At the hour of our death

I’ve been alive for just over twenty-seven years. “You’re still so young,” I’m told again and again. I think it’s implied that I still have a long way to go — many more people to meet, places to go, things to accomplish. But all the recent deaths young and old, within my immediate and not-so-immediate circles, have impressed upon me a reality universally acknowledged yet almost universally neglected: that death comes unannounced.

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.” It rolls of the tongue so effortlessly, often thoughtlessly. It feels almost like a hedge bet at times: just be praying me for me all the time in all that I do…oh, yes, and just in case, also whenever it is in the distant future that I happen to be dying. But seven Sundays ago I uttered those exact words while standing next to my dying aunt, and I thought about what that meant. Death was so close, so imminent, so real. My aunt was in the final leg of her earthly sojourn. This could certainly be the hour of her death.

She was still conscious, but too weak to open her eyes or to speak. In the last week of her life, though surrounded by loved ones, there were no more two-way conversations nor instructions that could be communicated. Did she fear crossing over to the other side? Did she have any parting words left unsaid? Whatever was going on in her mind and heart, none of us was privy to it. It was solely between her and God.

This was to me a stark picture of the hour of one’s death — to have to reckon with the fact that we will depart from this life on our own. Even the best and most steadfast of friends and family won’t be accompanying us. They can go no further than being present at our deathbeds, if the opportunity presented itself at all. And yes, they will pray for us, but ultimately that step into the next life is one we will take on our own. And then we will meet God face to face, with no intermediary in the form of community, clergy, words, images, statues, songs, or the liturgy. How do we feel about that prospect?

Does it sound like homecoming? A reunion with our first love? The fulfilment of all we’ve been yearning and preparing for in this life?

I will meet the God I’ve professed to love with my lips, perhaps occasionally with my actions. The God whom I’ve read about, talked about, written about. To whom I’ve addressed countless petitions during the darkest episodes of my life. But at the hour of my death, will I rejoice at the thought of meeting Him face to face? Or will I be filled with the dreadful realisation that I don’t know the One whom I am about to face?

My aunt didn’t go that very weekend, and I had to fly back to Singapore. It was Holy Week. On Holy Tuesday, I wept as I prayed for her at Mass. Not because I was worried about the state of her soul, since knew she’d always been steadfastly close to Our Lord, but because of the realisation of the seeming loneliness of the hour of her death. But somehow, something or someone wordlessly impressed deep in my soul that she would go on Good Friday, the day of Jesus’ death. I kept this in my heart and continued on with the subsequent days.

When I woke up on the morning of Good Friday, I read a text from my dad which said my aunt had passed on earlier that morning. It sounds inappropriate to rejoice at any death, but the instinctive reaction was happiness. I’m not the type to neurotically keep my eyes peeled for ‘signs’, but the news presented itself as an affirmation that she’s in good hands. She had suffered with Christ throughout Holy Week (and much of her life), and has died with Him, and will rise with Him. Surely that last leg of her journey couldn’t be adequately characterised as ‘lonely’. Surely it was a special privilege of uniting herself with Christ. In a hidden, intimate way. Yes, none of us were privy to it. It was between her and her God.

All of a sudden her departure made sense. And given what I know of her and the faith so dear to her, I couldn’t but believe she would have wanted this.

At the hour of my death, I may not be a saint. I probably won’t be in a state of ecstasy, gaze lifted and arms outstretched towards the heavens. There will surely be some degree of fear.

But however death comes for me, be it expected or unexpected, sudden or gradual, excruciating or pain-free, and whatever I happen to be doing with my life at that juncture, I would like death to come not as an interruption, but a culmination. I would hope that no one laments the circumstances saying, “Oh, how cruel is death, to have taken her this way/at such a time.” I hope my departure will make sense. I hope I would have, by that time, figured out how to live in a way where you’d be able to say, “Ah, this is the moment she’s been living for.”

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Goodnight, world 

Tomorrow will worry about itself. The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.

Thankful for the gift of sleep. At the end of another tumultuous day of trying and failing and hoping and praying, there is sweet rest before the next battle. Lord, let our hope in You be refreshed anew tonight.

Now that the daylight dies away,

By all Thy grace and love,

Thee, Maker of the world, we pray

To watch our bed above.

Let dreams depart and phantoms fly,

The offspring of the night,

Keep us, like shrines, beneath Thine eye,

Pure in our foe’s despite.

This grace on Thy redeemed confer,

Father, co-equal Son,

And Holy Ghost, the Comforter,

Eternal Three in One.

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?)

Dear Chiara Natasha

Update: Chiara has gotten in touch with me, thank you for your help in spreading the word!

Dear Chiara,

My name is Karen, and I’m a 23-year-old Indonesian girl. I read about you in stories covering the recent AirAsia tragedy. My heart grew heavy as I learned that you have so suddenly lost the people I imagine had been closest to you. I was filled with an overwhelming urge to get in touch with you, but I didn’t know how, so I started emailing the editors of Singaporean newspapers. But I realized I didn’t want to waste any time. To people who aren’t in deep pain, another day is just another few hours that invariably tick by. But for those in agony, time stalls and you find yourself in an abyss where past, present, and future meld together. And so I’m writing to you here, and I hope you see this. I don’t have magic words or any big promises. To be honest, I don’t know how I can help you, except to tell you that you are not alone. Maybe you have many strangers trying to reach you with a word of comfort right now, or maybe they, like me, don’t know how. Maybe you will read this and you wouldn’t be able to take me too seriously because I don’t know your pain, but I just need to do something and I pray I can help in some way.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that I am and will continue to pray for your father, your mother, as well as your brothers, Nico and Justin. I believe in a God whose love and mercy is unparalleled, and I pray that He, with the intercessions of the saints and angels, will lead your family members’ souls to heaven. And I know I’m not the only one praying for them.

I don’t know much about you other than the few details I could find in those articles. If I gather correctly, you are an Indonesian studying in Singapore. If so, we have at least one thing in common. I was also born and raised in Indonesia. In 1998, my parents sent me and my older sister to Singapore to get a better education. We lived apart from the rest of our family for quite a while, before they were able to join us more regularly when our youngest sister got older. Between then and now, we’ve relied on airplanes to take either our parents to Singapore, or us to Indonesia. Once or twice I’ve imagined the possibility of a disaster, but never too seriously. Words cannot express how sorry I am that this has happened to you. As I thought about you, I couldn’t imagine anyone feeling more alone than you must have felt when you received the news. But at the same time, I also thought, wow, that this girl is somewhere out there right now, wow, she is strong.

Dear Chiara, I don’t know your pain, and I don’t know your fears. All I can offer is any empathy or insight that could come from having been clinically depressed a few times in my life. Each time, reality and facts would become so distorted in my mind that I believed with every fiber of my being that I was alone, and that I had nothing left. I pulled through with the unsolicited help of some very unexpected people in my life. For example, a friend of my ex-boyfriend’s parents reached out to me and became a listening ear and a constant source of support. Who would have thought? Well, God intervenes in our lives in very unexpected ways. Dear Chiara, I hope during this time you will be open to even the most unexpected sources of support. Dear Chiara, this must sound most contrived, but how I wish I could give you a hug.

I am and will continue to pray for you, my sister. Many things may not make sense right now, but have hope in a God who knows and sees more than we do. Where we see no open doors, He sees one that we don’t even know exists. You are very strong, and you are very loved.

Chiara, please feel free to contact me anytime at all. You can email me at: karen.zainal@gmail.com. If you’re not Chiara, feel free to share this with her, or anyone who might potentially know her.

With love,

Karen

holdinghands

“But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

I previously shared the following note on Facebook, but it is something that I also want to share with everyone who reads this blog. It’s been hinted throughout several recent posts, but never explicitly mentioned: I am on my journey towards formally entering the Catholic Church.

“About a year and a half ago, I began investigating the Catholic faith, because I had the honor of getting to know a few Catholics who made me wonder if there was more to it than what I’d heard all my life. Due to personal circumstances, this investigation fluctuated a lot in consistency in depth. But a constant theme I kept encountering was that many of my opinions on the Catholic Church were rooted in misconceptions, if not blatant falsehoods.

In more recent months, it has become increasingly clear to me that I am headed in the right direction, and that this is where God is calling me. I have recently shared this with a few people, and a few others have asked, so I thought it would be good to share: I have decided to be baptized in the Catholic Church this coming Easter.

This might come as a surprise to friends who’ve only known me from my “anti-Catholic days” (you guys know what I’m talking about…). I would be more than happy to chat and share more about the journey thus far! I don’t have answers to all the questions you might have, but I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and I’m excited to share what I do know.

I am confident that I’ve found the Church established by Christ himself — and in it I’m finding true worship, true charity, true solidarity, true humility. And wisdom that comes from above, and the hope that will not put me to shame.

I look forward to being fully initiated into the Catholic Church and the Christian life, and I’m incredibly thankful for everyone who has helped me along this journey, be it through honest conversations, challenging questions, practical guidance, and above all, prayer.

And of course, praise and glory to God, who masterfully uses the greatest joys and greatest adversities in life to lead me to Truth.

This has been the prayer of my heart, and it glows brighter and brighter as I delve further and further into the faith: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. But only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.

IMG_7458
Two pieces of art I’ve been working on. Both depict the Blessed Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus (the left in Japanese-style, and the right in Indian-style).

Special thanks to:
Cristy Acosta, Rick Moreno, Eamon Ford, Kelly Ann Zainal, Justine Zainal, Papa & Mama, Karmyn Sindlinger, Michael Ford, Cristina Ford, Isabel Ford, Jonathan Heynen, Kelly Pudelek, Dominic Chiu, Lucas Manuel Williams-Serdan, Larry Bilello, Stephanie Burda, Tom Quiner, Connor Boyle, Chloe Pawa, Fr Peter, and Fr Thomas.

You don’t need empathy to support a depressed person

When a friend was hospitalized for appendicitis, people flocked to visit him at the hospital. When I was clinically depressed, some who knew it avoided me like the plague. But I completely understand — it’s natural for us to be afraid of the unfamiliar, including unfamiliar illnesses. And when it comes to depression, people are wary not because they are afraid it might be contagious (hey, many don’t even recognize it as an illness!), but because they are afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.

A friend once apologized to me, “I’m sorry I haven’t been reaching out to you or being there for you. I’m not like J — I wish I were, but I’m not. But know that I’ve been praying for you, okay?”

At the time, I smiled and told him not to worry about it. I read between the lines and I read his facial expressions — I knew what he was saying was that he wasn’t good at empathizing and didn’t want to do or say things that might end up aggravating matters. We exchanged hugs and parted ways for the remainder of the academic year. But that night I wept in my room. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I cried over the silliest things after all.

I know why now. I felt abandoned by a friend. Sure, he wasn’t my best friend, and I did have other close friends who were walking the journey with me, but when an individual walks out on your life, his/her absence can’t be compensated by quantity. The next time I saw him, it would be the beginning of a new academic year, and I’d have already recovered over the summer. We hung out again and were friends once more. This was no isolated case. It happened again, and again, with different people.

ozzy

But my friends are not bad people. They are wonderful people. They did not stop being my friend during depressive episodes because they were tired of me. In fact, I don’t think they even intended to stop being my friend. And I’m sure they believe they were doing what was best for me. From their point of view, they were temporarily stepping out of my life so someone more “qualified” could step in to take better care of me. Someone who would have the right things to say, someone who perhaps have gone through the same thing I was going through, someone who could give good advice. Basically, someone who could empathize.

And yes, I wished I had people in my life who fit the above descriptions, and I was indeed blessed with at least one such individual, but it didn’t erase the deep pain of being “left behind”. And one thing I’ve come to realize over a few cycles of depression is this: depressed people don’t need you to empathize; they just need you. A depressed person would rather have you say all the worst possible things, rather than not have you at all.

It is very difficult to understand what a depressed person is going through. That is an inescapable fact. But even a fellow depression fighter/survivor would not be able to understand completely, since disorders of the mind affect each individual as uniquely as his mind is unique.

But a general common theme is that the depressed individual experiences and perceives a reality different from that of the non-depressed individual. I remember despairing not because I didn’t know if I would ever recover, but because I came to believe there was nothing from which to recover. I didn’t believe I had a negative cognitive bias, but believed that it’s others who had a positive cognitive bias, while I saw my existence for what it truly was.

Loved ones of those who are depressed, you have a very tricky and very important task of holding their hand and walking together, even though you are walking in different realities, until you are once more reunited at the end of the tunnel. This is very important because they need to be walking with someone who can see the light at the end of that tunnel. If you choose to wait to greet them on the other side, what if they never make it there?

Someone very dear to me had no experience whatsoever with depression. He bought himself a book on the topic (The Catholic Guide to Depression, which I’ve recommended multiple times in previous posts) in an attempt to understand what I was going through. It’s safe to say that even after a year, he never came close to understanding, but what mattered was that he never stopped walking with me. He never got tired of me even when I got tired of myself. And he never stopped believing that God would deliver me even when I’d lost all hope. You have my eternal gratitude.