MY FAITH JOURNEY: making a CHOICE
Have you changed your name by any chance?” asked my father in disbelief, when a phone call came in for me and Dad had picked up the receiver. It was from one of my college friends who had attended my baptism a week ago. She had decided to call me by my Christian name, Marilyn, instead of my Chinese name, Sock Cheng (Xue Zhen, which means “pure snow”). “So you’re not happy with the name your father gave you at birth!”
This was one of the many conflicting moments I had to face after my conversion in 1966. I was torn between my faith and our family traditions. Dad had his point and it was difficult for him as a Confucianist to see his teenage sibling, then 18, apparently lacking in filial piety. In my struggle, I would just whisper to Jesus to help my parents understand that Christianity was a religion of love and unity and embracing the Catholic faith was not tantamount to a rejection of my cultural heritage and values that I had grown to cherish and uphold with pride. Besides, I loved my parents and up till then, I had always been the faithful daughter who brought them much happiness.
In fact, the earliest memories of my younger days centered around a big extended family, surrounded by many uncles, aunties and cousins. Mum and Dad had migrated from China, the latter as a young lad of 12 in search of better opportunities and a stable job. From being a poor messenger boy in a goldsmith shop in the early thirties, he was able to set up his own business, earning himself a respectable place within the local Chinese community.
Like many women of her generation, Mum had no formal education, but as a self-motivated and intelligent life-partner, she would play a very significant role in the upbringing of their nine children. Through reading the Chinese dailies, she succeeded in grasping enough vocabulary to assist my father in making vital decisions in business. I remember Mum sharing with us her initial struggles of bringing up four young children and having simultaneously to help Daddy by handcrafting gold and silver ornaments in poor lighting conditions, perspiring under the heat that came from the crude gas torch used for melting the precious metals.
Growing up in a conservative home where strict Confucianist ethics were inculcated in us, we imbibed values like filial piety, respect for elders, industriousness, thrift, obedience and putting society before self.
However, when it was time to send us to school, with foresight and wisdom, my parents decided on the Catholic mission schools which were then the pioneers in education. They represented the doors to a bright future and an outstanding career as English was the medium of instruction. Furthermore, the Convent schools and the Christian Brothers’ schools were highly respected for their good moral education. And so, providence led me and my 5 Sisters to St. Anthony’s Convent run by the Canossian Sisters and it was here that I was to spend a major part of my life. It was this decision that would eventually make the greatest impact on my future.
I have happy memories of the daily 20 minute catechism classes for the whole school. We enjoyed the fascinating bible stories and film strips about the lives of saints like Don Bosco, St. Agatha, Fr. Damien, the leper priest. The Sisters, both missionaries and locals, were always there, ever ready to narrate another story. I recall how we would take gentle steps as we climbed the stairs lest we stepped on our guardian angels! Jesus was our Big Brother who helped us in times of difficulties like when we had a test in class. During break times, we would pay him a visit in the convent chapel and say hello to Mary our Mother. During the month of May, we would bring stalks of flowers from our gardens to honour her. The inspiring hymns we sang daily at the school assembly were to accompany us long after our Alma Mater. School was our second home.
My relationship with the Sisters whom we used to address as “Mothers” gradually deepened and I was overjoyed to have a Sister as my form teacher during my first year in high school. Her friendly and caring ways made a strong impression on me and I watched every step she took with deep admiration. I would go early to school to watch those holy nuns file (in order of religion) into church every morning. I saw them approaching the priest at a certain point during the service. What were they doing? I later learned that it was communion and that it was Jesus they were receiving. When I expressed my desire to do the same, she explained that I had to be baptized first and in my case, being a minor, I needed parental permission.
Thus began years of “bargaining” with my mother whereby I told her that instead of book prizes for good grades, I wanted permission for baptism. Her response was always: “We are non-Christians and our traditions are so different. We have our ancestor worship and besides, the church has many western principles.” Being a Catholic implied assuming a Western life-style and conflicting values. It was the early sixties and Christianity was still very “foreign” to many. “Besides, it will be very difficult to find a Catholic partner as our family circle of friends are non-Christians,” she added. Not satisfied with the response, I began taking weekly instructions in the Catholic faith and waited on God’s time. I used to attend Mass as often as possible and even on Sundays, I would quietly sneak out of the house with my younger sister(s) and return home before my parents awoke.
Eventually, my insistence paid off. She reluctantly gave way when I told her that I needed God’s grace for passing the pre-university exams. As my mum was really keen that one of her siblings should be a doctor, she agreed on my baptism if I made it. As soon as the results were released, I went ahead with my baptism. It was 25 March, 1966, feast of the Annunciation, a truly blessed day for me. Jesus had become so real to me, a companion in my growing up years, a friend I could confide in, He was there to console when I experienced failures; he was there to share my successes too. I recognized him in the Sisters’ untiring devotion and patience as they reached out in school to the slow learners, the under achievers, the poor, etc. He was the source of their joy, peace and contentment in life; he was their reason for leaving family and friends, to share God’s love with us.
In a mysterious way, I began to feel the attractions of religious life, fully aware that it was a humanly impossible dream. With the help of a wise spiritual director, I decided on a teaching career, a profession I felt strongly inclined too, much to my mother’s disappointment. In the course of the next three years, I was able to secure a place at the Teachers’ Training College and do my teaching practice at St. Anthony’s Convent. The Lord was opening the way gradually, despite all odds.
While Dad was the successful businessman and community leader, he left much of the home affairs to mum. She would occasionally enquire if I had any “steady boyfriends”. At such times, I would drop some hints and on one occasion, the conversation went as follows:
Mum: Why don’t you invite your male friends home so that your Dad and I can also advise you on the choice of your life-partner.
I : Mum, on other matters, you are the one I will discuss with, but on this issue, I have already made up my mind.
Mum: (surprised) Oh, really! and who is he? (anxiously) Is he Chinese?
I : No, Mum, he’s a Jew!
Mum : (stunned) And where did you meet him? In college?
I : No, Mum. The nuns introduced him.
Mum : And how old is he?
I : It’s difficult to tell his age! He died at 33 but I assure you, he’s very alive now!
Mum : (suspiciously) If you’re thinking about being a nun, you can be rest assured that your parents will never give their blessings!
I : (changing the subject) Never mind, I’m still young. Let me finish my studies and we’ll see.
My Christian life was from then on nurtured as I began to teach catechism, joined the St.Vincent de Paul Society and attended the aspirant’s spiritual lesson on Sundays after Mass. I prayed for light to understand my vocation better, fully aware that if I chose religious life ultimately, I had a big battle ahead, especially where my parents were concerned. How was I to explain to them my desire to leave my family and dear ones for a “foreign” family. To them, it meant rejection of blood ties and all that tradition held sacred – unity, kinship, marriage, children and grandchildren, family gatherings, ancestor worship, etc.
A few months prior to my graduation from college, my father discovered that he was suffering from cancer of the throat. It came to me as a rude shock! He needed a major operation immediately! The surgeon was attached to the Catholic hospital in Singapore and it was here that Dad had his first “close encounter” with the church. Fortunately it was a positive experience and when he returned home 2 months later, he knew he had between 6 months to 5 years of life left. At this point, I decided to make arrangements for my entry into postulancy in September 1969. I was 22 and I felt that it was best to take the step before Dad’s condition deteriorated. With the support of my eldest sister, I broke the news to my parents by expressing my intentions in a Chinese letter which I left in their bedroom before I left for school. I realized that it was going to shatter my parents dreams for me and they would feel very let down. In the letter, I tried my best to remind them of how their moral and spiritual upbringing and their own life witness in sharing their goods with the poor had deeply influenced my decision. I asked for their blessings and promised them that I would not stay one day longer if I was not happy in the convent. Further, I trusted that they cared for my happiness.
The two weeks prior to my entry was probably the most trying times because my mother put up a “cold war” with me. She ignored me completely and it was heartbreaking to see our intimate mother-daughter relationship turn sour. Dad, on the other hand, was sober and simply expressed his disappointment because I was going to waste my life behind the four walls. However, he did not want to put any obstacles on my way if that was really what I wanted most.
And so I was received into the Canossian family on 14 September 1969, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows and the Sisters’ warm welcome made up for all the pain I had to bear on leaving home. The community support was to be my strength in the ensuing years, especially when I received news about how my mother was refusing to allow my brothers and sisters to go to church on Sundays. I prayed much for Dad’s condition, especially for a faith experience. A year later, he had a relapse from which he never recovered. I had the opportunity to visit him in hospital and he was happy that I was making progress in my religious formation. He appeared very serene and I felt consoled.
When he died, I returned home for his funeral but my mother refused to acknowledge me when I greeted her. She had made it very clear that as I had chosen to go against her wishes, she would in turn “forget” me. She ignored all my attempts at reconciliation, be it a letter, a phone call or a birthday gift. It was most trying when Chinese New Year came around and I was unable to attend the family reunion dinner, a time for reconciliation and renewing family bonds.
This “separation” was to last 19 years, during which time I had to continually beg the Lord for the grace of reconciliation with my mother. I realized she felt “betrayed” by me. Her arguments rested on issues regarding the “insensitivity” of the church towards traditional values. Why couldn’t I lead a normal life by getting married and bringing up a family? In this way, I could also give her the joy of having a few more grandchildren! Why did I have to choose a way of life that seems so limiting? Above all, she was convinced that I would be able to serve society better if I had pursued a medical career. I am pretty sure that behind all this protest, she must have shed many tears.
Meanwhile, the years slipped by. I went on to my Final Vows with deep gratitude for all that God had done for me. I was truly glad to belong to the Canossian Family and to Jesus forever. As a teacher, I found tremendous joy in relating and accompanying the youth and sharing with them God’s fatherly love and challenging them to be loving persons in turn, especially in their families. I was truly fulfilled and could ask for nothing more. Yet, I couldn’t deny the pain I felt in my inability to reach out to my mother. My prayer was often a mixture of deep gratitude for my religious vocation and of helplessness and doubt as to why God was permitting this situation to prolong.
Finally, in 1988, due to a family crisis which required my presence, I had the opportunity to visit my mother. Initially, both of us were ill at ease. On my part, I was momentarily struck by her grey hair. When I last saw her, they were jet black! I realized that the years had taken their toll on her and her health was causing concern to the family. She needed to be checked regularly by her heart surgeon and an opportunity arose for me to offer my services. As the adults were working, I told her that I would be able to accompany her to the clinic whenever she needed. A crisis had turned out to be a blessing! It did not take long for both of us to catch up on those lost years. How healing those moments were. In the course of the weeks, she began to show an interest in my religious life. She wanted to know if the Sisters ever quarrelled with each other in community!
When we celebrated the following Chinese New Year, I was able to “fall in line” of seniority (children and grandchildren) to offer her the traditional Chinese tea and to receive the “Ang Pao” (red packet with money inside as a symbol of prosperity and blessings for the New Year).
Two years later (in 1990), I was assigned to Rome to serve in the Canossian International Secretariat. My family organized a farewell dinner at home and my mother had requested for me to return home early. I told her that I had to get permission as we were having a provincial consultation. When I called her on the phone to inform her that it was OK, she immediately called my eldest sister to let her know. When my sister asked how I could do so, she replied, “She got permission from her mother-in-law!” It was an affirmation that she considered me as “married” and I had my elders to be accountable to.
My responsibilities in the sector of evangelization at Institute level for 6 years gave me the opportunity to return to Singapore occasionally. I was able to spend some precious moments with her and when I brought her around one day to visit some close relatives, she was proudly describing to my aunts and uncles the nature of my work in terms she can relate to: “Cheng is working at their company headquarters and she has been sent by her boss to visit their branches”. There was a sense of pride in her communication. She had accepted that I was happy to serve God in my mission of proclaiming the Good News even if that brought me out of the country. In one letter she wrote to me, she revealed her feelings very deeply, “I know you are happy serving God because your letters are always brimming with joy and enthusiasm. You sacrificed the opportunity of going for tertiary studies, but that has not prevented you from serving society, especially the poor. Go ahead in your calling, Mum cannot be an obstacle to your mission in life. In fact, Mum is very proud of you! May God protect you in all your undertakings.”
After another six years in Rome (2002-2008) and visiting Sisters all over the world as part of the General leadership , I am now back in Singapore and presently being part of the Province Leadership Team. Mum will celebrate her 94th birthday this June with the arrival of her 8th great grandchild. Frail though she is, she continues to be the pillar of strength and moral support for all of us and we know that she too will encounter the Father of love with the certainty that she will be welcomed home with joy, “Come, ye, blessed of my Father. Receive the Kingdom prepared for you from all eternity!”