Under Reconstruction (Round Three)

Round Two began about six months ago. The fog of a long depressive episode was beginning to dissipate, and my mind and soul glimpsed a new horizon. At the time, I wrote the following:

I wish it was as easy as “picking up where I left off”. But the damage and hurt I have inflicted on myself and the people who love me are all very real. There’s a lot of rubble to sift through, a lot of re-examination, mending, and rebuilding to be done. With God’s grace and guidance I will find healing. Not just restoration, but transformation. I have faith. I am reminded once again of why I named this blog “Under Reconstruction”. From this point on I will let God rebuild me, my life, and my relationships in whatever way He deems best. My Creator knows best.

In the months that have gone by, I have learned and grown a lot — this blog catalogs that journey — so I didn’t think there’d be a Round Three. Yet here I am! The above words are eerily relevant. Except this time, I’m emerging not from a depressive episode, but a hypomanic episode. If being depressed meant being in darkness, being hypomanic meant playing with fire. The initial spark was very much welcomed. A spike in energy was nice, a boost of creativity was fun, a healthy self-esteem was thrilling… But I made the mistake of not watching the flames, and I allowed them to get too big. I was enraptured, hypnotized by an illusion of grandiosity and invincibility. I made mistake after mistake, I got burned, but what I regret most is that the people closest to me got burned as well.

But I know there is mercy and healing to be found in Christ. For my mind and my soul, for those I’ve hurt, for the relationships I’ve damaged. That I know full well. It will take time, but a broken spirit and a contrite heart He will not refuse.

And this time I’m learning that I’m never “done”. There is always more to learn. More weaknesses to be unearthed and weeded out. More calls to repentance. More forgiveness to seek and grant. And in every fall is a reminder of my weak, sinful nature, and a call to continually surrender my will to the Eternal and Unchanging. And always, always a call to love better, serve better, sacrifice better.

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“Surely, I wait for the Lord; who bends down to me and hears my cry, draws me up from the pit of destruction, out of the muddy clay, sets my feet upon rock, steadied my steps, and puts a new song in my mouth, a hymn to our God.” (Ps 40:2-4)

I may not be writing as much as I attempt to sort things out internally. But you’ll probably see more doodles — where words fail me, I’ll let them fill the void. Thank you, again, for accompanying me on this never-ending journey! Peace be with you. 🙂

“I’ll be back! I always come back!” (That’s a quote from Bride of Chucky, but no, that’s not relevant.)

Among the “great cloud of witnesses” are Chinese saints

Any serious Christian would be familiar with the following Scriptural exhortation:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

–Apostle Paul (Hebrews 12:1-2)

And when we imagine this “cloud of witnesses”, we probably imagine something like:

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There’s nothing bad about the above image. In fact, it’s inspiring, and it also challenges the popular notion that the Church only honors and canonizes men… But missing for many years from my religious imagination were saints who share my ethnic identity, and images like the one above aren’t very helpful.

I am ethnically Chinese, and I am a Christian (agnostic-turned-Protestant-turned-Catholic, to be specific). For someone who once struggled to integrate these seemingly disparate identities, today was a special, symbolic day. Today marks the first day of the Chinese New Year, the year of the goat, and it also happens to be the feast day of a Chinese Catholic saint. St. Lucy Yi Zhenmei is a Chinese Roman Catholic saint from Sichuan, China. The schoolteacher was sentenced to death in the 1862 for her refusal to renounce her faith. She, along with 119 other Chinese Christians — all martyred for their ministry and faith — was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000. “Today’s celebration is not the appropriate time to pass judgement on those historical periods:  this can and should be done elsewhere. Today, with this solemn proclamation of holiness, the Church intends merely to recognize that those martyrs are an example of courage and consistency to us all, and that they honour the noble Chinese people,” he said during his homily at the canonization.

It’s at once exhilarating, humbling, and encouraging  to to know that there are many faithful, heroic Chinese brothers and sisters among the “great cloud of witnesses”. My favorite part of Chinese New Year has always been gathering and feasting with extended family — and as I journey deeper and deeper into the richness of the Catholic faith, I rejoice that my family gets larger and larger with the communion of the saints!

chinesemartyrschernyak Today, Christians in China continue to face non-violent forms of oppression and repression. But it looks like there’s no stopping the spread of the Good News! As of 2010, there were reportedly 68 million Christians in China. And experts say China is on track to become the largest Christian population in the world by 2030… My heart swells with joy as I contemplate seeing multitudes of Chinese faces in heaven! 😉 ?????? chinese catholics 新年快乐!平安与你同在! 🙂 To catch a glimpse of my other travails in grasping the universality of the Church, read (and see) how art has helped me.

21 Egyptian Christians Beheaded: the persecuted and the persecutors

Below is a screen grab from a video footage released by ISIL yesterday. Surely by no coincidence, they picked to announce (and showcase) the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Superimposed on the image is a verse from Revelations 20, a powerful symbolic redemption of an image meant to terrorize and paralyze. I have faith that all the angels and saints have welcomed these 21 souls, as well as all the other faithful martyrs, into the full presence of God’s love in heaven. Hope does not put us to shame.

isilIn the video, one of the murderers declare, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.” Little do they know that the ultimate victory has long been secured, and it will belong to Christ. Hope does not put us to shame.

This has been a very stern reminder that Christian persecution, though far less felt in our part of the world, is very real. Let us pray that God would grant us the grace to have faiths as strong as those of these martyrs, and the courage to profess, defend, and live out our faiths wherever we go. And let us also pray for the intercession of these faithful brothers in Christ who are now part of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that surrounds us.

And last but not least, join me in praying for the people responsible for all this savagery, that they may repent and be awakened to God’s goodness and truths. They, too, were created and are loved by Christ who cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”


ISIL Jesus Beach(Anybody knows who did this painting?)

When you know your “good days” are numbered

The first time I tasted a depressive episode in 2011, I didn’t think it was anything more a one-time glitch in an otherwise emotionally healthy life. And then in the winter of 2012, it returned, and this time worse in manifold ways. Eight months later, I emerged stronger than before, declaring to myself and the world that I wouldn’t fear a relapse. But the truth was, I didn’t really believe it would come back. It was a vague possibility in my head, but nothing more.

No prizes for guessing this one, but it did return the following spring. Again, and this is highly likely due to inadequate treatment and self-care, this one was also worse than its predecessor. I hadn’t even had a chance to attempt to conceptualize what that might even look like. Before I knew it, I was reduced to a human ball of invisible, destructive thoughts — sometimes sobbing, sometimes suicidal, other times both.

I am now well, and am beginning to grasp what it means that this is going to be a recurring theme in my life. As I pour my refreshed energy and extended wake time into the passions God has placed on my heart, I am also aware that I cannot lay claim to my present capacities indefinitely.

What do I do with this awareness? I don’t know what the “best practices” are (feel free to share any advice with me), but I’ll probably have many tries to figure this out anyway. But typically, my approach these days have been to “seize every moment”. I try not to sleep beyond what’s necessary for my health, I try not to say no to an invitation to a meal/coffee/conversation/adventure, I try not to reject the appeal of someone in need. I also assess the gifts and talents God has bestowed on me (for example, my voice, my writing, and then those drawing skills that seemingly came out of nowhere) and consider how I can use them to bless others. I reflect on the special passions He has planted in me, such as my love for children, the youth, and the developmentally disabled, and consider how they ought to inform my vocational decisions.

On a more proactive, self-protection side, I’ve been making good on this hypothesis: that if I took advantage of the times when I’m not depressed to learn more about depression (from reading books and articles, and talking to experts including my own healthcare providers), I will eventually become better at handling depressive episodes when they do return. These on top of responsibly staying on medication and being disciplined about self-care, of course.

Now, and you’re probably already thinking this: though I write this from the perspective of someone diagnosed with “recurrent major depressive disorder”, these musings are relevant to any living human.  Our good days are numbered, our days in general are numbered. We don’t know what tragedy might befall us, and when it might. We don’t know what we might lose tomorrow. And then there are also the things we can reasonably expect: the changes that will come with old age, and of course, the fact that we will all die.

Maybe these aren’t things we often think about, and I might even be coming off as if I were still in the thick of depression. It’s also often said that to think about the end of life prevents us from living our lives, but I patently disagree. I believe there are few things more important to how we live our lives than contemplating the temporality, and fragility, of life on this side of eternity. Accepting the vanity of our present pursuits is the beginning of discovering our true purpose, and the true meaning of our lives.

It’s getting easier, these days, to acknowledge our mortality on a mere theoretical level, without really allowing it to sink in in our daily deeds and interactions. Perhaps because modern society has gotten so good at marginalizing death and suffering. Those things are hidden away in hospitals and hospices. Even the things that aren’t hidden from plain sight — like the plight of the homeless, and our brothers and sisters languishing daily under systemic injustice and oppression — we’ve somehow been trained to phase them out of our interior lives. Because it’s more convenient (not to mention more lucrative for corporations) that we are kept distracted by illusions of invincibility and the pursuits of temporary pleasures.

But fight that. I invite you think reflect on these realities more often than you might be used to. I speak not from a preacher’s podium, but from someone who’s been brought so low she had no choice but contemplate these unpleasant reality checks. This is not to rain on anybody’s parade, because the contemplation of “unpleasant” truths is necessary bitter medicine to a pride that needs humbling, a temper that needs taming, a coldness that needs thawing, an indifference that needs shattering, and a soul that needs healing.

I have come to trust in the Great Physician who administers this medicine, and I trust Him with my entire life and being.

Swallow the bitterness in faith, and then we can begin to taste the goodness of life in its fullness. I’m still catching new glimpses of it each day. A life where I am not the center, where I can delight in giving more than I do receiving, where I can truly delight in the joys of others without envy (for the most part), where I rejoice simply in knowing that I am a beloved child of God, where I look forward to an eternity in my final destination.

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he is travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

If I can do my duty as a Christian really ought,
If I can bring back beauty to a world up wrought,
If I can spread love’s message as the Master taught,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

(From “If I Can Help Somebody”, arranged by Ray Liebau.)

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Congratulations on making it to the end of the “heaviest” post I have written in a while. Leave a comment with your thoughts — I would love to hear from any perspective! 🙂

Madonna and Child as Vietnamese

In continuing with my streak of alternative cultural depictions of Mary and Jesus, here is “Madonna and Child as Vietnamese”! This one was inspired by my recent trip to Vietnam, where I celebrated Christmas with my family and many faithful locals.

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“Madonna and Child as Vietnamese” by Karen Zainal

I could have gone for a more regal look, a la the famed images of Our Lady of La Vang:

ourLadyOfLavang

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But I thought I’d portray a different side, focusing more on her intimate, maternal love for Jesus. At the same time, to retain that sense reverence, I deliberately left lines unfinished to convey a sense of timelessness and eternity. Let me know what you think! 🙂

Epiphany: all you need is my “amen”

I created this piece while contemplating the meaning of Epiphany, a Christian feast day that celebrates the manifestation of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the only Son of God, and Savior of the world. The feast commemorates primarily the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus, marking His first physical manifestation to the gentiles, of which I am one.

It is recorded that the Magi brought with them gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and laid their gifts before the Child in the manger. These were expensive gifts brought by kings from faraway, and I thought about how, some thirty years later, Jesus would also accept the humble offering of five loaves and two fishes, and miraculously used it to feed thousands of hungry people.

“All He Needs Is My Amen” by Karen Zainal

I don’t have much to present before my King. But He works miracles, and all He needs is my “amen.” As the Blessed Virgin Mary once said in humble and faithful obedience:

Let it be done to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38)

Supporting Chiara and finding our Calcutta

A few days ago, on the last day of 2014, I wrote a letter to Chiara Natasha, the 15-year-old Indonesian girl who lost her immediate family to the recent AirAsia tragedy. I’m not usually the type to try to contact people who don’t know I exist, and when I do, I certainly don’t do it so publicly. But reading about Chiara’s plight struck me in a particularly profound way, as I feel a sense of affinity with her due to our similar backgrounds.

My sister and I were once, like her, schooled in Singapore while my parents were based in Indonesia. Jakarta, where they were, was but a 1.5-hour flight away, and for years we’d rely on planes to periodically shuttle either my parents to Singapore, or us to Jakarta. And when I later moved to Chicago for college, I would fly home for part of my summer breaks, and my whole family flew to Chicago for my graduation. Thoughts of aviation disasters frequently crossed my mind, but I’d chalk it up to too much Hollywood. It shattered me to learn that my worst nightmare had happened to a girl significantly younger than me. She immediately felt to me like a sister, even though we’d never met.

The letter quickly became one of my most widely-shared posts, and thanks to social media, the letter not only reached Chiara, but she also replied, in spite of my initially worries that I might come across like an intrusive busybody (I wonder how often such concerns hinder us from reaching out to someone in need?). Praise the Lord!

What happened next was also a surprise. I began receiving emails and Facebook messages from other people who read the letter and, moved by Chiara’s situation, wanted to help in some way. Many, like me, have no specific ideas on how to help, but just want to be available as sisterly figures if needed. Others came forward with more concrete offers of assistance. For example, C mentions that a few friends working for the Ministry of Education would like to help Chiara explore the option of pursuing a government scholarship; R, who works for a multinational corporation, asked if he’d be able to ease the financial burden of continuing studies in Singapore, and is also actively looking for a volunteer professional psychologist should that be helpful; V is offering to sponsor a Bali vacation for Chiara and however many friends she might want to take if she took the offer. Just to name a few. (For anyone concerned about privacy and safety, be rest assured that I’m taking appropriate measures and am not trying to figure this out all by myself.)

I’m so honored to be able to witness such a beautiful outpouring of solidarity, and I had to share this with you. Isn’t this a much more productive, not to mention compassionate reaction to a tragedy? Grief should never be reduced into a mere public spectacle. I partially blame the media for encouraging such a response, and the following frontpage headline is but one example:

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An invitation to a pity party at best, an exploitation of others’ tragedy at worst. I cropped out the blown-up photo of the grieving girl.

Forgive me for my harshness on the media, but I feel very strongly about this. Back to the point. It seems to me that the people of these times aren’t as “heartless” and desensitized as we often make it out to be. I’d like to think many of us are just forgetful. We have this innate, deep-seated desire to support and embrace those who are in need, but that desire often gets buried by the distractions of other pursuits and stimulations. Blessed Mother Teresa, beloved Roman Catholic religious sister whose charitable works in Calcutta inspired the world, once said:

Stay where you are. Find your own Calcutta. Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.

Amen. Amen. I pray this will not stop with Chiara and others affected by this disaster. Let me also share something my dear friend Eamon wrote in response to the recent spate of Thanksgiving weekend shootings in Chicago.

In light of recent events (Ferguson protests, new FBI warnings over ISIS, and five murders in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend), it can be very easy to become despondent or to lose hope in our society. However, we must remember that these are only the devil’s skirmishes, and that he of all beings knows Christ has already won the final victory. This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore these tragedies, but rather we should remember that good triumphs over evil by means of great love in small matters. Do you pass a homeless person on your way to work every day? Take him to lunch. Are you frustrated with your coworker? Smile and accept his criticisms of your work with humility. Do your best at your job, and offer it to our Lord who spent 30 years of His life building tables and chairs, and of whom people said, “He does all things well!” (Mark 7:37). In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien (speaking to us through Gandalf), “It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

Peace be with you, brothers and sisters. Let’s find our Calcutta every day.