“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)
Like the merchant, the few years of my life involved looking for pearls of ever increasing value and beauty – friends and enjoyment, good academic grades and qualifications, money and possessions. At its heart was a search for happiness. Later I realised that this could only be found in God. To be happy, I had to be in union with God, and this is the very purpose of the life in Carmel.
Growing up, the Lord blessed me with a loving family and whatever material needs which we had were sufficiently met. During my schooling years at Catholic High Primary and St Joseph’s Institution, I was blessed with pleasant companions and good grades. The years of serving Mass in the Church of St Francis Xavier and St Joseph’s Church (Victoria Street) also brought me a great amount of joy and fulfilment. While enjoying the blessings of my life, like any other young person, the question of the future regularly came to mind. It was during this time that the thoughts of the priesthood began to emerge.
A love for Our Eucharistic Lord, the good example of the Fathers in the parish and being a godfather to another made me consider more seriously a life of service in the Church. During one of the discernment retreats at the Major Seminary, the words of the psalmist became what seemed to be a reflection and an invitation: “What shall I render to the Lord for all his bounty to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps 116:12-13). Yet at the same time the pearls of the world appeared to be attractive as well.
My first taste of working life came during my years in the polytechnic. Although the studies and the work were enjoyable, the experience seemed to fall short of something. The work routine seemed to be dry. The happiest moments of each day were attending the morning Mass at the Church of St Peter and Paul before work and leaving the office in the evening. The prospect of trading hours for dollars till the day I died appeared daunting to me. Sharing these feelings with my spiritual director, I was invited to reflect and take them deeper into prayer.
During my national service, I developed a rough plan for my life: to further my studies and either enter academia or clinical work. If the priesthood was still on my mind then, perhaps I would give it more serious thought.
Throughout those years I continued to attend the discernment retreats at the Major seminary. Although they were beneficial, I desired an environment and programme with more time for quiet prayer and silence. In 2014, at the end of my first semester of university, a friend mentioned that he had managed to arrange a retreat for himself at the Carmelite formation house at Ponggol. I sent a similar email requesting for a retreat, and it was granted.
It was also during this time that I met the brother of a friend who had left the university after a year to pursue a religious vocation. We spent a large amount of time conversing about vocation and other spiritual matters. In his sharing, he appeared to me like the saintly martyrs – admirable, brave, but not something I wished upon myself. However, what moved me most was his love for God and absolute trust in Divine Providence. He left Singapore a few months after and is currently a novice in a community overseas.
The retreat at the Carmelite formation house was during the term break of my 2nd semester in 2015. It was not a specially tailored retreat, but one that simply involved living the life as the brothers did, with a few sessions of spiritual direction. I came with the mentality to do a general retreat, not to discern a Carmelite vocation. Although I spent one week there, the entire experience captivated me. I was very much taken by the silence, the quasi-monastic rhythm of life, the Carmelite spirituality, its devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the warmth of community life. The Gospel passage of the transfiguration was used during one of days there. The words of the St Peter became my own: “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Mt 17:4).
I spoke to the Retreat Master, sharing my experiences of growing up, working, and the conversations I had with my friend. He shared with me his insights and how by the hand of Providence, how he too left university after the first year to answer God’s call. I could not write off as coincidence my meeting of 2 people with similar stories in such a short period of time. Yet I was wary of being carried by sentiment from the past few months and decided to continue to pray and discern the will of God.
Resuming the semester at university was not an easy task. Having tasted what religious life would be like, the words of the apostles echoed in my heart, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68). I reconsidered the earlier-made plans for my life. I could no longer ignore the Lord who was knocking on the door of my heart gently but persistently. With the blessing of my parents, I applied to the Order of Discalced Carmelites in 2015, and by God’s grace received a positive reply. Formation as a postulant would begin in 2016.
The past 17 months journeying towards union with God has been at times long and arduous, but it is not a journey without the grace of God and the support of the brothers. Each day here at Carmel is filled with blessings, for one day in the house of the Lord is truly better than a thousand elsewhere (Ps 84:10). To be alone with the One whom I love, to attend to the One Thing Necessary, is the greatest gift that the Lord has given me.
Responding to the call of God may appear daunting at first, but in the words of St Thérèse, “Tout est grâce” – “all is grace”. Christ who has blessed me with much and given me everything can only be repaid by love alone.
Pray for me and for all others in formation, that as we climb the mountain of perfection, we may not grow weary and be distracted by the pearls of the world, but learn to prefer nothing to the love of Christ.
“He who has God finds he lacks nothing, God alone suffices” (St Teresa de Jesus)