* We have to open our hearts to the transfiguring power of God’s love, and first understand how much and how He loves us, before we can love others as He loves us.


* These ideas are from the book The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sarah Kaufman. The book is a work of art in itself, which I hope to write about one day but in the meantime highly encourage everyone to pick up someday. 

Hello, 2016

“To think that this is my twentieth birthday and that I’ve left my teens behind me for ever […] Yes, I’m sorry, and a little dissatisfied as well. Miss Stacy told me long ago that by the time I was twenty my character would be formed, for good or evil. I don’t think that it’s what it should be. It’s full of flaws.” 
“So’s everybody’s. Mine’s cracked in a hundred places. Your Miss Stacy likely meant that when you were twenty your character would have got its permanent bent in one direction or t’other, and would go on developing in that line. Don’t worry over it, Anne. Do your duty by God and your neighbour and yourself, and have a good time.” – Anne of Avonlea
It’s often difficult for me to begin writing on any topic, let alone the rather intimidating one of a year-end wrap-up. Nevertheless, I have found the results of this annual masochism meaningful and, at times, enlightening; and thus I continue. This year, let me begin with some basic definitions:

Hope is the quiet confidence in God’s promise. Mercy is love to the undeserving.

Just a short while ago, as the world entered Advent, I was entering a time of great anxiety, fear, caffeine, and generally unpleasant things: law school examinations. When I wrote my year-end wrap-up this time last year, I mentioned hoping that I would survive my first-ever law school examinations, which took place around end April this year. Well, I did survive—but not exactly. I was hurled off my metaphorical horse and thrown across the figurative paddock and generally got quite bruised and battered by a mix of the bell curve, sheer laziness, and despicable complacency. But then I survived. As Robert Frost once said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

In law school (or any school), life goes on, only to bring you to the next round of examinations. This time I was full of fear. I didn’t know for sure if I’d done so badly the previous time round because of bad luck, insufficient preparation, or sheer stupidity. I began my preparations later than I probably should’ve, but worked harder than I ever had before, driven by the fear of failure, by the fear of being proven too stupid for law school, by the fear of comparisons, and by the fear of letting people down. It was all rather negative, and I started joking with my friends about also ‘preparing for a back-up career’ around this time.

Jump back to the timeline as the world sees it: the Church was entering Advent, a time of preparation for the arrival of our Lord Jesus at Christmas. After the dreadful dreaded law school examinations ended, I couldn’t help but compare the two periods of preparation which I had just simultaneously gone through. Why was one so different from the other? How I could reconcile the two, bring the peace and joy of one into the fear and self-loathing of the other?

I realized that when one is making ready the way of the Lord, one cannot prepare for a ‘back-up Saviour’ the way one thinks about perhaps trying out PR or journalism if law doesn’t work out. The path to God is a one-track road; our one God waits in His heavenly home to welcome us at the end. As for how we are to wait and prepare without fear of it not working out, without fear of failure, without fear of losing out, we return to the basics:

Hope is the quiet confidence in God’s promise. And mercy is love to the undeserving.

We have the audacity to hope in the light of forever, to set our sinner’s hearts on this path to God, because we have confidence in God’s promise. And we derive joy from this confidence. There is no “what if I don’t get what I want”, because what I want is God, and I know it to be truer than true that God’s promise will come true. When we cling to this certainty of hope and we know what it is we wait for, we shake off the shackles of anxiety that come from our lack of focus, and our lack of faith. And then, finally, we can wait and prepare with hope and, yes, joy!

Sometimes, we are asked to wait and prepare without knowing the ways in which God’s hand may show in our lives. I have written several times about the frustration of not understanding where God wants to lead me. For someone who is a frenetic planner by nature, I always want to know what’s happening now, and what’s happening next. I always want key performance indicators, to let me know my plan’s on track. I always want a back-up plan in the back of my mind, in case Plan A doesn’t work out. I guess it’s always been hard for me to accept that God’s plan is the only plan, and that if His plan isn’t showing itself in the ways I expected it to, or isn’t bearing the right fruit in time, I can’t say, “Hey, God, this doesn’t seem to be working so I’m going to plant a different type of fruit and maybe that will better succeed!”

Sometimes, I think God is trying to tell me, “Girl, you have all the right ideas and all the wrong ways of achieving them. Just have patience, keep your calm, and trust in ME.”

I think 2015 has, above all, been a humbling year. 2014 was good in that it showed me how to get myself together after Plan A falls apart and how to ‘kick the shit out of Option B’ (Sheryl Sandberg). 2015 has taught me that sometimes the only Option B available is to wait it out. Sometimes, the only thing you can do when you have been winded and hurt and positively ground to dirt is to breathe, and to remind yourself that if nothing else, you have God, and what does God do but love the undeserving? I have been proud and impetuous; I have been complacent; I have let other things dictate my happiness than the one thing which warrants it most: God’s unconditional love.

We don’t always understand what has been said or done, but what we can do is receive it in faith, and wait until it is made clear. Just like our Mother Mary when her son Jesus was lost at the temple, and she accepted how God’s marvelous plan was unfolding in the most bizarre way she had never expected, nor could she understand. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

Sometimes, there is no human plan that could make sense of what you have been given. But we have to find joy in the blessings and the little (and big) good things that happen to and around us; and in the bad things, in the things we never wanted to happen, we have to find joy in the quiet confidence that God knows what He’s doing, and He doesn’t chance His arm.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Phil 4:4-7
In 2015, I was given terrible grades in my first-ever law school examinations. I was called up to my scholarship office, asked to explain myself to my scholarship officer, asked to make contingency plans in the face of many tears, disappointed hopes, and confusion. I was given heartbreak. I was called upon to question what I wanted in life, to question who was there when all seemed lost, to question who I was when no one else was around.

In 2015, I met new people. I made friends with those I never thought I would be friends with. I stayed in hostel one last semester, and made little shy inroads where I didn’t dare to before. I tried to be brave, I plodded on, putting one foot in front of the other when I couldn’t see the whole road ahead; I did it with friends and family holding one hand, and God holding the other. I could not have done it without Him. And I realized—how strangely—it all links in the end.

Every moment you have experienced since you were born, every memory you have stored, every decision you have made, has come together to bring you to where you are at this present moment. I am an amalgamation of every heartbreak, every disappointment, every forced reconfiguration, every reconciliation, every epiphany, every teardrop, and every song I have ever sung. I am a mix of those late nights staring at the lights of hostel opposite, unable to sleep; of those days when I stumbled to my bed unable to see through the tears; also of the days I could not stop smiling for little to no reason whatsoever; of the days when I laughed until I cried; of the days when I sat quietly with a good book or a good thought and smiled to myself and prayed, ‘God, it’s a wonderful world You have made for me.’

This is the gift He gave us at Christmas, and this is the gift that allows us to move on, year after year, making ready the way of the Lord. For it is when we know who loves us, who waits for us at the end of the road, that we are able to face all the pit stops and car wrecks we may face along the way.
“A thrill of hope 
The weary world rejoices 
For yonder breaks 
A new and glorious morn!” – O Holy Night
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable and worthy of respect, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually of these things – centre your mind on them, and implant them in your heart.” Phil 4:8

For 2016, I pray that I will not lose faith in the One who matters most. I pray to continue believing with all my heart that it is truer than true that God made a most beautiful and wonderful world. I pray to take pride in this and this only, that I am loved by God, and not to let any other trophy this world may hand me make me proud; and conversely, not to let any hurt this world may throw me bring me down for long, for He is my God and my Saviour, and He loves me, the undeserving, and what more could I ask for?

Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful year of hope and joy ahead.