Taize ’15: Pilgrimage of Trust

Foreword: My Call Break Trip was first and foremost a retreat. I expected a simple week of prayer and peace in Taize. I did not expect to be plunged so deeply into reflection and revelation. This post captures the entirety of my latest angst-arc, which (hopefully) ended with and in Taize.

On that note, I apologise for the length of this post. More than most posts, this one is a way for me to organise and archive my thoughts (which have been in turmoil before and during Taize). So brevity and readability must give way to completeness. In this regard, I footnote and link to various texts, including previous blogposts (of which many are locked and to which my usual practice applies), church documents, and books. I do not do this to be academic; I do this to be comprehensive.

For my readers’ convenience, I have inserted a TLDR at the end of the post.

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I. A YEAR OF DESOLATION

I struggled in the past year. I don’t think I realised just how much of a desolation this entire period was, until I read through my previous blogposts in Taize to pinpoint when exactly I began struggling. That was when I saw a narrative.

Even before the 2014 Accident, after returning from my Grad Trip, I had already set out general themes and signs of loneliness, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. I had even (somewhat unknowingly) embarked on another S-project. And even back then, I had begun to doubt whether the undercurrent of joy that Christians profess actually flowed in me.

Then the Accident happened, and my faith went through a crisis. There was some healing: traveling – to swim with whales and/or without an oxygen tank – is remarkably therapeutic. But apart from these brief twinkles, I generally felt bereft of God’s presence.

When work began, the steep learning curve and the emptiness I felt quickly overshadowed all my other struggles. Lent was a period of grace, without which I might have sunken into despair. But a costly mistake and the realisation of my limits dammed the grace from flowing into Eastertide. For a period, I was too distracted to even consider any other contributing or underlying cause to my angst apart from work.

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II. THE INFINITY OF RESTLESSNESS AND DESIRE

Subsequently, I began to be aware of a greater restlessness, one which I could neither attribute to work nor explain away so simplistically. I initially characterised it as an issue in my love affair with God. I later described it as a romantic yearning for “unbelonging”.

Ironically, in the week before my call break began, I wondered to myself if I was already living out this life of unbelonging. I had withdrawn from my comfort friendships and I was immersed in my “vanilla routine” of office life. I even cancelled a catch-up date with W. But this is the difference between fantasy and reality: I did not dance. I could not find joy.

Nomenclature aside, this much was clear: the trigger might have been work, but the emptiness had expanded beyond work-angst into a seething silence. I was searching for something, someone, someplace; I did not know what I was searching for. Was it companionship? Was it intimacy (with God or otherwise)? Was it slowness? Was it flow? Was it meaning?

The truth is: I wanted everything. I wanted to live.[1] But each time I imagined myself getting my heart’s desire(s), it seemed that neither one nor more nor all of these things could fill this emptiness within me.

In Taize, I talked to many young people all over the world who were attracted to the community’s monastic life. Such personalities drew me to their own introversion (though of course their foreign exoticness fascinated me as well). In such circumstances (like in SOW and WYD), HTHTs are the most valuable social currency.

And yet, as I interacted with them, I found myself being almost dispassionate, or at most, briefly intrigued. Instead of availing myself to the deep sharings that happen between young people at night, I would often linger behind after common prayer on my own to pray, think, and/or write. Often, I would even depart the group to just find a quiet spot to read or pray. (That being said, I am really thankful to E’s group for providing a safe space to have meals without being alone.)

Part of this detachment is a function of solo-traveling; but part of it is also a fruit of my desolation. I had begun to realise just how uneternal my passions were – be it in practice, places, or people. These ‘modes’ of fulfilment were brief and finite. They expired. In contrast, my yearnings were vast and infinite. And regardless of how hotly and brightly my interest in the things and people of this world burned, it would eventually burn out.

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?”[2] When the Taize Brother gave us this Ecclesiastes passage for our second day’s reflection, it seemed like God was not just affirming, but reifying my insights.

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III. THE GIFT OF JOY[3]

I now understand that in the Desolation Year, various images of God that I held on to were being demolished: the Accident for my image of God-as-miracles, the S-project and loneliness for God-as-intimacy, the work-angst for God-as-strength, the dry period thereafter for God-as-fulfilment. That is all very well and good.

But the question that I had asked during my desolation remains: if God is stripping all my images of Him so that I can love Him for His own sake, what (or who) exactly do I love? How can a Christian remain joyful[4] when everything that brings him consolation is stripped away?

In a workshop on Joy, I begged the preliminary question: what is Joy? To me, the defining characteristic of joy is that it persists even amidst suffering or struggle.[5] And if joy and sadness are not mutually exclusive, it must follow that joy resides on a separate plane from the continuum of our emotional and neurochemical responses to worldly stimuli. While I truly subscribe to this definition and nature of joy, this has not been my experience for the past few months.

In the Desolation Year, I had not ceased looking for a deeper joy beneath the turbulence of angst, I had not ceased praying, I had not ceased receiving the sacraments. For all intents and purpose, I had remained a ‘good Catholic’. But I was joyless.

And then: something clicked. (I cannot attribute this to any particular text or experience; I can only conclude that it was grace.)

If all things of this world are vanity, then joy cannot be a product of any worldly thing or worldly consolation. Joy cannot be a product of consummating my desires or filling my emptiness (to such extent that such consummation and/or fulfilment is possible in this life). Joy must be in spite of these. Joy must be unworldly.

How helpless am I to attain such joy on my own!

And right there, in that dawn of epiphanic comprehension, I was liberated from the burden of directly pursuing my own joy – be it through the Integrationist Model, the Work-Life Model, or some other worldly means within my control.

Drawing from their monastic experiences and from working with the poor and the suffering of the world, the Taize brothers reaffirm constantly that joy is a gift.[6] It comes from God. It is founded on our trust in God.[7][8] While one can “opt for joy” (and such an attitude is crucial), it is the “Holy Spirit [who] sets the joy of the Risen Christ in in the depths of our being.”[9] Thus, even at our lowest, when we have almost nothing, “a desert flower can blossom, unhoped-for joy.”[10]

These are not ideas that I was unfamiliar with. But I had only known them without internalising them. And perhaps only after this road that I had walked the past year and this pilgrimage to Taize could the journey be made from head to heart.

One can then understand how I could take consolation in the Ecclesiastes passage (while most of my group dismissed the passage for being overly-cynical). To be consoled by the vanity of all worldly things suggests that there must something unworldly that is unvain.

And there is: not just something, but someone; not just anyone, but Jesus Christ my savior.

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IV. A SPRINGTIME OF CONSOLATION

During the week in Taize, the community prepares for the Sabbath (being the celebration of Easter) during the Saturday evening common prayer. They call it the Celebration of Lights. Musicians are invited to join the choir, joyful songs are sung, the Easter candle is lit, and the flame is passed to every person in the church.

And as we sang Surrexit Christus (which has become my favourite Taize song – may it resound throughout my life), I beamed. I could feel the joy, palpable as it welled up within me. I felt like I was radiating. I do not know if N noticed any difference (in my voice or otherwise), but I could sense his joy too. The entire night was radiant with joy – for no reason apart from the fact that Jesus Christ resurrected on Easter Sunday.[11]

I stayed up until 2AM that night, singing, praying, falling asleep occasionally, waking up to sing again. I hung out at Oyak with the Germans for a while, went back to the dorm to bathe, then came back to the church. I did not want the night to end. I was so full. Even now, the memory of that night draws emotions from a secret place within me. When will such a springtime come again?

I know that my experience that night is a consolation. But I know also that it is a consolation that is derived not from worldly achievement or satisfaction, but from a deeper understanding of the kerygma. It is a rainbow after the storm of the last year, marking the covenant: joy in exchange for trust in God.

Spring will turn to winter; I cannot and do not expect this consolation to endure. But while rainbows do not last, covenants do. I hope the understanding, at least, and the deeper rootedness that comes with such grace remains. Then, even in the winter, may I be able to wait in joy for spring and sabbath to come again.

“Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress: My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26).”

– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, at [6].

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V. THE NECESSITY OF TOIL & THE PLEASURES OF WORK

At this point, I can distinctively define the two causes of my Desolation Year: (1) joylessness; and (2) work-angst. I have hopefully addressed (1) above (being the deeper issue). I now turn to address (2) (being the more immediate issue).

In search for a ‘solution’ to my work-angst (though at that time, I had not yet identified distinctly the two said causes), I read Laborem Exercens (“LE”) while I was in Taize. The first point from which I drew great comfort was: work is inevitably linked with toil.[12] To some extent, this blurs the distinction between the Integrationist Model and the Work-Life Model: regardless of how much I ‘love’ what I do, I am going to experience hardship. Toil, then, is not only normal, it is normative.

This brings me to the second point: work and its necessary toil are redemptive. In LE,[13] Pope John Paul II writes that work and toil present Christians with the “possibility of sharing lovingly in the work that Christ came to do.” Accordingly, by “enduring the toil of work in union with Christ crucified for us, man in a way collaborates with the Son of God for the redemption of humanity.” In this regard, Christ Himself was a “Man of Work”[14] – apart from His 3 years of public ministry, He had been a carpenter.

Therefore, in spite of toil – perhaps, in a sense, because of it – “work is a good thing for man”.[15] LE goes so far (in fact this is LE’s first key point) as to say that man’s life “derives its specific dignity” from work.[16]

The above points thus provide a framework to understand, and perhaps even rehabilitate, my work-angst (i.e. toil). I now understand that the issue cannot be one of toil. I cannot question why I am experiencing so much toil in my work. I cannot interpret the presence of toil as God’s call for me to move. Because wherever I go and whatever I do, toil will remain.

In this regard, I note that there is no mention of the relationship between work and desire. In fact, Scripture presumes work as based on the Work-Life Model; there is no hint of the Integration Model at all. St Paul thus suggests that what I am working as matters less than my attitude when I work: “Whatever your task, work heartly, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.”[17]

When I look back at the past 6 months, I can identify moments of reward in my work. Oddly (perhaps not so, given the above), the two examples that come to mind involved me working on weekends. First, acting on our MD’s exhortation to be more practical, I had tried to find an expert witness via a personal visit and request, to testify on behalf of a PVS client. I failed in the end, but the sense of purpose that I had during that visit left a deep impression on me. Second, I had worked weekends to inter alia rush out pleadings for a client N. N is a really nice guy; he is also very intense and demanding. But the day that he got the end results he was seeking, I was jubilant too.

The Ecclesiastes passage that the Taize Brother chose for us thus continues: “What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”[18]

Near the start of my Taize week, the questions that I had were narrow. I wanted to address the place I was at specifically and the angst I was feeling at that moment. I wanted to know what I should do next and/or where I should go next. I was looking for a destination, a path to follow, a treasure to find. Receiving the above-mentioned insights, I felt that God was trying to give me a map. And with that map, God may decide to take me anywhere.

How terrifying God’s gifts are.

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VI. THE PILGRIMAGE OF TRUST

Taize, then, was inter alia a clarion call to trust in God. On hindsight, this had been Jeff Cavin’s recurring message throughout the Scripture sessions. In that regard, perhaps God’s invitation had begun way earlier; I was simply too obtuse to hear it.

In a workshop on Discerning God’s Call, a Taize Brother referred to Jesus’ three-fold question whether Peter loved him.[19] In the first two times, Jesus used the word agape. Peter replies with philia. The last time, Jesus changed his question to philia. Then Peter got distressed.

Of the many interpretations of this passage, the Taize Brother proffered one as follows. When Jesus asked if Peter loved Him unconditionally, Peter could only respond with his capacity to love Jesus as a brother. In the third and final question (which parallels and redeems Peter’s thrice-denial of Jesus during His arrest), Jesus meets Peter at his own capacity for love: philia is sufficient. Peter’s limited capacity to love is sufficient. And with this limited capacity, Peter becomes the rock on which Jesus builds His church.

On this reading then, Jesus guarantees His love and plan for us, despite our inability to fully reciprocate His love. The point is thus: dare to trust in God. This echoes Brother Roger’s call to daring: “Dare to give your life for others; there you will find meaning for your existence… Until the end of our days, daring to say ‘yes’ can bring so much clarity.”[20]

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VII. FOLLOWING GOD’S CALL

Now that the principles have been established, I must apply them to the facts. In a bid to be more daring – both to giving my life to others and to trust in God – I am actively discerning if God is calling me (1) to apply for further studies in International Law, (2) with a view to practicing PIL / IHL / HR, (3) in the UN / an NGO.

In Geneva, I met up with a program officer from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. The LL.M. program is all I could ever hope for. I also attended an excellent and exciting tour of Palais des Nations (quite by accident). And to end off my 2 days in Geneva, I visited the Red Cross Museum. With my emotions rising to my throat, I asked myself this question that is sure to reverberate throughout this period of discernment: what am I doing with my life of privilege?

In accordance with the above, such discernment must remain independent of finding joy in the kerygma and my attitude towards / ability to cope with work-angst. In short, further study is neither solution nor salve. It is a response.

So I will dare to dream. I will dare to be impractical. And if He calls, I will dare to go.

And this also means that I will dare to be disappointed. And I will dare to stay.

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TLDR: I was in a period of desolation for the past 12 months – triggered by work, but with other underlying causes. I went to Taize, and there, deepened my realisation that a Christian’s joy is founded on trust in God. I further understand that toil in work is inevitable and redemptive, so I cannot make decisions to avoid toil. With these insights, I am currently discerning whether to (1) apply for further studies in International Law, (2) with a view to practicing PIL / IHL / HR, (3) in the UN / an NGO.


[1] See Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book – “Bod said, ‘I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want,’ he said, and then he paused and he thought. ‘I want everything.’”

[2] Ecc 1:2-3

[3] I am aware that CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy is highly relevant (and even probative) to this topic. I have just bought the e-book and will read it soon. Meanwhile, I regret that I have neither time nor capacity to incorporate its insights into this post. A more general treatise on joy beyond my recent context must wait for another day, when I am more free, more mature, and/or more joyful.

[4] See Pope Benedict XVI, at the end of the Month of Mary in the Grotto of Lourdes at the Vatican Gardens, 30 May 2012 – “Joy, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, is a fundamental distinguishing characteristic of Christians.”

[5] See Br. Alois, Letter from Chile 2011 – “Sometimes those who suffer poverty and deprivation are capable of a spontaneous joy in living, joy that resists discouragement.”

[6] See Br. Roger, A Path of Hope (Bloomsbury, London: 2006) (“Br. Roger, A Path of Hope”), p.12 – “We are not the ones who create this joy; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is constantly renewed by the look of trust with which God regards our life.”

[7] See Br. Alois, Letter from Chile 2011 – “When the Bible repeatedly invites us to be joyful, it shows us the source. This joy does not depend only on passing circumstances; it comes from trust in God: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice… The Lord is near.” (Phil 4:4-5)”

[8] See also Pope Benedict XVI, supra note 4, – “[Joy] is founded on hope in God, it draws strength from incessant prayer and it enables us to face trials and suffering with serenity.”

[9] Br. Alois, Letter from Chile 2011. Br. Alois continues in his letter, “[Joy] is not only there when everything is easy. When we are faced with a challenging task, the effort can reawaken joy. And even in times of trial, it can remain buried like embers under the ashes, without going out.”

[10] Br. Roger, A Path of Hope, p.9.

[11] See Pope John Paul II – “We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

[12] Laborem Exercens, at [27:1]. The distinction between work and toil can be summarized as: toil is the hardship that work entails.

[13] See LE at [27:3].

[14] See LE at [26].

[15] LE at [9:3].

[16] LE at [1:2].

[17] Col 3:23-24.

[18] Ecc 3:9-13

[19] See Jn 21:15-17.

[20] Br. Roger, A Path of Hope, p.12.

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5 thoughts on “Taize ’15: Pilgrimage of Trust

  1. Pingback: Called | Mel

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About Mel

I dreamt I was a whale. https://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/about-mel/