From The Wilderness, Back To Church – Fr Justin Yip
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” – St Augustine
The Early Years
I was baptized in 1992, when I was 8 years old, along with my parents. At that point in time, I did not really know who God was or anything else about the Christian faith. My parents decided to convert and they made the decision that I would convert too. Over the next few years, I attended Catechism classes at the Church of Christ The King, till my confirmation in 2000 in Secondary 4. Along the way, I got involved in the parish’s Charismatic Prayer Group after the Life in the Spirit Seminar (LISS) I attended in 1999. I was active almost every Friday night, taking part in the Charismatic Prayer Meet and also helping out with the Group’s Logistics team, which was in charge of the sound system. After the initial excitement and novelty, my commitment and participation began to wane, especially as I got more and more involved in school activities. There were times when I attended religiously every Friday, but there were also times when I went for Charismatic Prayer Meets only one or two Fridays a month.
In many respects, I was the typical Sunday Catholic. I attended Mass religiously every Sunday. I was proud and also satisfied with my involvement in the Charismatic Group. Between Mass and Charismatic Prayer Meets, I felt I had done my duty as a faithful Catholic. However, looking back now, I can say that I barely had a relationship with God. My prayer life was virtually non-existent and I relied on the emotional and spiritual highs I got from the Friday Prayer Meets to assure me of God’s presence. In a sense, my faith was like the house built on sand, lacking any firm foundations in prayer or relationship with God.
Although I had no real relationship with God, I had numerous experiences of God, especially during Charismatic Prayer Meets. There were occasions when I was certain of God’s presence, when I felt a deep sense of peace and joy in the middle of worship. At the same time, I intuitively believed that there must be a God who created the world, that there must be some supreme presence governing the universe.
My faith life continued in that way till I was about 19 years old and in NS. Since young, I had a skin condition, eczema, and the problem flared up during NS. My mom mistrusted Western medicine, so she sent me to the Chinese sinseh. However, my skin condition got worse and that in turn affected my quality of life. Before my eczema flared up, I was very active, both in my CCAs in school and in my social life. However, now, because of my eczema, I began to stop going out with friends and basically cooped myself up at home whenever I had a choice. I began to grow very resentful towards my mom and blamed her for the state I was in. I constantly went for Charismatic Prayer Meets to be prayed over, in the hope that I would be healed or that my skin condition would improve. However, that didn’t happen and before long, I started to resent God and felt that there was no point going to Church anymore, although in a way I still believed that a Supreme Being must exist. I began to feel that if I couldn’t find God in Church, then I would look for Him outside of the Church. I gradually stopped going for Mass and for Charismatic Prayer Meets regularly and eventually stopped going altogether.
In that period when I was away from the Church, I started to get interested in philosophy and in other intellectual pursuits. Looking back, I guess I was trying to find a way to encounter God through my reading or through rationalizing. However, no matter how hard I looked, or how much I read, there never seemed to be a conclusive answer as to the existence and whereabouts of God. I began to realize that reason can only get us so far and that there was always going to be a fundamental gap between Truth and reason (which today I know is bridged by faith).
At that time however, I was unsurprisingly even more frustrated and resentful. I recall one occasion where I debated with a Catholic friend and tried to tear down her arguments for God’s existence. Yet, that encounter made me realize even more that the one thing I lacked in my life, the one thing that could answer all questions, was faith in God. Now, I was left with the knowledge that what I needed was faith, something which I sorely lacked and had no idea how to acquire. In my personal time, I railed at God for subjecting me to such spiritual and intellectual agony.
But, I could not hold out being angry for too long. About two years after I left the Church, I figured that I didn’t have the energy or the will to be angry with God anymore. In a sense, I became quite apathetic towards faith and religion. I remember saying to a close friend that “I could not be bothered to search for God anymore. Let Him come and knock me on the head and restore my faith if He so chooses to. If not, I’ll just lead the rest of my life according to however I felt like leading it.” I was done searching and feeling resentful. In a sense, I had given up and retained only the smallest of hope that a miracle would one day happen to me. (Today, I thank God that I had already a good value system instilled within me and that prevented me from doing too many bad deeds. In a way, this paved my return to the Church.)
Back to the Church
It was also about this time that my mom relented and allowed me to go back to Western medicine. I saw a doctor and after using the medication that he gave me, my skin condition improved tremendously. Once again, I could go back to being an active person again. By this time, I was already finishing my first year in university. After spending much of my first year “rotting” at home outside of lesson time, I was feeling understandably restless when my skin condition improved. I was desperate to get busy again. It was at that time when providentially, my friends from the NUS Catholic Students’ Society (CSS) asked if I wanted to help out in producing the CSS publication. Although I was not going to Church, I still considered myself nominally Catholic, so I unabashedly said yes. Throughout the year, I helped out for the publication and attended some CSS events like Cell Groups, even though I was still not going to Church. I was still resistant to the idea of going back as I was still waiting for that “knock on the head” to happen. Despite my continued resistance, going for CSS things gave me the first sense of community and friendship that I had not had for a long time.
All this came to a head in August 2007, where I went for an Exchange Programme to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). Honestly, I went on the Exchange Programme for all the wrong reasons, I was looking forward to a life of vices, drinks and drugs. As luck would have it however, one of my housemates in UCSB was a Catholic girl who sings in the choir at Christ the King Church in Ang Mo Kio. Although I had told her earlier that I was lapsed, she still asked me to go for Mass at the Catholic Church (St. Mark’s University Parish) near our apartment the very first weekend we were in Santa Barbara. I was quite resistant at first, but as it was a Saturday night and there were no other forms of entertainment, I decided to tag along, thinking that I could at least make a few friends. God however, had other plans.
As I sat in Church for Mass, I was very touched by all the ordinary parts of the Mass, the Kyrie, the Readings and also the priest’s homily. I felt a stirring in my heart that I had not felt for a long time. However, given my experiences in the past, I ignored those feelings and tried to suppress them. However, when the priest held up the Host during the Eucharistic Prayer and said the words that Jesus himself said (“Take this, and eat it. This is my Body…”), I broke down and cried uncontrollably. At that point in time, it was like Jesus – in the Blessed Sacrament – was asking me, “Where have you been all these years? I have been here all along, waiting for you to come back.” My search for God had ended, in the very Church that I had left three years ago. It was a moment of infinite grace, a moment that could only come from the Divine God. No longer did I have any doubt that God, in the person of Christ, was really and truly present in the Eucharist. All I wanted to do at that point was to worship Him with all my heart, to bow low and say, “My Lord and my God!”
Beginning of a new life
That one Mass was the singular, pivotal moment in my faith journey to date, as it brought me back to Christ. Yet, somehow I knew that whatever I felt during Mass was not going to be enough. Back when I was in the Charismatic Group, I had many occasions where I felt spiritually high and yet I eventually left the Church. I knew that what I needed now was to find a way to build a relationship with Jesus, if not I risked losing this newfound treasure, something which I was determined to prevent. At that early stage in my new life in Christ, I found myself clueless. I had no idea what to do to in order to develop a relationship with Christ. I had never had much of a prayer life as I lacked the will and the discipline to have one in the past. And so, as I was searching for something to do, something that would anchor me in Christ, the only answer that came to my mind was to make an effort to go for daily Mass. That half an hour a day would be my commitment to place myself at the foot of Christ daily. Since I did not know how to pray, I decided to go for something I was familiar with and that I could connect with, Mass. This I felt, would be my way of telling God, “Lord, I have no idea of how to grow in faith, so I will commit this time to you every day, and You make things happen.”
From that day onwards, I made it a point to go for evening Mass every day. By the grace of God (who surely must have had all this planned out!), the Church was providentially located, as it was located right at the halfway point on my journey to the university. I took 10 minutes to walk to Church and another 10 to walk to the University, all in a straight line. I began to arrange my schedule such that I would be able to go for Mass daily. On days where I could not go – thankfully those days were few and far between – I found myself feeling as if something was missing in my life. I truly, truly, desired to spend time with Jesus. Little did I know that this little effort of mine to place myself at His feet everyday was to be the beginning of a strong devotion to our Eucharistic Lord. Every word I heard during Mass, whether it be from the standard prayers of the Mass, the scripture readings or the priest’s homily, I tried to treat it as if it was Jesus who was talking to me. To be sure, there were days where I really could not tell if He was speaking to me or not, but thankfully, those were a rarity.
Another way in which God made it possible for me to grow in relationship with Him was through a simple saying that is so popular today – What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD). I was doing a course in the university on Church history and it so happened that my lecturer was teaching about Erasmus and mentioned how one of his influences was Thomas Kempis’ Imitatio Christi. My lecturer explained that the main idea behind this book was the medieval precursor to what we know today as WWJD. Once I heard this, I thought that it would be a good way to grow in my relationship with Christ, something practical that I could apply in my daily life. I resolved to commit myself to try to lead my life like Christ and that in every situation in my life, I would ask myself what would Jesus do? After just a few weeks, I realized that my life had changed quite dramatically. I found that I got angry much less, much more accepting of criticism and in general, much more at peace. More importantly, I came to realize, as I tried to imitate Christ, that Jesus is Love, God is Love.
Over the course of the next few months, my relationship with Jesus grew and I fell deeper and deeper in love. On one occasion, while travelling up the Californian coast from Santa Barbara to San Francisco, my friends and I stopped over at Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we visited the Franciscan Mission Church, Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Walking around the Mission, I was really enthralled by the architecture and the atmosphere. More, I found myself very attracted to the idea of the life that I imagined the Franciscan community there would lead. The idea of a whole life dedicated and consecrated to God really appealed to me and while I was contemplating it then, I felt a sense of deep peace. I told God, “Lord, how nice it would be to lead a life that was totally consecrated to You.” It was at that moment where I first became open to the idea of the priestly or religious vocation.
Because of this openness, I was quite keen to attend the Vocation Retreat organized by the Seminary when I came back to Singapore in January 2008. When the Retreat came about in May, I signed up for it and went. It proved to be a pivotal moment in my faith journey. At the Retreat, the participants were given some time off for personal prayer time in the afternoon of the second day and most of us went back to the dormitory to rest. But after resting for awhile, I had a sudden urge to spend some time with the Lord in Eucharistic Adoration and so I left the dormitory with a friend to go to the room that the Serra Club members had set up for adoration.
While I was adoring the Blessed Sacrament and deep in prayer, the words “feed my sheep, teach my flock” came to me out of the blue. I was confused and asked Jesus if those words were from Him and what He was trying to tell me. I had doubts if it was truly from Jesus or just my own imagination, as I had never experienced anything like it before. I shared with one of the seminarian brothers after I came out from the Adoration Room but not surprisingly, he could not give me a definite answer about whether that message was from Christ or from my own imagination. I decided to put it aside and not to pay too much attention to it. However, that same night, we had a Holy Hour and during the Holy Hour, a scripture passage was given to us to meditate and reflect upon. It was from John 21, the passage where Jesus asked Peter three times if Peter loved Him and after Peter’s third profession, Jesus asked him to “feed my sheep.” When I heard those words coming from the mouth of Fr Alex – the Retreat director – I was shocked and yet at the same time, I knew with much certainty that what I had experienced in the afternoon was indeed from Christ.
The next important moment in my discernment occurred during World Youth Day 2009 in Sydney in July 2008. It happened on the second day of the Catechesis programme. The day before had been a particularly trying day and I was feeling very frustrated as many things were not going the way I had envisioned it before embarking on this pilgrimage. I grew increasingly angry with God for bringing me to a foreign land to suffer when all I wanted was to get to know Him better. Furthermore, at that point in time, I was still attached to my girlfriend and we were experiencing some problems in our relationship, in part due to this sense that I had that God was calling me to be His priest. I was extremely confused about what God wanted for me, about His will for me in terms of vocations. And so, at the end of that frustrating day, I forced myself to pray and poured all my frustrations to God. Thankfully, He answered my prayers and assured me that everything would turn out okay and that He was in control. This left me in a much better mood the next day. During the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament after the Catechesis, I was able to enter into quite a deep prayer and during that prayer, my relationship problems came to mind, so I asked Jesus, “Lord, you know me best, better than I know myself at times. What is my deepest desire? What do I really want?” The Lord replied, “To be united with Me, to be in total Communion with Me.” I asked, “How can I do that?” and He replied, “as a gift of yourself to many, not just to one person.”
I took that as God’s message that marriage was not His plan for me and that He was calling me to something else, perhaps to the priestly vocation. So, if marriage was not His plan for me, what was the point of continuing the relationship with my girlfriend? We broke up in August 2008.
My first encounter with God’s call for me occurred in a Franciscan Mission and so it is important to know why I feel called towards the Diocesan priesthood rather than any religious life. In the early months after that first incident at the Mission, I was a little drawn towards either the Franciscans – for their simplicity of life as I experienced at the Mission, or the Jesuits – for their intellectual prowess. However, I came to learn that one of the key indicators of whether one was called to the religious life was a close identification with the religious order’s founding saint/s. I began to try to find out more about the lives of St Francis Assisi and St Ignatius Loyola. After awhile, I realized that I was not particularly drawn to either of them. Also, my first exposures to “religious” persons after my conversion were all Diocesan priests or seminarians, namely the parish priest in the US, the Catholic Students’ Society’s Chaplain (Fr Valerian Cheong) and a Diocesan seminarian (Br. Jude David). Furthermore, fortuitously, or perhaps providentially, the first Vocation Retreat I attended was also one organized by the Diocesan Seminary. In the following months, any attractions I originally had to the religious orders dissipated and I instead found myself growing more and more attracted to the figure of St John Vianney, a Diocesan Priest and now, the Patron Saint for all Priests and also the figure of Christ, the Good Shepherd. After learning more about the Diocesan Priesthood, I also found myself growing more and more attracted to it. All this led me to believe that God’s call for me was towards the Diocesan priesthood.
This story first appeared in Seminary.catholic.sg Website on 23 May 2017.