And the wisdom to know the difference

It’s funny how prayers have the tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it. Been struggling with school and adjusting to studying in a foreign environment (yes, still…) and what I’ve realised is that they don’t quite abate but transform as one goes along. Not the best of states to be in but somehow the Lord has a way of getting to us and drawing us out of the darkness and into a place that’s at least a little less dimly lit. One thing that helped was the memory of Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer. We all know that one as it’s been printed on t-shirts, cards and all manner of religious knick-knacks but it’s ubiquity and near-cliché status should not detract from its deeper meaning. I’ve written about it before and if I’m not wrong, I was in a similar state then too.

The prayer in its full glory. I didn’t get further than the difference…

There are many versions of the prayer but this one sticks to me:

O God, give me the grace of serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things that should and the wisdom to know the difference.

In it, we ask for the grace of serenity, courage and wisdom. I see three moments of grace that are unique but interconnected which allow one to be able to face things around us, not just appropriately but with the love and hope that marks us as children of God. Explanations are in order.

We ask for serenity – not the serenity that comes from sitting cross-legged on lily pads in the middle of lakes but serenity of mind to be able to accept that God’s will can be different from ours. This is a state of being – a sense of being comfortable with oneself where one is without the need to struggle to change that state. This is particularly difficult for most of us now because for many of us, we’ve been brought up to believe that we can and should try to make changes to things around us so that we can live and function better. While that’s not all bad, we also need the strength of character to realise that it’s not the externals that need change, it’s just us. It takes humility to realise this, to realise that we’re not all-powerful and it takes a good amount of hope and patience for us to accept that things aren’t the way that we want.

The prayer would be nice if it just ended at the first line but it gets better. It gets us to ask for the grace of courage – true courage to stand up for things that are not right, to stand up for injustice that’s being done to us or others. We need courage and strength to do this as not everyone has the ability or willingness to go against the grain and speak out for what’s right. So there are indeed times where we need to step out of the serenity to try to make a change somewhere. Therein lies the problem – when do we do either.

That’s the key to the prayer – it’s not just a call to action or a retreat within oneself. It’s a prayer for discernment. Having the wisdom to know the difference between when to act and when to stay silent is the most important grace to have. We cannot fight all the time and neither should we allow people or things to roll over us with abandon, hence the need for discernment. It’s hard because most of us would tend towards either extreme – to act or to withdraw and very often, we have to go against our normal tendencies to be or do things correctly. But, how are we to discern?

Discernment can take up an entire series of posts and volumes upon volumes have been written on it. However, what is useful here are some bits of advice that St Ignatius, who wrote The Spiritual Exercises, gave to retreatants and Jesuits. To discern well, we need to be in the right state of mind. We cannot be overly agitated by things or biased towards one mode of being or doing. We have to take that step back, reflect and pray before making a decision. Additionally, we have to note where our desires are taking us and what motivates them. Are we acting to change things out of some deep-seated desire to take revenge on someone? Are we keeping silent and accepting things out of pure resignation or are we keeping silent because that’s the path of greater love? Keeping such considerations in a mode of prayer helps.

And so I continue to ask for the grace of wisdom, to not only know the difference but to be able to continue to live and accept the life of constant discernment that we’ve been called to. I don’t feel particularly wise now but I do feel that asking for the grace to be wise helps. For what it’s worth, at least it’s helping to cause a change within – from existential angst to tentative hope. And with that hope, we can survive.

A Shakespearean Oasis in Rome

Shakespeare in Rome. In English, Shakespearean English at that. Not a connection that I’d make immediately but not quite as farfetched as one might think. The Globe theatre in London is the famous replica of the original where many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. What was surprising is that there’s a replica of the Globe right here in Rome, in the middle of the Villa Borghese, made with wood from France and for the past week, had a British troupe close their 2016 Summer/Autumn season with a production of The Tempest.

Surprisingly, that wasn’t what first attracted me to the performance. It was the little note below the title that stated ‘in lingua originale’ – in its original language. Shakespeare in English in Rome? The icing on the cake was the chance to see The Tempest again, a play that I lived and breathed for more than half of 2015. The chance to see it done professionally in a setting that’s as close to the original that I can possible get was too good to miss. I emptied the piggy bank and got tickets.


The final curtain call, with the Italian director of the Globe Roma. This was also the only time I could take photos ‘legally’ with the actors on stage.

This is not a review but a record of my reflection after the play. It was an oasis for me, a pool of familiarity and comfort, where for two and a half hours, I was whisked away from the worries of theology in Italian, undecipherable readings and articles and the banality of routine. At the Globe, I could lose myself in the metaphors and puns that I understood (I realise that metaphor and puns are the most difficult things to understand in a new language) and revel in the beauty that is Shakespeare.

More than that, the analytical (drama-mama) part of me watched the play with a critical eye to staging and direction, lapping up the novel ways in which the director was able to use the simple stage to dazzling effect. There was some validation and vindication (for me at least) in the way that many of the characters were portrayed, that told me that we weren’t too far off from the pros in our interpretation of the play. And while our production was a little more genteel and stately, this one was quite bawdy and almost manic, possibly to play to an audience for which the language is not completely familiar.

Which brings me to the final bit – why we go to plays and why plays attract us so. We can turn to TV and the cinema for our normal doses of suspension from reality but the theatre brings it that much closer to us. The immediacy of the action, the total immersion of ourselves in the drama that happens before us, with real people leading us into a world that’s beyond our normal experience – that’s why we go to the theatre and that’s why it can never be supplanted by even the most immersive of digital media. And that’s what continues to draw me back to drama – the possibility of bringing others such experiences, and maybe, just maybe, continue to bring the message of hope and love back to a world that needs it so.

Audacious beginnings

Beginnings are usually difficult. Birth pangs, struggles fitting in, initial bumps in the road. We have nice ways of saying how traumatic and disconcerting settling into a new place or routine can be. I’ve been here for a couple months but the real deal started this week. Classes began and the good news is that it’s not as disastrous as I feared but there’s still the feeling that one is drowning in a sea of Italian as the lecturer speaks. Not the most fortuitous beginning but I suppose it’s a start.

Words, especially of the foreign variety, can overwhelm…

This week also sees the start of the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, a gathering of over 200 Jesuits who are in Rome to elect a new Superior General and to consider the state of the Society in the world. It’s a gathering for new start for the Society under a new general and an opportunity to fine-tune our relationship and reaction to the world around us. At the mass marking the start of the congregation, the Master of the Dominicans Fr Bruno Cadore, who was invited to be the main celebrant by our current General Fr Adolfo Nicolas, spoke about audacity to act and demonstrate our faith in God – to dare to do the improbable and to do it with the humility that shows that everything depends on God.

I think that’s a good way of approaching the new. With audacity, a boldness to dare to live and to adapt to whatever new situations that we’re in. We have to dare to believe that the Lord will indeed help us in all that we do, even when it might sometimes feel like we’re drowning. And we have to dare to change ourselves, to be the new persons that we are meant to be when we’re put in the new situations. Perhaps that’s what it’s all about. Audacity in newness so that growth and change can truly happen.

Discovery makes all things new

One of the things I like best about coming to a new place is the opportunity to explore the city and I have to say that Rome is probably one of the best places for urban exploration. Rome’s a fascinating city with a history so rich and layered that it feels like one is in the grand dame of cities that looks on the other younger cities with a gentle sense of bemusement. Exploration is as exploration does and the main ‘task’ of exploration is to discover – sights, sounds and smells that are at once foreign yet familiar. Through exploration and the subsequent discoveries that we make, we enlarge our world view by adding experiences to the ones that we already have, enriching them and creating new ways of seeing the world. Discovery makes old things seem new and prepares us with new eyes to view the world that seems always to open up with every new discovery.

I’m a person who likes a little structure in life and the same goes with my approach to exploration. Like some of the explorers of old, I usually prefer a slightly more structured approach to exploration. What normally happens is that I search for places of interest, read up a little on their historical, cultural or religious significance and then check their locations on the map before planning a route for my little exploratory trips. These have been ‘successful’ in that the discoveries made were well worth the preparation and journey. In particular, a longer trip to the Papal Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls made some week ago was an experience that was enriching intellectually and spiritually. The church was beautiful and significant historically but what really struck me was the deeply spiritual atmosphere that I felt while roaming around. The physical connection that one could feel with the Christians of the past was palpable there and the church just seemed to be constructed in a way that made one comfortable praying. An added significance to us as Jesuits was that St Ignatius and the first companions made their first vows in one of the chapels within the church in 1541, hence the importance of that church to the Society as a whole.

The apse or area just above the high altar of the church. Jesus, Mary and the saints. Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.

So explorations come and go and give us experiences to take with us in our lives. But what I need to remind myself is that exploration does not need to be well planned like the ones that I’m used to. Several evenings ago, I found myself free with legs that needed stretching and so I decided to take a walk to look for a park that I heard much about. After consulting a map, I set out in search of the park. I didn’t quite find a park but instead stumbled upon a beautiful church, which Google very politely informed me was the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It didn’t look extremely impressive on the outside but the dome of the church on the inside was covered with intricate mosaics of Jesus, Mary and many saints. It was a beautiful church made even more beautiful by the prayerful atmosphere that the art and architecture wrought. Outside in the piazza, there was a busker singing folksy-jazz songs with this guitar. The sun was setting at that moment, lending the scene a soft dusky orangey glow. Beauty to end an evening that was all about how beauty can appear in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine.

Discovery helps make all things new and gives us new insights into how we lead (or could lead) our lives. That’s well and good but the recent experience reminds me of one important aspect of discovery – being prepared for it. While one doesn’t quite go around waiting for amazing things to happen, we need to be sufficiently open-minded to be aware of things that could allow us new insights and ways of seeing the world. A little more religiously, it’s the acknowledgement of God’s role in all that we see and do and using that to realise that God indeed leads us to a deeper understanding of how we can truly appreciate creation around us. Just as scientists are often primed with a particular readiness to accept new experimental discoveries, so should we too be prepared to discover new things about our own world. Plans aid in making our lives easier – discoveries help us to grow in faith and wonder in the world.

Silence, Solitude and the Self

Silence, for some, can be deafening. For most of us modern urban folk, we’re so used to the noises of modernity that going away to a place that is silent, sans the normal city noises, can prove to be very uncomfortable. I’ve heard that many find total silence so, well, total that they require white-noise generators and other means of creating some kind of ambient noise so that modern sensibilities or senses can be catered to. Yet, we crave silence. We yearn for a reduction of the noise that we encounter on a daily basis and many try to look for little nooks within the city where silence can be found. Why is this?

The self and the reflection, made possible in the silence.

Having recently made my annual (silent) retreat, it seems timely to share some insights into what makes silence so special for us. As Jesuits, our annual retreats are non-negotiable and we spend 8 full days in silence, praying and reflecting, breaking the silence only for about half an hour a day when we speak with a spiritual guide who will help process some of our prayer experiences. It’s a privileged time that we spend to rest, review and reflect over what we’ve done or failed to do in a prayerful manner. We normally retreat to a house or centre that’s built for such purposes that are usually sited in slightly remote or quieter places out of the city.

In the silence, we hear more and perhaps that’s what’s so scary for many. We’re faced with just ourselves and God (if we so believe) and the realities of who we are can be mildly shocking for some and terrifying for others. Stripped of the noises and distractions that keep our attention outside of ourselves, we naturally turn inwards and that’s where the inner demons and other scary things come out to play. It’s quite possible that that’s how the temptation of Jesus in the desert turned out as well – the silence of the desert allowed Jesus, who’s also human, to hear what the devil wanted to say. Which is why many retreat directors and those who accompany others on retreat recommend proper preparation prior to a retreat. When staring into the void that is silence, the void can sometime stare back at us and that can be scary.

The other aspect of silence is the solitude that it engenders. Solitude should be distinguished from loneliness in that the former is where one is alone to spend time with oneself, to think, pray or just be. Loneliness on the other hand is where one is alone and feels bereft of company – it is a felt lack of others, feeling cut off and estranged from others. Seeking solitude often means seeking time with oneself and allowing all that is inside to surface. That’s one of the things that I enjoy about retreats – the solitude and the time that can be spent confronting things about myself that I feel need confronting. That it’s done in the context of prayer lessens the fear as we know that God accompanies us on this sometimes perilous journey within.

We hear more and with greater clarity in the silence. The chirp of a bird at dawn can sometimes sound like a trumpet blast. We can make out the nuances of tone and timbre of the various chirps that we hear in the deep silence of a forest. In a similar way, the silence helps us to focus on what’s important in ourselves and to bring those things into proper perspective. Shan’t go too much into my own shifts in perspective but suffice to say that while I’m still a little worried about the prospect of school starting soon, I’m grateful that it’s just worry and not outright fear or dread. I feel much more settled in where I am and am finally beginning to settle into my being here. A haiku (of sorts) written during the retreat to end:

Into great silence
On the journey interior
Sounds of the self


Over the last weekend, had the opportunity to make a short visit to Tivoli, a town not too far from Rome. The interesting thing about that town is that it was, for a time, the administrative capital of the Roman empire under Hadrian. A huge villa was built there from which Hadrian ruled the vast empire. Some centuries later, a certain Cardinal D’este built his own villa on the side of the hills there, a villa that remains and testifies to the opulence of the church medieval. History aside, it was nice to be out of Rome to see the beauty of the hills around. But that’s not the main point. Context, as I always say, is important.

While walking through Hadrian’s villa, I happened to come across a young family enjoying their day out. The parents allowed their children to play in a small garden area and after a little while, the father gathered the children to move on. As they left, the smallest girl ran to the side of her father, extended her hand and said in a cute squeaky voice that only a 3-year-old can manage, ‘Mano! (Hand!)’ Her father in reply, reached out and held his daughters hand tightly as they left to continue their tour of the villa. It was a small word from a small person and a very natural gesture that struck me quite deeply.

‘Mano!’, said the child.

The little action showed the complete trust that the little girl had in her father and how that trust was demonstrated in a real, concrete way in the holding of hands. It’s good to ask ourselves, especially those of us who might think that we’re grown up, in whom do we have such complete absolute trust? More importantly, for those of us who profess a religion, do we have a similar relationship with God who we believe guides and comforts us in all things?

In the simple act of extending her hand to her father, the little girl sought comfort and security in his presence while also acknowledging his guidance and knowledge. In prayer, we often reach out our hands to the Lord, seeking security and comfort that can sometimes only come from the hands of He who created us. The act of reaching out and saying ‘Mano!’ is both an act of faith and an act of humility of the creature before the creator, knowing that there will indeed be a hand that reaches out to grasp ours. The other movement is the acknowledgement of the need for guidance. We can’t do everything ourselves and certainly don’t know everything and thus are constantly in need of guidance that comes from the Lord. The act of putting ourselves in the shoes of a child, as the Lord said several times in the Gospels, removes the useless pride that we often hold and allows us to become more receptive to the graces that we need from the Lord.

On a similar note, yesterday’s gospel (Luke 6:6-11 from Monday, 23rd Week in Ordinary time) told the story of a man who had a withered hand (la mano paralizzata or paralysed hand) that was healed by Jesus on the Sabbath in front of the scribes and Pharisees. There’s much to be said about the latter but what was significant that was described in the homily at mass yesterday were the words of the Lord who said, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ The action asked of the man and the action of the little girl are similar – we’re asked to stretch out our hands in faith that God will do something greater with it.

‘Stretch out your hand’, said the Lord.

Fr Mariano, who celebrated mass yesterday, mentioned that we’re all asked to reach out with our own personal versions of witheredness in our lives. We all come to the Lord with infirmities and are challenged to reach out to the Lord, going beyond ourselves and the self-consciousness that comes with the infirmities. Extrapolating from the homily, I also believe that sometimes, our hands might get withered from not stretching out enough and that we need to actively seek to help others or to be helped so that our hands are used in the way that they should be – in giving and receiving. If they’re not used for either, they get withered and that leads to atrophy.

With the command to stretch our hands out, the Lord seems to be inviting us first to reach out for the security and guidance that the hand of the Lord promises. We need first to receive before we can give. And we’re called to reach out in spite of our infirmities and quite often, we’re called to reach out because of our infirmities, to be healed even though we don’t quite want to be. That’s difficult in itself. But the stretching out and reaching, I believe, has a deeper purpose. We’re called to reach out not just to be healed but to be an instrument of healing. The father of the little girl reached out to his daughter to offer the same comfort and guidance that he must have received when he was young. So we’re called to do the same – to reach and receive so that we can ultimately do the same to others. Such is the life that we’re called to live – to receive and to give as we have received so generously in all parts of our lives.

Sitting at the last seats

The gospel reading from last Sunday’s mass (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) was, as all gospels tend to be, quite familiar. In the reading (Luke 14:1,7-14), we were reminded not to take the places of honour when attending a dinner where we can choose our seats but to choose the lowliest ones instead. After all, as the Lord reminds us, it’s better to be asked, ‘Friend, go higher’ than to have to suffer the embarrassment of having to shift to a less ‘honourable’ position at the dinner. While this is not going to happen very often to most of us, the ideas are interesting.

During the homily at that mass, the celebrant made a point that was simple yet incredibly striking. He said that there’s another reason why we should choose the seats furthest away from the seats of honour. We’d naturally want to sit at those seats because those are the seats because that’s where the Lord would be sitting and who wouldn’t want to sit there with him? The explanation was simple too – the Lord spent his life ministering to the poorest, those who needed help the most and thus if he had the choice to choose a seat in a banquet, he would automatically sit with the very people with whom he spent most of his time.

I found that though intensely consoling, especially at the end of a month of intensive Italian language classes in Genoa that also served as an immersion into all things Italy, courtesy of the Italian Jesuits. I came into the programme with high hopes for a dramatic improvement in my Italian. While I can’t say that my hopes did not materialise but it’s just that my improvement was far from dramatic and I’m still struggling. What it did do was to remind me of the need for patience, especially with myself, and how the Lord is indeed there with us, no matter where we are or where we’re sitting.


The pretty little town of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre region near Genoa. Just one of the examples of the beauty of the Ligurian coast.

A case in point was the process of writing the homily in the last post. Writing the English version was relatively simple but converting that into Italian was a painful process to say the least. Leo, an Italian Jesuit Scholastic with the patience of a saint helped correct the horrific Italian that I wrote it in and the edited copy reminded me of the English essays that I used to hand back to my students. It not only showed me how far I had to go as far as Italian is concerned but also reminded me that I’m not completely in control and need the help of others and especially the Lord in all things, especially at this current moment.


If grammar could be a horror story, this one would send everyone screaming.

Being someone who is used to being at least in some sort of control, being where I am is not quite as comfortable as I’d like it to be. The loss of control, the feeling of poverty of words and the humility that comes with having to accept that I’ve only the vocabulary and language ability of a 9-year old (if I’m optimistic) all point to one thing – the need to be with the Lord in the last seats and to revel in that experience of weakness. It’s only when I accept that I am at the last seats, that I’m far from the best yet loved by the Lord that the process of growth can begin.

Growth requires humility because one cannot grow without the help of others. Just as the person who’s at the last seats can move up because others ask them to, one grows with the help of others, working with the Lord in all things in the process. I realise that for a large part of my recent years, I’ve been part of the group that’s been helping others to grow. I do grow in the process but I’ve mostly been in a position to help others. Now I’m the one who needs help and lots of it. And it’s a grace in itself to be able to humbly receive the help without resentment and with the great gratitude that it deserves.

Control and letting go. Helping and being helped. Ability and inability. Humility. All part of the process of growth that the Lord seems to be leading me on. Upon prayer and reflection, I realise that I’m content with being in the place that I’m in. Not excessively happy or sad to be here but content. I know where I’m supposed to be and am sure that things will get better. Whether I move up in the banquet’s immaterial. What’s most important is that I sit with the Lord, sharing my inability and need for help with him, knowing that this is where I need to be now.

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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On a rock, among the flowers, amidst mountains. Nice.

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