Pray for Italy

It is sometimes said that the smallest light shines brightest in the darkest night. The central part of Italy (some 150 km from Rome) was hit by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake (terremoto in Italian, literally ‘moving land’) that has claimed almost 250 lives according to the latest news report. It’s the most serious earthquake to hit the seismically and volcanically active Italy for a while. In the midst of the sorrow and suffering where thousands of families are left homeless and bereft of loved ones, small glimmers of hope continue to emerge. There were reports of an eight-year-old girl pulled from the rubble some 18 hours after the quake and other equally inspiring stories of courage and strength that have come through the local media. We hear of people starting reconstruction campaigns a scant 12 hours after the quake. The light that resides deep within us cannot be extinguished even by terrible events like this. In fact, it is revealed and thus shines even brighter.

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On a more personal note, I was very touched by the numerous messages received over the past day from friends from all over the world. Truth be told, I’m not very good at keeping in touch with others but am amazed at the love and concern that poured out in this direction over the past day. This reminds me that the media (social or otherwise) has a great capacity to help us to do good and to show love and is not just a bearer of bad news. However, it still doesn’t quite give me the last push needed to get further into the whole social media thing. Later perhaps.

We’re quite far away from the earthquake being in Genova (or Genoa) in the north of Italy but our thoughts and prayers continue for those affected. We continue to pray especially for the families who have lost loved ones and their homes, for the communities as they seek to recover from the tragedy and for those working tirelessly to give aid to those most in need.

Struggling to speak, speaking of struggle

I was introduced to an interesting albeit somewhat depressing analogy for life recently. I was told that life is like a pendulum, swinging between boredom and despair, passing briefly through moments of joy in the middle. While I don’t quite agree with this assessment of life, the swing of the pendulum was quite apparent this past week and it’s given me much to think about, both within myself as well as how I’m operating within the world.

And it swings, moment to moment. Bad physics joke but couldn’t help it.

During the past week, I went through the gamut of emotions of joy at learning new things in Italian class to despair at not being able to grasp what seemed like simple concepts relating to prepositions and conjunctions to settle finally with a sense of calm anticipation of better times to come. As mentioned before, patience is important and I realise that for some time, I lost patience with myself and my ability to learn properly. I want to improve, to communicate effectively and to understand the lessons that are to come but that cannot and will not happen overnight. The problems arose when I expected that to happen.

Being unable to communicate effectively can be hugely demoralising. Try sitting with others, during meals or otherwise, having ideas and means to join in the conversations but are unable to because one has the vocabulary of a 6-year-old. Or worse, sitting with others and losing the thread of the conversation because we just don’t understand the words. Or sitting in class correcting one’s grammar exercise and realising that one got less than half of them correct. Language acquisition isn’t easy at the best of times but when the added pressure to do ‘better’ comes from within, the pendulum can quickly swing towards despair and stay there.

To make things worse, I’m an educator and spent some time in language education. If I can’t motivate myself to learn well, then what right do I have to even step into a classroom again? A little overdramatic I must admit but then again, I do have a particular penchant for melodrama. Jokes aside, I realise that the struggles in learning that I go through now can have a positive effect on how I approach education in the future. I just have to learn something in the process. What I did learn (or at least remember) while desperately trying to swing myself out of was that learning includes both knowing and understanding. How one approaches both of them in one’s efforts can have a great impact on how one truly learns in the end.

Italian has three words related with knowledge and understanding. Conoscere means ‘to know’ – a simple indication of one recognising a particular person, thing or idea. Capire (from which comes the famous word from the Godfather movies, ‘Capisce’) means ‘to understand’ – an indication that the knowledge has been internalised and can be used in a similar context. Sapire means ‘to know so that it can be used’ – a higher form of knowledge that includes the willingness and ability to use one’s knowledge. Learning and studying helps one to know things but it’s only with constant contact with the language and the willingness to use it and to make all manner of silly mistakes with it can we progress to the point where we know the language well enough for it to be used.

Being able to speak and communicate requires one to ‘sapire’ the language so that it can be used. I’d say that’s the main thrust of what we’re trying to do here. The minor setbacks are part and parcel of learning and the struggle to speak and to use the grammar does make one stronger. I remember telling my students that ‘suffering builds character’ and I think my character’s being built pretty well these days. The struggle to try to use what little I know to communicate continues and perhaps it is the lines from St Paul that can help:

“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutionns, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Or in Italian:
“Perciò mi compiaccio nelle mie infermità, negli oltraggi, nelle necessità, nelle persecuzioni, nelle angosce sofferte per Cristo: quando sono debole, è allora che sono forte.” (2 Corinzi 12:10)

Getting the good news out

Some say that no news is good news. What would people say about too much bad news? The recent spate of killings, disasters and things that can go wrong in the world can turn one quite quickly into a pessimist. After all, it seems that we’re going downhill, humanity is on the brink of collapse and anarchy is right round the corner. Exaggerated as this may seem, reading the news can lead one to think thoughts that do border on extreme pessimism and lead one to think that the only news that we seem to get are of the bad variety.

If only the good news were so easy to get…

The terror attacks, hate killings and natural disasters that have been in the news are indeed bad and these seem to dominate headlines and thoughts of people. I’ve often wondered – why does the bad news seem to dominate? Could it be because we’re getting too much information in the first place? I might be oversimplifying things but allow me to explain. As the amount of information generated increases at exponential rates and the amount of information consumed matches this generation, what we have is information being produced and consumed at rates that are impossible for people to consume in totality. The result is the soundbite, the headline or the tweet. To shut out the noise of information, we rely on people to process it for us and we often consume these quite superficially – read the headlines and move on to something that interests us. That’s not a bad thing right?

Probably not but left to their own devices, news agencies and people who make money off the news would want the news to be as interesting or arresting as possible. Like it or not, disaster and tragedy do catch interest more than stories of hope and joy. Morbid as it may be, we are drawn to tragedy, which can be good as we seek to share in the suffering of others, but too much of it can colour our view of human nature and life in general. This inordinate focus on tragedy sells and appeals to the baser, curious and sometimes morbid sides of us all. There’s always news of human triumph and hope but the tragedy tends to overshadow it because it’s just so ubiquitous, so ‘always there’. And it’s hard to run away from it.

Or is it? While some might bemoan the lack of good news, I believe that it could just be that we’re not opening our eyes and hearts enough to really see it. Good news is everywhere, in the newspapers, online and all around us. All we need to do is to be aware of it, sift through the news in a way that brings light to our minds and not dwell in the darkness of the tragedies. To look for the little glimmers of light even within the tragedies to see that humanity is not bad but just a little lost at times, requiring small nudges here and there to bring it back on track.

And that’s where our faith helps us. We’re reminded that we’re called to ‘Go to all the world to proclaim the good news’ (Mk 16:15) and that is what we need to do. The good news, in this case, is not just the news of our salvation through the Lord but the hope and joy that our shared humanity can bring. Just as our Lord shared humanity with us, so we can share the hope and joy in his resurrection with others. We who hope in God’s love (Ps 147:11) will not be disappointed – we who bring this hope to others will ease their disillusionment with the world. As we seek to bring God’s mercy to others, one concrete way is to bring this hope, in the form of companionship, kind words or just forwarding news that uplifts others. That’s bringing the good news. So no news isn’t good news – good news is.

Moving in, moving out

The updates have been a little tardy (or tardi in Italian) because of the flurry of activity over the past weeks. An explanation is in order. I arrived in Rome at the end of June and stayed in the Jesuit community called the Collegio di Bellarmino (Bellarmine College) which is a residence for Jesuits doing advanced studies (Masters and beyond) in Rome. That was temporary. I belong to the Collegio di Gesu community, and our house has been under renovation for the past year. Some parts of it was cleaned up sufficiently for us to move in last weekend and there I’ve been ever since.

Moving isn’t easy and the process of moving reminds one of the need to be mobile and simple. Mobile in that as religious and missionaries, we might need to pack up and go in a hurry. Simple in that we shouldn’t accumulate too many things that it makes things difficult to be mobile. That fact was hammered home as I was packing to leave Kuching about 2 months ago and I’m thankful that I did (and still do) travel light. The move from the Bellarmino to the Gesu was relatively painless and I’m glad to say that I was finally able to unpack after almost a month here. It’s good to be able to settle into one’s room, even if it’s not going to be as permanent as one might like.

There’s still work being done in the house so things remain fairly dusty but we live despite the slight discomfort. The settling into a place that’s becoming more familiar and the sense of being at home as we seek to personalise and really live in our rooms (as opposed to living as a guest in the Bellarmino) makes a huge difference. I’m starting to feel at home even though we just got here and I suppose that bodes well for things to come.

The view from my room just before dawn. Ahhh Roma.

A testament to our mobility is the fact that a week after we moved in here, we’re leaving for the port city of Genoa for a month. We’re going there to continue our Italian language classes and to live with the Jesuit community and Novitiate there. I expect there to be much immersion and interaction into Italian language and culture and we’re very much looking forward to this. Genoa is famous for being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and pesto. The spirit of the former reminds us of the need to continually discover new things, be it languages or lands and well, I just like eating things with the latter. Either way, things are good.

Updates shall continue as we move along but in the meantime, allow me to wish one and all, a Blessed Feast of St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits whose feast day we celebrate today.

Happy and Blessed feast day to one and all!

Reflections of Stan the Student

We’re nearing the end of our second week of Italian language classes and I think it’s a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on what it feels like to become a student once again. Yes, it’s a little odd to have been so thoroughly immersed in school and to be teaching for two years only to be dropped straight into the role of a student of a subject that one knows almost nothing about. Learning a new language is like starting from kindergarten – we really did spend part of the first class learning the Italian alphabet (which has only 21 letters as J, K, W, X, Y are not used) and most of the first week learning the most basic of words and short phrases. Furthermore, imagine teaching this to a bunch of adults who, while motivated, might not be as agile as kids to pick languages up from scratch any longer. With that, I believe our Italian teacher is well on the path to sainthood, especially with her extreme patience with our silly questions and bad pronunciation.

Do you speak Italian? I’m hesitant to reply as it might mean I might have to say more than ‘Si, parlo Italiano.’

I realised the first step to learning a new language well is to approach it with humility and patience. The humility comes with realising that no matter how good one might be in anything else, in the new language, we are complete newcomers and have the language ability of a 5 year-old (or less). Thinking that we’re any better would lead us to struggle not just with the teacher and the well-thought out lessons but with ourselves. Without a sense of humility and knowing where we are in the grand scheme of things, we might think that our skills in some other language or subject can translate into us having the same ability to pick up the language. This can easily lead to frustration as we’re constantly unable to match our own perception of our abilities. Humility on the other hand will allow us to be patient with ourselves and to realise that we’re far from expert in most things and that we should and must take things as they come and learn as a child would.

Learning as a child would means being prepared to make mistakes, and lots of them. To be unafraid to talk and sound funny, to be willing to ask silly questions so that sillier mistakes are not made in the future and to be prepared to laugh at oneself. Children learn well because they try and their often unafraid to make mistakes. They pick themselves up quickly when they stumble while learning and in the process learn more and learn better. Just as Jesus constantly asks us to adopt a childlike attitude to faith, we would do better if we adopted this same childlike attitude to learning. Humility and being childlike come hand-in-hand and both allow us to enter into the learning ‘zone’ that much better.

Just as a child doesn’t mature overnight, our own ability to speak, write and listen can only came with prolonged exposure to the language. Humility and the childlike approach to learning must also come with a certain amount of patience. Rome wasn’t built overnight (and the buildings that surround me remind me of that – our house here is over 400 years old) and languages are not picked up immediately either. I struggle to speak even simple sentences these days but I know that in the struggle, I get to remember and use the new words better. I used to tell my students that ‘suffering builds character’ and I do have to live up to that and suffer through my kindergarten-level Italian and continue to try to speak more so that I can get better eventually.

Another point that was brought home over the past days is that one needs a certain amount of openness in one’s approach to a new language. We all have our favoured language – mine’s English of course and it is through this favoured language that we approach the new one. We need to use our own language as a gateway to the new one but we should not use our favoured language as the sole means of understanding the new one. That would be a great mistake. We’ve learned that there are many words and phrases in Italian that have no English equivalent and to try to search for the equivalents would be an exercise in frustration. Instead, we should open ourselves to new concepts and especially structures of language to truly embrace the new language and in a small way, the culture as well. Just doing a short grammar exercise today showed me at least the differences in opinion between the Italians and workaholic Singaporeans like me. I know that begs explanation but shall leave that as it is for the moment. Suffice to say I’m learning more than just words as I try to immerse myself in the language and culture of Rome and Italy.

The last bit here is how this experience is revelatory for me as an educator. I’m experiencing first-hand what I believe many of my students might have faced while I was teaching. Sometimes I don’t quite understand why students don’t understand or why they make silly mistakes or ask silly questions. I don’t mind and often welcome the latter but being in the situation that I’m in allows me to appreciate how difficult a foreign language (and its associated concepts) can be and how easy it is to mix things up (in grammar especially) when one is unfamiliar with the syntax and context. I’m also much more cognisant of what might go on in the heads of students they approach difficult topics as I’ve been experiencing exactly that these past days. This gives me a little more empathy and understanding, which I hope I can carry with me the next time I’m with students in class.

Learning’s always fun though the degree of fun can vary greatly. I’m just happy I’m here for this ride and hope that it continues to be an interesting one. And, yes, prayer helps too. You’ll have to trust me on that one.

Una settimana a Roma

Greetings from Rome. The lack of updates was less a result of lack of thought or reflection but more the physical inability to drag oneself to sit in front of the computer for the lack of alertness (for a start) and lack of energy (for the moment). But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. As the title says (A week in Rome), it’s been a week since I’ve arrived in Rome and I finally feel like I’ve got over the jet lag and am truly living in Roman time. The first few days were a blur of activity, meeting people in the community here and trying to figure out where my room is in this huge Harry Potter-esqe building that is the Collegio Bellarmino. As soon as the jet lag issue was resolved, the Italian language started. Crash courses in language are like their name suggests, things that make one feel like one has run into a brick wall every morning. Even as I struggle to keep up with the ever increasing vocabulary and greatly confusing grammar, there is the feeling that one’s brain is slowly liquefying and leaking out of one’s ears with each new conjugation that one tries quite unsuccessfully to remember. Everyone tells me that it gets better later – I do believe them but it’s sometimes hard to believe that when all that’s left of our once-proud self is a pool of quasi-Italian speaking brain.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unhappy here. In fact, the past days have been a good flurry of activity and classes but even as one tries to ease into the place and the language, one cannot help but feel a little overwhelmed at times, like a little fish in an ocean that just got that big larger. If feeling like a stranger in one’s own home was strange, imagine being one here, in one of the centres of western history. I shan’t belabour that point but would just like to share four things that I’ve noticed about the place and myself over the past week.

Punto Uno. Rome feels like the centre of western civilisation and is the centre of the church.
It’s very strange to have the ruins of an ancient Roman market as well as the mother church of the Universal Roman Catholic church on one’s morning jogging route but such is life in Rome. Reminders that Rome is so steeped in the history of western civilisation are everywhere and it feels like one’s living in a history textbook. The city looks old but in a grand stately way. The roads and pavements are a little messy and in disarray sometimes but there’s a sense of it being sufficiently proud of itself and its heritage to be able to know that the mess can sometimes be overlooked for what it truly stands for. I’ve not had a chance to walk through all the major sights but it’s quite exciting to know that I’m here where it all happened before. Now all I need to do is to make sure I learn enough to get myself in one piece.

The ceiling fresco in Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola (Church of Saint Ignatius), the church next door to where I’m at now. That’s where I go for Sunday mass. Wow.

Punto Due. Summer is hot. Truly.
People talk about the Mediterranean summer as being pleasantly sultry. I think not. Rome, like most European cities, is built with a decided solidity to withstand the winters. Buildings have heavy walls that keep the heat in during the winter but do the same thing in the summer. While some rooms are still pleasantly cool in even in the afternoons, most of the other rooms (like my present one) are baking hot in the afternoon. Not the best of places to try to memorise nouns and adjectives. The heat which strangely brings hordes of tourists to Rome discourages me from even wanting to venture out in the afternoons. Can’t wait for the weather to turn and things can feel like it’s air-conditioned once again.

Punto Tre. The international Society.
I’m not talking about society at large but the Society of Jesus in particular. The house that I’ve found myself in reflects the international nature of the Society at it’s best and also most confusing. At lunch yesterday, there were people from 4 different continents at the same table speaking two different languages that most of us didn’t quite speak so well. It was interesting but a little confusing at the same time as many of us are still new to Italian while some others don’t quite use English as their first language. However, just listening to what others do and how they are reminds one of the international nature of our apostolate and how we’re all so different in so many ways yet one in our greater mission to serve the Lord and the church.

Punto Quattro. New languages are not walks in parks.
Didn’t expect them to be but being face to face with a new language can be a little daunting for a start. However, good advice from companions around, patient teachers and an encouraging community make for a pretty good environment to learn. Being at the receiving end of teaching makes me appreciate the difficulties all students face and reminds me of how I might need to be in the future when helping others in this situation. Humility is perhaps the greatest virtue at the moment – to be humble enough to realise that we’re not in control and that it’s ok to look and sound foolish because that makes our learning of the language better.

Thus ends the first post from Rome. More to come as they come.

Stranger in a strange land

I’ve written about absence making the heart fonder and while that is indeed true when it comes to relating with people whom we know and love, absence can do stranger things to one’s relationship to particular spaces. Before my return, many asked me if I missed home and the more I considered my response, the more I realised that I missed the people back home but not quite the place. I was happy to come back to catch up with friends and family for the few weeks but the relationship with the space as a whole was a little more fraught. To misuse the title of a Robert Heinlein novel, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

A sight all Singaporeans can relate to – the ‘void deck’ at the bottom of all HDB or government flats. It’s normal yet strange. Is it?

It all began with me realising that the urban landscape in Singapore has changed considerably in a relatively short period of time. Landmarks that used to guide me are no longer present and the constant shifting and renovation of buildings can be quite bewildering. I got a little disorientated in town a few days ago while trying to find a building that I used to be able to find very easily. The feeling of wandering around in my own country, feeling like a tourist was novel but a little discomfiting at the same time. I was surprised at how easily a place that used to be familiar can become so unfamiliar and how I reacted to that. Its helped me look at the place with new eyes but more than that, I realise that being away means that we cannot take what used to be familiar for granted any more.

Someone is a stranger in one’s own home when the sense of connection with the land is reduced. The urban nature of Singapore means that the landscape changes much more suddenly than the organic changes that occur in nature and because of this, the changes can be more jarring for one who was not on hand to witness the changes. Hence the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, feeling a sense of disconnection with a place that I grew up in even though I’ve only been away for relatively short time. Overdramatic, some might say, but significant because it made me truly consider, what home is and what it means to be on mission away from one’s home.

While one can blame urban renewal for my own sense of feeling disassociated with the place, I think it goes deeper than that. The past years away might have changed me in more ways that I realise and although I’m still very much a child of this country, there may be certain mindsets or orientations that I don’t quite subscribe to any more. I was a little shocked at the crowds that seem to be everywhere. The city is in constant motion and the neverending drive forward, both metaphorically as well as literally, all contribute to a place that gives a vibe of overachievement and anxiety. In many ways, I feel that I’ve stepped away from that. Not that I don’t experience anxiety anymore but I feel that something’s changed within me that drives me towards less tangible and, dare I say it, more spiritual goals.

Lest everyone begins to think that I’m becoming a monk, a real one to suit my normal hairstyle (or the apparent lack of it), I’m not thinking of a retreat from the world or from the big city but I do notice a subtle realignment of what I feel is important within me. Coming from Kuching where I felt a greater sense of connectedness between people, possibly due to it being geographically smaller, I realise that we’re in need of greater connections of the human variety. Our virtual connections have reduced the apparent need for direct human connection and that has led to our retreating into ourselves and our virtual sense of the world. It’s very obvious when one rides the MRT and sees practically everyone engrossed with their mobile devices, happy in their own world. I went running the other day and was quite surprised that very few people look up and smile at fellow runners anymore.

Comparisons between cities and places may not be useful but the recognition of where one is in relation with what used to be familiar can be. Growth can come with its own pains and perhaps the discomfort that one feels is part of growth. Or perhaps it’s just part of being a person of the world – we cannot expect the world to be the same as we grow in our own life and faith. As we acknowledge the Lord as our one truth and stable point within our radically turning world (apologies to T.S. Eliot again), we keep that and journey into this wildly disorientating and dynamic thing that we call life. I’m feeling like a stranger in a strange land but I expect that the land that I’m to go to next will feel a little stranger still. And that, my friends, shall be the subject of another story.


about the brushhead

has a head like a brush. seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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