Archives for category: books
  1. I have difficulty suppressing fangirlish giggles while watching Sherlock.  Considering that I always watched it in my office PC, it is rather disadvantageous to my professional image.
  2. I surf those Sherlock-mania tumblr sites practically every day.  The Final Problem gives the highest satisfaction so far.
  3. As a result of #2, now I smiled foolishly every time I saw a traffic cone.  Which is often.  I just realized that there are three traffic cones in the basement of my block in NUS.
  4. While we are discussing Sherlock, let me remind you that 4th May is recognized as the Reichenbach Day.
  5. I watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just because someone is in it.  Yesterday I watched the unaired pilot of Sherlock, and today I watched Hawking.  I do not normally praise people lavishly, but Mr. Cumberbatch IS A GREAT ACTOR.  In Hawking, in the scene where the young Hawking enthusiastically explained his brilliant idea by drawing in the pavement using a chalk, for a moment, I did not see the actor.  Instead, I saw the laugh, the smile we often saw in photographs of Hawking. (On a separate note: Professor Hawking deserves a great amount of respect).
  6. I have always thought that Smaug is not a proper villain.  Not intended as such, and does not come across as such.  Now I am convinced.  Smaug is not evil.  How can he be, with such an adorable voice?  And, oh, the dragon looks cute with the dark blue scarf.
  7. At least I am not alone in this embarrassing situation.  It has been reported that a considerable number of intelligent, adult women all over the world is suffering from the Benedict Cumberbatch situation.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a celebration of Jesus’s entry toJerusalem.  There are many peculiar things about this entry; perhaps the most obvious thing is that he rode a donkey.  The peculiarity of his choice of steed (the Synoptic Gospels noted that he specifically asked for the donkey) may have escaped us, to whom the story has become too familiar.  But of course a king, or any leader, riding a donkey is a peculiar thing.  Can you imagine Aragorn entering Minas Tirith on a donkey’s back?  I guess the Council of Gondor would not approve.

Many preachers and writers have noted this peculiarity, and expounded that riding a donkey perfectly befits a king who pronounced himself the servant of all.  But one writer (who was famous for his own peculiarity) took an unusual point of view in his reflection: instead of writing about the king, he wrote about the poor beast.  The poem ends with an allusion to the king’s choice, and how that choice had become the highlight of the donkey’s life.

The Donkey

by G.K. Chesterton

 
When fishes flew and forests walked   
   And figs grew upon thorn,   
Some moment when the moon was blood   
   Then surely I was born.
 
With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,   
The devil’s walking parody   
   On all four-footed things.
 
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,   
   I keep my secret still.
 
Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:   
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.
 

Source: Poems for All Purposes, G.K. Chesterton (author), S. Medcalf (editor).

In honour of St. Joseph, whose feast day (one of two days) is today.

If the stars fell; night’s nameless dreams
Of bliss and blasphemy came true,
If skies were green and snow were gold,
And you loved me as I love you;

O long light hands and curled brown hair,
And eyes where sits a naked soul;
Dare I even then draw near and burn
My fingers in the aureole?

Yes, in the one wise foolish hour
God gives this strange strength to a man.
He can demand, though not deserve,
Where ask he cannot, seize he can.

But once the blood’s wild wedding o’er,
Were not dread his, half dark desire,
To see the Christ-child in the cot,
The Virgin Mary by the fire?

– a poem by G.K. Chesterton-

Have you watched “Sherlock” produced by BBC?  If you have not, go and watch it! 

I think people who have never heard of Holmes (poor souls!) and Sherlock Holmes purists alike may find this TV series delightful.

“Sherlock” puts the titular character, the world’s only consulting detective, in 21st century London.  But the series preserve (at least it seems so to me) the characters of Holmes as presented in Conan Doyle’s writings.  Unbelievably smart, insufferably confident and annoying, aloof most of the time, never bothers to be polite.  And the rest of the groups are there too: ever loyal, long suffering Dr. John Watson who shares the flat in 221B Baker Street with the detective; Mrs Hudson the landlady; Detective Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard who has to put up with Holmes’ unintended insults.  And of course Ms. Adler and Moriarty are there (though the writers of the series took the liberty of removing her dress and his tenure), and Mycroft Holmes, the smarter big brother.

Half the pleasure of watching this series came from the guessing game.  No, not the who-dun-it guessing.   Guessing (or should I say, trying to remember) which Holmes’ stories or sayings are alluded to in each episode.  It is fairly easy with the titles: A Study in Pink of the series – A Study in Scarlet in the canon, The Geek Interpreter – The Greek Interpreter, The Speckled Band – The Speckled Blonde, you get the idea.  Some are more subtle: a three pipe problem has become a three patch problem (the 21st century Holmes has to be content with nicotine patches as smoking is not viewed as favourably now as it was hundred years ago), five orange pips became five pips in a mobile phone.

Many of Holmes’ lines in the book are preserved, some are quoted almost verbatim.  With a 21st century touch, of course.  To Watson’s question whether Holmes would like his company in investigating a case, the Edwardian Holmes quipped, “I will be lost without my Boswell”.  The Sherlock of our time is no less witty: “I’ll be lost without my blogger.”  Holmes likened his mind to an attic which should not be cluttered with unimportant information.  Our Sherlock likened it to (well, what else could it be) a harddisk.  Some things never change, though.  He is still unaware of the fact that the earth goes around the sun.  “If it goes around the moon or go around and around the garden like a teddy bear, it will make no difference to us!” he retorted.  Interestingly, G.K. Chesterton shared his view on the importance of the knowledge of solar system.  But that is another post for another day.

Sherlock and John (that is how they are referred to – over and done with Victorian / Edwardian formality) are very amusing to watch.  How can it be not amusing, watching your favourite characters given a new life that remains true to their personality?  I congratulate myself that finally I have an interest on something that was produced less than 50 years ago.

But some of the minor characters are rather surprising.  I am not amused.  A slender, energetic Mycroft who pops up in Baker Street every now and then?  A Moriarty without his professor chair?  He is supposed to be a very respectable academic – apart from being a genious criminal mastermind.  That is what makes him so fascinating compared to the standard villains.  Learned, respectable, publishing a monograph that solved a long standing puzzle in mathematics while organizing crimes – that is fascinating.  I think Sir Conan Doyle got it right.  A brilliant professor would have the brain and the guts to be a criminal mastermind if he so chooses.  I believe my fellow PhD students will agree.

And now we come to the biggest disappointment so far (I have only watched up to 1st episode of season 2): Ms. Irene Adler.  I watched that last night, when I wanted a break from my paper.  I much enjoyed the episode, but my final impression was: “You call that THE woman?”  That woman who undressed herself proudly; who got her secret information mostly by giving men and women ‘what they like’ – in terms of sexual pleasure, I would presume; who admitted at the end that it was Moriarty who planned all the smart moves; you call that THE woman?  Irene Adler was remembered as the only woman (perhaps the only person) who ever outwitted Sherlock Holmes.  In what way in this TV series she outwits Sherlock has completely escaped me.  She has not beaten Sherlock, except for the literal beating she gave him.  With a riding crop.  (Oh, please).  In the end of the episode Sherlock deduced her secret password, and made Ms. Adler lose the game.  How can that be considered being outwitted?  She captured Sherlock’s interest, yes, and that is a major accomplishment, yes.  But in the book Ms. Adler achieved much more than that (she charmed him) by doing far less (she did not pull a gun or undress herself – she simply acted cleverly and graciously).

And the ending of that episode seems a bit far-fetched.  Sherlock Holmes is great, but for him to infiltrate a terrorist cell inKarachiin order to free Ms. Adler?  With his policy of decluttering the attic (or the harddisk, if you prefer it), I bet he does not even know where Karachi is.  OK, that is a bit extreme, but my point is it takes a great deal of planning and energy to infiltrate a terrorist cell.  And in the story it is not even mentioned that Holmes disappeared for some time to plan and exactly perform the plan.

Another thing that puzzled me is the ’50-50 chance’ in the first episode of season 1.  In that episode, Sherlock was confronted by a serial killer who offered his victims with 2 bottles: one contains deadly poison, one contains harmless stuff.  When finally Sherlock and the murderer met, the murderer proffered a bottle to Sherlock, and gave him the chance to either take it or to take the other bottle.  “Play the game,” he said.  To which Sherlock replied, “What game? It is just a 50-50 chance.”  Do you think it is a 50-50 chance?  The probability that bottle A contains poison is 0.5, of course.  If the murderer let Sherlock choose, then it is a 50-50 chance.  But he offered him a certain bottle.  The probability that bottle A contains poison, given the fact that bottle A is offered to you by the murderer is not necessarily 0.5, is it?

All that being said, I am ready to admit that I enjoyed the series immensely.  And that when few days ago my boyfriend asked me to watch a certain movie, I directly said yes, just because I know that Mr. Cumberbatch is in it.

* With thanks to a friend who introduced me to this BBC series; and to SH who introduced me to Mr. Holmes years ago, and who has the privilege of sharing the same initials with him.

I am scheduled to have an interview this Wednesday with that university located in fairy land.  I have started feeling nervous since last Friday.  I worried that my presentation is too simple, that I will embarass myself.  That has always been the chief worry of my life: I am afraid of embarassing myself.

Last night I read the last but one chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, for the second time.  (As with The Everlasting Man,  I found that I need to read each chapter twice before I begin to understand Chesterton’s points).  I found these sentences that chastised me yet warmed my heart.

Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 8

Chesterton was talking about Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane.  Oh, how could I say that I am a follower of that courageous Lord, He who prayed in agony and sweated blood, yet marched resolutely to the cross?  Be still, my heart, practice, practice, practice, and take courage.

I was not well and took a day off from work last week.  It was on that day that I started re-reading Apologia.  I first read this book in 2008.  At that time I borrowed it from NUS library.  Many months after I finished the book, to my delight I found a copy (published by Dover Thrift) sold at a low price in a bookstore.  I bought it without hesitation.  I could not remember precisely the notes in the older copy I borrowed from the library, but I think this copy contains some appendices and notes not found in the library copy.  For instance, the correspondence between Dr. Newman and Mr. Kingsley, which prompted Newman to write this book, is included.

Perhaps it is a testimony to Newman’s greatness that when I read Kingsley’s accusations, I felt so upset that I could not bear to finish reading his article.  I felt as if it was someone I know, someone dear to me, that was being accused so harshly.  I felt I want to make a defence for this dear one.  No wonder Newman set out to write his Apologia after the accusation.  It is certainly a testimony to his literary skill that he could touch a reader so.  But I believe it testifies to a greater quality in Father Newman than just his literary skill.  And of course Mr. Kingsley’s tone and choice of words are upsetting.  I would not want to employ such tone and words even to an enemy.

As I wrote much earlier in this blog, Apologia Pro Vita Sua was written by John Henry Newman in 1864 (at that time he was known as Dr. Newman, later on he would be known as Cardinal Newman, and is now on the last step of being called Saint Newman), as a response to a public accusation against him made by Charles Kingsley.  Kingsley accused Newman of being a dishonest man who had lived a dishonest life, and that Newman’s teaching as an Anglican clergy was dangerous and misleading.  He went so far as to say that Newman had lost his human reason.  What was intolerable to Newman is not the slanders and accusations made against himself, but that Kingsley stated that Newman’s dishonesty is a typical example of the Roman Catholic Church’s low regard of truth.

Newman was no stranger to slanders.  As a young Anglican clergy, he co-initiated the Oxford Movement, a movement which aimed to revive the Catholic traditions and beliefs in the Anglican Church.  The movement believed that the Anglican Church is a part of the Catholic Church (i.e. the universal Church entrusted by Christ himself to the Apostles), otherwise how can she be called a Church? Therefore the doctrines, traditions, and practices of the early Church must be revived.  As the name implies, this movement was initiated by some scholars of Oxford University.  Their chief mode of operation was a natural choice for scholars: publishing essays and giving lectures and sermons.  For a young man (Newman was about 30 when he initiated the Movement) to involve in, let alone initiate, such movement within a Church that was established more or less as a protest against the contemporary Catholic Church, was to invite polemics.  But Newman was ready for that.  After all, the Oxford Movement was started to counter what they perceived as secularization and liberalism (in the negative sense) of the Anglican Church.  He was ready for battle.

The Oxford Movement became influential and widely known.  Newman was popular among the undergraduates student in Oxford.  The followers of the Movement were sometimes dubbed Newmanites (or Puseyites, after Dr. Edward B. Pusey, another leader in the Movement), and the term credo Newmanum was sometimes heard.  But they were not popular among the Church authorities, or at least some of the authorities.  Many accused them of misleading the Anglican flock to the Church of Rome.  In Apologia (this title can be translated as ‘a defence of one’s life’), Newman described his religious opinions and convictions in chronological order.  Reading his description, I think it is very clear (of course I do believe he is being honest here) that he never intended to be an enemy within the Anglican Church.  He was very sure that the Anglican Church is a branch of the Catholic Church, that the Church of Rome is full of evil and no longer deserves to be called the Catholic Church, and he showed this conviction in his teaching.  He never dreamt of leaving his Church.

Later on, when his study on the fifth-century-Church and the writings of the Church Fathers led him to gradually lose his conviction, he felt much anxiety.  He feared that his change in opinions would only serve to confuse many people and thus to further the liberalism or anti-dogmatic principles in the Anglican Church.  Over and over again he stated that as his chief anxiety.  His chief anxiety was the Church and the people, not himself.  In the course of 6 years (from 1839 to 1845), his change in opinions slowly gravitated into a conviction that the Catholic Church was after all still the Catholic Church.  When he finally decided to seek to be received into the Catholic Church, his thought is again for the Church of his baptism.  Few months before that he wrote, “Accept this apology, my dear Church, and forgive me …”

Father Newman had many admirers as well as many critics.  He still has, as his canonization process and people’s comments on that process show.  Those who hail the Catholic Church as the true Church deem his conversion a courageous decision to follow Our Lord.  Those who think that the Catholic Church has fallen as low as Lucifer may think that Newman’s too much thinking and reasoning had been his undoing.  And those who no longer believe in God or religion would perhaps wonder why so much fuss was made over nothing.

I normally do not like conversion stories, be it stories of people embracing Christian faith or of people leaving it.  Not that I doubt the sincerity of the conversion (though in some stories I do), but I do not like a tendency commonly found in such stories, that of disparaging one’s previous faith or religion.  Most of the conversion stories I read was written by people who was lukewarm about their initial faith, then suddenly became very passionate about their new faith.  I could not help suspecting whether the passion is not just because it is new, and whether the previous faith seemed shallow just because they never embraced it in the first place.  There are some stories about religious leaders’ conversion, of course.  I once read the famous story of a pastor who converted to the Catholic Church: I did not doubt his sincerity, and his writing cleared away some of my misconceptions about the Catholic Church, but his story did not touch me.  Perhaps one reason is that he seemed so eager to talk about his conversion.  To me conversion is a very private thing, as Newman said, it is something between ourselves and our Maker.  Why should one go on telling people about it?  Of course I do not suggest that one should hide one’s faith.  We Christians believe that it is essential that we should acknowledge our allegiance to Christ.  But there is a difference, I think, of showing allegiance and telling all the little details.

But I found Father Newman different from others.  Apologia touched me deeply.  So far it is perhaps the only conversion story that touched me, save that of St Paul’s.  My initial dislike to conversion story was somewhat lessened by the fact that he was reluctant to tell his story.  He was received into the Church on 1845, and Apologia was written and published on 1864.  If it had not been for Kingsley’s accusations, perhaps it would never have been published.  In the preface Newman states clearly how he disliked the idea of writing “a whole book about myself, about my most private thoughts and feelings”.  Again he says, “It is not at all pleasant for me to be egostitical; nor to be criticized for being so … it is not pleasant to be giving to every shallow or flippant disputant the advantage over me of knowing my most private thoughts, I might even say the intercourse between myself and my Maker.”  Then he states why he decided to write the book, “I am bound now as a duty to myself, to the Catholic cause, to the Catholic Priesthood, to give account of myself” … “I do not like to be called to my face a liar and a knave; nor should I be doing my duty to my faith or to my name, if I were to suffer it.”

Another thing that overcame my dislike was the fact that he was a scholar (an Oxford one, no less!) who spent most of his days reading and writing.  Yes, yes, I am ready to admit my professional prudery.  I highly regard learning and thinking.  But is not it natural to regard them highly?  Is not one who studies and ponders seriously on a matter more likely to understand the matter correctly than others who never sit and think, and resort to spectacular occurrence or their emotion to decide things?  And it is really pleasant to read a book written by a scholar.  For one, it is systematic.  Every citation is given its source.  There are summaries and numbered points.  What can I ask for more?

Apologia touched me deeply.  I would not be so presumptuous as to say that I can understand Father Newman’s feelings, but I can imagine a little what loss he must have felt.  At that time, Oxford University was closely linked with the Anglican Church (or is it still now?).  The university fellows and professors were mostly Anglican clergymen.  There was no place there for a Catholic scholar.  For a scholar whose days were spent reading, writing and teaching, his university must have meant so much to him.  It was the centre of his life: he lived there, he taught there, he learned there, even his parish church is within the university, and he made his living from his position in the university.  His close friends were his fellow scholars, they met regularly to discuss, they wrote essays together (oh, what a life!).  To be cut off from such ties, or more precisely, to cut them off himself, what a pain it must have been!  And it seems that Newman loved Oxford, not only the university, but the familiar building and places.  He used to think that he would live there till his death.  And he loved his parish church and his parishioners.  He lost all that.

Those who hail the Catholic Church as the true Church would say that he lost all that to gain something more precious: to follow his Lord more faithfully.  Yes, it is more precious, but his loss was still a painful one.  Those who agree more with Newman’s critics may say that it is his just desert, that he brought all that misery upon himself.  In a sense he did bring all that misery upon himself, and he admitted that.  But who can fail to sympathize with him for such great a loss? 

The main character in his novel “Loss and Gain” (Newman wrote prose and verse as beautifully as he wrote his essays) is Charles Reding, a young undergraduate in Oxford who converted to Catholicism and lost his place in Oxford.  A whole chapter in the novel is devoted to his farewell to Oxford.  How can one who appreciates even a little the meaning of profession be not touched by such description as I copied below? And how can one but think that this farewell to Oxford was once enacted by the author himself?

“There lay old Oxford before him, with its hills as gentle and its meadows as green as ever. At the first view of that beloved place he stood still with folded arms, unable to proceed. Each college, each church—he counted them by their pinnacles and turrets. The silver Isis, the grey willows, the far-stretching plains, the dark groves, the distant range of Shotover, the pleasant village where he had lived with Carlton and Sheffield—wood, water, stone, all so calm, so bright, they might have been his, but his they were not.  Whatever he was to gain by becoming a Catholic, this he had lost; whatever he was to gain higher and better, at least this and such as this he never could have again. He could not have another Oxford, he could not have the friends of his boyhood and youth in the choice of his manhood. He mounted the well-known gate on the left, and proceeded down into the plain. There was no one to greet him, to sympathise with him; there was no one to believe he needed sympathy; no one to believe he had given up anything; no one to take interest in him, to feel tender towards him, to defend him. He had suffered much, but there was no one to believe that he had suffered. He would be thought to be inflicting merely, not undergoing, suffering. He might indeed say that he had suffered; but he would be rudely told that every one follows his own will, and that if he had given up Oxford, it was for a whim which he liked better than it.”

(Loss and Gain, Part III, Chapter 3, italic mine).

Young Charles could not have another Oxford, and neither could Newman.  In his Apologia he refrained from describing his feeling on leaving Oxford, but these sentences speak volumes:

“On the morning of the 23rd I left the Observatory.  I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway” (last paragraph in Chapter IV).

But many years later there would be a consolation for him.  In 1878 he revisited Oxford for the first time since he left it in 1845, and he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, the college which he belonged as an undergraduate.  He came again to Oxford, but not to stay.  He could not have another Oxford, or another chance to have Oxford.

In Apologia I find nothing that prevents me from believing that Father Newman did what he did simply because he chose to obey our Lord.  Many people may not agree with me, and say that he obeyed his own fancy or reason.  Of course people may say that, as I suppose the Jews may say that about St. Paul.  But I think even those who disagree with St. Paul or Father Newman could not deny one thing: that they embraced their faith, both the old and the new, with the same remarkable zeal; and that they accomplished great things.

I have been reading the book “Don’t Waste Your Life” by John Piper these days.  I may not completely understand or agree with every point in the book, but I readily accept the thesis of the book.  The thesis is this: that the meaning of our life, our existence, can only be found in seeing, enjoying, and displaying the glory of God our Creator.  Other ways of life are wasting our life.  I think I encountered this thesis before, though in different words, at least twice: first in the RCIA class, and the second time was in one of Tolkien’s letters.

The thesis presents an answer to the question (in fact, the Question): what is the purpose of our life? Those who believe that we are created by a creator may ask: why were we created? So that the creator may have a bunch of creatures continually telling him how great he is?

What follows is what I understand as the answer of the Church.  And by the Church I mean the community of people who follow Christ, i.e. the Christians1.  Now a caution is necessary.  If what follows sound illogical or silly to you, please, do not directly discard the Church (or worst still, Christ) as rubbish.  Most likely the blame lies in my understanding, or my wording.  Anyway, this is what I believe as the answer to the question above:

There is the Creator from whom the universe has its being.  This Creator is full of glory and love.  He2 does not need anything or anyone, not even someone to be loved.  (Now if you ask how He can love when He does not need anyone to be loved, the Church can introduce you to our faith in the Trinity.  But that deserves its own essay, one that I do not dare –yet– to write).  And this Creator does not need anything or anyone to sing His praise or glory, as if He were a man with a delusion of grandeur.  The Creator is full of glory and love, so much so that His glory and love are overflowing.  His glory and love are overflowing, so much so that they can be imparted, shared, given so generously.  Creation is an act of giving: the Creator gave, imparted, His glory and love to His creatures.

So what does the Creator expect from His creatures?  I do not think our Creator sees us like an engineer sees a machine that he invented.  An engineer inventing a machine would expect the machine to perform some tasks for him (though he may have some love for his inventions, but the main idea is for the machine to do something).  Now in our case, I think the Creator expect His creatures to simply receive His glory and love, and to be glad.  And do you not think that the universe has done exactly that? The glowing stars, are they not glorious? The chirping birds, are they not glad?  The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy.

And we do not stop at that.  Having received such great glory and love, surely we cannot help responding?  I am not talking now about the glowing stars or the chirping birds.  I am talking about us, Men, who are endowed with intellect and will.  For intellectual creatures like us, what other response can be?  When someone much greater, much more honourable than us, who knows us through and through, chooses to share his greatness with us, showers us with favour and love, and it turns out that it is really delightful to be with him, what can be our response but being glad and loving him in return?

So, then, to the question “what is the purpose of our life?”, I would venture to say: to accept, to partake, the glory and love of God our Creator, to receive gratefully His love and to love Him.  The idea of love is closely linked with the idea of being one.  When two persons love each other, they grow in understanding, they tend to know what the other thinks, their minds approaches a unison, and we often say that they start to become one.  Now this idea is also found (in greater depth) in the Christian teaching.  Christ prayed, “Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you … I have loved them as much as you loved me …” (John 17: 21 – 23).  To be one, to love and to be loved; and it is not a cheap unity or love that we are talking about here.  We are talking about the unity, the communion, the love that is within the Trinity.  The Communion that has no discord in it, the Love that created the universe, the Love that requires the death of the Lover.  And Men are called to enter that communion and love.  To return to the question of the purpose of our life, should we not say that the purpose is to be one with God?  It may not be far from the mark to say that this idea is similar to the idea of theosis found in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  But I will not discuss something that I have not studied.

If we are one with God, if we receive His glory and love, it follows that we will display His glory.  Does not the Scripture say that Men are created in the image of God?  Now, what does this ideal purpose practically mean?  What sort of life one must live if one is to receive, enjoy, and display God’s glory and love?  In the RCIA class that I attended, the priest said that that is unique for each one of us.  “For me,” he said, pride and joy evident in his voice, “the best way to love God, to be with Him, is to be a priest.  For you, it may be to be a lawyer, a doctor, a father … That is something that you need to discern.”  That is also what John Piper said in “Don’t Waste Your Life”.  That is what my father has always prayed for me: that I may enter fully into God’s plan for me.  That is what J.R.R. Tolkien answered when someone asked him in a letter his view on the purpose of life (Letter 310).  Tolkien said that the idea of purpose points to the idea of creation and a creator.  He wrote, “… the chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis: …We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendour.”

And now we come to the best part: to be one with God does not mean an ultra-serious, gloomy, cheerless life.  Piper emphasized again and again that our purpose is to enjoy God’s glory.  To be with God, he argued, is the only real joy.  He is of course not the first person to realize that.  Piper cited Jonathan Edwards for this observation in enjoying.  St. Francis of Assisi was noted for his cheerfulness.  So was Mother Theresa of Calcutta.  And most of us are familiar with the words of St. Augustine of Hippo: “You have made us for Yourself, o Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”  We are created in that overflowing love and glory, so how can we find joy outside love and glory? Human love and earthly glory may give us a glimpse, a taste of that joy, but they are not the fulfillment.  I am young and I have not enough experience to testify to this statement, but this reminds me of my father, who is perhaps the most Christian man that I know personally.  My father has a good career, he enjoys his job, he is widely respected, and we are a loving family.  But he once told me that work and family alone cannot satisfy a man.  “There must be something more than that”, he said, “there must be a deeper meaning in one’s life than raising a family and carving a career.”

To understand that being with God is a joyful experience instead a gloomy one, I think it helps to remember how often the Gospel (and the Old Testament as well) mentioned about banquet.  In the Day of the Lord, as the world that we know comes to an end, what does Scripture say we will do? Floating in the air of heaven, experiencing a continual meditation? No! What Scripture says is that we will eat and drink in a banquet, a great feast, the feast of our Lord.  Even in today’s reading we found how Isaiah described a banquet of God. 

“The Lord of host will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food,” the prophet said, and he went on to describe it, “a banquet of fine wines, of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines. … He will destroy Death for ever.  The Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek …” (Isaiah 25: 6-8).

In the Gospel reading we heard how our Lord compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast.  In today’s homily, my parish priest reminded us how we all have often failed to be joyful in the Lord.  How often are we excited, happy, because we are loved by God, not because things are going well?  In a similar vein, Piper asked us, how often do other people ask the secret of our joy, our hope, in the midst of troubles?  Perhaps they never ask so, for we never look joyful or hopeful when troubles come!

I think it is in this way that we may understand the promises found in Scripture that God makes those who walks in His path succeed.  Some people interpret those promises as a guarantee that a Christian will be smarter, more successful in career, healthier, and (of course!) wealthier, than the non-Christians surrounding him / her.  But I do not think we should take those promises that way.  To walk in His path means much more than to be a professing Christian.  To walk in His path means to first discern which path we should take, which path should bring us to see and enjoy His glory and love, to love Him, and to display His glory.  God can bless our business, of course, but if our business is not the path that He intends for us, why should we expect Him to grant success to it?  And did not Christ say plainly that to follow Him means to carry our cross?  It is hard to see how a cross translates to financial success.

But there is indeed the promise that we will succeed; that if we decide to follow Him, He will see to it that we have enough strength for the journey, that He himself will walk with us through the journey, that we will succeed in accomplishing His plan for us.  As Piper put it, when we choose to live God’s plan for us, we will encounter many difficulties, we may suffer, we may die in the process.  But God will give us enough strength to accomplish His plan for us.  Our Lord himself died young, at his thirties.  He did not have what we would call a great career, He did not die a wealthy man, He did not (!) write a book that left its mark on human history.  But He did accomplish what He came for: to die on the Cross.

I should end this article with a confession: I have failed so miserably in all this.  Theoretically I know that I am created by God, that He has imparted His glory and love to me, that the only purpose of my life is to love Him and to display His glory.  When I read the Scripture, when I sing the hymns and psalms, my heart is filled with warm feelings (I hope that may count as a budding love).  But I still do not know what His plan for me is, which path I should take so that I can love Him more.  I thought that my vocation is to be a lecturer, to see and to show others how mechanics and mathematics display a glimpse of His brilliance, but now I am not so sure.  I am not so sure whether I am good enough in civil engineering to teach, let alone to inspire people to see His brilliance through the knowledge.  And about the joy, oh, how I have failed!  As I said, when I read the Scripture or sing the hymns I felt so joyful.  But it does not take much to make me lose my joy or patience.  I become impatient just because of small things such as being in a rush and finding the lock stuck.  And I can become so despondent just because I cannot understand my simulation results.  Well, what else can I say that I will try to do better every day?

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1For those who instinctively ask, “which church?”, my view is shaped by what I learnt in the RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults), what I recently read in “Don’t Waste Your Life” (John Piper, I understand, is a pastor in a Reformed-Baptist church), what I read in Tolkien’s letters (J.R.R Tolkien was a Roman Catholic), many other readings (those would be from Roman Catholic, Presbyterian or Evangelical traditions).

2I do not (and the Church certainly does not) imply that this Infinite, Supreme Being is a male – surely the Creator transcends gender and sexuality.