Most of us are familiar with the parable about the rich young man who probably lived a righteous life and sought for more. However, when Jesus asked him to sell all he had and follow him, the rich young man went away sad and downcast because he was a man of much treasures (riches). Two words feature prominently: “treasures” and “choices”.
Like the rich young man, I had tried to live a righteous life after my conversion experience in 2007. I, too, went away sorrowful when God stirred my heart to consider a different way of life, some 10 years ago in 2010 I had many “treasures” – one was a beautiful young lady whom I was ready to settle down with, and a promising career pathway that began at MIT. There would be no lack of choices for what I could possibly do after graduation.
It all seemed set for a successful life, at least in the secular sense of the word until my girlfriend posed this question to me (rather randomly): “Are you considering the priesthood?” I did not expect that from her considering that we were almost three years into our relationship and we were planning to get married soon enough. I was disturbed by what she said that evening, and I gave God an ultimatum to either show me plainly what it was He wanted or I would continue with my life as planned – of course, I was secretly hoping that I could carry on with my own life plans.
Like the rich young man, I had tried to live a righteous life after my conversion experience in 2007. I, too, went away sorrowful when God stirred my heart to consider a different way of life.
Well, a stranger at a retreat I attended in 2011, asked me the exact same question that my girlfriend had asked me some months ago. I was feeling somewhat angry and confused all this time – what was God trying to do here? I spoke to Fr Jude David (then a seminarian) and I stepped into the seminary for the first time in my life for a vocation recollection and spoke to the vocations director, Fr Alex Chua, about all that had happened. I was somehow hoping against all hope that this was all my overthinking things. It took me 2 months after the recollection before I broke my silence to my girlfriend on all that had been transpiring within me all the while. When I finally broke the news to her, both of us were in tears, because we knew what that meant for us.
I was quite angry at God – Why did he have to do this now? Why did he not call me when I was single? Why now? When we finally decided to stop seeing each other indefinitely, I remember it very clearly – it was the week before Easter 2011. My girlfriend was angry at me for giving up something that was almost certain to bear fruit for something that I had no idea of how it would turn out. 2011 was a rough year for me to go through. I was an emotional wreck, often crying myself to sleep most nights – wondering to myself if I was really doing the right thing, and feeling so keenly the pain of disappointing one I loved so dearly. I was at the stage of asking, “Why me, God, why? 2011 was probably one of the lowest periods in my life, perhaps only matched somewhat by the year 2016 which I will speak about later. It was one of the lowest periods in my life because of the pain of letting go of one so dear to me and exchanging a love so dear for uncharted territory. I looked to God for answers, but I was met only with stony silence, and left clutching onto the memories of yesteryear with my former girlfriend.
Why did He have to do this now? Why did He not call me when I was single?
Amidst the pain, I recalled a particular event that happened on 9 August 2011. One year ago (2010), I was spending it with the love of my life, watching the fireworks and soaking in the atmosphere on National Day. I was all alone and at a loss of what to do and was really feeling down. It was then that I received a call from Fr. Jovita (then a seminarian) asking me if I wanted to join them to attend the National Day Parade as they had an extra ticket. I believe that was God showing his love for me through the seminary community.
At the end of 2011 though, the pain of it all came to a breaking point for me, the silence of God was deafening and unbearable. In these words, I spoke to God: “What do you want from me, Lord? Do you not care about this pain that I am carrying with me every single moment? I tried to follow your commandments as best I could, and I am rewarded with nothing but pain, and this sadness that will not go away.” I was ready to throw in the towel and be done with this whole ‘discerning the priesthood’ thing. I was really not too diﬀerent from the Israelites who kept hearkening back to their Egyptian days the moment they hit a tough patch, and questioning if God was still real to them or was He just some sadistic deity who wanted to kill His own people with His own hands. I asked God to show me the way forward, I really could not take the silence that I was experiencing. And spoke to me He did, through the intercession of Our Lady, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, with a quote taken from the Gospel of St. John:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” – Jn 15:16 (RSV)
It was clear to me then and it is to me now, that it was a reassurance from God that He is in control of everything, He has set me apart for a special purpose. In the election as His beloved (adopted) son, what does it mean to be chosen by Him, and to go forth to bear fruit? It is a call to bring others to know Him through the way I would live my life as a priest. And so, with this, the good God in His way, quietened the storm within me.
A choice was made among the treasures.
In late 2011, I had interviewed with BP in the USA, and was excited to even be considered for the engineering position (based in Naperville, IL). It was my dream coming true, to be able to work overseas for a big petrochemical ﬁrm. At a silent retreat in Jan 2012, it became clear to me that in order to discern more carefully where God might be leading me in my search for my life’s vocation, I had to stay in Singapore. “That was pretty easy”, I thought, “since BP was taking forever to reply to me, and I probably would not be hired anyway.”
Surprise, surprise! BP got back to me with an oﬀer of a contract for 3 years with a pretty good remuneration package but I had to get back to them within a week upon receipt of the email. My dream of working overseas was staring at me in the face. I went for several interviews in Singapore, there were no job oﬀers forthcoming. This might seem like a ‘no-brainer’, just take the oﬀer on the table, I had nothing to lose anyway. I deliberated long and hard if I should take up this oﬀer and delay this discernment thing, and I rejected the oﬀer at the last possible moment, very grudgingly of course. In my mind, I was telling God that he had better provide for me because I have turned down a job oﬀer that would probably never come my way again. I received a registered mail containing a job oﬀer A*STAR the next morning.
I spent the next two years as an engineer at A*STAR and I loved the things I did as a process research engineer. I enjoyed my time there, and I loved the people there. When the time came for me to say goodbye in January 2014, in order to enter the seminary, it was indeed difficult to let everything go.
A choice was made among the treasures.
Who in their right frame of mind would give up all that he has to follow an unseen God?
This is the end of my vocation story, with my entry into seminary in 2014. Or is it?
When I entered the seminary premises at 199 Ponggol 17th Avenue in 2014, I never imagined the various things that would unfold in the years that followed. Eight years seemed like a long time but I thought that time would ﬂy by really quickly without too many upheavals – well, I would be proven wrong on this account. Suffice it to say, I was struggling internally and trying to grapple with the things that were happening to me. Things came to a head in 2016, and I felt I had lost every ounce of strength and could not carry on with seminary formation. So, I requested for a leave of absence so that I could find myself again and regain my footing in my relationship with God. I spent the next couple of years working as a process/project engineer in the chemical process industry – I was happy doing the things I did at work, and helping out at the weekends with the church choir. I came to realise that God had always been carrying me, even during the darkest period of my life. There were constant reminders and stirrings towards the priesthood in the midst of the mundane grind of my daily life during my leave of absence. It came to a point where the only response to God’s constant love for me was to give my life in service of His people here in Singapore as a diocesan priest.
And in 2020, with the blessings of the bishop and seminary formators, I was readmitted into the seminary to resume my formation towards the priesthood. Throughout the years since 2014, my family had been very supportive of my decisions and my vocation, especially during the time when I was on a leave of absence.
You might ask: “Who in their right frame of mind would give up all that he has to follow an unseen God?” Perhaps, a person who is trying to respond in kind and to try to love the One Lord and God who has loved him into being. It is the only explanation that I can think of for a man to put aside all that he has and all that he loves in search of what truly is God’s plan. Like the rich young man in the Gospel, God calls each one of us to leave our old selves behind, so that we may truly ﬁnd meaning in our lives. Like the rich young man, I went away saddened and distraught upon hearing the Master’s invitation to ‘sell’ all my treasures and come after Him.
We live by the choices we make in life. Some wrong, some right. The choice I made to follow God’s call for me is one I do not regret. It is not an easy one to make, but so are many of our life choices! Most of all, I did not choose Him first, but He chose me!